House of Commons
Tuesday 11 December 2018
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
The Chancellor of the Exchequer was asked—
Sporting Infrastructure: Cornwall
The Government’s investment in sport is delivered through Sport England, which has invested £9 million in sport and physical activity in Cornwall since 2013, including £3 million for sports facilities.
Dare I say, Mr Speaker, that your tie today is a fine one?
The Minister will be aware that I have been working with stakeholders in Cornwall for 10 years now to deliver a stadium for Cornwall. A stadium is not only about sport, although we should celebrate Cornish sport, it is also about the health and wellbeing of children and adults right across the county of Cornwall. We have been working hard and we are nearly there with the money; what more can the Treasury do to deliver on this fantastic opportunity?
I know that my hon. Friend has campaigned for a new stadium for Cornwall since even before he was elected. At his instigation, I met the Cornwall Council officer responsible for the project last week. With the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, we will continue to work closely with partners in Cornwall and Sport England to seek a means to bring this exciting project to a successful conclusion. We appreciate that, as the most remote team on the mainland, the Cornish Pirates deserve a fitting home for the future.
Any supplementary question does need to be about Cornwall, not about Devon.
Plymouth Argyle has lots of supporters in Plymouth, but is also the premier choice for many Cornish supporters, too. There is concern about the lack of grassroots sports pitches in Devon, Plymouth and Cornwall. Will the Minister set out how the Treasury is going to fund local government—especially in the absence of a local government settlement—to support the development of grassroots football, especially through the provision of changing rooms for not only boys and men but women and girls?
That was very tenuous. Once a new stadium has been built in Truro, perhaps people will not need to go to Plymouth to support Argyle. We are supporting grassroots sports in several ways—for example, the soft drinks industry levy has ensured that more than £500 million of additional funding has gone into school sport and into the health and wellbeing schemes that are delivered, along with breakfast clubs, in our primary schools.
Support for the High Street
Budget 2018 announced our plan for the high street, which provides £1.5 billion of support to fund local areas as they make their high streets fit for the future. The plan includes a £675 million future high streets fund, planning reforms, a high streets taskforce, support for community assets and a cut by a third to the business rates bills of independent retailers for two years from April 2019, saving businesses almost £900 million.
Although I welcome the measures that the Chancellor just mentioned—they are helping high streets greatly—the business rates system is currently not working for high streets. Will the Chancellor therefore consider a type of transaction tax that would level the playing field between online businesses and those based on premises, and also enable businesses such as Starbucks and Amazon to start to pay their fair share of tax?
My hon. Friend makes a point that has been raised on many occasions. There is concern about the way the business rates system works. In 2016, we conducted a fundamental review of business rates that agreed that property-based taxes were easy to collect, difficult to avoid and stable. There was no consensus around any replacement for business rates. My hon. Friend will know that separately the Government announced in the Budget a digital services tax to ensure that digital businesses pay tax that reflects the value that they derive from UK users.
Will the Chancellor join me in congratulating Barnstaple, where the high street has bucked the national trend? We have fewer vacant premises and increasing footfall. Will the Government continue to support retailers, especially the smaller independent businesses that are the backbone of our economy?
Yes, I am happy to join my hon. Friend in congratulating Barnstaple on the success of its high street. Of course, there are many successful high streets throughout the United Kingdom, even at a time when the high street overall is under pressure. I am sure my hon. Friend is aware that Devon’s success does not stop at the high street; it has seen a wider economic achievement, with unemployment across Devon down by no less than 57% since 2010 and down by 25% over the past year.
A buoyant high street is absolutely vital for communities such as mine in Batley and Spen. The Treasury Committee report released today suggests that northern towns are more exposed to Brexit trade-related risks than others. With that in mind, will the Minister tell us what has been put in place to support communities such as mine that will be hardest hit post Brexit?
The answer, of course, is to ensure that we leave the European Union in a way that supports our economy across the United Kingdom. That means a negotiated deal that allows us to have a smooth exit and retain a close trading partnership with our European neighbours in the future.
Some 51,000 shops on the UK’s high streets closed in the past year. Local businesses in even successful places such as Kendal and Windermere struggle because they are forced to pay huge taxes while mega-online retailers get away with paying next to no tax at all. Will the Chancellor give a well-deserved Christmas present to the high street by halving business rates there paid for by taxing internet firms on the basis of their turnover, not just their profits?
I am not sure whether the hon. Gentleman was in his place for the Budget, but I did in fact announce a digital services tax based on turnover. I also announced a reduction of one third in the business rates for independent retailers. I am very happy to have a meeting with him and explain the changes in detail.
I thank the hon. Member for Batley and Spen (Tracy Brabin) for mentioning the Treasury Committee report published this morning. The Treasury Committee is about more than Brexit, as I hope this House is too, and next week we will be holding a joint Committee session with the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee on business rates. I am sure that the Financial Secretary is looking forward to his evidence session greatly.
I see the right hon. Gentleman nodding.
Business rates are an issue for retailers, and there are some simple things that could be changed now. Does the Chancellor agree, for example, that, for many retailers, their busiest period is Christmas when they could perhaps agree to pay more in business rates and then pay less in periods when they are less busy, so, overall, the same amount is paid, but there is flexibility in payment?
If my right hon. Friend is asking whether there is anything that local authorities can do to help with the cash-flow challenges of seasonally based businesses, I am very happy to take that away and look at it and see whether there is anything that we can do to help in that way. The challenge, of course, is that business rates raise £25 billion a year and are a vital part of our overall tax system. If we are to change them, we must find a sustainable way of replacing them.
The Chancellor does not like it when I use what he calls my “synthetic passion”, so, very quietly, may I beg him to take very seriously indeed where we are as a nation? It looks like we are heading for financial meltdown: people are losing their confidence in this country—[Interruption.] People are losing their confidence. My high street retailers—the big people and the small people—have their heads in their hands, and householders see a real likelihood of a 30% drop in their home value. Will he do something to stop this madness?
There are a couple of points there. First, I should just say to the hon. Gentleman that I was actually congratulating him the other day on his display of synthetic anger, which is one of the best in the House. On the wider point, the high street is facing challenges because of the uptake of online retailing across the UK at a faster rate than in any other large economy. That means that our high streets will have to adapt. The Government cannot save the high street from the need to change. What they can do is support it as it goes through that process of change.
I would be very happy to meet my hon. Friend. My hon. Friend the Exchequer Secretary is the expert on this matter and he might find a meeting with him more fruitful, but either one of us is very happy to meet him.
Many of the shops and firms located on the high street are represented by the Federation of Small Businesses. Has the Chancellor seen what the FSB has said about the current Brexit position? Its chair has said:
“Planning ahead has now become impossible for a lot of firms as we simply don’t know what environment we’ll be faced with in little more than 100 days’ time…the economic warning signs are now flashing red.”
The Chancellor knew full well in our debate last week that the Prime Minister’s deal was not going to receive the support of the House. Is it not only right that he is straight with her by telling her that businesses cannot face any more uncertainty and that a decision on the deal cannot be delayed and put off until late January, as some around her are suggesting?
I would be the first to agree that businesses need an end to uncertainty and clarity about the future, but frankly I think that the shadow Chancellor is probably the last person who should give us that lecture, because his policy agenda has been designed to create uncertainty and a lack of clarity for business in the future. What the Prime Minister is doing—absolutely rightly—is making a last attempt to see whether she can get further concessions from our partners in the European Union, which is clearly the desire of this House. She will come back and report to the House when she has done so.
Both sides of the House have to address the seriousness of the situation we face. The director general of the British Chambers of Commerce has said:
“Firms are looking on with utter dismay at the ongoing saga in Westminster”.
Today’s Treasury Committee report is devastating in its criticisms of the way in which the Government have sought to assess options not even on the table. A month ago, the Chancellor committed his support to a deal that guaranteed frictionless trade with the EU. Will he now be absolutely straight with the Prime Minister and tell her that unless she comes back with a deal that does fulfil his promise of frictionless trade, it will not succeed in protecting our economy and could not be supported?
The right hon. Gentleman can practise his synthetic concern at the Dispatch Box, but the remedy lies in his hands. There is a deal on the table that will end the uncertainty and allow this country to move on, and our polling shows that that is exactly what the British people want. All he has to do is get behind it, vote for the Prime Minister’s deal and we can all move on.
I say very gently to the Chancellor, to whom I have been listening with great care, that it is quite difficult to vote for something if there is not a vote. I am only trying to help him; it is a point that is so blindingly obvious that I am surprised that I have to state it, but manifestly I do.
Spending on the most vulnerable children has increased by over £1.5 billion since 2010. Thanks to our increased investment in childcare, the overall early years and children’s services budget has increased to £12.7 billion this year.
Will the Minister please acknowledge that she is simply putting a sticking plaster on the crisis in children’s social care? It is essential that children’s social care gets an extra £3 billion by 2025, and the Chancellor’s Budget commitment is less than 3% of the way there. Will the Minister admit that we are not on track to meet this target?
It is certainly the case that we are seeing rising demand for children’s services, but the important thing is that we help children’s services departments intervene early. We are rolling out a pilot programme this year to adopt models like that used in North Yorkshire that has reduced the number of children going into care, the number being arrested and the number ending up in accident and emergency, so it is important that we spend the money in the right way.
Me and my colleagues on the all-party parliamentary group for children were delighted by the extra money that was found for children’s services in the Budget. Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is important that we continue to distribute extra funds fairly across all regions of the UK?
My hon. Friend is exactly right. We also need to make sure that we are sharing the best practice of those authorities who are successfully helping to keep children out of care. We are also using the initiative of the children’s Minister to ensure that we are using independent school facilities better and helping with mental health problems. We need to do all those things.
Further Education Funding
I regularly meet the Secretary of State for Education to discuss school and FE funding issues. We have protected the base rate of funding for 16 to 17-year-olds between 2015 and 2020.
The national funding rate for 16 to 18-year-olds has been frozen for five years. That is beginning to cause significant problems in delivering for this age group. Will the Government do something about it before it is too late?
What is important is that we are achieving better results for 16 to 18-year-olds. We are seeing more young people from disadvantaged backgrounds going to university and improvements in the quality of apprenticeships that are being taken up by young people. We are also putting extra money into the new T-levels, which are due to improve technical education.
Our FE colleges are great poverty-fighting institutions that provide vital ladders of opportunity for our constituents. Given that school pay rises have been fully funded and FE has only had 0.1%, is there not a case for parity of esteem for teachers in FE colleges?
It was indeed very good that we were able to give teachers, particularly those on the lowest wages, a 3.5% pay rise this year—the highest pay rise seen for a decade. FE colleges are set up differently. They are independent institutions that have the wherewithal to change the pay for lecturers who work within them.
Major Infrastructure Projects: Funding
All public spending proposals, including those for major infrastructure projects, are appraised against five key considerations: the strategic case for change, the net value to society of the intervention, the affordability of the proposal, the robustness of delivery plans, and whether a realistic commercial deal can be struck to deliver the proposal. As I announced in the Budget, there will be a zero-based review of capital spending at the spending review next year.
The Chancellor will know that Essex is a gateway for infrastructure and trade from around the world, but he will also know that we sorely lack major infrastructure investment across the county, despite having some very compelling business cases. What will he do to ensure that we can get the investment in for the A12, the A120, and the great eastern main line?
First, I acknowledge my right hon. Friend’s tireless work in campaigning to improve infrastructure and boost productivity in the Essex region, including her chairing of the Great Eastern Mainline Taskforce. We expect about £47.9 billion to be spent on the railway nationally between 2019 and 2024. I very much look forward to hearing the outcome of the Great Eastern Mainline Taskforce study. Regarding the A120, the Government are carefully considering Essex County Council’s proposals for a new dual carriageway to ensure that a robust plan is ready should that project secure funding in RIS 2—the second road investment strategy.
“State of the North 2018”, a report published by The Institute for Public Policy Research North earlier this month, highlighted the fact that public spending in the north of England fell by £6.3 billion since 2009-10 while spending in the south-east and the south-west was up by £3.2 million in the same period. Does this not demonstrate that the northern powerhouse is nothing but a vacuous slogan? What does the Chancellor assess will be the infrastructure funding available once we leave the EU?
We have had this one before. The Institute for Public Policy Research consistently publishes these figures and they are consistently wrong. I would urge the hon. Lady to look at the Infrastructure and Projects Authority’s figure. The problem with the IPPR is that it needs also to look at central Government funding to the regions. When we look at central Government funding to the regions, we will see a very different picture.
One of the most important things for long-term infrastructure spending is knowing what the long-term programmes are going to be. These are not projects that can be put together in a year or two years. What reassurance can the Chancellor give us that he is making sufficient capital available so that the big infrastructure companies involved in our roads, railways and power operations have the knowledge that those funds are going to be available?
We are doing two things. First, we are investing more public capital than ever before under the previous Labour Government, but we have also put in place the National Infrastructure Commission to develop a transparent pipeline of projects both publicly and privately funded so that investors in infrastructure projects can have that visibility of future projects available.
While accepting that it is not a simple matter, the criteria used tend to favour infrastructure development in the south, rather than the north. What more can the Government do to support major infrastructure development, particularly when it comes to transport, in the north of England?
I reject the hon. Gentleman’s accusation. The methodologies we use are designed to be fair and equitable in the distribution of infrastructure funding, but if he would like to meet me and my hon. Friend the Exchequer Secretary, I am happy to go through the whole issue. We are as concerned as he is to make sure that infrastructure investment decisions are made on a transparent and equitable basis.
Sale of Public Assets: Value for Money
It is Government policy to explore options for the sale of corporate and financial assets where there is no longer a policy reason to retain them and value for money can be secured for taxpayers. All asset sales are subject to a rigorous value-for-money assessment before they can go ahead.
In the Government’s pursuit of paying down the debt, they are at risk of selling off assets that could be of benefit to the public in the long term. Although the Economic Secretary talks about the modelling, we know from our work on the Public Accounts Committee that the model is very debatable in exactly what the benefit and disbenefit will be to the public in the long term. Will he commit to assessing every upcoming sale rigorously and making sure that the Treasury is learning, so that it is not selling off the family silver and taking things away from the British public that belong to them?
I read the report published by the hon. Lady’s Committee, and I recognise the need for a rigorous value-for-money assessment of every sale. That is why, with respect to student loans, which was the subject of the Committee’s last report, I was pleased that the NAO said that
“the sale achieved prices at the upper end of these estimates”
“the transaction…achieved value for money.”
The Government will continue to be guided by that in every transaction they undertake.
Since 2010, the UK has seen a larger fall in youth unemployment than Germany, France and Italy combined. Today’s employment figures show that the youth unemployment rate is down to a record low, with the number having nearly halved since 2010.
It seems the message is simple: it is better to grow up in Lichfield than, say, Limoges or Lyon—does my right hon. Friend agree? If youth unemployment has fallen by 50% since 2010, how will she maintain that?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right; I am sure it is nothing but fun growing up in Lichfield, with him as the local Member of Parliament. The reason we have such low youth unemployment is that we have expanded the number of apprenticeships, reformed employment to make it easier to take on staff, and reformed our welfare system to make sure that it always pays to go into work.
The evidence is that younger people are moving out of towns such as Wrexham, which I represent, and being dragged into the south-east of England and the south-east of Wales, because the opportunities for younger people in creative and dynamic industries are not being created in towns. What are the Government doing to address that?
I think it is good if young people have the opportunity to work and study across the country, and we should not say that people have to be kept in their place, as we often hear from the Labour party. By expanding broadband and roads and putting more money into infrastructure, we are making sure that every town in Britain can succeed.
It is perfectly open to the hon. Members for Thornbury and Yate (Luke Hall) and for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Dr Johnson) to take part in the exchanges on this question, to which their own rather later inquiries are entirely relevant.
We are seeing a growing number of young people taking up high-quality apprenticeships, which is fantastic news. We were able at the Budget to improve flexibility, so that it is easier for small and medium-sized enterprises and companies in the supply chain to take on apprentices.
My hon. Friend is right. It is surprising that we have heard nothing from Labour Members about today’s fantastic employment figures and record wage growth—the highest we have seen for a decade. The reason is the policies that this Government have pursued. We have the second highest youth employment rate in the G7, and we have been one of the fastest improvers.
Youth unemployment in the United Kingdom is sitting at about 3% below the equivalent figure for the rest of the European Union. The Chief Secretary puts that down to sound management of the UK economy. By a very similar margin, youth unemployment in Scotland is consistently lower than the equivalent figure for the rest of the United Kingdom. Surely that must mean that young people in Scotland have a better chance of gainful employment under a Scottish National party Government than they would if Ruth Davidson were First Minister.
I celebrate when the UK economy is doing well and I celebrate when the Scottish economy is doing well. I was recently in Scotland meeting the Scottish Finance Minister and talking about measures to improve growth. What I think will be interesting is to see, in tomorrow’s Scottish budget, whether the Scottish Government match the tax cuts that we have made across the rest of the UK—or will Scottish taxpayers end up paying more?
The Resolution Foundation has found that millennials’ weekly earnings are less than those of the previous generation at the same age, which is unprecedented. That is due to more insecure and low-paid jobs, and less job mobility. As well as stronger workers’ rights, halting the decline in business investment would help, but that needs business confidence. Will the Chief Secretary tell me why her Government are listening only to the European Research Group, not to the voice of business when it says that we need a permanent customs union?
The hon. Lady obviously has not seen today’s wages figures, which show that real pay grew by 0.8%, and we are seeing more and more young people getting into work.
The Government are committed to ensuring that working people can keep more of what they earn. At Budget 2018, I announced that the Government will increase the personal allowance to £12,500 and the higher rate threshold to £50,000 from April 2019, delivering on our manifesto promise one year early. This is a tax cut for 32 million people that will save a typical basic rate taxpayer a further £130 a year in tax. In the north-west and Merseyside, 196,000 of the lowest paid will have been taken out of income tax since 2015, leaving more of their hard-earned money in their pockets. The typical basic rate taxpayer across the UK will pay £1,205 less in 2019 than he or she did in 2010.
Some 37,000 constituents in Eddisbury have had an income tax cut and 738 pay no tax at all, but many will pay another tax on their income, which is national insurance. What steps is the Chancellor taking to reduce the burden of national insurance on the lowest paid?
The Government do consider national insurance contributions and income tax together to ensure an overall progressive tax system in which those earning the most pay the most. However, when we are looking at national insurance thresholds, it is important for us to remember that national insurance payments provide access to social security benefits: they build individuals’ entitlements to contributory benefits, including the state pension, as well as helping to fund the NHS. It is probably worth my mentioning that on average, in 2019-20, households in the lowest income decile will receive over £4 in public spending for every £1 they pay in tax.
Will the Chancellor bear the whole issue of national insurance in mind, both now and when it comes to his Budget, in that people on low wages, who understand they will begin to pay national insurance much earlier than they pay tax, should retain more of their hard-earned money in net terms?
I hear the hon. Gentleman’s point, but I repeat what I have just said. We have to remember that people coming into national insurance at a lower rate also means people coming into entitlement to contributory benefits at that rate. We have a contributory principle in our benefits system, and national insurance is the key to it.
When income tax was first introduced, it was supposed to be temporary. Can the Chancellor of the Exchequer update us on his plans finally to get rid of this tax, or will it, like the backstop, be with us for the next 200 years?
When I was in Brussels the other day, I was reliably informed that the kingdom of Belgium was originally intended to be a temporary construct, but it still seems to be with us. The world has moved on since the Napoleonic wars, as my hon. Friend may or may not celebrate, and I have to tell him that the Government have no plans to abolish income tax.
None the less, we are better informed as a result of what the Chancellor has just told us, on two points: Belgium and then the subsequent point. We are grateful to him for that.
The lowest paid members of the armed forces stationed in Scotland pay less in tax than their counterparts elsewhere in the UK, so why will the Chancellor not stand up for the lowest paid members of the armed forces, either by giving them a tax cut to match their counterparts in Scotland or by giving them a proper pay rise?
My understanding is that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence has put in place special measures to ensure that those members of the armed forces who are disadvantaged by Scotland’s higher income tax rates are compensated, in order to avoid a situation where they regard postings to Scotland as hardship postings.
Leaving the Customs Union and Single Market: Scotland
The Government are committed to delivering a deal that works for the whole of the United Kingdom—for every country and region within it, including Scotland—and Treasury Ministers of course have regular discussions with the Secretary of State for Scotland on just these matters.
The Fraser of Allander Institute reports today that many firms are still ill prepared for a no-deal Brexit, that the worst-case scenario is the equivalent of making 100,000 people in Scotland unemployed, and that we face a recession double the size of that which Scotland experienced in the crash. Does the Minister not agree that the only way out of this Government shambles is to accept that staying in the single market and the customs union is the best compromise we can get?
The best deal for the country, and indeed for Scotland, is the one that the Prime Minister has brought forward, and which she is now looking at with our European partners in Brussels: one that sees a free trade area right at the heart of our arrangements; that has no tariffs between ourselves and the EU27; that gives us control of our borders; that makes sure we put an end to sending vast sums of money to the European Union; that gives us control of our laws; and that enables us to conduct our own international trade affairs.
Does the Minister agree that what is of equal importance are the economic relationships within the UK, and that initiatives such as the borderlands growth initiative are a priority for the people of the borderlands region?
My hon. Friend is entirely right. That is why in the last Budget, Scotland benefited from £950 million in additional Barnett funding, and why we are investing £1 billion in up to six new city deals, including in the borderlands area—some of those deals have been concluded and some are under discussion.
One of the many flaws in the Government’s analysis of the impact of Brexit on the regions and nations of the UK is that they did not tell us precisely what the GDP reduction would be compared with the status quo. Will the Minister now correct that and tell us how much worse off in GDP terms Scotland will be if we pursue the Brexit deal compared with the present day?
These are estimates, of course, not forecasts. I can tell the hon. Gentleman that there would be no impact on output in Scotland in the long term—15 years from the end of the implementation period—if we compare the White Paper deal with the situation as it stands today.
According to the Scottish Government’s own website, 61% of Scottish exports come to the rest of the UK and only 17% go to the European Union. Does the Minister therefore agree that Scotland’s economic interests are best served by remaining part of the United Kingdom?
My hon. Friend is entirely right. The Scottish National party would like the country to stay in the EU, which would, for example, severely disadvantage the Scottish fishing industry. We have negotiated a very advantageous situation in terms of having control of our fishing as an independent coastal state. The point my hon. Friend makes is also entirely right: if Scotland were to be independent there would be frictions at the border between ourselves and Scotland, which would not assist with trade.
On 19 November, the Exchequer Secretary told us that the Government’s analysis would contain a comparison between the Prime Minister’s deal and the status quo, and that it would contain insight from external stakeholders. It contains neither of those things. The Treasury Committee this morning produced a report that expresses disappointment that the Prime Minister’s deal has not been analysed. Yesterday, businesses lost 2% of their value. UK firms have no sympathy for a UK Government who are feart to put their shoddy deal before the House. Will the Chancellor stand by the words he said previously that
“remaining in the European Union would be a better outcome for the economy”?
Will he find some backbone and make that case in Parliament?
The cross-government departmental analysis shows clearly that the outcome of no deal would see the United Kingdom disadvantaged by 8% of GDP compared with the deal negotiated at the moment in the withdrawal agreement. The best option identified in the analysis is the current deal.
The analysis does not model the deal. That is what the Treasury Committee says and that is what we are saying. It models Chequers; it does not model the Prime Minister’s deal. The Minister cannot stand there and make that case to the House.
Because the Prime Minister pulled the vote this week, businesses are accelerating their contingency no-deal Brexit plans. They are heightening their preparations for an emergency no deal. The legacy of this Government will be lost investment, lost growth and lost jobs. Surely the Chancellor cannot think it is acceptable that, just to save the Prime Minister’s job, hundreds of other people have to lose theirs?
The hon. Lady suggests that the analysis does not model the White Paper deal. It does exactly that, but it does it in terms of the future relationship and the political declaration which, as she will know, is a range of potential outcomes—so that is entirely what the analysis does. As I say, what it shows is that the deal we have negotiated with the European Union is the best deal available for the things that she and I hold dear: growth across our economy, growth in Scotland, jobs in Scotland and even lower unemployment in Scotland. The Scottish National party should now row in behind this deal to make sure that we do the best for the whole of the United Kingdom.
Scotland, just like the rest of the UK, has a substantial and successful financial services sector that is heavily dependent on market access to the EU. Will the Financial Secretary confirm that under the terms of the Government’s Brexit deal the financial sector gets no greater degree of market access than the equivalence arrangements that are already on offer to any third country, including for sectors such as insurance where no comprehensive equivalence regimes exist at all?
I can enlighten the hon. Gentleman, although it is contained in the documentation that has come out of the negotiations. There will be an enhanced equivalence regime in respect of financial services. It is there in black and white. I am very happy to speak to him after questions and take him through the relevant paragraphs.
Air Passenger Duty: Domestic Flights
The Government meet regularly with the airline industry to discuss a range of issues, including the future of air passenger duty and the domestic aviation market. I met a number of UK-based airlines earlier in autumn prior to the Budget.
I make no apologies for continuing to lobby Treasury Ministers on the iniquity of air passenger duty and the discriminatory application of it to Flybe, based in my constituency at Exeter airport, which is the UK’s largest domestic carrier. Will the Treasury look again at Flybe and its particular set of circumstances?
My right hon. Friend is nothing if not persistent, but we are not able to vary air passenger duty under EU state aid rules for different regions of the United Kingdom, including the south-west. That will change, or may, depending on the final state of things once we have left the European Union, but we have taken action in government: we have frozen short-haul rates for eight years in a row and exempted children going on family holidays, including to the south-west.
I thank the Minister for his response. He is well aware of the issue for Northern Ireland—the disadvantage that we have and the advantage that the Republic of Ireland has. Dublin airport has grown tremendously over the last period of time, so has he had any opportunity to speak to those in charge of Belfast International airport or Belfast City airport to gauge their opinion on how we can grow the economy?
My right hon. Friend the Financial Secretary visited Northern Ireland earlier in the year and met representatives of the aviation sector. We announced at the Budget that we will be proceeding with a technical working group to look into and analyse further the remaining issues with respect to the hon. Gentleman’s proposal to devolve air passenger duty in Northern Ireland.
EU Withdrawal Agreement: Manufacturing Sector
The Government have undertaken analysis to understand the impact of different EU exit scenarios on public sector net borrowing, which is a UK-wide metric, and we have published an assessment of the economic impact of EU exit on different sectors. For example, the analysis shows that manufacturing sectors are estimated to have a significantly higher output in the White Paper scenario than under the no-deal scenario.
I thank the Minister for that response, but is it not true that Office for National Statistics figures in the last few months have shown a 0.9% decline in manufacturing and a worrying 6.6% decline in the automotive sector? What are the Chancellor and the Minister doing to provide certainty to businesses in this area about the impact of this Government’s chaotic Brexit policy?
I am grateful for the hon. Lady’s question. The automotive issue is related to other factors, including diesel. The Government are focused on investing in infrastructure in the north-east. I think that she would be very pleased to know that since 2010, we have had 66,000 new jobs in the north-east as a consequence of more business growth.
I can introduce my hon. Friend to manufacturers who find it significantly easier to export to the rest of the world than to the EU. Is there a lesson in that?
I think my right hon. Friend is right to say that the Treasury is looking at growth opportunities across the whole world, and that is why the Chancellor set out in his Mansion House speech the aspiration to have global financial partnerships that make the best of those opportunities.
I am perfectly open to the hon. Member for Bedford (Mohammad Yasin) coming in on this question if he is minded to do so, but I am not psychic, so I cannot anticipate his wishes. He needs to stand if he wishes to do so.
There is considerable analysis from the Bank of England and the Government’s analysis of the long-term effect of the different options, with a significant reference paper demonstrating the different scenarios and what lies behind them. The Government are seeking to deliver on the decision of the British people in the referendum in a way that maximises the opportunities for the British economy.
Support for Businesses and Entrepreneurs
This Government are determined to make the UK the best place in the world to start a business. We are keeping taxes low and helping businesses and entrepreneurs to access the support that they need. We have cut corporation tax to the lowest rate in the G20 and made changes to business rates that will be worth over £13 billion by 2023.
I thank the Minister for that response. Walker’s Nonsuch, a family business in my constituency since 1894 and England’s finest toffee producer, enthusiastically welcomed the increased annual investment allowance. Does he agree that it is essential to continue to reduce tax on companies so that they invest in new equipment, increase productivity and create more jobs?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. While the Labour party wants to increase taxes on business, including on small businesses, we are cutting them, and the increased annual investment allowance will enable businesses such as the one in his constituency to invest in plant, machinery and new technology to drive it to future success.
The broken business rates system is having a seriously detrimental impact on our high streets, and that is seen right across York. Will the Minister meet me and York Retail Forum to discuss the impact it is having on York and, in particular, the proposals it wants to see on turnover tax?
I would be happy to meet the hon. Lady. We announced in the Budget that 90% of smaller retailers, including many in her constituency, would see a 30% reduction in their business rates, and the future high streets fund is designed exactly for communities such as the one she represents.
Does my hon. Friend agree that keeping the VAT threshold at £85,000 demonstrates that the Government are firmly on the side of west Oxfordshire’s small businesses?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The VAT threshold in this country is high by international standards. We have retained it at that level to support small businesses, which this Government will always champion.
Small businesses and subcontractors are still carrying the can for the collapse of Carillion. In the light of Interserve’s latest trouble, can the Minister update us on his Department’s liaison with it as a client, and say what level of risk the taxpayer and small businesses have been put to by Interserve’s latest attempts to stay afloat by refinancing its debt for equity?
The hon. Gentleman raises an important question. My right hon. Friend the Minister for the Cabinet Office is working closely on this matter, as he did with respect to Carillion. We want a wider base of companies supplying the Government and the public sector, to ensure that we have a resilient public sector in the eventuality that such situations happen again.
We have increased the overall spending on early years and children’s services to £12.7 billion.
My local council, Rochdale Borough, predicts an overspend of £4.5 million this year on children’s services, with a predicted total overspend in England of £840 million, so will the Chief Secretary now admit that £84 million—just one tenth of the total overspend—goes nowhere near addressing this local and national crisis?
The £84 million is specifically to roll out pilots and projects that we know have worked to reduce demand on children’s services and make sure children get a better outcome, but at the Budget we also put in an extra £410 million, which councils can spend on either adult social care or children’s social care.
It is always worth staying for topical questions, if colleagues are interested.
My principal responsibility is to ensure economic stability and the continued prosperity of the British people, and at this juncture the best way to achieve this objective is to back the Prime Minister’s Brexit deal, ensuring a smooth and orderly departure from the EU, delivering on the decision of the British people, securing a close economic partnership with our most important trading partners and protecting the jobs and living standards of our people. The deal will allow us to come together again and assure Britain of the brighter future it deserves.
Modern universities will be hit hard by the unexpected changes to the teacher pension scheme. In fact, one is predicting a 5% reduction in its workforce, including around student support. Can the Chancellor give any assurances to universities struggling to cope with this change?
The changes to public sector pensions have resulted from increases in contributions that will ultimately benefit lecturers retiring from university and retiring teachers. We are looking, through the Augar review, at the question of higher education funding overall, but ultimately it is for universities to find that extra money.
I thank my hon. Friend for that very important question. The Government recognise that the current international tax regime is not fit for purpose when it comes to taxing certain types of digital platform-based businesses—the types to which my hon. Friend has referred—and we are therefore working with the OECD and the European Union to arrive at a multilateral solution to ensure that the right tax is paid. However, we have made it clear, and the Chancellor made it clear in the Budget, that in the event that we do not secure a multilateral agreement, we will move ahead unilaterally by 2020 to ensure that those businesses pay a fair share of tax.
The merely synthetic construct that is before the House has nothing to do with the real concerns of my right hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) and my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman). It is the dodgy deal—the tuppence-ha’penny Brexit deal—of the Prime Minister. I am led to believe that the Chancellor has ostensibly, but forlornly, attempted to mitigate the Prime Minister’s disastrous handling of Brexit. If that is the case, will he continue his endeavours by using the powers in section 31 of the Taxation (Cross-border Trade) Act 2018 to maintain the UK in a customs union with the EU?
It is not the Government’s policy to maintain a permanent customs union with the European Union. Opposition Front Benchers often offer a customs union as if it were a magical solution, but it will not deliver us frictionless borders; it will introduce regulatory friction at our borders with the European Union, and it will introduce regulatory friction between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.
The Chancellor’s answer shows that, just like Parliament yesterday, we have been treated with contempt by him, and he has been treated with contempt by the Prime Minister and brushed aside. Let me ask him again: in the national interest—not the Tory party’s interest, or his own interest—at what point will he break cover and use the powers in section 31 of the Act which he initiated and which his Ministers guided through Parliament? Or is this just another Tory parliamentary sham?
Those powers are there specifically to deal with the customs union that we will need to create with the Crown dependencies, not for the purpose that the hon. Gentleman is suggesting.
Order. I know that the hon. Gentleman was trying very hard, but—forgive me: I say this by way of kindly counsel to the hon. Gentleman, who is a new Member—questions must be about the policies of the Government, as the Clerk has just swivelled round to remind me, and not about the policies or tactics of the Opposition. We will leave that there, and come to Helen Goodman.
I am very confident that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister will succeed in the mission that she is undertaking today, and I look forward to her reporting to the House on the progress that she has made.
I entirely agree with my right hon. Friend about the importance of low taxes. Under this Government, corporation tax has been reduced from 28% to 19% and will be further reduced to 17%; and through the increase in the personal allowance that was announced in the Budget, we have taken about 4 million of the lowest-paid out of tax altogether. As for my right hon. Friend’s specific point about aligning national insurance and income tax, that is a very complex thing to do. There would be a considerable number of losers, as well as some gainers. However, the Office of Tax Simplification has looked into it in the past, and we will keep it under review.
The City is very content with the deal we have on financial services, under which we would seek and secure enhanced equivalence decisions six months before the end of the implementation period, and the degree of dialogue with and support from the City has been constant throughout.
Given the £900 million of additional funding for the Scottish block grant announced in the Budget, what discussions has the Chancellor had with the SNP Scottish Government about following his example and cutting business rates?
My hon. Friend makes a very good point. I have regular meetings with the Scottish Finance Secretary, and of course the Scottish Government have the opportunity in their budget tomorrow to match the business rate cuts we have made in England.
I think I have been perfectly clear and consistent in expressing the view that no deal would be a very bad outcome for this country, and I will do everything I can to make sure that that is not an outcome we face.
A White Paper on the Government’s future migration policy will be published shortly.
When criticising a Labour Budget in 2005, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor said that the taxpayer
“is entitled to be protected from retrospective or retroactive legislation.”—[Official Report, 7 June 2005; Vol. 434, c. 1139.]
but through the 2019 loan charge, that is precisely what HMRC is now doing to thousands of people who acted in good faith and in accordance with the rules at the time. May I urge my right hon. Friend once again not to backdate the charge to before 2017?
I thank my hon. Friend for his question, but I have to fundamentally disagree with him. The arrangements entered into around disguised remuneration, for which the loan charge is being applied, were always defective at the time they were being used. They have been taken through the courts many times over many years by HMRC and been found to be defective. They also went through, in a particular case, the Supreme Court—the highest court in the land—and the scheme was found to be defective. So this is not a retrospective measure, but it is a question of tax fairness, and of course those who are involved can come forward and have discussions with HMRC, who, where there are difficulties around payment, will be sympathetic and enter into time-to-pay arrangements to make sure those people are protected as well as paying the right tax.
First, I should make it clear that the additional support we are providing to Crossrail is in the form of a loan that will be repaid to the Government by London, so it is London taxpayers and London farepayers who will meet the cost of the overrun. The north-west is now the second-highest region in the UK for transport investment: per capita investment has risen from £648 per year between 2006-07 and 2009-10 to £1,129 a year between 2014-15 and 2017-18.
It is very welcome that today’s figures show that wages are rising, unemployment is falling and we have a record number of people in work, but we still need more good jobs in Leicestershire. So, when the Leicestershire industrial strategy comes forward with exciting plans to boost the life sciences and small satellite manufacturing, will the Treasury look closely at getting behind it?
The Treasury will look closely at that.
We have made it clear that we will first prioritise the security of the UK, and that we will then prioritise the flow of trade. We will not prioritise the collection of customs tariffs. The hon. Lady will be aware that these are tariffs that we are not currently collecting; they would be additional revenues. We will treat that as something that we can do in slower time, if the situation arises.
Later today the House will debate fuel poverty. Does the Chancellor agree that the greatest lever that we can pull to alleviate the challenge of fuel poverty is to incentivise home energy efficiency? Will he look at what the Treasury can do to address that?
That is certainly one of the levers that we can pull, and I am happy to look again at how we support home energy efficiency.
When will the Government bring forward proposals to allow well-funded credit unions to provide low-cost credit cards and low-cost car loans, and to invest in other social programmes such as energy co-operatives and housing schemes?
Following on from the Budget, we have a series of measures to assist credit unions to expand their role in delivering affordable credit across communities. We have a scheme of work over the next three months to pilot interest-free loans and prize-linked saving schemes, to help credit unions to grow as they have been doing in recent years.
What do the Government make of the Centre for European Reform’s report this week that warned of a 60% fall in UK financial services exports to the EU in the event that we lose access to the single market and put a free trade agreement in its place?
The City remains very concerned to secure a deal in order to maximise the strong relationship that we have with the EU and with the rest of the world.
What impact will Brexit have on our universities, particularly in Coventry? More importantly, our universities do projects with Europe and also work closely with the manufacturing industry, including companies such as Jaguar Land Rover. What are we going to do about that?
Our university sector is a vital asset to the UK. Over the past decade we have seen the universities working much more closely with industry, and that relationship is having a positive and advantageous effect on the growth profile and the technology uptake in the economy. As we leave the European Union, it is vital that our universities are able to go on exchanging students and teaching staff with European institutions, and we will do everything we can to ensure that that happens.
Order. I think we should hear from my favourite estate agent. I call Mr Kevin Hollinrake.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. Banks that are guilty of the scandalous mistreatment of small businesses are allowed to design and oversee their own redress schemes, including determining the level of compensation paid to the victims. Does the Minister agree that Parliament and the regulator should take control of those processes?
I have always said that the banks need to do more to restore their relationship with SMEs, and I welcome the scheme that UK Finance has announced to address unresolved historical complaints. I look forward to meeting my hon. Friend next week, with the Chancellor, to discuss the Government’s position.
The Inverness and Highlands city region deal was agreed a little while ago, and that is very good news. A whole shedload of money has been spent on Inverness—well done, Inverness!—but precious little has been spent on the outlying areas, including Wick and Thurso. That is surely not in the spirit of the deal. Should there not be an audit of this kind of deal in future?
We are doing city deals right across Scotland and they are having huge benefits for the local economy. We have also announced in the Budget a freeze in whisky duty. The question now is how the Scottish Government will respond to that in their budget tomorrow. Will they cut income tax, and will they also cut business rates?
How many more trees will be planted as a result of investment announced in the recent Budget?
A very large number. I will go back to the Treasury and write to my hon. Friend with a precise figure.
Can I politely suggest to the Chancellor that if he were to lodge a copy of his reply with the requisite statistical information in the Library, I do not say that he will be garlanded, but he might come close to it?
I am sure that the Chancellor will be as concerned as I am by the words of the chief inspector of schools, Amanda Spielman, who said that cuts to funding are hitting the sustainability and quality of our further education colleges. Instead of doing an impression of the Grinch, will the Chancellor be our Father Christmas and give our FE colleges the funding and presents that they want for Christmas?
We have protected the funding of FE colleges since 2015. We are also investing £500 million in T-levels and improved technical education. More low-income students are going to university and getting high-quality apprenticeships.
I welcome the extra £1 billion for the armed forces that was announced in the Budget. Does my right hon. Friend agree that only this Government’s sensible management of the economy has made that possible?
Yes. There cannot be strong defence without a strong economy.
In the next two months, the Royal Bank of Scotland will close all but 56 branches in cities across England, leaving banking deserts in towns and rural areas like mine. What is the Chancellor doing to use the Government’s shareholding to exert public pressure on RBS and ensure that we have no banking deserts?
The Government hold a 62.3% shareholding, but we do not run the bank. Decisions on the branch network are a matter for the bank.
Is my right hon. Friend aware that one of the most successful companies in our country, Johnson Matthey in my constituency, is committed to having a fair-deal, not a no-deal Brexit because it feels that it is vital that there should be an orderly retreat, not chaos? Does he agree that the Prime Minister’s deal would achieve that?
Yes, and that is indeed the express view of the vast majority of businesses in this country.
Will the Chancellor work with the Minister for the Cabinet Office and the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy to support my ten-minute rule Bill on project bank accounts for Government projects? It will protect small businesses from losses when tier 1 suppliers such as Carillion and Interserve collapse.
I am happy to look further at the hon. Lady’s Bill. It is an interesting idea and I know that the Cabinet Office commercial secretariat has been looking at her proposals.
European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018: Statutory Obligations on Ministers
(Urgent Question): To ask the Attorney General to make a statement about the Government’s obligations under section 13 of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018.
I recognise that this question was the subject of much discussion and some speculation yesterday, so I hope to be able to put the minds of the right hon. Lady and other hon. Members at ease.
Put simply, in keeping with the clear intention of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018, the Government will ensure that the question whether to accept an agreement is brought back to this House before 21 January. If Parliament accepts that deal, we will introduce the European Union (Withdrawal Agreement) Bill to implement the withdrawal agreement in domestic legislation.
If Parliament were to reject the deal, the Government would be required to make a statement on our proposed next steps and table a motion in neutral terms on that statement. Following the passing of the amendment to the business of the House motion last week, that motion will be amendable. It is our clear intention that this House will consider the matter before 21 January, and have the opportunity to decide on the deal.
Let me also say this clearly: in the unlikely and highly undesirable circumstances that, as of 21 January, there is no deal before the House, the Government would bring a statement to the House and arrange for a debate, as specified by the law.
I am confident that we will have a deal that the House can support. I hope that the statement puts to rest hon. Members’ concerns about the Government’s commitment to meet the spirit, as well as the letter, of the withdrawal Act, and to respect the will of the House.
I thank the Minister for those assurances but, in the current circumstances, they are not enough. I asked this urgent question of the Attorney General because we need to know the Government’s legal interpretation of section 13 of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act and we need to be assured that, as well as legally, the Government will abide by the spirit of the Act. Now that the Government have pulled the vote, we do not know when a vote will come on the deal, or even whether a vote will come.
No. 10’s official spokesman said this morning that the vote would come by 21 January, and the Minister has said that it will come by 21 January. However, yesterday morning the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, who is sitting on the Front Bench, confirmed that the vote was 100% going to happen. Yesterday, at 11 am, No. 10’s spokesperson said that the vote “is going ahead.” By 3.30 pm, the Prime Minister had pulled it.
The Minister’s warm words are therefore not enough, when so much is at stake. Who knows? This goes for the Cabinet and for all Conservative Members, too. None of us knows whether the Prime Minister is going to pull the vote again, or whether she is even going to table a vote on the deal again.
If we get to 21 January and there is no deal, the agreement of Parliament was that the Government should make a statement, that Parliament should be able to vote on it and that it should be amendable. The Minister says that, in the unlikely event that there is no deal, that would happen. However, we need an urgent assurance from the Attorney General that the Government will not find a loophole in this by saying that there is a deal, even though we have not voted on it, and thereby avoiding the requirements of section 13 subsections (7) to (11), which would require a vote by 21 January.
In other words, if the Government never quite get round to offering a vote on this deal until it is too late, but also do not have a vote on no deal, keeping us in limbo—no vote on the deal and no vote on no deal—it would be a constitutional outrage. It would upend the spirit of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act and, much worse, it would either let the country drift or force the country into no deal without a parliamentary vote.
We need written assurances from the Attorney General on the Government’s interpretation of the Act, and we need the assurance that, even if there has been no vote on this deal and even if the Government still claim that the deal applies were there to be no vote on it by 21 January, the Government will still abide by section 13 subsections (7) to (11) and ensure there is a statement and an amendable vote on their plans, including on whether or not this means no deal, and that it will happen, under any circumstances, by 21 January.
I make no apology for my purpose in asking this urgent question. I already think 21 January is far too late for businesses and for Government Departments, which will already be thinking that they have to chuck everything at preparing for no deal. I want to stop this country careering into no deal, either by accident or by the deliberate intention of the Government, with all the damaging consequences for jobs, for prosperity and for our national security, without Parliament having a say and without Parliament being able to stop that happening. Even if other Members do not agree with me in that purpose, I hope that they will agree that this Parliament cannot be ignored, which is why we need the Attorney General’s written advice.
I have great respect for the right hon. Lady. I understand that she came to this House expecting to have a row about the Government’s interpretation, and I understand the questions she has just asked. I am responding to this urgent question because my Department is responsible for the legislation that enacts the deal, and I have given her our very clear interpretation of that legislation, which is that we will have a motion before the House by 21 January, in all the different scenarios I talked through in my statement.
The answer to the right hon. Lady is very clear. We respect the decision made by this House that the Government should come back to the House with a motion in the event that no deal had been agreed or in the event that this House had rejected a deal. That is clear from my statement.
What we are therefore saying is that there will be a motion by 21 January, and I agree with the right hon. Lady—I would much rather it were, and I fully expect it to be, sooner. I fully expect this House to have the opportunity to debate a withdrawal agreement that it is able to support. So let us work together to achieve that, but let us not allow some of the conspiracy theories and the scare stories that have been told about this to run away when I have just clarified the Government’s position.
I have great sympathy for the points made by both the Minister, who is acting with integrity, as he always has done in his parliamentary career, and the right hon. Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper). It is unquestionable that this Parliament must have a say—a meaningful vote—on the deal, or no deal, that comes about. Can the Minister give a categorical assurance that there will be no trickery by the Government to stop Parliament from having a say?
I am grateful for my right hon. Friend’s words, and I am happy to give that categorical assurance. As my statement reflected, we will be putting a motion before Parliament, even in the circumstances that no deal was before the House, but I strongly believe and expect that there will be a deal before this House, which I will be urging Parliament to support.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend the Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper) for applying for this urgent question and to you, Mr Speaker, for granting it. I am grateful for the Minister’s response, but the reality is that the Attorney General should be here to speak about the legal implications of this agreement. Yesterday, the Prime Minister used the phrase “an accidental no deal” in this House. The fact that she used that phrase is itself evidence of a dereliction of leadership. Section 13 of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018 is therefore crucial to this House’s ability to prevent a chaotic no-deal outcome, which would do enormous damage to our security, economy and society.
I wonder whether the Minister can answer the following questions. The Prime Minister’s official spokesperson has reiterated today that the Government will bring back the meaningful vote by 21 January, but is it not completely contrary to the national interest for the Prime Minister to run down another six weeks on the clock when all she is seeking is reassurances and clarification on a document that Parliament already understands? If we are relying on the Government’s word or, to use the Minister’s phrase, “clear intention” that they will keep to the 21 January deadline, rather than the clear force of the law, does he not understand that in this week of all weeks that constitutes no reassurance at all?
Yesterday, the Prime Minister could not properly answer questions about the legal force of the 21 January deadline, and the Leader of the House could not properly answer questions about the legal status and force of the amendment from the right hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield (Mr Grieve). The reassurance that was just given by this Minister means nothing without the legal backing of the Attorney General, who is not here. Is the truth not that this decision to pull the vote was made in panicked haste, without thinking through the economic, political and constitutional implications for our country?
The hon. Gentleman made my point clearly when he said that the Prime Minister’s spokesman has said the same thing as I said this morning from the Dispatch Box—that there will be such a meaningful vote before the House before 21 January. The hon. Gentleman also talked about acting contrary to the national interest, and I think we are clear on what acting contrary to the national interest is. It is Labour’s approach of blindly opposing any sensible steps taken by the Government to secure a deal, while proposing no alternatives.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his statement, but may I just pick him up on a couple of points? First, the section 13 procedure presupposes that the Government have an initialled deal with the EU, and of course we have such a deal, which is why we started debate on it last week, for the purpose of deciding whether the House should or should not approve it. In those circumstances, can he provide an assurance to the House that if the initialled deal is continuing in its current form, as initialled, the House can complete its consideration, not on a day just before 21 January but expeditiously, as was clearly provided for in the 2018 Act? Secondly, may I take it from what he has said that the amendment that was tabled to the procedure under section 13 to allow for amendable motions thereafter is now fully accepted by the Government, as it should prevail in future?
Yes, and I commend my right hon. and learned Friend for the points that he has raised. I agree with him; I have given that commitment from the Dispatch Box with regard to his amendment, which does mean that the motion would be amendable. As for the House being able to complete its considerations expeditiously, we all have that in mind. The Prime Minister has made clear her determination to seek out those assurances, listening to the concerns that have been raised in the House, and then to come back swiftly to this House so that we can complete those considerations.
This is a Government who have been found in contempt of Parliament and who continue to demonstrate their contempt for parliamentary democracy on a daily basis. Clearly, they prefer to communicate with MPs through the lobby briefings rather than on the Floor of this House, and they are trying to evade their legal responsibilities by failing to have the Attorney General here to answer this question and putting the Minister up. I see that the Solicitor General is on the Front Bench and engaged in anxious conversation. Why was he not put up to answer this question?
It has been made clear in the past 24 hours by many member states of the EU, and by Jean-Claude Juncker and Donald Tusk, that there is no question of any meaningful renegotiation. So may I ask the Minister now for a cast-iron guarantee that the initialled deal will be brought back to this House for a vote before 21 January—and if so, on what date? Can he also guarantee that that motion will be amendable? If he cannot give me that cast-iron guarantee, will he look seriously at the possibility of putting this deal to the people of the four nations of the United Kingdom to see whether they want this deal or whether they would prefer to stay in the EU on our current terms and conditions, as the European Court of Justice made clear is possible yesterday?
The hon. and learned lady should pay attention to what I have already said in my statement, which is that we will be bringing a motion before the House, either on this deal, as I would much prefer, with the assurances that the Prime Minister will by then have won, so that this House can vote on that, or even in the circumstances that that were not on the table. She raises the idea of a people’s vote once again, and we very clearly had a people’s vote. We had that people’s vote across the whole of the UK in 2016, and it is our duty as Members of this House to deliver on that.
I am grateful to the Minister for his clarifications, but may I press him on one point that I do not think he covered? Is he confirming that if there is, under section 13(8), a statement at some point before 21 January, as there must be under that section if the Prime Minister has by then concluded that she cannot complete a deal, that statement will be accompanied by a motion which, though in neutral terms, will be amendable? Or did his point about the amendment cover only a statement and motion under sections 13(1) and 13(4)?
My right hon. Friend is typically meticulous in his questioning. My understanding is that the intention of the House in passing that motion is that it should be amendable in all three cases set out in section 13.
I am afraid the Minister, for whom I have great respect, has not wholly succeeded in his aim of providing reassurance to the House, because what we learned yesterday is that today’s assurances can disappear tomorrow like a puff of wind. Can he clarify the following? If the withdrawal agreement comes back—the Government say that it will—before 21 January and is defeated, legally speaking, for the purposes of section 13 of the 2018 Act, is there still “agreement in principle” with the European Union? This is a very important point in view of the previous question that was asked, because even if it is defeated, for the purposes of the Act the only thing that is referred to as “agreement in principle” has been reached. The Prime Minister and the Government said, I believe on 28 November, that agreement in principle had been reached. So can he clarify that that remains the case, even if the withdrawal agreement is defeated?
I have great respect for the right hon. Gentleman and the work that he does with the Select Committee, but I must say that in this case I do not share his interpretation. Section 13 is very clear: in scenarios in which either a deal had not been reached or a deal had been voted down, a statement would be required. That is my understanding of the commitment that we have made. We would need to come to the House and have that vote, even in circumstances in which a deal had been brought before the House and turned down.
Just to press further on this point, will my hon. Friend clarify, in the light of the Prime Minister’s statement yesterday, whether the Government still maintain that a political agreement has been reached in line with the statutory statement presented to Parliament on 26 November? As things stand today, do we still have a valid initialled deal?
The Prime Minister has been clear that of course we have reached an initial deal with the EU, but she has listened to the concerns of this House and gone back to seek to discuss that deal and to seek assurances on it. I think that means that she will want to put before the House a deal with those assurances and to ensure that the House has its meaningful vote on that arrangement.
I have some sympathy for the Minister, because he is doing his best to give the House assurances about what is likely to happen, but the fact is that he is appearing on behalf of a Prime Minister who has completely shredded her credibility by doing what she did yesterday. She was prepared to send out her Cabinet colleagues to make one assertion with confidence in the morning, while she was plotting to reverse it at the same time as she had them in front of the TV cameras. Despite the Minister’s personal integrity, why should we believe a single thing that he tells us today?
I believe I am standing here on behalf of a Prime Minister who is seeking to do the right thing for the country—to bring us together and to secure an agreement that is in our best interests and that this whole House can support.
My hon. Friend has been absolutely crystal clear that there will be a meaningful debate and a meaningful vote. Does he share my concern that Opposition Members are more interested in driving damaging uncertainty than in supporting the Prime Minister, who is trying to deliver the best deal for this country?
Frankly, I do share that concern. We see today this focus on process rather than outcomes. We should all be focused on getting the best outcome from this whole process.
Unfortunately for the Minister—he should not take this personally—any assurances that the Government give have the half-life of one of those isotopes that we are all so worried about. He must be aware that there will be absolute uproar in the House if the Government try to engineer, by trickery or chicanery, avoiding having a vote on this deal. Will he give us a categorical assurance that if we do get to vote on the deal and, as is expected, amendments in support of a people’s vote are tabled, the Government will not seek to thwart any such amendment or vote?
To have a suggestion from the Liberal Democrats of assurances not being worth the paper they are written on is quite strong. The House has already voted, many times, on a second referendum, and every time the idea has been defeated, because clearly the majority of Members of this House want to respect the people’s vote that we had in 2016.
After we get the vote and vote for the agreement, at what stage can we subsequently walk away from trade negotiations should the terms prove sufficiently unattractive?
My right hon. Friend asks me a question that is well beyond the scope of this urgent question, so I shall not attempt to answer it at this time.
Why would anyone believe a word that the Government say about when the vote will take place when Ministers have spent weeks promising that the vote would be today, and when the Prime Minister’s only hope of survival is to delay the vote till the last possible minute to try to force MPs to change their minds?
I simply do not agree with the hon. Lady’s narrative. The Prime Minister has been clear that she has listened to the House. She understands the concerns throughout the House and wants to take them back to European counterparts to make sure that we have the best deal before the House. She will then bring that back here and put it before the House for us to decide on.
That was a very engaging wave from the right hon. Member for Wantage (Mr Vaizey), but it is not the normal means by which to procure the attention of the Chair. It would be a pity to squander the right hon. Gentleman at such an early stage of our proceedings, so I shall come to him in due course.
In 108 days we run out of road, and the only red line that has not been laid down is the one in front of the cliff’s edge, over which we would fall into a chaotic no deal. I urge the Minister and the Government to bring forward the meaningful vote to next week, because by then at least we will know what cosmetic changes have been made in Brussels.
I say gently to my hon. Friend that we should make sure the Prime Minister has the opportunity that she seeks to get the best deal in front of this House, and that we have the assurances we need so that the whole House can get behind the deal. My hon. Friend is a great champion of working across party lines; we ought to be taking this matter forward in a cross-party manner that delivers for the whole country. I do not believe that it would be right to rush into having a vote of this nature before we had sought those assurances.
But given the fact that the NHS and thousands of businesses throughout the country will have to start to implement their plans for no-deal contingencies before Christmas, would that not be grossly irresponsible? What possible reason can the Minister give for refusing to hold the rest of the debate and the vote next week?
The right hon. Gentleman should be working with us to provide the certainty and stability that the NHS and many others want by securing the agreement and the implementation period that it provides. That would be in the best interests of all the organisations of which he speaks.
I cannot wait any longer to hear the mellifluous tones of the right hon. Member for Wantage (Mr Vaizey).
I fear I have raised the bar too high, Mr Speaker.
It seems unlikely that the Prime Minister will get any substantial changes to the withdrawal agreement, so it is beginning to look like she has withdrawn the vote for her benefit, not for Parliament’s benefit. Is it not time to bring back the withdrawal agreement, have the vote and allow Parliament to make a decision? Like the Minister, I do not favour a second referendum. I would like Parliament to reach a conclusion on Brexit.
We are all clear that Parliament will have its crucial say in this process, which is why I made this statement to make it clear that there will be a meaningful vote before Parliament. I agree with my right hon. Friend that the date of 21 January is at the back end of when we want to see that vote. We want to see it come sooner, and I am sure that the Prime Minister will strive to ensure that she can bring it to the House even sooner than that.
I have considered the withdrawal agreement in good faith, but time after time the Prime Minister has broken her word, and over the past two and a half years she has sought to withhold information about the impact that the different options will have on us from not only the House but the public. I have businesses in Wigan that are not bidding for contracts because they do not know whether they will be able to deliver them, I have thousands of food manufacturing jobs at stake, and I have smaller food manufacturing firms that will go under if no deal becomes a political reality. Will the Minister begin to restore some trust among Members of Parliament, whose votes the Government still supposedly seek, and tell us today, categorically, that the Government will explore every option, including the extension of article 50, before they will allow the country to leave the EU with no deal at all?
We have before us an option to make sure that we leave with a negotiated deal with an implementation period. The Prime Minister is seeking to improve that deal still further to make sure that the House has the best option to move forward on an orderly basis. That is the route that we should take.
I genuinely believe that there are Members on the Labour Back Benches who, like me, want to avoid a no-deal Brexit and the risks of a divisive second referendum. I therefore urge the Minister, whom I know to be a thoughtful listener, to spend some of the time that has become available in his diary with some of those Labour Back Benchers, to see whether their concerns can be addressed.
I am always happy to take my hon. Friend’s advice, and I would certainly be happy to do that.
There are circumstances in which, under section 13 of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018, the Government are required to make a statement on how to proceed by 21 January. Those are if the Commons decides not to approve a deal presented by the Government, or if no agreement in principle can be reached. But the House of Commons Library, in its note prepared overnight on this, says:
“If the Government maintains that its political agreement persists, the requirement to make a statement could be avoided.”
That is why Opposition Members are suspicious. Is the Government’s strategy to continue to give us a meaningful vote, or is it instead to run down the clock and, in the face of no deal, in the words of “The Godfather”, make us an offer that we can’t refuse?
The right hon. Gentleman asks an important question, and I think I have already provided the answer. Let me just repeat the line towards the end of my statement in answer to this urgent question: in the unlikely and highly undesirable circumstances that, as of 21 January, there is no deal before the House, the Government would bring a statement to the House and arrange for a debate, as specified by the law. That answers his question precisely.
Section 13(2) provides that the meaningful vote should, so far as practical, be held before the European Parliament decides whether to consent to the withdrawal agreement. The withdrawal agreement has been concluded, but not approved. Will my hon. Friend assure the House that the meaningful vote will take place before the European Parliament makes that decision?
Yes, I am happy to give my right hon. Friend that assurance.
This whole situation is bonkers and the public are, frankly, fed up with this carry-on. We already know the impact that it is having on the academic sector, so will the Minister confirm that allowing this to drag on into the new year is simply unacceptable to the electorate? Will he categorically rule out the possibility of the Government waiting until March before announcing no deal?
I could not have been much clearer in my statement earlier that we will be having a meaningful vote before 21 January. I am very clear that I want the Prime Minister to go and get the assurances that she seeks and to come back to this House as soon as possible, and I am sure that that is exactly what she intends to do.
I refer Members to my declaration in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.
This is important not only for everybody in this country, but for the people in Gibraltar. Will my hon. Friend first reassure me that the initial deal still exists as of this moment and is still a legal deal on the table, because that certainty is really important for them; and, secondly, take on board the fact that, for those of us who want to support the deal, the sooner that it is brought back the better, as we wish the Prime Minister well in what she is trying to do?
My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. He and I have both recently heard directly from the Chief Minister in Gibraltar, who is very clear in his support for this deal because he thinks that it meets Gibraltar’s key interests and preserves British sovereignty. Those are crucial points, which I look forward to supporting when the deal returns to the House.
I am sorry to sound suspicious, but the Minister has used two words in his statement that make us all suspicious. They are “assurance” and “reassurance”, which we have heard time and again from this Government, and then they have reneged on them. Given that a vast majority of MPs in this House wish to prevent no deal—indeed, the Chancellor repeated that in Treasury questions just before this urgent question—will the Government either rule that out now, or bring a motion to the House so that we can vote on it and rule out a no-deal scenario?
What we are talking about is section 13 of the withdrawal Act, which this House has already debated. What I have delivered today is the Government’s clear interpretation of that and the fact that there will be a meaningful vote in this House.
Will my hon. Friend confirm that motions of this House, amended or otherwise, do not override the law?
My hon. Friend is, of course, right that the law has a senior and more important effect, but what we are talking about here is the law. We are talking about the EU (Withdrawal) Act 2018.
The Minister will understand that yesterday shredded all the good will that was left in the House on assurances such as these. I listened to the Attorney General last Monday when he told this House that he had
“a solemn and constitutional duty…to advise it on these legal questions objectively and impartially, and to place such legal expertise as I have at its disposal. The historical precedents strongly support that view. The House may be sure that I shall discharge this duty with uncompromising and rigorous fidelity.”—[Official Report, 3 December 2018; Vol. 650, c. 546.]
The fact that he is not here today to give that legal weight to what the Minister is saying is a concern to all of us who have to go back to our constituents to explain what on earth is happening in this place. Can the Minister therefore confirm that the Attorney General has consulted him on what he has said today, and that he will publish any legal advice that he has given in the light of yesterday’s rulings and what happens on section 13?
I am sure that if the hon. Lady were to approach the Attorney General, he would discharge all those responsibilities, but this question was about an Act for which my Department is responsible. Of course it is right that I should be at the Dispatch Box as a Minister in the Department for Exiting the European Union to answer questions on our legislation.
The leader of the Labour party regularly attends meetings of his European socialist colleagues, many of whom are actually in Government. Is the Minister aware of anything positive whatsoever that has come out of those meetings to facilitate the deal and help to deliver on Brexit, or is the Labour party, as far as delivering a workable Brexit is concerned, part of the problem, not part of the solution?
Order. I am most grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his inquiry, which suffers from the rather notable disadvantage that the Leader of the Opposition has no responsibility for the formulation of policy or for the continent-wide attempts to secure an agreement. Therefore I emphasise, on advice, that there is no responsibility on the Minister to attempt to answer what was no doubt a well-meaning, but, in practical terms, disorderly question.
Will the Minister confirm once again for the benefit of this House and for the people in the country who will read his remarks and listen to what he has said that there are absolutely no circumstances—no legal interpretation, no scenario that may crop up over the next few days or weeks—that will deny this Parliament the opportunity to vote on whatever the Government come back with? I say to the Minister that, as he has heard from Members across the House, trust in the Government is such that he has a lot of work to do to make people believe him.
I am very happy to say that the short summary of my statement is that there will be a meaningful vote. There will be a meaningful vote in all circumstances, so I am happy to give the hon. Gentleman that assurance.
My hon. Friend referred to the withdrawal agreement Bill that would follow a successful vote for the agreement. Does he agree that that will be a major piece of constitutional legislation covering some important issues such how citizens’ rights are embedded, what the legal base is for laws during the transition period, what the duty on our Supreme Court is in terms of Court of Justice decisions, and so on? What steps will he take to make sure that there is an opportunity to consult widely on that, and that we are not left with inadequate time to consider those very important points?
My right hon. and learned Friend makes an important point: that will be a crucial piece of legislation as we move forward. Of course it is right that the House should have its meaningful vote first before the introduction of the withdrawal agreement Bill, but we have been doing a huge amount of work to prepare that legislation. We have published a White Paper on it, and we shall continue to engage with the House and its Select Committees on it.
The Prime Minister has mentioned on a number of occasions recently, including in her statement yesterday, that it is her deal, no deal or no Brexit. How are the Government preparing for the Prime Minister’s third option? If she is not taking it seriously, why would she mention it?
I think the Prime Minister has been very clear that that is a political comment about the outcomes if other people were to take control. We are very clear that we will not be revoking article 50—my Secretary of State made that very clear yesterday—so it is a question of having an orderly withdrawal with an agreement, or no deal. The orderly withdrawal with an agreement is the preferable of the two options.
It is absolutely right that you, Mr Speaker, your Clerks, the Library and the Government will want to agree on the rules arising from the legislation thus far passed, so that we can have certainty over the Brexit endgame. But that endgame is the most chaotic and uncertain scenario imaginable within the entire Brexit process, so are we not better finding common ground now so that we can support a deal and deliver Brexit for the British public?
I wholly agree with my hon. Friend, who makes an important point. It is really important that this House now works together to ensure that we can find that common ground and improve the withdrawal agreement when it is brought back to this House.
The Government’s credibility is in threads. If this country faces a no deal exit from the European Union, the fault and responsibility will lie squarely with the Government, particularly the Prime Minister. Having listened to the Minister this afternoon, is it not the case that what we are now facing is not a meaningful vote, but a blackmail strategy?
Absolutely not. I have made it clear that this House will have a meaningful vote under all circumstances, but it is incumbent on MPs on both sides of the House to remember what they promised to their electorate—that is, delivering the outcome of the referendum and getting a good negotiated deal. That is something that we should all be supporting when the withdrawal agreement returns to this House.
If Opposition Members continue to oppose any of the very generous compromises that have been put forward, at what point will he withdraw the offer of £39 billion for the bureaucracy in Brussels and spend it preparing for the full, clean, World Trade Organisation Brexit that over 17 million people have voted for?
My hon. Friend always makes his point with great force and power, but today I am talking about the Government’s commitments to this House and how we will meet them; that is what I want to focus on. We have put before the House a withdrawal agreement, which of course includes settling our dues with Brussels, but crucially also ending them and taking control of our money as we leave the EU.
Yesterday the Prime Minister failed to put before the House the deal that she herself described as the “best possible negotiable deal”, and now she is travelling the capitals of Europe pleading for help. There is a growing sense of chaos in the country, and a feeling that the Government are simply not in control. Does the Minister agree that one of the options he should be considering is putting this issue back to the people with an option to stay in the EU—the best deal we have?
I do not agree with the hon. Lady. It is incumbent on us all to remember that it was this House that legislated for the referendum, and that promised people their views would be listened to and followed. It is therefore for us to deliver on the outcome of the referendum, as both our parties promised in their manifestos just last year.
It is vital that the House has its say on this crucial issue, so I am grateful for the Minister’s assurances, but 21 January is nearly six weeks away. Does he agree that that should be a deadline, not a target? If this matter can come back before the House, it should. We need to resolve this at the earliest possible opportunity.
I am happy to agree wholeheartedly with my hon. Friend.
The problem is that nobody believes the Government anymore. That is exactly why the Attorney General should, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper) said, be forced to come to the House and to put in writing the assurances that the Minister has given. Today the Minister has simply been put up as chaff for other Ministers above his pay grade who, quite frankly, are willing to resort to any level of trickery and contempt for this House. That is the reality. Speaking of trickery, will the Minister be very clear about whether any EU member states or European Commission officials were informed of the plan to pull the vote before the Cabinet discussed it and before this House was told?
I have to say that chaff is a new description for me that I am honoured to receive from the hon. Gentleman. I am here to be very clear about the Government’s interpretation of section 13 of the withdrawal Act and to answer that we will have a meaningful vote. I am not here to speculate on other matters.
The contempt with which this Government hold Parliament seems to know no bounds. The answers of the Minister today suggest that it is either their way or the highway. That is not good enough. Parliament’s voice must be heard on this issue. Apart from the Minister’s word, what actual consequences are there if the Government do not bring a vote to the House of Commons by 21 January? There seem to be no consequences for holding Parliament in contempt, nor for pulling the vote that should have taken place today, so what will the consequences be if the Government do not bring a vote to the House before 21 January?
The Government will bring a vote before 21 January.
Yesterday we had a significant judgment from the European Court that opens up another option, so when the Minister tells the Attorney General that we want written advice, can the Attorney General take into account yesterday’s judgment in what he sends us?
I am sure that the Attorney General takes into account all the judgments of the European Court of Justice, but I do not believe that that changes the policy of the Government, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State made very clear yesterday.
The date of 21 January is a long way in the future, particularly for those EU citizens whose lives are on hold and who are struck with uncertainty. The Minister said that he thought that the vote could be brought back a lot earlier than that. Could we hear a bit more of the Minister’s thoughts? Given that there are more than four sitting weeks until 21 January, why can we not have this vote before we break for the Christmas recess?
The hon. Gentleman will know that the date of 21 January is set in the Act because that is what Parliament decided should be in the Act. I have been very clear that I would like to see this voted on before then, and I think that many Members across the House would like to see that. The hon. Gentleman talks about the important matter of European citizens. The deal that we have negotiated is the best way of securing their livelihoods and allowing them to continue as before, but of course the Government have also made significant commitments about the unilateral steps we would take, even in the absence of a deal.
This week’s events have meant extra cost and extra disruption for business and public services. Can the Minister help me to understand why we are expected to believe his assurance that the Government will bring forward a vote before 21 January, in several weeks’ time, when we were unable to believe the word that was given by Government Ministers yesterday morning that there would be a vote today? May I also invite him to use a different expression? Rather than saying, “We will have a vote before 21 January”, can he tell us in legal terms that this Government must have a vote before 21 January?
I have been very clear in my statement that the Government want to follow both the spirit and the letter of the law. I think that is the answer to the hon. Lady’s question.
I think we all have a fairly shrewd idea that no amount of sugar-coating is going to salvage this deal. It is dead in the water and is highly likely to fail when it does meet the test of a parliamentary vote. Given that that is the situation, what contingencies are the Government planning? They have agreed that it would be disastrous for us to crash out with no deal, so are they ruling out any option, including potentially unilaterally revoking the article 50 declaration?
The hon. Gentleman talks about contingencies. Of course, a huge amount of contingency work has been done, including by the Under-Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, my hon. Friend the Member for Daventry (Chris Heaton-Harris). We are very clear that the best way forward is to secure a deal to ensure that we have the best deal possible, and that is exactly what the Prime Minister is fighting for.
Given the dysfunctional and duplicitous behaviour that we have seen in the last few days, would not it be best if the Government listened to the very wise words of the former Conservative Prime Minister Sir John Major, speaking in Dublin today, who has asked for the revocation of article 50?
No, I do not believe that it would be best. We have to remember that we were all elected on manifestos that respected the referendum result, and we have to deliver on that. I do pay heed to Sir John Major, when he makes the point about how important it is that we protect the peace process and the Good Friday agreement. That is exactly what we seek to do through the negotiations with the EU.
The Government’s handling of this whole thing has been woeful. After yesterday’s shambles, I met staff of Reckitt Benckiser this morning, who told me that they are having to step up the preparations for a no-deal scenario, having received a letter from the Health Secretary saying that there could be problems at the ports for up to six months, which would mean major problems for pharmaceuticals and getting raw materials into the country. Is it not time that we now actually get on and have the vote? The Prime Minister will not bring back any major change to the withdrawal agreement and the political declaration; let us have the vote before Christmas, and then we can see what we need to do next in the new year.
I regularly meet pharmaceutical businesses to talk to them about the Government’s plan for a deal, and also no-deal contingency planning such as that which the hon. Lady talks about. I recognise that the industry strongly supports securing a deal that provides an implementation period that provides a clear pathway ahead for trade. We want to see that delivered. I think it is right that the Prime Minister should seek to put the best possible deal before this House.
The success of Jaguar Land Rover in my constituency has transformed the lives of thousands of workers, but they now face a bleak new year. Six weeks more of uncertainty take us ever closer to the cliff. Pending Parliament deciding where we eventually go, we must rule out no deal. Will the Government therefore call a vote next week on no deal-no Brexit?
I have been very clear that the Government will allow a meaningful vote that will follow the letter and the spirit of the withdrawal Act. However, the best way to ensure the certainty that businesses crave is to make sure that we support across this House a withdrawal agreement that secures the implementation period and secures a good trade deal for our country.
Figures from yesterday show that the Minister’s Government spent £100,000 on social media promoting the Prime Minister’s deal before withdrawing it from the vote. Will he do two things? First, will he apologise for squandering public money in that way; and will he also give a guarantee that he will waste no more public money on pointless propaganda during this needlessly extended process?
The Government are absolutely right in seeking to secure a deal that is in our national interest—in the national interest of the whole of the United Kingdom—and we should continue to do so.
Will the Minister acknowledge the enormous disquiet not just in all parts of this House but outside this place, across our country, that the expected vote today was pulled, despite repeated promises that it was 100% going ahead? We have heard from Europe that there is no chance of any change to the deal. Will his Government now take responsibility, stop this uncertainty—which, as he will have heard from countless colleagues, is having such a detrimental impact on our businesses and also on our nation’s mental health—and commit to bring forward the vote by Christmas so that we can all start 2019 with some certainty?
The hon. Lady has called for certainty. The best way for certainty is that this deal is brought back to this House with the assurances that European capitals are already saying that they can give to aid its ratification, so that we can all get behind it, back it and provide that certainty.
Yesterday’s fiasco has done further damage to this country’s once proud reputation for stability and good governance. Could the Minister explain to the House how another 40 days of drift and dither is going to help to restore that battered reputation?
The hon. Gentleman, who once had aspirations to lead the Opposition, might have provided perhaps less drift and dither from the Opposition Front Bench. But what he would not have done, I think, is actually do what the Labour manifesto promised to do, which was to deliver on the outcome of the referendum.
I told my constituents in Bristol West that I will be voting against the Government’s deal and voting against no deal this evening, but the Government have pulled those votes, and yesterday the Minister’s boss said that he would not be revoking article 50. So is not the truth that this Government are trying hold a no-deal Brexit gun to the country’s head?
No. I respect the fact that the hon. Lady has always been consistent in her views on this issue; of course, it is right to point out that those views conflict with the promises made in the last Labour manifesto. This Government are very clear—we want this House to be able to vote on a deal, we think that that deal will be in the interests of our country, and we will bringing that deal back to this House to vote on it.
After yesterday’s shenanigans and—let us face it—a total abuse of power by the Executive, all trust in this Government has broken down. So while I believe that the Minister is being sincere, will he, to restore trust, promise to have the Attorney General’s legal advice on section 13 of the withdrawal Act published, and also call for the article 50 clock to be stopped on this process?
We have been very clear on our interpretation of section 13 of the withdrawal Act. This House will have a vote. We are committed to that meaningful vote in all the circumstances envisaged by section 13 of the withdrawal Act.
The Minister has to understand that the reason why Members on both sides of the House have little faith in what he is saying is that he keeps answering by saying that with section 13 there will be a vote. The reality is that there was a business motion last week where it was agreed that there would be a vote today, and the Government have reneged on it, which is why we do not trust them. The language that he has been using in answering these questions is extremely important. He said that he hopes for a vote before 21 January, that he hopes for a vote shortly, and that 21 January would be the back end of when he would expect there to be a vote. He clearly knows something, so will he set out now when the vote will come?
I am very honoured that the hon. Gentleman believes I know something. I would encourage him to read the urgent question that I have been responding to.
The Government are relying on the House trusting them in bringing forward a meaningful vote in the future, but yesterday’s escapades suggest that they are not always dealing from the top of the pack. The Leader of the House came here yesterday and collapsed the business without making any reference to that at all, and it was moved by a Minister of the Government just shouting “Tomorrow”. It would help to restore some of that trust—although that is a very difficult thing for the Government to do—if they were to promise never to do that again in this process and give this House the opportunity to vote on any future changes in the business motion.
I would gently say to the hon. Gentleman that he is very generous in giving me such wonderful powers to make commitments on behalf of the Government for evermore. I have been clear today about the meaningful vote that this House will have, and clear about our interpretation of section 13 of the withdrawal Act. I think that colleagues across the House should take that very clearly as the Government’s intention as to what we are going to do. I would therefore gently appeal for the trust that he talks about.
Cannabis (Legalisation and Regulation)
Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)
I beg to move,
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to legalise the possession and consumption of cannabis; to provide for the regulation of the production, distribution and sale of cannabis; and for connected purposes.
Over the past few weeks, three of my constituents have, individually, come to see me to discuss cannabis. All three suffer acute continuing pain. One has fibromyalgia, osteoarthritis and IBS. He had been prescribed Fentanyl, which we know is highly addictive and potentially fatal. He stopped taking it out of fear of the consequences. Cannabis offers him essential pain relief, but he has no option but to buy it illegally. He knows that, at any time, he could face arrest and prosecution. Following the Government’s reforms allowing for the prescribing of cannabis-based products for medicinal use, he went to see his GP to get a prescription. He was told that they—the GPs—were all under instructions not to refer patients to the pain clinic because there is no evidence of therapeutic value. Yet something as dangerous as Fentanyl remains available.
Another constituent, who has rapidly advancing Parkinson’s disease, also uses cannabis. It is the only thing that helps him. He has also been told by his GP that he cannot be referred to a specialist for cannabis to be prescribed. So we leave this man, who is acutely unwell, having to break the law in order to get relief from pain. This is surely cruel and inhuman.
The third man, in his 50s, finds that cannabis is the only thing that offers him respite from pain following an injury to his leg. He has a lifelong allergy to codeine. Other painkillers have caused serious problems with his kidneys. But cannabis works for him. Fearing the risks of buying from a street dealer, he bought some over the internet. He then faced a police raid. Despite my pleas to the police that giving him a criminal record would not be in the public interest, last week he was given a caution. This man has been a law-abiding citizen all his life. He has found this whole thing acutely distressing. He fears that the consequence of the caution is that he will not be able to visit his son in Australia. The treatment of this man is shameful. What is the point of doing this to him? What is the possible public interest?
Across the country, people like my constituent are left with no option but to break the law. The Government’s reforms raised expectations but have dashed hopes for so many people. The approach taken by the Government is so restrictive that the numbers who will benefit are minuscule. If someone is lucky, they might live in an area where the police force takes an enlightened approach. Chief Constable Mike Barton in Durham has effectively decriminalised cannabis for personal use. A recent parliamentary answer I received reveals that, in some areas, prosecutions and cautions have plummeted. Surely we cannot justify this postcode lottery, where two people behaving in exactly the same way are treated differently depending on where they live. One will be forever tarnished with a criminal record, and the other will not. It is clear that the recent reforms are not working, so the Government should look in the round at the harm that prohibition of cannabis is causing across the country and try to come up with a more enlightened approach.
In Canada, Justin Trudeau’s Liberal Government have implemented a new legal, regulated market for cannabis for recreational and medicinal use. Their approach is instructive. In June 2016, the Minister of Justice, the Minister of Public Safety and the Minister of Health jointly set out the key principles that should guide reform, including: protecting young people by keeping cannabis out of the hands of children and youth; keeping profits out of the hands of criminals; preventing people from receiving criminal records for simple cannabis possession offences, which reduces the burden on police and the justice system; protecting public health and safety by strengthening the law with respect to serious offences such as selling cannabis to minors and driving under influence; providing support for addiction treatment, mental health support and education programmes to inform people about the risks; and access to quality-controlled cannabis for medicinal purposes. Surely those principles should guide us too. Carrying on as we are has dreadful consequences.
I want to make four key points. First, nowhere across the world has prohibition worked—cannabis is available everywhere. Secondly, people have no idea what they are buying. We know that leaving supply in the hands of criminals puts teenagers in particular at risk. They are most susceptible to suffering mental health consequences, including psychosis, from regular use of potent strains available on the street. The widespread use of those dangerous strains is the result of our failure to regulate. A regulated market would allow Government to control the safety and potency of cannabis sold by legal vendors. Through a misplaced desire to be “tough on drugs”, we leave teenagers vulnerable to exploitation from sellers who have no interest at all in their welfare. Through inaction, Government and Parliament are culpable. If something is potentially dangerous to children and young people, we must control it and regulate it, not leave it freely available from those keen to make a fast buck.
Thirdly, we know that the illegal market for drugs generates extreme violence in many communities, and particularly the most disadvantaged. If a supplier faces competition, they do not resort to the courts to protect their market; they use extreme violence. Thousands of people have lost their lives as a result of illegal trade in drugs in countries such as Mexico, but on the streets of our poorest communities, violence is meted out regularly. Young vulnerable teenagers get caught up in this violent trade and cannot escape. It does not have to be like this.
Fourthly, we still criminalise thousands of people every year, taking up precious police time that could be used to fight serious crime. Careers are blighted for using a substance that no doubt many Members on the Government Benches have used at some stage of their lives. Meanwhile, the most harmful drug of all is consumed in large quantities right here in this building. Alcohol leads to violence on our streets and behind closed doors in people’s homes. It destroys families up and down our country, yet we tax it, and the Exchequer benefits enormously from it. Is there not a dreadful hypocrisy in the fact that we allow our drug of choice, while criminalising people who use another, less dangerous drug, many for the relief of pain?
My Bill offers a more rational alternative to this mess. With strict regulation of the growing, sale and marketing of cannabis, with an age limit of 18 for the purchase and consumption of cannabis and with clear controls over potency of what is sold in licensed outlets, we can at last start to protect children and teenagers. We can at last treat with dignity and respect all those who suffer acute pain or who have conditions such as multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s and epilepsy. We can end the shameful treatment of these people as criminals.
We can at last end the extraordinary practice of handing billions of pounds every year to organised crime. We can instead start to tax the sale of cannabis, so that revenues can be used for good purpose—public health education, the NHS, schools and the police. We can start to take some of the violence and intimidation off our streets and restore order in our poorest communities, and we can free up police time to focus on serious crime. This is rational, evidence-based policy making. It is time for this country to act on the evidence and to protect children and young people from harm.
First, I want to pay respect to the right hon. Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb) for introducing the Bill. He has a long record of campaigning on this important issue, and while I strongly disagree with him, I respect his desire that something be done to address it.
I am sure we can all agree that something needs to be done about the current situation with cannabis use, which is wrong, unsustainable and doing a great deal of damage to our society, but I do not believe that liberalising and decriminalising it in this way is the answer. My view is largely informed by my experience of seeking to help and support people who have been regular users of cannabis. I have seen at first hand the lives that it wrecks, the impact on mental health and the cost to not only the individual but their families, their communities and wider society.
I was slightly confused by the line that the right hon. Gentleman took. He seemed to be confusing medicinal use of cannabis with recreational use. The Government should take great credit for the progress made recently on allowing the medicinal use of cannabis products. That is absolutely right, and I believe it has a great deal of support across the country. I agree that more should be done to ensure that cannabis for medicinal use gets to the people who really need it, and that more needs to be done to get medical professionals on board and adjusted to the new regime. However, the new measures were only introduced a few weeks ago, on 1 November, and we need to allow more time for the changes to come into effect before we take a huge leap of faith towards decriminalising cannabis altogether.
My concern is that, by liberalising cannabis use, we would send precisely the wrong message to our young people. We would be giving them the message that cannabis is safe and okay to use. We need to make very clear that cannabis is a dangerous drug and that there is no safe consumption of cannabis in an uncontrolled, unregulated way. We are clearly in the midst of a war on drugs, but we will not win the war by raising the white flag, giving up and surrendering. No war has ever been won by surrendering.
The impact of regular cannabis use on mental health has been well established. There is strong evidence to demonstrate that frequent use of cannabis is linked to the inducement of psychosis. One study in south London revealed a threefold increase in the risk of individuals having a psychotic disorder among regular cannabis users compared with those who do not use cannabis.
In recent years, we have seen a steady reduction in the use of cannabis: over the past 20 years, it has declined by 30%. YouGov polling conducted this year indicates that legislation could significantly disturb this overall downward trend. Over a quarter of people under 25 who have never tried cannabis indicated that they would definitely try it, or be likely to try it, if it was legalised. That is over 1 million 18 to 24-year-olds. Of those who have used cannabis before, well over a third of 18 to 24-year-olds said that they would be more likely to use it more regularly if it was decriminalised.
I believe that legislation would send the very wrong message to our young people that cannabis is okay to use. I think we all understand that for many people the use of cannabis is a gateway drug to more serious and more damaging drug use. It would be absolutely wrong to send the message that somehow cannabis is okay, because of where that would lead for many people. As with most laws, the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 is adhered to by the vast majority of people, but it is ignored by some. We must not forget that the current law deters a great many from drug use, which serves a very important public interest.
However, this is no endorsement of the status quo. We all have at least some common ground. It is intolerable to see our young people hurting themselves or ending their lives prematurely because of the effects of this dangerous drug. Our approach must be bolder. We must offer more meaningful support and aim to drive down consumption yet further. This will not be achieved by a new website or a helpline. We need to intervene and challenge, using experts in the field of drug use, recovered addicts and recovering users, who can reach out and offer a real prospect of change for users.
A procedure that replaces the current system of issuing a relatively ineffectual warning or punitive fine given by a police officer with the alternative of offering diversion through attendance at a local drugs awareness day would have a greater impact in reducing use. Part of what is currently charged as a fixed penalty notice could instead go to local treatment providers to pay for such a service.
The right hon. Gentleman referred to the situation in Canada. Interestingly, on the eve of the legislation being introduced in Canada, an article published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal called the legislation
“a national, uncontrolled experiment in which the profits of cannabis producers and tax revenues are squarely pitched against the health of Canadians.”
Yes, we can learn from experiments taking place elsewhere, but we do not need to risk the lives of some of our most vulnerable residents in doing so.
This is one of the many substances that plague our communities and rob both young and old—and, predominantly, the most disadvantaged—of a full life. We must commit to doing more, to having a person-centric approach, to showing compassion, yet keep the decisiveness of the criminal law in intervening when the public interest demands. I accept that there is a trend in other nations to legalise cannabis, but the evidence at this stage is still very mixed.
Decriminalisation is at best a risky step for us to take. While I understand the desire for something to be done to address this issue, I do not believe that liberalisation in this way is right for our country at this time. We need to do better for our young people, but giving up the war on cannabis is not the way to achieve it. I cannot support this Bill, and if the House does divide on this issue, I will vote against it. I encourage other Members to join me in not allowing this Bill to progress.
Question put (Standing Order No. 23).
11 December 2018
The House divided:
Question accordingly negatived.View Details
Exiting the European Union: Meaningful Vote
Emergency debate (Standing Order No. 24)
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the Prime Minister’s unprecedented decision not to proceed with the final two days of debate and the meaningful vote, despite the House’s Order of Tuesday 4 December 2018, and her failure to allow this House to express its view on the Government’s deal or her proposed negotiating objectives, without the agreement of this House.
I have had the privilege of serving this House for 35 years, and I have had strong disagreements with every Prime Minister who has served in that time—it is all there on the record—but I have never, in all those years, witnessed such an abject mess as this Prime Minister is making of these crucial Brexit negotiations and in presenting her deal to the House. Most Prime Ministers lose votes and get things wrong, but yesterday she demeaned her office by unilaterally taking her discredited deal off the table and running away, rather than facing the verdict of this House. We should have been voting on it today. There is nothing wrong with standing by your principles, but this deal is not one of principle—or apparently not one that she is prepared to stand by, anyway. Yesterday the Government did not even have the decency to allow a vote on withdrawing the business. The Prime Minister let down all MPs and the people we represent, on both sides of this House, the overwhelming majority of whom know that this deal is dead and want to get on with putting a realistic solution in place.
I want to thank my colleagues in the Labour party who supported the application for the debate yesterday, and colleagues in all the other opposition parties who supported it, and indeed Conservative Members, on both sides of the debate, in order to ensure that a vote could take place.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that the frequency with which the Government hold this Parliament in contempt, and the ease with which they mislead the British public, is frankly appalling and pathetic? [Interruption.] It is true. It is now alleged on BuzzFeed that the Prime Minister told top EU officials that she intended to pull the Brexit vote 24 hours before she told senior Cabinet members. Does my right hon. Friend agree—
Order. I had wanted the hon. Gentleman to complete his intervention. I remind the House that interventions should be brief, not mini speeches, because there is a lot to get through and 32 Members want to contribute after the principal speakers.
That news is very disturbing indeed. The House should be told first—not the media, not anybody else.
It is not just BuzzFeed that reported that, but the Daily Mirror. I myself have been told that the Prime Minister spoke to a number of EU member states and officials before she spoke to the Cabinet and the House to say that the vote would be cancelled. Does my right hon. Friend agree that what I have been told is shocking: that apparently the addendum the Prime Minister is now seeking was drafted weeks ago, before we even started the debate in this House?
The whole process gets curiouser and curiouser, Mr Speaker. This is no longer a functioning Government and the Prime Minister must admit her deal is dead. Her shambolic negotiations have ended in failure and she no longer has the authority to negotiate for this country when she does not even have the authority of her own party.
Does the Leader of the Opposition not accept that it is rather strange for the Opposition to criticise the Prime Minister for not seeking clarity on the backstop but then, when she does go to Brussels to do just that, criticise her for that very action?
I am absolutely full of admiration for the hon. Member’s ability to keep a straight face while she asked that question.
Parliament may not have had the chance to vote down the Prime Minister’s deal, but if she had put it before the House I think we all know it would have been defeated by a very significant margin indeed.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is not just that the Prime Minister let down the House and our constituents? Taxpayers have been paying the price, with reports that £100,000 was spent in the past week on Facebook advertisements supporting her deal. Her Ministers were sent around the country, and all of us have spent time and resources consulting our constituents. We have all been let down. We have not been able to express our view and their view in a vote in this House.
The Prime Minister has indeed wasted £100,000 of public money in just seven days on Facebook adverts trying, and failing, to sell this dog’s dinner of a Brexit deal. There were days when both the Prime Minister and I served as local councillors. Had we spent public money in that way, we would have been surcharged for a waste of public money without proper approval.
The right hon. Gentleman is of course right: the Government are an absolute shambles. They have failed the country and they are in contempt of Parliament. Will he not do the right thing now and table a motion of no confidence in the Government, so that we can be shot of them?
I have tabled this motion today, which the hon. Gentleman supported. We have no confidence in the Government. We need to do the appropriate thing at the appropriate time—have a motion of no confidence to get rid of this Government.
The Prime Minister not only failed to convince the public; she now seems unable to convince the European Union to accept any meaningful changes to her proposals.
If the right hon. Gentleman followed the debate, he will have noticed that he had complaints about the backstop, as did most of the 164 speakers. Is it therefore not right for the Prime Minister to go and see if she can mend it? If he disagrees with that, why?
I thought that was a really valiant attempt to defend the indefensible. It is utterly ludicrous. Everyone knew the date the vote was going to be put. The whole world knew about it. We now hear that apparently the Prime Minister was trying to arrange some backroom deal ahead of it and then pulled the vote, but she did not bother to tell an awful lot of other people that she was doing so. I do admire the right hon. and learned Gentleman’s attempts at defending what is completely indefensible.
Last week the Government were found to be in contempt of Parliament. Does my right hon. Friend agree that if the media were briefed before this House, that is further contempt for this Parliament?
The Prime Minister cancelled the Cabinet meeting this morning—presumably she is worried about whether she has a majority there or not—and apparently many of her Ministers are very upset. I cannot say I blame them. At least a dozen were sent into TV and radio stations yesterday morning to deny the Prime Minister would pull the vote, before somebody helpfully phoned from Downing Street to pull them out of the studios to say the line had changed. That is an extraordinary way of not running a Government. The Northern Ireland Secretary was quoted as saying that the UK must move on with Brexit or risk being riven with division, shortly before the Prime Minister decided not to move on with Brexit. This is the same Prime Minister who said hers was the best deal and the only deal. If that is the case, what is she doing today in Europe?
This runaway Prime Minister is not even seeking to negotiate. She confirmed that she is only seeking reassurances. Our Prime Minister is traipsing around the continent in pursuit and search of warm words—when she can get out of the car to hear them. It really is, if I may say so, Mr Speaker, the unspeakable in pursuit of the unwritten—a waste of time and a waste of public money. Because of her own unworkable red lines, the European Commission says it will not renegotiate with her. The Prime Minister also concedes that she is not negotiating either, so what on earth is she doing travelling from capital to capital in Europe? I am sure it cannot be Christmas shopping, so what on earth is she doing in Europe? Worse than that, it shows that once again she is simply not listening.
In ensuring the integrity of our Union, does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the only way we can deal with the backstop is to amend the legally binding text of an international agreement?
The red lines the Prime Minister set out on the backstop became impossible. Because of her bungled negotiations, there is a greater chance of entering into an indefinite backstop. That is one of the reasons why we would vote against it, as I believe the hon. Gentleman would.
There are legitimate concerns about the Northern Ireland backstop, but does my right hon. Friend agree that it is not only the backstop that is a problem with this deal? Can he remember a time in British history when the Prime Minister and the Chancellor recommended a course of action that, like their deal, would make people worse off according to their own analysis?