House of Commons
Tuesday 17 July 2018
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Business before Questions
University of London Bill [Lords]
Second Reading opposed and deferred until Tuesday 4 September (Standing Order No. 20).
Rotherham Independent Review
That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, That she will be graciously pleased to give directions that there be laid before this House a Return of a Paper, entitled The Rotherham Independent Review: a review into information passed to the Home Office in connection with allegations of Child Sexual Abuse in Rotherham (1998-2005), volumes I and II, dated 17 July 2018.—(Rebecca Harris.)
Oral Answers to Questions
Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy
The Secretary of State was asked—
Offshore Wind Sector
Offshore wind has been a fantastic UK success story. Costs have halved and jobs have been created. In my hon. Friend’s constituency, the port of Lowestoft has been a construction base for the Galloper project. It will shortly become the base for East Anglia ONE’s 25-year operations and maintenance work. We want to build on that success. Our clean growth strategy said that we could see a further 10 GW of new capacity in the 2020s. There is the opportunity for additional deployment if that is cost-effective.
I am grateful to the Secretary of State for that answer and I will be at the opening of the East Anglia One operations and maintenance base on Friday in Lowestoft. Offshore wind, as he said, is bringing significant benefits to coastal communities, though to realise its full potential there is the need to ensure that local people and businesses have every opportunity to take part in the success story. Can he confirm that this will be the Government’s No. 1 priority in the forthcoming sector deal?
My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. I hope that the event later in the week goes well; I am sure it will. He is absolutely right that part of the industrial strategy, in particular the local industrial strategies, is to make sure that the benefits of these investments are available to the local workforce, and I know that he will work very closely with new Anglia local enterprise partnership to ensure that that is the case.
Britain needs about £22 billion a year of investment in clean energy to meet our legally binding EU renewables targets, but my Committee heard that, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance, investment has collapsed over the past two years. Given that the Brexit White Paper says that the Government believe that there is no need for a common rulebook on environmental or climate change rules, what confidence can investors in offshore or onshore wind have that the Government will support low-carbon energy if we leave?
We are very clear in our support for that in the clean growth strategy and, as the hon. Lady can see, in the level of investment that is being made right across the country. It was very clear in the White Paper that followed the Chequers meeting that we had made a commitment to the highest of environmental standards.
I recently visited the Rampion offshore wind farm, which is a stunning achievement, supplying enough power for a third of Sussex’s needs. Is the Secretary of State also looking at how to expand existing wind farms as well as just building new ones, particularly if it can be done in a way that does not have a visual impact from land?
The hon. Gentleman makes an excellent point. There is the opportunity, through the auctions that have been so successful, for expansions to come forward and be proposed, but he should also be aware that, given the leadership that we have in this area, we are also leading in replacing blades and turbines when they come to the ends of their life. That is a very important source of jobs that will be available to the exports markets around the world as well.
Offshore wind has an excellent strike price of £57.50 per megawatt-hour, yet this Government’s dogma will see consumers locked into paying £20 to £40 more per megawatt-hour for new nuclear. If that was not enough of a hit on family budgets, it has been reported that the Government will use the public purse to let Hitachi off the hook for the cost of any safety breaches at its Wylfa nuclear plant. Is it not time that this Tory Government ended their obsession with outdated, expensive and risky nuclear and put the public and consumers first?
It is always necessary to have a diverse source of energy supplies, and nuclear has made and does make a big contribution to that: about 20% of our current electricity comes from nuclear. That is very important for households and businesses, including in Scotland. Every new project has to be assessed as value for money for the taxpayer and consumers and that will continue to be a criterion that will be rigorously imposed.
Renewable Power-Generating Companies
The hon. Gentleman will know, because there are more than 6,000 installations in Manchester alone, that the feed-in tariff scheme has been hugely successful in attracting investment in small-scale renewable electricity, delivering more than 800,000 installations across the country. Partly as a result of that scheme, costs of the technology have dropped dramatically, but also because of the success of the scheme, it became, as he will know, very unaffordable. I am very aware of the need to set out what the next stage of small-scale renewable investment looks like, and I look forward to doing so shortly.
Businesses are very aware of the need too. There are thousands of stakeholders in the renewables industry who need to understand the regulatory framework that they will be operating under when the feed-in tariff ends. The Government promised an update on the approach to small-scale renewables by the end of last year, but we have heard nothing. Will the Minister please tell us today when the feed-in tariff consultation will be published?
I share entirely the hon. Gentleman’s desire for us to get on with it. In fact, I have met many representatives of the sectors. We just have to get the scheme right. We must not create something that causes a bonanza for people who are gaming the system or that puts up bills for consumers. We are very aware of the need to provide certainty for investors, and I look forward to doing so soon.
I can only refer to the comments of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. We want to provide a balanced, secure energy supply that keeps bills down for consumers. That is why we will be investing in nuclear. We have invested in many forms of renewable energy. In fact, we are now leading many parts of the world in that investment, and we will continue to do so.
Solar PV installations this year will be running at just 2% of their peak rate in 2011. This is certainly due to the downgrading and forthcoming closure of the FIT scheme in March 2019. As the Minister has mentioned, a consultation on FITs has now been promised for a year. It was supposed to have been published by this recess; now it is not. Why is the Minister fiddling about the future of FITs while the solar house burns down?
Such alliteration, despite such late nights. The hon. Gentleman will know that we have been really successful in pulling forward a huge amount of solar. In fact, solar has contributed enormously to the energy mix over the past few days, as the hon. Gentleman will know. Much of it is not recorded because it sits behind the meter. However, I acknowledge his point. We intend to bring forward a scheme that works, that does not put up bills for consumers and that acknowledges that much of our renewable future will be subsidy-free.
Taylor Review of Modern Working Practices
In the Government’s response to the review, we committed to take forward recommendations to improve clarity on employment status, boost protections for agency workers and increase state enforcement of basic rights for vulnerable workers. Consultations finished last month, and we have had more than 420 responses. I give huge thanks to all stakeholders who contributed; we will be responding very shortly.
Insecure work weakens our economy. Last week the Office for National Statistics reported falls in manufacturing and construction output. The past few weeks have been dominated by Ministers worrying about their jobs. When will the Government have a functioning industrial strategy that worries about my constituents’ jobs?
I am sure the hon. Gentleman and his constituents will welcome today’s news that we have record employment in the British economy. We totally agree with him that the future of work is good work, which is why we commissioned the Taylor review and want to deal with the challenges of the gig economy. I hope that we will get cross-party support for those vital protections for his constituents and for mine.
Rather than simplify employment law, the Taylor review has recommended introducing yet another category of workers, so we will have three tiers with different employment protections. The EU directive on transparent and predictable working that is currently being considered provides an EU-wide definition of workers, clarity and transparency, and the right to a written statement of terms and conditions on day one of employment. Will the Minister confirm that the Government will support the directive, so that it is adopted before 29 March next year?
One in six workers in our economy is now self-employed. Some are bogusly self-employed—not entitled to the basic protections that we should all expect when we go out to work every day. Matthew Taylor’s review into good work was published more than a year ago. When are the Government going to respond and bring forward legislation to end this abuse?
The hon. Lady, as always, makes a powerful point. We are taking action by prosecuting companies that are not paying the national minimum wage and we are ensuring that those basic rights are enforced. We want to get this right because this legislation will have to last not just for six months or a year, but for many years as our economy develops.
I am sure that the whole House will join me in wishing my hon. Friend the Member for North West Durham (Laura Pidcock) all the best during her maternity leave. As we know, the Taylor review failed to offer much protection for those in the gig economy who are pregnant. The Government’s earlier Deane review on self-employment made recommendations on equalising maternity allowance, but that was two and a half years ago. Do the Government intend to implement those recommendations?
I welcome the hon. Gentleman to his position. I was around his constituency on Saturday helping to launch the RSS Sir David Attenborough—what a fine place he represents. He is absolutely right to focus on these basic maternity protections. This Government are continuing to improve paternity and maternity rights. We want to get that right and that will be part of our response.
University Research: Commercialisation
We want the UK to be the place where innovators, researchers and entrepreneurs turn ideas into reality. Our universities have a strong part to play within this, alongside business. That is why we are funding, through United Kingdom Research and Innovation, support for research collaborations between universities and business. We also have the industrial strategy challenge fund, as well as higher education innovation funding and our Connecting Capability funding. All of those will help universities work together with business.
The research partnership that exists between the University of Tokyo and Imperial College London is an excellent example of how the UK can benefit from sharing innovation and technology. What more will my hon. Friend do to ensure that we continue to strengthen academic networks and communities post Brexit?
My hon. Friend makes a very important point. Our research and innovation collaboration is important in what we do with the EU, but also globally in what we do around the world. That is why UKRI has established a new £110 million fund to explore and develop international partnerships with leading science and innovation regions. We will also bring forward an international science strategy in the autumn.
The Minister knows that many people working in our universities—brilliant scientists and innovators—are not on gold-plated pensions and do not have inherited wealth, like some of his hon. Friends. Will he look at universities in the United States, such as Cornell University, which have different ways of paying and incentivising research on those campuses?
Just focusing on the substance of the hon. Gentleman’s question—[Interruption.] The reason behind UK Research and Innovation, which brings together all the research agencies in the UK, is that, for the first time, we have a strategic brain to direct UK research so that we can allow innovation and ingenuity to flourish in our universities. That is the best way to create returns that benefit the economy but also the best minds in our country.
The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. I am particularly interested in the research that Queen’s University Belfast is doing, particularly around areas of cyber-security. I look forward to visiting it in due course. Obviously, UKRI deals with all of the UK and that university will benefit from grants from UKRI too.
British Motor Sector
On 25 June, I met Unite the union to discuss its views on how Government can best support the UK automotive sector. I met Tony Burke and representatives from the Jaguar Land Rover, Toyota and GKN unions. The Secretary of State and I also speak to the unions regularly through their membership of the Automotive Council.
I thank the Minister for having that meeting, because under Conservative, Labour and even Lib Dem Ministers, Britain rebuilt its motor industry by working closely with industry and the unions. Unfortunately, more recently, ill-considered lurches in policy by the Department for Transport, which are less like the prosperity agenda and the industrial strategy and more like Soviet 10-year plans, are creating deep uncertainty, especially for the diesel sector, where Britain is a world leader. What will the Minister now be doing with unions and companies to get our motor industry policy, across Government, back on track?
The Government’s “Road to Zero” strategy, which was published last week, made it clear that there is a continuing role for clean diesel vehicles as we reduce carbon dioxide emissions from UK road transport. It has been generally welcomed by the automotive industry.
My right hon. Friend will be very aware of the number of meetings we have with the automotive industry and of how closely we are working with it on the sector deal. The Automotive Council met only in the past couple of weeks, and that was one of the top things on the agenda for discussion.
I hope the hon. Gentleman has read the Chequers agreement and the White Paper. I will be very happy to forward him a copy. It explains how the views and interests of the motor industry are central to how the sector works throughout all countries in the European Union, including us. We will continue in a friction-free way that is very much to the advantage of the automotive industry.
The success of Jaguar Land Rover and the Jaguar plant in my constituency has transformed the lives of thousands in an area of high unemployment. Now JLR is facing the twin challenge of the transition from diesel on the one hand and the threat of Brexit on the other. Does the Minister agree that wide-eyed Brexiteers appear to believe that we can crash out of the European Union with no consequences for jobs, that they are wrong and they are letting down British workers, British industry and Britain?
I hope the hon. Gentleman does not think my eyes are too wide. Despite your efforts last week, Mr Speaker, there seems to be a shortage of Members on both sides of the Chamber who have actually read the White Paper. I would be very happy to give one to him.
Moving to electric vehicles should be transformative for our country and our £77 billion car sector, creating new markets and jobs in manufacturing, services, the supply chain and battery recycling. What are the Government doing? Their Faraday challenge does not cover manufacturing or skills, they have ditched renewable energy investment, delayed the £400 million investment in charging infrastructure and allowed the takeover of GKN’s world-leading battery technology, and yesterday they voted for a customs plan that will sever automotive supply chains, putting more than 800,000 jobs at risk. Is it not the Government’s role to help create high-skilled, high-productivity jobs, not destroy them?
I totally agree with the hon. Lady: it is the Government’s role to do exactly that. That is why we have the Faraday battery challenge, which covers skills, and why the Government are putting so much effort into battery technology and clean technology for this country. I am very proud of that. I have seen skills in the automotive industry when I have visited car factories and the schools around them. The number of apprenticeships shows that the Government are totally committed to skills. We have a very bright future with batteries.
There used to be those who said it is not possible to have protection for minimum-wage workers and lots of jobs. How wrong they are! Today, thanks to a Conservative Government since 2010, we have record employment, and a full-time worker on the minimum wage is now £3,800 better off thanks to the wage legislation we passed and changes to the income tax personal allowance. Since 2015, we have doubled the budget for enforcing the national minimum wage, and last year we identified a record 15.6 million workers who were not being paid properly for low-paid work.
That is absolutely right. Any employer who is not paying the national minimum wage and is breaching the law deserves to be found out and taken to task. That is why HMRC is conducting proactive risk-based analyses, particularly in sectors or areas where there is a high-risk of workers not being paid. In 2016-17, HMRC proactively investigated over 1,400 cases, in which 68,000 workers were being illegally underpaid. That is absolutely outrageous, and penalties have been issued. The work will continue: employers must pay the national minimum and living wage.
That is an excellent point, and it is quite right that small employers who may struggle with some of this are encouraged to do so. We have taken up to £3,000 off their national insurance contributions bill through the employment allowance. We have cut corporation tax from 28% in 2010 to 19% today, and we reduced business rates to the tune of £2.3 billion in the 2017 Budget. All that is going into small employers’ cash flows, so they can pay their workers what they deserve.
The latest figures show that weekly wages in Mansfield are notably—several hundred pounds a week—lower than the national average. Projects such as the Heathrow logistics hub could provide huge opportunities for my constituents, but what support are the Government offering to help low-wage areas such as Mansfield and Warsop attract such high-skill and well-paid jobs?
I commend my hon. Friend for fighting tirelessly for his constituents. I basically reassure him that, through the industrial strategy—it, of course, sets out our long-term plan to boost productivity and earning power across the country—we are supporting the development of local industrial strategies to drive up productivity, because productivity increases are what drive pay increases.
Given the Court of Appeal’s decision last Friday, will the Government now urgently bring forward legislation to end the uncertainty and to enshrine the right of all workers on all shifts to the national minimum wage, including for careworkers’ sleep-ins?
The hon. Lady makes a powerful point. I know from my own constituents the difficulty that the original decision has provided both for employers and for workers. I am afraid that I cannot answer her question from the Dispatch Box, but I will take it away and write to her.
Not only is it true that the number of people on zero-hours contracts is rising at a very high rate, but the Government do not seem to think that it is anything to do with them. There are close on 1 million people on zero-hours contracts—there are 2,000 or 3,000 on one pit site in Shirebrook near Mansfield in my area—and the Government sit idly by. It is only when they talk about the golden future for workers and get stuck in with getting rid of zero-hours contracts that we will believe a word they say.
I am afraid the hon. Gentleman, despite the rhetoric, is just wrong. I have visited some of the pit areas, and one of the saddest things I ever saw was a former pit engineer who, because of the appalling transport links left as a terrible legacy to the pit areas, was unable to get out of the area and find work. [Interruption.] If he would just listen for one second, he would know that many people on zero-hours contracts actually choose that level of flexibility. [Interruption.] Well, they do, and the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central (Chi Onwurah) should talk to her constituents and find out. However, he is absolutely right that the thing we need to do—[Interruption.] Blimey, you must be hell to live with. [Interruption.] He must be hell to live with; not you, Mr Speaker, clearly. The hon. Gentleman must be hell to live with. He will know that this Government are determined to drive up wages and standards for working people, because we, not the north London intelligentsia, are the party of working people.
The lowest-paid workers are young workers, who are not entitled even to the Government’s pretendy living wage. A 17-year-old is entitled to £3.63 an hour less than a 25-year-old starting on the same day in the same job. When will this Government end the scandal of state-sponsored age discrimination?
My understanding is that there have always been differentials for different age groups. We will continue to review this because we are the party that nationally—right across the UK—wants to make sure that productivity and wages increase, rather than using the rhetoric we hear from other Members.
Blimey, Mr Speaker, I am getting through them today.
As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State laid out at the northern powerhouse business summit, the industrial strategy is encouraging innovation across the UK, developing those high-quality jobs and wages we all campaign for. Sector deals are about building long-term partnerships and businesses, and the grand challenges in areas such as clean growth will equip the UK to seize opportunities and be a world leader in the industries of the future.
One of the biggest challenges we face is the STEM skills gap, something that I repeatedly mention in this place, given that Wiltshire is a hub of engineering design and technology. What work is my right hon. Friend doing with the Department for Education to ensure that we are developing the skills needed by businesses?
I thank my hon. Friend and neighbour for the work that she has successfully done in her constituency promoting the importance of STEM skills. We are working with the Department for Education to grow STEM skills in the UK through initiatives such as T-levels, by investing more than £400 million, and I am particularly keen that that work focuses on harnessing the huge potential of women, a group who are very under-represented in the sector. That is why initiatives such as POWERful Women are so important.
The Government’s commitment to creating a globally competitive technical education system must be applauded, and I hope that they will draw on best practice from establishments and institutions in my constituency, such as York College and Askham Bryan College. Can the Minister update me on discussions she is having directly with businesses about the creation of new institutes of technology, and will she consider rolling them out as quickly as possible?
My hon. Friend is right: these have to be a collaboration between the Government, business and local decision makers. We will announce in the autumn which institutions will make up the country-wide network, supported by £170 million of funding for the institutes of technology. As we set out in May, the first pupils will sit the first of the new T-levels in September 2020.
One of the real challenges for the Government’s industrial strategy is how to ensure that investment is rolled out across all the regions and nations of the UK. How, practically, will the industrial strategy ensure that that happens—in particular, in regions that have failed to get the investment they deserve such as the east midlands?
That is an excellent question, and the proof of all this will be taking our grand aspirations for the UK and making them work locally. I am pleased to tell the hon. Gentleman that we have fantastic local areas, often working cross-party—I am thinking particularly of Teesside and the west midlands—[Interruption.] The east midlands; thank you. We have really engaged local leaders and decision makers in pulling that investment through and developing their own local industrial strategies.
Northern Ireland has an excellent construction industry. Unfortunately, it has been difficult over the past number of years because of the lack of the Northern Ireland Assembly and decision making. Can the Minister outline what discussions have taken place between her Department and Northern Ireland to ensure that Northern Ireland benefits from the new construction sector deal?
We talk regularly with representatives from Northern Ireland, which is—as the hon. Lady will know—a vital part of the UK. The sector deal that we have done with the construction sector—more than half a billion pounds set out between the Government and industry to drive up the productivity of that sector—of course applies to Northern Ireland. We look forward to seeing productivity increase across the UK.
The space sector will play an important role in achieving the aims of the industrial strategy. Will my right hon. Friend the Minister join me in welcoming the agreement signed by Virgin Orbit with Spaceport Cornwall at Farnborough air show yesterday, and will she ensure that the Government continue to work with Spaceport Cornwall to make sure that we have horizontal satellite launch in this country as soon as possible?
Unlike the Minister for Universities, Science, Research and Innovation, I was unable to enjoy the announcement at Farnborough yesterday, but I agree with my hon. Friend that it is a fantastic announcement. He and Cornwall County Council should celebrate it, and I look forward to visiting Cornwall on Friday, where this topic and many other industries will be addressed.
One of the challenges but also opportunities for the Government’s industrial strategy is working with the devolved Administrations. Can the Minister set out what discussions she has had with the Welsh Government to ensure that the long-term industrial strategy supports industries such as Ford in Bridgend, which employs many hundreds of workers in my constituency?
Again, that is an excellent point, demonstrating that we are so much stronger when we work together. We all, including my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, speak to representatives of the devolved Administration on issues such as the auto sector deal and the nuclear sector deal, which was very much a joint effort.
Industrial Strategy: Scotland
I am pleased to assure my hon. Friend that our modern industrial strategy continues to deliver strongly for Scotland. The progress in negotiations for a growth deal with Ayrshire demonstrates our commitment to regional growth. Investment in Scotland through the industrial strategy challenge fund includes last month’s £13 million for a medicines manufacturing innovation centre in Renfrewshire.
I thank the Minister for that reply. In November 2017, the Secretary of State announced a review into how Scotland’s two Governments can collaborate better on business support. Will he update the House on the progress of that review, and will he reassure me that he will strive to ensure that the industrial strategy and the Scottish Government’s business support programmes complement, rather than compete, with each other?
I am very pleased to reassure my hon. Friend, who works so hard on this subject, that we continue to work closely with the Scottish Government on many industrial strategy priorities, including our support for innovation and business productivity. Regarding the review, work is under way across government to determine its scope. Clearly, our partnership with the Scottish Government will be essential as that progresses.
Scrapped subsidies for renewables, failure to support the oil and gas sector in its time of need, betrayal over the pledge to invest £1 billion in new carbon capture in Peterhead—now, the Government are seemingly poised to splash £15 billion more of taxpayers’ cash on outdated nuclear technology at Hitachi’s Wylfa plant. When will we get an industrial strategy that actually works for Scotland?
That is not the picture of the oil and gas industry that I know following a visit to Aberdeen, where I saw more investment, more Government support and more support in the area for this Government’s industrial strategy. I am a great admirer of the hon. Gentleman normally, but I think he must have read the wrong script for this question.
Small Business Sector
Corporation tax rates will be cut from 19% to 17% in 2020. We have doubled the annual allowance for people investing in knowledge-intensive companies through the enterprise investment scheme, and we are investing over £26 million through Be the Business. The Government’s British Business Bank is supporting over 70,000 smaller businesses to access £4.6 billion of finance.
Thirty-three jobs have been created and supported in my constituency through the small business loans platform, Funding Circle. What more can we do to encourage small businesses, particularly those that are female-owned, to look at wider ranges of finance options to help them to grow?
We want to ensure that all businesses get to know how to use the finance they need, including our 1.2 million women-owned businesses. Alongside the online finance finder and the business bank’s finance guide, the business bank is working with partners to understand the representation of women in venture capital firms.
I thank my hon. Friend for that question. Some people would argue that Ministers engage with the Treasury too often on many matters, but we engage with them regularly on this matter. The Chancellor has been clear that we need to find a better way to tax the digital economy. We are making progress on that before considering the implications for the wider tax system, including business rates.
I thank my hon. Friend for all the work he has done for Torbay businesses. I understand that the Under-Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Rossendale and Darwen (Jake Berry), who has responsibility for local growth, recently had a positive meeting with him and representatives from Torbay to discuss their proposals for local economic growth. I encourage Torbay to continue to work with local partners as it develops its plans, including the Heart of the South West local enterprise partnership, which will play a central role in the local industrial strategy for the area.
Evidence to the Work and Pensions Committee on the operation of the minimum income floor for small businesses under universal credit stated that the percentage of small businesses surviving the first 15 months would fall from 70% to less than 20%. What representations has the Department had with the Department for Work and Pensions to support the growth of enterprise and small businesses?
We have many and regular meetings at all levels with the Department for Work and Pensions on that subject, but the hon. Lady is right: starting small businesses is very difficult and it always has been. Some of them survive and some do not, and some go on to be extremely successful larger businesses. She is right to be concerned about the amount of support that government, local and national, give them, and I can assure her that it is at the top of our agenda.
There may be a lot of discussion between the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and the Treasury, but the reality is that there is no action on business rates. Our retail sector is closing down and 200,000 businesses have been taken to the magistrates court for non-payment, so when will we have a review of business rates and when will we see change?
The Scottish Government Budget provided £96 million to deliver the most attractive business rates package in the UK. How long do firms and entrepreneurs have to wait till the UK Government use their industrial strategy, put their money where their mouth is and follow Scotland’s lead?
The UK Government really do not need to take very many lessons from Scotland on how to help businesses with business rates and every other form of business support. Actually, the working relationship between the two Governments is pretty good and we aim to provide a good business environment for all businesses on both sides of the border.
UK Science Base: Funding
The principal research funding route is through UK Research and Innovation, which in 2018 alone accounts for over £6 billion of investment in research and innovation. I am proud that the Conservative Government have overseen the largest increase in scientific research and development funding that we have ever seen in the UK. We are investing an additional £7 billion in R&D by 2022, as a first step in delivering our ambition of increasing the UK’s R&D spend to 2.4% of GDP.
As a former shadow Science Minister, I am very conscious of the increases in funding, particularly in cash terms, but I am also acutely conscious that it is not just cash but the availability of talent that matters when it comes to science, innovation and the industrial base. Given the recent concerns around Brexit and everything else, will the Minister reassure me that the availability of highly talented scientists will still be a priority for this Government?
The increase in funding is actually in real terms, but my hon. Friend is absolutely right: to succeed here, we have to be open to ideas and open to talent. He will have seen the recent relaxation in the tier 5 visa restrictions for scientists. We are also investing £900 million in UKRI’s flagship future leadership fellowships and a further £350 million for the national academies to expand their prestigious fellowships. When it comes to science, innovation and research, we are open for business.
I am sure that the Minister saw the recent report from the Office for Life Sciences, which showed that R&D investment in the pharmaceutical sector fell from £4.9 billion per annum in 2011 to £4.1 billion in 2016—a decline of £800 million per annum. To what does he attribute that, and given that life sciences are so important, what does he plan to do about it?
I am aware that everyone in the life sciences sector has welcomed the life sciences sector deal. As part of our work to reach 2.4% of our GDP being invested in scientific research by 2027, we will be working with the pharmaceutical industry along with other industries to increase their research investment in the UK.
As far as the Asda-Sainsbury’s merger is concerned, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has been in close contact with the chief executives of both organisations. They have confirmed that there are no planned store closures as a result of the merger.
Asda and Sainsbury’s combined will have a workforce of 330,000 people. Will the Secretary of State provide any assurance to these workers today that the Government will do everything in their power to stop any job losses or any cuts to pay and conditions? Is this a supermarket deal for workers and customers, or is it one for private profiteer shareholders?
The hon. Gentleman will be aware that the merger is a matter for the companies themselves. They have, however, given an assurance that there are no planned closures and confirmed that Asda will continue to be run from Leeds with its own chief executive officer. The Competition and Markets Authority is looking at other aspects of the merger.
The potential impact on suppliers and the supply chain is a very valid concern, given the market power that the combined entity will have, which is why my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State wrote to the CMA asking it to look at the impact on the supply chain as part of its ongoing investigation.
Leaving the EU: Services Sector
The Government are seeking a comprehensive deal on services that will continue to allow our thriving services sector to trade with the rest of the EU, including, for example, through the mutual recognition of professional qualifications and a new economic and regulatory arrangement on financial services.
The City of London Corporation said of the Brexit White Paper
“the financial and related…services sector will be less able to create jobs, generate tax and support growth”
across the wider economy. What discussions did the Government have with the services sector before the Chequers deal was signed off?
I and our colleagues in the Treasury have constant discussions with the services sector. It is important that our distinctive financial services sector not be subject to a set of rules in the future that might be very much against its interests. Everyone who knows the City needs to recognise that the flexibility and distinctiveness of our approach must continue.
Airbus, Jaguar Land Rover, BMW, Siemens—just a few of the businesses that have recently spoken out about the Government’s handling of Brexit. They alone provide thousands of jobs and significant investment in the UK, but the Government’s chaos is putting this in jeopardy. The Secretary of State himself was forced to rebuke the flagrant dismissal of his own Front-Bench colleagues, stating that big employers were entitled to be listened to with respect. Would he say that he has now listened to the concerns of business with respect?
The hon. Lady is absolutely right. Those businesses did speak out. Since the publication of the White Paper, they have also recognised that the zero-friction proposal made in it merits support and they have committed to advocating for it across the rest of the EU, as I hope that she will.
Well, the CBI and the British Chambers of Commerce have both said they are no clearer on the Government’s negotiating position in several key areas, and last night business leaders are reported to have warned the Prime Minister that her customs legislation was not fit for purpose, but the Government pressed ahead, even accepting amendments that their own colleagues state fundamentally undermine the Chequers proposal, and wrecked it, caving in to the hard, no deal Brexiteers. When exactly will the Secretary of State’s Government start paying more than lip service to the concerns of business?
The hon. Lady is wrong. All the organisations she mentioned have given the White Paper and the Chequers proposals a warm welcome. In the Prime Minister’s Mansion House speech, we committed to minimising frictions at the border. The proposal now is to have zero friction at the border. That is strongly in the interests of business and allows our successful supply chains to continue to prosper. We need the Opposition to recognise the national interest in having a good deal. Almost everyone in the country wants a good deal negotiated between Britain and the EU. Rather than edging for difference and trying to make political points, she should get behind this excellent suggestion for the country.
The hon. Lady will know through her long and distinguished service in various union careers that the challenge of ensuring that all workers, whether employees, workers or self-employed, receive the rights and protections they are entitled to without having to fight for them is at the heart of the Taylor review. I hope that she and her colleagues will welcome the recommendations made.
Like my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds West (Rachel Reeves), I want to draw the Minister’s attention to the plight of many self-employed workers in today’s modern workforce. More and more people are classed as self-employed, but they have no protection rights. They have no redundancy rights, no pension protections, no sick pay, no holiday pay and no parental leave pay. Why do the Government believe that self-employed people do not deserve the same entitlements as employees?
I think the hon. Lady probably knows that the Government do not believe that. However, she has identified the real challenge that is out there in the workplace. It is not always clear what status an employee has, and that is something that we must clarify. One of the fundamental points in the Taylor review related to employment status and access to statutory employment rights. I am not ruling out being able to do more for self-employed workers, but at the heart of the review is the need to understand the definitions involved, and to ensure that people in those categories are given the rights and protections that they deserve and for which the hon. Lady and I have campaigned.
Companies such as Uber and Pimlico Plumbers wrongly categorise their workforces as self-employed in order to deny them basic rights such as holiday pay and even the national minimum wage. I have heard what the Minister has had to say today, but when will the Government finally clamp down on false self-employment and exploitative practices?
The hon. Lady will know that we have already made progress. Up to 300,000 workers who are entitled to payslips will now receive them, all workers are given a statement of their terms and conditions from day one, and 1.2 million agency workers are given a breakdown showing who pays them. We know that we must do more, but we want to respond carefully to the hundreds of responses to the Taylor review consultation that we have received, so that we can make the necessary changes and ensure that those practices are stamped out.
Facilitated Customs Arrangement
The proposed arrangement is a significant advance on the Mansion House speech. Instead of just minimising frictions at the border, it provides for zero frictions. That has been welcomed by businesses generally, including, at the Farnborough air show yesterday, Boeing, which is of course an important investor in the hon. Lady’s city.
I thank the Secretary of State for his answer, but I am somewhat surprised. The Government’s White Paper tells us that the facilitated customs arrangement is designed to
“preserve frictionless trade for the majority of UK goods trade, and reduce frictions for UK exporters and importers.”
Will the Minister please tell us which goods will be excluded by the arrangement, and what level of friction business can continue to expect?
We are very clear about the fact that, as has been recognised by businesses up and down the country, the proposal provides for zero frictions at the border. That is very important for advanced manufacturing, which is itself very important in the city that the hon. Lady represents.
Eight months ago I told the House that the aim of our industrial strategy was to create prosperous communities throughout the country, and since our last questions session we have implemented that strategy across the United Kingdom.
Last month, at the international business festival in Liverpool, we announced £1.3 billion of investment in the next generation of research and innovation talent. I travelled to Trawsfynydd, in north Wales, to launch the nuclear sector deal, which will drive down energy costs for consumers. In Newcastle, as part of the Great Exhibition of the North, we launched our construction sector deal, aiming to cut build time by 50%. At the same time, the Under-Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Rossendale and Darwen (Jake Berry) was in Grimsby, helping to unveil stage 1 of a landmark town deal.
Just yesterday I was at the Farnborough air show, where the Prime Minister announced £343 million of investment in civil aerospace, and we announced a new era of space flights in the UK, with a vertical satellite launch site at Sutherland and support for the development of horizontal launch sites at Newquay, Snowdonia and Prestwick.
Businesses in my constituency say that they need exactly the same regulations as those that apply in the European Union so that they can continue to compete with competitors for EU custom. What is the Department doing to ensure that, not just now but in the future, there will be no regulatory divergence and no undercutting of British firms?
A big part of the White Paper is the commitment to a common rulebook. Our sophisticated supply chains allow goods to be sold throughout the European Union, and businesses have made it clear that they want to continue to do that after Brexit, which is why they have welcomed the White Paper so warmly.
I have met my hon. Friend to discuss his Bill, and we fully understand that the practice of retention has caused problems for the construction industry supply chain. We are fully committed to tackling the issue, but any action we take needs to be robust, proportionate and evidence-based. We have listened and consulted, and we will shortly be publishing the response to a public consultation considering several options including a retention deposit scheme.
UK steelmakers are paying up to 50% more for their electricity than their European counterparts, which is reducing their competitiveness on the global stage. Ofgem’s targeted charging review is set to exacerbate the situation. What representation has the Minister made to Ofgem regarding its review and the effect of that review on both the steel sector and energy-intensive industries in the UK?
We meet Ofgem very regularly to discuss this and other matters, and we are very aware of the situation. As the hon. Lady knows, I have met many companies in the steel industry and discussed this, and it is very much part of our discussions with Ofgem and others.
I think most people in this country want to have an agreement that means that we do not have checks and bureaucracy at the border and that we can continue the success of our businesses. Part of the negotiation that will take place during the summer is to make sure we can deliver that, and I am sure most Members of this House wish the Prime Minister success in that.
We have been very clear in commissioning the Matthew Taylor report; we have been in advance of any other country in the world in looking to make sure that as the economy changes we preserve the protections we have always insisted on for workers, and the hon. Lady should welcome that.
Like me, my hon. Friend has a rural constituency, and many of us live off-grid and are at the mercy of these rises. We know that the market for heating oil does function: it has been reviewed and is considered to be competitive. But my hon. Friend will know that I have also set out an aim that we want to get all new properties built in areas off-grid off fossil-fuel forms of heating by 2025, as that is not only costly but very carbon-producing.
The hon. Lady makes an excellent point, and I would be happy to meet her to discuss this. I am thinking back to the days when we used to go out and try to sell goods from various catalogues and I used to collect the money. That was exploitative then, and I suspect that it is exploitative now. Perhaps she and I should meet; I would be happy to discuss the matter.
I can assure the hon. Gentleman that we are having regular meetings with all the business representative bodies and the Department for Education to ensure that levy funds are spent properly, for the purpose for which they are meant and in local areas by the companies that pay the levy.
The Secretary of State referred earlier to the visit of his colleague, the Under-Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Rossendale and Darwen (Jake Berry), to north-east Lincolnshire to sign the Greater Grimsby town deal, which is very welcome and I thank him for his support in achieving that. One of the things that his colleague will have seen is the great opportunity to develop trade through the Humber ports. The Humber local enterprise partnership, the local authority, the Hull and Humber chamber of commerce and local businesses have been working towards the possibility of free port status, post Brexit. Can the Minister assure them that nothing that comes out of the negotiations will prevent that from happening?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his question, and I am sorry that I was unable to be in Grimsby. I could not be in Newcastle and Grimsby on the same morning, but that does not remove my commitment to visit Cleethorpes and Grimsby, and perhaps the free port proposal is one of the things that we could discuss when I do so.
I pay tribute to the hon. Lady and other Members who have worked closely with the development corporation. The discussions have been very positive. They have not concluded yet, but I think everyone recognises that there has been great progress and that there is a very good future for that site.
The Stirling city region deal is the perfect opportunity for the industrial strategy to deliver for Scotland. Will Ministers meet me to discuss what resources could be diverted from Victoria Street to Stirling to support the industrial strategy’s execution?
Many small care agencies face bankruptcy in the light of the Treasury advice on the way in which sleep-ins are paid, which has now been changed by the courts. The Minister for Energy and Clean Growth, the right hon. Member for Devizes (Claire Perry), did not seem to know too much about this, but may I urge her to avail herself of the facts urgently, because many small agencies will go bust if we do not get this right?
I want to reassure the hon. Gentleman; he is absolutely right. I have had strong representations and visits about this issue in my own constituency. My reluctance to comment on it at the Dispatch Box is because it is legally incredibly complicated, as he knows, and we have just had the freshest possible news about the judgment. We need to take that away, and we will comment on it shortly. I would be very happy to work closely with him on this issue.
Two weeks ago, I and colleagues from across the House, along with hundreds of others, attended a poignant service of remembrance at the Piper Alpha memorial in Aberdeen to mark 30 years since the worst tragedy in offshore oil and gas production. That tragedy claimed 167 lives, and many of those people were from Aberdeenshire. What are the Government doing, along with the industry, to ensure that UK oil and gas remains the world leader in health and safety practices offshore, so that we can avoid another tragedy such as this?
Thirty years seems like a long time ago, but this is still the freshest possible knowledge for many people in my hon. Friend’s constituency: 167 men, many from a tight area in the north-east of Scotland, perished in the worst offshore disaster we have ever had in the history of our industry. Nothing will ever bring them back, but it was the findings of the Cullen inquiry that drove the changes that have made the UK a world leader in health and safety, and I want to pay tribute to our colleagues in the Health and Safety Executive, because they continue to focus on safety first when it comes to exploiting the resources in the North sea.
To avoid double-charging on battery installations, the Government have pledged to amend the Electricity Act 1989 when parliamentary time permits. Instead of a two-day holiday next week, is that change something that the Government could start to look at?
Will the Minister confirm support for the Civil Nuclear Police Federation in its meeting this summer with his Cabinet colleagues over the proposals to reduce retirement and pension ages for armed officers from 67 to 68 down to 60 to match those of the police?
I can confirm that I have been in discussions with the CNPF. I have met the chief constable and the chairman, and I visited the civil nuclear police on site at Sellafield. I am well aware of the issue, and I am in discussions with colleagues at the Treasury and elsewhere.
I always encourage people who are unsuccessful in substantive questions to put a topical if they so wish. It is sometimes difficult to attract their attention if they are busily studying their electronic devices, but if the hon. Member for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr (Jonathan Edwards) wishes to participate, now is his opportunity.
May I urge the Secretary of State to visit West Yorkshire to talk to our highly successful textile entrepreneurs? They are not quite gold-plated, but they are not daft and they want to know about frictionless trade. They need to be persuaded, because they do not believe that it is possible after Brexit.
I am always delighted to go to Yorkshire and to meet industries, including the textiles industry. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will join me so that we can go through the proposals in the White Paper, and the entrepreneurs will see that they will be able to continue to trade free of frictions.
Prestwick, with its clear weather, transport links and aerospace park, is one of the frontrunners to be a horizontal-launch spaceport. In 2016, the then Transport Minister said that the Government would no longer be picking spaceport sites, but the narrative around the current grant process seems to be reversing that. Will the Business Secretary clarify who will choose where launch facilities are developed: the space industry or the Government?
I am surprised that the hon. Lady has not welcomed the fact that the first commercial rocket site in Europe will be in Sutherland in the north of Scotland. We are keen to bring the next wave of innovation, which is horizontal launch, and it is the UK Space Agency, which brings together the expertise that is required, that will advise on the right location for it.
Electoral Commission Investigation: Vote Leave
I am proud to say—[Interruption.] Is there something happening as I begin my words, Mr Speaker?
Let us take that and work with it.
I am proud to say that the UK has a clear and robust electoral system, and we should all be proud of the democracy in which we live and work. I place on the record my thanks to all those involved in the electoral community, which works hard at every poll to deliver it within the law such that we can be proud of our democracy.
The Electoral Commission is the independent body that oversees the conduct of elections and referendums and regulates political finance. The commission regularly reports on the running of elections and referendums and conducts thorough investigations into allegations that rules have been breached. Electoral law exists to ensure fair campaigning, and the commission has determined that those rules have been broken. Both Vote Leave and BeLeave have been fined and referred to the police, and it would not be appropriate for the Government to comment on ongoing police investigations.
That electoral rules have been breached is rightly a cause for concern, but that does not mean that the rules themselves were flawed. The Government will continue to work closely with the Electoral Commission, along with many other stakeholders in the electoral system, to protect the integrity, security and effectiveness of referendums and elections. Let me make it clear for the record that we will continue to implement the referendum’s result and to make a success of it.
The findings of the Electoral Commission are shocking, and Vote Leave’s actions are an affront to our democracy and to the fundamental British value of fair play. The commission’s legal counsel described Vote Leave’s behaviour as follows:
“Vote Leave has resisted our investigation from the start, including contesting our right as the statutory regulator to open the investigation. It has refused to cooperate, refused our requests to put forward a representative for interview, and forced us to use our legal powers to compel it to provide evidence.”
Who do these people think they are? They think they are above the law.
With new facts arising every week, it is well known that there will be no extra £350 million a week for the NHS, and so on. We know Vote Leave’s claims turned out to be a fantasy, but we now know it cheated, too, and it is official. Given that there was a four percentage point gap between leave and remain, and given that Vote Leave overspent by just under 8%, does the Minister agree that we cannot say with confidence that this foul play did not impact on the result?
Does the Minister believe that Vote Leave acted in contravention of natural justice and of our democracy in acting in such an obstructive way? What urgent legislation will the Government bring forward to address the Electoral Commission’s serious concerns about the enforcement regime for electoral law, which it has raised today?
And who was at the scene of these crimes? Vote Leave was co-led by the current Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, who co-convened its campaign committee. Where is he? Why is he not here? That committee was charged with overseeing the implementation of a framework that included the way in which fundraising was conducted and donations collected. He, along with the former Foreign Secretary, the right hon. Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip (Boris Johnson), was part of a core group of the committee who met on a daily basis to ensure the campaign was on track. As such, either the Environment Secretary knew what was going on, which is a very serious matter, or, if he did not, how can we have any confidence that he is capable of overseeing his Department? What did he know? The International Trade Secretary, the Transport Secretary and the Brexit Secretary also sat on that committee. What did they know about what was going on?
In short, members of the Cabinet sat in an organisation that has been found to have flouted our democracy. Does all that not demonstrate that we need a full, urgent public inquiry into the leave campaign, given that it calls into question the legitimacy of the entire Brexit process that is preoccupying this House?
What this report demonstrates is that we have an electoral regulator that operates to rules that Parliament has set and that has found people in contravention of those rules. The hon. Gentleman asks a number of questions that go severely away from the report and, just to be clear, the report—I am reading from the report’s front page—is
“of an investigation in respect of Vote Leave Limited, Mr Darren Grimes, BeLeave, Veterans for Britain”.
The report is not in respect of a number of others raised by the hon. Gentleman, and I will therefore not enter into those questions. [Interruption.] I simply will not enter into discussion of other named individuals, nor will I enter into discussion of ongoing investigations, whether by the police or by the courts. [Hon. Members: “Why not?”] Do we really need to begin by asking ourselves why the Government should not interfere in independent investigations and police examinations? I cannot believe that the Labour party needs the answer to that question so early in the afternoon.
As I said in my earlier remarks, we are getting on with delivering the result of the referendum. We have very clearly set out why we think that is the right thing to do, and it is fundamentally because we believe in the people’s ability to make a choice. That is why we respect the referendum result. Unfortunately, it is clear that the hon. Gentleman does not believe in the people’s ability to choose, and I think he argues instead that they should be asked again and again. I do not agree with his arguments but, none the less, I am here today to answer questions on this report by an independent regulator—I am happy to do so within my powers.
On a more general point, does my hon. Friend agree that one of the great glories of this sadly now diminished country was our electoral and democratic system? This example today is gross, and I say to her that if we are to retain the integrity and the trust of the voting public, the whole damn thing needs to be blown and started all over again.
I understand the seriousness of that point and the points made earlier by the hon. Member for Streatham (Chuka Umunna), which were similar, but what I would just note is that the rules we are looking at in this report are rules that comprise our democracy. Our democracy comprises having such rules, among some other very important principles. In essence, our democracy is underpinned by the fact that we have such rules. That the rules were broken means that the system is in fact working; that we have a regulator that is able to conduct an investigation is one of the things that marks out the quality of our democracy. That the rules were broken does not actually mean the rules in themselves were flawed. In concluding my answer to my right hon. Friend’s question, let me say that Parliament, over the course of many years, has put in place those rules for referendums and for elections. If I heard him correctly, he asked for a wholesale reform of all of those rules. That is a very large undertaking indeed and it goes wider than the report we have before us today. I note that other investigations are ongoing, such as the Information Commissioner’s, and that ought to be looked at in the round by Parliament.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Streatham (Chuka Umunna) on securing this urgent question and on his introductory remarks. Today’s report from the Electoral Commission is a devastating indictment of the official leave campaign’s conduct during the referendum, which has been found to be based on cheating and possibly lawbreaking. Financial expenditure was deliberately co-ordinated through what now appears to be nothing more than front organisations, and Vote Leave failed to co-operate with the Electoral Commission inquiry. It showed contempt for the law set by this House, which makes a mockery of claims to “take back control” and displays the breathtaking arrogance of people who clearly believed that the law of the land did not apply to them.
We only got to hear about these activities because of the bravery of whistleblowers. What was the response of those involved? They outed one of the whistleblowers as gay, without his permission, and therefore put him and his family at risk. One of the people responsible for this outing was working as a senior adviser in Downing Street. The Prime Minister refused to sack him, so presumably she supports, or at least excuses, these monstrous actions. Will she now, on the back of this report, dismiss him as an adviser?
Of course, as my hon. Friend has mentioned, senior members of the Government were involved in the Vote Leave campaign. Those include the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the recently departed Foreign Secretary, who is uncharacteristically silent today. Will they now come to the House and explain their role in both the initial scandal and the cover-up? If the leaders of the Vote Leave campaign cannot be trusted to abide by the rules of the referendum, how can we trust them to abide by the rules of any future election? Indeed, how can we trust them to conduct their ministerial duties with honour, integrity and honesty? So can the Minister tell us whether those leaders of Vote Leave who are now Ministers or who are former Ministers will be referred to the Cabinet Secretary for investigation as to whether they have broken the ministerial code?
Yet again, we have been confronted this week by the chaos this Government have got themselves and the country into, dumping their own Euro civil war on the rest of us and sowing division throughout. We have Brexit extremists at war with their own Prime Minister, and a Government who at every stage have put party before country. Members in this House and the public are entitled to ask how on earth we got here, yet British politics and the British people deserve better than this. We cannot allow cheating and dishonesty to become accepted norms in our political system, so let me ask the Minister: what is her proposal to bring decent honest politics back to the fore? If this Government have not got any, perhaps it is time they moved aside for a Government who have.
Given that Labour Front Benchers are so committed to propriety, perhaps they should report themselves to the police for their national spending in the 2015 general election, for which the Labour party was fined by the Electoral Commission in October 2016. They are on thin ice if they think they are able to say that this cuts only one way. It does not.
We have in front of us a report of an investigation in respect of named individuals. I have already said that I am not going to comment on ongoing investigations, and that covers several of the points that the hon. Gentleman just raised. I will say again that the Electoral Commission is an independent organisation and can undertake any investigation that it feels is necessary. Indeed, as you know, Mr Speaker, it can report back to this House through your Committee on the Electoral Commission. That is its governance. The point is that we need to be able to say to the public who are watching this debate that we are getting on with delivering the result of the referendum in which they voted. [Interruption.] I can hear some Opposition Members shouting; perhaps it is that faction of the Labour party that believes in having a second referendum, or perhaps it is that faction of the Labour party that believes in not having one, or perhaps it is that faction of the Labour party that does not know what it believes in. What we believe in is that our independent—[Interruption.]
We have an independent electoral regulator and it has done its work. I applaud it for doing its work and I am pleased that we have a regulator that is able to carry out such investigations into our democracy. That is what our democracy comprises—that we have rules that can be investigated is what makes this a democracy. That is a good thing. As I said before, there are questions that arise from this investigation and from others that are still ongoing. Those ought to be looked at in the round in due course. Where appropriate, the Government will of course come back to the House to do that.
This matters. May I respectfully say to the Minister that she should not let the Government’s commitment to delivering on the referendum result obfuscate the real questions that are being raised? This has not come out of the blue; there has been a series of accusations and suggestions, in not only this campaign but others. The protection of the valid confidence that the public need to have in our elections every time is absolutely vital.
My right hon. Friend is right. We should all be in agreement that we should be seeking to protect confidence in our democracy. That is precisely the point. The point is that the regulator has carried out this investigation and we should be able to look at its report and understand what it says. That is today’s job in hand. After that, there may come things to which we need to return as a House, including various aspects of regulation, which would of course be a matter for Parliament. I made the point earlier that the extent of regulation that we apply to our democracy is quite great. It has been put together by Parliament over many decades. As my right hon. Friend says, this does all matter—absolutely. That is why we should all be prepared to look at the report and the other ongoing investigations and look at such things in the round.
The Government are presiding over crisis and chaos as they drag the country towards an exercise in collective self-harm on an unprecedented scale. They are doing that on the back of a campaign that was morally questionable, based as it was on mobilising fear and prejudice, and politically questionable, based as it was on glib half-truths and lies, and we now know that it was a campaign that was organised illegally. The Minister’s responses are woefully inadequate. We need to know whether the Government will draw a line between themselves and the people implicated in this illegality. If they do not do so, they will lose any respect and integrity that they have left. I would like an assurance from the Minister, now, that anyone who was involved in working for Vote Leave, or who was on its board, will cease to hold office in Government or cease to be on the Government payroll.
For the avoidance of doubt, I am not going to make that commitment today, because a number of questions raised in the report are still subject to ongoing investigations. As I have already pointed out, that is in itself one of the important principles of our democracy and of how the regulation works independently of Government. The short answer is that no, I am not going to give such commitments here today.
Order. There is extensive interest in this subject and I have granted the urgent question for the very simple reason that I have judged it to be urgent, so I am keen to accommodate colleagues. I remind the House, though, that there is a statement to follow and that the debate on the first group of new clauses and amendments to the Trade Bill has to conclude by 3.30 pm. There must be some time for debate on those matters; otherwise, it rather obviates the purpose of the remaining stages. I will call some colleagues, but some colleagues may be disappointed. I shall do my best, and I ask colleagues to help each other.
Will my hon. Friend put the synthetic outrage of remain campaigners into some kind of context by reminding the House that many of those same remain supporters in this House tried to change the Electoral Commission’s rules on referendums to enable the then Government to breach the purdah rules? Fortunately, that attempt by that Government was thwarted by this House. Many of those remainers would have liked to have a relaxed purdah arrangement.
My hon. Friend’s point reminds us that, as I said earlier, there are arguments on this issue that cut both ways. He highlights how he sees an example of an infraction in another direction. I simply return to the point that we in the Government are getting on with implementing the result of the referendum. We think that is the correct response to retain the people’s trust in our democracy. As has already been said, that matters.
I do not think there is any moral equivalence between Members in this House attempting to change the law and organisations outside this House breaking it. Today, we found out that Vote Leave did break electoral law. Our democracy is fragile, and we have a responsibility to protect it and not take it for granted. How can we look the next generation in the eye and tell them to have faith in British politics when we know that false claims have been made, that the rules have been broken, that there has been international and foreign interference, and that the legitimacy of the most important vote in a generation has been undermined so profoundly?
The reality is that punishments are not following. We are talking about deliberate cheating and this money going to a firm that used highly sophisticated targeted Facebook advertising. In a quote since removed from the Aggregate IQ website, Vote Leave campaign director Dominic Cummings said:
“We couldn’t have done it without them.”
That is Dominic Cummings, who will not appear before Select Committees, having claimed during the campaign that he wanted to restore the sovereignty of Parliament. He runs away from accountably himself. Consequences must follow. We cannot have confidence that the referendum was secure, and it should be rerun.
I reported the leave campaign’s intentions to both the Electoral Commission and the police two-and-a-half years ago, and four months before the referendum itself. In February 2016, the hon. Member for Wycombe (Mr Baker), who was then a leading figure in the leave campaign, wrote to colleagues saying:
“It is open to the Vote Leave family to create separate legal entities, each of which could spend £700,000: Vote Leave will be able to spend as much money as is necessary to win the referendum.”
The Electoral Commission’s rules are specifically designed to stop this kind of thing. It says that we should
“stop people getting around the spending limits by coordinating several campaigns at the same time.”
We have now established that spending limits were broken by the leave campaign precisely through separate legal entities following a common plan to get around the rules. Why is it that when such intent was reported four months before the referendum, it has taken two-and-a-half years to get to this conclusion? What does it say about the integrity of this result? Is it not ironic that the so-called people’s revolt against the elite was conspiring from the get-go to get around the rules with limitless money from goodness knows what source? Does the Minister not agree that this needs to be fully investigated to cleanse the cloud that has been cast over our democracy by these findings?
It is exactly the case that allegations of impropriety should be investigated. As I have said a number of times, it is that that means we have a robust democracy. I hear the right hon. Gentleman’s story. In part, I think it ends with this investigation. An investigation has been carried out, and it should be welcomed that it has been carried out and that it has found a result. If, on the other hand, his points are about the efficacy of the Electoral Commission—I think he was driving at the fact that it took two and half years—then that is a matter for Parliament. The Electoral Commission is accountable to Parliament through your Committee, Mr Speaker. It is indeed an independent regulator of Government, as it should be, and it is accountable to Parliament for how it conducts investigations and indeed whether it does so quickly enough.
Mr Speaker, it will not have escaped your notice, and I know that it will not have escaped the Minister’s notice, that one of the most respected Members of this House, my right hon. Friend the Member for Mid Sussex (Sir Nicholas Soames), has, in condemning what has occurred in the leave campaign, gone so far as to call for a re-running of the referendum. These are serious matters. They go to the heart of government and, of course, to the heart of democracy and the trust that people must have in the democratic process. There are concerns not only about the overspend, but about the source of the money. The evidence is mounting. It is clearly there that another country—let us be honest, it is Russia—exercised its influence to undermine this country’s democracy and indeed this country’s security as it has a long history of doing. I say to the Minister that this is not a party political matter. It is nothing to do with delivering Brexit; it is about democracy. Can she give us an assurance that this Government will take these very important matters extremely seriously and act now on them?
I absolutely can give the assurance that the Government take these matters extremely seriously. That is the very point here. The very point here is that we have a precious democracy that demands our protection, and that is what we do by having an Electoral Commission, an independent regulator, that can make such investigations, publish them, expose the points of that investigation to scrutiny, and be held accountable in its turn by Parliament. Then it is for Parliament to consider whether, in the round, amendments might need to be made to the rules against which the regulator does that. That is the landscape that we are looking at here.
Vote Leave was a deeply dishonest campaign with deeply dishonest slogans and a cast of right-wingers who were prepared to go to any length to achieve their ideological endgame, and now we know that they cheated and broke the law. Can the Minister confirm whether the right hon. Members for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove) and for Uxbridge and South Ruislip (Boris Johnson) and others involved will be jointly liable for the Vote Leave fine? Can she also confirm that of course this strengthens immeasurably the case for there to be a final say on the deal and a chance to exit from Brexit?
No, I am not in a position to comment on individuals. I have already said that very, very clearly. What I will say again for the benefit of the Liberal Democrat party is that we will be delivering the referendum result and we do not intend to hold a second referendum.
I regret the atmosphere in which this urgent question is taking place. I have just spent nine months sitting on the Independent Commission on Referendums under University College London’s Constitution Unit looking at what is wrong with the rules on referendums, and looking specifically at financing. A member of the Opposition party also sat on that commission. We have looked at the use of public funding, spending limits and transparency, and there is a common concern that our regulation does not fit the purpose that we would like in a modern democracy. May I recommend to my hon. Friend the Minister that she reads this report cover to cover and takes on board our recommendations for new regulations and new legislation to try to improve this area, which, after all, is a very important part of our democracy these days?
We have in our democracy clear rules so that we do not exercise, or see the exercise, of undue influence. For that reason, certainly in the last decade, we have had two elections declared void—in South Thanet and Oldham East and Saddleworth. Can the Minister confirm whether the Government can declare this referendum void on the basis of the evidence that we have been provided with by the Electoral Commission? If not, given that this was an advisory referendum by this Parliament, can she bring forward a vote in this Parliament to declare this referendum void?