House of Commons
Thursday 29 November 2018
The House met at half-past Nine o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Business before Questions
University of London Bill [Lords]
Bill read the Third time and passed, without amendment.
Oral Answers to Questions
Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
The Secretary of State was asked—
Leaving the EU: Farming Policy
The Government’s Agriculture Bill, which is currently going through Parliament, is the first major piece of legislation affecting agriculture since 1947. It provides certainty for farmers through a seven-year transition period and lays the foundations of a new farming policy based on public goods and fairness in the supply chain. At their request, it also includes provisions for Wales and Northern Ireland. This critical piece of legislation will enable us to seize the opportunities to help our farming, horticulture and forestry sectors become more profitable and sustainable.
Many farmers in my constituency are very concerned at the decision of the SNP Scottish Government to opt out of key parts of the Bill. Does my hon. Friend share my concern about the fact that the Scottish Government have not presented alternative proposals, so many farmers may not be sure whether there will be a legislative framework to ensure support for farming after we leave the European Union?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. As he knows, agriculture is devolved. At the request of the Welsh Government there is a schedule containing provisions for Wales, and at the request of the Northern Ireland Administration there is a schedule containing provisions for Northern Ireland. Scotland has yet to decide what it wishes to do. We have maintained an open offer to insert provisions in the Bill at later stages should the Scottish Government wish us to do so. Alternatively, they can legislate through their own Parliament, but they will need some legislation in order to be able to pay their farmers in 2020.
Can the Minister confirm that under a clean, global, free trade Brexit the United Kingdom will be able to protect farmers with tariffs just like every other country, and to provide more help for smaller farmers? Can we have more optimism from the Government, and less “Project Fear” with gumboots on?
As my hon. Friend knows, I have always been very optimistic about the opportunities presented by Brexit. It is important to note that in a no-deal Brexit, the UK would be free to set its own trade policy unilaterally. The options open to us would be to create autonomous tariff rate quotas, tariff rate suspensions or lower-band tariffs on certain goods if we wished to do so, but we would have an independent trade policy in the event of a no-deal Brexit.
Has the Minister had any discussions with the Prime Minister about her withdrawal agreement’s implications for the transport and sale of livestock from Northern Ireland to the rest of this great United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland?
That was not altogether adjacent to an inquiry about an independent farming policy. The hon. Gentleman might more usefully have shoehorned his inquiry into Question 2. Because he is a very public-spirited fellow, I will let him off on this occasion, but he should not repeat his offence.
The withdrawal agreement and the political declaration on a future economic partnership set out the Prime Minister’s and the Government’s approach to trying to deal with issues relating to the Northern Ireland border, and I am sure that we have many days of discussion on those matters to look forward to.
Can my hon. Friend assure me that we will not be replacing one set of bureaucrats with another set of bureaucrats? How can we ensure that the right sort of assistance goes to the less favoured areas that are so important to our countryside?
My right hon. Friend makes a good point, but I can tell him that the Bill has important provisions that will enable us to strike down and improve some retained EU law, particularly in relation to the burden of administration. We are absolutely clear that we want a totally different culture in how we regulate farmers in the future. The Bill also enables us to target support at farmers who are delivering public goods, including those in severely disadvantaged areas.
Trade Agreements: Environmental and Animal Welfare
Ministers and officials from DEFRA regularly meet their counterparts in the Department for International Trade to discuss a wide range of trade issues. The Government are clear that future trade agreements must work for consumers, farmers and businesses in the UK. We will not water down our standards on food safety, animal welfare and environmental protection as part of any future trade deals.
I begin by congratulating DEFRA on the contribution that it has no doubt made to the excellent Government document on the implications of Brexit. In the section on agri-food we see that a no deal could produce a 35% reduction in competitiveness, and even the Prime Minister’s estimates predict a reduction of 7%. So will the Minister confirm today that we will not allow unfair competition from imports from countries that produce to lower standards?
Yes, I can confirm that.
My hon. Friend will be aware of the overwhelming support for a ban on the export of live animals after we leave the European Union, and I know he has great sympathy with that position. Can he confirm that under the terms of the withdrawal agreement that would still be possible?
Yes, and we have a call for evidence on that.
I recently met the lovely children in the reception classes of St John’s infant school in Dewsbury. They have written to the Secretary of State because they have been learning about the poaching of elephants and rhinos and they are really concerned about it. Can the Minister say something today to reassure them so they know we are taking action on this?
It is good to hear that the children at St John’s school are taking a keen interest in this. We are taking strong action through the Ivory Bill, and I congratulate the Environment Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey), on the work she is doing to take that forward.
Will the Minister ensure that under any future trade agreements it is a requirement that food imported into the UK be produced to at least equivalent standards to those required of our domestic producers?
Yes—again, we will ensure that we do not water down those standards. I am sure that later in these questions we will hear from the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, my hon. Friend the Member for Camborne and Redruth (George Eustice), who is doing a tremendous job in taking the Agriculture Bill through the House.
The Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee said in its report on the Agriculture Bill that the Government should put their money where their mouth is and accept an amendment stipulating that food products imported as part of any future trade deal should meet or exceed British standards relating to production, animal welfare and the environment. I have tabled such an amendment; will the Minister undertake to accept it in order to keep Frankenstein foods off the tables of families the length and breadth of these isles?
I know that amendments have been tabled, and they will be properly considered on Report.
The only statutory air quality limit the UK is currently failing to meet is on roadside concentrations of nitrogen dioxide. Members will be aware of our plans to combat air pollution. A £3.5 billion investment has already been set aside, but we are now working with 61 local authorities to tackle their exceedances. I have directed local authorities, including Sheffield, to achieve compliance in the shortest possible time. Some £495 million has been specifically set aside for those councils, but I will take legal action if necessary to make sure that councils do what they need to do.
I thank the Minister for her answer, but she will know that at least 4.5 million children are growing up in areas with unsafe levels of particulate matters, with long-term implications for their health. UNICEF is now calling for the Government to introduce legally binding limits to meet the World Health Organisation recommended limit values for air pollution by 2025. Will Ministers consult UNICEF to discuss how that can be achieved?
The issue of particulate matter has grabbed my attention ever since I became a Minister in this Department. It is soot and dust, in essence, and one of our challenges is that a lot of particulate matter is naturally generated; for example, it is sand or sea salt. There are a number of different issues that we need to tackle, and we will continue to work with local authorities to bring the level of particulate matter down, because the Government are very conscious that we need to make sure that the most vulnerable in society, including children who are still of growing age, get the best possible start in life.
The Minister has acknowledged the challenge Sheffield faces. We have multiple sites where nitrogen dioxide levels exceed legal limits and threaten the health of our people. Sheffield’s council has ambitious and innovative plans to tackle the problem, but its resources have been drained by eight years of deep cuts. Will the Minister commit to provide the funds we need to clean Sheffield’s air, and will she meet me and representatives of the council to discuss our plans?
Sheffield City Council could start by stopping cutting down trees, which is not good for the environment and costs money. However, it is making good progress with its plan, and it is considering introducing a charging clean air zone—of course, it has had the power to do that since 2000. It is being funded by DEFRA to make sure it gets on with its plan—it will be able to bid for further funding, but it is being given the funding it needs to do that.
The Government are rightly tackling air pollution, but the proposed diesel ban is having the unintended consequence that people are hanging on to their older, more polluting diesel vehicles rather than investing in the new, cleaner generation of Euro 6 standard models. Will the Minister commend cities such as Birmingham for proposing a distinction between the newer and older models in their low emissions zones, and will she urge London to do the same?
My right hon. Friend is right. It has been a pleasure to work with Birmingham City Council, which is making reasonable progress on producing its plan. There is no doubt that “dieselgate” had a massive impact on people’s willingness to do what the Government were recommending, so it has not had the intended consequences. We will continue to work with car manufacturers, and the Chancellor has changed vehicle excise duty to ensure that people are incentivised to buy the cleanest possible vehicles.
The burning of biomass makes a major contribution to air pollution. The Government have estimated that 1.7 million lives are lost every year because of the burning of biomass, but they have now stopped making those calculations. Why?
I am not aware of the figure to which the hon. Gentleman has just referred. I am conscious of the impact that burning has, which is why we have a consultation about the domestic burning of household smoky coal, wet wood and similar materials, but I will look carefully into the issue that he has raised.
Pollution is not just a matter for city centres; it is also about major roads. Around the M1 in my constituency, levels of nitrogen dioxide pollution have got so bad that, for the first time ever, the Department for Transport is bringing in variable speed limits just to deal with pollution. It is also looking at installing barriers to absorb NO2. What involvement does the Minister’s Department have in that? Does she think that those measures will be successful, and will she report back to the House on their effectiveness in due course?
The Minister of State, Department for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Hereford and South Herefordshire (Jesse Norman) and I work closely together on this issue. My Department and the Department for Transport have a joint air quality unit, and I am in regular contact with Highways England about its progress on improving air quality on the strategic road network. I welcome the work that it is considering to change speed limits and to install the barriers to which the hon. Gentleman referred.
The Government’s plans to tackle air pollution are unravelling into a shambolic and piecemeal mess. Exposure to fine particulate matter is linked to poor health, including asthma, heart disease, stroke and lung cancer, and new evidence shows impacts on diabetes, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. We must ensure that we have the highest standards of public health, so will the Minister tell us how she will enshrine the World Health Organisation’s limit on fine particulate matter into UK law?
We have already agreed targets that are now in law regarding PM10 and PM2.5, and we are well below those targets. We will continue to work on this. I know that the House is eager to see the outcome of the clean air strategy, which I expect to be published shortly. I can assure the hon. Lady that this issue is close to my heart, especially the question of particulate matter, because I am very conscious of the impact that it can have. However, we need to be careful when we read some of the reports, because there is often a correlation link but not necessarily a causal link, which means that we still need to do research on these matters. I am pleased that the Department of Health and Social Care, through Public Health England, and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs are undertaking that research.
Trade Agreements: Environmental and Animal Welfare
Our current high standards, including on import requirements, will apply when we leave the EU. Some of them, such as the ban on the use of growth-promoting hormones, are already in domestic legislation. Others, such as the ban on chlorine washing of poultry, will be brought on to our statute book through the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018. Countries seeking access to our markets in future will have to abide by our standards.
Ministers are naturally keen to raise welfare standards in this country, and to reduce the use of antibiotics and produce greater and better food than we already have, but if we are undermined by imports, that will put farmers out of business and reduce global animal welfare. Will Ministers therefore accept the amendment that the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee has tabled to ensure that imports are not allowed into this country if they do not meet our standards of production?
As my hon. Friend will be aware, we had a good discussion on these matters in the Bill Committee, and I look forward to discussing his amendment on Report. Our view is that the types of measure that he has outlined would probably not be right, because it is sometimes possible to recognise equivalence, and our standards do not have to be identical in drafting regulations. However, there are a number of other approaches that some countries take, including scrutiny and oversight roles for Parliaments as trade deals are discussed.
I very much support the amendment from the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, and I have also tabled new clause 1 on the same topic. It is estimated that by 2050, antibiotic resistance could cause up to 10 million deaths a year, and we know that 80% of the antibiotics sold in the US are sold for animal use. We heard from the chief veterinary officer yesterday at the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee about what we are doing to reduce antibiotics use here. Will the Minister resist it in US imports too?
The hon. Lady makes an important point. Here in the UK, we have made huge progress in reducing the use of antibiotics. Poultry in particular has seen a 50% reduction in the use of antibiotics. US agriculture remains quite backward and some years behind in these matters, but we continue to work together to try to raise its game and approach.
My hon. Friend’s good will on this issue is recognised, as is my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State’s, but I re-emphasise the seriousness with which we on the Agriculture Bill Committee dealt with this issue. We cannot rely on good will. We need certainty for our food producers across the country on the face of a Bill—it could be the Trade Bill or the Agriculture Bill—that standards will be maintained and that they will not be priced out of the market.
My hon. Friend made his case powerfully in Committee. He will recall that, as a result, I undertook to give this issue further consideration and have further discussion with colleagues in government in time for Report.
The discussion in the Agriculture Bill Committee was very good, but unfortunately the Government chose not to accept our amendments, so I congratulate the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish) and the whole of the Select Committee on tabling theirs. I hope the Minister will confirm today that he will accept that amendment.
As I have explained, I do not believe that that particular amendment is the right way to approach the issue, nor is the Agriculture Bill the right place for such an amendment, as this is a trade issue. Nevertheless, I gave an undertaking to have conversations and discussions with other Departments in time for Report.
Farming: Funding Schemes
Once we leave the common agricultural policy, we will be able to create fairer funding for farmers, with greater freedoms across the four Administrations. On 16 October, the Government announced a review of the intra-UK allocation of domestic farm support funding between 2020 and the end of the Parliament. The review will consider a range of factors that reflect the unique circumstances of each part of the United Kingdom.
I very much welcome the news that we will have fairer funding across all four parts of the UK after we leave the EU. Will the Minister reassure me that this fairer funding will take account of each country’s individual circumstances, particularly the environment, their agriculture and their socioeconomic needs?
I can confirm to my hon. Friend that the review will indeed will consider all those issues—the environment, agriculture and socioeconomic circumstances of each part of the UK. We have a manifesto commitment to keep the agricultural budget the same until 2022 and a commitment to put in place a new funded scheme thereafter.
Will the Government Front-Bench team stop blaming Europe for everything in farming and recognise that it is modern industrial methods of agriculture that are responsible for denuding our country of wildlife and for species going into extinction? That is the problem. We need a funding system that is equitable but deals with that problem.
It is Government policy to support a more sustainable approach to agriculture. The common agricultural policy has failed to do that. The new policy that we have set out in the Agriculture Bill will deliver a fairer, more sustainable and more profitable agriculture for the future.
Since it was established in the Agriculture Bill Committee that further primary legislation is required for direct payments to be made to Scotland and other parts of the United Kingdom, what steps is my hon. Friend taking to ensure that Scotland is in the UK Agriculture Bill and that it conforms with the needs of the National Farmers Union Scotland and my constituents?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. As I said earlier, there is an open offer from the Government to add a schedule for Scotland at a later stage of the Bill’s progress, should Scotland wish us to. This area is devolved to Scotland. The Scottish Government have the power to act in this space and they need to make up their mind and decide what they want to do.
How can the Minister talk about ethical funding when Westminster has stolen £160 million of convergence uplift meant for Scottish farmers? What are the Government doing to replace that up to 2020, and what is going to happen beyond 2020?
As the hon. Gentleman will no doubt be aware, the average receipt for Scottish farmers tends to be higher than in other parts of the UK, because Scottish farmers have larger holdings in more disadvantaged areas. We are having this review precisely to address the importance of fair funding in the future.
Leaving the EU: Fishing Industry
I have regular discussions with my Cabinet colleagues and, indeed, with all Members of the House about the benefits for the UK fishing industry of leaving the common fisheries policy and becoming, once more, an independent coastal state. The Government’s vision for this bright future was set out in the White Paper, “Sustainable Fisheries for Future Generations.”
We all know we cannot trust the Tories with Scotland’s fishing industry. After all, former Prime Ministers Ted Heath, Margaret Thatcher and John Major all sold Scotland’s fishing down the water. Now we know that the current Prime Minister has signed an agreement with the EU to
“build on…existing reciprocal access and quota shares.”
Can the Secretary of State help the House understand how that is in any way taking back control of the waters?
I have enormous affection and respect for the hon. Gentleman, and he makes his case with characteristic fluency, but I fear he has been misled. The truth is that, as an independent coastal state, we will be able to decide who comes into our waters and on what terms. It is perhaps rare for me to quote the French President, Emmanuel Macron—[Interruption.]
Order. Members are chuntering from a sedentary position, but I want to hear the right hon. Gentleman quote the French President.
The soi-disant Jupiterian President was, nevertheless, speechless with rage on Sunday when he discovered that this withdrawal agreement and the future political declaration mean that France will not have access to our waters, save on our terms. His anger should be a cause for celebration on both sides of the House.
Yesterday the Prime Minister told the hon. Member for Moray (Douglas Ross) that, as an independent coastal state, the UK will be able to “negotiate access” to its waters with other countries. Constituents have asked me why, at such a pivotal and crucial time for the fishing industry in Scotland, there are no Scottish Tory constituency MPs in the Secretary of State’s Department in order to be a more effective and balanced Government.
Far be it from me to say but, as someone who was born in Edinburgh and brought up in Aberdeen, and who had the privilege of growing up in a household in which my father ran a fish processing business and his forebears went to sea, I think the interests of the fishing industry are very much at the heart of the Department. I would love to extend an open welcome to my Scottish Conservative colleagues to join the ministerial team but, sadly, the size of our ministerial team is a matter for the Prime Minister, rather than me.
One thing I would say, though, is that, in the consideration of our Bills in Committee, and in the shaping of policy in the interest of rural and coastal Scotland, Scotland’s Conservative MPs have been consistently more effective in delivering more money, more freedom and more rights even than the nicest and friendliest Scottish nationalist, which of course the hon. Gentleman is.
The fishing industry has no stronger friend in this House than my hon. Friend, and she is absolutely right to remind us that fishing will not be bartered away in the event of any final deal. I will make sure that we work with her to ensure that consideration is properly given in Committee to all possible safeguards for our fishing industry.
Can the Secretary of State update the House on how his Department is working with the devolved Administrations to adopt common approaches to fisheries management to preserve UK vessels’ right to fish in the waters around all four home nations?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making that detailed, practical point, and he is absolutely right. Notwithstanding the occasional disagreements on the Floor of the House, I have to say that the Scottish Government Minister responsible for fisheries, Fergus Ewing, has behaved, I think, in a very mature fashion in making sure that UK vessels can have access across the waters of the UK, while, of course, respecting, and indeed enhancing, the devolution settlement.
Regardless of what happens in the coming days and weeks, we are going to become an independent coastal state, like Norway, Iceland and the Faroes. Like them, we will have to come to a fisheries agreement with the EU. Does my right hon. Friend agree that, in the negotiation of that agreement specifically, he and the officials in his Department should take the lead?
Yes, I do. It is vital that we are there getting the best possible deal for this country. I said that my hon. Friend the Member for South East Cornwall (Mrs Murray) was probably the strongest voice for the fishing industry in this House, but there is stiff competition for that role now that my hon. Friend the Member for Banff and Buchan (David Duguid) is here. I look forward to working with him and other colleagues, and those in the Scottish Fishermen’s Federation and elsewhere, who recognise that there is a sea of opportunity for our fishing industry as an independent coastal state.
The Secretary of State is characteristically keen to keep all his Back-Bench colleagues happy, and that will have been noted by the House.
In five weeks, the EU discard ban will kick in. While much attention is on what fishing will look like after Brexit, this poorly implemented discard ban before Brexit risks tying up our fishing fleet, especially mixed fisheries such as those in the south-west. What steps is the Secretary of State taking to ensure that the concerns of the fishing industry are listened to and that this ban does not result in its boats being tied up alongside?
It is not just Government Back Benchers whom I wish to be kind to; it is also Opposition Front Benchers, because the hon. Gentleman raises a very important point. It is the case that the management of the discard ban in the past, and potentially in the future, is a real issue of contention. My hon. Friend the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food has been talking to a number fishing industry representatives to see whether we can make sure that at this December Council we can put in place appropriate mitigation measures. One thing we can be sure of is that as an independent coastal state we can take appropriate conservation measures in a way that does not lead to those who are practising mixed fisheries facing the sorts of problems the hon. Gentleman rightly draws attention to.
Protecting pollinators is a priority for this Government and that is reflected in our 10-year national pollinator strategy for England. Our 2017 review of the strategy has highlighted positive progress and the Government recently announced £50,000 to support large-scale pollinator projects in Devon and, of course, in Hampshire, and £60,000, following petitioning from my hon. Friend the Member for Mansfield (Ben Bradley), to develop pollinator habitat mapping.
Community groups and local schools play an important role in protecting our pollinators. What support can my right hon. Friend give to those groups? Will he join me in congratulating St Albans Church of England Primary School in Havant on its award-winning work in this area?
I absolutely agree; community groups, including our Wildlife Trusts network, do an enormously valuable job in making sure that the habitats that pollinators depend on are kept in good repair. It is also the case that schools across the country are playing an increasingly important role, and next year’s Year of Green Action will give me and my hon. Friend the opportunity to congratulate those schools and those teachers, who are doing so much to remind us of our environmental responsibilities.
The Secretary of State will be aware that lots of small and medium-sized enterprises that produce honey do an awful lot of work to try to protect bees. For example, Tŷ Mêl farm in my constituency does a lot of work on ethical beekeeping and making sure we produce good Welsh honey. What more support can he give small businesses that are not only producing honey, but supporting bees?
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right and I congratulate the business in his constituency on its initiative. From the Welsh valleys to the rolling acres of Hampshire, and indeed the rich heather-strewn hills of Scotland, UK honey is a world-beater, but we must do more to protect our pollinators.
Deposit Return Scheme
The consultation on a deposit return scheme will be published shortly and it will look at the details of how a scheme could work, alongside the other measures to increase recycling rates. We are continuing to work with the devolved Administrations, potentially on a UK scheme.
A recent BBC documentary showed a dead sperm whale with a large amount of plastic waste in its stomach, including four plastic bottles. So given the urgency, and the keen interest that my constituents have in this issue, can the Minister actually confirm a date of the roll-out of a deposit return scheme?
No, I cannot, because we have yet to consult on the scheme. It is important that we give proper consideration not only to the opportunities but to the challenges. The hon. Lady is right to continue to raise the impact of people being careless with litter, which is how plastic often ends up in the marine environment. That is something that everyone in the House wants to prevent.
The Environmental Audit Committee’s report on the Arctic is published today. Because of weather and tides, most of our marine plastic ends up in the Arctic. It is imperative that the deposit return scheme is introduced as soon as possible. Will the Minister confirm that the measures to introduce the DRS will be included in the draft environment Bill when it is published? Or will it be in separate legislation and thereby further delayed?
It really matters that we get the DRS right and that we get the outcomes that we all want to see. It is just a little too early to commit to a certain kind of legislation; we must wait until we have done the consultation.
Given how successful the plastic bag levy has been, reducing the use of plastic bags by 80%, and bearing in mind that the working group report in February this year showed that Germany’s deposit return scheme delivers the recycling of 98% of polyethylene bottles, will the Minister tell us whether we will have a deposit return scheme, as suggested by the evidence, or whether her decision will be determined by the British Soft Drinks Association?
I note that after 13 years of a Labour Government nothing similar was introduced. I have looked into this issue carefully and visited several countries. The thing is, the front end is similar for everybody, but we must get the back-end solution right, because that is what we need to deliver the scheme effectively, rather than just getting headlines.
I remind the House that topical questions are supposed to be significantly briefer.
I am looking forward to addressing the annual conference of the CLA—the Country Land and Business Association—later today, where I will congratulate the association on its fantastic work in environmental enhancement.
Good farming practice depends on multi-year rotations. The existing financial support system, the common agricultural policy, is multi-year and the proposed transition system is multi-year. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that when the Agriculture Bill comes back on Report, it will include a multi-year framework?
I will enlist my hon. Friend’s persuasive powers in making just such a case to the Treasury.
The Government have already set out very clear guidelines as to what needs to be done ahead of no deal. The feedback that we have had already tells us that this is being well received.
I presume that my hon. Friend means roaming applied to mobile telephones, rather than to wild rovers.
I will absolutely do that. I have had a number of fruitful conversations with DCMS and, indeed, rural roaming is a key plank of the CLA’s campaign to improve connectivity in rural areas, which is vital to improving productivity across the field.
Absolutely, which is why we have been pleased to provide Transport for London with funding. The Mayor has received additional funding for certain kinds of buses and other things to do; we just want him to continue to get on with it.
The Government obviously did not agree with every element of the Migration Advisory Committee report. The food industry is the most important manufacturing industry in this country and horticulture is one of our most productive agricultural sectors. It is important that we ensure that these crucial industries have the labour requirements that they need in future.
Illegal waste sites such as the Twyford factory in Stoke-on-Trent pose a huge risk to our environment. Despite the £10 million that was in the Budget, that site is not eligible for that help because it remains in private ownership. Court action has ordered a clearance. The local authority and the fire service want it cleared. Will the Minister meet me and those interested parties so that we can find a way forward so the site can be cleared once and for all?
The hon. Gentleman is a formidable advocate for his constituency and I will make sure that a meeting happens at ministerial level in order to try to ensure that that waste site is tackled.
Certainement. Le Président de la France—
You are not allowed to speak in French.
Sorry. I will translate. The French President is, on this occasion, wrong.
Stunning, absolutely stunning—the articulacy and the accent. What a dramatic performance by the right hon. Gentleman.
I believe that the 13 Scottish Tories have all signed the latest pledge of the Scottish Fishermen’s Federation to reject the Prime Minister’s deal. Will the Secretary of State do the same?
In fact, I was almost as pleased with the right hon. Gentleman’s performance as possibly was the right hon. Gentleman.
No, I am afraid not, Mr Speaker. I thought that it was a hesitant and fumbling schoolboy attempt of the language, but if it brought you pleasure then my day has not been entirely wasted.
The Scottish Fishermen’s Federation is clear that the Government’s approach to safeguarding our fishing stocks, and indeed enhancing opportunities, is one that we wholeheartedly endorse, which is why it is behind the deal that the Prime Minister has secured.
I so enjoyed it, and the right hon. Gentleman knows how much I enjoyed it.
I have a lot of sympathy with what my hon. Friend says. I find the idea of trophy hunting a difficult one to contemplate as anyone’s idea of a wise use of time or resources. However, it is the case that the current regime allows trophies to be imported, provided that there is no impact on the sustainability of species. We keep these rules constantly under review and I am grateful to him, to Members across this House and to non-governmental organisations for keeping a spotlight on the issue because it is one that troubles many of us.
I look forward to welcoming you to Newcastle this evening, Mr Speaker. I know that you, like many of my constituents, will appreciate the gorgeous Northumberland and County Durham countryside that surrounds it. The US countryside is much different, with wheat farms the size of small counties and pig farms the size of small towns. How will the Secretary of State protect our glorious countryside when he expects our farmers to compete with American farming methods post Brexit?
I have to join the hon. Lady in saying that, from Alnwick to Bishop Auckland, the north-east contains—[Interruption.] Okay, from Morpeth to Seahouses—
Berwick to Barnard Castle.
Exactly. There is a whole gazetteer. From Consett to Sedgefield, there are beautiful parts of our country in the north-east. Thanks to the hon. Member for North West Durham (Laura Pidcock), who is enjoying maternity leave at the moment, I had the opportunity to talk to hill farmers in her constituency. I have also received representations from the Members for all the Northumberland constituencies. I am on their side in making sure that we do not dilute our high environmental and animal welfare standards and that we continue to support farmers to produce the high-quality food that they do, which is the envy of the world.
What steps is the Secretary of State taking now to ensure that, after Brexit, once we are free of EU controls, halal and kosher meat is appropriately labelled?
My hon. Friend raises a very important point, but we have to consider not just high animal welfare standards and appropriate consumer information, but the sensitivities and traditions of our religious communities. Given the increase that we have seen in expressions of hostility towards religious minorities in this country, this is an area that requires handling with great care, but he is absolutely right to say that we do need to look at ways in which we can improve animal welfare at every stage in the life of the animals with whom we share this planet.
Page 33 of the national flood resilience review highlights how natural upper catchment management must be part of the next comprehensive spending review. How will the Minister ensure that upper catchment management is a major feature of that impending spending review, so that we can particularly protect York with catchment management on the River Ouse and the River Foss?
We do have a £15 million scheme, which is going into much greater detail in assessing the different methods of natural flood management. This will be an important part of flood defences for homes and businesses, but we need to ensure more than just anecdote, although I do recognise that some of these methods are seen to work already. This will help constituents in the hon. Lady’s wonderful city of York.
HOUSE OF COMMONS COMMISSION
The right hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington, representing the House of Commons Commission, was asked—
UK Food and Drink
The right hon. Gentleman will be very pleased to know that there is a lot of promotional activity for British food. For example, Red Tractor Week took place in September, and we worked with British farmers and the National Farmers Union to promote British food. He will also be pleased to know that the wine list in Strangers’ and Members’ includes a good selection of English wines. Something that he may want to consider—if he has not already taken advantage of it—is that individual Members can ask for a specific cask of ale from an independent regional brewer from their constituency to be placed in the Strangers’ bar.
I am certainly aware of the provision for regional breweries in the Strangers’ bar. I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on the steps that the Commission has taken on this and on reducing plastic use, but will the Commission take the lead from other public bodies in ensuring that our suppliers are, at every possible opportunity, prioritising and insisting on supporting British farmers, manufacturers and workers, and maximising UK-produced food and drink, especially from small and medium-sized enterprises?
I can assure the right hon. Gentleman that in this place we push hard for very high quality produce, which is often British-sourced. The overwhelming majority of food throughout the catering establishments is British. If he is suggesting that we should adopt a “buy British” policy, I am sure he aware that that is not something that we can do in practice.
As the House of Commons Commission is encouraging British-produced food and drink on the parliamentary estate, may I commend to the right hon. Gentleman Weetabix breakfast cereal made in Burton Latimer and Warner Edwards gin made in Harrington—both within the Kettering constituency—as appropriate for the start and end of the parliamentary day?
The hon. Gentleman’s love of Weetabix is now on the record.
I am sure that other cereals are available. I commend the moves of the catering outlets and events teams to increasing UK-produced food and drink, but will the right hon. Gentleman recommend to the Commission an increase in the amount of UK-produced healthy food, especially after the success of Vegan November?
I will certainly pursue that suggestion to ensure that the food here is not only British, but healthy as well.
Following the question of my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol West (Thangam Debbonaire), may I stress to the right hon. Gentleman that there really is a need for more diversity in the food served by the catering outlets, particularly vegetarian and vegan food? This is an extremely important issue for members of the public and Members of the House.
Absolutely; it is necessary for this estate to respond to the increase in veganism, perhaps in the way in which the kebab industry has, whereby vegan kebabs are now available.
The Commission has received representations from individuals, companies, the unions, interest groups and hon. Members, for which we are extremely grateful. Correspondence has included general opinion as well as extensive comment on the report’s findings. We have also received offers of assistance from both companies and individuals on the approach that we should take to maximise the opportunities for change.
Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that any actions taken as a result of this report must be taken at the earliest opportunity, and that while we can all agree that this is a time of particular political turbulence, that should not be held up as a reason for postponing such actions?
I agree entirely with the hon. Lady. She will be pleased to know that the Commission has debated this on a number of occasions already. We have issued a statement, and we have two further meetings already planned to ensure that the necessary priority and emphasis is indeed placed on this critical issue.
Female Members in this House were not surprised that 70% of the complainants responding to the Cox report were women. I am the 400th woman to be elected to this place; there are more than 400 men currently sitting as Members of the House. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that until we address this gender imbalance in our representation, this abuse will continue?
I certainly agree that we need to ensure that we have 50:50 representation in this place. No doubt the hon. Lady, like me and others here, has taken part in events to promote that. Clearly, we cannot wait until we have 50:50 representation to address these very serious issues. That is precisely what the Cox report and, indeed, the White report that is now under way are focusing on to ensure that we address this problem as quickly as possible, not in the next 50 or so years’ time.
The Cox report revealed that a culture of bullying and harassment had spread to every part of this place. Can the right hon. Gentleman assure me, and give confidence to all those working across the estate, that if a complete, top-down reorganisation is required to effect genuine and lasting change, that will happen, and that seniority, length of service or any other factor will play no part in shielding anyone from scrutiny or criticism where it is warranted?
I can certainly give the hon. Gentleman that assurance. I think that the House, and everyone in this place, has recognised that there is a serious issue that we need to address. I would draw his attention, and that of other Members, to an email that is sitting in their inboxes encouraging them to take part in the consultation around the grievance scheme to ensure that, for instance, allegations of historical abuse are effectively addressed within the scheme. I hope that he and others will want to contribute to that.
The right hon. Member for Meriden, representing the Church Commissioners was asked—
Northern Forest Initiative
The Church Commissioners own 3,500 acres of forestry in England, some of which falls within the focus of the northern forest initiative. The Church Commissioners have had some high-level conversations with the Woodland Trust and would certainly consider being part of this initiative.
With 50 million trees expected to be planted as part of the northern forest initiative to improve air quality and mitigate flooding, as well as to improve wellbeing and be there for us all to enjoy, it is really important that the Church of England estate also participates in that, not least as the 13th biggest landlord in our nation, owning land the size of Iceland, I believe. How many trees will the Church of England be planting, particularly around the area of York, where the archbishop’s palace, no less, was affected by the floods of 2015?
The Church Commissioners own a great deal of agricultural land. The important thing with the planting of trees is that it needs to be on land suitable for that purpose. Prime agricultural land is usually reserved for food production, but land that is, for example, wet—it can be in close proximity to rivers—is better suited to tree production. The hon. Lady, representing the city of York, has every interest in trees being planted that would slow the flow of the river through her city.
Persecution of Christians
The Church of England remains concerned about the increase in violence and intimidation against Christians and all religious minorities across the globe. In fact, my right hon. Friend the Member for New Forest West (Sir Desmond Swayne) reminded colleagues at this week’s Prime Minister’s questions of the visit of the Patriarch of Jerusalem, His Beatitude Theophilos III, who will be in Parliament next Wednesday. He is regarded as a senior cleric from the Christian communion in Jerusalem, and he is to give a talk about the future of Christians in the Holy Land.
Aid to the Church in Need’s latest world persecution report and Baroness Cox’s “Hidden Atrocities” report, both published this month, state that the religious element of attacks by militants on communities in northern and central Nigeria is increasing. For example, 539 Christian churches have been destroyed in Nasarawa state alone in 2018. Catholic Bishop William Avenya of Gboko has now warned the international community,
“Please don’t make the same mistake as was made with the genocide in Rwanda.”
Will the Church of England engage with Department for International Development and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to help fully address those grave concerns?
I can give my hon. Friend that assurance. In fact, on Monday, the Archbishop of Canterbury will brief members of the all-party parliamentary group for international freedom of religion or belief, as part of its inquiry on Nigeria. He knows the country extremely well, as he worked there, and has visited it as recently as October. He is deeply concerned about attacks on Christians and has urged our Government to help Nigeria to enforce security and promote reconciliation between people of different faiths.
The Rev. Steven Saxby organised for me an excellent briefing with Anglicans from the Philippines, where there are serious human rights abuses. Could the right hon. Lady ask the Church of England whether it is tackling that in a structured way?
One advantage of the size of the Anglican communion is that its reach is across all continents, and the persecution of Christians in all continents is a matter of great concern to the Church of England, as part of the Anglican communion. I will certainly look more closely into what is happening in the Philippines, and I thank the hon. Lady for that suggestion.
I attempted to restrict the scope of a question to the holy lands and was summoned to the Table Office to change the offending words. It is not persecution, but does my right hon. Friend resent that secular agenda as much as I do?
That is almost a question for the Chair, rather than the Second Church Estates Commissioner. I am concerned about religious literacy and understanding better the Holy Land. I was fortunate to be able to make a visit with five Members of Parliament, led by the Speaker’s Chaplain, Rose, to the Holy Land for the first time, to see for myself the plight of Christians there and the complexity of the issues in the Holy Land. I do not think we should baulk at calling it the Holy Land, for many of the world’s faith regard it as such.
What a delicious choice—I call Jim Shannon.
Can the right hon. Lady outline whether she has had any discussions with the Home Office, to request that Asia Bibi and her family are offered asylum in the United Kingdom, and the outcome of those discussions?
I can give the hon. Gentleman reassurance, and I sympathise with his concern for Asia Bibi. The information we have is that we need to be extremely careful that we do not exacerbate risks to Asia Bibi and her family. The Prime Minister answered a question during PMQs about what the Foreign Office is doing and confirmed that the UK is in conversations with other Governments, including the Government of Pakistan, on how to make Asia and her family safe.
We had an excellent debate this week on Nigeria, initiated by the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon). Will the right hon. Lady urge the Archbishop of Canterbury to visit another bedevilled part of the world, South Sudan? Although it is a Christian country, many Christians are being persecuted there.
The Archbishop of Canterbury is very alive to the situation in South Sudan. Every well-read Christian Member of Parliament surely must be. In my tenure as shadow International Development Secretary, I went to southern Sudan, and it is probably one of the most distressing places I have ever visited. The women there told me they had very little confidence of peace being secured, because they fear their men just like to fight.
Dean of Christ Church, Oxford
At this stage, there is little more that I can add to the written answer that I gave my hon. Friend on Monday. A formal tribunal process is under way, following the statutes of Christ Church, and that will enable the complaint made against the dean to be properly investigated.
I have spoken to the Bishop of Oxford, and I am a little more reassured about the pastoral care that is being made available for the dean, but this raises the important question of why an Anglican cathedral is so much in the pocket of an Oxford college.
I can reassure the House that the Bishop of Oxford is giving pastoral support to the Dean, and I know that he went out of his way to speak to my hon. Friend. This is a very unusual case in the Church of England—the dean of a cathedral is at the same time the master of a college—but I must underline that the complaint against the Dean is an internal matter for the college, and neither the Church Commissioners nor the wider Church of England has any role in that process.
I am so glad the hon. Lady has asked that question, as this Sunday is the first Sunday in Advent. We all look forward to Christmas. The Church of England reached over 6.8 million people with last year’s Advent and Christmas campaign. This year, the Church has launched a Follow the Star campaign. Details of that can be found on the Church website, or indeed in hard copies made available through Church House Publishing.
I thank the right hon. Lady for that reply, and I endorse the importance of Follow the Star to advertise services and signpost the campaign that the Church is running. I say to the right hon. Lady, however, that universal credit is being rolled out in my constituency just before Christmas. I am really concerned about the rising number of people attending the food bank, and I am also concerned about rising levels of homelessness and loneliness in the community. Does she think the Church of England could do more to take practical steps to convey the Christmas message in our communities?
The hon. Lady enables me to give the answer I so much wanted to give to Question 9, which had to be withdrawn at short notice. The Church has surveyed the social action projects in its 16,000 parishes, and 33,000 social action projects are under way in precisely the kind of areas the hon. Lady mentions—food banks, night shelters for the homeless and debt counselling. Indeed, this is living out the message of Christmas to the needy.
The message of Christmas is one of renewal and hope. Will my right hon. Friend bring a message of hope to people with autism in prison? It is essential that those who minister to them understand the condition. In the new year, will she look at ensuring that all prison chaplains are trained in autism? In that way, the Christmas message could be extended into 2019.
The message is that Christmas is for all, including inmates in prison. My right hon. Friend has campaigned so hard for those with autism. Our chaplains are given guidance on helping prison inmates with autism.
I must finish with a heart-warming story for the House, which perhaps those who read The Guardian will have spotted. The Dean of Salisbury cathedral provided stonemasons to a local prison who trained the inmates in how to fashion their own war memorial, and he inaugurated it in time for the Armistice. I just want to reassure the House that, for practical reasons, the number of chisels was counted on the way in and on the way out.
Many children will be in church over the Christmas period, particularly at events such as Christingle services. Does my right hon. Friend agree that this is a great opportunity for the Church to spread the message to our young people in the hope that they will retain that message throughout their lives?
The Church of England has seen increasing attendance at its church services. My hon. Friend is absolutely right that crib services and Christingle services are very important for small people.
I would like to encourage you, Mr Speaker, to have a look at the Follow the Star campaign. It is different for a change: it does not start on the first day of Advent, but covers the 12 days of Christmas. When you and I have finished washing up after our Christmas lunches, we might sit down and reflect on the true meaning of Christmas and make sure that our children do get it.
I shall always profit from the right hon. Lady’s counsels, and I solemnly commit to take that advice on Christmas day.
Withdrawal Agreement: Legal Advice
(Urgent Question): To ask the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and Minister for the Cabinet Office if he will make a statement on the publication of the Attorney General’s legal advice on the proposed withdrawal agreement.
The Government recognise the legitimate desire of Members on all sides of the House to understand the withdrawal agreement and its legal effect. That is why my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster confirmed to the House on Tuesday 13 November that the Government will publish a full reasoned statement to set out their position on the legal effect of the withdrawal agreement. That is in addition to the material that the Government have already published, including, for example, a detailed explainer of the withdrawal agreement and a technical explanatory note on the Northern Ireland protocol. My right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney General will also make a statement to the House on Monday 3 December—the next sitting day—about the legal effect of the agreement, and he will answer questions from Members, I am sure in the fullest possible way.
Not good enough.
Mr Speaker, nobody who was present in the debate on 13 November, including the Solicitor General, could be in any doubt about what the House was asking for. During that debate I stated that
“the motion requires the publication of the final and full advice provided by the Attorney General to the Cabinet concerning the terms of any withdrawal agreement. This must be made available to all MPs. It is to be published after any withdrawal agreement is reached with the EU, but in good time to allow proper consideration before MPs are asked to vote on the deal.”—[Official Report, 13 November 2018; Vol. 649, c. 235.]
The motion was passed unanimously on those terms, and when it was passed, I made it clear that those were its terms.
It was perfectly clear to Ministers, including the Solicitor General who spoke at the end of the debate, that the House was not asking for a position paper or a summary of the Attorney General’s advice. That was the offer made from the Dispatch Box during the debate, and it was roundly rejected, as the Solicitor General knows full well. The binding motion that was passed was for nothing less than for the full and final legal advice provided by the Attorney General. It is therefore wholly unacceptable, and frankly shows contempt for this House, for Ministers, including the Prime Minister at the Dispatch Box yesterday, now to pretend that the House was asking only for partial or qualified legal advice. If the Government are not willing to comply with the order of the House, why did they and the Solicitor General not vote against the motion?
In 12 days’ time, this House will have to take the most important decision it has taken for a generation, and MPs are entitled to know the full legal consequences of the deal that the Prime Minister is asking them to support. That is why the order was made, and why it must be complied with. Throughout the Brexit process, the Government have repeatedly tried to sideline and push Parliament away. If they now intend to ignore Parliament altogether, they will get into very deep water indeed. I urge the Solicitor General to think again and to comply with the order of the House.
With the greatest respect to the right hon. and learned Gentleman, his request is wholly premature—[Interruption.]
Order. Everybody will have a chance to contribute on this most important and solemn of matters, but just as the right hon. and learned Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Keir Starmer) was heard in relative quiet, so must similar courtesy be extended to the Solicitor General. Everybody will get a chance to put his or her point of view—of that there need be no doubt.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. The Attorney General will come to the House on the next sitting day, and he will make a full statement and answer questions from hon. Members across the House. It might then be for the House to judge whether the Government have discharged their obligations consistent with the Humble Address, but not before.
Who needs legal advice to know a trap when they see one?
My right hon. Friend makes the important point that, ultimately, the decision for this House and the motions on which it will vote are political matters, and to try to dress them up in legalese and as legal matters does not help anyone.
I commend the right hon. and learned Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Keir Starmer) on securing this urgent question. A dangerous pattern is developing here. First, the Government tried to avoid their obligations under a previous Humble Address to release their impact assessments, and on two instances, senior Conservative ex-Ministers were given guarantees by Ministers at the Dispatch Box, which they then claimed publicly had been broken. Now we see the Government trying to wriggle out of yet another binding decision of this House.
Mr Speaker, this is not the time or the place to re-run the discussion about whether it was a good idea for that motion on an Humble Address to have been passed. How ironic that the Government want to re-run a debate on something that has already been voted on—just think about that! This is not the time to discuss its merits. As has been said, if the Government did not want to comply with the instruction, they should have instructed their MPs to vote against it. The reason they did not was that they knew they would have lost the vote.
Does the Solicitor General accept the ruling of the Chair that this decision is binding on the Government? If so, when do the Government intend to comply with the instruction they have had from representatives of the sovereign citizens of these islands?
I am disappointed that the hon. Gentleman did not listen to the answer I gave. The Attorney General will be here on the next sitting day. He will make a statement and answer questions. Then the hon. Gentleman and other right hon. and hon. Members can form a judgment on whether the motion that was carried by this House has been satisfied. My argument is that the Attorney General will meet the spirit and intention of the motion passed, but preserve the important constitutional convention relating to Law Officers’ advice.
The right hon. and learned Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Keir Starmer), the shadow Secretary of State, said during his speech:
“I wanted the Government to see the good sense in putting the legal position before the House, for all the exceptional reasons that have been set out”.—[Official Report, 13 November 2018; Vol. 649, c. 194.]
Accepting that, is that not precisely what the Attorney General intends to do and will be able to do on Monday?
My hon. Friend, the Chair of the Justice Committee, is absolutely right. The right hon. and learned Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Keir Starmer) is more familiar than most with the position of the Law Officers and their role within the constitution. I would have expected him to do better.
The Solicitor General should be aware that I, and probably others in this House, have written to Mr Speaker asking whether this is a matter of contempt. I suspect we may find it easier to get 48 letters than others have found. Can the Solicitor General confirm whether the Government will fight any contempt proceedings? Has he identified who in the Government would be the subject of contempt proceedings? Does he agree that this latest snub to Parliament leaves Members of Parliament with a sneaking suspicion that when it comes to the vote on 11 December and any votes that come after, the Government may decide to play fast and loose with what is the normal procedure in this place?
The right hon. Gentleman asks me to speculate about matters that might not arise. There is no snub to Parliament. It is a wholly confected controversy that actually detracts from the real issues we should be debating and will be looking at next week.
While the Opposition may wish to play fast and loose with the national interest, does my hon. and learned Friend agree that it would be wholly irresponsible to publish material which could or would damage the national interest?
My hon. Friend is right to emphasise the national interest. It is rare for a Law Officer, in this case the Attorney General, to come to the House and make a statement of this nature. We accept that these are exceptionally important, unusual and unprecedented times. That is why he is doing it. Members will have the chance to grill him when he comes.
The Solicitor General is repeating the offer that was made during the debate on 13 November and repeating what the Prime Minister said yesterday, but that was not accepted by the House. The House unanimously adopted a binding resolution in the terms that the Opposition spokesperson has outlined, so why does the Solicitor General not listen and the Government start listening? This has been the problem all along. What is it that they have to hide?
May I assure the right hon. Gentleman that when the Attorney General comes here on Monday, he will be able to ask him questions and make sure he is properly examined on these issues? He will have that opportunity. This is not an instance where the Government seek to delay or hide; this is all about providing information at the right time ahead of the important debate that I know he will be playing an important part in.
Will my hon. and learned Friend agree that it is the role of the Government always to put the national interest at the heart of any decision?
My hon. Friend makes a simple but important point. If we start trying to subdivide the role of the Law Officers and create a rift in collective decision making, where will democratically accountable government end up?
In my experience, when someone smells a rat, it is usually a good idea to set a trap. The Solicitor General will be aware that the Prime Minister wants everybody in the House to make a sensible decision based on all the information available to us. Should we not, then, have the fullest possible legal advice in as timely a manner as possible if we are to arrive at a sensible decision?
I take the right hon. Gentleman’s question with the seriousness it deserves. That is why the Attorney General is coming here on the next sitting day before we start the five-day debate—so that hon. Members have a chance not just to question him but to digest what he says, come to a judgment and make points appropriately, either in the debate or in other proceedings that might follow.
I must confess that I remain as confused as I was on 13 November about precisely what is being requested. What differences are there between the position now and the position the Government were in when advice was provided concerning Iraq?
My hon. Friend, who is a former Government lawyer, will recall that the circumstances of the publication of the Iraq advice were dramatically different from the current circumstances. In brief, extracts from the then Attorney General’s advice were leaked to the press during the 2005 election campaign, and in those exceptional circumstances, the then Labour Government took a collective decision that the Attorney General should publish the full text. That is the only time it has happened. It was an exceptional case that I do not think sets a precedent here.
Can the Solicitor General outline the legal implications of Northern Ireland entering into a customs union—including, to all intents and purposes, a united Ireland—with no voice or vote for an indefinite period and without the mechanism of a border poll, as called for in the Belfast agreement?
I am happy to inform the hon. Gentleman that he can put that precise question to my right hon. and learned Friend on the next sitting day. If he does, I am sure he will get a full answer.
I, too, listened to the debate that afternoon and raised a number of concerns about the motion. My memory is that the shadow Secretary of State asked for full advice on the final deal and not all the advice given during the negotiations and that he actually corrected the motion from the Dispatch Box four times before it was voted on, as I pointed out in an intervention. Does the Solicitor General agree that the motion was incredibly unclear and inconsistent?
My hon. Friend’s recollection is accurate, although to be fair to the right hon. and learned Gentleman, he sought to clarify or narrow the terms of reference of his application. I simply say to her what I said in that debate, which is that the Government will provide a full and clear legal position to the House and that it will then be a matter for the House to judge whether that is sufficient.
If the Government knew they would take the position of not providing the full legal advice—and the Minister wound up that debate on 13 November—why did they not vote against the motion? [Interruption.]
Order. We cannot have people chuntering from a sedentary position, particularly when they have already spoken. We have heard the hon. Member for Chelmsford (Vicky Ford); we know what she wanted to say and we are most grateful to her for that. We do not need sedentary chuntering. It is not helpful and it is unseemly—stop it.
I am not going to speculate about votes that were held or not held. I know what the position of the House is. We are seeking to satisfy that through the appearance of the Attorney General on Monday.
I welcome the news that the Attorney General will be coming before the House on Monday, but does my hon. and learned Friend share my concern about the precedent that this may set for publishing legal advice? Where would that leave legal privilege, the cornerstone of our legal justice system?
I do not intend to repeat the remarks that I made in the debate, but as I said, there are good reasons why there is a convention for Law Officers. It is not just for the convenience of lawyers; it is for the rule of law to stay at the heart of collective Cabinet decision making. I would have thought that everybody in this House would want that.
Let me refresh the memories of Government Members, who seem to have forgotten the following words:
“any legal advice in full, including that provided by the Attorney General, on the proposed withdrawal agreement”.
My constituents are entitled to have the will of the House met so that I can read those documents. What on earth has the Solicitor General got against those words and my constituents knowing that I am doing my job?
I think the hon. Lady was reading out the words of the motion, which were not the words adopted by the right hon. and learned Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Keir Starmer). He confined himself to a particular document that he wanted to see. Those are the terms of reference that he sought, and it does nobody any good to try to go back on what he said. A statement on the Government’s legal position will be published on Monday, so it will not just be the Attorney General’s words given here orally. Right hon. and hon. Members will have something in writing as well.
Does the Solicitor General agree that if Members have important questions about the Government’s legal advice or the legal position, they will be able to find out the answers to those questions by asking the source of the Government’s legal advice—the Attorney General—in this House? Does he further agree that this is about a very important constitutional principle? If all 6,500 pieces of legal advice are published, all official advice, not just legal, will start to be published and we will have a situation in which candid advice will no longer be given. It will not be written down and, whoever is in government, we will not have proper functioning of Government.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to say that if Law Officers, and indeed civil servants, cannot provide candid advice in an unencumbered way, the quality of decision making will deteriorate, as will its transparency. That is deleterious to good government.
But this is not normal government. This is an irrevocable vote, so given the importance of that vote, does the Solicitor General not agree that MPs are entitled to the full truth on behalf of the people they represent?
The hon. Lady will see on Monday a document setting out the Government’s legal position. She will be able to question the senior Law Officer about that and then, in the debate, she will be able to make further points if she views the information that she has received as somehow insufficient. Knowing my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney General, he will dilate at length if he is asked to.
Does my hon. and learned Friend agree that if the information given by a lawyer to a client is to be made public in future, that information is likely to be much more caveated and cautious, and therefore less useful?
My hon. Friend is right—the information becomes useless, actually, if that is the case. There are good reasons why privilege exists, but over and above that, there are constitutional reasons why the Law Officers’ permission has to be sought if, first, the fact that advice might or might not have been given is to be disclosed, and secondly, the content of any such advice is to be disclosed.
The Government will have discharged their duty to the House not when the Attorney General makes his statement, but when they publish the full and final legal advice that the House has requested and voted for. Is that not what he should do on Monday?
I ask the hon. Gentleman to look at the document that is published, to hear the Attorney General and to come to any view that he may think is appropriate after that.
I found some of the comments of the right hon. and learned Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Keir Starmer) surprising, to say the least, given his former role as Director of Public Prosecutions. Does the Solicitor General share my concern at the precedent that the Government might be setting, by releasing legal advice in this instance, for the advice given by previous Directors of Public Prosecutions?
I am here to answer questions on behalf of the Law Officers. Although I superintend the Crown Prosecution Service, it is an independent body, and I think it would be inappropriate for me to comment on the content of any advice that it may give.
Given that the Government have already ridden roughshod over the Sewel convention in respect of the devolution settlement, what faith can we have that they will uphold its integrity on this occasion?
I am tempted to get into a debate with the hon. Gentleman about the first part of his question, which I am afraid is just wrong, but we are not riding roughshod over anyone. I have already explained what we are going to do: on the next sitting day, my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney General will be here to answer questions.
It is easy and cheap populism to make the demands that we have heard today, but is the reality that this would undermine the ability of the Solicitor General and the Attorney General to do their job now, and the ability of all their successors to serve future Governments as well?
My hon. Friend has put it eloquently. Populism is no substitute for responsible government or responsible opposition.
I do not see how a unanimous vote in the House could ever be seen as cheap populism. The House said unambiguously that it wanted the Attorney General’s legal advice to be published in full. Given that the withdrawal agreement is looking increasingly like a burst ball, does the Solicitor General not think that ignoring the will of Parliament and hiding behind the “national interest” excuse just adds to the public perception that this is a Government descending into chaos?
Some of us actually believe in talking up our country, rather than talking it down. I am fed up with the attitude of some Members who seem to revel in the idea that the House wants to connive in chaos, as opposed to stepping up to the plate and playing its responsible democratic role. The public are looking to us to make an important decision in two weeks’ time; let us show them that we are worthy of it.
It is absolutely right that we hold the Government to account. We are doing that now, and we will do it again on Monday with the Attorney General. However, does the Solicitor General share my unease about the undermining of core principles that are accepted by the whole country, such as client confidentiality?
It is very easy, in the eye of a storm, to cast caution to the winds and throw away sensible and well worked out convention. This is not the time for us to do that.
May I express my sympathy for the Solicitor General, who has been sent out today to defend the indefensible and take one for the team? May I also say, however, that responsible government means respecting the will of the House? How on earth can the Government ask the House to support the withdrawal agreement if at the same time they show contempt for a previous major decision that the House has made?
The hon. Gentleman is a reasonable man and an honourable Member. I ask him to listen carefully to the Attorney General, to read the documents—as I know he will—and then to reach a judgment after the next sitting day, when he will hear in full the legal basis for the Government’s decision.
We know that the good negotiator never shows his hand. Does my hon. and learned Friend agree that it would not be appropriate to reveal the Government’s legal advice while we are, in essence, still at the negotiating table, securing and protecting the national interest?
My hon. Friend is right. We are in a continuing negotiation, and that is why the national interest really is at the heart of this.
The Solicitor General has a wonderful Welsh gift for words, but may I remind him of what Disraeli once said?
“A majority is always better than the best repartee.”
There was a majority—in fact, a unanimous vote in the House—in favour of a motion for a return, which is not a request for a statement but a request for information to be published with the protection of parliamentary privilege. It is the duty of the Government to publish that information following the decision of the House, but if they still do not want to do that, the Solicitor General has already said that they could do it voluntarily. The full legal advice will come out eventually, and history will not look kindly on the Government, or on any members of the Government, if they have kept from the House relevant information within that legal advice.
The hon. Gentleman is a compatriot of mine and is no stranger to the wizardry of rhetoric. He reminds me of Disraeli’s comment on Gladstone that at times he might be inebriated by the intoxication of his own verbosity— but not today. I take his point, but I will say this to him: I would be failing in my duty if I did not defend robustly the Law Officers convention. That is what I am doing today, and that is what I must continue to do.
The correct reference is
“inebriated with the exuberance of his own verbosity”,
but what I would say is that the Solicitor General is no more in a position to level that charge at the hon. Gentleman than I would be.
I am very pleased that the Attorney General is coming before the House on Monday, but while I have the utmost respect for him, ultimately his advice is just that: advice. Is not the most important thing what the Government’s interpretation and position is and what the Government are going to do?
My hon. Friend is right to remind this House—[Interruption.] I see that my right hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Sir John Hayes) is with us. Perhaps I will say no more about—
Order. The right hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings thinks that the Solicitor General’s historical recollection is correct and that mine is at fault. He might be right, but in the end it is a fairly minor point in the great scheme of things.
Hansard will come to our rescue, I have no doubt, Mr Speaker.
Going back to the important point made by my hon. Friend the Member for East Renfrewshire (Paul Masterton), in the end this is a policy decision made by the Government after looking at a range of options. This is a matter of politics, and to try and dress it up in a way that would be unhelpful, inappropriate and, frankly, misleading to the public is not how we should conduct ourselves.
The Solicitor General has been pugnacious in his responses this morning, and it makes me wonder what he has to hide. We are about to make one of the momentous decisions Parliament has ever had to make on behalf of our country; surely we should have time to consider over the weekend the legal advice that the Government got?
I can assure the hon. Gentleman that when he hears the Attorney General and reads the documents on the next sitting day, he will have ample time between then and the vote, which will not be until 11 December, to assess the information, ask more questions about it, probe the Government and come to an informed view. That is what I want him and all hon. Members to have, and that is what they are going to get.
I have the utmost respect for the Attorney General, but does the Solicitor General agree that if we went to Chancery Lane we could get another opinion that would completely contradict his own remarks?
My hon. Friend knows that the documentation—the withdrawal agreement and the future relationship document—is all out there in the ether for the public and for informed and, shall I say, less well informed commentators to make observations about. There is a plethora of opinion, some of it legal, out there, and my hon. Friend makes that point very well.
The Solicitor General referred in an earlier answer to the legal advice that was published on the Iraq war, and he said that was exceptional. I think we are currently in more exceptional times than ever before, and publishing the full legal advice for all Members of this House to see before they cast their vote on a decision that is going to affect generations to come is absolutely vital.
The hon. Lady makes a proper point, but there is another important distinction to be drawn between today’s scenario and the Iraq war. With regard to the Iraq war, a decision was made by Government as to whether or not to use armed force in another country. The legality or otherwise of that decision was clearly a material and key issue as to whether or not an action should be taken. This is now a different set of circumstances: a Government taking a policy decision based on a range of outcomes, with potential risks and outcomes that would result. It is wholly different. I do not think, with respect to the hon. Lady, that the precedent of Iraq is appropriate.
I draw the House’s attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. Is not maintaining the principle of legal privilege also essential to maintaining the confidence of every citizen in this country who seeks advice from a lawyer that they can expect the justice for which this country is globally renowned?
My hon. Friend, as a lawyer, knows that all too well. I have already explained the double importance of professional privilege and the constitutional centrality of the Law Officers’ convention.
This is commonly described as the most important decision that this House has made since the second world war. The Government refuse to publish the legal advice despite Parliament agreeing that they should do so, and they refuse to publish the economic analysis despite previously agreeing to do so. This is a blindfold Brexit with no clarity for our economy, our agriculture or our working rights. Does the Minister seriously expect us to vote for it blindfold?
I can assure the hon. Lady that she will not be voting for it blindfold. Whatever her final decision might be, she will be in a position, come the vote, to have heard the Attorney General, to have read the Government’s position and to fully understand and appreciate the issues at stake. I know that she will do all that and make her decision.
Despite the Welsh origins of the Solicitor General, does he agree that there is no wizardry in legal advice, that it is simply the accumulation of the collected knowledge of our culture, history and agreed norms, and that in many ways we can read all that in the press that we are seeing every day? We may seek legal advice in this place, but I have been given tons for free by every lawyer in the country, as far as I can tell. Does he therefore agree that the Attorney General’s advice is relevant, but not essential?
My hon. Friend puts the context of all this admirably well.
Instead of expressing faux outrage from the Dispatch Box, the Solicitor General could have shown some backbone and voted against the motion. We have had more than two years of the UK Government telling us that no deal is better than a bad deal, but now suddenly the deal that is on the table is the only show in town and we are being told that no deal would be an unmitigated disaster. Given the Government’s ineptitude over this entire process, how are we supposed to believe their position statement on impartial legal advice?
The hon. Gentleman talks about backbone. It is time for him and his colleagues to show some backbone and to back a deal that serves the interests of Scotland, Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom in a way that could not be achieved by any other Prime Minister.
For the avoidance of doubt, will my hon. and learned Friend advise the House on what the role of the Attorney General is in advising the Government and this House?
As I think most hon. and right hon. Members know, the role of the Attorney General is to be the Government’s chief legal adviser. He has a role in advising the Cabinet. He is not a member of the Cabinet but he attends Cabinet. The advice that might or might not be given can assist in collective Cabinet decision making. He is the lawyer, and his client is the Government. That lawyer-client relationship allows for the lawyer to provide impartial and proper legal advice, unencumbered by political considerations. That is why the convention exists. That is why it must be maintained.
The Solicitor General was in post at the time and will know the answer to this question. Did the Prime Minister ask the opinion of the Attorney General, as laid down under the clear requirements of the ministerial code, which insists that, in respect of critical legal considerations, all Ministers must ask the opinion of the Attorney General “in good time” before the considerations are implemented by the Cabinet? I ask that both in respect of the Chequers proposals on 6 July, when the Cabinet was clearly bounced, and in respect of the incompatibility of the withdrawal agreement with the withdrawal Act and the express repeal of the European Communities Act 1972, before the signature of the withdrawal agreement over the weekend?
My hon. Friend will know the answer that I must give, which is that the convention applies. I can neither confirm nor deny the position with regard to the Attorney General as to the issue that he raises.
I hope that the Solicitor General is correct in his interpretation of the Humble Address motion and the Government’s response to it, but if he is wrong, the House might well bring proceedings of contempt against the Government, which is the most serious charge that the House can bring. When was the last time that a Government were held to be in contempt of the House of Commons?
I am not going to start speculating in reply to my hon. Friend’s question. It would not be right of me; this is a matter for Parliament. I would like to think that people understand that my respect and support for this place know no equal.
Can my hon. and learned Friend confirm that, as every lawyer knows, advice depends on the quality of the questions sought? Can he therefore assure us that he or our right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney General will set out on Monday all the questions in respect of which advice has been given to the Government, so that we can be sure that all the right questions have been asked?
My hon. Friend knows our right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney General, and I can assure him that in response to any question he asks, he will get the most comprehensive of answers, for free.
Business of the House
Will the Leader of the House give us the forthcoming business?
The business for next week will be:
Monday 3 December—Second Reading of the Crime (Overseas Production Orders) Bill [Lords].
Tuesday 4 December—Proceedings on a business motion relating to section 13(1)(b) of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018 followed by debate on section 13(1)(b) of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018 (day 1).
Wednesday 5 December—Continuation of debate on section 13(1)(b) of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018 (day 2).
Thursday 6 December—Continuation of debate on section 13(1)(b) of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018 (day 3).
Friday 7 December—The House will not be sitting.
The provisional business for the following week will include:
Monday 10 December—Continuation of debate on section 13(1)(b) of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018 (day 4).
Tuesday 11 December—Conclusion of debate on section 13(1)(b) of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018 (day 5).
Wednesday 12 December—Consideration of Lords amendments.
Thursday 13 December—General debate on public health model to reduce youth violence.
Friday 14 December—The House will not be sitting.
Colleagues will also wish to know that, subject to the progress of business, the House will rise for the Easter recess at the close of business on Thursday 4 April 2019 and return on Tuesday 23 April 2019.
Small Business Saturday reaches millions of customers and businesses every year. I encourage everyone out and about doing their Christmas shopping this weekend to support their local high streets, which do so much to keep our communities thriving. Also, Saturday is World AIDS Day. Over 100,000 people are living with HIV in the UK alone, and globally there are nearly 37 million people who have the virus. This is an opportunity for people worldwide to unite in the fight against HIV. Finally, may I wish everyone, in particular all our colleagues north of the border, a very happy St Andrew’s day for tomorrow?
May I thank the Leader of the House and say “Hallelujah”? We are rising on my niece Anjali’s birthday, so I will not forget that.
The Leader of the House has helpfully set out the timetable for the debate in the coming weeks—it is the first time that we have had two weeks for some time—but what chaos in the run-up to the debate. Let us start with the debate. After struggling to clarify what will happen on the business motion, could the Leader of the House finally agree that the Government have now conceded the recommendation in the Procedure Committee’s report that the Government take the amendments first before the Government’s main motion? We have now heard from the Solicitor General, who is very excellent in his role, about the legal advice, but why does it take an urgent question to fulfil the will of Parliament? This is not about the legal advice on an everyday matter; it is of major constitutional significance to our future. The House has asked for the legal advice that was given to the Government. The Government have taken the legal advice and now they are saying that they will formulate that, along with every other advice, and give us the Government’s legal position. That is not what was asked for.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bristol West (Thangam Debbonaire) mentioned the motion and I will read it out again:
“that the following papers be laid before Parliament: any legal advice in full, including that provided by the Attorney General, on the proposed withdrawal agreement”.
That is very narrow. It is not about everything that the Government need to do. So in my view, the Government are not interpreting the Humble Address as passed by the House. A position statement can exclude that part of the advice that states that the Government may or may not be acting appropriately, or the consequences of the way in which the Government act. We need clarity and transparency. This is in the national interest. We govern in the people’s name, not in our own name.
And there is no economic analysis on what we are going to vote for. There seems to be an economic analysis on every other model, except the ones on the deal. If the Government are prepared to do that, which shows that we will be in a worse position unless we stay in the EU, the Government should publish the legal advice in full. Could the Leader of the House go back to the Cabinet and confirm today that, as a member of the Privy Council, she will follow the directions of Her Majesty and provide the legal advice, as requested? Otherwise the Government, like Zuckerberg, will just be treating Parliament with contempt. That is what is going to happen.
I turn the Leader of the House’s attention to the statutory instruments. According to the Government’s own deadline, as set out in the 25 October letter from the Under-Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, the hon. Member for Daventry (Chris Heaton-Harris)—I do not think he is in the Chamber—they have until tomorrow to lay almost 50% of the Brexit SIs that they said they would lay in November. The Government have so far laid only 73 Brexit SIs in November, which is well below the 150 to 200 they said they would lay this month. We have had 55% of the time and only 22% of the SIs have been laid. Can the Leader of the House please say whether the Government will be on track to meet their own target?
In her statement on Monday, the Prime Minister said of her deal:
“It takes back control of our borders, and ends the free movement of people”.—[Official Report, 26 November 2018; Vol. 650, c. 23.]
She said that right at the start, as one of the most important parts of the deal, yet can the Leader of the House say when the immigration White Paper will be published? The Prime Minister was asked and she could not respond. All we have had so far is the Migration Advisory Committee’s report.
The Prime Minister also said that she has a shopping list that is longer than the Opposition’s six tests, but she failed to say that a growing number of British citizens are taking their shopping list to food banks. The Opposition have a shopping list of our own for how we want to transform society when we are in government, and ending child poverty is at the top. I hope that the Leader of the House will remind the Prime Minister that the Leader of the Opposition has written to her about the report of the United Nations representative, Professor Alston, on his visit to the UK. I know the Leader of the House will be interested, because Professor Alston mentioned Northamptonshire in his report. He described the Government’s approach to social security as “punitive” and “mean-spirited” and he highlighted the hardships facing disabled people. That is why my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea (Marsha De Cordova) wanted to remind us that yesterday was the United Nations International Day of Disabled Persons.
Welfare has been cut since 2010 and £28 billion has been cut from social security for disabled people. Disabled student’s allowance has helped many students find their talent—rather than restricting it as the Government have done. The Government are asking students to stump up £200 before they even get DSA. When will the Government publish the evaluation of the impact of recent changes to DSA? It was due to report in late summer. The Leader of the House is a fan of “Game of Thrones.” Now that winter is coming, can we have that evaluation report?
Last week I mentioned Harry Leslie Smith, who was not well. He has since died, and so has Baroness Trumpington. They were the world’s oldest rebels. Let us hear what Harry Leslie Smith said:
“We have become enamoured by the escapism populist politics provides, where we can fit the blame of our woes on migrants or big institutions”.
He also said:
“We have resisted the darkness that comes to societies that are decayed by their contempt of democracy”,
whether outside or in this House. I want to mention those who have shone a light into the darkness, following Harry Leslie Smith, particularly those who won at the Political Studies Association awards on Tuesday: Amelia Gentleman, who shone the light in her work on Windrush; Carole Cadwalladr, who has shone the light into the darkness of our democracy; my right hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy), who was politician of the year; and my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Diana Johnson), who was parliamentarian of the year. This House applauds and salutes them.
I am glad the hon. Lady is pleased that she gets to spend her niece’s birthday with her when the House rises for Easter—that is excellent news. I am also delighted to join her in congratulating all those who won awards for their contribution to making our society a better place and in commemorating Harry Leslie Smith and Baroness Trumpington, both of whom made such a big impact in their contributions to society.
The hon. Lady asked about the recommendations of the Procedure Committee and whether the proposed business motion on the meaningful vote addresses them. I can say that, yes, that is the case, in so far as time constraints and practicalities allow in both Houses. The Procedure Committee recommended that amendments should be taken before the main motion is considered and that there should be a minimum of five full days for debate, both of which are happening. The House should be pleased about that.
On the Humble Address, I want to reiterate that we absolutely recognise that there is a legitimate desire in Parliament, from Members in all parts, to understand the legal implications of the deal once it is finalised. The Government will make information available to all Members of the House; there will be a full reasoned position statement laying out the Government’s legal position on the withdrawal agreement. Equally, the hon. Lady will know, as a lawyer herself, that it is a fundamental and long-standing principle of our system of government that Law Officers’ advice is not published without their consent.
The hon. Lady asked about economic analysis on the deal. I am not entirely sure, but she seems to be suggesting that the economic analysis includes everything other than the deal that is on the table. That is not the case; the withdrawal agreement and political declaration economic analysis is, in fact, included in the analysis that has been put out by the Treasury. She asked about statutory instruments. She is right to say that as of 27 November, 185 Brexit SIs have been laid so far, with 79 so far in November. We expect a total of 120 to 130 by the end of this month. She is right to point out that that is a bit below the 150 to 200 figure outlined by the Under-Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, my hon. Friend the Member for Daventry (Chris Heaton-Harris) in his letter to the sifting Committee. However, as I have tried to make clear at all times, we are getting a firm grip on secondary legislation, and I remain confident that we will get all of the secondary legislation that we need to do through in time for departure date. The number of SIs is below what we originally thought; we now think the total number could be up to 700, but I am confident we will remain in a good place to get all of that passed in time.
The hon. Lady made mention of the Prime Minister’s shopping list. No doubt the Prime Minister is very busy at the moment and is paring her grocery shopping back to the bare limit, but the hon. Lady makes an important point about food banks. Everyone in this House pays tribute to those who contribute to the efforts of civic society to contribute to the food poor. People use food banks for many and varied reasons, and the Government are constantly reviewing research carried out by organisations, including great organisations such as the Trussell Trust, to add to our understanding of food bank use. However, I must point out to her that, in terms of where our society is, since 2010 there are 1 million fewer people in absolute poverty—it is at a record low; there are 300,000 fewer children in absolutely poverty, which is another record low; and there are 500,000 fewer working-age adults in absolute poverty, which is a record low. Those are things we can be proud of. This is in addition to the amazing performance of our economy, with more than 3 million more jobs since 2010. That means more people with the security of a pay packet able to support their own family and an improving standard of living.
I draw the House’s attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.
Will my right hon. Friend find time for a debate on relations between the Maldives and the United Kingdom? Following the defeat of President Gayoom in 2008, there have been endless arguments about the legitimacy of succeeding Presidents. Now that President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih has been elected emphatically, I hope that the Maldives will rejoin the Commonwealth and that we can restore full diplomatic relations with the country.
My hon. Friend raises an excellent point. We were very pleased that our non-resident ambassador to the Maldives represented the UK at the presidential oath-of-office ceremony in Malé on 17 November. We certainly welcomed President Solih’s announcement that his Government would commence steps to rejoin the Commonwealth. We also welcome his Government’s announcement on the freeing of political prisoners and launching of investigations into corruption, fraud and money laundering. Under previous regimes, democratic freedoms were restricted, but we stand ready to work with the new Administration to improve on the situation.
I thank the Leader of the House for announcing the business for next week. Given that it is St Andrew’s day tomorrow, I say to you, Mr Speaker: lang may yer lum reek.
It is coming at last, a bit like Christmas without Santa or the festivities, and with everybody just that bit poorer: yes, Brexit vote day is almost here, with a generous five days to debate the so-called meaningful vote on the Government’s Brexit deal, which has about as much chance of getting through as I have of becoming Lord Speaker or a Church of England bishop. It is already a diseased deal. Like the great Norwegian blue parrot, this is a deal that will not even be pining for the Norwegian fjords. It will not even be pining for a Norway-plus deal. This deal, like that great comic parrot of yore, has just about squawked its last and is about to go and meet its maker.
The only question is how we do all this. I am grateful to the Leader of the House for her response about how the votes are going to progress: the process will follow the Procedure Committee’s recommendation that amendments are taken first. Will she confirm that it will not be a binary choice between the devil and the deep blue sea, and that an amended motion, if that is what the House wants, will be put to the House on 11 December? We need to know exactly what is going to be in line before we start the debate next week.
It now looks likely that the European Court of Justice—an institution so beloved of many of my Brexiter friends on the Government Benches—will judge that the UK and the Government can unilaterally halt article 50. Are we now, then, beginning to get to the stage at which we can start to abandon this madness and retain the living standards that we all enjoy and the access that we have to our friends in Europe?
Lastly, the Prime Minister is trailing round the country trying to drum up support for her already doomed deal. Yesterday, she was in Scotland, drumming up opposition to her deal: opposition to it in Scotland now stands at almost 70%. Scotland has been ignored and disrespected for the two long years of this process, and the Government have not even started to address our concerns. In the next few days, we will consider this almost pointless debate about a meaningless vote for which the conclusion has already been reached. We on the Scottish National party Benches will never support any arrangement that makes our country poorer.
The hon. Gentleman alludes to that parrot, which he will remember had snuffed it. This parrot is the only one in the aviary, so it is worth serious consideration.
He says that there is no support for the deal in Scotland, so what about Bertie Armstrong, chief executive of the Scottish Fishermen’s Federation, who says:
“The declaration gives the UK the power to assert its position as an independent Coastal State with full, unfettered sovereignty over our waters and natural resources”?
Perhaps the hon. Gentleman does not care too much about Scottish fishing.
How about the Scotch Whisky Association chief executive Karen Betts, who says:
“The provisions set out in the Withdrawal Agreement provide us with a credible foundation on which to build in the next phase of the negotiations, during which a number of critical issues remain to be resolved”?
Perhaps the hon. Gentleman does not care about Scottish whisky.
How about Liz Cameron, chief executive of Scottish Chambers of Commerce, who says:
“After two and a half years, business communities across Scotland and the UK, will welcome the Cabinet-backed draft Withdrawal Agreement”?
Perhaps he does not care about Scottish commerce.
Finally, how about the president of the National Farmers’ Union Scotland, Andrew McCornick, who says:
“The draft Brexit Withdrawal Agreement, while not perfect”—
I certainly agree with that—
“will ensure that there are no hard barriers on the day we leave the European Union, and will allow trade in agricultural goods and UK food & drink to continue throughout the transition period largely as before.”
It is superb news that United Kingdom businesses and people will be well served by this deal. It is the only parrot that is available to us, and parliamentarians need to get behind it.
Diabetes is a plague across our nation. A total of 3.7 million people suffer from it—numerous in each of our constituencies—and that number has doubled in the past 20 years. Together with its consequent medical conditions, diabetes is life-limiting and, for many, life-ending. Perhaps most shockingly of all, the number of children diagnosed with diabetes has grown to record levels. Will the Leader of the House allow a debate on the subject of diabetes? It would allow us to explore how it can be prevented, diagnosed more quickly and treated more effectively. Our Prime Minister, with typical fortitude and resolve, copes with diabetes. The deputy leader of the Labour party has boldly fought it off. A debate would allow us to explore how more people can deal with it, cope with it and defeat it.
I completely agree with my right hon. Friend that this is a terrible condition that is affecting growing numbers of people and, as he rightly points out, growing numbers of children. My own husband suffers from diabetes, and we know the Prime Minister suffers from it. Many people live with it on a day-to-day basis and it is a very, very serious problem for them. I would certainly welcome such a debate, and he might well like to seek a Westminster Hall debate in the near future so that all colleagues can discuss the condition.
I take this opportunity to acknowledge that the right hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Sir John Hayes) is now not merely a man of Lincolnshire; he is a knight of Lincolnshire. Try as I do, I can scarcely keep up with his status and achievements.
The Backbench Business Committee is starting to feel like the Norwegian blue parrot. If it were not for the fact that it had been nailed to the perch, it would be pushing up daisies. To quote John Cleese, it would have “shuffled off” its mortal coil and gone to join the “choir invisible.”
We knew that we would not get Thursday 6 December, because this House will be discussing other matters that day, but the Committee was informed on Tuesday by some of its Conservative members that they had received communications from their own Chief Whip that the Committee would be allocated time on Thursday 13 December. Not being a body that is readily willing to dismiss the word of the Government Chief Whip, the Committee pre-allocated debates for that day, and we are now told, through the business statement today, that we will not get 13 December. By 13 December, it will be eight weeks since we have had Back-Bench time in this Chamber. I look forward to meeting the Leader of the House in early December to try to rectify this hiatus, but it is becoming overdue.
I am incredibly sympathetic to the hon. Gentleman. Let me make a brief comment about the report he gave about becoming aware of business from some Conservative members of the Committee. He will know that it is not unusual for Governments to make Members aware of likely business of constitutional importance or that require significant time commitments to try to be helpful to them. However, to be absolutely clear, that is always only provisional. The only time that business of this House is confirmed is on a Thursday morning at business questions in the Chamber, as it quite rightly should be. I fully understand his desire to ensure that his Committee has time to schedule its business in the Chamber. I am grateful to him for his letter and I look forward to meeting him in the near future to talk about his requirements. He will appreciate, however, that many hon. Members have been seeking a debate on the public health approach to serious violence for some time, so when it came to a choice with one day available, I had to prioritise the many competing demands and choose in favour of the significant problem of serious violence.
I understand that the police funding settlement for next year will be published next week, as will the local authority funding settlement, yet I see that there is no opportunity for a debate in the business to be transacted for the next two weeks. Clearly, the decision on leaving the European Union is vital, but will my right hon. Friend find time for us to debate these very important issues, which are fundamental to the policing and local government of this country?
My hon. Friend makes a good point. He will appreciate that there is very important and time-constrained business over the next fortnight. We do, however, have Home Office questions on Monday 3 December, and I hope that he will take the opportunity to raise his concerns then.
Order. It was a great pleasure for me to be able to present the hon. Lady her award, courtesy of the Political Studies Association, as Back Bencher of the year—a recognition of her extraordinarily diligent and effective parliamentary campaigning, specifically on the contaminated blood scandal. My sense was that that award to her was extraordinarily warmly received both at the dinner on Tuesday night and in many other quarters.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. When you presented the award to me, I thought you were trying very hard not to say, “She’s actually quite a bloody difficult woman and she’s not going to go away,” but I appreciated your remarks very much.
On Remembrance Sunday, BBC 2 broadcast the stunning Peter Jackson film, “They Shall Not Grow Old”, showing conditions on the frontline in world war one. I understand that the film was funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund, the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport and the BBC. It is certain to become an important educational tool as we explain to the younger generations what happened in world war one. Unfortunately, it was only then on BBC iPlayer for seven days—as I understand it, because of the rights connected to the film. I wonder whether the Leader of the House might make representations to the Ministry of Defence, the Department for Education and the DCMS to see whether we can get the film back on BBC iPlayer, because it needs to be seen by as many members of the public as possible.
First, Mr Speaker, let me say that I share your delight at the hon. Lady’s award. She has certainly been a stalwart in this place, raising the issue of contaminated blood sufferers, and she has been absolutely right to do so. I totally value all the bloody difficult women in this place—and long may they continue to be so.
The hon. Lady typically raises a very important point in which all hon. Members will be interested. I would be happy to write to the DCMS on her behalf, but she will also be aware that we have DCMS questions on 13 December, and I recommend that she raise the matter then.
As the Leader of the House is aware, Somerset is a blackspot for broadband. One of the problems is that a lot of the installers are being accused and blamed. The situation actually—this is the topic on which I would like a debate—is that one land agent has been pushing farmers not to sign up until they get an awful lot of money for allowing wayleaves. The agent, Greenslade Taylor Hunt, has recently been done for price-fixing—a huge amount of money. Broadband is almost a right now. If we do not allow people to get it and we cannot use statutory powers to get it to isolated places such as Exmoor, we are failing in our duty. Can we have time to discuss this issue?
My hon. Friend will be aware that the Government are committed to full fibre connections for the majority of homes and businesses by 2025, with a nationwide full fibre network by 2033. However, I do share his concern about some rural areas. There are many rural areas in my own constituency where the signal simply drops out. I recommend that he raise his specific points at Local Government questions on 10 December.
Following on from the point about police funding raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman), we in the Humberside police area have a particular problem with the pension contributions that the force may have to make, which could result in the loss of all our police community support officers. The Home Secretary was good enough to meet Humberside MPs earlier this week, but we could do with an opportunity to discuss the issue further. Will the Leader of the House find time for a debate?
My hon. Friend is right to raise this very important issue. He will be aware that we have provided the capacity for police and crime commissioners to access an extra £460 million this financial year. He will also be aware that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary is determined to review the funding formula properly this year to make sure that police officers do have the resources that they need. We have Home Office questions on 3 December, and I encourage my hon. Friend to take the matter up there.
Earlier this month, two people were stabbed to death in my constituency, including a 15-year-old child. Locally we have seen cuts to the police, child and adolescent mental health services, schools and youth services. I very much welcome the general debate on youth violence, but can the Leader of the House confirm that Ministers from across Departments will attend that debate to ensure that we have joined-up, cross-departmental approach to youth violence?
The hon. Lady raises an incredibly important issue. I think that all our hearts go out to the victims of knife crime, particularly those young people who have died in such appalling circumstances. She will be aware that getting young people out of a life of crime leading to serious violence is both a priority for the Government and a core part of our serious violence strategy. That, as she will be aware, is precisely why I am giving Government time for this debate in a couple of weeks.
May we have an urgent debate on the totally unacceptable lack of regulation of 16-plus children’s homes? This really matters for two reasons. First, many vulnerable children are in huge danger because they are not properly supervised and they run away a great many times. Secondly, there is a huge waste of police time going into finding these children, which means that our police officers are not available to other residents when they are needed.
My hon. Friend is right to raise this very serious matter. The same legislation and regulations apply to provision for those over the age of 16, and we do expect local authorities to safeguard these children in the same way they would any looked-after child. It is for Ofsted to challenge those that are not meeting their duties. I hope he will welcome the fact that we are investing part of our £200 million children’s social care innovation programme in projects in London, where demand for placements outstrips supply, to increase councils’ capacity so that fewer children are placed far away from home. He might like to seek an Adjournment debate to raise the matters specific to his constituency and to get a response directly from Ministers.
It is welcome news that male suicide is at its lowest rate since records were first collected in 1981, but while this is encouraging, we cannot overlook the fact that there were still 4,382 male suicides registered last year. One such death is one too many. May we have a debate on what steps the Government, and indeed all of us, can take to further reduce the stigma around men’s mental health and to encourage men to open up and seek help when they are struggling and when they are in despair?
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for raising such a vital issue. She will be aware that the Government are investing significantly more—a record £12 billion—and are taking more action on mental health than any previous Government. In the Budget, the Chancellor announced that an additional £2 billion will go to funding mental health by 2023-24. For the first time, the NHS will be working towards standards for mental health that are just as ambitious as those for physical health. The hon. Lady might also be pleased to know that we have committed £1.8 million for the Samaritans helpline over the next four years, so that when people do want to talk, there is someone there to listen. It is an absolutely vital issue, and I know that all Members are committed to doing everything we can to solve the problem.
In recent weeks, unfortunately, there have been a number of serious knife crimes in Crawley, including a murder. Even though I welcome the Sussex police and crime commissioner recruiting 200 extra officers and the Third Reading of the Offensive Weapons Bill last night, can we have a statement from the Home Secretary on county lines drug running? These incidents are all related to drug gangs from outside the constituency. I endorse what the hon. Member for Lewisham West and Penge (Ellie Reeves) requested.
My hon. Friend raises the appalling problem of the spike in serious violence related to county lines and, in particular, knife crime. Tackling county lines is a huge priority for the Government. Our serious violence strategy includes a range of actions to enhance our response to the issue. For example, we have established a new national county lines co-ordination centre, to enhance the intelligence picture and support cross-border efforts to tackle county lines. There is also funding for community projects, to encourage young people out of serious violence. I am sure my hon. Friend will want to take part in the debate we will have in two weeks’ time.
Mr Speaker, I hope you will not mind if I thank the Leader of the House for securing a debate on tackling youth violence with a public health model. I have just one ask of that debate. Can we ensure that all the Ministers from all the relevant Departments are here to listen, if not respond, to the debate? That is a key point of the public health model and approach.
First, I would like to pay tribute to the hon. Lady for her superb pushing of this issue—she is absolutely right to have done that—and her excellent contribution on the radio this morning, which I know many Members heard. I take on board what she says and will try to ensure that as many Ministers as possible are here to hear at least the opening of the debate.
In less than two weeks, the UK is due to attend the intergovernmental conference in Marrakesh, to adopt the global compact for safe, orderly and regular migration. Many of my constituents have emailed me to say they are concerned that signing the pact will encourage economic migration, reduce national sovereignty and weaken our border controls. With countries such as Switzerland and Italy refusing to sign until their Parliaments have debated the issue, and with allies such as the US, Israel and Australia refusing to participate, will the Government find time for a debate on that important matter before the pact is signed on our behalf?
My hon. Friend raises an important matter. He is right to have a care to issues around the protection of refugees, but also the importance of the integrity of national borders. We have Foreign Office questions on Tuesday 4 December, and I recommend that he raise the matter then.
Early-day motions are a vital component of political expression for Back-Bench Members of this House and thus for our wider democracy. In recent times, however, the EDM service has been progressively diminished, such that new motions now disappear from listing in the blue pages very quickly, and there is no consolidated list of recent EDMs printed each week. Will the Leader of the House use her good offices to press the House authorities to restore the EDM service to its former strength and ensure its long-term future?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising that issue. I am not aware of it, and I am certainly happy to look into it on his behalf.
May we have a statement on the extent of the use of certificates of exemption under section 34 of the Freedom of Information Act by Officers of the House and whether such exemptions could be used to stop disclosure of important issues such as bullying in this place?
My hon. Friend raises a very important issue. He will be aware that section 34 exemptions can be incredibly valuable in protecting free and open debate between advisers, Ministers and Members of Parliament. However, he is right to raise concerns about the proper use of such exemptions, and I encourage him to seek a Westminster Hall debate so that Members can share their views.
On 5 November, a 98-year-old man was seriously assaulted in his home and remains in hospital following an aggravated burglary in my constituency. Since then, there have been subsequent burglaries and serious crimes committed in my constituency. Will the Leader of the House find time for a debate on police funding and the rise in crime nationally?
I am so sorry to hear about that. I am sure that was an appalling experience, and I am sure that all of us would want to send our best wishes to the hon. Gentleman’s constituent.
The hon. Gentleman has raised again the problem of serious knife crime, and I think the whole House shares that concern. That is why we are going to have a debate in two weeks’ time, and I do hope he will take part in it. As he will be aware, we have a serious violence taskforce. It is very clearly focused on trying to reduce the appalling incidents of knife crime, looking at prevention methods wherever possible to discourage young people from such an approach. In addition, I am sure he will welcome the fact that the Offensive Weapons Bill completed its stages in the House yesterday. We do therefore have some more measures that will prevent young people from accessing serious weapons that cause so much damage.
The Dame Laura Cox report shone a spotlight on the need for transparency, honesty and openness in this place on issues that are of concern to Members across the House and, indeed, to the country as a whole. My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House will know that I have some residual concerns about the robustness and efficacy of the House of Commons Commission in dealing with these matters. I have described it in previous exchanges as a cross between the Magic Circle and the College of Cardinals. Will she guarantee a debate in Government time on the rules and terms of reference of the Commission to ensure that it is fit for purpose and meets the much higher bar of expectation—both in this place and in the country as a whole—of the standards now upon us?
My hon. Friend raises an issue in which I know the House of Commons Commission itself has shown some interest. I believe it wishes to be as transparent and open as possible. Certainly, from very preliminary discussions about the Cox report, I believe that Dame Laura’s view that serious reform is necessary has fallen on fertile ground. I think that we will be able to make further progress on that in due course.
I refer to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.
On Monday, I attended the launch of the GMB “Work to Stop Domestic Abuse” charter, and we heard some incredibly powerful testimonies from survivors of domestic abuse. The charter is an aide-mémoire to encourage employers to take action, including by offering paid leave to survivors and victims of domestic violence, offering policies and toolkits in the workplace, and empowering staff to take action and seek help if they are suffering domestic abuse. May we have a debate on how we can encourage other employers to take up this much needed charter?
First, I pay tribute to the hon. Lady for her work in this area. She is absolutely right that we need to do everything we can to protect people from domestic violence, and employers can certainly do a lot more. I too have been very interested in supporting campaigns that seek to have employers take a much stronger interest in this issue. She will be aware that the Government have carried out a consultation on a domestic violence Bill, and we will bring forward draft legislation soon. We have also committed funding of £100 million to services for preventing violence against women and girls, to support organisations that are tackling domestic violence and abuse, including £8 million to support children. We all agree that there is much more to be done, but I think we are all on the same side.
We are about to embark next week on one of the most important debates that this House has ever had to undertake. We are going to have 32 hours of debate over the five days, which allows roughly four minutes per Back Bencher if every one of them wants to speak, allowing for the payroll vote. Through the Leader of the House, may I ask the usual channels to discuss the possibility of sitting until 10 pm on Tuesday and Wednesday next week and perhaps even sitting a little bit later on Thursday, as well as the possibility of a Friday sitting and of starting earlier on the following Monday? That could add at least 15 hours to the debate and allow Back Benchers to get more than a few minutes each. I have not even taken out the time for Front-Bench contributions in those calculations. The time for Back Benchers to speak in that debate will be very tight, so please could we consider doing that?
The hon. Gentleman will be aware that the business of the House motion proposal has been tabled and is available in today’s remaining orders. The Government are determined to provide plenty of time for debate ahead of the meaningful vote on 11 December, and I hope colleagues will recognise that in providing five days of debate and specifying that the House should consider amendments ahead of the main question, they have sought to be helpful to the House. There will be a debate on the proceedings for the meaningful vote, during which the hon. Gentleman will be able to make his representations.
I am recruiting for a parliamentary researcher in Westminster, and I want that position to be open to applicants from all backgrounds and regions. An applicant from the greatest city in the world, Newcastle, was put off by the absence of any support for relocation to work here as a member of staff, although such support is available for Members of Parliament. Does the Leader of the House agree that this place must be open to people from all backgrounds and regions as both members of staff and Members of Parliament, and may we have a debate on how to make that a reality?
I certainly agree that we want as diverse a range of candidates as possible to come forward to work in this place. The hon. Lady will be aware that through the working group on harassment and bullying we have done a lot to ensure that when people come to this place and start working here, they get the training and support they need, and all the help that they can use to enable their job to be successful. On the hon. Lady’s specific point about help with the costs of relocating to Parliament, I am happy to discuss that with her separately if she would like to write to me.
I am sure all parliamentarians agree that one of the most important pillars of a modern democracy is freedom of the press. There seems to be an exception, however, because yesterday on her visit to Scotland the Prime Minister refused one of our biggest newspapers access to a press event. Today, The National quite rightly ran a front page with a silhouette of the Prime Minister, and it has refused to cover the story. May we have an urgent statement from the Prime Minister to explain her reason for refusing access to The National, and to explain in this House the importance of a free press?
I am not aware of the particular situation that the hon. Gentleman describes, but during the past two weeks, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has spent more than nine and a half hours at the Dispatch Box, in the seat of our democracy in Parliament, taking questions from right hon. and hon. Members across the House who represent the interests of their constituents. To suggest that somehow she has not been accessible would be very, very short of the mark.
A constituent was diagnosed with a glioma brain tumour in 2013, and she was given between three and five years to live. There is no treatment, but currently she is stable. She moved house and found a smart meter in place, and she has become extremely anxious and fearful about microwave radiation from that smart meter exacerbating the brain tumour. She went to British Gas and asked for it to be removed, but it refused, so she came to me. British Gas sent the most awful reply, basically refusing to remove the meter. May we have a debate about the responsibility of utility companies to consider people with serious medical conditions who have concerns and anxieties about issues such as smart meters, and to meet their consumer protection duties?