The Secretary of State was asked—
Border: Use of Technology
Today marks the tragic anniversary of the events of 30 January 1972, a day more commonly known as Bloody Sunday. I am sure the entire House will want to join me in marking this day, and our thoughts are with everyone who lost loved ones or who was injured as a result of the troubles.
In answer to my hon. Friend’s question, everyone agrees that we have to avoid a hard border in Northern Ireland, and I agree with him that technology will play a big part in doing so. In fact, in his excellent and thought-provoking report “Order at the Border”, he identified 25 systems that will have to be updated to cope with our new relationship with the EU. Those systems are owned and operated by different departments across government, particularly Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs and the Cabinet Office. I am sure they will describe their progress to him should he ask.
I thank the Minister for that answer. What work, studies or advice the Northern Ireland Office has sought or commissioned to examine how existing techniques and processes within existing EU customs law can maintain the free flow of cross-border trade between the UK and Ireland? Will Ministers put a copy of this in the House of Commons Library?
I understand that the Cabinet Office commissioned work on what existing software and other technologies are available from other low-friction land borders around the world to see whether they could provide a solution to the problem. The conclusion was that no existing off-the-shelf package could deliver exactly what will be needed in Northern Ireland, so new solutions will be needed. That is why the political declaration outlines that there will be urgent work on alternative arrangements to permanently guarantee no hard border in Northern Ireland.
May I associate myself with the Minister’s remarks about Bloody Sunday? He will know that in that same city of Derry/Londonderry just a fortnight ago the dissident republicans tried to take more lives of Northern Irish citizens. Can he understand that the Chief Constable in Northern Ireland thinks that any infrastructure at the border—any technology—will be a target for those same dissidents? Will the Minister offer a guarantee here today that there will be no technology on or near the border, and therefore no violence at the border?
Will the Minister confirm that the alternative arrangements the Government will be pursuing in the next fortnight have to do with technology and systems, as evidenced in the European Parliament’s “Smart Border 2.0” report in 2017, rather than a customs union that may potentially tie the United Kingdom into an arrangement in perpetuity?
All I can do here is go back to the Prime Minister’s point of order after the votes last night, where she explicitly said that she was going to take the decisions that had commanded a majority in Parliament back in not only reaching out to people who tabled amendments yesterday, but in her discussions with the EU. I am sure that none of us would want to rule in or out any particular methods of achieving those outcomes that have mandated by Parliament. We need to make sure that those discussions can move forward as freely as possible while still delivering on the outcomes that Parliament has decided.
This week, the EU chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, has indicated that he has a team studying how we could have checks without having any points along the border, including by paperless means and decentralisation—checks away from the border. Will the Minister confirm that he will be seeking to work with the EU to deliver on those things?
I can do better than that. The Prime Minister, in her comments last night, already made the point that she wishes to discuss all these things with the EU. I would regard it as immensely promising if such a team were indeed already working on it from the EU’s side.
I join the Minister in his commemoration of the tragic events of Bloody Sunday, but may I also use this opportunity to recognise the work of and thank the Chief Constable of the Police Service of Northern Ireland? As he announces his forthcoming retirement, I think the whole House will agree that we owe him a debt of gratitude.
The Minister and the Secretary of State know that there is no operable technology anywhere in the world in current use that would not of itself become a target for the terrorists. The Prime Minister has said this in the past. We have to rule out the idea that a technological solution is available. If the Minister and the Secretary of State are going to use their influence to say that there can be no hard border across the island of Ireland, they have to say that they will abandon the attempts to placate those in favour of a no-deal Brexit on their own side and move towards a customs union.
All I think I can do is repeat my earlier comments. After examination, there are no currently available, off-the-shelf solutions, which is why the political declaration says that new solutions will be required. I would not want to rule out what those will be and what they will include or not include at this stage, because clearly they will need to be innovative.
Peace and Reconciliation
May I associate myself with the comments of my hon. Friend the Minister of State about Bloody Sunday? The shadow Secretary of State has pre-empted me, but I too have a debt of gratitude to George Hamilton, the Chief Constable of the PSNI.
The Government fully support efforts to promote peace and reconciliation in Northern Ireland. I was pleased to announce earlier this month that about £300 million of UK Government funding will be committed to projects to support peace and reconciliation in Northern Ireland between 2021 and 2027.
Does the Secretary of State agree with me that no discussion of peace and reconciliation can take place without considering the plight of Northern Ireland veterans, both police and military, who put their lives on the line for their country? Will she assure the House that she personally will do all she can to draw a line under these investigations, which breach the military covenant and our pledge to police forces in the UK?
My hon. Friend is a doughty campaigner on these matters. He will know from the extensive discussions we have had that I am committed to delivering on the legacy proposals that were first agreed in the Stormont House talks and on which we have had a consultation. I look forward to working with him further on those matters.
From Caroline O’Hanlon to Carl Frampton, we know the ability of great Ulster sportsmen and women to bring people together. May I ask the Secretary of State about the curriculum sports programme? It receives £1.2 million of funding each year to provide Gaelic football, hurling and soccer coaching in 450 schools in Northern Ireland. That funding has been cut. Will she restore it to bring sport back to the people in all those communities?
The hon. Gentleman has campaigned on this matter. I know he is very keen to make sure that this funding is maintained. He makes a point about the fact that we do not have devolved government, which we will come on to later during questions. We do need Ministers in Northern Ireland to make those important decisions, because the example he raises is a very good one.
The recent events in Derry/Londonderry clearly showed that the peace we have in Northern Ireland is still fragile at times. Given that, does my right hon. Friend agree with me that, as the Brexit process progresses, it is crucial that politicians on both sides of the border and indeed in this House use language that is measured rather than inflammatory?
The Secretary of State will recall the excellent work of the centenary committee that oversaw the world war one commemorations in Northern Ireland and sought to promote reconciliation through its work. As we look towards celebrating the centenary of Northern Ireland—this landmark in our history—will the Secretary of State assure me that she will work with us to do the same?
The success of the world war one commemorations in Northern Ireland was very much down to the right hon. Gentleman’s hard work in ensuring that all parts of the community came together. I think we saw a real moment in St Anne’s cathedral in November, when all parts of the community and the Irish Government came together with the UK Government to recognise what happened 100 years ago. I know he is very keen and we have met to discuss the 100th anniversary of the establishment of Northern Ireland, and we are working with him on it.
To promote peace and reconciliation across the island of Ireland, will the Secretary of State confirm that, after Brexit, British and Irish citizens will of course continue to be able to cross freely the Irish border in accordance with the common travel area? Will the Secretary of State confirm that technological solutions are being looked at to ease the flow of other EU nationals across the Irish border?
The hon. Lady is absolutely right that the common travel area is a very important foundation of the lives of those in Northern Ireland and Ireland, and it of course predates our membership of the EU. We are absolutely committed to ensuring the common travel area continues. We want to see that, and it is a very important point.
The restoration of a fully functioning Executive and Assembly remains my top priority. I am focused on bringing the parties together to work towards re-establishing devolved government at the earliest opportunity.
May I draw to the Secretary of State’s attention the very serious comments made to the Women and Equalities Committee last Friday by the chief medical officer for Northern Ireland regarding patient safety for certain women? Will the Secretary of State meet members of that Select Committee to discuss what actions can be taken?
The lack of a functioning Assembly creates real problems for setting Northern Ireland’s budget. Can the Secretary of State explain what steps she is taking ahead of the 2019-20 budget? In particular, is she meeting with all parties represented in the Assembly?
I would very much prefer there to be a devolved Government in Stormont setting the budget for the Departments in Northern Ireland, but sadly that is not the case. Therefore, it is incumbent on me, as Secretary of State, to ensure that we have a proper statutory basis for public spending in Northern Ireland, and I am working on that budget. I will, of course, talk to other parties about the matter.
In relation to budgetary matters, the Secretary of State will be aware of the massive extra boost to the block grant as a result of the confidence and supply arrangement. Will she ensure that the Northern Ireland Office works closely with devolved Departments to ensure that progress is made on all blockages to the proper roll-out of all that money, and the other major infrastructure projects for Northern Ireland, as quickly as possible?
I want to make sure that all projects in Northern Ireland are properly delivered. Clearly, I do not have executive powers to ensure that they are delivered, but I am working closely with the Departments to make sure that money, particularly confidence and supply money, is spent properly.
In relation to devolved issues more generally, does the Secretary of State accept that there could be a greater role for Assembly Members, who are currently not meeting, in input into decision making and policy making in Northern Ireland? It is deplorable that certain elected representatives from Northern Ireland do not take their places here, and that the same party refuses to get the Executive up and running.
I want the institutions in Stormont to be restored as soon as possible, and I want to work with all parties to make sure that that can happen. It is important that where there are roles for Members of the Legislative Assembly, they continue to contribute. I pay particular tribute to the Churches, which have organised a number of meetings to allow civic society, MLAs and others to get together and discuss important matters. Those are great initiatives.
We have heard at first hand in the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee about the detrimental effects of not having devolved government in Northern Ireland. Northern Ireland has no mental capacity legislation, and in education it is working to statements rather than education, health and care plans. What devolved powers can the Secretary of State give officials in Northern Ireland to help to rectify those problems while there is no devolved government?
We passed the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation and Exercise of Functions) Act 2018 last year to allow civil servants to take decisions based on guidance issued by me, as Secretary of State. I have to be clear that those are not major policy change decisions; they are to allow public services to continue to be delivered. The way to get through this is to get Ministers back into government.
On behalf of the SNP, I join the Minister and the Labour Front-Bench spokesman in marking the tragic and entirely avoidable events of Bloody Sunday. Earlier this month, the former Taoiseach John Bruton accused this Government of seeking to tear up the Good Friday agreement. Last night, the Government did exactly that. As a result of recent events in Northern Ireland and the implications of last night’s vote, it is imperative that we get power sharing back up and running as soon as possible. Is the Secretary of State concerned that increasingly strained Anglo-Irish relations will harm efforts to restore Stormont?
The House has just heard of the sad necessity of the setting of a budget for the coming financial year, in the absence of a devolved Assembly. May I ask the Secretary of State if she has begun discussions with the Northern Ireland civil service on this? While she is in such a warm and inclusive mood, may I ask her if she will follow the example of her predecessor and involve Opposition parties in the process?
The hon. Gentleman will recall that last year when the budget was set, I made sure, as Secretary of State, that all the main parties and the Opposition were part of the process. As I say, I would much rather that Ministers in Northern Ireland were setting the budget, but given the situation, we have to work together to make sure that a budget can be set.
I have regular discussions with the Prime Minister and others about all aspects of our exit from the European Union.
Last October, the Secretary of State gave a guarantee that her Government would not renege on the backstop, saying:
“We are committed to everything we have agreed to in the joint report and we will ensure there is no border on the island of Ireland.”
Can she explain why there has now been a U-turn and the Government’s policy has changed to ditching the backstop?
The commitments made in the joint report remain. Those commitments were that we would find a solution to the Irish border, ideally through our future relationship. We are still committed to that being the case. Last night, the House showed that there is a majority to pass the withdrawal agreement if changes are made to the backstop. The Prime Minister is working on that basis.
The deputy head of the Irish Government, Simon Coveney, has stated that
“the backstop is already a compromise…And the European Parliament will not ratify a withdrawal agreement that doesn’t have a backstop in it.”
Again, that was confirmed last night by the EU. Does the Secretary of State agree that her Government are pursuing a dead-end policy by seeking to renegotiate the backstop?
In order to protect the Good Friday agreement, the backstop protocol was designed as an insurance policy to prevent a hard border in all circumstances. The only major party in these islands that opposed the Good Friday agreement was the Democratic Unionist party. Did the Secretary of State consult with any other party in Northern Ireland before throwing her support behind the new Government policy of ditching the backstop?
As the Prime Minister develops the alternative arrangements, will the Secretary of State remember that we have an incredibly close working relationship with the Irish Government to deliver the common travel area? It seems to me that that perhaps provides a model for how we might deliver no hard border in the future.
Clearly it would not be appropriate to speculate on what discussions the Prime Minister will have with the European Union and the European Commission, but my right hon. Friend makes a very important point about the common travel area, to which, as I have said previously, we are absolutely committed.
Last night, the right hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Ian Blackford) made one of the most reckless and irresponsible speeches I have heard since coming to this place. The comments about the Good Friday agreement do not—[Interruption.]
Order. The hon. Gentleman is supposed to be asking a brief question, and the Secretary of State has no responsibility for the pronouncements of the right hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Ian Blackford). Single sentence, question mark, and sit down.
I can absolutely do that. This Government are committed to ensuring that we deliver on leaving the European Union in a way that works for all people who live in the United Kingdom, wherever that may be, fully respecting the commitments that we have under the Belfast-Good Friday agreement.
We do not have much time to find new technological solutions. In October, from the Dispatch Box, the Prime Minister said that
“technical solutions effectively involve moving the border—and it would still be a border. Some involve equipment, which could come under attack, and some involve a degree of state surveillance that, frankly, I think would not be acceptable in Northern Ireland.”—[Official Report, 15 October 2018; Vol. 647, c. 421.]
Does the Secretary of State agree with the Prime Minister?
If the hon. Lady had listened to my hon. Friend the Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office, in his answer to the first question, it was clear that we have said as a Government that no technological solutions, off the shelf, exist today that solve this problem, but we are committed to working to find alternative arrangements because we have all agreed that the backstop, should it ever come into force, is a temporary measure. No one wants to be in it, and we want to find ways of avoiding it.
Last year, I passed the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation and Exercise of Functions) Act 2018, which creates a limited period in which an Executive can be formed at any time. I am actively encouraging the parties to use that opportunity to come together to make progress on restoring the Executive.
On 31 October, at the last Northern Ireland questions, the Secretary of State answered questions on restoring devolution and said:
“The point of the legislation is that it provides the space and the time for the parties to come together”—[Official Report, 31 October 2018; Vol. 648, c. 895.]
That language almost suggests that she does not have any role in it. Will she therefore outline what she has actually done to convene talks, or have we given up?
As Secretary of State, I clearly have a role in helping to facilitate those talks, but I cannot impose a solution on the parties in Northern Ireland. That must be something that they want to do for the good of the people in Northern Ireland. I am working to find that.
Environmental campaigners in Northern Ireland have raised concerns with me about the fact that the push towards ever-more intensive industrialised farming is continuing unchecked because of the power vacuum. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs does not seem to be interested. May I urge the Northern Ireland Office to take an interest in the environmental damage that is being caused by that trend?
The hon. Lady will know that DEFRA does not have jurisdiction over environmental policies in Northern Ireland; that is for the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs in Northern Ireland. I am sure the permanent secretary has heard her comments.
In endeavouring to restore devolution, will the Secretary of State ensure that there is appropriate emphasis on those who caused devolution to fall in the first place and are refusing to enter in without preconditions being met?
Rural Hospitals: Public Transport
As I am sure my right hon. Friend is aware, public transport in Northern Ireland is a devolved issue. The Northern Ireland (Executive Formation and Exercise of Functions) Act 2018 allows Northern Ireland Departments to continue to deliver public services in the absence of a functioning Executive. There are ongoing discussions on all these issues, including services to hospitals.
The brain injury charity Headway recently supported a lorry driver who had to pay £370 in hospital car parking charges to visit his comatose son in the Royal Victoria Hospital in Belfast. Will my hon. Friend work with the Secretary of State to scrap hospital car parking charges once and for all?
My right hon. Friend is pursuing one of the energetic and effective campaigns that have become his signature in Parliament. I believe that he is also pursuing the issue at Welsh and Scottish questions. I am sure that many of us have a great deal of sympathy with the case he described, but changing the policy in Northern Ireland to deal with it is best done by a functioning Executive at Stormont. I hope that he will agree that that is the clearest possible illustration of why people in Northern Ireland need the Executive to reform as soon as possible.
The difficulty that everybody faces at the moment is that all budgetary allocations have to be done on a business-as-usual basis. To make more fundamental changes and reforms—to modernise anything in any devolved area—requires the Stormont Executive to be sitting. I share the hon. Gentleman’s desire for change, but the answer, I am afraid, is that we have to get Stormont working.
At the autumn Budget, the Chancellor announced £350 million for a Belfast city region deal to boost investment and productivity, and the opening of formal negotiations for a Derry/Londonderry and Strabane city region deal. Furthermore, late last year, I was delighted to announce a £700,000 investment in Randox, a County Antrim life sciences company. That investment, through the Government’s industrial strategy, should help create well-paid manufacturing jobs in Northern Ireland.
I can confirm, as I have already mentioned, that the Derry/Londonderry and Strabane city deal discussions have begun, following my right hon. Friend the Chancellor’s announcement, and I am sure that everybody here hopes they will progress speedily and successfully.
We know that the business community in Northern Ireland does not want a hard border, so surely, if technology and connected promises do not avoid that, the backstop is an understandable insurance policy for Dublin and the European Union, as indeed the United Kingdom agreed in December 2017. Surely the Government will not be reneging on that promise, which is beneficial to business.
The Prime Minister was asked—
I am sure that Members on both sides of the House will want to join me in sending our thoughts and prayers to all those affected by the collapse of the Brumadinho dam in Brazil. We are in touch with the local authorities and stand ready to provide whatever support we can.
This morning, I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others, and, in addition to my duties in the House, I shall have further such meetings later today.
I associate myself with the Prime Minister’s comments about the tragic situation in Brazil.
My son is one of thousands of young people to have their life chances transformed by their studies at Chesterfield College. Its funding, like that of further education colleges across the country, is 30% down in real terms since this Government came to power. Further education funding is in crisis. Why is the education of young people in further education colleges worth so little to the Government?
The hon. Gentleman could not be more wrong. It is this Government who are ensuring that by 2020 the funding available to support—[Hon. Members: “Now!”] The funding we are putting into further education is providing the best life chances for young people going into further education. It is this Government who are taking steps to ensure that young people can take up the opportunities that are right for them. For too long in this country, the assumption has been that the only way to get on in life is to go to university, and other ways, such as apprenticeships and further education colleges, have not been similarly respected. It is this Government who are ensuring respect for further education, and for technical education as well.
My right hon. Friend raises a very important issue. I certainly agree about the important role a free press and journalists play in our democracies, and I thank him for raising an issue that I know is important to him and many Members across the House. Sadly, as he says, 80 journalists we killed in 2018; 348 are currently in prison and 60 are being held hostage around the world. We are deeply concerned because, as he said, these numbers have risen on the previous year. That is why in 2019 we are placing our resources behind the cause of media freedom. We are helping to train journalists around the world, such as in Venezuela, where we have seen an authoritarian Government suppress their critics, and this year we plan to host an international conference in London on media freedom to bring together countries that believe in this cause and to mobilise an international consensus behind the protection of journalists. This is an important issue, and the Government are putting their weight behind it.
I join the Prime Minister in sending support to the victims of the Brumadinho dam collapse in Brazil. I am very pleased that all possible support is being offered to the authorities there to try to deal with the crisis.
Following the vote in the House last night against no deal, the Prime Minister is again going to attempt to renegotiate the backstop on the basis of finding “alternative arrangements”. Will she tell us what those alternative arrangements might be?
Absolutely. Last night, the House set a clear direction on the way in which it could agree a deal, and that, as the right hon. Gentleman says, is about dealing with the issue of the backstop. As I said yesterday, there are a number of proposals for how that could be done. We are engaging positively with proposals that have been put forward by my right hon. Friend the Member for Loughborough (Nicky Morgan) and my hon. Friends the Members for North West Hampshire (Kit Malthouse), for Wycombe (Mr Baker) and for North East Somerset (Mr Rees-Mogg). Others, including my hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale West (Sir Graham Brady), have put forward different proposals, such as a unilateral exit mechanism—
I am just telling the shadow Foreign Secretary, if she will listen—let me give her a piece of advice: if she wants to shout things, it might be better to shout them in response to what I am saying.
My right hon. and hon. Friends have put forward proposals such as a unilateral exit mechanism or a time limit to the backstop. The political declaration already refers to alternative arrangements and raises a number of proposals that can be addressed, such as mutual recognition of trusted trader schemes.
None of that was very clear to me; I do not know about anybody else. It would have been really nice if the Prime Minister had acknowledged that she did whip her MPs to try to support no deal, and she was defeated on that.
The EU said at the weekend that it was willing to renegotiate if the Government’s red lines could change. Will the Prime Minister now tell us which of her red lines are going to change?
What has been absolutely clear in my contacts with European Union leaders is that they want a deal. What the House voted for last night was to leave the European Union with a deal, but it also crucially showed what it will take to see support in the House for a deal in the future. I think that the plan that was set out last night shows that we can obtain a substantial and sustainable majority in the House.
The right hon. Gentleman talks about not being clear about positions on various things. I am very pleased that he is now going to meet me, because there are a number of issues that I want to discuss with him. For example, he talks about a strong single market relationship with the European Union in the future. I want to know whether that means that he wants to accept all EU state aid rules, because he has objected to them in the past, and he cannot have it both ways.
We need to know, with greater clarity, what it is that the right hon. Gentleman believes in. Perhaps next time one of his own Back Benchers wants to ask him about his position on a second referendum, he will actually take a question or an intervention.
Last time I looked at the Order Paper, it said “Prime Minister’s Question Time”. The Prime Minister has herself said that “the only possible deal” is within her red lines, so it is perfectly reasonable to ask which of her red lines has changed.
This morning, the Brexit Secretary was asked:
“What is the alternative to the backstop?”
“Well, that is what we’re exploring.”
Can the Prime Minister tell us which options are being explored?
I look forward to meeting the Prime Minister later today, because I want to put forward Labour’s alternatives, which could command a majority in the House and which are about protecting jobs and people’s living standards across the country.
This morning, the Brexit Secretary said that alternative arrangements meant looking at technology. That is a very interesting question. Will the Prime Minister make clear what technological advances she is expecting to be made in the next 58 days?
I say to the right hon. Gentleman that I have pointed out that there are a number of options that people are putting forward that we are working positively with them on. I have already referenced a number of things that are in the political declaration on alternative arrangements that do set out various aspects that could be looked at; I referenced one of them in my answer to his earlier question.
But I would also say to the right hon. Gentleman that last night the House did vote to reject no deal, but it also voted to do what the European Union has consistently asked this House to do since it rejected the withdrawal agreement, which was to say what the UK wanted to see changed. Last night, a majority in this House voted to maintain the commitment to no hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland, to leave the European Union with a deal and to set out to the European Union what it will take to ensure that this House can support a deal. That is a change to the backstop; that is what I will be taking back to the European Union. That is what we will be doing to ensure that we can avoid no deal. The right hon. Gentleman stands up regularly and says he does not want no deal; I am working to ensure we get a deal. He has opposed every move by this Government to get a deal; he is the one who is risking no deal.
I would be grateful if the Prime Minister actually acknowledged that the House has voted to take no deal off the table. Can she assure the House that if she is unable to secure any legal changes to the backstop, she will work to find a solution based on a comprehensive customs union, a strong single market deal and the guaranteeing of rights and protections, rather than go back to the alternative that she has been threatening everybody with for months and months, which was to crash out without any deal whatsoever?
The right hon. Gentleman says “Of course not.” I think that is the first time he has actually accepted that you cannot just vote to reject no deal; you have to vote for a deal, otherwise you leave with no deal. So far, he has opposed everything this Government have put forward in relation to a deal, and he said previously he will reject any deal that the Government put on the table. He says this is Prime Minister’s questions, but people want to know his position as well. Will he ensure that if this Government come back with a revised deal that ensures we do not leave with no deal, he will actually support it?
It really is time that the Prime Minister acknowledges that she has got to move on from the red lines she has put down in the first place, and she does not acknowledge that in answer to my questions or indeed anybody else’s.
Our responsibility is to bring people together, whether they voted—[Interruption.] Mr Speaker, we are the Houses of Parliament; we are the House of Commons; we do represent the entire country; and the point I am making is that we should bring people together, whether they voted to leave or remain. Indeed, I look forward to meeting the Prime Minister to discuss a solution that could in my view unite the country. Changes to the backstop alone will not be sufficient. Businesses and trade unions are very clear that any solution must involve a customs union and the strongest possible deal with the single market to avoid the damage of no deal. The Prime Minister may have possibly temporarily united her party, but is she willing—[Interruption.]
Order. Mr Ellis, you were at one time a barrister of one rank or another in the courts; there is no way that you would have been allowed to shout from a sedentary position in that way. The judge would have ruled you out of order; I do not know whether that is why you stopped practising law and came into Parliament. Behave yourself young man; you can do so much better when you try.
As I was saying before I was so rudely interrupted—[Interruption]—the Prime Minister may have succeeded in temporarily uniting her very divided party, but is she willing to make the necessary compromises, which are more important, to unite the country going forward to secure jobs and living standards right across the UK?
The right hon. Gentleman is a fine one to talk about coming together, when it was only last night that he agreed to actually meet me to talk about these issues. Time and again, he has told me to listen to the views of the House. He has just stood up and said that the backstop is not the only issue in the withdrawal agreement, but last night the house voted by a majority to say that the issue that needed to be addressed was the backstop, so he needs to listen to the House and to recognise that. He put forward a proposal last night that referenced the customs union and the single market, but his proposal was rejected by this House. I will tell him what this Government have been doing. Over the past week, we have been getting more teachers into schools, we have been ensuring that we are giving more money to councils and we have won a majority on Brexit. What did he manage? His Brexit plan was voted down, he opposed ending free movement and he will not rule out a second referendum. He has no plan for Brexit, no good plan for our economy and no plan for our country.
My hon. Friend raises an important issue and points out not only the good news of the 10-year high in the number of first-time buyers but the opportunities available for local authorities to provide for this. We are clear that the planning system has a key role in delivering more affordable homes, and the national planning policy framework, which was revised last year, is central to that. It includes a wider definition of affordable housing, and local authorities are expected to consider the new definition—which includes starter homes and discounted market sales homes—in identifying the types of housing their communities need. There is an expectation that major developments will make a minimum of 10% of homes available for affordable ownership, including starter homes and discounted market sales homes. We have made good progress on first-time buyers, but there is more for us to do and this Government are doing it.
Two weeks ago, the Prime Minister told this House that if we voted down the deal in the hope of going back to Brussels and negotiating an alternative deal, no such alternative deal would exist, yet last night she told the House that she would go back to Brussels to seek an alternative arrangement. So what is it? Has the Prime Minister inadvertently misled the House, or has this Government’s incompetence reached a whole new level?
The very simple fact that the right hon. Gentleman appears to have omitted is that the deal was brought to the House of Commons and the House rejected that deal. Therefore, we looked to see what could be changed, what we could take back to Brussels and what we could fight for to ensure that the deal could get the support of this House. I was going to respond to his point of order last night, but unfortunately, when I looked, he had left. I think he had gone to do a Sky News interview—[Interruption.] I want to confirm absolutely the commitment of this Government to the Belfast/Good Friday agreement, and the remarks that he made last night in relation to that were frankly irresponsible.
Order. The right hon. Gentleman has a right to be heard, the public would expect him to be heard, and he will be heard. Attempts to shout him down are not just rude; they are irresponsible and undemocratic, and they should certainly not have the sanction of anyone who sits on the Treasury Bench. Stop it! It is low grade, it is useless and it will not work.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. That was a graceless response from the Prime Minister, who is acting with sheer irresponsibility. What she demonstrated in that answer was, “Here are my principles. If you don’t like them, you can have some more.”
Last night, a majority of Scottish MPs rejected Brexit. The Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly—[Interruption.]
The Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly and this House of Commons have rejected the Prime Minister’s deal. The UK Government told Scotland in 2014 that being part of the UK meant continued EU membership. The UK Government told us that we would be part of a family of equal nations. Prime Minister, Scotland wants to stay in the EU. We are scunnered by this Government ignoring Scotland. Does the Prime Minister accept that she promised Scotland everything but delivered nothing?
Scotland is part of the United Kingdom and voted in 2014 to stay part of the United Kingdom, and the United Kingdom will be leaving the European Union. If the right hon. Gentleman wants to talk about the impact on Scotland in the future, perhaps he should look at the figures for exports that came out just this morning. Over 60% of Scotland’s exports go to the rest of the UK. That is more than Scotland’s trade with the rest of the world and over three times more than with the rest of the European Union. However, he represents a party that wants to erect a border between Scotland and England. The biggest threat to the future of Scotland is sitting on the SNP Benches.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right about what we are aiming to ensure that we get from leaving the EU, which is the ability to have that independent trade policy. That is so important for us as we leave the EU. Yes, I want to have a good trade relationship with the EU, but I also want to ensure that we are able to have an independent trade policy and have trade deals around the world. This country should be a champion for free trade around the world. That is the way not only to enhance our economy and prosperity and to bring jobs to this country, but to benefit countries around the world, including some of the countries whose economies need to be helped and improved. Some of the poorest people in the world would be helped by those trade arrangements. That is what we are going to deliver and that is our commitment to the British people and, as my hon. Friend says, it delivers on the result of the referendum.
On 12 July last year, my constituents took their son Jack to Leeds Children’s Hospital for surgery on his craniosynostosis. The surgery went well but, after that care, Jack declined post surgery. His parents raised concerns, and he had declined so much by 16 July that a nurse raised concerns regarding sepsis. Jack continued to be treated for gastroenteritis, and the next day Jack died of overwhelming sepsis. Sadly, this is now the subject of a coroner’s inquest, but my constituents want to ensure that this never happens again to another set of parents. Jack was just three days short of his second birthday. The hospital has since introduced an early-warning system for paediatric sepsis, but that came too late for Jack. Can the Prime Minister assure me that she will do everything in her power to ensure that no other parent has to go through what my constituents have been through?
First, I am sure the whole House will join me in sending our deepest condolences to the family and friends of Jack. A terrible tragedy has occurred with the loss of such a young life.
We recognise, as I am sure my hon. Friend the Member for Dudley South (Mike Wood) will confirm, that sepsis is a devastating condition, and it is important that the NHS carries on developing its programme of work on recognising sepsis and improving outcomes. I know NHS England and NHS Improvement are working urgently with the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health to establish a single England-wide paediatrics early-warning system to improve the recognition of sepsis and the response of healthcare services to children and young people.
Obviously, nothing we can do will bring Jack back or compensate for the devastating impact on his family, but I can reassure my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy), and I hope he will be able to reassure his constituents, that we will continue to do all we can to improve the care for those with this devastating condition.
When I was Home Secretary, I took measures to ensure that we improved the recording of hate crime because—[Interruption.] Actually, no. We did not have a full picture of what was happening.
My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has recently reviewed and revised our hate crime strategy, but the point underlying what the hon. Member for Pontypridd (Owen Smith) has said is that none of us should accept hate crime. We should all be very clear from this House that there is no place for hate crime in our society. Wherever we see racism, in whatever form, we should all take action to eradicate it.
We recognise the importance of buses to local communities, which is why we spend £250 million every year to keep fares down and maintain an extensive network that benefits people up and down the country. We particularly put money into supporting free bus travel for older and disabled people, because we recognise how particularly important buses are to vulnerable people. We are looking at what we can do to further improve access for people with disabilities, but we have been putting money in to ensure that there remains an extensive bus network that is of benefit to local communities.
Last night, a majority of this House voted in favour of a deal to deliver on the democratic will of the people of the United Kingdom and leave the EU. In the next phase of the negotiations, will my right hon. Friend continue to stand firm against the fishing nations of the EU and their vain attempts to maintain guaranteed common access to our waters?
I can give my hon. Friend an absolute commitment that I will do that. Leaving the common fisheries policy and becoming an independent coastal state is so important to this country, to enable us to enhance and give opportunities to fishing communities around the United Kingdom. I recognise that fishing is particularly important in Scotland, but fishing communities around the UK will benefit from our becoming an independent coastal state. I am very clear: our position is there, we have that agreement, and it is not up for renegotiation.
Clearly, this is a very serious issue, and I understand that the judiciary and devolved justice authorities in Northern Ireland are keeping it under close and active consideration. Of course, as the hon. Gentleman knows, policing and justice is a devolved matter in Northern Ireland, as is the length of custodial sentences. In recently passing the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation and Exercise of Functions) Act 2018, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland enabled Departments to continue to take decisions in the public interest to ensure the continued operation of public services, but that is not and cannot be a replacement for a devolved Government. The example the hon. Gentleman has given is yet another reason why it is important for us all to work to get the devolved Administration back up and running.
The Prime Minister will appreciate that the Government are spending over 50% more per head, in real terms, on education than was spent in the year 2000—and achieving much better results, might I add. However, there are still some challenges with resources and funding in many areas across Hitchin and Harpenden, especially in small rural schools. Will the Prime Minister commit to special consideration for education in the upcoming spending review? I believe that would command widespread support across the House.
I think the Chancellor was listening to my hon. Friend’s remarks and comments on funding. As he says, it is absolutely right that we have been putting more money into schools. It is also right that we now see 1.9 million more children in good or outstanding schools than there were in 2010. We will of course look carefully across all elements of public expenditure when we come to the spending review but, as I said to my hon. Friend, I am sure the Chancellor has heard the lobbying in which my hon. Friend indulged in his question, particularly for small rural schools.
I recognise that this is a concerning time for the employees at Knight & Lee in Southsea. It is obviously a commercial decision for the company to take. We will ensure that the Department for Work and Pensions and Jobcentre Plus work with the company to understand the level of employee support required. I have to say to the hon. Gentleman that if he is worried about jobs in his constituency, the policies that would cause most damage to jobs there are the policies of the Labour party and those on the Labour Front Bench.
Last week, SNP-led Moray Council announced a number of devastating cuts to local services, many of which will impact young people. From the closing of libraries and swimming pools to the ending of the Active Schools programme and increasing of fees for music tuition, young people are affected while the council’s highest-paid senior managers are not. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the SNP in Moray should focus on services rather than managers, and will she call on the Scottish Government to deliver a fairer funding deal for Moray?
Of course, the UK Government have increased the block grant that is going to the Scottish Government next year, so decisions on cutting budgets are a matter of priority for the SNP rather than necessity. Extra money has been given to them. It is a question of where they want to put that money and what they put as a priority. It is time that the SNP empowered local government in Scotland, rather than hoarding power at Holyrood.
With record numbers of women in the workplace now, more and more women will experience the symptoms of peri-menopause or menopause while they are at work. Often, the symptoms are not well understood by the general population and they include much more than just hot flushes and night sweats. Will the Prime Minister please join my campaign, which calls on employers to update their health and wellbeing policies to ensure that women can get full information and proper support so that they can continue contributing at work?
I thank my hon. Friend for raising this issue. Obviously, this is something that many Members across this House will recognise as an important issue. We recognise the difficulties that women going through the menopause face. We are encouraging employers to adopt menopause-friendly policies such as flexible working and giving women information about healthy lifestyles that may help to improve their experience of the menopause. I will certainly encourage all employers, as she is doing, to take reasonable steps, including those that she has referenced, to support employees so that they can continue to carry out their jobs and contribute to our economy in the way they have done so far.
Obviously, the hon. Gentleman is right that, last night, Parliament voted to reject no deal. What Parliament also voted for last night was to say that it wanted to leave the European Union with a deal, and it identified what was necessary to change in the deal in order to enable that to happen and for the House to support a deal. That is where we should be focusing. We can only ensure that we avoid no deal by having a deal, by agreeing a deal and by this House supporting a deal and voting for a deal.
May I commend my right hon. Friend for her commitment yesterday to return to Brussels and reopen the text of the withdrawal agreement? That is the right thing to do. People in Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland will welcome it because they want to leave with a good deal for our country. I commend the excellent compromise proposed by my hon. Friend the Member for North West Hampshire (Kit Malthouse), which has every chance of success in uniting this Parliament and this country behind a good exit.
Obviously, there was a very clear message from the House last night as to what needs to happen in terms of returning to Brussels, but also we are engaging positively, as my hon. Friend said, with the proposals that my hon. Friend the Member for North West Hampshire and others have put forward in relation to dealing with the issue of the backstop.
Obviously, passengers expect better. I understand from the Department for Transport that the first phase of work to protect the sea wall at Dawlish began in November, with essential repairs to the breakwaters. That is part of the £15 million wider investment to make the railway at Dawlish and Teignmouth more resilient to extreme weather. I reassure the hon. Gentleman that world-leading engineers have been carrying out the detailed ground investigations to develop a long-term solution to protect the railway in a way that minimises disruption for passengers. Network Rail will soon be reporting on how it will deliver this solution. I am clear that delivering this improvement to the south-west’s transport infrastructure is a national priority. It is essential for unlocking the region’s economic prosperity and jobs, and that is why we are giving it the focus that we are.
Cotmanhay Junior School in my constituency has increased its proportion of pupils attaining the required level of key stage 2 standards from 35% to an amazing 67% over the last year. Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating the pupils, the teachers and the head, Simon Robinson, and 13 other primary schools across Erewash, on all improving their key stage 2 performances?
I am delighted to hear of the increase in performance at Cotmanhay Junior School. The education of children is improving, regardless of where they live or their background, so that they can get the education that they need to fulfil their potential. I am happy to join my hon. Friend in congratulating the pupils and staff of that particular school, and of the other schools she referenced across her Erewash constituency that have seen improvements, which are important for the future of those children.
The Prime Minister knows that I want to ensure that we leave the European Union on 29 March. She also knows that, regretfully, I could not support her deal two weeks ago because of the backstop, its impact on the relationship between Great Britain and Northern Ireland and its potential to trap us in a customs union. I welcome the fact that the House yesterday voted by a clear majority to renegotiate the backstop. If the Prime Minister can deliver that, I will vote for her deal, and I am confident that there will be a sustainable majority to get it and the legislation through the House. I ask my right hon. Friend to tell the European Union that there is a majority in this House for that deal to get us out of the European Union on good terms. I ask my colleagues to give the Prime Minister space; the EU is not going to crumble tomorrow. We are going to have to hold our nerve and we can be successful.
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right about the importance of the vote that took place last night. Winning that vote with a majority—agreeing what it was necessary to change in the withdrawal agreement in order to achieve a majority across this House—gave a very clear message to the European Union that a deal can go through this House, but it has to be a deal that recognises the concerns that have been expressed across the whole of this House in relation to the backstop. I am going to be fighting for the change that this House has been very clear that it wants to see in the future. Then, as my right hon. Friend says, I am confident that we can see a sustainable and substantial majority across this House for leaving with the deal.
Like one of her hon. Friends, the hon. Lady has raised an individual constituency case and the details of that individual constituency case. I will ask the relevant Minister to look into that case and to be—[Interruption.] She is asking me to take a position purely on the question that she has asked me. I am asking the Minister in the relevant Department to look into the case and to be able to assess that case and to respond to her.
This afternoon we shall be debating the Crime (Overseas Production Orders) Bill, which, among other things, will facilitate the cross-border exchange of data, enabling us to investigate crimes such as terrorism and paedophilia. Is it not the responsibility of all of us in this House to wholeheartedly support that Bill?
Absolutely, yes. This is a very important Bill in the impact that it will have. I am sure that everybody across this whole House wants to ensure that we can deal with terrorism, with paedophilia and indeed with other organised crime. Exchange of data is an important way of doing that, and I hope that everybody will see the importance of support for that.
In recent days we have heard the Irish Prime Minister talk about bringing his troops up to the border in the event of no deal. We have heard the Irish Deputy Foreign Minister talking of people jumping out of windows. Is not this highly reckless talk extremely dangerous in the present circumstances? That sort of rhetoric should be toned down and we should instead focus on what Michel Barnier said the other day—that even in the event of no deal, we would sit down and find operational ways to have checks and controls away from the border. Is not that the way forward? And it blows a hole in the entire concept of this backstop.
Obviously it is important—I will be speaking to the Taoiseach later today—for us to work with the Government of Ireland on the arrangements that will be in place in the future. We have obviously sent a clear message from this House about what needs to happen in relation to the backstop. We retain our commitment to no hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland, and look to working with the Government of Ireland and with the European Union to ensure that we can all maintain our commitments under the Belfast/Good Friday agreement and that commitment to no hard border on the island of Ireland.
Last Sunday, we commemorated Holocaust Memorial Day, when we remembered the darkest period in Europe’s history. Will my right hon. Friend join me in thanking the Holocaust Educational Trust, its youth ambassadors, and the incredible survivors, who give their personal testimony to young people so that they will remember what the ultimate destination of racial hatred and antisemitism truly is?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise the excellent work that the Holocaust Educational Trust does, and the youth ambassadors. I have met some of these youth ambassadors, who have understood the importance of learning the lesson from the holocaust, and understood the importance of acting against antisemitism wherever it occurs—and, indeed, wider racial hatred. As my hon. Friend says, the survivors from the holocaust have given their time to ensuring that nobody is in any doubt about where man’s inhumanity to man can lead. They have done a really important job. I pay tribute to them and to their continuing work. It is important that we all recognise the terrible things that can happen when we let antisemitism occur. We should all be fighting against antisemitism wherever it occurs.
In the cold of Sunday, Kane Walker was found dead on the pavements of Birmingham. He was 31, and he became one of over 2,600 homeless people to have lost their lives in the last five years. When will the Prime Minister recognise that the scale of homelessness today is a moral emergency, and that we cannot wait until 2027 for this Government to end homelessness for good when we need action now?
First, we all want to ensure that everybody in this country can have a safe and secure roof over their head—that nobody has to be on the streets sleeping rough. That is why we are putting money into this. We have taken a number of initiatives like Housing First which are already showing benefits in helping people who would otherwise be homeless and could end up on the streets in having a home and dealing with the issues that ensure that they are able to stay in that home. This is something that we recognise the importance of. That is why we are putting money into it. That is why we are acting. That is why we are ensuring that action is being taken across the country to deal with this.