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House of Commons Hansard
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Commons Chamber
14 January 2019
Volume 652

House of Commons

Monday 14 January 2019

The House met at half-past Two o’clock

Prayers

[Mr Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions

Defence

The Secretary of State was asked—

Vanguard-class Life Extension Programme

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1. What recent assessment he has made of the financial sustainability of the Vanguard-class life extension programme. [908521]

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The Vanguard-class life extension and availability sustainment programmes are essential to maintaining the United Kingdom’s continuous at-sea deterrence and are prioritised accordingly. The programmes are managed using established Ministry of Defence processes and, as such, are routinely reviewed.

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April this year marks the 50th anniversary of continuous at-sea deterrence, and I pay tribute to the men and women of the submarine service for their dedication over those 50 years. Given the reported delays in the refurbishment programme of the Vanguard class, can the Secretary of State assure the House that CASD will be maintained into the future?

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The right hon. Gentleman is right to pay tribute to the men and women, both past and present, who have done so much to maintain that at-sea nuclear deterrence. I can give him an absolute assurance that the investment and resources that are needed are being made available to maintain this important deterrence, which has always had a lot of cross-party support.

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When my right hon. Friend considers the financial sustainability of the Vanguard programme, does he also consider the question of the nuclear doctrine? When was it last revised and on what basis would he reconsider revising it?

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This is something that has to be continuously revised and looked at not just by our Department, but right across the Government, and that is always ongoing.

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As the doyenne of British nuclear history, Lord Hennessy, observed recently, the current Vanguard life extension plans are a

“technological leap in the dark”,

which also means there is little room for flexibility in the overhaul and procurement cycle if CASD is to be maintained with two submarines in 2033-34. What discussions has the Secretary of State had in his Department about contingencies around the Vanguard-to-Dreadnought transition, which we know were discussed during the previous transition to Vanguard?

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We constantly have discussions right across Government to make sure that our continuous at-sea nuclear deterrence can be sustained. We have been investing in technology and parts to make sure that the Vanguard class has everything it needs in the future. But what is critical is the investment we are making: we announced earlier this year an additional £400 million of investment in the Dreadnought class to make sure that is delivered on time and to budget.

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But I am afraid to say that, as the misery of the modernising defence programme has shown all of us, the Secretary of State’s Department has much less latitude with large projects than he would like. With the nuclear project sucking up money, as he has just mentioned, from all other lines of spending, how long will it be before this overpriced nuclear weapons programme gets within sight of the Chief Secretary to the Treasury’s white elephant hunt across the Government?

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When I look around this Chamber, I see many Members on both sides of the House who are absolute supporters of the importance of the continuous at-sea nuclear deterrent and understand how vital it is to keeping Britain safe. That unites both the main parties, and will continue to do so in the long term when we deliver Dreadnought.

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Does the Secretary of State agree that Vanguard—and indeed Dreadnought, the next generation of our CASD programme—is probably the best weapon for peace the world has ever had? Will he update the House on plans to celebrate CASD’s 50th anniversary, which will be my birthday, too—we are almost twins?

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I cannot imagine either CASD or my hon. Friend reaching 50, and I think we should put my hon. Friend on one of the submarines as part of that celebration. The anniversary shows that our nuclear deterrent has kept Britain, and also our NATO partners, safe over 50 years.

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Order. Before we proceed, I feel sure that colleagues throughout the House will wish to join me in extending this afternoon a very warm welcome to the Speaker of the Malaysian Parliament, Mohamad Ariff, whom I had the privilege of welcoming to the Speaker’s briefing meeting this morning—welcome to you, Sir, and to your colleagues—and a similarly warm and effusive welcome to the Speaker of the Australian House of Representatives, the right hon. Tony Smith. Sir, you are welcome; thank you for joining us and we wish you well in your important work.

Illegal Drone Use: Airports

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2. What steps his Department is taking to support civilian authorities to tackle illegal drone use at and around UK airports. [908522]

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The Ministry of Defence rapidly deployed counter-unmanned air systems capability in support of Sussex police and the Metropolitan police, both at Gatwick and at Heathrow. We are working with colleagues in the Department for Transport and across the Government, and will continue to do so.

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I would like to convey the sincere thanks of the Gatwick management to the Ministry of Defence for its swift action last month during the drone incursion, and I can confirm that they have now bought a very similar system for future use. May I have an assurance that the MOD remains on standby to assist civilian airfields in these situations?

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I join my hon. Friend in thanking the RAF for its work. It worked incredibly quickly to get to both Gatwick and Heathrow. Of course, our armed forces are always ready to respond, should they need to, but it should be said that responsibility for drone activity at civilian airports lies with the airport operators.

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I have today received a parliamentary answer revealing that no Transport Minister visited Gatwick during the drone crisis. Can the hon. Gentleman tell us what contingency plans his own Department had for dealing with drones at airports? Will he also tell us on what date the Transport Department—or, indeed, the Cabinet Office—ask the MOD for help and support during the crisis? How did his Department respond, and when?

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I say to the right hon. Gentleman in good spirit that he is uniquely talented in delivering an oral question as though it were of the written variety.

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I was pleased to go to Heathrow myself just last week—[Hon. Members: “Gatwick.”] I know, but I personally went to Heathrow last week. We responded to the request that we received from Sussex police on 20 December and we have been working with colleagues across the Government, and with the Department for Transport, to ensure that we have all the availability that is needed, and that the airports have the proper advice that they require so that they can get the systems they need to ensure that they can protect their own runways.

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Ah, the good doctor! I call Dr Julian Lewis.

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The Ministry of Defence is evidently well prepared to respond very quickly to drone threats, once it is asked for assistance, but can the Minister explain the policy whereby installations are not already in place and a crisis has to arise before that assistance is deployed to the airports?

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As I was saying, the protection of airports is in fact an issue for those airports. I know that the Department for Transport is working with airfields across the country to ensure that they have the protections they need. The response by the MOD was incredibly swift, and I pay tribute to it for that.

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Is it not time that this Government took drones seriously? The fact is that drone technology is advancing very quickly. This is going to be the way in which we wage wars, and the Americans, the Chinese and the Russians are all investing in the technology. Even in our airports, drones present a great danger that we should address immediately.

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We are taking this very seriously. The Ministry of Defence has been working on this over the past couple of years, and we are of course working with our allies to ensure that we have the very best technology to protect our armed forces and keep this country safe.

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Does the military actually have radar that is capable of identifying something that is, say, 50 cm across?

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I obviously cannot go into the details of the capability that we have—I do not think that that would be sensible for the security of our country—but, having visited the system that is in place at Heathrow, I can say that it is incredibly effective.

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The recent drone intrusions at Gatwick and Heathrow were highly embarrassing and created great inconvenience for thousands of passengers but, more importantly, they presented a real and significant security risk. We are all indebted to the armed forces personnel who worked to tackle those intrusions, but we clearly need a long-term solution to this growing challenge. Will the Minister tell us why it is taking the Government so long to bring forward regulations to introduce a wider exclusion zone around airports and ensure the safety of UK airspace?

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We take this matter incredibly seriously, and it is important to get things absolutely right because there are all sorts of implications for the aspects of security that we will need to introduce. We are working across Government, and the MOD is providing its advice and expertise to ensure that we get proper legislation in place to make the response effective.

Outsourcing: Quality of Service

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3. What recent assessment he has made of the quality of service delivered through contracts outsourced by his Department. [908523]

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The Ministry of Defence regularly monitors the performance of all its contractors, including for outsourced services. That is carried out through the robust monitoring of contract performance indicators, with action being taken as appropriate when standards are not met.

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Capita, which receives millions of pounds through MOD contracts, has consistently missed its recruitment and savings targets, yet it was handed a £500 million fire and rescue contract last year despite receiving a dire financial risk assessment. Following the Carillion fiasco, will the Minister recognise that this Government’s ideological commitment to outsourcing has caused needless precarity for MOD workers in my Lincoln constituency and across the UK?

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In the wake of Carillion’s collapse, the Prime Minister commissioned a review of outsourcing, with which the MOD has engaged, that seeks to improve the public service outcomes and value for money of Government outsourcing. However, I gently point out to the hon. Lady that outsourcing also happened under the previous Labour Government.

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The Minister will be aware that Members have offered scathing reviews of the Government’s no-deal Brexit outsourcing procurement decisions across portfolios. What no-deal outsourcing contracts has the MOD issued? Will the Minister ensure that there is a comprehensive review of procurement processes before he joins the Secretary of State for Transport in thrusting his Department into a Brexit procurement fiasco?

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We work closely with all the companies to which we outsource, ensuring that we monitor their work and that they meet the standards that are expected of them. If they do not meet those standards, we will take the necessary action, and we have done so.

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The Defence Fire Safety Regulator’s leaked report highlighted a catalogue of failures to manage fire safety in single-living accommodation. It appears that the estates contract that was outsourced to CarillionAmey does not include the inspection and maintenance of fire doors and fire escapes, which is a shocking omission that puts servicemen and women in an unacceptable situation. Will the Minister agree to carry out an immediate review of fire safety across all MOD sites and to implement the report’s recommendations in full? Will he also agree to halt the outsourcing of the defence fire and rescue service to Capita, which seems grossly irresponsible in the circumstances?

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The Ministry of Defence takes the safety of its people and the findings of the report extremely seriously. We are committed to addressing the shortfalls identified in the report. We have already taken action against some of the recommendations, and we will continue to ensure that we implement the report’s other recommendations.

Syria: Coalition Forces

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4. What recent discussions he has had with his US counterpart on the future deployment of coalition forces in Syria. [908524]

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I have regular conversations with the US Secretary of Defence on a range of issues, including Syria. Last week I had my first discussion with the acting Secretary of Defence, and the MOD will continue those discussions with the US Department of Defence.

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One of the many risks of the position taken by President Trump, as recently exposed on Twitter, is that it leaves the Kurdish forces and population in Syria vulnerable to attacks by Russia, Turkey and others. The Kurds have been an important part of the coalition of which we have been part. Will the Secretary of State give me some assurance that, whatever America does, we will continue to stand with those who have stood with us?

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Our whole country owes a great debt of gratitude to the Syrian Democratic Forces and many of the Kurdish forces that are part of it. I am in continuing discussions with my French and US counterparts to ensure that we do everything we can to continue to support the SDF. The war that they have waged alongside us against Daesh has been vital, and we should not forget the debt of gratitude that we owe them.

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Following Turkish President Erdoğan’s refusal to meet US National Security Adviser John Bolton in Ankara last week to discuss the future of the Kurdish YPG forces fighting Daesh in Syria, is the Secretary of State worried that the withdrawal of US forces from Syria will allow Turkey to crush the Kurdish fighters, whom it regards as terrorists? Can the Government offer any further reassurances to the Kurdish forces that they will continue to support their efforts to overcome Daesh in Syria, and will the Government persuade our NATO ally Turkey to refrain from using its military might against the Kurds?

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We should recognise the fact that Daesh has been considerably degraded over the last few years and has been deprived of considerable amounts of territory, but we should not be complacent about the threat it continues to pose. We need to work with allies such as the SDF, as well as with Syria’s other neighbours, to make sure we continue to put pressure on Daesh and do not give it the space to do us harm in this country. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that we also need to be speaking to our partners, including Turkey, to make sure that everyone comes to the table to create a long-lasting peace in Syria that, importantly, includes the Kurds.

Leaving the EU: Defence Co-operation

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5. What plans his Department has for maintaining defence co-operation with European partners in the event of the UK leaving the EU without a deal. [908525]

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The UK is a global player. We will remain engaged in the world and central to European foreign and security policy as we leave the EU. Much of our engagement is managed bilaterally or in other organisations.

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No deal would have a disastrous impact on defence co-operation, and the UK’s defence sector relies on pan-European supply chains. Will the Government finally provide some certainty to workers in the wider defence sector by accepting that a permanent customs union with the EU is essential?

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As I am sure the hon. Gentleman is aware, 90% of our industrial collaboration with other European countries on defence is actually on a bilateral basis, not through the European Union. I imagine that that pattern will go long into the future. When we look at the defence of Europe, is it based on the European Union or on the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation? I would argue it is based on the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, not the European Union.

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Will my right hon. Friend take this opportunity, in the light of tomorrow’s important votes, to explain his view of the claims made by some observers outside this place that the defence and security clauses of the withdrawal agreement would somehow cede control over defence operations and military procurement from Her Majesty’s Government to EU institutions?

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I absolutely reassure the House that that is not going to happen. Our sovereign capability and sovereign control over our military and intelligence is something that will always be protected.

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In order to appease the hard right of the Conservative party, the Prime Minister has spent the last two years presenting no deal as a viable option, but no deal would mean that we would have to withdraw from all common security and defence policy missions, with our seconded personnel sent home forthwith. We would be permanently shut out of the European Defence Agency and the defence fund, undermining vital research and industrial co-operation, and our defence industry would be hit by crippling tariffs and delays at the border, putting in jeopardy the equipment that our armed forces need. Given all that, does the Secretary of State agree that a no-deal Brexit would be catastrophic for defence and security?

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I do not agree at all. Our country can and will succeed, whatever it has to deal with and whatever it faces. Much of our defence collaboration is done through third-party organisations, whether they be NATO, the United Nations or joint expeditionary forces. As I have already touched upon, most of our defence industrial collaboration is done not through the European Union, but on a bilateral basis.

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Why cannot the Secretary of State just say, absolutely unequivocally, that no deal is not just undesirable but completely unthinkable? Does he agree with the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, the right hon. Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood), who has warned that no deal would be an “irresponsible act of self-harm”? It would be dangerous for Britain. Instead of using a no deal to blackmail MPs into supporting the Prime Minister’s unworkable deal, why will the Government not do the responsible thing and rule out no deal once and for all?

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Obviously, the hon. Lady will have the opportunity to take part in the debate this afternoon and tomorrow. The Prime Minister has negotiated a deal with the EU that she is putting to this House, and perhaps the hon. Lady will support it. But it is also clear that this country always has and always will succeed, whether we are in the EU or outside it; whether we have a deal or no deal, Britain will succeed and Britain will prosper.

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Following the Prime Minister’s commitment to participate in aspects of the EU’s defence framework, can the Defence Secretary advise as to the carve-outs the UK has negotiated, or intends to negotiate, from strict third country participation criteria in any common security and defence policy initiative?

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We have been clear that we will participate in the projects that are of interest and value to the UK, and we will not be dragged along into projects that are of no value and interest to this country.

Illegal Immigration (English Channel)

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6. What steps the Royal Navy is taking to support the Home Office in preventing illegal immigration across the English channel. [908526]

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As the House is aware, HMS Mersey, an offshore patrol vessel—OPV—was deployed on 3 January in support of Border Force activity in the channel. Additionally, our support includes the deployment of up to 20 suitably qualified naval personnel on Border Force cutters to provide additional capacity.

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Illegal seaborne immigration in small boats across the English channel is driven by people traffickers. The way to stop people traffickers and the illegal immigration is by returning those rescued at sea to the port from whence they came in France. Is the Royal Navy doing that?

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Migration control is, of course, not a responsibility of the Ministry of Defence or the Royal Navy; it is a responsibility of the Home Office, so my hon. Friend’s question is probably better directed to the Home Secretary. In this particular case, the Royal Navy is simply supplying support under normal MACA—military aid to the civil authorities—rules.

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The Royal Navy has a proud and glorious history, in respect not just of forming the wooden walls of this country, but being the nobility of Neptune’s realm, and it has a proud humanitarian record. But the question related to preventing illegal immigration, so could the Minister tell us what the orders of the day are and what the Royal Navy is doing to prevent people from landing in this country?

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As I have tried to explain, migration is a matter for the Home Office. In this case, it has made a request for us to supply a vessel, HMS Mersey, to act as a platform for Border Office officers to operate from.

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I do not know how to follow that, but I will try. The Secretary of State has been waxing lyrical about the fleet ready escort being based on England’s southern coast to deal with this phantom menace of mass immigration, with no plans for basing OPVs in Scotland, as he admitted to me in parliamentary questions. So will the Minister, on behalf of the Secretary of State, advise the House as to whether they have received any representation from the Scottish Conservative cohort in this House about basing fishery protection vessels anywhere remotely near Scotland?

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With respect to the hon. Gentleman, he seems to be confusing a number of different issues. The role of the fleet ready escort is certainly very different from that in which HMS Mersey is currently being engaged, as indeed is fishery protection, which is a matter devolved to the Scottish Government.

Global Navigation Satellite System

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7. What funding his Department has allocated to the proposed global navigation satellite system. [908528]

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Some £92 million has been allocated from the Treasury EU exit fund to the engineering, development and design phase of a UK global navigation satellite system, which is currently under way. The UK Space Agency is leading the work, with the full support of the Ministry of Defence.

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And yet the reality is that £1.2 billion of UK investment in the Galileo system may now have been wasted because of this Government’s failed negotiation. This Government now want us to spend billions more on a delayed, diplomatically divisive and sketchy system just to cover up for their failure. How much more does the Minister expect the women and men of our armed forces to suffer as a result of lower investment in them because of this Government’s botched Brexit negotiations?

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Galileo is an issue because our armed forces need to know that we have absolute faith in their secure systems. The EU decided not to allow us to have that information, which is why we are coming out. However, we are working across Government to look into the alternatives, which is why the Prime Minister has put the funding in place.

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What will the proposed UK system provide to our armed forces that the American global positioning system does not?

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It will obviously replicate very much what the US system has, but it will also ensure that we have additional capability should we need it. It is really important that our armed forces have all the equipment they need and that they have systems such as GPS so that we can put them in a safe environment when they are defending our country.

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We understand that because of the Government’s failure to negotiate our continued involvement in Galileo they are exploring other options to build their own global satellite navigation system, possibly in co-operation with the United States of America. We know that that will cost the country up to £5 billion, but can the Secretary of State or his Minister tell us how many British companies have lost out on important Galileo contracts as a result of the Government’s failure?

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We have in this country an exciting space industry that is working incredibly hard and is part of the 18-month engineering, development and design study that is expected to conclude in 2020. I am looking forward to seeing the results of that study, because I am sure that the great British industry that we have will provide us with the system that we need.

Russian Military Activity (NATO Discussions)

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8. What recent discussions he has had with his NATO counterparts on the implications of recent Russian military activity for NATO’s strategic priorities. [908529]

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I have regular discussions with my NATO counterparts on Russia. Most recently, the alliance strongly supported the finding of the United States that Russia is in material breach of its obligations under the intermediate-range nuclear forces treaty. NATO has also agreed further steps to bolster its ability to deter and defend against the growing threats we face.

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The UK’s participation in NATO’s enhanced forward presence is the most visible demonstration of our commitment to the security of our eastern allies. Does my right hon. Friend agree that their security is a vital part of ensuring our own security?

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My hon. Friend is absolutely right in his analysis. By investing in defence along the eastern border against the threat of Russia, we are as much investing in our security here in the United Kingdom as we are investing in the security of nations such as Poland, Estonia and Romania. We need to continue to do this, and other nations need to step up to the mark as well.

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Recent Russian military activities fall well below the provisions of article 5 of the north Atlantic treaty. Does the Secretary of State share my sadness that the public do not understand articles 1, 2 and 3 of that treaty, which promote peace, security, justice, stability and mutual aid, all of which are vital to our defence capability?

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We have to be confident about what NATO can deliver, and we must increasingly make the arguments for what NATO delivers for everyone and explain its full remit. As we look to the future, we are seeing nations such as Russia and, increasingly, China operating in a grey zone, just below the level of conflict. That does not mean that those actions are any less dangerous. In Ukraine, the grey zone has merged with conventional power.

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The implications of Russian policy in the near east may be more dramatic now that the US has withdrawn from Syria. Will my right hon. Friend tell us whether there is a cross-departmental plan on the implications of the new regional dynamic for us and our other partners?

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We continue to work right across Government to look at how the changing political situation affects many countries, not only in Europe but, as my hon. Friend said, in the middle east. I assure him that we will continue to look at that issue closely.

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Russian incursions into Scottish waters are increasingly blatant, yet still no major naval surface ships are based in Scotland. Has the Secretary of State had any discussions with his NATO counterparts about the UK’s responsibility to patrol its north Atlantic maritime territory properly?

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What we have seen is increased investment in the North Atlantic, whether that is the deployment of P8s to Lossiemouth or the continued investment in our submarine forces at Her Majesty’s Naval Base Clyde, and we will continue to make that investment. We are very much leading the way in dealing with the challenges that increased Russian activity in the North Atlantic presents not just to us but to the whole of NATO.

Leaving the EU: Future Defence Relationship

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9. What recent assessment he has made of the UK’s future defence relationship with the EU after the UK leaves the EU. [908530]

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The UK will pursue a distinctive, independent and sovereign foreign and defence policy that meets British interests and promotes our values. The political declaration negotiated with the EU recognises the shared threats and values of the UK and the EU and provides a framework for an ambitious, broad, deep and flexible future relationship.

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The EU Common Security and Defence Policy missions play an extremely important role for peace and security in the European continent and beyond. Can the Minister confirm that, post-Brexit, we will not be withdrawing personnel and operational support from such missions?

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The hon. Lady is absolutely right. Of course, up until recently, we actually led Op Atalanta, which was the counter-piracy operation in Somalia, although that has now handed over to a joint mission between Italy and Spain. In the future, the Prime Minister has made it absolutely clear that, just because we are leaving the European Union, it does not mean to say that we are leaving our responsibilities over security in the European Union. We will look at contributing to missions where we can when it is in both the UK and EU’s interests.

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Does my right hon. Friend agree that, as we regain our position as an independent and global presence on the world stage, it is even more important that the United Kingdom is seen as a reliable and credible partner and ally across the world?

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My hon. Friend is absolutely right. This is a golden opportunity for us to look to expand our footprint across the world. Only this year, we have seen Royal Navy warships in the far east—three in fact—and that is just the sort of presence that we look to continue in the future.

Royal Marines Bases

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10. When he plans to announce the long-term arrangements for Royal Marines bases. [908531]

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Before I answer this question, Mr Speaker, may I join you in welcoming our overseas guests here today? They are strong, important and valued Commonwealth allies. In particular, I thank our Australian representative: Sydney hosted the Invictus games in October and did an absolutely fantastic job in reminding all of us that there is life after injury, and that, through sport, people can develop a new chapter as they advance.

On the Royal Marines, I hope, Mr Speaker, that you will join me in congratulating the Royal Marines as they celebrate 355 years since their formation. They have a fantastic history: helping Lord Nelson secure victory at Trafalgar; ensuring that we secured The Rock in 1704; enabling us to land at Normandy with 17,500 Marines; and, of course, helping in the liberation of the Falklands. We all owe those who earned the coveted Green Beret a huge debt of gratitude.

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That is characteristically gracious of the right hon. Gentleman. I just add that Melbourne is also hosting, over the next fortnight, the Australian Open, one of the great sporting events of the calendar and, for this Chair, now and again, a respite from politics.

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Since my Adjournment debate on the Royal Marines’ basing arrangements last week, I have received lots of feedback from those who have served in the Royal Marines. It is clear that the association between the Royal Marines and Stonehouse is a bond worth preserving. Will the Minister consider extending the closure date of Stonehouse barracks in Plymouth from 2023 to 2025 or later to allow enough time to build the state of the art Royal Marines superbase in the city that our Royal Marines rightly deserve?

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I join the hon. Gentleman—I hope the whole House will agree with me—in saying thank you to all those who have served and who are serving in the Royal Marines. He is aware that we had a series of debates last week supporting the Royal Marines and confirming an important continued presence in the south-west. He will be aware that 3 Commando Brigade will remain in the Plymouth area; 29 Commando Royal Artillery must move from the Citadel, which is no longer fit for purpose; 40 Commando will move from Taunton; 42 Commando will remain in Bickleigh; 45 Commando will remain in Condor; and our close protection unit looking after our nuclear assets and Lympstone will continue as well.

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The Minister’s predecessor assured me that Plymouth would remain the centre of gravity for amphibious operations in this country. Will the Minister confirm that, whatever happens in this rebasing strategy, Plymouth will remain the centre of gravity for amphibious operations in the United Kingdom?

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I can confirm that Plymouth will remain the centre of gravity for the Royal Marines commandos. As I just said, 3 Commando headquarters will remain there. Confirmation of our commitment to the Royal Marines was made this year when the Defence Secretary was able to confirm the continuation of Albion and Bulwark, those stalwart workhorses required for amphibious capability.

UK Airstrikes Against Daesh

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11. What assessment he has made of the effectiveness of UK airstrikes against Daesh. [908532]

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Royal Air Force airstrikes have played a vital role in the campaign against Daesh. By supporting local troops on the ground in both Iraq and Syria, we have helped them to retake more than 99% of the territory that Daesh once occupied across both countries. This is a significant success, but Daesh still holds pockets of territory. We must continue to fight the terrorist threat that Daesh poses in the middle east and, of course, in the United Kingdom.

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As the Secretary of State has alluded to, it is estimated that 99% of the territory once held by Daesh is now gone. In the light of the coalition’s success in helping to degrade Daesh in Syria, what further actions does my right hon. Friend propose when airstrikes are no longer required?

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We have seen 51 airstrikes against Daesh in the last month, 27 of which occurred in the last two weeks alone, so the tempo of activity and the amount of resource that the coalition will continue to have to commit will still be substantial over the long term. We will continue to work closely with our allies to see what kind of support package needs to be offered to continue to put pressure on Daesh, whether that is in Iraq or other countries.

Offensive Cyber-capabilities

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12. What steps his Department is taking to develop offensive cyber-capabilities. [908533]

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20. What steps his Department is taking to develop offensive cyber-capabilities. [908541]

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The Ministry of Defence is committed to exploiting offensive cyber as a warfighting tool. We are developing and employing capabilities through the national offensive cyber programme, and ensuring that offensive cyber is fully integrated with military full-spectrum operations.

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Working with the private sector and keeping legislation up to date is essential when it comes to developing cyber-capabilities, offensive or otherwise. What steps is the Department taking to ensure that the private sector is appropriately involved and that legislation is kept up to date?

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My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I can reassure the House that all our offensive cyber operations comply with the law of armed conflict, and with national and international law. This is very much a 21st century technology, which is why we apply the enterprise approach and work closely with the private sector when it comes to developing this capability.

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Of course, the private sector is a real success story; there is huge growth in the area. What more can the Government do to work with the private sector—in the context not just of defensive cyber, but of offensive cyber—to ensure that we can bring forward technology that assists not only the country, but UK firms as well?

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The short answer is by utilising the skillsets of the private sector. In many ways we have done this by recognising the use of reserves. We cannot always compete with the salaries paid by the private sector, but many of those working in the private sector are committed to national security. That is why this has very much been a growth area when it comes to the use of reserves.

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Cyber-security is supposed to be a priority of the modernising defence programme, yet post-Brexit we are going to lose access to the European arrest warrant, Europol and the sharing of data used in EU frameworks. How is the Ministry of Defence going to deal with those challenges?

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It is very much within the agreement. Equally, this is a priority, which is precisely why we are investing £1.9 billion in it over coming years.

Capita’s Army Recruitment Contract

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13. What recent assessment he has made of the effectiveness of Capita’s Army recruitment contract. [908534]

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17. What recent assessment he has made of the effectiveness of Capita’s Army recruitment contract. [908538]

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The Army is working closely with Capita, with multiple interventions now in place and delivering improvements. Regular soldier applications are at a five-year high, supported by last year’s award-winning “This is Belonging” marketing campaign. It will take longer to see increases in trained strength due to the length of the recruitment and training pipelines.

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This contract has underperformed. How much would it cost to cancel it, and why is the Minister not considering that as a key option?

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There are certainly alternative plans in place should this contract not perform, and the Secretary of State has made it absolutely clear that he has not ruled that out. However, I am pleased that in recent months, after interventions by Capita, we have seen a dramatic improvement in the contract. One of the indications of that is that applications are now at a five-year high.

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Capita’s complete failure to deliver on its Army recruitment contract is frustrating the ambitions of many youngsters whose only desire is to serve their country. In the light of all this, may I ask the Minister again: can Capita be trusted to run the defence contract, and that of the fire service as well?

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We have been quite open about the fact that there have been challenges in this contract. Equally, the Chief of the Defence Staff, in his appearance before the Select Committee the other day, recognised that some of these issues were of the Army’s own making historically. I can only repeat again that I am confident—this has occupied much of my time in recent months—that improvements have been made to the contract, and we are now seeing that pipeline working. It is much more effective than it has been in the past, and I think the results will be seen in a few months’ time.

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I accept that it is early days, but has the Minister made any assessment of the Army’s new recruitment advertising campaign?

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Yes. The very fact that everybody seems to be talking about it is a very positive sign. Time will tell, but early indications are that applications are up by over 20% on this time last year and by 35% on 2017, so that appears to be positive.

Armed Forces Personnel: Trends

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14. What recent assessment he has made of trends in the number of armed forces personnel. [908535]

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16. What recent assessment he has made of trends in the number of armed forces personnel. [908537]

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23. What recent assessment he has made of trends in the number of armed forces personnel. [908545]

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We remain committed to maintaining the overall size of the armed forces, and we have a range of measures under way to improve recruitment and retention. The challenge is kept under constant review.

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Surely the Secretary of State recognises the need for a serious recruitment programme for the armed forces rather than this targeting of gamers, whose screen skills could, I suppose, be redeployed in bombarding the Spanish navy with paintballs.

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I am grateful, but I am not the Secretary of State.

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Not yet!

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I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his confidence in me. With respect, he is rather missing the point of the latest recruitment campaign. We will always have core intenders who want to join the military, but equally we are trying to attract a whole group of people who do not realise that the modern military requires many skills other than the ability to use a bayonet. That is precisely why, when it comes to looking at peacekeeping operations, we need to use the compassion of the so-called snowflakes who can sit there and be effective operators in the humanitarian environment.

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In calling the hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent (Nick Smith), I take this opportunity to wish him a very happy birthday—might I suggest the 49th?

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Thank you, Mr Speaker. It is very kind of you to give me your best wishes.

Does the Minister not accept that the number of fully trained personnel in each of the armed services is now lower than it was this time last year, making a mockery of the Conservatives’ manifesto pledge to maintain the overall size of the armed forces?

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The overall manning of the armed forces remains at 93%. Crucially, that means that we are maintaining all of our operational commitments.

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As part of the future accommodation model, service personnel are being forced off-patch. This could increase the loneliness among service personnel that has been identified by the Royal British Legion. Has the Minister made an assessment of the implications for people and for the attractiveness of coming into the forces that that will induce?

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Let us be absolutely clear. The future accommodation model is about choice. It is about recognising that not everybody necessarily wants to live on the patch, and about creating a more stable armed forces. For example, creating super-garrisons means that families are not being moved around the country the whole time. The aim is to create a good retention tool and, crucially, to give our service personnel choice in how they live their lives.

Modernising the Defence Estate

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15. What recent representations he has received on the modernising the defence estate programme. [908536]

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The hon. Gentleman will be aware that the better defence estate programme is a 25-year programme to rationalise the defence estate, which is far too large for our present circumstances. We need to look at our training areas and our garrisons, and we need to provide places for civilian housing too. He will be aware that Chester is involved in that programme.

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Does the Minister share my concern that reducing the number of barracks and concentrating them in one place—for example, in the north-west, at Weeton in Preston—reduces the operational footprint of the Army in the north-west or elsewhere in the country and therefore reduces operational effectiveness? Might it not be better to keep open some barracks, such as the Dale barracks in Chester, to maintain a better operational spread?

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It is interesting that the hon. Gentleman raises our footprint in the north-west of England, which is a very large recruitment area, because the Defence Secretary was talking about that this morning. The hon. Gentleman will be aware of the decisions that have been made concerning the Dale barracks. The 2nd Battalion Mercian Regiment and the Royal Logistic Corps units will be moving. The Fox barracks will remain, and the Army Reserve will be there, but his point is well made, and we will try to act upon it.

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Millions of pounds have been invested in the Norton Manor site, where 40 Commando is based, in Taunton Deane. It is ideally located for the marines, and more than 150 people aside from the marines work on the extensive site. This place has a great deal to recommend it, so will my right hon. Friend give a commitment that all those aspects will be assessed in the overall plan to rationalise the defence estate?

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My hon. Friend makes a powerful case for the Taunton barracks and 40 Commando. She is aware that the decision has been made already, but perhaps we can meet separately to see what more can be done to provide support.

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As befits a former teacher of more than 30 years’ standing, the hon. Member for Colne Valley (Thelma Walker) has been most patiently and courteously waiting for her opportunity.

Armed Forces: Morale

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18. What recent assessment he has made of the level of morale in the armed forces. [908539]

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The hon. Lady is right to raise concerns about morale in our armed forces. The continuous attitude survey is critical for us to understand the views of our armed forces personnel. We often talk about training, exercises and operations, but the welfare of our personnel and their families is critical.

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I thank the Minister for his response. A recent survey of armed forces personnel found that only two in five are satisfied with service life in general. That has been linked to low pay and poor-quality accommodation. What are the Government doing specifically to reverse the decline in our armed forces’ morale?

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As I mentioned in my opening remarks, that is a concern, and we must address it. Pay has never been an issue in the armed forces. When I joined up, it was not an issue. People do not join the armed forces for the money, but we do not want it to become an issue. I was pleased that the pay freeze was lifted last year, with a 2% rise. Effort is also being made to improve accommodation and provide flexible working, which is the main ingredient that forces people to depart, because they are unable to spend enough time with their families. Those changes have been introduced, and I hope they will affect the morale of our armed forces.

Topical Questions

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T1. If he will make a statement on his departmental responsibilities. [908546]

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As we start the new year, I want to pay tribute to the men and women who spent Christmas away from home in service of their country. Over the Christmas period, I visited UK armed forces personnel in Ukraine, South Sudan and Kenya. It was excellent to see the work they are doing in the security, peacekeeping and humanitarian fields.

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What action is the Ministry of Defence taking to support the democratic Government in Ukraine? Will the Secretary of State update us on his recent trip to Odessa, and particularly the position of Ukrainian navy sailors held prisoner by Russia?

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What we are seeing in Ukraine is the most dreadful of situations, where Russia’s aggressive acts include Ukrainian sailors being held against their will, and they continue to be held against their will. As an act to demonstrate their intent for 2019, Russia and the Kremlin should be looking at letting these men return to their families and friends at the earliest possible opportunity. We are supporting the Ukrainian people. We have already seen HMS Echo visiting Odessa, and the Royal Marines will start training with Ukrainian forces in the very early part of this year.

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T4. Does the Secretary of State want to apologise to Scots Guardsman Stephen McWhirter, who was called a snowflake in Capita’s disastrous £752 million recruitment campaign, without his permission? Guardsman McWhirter has received torrents of mocking messages, and he has said on Facebook that he will resign from the Guards. [908549]

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I am afraid what the hon. Gentleman says is simply untrue. The Guardsman concerned gave his specific permission for his photograph to be used on that poster and understood exactly the content of the campaign.

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T2. Sexual violence against women has been an appalling part of the violence we have seen in South Sudan. Will the Secretary of State say a little bit more about what British troops have contributed as our part of the UN operations there? [908547]

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I have had the great privilege of seeing our service personnel who are part of the UN mission, and the work that they are doing in combatting sexual violence in South Sudan is something we can all feel rightly proud of. We have seen them take action to deal with some of the threats that many women and children are facing every day, but we have to look at how we can do more. Earlier last year, we saw the opening of a new training programme at Shrivenham, and we need to look at how we can step up that work.

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T7. Tomorrow afternoon, the funeral takes place of Acting Corporal Iain Dodds, formerly of the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers. His family are obviously grieving. He died, very tragically, before Christmas, at the age of 39, following years of adjusting having left the service after serving in both Iraq and Afghanistan. May I put on the record my thanks to the Minister for the Armed Forces for helping the family with the funeral arrangements? [908553]

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I am very grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his acknowledgment. In cases like this, it is absolutely right that, collectively across the House we should act in the way we have. I am delighted that we have managed to put things in place to help the family.

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T3. What measures have the Ministry of Defence taken to ensure that serving and former members of the armed forces suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder or other mental health issues are given priority when it comes to the provision of social housing? [908548]

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I am pleased to say that the majority of people make the transition into civilian life without a problem, but there are those who require our support, and we have provided a new programme through the mental health and wellbeing strategy to emphasise this approach. We are also focusing on the veterans strategy, which will provide for a consultation on what more we can do to support those affected by PTSD.

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T8. Further to that question, Durham County Council has just won a gold award for setting up an excellent outreach programme for veterans, including guaranteeing job interviews. Will the Minister consider making that mandatory across the entire country? [908554]

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First, I commend the programme. Before I go down that road, I would encourage more of a voluntary approach; I do not like mandating such things. I would be happy to visit the programme, which might be a starting point.

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I call Ranil Jayawardena. Where is the chappie? What a pity. Very well—I call Nigel Huddleston.

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Will the Secretary of State confirm when the final clean-up in Salisbury will take place, and what further training can be provided to the armed forces to prepare them for such attacks?

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We expect the final clean-up to be completed by March. I pay tribute to all the service personnel across all three services who have done so much in dealing with the attack. Additionally, we will be training Royal Marines to be those best able to deal with the challenges of nerve agents, to make sure we deepen our resilience against future threats.

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T9. The security review of 2015 identified cyber-attack, terrorism and climate change as among the greatest threats to the UK. As none of those are dealt with by replacing Trident, whose price-tag is soaring and which still has safety concerns, is it not time to change direction and invest in real cyber-security? [908555]

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We have to recognise the need to invest in a whole spectrum of different capabilities, whether that is nuclear deterrence, conventional forces or cyber-security and offensive cyber.

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The medal campaign group for Bomber Command has identified that it is the only main campaign not to be recognised by the Air Crew Europe Star. Will my right hon. Friend do all he can to ensure that the committee responsible considers its submission to address that issue?

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I am very sympathetic to those calls. However, the award of the clasp rather than the medal for the aircrew who served with Bomber Command is consistent with the policy for other awards in recognition of service during world war two, which simply dictated that campaign medals would reflect involvement in broad theatres of war. Exactly the same policy applied to Fighter Command, who received a clasp for their service during the battle of Britain.

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Further to that question, my constituent, Wing Commander Jim Wright, is a 95-year-old veteran who has campaigned long and hard for those changes to be made in respect of Bomber Command. I hear what the Minister is saying, but we owe these gentlemen a debt for their heroic acts. Given that time is marching on, surely they should be recognised in the way that they deserve?

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As I say, I am sympathetic, but the aircrew have been recognised, through the award of the clasp to the medal. We are just being consistent in how the policy has been applied over many years.

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Redevelopment of the REEMA sites in Carterton is an urgent priority for west Oxfordshire, not only for RAF personnel who depend on the housing, but because of its effect on west Oxfordshire’s housing stock. Will the Minister meet me again to discuss how we can progress this urgent matter?

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I would be delighted.

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Further to the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Lincoln (Karen Lee), may I press the Minister on recruitment? MOD figures reveal that in the first quarter of last year, Capita failed to bring in 90% of the recruits that the British Army needs. When I wrote to the Minister about this issue, he simply referenced old data. When will the Government recognise the crisis of failed privatisation and bring recruitment back in-house?

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The reality is that there is a delay between people applying to join the Army and coming through the pipeline as trained soldiers. What I am trying to explain to the House is that, as a result of the recent recruitment campaign, applications to the armed forces, in particular the Army, are up significantly—indeed, they are at a five-year high. In time, that will work its way through into actual numbers serving in the Army.

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The Russian annexation of Crimea has been followed by the construction of the Kerch bridge to the Russian mainland. To date, no NATO ship has entered under the bridge into the sea of Azov. When does the Ministry of Defence expect that situation to change?

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We can be very proud that the Royal Navy was the first navy to enter the Black sea and go to Odessa in solidarity with our Ukrainian friends. Currently we have no plans, but we will continue to keep this situation under review; and we plan to make sure that further Royal Navy vessels visit the Black sea later this year.

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What progress is the Minister making with the Home Office to help those Afghan interpreters who came here under the Government’s scheme but are now finding huge difficulties in being reunited with their families because normal immigration rules apply? They deserve our support.

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We review the policy constantly, and I will update the House in due course.

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What discussions has the Defence Secretary had with the Secretary of State for Health about identifying and resourcing the health needs of veterans in the NHS 10-year plan, which was published last week?

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We have regular discussions with the Department of Health. We recognise that properly supporting veterans is not something that the Ministry of Defence can do on its own; something has to be done right across Government. That is why the creation of a veterans board, working across Government and bringing the Department of Health together with other Departments, is vital. As part of the veterans board, the Department of Health for England, as well as the devolved nations, are working on how we can enhance the support that we give to veterans.

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Order. I point out, as much for the benefit of our visitors as for right hon. and hon. Members, that the hon. Member for Bridgend (Mrs Moon) not merely represents Bridgend and is a member of the Defence Committee, but is President of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly and we are very proud of that.

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Thank you, Mr Speaker.

Civilian authorities and agencies are now often on the frontline in dealing with cyber-attacks, chemical weapons attacks and drone incursions. Will the Secretary of State confirm that the Ministry of Defence is stepping up training and resilience capability of our civilian agencies to ensure that the skills transfers are there, so that they too are able to defend our country?

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Yes; of course we always have that backstop of being able to step in and support civilian authorities as well. Increasingly, as we touched on earlier, there is a growing grey zone where people who wish to do us harm are acting, and we need to consider how we support civilian authorities more in future to help them best deal with those threats.

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Again, in the name of the intelligibility of our proceedings to those visiting, I point out that we are about to have a point of order—not just any old point of order, but a point of order from the Mother of the House, the female Member with the longest uninterrupted service, since 28 October 1982, if my research is correct or my recollection accurate.

Points of Order

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On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Thank you for agreeing to hear it. The House will obviously be fully aware that we have a very important vote tomorrow in which all hon. Members will want to take part. My hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Tulip Siddiq) is nine months pregnant and due to have a caesarean tomorrow. She should not have to choose between going through the Division Lobby in a wheelchair while nine months pregnant, having postponed her caesarean, and losing her right to vote. If the Whips were to agree, and with the agreement of the Leader of the House, would it be possible, Mr Speaker, for you to facilitate a proxy vote so that she can have her baby and have her vote? The House agreed to this change in principle in February last year. In the circumstances of tomorrow’s important vote and my hon. Friend’s pregnancy, would it be possible for that to be arranged?

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rose—

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Very well, I will come to the hon. Lady now.

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Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. Can you advise me on how to expedite the process of introducing proxy votes? How many babies do we in this House, collectively, have to have before we see any change? I will probably be on my second before we have a policy to introduce proxy votes. There should be some urgency in implementing this reform of the House.

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Let me respond to the right hon. and learned Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman) and the hon. Member for Wolverhampton North East (Emma Reynolds). In the first instance, I think it worthwhile to be candid in saying that I am advised—of course I seek advice and must then hear what the advice is—that it is not within the gift of party authorities, although I would argue that they are in a sense House authorities, to facilitate proxy voting for tomorrow. I respect that view, although in all candour I am not sure that I agree with it, but it is tendered to me in good faith and I put it out there for the House to know.

I believe it is absolutely essential, not just for the rights of the hon. Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Tulip Siddiq) but for the reputation of this House as an institution approaching, or starting to take an interest in, the modern world, that she should be facilitated to vote tomorrow. The notion that she should have to be wheeled through a Division Lobby would, I think, be regarded by very large numbers of people as completely uncivilised. That should not have to happen.

It has been suggested to me that—in a departure from, or at any rate an extension of, the normal nodding-through arrangement, which ordinarily applies to somebody who is indisposed but on the parliamentary estate—the hon. Lady could be nodded through and her vote counted even if she were, in fact, in a hospital bed at the time. I do not rule out that possibility and for my part I would be happy, on my own shoulders, to agree to that. Personally, I think it preferable that the hon. Lady should have a proxy vote, but that seems to me to depend on cross-party agreement. I have been approached about the matter by the chair of the all-party parliamentary group on women in Parliament, the hon. Member for Chelmsford (Vicky Ford), who wrote to me very recently. It is good to see her in her place—forgive me, but I had not seen her. If she wants to come in on this exchange, she very properly can, or not if she does not wish to do so. I wrote back to her making explicitly clear that I have made clear from this Chair my support for, and willingness to assist in the introduction of, proxy voting for the purposes of baby leave. I have done that several times.

It is important for the House to know, and for those attending our proceedings to be told, the facts of the matter. The issue has been debated twice in the Chamber. The first was on 1 February last year in a debate under the auspices of the Backbench Business Committee. If memory serves, that debate was secured at the instigation of the right hon. and learned Member for Camberwell and Peckham. On that occasion, the proposition that proxy voting for baby leave should be introduced was passed, if I am right, nem con—that is to say, without opposition. Subsequently, there was a general debate in this Chamber on 13 September last year in Government time. There was no Division of the House, so there is no recorded vote, but my recollection is that there was strong support for the change on that occasion. The Leader of the House, who I think was present at the time, indicated her desire to expedite progress on the matter. From my own contacts, I understand it to have been very much her wish to bring about change before the end of last year.

If I may say so, and I will, it is extremely regrettable that almost a year after the first debate, and more than four months after the second debate, the change has not been made. Frankly, that is lamentable—lamentable—and very disadvantageous and injurious to the reputation of this House. If an agreement can be reached between the usual channels today—I am chairing in the Chamber, so Members will need to come and tell me what has been agreed—I am very happy to facilitate a change for tomorrow, preferably in the form of a proxy vote for the hon. Member for Hampstead and Kilburn, but at the very least something to ensure that she can be nodded through.

It really is time, in pursuit of the expressed view of this House, that reactionary forces are overcome. If people want to express their opposition, let them not do so murkily behind the scenes; let them have the character to say up front that they oppose progressive change. I hope we can get progressive change. What better opportunity to do so than before our historic vote tomorrow? I hope I have made my own views clear.

That partly deals with that. I am now in the hands—I say this for the benefit of our observers—of a very formidable band of colleagues. They will help make it happen.

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Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. While I utterly support the idea of proxy voting for women such as our colleague the hon. Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Tulip Siddiq), we have people who are absent from the Chamber and from Parliament with a varying range of illnesses, or who have partners or family members who are terminally ill. The issue needs to be dealt with across the range.

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That may very well be so, and I am not unsympathetic to the hon. Lady’s proposition, but I was speaking pretty much off the top of my head, and what I did not say but should have said, because it is part of the pattern and the picture, is that the Procedure Committee was invited to consider this matter. I gave evidence to it, as I know other Members did, and the Procedure Committee specifically endorsed the idea and was looking for a resolution to be put to the House. Ordinarily, such a resolution would be put to the House by the Leader of the House. I very much regret that that has not happened, but pragmatically I am seeking, on the back of discussions with the right hon. and learned Member for Camberwell and Peckham, to broker progress not next month or next year, or at some unspecified point in the distant future, but with effect from tomorrow. The wider issue of other categories can and should of course be properly considered by the House of Commons.

Universal Credit

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On 6 January, it was reported in The Observer that the Government had—

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Order. The hon. Lady is always ahead of herself. What she does at this stage is say, “To ask the Minister to make a statement on universal credit”. We will get her full blast in a moment.

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(Urgent Question): To ask the Minister to make a statement on universal credit.

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As I outlined in the written statement tabled last Friday in the House, we have decided to replace the regulations relating to managed migration previously laid before the House with two new sets of regulations.

These regulations will allow a series of measures relating to universal credit to be put in place. The Government will seek powers in an affirmative set of regulations for a pilot of managed migration so that the Department cannot issue any more migration notices once 10,000 people have been awarded through the process. Those regulations will also deliver on our commitment to provide transitional protection for those managed migrated to universal credit. Separate regulations will put in place a severe disability premium gateway, allowing recipients of this benefit to continue to claim existing benefits until they are managed migrated on to universal credit.

In addition, my statement reported that we were bringing forward the necessary legislation to remove the planned extension of the policy to provide support for a maximum of two children in universal credit. This overall policy ensures that parents receiving benefits face the same financial decisions about the size of their family as those supporting themselves solely through work. We decided, however, that it would not be right to apply the policy to children born before it came into law on 6 April 2017, so we have cancelled that extension.

The benefits freeze up to April 2020 was voted for by Parliament as part of the Welfare Reform and Work Act 2016. As a general point, any changes relating to benefits uprating will be brought before Parliament in the usual way.

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On 6 January, it was reported in The Observer that the Government had decided to ask for powers from Parliament for a pilot of the managed migration of 10,000 people from legacy benefits to universal credit, rather than for a pilot of managed migration as a whole. However, on 7 January at oral questions, and the following day in response to an urgent question, Ministers failed to provide clarification of the Government’s plans. Then on Thursday, the Secretary of State told Sky News that she did not expect the social security freeze to be renewed when it came to an end in April 2020.

On Friday 11 January, the Secretary of State made a wide-ranging speech on social security, setting out her intentions in relation to managed migration, private sector rents, childcare costs and the two-child limit, but she did not make it in this House or give Members the opportunity to ask questions about those really important matters. On the same day, the High Court found in favour of four single mothers who had brought a legal challenge against the Government on the grounds that universal credit failed to take into account their fluctuating incomes after they were paid twice in a month because their paydays fell very near the end of the month.

How do the Government intend to respond to the High Court judgement? Does the Minister think that the two-child limit is fair to the children affected, and will the Government not scrap it altogether? Will they address the key concern with managed migration, which is that nobody’s claim for benefits that they are currently receiving must be ended until they have made a successful new claim for universal credit?

Will the Government make sure that the levels set for payments to people in receipt of severe disability premium who have already transferred to universal credit reflect the financial loss they have suffered? Will they take immediate action to ensure that no one has to wait five weeks to receive their initial payment of universal credit? Why are they not cancelling the benefits freeze now rather than waiting until April 2020, given that the Secretary of State says she believes that the reasons for it being introduced no longer apply? Finally, will the Government call a halt to the roll-out of universal credit?

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I thank the hon. Lady for her comments. Very many people outside the House—many stakeholders —have welcomed the statements made in the House on Friday and what the Secretary of State said in her speech. I am sorry that the hon. Lady did not welcome the positive changes that have been made and are being proposed.

The hon. Lady talked about a number of issues, and I shall go through them. She mentioned the legal judgment on Friday; as she acknowledged, that judgment came out literally a few days ago. As a Department, we will consider it very carefully and then respond. On the two-child policy, we have of course made that change; as she will be aware, the regulations were laid on Friday. She talked about the overall two-child policy, and we do believe that the overall policy is fair. Ultimately, those receiving support in the welfare system should face the same sort of choices as those who support themselves solely through work. It is worth pointing out that if a family who supported themselves solely through work decided to have another child, they would not automatically expect their wages to go up. This is about sustainability.

The hon. Lady mentioned the pilot. We have made it clear that that will start in July 2019, and we are working with a wide range of stakeholders on it. She talked about the severe disability premium: those regulations have been laid. She also mentioned the benefits freeze. May I ask her to reflect on the reason why we had to make various policy choices in the past? It was the awful financial mess left us by the last Labour Government. [Interruption.] I am sorry, but she cannot get away from that point.

I have one final thing to say to the hon. Lady. She talks about changes to the five-week period. I have said this in the House before: if she is so keen on supporting claimants, particularly the vulnerable, as we on the Government Benches are, why did she not vote for the £1.5 billion of support that came in under Budget 2017 and the £4.5 billion of support announced in the 2018 Budget?

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Order. On account of the fact that a prime ministerial statement is to follow and that we then have eight hours of protected time for the debate on the withdrawal agreement, I will seek to conclude these exchanges by 4.15 pm. I am sure that colleagues will want to factor that into their calculations.

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I congratulate my hon. Friend the Minister and his Secretary of State on the progress that they are making on eliminating some of the obvious defects that have emerged in this otherwise highly desirable policy. Does he agree that the problem is that the details were designed by people who were well intentioned but too paternalistic in their attempts to introduce people to the disciplines and normal way of life of people in work? They were often dealing with people who were vulnerable and relying day to day on cash.

When it is affordable, after we have really recovered from the consequences of the financial disaster, will my hon. Friend address the five-week delay in the first payment, which does cause hardship and which I hope will be gone by the time the so-called migration comes to my constituency?

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I thank my right hon. and learned Friend for his support for the policies that we have announced. On the five-week period, we have ensured that people can get support through 100% advances from day one if they require it; two weeks of housing benefit run-on is also available. As part of the package that we announced in the Budget, additional run-on support will be available from 2020.

My right hon. and learned Friend is right: we need to make sure that throughout this process we support the most vulnerable, and that is exactly what the changes that have been announced have been all about.

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First, I want to say how inappropriate it is for the Secretary of State to have made this statement on Friday outside the House and then not even to have bothered to come here today to speak for herself.

We in the Scottish National party welcome this U-turn from the Secretary of State, which vindicates what we, along with a range of charities, women’s organisations and faith groups, have been saying since the July Budget in 2015. However, none of us will be fully satisfied as long as the two-child limit applies to births after 6 April 2017: it must be scrapped now. The Secretary of State has already accepted the fundamental unfairness of the two-child limit, so why does the Minister feel that this policy, with its cruel and pernicious rape clause, must continue, even though it has been ruled unfair for other people? Does he not see that it creates a two-tier system in universal credit depending on when children were born? We cannot plan for everything in our lives.

Has the Secretary of State heard the evidence from Turn2us and the Child Poverty Action Group that the two-child policy is forcing women into terminating healthy pregnancies? Has she heard about the discrimination against religious and ethnic minorities? Does she know that most people claiming this benefit are actually in work, and does she know that in its first year of operation it affected 73,530 people? Where does the 15,000 figure come from?

Friday’s court ruling laid bare flaws in universal credit which many Members have been highlighting in relation to the timings of payments. High Court judges said that the DWP had wrongly interpreted the relevant regulations and, shamefully, had tried to justify that on cost grounds. What steps will the Secretary of State take to put that right, and will she stop wasting money in the courts rather than ensuring that our constituents receive what they are fully entitled to?

In its final year alone, the benefit freeze will cut £4.7 billion from the welfare budget, more than the amount that the Chancellor pledged for the work allowance for the next four years. Will the Secretary of State make the case to the Chancellor for scrapping the freeze, which is making life so hard for so many of our constituents?

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I am grateful to the hon. Lady for welcoming the changes that have been announced. She has referred to the Secretary of State. As the hon. Lady will know, the statement about the changes was made in my name, and the regulations were laid in my name. It is therefore entirely appropriate that I should come here and, quite rightly, answer questions asked by colleagues.

The hon. Lady talked about the non-consensual conception clause. Of course I agree with her that women who find themselves in such utterly awful circumstances must be given the help that they need, and that that must be done in the most compassionate way possible. We have discussed the point before, and she knows that it is purely a question of whether the circumstances that are described are consistent with those of someone who has met the criteria for the exception. The individuals who are dealing with this are third-party professionals who already have experience of supporting vulnerable women.

As I have said, we will consider Friday’s court judgment and respond to it.

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I welcome the emphasis on helping people into work, and the idea that the implementation of the policy should be compassionate. With that in mind, may I ask whether there will be changes in the timing of benefit so that those who are most in need of it receive it earlier, and whether there will be a review of the housing element, which has sometimes caused trouble as well?

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My right hon. Friend is, of course, right: throughout this process, we must provide support for the vulnerable in particular. As he will know, once universal credit is fully rolled out, there will be over £2 billion more in the welfare system than there is under the current legacy benefits. One of the changes made in the Budget was the uplifting of work allowances, which will help young parents and also the disabled.

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Any improvements in this hideous programme are welcome, but there will still be thousands of universal credit claimants who are moved on to it this year as a result of natural migration, with no transitional protections. How many people will be pushed into poverty by that move and the Government’s lack of compassion in failing to unfreeze the benefits system?

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As I have said previously in the House and as I said earlier this afternoon, we have put more money into the system to support the most vulnerable, which is absolutely right. As for the pilot phase, we will of course work very carefully with stakeholders to make sure that we get it right.

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I warmly welcome this excellent move by the Department. Will my hon. Friend please pay tribute to the sympathetic, careful, diligent and effective manner in which the staff of the Jobcentre Plus in Haywards Heath carry out their difficult duties?

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My right hon. Friend has highlighted a very important point. He has talked of the incredibly hard-working DWP staff in the Haywards Heath jobcentre, but the Secretary of State and I see the same hard work as we go up and down the country talking to our colleagues in jobcentres. They are all incredibly committed, and they see the benefits of universal credit in helping people and ensuring that claimants have the one-to-one support that was not in place before.

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I also welcome these modest steps in the right direction, but why did the Secretary of State and the Minister both deny a week ago the change that the Minister has now announced about the separate regulations for the 10,000 migration? Will the Minister respond to the point made by the Father of the House, the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke)? The five-week delay is indefensible; it is forcing people to rely on advances, putting them into debt right at the start of their claim.

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I know that we have had this exchange before, and I am sorry if the right hon. Gentleman feels that I repeat myself. Of course it is important that we get money in people’s pockets early. There is no question about that, and that is why we made the changes when we said we would make sure that absolutely anyone who needed it could get up to 100% of their advances up front. I have talked about the two-week run-on for those on housing benefit, which does not have to be repaid, and as the right hon. Gentleman knows in the last Budget we also announced that from July 2020 those on out-of-work DWP benefits will also get a two-week run-on.

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The manager of the Jobcentre Plus in Redditch said that this is the best system she has seen in 30 years; she has been on the frontline. Does the Minister welcome the fact that today the Resolution Foundation has pointed out that it is those on the lowest end of the income spectrum who are getting back into work, so this is a truly progressive benefit? It is great to see these reforms.

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My hon. Friend highlights an important point. I was at the launch of the Resolution Foundation report this morning, which highlighted precisely the point she has raised. I encourage all colleagues on both the Government and Opposition sides to go to their jobcentres and talk—[Interruption.] No, if they would talk directly to the people responsible for providing that advice, I think they would find that the system is working.

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The Minister should not patronise the Opposition by pretending that somehow we do not all do our constituency duty and we have not been to visit our local jobcentres. I can assure him that we have, and the problem with this benefit is that it was introduced to save money. Large cuts in welfare systems and payments were made. The Minister has put a little bit back, which has got to be welcome, but he has not put back what was taken away, and what was taken away is leaving my constituents relying on food banks with not enough to eat. He needs to recognise that reality.

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May I suggest that if the hon. Lady has time she and I should talk directly to colleagues in the jobcentre in her area? Let us have a discussion with them and see how we can support her constituents even better.

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Surely everybody in this place will want to help people on benefits but ultimately transfer them so that they have the opportunity to work and then pay more into the essential public services that they, and indeed we all, need to get by. Given that we have record numbers of employment and also record low unemployment, surely this policy must be doing something right to those ends.

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The policies we have put in place since 2010 are working; we can see that in the jobs figures. When we came to power in 2010, some 1.4 million people in the country had been on out-of-work benefits for at least nine of the previous 10 years; that is not a legacy that the Opposition should be proud of.

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Yes, universal credit does help Jobcentre Plus workers who are trying to persuade people to go into short-hour jobs and zero-hours contracts where there hours of work fluctuate. We welcome the very small changes to this that will help a few thousand people, but what will the Government be doing to help the thousands on universal credit who were paid a few days early over the Christmas period, then received absolutely nothing for their December-January payment of universal credit and are now suffering arrears of rent and childcare payments because of that which the High Court has just ruled against?

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We will of course respond on the High Court ruling. I am pleased the hon. Lady raised the point about what sort of jobs have been created: just to put it on the record—these are not Government figures; they are from the Office for National Statistics—since 2010 some 75% of all the jobs created are full time, are in high-level occupations and are permanent. That is something I wish Opposition colleagues would acknowledge.

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I commend the Minister for these announcements, especially the one on the two-child limit. He appears to have accepted the recommendations of the Select Committee within hours of its making them. On that theme, if he is looking for ideas, perhaps he missed some of the previous recommendations. For example, in the managed migration that he is now trialling, will he look at moving people on existing benefits over, rather than asking them to make a new claim? That would be a far more effective system, and far better for the claimants.

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I am pleased that my hon. Friend feels that we were able to react in a matter of hours to the recommendations of the Select Committee. I think he is talking about a process of pre-population, and we will of course work throughout the pilot phase. We have responded to the Social Security Advisory Committee with some of the plans that we have. I would point out, however, that when we had the move to employment and support allowance, we underpaid people as a result of having incomplete information.

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I welcome the Minister’s commitment to reopening the Wallasey jobcentre in order to meet the commitment that he has just made to my hon. Friend the Member for Wallasey (Ms Eagle). It is five years since the Government began to impose universal credit. Does not this latest change underline the fact that it has failed in its three aims? It is overdue, over budget and overly complex. Should not all the roll-out be halted until all the fundamental flaws are fixed?

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Universal credit has now rolled out across the country, as the hon. Gentleman will be aware, and we will of course continue to proceed with it. He is right to say that we need to get this right for everyone, and that is precisely what the changes are about. Universal credit does work for the vast majority of the people who claim it, but it is absolutely right that we provide support, particularly for the most vulnerable.

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Can the Minister confirm that the spending on universal credit when it is fully rolled out will be some £2 billion a year more than on the existing legacy benefits, and that this could be worth an average of up to £300 per universal credit family?

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My hon. Friend is right to say that there will be more money in the system. I should point out that, under the legacy benefits system, there is £2.4 billion of unclaimed benefits. That will change under universal credit, supporting an estimated 700,000 households who will get paid their full entitlement.

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Many Opposition Members take representations from trade unions. They are the voice of the DWP workforce, but it often falls on deaf ears in the Government. Is not the reality that the final year of the benefit freeze absolutely undermines any changes that Ministers are trying to make to the benefit system? We tell us what representations he and his Department are making to the Treasury to scrap the final year of the benefit freeze?

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I am not going to apologise for repeating that the reason we made so many difficult decisions when we first came into office and in subsequent years was the record deficit left by Labour—[Interruption.] There is no getting away from that. I have already made it clear that when it comes to issues around uprating, these will be announced in the appropriate way to Parliament.

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You gave billions to the banks.

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Order. Mr Campbell, it is very early in the week. I cannot put this down to the effects of hot curry, because I doubt that you have consumed any thus far. There are several days to go, and you need to remain calm. You are a very great figure in the House, and I am concerned for your wellbeing.

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We have been warning Ministers about this problem of the dates for months, so will the Minister now rule out—what is the word? [Interruption.] No! Will he rule out appealing against the court decision?

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Let me repeat this once more. The judgment to which the hon. Lady refers came out on Friday and we are going to have to consider it carefully. We will respond in due course.

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I applaud the Government for listening and for making essential changes based on evidence brought forward by those on both sides of the Chamber of the House of Commons. Can the Minister assure me that if further evidence comes to light requiring further changes, the Government will continue to listen and make changes as necessary?

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I hope we have shown over the past couple of years that we do listen and that we do make changes. Of course we will continue to do so where that is appropriate.

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Sometimes it can be hard to understand what the Minister is really saying to us. Most people call non-consensual conception rape, and that is what we are talking about. Most people in this country would call picking and choosing between the children we choose to support discrimination. The next time they Minister has to come to the House, as he undoubtedly will, to tell us about a policy change in relation to the two-child policy, will he commit to telling us exactly what the characteristics are of the kids that our Government will no longer support?

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I am sorry that the hon. Lady feels unable to welcome the changes. The previous two Budgets have included additional support and, as I just said in answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Worcestershire (Nigel Huddleston), we will see what more we can do where that is appropriate.

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Universal credit was rolled out in my constituency almost two years ago. The roll-out was largely successful, but there are issues, particularly with payment frequency. Will my hon. Friend commit to continue to listen, learn and make adaptations where necessary?

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My hon. Friend makes an important point, because several of the other issues announced by the Secretary of State relate to looking at more frequent direct payments to private landlords and at alternative payment arrangements, including offering them proactively.

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I welcome the fact that the Minister will disapply the policy for 15,000 children and families, but will he confirm whether he will still take more than £2,500 from 640,000 families? What is fair or compassionate about that?

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The hon. Gentleman is right that the policy will support 15,000 families, but we anticipate that 77,000 families and 113,000 children will benefit over a five-year period. It is important that we provide support, but ultimately, as he will know, the overall policy was tested in the courts and was found to be sound.

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Universal credit is now being rolled out in my constituency and across Edinburgh, and I have been meeting those who specialise in advising my constituents on the problems that they encounter in the benefits system. The Community Help and Advice Initiative wants to know why the Government are not halting the roll-out until all universal credit’s flaws are properly addressed.

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I think the hon. and learned Lady will find that universal credit has already rolled out in her local area, because the last roll-outs were in December. In terms of providing support, she will be aware of the partnership we now have with Citizens Advice, which will make a difference and help the most vulnerable in particular.

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I welcome the changes that the Minister has proposed, but universal credit has created incredible problems in my constituency, including delays and reductions in payments. Will he outline what will be done to assist those who are already in the universal credit system and not on the pilot scheme?

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The hon. Gentleman and I have discussed universal credit before and, as I have said, my door is always open. If he has specific cases, I will be happy to review them.

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Over 100 MPs supported the cross-party campaign to scrap the two-child limit policy, including the hon. Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss). However, some 3 million children will still be affected by the policy, even though the Government have decided to relax it somewhat. Will the Minister heed MPs’ advice and scrap the policy altogether?

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We have listened. In November, I spoke to the hon. Lady and other colleagues about the policy, and we have changed its retrospective nature. However, I point out that the overall policy is about fairness not only to those who receive welfare but, of course, to taxpayers.

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This Government have finally recognised the risk to women and children of giving universal credit to just one member of a household. Will the Minister now explain how the DWP will identify the main caregiver in a household and what other steps will be taken to protect women and children from domestic abuse?

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Payment to a single person in a household is not a unique feature of universal credit, and such payment also exists in the legacy benefits system. The hon. Lady is right that, right now, 60% of all universal credit payments go to the female’s bank account. The Secretary of State has announced that we will look at what more we can do to enable the main carer to receive universal credit, and very often that will be the female in the household.

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We have been back for only seven days and this is now the second urgent question on universal credit. Is it not time for the Secretary of State to come to the House and make a Government statement on what she intends to do about the mess of universal credit?

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I am sorry that the hon. Lady is so unhappy. I would have thought that she should be welcoming all the positive changes we have been making. Indeed, the Secretary of State was before the House just last week at Work and Pensions Question Time answering questions on universal credit and other policies.

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When are the Government going to do something about the long-winded, cumbersome and complicated process of applying for universal credit? I have a constituent who applied in September and has received only one payment—we are now in mid-January—mainly because of mistakes made by officials in the Department. When are the Government going to do something about this?

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If the hon. Gentleman has a specific case, I would be very happy to look at it. The timeliness of payments has been increasing under universal credit, but one reason why we may not be able to make full payments to people is because we are waiting to verify some of their costs, which may relate to childcare, rent or whatever. I am very happy to talk to him about the case he raises.

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I know from my private conversations with the Minister that he genuinely wants this system to work, and I welcome the changes he has made. May I suggest that, when it comes to migration from existing legacy benefits, instead of requesting that the applicant provides the information, the Department uses the information already available to work out what payments should be made to the applicant?

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I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his kind words. Again, he raises the issue of pre-population. In our response to the Social Security Advisory Committee, we have set out what we plan to do, but the key thing is that we need to make sure that we get all the information so that we can pay people the full amount they are due.

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Last year, several newspapers carried harrowing accounts of women who were forced to seek abortions simply because of the two-child limit policy. I hear what the Minister says about retrospective changes, but how will the proposal help women who wish to go ahead with an unplanned pregnancy?

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As the hon. Lady will know, we already have a set of exemptions in the policy. We recently announced two further exemptions, but the overall policy was tested in the courts last year and was found to be sound.

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When will the British Government extend the much-needed transitional protection to people who are migrating naturally through a change of circumstance?

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The best way the hon. Gentleman can make sure we provide support through transitional protection for those who migrate is by supporting the regulations when we vote on them under the affirmative procedure.

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Sixty bishops wrote to the Government last year condemning the two-child limit. Does the Minister counsel those bishops to advise members of their flock who are considering having a third child to exercise more social responsibility?

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When I met parliamentary colleagues to discuss the two-child policy, the meeting was chaired by the Bishop of Durham. We have made changes to the policy but, overall, this is about being fair to the taxpayer while being sustainable at the same time.

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Some EU citizens are now being refused universal credit as they cannot produce proof of their residency rights. This particularly affects women in caring roles who have worked less and paid less tax. I welcome the Secretary of State’s wish to reduce universal credit’s impact on women, so will the Department review this scandal before it becomes a new shame on universal credit?

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A clear set of criteria determines whether someone can claim universal credit. If the hon. Lady has a specific case or specific sets of cases, she should come to discuss those with me.

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rose

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rose—

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Ooh, what a taxing choice! I call Mr Alan Brown.

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A good choice, Mr Speaker.

Following on from the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Central Ayrshire (Dr Whitford), has the Minister assessed how many EU citizens who have made their lives here are now routinely being turned down for universal credit? I am thinking of people such as my constituent Laura Nani. Until we got the decision overturned last week, she would have been evicted for rent arrears, and left homeless and penniless. When will the Minister look into this? Will he apologise to my constituent for the DWP getting it wrong? I note that the Prime Minister is sitting next to him, and when I raised this matter at Prime Minister’s questions, she dismissed it out of hand.

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Let me be absolutely clear: when we get something wrong in the Department, we apologise, and I write to apologise to individuals and colleagues. Where there are specific cases to raise, I am happy to meet the hon. Gentleman and his colleague.

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You are saving the best for last, Mr Speaker.

For nearly six years, from pilot through to full service roll-out, my constituents in Inverness and then in the rest of my constituency have been suffering and reporting the flaws of universal credit to the Government. Now that the mistakes have been admitted to and the flaws have been acknowledged, what will the Minister do to compensate the people who have endured that suffering?

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Overall, the universal credit policy is absolutely working. It is getting more people into work, which is ultimately what the welfare system is also about. As the hon. Gentleman knows, if he has individual cases, I am happy to take those up with him and to discuss them.

Leaving the EU

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With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to update the House on the further assurances and clarifications we have received from the European Union on the Northern Ireland protocol.

As a proud Unionist, I share the concerns of Members who want to ensure that in leaving the European Union we do not undermine the strength of our own Union in the UK. That was why, when the EU tried to insist on a protocol that would carve out Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK’s customs territory, I said no. I secured instead a UK-wide temporary customs arrangement, avoiding both a hard border on the island of Ireland and a customs border down the Irish sea. I also negotiated substantial commitments in the withdrawal agreement and the political declaration to do everything possible to prevent the backstop ever being needed, and to ensure that if it were, it would be a temporary arrangement. But listening to the debate before Christmas, it was clear that we needed to go further, so I returned to Brussels to faithfully and firmly reflect the concerns of this House.

The conclusions of December’s Council went further in addressing our concerns. They included reaffirming the EU’s determination to work speedily to establish by 31 December 2020 alternative arrangements so that the backstop will not need to be triggered. They underlined that if the backstop were nevertheless to be triggered, it would indeed apply temporarily. They committed that, in such an event, the EU would use its best endeavours to continue to negotiate and conclude as soon as possible a subsequent agreement that would replace the backstop. They gave a new assurance that negotiations on the future relationship could start immediately after the UK’s withdrawal.

Since the Council, and throughout the Christmas and new year period, I have spoken to a number of European leaders, and there have been further discussions with the EU to seek further assurances alongside the Council conclusions. Today, I have published the outcome of these further discussions, with an exchange of letters between the UK Government and the Presidents of the European Commission and European Council. The letter from President Tusk confirms what I said in the House before Christmas, namely that the assurances in the European Council conclusions have legal standing in the EU.

My right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney General has also written to me today confirming that in the light of the joint response from the Presidents of the European Council and the Commission, these conclusions

“would have legal force in international law”.

He set out his opinion—“reinforced” by today’s letter—

“that the balance of risks favours the conclusion that it is unlikely that the EU will wish to rely on the implementation of the backstop provisions.”

Furthermore, he stated that it is therefore his judgment that

“the current draft Withdrawal Agreement now represents the only politically practicable and available means of securing our exit from the European Union.”

I know that some Members would ideally like a unilateral exit mechanism or a hard time limit to the backstop. I have explained this to the EU and tested these points in negotiations, but the EU would not agree to this because it fears that such a provision could allow the UK to leave the backstop at any time, without any other arrangements in place, and require a hard border to be erected between Northern Ireland and Ireland. I have been very clear with the EU that that is not something we would ever countenance—the UK is steadfast in its commitment to the Belfast agreement and would never allow a return to a hard border—but it is not enough simply to say this. Both sides also need to take steps to avoid a hard border when the UK is outside the EU. To fail to do so would place businesses on the island of Ireland in an impossible position, having to choose between costly new checks and procedures that would disrupt their supply chains or breaking the law.

We therefore have the backstop as a last resort, but both the Taoiseach and I have said consistently that the best way to avoid a hard border is through the future relationship—that is the sustainable solution—and that neither of us wants to use the backstop, so since the Council we have been looking at commitments that would ensure that we get our future relationship or alternative arrangements in place by the end of the implementation period so that there will be no need to enter the backstop and no need for any fear that there will be a hard border. That is why, in the first of the further assurances that it has provided today, the EU has committed to begin exploratory talks on the detailed legal provisions of the future relationship as soon as Parliament has approved the deal and the withdrawal agreement has been signed. The EU has been explicit that that can happen immediately after this House votes through the agreement.

If the House approved the deal tomorrow, it would give us almost two years to complete the next phase of the negotiations, and of course we would have the option to extend the implementation period, were further time needed, for either one or two years. It is my absolute conviction that we can turn the political declaration into legal text in that time, thereby avoiding the need for the backstop altogether.

The letters also make clear that these talks should give

“particular urgency to discussion of ideas, including the use of all available facilitative arrangements and technologies, for replacing the backstop with permanent arrangements”,

and furthermore that those arrangements

“are not required to replicate”

the backstop “provisions in any respect”. So, contrary to the fears of some hon. Members, the EU will not simply insist that the backstop is the only way to avoid a hard border. It has agreed to discuss technological solutions and any alternative means of delivering on this objective, and to get on with that as a priority in the next phase of negotiations.

Secondly, the EU has now committed to a fast-track process to bring our future trade deal into force once it has been agreed. The Commission has now said that if there is any delay in ratification, it will recommend provisionally applying the relevant parts of the agreement so that we would not need to enter the backstop. Such a provisional application process saved four years on the EU-Korea deal, and it would prevent any delays in ratification by other EU member state Parliaments from delaying our deal coming into force.

Thirdly, the EU has provided absolute clarity on the explicit linkage between the withdrawal agreement and the political declaration, and made that link clear in the way the documents are presented. I know that some colleagues are worried about an imbalance between the withdrawal agreement and the political declaration, because the EU cannot reach a legal agreement with us on the future relationship until we are a third country, but the link between them means that the commitments of one cannot be banked without the commitments of the other. The EU has been clear that they come as a package. Bad faith by either side in negotiating the legal instruments that will deliver the future relationship laid out in the political declaration would be a breach of their legal obligations under the withdrawal agreement.

Fourthly, the exchange of letters confirms that the UK can unilaterally deliver all the commitments that we made last week to safeguard the interests of the people and businesses of Northern Ireland and their position in our precious Union, for it gives clear answers to address some questions that have been raised since the deal was reached—that the deal means no change to the arrangements that underpin north-south co-operation in the Belfast agreement; that Stormont will have a lock on any new laws that the EU proposes should be added to the backstop; and that the UK can give a restored Northern Ireland Executive a seat at the table on the joint committee overseeing the deal.

President Juncker says explicitly in his letter that the backstop

“would represent a suboptimal trading arrangement for both sides.”

We have spoken at length about why we want to avoid the backstop, but it is not in the EU’s interests either, for this backstop gives the UK tariff-free access to the EU’s market, and it does so with no free movement of people, no financial contribution, no requirement to follow most of the level playing field rules and no need to allow EU boats any access to our waters for fishing. Furthermore, under these arrangements, UK authorities in Northern Ireland would clear goods for release into the EU single market with no further checks or controls. This is unprecedented and means the EU relying on the UK for the functioning of its own market, so the EU will not want this backstop to come into force, and the exchange of letters today makes it clear that, if it did, the EU would do all it could to bring it to an end as quickly as possible.

Nevertheless, I fully understand that these new assurances still will not go as far as some would like. I recognise that some Members wanted to see changes to the withdrawal agreement, a unilateral exit mechanism from the backstop, an end date or rejecting the backstop altogether, although it should be said that that would have risked other EU member states attempting to row back on the significant wins that we have already achieved, such as on control over our waters or on the sovereignty of Gibraltar. The simple truth is that the EU was not prepared to agree to this and rejecting the backstop altogether means no deal. Whatever version of the future relationship Members might want to see—from Norway to Canada, to any number of variations—all require a withdrawal agreement, and any withdrawal agreement would contain the backstop. That will not change however the House votes tomorrow. To those who think that we should reject this deal in favour of no deal because we cannot get every assurance we want, I ask what a no-deal Brexit would do to strengthen the hand of those campaigning for Scottish independence or, indeed, of those demanding a border poll in Northern Ireland. Surely that is the real threat to our Union.

With just 74 days until 29 March, the consequences of voting against this deal tomorrow are becoming ever clearer. With no deal, we would have no implementation period, no security partnership, no guarantees for UK citizens overseas and no certainty for businesses and workers such as those I met in Stoke this morning. We would also see changes to everyday life in Northern Ireland that would put the future of our Union at risk. And if, rather than leaving with no deal, this House blocked Brexit, that would be a subversion of our democracy, saying to the people whom we were elected to serve that we were unwilling to do what they had instructed.

I say to Members from all parts of this House that, whatever you may have previously concluded, over these next 24 hours give this deal a second look. No, it is not perfect and, yes, it is a compromise, but when the history books are written, people will look at the decision of this House tomorrow and ask: did we deliver on the country’s vote to leave the European Union; did we safeguard our economy, our security and our Union; or did we let the British people down? I say that we should deliver for the British people and get on with building a brighter future for our country by backing this deal tomorrow. I commend this statement to the House.

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I thank the Prime Minister for an advance copy of her statement.

In December, the Government shamefully pulled the meaningful vote on the Prime Minister’s deal, with the promise that she would secure legal assurances from the EU that the backstop would be temporary. The Leader of the House confirmed that when she said:

“The Prime Minister is determined to get the legal reassurances that…Members want to see.”—[Official Report, 20 December 2018; Vol. 651, c. 1013.]

The Foreign Secretary told us that the Prime Minister would “find a way” to win tomorrow’s Commons vote by getting assurances with “legal force” that the Irish border backstop is only temporary. On receiving today’s letter to the Prime Minister from the Presidents of the European Commission and the Council, it must now be clear to all Members across this House that, yet again, the Prime Minister has completely and utterly failed to do that. Today’s letter is nothing more than a repetition of exactly the same position that was pulled more than one month ago. It categorically does not give the legal assurances that this House was promised, and contains nothing but warm words and aspirations.

Is it not the case that absolutely nothing has changed from the Attorney General’s letter of advice to the Cabinet? His advice, which the Government tried to hide, explained with great clarity the reasons why the UK could find itself locked into the Northern Ireland backstop protocol with no legal escape route. Today’s letter means nothing. The truth remains that by the end of 2020 the UK will face a choice of either extending the transition period, which comes at an unknown financial cost, or falling into the backstop, which the Attorney General has said endures indefinitely until such time as an agreement supersedes it.

The Attorney General has updated his legal advice today, as the Prime Minister just said, and he clearly says that the assurances do not alter the “fundamental meanings” as he advised the Government in November. If there were legally binding assurances on the temporary nature of the backstop, surely they would have been written into the withdrawal agreement itself. The letter published this morning is clear that this is not possible, saying,

“we are not in a position to agree to anything that changes or is inconsistent with the Withdrawal Agreement”.

This morning’s joint letter does say that

“negotiations can start as soon as possible after the withdrawal of the United Kingdom.”

But my question to the Prime Minister is: how is that possible when the Cabinet cannot agree it amongst themselves? That is why the political declaration is so vague. Actually, I believe that the right word is “nebulous”.

Given that the Prime Minister has failed to secure the promised changes, there can be no question of once again ducking accountability and avoiding tomorrow’s vote: no more playing for time; no more running down the clock to scare people into backing this damaging shambles of a deal. I am sure that Members across the House will not be fooled by what has been produced today. It is clear that what we are voting on this week is exactly the same deal that we should have voted on in December. I am sure the Prime Minister knows this, which is why today she is trying to blame others for this chaos.

Given the lack of support for the Prime Minister’s deal, we might have thought that she would try to reach out to MPs. Instead she is claiming that, by failing to support her botched deal, Members are threatening to undermine the faith of the British people in our democracy. The only people who are undermining faith in our democracy are the Government themselves. I can think of no greater example of democracy in action than for this House to reject a deal that is clearly bad for this country. During the past two years of shambolic negotiations the Prime Minister has failed to listen. She has not once tried to work with Parliament to construct a Brexit deal that this House and the country can support, and now she is left facing a humiliating defeat and is blaming everybody but herself.

If this deal is rejected tomorrow—and I hope it is—the blame will lie firmly with the Government and firmly at the feet of the Prime Minister. There is a deal that could command support in the House that would include a new and comprehensive customs union, a strong single market relationship, and a guarantee to keep pace with European Union rights and standards. Instead, the Prime Minister still chooses to take the most reckless path.

As we enter the week of the meaningful vote, we should remember that the meaningful vote is only happening because of pressure from the Opposition in this House. Let us remember the incompetence that we have been forced to endure. We have seen two years of shambolic negotiations; red lines announced, then cast aside. We are now on our third Brexit Secretary, all of whom have been largely excluded from the vital stages of the negotiations. We were promised the easiest trade deal in history, yet we have seen a divided Government deliver a botched withdrawal deal with nothing more than a vague outline of what our future relationship with the EU will be. Meanwhile, conditions in this country for millions of people continue to get worse. We just had an urgent question about universal credit and the disaster that is for millions of people in this country.

The Government are in disarray. It is clear: if the Prime Minister’s deal is rejected tomorrow, it is time for a general election; it is time for a new Government.

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I am not sure that there were many questions to me in the response that the right hon. Gentleman gave, but let me respond to some of the points of fact that he referenced, some of which were perhaps not as correct as they might have been.

The right hon. Gentleman said that there is no legal termination mechanism in the withdrawal agreement on the backstop. There is, but the point is that it is not a unilateral termination mechanism—it is a termination mechanism that requires agreement between the two parties.

The right hon. Gentleman said that in December 2020 we would face either having the backstop or the implementation period extension. Of course, the point is that we are negotiating to ensure that at that point no such choice will be necessary because we will have the future arrangement in place.

The right hon. Gentleman says that it is not possible to start the negotiations as soon as the meaningful vote has been held and agreement has been given to the withdrawal agreement and the political declaration. Indeed, Whitehall stands ready to start those negotiations. We have been looking at this, because we know the basis of those negotiations—it is in the political declaration—and everybody is ready to start those as soon as possible.

The right hon. Gentleman talked at the end about universal credit. May I just remind him that under this Government 3.4 million more jobs have been created? That means all those people being able to earn a regular wage to help support their families. Under universal credit, we see a system that is helping people get into the workplace rather than leaving them living on benefits for nearly a decade, as happened under the last Labour Government.

Finally, the right hon. Gentleman called, as he does regularly, for a general election. Here, as I think we saw yesterday, he is not thinking about the national interest—he is merely playing politics, because yesterday, when asked whether, if there was a general election, he would actually campaign to leave the European Union, he refused to answer that question five times. We know where we stand—we are leaving the European Union and this Government will deliver it.

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I congratulate the Prime Minister on getting rather further than I thought she would with the assurances and the letters that she has obtained, but I fear it will do no good, because she is up against two bodies of opinion. One is the hard-line Brexiteers on this side, and the Leader of the Opposition and his Front Bench, who think that if they cause crisis and deadlock it will result in leaving with no deal. The others are a lot of hard-line remainers, largely on the Labour Back Benches, who think that if they cause chaos and deadlock it will lead to a second referendum. One of them is wrong, but the problem is that she is up against both of them.

Does the Prime Minister accept that if we lift our eyes from the present chaos and look to what the country needs, beyond our leaving the EU, if the House of Commons can insist on doing that, we need a permanently open border in Ireland for treaty and security reasons, and we need a permanently open border, for economic reasons, across the channel for our trade and investment? Does she accept that it is difficult to proceed until there is some consensus for that across the House of Commons, and it does not look as though we are going to get there by 29 March, which is a date that should obviously be delayed?

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I thank my right hon. and learned Friend for his points. I do not believe that the date of 29 March should be delayed. He set out that there are those who want to see no deal and those who want to see a second referendum and potentially frustrate Brexit. The inexorable logic of that, if this House wants to ensure that we deliver on Brexit for the British people, is to back the deal that will be before the House tomorrow.

Obviously we want to ensure that there is a consistently and sustainably open border into the long term between Northern Ireland and Ireland. That is our commitment—to ensure that there is no hard border there. There would be economic advantage in an open border and frictionless trade between the UK and the European Union, and that is exactly the proposal that the Government have put forward.

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I thank the Prime Minister for an advance copy of her statement, though I am left asking myself, “Is that it? Is that all you’ve got, Prime Minister?” Nothing has fundamentally changed. It is a wishlist.

With little more than 24 hours until this House votes on the Prime Minister’s deal, she has come back completely humiliated. The letters published between the UK Government and the European Union reveal that she has utterly failed to get the concessions she promised. The EU letter explicitly insists that there cannot be any renegotiation of the backstop or the withdrawal agreement. It states:

“we are not in a position to agree to anything that changes or is inconsistent with the Withdrawal Agreement”.

The Prime Minister is simply in fantasy land, presenting her statement as bringing changes when it does not. This Government must stop threatening no deal. It is time to face reality, extend article 50 and let the people decide.

In Scotland, people know that it is the Tory Government dragging Scotland out of the European Union against our will. It is the Tories treating the Scottish Parliament with contempt, and it is this Prime Minister and this Tory party who continue to silence Scotland’s voice and sideline our interests. The Prime Minister said this morning:

“What if we found ourselves in a situation where Parliament tried to take the UK out of the EU in opposition to a remain vote? People’s faith in the democratic process and their politicians would suffer catastrophic harm”,

and yet she is demanding precisely that of Scotland, taking Scotland out of the EU in opposition to an overwhelming remain vote. To people in Scotland, the Prime Minister has made it clear time and time again that our voices are not to be listened to. She talks about respecting the results of referendums, but this is the same Prime Minister who voted against Welsh devolution and voted to wreck the Scottish devolution referendum result.

This is a defining moment. The people of Scotland know more than ever what comes from a Tory Government we did not vote for. Why does the Prime Minister continue to ignore Scotland’s voice and Scotland’s interests? Why is she so petrified of allowing the people to decide, now that we know the facts? If she is not, will she now do the right thing—extend article 50 and let the people decide?

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The people across the United Kingdom did decide; they decided in June 2016 that we should leave the European Union, and it is absolutely right that this Government are committed to delivering on the vote of the British people.

The right hon. Gentleman talks about the interests of Scotland. As he knows, the interests of Scotland are best served by ensuring that Scotland remains a part of the United Kingdom. If the Scottish National party is so clear that politicians should listen to the voice of the people, it should listen to the voice of the Scottish people expressed in the referendum in 2014 and abandon the idea of independence.

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Given that the EU intends to take huge sums of money and powers off us in return for just 21 or 45 months of more talks and massive uncertainty, why should we ever believe the EU would give us a good deal when it pockets all that it wants up front?

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Throughout the negotiations, we have actually ensured that the European Union has had to concede to the United Kingdom Government in a whole range of areas on which it did not wish to concede. If we look into the future, my right hon. Friend and I do have a difference of opinion on this in that he believes that World Trade Organisation terms are right for our future trade with the European Union, but I think that a more ambitious free trade agreement between us and the European Union is what is right. That is what is set out in the political declaration, and that is what I believe is the good deal for the UK in leaving the EU.

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The Prime Minister has confirmed today that, under her deal, Britain will remain between two and four years—possibly longer—in a customs union. The Leader of the Opposition is supporting Brexit with a somewhat longer period in a customs union. With that relatively small difference, are they not essentially two peas in a pod?

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No, definitely not.

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Will my right hon. Friend confirm what she said at Stoke today: namely, that she will never extend—never extend—the date of our leaving beyond 29 March this year, and never in any circumstances whatsoever allow the repeal of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018, or of the repeal of the European Communities Act 1972 under that Act?

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I did indeed confirm that our intent and what the Government are working for is to leave the European Union on 29 March. There are those who may try to find ways to prevent that from happening—I think that is a real risk—but the Government are firm in their commitment in relation to leaving the European Union.

On the issue that my hon. Friend has raised on the withdrawal Act, we have passed the withdrawal Act through this House—through this Parliament—and it does repeal the European Communities Act 1972. Of course, for the period of the implementation period, it would be necessary within the WAB—the withdrawal Bill—as my hon. Friend knows, to ensure that we are still able to maintain the rules that we need to operate by in order to abide by the negotiated agreement on the implementation period, but I can assure him that it remains the commitment of this Government to leave the European Union on 29 March.

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I know the Prime Minister is totally sincere in her sense of duty to this country and in her belief in her deal, but I want to turn her attention to something she does not want to contemplate, which is defeat tomorrow night. I say to her in the strongest terms that the tone and substance she strikes in the wake of that eventuality will define her legacy to this country. I want to urge her not to succumb to the absurd argument that this is a war between this House and the Government, when this Government are a servant of this House. I want to urge her also, if she loses tomorrow night, to give this House an open and honest process where it can express its view, and she and the Government then become the servant of this House in the negotiations.

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The Government are the servant of the people: we are ensuring that we are delivering what the people want in relation to Brexit. We have negotiated what I believe genuinely is a good deal for the United Kingdom, and that is why I will continue to encourage Members of this House to support it.

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It is absolutely clear: the British Government, the Irish Government and the European Union have always said that there will be no hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, and today’s border works perfectly satisfactorily with electronic means. It is extraordinary and exasperating that we are still stuck on the question of the backstop, when the Prime Minister has met technical experts who know that existing techniques and processes could deliver smooth delivery of that border. What meetings have been held since she met those experts prior to pulling the vote in December?

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It is exactly those sorts of technological solutions that we are committed to pursuing. As I said to my right hon. Friend when he brought a proposal to me, the proposal he brought to me did not fully address all the issues in relation to the border between Northern Ireland and Ireland, but we are continuing to look—and will look actively and with the European Union—at the ways in which we could ensure that those alternative arrangements would deal with the issue that we are addressing.

May I also say to my hon. Friend that it is not the case that the European Union has said that there will be no hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland? The no-deal plans published by the European Commission in December make it clear that there will be no flexibility on border checks in no deal, so the Irish Government will be expected to apply EU checks in full.

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To be fair to the EU, it has made it clear that there will be no changes to the withdrawal agreement, and there is nothing in these letters that is inconsistent with the withdrawal agreement. To be fair to the Attorney General, he says in his letter today that the letters do not alter the fundamental meanings of its provisions. Five weeks since the Prime Minister pulled the vote, saying that there had to be a legally binding assurance, will she admit that nothing has fundamentally changed? That is the reality; let us not kid ourselves about that. In pulling the vote, she must have realised that there needed to be legally binding changes to the withdrawal agreement for it to have any chance of getting through this House. Even at this late stage, does she not accept that the problem with the backstop is that it effectively defines the future relationship for Northern Ireland, because if the whole of the UK is not aligned to a high degree for single market purposes and we are not in a customs union, Northern Ireland will be?

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It was right that I took the views of this House. The overwhelming view of this House on the backstop was that people wanted to ensure that it would not carry on indefinitely or be a permanent arrangement. The right hon. Gentleman has just indicated that he thinks that that is the case for the backstop. What we have received from the European Union are those further assurances and the recognition that the European Council conclusion in which some of those assurances are referred to does have legal force in international law and effectively sits alongside the withdrawal agreement and the political declaration package, and that it would be part of any consideration on any challenge to the withdrawal agreement in relation to those particular issues.

I recognise that what I have brought back, as I said in my statement, is not what some Members wanted from the European Union, but it is not the case that this has not gone further than when we were initially discussing the debate. There have been some further assurances from the European Union, but I accept that they are not the same level of assurances that some Members of this House wished for.

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The Prime Minister is right when she says that she is the servant of the people. There are 2 million young people who were not able to vote back in 2016, two and a half years ago. [Interruption.] I am so sorry that hon. Members on this side of the House seem to be in some way dismissing those young people. They are the future of our country. The Treasury’s own analysis shows that, whichever way we cut it, Brexit is going to make our country poorer. Why should those young people not have a right to a say in their future, given that they will bear the brunt of Brexit? Why, when the Prime Minister’s deal fails tomorrow, can it not go back to the British people, so that everybody, especially young people, can have their say on their future and on Brexit?

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My right hon. Friend has asked me questions in relation to putting a decision back to the British people in the past, as have other hon. and right hon. Members, and referred to a new generation of young people who were not able to vote in the 2016 referendum. This House was very clear that this was a decision to be taken in that referendum and that Government would abide by the decision that was taken in that referendum, and 80% of the votes cast at the last general election were for parties that said that they would respect the result of the referendum. I believe that we should respect the result of the referendum and ensure that we deliver leaving the European Union.

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We will find out tomorrow evening whether the House is willing to support the Prime Minister’s deal, but what is now clear is that the EU will not be able to offer any further help, because as long as it continues to say

“we are not in a position to agree to anything that changes…the Withdrawal Agreement”,

a number of her Back Benchers will not be reassured. While the Prime Minister will, for the next 26 hours at least, argue that we should back her deal, can I invite her today to commit, if she loses, to reaching out across the House to try to find a way out of the crisis that is facing our country that can command the support of Parliament, and if it is necessary in order to do that, to being willing to seek an extension to article 50?

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Of course, the House will give its view tomorrow night. I will be continuing to encourage Members of this House to vote for what I believe to be a good deal. The right hon. Gentleman might have noticed that, actually, I have been meeting and hearing from Members from across the House on this particular issue. I continue to believe that this is a good deal, because it delivers on the referendum. It is crucial that this House delivers on the referendum and does so in a way that protects people’s jobs and security, and gives certainty to businesses. That is why I believe it is a good deal.

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No one is ever going to get what they fully want out of negotiations, but the very simple fact is that all the leaders of our major industries, including Rolls-Royce, Toyota and Jaguar Land Rover, have said that this is the right deal for them to continue winning markets and employing people in this country. Is that not one of the most important decisions we should bear in mind in trying to protect manufacturing jobs and our country’s future?

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My right hon. Friend is absolutely right, but it is not just leaders of manufacturing industry. He is absolutely right that they have made clear that this is a good deal and a deal that should be supported, but others have too. For example, Scottish fishermen and farmers have also been saying that this is a deal that should be supported. When Members think about the jobs of their constituents, it is important that they remember that.

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The Prime Minister comes hot-foot from her speech in Stoke where she commanded us to honour the result of the referendum, yet in 1997 she voted against legislation to establish the National Assembly of Wales and in 2005 she stood on a manifesto calling for another referendum, with the option to overturn the result. How does the Prime Minister square her personal track record on referendums with such commands?

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The Conservative party went into opposition in 1997. We accepted the result of the referendum vote in Wales. [Interruption.] Yes. We made clear at the time that we respected the result of that referendum in Wales. I think anybody who sees the Welsh Assembly today, and what it has been doing over recent years, will recognise that that was the right decision.

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I commend my right hon. Friend for listening to the concerns of hon. Members, and for seeking to obtain further concessions and clarifications from the European Union, but does not the use of the words by Presidents Juncker and Tusk that

“we are not in a position to agree to anything that changes or is inconsistent with the Withdrawal Agreement,”

simply serve to underline those concerns and make it all the more likely that hon. Members will reject the withdrawal agreement tomorrow?

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The concern that Members overwhelmingly raised was the issue of whether or not the backstop could continue indefinitely. The European Union, within the withdrawal agreement in a number of ways, makes clear that the backstop can only be a temporary arrangement. It has given further assurance in Council conclusions, which, as I say, have legal force in international law. That has been confirmed here in the UK. So it has gone further than it did within the withdrawal agreement. I have said to the House on many occasions that there is no deal with the European Union that does not involve a withdrawal agreement and there is no deal that does not involve having a backstop, as a commitment to the people of Northern Ireland that there will be no hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland.

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The Prime Minister called on everyone this morning to

“move beyond division and come together”.

Does she not recognise that she has made the divisions worse and made it harder for people to come together by not consulting either Parliament or the public on her red lines or the negotiating objectives, and by ducking and delaying votes? Does she not recognise that brinkmanship is the worst possible way to make such big decisions for the future of our country? Will she tell the House now that she has not ruled out extending article 50 if her plan is rejected tomorrow?

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As I have said on many occasions in this House—I have come regularly to the House and answered questions from Members on the position that the Government have been taking on these particular matters—I am clear, and it is in our legislation, that we should leave the European Union on 29 March this year.

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Will my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister reconfirm to the House that whatever the future trading relationship that the United Kingdom wishes to have with the European Union, the withdrawal agreement is clearly absolutely necessary to securing it?

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My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. The point is that there are two issues: how we leave the European Union and what our future relationship will be. Any trade agreement that we would wish to agree with the European Union will require us to have agreed the details of the withdrawal agreement. As I have said previously, any withdrawal agreement will include a backstop.

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I am looking for a new, young Member. I call Mr Barry Sheerman.

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Thank you, Mr Speaker. Will the Prime Minister go back to that very good question asked by her colleague, the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke), who made a very intelligent plea for more time? This decision will be one of the most important we take in 100 years, let alone this century. Why should we rush it? It is complex, and the Prime Minister’s statement today shows how complex it is. We need more time. Why can we not have it?

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On 29 March, it will be almost three years since people voted for us to leave the European Union. This House voted overwhelmingly to trigger article 50 in the knowledge that the process had a set time and that that meant we would be leaving on a particular date.

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The withdrawal agreement is a draft international treaty. If we were to vote for it tomorrow and then ratify it, it would be binding upon us in international law. It would outrank legally any motion or amendment of this House, or even an Act of Parliament. The agreement confirms that in black and white in article 4 on page 11. The question is whether the letters have any legal power over the treaty. The Prime Minister quoted from the operative paragraph 2 of the Attorney General’s advice. Forgive me, but she quoted selectively. The paragraph, which is brief, reads:

“I agree that in the light of this response, the Council’s conclusions of 13 December 2018 would have legal force in international law and thus be relevant and cognisable in the interpretation of the Withdrawal Agreement, and in particular the Northern Ireland Protocol, albeit they do not alter the fundamental meanings of its provisions as I advised them to be on 13 November 2018.”

In other words, the letters do not overrule the treaty. They are a fig leaf, and a small fig leaf at that. Is that not true?

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The letters are additional to the text in the treaty and they do have force in international law. I say to my right hon. Friend that I was clear in my statement, and I have said since, that I recognise that what we have from the European Union does not go as far as some Members of this House would like and prefer it to go, but we have those further assurances that sit alongside the withdrawal agreement. In any position in which the backstop within the withdrawal agreement was being challenged, they would be part of that consideration. As has been said, they have force in international law.

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To be clear on the Prime Minister’s strategy, she is asking us to trust her and agree to get past exit day before we even start to negotiate the whole future relationship between the EU and the UK. Does she not accept that that would be a massive leap in the dark? Anything could happen in that two-year period. For example, who will be her successor concluding those negotiations?

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The political declaration sets out the instructions to the negotiators for the next stage in relation not just to the trade arrangements but to the security arrangements and some issues underpinning all of those, such as the questions of data exchange. Those are the instructions according to which the negotiators for the next stage will be working in order to change it into a legal text. It is not possible for the EU to agree a legally binding text of the trade agreement with a country that is a member of the EU; it has to wait until we are a third country and outside the EU.

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The Prime Minister will have read the comments from leading European Commission officials at the very highest levels about the withdrawal agreement since it was finalised. Sabine Weyand, Michel Barnier’s deputy, has said:

“This requires the Customs Union as the basis for the future relationship”.

She has also said:

“They must align their rules, but the EU will retain all the controls”.

Finally, she said:

“The EU retains its leverage”.

Martin Selmayr, the secretary-general of the Commission, has said:

“The power is with us”.

He also told the Passauer Neue Presse on 7 December that the agreement showed that

“leaving the EU…doesn’t work”.

Those in Brussels clearly believe it is a great deal for them. Why is the Prime Minister seemingly equally enthusiastic in thinking this is a great deal for the UK?

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I know that a number of Members were concerned about the phraseology in the political declaration around the future relationship in relation to customs and about building on the protocol and the assumption that therefore what was in the protocol would effectively have to be taken forward into that future relationship. In fact, the letters we have received today from the EU make it clear that that is not the case. My right hon. Friend asks why I believe this is a good deal. I believe it is a good deal because, as I have said previously, it delivers on the vote of the referendum—control of money, borders and laws; out of the common fisheries policy and common agricultural policy; the ability to have an independent trade policy—and enables us to do so in a way that protects jobs and security and gives certainty to businesses.

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I genuinely respect the Prime Minister’s willingness to come back time after time to talk to Parliament and the public about her deal, even if today she has not really brought back anything very different—if we are honest. Will she state very clearly that this Parliament voted to give the people the opportunity to decide whether to leave or not to leave, not this Parliament, and will she therefore state categorically that, whatever happens tomorrow night and in the next few weeks, we will be leaving on 29 March, because that is what the people voted for?

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We will be leaving the EU on 29 March. I believe it is important that Parliament delivers on the vote that people took in 2016. As I just said in response to the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman), Parliament voted to trigger article 50 with the two-year timeframe it contained. For the sake of our democracy, it is important that we deliver on the Brexit vote in 2016.

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In Wakefield on Saturday, a man approached me to say that, on the day the Prime Minister delayed the vote, his business lost a multi-million-pound contract and, as a result, his order book was empty and redundancies were starting. Her delay has achieved nothing, apart from paradoxically leaving her a little safer in her job, thanks to surviving a vote of no confidence, and my constituents quite a lot less safe in their jobs. After her deal is voted down tomorrow, will she extend article 50 and work across the House to give our constituents the option to vote again but this time on what they know will happen, which is continued uncertainty in the trading relationship between their businesses and the EU for at least the next four years?

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Business is absolutely clear that the certainty it requires is the certainty that will be given by agreeing this deal.

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To guarantee Brexit, the Prime Minister should prorogue Parliament until April—tempting, isn’t it?

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My right hon. Friend is trying to tempt me down a road that I do not think I should go down. Were Parliament to prorogue until April, I would be denied the opportunity to see my right hon. Friend and answer his questions on a regular basis, and that would be very sad.

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I accept that the Prime Minister has tried her best, but does she not accept that everything she has said today does not alter the fact that she has no majority in this Parliament and no authority in the country, and that her Government now serve no useful purpose?