House of Commons
Monday 2 July 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—
Universal Credit: Vulnerable Claimants
Universal credit is a person-centred benefit focused on the needs of the individual. We are working continuously with a variety of stakeholders to ensure that we provide the right support for vulnerable claimants, and our work coaches undertake awareness training to identify claimants with complex needs.
During a recent visit with the Secretary of State to the Barrhead jobcentre in my constituency, one of the things we discussed with staff was the payment of advances as a single payment potentially to claimants who have difficulty managing budgets or who are struggling with addiction. Will she take into account those concerns when reviewing how the advance system is operating?
I was delighted to visit my hon. Friend’s constituency and local jobcentre and to visit the Greenhouse Café, which he champions and which helps vulnerable people to get closer to the workplace. On the question that he and the work coaches raised about the advance, those advances could be given up to 100%, and with the personal relationship that the work coaches have, through this training they can assess what the right needs are. That is the right thing to do.
One of the concerns raised by the National Audit Office is that the Department does not really know who the vulnerable claimants are, and particular problems are being caused by the very long delay before people are entitled to their benefit. The right hon. Lady’s predecessor took an important step by reducing the minimum wait from six weeks to five. Will she commit to taking that further and reducing the period further still?
Universal credit is all about the relationship with the work coach. They get to know their claimants and their claimants’ needs, so it is very much a tailor-made benefit. We as Ministers have always said that, should we need to adapt and change universal credit so that it best supports the individual, we will do just that. I am glad that the right hon. Gentleman welcomed the changes that we have already made.
Vulnerable claimants often consult their local citizens advice bureau. On a visit to the Chesham citizens advice bureau, staff told me that the fixed-term, timed appointments for their clients are often taken up by them hanging on to the DWP telephone line for up to 25 or 30 minutes, and then the time for the appointment has expired. Will the Secretary of State look at the telephone line and try to improve its efficiency and effectiveness, so that CAB advisers can instantly access the advice that they need to help these clients to make universal credit go smoothly?
My right hon. Friend, who does so much for people in her constituency, and particularly those with autism, raises a very good point. We will look into exactly what we can do to do that for the citizens advice bureaux, as we have a very good working relationship with them.
The National Audit Office’s report on universal credit shows that people such as carers, families needing support with childcare and disabled people are more likely to have to wait for an initial payment. The report shows that, in December 2017, only a third of disabled people were receiving their initial payments in full and on time. As the Secretary of State claims that the NAO report is out of date, can she tell us what the figure is now?
As we said quite clearly, the NAO did not take into consideration all the changes that we had made and their impact. What we can say is that we know that 80% of people will get their payment on time and in full, but what the NAO report has not taken into consideration is that 90% will get some payment within the first month and it is invariably down to non-verification and not fulfilling their claimant commitment.
On Thursday, our concerns became a reality, as we discovered from the Government’s figures that 190 women were put in the impossible position of declaring that their child was born as a result of rape in order to receive universal credit or child tax credits. We can also estimate from those figures that around 200,000 children have been affected by the two-child cap. How does she feel about cutting that money and stopping it being spent on up to 250,000 children?
This whole House voted for the changes to tax credits so that we can make sure that people in work are treated the same way as people on benefits. However, what we did do was bring in a set of exemptions for people who would not be able to have those two children. It is only right that we have brought in specific exemptions to help those people who need them.
The Government continue to mislead. We know from the figures that 59% of all those households impacted are already in work. The Secretary of State continues to suggest today that this was about making the choices the same for those who are in and out of work, but actually it is about the Government making people’s choices for them. What advice does she have for a woman who is in work and in receipt of tax credits or universal credit and who has fallen unexpectedly pregnant with what would be a third child?
The hon. Gentleman will know that we still pay child benefit for all children. We are also paying childcare costs. In fact, those have increased. As I said, what we have done with tax credits is make sure that people who are paying their way and are not dependent on the state get the same support as those people who are also getting support from the state.
PIP Assessments: Appeals
Data published by the Ministry of Justice last month shows that 57,000 decisions on personal independence payment claims were overturned on appeal in the last year. Of the 3.3 million decisions made since PIP was introduced, 9% have been appealed and 4% have been overturned. The average clearance time for PIP appeals in the last available quarter is 25 weeks.
In my constituency, over two thirds of decisions are being overturned on appeal. That shameful record is the responsibility of the Secretary of State and the Minister. It is causing real personal distress to individuals in Wrexham having to wait over a year to have wrong decisions reversed. What will the ministerial team do to respond to the real hardship they are causing to vulnerable people?
It is not necessarily the case that the decision made was the wrong decision; mostly what happens is that more information comes forward at the appeal. Hon. Members should look at the data I have already given. One wrong decision is one too many, however, which is why we have done a great deal of work to improve our decision-making process.
Far too many of my constituents face exactly the same situation, and far too many have found they get no points in their assessment despite being severely disabled and having previously been awarded for conditions such as multiple sclerosis, post-traumatic stress disorder and severe anxiety. Does the Minister agree with a constituent of mine who wrote to me last week and described the Department for Work and Pensions and Capita as
“so robotic, intransigent and hard-nosed, it’s hard to comprehend why they were constructed that way given the purpose for which they were intended”?
I respectfully point out to the hon. Gentleman that more people are receiving higher awards on PIP than did on the legacy benefit, disability living allowance, and people moving from DLA to PIP remain in payment while going through the process. I utterly refute what he said.
What about my constituent?
The hon. Gentleman wants to talk about constituents. I was on “You and Yours” last week and, during the phone-in, a whole series of people called in about their PIP experiences. As he has made his point, let us hear what Jennifer from Lancashire said:
“As it happens, it has worked very well for me.”
She contacted the Royal National Institute of Blind People, which helped her fill in the form, and the
“result was I now get the top rate for both things…. I get £140 whereas I used to get £112.”
I especially welcome the fact that the Government have accepted the Select Committee on Work and Pensions recommendation to record PIP interviews. Will the Minister set out for the House the sort of timescale in which we can expect these changes to come through?
I thank my hon. Friend for his contribution today and the hard work he puts in on the Select Committee. I was delighted to welcome its recommendations, and I really believe that the video-recording of PIP assessments will reduce a lot of stress and anxiety, which largely occurs because of the scaremongering we see too often from the Opposition. We have begun work on the piloting and will be undertaking the testing this summer.
At a recent Westminster Hall debate, several of us commented on how the PIP process had improved. Will the Minister continue to work with those of us who have suggestions for improving the system still further?
I thank my hon. Friend for his comments. I am utterly determined to ensure that everyone has a very good experience of PIP. The independent customer satisfaction ratings show that the vast majority of people feel that they are treated with respect and dignity and receive the benefit to which they are entitled, but we will of course seek continuously to improve the process.
My constituent in Normanton lost her Motability car because the DWP said that she was not entitled to it. Five weeks later it reversed the decision but, in the meantime, because my constituent was isolated, she was forced to spend thousands of pounds of her own savings on replacing the car so that she was not stuck. She has been denied any help since. Will the Minister look again at that case? It is outrageous that my constituent should lose all her savings because the DWP screwed up.
I thank the right hon. Lady for her question. Of course I am always happy to meet all Members to review individual cases, but I suggest, for everyone’s benefit, that any Member with a constituent who faces losing a Motability car should call Motability. Motability is sitting on very considerable reserves. It is a charity and is able to make discretionary payments to enable people to keep their cars during the appeal process.
Thank you for calling me, Mr Speaker, and thank you for your kindness to a group of visitors who came to see me in the House earlier today.
I thank the Minister for the answers that she has given so far. I recently met representatives of Carers Aid Torbay to talk about the PIP process and the support that they provide for those who are going through it. Can she reassure me that there will be engagement with groups such as that in respect of the potential introduction of video recording of interviews?
I thank my hon. Friend for his question. It is very important for us to listen to people who are going through the process. I have regular meetings with disabled people and charities to ensure that we get it right and continuously improve the experience of our claimants.
Universal Credit: Roll-out
We are continuously testing, learning and improving to deliver an effective roll-out. The pace of the roll-out reflects the need to listen, respond and get it right. We have rolled out universal credit to 353 jobcentres and are increasing the roll-out to 60 jobcentres per month. Universal credit is on track to be in all jobcentres nationally by the end of 2018.
This Wednesday sees the roll-out of full-service universal credit in North Devon. Will the Secretary of State join me in acknowledging the hard work of Jobcentre Plus staff in ensuring the smoothest possible transition for all claimants?
I will indeed join my hon. Friend in thanking his team. I also thank him for what he has personally done in his local area, working with Alex Coull, the work coach team leader, and his team. They have done an excellent job, engaging with stakeholders from North Devon Homes, North Devon Council, Citizens Advice Devon and North Devon+. That is the sort of work that all Members of Parliament can do to ensure that universal credit is rolled out safely.
I thank the hon. Lady for raising that case. It would be good to meet her. I have surgeries every Monday in the Tea Room, and if she would like to raise a personal case with me, I ask her please to do so. We can go through the case and see exactly what happened.
May I commend the Secretary of State and convey to her the comments of staff at a jobcentre in Redditch? People who have worked there for decades said that universal credit was the best system that they had seen for 30 years. That is because it is an individualised system based on the “test and learn” approach. What more can the Secretary of State do to ensure that that approach helps our constituents?
My hon. Friend has made a very good point. When we speak to the people who are working with the system day in, day out, they say that it is the best system that they have ever seen, and it is about a “test and learn” process. Listening to what is said in the House, one would not believe that over 3.2 million more people were in work. That is not something that happens by mistake. It is as a result of the hard work of our work coaches and the direction that is being set by the Government.
I am extraordinarily grateful to the Secretary of State, whose answers I always enjoy. The only point that I would make, gently, to colleagues on both sides of the House is that we have a lot of questions to get through, so we do need to be briefer—and that is now to be exemplified by no less a figure in the House than Mr Frank Field.
Will the Secretary of State commission a report on real-time income, which for many of our constituents provides neither real-time information nor income and results in hardship, and publish that report?
The right hon. Gentleman raises a good point. We are looking constantly at real-time income—how it works and how it works best—and we continue to do that and put out new guidance when we know what is going on.
Can my right hon. Friend confirm whether universal credit is seeing more people into work sooner than jobseeker’s allowance did?
Not only is it seeing more people into work sooner, but it shows they are staying in work longer and looking to do more hours. It also shows that people who are in work are earning £600 more a year on average. My hon. Friend has raised a good question.
The Department for Work and Pensions’ own survey of claimants under universal credit full service found that over 40% were unable to register a claim online unassisted. These people are the most likely to be vulnerable in our society. Universal support is meant to address this, but the NAO report reveals that providers told the NAO that universal support does not meet the needs of claimants and leaves providers insufficient time to assist them. What are the Government going to do to ensure that these people receive the support they need?
As the hon. Lady will know, we have provided £200 million-worth of support for local authorities to help people who will need the help not just for budgeting but for going online through IT; we have a free phone line and we meet with people face to face to do just that.
Universal Credit: Supporting People into Work
The Department published an analysis on 8 June which showed a near doubling of the proportion of UC claimants in a paid job after eight months into the claim. The Department published analysis last year which shows that UC claimants are 4 percentage points more likely to be in work than an equivalent claimant on JSA six months after their claim.
The National Audit Office reported that the Department will never be able to measure whether universal credit actually leads to more people in work because it cannot isolate the effect of UC against other economic factors. So if the Department serious in what it told the NAO about intending to evaluate specifically the impact of UC, is that evaluation under way, how many people are being evaluated and when will it report?
As the Secretary of State has said, we are at record levels of employment in this country and that is because of the policies of this Government. The hon. Gentleman talks about the 200,000 extra people who will be in work as a result of UC. He will also know that, in 2012, the Institute for Fiscal Studies looked at the methodology, which related to the key element of this, which was the financial incentives that will make more people go into work, and it concluded that this was within the plausible range.
Does my hon. Friend agree that it is right that our welfare system supports those in need, but in the long term the best way out of poverty is sustainable employment?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We are at record levels of employment in this country. It is interesting that the Opposition talk about estimates. If I remember correctly, back in 2010, the Opposition said we would lose 1 million jobs as a result of our policies, but we have created 3.2 million. At the end of the day, when it comes to estimates, I am not taking lectures from the Opposition.
Universal Credit: NAO Report
It is unfortunate that the NAO was unable to take into account the significant changes recently implemented in universal credit. Those changes address many of the concerns raised in its report. We continue to listen and learn from feedback, and make the necessary changes to the benefit as we roll it out.
Many of my constituents are among the one in five individuals who are not paid universal credit on time. As the Minister should know, the NAO specifically recommended that UC should not be rolled out further until the system can extend and work with the current level of applications. Will she accept that recommendation?
The NAO made clear quite the opposite: it said that we need to continue with universal credit. It was also concerned that it was rolling out too slowly and said that actually we should increase what we are doing. So what the right hon. Gentleman says is absolutely not what the NAO said.
Will my right hon. Friend confirm that more than eight in 10 claimants are satisfied with their experience of universal credit?
My hon. Friend is right—that is exactly the number. Actually, Patrick from Newport has said that it helped him with fares to get to a job and with the cost of clothing. He said:
“Thanks for all your help. It was really easy dealing with everyone who helped me back into work quickly and helping me buy what I need and travel back and forth.”
That was an example from Wales.
The National Audit Office report recommended that the Government should
“ensure the programme does not expand before business-as-usual operations can cope with higher claimant volumes”,
yet in her oral statement on 21 June, the Secretary of State said that the NAO report stated that the Government should
“continue with the roll-out and do it faster.”—[Official Report, 21 June 2018; Vol. 643, c. 495.]
Will the Secretary of State tell us where in the report it says that the roll-out should be speeded up?
Yes, in the report it says just that. It says that it needs to continue to go forward and it needs to continue at a faster rate.
The NAO report acknowledged the close links between local authorities and universal credit. As one of the first full-service sites, Rugby and its borough council received an £85,000 payment to assist with the cost of digitisation. Will the Secretary of State join me in welcoming that valuable support for local authorities in full-service areas?
I will indeed join my hon. Friend in praising that support. It is really important that local authorities are involved in what is happening and that we provide the right support on the ground for individuals to get their benefit.
Universal Credit: Financial Hardship
The best way to help people financially is to help them into work, and universal credit will get 200,000 more people into work. Our recent survey evidence shows that people on UC and in work had an average increase in reported earnings of £600 a year. There was also an 8% fall in the number of people on incomes of £10,000 a year or less.
The DWP’s own survey also found that after nine months on universal credit, 40% of claimants were falling behind with their bills or experiencing real financial hardship. This is a problem not of the initial waiting period but of ongoing insufficient income. The Secretary of State has tested and learned about hardship levels. How will she fix them?
As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said earlier, the close and constructive relationship between work coaches and their clients should enable them as a team to get through any hardship that arises. The hon. Lady is attempting to build a career on bashing universal credit, but she never does so in context. We have chosen to fight poverty in a different way. We have chosen to fight it with work rather than with welfare. She never points out that, under the last Labour Government, the number of households where no one worked almost doubled.
Earlier on, the Minister for Disabled People, Health and Work, my hon. Friend the Member for Truro and Falmouth (Sarah Newton), mentioned scaremongering by the Opposition. I can confirm that that scaremongering causes grave anxiety among my constituents. Will the Minister confirm that, for example, an advance payment does not involve rates of interest and that it is reimbursed by deductions made over a period of months?
My hon. Friend is exactly right. I was pleased to be able to sit with him in a meeting with some of his third sector organisations, including his local food bank, his citizens advice bureau and his local refuge, to try to scotch some of the mythology that has been created around universal credit. Wherever universal credit has been in place for some time, it receives universal praise from work coaches on the frontline and very high satisfaction levels from the people who are using it.
Universal Credit: Roll-out
Nearly 1 million people are now claiming universal credit, with around 37% of them in employment. We take 5,000 new claims a day and universal credit is operational in half of all jobcentres, with the full roll-out expected to be concluded by the end of the year.
From the Government’s own business case for universal credit, it transpires that just 3% of those who have been brought into conditionality under universal credit are expected to find work, as a result of sanctions. Given that my constituents are going to suffer this roll-out in September, does he think that this is a robust business case for his Department’s punitive and callous sanctions regime?
The hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Gavin Newlands) talks about sanctions, but he will know that the regime is different. For example, under JSA if somebody who was due to come in for an interview does not contact us after five days, they fall out of the system and are not sanctioned. Under universal credit, however, we continue to pay all the elements—the child element and the housing element—but the sanction that they would face applies only to the standard allowance. The hon. Gentleman talks about wanting to help people, but the Scottish National party voted against £1.5 billion of support. If he wants to support people, he should try to support the Government from time to time.
Order. The hon. Member for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant), from a sedentary position and rather gratuitously, offered advice and exhortation to the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Gavin Newlands). I simply say to the hon. Member for Lichfield that we can always hear him with crystal clarity. He is in no danger of not being noticed.
It is always good to hear from the hon. Lady, but we have already heard from her.
Constituents who do not have a passport or driving licence, because they do not drive or have no need of one or cannot afford one, cannot use the online verification system and need to be seen in person at a job centre, but there are huge waits for appointments, including for those who urgently need advance payments. What is the Minister doing to tackle that?
The hon. Lady knows that advance payments are available if they are required on the day. As for verification, there is a set of criteria that can be applied so that we do not have to go through the verification system. If the hon. Lady has specific cases, she should please bring them to me as I would be happy to look into them.
Universal Credit: Death of Applicants
For universal credit full service, around 1,200 cases have been closed with a deceased closure reason since roll-out began in 2016, with the vast majority receiving a payment.
I know of cases where no universal credit payment has been received when constituents have passed away towards the end of their assessment period. Essentially, the DWP classes someone who dies at the end of an assessment period as having died at the beginning. Will the Minister address this so that bereaved families are not financially punished?
I have corresponded with the hon. Gentleman about one specific case. There are circumstances in which payment is still made after the death of a claimant and where payments have continued for two subsequent assessment periods, such as when the individual was in a couple. However, I note the hon. Gentleman’s point and will look into the policy.
A connected problem might be that the Department does not tell people whether they are entitled to prescriptions when their UC claim is awarded. Will the Department please start doing that, because several of my constituents have been in touch in deep distress because of the fivefold fines that they have been forced to pay?
We do not want anybody to be in distress. If colleagues on either side of the House have specific cases, they should bring them to Ministers. We hear a lot of general commentary, but we would like to help individuals, so please bring us those specific cases.
Universal Credit: Claimant Satisfaction
Some 83% universal credit claimants are satisfied with the service. The claimant survey shows that the majority of people find interactions with their work coach, both online and in person, to be helpful and that the online journal is easy to use.
With universal credit due to be rolled out in Clacton later this month, will my right hon. Friend reassure me that, with recent changes to the system, my residents will get a better service?
I want to recognise all the hard work that my hon. Friend does in his constituency. Yes, his constituents will get a better service now that we have added those changes. However, he does not have to take my words for it. Chloe, a lone parent, said: “Universal credit is easier than the old system, and it has helped me to get a job. It is simpler, as I do not have to keep putting my wage slips in. I can actually vary my wages and get paid automatically.”
Has the Secretary of State looked into the level of satisfaction of people on the autism spectrum and of those facing similar challenges? Her Department’s offices around the country are very autism-unfriendly and difficult places for people on the autism spectrum to approach. When will her Department have a policy for autistic people?
I share the hon. Gentleman’s concern for young people, or anybody, with autism. This is something that we, as a country, have to get right, as we are seeing a rising number of people with autism. Both sides of the House work very closely on this, whether it is my hon. Friend the Minister for Disabled People, Health and Work or Opposition Members.
I think we must have a dose of Swayne.
What is the impact on housing association tenants?
My right hon. Friend asks a rather open question but we have a landlord portal for housing association tenants. If people need their payments done automatically, they can have just that—if that is what he is referring to.
Well, the Secretary of State had a stab at it, and we are extremely grateful to her for doing so.
Supporting People with Disabilities and Health Conditions
In 2017-18, the Department for Work and Pensions spent £51.9 billion on benefits to support disabled people and people with health conditions. This year it is forecast to rise to £54 billion, £9.3 billion more in real terms than in 2010-11. Spending on the main disability benefits—PIP, DLA and attendance allowance—has risen by over £5 billion since 2010 and is at a record high this year.
I thank the Minister for her answer. Will she join me in congratulating the East Cleveland employment and training hub in Skinningrove, which opened in February and has done brilliant work for a number of my constituents, including those with the health and disability issues to which my question refers?
My hon. Friend is a real champion for all his constituents, and I am pleased to join him in praising the work of the East Cleveland employment and training hub, which I understand plays a pivotal role in the community in enabling people to be supported into employment and is particularly valuable for those people who recently lost their jobs at the local potash mine.
My constituent Alexandra Mitchell is unable to walk without heavy metal callipers. She cannot use her feet to drive and has hand controls in the Motability car she now stands to lose because her PIP assessment says that if she can drive, she must be able to walk. Does the Minister accept that this example, and those we have heard from other hon. Members, calls into question the quality of PIP assessments? Does she accept that the system is flawed and needs to be sorted?
One experience of poor customer service is one too many, and of course I will meet her.
I also want to point out what Kate from the west midlands said, again on “You and Yours”: “My 35-year-old daughter has a learning disability. She doesn’t read or write, so I filled in the form for her. From her point of view, it turned out to be a very good experience because when she was on DLA she was on the lower rate but, because of the new criteria, she is now on the higher rate and has a mobility car. So from our point of view, it’s been really positive.”
The UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities carried out a robust inquiry into the effects of the Government’s policies, including social security, on disabled people. It found “grave and systematic violations” of disabled people’s rights. The Minister recently said that she is
“utterly committed to the convention.”—[Official Report, 20 June 2018; Vol. 643, c. 124WH.]
When the Government respond to the report later this summer, will she finally commit to carrying out a cumulative impact assessment of the Government’s policies, as recommended by the UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities?
We were very disappointed that, when it came to the UK, the UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities did not take into consideration the great deal of evidence that was provided. When I make my very full response, I am sure I will set the record straight so that the committee understands that we are very proud to be a world-leading country in supporting people with disabilities to fulfil their potential in society.
Of course we are always determined to do more, and we do an equality impact assessment every single time there is any sort of policy change.
We know an impact assessment of the social security policies can be carried out, because the Equality and Human Rights Commission has done so. Is it not the truth that the Government will not do this because they are afraid that an impact assessment will confirm what the UN, the Equality and Human Rights Commission and disabled people say, which is that this Government’s policies have created a hostile environment that is causing grave violations against disabled people?
I can assure the hon. Lady that that is simply not the case. We have very strong protections for people with disabilities in our country, not the least of which is the Equality Act 2010. I make sure that impact assessments are done on all policies that are undertaken. I honestly ask all Opposition Members not to use this language of “a hostile environment”, as it is simply not the case and as the very people who need all of our support are put off seeking it and coming forward. I ask Opposition Members to stop saying things they know are not true.
Employment: People with Family Responsibilities
Universal credit supports parents into work through better incentives, and through simplifying and smoothing their transition into the workplace—with UC work will always pay. Furthermore, the Government now provide more support than ever before to help parents with the costs of childcare; under UC people can now claim 85% of their costs, which compares with 70% under tax credits.
Will my hon. Friend join me in welcoming the figures from the House of Commons Library showing that since 2010 the number of children living in workless households in Greater Manchester has fallen by 7.2%? Does he agree that that is in no small part thanks to the record number of jobs created by this Government?
It will not surprise Members to know that I am more than happy to celebrate the results of that research and to thank my hon. Friend for the work she does in her constituency in promoting this, not least in being a champion for Manchester airport, where thousands of her constituents work, and where there is a strong capacity for growth and yet more jobs.
Enunciation from Lichfield—Mr Michael Fabricant.
I will be very precise, Mr Speaker. Does my hon. Friend agree that the key to getting people out of poverty is work? Given that this Government have created 1,000 new jobs every single day since 2010, we have produced the key to unlock that door.
My hon. Friend has absolutely put his finger on the button. As I said in an earlier answer, in this country we have tried fighting poverty with welfare in the past and failed. The Labour Government spent some £150 billion on tax credits and hardly moved the poverty indicators at all. We have chosen the route of work as the way to human dignity, prosperity and control for people and their families. I celebrate with him the success of the entire country, and not least his constituency.
By delivering record numbers of jobs, reducing taxes, increasing childcare provision and raising wages, does my hon. Friend agree that it is this Conservative Government who are delivering for families?
We are indeed delivering for families. I know it is a joy to many in this House to hear a voice of optimism from Southport at last, from a new Member who works closely with his local business community, recommending that its prosperity lies at the heart of that of many of his constituents. We know that outcomes for children, in particular, are significantly improved if the adults in the household are working and that children in workless families are more than twice as likely to fail to achieve at school.
Ministers will know from the experience of women born in the 1950s that giving people advance notice of changes means they have time to plan. Given that in 2019 families in work with more than two children are set to lose their universal credit support for their third child, what steps is the Department taking to let people know in advance so that they have time to plan?
As the hon. Gentleman knows, there are no cash losers from this policy: anybody who has an existing third child will continue to retain their support, and that will be preserved as they transition on to UC; we will continue to pay child benefit, no matter the number of children; and of course there will be significant childcare assistance for those who move on to UC.
Is it not the case that universal credit claimants with family responsibilities could face a sanction for refusing a job offer with a zero-hours contract? Is it not also the case that the Government are forcing people into insecure, low-paid work?
The whole point of the new constructive relationship between work coaches and their clients is that they are able to take people’s personal circumstances into account, particularly in respect of children and childcare responsibilities. If sanctions are required, they are at all times reasonable and commensurate with the person’s circumstances. The enormous assistance that we are giving for childcare should hopefully overcome any barriers, but if the hon. Gentleman has constituency cases that he would like to bring to my attention, I would be more than happy to look at them.
In 2010, there were 17,400 recipients of the state pension in Kettering, and the most recent data shows that that number had risen to 18,600 in 2017. In cash terms, the full basic state pension is now worth £1,450 a year more in 2018-19 than in 2010. That is a £660 a year more than would have been the case if the pension had been uprated solely by earnings.
That is great news for existing pensioners in Kettering and throughout the country, but what about tomorrow’s pensioners? How many people are being auto-enrolled into private pension schemes?
As you know, Mr Speaker, where Kettering leads the nation follows. In Kettering, a record-breaking 10,000 men and women have now been automatically enrolled into a workplace pension. They are part of the millions of working men and women of this nation who are similarly benefiting from automatic enrolment.
PIP: Early Assessments
The hon. Gentleman has written to me about a particular constituency case and I very much look forward to sitting down with him to discuss that. Generally, we start the review period around a year ahead to make sure that everybody has the time that they need to provide all the necessary information and so that we can go back to doctors or medical professionals. Sometimes, people’s situation sadly deteriorates and we need to make sure that they get the level of help that they need.
I am grateful to the Minister for that answer, but I have constituents whose conditions are not going to improve, and one of my constituents has been called back for early assessment three times in three years, causing her a great deal of stress. If people have conditions that are not going to improve, does it not make sense to give them the benefit for longer and not reassess them so regularly?
I very much look forward to our meeting, and hope that the hon. Gentleman will welcome the recent changes. We have worked closely with disabled people and charities. We introduced the severe conditions criteria so that if people are on the highest levels of employment and support allowance or PIP and their condition is, sadly, not going to improve, their claim will be extended almost indefinitely.
We are committed to making sure that all disabled people who want to work have the opportunity to do so. I am really pleased that, over the past four years, more than 600,000 more disabled people are in work. Assistive technology is of course playing a key role in that. We support such initiatives through the Access to Work tech fund and Disability Confident.
The Minister will know that autonomous vehicle technology is moving along quickly. Does she agree that autonomous vehicles could give people increased social mobility, and enable people with physical disabilities or those who are partially sighted to access work?
My hon. Friend raises an important point. The Government are investing hundreds of millions into research and development to make sure that we fully understand the potential of autonomous vehicles and make sure that they really do benefit disabled people.
In the light of all the controversy around the quality of PIP assessments, would it not save time to get people’s medical records automatically, thereby reducing face-to-face assessments, appeals and the hardship for beneficiaries?
The hon. Lady raises an important point. As part of our continuous improvement of PIP, we work closely with healthcare professionals so that we can speed up the process and make sure that we get all the right information to make the best possible decision the first time around.
Pension Transition Arrangements
The Department has received a number of representations from people regarding changes to state pension age since 1995, and the matter has been comprehensively debated on many occasions. Women will receive their state pension either at the same age as men or earlier as we remove the current inequality.
The Government have seen fit to award the richest personal earners and the top five wealthiest corporations in the country tens of billions of pounds in tax cuts. Do the Government think that the Tories are being fair when they steal the pensions of women to stuff their friends’ pockets?
It is always good to hear the dinosaur that is my friend from the north-east, the hon. Member for Jarrow (Mr Hepburn). He was in government between 1997 and 2010 when he could have changed the law and did not. The reality of the situation is that the richest 1% have never paid more tax than at present and that corporation tax reductions create jobs, as has been comprehensively proved. He, I am afraid, has no grasp of the facts as they now are.
I say gently to the hon. Gentleman that we have time for a short question, but not at this point for a preamble, I am afraid. A short question will be fine—30 seconds.
Women born in the 1950s are the victims of a monumental pensions injustice. Christine is 62 and cannot retire until she is 66. Her husband has died, and she now has to do three cleaning jobs to make ends meet. At the very least, will the Government follow the lead of the Labour Mayor for Greater Manchester and introduce free bus travel for the women affected? They deserve better.
I merely repeat the point that I made previously: between 1997 and 2010, there was a Labour Government. Not only did they support this policy, but they expanded it through the Pensions Act 2008, which, as the hon. Gentleman knows full well, raised the state pension age.
Those who take an interest in disability issues will know about our Disability Confident scheme, which supports businesses to employ disabled people. We have launched the Disability Confident 100-day community challenge to get people across this House involved in supporting people in their local area. To date, in 24 hours, 23 MPs have become involved. I hope that the whole House will help disabled people in their area to get into work.
This is complicated, Mr Speaker, so stay with me. What can the Secretary of State do to ensure continuity of universal credit benefit entitlement for those people paid on the same day every month for whom, every now and again, two pay packets will fall into the assessment period?
Could you explain it again?
I think that it is all perfectly clear, as the hon. Member for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant) knows.
My right hon. Friend is in the Chamber much of the time, so he might have heard me talk about this complicated issue quite a bit. It is about not just the last day of every month, but people who might have differing pay packets—they might be paid weekly, fortnightly or four-weekly rather than monthly. A recipient might not get their UC in a month because they have two pay packets falling within that month. What we can do straightaway is this: the person has their entitlement to benefits, and they will then sign on again the month after and remain in UC. We are providing guidance and support for both claimants and employees so that people stay on a cushion of benefit, but the system reflects their fluctuating wage.
Well, we are all now considerably better informed.
Again, the hon. Gentleman raises a good point. As he will be aware, I am working with Opposition Members and with the Work and Pensions Committee to make sure that money from Motability—the charity or its operations—is being spent correctly and, most importantly, on disabled people. A report is being produced at this very minute.
That is exactly what we are doing with the slow roll-out. We are listening to what is needed. Members on both sides of the House supported the policy of universal credit because the old legacy benefits were not working, but we have to get this right and support claimants during the roll-out.
I am more than happy to meet the hon. Gentleman and his constituent to discuss that particular issue. He will be aware that earlier this year the Government consulted on changes to the rules about child maintenance, including a power to impute an income from assets of 8.5%, and we hope to publish the conclusions from that consultation shortly.
The last jobs fair that I held in my constituency focused on Disability Confident employers, and it is great to see that more than 5,000 are now signed up nationally. What more can MPs do to encourage more employers to join this fantastic scheme?
I am very grateful for the hard work that my hon. Friend is putting into his constituency. I have great news: the latest figures show that just under 7,000 employers have signed up to the Disability Confident scheme. I would really welcome every Member of this House signing up to the 100-day challenge in order to help their many constituents who would really like to work. There is something that everybody can do—[Interruption]—constructively, rather than chuntering from a sedentary position.
Order. The Minister was extremely clear; there was no chuntering there, that’s for sure.
I will be honest: I do not believe that that is our policy; we would not do that. However, I have seen fraud investigations when people have said that they are not working or are unable to work, but unfortunately what they have posted on their Facebook page has very much proven that not to be the case.
The Secretary of State knows that I was not happy with the level of outreach support in Shipley when the jobcentre closed at the beginning of January—we speak of very little else, Mr Speaker. I am delighted that some extra support has now been given, but will my right hon. Friend ensure that a Jobcentre Plus outreach worker is available at a public venue on a regular basis to help claimants in the Shipley constituency?
When my hon. Friend said that “we” speak of little else, I was not sure whether he was talking about me and he, or he and the rest of the people in Shipley. But he is quite right. I am ensuring that one of the key things this Department does is more outreach work. As UC rolls out, it needs to reflect the needs of local people, and outreach is a sure-fire way to do that.
The report said that we should carry on with universal credit and that the roll-out should not be slower. The very reference to it not being slower was to ensure that it is sped up. This has been a slow roll-out but, of course, we have to ensure that the roll-out is right, as we have been doing, hence the extra support that we are providing. I repeat the extra number of jobs that we are helping people get: 3.2 million more people are in work.
Family relationship support providers such as Relate, Tavistock Relationships, OnePlusOne and Marriage Care are concerned that there could be a gap in funding—and therefore in critical services such as parental conflict resolution—after current contracts end next month and before new contracts start. How will Ministers address this?
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend’s work in this area. She was instrumental in securing a £39 million commitment from the previous Prime Minister towards this area of work. She knows that we are in the process of going through a procurement process for a new parental conflict programme, of which face-to-face therapy forms about 25%. We have recently published a timetable for the procurement process. I would be more than happy to meet her and the organisations to talk about what we can do to help.
As the hon. Gentleman will know, a “new burdens” policy is in operation and has been for many years. Where local councils come forward with specific costs, we review them and make payments. In 2017-18, £13 million was paid out to local councils.
Will my hon. Friend outline what official support is available to families when one parent is unexpectedly unable to work because of a serious illness such as cancer? Does this support apply to claimants who are employed and self-employed?
There is a range of support and no two families are the same. I encourage my hon. Friend to go to her Jobcentre Plus. I am sure that the really able colleagues there will be able to advise on which benefits and types of support are available.
The PIP assessment has disproportionately and unfairly impacted on people with epilepsy, with 60% having their budgets reduced when they move from DLA to PIP. This is nearly 20% higher than for any other condition. Will the Government admit that the current assessment process is not fit for purpose for people with epilepsy and set out what is being done to improve it?
The vast majority of people who go through this process are very satisfied with it. Many more people are receiving higher amounts of payment on PIP than on DLA. I work very closely with the voluntary sector and charities to continuously improve PIP.
I am sure that you will be delighted, Mr Speaker, that Wimbledon is now under way. Of course, that means that tonnes of British strawberries will be consumed. I very much welcome my right hon. Friend’s recent comments about encouraging more British workers to pick that fruit. Will she update the House on her plans in this area?
I am even more pleased that Roger Federer won his opening match in straight sets in less than an hour and a half. Conveniently it finished just before Question Time began—that was very helpful.
Then everyone is a winner today in this Chamber.
My hon. Friend is right. I have met representatives of the agricultural industry. What was key was people understanding what opportunities are out there, what the work entails and the wage that it pays, and the fact that universal credit supports people in and out of work, which means that they can take up these job opportunities.
A gentleman in his 80s attended my recent surgery regarding his son, who in his 50s and has complex and multiple disabilities. It beggars belief that he is being found fit for work. Will the Minister meet me to discuss this specific case? When will her Government stop vilifying the disabled and the most vulnerable in society?
Of course I will be absolutely delighted to meet the hon. Lady to discuss the case, but I utterly refute her assertion. We are absolutely determined to do everything that we can to make sure that people get the support that they need.
As the Minister will know, universal credit rolls out in Torbay on 5 September. I have already welcomed the work that has been done by the DWP to engage with me. Will he confirm what resources will be made available to ensure that the roll-out on 5 September is successful for my constituents?
My hon. Friend will be receiving a letter from the local jobcentre manager, and that will give him an opportunity to engage. We make sure that work coaches provide the one-to-one support that is so important under universal credit.
Joanne in my constituency needs 24-hour care. She was selected for early mandatory reassessment last November, a full year before her PIP was supposed to run out. She lost that reassessment and is appealing. When she lost, her money was stopped, and the family are living on food bank generosity. Does the Minister agree that that is deeply unfair? Will she take a fresh look at maintaining benefit payments for those who have early reassessments—in that case, a whole 12 months before the PIP was supposedly going to run out?
I remind the hon. Lady that PIP is a benefit for people both in work and out of work. It is there to recognise the additional costs of having a disability. For people who are unemployed, ESA is the benefit that they need to claim.
Children in workless households are five times more likely to live in poverty than those in working households. Can the Minister tell me by how much the number of workless households has risen or fallen since the Conservatives entered government in 2010?
The proportion of people in absolute poverty is now at a record low, with 1 million fewer people and 300,000 fewer children in absolute poverty since 2010. I cannot at this moment recall the number of households, but I will write to my hon. Friend with that number.
There are just three case examiners working on 2,841 WASPI cases. The average wait for a complaint is 36 weeks, and last year 687 complaints took more than 43 weeks. Why are Ministers treating WASPI women with such disdain?
The reality of the situation is that these matters are going through a particular process. That process is ongoing, and the outcomes will be revealed when the decisions are made. There is no difference in any way from how the Government treat other claimants.
I do not want to see any young person in Redditch unemployed, which was why I set up Redditch Mentors, a scheme to help young people to reach their full potential. The last Labour Government presided over a record rise of 45% in young people being unemployed. What more are the Government doing to improve that?
May I commend my hon. Friend on all the work she does in her constituency? Youth unemployment is at a record low—it is 40% lower than it was under the last Labour Government—and programmes such as the youth support programme are available to help individuals. We value young people. It is about time that Labour did the same.
A Minister suggested earlier that the policies of the Labour Government had not reduced poverty. Are Ministers not aware that child poverty was reduced by 800,000 over 13 years thanks to the policy of the Labour Government? Are they also aware that it is now rocketing?
As the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend the Member for North West Hampshire (Kit Malthouse), made clear, since 2010 there are 300,000 fewer children living in absolute poverty. As we have heard, the route out of poverty is work. We have record levels of employment, and that is something we should all welcome across the House.
Order. I am sorry, but we must now move on. Demand has exceeded supply, as is common.
Detainee Mistreatment and Rendition
(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs if he will make a statement on whether the Government will now reinstate the judge-led inquiry that the former Government promised in 2012, in the light of the two Intelligence and Security Committee reports on detainee mistreatment and rendition published on 28 June 2018.
Order. Before the Minister of States replies—we look forward to that with eager anticipation—perhaps I can be the first in the House to congratulate the right hon. and learned Gentleman, the Father of the House, on his birthday. The only prediction I feel that I can make with any confidence is that, as he celebrated two weeks ago today the 48th anniversary of his first election to the House, it is a fair bet that he has now reached the mid-point of his parliamentary career.
May I also congratulate my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke)? At the outset, I want to thank him for his question and his leadership of the all-party parliamentary group on extraordinary rendition.
The Government welcome the publication of the Intelligence and Security Committee’s reports and are grateful for its vital work and examination of allegations of UK involvement in mistreatment and rendition. May I also declare that between 2014 and 2016, I was for a period on the Intelligence and Security Committee when it was conducting this very long investigation? It is right that these reports and as much information as possible from this period are put in the public domain. We need to ensure that we learn from past mistakes so that they are never repeated. The Prime Minister laid a written ministerial statement in Parliament last Thursday, setting out the Government’s initial response to the reports.
It is important to note the context in which the Government, including the security and intelligence agencies and the armed forces, were working in the immediate aftermath of 11 September 2001. The UK responded to the tragic events of 9/11 with the aim of doing everything possible to prevent further loss of innocent life. With the benefit of hindsight, it is clear that UK personnel were working within a new and challenging operating environment for which, in some cases, they were not prepared. It took too long to recognise that guidance and training for staff was inadequate, and too long to understand fully, and take appropriate action on, the risks arising from our engagement with international partners.
The “Current Issues” report recognises that improvements have been made to operational processes since those post-9/11 years. In particular, the consolidated guidance, published in 2010—I would point out that we are the only country to have active consolidated guidance of this sort in operation—provides clear direction for UK personnel and governs their interaction with detainees held by others and the handling of any intelligence received from them. This is coupled with world-leading independent oversight, including by the Committee and the Investigatory Powers Commissioner, Sir Adrian Fulford.
Formal oversight responsibility for the consolidated guidance rests with the Investigatory Powers Commissioner. Last week, Sir Adrian Fulford welcomed the Prime Minister’s invitation to him to make proposals on how the consolidated guidance could be improved further and he would be able to take account of the Committee’s views and those of civil society. The Prime Minister has stated that the Government will give further consideration to the Committee’s conclusions and recommendations. The Government will also give careful consideration to the calls for another judge-led inquiry and will update the House within 60 days of publication of the reports.
I would like once again to reassure the House that the Government do not participate in, solicit, encourage or condone the use of torture for any purpose. We can and should be proud of the work done by our intelligence and service personnel, often in the most difficult circumstances. It is right that they should be held to the highest possible standards, and I am confident that the changes we have made in recent years will allow us both to protect our national security and to maintain our global reputation as a champion for human rights across the world.
We need robust and effective intelligence services to protect our national security, and I am sure we are all grateful to those who carry out this work and do it for us. I welcome the Minister’s reiteration of our opposition to torture and our acceptance that good but robust standards must be maintained. In the light of that, however, I would like to know why the Intelligence and Security Committee was stopped from completing the report, on which he himself had been working, when it had already uncovered the unacceptable situation of a large number of cases of British complicity in torture, mistreatment and hijacking of people to Guantanamo Bay and to Libya?
The Committee reached the stage at which it wished to call witnesses directly involved. As it makes clear in its own report, it reached the stage at which it wanted
“to examine certain matters in detail, which could only be done by taking evidence from those who had been on the ground”.
The Government denied that, and the Committee felt it had no alternative but to stop its work. Why was that done, and what are we trying to cover up of what was done during the time of the Blair Government?
The judge-led inquiry was set up in 2010, to wide welcome, and Sir Peter Gibson produced a report that established more than 20 important questions that we all agreed should be answered. The inquiry had to be suspended—brought to an end—in 2012 while we waited for the police investigations on Libya to finish. As Justice Secretary at the time, I announced the delay to the House. I said:
“It will then be possible for the Government to take a final view as to whether a further judicial inquiry still remains necessary to add any further information of value to future policy making and the national interest.”—[Official Report, 19 December 2013; Vol. 572, c. 916.]
We had actually guaranteed earlier that the inquiry would be resumed, which was welcomed across the House. It was suspended so that the ISC could start, and then the suspension was put in place, under the terms I have just read out.
It is quite obvious that, as the ISC had not finished its work under the previous coalition Government—I spoke with the full authority of the then Prime Minister and the whole Government, including the current Prime Minister, who was then Home Secretary—we would have considered it necessary to appoint a fresh judge-led inquiry, as the ISC has been frustrated from going any further. Therefore, what reputable reasons do the Government have for not holding an inquiry? I am glad that the Minister has said that a judge-led inquiry is still being considered, and I hope that a prompt announcement will be made that such an inquiry will now follow.
I am grateful to my right hon. and learned Friend. As he rightly says, he was the Minister who made statements to the House on whether there should be a judge-led inquiry. Indeed, as Justice Secretary, he made a statement in January 2012, and as Minister without Portfolio, he made a further statement in December 2013. In the further statement, there was a slight measure of doubt about whether there would indeed be a judge-led inquiry. He said:
“It will then be possible for the Government to take a final view as to whether a further judicial inquiry still remains necessary”—[Official Report, 19 December 2013; Vol. 572, c. 916.]
That remains the case. As I said earlier, the Government will give careful consideration to whether a judge-led inquiry is necessary.
I say again to my right hon. and learned Friend that this inquiry has gone on for very many years—his statements about the judge-led inquiry were made in 2012 and 2013, and here we are in 2018. I take issue with his use of the word “complicity”, which I think was a notch too strong. I think that it is honest to say that the ISC found no evidence that agencies had deliberately turned a blind eye.
Perhaps the main issue here is whether in our intelligence agencies it would be right, 15 years after the event, to take someone who was then a junior operative in the field and put them in front of a judge-led inquiry. It is senior people who should take responsibility. Whether someone who was then of a lower rank should be subjected to such an inquiry 15 years later is, I think, one of the serious question that must be asked before a decision is made.
Thank you, Mr Speaker, for granting this hugely important urgent question. I congratulate the Father of the House on securing it. Today, as on so many other matters, he has spoken a truth, logic and wisdom that transcends all party divides and will, I hope, be listened to by his own Government.
The ISC report lays bare the sheer scale of our country’s involvement in torture and rendition. In doing so, it vindicates those who for years sought to expose these facts—investigative journalists, civil liberties campaigners and Members of this House—and who were right to claim that the full truth was being hidden. As detailed as the report is, it still does not give us the full truth, and we will not have the full truth until we have a full and independent judicial inquiry—an inquiry with access to all available evidence and the ability to question directly the military and intelligence officers involved. I hear what the right hon. Gentleman says about junior officers, but we expect that of police officers, for example, when there are investigations. We expect police officers of all ranks to answer questions and the same should apply here.
We also need to have access to all the Ministers and security chiefs who oversaw those activities. Like all such inquiries, we do not need it just to examine what went wrong in the past; we need it to learn lessons for the future and to provide recommendations that cannot simply be ignored by the Government. Most importantly, we need it to ensure that never again is the UK involved in these illegal and barbaric acts.
I ask the Minister today to listen to the ISC, to listen to the Father of the House and to listen to the united voice of the Opposition parties in this House, because we all recognise the need for a comprehensive investigation of the UK’s involvement in torture and rendition and the use of secret courts, with unfettered access to all potential evidence and witnesses. Many in this House have great confidence in Judge Adrian Fulford, but in my view anything that is inquired into should be done in a way that is structured and formal.
We all recognise the need for a public consultation of civil liberties groups on the current consolidated guidance to identify the gaps and grey areas that have allowed these abuses to happen and to recommend the changes that must be made, so that we can all be confident that they are not happening now and can never happen again. But we also all recognise that, to achieve these things, there is only one course of action: we urgently need, and the country is owed, a full judicial inquiry.
I listened very carefully to what the right hon. Lady said and I would be grateful if she thought again about the words she used when she accused officials in our agencies—I think that I quote accurately—of being “involved in torture”. They were not involved in torture, so I really think the right hon. Lady may want to come back to the House and say that, actually, that is an inaccurate accusation.
These were very unique times. The twin towers had been blown up in the biggest terrorist attack we have seen. It went right to the heart of the United States psyche, and there was inevitably going to be a very strong and strict response. We are, of course, very close allies of the United States and work very closely with them on intelligence matters. What the response led to was a lot of officers being asked to do things that they had not been trained for and had never encountered before. It took time to understand that there were certain practices going on which required new rules. Perhaps, if there is a fault, it is the time it took for that appreciation to dawn. But once it did, I think it is of credit to this country and our intelligence agencies that they reviewed their practices, revised them and adjusted as best they could to the new world in which they were working.
The right hon. Lady says that I should listen to the ISC. I can say that I have done so, as I was on the Committee. Not only did I listen to it, but many of those interviewed also had to listen to me. The inquisition and witness sessions of the Committee, chaired by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr Grieve), were very robust indeed. I also say to her that Adrian Fulford is part of a structured and formal apparatus. The fact that the Prime Minister has said that he should look at the consolidated guidance in the way that she has is, I think, addressing some of the outstanding issues, which, quite rightly, the House would like to see studied.
It is not the role of the ISC to take a view on whether there should be a judge-led inquiry. That is a matter for the Government and for this House. What I think can and should be said about this matter, and which may be helpful for the Minister, are three points.
First, as the Minister will appreciate, when the report was published, the Committee was extremely disappointed that it was not able to access the witnesses from whom it wanted to hear. It is important to understand that this was not because it wished to pass judgment on those witnesses—far from it—but because it felt strongly that the witnesses would be able to help to fill out the information that was present on the documents in a way that would be helpful to the purposes of the Committee in explaining to the House and the public what had been going on.
The second point, which has been raised from time to time, is what is to happen to the Libyan cases. My right hon. Friend has not commented on that, but what I will say about the Libyan cases is that in view of the difficulties that the Committee has experienced, there can be absolutely no question of the Committee being willing to consider those cases in the light of the difficulties it has had.
Thirdly, if I may gently pick up with my right hon. Friend the length of time this report has taken, the reason why it has taken so long is that, for nearly 12 months of that period, there was no Committee sitting at all, which should be a matter of concern to the House, and there was a period of six months, which in my view was also much too long, in which we failed to get a response from the Government about our request to have those witnesses.
I thank my right hon. and learned Friend for his comments. I quite understand what he is saying about the difficulty of a Committee working when it is not actually constituted, and I hear what he says about the Libyan cases. In the case of witnesses, I think it has been made clear in the House that he regrets that he was unable to see more of them, but the fundamental question here is: if things went wrong as it is thought they did, could such things ever happen again? The reassurance that we can offer the House, and indeed the wider world, is that agencies now have clear guidance, including the consolidated guidance, which covers all aspects of dealing with detainees and has training on operational management. Compliance with this guidance is mandatory and this is very much a part of agency culture. The consolidated guidance is coupled with a world-leading independent oversight regime, underpinned by the Justice and Security Act 2013 and the Investigatory Powers Act 2016, which has just commenced, so these are extant—they are working. It has given enhanced powers to the Intelligence and Security Committee to oversee the activities of the security and intelligence agencies alongside the statutory role of the Investigatory Powers Commissioner, Sir Adrian Fulford, to whom I referred earlier.
I congratulate the ISC on a very thorough report, despite the obstacles that have been placed in its way. This damning report confirms what many of us had suspected—that the UK has been involved and effectively complicit in rendition. That is not just shameful but could, in fact, be criminal if, as Lieutenant Colonel Nicholas Mercer has suggested, any of these events took place in the context of international conflict or war.
Does the Minister understand that justice must be done and must be seen to be done? That does mean a judge-led inquiry as soon as possible, with all the reports reported as appropriate to the police. Will he clarify who in the Government on day-to-day basis is responsible for making sure that the UK is not in future complicit in unlawful rendition? And will he assure us of the UK Government’s full co-operation with ongoing inquiries by Police Scotland into the implications of the possible use of Scottish airports in unlawful rendition?
When it comes to unlawful rendition, there is now a very different system. The UK’s immigration authorities are responsible for the collection of manifests, for instance, for private flights arriving in or transiting through the UK. If we had strong, verifiable information that an individual on board was being rendered contrary to international law principles, we anticipate that the police would attend the plane on arrival to investigate. The diplomatic flight clearance process ensures that all flight requests are assessed and, where necessary, sent to the Foreign Office for political clearance. All incoming flight requests through the diplomatic flights clearance process and subsequent decisions are registered electronically on the Foreign Office records management system and are fully searchable by the Foreign Office.
The House will be grateful to my right hon. Friend for the tone of his statement this afternoon. Like him, I yield to no one in my respect and admiration for the vital work that our security agencies accomplish, but it would really have been much better if my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr Grieve), the Chair of the Intelligence and Security Committee, and his right hon. Friends and colleagues had fully investigated this matter, which has done considerable damage to Britain’s international reputation as a firm upholder of international humanitarian law and human rights. It is clear that the ISC was prevented from conducting the full investigation it wished to undertake by the Government. There are problems with judge-led inquiries that could have been avoided if these matters had been addressed by the ISC. Given where we are and that we promised a judge-led inquiry—I was a member of the Cabinet that made that promise—it seems incumbent on Her Majesty’s Government now to implement that promise in full.
I appreciate my right hon. Friend’s comments. As I said earlier, the question of whether there should be a judge-led inquiry is still to be considered, but on the question of torture generally I hope the House will appreciate that the Government do not participate in, solicit, encourage or condone the use of torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment for any purpose whatsoever. We continue to work closely with international partners to eradicate this abhorrent practice.
Given that President Trump is coming to this country next Friday and has openly endorsed torture, will the Government use that visit to reinforce to him the point that we will not in future be involved in any form of torture, and will the Minister commit to a judge-led inquiry to underline that view?
We will continue our close co-operation will the United States on a range of foreign and security policy issues, but we will maintain our integrity on human rights and interrogation procedures. Intelligence sharing between our two countries has undoubtedly saved British lives, and in both countries intelligence work takes place within a very strong legal framework. We operate under the rule of law, we are accountable to it and we will uphold it.
Does the Minister accept that it is not just bleeding heart liberals and humanitarians who reject the use of torture even under the most provocative circumstances, but senior counter-insurgency professionals such as the late Sir Robert Thompson? He wrote in his seminal work, “Defeating Communist Insurgency” in 1966 as follows:
“There is a very strong temptation...for government forces to act outside the law... Not only is this morally wrong, but, over a period, it will create more practical difficulties for a government than it solves.”
We really should not have to learn that basic lesson over and over again.
If there is one person in the House whom I would most definitely not describe as a bleeding heart liberal it is my right hon. Friend. I understand exactly what he says, and again I can but reiterate that the Government, in everything they do, under much enhanced rules, procedures and practices and on the back of what we have learned from the Committee and the preceding events, will uphold the rule of law and the decencies that all of us in the House expect.
Just over 10 years ago, the then Foreign Secretary, David Miliband, came to the House and apologised for the fact that his predecessor, Jack Straw, had misled Select Committees, including the Foreign Affairs Select Committee when I chaired, it, and that in fact the United States had rendered people to Guantanamo via Diego Garcia, a British territory, having lied to or misled the British Government and forced them therefore to mislead this House. In the interests of getting to the bottom of all these matters, is it not time for a judge-led inquiry, which would not be perceived by the public as having any political taint? Accusations have been made that might be completely unjustified, but the public will not be satisfied unless there is a full inquiry.
The hon. Gentleman’s question itself illustrates the period over which much of this has unfolded. It has been well over a decade, and over that period we have learned an enormous amount and changed our practices. We are fundamentally opposed to unlawful rendition, to which he referred, and as such we do not use rendition. It is not part of our security apparatus. If a foreign Government were to approach Her Majesty’s Government, a request involving the transfer of a person between jurisdictions would be granted only where the purpose of the transit complied fully with international law.
My right hon. Friend plays a significant role through the Council of Europe in seeking to maintain the highest possible standards of human rights throughout the 47 member states. We have a good reputation, and that reputation must be maintained. I fully accept that the first priority of Government must be the protection of the realm, and that that sometimes involves difficult decisions, but if Ministers have failed in the past, is it not right that we should acknowledge that?
There will of course be a formal Government response to the Committee’s reports within 60 days, and if it is thought that any such comment is needed in that regard, of course it will be made.
I thank my hon. Friend for everything that he does in the Council of Europe, a body in which there are many controversies and in which his voice, and that of the United Kingdom, do an enormous amount to uphold the standards that we would like to see in countries across the world.
When the Attorney General apologised earlier this year for UK involvement in the rendition of Abdel Hakim Belhaj and Fatima Boudchar, he told Parliament that the Government had
“enacted reforms to ensure that the problems of the past will not be repeated.”—[Official Report, 10 May 2018; Vol. 640, c. 927.]
However, the ISC has concluded that the Government’s policy on torture
“falls short in a number of areas”,
and has warned that
“a full review is long overdue.”
Do the Government still believe that their reforms would prevent any repeat of these abuses?
The Prime Minister, on behalf of the Government, apologised unreservedly to Mr Belhaj and his wife in May this year, saying that we were profoundly sorry for the ordeal that they had suffered and for the role that we had played in it. As we said at the time, the UK Government have learnt many lessons from this period, and I believe that those lessons have now been converted into much-enhanced practices which are built into the DNA of our intelligence agencies and all who work for them. The consolidated guidance that forms the bedrock of this will be studied further by Sir Adrian Fulford. I hope that, taken together, all that will satisfy and reassure the House that we both set the highest standards and meet them.
The reports clearly state that there is no evidence that any of our intelligence officers were directly involved in the mistreatment of detainees. My right hon. Friend is absolutely right to point out that we are the only country in the developed world to produce consolidated guidance in the way that we have, but we must accept that mistakes were made. Does my right hon. Friend agree that “consolidated guidance” is a bit of a misnomer? If it is to have the widespread confidence that we feel that it should, its title should be looked at again, because it is not guidance. It is a standard for action relating to detention and rendition, to be interpreted by the agencies individually, and to be accountable to the House.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for all the work that he has been doing on the Committee. As he rightly points out, we are already the only country that publishes guidance. The Committee found no evidence that agencies had deliberately turned a blind eye, but the Investigatory Powers Commissioner now has a very important role to play in the oversight of the consolidated guidance. Last week the Prime Minister invited him to make proposals for how it could be improved further, and I have no doubt that the Committee of which he is a member will exercise its rights to make recommendations whenever it thinks them appropriate.
The Committee has met for five years, and I have been a member of it for the past two. Investigating this issue has been a thorough exercise. My question to the Minister is simply this: does he believe that, if the Government or the House ultimately decided on a judge-led inquiry, that judge-led inquiry could call witnesses who were denied to the Committee?
It would be invidious of me not to thank the right hon. Gentleman for the service that he gives to the Committee, which he joined just after I had left. I do not want to pre-empt speculatively what might be the possible shape of a judge-led inquiry should it so happen, and I hope the right hon. Gentleman will allow me not to answer his question specifically, as it would indeed be only speculative.
The Minister has rightly pointed out the unprecedented and extremely difficult position that many UK security operatives were in at the time, but the fact remains that clearly some terrible things were done. The ISC report says:
“the UK tolerated actions, and took others, that we regard as inexcusable.”
This was an ugly, ugly moment in our country’s history. May I reassure the Minister—he is probably getting the message from right across the House—that when he has taken his 60 days and he decides to come back to the House and respond on behalf of the Government, there will be a huge cheer should he stand up and say he is going to introduce the independent judge-led inquiry that the former Secretary of State for Justice my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke) promised at the time? This matter will not be put to rest until he does so and the inquiry happens.
I hope time will prove that my hon. Friend is not right in saying that this would be the only way to put matters to rest. The inquiry itself over these years has been very thorough, admirable and indeed a good example of democracy working well, where this House and Ministers are held to account by a specially constituted independent Committee. It is absolutely true to say that it did take time for us to realise quite what was going on and for many of our agency people on the ground to realise that things to which they were not used —which they had not encountered before—were happening at the hands of others. I think that has largely now been addressed, but we will never rest totally satisfied and will always examine whether we can do better.
I greatly welcome what the Minister says on the subject of the consolidated guidance, but he will be aware that in December last year the intelligence services commissioner identified eight cases in which the consolidated guidance had not been followed by UK officials, leading to the possibility of their either providing or using intelligence that could have led to torture or mistreatment. Can the Minister tell the House whether the individuals in these eight cases have been told of UK involvement that may have led to their mistreatment?
There will of course be a formal response to any such comments made in the Committee’s report, but the right hon. Gentleman is really asking what happens if we ever receive intelligence from countries that torture, and whether that amounts to collusion in torture. The reality is that in most cases countries do not disclose the sources of their intelligence that they share with us. However, the guidance outlines the action to be taken if we suspect that intelligence has been derived from the mistreatment of a detainee, and we ensure that our partners are in no doubt about the standards to which we adhere.
What is the Government’s official estimate of the number of post-9/11 illegal renditions with which the British authorities were connected?
I regret that I do not have a statistic of that detail in front of me. I am not sure whether it appears in the Committee report, but I will investigate and write to my hon. Friend if the information is readily available. I do not guarantee that, as I am not sure what statistics are in the public domain.
When the then Leader of the House made his initial statement on winding up the Gibson inquiry in January 2012, the then shadow Lord Chancellor, now Mayor of London, asked that it be paused. The reason given as to why it was not was that the process would take so long, and three times the Leader of the House said there would be an independent judge-led inquiry, so it was always contemplated that it would take this long. In the interim, the ISC inquiry has been inadequate by its own admission, and for this reason a number of torture survivors have not taken part. There are many people who could have given evidence that has not yet been given, so will the Minister say why this will take 60 days and what criteria he is using to decide whether to go ahead with the inquiry?
Her Majesty’s Government will respond within the 60 days to the Committee report. I do not think there is much more that I can add to that at this stage. Many years have elapsed since the statements were made in 2012 and 2013, and the question of whether anything could be added that would be of benefit to our knowledge or usefulness is increasingly in doubt as time passes.
The Intelligence and Security Committee was reluctantly forced to draw a line under its inquiry. Will the Minister tell us whether it was the Prime Minister personally who refused the Committee access to key witnesses?
This goes back to the answer that I have just given to the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter). The question is whether that can add much more to the fund of knowledge that the Committee has already gathered.
In order to restore public confidence, is there not a case for a rare public session of the ISC so that those who were in charge of our intelligence services at the time and those who are in charge now can account for their actions and describe what lessons have been learned?
I slightly take issue with the hon. Gentleman, in that I think our intelligence services enjoy massive public confidence, and they deserve to do so. They put their own lives in danger sometimes, and they work to the highest standards of decency and democratic values that anyone could ask for. Instead of saying that they lack public confidence, I would like to take this opportunity to say that they enjoy enormous public confidence and they deserve to do so. I hope that that will continue.
Does the Minister agree that there are no longer any practical or legal hurdles preventing the Government from delivering their long-promised judge-led inquiry?
I think I have answered that question in various ways over the course of the past 45 minutes. This is being studied further and it will be part of the Government’s response in due course.
I thank the Minister for his comprehensive and detailed response. Will he outline the procedure that was taken with the 128 complaints made by foreign liaison services about incidents of mistreatment? Will he tell us how they were dealt with? Does he feel that this matter has measured up to the Government’s protocol of dealing with these issues?
I hope that the hon. Gentleman will forgive me if, in answering an urgent question on whether there should be a judge-led inquiry, I have not gone into as much detail as he requests. I am not equipped to give an answer on such a specific question, and the main answers that I have been giving are in response to the definition of the urgent question before the House today.
Saddleworth Moor and Tameside: Ongoing Fire
(Urgent Question): To ask the Home Office if it will make a statement regarding the ongoing fire on the Saddleworth and Tameside moors.
The moorland fires on Saddleworth moor near Manchester and across the border in Lancashire at Winter Hill near Bolton and into Derbyshire remain major incidents. The numbers of fire appliances and firefighters on the scene fluctuates each day according to the immediate need. However, the Manchester fire and rescue service has around 30 fire appliances currently deployed, and 29 appliances have been deployed to the Lancashire fire. In addition, two high-volume pumps are in use, and a variety of specialist equipment and teams. Support is also being provided from other fire and rescue services across the north of England and as far afield as the west midlands, and a team of specialist wildfire firefighters from Wales has also attended the Winter Hill site.
This wider support is being co-ordinated by a team in the Merseyside fire and rescue service, directly funded by the Home Office, which provides specialist support in major emergencies such as this. Furthermore, 100 military personnel have been providing support on Saddleworth moor since Thursday, and the initial three-day deployment has been extended to tomorrow, with a request now received for the soldiers to continue their support to the Manchester fire and rescue service through until Friday. The response currently also includes one helicopter from the local water company, and support from the National Police Air Service. We remain in regular contact with the fire and rescue services responding to the incident, and I have spoken about the fires with the chiefs of the Manchester and Lancashire fire and rescue services. The Home Secretary has also spoken to the Mayor of Manchester, Andy Burnham.
I place on the record my appreciation, which will be shared across the House, of the incredible work of the firefighters, the military and the other partner agencies in responding to the wildfires. The current hot, dry weather means that the fires are likely to persist for some time. The Government continue to liaise with the responders on the ground who are tackling the fires, and we are ready to provide further support when it is needed.
I thank you, Mr Speaker, for granting this question on the behalf of my constituents and those of my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams). Words alone cannot adequately describe the scale of the challenge that the fire has posed to my constituents and to the emergency services in Greater Manchester. I express my gratitude to the Greater Manchester fire and rescue service, which has worked tirelessly in the most extreme conditions, and to the police, the Army and Tameside Metropolitan Borough Council for their exemplary work over the past week.
Are the Government fully engaged in doing all that they can to support those services? Given that we now have two major incidents just 25 miles apart, including a threat to critical communications infrastructure at Winter Hill, many colleagues and I were surprised that no Cobra meeting was convened over the weekend. Will the Minister say why that was? Will the Minister confirm that the magnificent support from Army personnel, who are literally beating the fire back with paddles, will remain in place for as long as we need it? If things get worse and more support is needed, will more support be made available? Will he say whether there is any truth in the rumour that military helicopters cannot be used to fight the fires because they no longer possess the correct firefighting equipment?
Will the Minister assure me that cost is not an issue? A fire such as this, which burns down into the peat, needs to be put out entirely because conditions can cause it to flare up again, so we must provide whatever the Greater Manchester and Lancashire fire services tell us they need. Crucially, will the Minister assure me that the cost of the military support will be met out of national contingency budgets, not local fire budgets which are already under severe strain?
Looking to the future, eventually the rain will always fall on Manchester, but that might now bring other risks. Our flooding plans are predicated on the moors being able to absorb significant rainfall. That capacity will obviously have been affected. Will the Minister therefore direct all relevant national agencies to help us prepare for that? Finally, will the Minister join me in praising my constituents, particularly the people of Calico Crescent in Carrbrook who were evacuated, for their stoic response in this most challenging of times?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his approach and for the gratitude that he articulated, which will be shared across the House, for the extraordinary work done not just by the firefighters, but by volunteers, the military and all the agencies involved in this heroic task. I send my commiserations to his constituents who have been directly affected and displaced. Their fortitude and patience have drawn wide admiration from across the country.
Turning to the hon. Gentleman’s central concerns, the Government are fully engaged, as he would expect during an incident of this size. As I said in my opening answer, I have spoken to both fire chiefs, and the Home Secretary has spoken to the Mayor. Our message has been simple: “Have you got what you need? If you haven’t, ask and we will provide.” That has been the case so far and will be the approach going forward. I share the hon. Gentleman’s hope that normal service will be resumed in terms of the weather over Manchester, but we will provide all the support and resources that the effort will require, because it looks like it will have to continue for some time. The teams will have the support that they need.
Of course, a number of constituencies are affected by this horrifying series of fires, including the constituency of Chorley, and the House and the people of Chorley will be pleased to know that the right hon. Member for Chorley (Sir Lindsay Hoyle), the Chairman of Ways and Means, is in the Chamber to listen to this exchanges.
I pay tribute to the firefighters from Ribble Valley and from Chorley who are fighting those fires on the moors. I also pay tribute to those from the constituency of the Under-Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Rossendale and Darwen (Jake Berry)—
And Pendle. The list is endless. We pay tribute to the firefighters’ courage and dedication, particularly given the heat they are also having to endure.
As the Minister knows, there are many summer festivals at this time, and people release lanterns that use candles to make them rise. Clearly, such things are a fire hazard in themselves, so will he look to ban them? Will he also make it absolutely clear that people flying drones over the area could well jeopardise the operation of those fighting the fires?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for referencing the presence of the Under-Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government on the Front Bench, and I am sure that the Minister is pleased as well.
I join you, Mr Speaker, in recognising the presence of Mr Deputy Speaker, to whom I spoke on the phone yesterday. He is concerned, as ever, for his constituents, and I join my hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley (Mr Evans) in saluting the work of firefighters from across the country who have stepped into this heroic, protracted task.
On the use of drones, there is no clearer message than that issued by the Lancashire fire brigade: don’t. If people are considering going to take some photographs of the fire, don’t. Just get out of the way and let the fire service do its job. Do not get in the fire service’s way.
Thank you, Mr Speaker, for granting the urgent question from my hon. Friend the Member for Stalybridge and Hyde (Jonathan Reynolds).
The emergency responders have done an excellent job in tackling the fire. Their courageous work, day and night, for over a week in extremely hot conditions goes to show their passionate commitment to public service. The dedicated work of the fire service, with support from the Army, has prevented the fire from spreading to surrounding populated areas, and lives and properties are now not at risk.
I could spend my whole contribution talking about my admiration for the emergency services yet, while this Government wax lyrical about their appreciation for the fire service, they have presided over eight years of scathing cuts to fire authority budgets and firefighter numbers. The typical Government response is to point to fire authority reserves. However, given the progressive funding squeeze since 2010, alongside the required earmarking of most of the reserves, there are serious questions to be asked about the level of funding the Government have allocated for fire authorities to deliver a fully resourced service.
Will the Minister provide more financial support to local authorities in the area to mitigate the impact of the fire? I understand the exceptional circumstances of this fire, but the fire and emergency services must be staffed, resourced and paid adequately to ensure they are sufficiently prepared for any emergency. They should not be expected to react on a shoestring budget.
The effect on staffing levels of budgetary cuts over the past eight years is clear. Since 2010, Greater Manchester and Lancashire between them have had around 1,000 firefighters cut. Will the Minister acknowledge the failure of austerity and take a lead from Labour’s commitment to recruit 3,000 new firefighters and to scrap the pay cap?
The only bit of the hon. Lady’s question with which I agree is her admiration for the emergency services, which is shared on both sides of the House. The rest was badly misjudged, because this is not the day to try to make political points. What the country wants to hear is cross-party support and admiration for the emergency services, and it wants to hear whether the Government are prepared to commit the resources to support this effort for as long as it lasts, which is what I have done.
The hon. Lady talks about resources for the fire service, and I will let the numbers speak for themselves. Core spending power has risen this year by 1.2%. As a country, we are spending more than £2.3 billion on our fire service. The fire service has £650 million of reserves, which have grown by 88% since 2011. We are conducting a demand review to inform the next comprehensive spending review. This Government are determined to make sure our emergency services have the resources they need.
Because of the extreme drought and dryness in these magnificent and very important areas, will the Minister work with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to see whether there is a case for a comprehensive review of the trigger points on the fire severity index to develop a better framework for managing such situations? In addition to his rightful praise for our superb firefighters and the Army, will he also congratulate local farmers, gamekeepers and many others who live and work on the moors whose knowledge, equipment and expertise have greatly assisted the professional help?
I certainly join my right hon. Friend in joining all those people who have contributed, particularly if they have that kind of long, historical expertise of the moors. I certainly also undertake to work closely with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to make sure that the lessons from this are learned to the full. I can give him some assurance that the National Fire Chiefs Council is driving work nationally to further improve the UK’s approach to wildfire preparedness, prevention and intervention, and this has included a wildfire prevention toolkit, which provides information and a range of tools to help fire and rescue agencies and partner agencies to prevent and reduce the impact of wildfires. He will understand the point: when a major incident such as this is over and has been managed properly, we have, alongside the congratulations and admiration, to learn the lessons from it.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Stalybridge and Hyde (Jonathan Reynolds) on securing this urgent question. I will keep my comments short so that hon. Members with constituencies in the vicinity have adequate time to ask questions. On behalf of the Scottish National party, I would like to join in the congratulations to those in the fire and rescue services from Greater Manchester and beyond who are fighting this fire in terrible circumstances and to the soldiers from the Royal Regiment of Scotland, who, I am proud to say, are there assisting. In the light of the terrible conditions that the firefighters are working in, will the Minister confirm that the Government will step in to make sure they have all the resources they need? There were some reports at the weekend of firefighters appealing for sun cream and socks—rather basic provisions that they should have. Will he also tell us what steps the Government will take to support families affected by the fire who live in the vicinity?
I thank the hon. and learned Lady for her support for the performance of the emergency services. I hope I can give her assurance on both her points. On the support for the firefighters up on the moors, there is a challenge. As the fire chiefs explained to me, they want to try to keep the firefighters up there as long as possible to keep up the momentum, but that presents logistical challenges in providing some basic needs. However, that is being managed by agencies, not least by a superb voluntary response as well from the community, which they have been extremely touched by. On support for families, of course that is a high priority and it is kept under constant review by the agencies involved in managing this situation.
Unmanaged moorland will often have heather growing to waist height. In circumstances such as this, that makes a tinder box of the moors. When I was at DEFRA, I was in receipt of a lot of appeals from the Moorland Association and others saying, “The wetter the better for moorland.” They want to block up grips and to see our moorland getting wetter. Good management of upland areas is vital, so will my right hon. Friend reject the absurd article in The Guardian that seemingly suggests that good moorland management, both for shooting and for agriculture, has in some way been complicit in causing this?
I defer to my right hon. Friend’s personal knowledge and his experience as a highly distinguished DEFRA Minister. I am certainly no expert in moorland management and I think we should listen to the experts on this. That comes back to the point I was making earlier about the need to learn lessons from incidents such as this.
My constituency is immediately adjacent to the fires on Saddleworth moor, and I wish to extend my thanks to Derbyshire fire service, the police, the Army, national park rangers, countryside rangers, Glossop mountain rescue, gamekeepers and farmers, who are all helping to tackle this fire. Will the Minister please assure me that the non-full-time firefighting staff involved in tackling the fire have been given the proper protective equipment, as we have seen disturbing pictures on social media of Army staff without protective fire equipment being drafted in to put out the fires?
I can give the hon. Lady that assurance. The primary responsibility of those managing and leading in this situation is the personal protection and safety of their people, and I have heard nothing to the contrary on that. I will seek further reassurances, but my understanding is that the work is being led with the kind of responsibility that she would expect. On her wider point, which she made well, the coalition of community support agencies, civil society and the state agencies coming together under extremely difficult and demanding circumstances has been heroic and deserves the House’s admiration.
Will the Minister join me in thanking the on-call firefighters of Alsager community fire station, whom I met yesterday and who, together with fire officers from across Cheshire, are travelling some distance to help with the work at Saddleworth moor? At the same time, fire officers are protecting communities where the heat means that there is risk of fire, as happened at the weekend at Mow Cop in my constituency. Firefighters are spending long hours protecting us, as well as going to Saddleworth moor.
I am sure that the whole House wants to put on record our admiration for not just the response to these particular major incidents and the way that firefighters have come from throughout the country to support that work, but for the work that they do back in their communities. They are one of the most trusted public services in this country, for very good reason. Day after day, dedicated firefighters get up without knowing what they are going to work towards on our behalf and for our public safety.
Sadly, because of global warming, we are likely to see more fires on this scale, so what extra resources is the Minister planning to allocate to emergency services and fire services to enable them to deal better with increased incidents of moorland fires?
On funding for the emergency services, I stated earlier that the core spending power of fire services increased this year, even though, as the hon. Lady knows, the number of fire incidents has fallen by 50% over the past decade. On the management of risk going forward, I am leading an exercise and speaking to every fire authority to understand their perception of future demand and risk, to inform decisions in the next spending round.
Will the Minister join me in thanking Staffordshire fire and rescue service for the incredible work it has been doing at Thorncliffe in the constituency of my parliamentary neighbour, my right hon. Friend the Member for Staffordshire Moorlands (Karen Bradley)?
I am delighted to show appreciation for and thank, on the Government’s behalf, all the fire services that are involved in the support operation for these major incidents, as well as to thank my hon. Friend’s local service for the work that it does back in Staffordshire.
May I put on record my thanks to all the firefighters and those from the armed forces for supporting our fire service during these moorland fires? Many volunteer groups, such as mountain rescue services, have also been working to support the fire service. What plans does the Department have to support those volunteers who, like many others, are working in such challenging conditions?
The ho. Lady makes an extremely good point about the importance of the highly valued contribution of the voluntary sector and civil society in these types of situations, in which the combination of the state and civil society working together is so effective. I know from the fire officers how much that voluntary work has been appreciated. The Government do a lot to support the voluntary sector in this country. As we look forward and try to learn from these lessons, we need to think harder about the role of civil society and how it is supported in these situations.
Arson—the deliberate starting of a fire—is an appalling crime. Will the Minister make sure that anyone caught and found guilty of such an offence in respect of these moorland fires feels the full force of the law, with exemplary sentences to act as a deterrent to anyone else?
The whole House would agree with the abhorrence that my hon. Friend expresses about arson, which is the most terrible crime. He may be aware that one arrest has been made in the context of these fires. Of course, the criminal justice process must reach its conclusion on that, but I expect the full weight of the law to be applied.
May I associate myself and my party with all those who have made expressions of support and encouragement to those who are currently engaged in fighting this fire? The countryside that we currently see ablaze is very special, but it is not unique. We see that sort of area the length and breadth of the country and it support communities involved in hill farming and crofting. [Interruption.] I am pleased that the House is so keen to express its support for hill farmers and crofters. These people make a marginal living at best, so can the Minister tell us what work is being done in Government to ensure that, God forbid, should this becomes a pattern this summer, support will be given to protect the livelihoods of the people in those areas?
I wholly endorse what the right hon. Gentleman said about the value of hill farming communities and the beauty of the particular locations of these terrible incidents. I come back to what I said before to my right hon. Friend the Member for Mid Sussex (Sir Nicholas Soames) about the need, once this situation is under control, to work closely with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and others to think about how these risks are managed more effectively in the future.
I too pay tribute to the emergency services and to the members of the local communities for their work in fighting this fire. I travelled through the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Stalybridge and Hyde (Jonathan Reynolds) yesterday, and the impact on the air quality in particular is something of which nobody in Greater Manchester and around can be unaware. In considering the lessons learned, what attention will the Minister be able to give to a programme of public education, particularly for young people, in relation to fire safety on the moors?
There is a great deal of information out there on fire safety, not least from organisations such as the Forestry Commission. Again, in the light of these types of incidents, we need to look again at what is out there to see whether it is fit for purpose. The hon. Lady raised the issue of air quality, which I know is an issue of concern for many constituents. Public Health England is issuing health advice to residents and to those travelling in the areas affected by smoke and ash. I urge residents and constituents to keep referring to that.
May I note for the record that I hire my constituency office space from Greater Manchester fire and rescue service, and I am very proud to do so watching its heroic efforts this weekend? The scale of the problem is demonstrated by the fact that people can smell the burning moors all across my south Manchester constituency. May I just press the Minister on a question that my hon. Friend the Member for Stalybridge and Hyde (Jonathan Reynolds) asked about the military capacity to deal with this problem? There is a worry that we do not have the kit to do the job; that the military helicopters are not equipped with the technical capacity to put out fires. Can he clarify whether that is the case?
I do not believe that that is the case. A military helicopter was requested and deployed, but not actually used. Helicopters that are being used in this context have been supplied by the water company, but an RAF helicopter was requested and was deployed.
I join colleagues in thanking our incredibly brave firefighters, including those from West Yorkshire, and I do hope that the Minister will reassess their funding situation. Will he join Kirklees Council in the advice that it has given to people in the light of the extremely hot weather at the moment? I am talking about its advice on disposable barbeques, which is that people should not use them, or that if they do use them, they should ensure that they dispose of them safely?
Yes, I wholly understand and support what the hon. Lady says. Coming back to an earlier point, this is a time when people have to exercise some common sense. We know what the conditions are like and we know the risks associated with these products. Public bodies are putting out plenty of good sensible common sense advice about how to manage and reduce the risk in these circumstances and we should follow it.
We all salute the fantastic work of the firefighters. Has the Minister yet discussed with DEFRA the need to look after the moorlands, because the impact on wildlife will obviously be devastating?
The environmental damage associated with these fires is terrible. The hon. Lady will understand that my priority at the moment is to support the emergency services in managing the short-term situation and in getting it under control. On the longer-term issues, including the one that she is talking about, and the conversations that need to take place between the Home Office and other Departments, including DEFRA, those will happen.
June European Council
With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a statement on last week’s European Council.
The focus of this Council was migration, and there were also important conclusions on security and defence. The UK made a substantive contribution on both, and our continued co-operation after we have left the EU will be in everyone’s interests, helping to ensure the long-term prosperity and security of the whole continent. The consequences of mass uncontrolled immigration are one of the most serious challenges confronting Europe today. The problem is felt especially acutely by countries on the Mediterranean and the Aegean, which are often where migrants first arrive, but this is a shared challenge, which affects us all. More than anything, the situation is a tragedy for the migrants themselves, thousands of whom have now lost their lives. At the core of all our efforts must be trying to prevent others from doing so.
The UK has long argued for a comprehensive, whole-of-route approach to tackling migration, and the Council agreed actions in each of the three areas that we have championed. First, there will be more work upstream to reduce the number of people who undertake such perilous journeys in the first place. This includes providing more opportunities in the countries where economic migrants are coming from, and helping to ensure that refugees claim asylum in the first safe country that they reach. To support this, the UK will continue to invest for the long term in education, jobs and services, both in countries of origin and transit.
We are also committed to the second tranche of the EU Facility for Refugees in Turkey, provided that we can agree an appropriate mechanism for managing the funds. We made a further commitment at this Council of €15 million to support the EU Trust Fund for Africa. Both are delivering on the UK’s call for more support for countries of transit and origin on the main routes into Europe, which is vital if we are to achieve the solutions we need to mass uncontrolled migration. Alongside our economic development and humanitarian support, we have also been stepping up our communications effort upstream so that more potential migrants understand the grave dangers of the journeys they might undertake and the criminal people smugglers who are waiting to exploit them.
Secondly, there will be more work to distinguish between genuine refugees and illegal economic migrants. This includes exploring the concept of regional disembarkation platforms. It was agreed at the Council that these could be established on a voluntary basis. Key to their success would be operating in full respect of international law and without creating a pull factor for further migration. There is clearly much more work to be done, with the support of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and the International Organisation for Migration, to establish whether such proposals are practically and legally viable, but we do need to be prepared to look again at new solutions, given the gravity and intractability of this challenge.
Thirdly, there will be further efforts to strengthen borders to help to prevent illegal migration. Last week I agreed with Prime Minister Tsipras of Greece that we would work towards a new action plan of UK support for Greek and European efforts, including a further Border Force patrol vessel to work with the Greek coastguard. The UK now has law enforcement officers in 17 EU and African countries as part of our organised immigration crime taskforce. UK and French officers are also working together to build links between counter-trafficking agencies in Nigeria and Niger to strengthen this key border on the central route. I am keen that we should replicate this model with other states.
This is a challenge that faces the whole of our continent. As I said at the Council, we will continue playing our full part in working together with the EU to meet that challenge both now and after we have left, for that is in our national interest and in the interests of Europe as a whole.
The same is true for security and defence, which was why at this Council I made the case for a new security partnership between the UK and the EU after we have left. We have seen over recent weeks and months that Russia and other hostile state and non-state actors are trying to sow disunity, destabilise our democracies and test our resolve. We must work together to adapt our current defences to the new normal, and take responsibility for protecting international norms and institutions. In this context, I thanked our European partners for their solidarity in the wake of the appalling nerve agent attack in Salisbury. The unprecedented co-ordinated expulsion of undeclared Russian intelligence officers demonstrated our unity in response to this kind of disregard for global norms and rules that poses a threat to us all.
At the March Council, we agreed to do more to strengthen our resilience against such threats. Since then, the UK has led work with our European partners to propose a package of measures to step up our strategic communications against online disinformation, strengthen our capabilities against cyber-security threats and further reduce the threat from hostile intelligence activities. This Council agreed measures in all these areas, including an action plan by December that must go even further in co-ordinating our response to the challenge of disinformation.
This effort to adapt our defences to protecting international norms should also enable us to respond robustly to events beyond Europe when they threaten our security interests, so this Council welcomed the agreement reached by my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary in The Hague last week, enabling the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons to attribute responsibility for chemical weapons use. The Council reinforced this by agreeing with President Macron and myself in calling for the adoption of a new EU sanctions regime to address the use and proliferation of chemical weapons. The Council also agreed to roll over current sanctions on Russia in the light of its failure to fully implement the Minsk agreements in Ukraine. In the context of online threats from the full range of state and non-state actors, President Macron and I joined together in pushing for further action to tackle illegal online content, especially terrorist content.
Finally, on security, we looked ahead to our NATO summit next week, which will be an important moment to demonstrate western unity. The NATO Secretary-General joined this discussion at the Council, where we agreed that Europe must take greater responsibility for its own security while complementing and reinforcing the activities of NATO. Far too few of our allies are currently meeting the commitment to spend 2% of GDP on defence. At this Council, I urged them to do so, in order that, together, we can meet the full range of targets that challenge our interests. For our own part, we have the biggest defence budget in Europe and the biggest in NATO after the United States. We are investing more than £179 billion on new equipment. That means, among other items, new aircraft carriers and submarines for the Navy, new cutting-edge F-35B aircraft for the RAF, and new Ajax armoured vehicles for the Army. We are leading throughout NATO, whether that is through deployed forces in the Mediterranean, air policing in eastern Europe, or our troops providing an enhanced forward presence in Estonia.
We are operating with our allies to defend our interests all over the world. In April, RAF aircraft took action to degrade the Syrian regime’s chemical weapons capability and deter their future use. Over 1,000 personnel are deployed in the fight against Daesh, and we are the second largest contributor to the coalition air campaign in Iraq and Syria. In Africa, UK troops have built and now operate a hospital in South Sudan supporting the UN mission there. They are training security forces in Nigeria, and our Chinook helicopters are deploying to Mali in support of the French this week. Two Royal Navy vessels are deployed in Asia in support of sanctions enforcement on North Korea, working closely with the US, Japan and others, with another to follow—the first Royal Navy deployments to the Pacific since 2013. Our submarines are silently patrolling the seas, giving us a nuclear deterrent every minute of every hour, as they have done for 50 years. Our modernising defence programme will ensure that our capabilities remain as potent in countering the threats of tomorrow as they are in keeping us safe today. We are the leading military power in Europe, with the capabilities to protect our people, defend our interests and project our values, supporting the global rules-based system—and the Government who I lead will ensure that that is exactly how we remain.
Turning to Brexit, I updated my fellow leaders on the negotiations, and the 27 other member states welcomed the further progress that had been made on the withdrawal agreement. With the exception of the protocol relating to Northern Ireland, we now have agreement or are close to doing so. There remain some real differences between us and the European Commission on Northern Ireland. So, on the protocol on Northern Ireland, I want to be very clear. We have put forward proposals and will produce further proposals so that if a temporary backstop is needed, there will be no hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. We are absolutely committed to the avoidance of such a border, and we are equally committed to the avoidance of a hard border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom. Northern Ireland is an integral part of our country and we will never accept the imposition of a border within our United Kingdom.
We all agreed that we must now urgently intensify and accelerate the pace of negotiations on our future relationship. I warned EU leaders that I do not think this Parliament will approve the withdrawal agreement in the autumn unless we have clarity about our future relationship alongside it. I will hold a meeting of the Cabinet at Chequers on Friday, and we will publish our White Paper on the future partnership with the EU next week. The EU and its member states will want to consider our proposals seriously. We both need to show flexibility to build the deep relationship after we have left that is in the interests of both our peoples. Our White Paper will set out detailed proposals for a sustainable and close future relationship between the UK and the EU—a partnership that means that the UK will leave the single market and customs union, but a partnership which supports our shared prosperity and security. It will mark an important step in delivering the decision of the British people. I commend this statement to the House.
I thank the Prime Minister for an advance copy of her statement. The statement was nearly 2,000 words, and all the Prime Minister says on Brexit is that we need
“clarity about our future relationship”.
Yes, we do—we have been waiting for over two years for any clarity from this Government.
Let me first address the issue of migration. I hope that the whole House shares my concern about the direction in which those on the hard right seem determined to take Europe’s migration and asylum policy. There was evidence of that only a few weeks ago when the new Italian Interior Minister exploited the plight of 600 migrant refugees on the rescue ship Aquarius to make a callous political point. That incident has made it clear that, more than ever, we need strong leadership across Europe to uphold the right to asylum and treat all migrants with dignity and respect. It is right that EU countries should help migrants rescued in the Mediterranean and also take action to alleviate the burden on Italy and Greece. What commitments or support has the Prime Minister made or offered in that respect?
We understand that the EU plan now is to swiftly explore the idea of processing centres in north Africa. Can the Prime Minister confirm whether any non-European Union countries have indicated that they would sign up to that deal? In the face of a very worrying surge in far-right rhetoric across the EU, I urge the Prime Minister to stand up for humanitarian values and ensure that Britain is on the right side of this debate, ready to stand up to those who try to use the plight and suffering of tens of thousands of people to incite division and hate anywhere across this continent. On the issue of security and challenging disinformation, I look forward to the December action plan and to debating the NATO summit next week.
When it comes to Brexit, this Government have mishandled the negotiations every step of the way. Another summit has gone and another opportunity has been missed. The division and infighting in the Cabinet is having a debilitating effect on this country, and threatens jobs and communities in every part of the UK. I do not envy the Prime Minister as she prepares for her Chequers sleepover. She has many loud and competing voices in her Cabinet—not competing to do the best for this country, but to do the best for themselves. The Prime Minister’s primary duty is not to manage the latest division within her Cabinet, but to negotiate a deal that will safeguard jobs and living standards for decades to come.
We look forward to the much-vaunted third way on customs that the Prime Minister hopes will unite her Cabinet, because the current chaos at the heart of government leaves us facing crucial unanswered questions. First, will UK trade be greater outside a customs union? If the Government believe that it will, can they show us how they reached that conclusion? In recent days, one major business after another has lined up to say that it is vital for Britain to be in a customs union, as have many trade unions. The Government’s published impact assessments show that potential new trade deals come nowhere near replacing the advantages of being in a customs union, leaving every region and every nation worse off. What evidence do this Government have to suggest that rejecting any form of customs union with our biggest trading partner is the best way of protecting jobs here in Britain? Even the NHS is now having to plan for multiple scenarios because there is no clarity from Government.
Secondly, how do the Government intend to prevent a hard border in Ireland if we are not in a customs union? They say they have been working on finding “flexible and imaginative solutions”, so where are those solutions? The people of Northern Ireland deserve honesty.
Thirdly, what will our future relationship with our biggest trading partner look like? The problem is that the Prime Minister is stuck in the middle of two warring factions, but she now needs to pick a side. Does she want—[Interruption.] The question is quite simply: does she want a close trading relationship with the EU, with aligned rights and regulations, or does she believe in the visions of those on her Benches who see Britain’s future as a low-regulated, low-investment tax haven?
Fourthly, will potential options for Britain’s future immigration policy be included in the Brexit White Paper? We know freedom of movement will change when we leave the EU, but we are still no clearer about what will come next. Recent figures show that migration of EU nationals is continuing to fall, with some sectors suffering shortages, including in the national health service.
Finally, is the Prime Minister still confident she can get a deal? At this stage, it is not clear that the Prime Minister can even get a deal with her Cabinet, which is why—after two years—the White Paper is nowhere to be seen. The divisions and open warfare at the highest levels of her Government are holding this country back. Even her own Cabinet members are openly saying a deal cannot be done before the transition period, and they are already saying that the transition period will have to be extended.
The Prime Minister has for too long hidden behind a series of soundbites, including “No deal is better than a bad deal.” No deal is a bad deal and would represent historic failure. The Prime Minister must choose: will she rein in the egos of her Cabinet, or negotiate a deal that works for the people of this country and those worried about their jobs, their future and their communities?
First, the right hon. Gentleman talked about the issues raised in relation to migration. As I said, uncontrolled migration and the numbers of people we have seen attempting to come to Europe, some of whom have lost their lives in that attempt, do pose a serious challenge to Europe, and we have been working with our European colleagues to be able to address these issues.
The right hon. Gentleman talked about the right to claim asylum. In 2016, when I went to the United Nations, I set out the three principles that we believe underlie these issues: first, that people should claim asylum in the first safe country that they come to; secondly, that it should be possible to differentiate better between economic migrants and refugees, which I think will enable more support to be available for refugees; and thirdly, that countries have a right to be able to defend their borders, but they must also accept returns of those individuals who have gone illegally elsewhere and should be returned to those countries.
The right hon. Gentleman asked about the alleviation of the burden on Italy and Greece. We have been working for some time now with both Italy and Greece in a number of ways to alleviate the burden on them. In particular, we have had Border Force staff working in Greece to help in terms of the processes there for claiming asylum and identifying refugees and others. We have been working similarly in Italy, but also working, as I indicated in my statement in relation to the organised immigration crime taskforce, to ensure that we are identifying the people smugglers who are the people behind the misery that so many individual migrants find themselves subjected to.
These people smugglers have no care for the humanity—for the lives—of the people that they are dealing with; they are quite happy to put them into boats that they know will sink and send them off from the Libyan coast. That is why we have been part of the search and rescue operation in the Mediterranean and, as I say, we are working to identify those smuggling groups. As I said in my statement, I agreed with Prime Minister Tsipras that we are going to work towards further action—a new action plan of UK support for Greek and European efforts—and that will include a further Border Force patrol vessel, which will be working with the Greek coastguard.
The right hon. Gentleman then came on to reference the issue of Brexit. He talked about the issue of whether or not there had been progress on Brexit. I have to say that, at virtually every stage, Labour Members have said that there was no progress on Brexit; at every stage, we have delivered. They said we would not deliver article 50 —we did. They said we would not, but I laid out our plans at Lancaster House, at Florence, at Munich and in the Mansion House speech. We got agreement on phase 1 in December, and we got agreement in March to an implementation period. We are on schedule. The question is: why does the Labour party spend all its time trying to frustrate Brexit and stop the vote of the British people?
The right hon. Gentleman asked about trade. Yes, we do want to ensure that we continue to have a good trading relationship with the European Union, but we also want to ensure that we have an independent trade policy that allows us to get good trade deals with the rest of the world. That will be for the prosperity and benefit of people and jobs here in this country.
The right hon. Gentleman talks about the national health service. Well, months ago Labour were complaining that the national health service was not preparing for a no deal, and now they are complaining that it is. Labour really need to get themselves straight on what they are talking about. When it comes to getting a position straight, the right hon. Gentleman wanted to trigger article 50 the day after the referendum, but now he refuses to rule out a second referendum. It is not just a question of who in the Labour party agrees with who else; the right hon. Gentleman cannot even agree with himself on his Brexit policy.
Finally, the right hon. Gentleman said that I should pick a side. I am very clear: I have picked the side of the British people, and they will be the ones I deliver for.
Order. I remind the House that, in accordance with long-standing convention, right hon. and hon. Members who came into the Chamber after the Prime Minister began her statement should not expect to be called to question her about it. More widely, if I am to have any chance of accommodating the understandably extensive interest in the matter, there will be a premium upon brevity, which is now to be brilliantly exemplified by Mr John Redwood.
Will the Prime Minister table urgently a full free trade agreement, covering both goods and services, and ask the EU whether they want that or no deal? Either way, we must take back control of our laws, our money and our borders.
We will be taking back the control that my right hon. Friend sets out; that is what people voted for in the referendum, and that is what we will deliver. We will be setting out, in greater detail than we have done so far, our proposals for that trade agreement with the European Union, making very clear to it the options that now lie on the table.
I thank the Prime Minister for advance sight of her statement. How embarrassing it must have been for her last week in Brussels, when the most oft-heard words were, “Time is running out.” We learnt that this year the Brexit Secretary has spent only four hours in talks with Michel Barnier. The EU’s chief negotiator has warned that
“huge and serious divergence remains, in particular on Ireland and Northern Ireland.”
The UK is inching ever closer to a cliff edge, but the Prime Minister cannot even negotiate with her own Cabinet, let alone—[Interruption.] I hear the guffawing and laughter coming from the Conservative Benches, including from the Prime Minister. They should reflect on the fact that this is about the jobs and security of our people; they deserve to have these important matters taken seriously, not treated like a Punch and Judy show by the Conservatives.
In a worrying development, EU officials yesterday warned that the deal might not be ready until December at the earliest. The Irish Prime Minister summed up the situation perfectly when he said:
“I think it would have been helpful to have that white paper two years ago. You would have thought they’d have had that before people voted.”
To go to a European Council meeting with nothing to negotiate on and then to come back and hold a Cabinet summit beggars belief. Talk about putting the cart before the horse. On Friday, the Prime Minister will face her Cabinet. Goodness knows where she will be with Brexit this time next week. More than two years on from the Brexit vote, we are no clearer on what the Government want—two years wasted, with no vision and no plan. The result is that jobs and investment are at risk from lack of a coherent plan. Where is the leadership? Where is the recognition of the responsibility that the Prime Minister has to protect jobs? Mr Speaker, you could not make this up. No wonder businesses, communities and the devolved Administrations are speaking out.
Can the Prime Minister tell the House whether December is her new deal deadline for negotiations? Does she think it is right that NHS England is preparing for no deal and working to secure medicine and equipment because she cannot give simple reassurances? To protect the NHS and to protect jobs and investment, will she commit now to keeping the United Kingdom in the single market and in the customs union to protect our communities?
I set out clearly the progress made in our talks since we triggered article 50. The right hon. Gentleman says it is wrong for the national health service to prepare for no deal. Actually, it is right that contingency arrangements are being put in place across the Government, because the negotiations have not yet been completed. The European Union itself—we agreed with this—is looking to the October deadline. As I said in my statement—if he noticed that paragraph in my statement—I believe it is right that, when this House looks at the details of the withdrawal agreement, it should have sufficient detail about our future relationship with the European Union to be able to make that decision. Finally, he talks about role of the United Kingdom and the importance of jobs in the future. I say very simply to him—I have said it before, but I will continue to repeat it—that if he is interested in jobs in Scotland then he should make sure that Scotland stays in the United Kingdom.
First, I congratulate my right hon. Friend on Royal Assent being granted to the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018, which repeals the European Communities Act 1972 in line with the wishes of the voters in the referendum. This repeal, as my right hon. Friend knows, means no freedom of movement, no customs union, no single market and no European Court of Justice. It is a sovereign Act returning to this country self-government and is the law of the land. There are, however, some disturbing reports in parts of the press that the Government may have in mind proposals for some form of legal re-entry into a form European unity of some description—for example, in the context of the European economic area. This is preposterous, and I simply ask my right hon. Friend to dismiss those reports, as they are completely unfounded and would undermine trust in our democracy if they were true.
In relation to the point my hon. Friend makes about the EEA, I have been clear from the start that that is one of the things the European Commission suggested was on the table. The EEA is not right, because it would not deliver—particularly in the form the European Commission proposed it—on the vote of the referendum and the vote of the British people.
Since the Prime Minister has now wisely accepted that we would be willing to respect the remit of the European Court of Justice when it comes to co-operation on security and EU agencies, will she please explain to the House why she is so opposed in principle to doing the same when it comes to participation in the internal market and the customs union?
I set out in my Mansion House speech that if we are a member of an EU agency that is governed by the European Court of Justice and we continue to have a role in it, that of course has implications for the actions of that agency. That is different from the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice, which will be ended in the United Kingdom.
People are fed up with not just Brexit but fudge, so on Friday the Cabinet must agree and settle its policy on Brexit. May I assure the Prime Minister that if the agreement meets the needs of British business she will command support not just across the Government Benches but across the country at large?
I thank my right hon. Friend for her comments and I assure her that that is exactly what the Cabinet intends to do on Friday.
In managing the internal debate on Brexit in the Government, they have developed a very flexible, elastic approach to the idea of collective Cabinet responsibility, even more than in the Government the Prime Minister and I were a part of. What are the red lines that Ministers cannot now cross for fear of being dismissed for disloyalty?
That is a very interesting contribution from the right hon. Gentleman. I seem to remember when we were in the coalition Government one or two occasions when I woke up as Home Secretary to discover statements he had made from his position, which certainly did not reflect Cabinet collective responsibility.
Will Brexit be recognisable as Brexit?
There has been much jocularity around the term “Brexit means Brexit,” but it does mean Brexit. People want to ensure that we take back control of our borders and our laws, and that we no longer continue to send vast sums of money to the European Union each year. We will be coming out of the common agricultural policy and the common fisheries policy, but we will be ensuring that we are able to trade with the European Union and set an independent trade policy that enables us to negotiate good trade deals around the rest of the world.
This weekend, the Prime Minister criticised the Commission’s approach to security, and I think the Commission is being too rigid, but I have to say to her that her red lines—that she just reaffirmed—on the European Court of Justice and on the charter of fundamental rights are also causing huge problems in getting a security deal. Frankly, from the outside, it look as though no one is listening to the police. Will she now accept that we are running out of time, and will she confirm that she will not stick with those red lines if they get in the way of a security partnership?
I set out our ambition on a security partnership in my Munich speech and negotiations have been started with the European Union on this particular issue. What I want to see in the security partnership for the future is our ability to maintain operational capabilities. That is not something that is being put in jeopardy by the position that the Government are taking on the European Court of Justice. We are working and will work to ensure that those operational capabilities are maintained in the future.
In recognising that this deal will probably not be completed until the very last minute, as we have seen in previous deals, I urge my right hon. Friend not to be too specific in the White Paper and to keep the negotiating hand that she will need in those negotiations, ever mindful of the fact that this country has been incredibly successful in attracting inward investment, because this has been the place to invest. I urge her to have that in her mind for the long-term future of the country.
I thank my right hon. Friend. He may recall that right at the beginning of this process I said that we would not be giving a running commentary on negotiations. It is absolutely right that in a negotiation, there are certain aspects on which it is necessary to ensure that we have flexibility. On his second point, he is absolutely right: we continue to see international companies investing in and creating new jobs in this country. That is because this is a great place to do business and it will continue to be so.
To lose one unworkable customs variant may be regarded as misfortune, but to lose both looks like carelessness. Would it not be far simpler if the Prime Minister just admitted that it is impossible to avoid a hard border in Ireland unless we are in the single market and the customs union?
No, I will not accept that, because it is not the case. We can do it, and we can do it in a variety of ways, but we remain committed to no hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland.
It is very clear that a no-deal Brexit would carry a high risk, both for our economy and our security, so I urge my right hon. Friend to continue to listen to British businesses and other stakeholders and to continue fighting for practical and pragmatic solutions that safeguard jobs and security.
We have indeed been listening to British business. We have also listened to European businesses that are investing here in the United Kingdom. I want to see a good Brexit deal, which not only ensures that we maintain prosperity and jobs here in the UK, but gives us the freedom to be able to extend those trade deals around the world in our interests, and not in the interests of Brussels, as has been the case in the past.
If we are to be legally bound by the withdrawal agreement on the £35 billion to £40 billion and other issues such as the backstop on Northern Ireland, surely we need something more than clarity about our future relationship alongside it. Surely we need the same level of legal certainty, as with the withdrawal agreement before this Parliament voted the money through.
The right hon. Gentleman raises an important point. We have always seen our agreement on the future relationship and the withdrawal agreement running alongside each other. That is why I am clear, as is the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, that when the House considers the withdrawal agreement, it will need to have sufficient detail about the future relationship to be able to judge that. We see the withdrawal agreement and the future relationship as linked. The EU itself has said that nothing is agreed until everything is agreed.
Will my right hon. Friend confirm that at the end of the implementation period the United Kingdom will leave the customs union and will no longer be subject to the common external tariff?
We are going to be leaving the customs union. We have, of course, as my hon. Friend will be well aware, set out the alternative proposal for a backstop in relation to the situation in Northern Ireland and Ireland which would come into play were there any delay in putting our future customs relationship into full operation and into place. I am clear that we should be doing everything we can to ensure that at the end of December 2020 our future relationship, including our future customs relationship, is in place such that the backstop is not necessary.
How likely is it that our customs arrangements will not be in place by the end of the transition period?