House of Commons
Monday 10 December 2018
The House met at half-past Two o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
Housing, Communities and Local Government
The Secretary of State was asked—
Land Value Capture
The Government have recently published their response to the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee’s report on land value capture. We have committed to using existing mechanisms of land value capture as effectively as possible and are bringing forward significant changes to developer contributions in order to do so.
Given that many challenges on housing delivery rely on the availability of land, will the Government consider introducing a Bill to make it easier for sites that have not been earmarked for development to be provided for local housing developments and have value captured?
I certainly recognise the need for more homes, including more rental and affordable homes for people, as we deliver against our agenda. The best way to do that is through local plans, which allow local councils to provide housing in suitable locations. Local plans will certainly ensure that local communities get the houses they need, but I take on board the point my hon. Friend rightly makes about communities and making sure that value is felt.
The Secretary of State will accept that, according to the Government’s own figures, when planning permission is given for housing to be built on agricultural land, that land increases in value, on average, by about 100 times. Does he accept that more of that increase in value should go to pay for public infrastructure and general community benefit? Will he therefore go further than he has promised and agree to look again at the Land Compensation Act 1961, to which the Select Committee on Communities and Local Government recommended a change, which was supported by a wide range of organisations and by hon. Members right across the political spectrum?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman and the Select Committee for the work that they have done in rightly highlighting an important issue. It is worth bearing in mind the fact that section 106 planning obligations and the community infrastructure levy levied in 2016-17 provided an estimated £6 billion of value. However, the point he makes is an important one. We wanted to see better utilisation of the existing rules, and the Letwin review makes further proposals, and we will be reflecting on those and coming back to the House in the new year.
Part of the Government’s policy is to enable large urban councils to establish a strategic infrastructure fund of their own, but at present this excludes smaller councils such as mine in East Herts. May I therefore urge the Secretary of State to amend his proposals so that any council with a local plan that is planning to deliver a new settlement is included in that and can establish such a fund? May I meet him to discuss that further?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising this issue. I recognise the concerted work and effort that is going on to deliver homes and infrastructure through the local plan in his area. He rightly says that combined authorities with strategic planning powers will be able to introduce a strategic infrastructure tariff, but charging authorities can already pool their community infrastructure levy receipts to fund infrastructure jointly. We are updating the guidance to make that clearer, but I would be happy to continue that discussion with him.
In the midst of today’s political chaos, I wonder whether it is worth questioning the Secretary of State at all, as Cabinet members do not seem to be told what Government policy really is. Just as this Government are failing on Brexit, they are failing other big tests, such as taking on vested land interests and fixing the housing crisis. As my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield South East (Mr Betts), the Select Committee Chair, has just said, the Secretary of State’s own figures show that the price of land can soar hundredfold when planning permission is granted. That profiteering by landowners and agents pushes up the cost of the homes we buy and the rents we pay, and it blocks building the new low-cost homes we need on a big scale. After nearly nine years in government, why has the Secretary of State not put a stop to this?
It is a bit rich for the right hon. Gentleman to talk about policy, given that his own side has very little policy to show at all on a range of issues. He asks a fair question about building the homes that our country needs, which is why it is right to highlight to the House the 222,000 additional dwellings in the past year. That is profoundly about not only building the homes our country needs, but about ensuring that we are looking at viability and getting these issues of land value capture addressed—
Order. It is impossible to describe the extent of my gratitude to the Secretary of State, who is among the most courteous Members of the House, but I say very gently to colleagues that we have a lot of questions to get through. We therefore need short questions and short answers so that we can reach people lower down the Order Paper, because I am more bothered about the Back Benches than I am about the Front Benches.
The Secretary of State tells us to wait till next year, but he may not be in government next year. In truth, this is a Government who delay and duck the big decisions on housing because they are too dysfunctional and too divided, just as they are on Brexit. His own Members know that their policy is failing and want action taken on land costs, so will he change the law so that the Government can work with councils to compulsorily purchase land without paying for landowner speculation, then use the savings to cut the costs for first-time buyers and renters? Even if the Secretary of State cannot get the backing of the House for his Brexit deal, he would get it for a radical plan to make the land market work for the benefit of the many, and not the few.
Our policies are not about the many, not about the few; they are for everyone in terms of delivering on our housing agenda. Yes, we will consult on the new draft amended community infrastructure regulations, and I look forward to having the debate on them. It is this Government who are taking action to build the homes that our country needs. We will certainly take no lessons from the other side.
Local Government Funding
We are undertaking a review of local authorities’ relative needs and resources to address concerns about the fairness of the current system. That will determine the new baseline funding allocations for local authorities through a more up-to-date, transparent and fairer funding formula.
My right hon. Friend will be aware of the extra pressures on local authorities in rural areas with sparse populations and many miles of road network. Will he assure me that the Government will factor in those pressures when allocating funding to rural areas such as Lincolnshire?
Fifty per cent. of Oxfordshire County Council’s budget is spent on social care. Many of the things that my constituents discuss with me, such as potholes and school funding, are directly or indirectly related to local government funding. What steps are being taken to ensure that regional differences are addressed so that rural areas like West Oxfordshire get the funding that they need and deserve?
We will use the best available evidence to ensure that the relative needs and resources of councils up and down the country are properly taken into account to reflect a number of the important points that my hon. Friend and others have made. We are working closely with representatives across local government to do that.
Lambeth Council and Southwark Council have lost £6 in every £10 of Government grant they had to spend in 2010, yet across London the population is rising faster, levels of deprivation are greater, and the cost of delivering services is higher than anywhere else in the country. Will the Secretary of State guarantee that the fair funding review will restore funding to London councils and not result in further cuts?
We will certainly look at the available evidence on how the relative review of resources is affected throughout the country, and we will take account of evidence from London councils and others. Equally, I hope that the hon. Lady will recognise the announcement in the Budget of additional funding for things like social care. An extra £650 million will go around to councils to help to make that difference.
Reeling from the biggest cuts in local government history of £650 million, with another £123 million to come, Birmingham has put forward a powerful case for fair funding. Now, an announcement has been delayed. When will the Secretary of State make his announcement? Will he listen to Birmingham, because frankly Birmingham has had enough?
I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will be able to make his points in relation to the provisional settlement for local government, which I look forward to delivering very shortly. He will have an opportunity to make representations for Birmingham and others on the fair funding review, and there will be further opportunities. I look forward to engaging with the hon. Gentleman and others in that regard.
We are very conscious of the pressures on areas such as children’s social services, which my hon. Friend highlights and, equally, of some of the differentials that exist around the country. He will, however, note the additional funding that was committed in the Budget to these issues and we therefore continue to work with him and others and look forward to the spending review next year.
The Daily Record reported recently that councils in Scotland have set aside £24 million to deal with the impact of universal credit, including £2.5 million in Glasgow, £3 million in Edinburgh and £4.5 million in South Lanarkshire. How can it possibly be fair that, when central Government decisions are having a huge impact on local government funding, we can do nothing about it?
A clear mechanism is in place in relation to what are known as the new burdens on local government and therefore we take that into account and reflect further on the costs that local authorities may have in relation to other governmental activities, and that is what we do.
The record is clear: Northamptonshire bust; other councils edging towards the cliff edge; and no end to austerity, with cuts to council budgets continuing. Last week, senior officials told the Public Accounts Committee that their measure of a council’s financial sustainability is now based solely on the delivery of statutory services. Our councils are at breaking point. Is the Secretary of State not even slightly embarrassed that his Ministry has let the cat out of the bag on the decimation of local public services on his watch?
Yes, local authorities have had to bear a cost and have made some incredible efficiencies and savings as a consequence of the need to deal with the problems that we inherited from the previous Labour Government. I say to the hon. Gentleman that, when we come to the discussion over the settlement, he will see that our work will ensure that local councils have a real-terms increase in their funding and services and therefore what we are doing to ensure that councils are viable and have a positive future.
The Department’s consultation on implementing reforms to the leasehold system closed on 26 November with almost 1,300 responses. It set out how the Government intend to tackle excessive and unjustifiable practices in the leasehold system. We are currently analysing responses and plan to publish the Government response in due course.
I know that the Secretary of State has, on numerous occasions, met developers, freeholders and other industry stakeholders as part of the consultation process, but he has not met representatives of the National Leasehold Campaign, the very people most affected by this scandal. Is it not time that he did so?
I certainly recognise some of the appalling practices that have taken place in the leasehold market, which is why we have made it clear that anyone with doubled ground rent should be able to get it changed to one linked to inflation. I look forward to engaging with leaseholders and everyone across the sector to see that reform happens.
The House will welcome what my right hon. Friend has said. On another day, we can deal with the statutory instrument recognising leasehold associations.
Today, I ask him to note the Law Commission’s proposals on getting commonhold working properly. May I draw his attention to the post on the Leasehold Knowledge Partnership website, which says that the Government’s Help to Buy team advised a builder that flats cannot be bought under commonhold because that does not apply within its rules? Can he get the rules changed so that commonhold, which we all want, can work?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend, and I will certainly look at the point that he has raised. I highlight the fact that the Government support the use of commonhold and we are considering all the options for reinvigorating it. We certainly recognise the publication of the Law Commission’s consultation and want everybody to take part in it.
What we need to do is to get on and get things changed. Having a review in the way that the hon. Lady has suggested is about deferring things, so we want the industry to take steps to take action. Labour can talk in that way, but it is this Government who are intent on actually bringing about reform.
The leasehold problem is an abiding scandal, and the Secretary of State does need to fix it. When he is reforming it will he consider being imaginative enough to copy the city of The Hague, which allows people on the housing register to go on to a register to get a serviced plot of land, which, if they cannot afford to buy it, they can lease at a peppercorn rent and then elect to buy later? If we are going to have reform, let us have imaginative reform.
I look forward to discussing that issue with my hon. Friend, because there is a sense of a need for change. Some of the abuses that we have seen are unacceptable. Although we have already put forward proposals to make that difference, I will certainly continue to talk to colleagues who may have some further imaginative thoughts.
I was shocked to hear that A2Dominion has sent leaseholders of a block in my constituency a landlord water bill of £900 per flat payable within 30 days, with the only explanation being that it had not read the water meter for two years. This has caused huge stress for residents and is the latest in the long line of unacceptable, sudden invoices with little or no explanation. Does the Secretary of State agree that there needs to be a change in the transparency and standards of housing association service charges, because leaseholders are treated like cash cows and the law is weighted in favour of landlords?
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for highlighting that particular example. It is especially appalling that leaseholders should have been presented with such a significant charge in that way. If she can send me some more details, I will look into the matter further.
Adult Social Care
We have listened to the sector’s concerns. The Government will provide an additional £240 million for winter pressures next year, as well as a further £410 million to address pressures in social care.
I recently met local carers, whose unpaid work for loved ones takes enormous pressures off budgets, but inadequate funding for adult social care is putting additional strains on them. Some gain support from local councils and others from local groups such as Sheffield Carers Centre, but most are invisible. What support is the Department providing to local authorities to identify carers so that they can get the help that they need?
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to highlight the valuable work that those carers do in our society, and that should be recognised. It is for individual local authorities to decide how best to support carers in their areas. As the Secretary of State previously said, £650 million of incremental funding for social care was announced in the Budget. That funding could be used to provide support in the way the hon. Gentleman suggests.
Councils are predicting that an additional £3.6 billion will be needed by 2025, just to maintain current levels of care. Does the Minister think that it is either sensible or economically sustainable that councils are having to use their dwindling reserves to deliver care to people? That is what many of them are doing and what many more will have to do.
Speaking of reserves, reserves in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency and area have actually increased by 40% since 2011. Beyond funding, the delivery of social care is a function of joined-up thinking with the NHS. I was delighted to meet the chief officer for Greater Manchester Health and Social Care Partnership in Manchester recently, and I am glad that almost all local authorities agree that our better care fund has improved joint working between health and social care.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the adoption of a German-style social insurance premium, as recommended by the joint inquiry of the Select Committees on Health and on Communities and Local Government, would ease funding pressures on local authorities and ensure that everyone had access to the social care that they needed?
I thank my hon. Friend and all members of the two Select Committees for their thoughtful and detailed work in this area. I know that my colleagues in the Department of Health and Social Care are seriously considering all options in advance of the social care Green Paper, and the Committees’ recommendations are very much a part of the those deliberations.
Social care is characterised by low pay and poor employment conditions, and is heavily dependent on EU labour to meet labour force needs. The Migration Advisory Committee says that only by raising pay in the sector will it be possible to replace EU labour with UK workers. Will the Minister commit to the additional £3 billion of funding that will be needed to do that?
Immigration matters are obviously for the Home Office, which is shortly to bring out its White Paper. With regard to the funding, as I just said, the Department of Health and Social Care is working on a long-term sustainable funding settlement for social care that we look forward to seeing in due course.
As set out in the Government’s clean growth strategy, we plan to consult in the spring of next year on an uplift to the energy efficiency requirements for new homes and other buildings where there are safe, practical, cost-effective and affordable opportunities to do so.
I thank the Minister for that response. At a time when the Government are urging more house building and looking at climate change as well, would it not be a good time to change building regulations so that all houses are self-sufficient in electricity? That would have the dual benefit of reducing utility costs and saving the planet.
My hon. Friend is a persistent and effective advocate for renewable energy and for energy self-sufficiency. He is quite right that technology is currently emerging that may well enable domestic self-sufficiency in the future. I would be more than happy to explore the possibilities with him in the spring.
Do the Minister and the rest of the Ministers on the Front Bench not understand that those in local government are so demoralised by a lack of funding that they cannot get their heads round carbon-neutral housing or almost anything else because they are struggling to meet the basic needs? In my own local authority area, we do not even have a youth service any longer.
The latest figures show that over 222,000 new homes were delivered in England last year—clear progress towards our ambition of delivering 300,000 a year by the mid-2020s. This brings the total number delivered since 2010 to more than 1.3 million.
House building in Scotland has plummeted under the Scottish National party, which, since 2015, has also slashed UK-wide schemes like Help to Buy. What steps is my hon. Friend taking to work with the devolved Administration to make sure that UK-wide schemes are accessible to my constituents so that they do not miss out?
As my hon. Friend will know, my writ does not run north of the border. However, I note that in the autumn Budget of 2017, the Scottish Government received Barnett consequentials of almost £1 billion as a result of increased allocations to MHCLG for Help to Buy. I urge him and his colleagues north of the border to keep campaigning—to keep the pressure up—because Help to Buy is enormously popular and is helping many tens of thousands of first-time buyers, in particular, on to the housing ladder. At the very least, they should join him in campaigning for a Conservative victory in the Scottish elections in 2021 to make sure that people will get the homes they need.
Home ownership has been on a gradual decline for some time—the hon. Gentleman is quite right—under Governments of all types. The main reason, frankly, that it has declined very significantly is that Labour crashed the economy in 2007-08, as he well knows. The coalition Government and this Government inherited a housing crisis of enormous proportions. After the crash, net additions to the housing stock fell to a low of 134,000. We have thankfully now got it up to 222,000, with more yet to do, and made an enormous financial, technical and practical commitment to the housing market and to building the homes that the country needs, unlike Labour, which was so complacent that it ran us into a brick wall.
Unemployment in Hemel Hempstead is at the lowest level it has ever been since the new town was built, so we would think that there would be more right to buy in the case of the 18,000 council houses that we still have in the stock. Unfortunately, though, because there is a £77,000 limit on the amount of discount we can get, people working in the local community—nurses and firemen—cannot afford mortgages as the properties are very highly priced. Can we look at the £77,000 limit, particularly in the south-east, because it just not does work for right to buy?
As my right hon. Friend will know, home ownership is extremely important to the Government, as it is to him. Affordability is an issue in areas such as his, on the fringe of the capital. We have kept right-to-buy discount under review, and it was reinvigorated back in 2012, to address the issue that he raises. I urge him to speak to his local council, to explore other ways within the affordable housing envelope to address that issue. If he had been at questions last time, he would have heard a very good question from my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake) about discounted market sales, which may well be a route to ownership for many people.
Will the Minister meet me to discuss funding new affordable homes in rural communities such as mine in Cumbria by allowing councils to increase council tax on second homes? Excessive second home ownership robs our communities of a permanent population. A second homes tax could help to fund affordable homes for local families and keep our communities alive.
It would give me enormous pleasure to meet the hon. Gentleman to discuss that matter. As he will know, we have been looking at that in some detail, and the Under-Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond (Yorks) (Rishi Sunak), tells me that we are consulting on tightening up some of the loopholes, particularly around business rates and council tax. I recognise that in some parts of the country—not least my own—second homes can be an issue, and I would be happy to meet the hon. Gentleman to discuss that.
I would like to draw the attention of the hon. Member for Ochil and South Perthshire (Luke Graham) to an article in Inside Housing by Jules Birch called “England could learn a few things from Scotland when it comes to affordable housing”. Since 2007, the SNP Scottish Government have delivered 78,000 affordable homes, including more than 50,000 for social rent, because we have made it a priority. As this Government have fallen so far short of every target they have set, may I encourage the Minister to meet Kevin Stewart, the Scottish Government’s Housing Minister, to ask what he has done to achieve housing targets?
I am always happy to meet anybody who will help us to build more of the homes that Britain needs, and if someone from the SNP can spare some time from stoking grievance to meet constructively, I would be more than happy to do so. As I said, we are making an enormous effort to raise the output of the house building industry of all types of home, both public and private, in this country. We have managed to get up to 222,000 new homes, which is the largest expansion in house building for many decades—it is the highest level of output in all but one of the last 31 years. We are making good progress towards our target of 300,000 new homes a year of all types, including affordable, private and social.
Local Government Funding
With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to answer Question 9 with Question 17.
We are undertaking a review of local authorities’ relative resource and needs. We are making good progress in collaboration with the sector and are considering many topics that hon. Members have raised as we look to introduce a simple, accurate and transparent new funding formula.
Before the hon. Gentleman puts his question, I appreciate that the Minister is probably operating on earlier intelligence, but Question 17 has gone, and therefore the grouping is merely with Question 20—a point that I am sure other Members instantly knew and of which I am merely reminding them.
As the Minister knows, small urban areas have limited space to generate increased new homes bonus. If my hon. Friend could announce that Gloucester and Cheltenham were to be pilot projects for retaining all business rates revenue, that would be a welcome Christmas present, but in the absence of that, what advice would he give to good urban councils that are keen to maintain their services and regenerate their city or borough centres?
I was delighted to meet recently my hon. Friend and those in his local authority. It was inspiring to hear their ambitious plans to grow the local economy, and I commend them for their vision. I would urge them to look at the recently announced high streets fund, which can help them to ensure that their town remains a vibrant and prosperous community.
My hon. Friend is right to raise that. The review relates to the distribution of funding for core services that are funded through the local government finance settlement, but the Government have introduced a number of statutory and non-statutory compensation schemes along the HS2 route, including in my hon. Friend’s constituency, which are designed to compensate those whose properties are affected.
It is neither hysterical nor alarmist to say that local government faces an existential threat to its very being when even sensible, efficient and serious councils such as Ealing are having to cut their services to the bone and beyond. It is quite right that the Local Government Association’s current campaign is called “Breaking Point”. Has the Minister met the LGA, and if so, what succour can he offer it and councils such as Ealing?
I meet the LGA on almost a weekly basis, I am pleased to tell the hon. Gentleman. I can also say that the LGA, the County Councils Network and many other part of the local government sector warmly welcome the announcements in the recent Budget providing a substantial increase in funding for social care. They believe enormously in the confidence that this Government have shown in local authorities, when it comes to the future high streets fund and others, and in their ability to deliver for their communities and their residents.
The Minister may have read the article on the front page of today’s Manchester Evening News, which is both powerful and harrowing. It is a truly awful account of what it is like for homeless families in Manchester today by the brilliant journalist Jennifer Williams. When will the Government come forward with a proper comprehensive plan for funding for local government so that it can serve families and, when they are in desperate need, house them in decent homes?
I thank the hon. Lady for bringing to my attention that article, which I will be sure to look at later today. I know the Under-Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for South Derbyshire (Mrs Wheeler), who has responsibility for housing and homelessness, is hard at work tackling this difficult issue, with over £1 billion committed over the next few years. Indeed, I believe Manchester is a pilot for the Housing First schemes as well.
Voluntary Right to Buy Pilot Scheme
The midlands pilot was launched on 16 August, with over 9,000 house- holds registering for the ballot. Successful tenants are now applying to their housing association to buy their home. Our £200 million investment in the pilot will help thousands of housing association tenants to realise the dream of home ownership.
I realise this is a pilot, but if the Government do not know how many properties are available for sale and how many of the Mayor’s 6,000 lottery winners will actually be able to buy their own home, how is this the best use of scarce resources— £200 million—in the part of the country with the worst homelessness problem outside London and the south-east?
The whole purpose of a pilot is to answer the questions that the hon. Gentleman quite rightly raises. As for whether this is the best use of resources, I think that 9,146 housing association tenants in the area might agree it is, given that they applied for the funding. He is quite right that 6,000 were successful in the ballot, and we expect a smaller number than that to proceed to take advantage of buying their own home. Following the completion of the pilot, we will assess and answer those questions about where we go next.
My constituent Joanne Betts of Cawston in Rugby was very disappointed not to be successful in the ballot. When does the Minister think she may have an opportunity to buy her home? She has of course contributed a large proportion of its cost through the rent she has paid over many years.
My hon. Friend is quite right to raise the disappointment of his constituent. I am sorry that there were winners and losers in the ballot, but it was laid out early on in the pilot that the £200 million was capable of funding only a certain number of sales. We reckon that will be less than 6,000; we over-programmed it because not everybody will be able to proceed. Once the pilot is completed, and we can assess the results and the demand, we will be able to take a view on where we go next.
As the hon. Gentleman will understand, the pilot is a voluntary pilot. We agreed with the National Housing Federation that the midlands was a good place to do it to assess, from both the housing association sector and the Government side, how we can best effect and fulfil the aspiration of the majority of housing association tenants who want to own—from a financial point of view but also from an effectiveness point of view. We want the pilot to bed in, to see how it performs over the next couple of years and then to reach some conclusions after that.
The rough sleeping initiative has allocated £30 million to 83 local authorities, which are working to deliver 500 additional support workers and 1,750 extra bed spaces to support people off the street. The Government have also made available a £5 million cold weather fund for all areas to provide additional support this winter.
I thank the Minister for his answer. I wonder whether he could answer me a simple question. I would appreciate a one-word answer, as I am sure Mr Speaker will. The rough sleeping headcount in Birmingham took place last week. The figures are yet to be revealed. Does the Minister think that they will have gone up or down?
I am not going to predict, because—[Interruption.] I am sorry to disappoint the hon. Lady. I want to see the figures coming down, because it is about helping people off the street and changing their lives. No one chooses to be out on the street. That is why we are taking all the action that we are.
We recognise that there is a significant issue with what is known as dual diagnosis of mental ill health and alcohol addiction and how the two are intertwined, along with the use of novel psychoactive substances, which has compounded the issue. That is why we have asked the national health service to provide an additional £30 million to address those issues and get better data on them.
There cannot be a Member in this House who has failed to notice the exponential rise in people sleeping on our streets, and not just in cities such as London, but in places such as Dewsbury, which I represent. Will the Secretary of State tell us what progress has been made on the Government pledge to end homelessness?
It is our intent to see rough sleeping ended. I highlighted in my earlier answer the additional beds, the additional workers and the funding support that has been put in place, because it is about progress over the next few years, but also action now, which is what the rough sleeping initiative is all about: saving lives and seeing more people come off the street.
Homelessness and Social Housing
Access to social housing is managed locally, but certain people must be given priority, including homeless households. The social housing Green Paper announced an evidence collection exercise to understand how the allocations framework is working and whether it is striking the right balance of fairness, support and aspiration.
Two hundred and eighty-nine young people are presenting themselves as homeless in Bath and North East Somerset Council alone. Will the Minister’s Department use the current review of social housing regulation to ensure that social housing allocation policies do not lock out young people, who are especially disadvantaged by the current policy?
I thank my hon. Friend for his question. Unfortunately, I did not hear the very beginning of it, but I think the gist was that the Homelessness Reduction Act 2017 is a very welcome new Act. We are grateful for everybody’s hard work on it earlier this year. We will review it after 24 months, but so far my understanding is that local councils are impressed with how well it is being embedded.
Shared Prosperity Fund
Leaving the European Union offers great opportunity to the country, including coming up with a shared prosperity fund that aligns our national priorities. Good progress is being made, and we intend to consult on the design of the UK shared prosperity fund shortly.
I am sure the whole House will agree that Cornwall is unique in many ways—we have our own heritage and culture, including our own language—but we also face a number of unique economic challenges, particularly from our geography as a peninsula and after decades of under-investment. Will the Minister confirm that the shared prosperity fund will continue to support the Cornish economy, so that we can all continue to say, “Kernow bys vyken!”?
If I may respond in Cornish, I take the opportunity to wish my hon. Friend and all his constituents Nadelik lowen. With only 109 shopping days to Brexit, I can reassure my hon. Friend that the UK shared prosperity fund will be simplified and targeted, and will tackle the challenges of our whole country, including those facing Cornwall.
This weekend, the mayor of Liverpool, Joe Anderson, resigned from the Northern Powerhouse Partnership. He says he no longer sees the benefit, given that it was set up by a Government who just do not want to listen to it. At the same time, the Institute for Public Policy Research North paints a stark picture, where the north gets £2,500 less per head in investment on transport than London. The northern powerhouse Minister literally has one job to do. What’s going on?
As Harry Enfield and his chums would say about anyone from Liverpool, including me: “Calm down, calm down.” I can confirm today that we have announced £38.4 million for Liverpool. I completely refute the IPPR figures. They exclude 60% of spending across regional boundaries. They do not apportion spending where the benefit is felt. If the hon. Gentleman wants to give some advice to his chums in the left-wing IPPR think-tank, he might say that next time they produce such figures they should print them on softer paper.
The Government remain committed to ensuring that the survivors of the Grenfell Tower tragedy receive the support they need. This includes financial, practical and health support, as well as making sure that all survivors are permanently rehoused by the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea as quickly as possible.
My hon. Friend is right to highlight the continuing psychological and mental health issues. The NHS continues proactive outreach—there is a screening for trauma programme—and NHS support is available 24 hours a day for all who require it. NHS England has committed up to £50 million to fund long-term health checks and treatment for all those affected by the Grenfell Tower fire.
Latest figures this morning showed that households in hotels and in temporary accommodation add up to 107 households: 107 households will be homeless at Christmas. These are people from the Tower, the walkways and nearby buildings who are unable to come home. Some of those people have had no money. We had one case last week where someone had no money for five months. Somebody else was seen begging at Ladbroke Grove because they have no money. They are not getting the help the Secretary of State believes. Why should we believe a single word he says?
The hon. Lady rightly challenges on behalf of her constituents. What I would say to her very clearly is that 201 households from Grenfell Tower and the Walk need rehousing; 193 have accepted permanent offers and seven have accepted temporary offers; and 179 households have moved in. I accept that there needs to be more effort in relation to emergency accommodation and getting people out of hotels. Progress is being made and we will continue to support the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea to do that and get people into permanent homes.
It is 18 months after Grenfell and a quarter of families are still not in permanent homes. The problem goes wider. We have found out that 16 out of the 20 tall tower blocks in Kensington, several within full view of Grenfell Tower, still do not have sprinklers, and only 4% of council blocks in London have sprinklers. Sprinklers are mandatory in new tall buildings because they keep people safe, but councils do not have the funds to retrofit social housing blocks. The Government have brushed away every single request for help as non-essential. Why do the Government continue to stigmatise and discriminate against social housing tenants?
The hon. Lady will know that one of the key elements of our social housing Green Paper was to break stigma, and I challenge very firmly to ensure that people in social housing are treated fairly and appropriately. She highlights the issue of sprinklers and is right that in relation to new builds, we have put firm requirements in place. We have said that if local councils require flexibilities to be able to assist with that and the management of those buildings, we will certainly consider that fairly, because our priority is to ensure that people living in high-rise blocks are safe.
Local Government Funding
We took the opportunity to share our work with the special rapporteur and are considering his specific findings as they relate to the policy responsibilities of this Department.
The 14 million that the UN identified as in poverty in our country are not just in the Hovis adverts of the industrial heartlands, but in leafy west London. How would the Minister advise Ealing Council to resource the five extra adult social care cases a week that come across its desk and the rising number of child social services cases, when it has had a 64% cut in its budget since the Government came to power?
What I would say to Ealing Council is that it will shortly receive several million pounds extra to spend on its social care priorities. I would also point out that its reserves have increased in the last few years and are available for it to spend as it requires.
Housing remains the Government’s top priority and the work of my Department continues at pace. The latest figures show that we have delivered more than 222,000 new homes—the highest for a decade—but especially as the temperatures drop, we are taking decisive action to support vulnerable people without a home and have published our rough sleeping strategy delivery plan. Shortly, I will publish our draft local government finance settlement with a new fairer method for allocation to help our councils to deliver high-quality services. Finally, as Jewish families across the country gather to light the candles of Hanukkah, I want to wish everyone celebrating a happy and peaceful Hanukkah.
When I find time to do my Christmas shopping, I will do my best to support the local high streets in Lincolnshire. Will my right hon. Friend tell the House what his Department is doing to ensure that our high streets have the support to survive and thrive in our communities?
High streets are the hub of our communities, which is why I am delighted that we have announced a £675 million future high streets fund to invest in our high streets, as well as, for example, launching an open doors pilot to bring empty properties back into use, and matching landlords of vacant premises with local community groups to ensure that our high streets are vibrant community places.
Some debt collection practices, particularly the heavy-handed use of bailiffs, make matters worse, not better, so what is the Secretary of State doing to promote the recent Money Advice Service toolkit initiative? How is he making sure that the way council tax debt is collected does not lead to further financial hardship and stress?
I would be happy to look further into that for the hon. Lady. On council tax debt collection, the Government’s position is clear: enforcement should be a last resort, and there is strict guidance in place to ensure the proper collection of council tax, done in a proportionate and civil manner.
Nothing is more important than making sure that people are safe in their homes. I have made it clear that building owners are responsible for the safety of their buildings and they should protect leaseholders from costs. Local authorities have our full support to take enforcement action to make buildings safe, and it is our priority to ensure that people are safe and secure in their homes.
The hon. Lady is absolutely right. It was appalling what was happening in Bristol in that hostel. The Government are committed to protecting vulnerable people. We are developing robust oversight of all supported housing, including homelessness hostels, and are undertaking a review of housing-related support services to ensure that all provision is of good quality and that appropriate support is provided. We are working with local government to support those experiencing rough sleeping and homelessness including with safety measures.
It was a pleasure to join my hon. Friend shopping on his local high streets. The Government’s future high streets fund will help high streets to thrive, adapt and change. We will publish the prospectus shortly, and I would encourage Longton and Fenton, as well as the other towns that make up Stoke-on-Trent, to express their interest in the fund.
I congratulate my hon. Friend and his local authority colleagues on their ambition in welcoming this new garden community to their area. I can confirm that all such communities should be well planned, and include appropriate infrastructure, both hard and soft, so that they are of benefit to the local area, rather than a subtraction.
I am sure the hon. Gentleman will be able to discuss this and other issues when we have the provisional settlement. He will see the support we are giving to local authorities, giving that commitment to local communities and ensuring high-quality services.
My hon. Friend’s commitment to using technology and public services is well known to the House and is a passion I share. I was delighted that his council, Worcestershire, was involved in three winning bids to our £7. 5 million local digital innovation fund. I congratulate it and look forward to seeing the fruits of its innovation.
Lichfield, Tamworth and Burton Councils are members of two local enterprise partnerships—the Greater Birmingham and Solihull LEP and the Staffordshire LEP. Why is my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State trying to abandon localism and force them to join just the Staffordshire LEP?
Our LEP review is about putting our LEPs on a permanent footing as we leave the European Union. Abolishing overlaps is about creating accountability for all LEPs and is part of a wider suite of reforms ensuring that LEP boards reflect the diverse communities they represent by asking them to have at least 50% of their boards made up of local businesswomen.
It is right that we challenge and tackle religious intolerance, whatever form it takes. I look forward to continuing to work with the Scottish Government and others to underline the positive approach that we take to integration, and ensuring that if there is intolerance and bigotry, it is challenged and shown to be completely unacceptable.
My right hon. Friend referred to the power that he has given local authorities to carry out emergency work to replace dangerous cladding and charge the owners. However, many owners are able to claim against the leaseholders for the costs under the terms of their leases, and that anomaly defeats the Government’s policy. Will my right hon. Friend meet me to discuss how the position might be rectified?
I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman’s personal leadership on this issue. I commend Celtic football club on its forward thinking, and, indeed, commend all other football clubs that have done the same. I recently met the Changing Places consortium and the campaign group. I share the hon. Gentleman’s passion for ensuring that those with complex disabilities have every opportunity to enjoy a dignified and fulfilling life, and installing more Changing Places is something that we should all support.
Northamptonshire’s police and crime commissioner, Stephen Mold, is very kindly lending Corby’s former police station to Corby Nightlight to help its invaluable work in supporting homeless people in our community. Will my right hon. Friend commend that collaboration, so that when Nightlight moves to its new premises next year, there will be no interruption in service?
In my local borough of Enfield, children’s services are at breaking point. Can the Secretary of State assure me that adequate funds will be found in the local government financial settlement for those services, and for child and adolescent mental health services?
I hope that when the hon. Gentleman hears the statement on the provisional settlement, he will recognise the commitment that we make to children’s as well as adult social services. However, I recognise the pressures that exist. We want to see innovation, and we want to see those services improve. I look forward to discussing the issue with the hon. Gentleman.
Exiting the European Union
With permission, Mr Speaker, I will make a statement on exiting the European Union.
We have now had three days of debate on the withdrawal agreement setting out the terms of our departure from the EU, and the political declaration setting out our future relationship after we have left. I have listened very carefully to what has been said, in the Chamber and out of it, by Members on all sides. From listening to those views, it is clear that while there is broad support for many of the key aspects of the deal, on one issue, the Northern Ireland backstop, there remains widespread and deep concern. As a result, if we went ahead and held the vote tomorrow, the deal would be rejected by a significant margin. We will therefore defer the vote scheduled for tomorrow, and will not proceed to divide the House at this time.
I set out in my speech opening the debate last week the reasons why the backstop is a necessary guarantee to the people of Northern Ireland and why, whatever future relationship you want, there is no deal available that does not include the backstop. Behind all those arguments are some inescapable facts: the fact that Northern Ireland shares a land border with another sovereign state; the fact that the hard-won peace that has been built in Northern Ireland over the last two decades has been built around a seamless border; and the fact that Brexit will create a wholly new situation.
On 30 March the Northern Ireland-Ireland border will for the first time become the external frontier of the European Union’s single market and customs union. The challenge this poses must be met not with rhetoric but with real and workable solutions. Businesses operate across that border. People live their lives crossing and re-crossing it every day. I have been there and spoken to some of those people; they do not want their everyday lives to change as a result of the decision we have taken. They do not want a return to a hard border. If this House cares about preserving our Union, it must listen to those people, because our Union will only endure with their consent.
We had hoped that the changes we have secured to the backstop would reassure Members that we could never be trapped in it indefinitely. I hope the House will forgive me if I take a moment to remind it of those changes. The customs element of the backstop is now UK-wide; it no longer splits our country into two customs territories. This also means that the backstop is now an uncomfortable arrangement for the EU, so it will not want it to come into use, or to persist for long if it does.
Both sides are now legally committed to using best endeavours to have our new relationship in place before the end of the implementation period, ensuring the backstop is never used. If our new relationship is not ready, we can now choose to extend the implementation period, further reducing the likelihood of the backstop coming into use. If the backstop ever does come into use, we now do not have to get the new relationship in place to get out of it; alternative arrangements that make use of technology could be put in place instead. The treaty is now clear that the backstop can only ever be temporary, and there is now a termination clause.
But I am clear from what I have heard in this place and from my own conversations that these elements do not offer a sufficient number of colleagues the reassurance that they need. I spoke to a number of EU leaders over the weekend, and in advance of the European Council I will go to see my counterparts in other member states and the leadership of the Council and the Commission. I will discuss with them the clear concerns that this House has expressed.
We are also looking closely at new ways of empowering the House of Commons to ensure that any provision for a backstop has democratic legitimacy and to enable the House to place its own obligations on the Government—[Interruption.] To enable the House to place its own obligations on the Government to ensure that the backstop cannot be in place indefinitely.
Mr Speaker, having spent the best part of two years poring over the detail of Brexit, listening to the public’s ambitions, and, yes, their fears too, and testing the limits of what the other side is prepared to accept, I am in absolutely no doubt that this deal is the right one. [Interruption.] It honours the result of the referendum. [Interruption.]
Order. The remainder of the statement must be heard, and I invite the House to hear it with courtesy. For the avoidance of doubt, and also for the benefit of those attending to our proceedings who are not Members of the House, I emphasise that, as per usual, I will call everyone who wants to question the Prime Minister, but meanwhile please hear her.
It honours the result of the referendum. It protects jobs, security and our Union. But it also represents the very best deal that is actually negotiable with the EU. I believe in it, as do many Members of this House, and I still believe there is a majority to be won in this House in support of it if I can secure additional reassurance on the question of the backstop, and that is what my focus will be in the days ahead.
But if you take a step back, it is clear that the House faces a much more fundamental question. Does this House want to deliver Brexit? [Hon. Members: “No!”] That is a clear message from the Scottish National party. If the House does want to deliver Brexit, does it want to do so through reaching an agreement with the EU? If the answer is yes, and I believe that is the answer of the majority of this House, then we all have to ask ourselves whether we are prepared to make a compromise, because there will be no enduring and successful Brexit without some compromise on both sides of the debate.
Many of the most controversial aspects of this deal, including the backstop, are simply inescapable facts of having a negotiated Brexit. Those Members who continue to disagree need to shoulder the responsibility of advocating an alternative solution that can be delivered, and do so without ducking its implications. So if you want a second referendum to overturn the result of the first, be honest that this risks dividing the country again, when as a House we should be striving to bring it back together. If you want to remain part of the single market and the customs union, be open that this would require free movement, rule taking across the economy and ongoing financial contributions—none of which are in my view compatible with the result of the referendum. If you want to leave without a deal, be up front that in the short term, this would cause significant economic damage to parts of our country who can least afford to bear the burden. I do not believe that any of those courses of action command a majority in this House. But notwithstanding that fact, for as long as we fail to agree a deal, the risk of an accidental no deal increases. So the Government will step up their work in preparation for that potential outcome, and the Cabinet will hold further discussions on it this week.
The vast majority of us accept the result of the referendum and want to leave with a deal. We have a responsibility to discharge. If we will the ends, we must also will the means. I know that Members across the House appreciate how important that responsibility is. I am very grateful to all Members on this side of the House—and a few on the other side, too—who have backed this deal and spoken up for it. Many others, I know, have been wrestling with their consciences, particularly over the question of the backstop. They are seized of the need to face up to the challenge posed by the Irish border, but genuinely concerned about the consequences. I have listened. I have heard those concerns and I will now do everything I possibly can to secure further assurances.
If I may, I will conclude on a personal note. On the morning after the referendum two and a half years ago, I knew that we had witnessed a defining moment for our democracy. Places that did not get a lot of attention at elections and did not get much coverage on the news were making their voices heard and saying that they wanted things to change. I knew in that moment that Parliament had to deliver for them. Of course that does not just mean delivering Brexit. It means working across all areas—building a stronger economy, improving public services, tackling social injustices—to make this a country that truly works for everyone—[Interruption.]
It means working across all areas to make this a country that truly works for everyone, and a country where nowhere and nobody is left behind. These matters are too important to be afterthoughts in our politics. They deserve to be at the centre of our thinking, but that can happen only if we get Brexit done and get it done right.
Even though I voted remain, from the moment I took up the responsibility of being Prime Minister of this great country, I have known that my duty is to honour the result of that vote. And I have been just as determined to protect the jobs that put food on the tables of working families and the security partnerships that keep each one of us safe. That is what this deal does. It gives us control of our borders, our money and our laws. It protects jobs, security and our Union. It is the right deal for Britain. I am determined to do all I can to secure the reassurances this House requires, to get this deal over the line and deliver for the British people. I commend this statement to the House.
I thank the Prime Minister for providing a copy of the statement before we met here this afternoon. We are in an extremely serious and unprecedented situation. The Government have lost control of events and are in complete disarray. It has been evident for weeks that the Prime Minister’s deal does not have the confidence of this House, yet she ploughed on regardless, reiterating “This is the only deal available.” Can she be clear with the House: is she seeking changes to the deal, or mere reassurances? Does she therefore accept the statement from the European Commission at lunchtime, saying that it was the
“only deal possible. We will not renegotiate—our position has…not changed”?
Ireland’s Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, has said it is “not possible” to renegotiate the Irish border backstop, stating that it was the Prime Minister’s own red lines that made the backstop necessary. So can the Prime Minister be clear: is she now ready to drop further red lines in order to make progress? Can the Prime Minister confirm that the deal presented to this House is not off the table, but will be re-presented with a few assurances? Bringing back the same botched deal, either next week or in January—and can she be clear on the timing?—will not change its fundamental flaws or the deeply held objections right across this House, which go far wider than the backstop alone.
This a bad deal for Britain, a bad deal for our economy and a bad deal for our democracy. Our country deserves better than this. The deal damages our economy, and it is not just the Opposition saying that; the Government’s own analysis shows that this deal would make us worse off. If the Prime Minister cannot be clear that she can and will renegotiate the deal, she must make way. If she is going back to Brussels, she needs to build a consensus in this House. Since it appears that business has changed for the next two days, it seems not only possible but necessary that this House debates the negotiating mandate that the Prime Minister takes to Brussels. There is no point at all in this Prime Minister bringing back the same deal again, which is clearly not supported by this House.
We have endured two years of shambolic negotiations. Red lines have been boldly announced and then cast aside. We are now on our third Brexit Secretary, and it appears that each one of them has been excluded from these vital negotiations. We were promised a precise and substantive document, and we got a vague 26-page wishlist. This Government have become the first Government in British history to be held in contempt of Parliament.
The Government are in disarray. Uncertainty is building for business. People are in despair at the state of these failed negotiations, and concerned about what it means for their jobs, their livelihoods and their communities. The fault for that lies solely at the door of this shambolic Government. The Prime Minister is trying to buy herself one last chance to save this deal. If she does not take on board the fundamental changes required, she must make way for those who can.
I will respond fairly briefly. The right hon. Gentleman appears to argue, on the one hand, that it is not possible to change the deal because the EU has said that this is the only deal and, on the other hand, that the only thing he would accept is the deal being renegotiated. He quoted the European Union as saying this is the only deal, and he went on to say that the whole deal needs to be renegotiated.
The fundamental question that Members of this House have to ask themselves is whether they wish to deliver Brexit and honour the result of the referendum. All the analysis shows that, if we wish to deliver Brexit, if we wish to honour the result of the referendum, the deal that does that, and that best protects jobs and our economy, is the deal the Government have put forward. [Interruption.]
That is the fundamental question for Members of this House: to deliver on and honour the result of the referendum, but to do it in a way that protects jobs and our economy. That is what this deal does.
The Leader of the Opposition talks about a number of issues. He wants to be in the customs union such that the single market and free movement would have to be accepted. He refuses to accept that any deal requires a backstop, because that is our commitment to the people of Northern Ireland. He claims that he wants to negotiate trade deals, yet he wants to be fully in the customs union, which would not enable us to negotiate those trade deals. Finally, he talks about the uncertainty for British business. I can tell him that the biggest uncertainty for British business lies not in this deal but on the Front Bench of the Labour party.
Order. Before I look to the Father of the House, and then other colleagues, I want to say the following. Although the Government’s intention to halt the forthcoming debate at this inordinately late stage has been widely leaked to the media in advance, I felt it only appropriate to hear what is proposed before advising the House. Halting the debate, after no fewer than 164 colleagues have taken the trouble to contribute, will be thought by many Members of this House to be deeply discourteous. Indeed, in the hours since news of this intention emerged, many colleagues from across the House have registered that view to me in the most forceful terms.
Having taken the best procedural advice, colleagues should be informed that there are two ways of doing this. The first and, in democratic terms, the infinitely preferable way is for a Minister to move at the outset of the debate that the debate be adjourned. This will give the House the opportunity to express its view in a vote on whether or not it wishes the debate to be brought to a premature and inconclusive end. I can reassure Ministers that I would be happy to accept such a motion so that the House can decide.
The alternative is for the Government unilaterally to decline to move today’s business, which means not only that the House is deprived of its opportunity to vote upon the substance of the debate tomorrow but that it is given no chance to express its view today on whether the debate should or should not be allowed to continue.
I politely suggest that, in any courteous, respectful and mature environment, allowing the House to have its say on this matter would be the right and, dare I say it, the obvious course to take. Let us see if those who have assured this House and the public, over and over again, that this supremely important vote is going to take place tomorrow, without fail, wish to rise to the occasion.
On the question of Europe, this House is divided not just into parties; it is divided into factions. It becomes clear that, at the moment, there is no predictable majority for any single course of action going forward. Does my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister agree that no other Governments are going to start negotiations with us on any new arrangement while the British continue to explore what exactly it is they can get a parliamentary majority to agree to?
Furthermore, we are strictly bound, quite rightly, to the Good Friday agreement and the issue of a permanently open border in Ireland. Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is particular folly for a large faction in this House to continue with their argument that we should insist to the other Governments that the British will have a unilateral right to declare an end to that open border at a time of their choosing? That is why the backstop remains inevitable.
I certainly agree. I think none of the alternative arrangements that have been floated and suggested in this House would actually command a majority of this House. My right hon. and learned Friend is also right that we retain our absolute commitment to the Belfast/Good Friday agreement and to the commitments that the United Kingdom Government made within that agreement. Any agreement that was being negotiated with the European Union, be that either of the other two options that are normally quoted—the Norway option in some form and the Canada option in some form—would require negotiation, could risk the possibility of there being a period of time when that relationship was not in place and, therefore, would indeed require a backstop.
I thank the Prime Minister for advance sight of the statement, and I thank you, Mr Speaker, for the benefit of your words on how we could proceed.
The events of the past few hours have highlighted that this is a Government in a total state of collapse. The Prime Minister has been forced to pull tomorrow’s vote in a stunning display of pathetic cowardice. The vote tomorrow night would have shown the will of this House, but this Government are focused on saving the Prime Minister’s job and her party. Instead of doing what is right for these countries, she is abdicating her responsibility.
The Prime Minister’s deal will make people poorer. It will lead to years of further uncertainty and difficult negotiation, with no guarantee that a trade deal can even be struck. It does not have the support of those on her Back Benches; indeed, it has no support from the majority of those on the Benches across this place, no support from the Scottish Parliament and no support from the Welsh Assembly. Why has it taken the Prime Minister this long to face up to reality? Her deal was dead in the water long before this morning. Last week, it was this deal or no deal. She now needs to be clear with this House about what has changed.
Scotland voted overwhelmingly to remain in the EU, but yet again our views are being ignored, as they have been throughout this disastrous and incompetent Brexit process. Back in 2014, Scotland was promised the strength and security of the UK, but the reality has been Westminster collapse and chaos. We were promised an equal partnership, but we have been treated with contempt.
The Prime Minister has lost the confidence of those on her own Benches, and she has failed to convince this House of her plan for exiting the EU. We simply cannot go on like this. It is clear that the Prime Minister is incapable of taking decisions about the future and that Downing Street cannot negotiate any more—either with the EU or with those on the Tory Back Benches. What the Prime Minister is really scared of is allowing this House to determine the way forward and allowing the public the opportunity to remain in the EU. She knows she has lost, but she is still wasting precious time. We need the Prime Minister to be clear about when the House will vote on this deal.
This Government and the Prime Minister have failed. It is time they got out of the way. Prime Minister, Members across this House do not want your deal. The EU does not want to renegotiate. Is not the only way to break this deadlock to put it to the people?
The hon. Lady asked what I have been doing. What I have been doing is listening to Members of this House who have identified a very specific concern with the deal that was negotiated. As I said, we negotiated within that deal a number of aspects to address the issue around the permanence or otherwise of the backstop. I had hoped those would give sufficient confidence to Members of this House. It has proved, in discussions, that they have not, and therefore we are going to work to get those further reassurances that I want to ensure, with other Members of the House—
If the shadow Foreign Secretary would just have a little patience. The date of the vote was one of the questions asked by the Scottish National party and I am going to address that matter. The responsibility of this Government is to deliver on the result of the referendum and do so in a way that is good for the whole of the United Kingdom, and that is what this deal does. We are deferring the vote and I will be going to seek those assurances. Obviously, there are two parties in this—the United Kingdom and the EU—so we will be holding those discussions. Members will know that there is in legislation the issue of the 21 January date—[Interruption.] The shadow Foreign Secretary shouts “21 January” as though it is the first time she has heard of it. I suspect she actually voted for it when it went through this House, but there we are.
The key point of the remarks made by the hon. Member for Aberdeen North (Kirsty Blackman) was that this should go back to another vote of the public. I have said, and she will not hear me say anything different from what I have said previously, that I believe it is important to honour the result of the referendum. I believe it is a matter of the duty of Members of this House to honour that referendum result. I believe also that it is a matter of faith in politicians that those many people who for the first time ever or for many decades went out and voted for leaving the European Union are able to have the confidence that the politicians in this House delivered for them.
I would like to focus my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister on the issue of the backstop, as it is critical to whatever she conducts with the European Union. Does she not agree that now that she has, in essence, suspended the remaining part of this debate, it is incumbent on her and the Government to go forward boldly to the EU and remind them that they have already said that no matter what arrangements would be in place there would be no hard border on the border of Ireland, and so have the Irish? Given that, will she now commit to going back to them to say that they need to reopen the withdrawal agreement, and to insert into it a commitment to open borders and take out those restrictions that would take away the power and control from this Parliament to decide its future?
I say two things to my right hon. Friend. He is right that the EU has been clear, as we have, about ensuring there is no hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland. Actually, the EU has also been clear, as it is in the withdrawal agreement, about the temporary nature of the backstop. So he is right that we should go boldly back to the European Union on these issues. We have been rigorously and robustly debating with the EU on this, and achieved a number of changes to the withdrawal agreement in order to ensure that there could be that reassurance of the temporary nature of the backstop. However, it is now for me and this Government to go back to Europe, and to make the point that those assurances have not been sufficient for Members of this House. Nothing should be off the table, but everybody should be very clear that in calling for a reopening of the withdrawal agreement there are issues that would then be put back on the table, including the Northern Ireland-only customs territory.
After the fiasco today, the Government have really lost all authority. Let me just say that my colleagues and I will fully support the Leader of the Opposition if he now proceeds to a no-confidence vote, as duty surely calls. Specifically on the statement, may I ask the Prime Minister: how many of the Heads of Government whom she telephoned over the weekend have indicated that they would consider the Irish backstop dispensable?
The discussions that we have consistently had, as I have indicated in my references to other arrangements, are that there should be a backstop to ensure that there is no hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland. The concern that has been raised predominantly by colleagues is the question of the permanence or otherwise of that backstop, and the need to ensure that it can brought to an end and will not continue indefinitely. A number of the European leaders I have spoken to have indicated that they are open to discussions to find a way to provide reassurance to Members of this House on that point.
The Prime Minister knows that the withdrawal agreement and the political declaration both cover many legal issues beyond the backstop, important and vital though that is. Those issues include the European Court, control over our own laws and questions relating to compatibility with the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018. Under the ministerial code, there is an absolute obligation to consult the Attorney General formally and in good time before committing to critical decisions that involve legal considerations. Under the order of the House of, I think, 4 December, the Government must publish in full the Attorney General’s advice on both the withdrawal agreement and the framework. So far, the only advice that has been published is on the Northern Ireland protocol. Did the Prime Minister seek the Attorney General’s advice, under the code, on both these matters in good time, or did she not? If she did seek his advice, why has it not been published?
I think my hon. Friend has asked me variations of that question each time I have made a statement recently. I am clear that the Government undertake their responsibilities in relation to the seeking of legal advice entirely properly and appropriately. Of course, the Government published a full legal position on the withdrawal agreement, and that contained more detail than Governments have previously published on any such occasion or in any similar event. Not only have we done that, but the Attorney General came to the House, made a statement and took many questions from Members on these issues.
Frankly, what the Prime Minister says today simply is not credible, is it? This is an impossible position for the Government to find themselves in. The Prime Minister says that she is listening, but she talks about reassurances and assurances. Does she not get it by now that the withdrawal agreement legally binding text is unacceptable to this House? She cannot pretend and go on defending the deal when she knows that had the vote been taken tomorrow, the deal would have been overwhelmingly defeated. Please, Prime Minister, really do start to listen and come back with changes to the withdrawal agreement, or it will be voted down.
The purpose of the announcement today that we will defer the vote and return to this matter is precisely to be able to go and discuss with other European leaders, the Council and the Commission those further reassurances that the House requires on the issues that Members are concerned about, notably whether or not the backstop, should it ever be used, can be brought to an end. That is exactly what we will be doing.
I encourage my right hon. Friend to ignore the Opposition’s mockery; I would always prefer a Prime Minister who will listen. Has she also heard the concern of West Midlands manufacturers that leaving with no deal would cause unnecessary economic damage? The best way to avoid that is to leave with a deal.
We did indeed listen to manufacturers in the West Midlands and up and down the country as we were putting the deal together. That desire to protect people’s jobs and livelihoods while respecting and delivering on the result of the referendum has underpinned the deal that we have, and this deal does exactly that.
The Prime Minister challenged others to be up front about what they want, but she needs to be up front, too, about the fact that it was her red lines that created the problem with the border in Northern Ireland, which led to the backstop and which has brought her to the House of Commons today in such a weak position. Given the answer that she gave a moment ago, will she tell the House whether, of the EU leaders that she spoke to over the weekend, there was a single one who indicated that they were prepared to renegotiate article 20 of the backstop protocol, because, in the absence of any such commitment, is not cancelling tomorrow’s vote merely postponing the inevitable?
The issue on which we were very clear with the European Union in relation to the Northern Ireland border was that there could not be a customs border down the Irish sea. In February, the EU’s proposals were that exactly that should happen. By October, we had persuaded it to enable a UK-wide customs territory to be in the protocol rather than a Northern Ireland-wide customs territory. That was the key issue in relation to the border that we had set as something that was unacceptable to the United Kingdom and we negotiated that out of the proposal.
I entirely share my right hon. Friend’s concern about the maintenance of the Belfast agreement, the peace process in Northern Ireland and an open border, but is not the reality of what has happened, which this Brexit that is being negotiated highlights with total starkness, that, far from recovering sovereignty as has been proclaimed, we are in fact about to part with it, replacing a bilateral agreement with the Irish Government, sustained by referendums on both sides of the border, with an arrangement on which no one has been consulted and that ruthlessly undermines our sovereign rights? In those circumstances, and mindful of the fact that she faces many difficulties here that are not of her making, surely we should go back to the public and ask them whether that is what they want, and offer them the alternative of remaining in the EU.
Every Member of this House who has raised this issue of going back to the public on this matter needs to consider very carefully the impact that that would have. I believe that it would lead to a significant loss of faith in our democracy, and to many people questioning the role of this House and the role of Members within this House. We gave people the decision. The people have made that decision; we should deliver on it.
Nothing has changed in the level of parliamentary concern about the Prime Minister’s deal since last week, but she still sent her Ministers and her official spokesperson out at 11 this morning to say that this vote was 100% going ahead, and yet we still, even now, do not know when she wants to bring this vote back, or even what she wants the deal to be. Does she not realise how chaotic and ridiculous this makes our country look? Given the importance of trust and credibility in this entire process, how can she possibly talk about duty and honour, and faith in politicians, when we cannot even trust the most basic things her Ministers are saying?
No, I should be clear with the right hon. Lady and with the House that I consulted the Cabinet late-morning about the decision to defer the vote. That decision was taken because of an understanding of a concern that Members of this House have expressed in relation to the backstop. It was taken, having discussed with Members of the House whether the reassurances that had previously been negotiated by the UK Government were sufficient to allay those concerns. It is that issue on which we will be going back to European Union and it is that issue on which we will be seeking those further reassurances. I say once again that this House has a responsibility, and there will come a point when it will be up to every Member of this House to determine whether they will accept the result of the referendum and deliver a deal for the British people that ensures a smooth exit from Brexit and that protects jobs and livelihoods.
Mr Speaker, as one of the 164 Members you referred to who have already spoken in this debate, may I assure the Prime Minister that I think that it is more important that we end up with the right deal for this country? What is most important for Parliament is that it is seen to take its responsibility and, if possible, agree a deal. Given that, as she rightly identifies, the Irish backstop has been the one element that has discouraged very many people across the House from supporting this deal, will she give the House an update on her conversations with European leaders over the last few days on whether progress is possible on that, and therefore can she give us some assurance that Parliament will be able to fulfil its responsibilities and agree a deal?
I thank my right hon. Friend for his comments. Of course, the speeches of all Members who have already participated in the debate continue to be an important contribution to the debate on this subject. Having spoken to European leaders, I can give my right hon. Friend the assurance that they are open to discussions with us on this issue. I am confident that we will be able to see some further changes. Of course, that will be the matter for further negotiations.
Does the Prime Minister realise that she has handed over power not to people in this House, but to the people she is going to negotiate with over there in Europe? She looks very weak, and she is. They want to be able to demonstrate their power to every other country that might be thinking about getting out of the EU, and she has handed them that power by demonstrating what Britain is doing. The British Prime Minister does not know whether she is on this earth or Fuller’s because of the actions she has taken. Mrs Thatcher had a word for what she has done today. F-R-I-T—she’s frit.
The control of the timing of the backstop by the European Union hands enormous amount of negotiating power to the other side in this negotiation. Without change, it jeopardises the control of our money, borders, regulatory independence and, yes, our constitution too. It must therefore be time-limited under our control, and that must be legally enforceable. Is that what the Prime Minister is seeking?
The issue of the length of time for which the backstop could or should be in place, if it is ever used—once again, it is the intention of neither side that it be used—is a matter that is already addressed in the withdrawal agreement. People here are concerned about the extent to which they can trust those assurances within the withdrawal agreement, which is why it is important to go back and get further reassurances.
The Prime Minister has changed her mind about the vote and about whether the backstop can be amended. If she can change her mind, why will she not just check whether the British people have changed their minds since they voted two years ago?
Does the hon. Lady honestly think that if we were to have a further referendum and it came out with a different result, people would not then say that we should have a third referendum to find out exactly what the result was? And if we had a second referendum with the same result, I also wonder whether the hon. Lady would still be asking for a third referendum. This Parliament gave people the choice and the people decided. They voted; we should deliver on it.
Far from being frit, I think this Prime Minister has great courage in coming back to face this House and delay the vote in an effort to get the best possible deal for this country. Quite frankly, some people who voted in the referendum did so for the first time, and they decided to accept the result no matter on which side they voted. Surely we should not be letting them down; they will see little point in exercising their vote again if the result is not honoured and we call a second referendum.
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. Those people, many of whom voted for the first time at all or the first time in decades when they voted in the referendum in 2016, will indeed question why they should vote in future if this Parliament does not deliver on that vote. As she says, people across the country, whether they voted leave or remain, are saying, “This was the result: let’s just get on with it; let’s deliver it.”
In the light of this morning’s European Court judgment pursued by the hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh South West (Joanna Cherry), the right hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake) and myself, which clarified that all options are available for our country, may I make the Prime Minister a sincere offer in the hope that she will at least keep her options open? If she takes her Brexit proposal back to the British public for a final say, and also allows the public the chance to stay in the European Union, she can be assured of significant support from many Opposition Members.
Prime Minister, you will recall how a number of us on these Benches urged you—indeed, begged you—to reach out across these Benches, across this House and, indeed, across our country and find a compromise and a consensus before you laid down your red lines and before you began your negotiations. After three days of debating, and given the statement of the Commission this lunchtime, it is clear that nothing has changed and nothing will change. But the thing that is changing is the view of the British people. [Hon. Members: “No, it’s not.”] I know it is nearly the pantomime season, but oh yes, it has. [Hon. Members: “Oh no, it hasn’t.”] That is why honourable—[Interruption.]
Order. The right hon. Lady is giving eloquent and full expression to her views, which is not entirely unknown, but she must be heard and she will be heard. I am not having any Member of this House shouted down. That is not acceptable and it will not happen. Amen.
That is why the hon. Members for Houghton and Sunderland South (Bridget Phillipson) and for Redcar (Anna Turley)—two of the highest voting leave areas—are now supporting a people’s vote, and rightly so, because their constituents are entitled to change their minds and young people are entitled to have a say about their future, because, at the end of the day, they will bear the burden of Brexit most. I would urge the Prime Minister: we have found an impasse in this House; it is time now to take this back to the people and have a people’s vote.
The United Kingdom does not have a long tradition of holding referendums. There was the Scottish referendum. There was a referendum back in 1975 on joining the European Economic Community. There was a referendum in 2016 on whether or not to leave the European Union. In all those votes, the Government have taken a very clear view that the result of those referendums should be respected, and I believe that this referendum should be respected as well.
The people outside these walls see a shambles of a Government. With that in mind, we will support the Leader of the Opposition if he, as he should, tables a motion of no confidence. As of this morning’s European Court of Justice ruling, it is within the Prime Minister’s gift personally to take no deal off the table. Will she today rule out the threat of no deal and, should it prove necessary, be prepared to revoke article 50?
The European Court of Justice clearly has determined that it is possible to unilaterally revoke article 50, but the point it has made is that nobody should think that revoking article 50 is a short-term solution or short-term extension of article 50. Revoking article 50 would mean going back on the vote of the referendum and staying in the European Union.