House of Commons
Tuesday 12 February 2019
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy
The Secretary of State was asked—
At a time when people think parliamentarians are engaged in some sort of slugfest, I commend the Opposition parties for perfect collaboration on this first question.
Solar is a UK success story, as I know all hon. Members will recognise. The feed-in tariff scheme, under which 80% of installations have been solar, has cost £5.9 billion to date in supporting those 830,000 installations. Prices have fallen over 80% since the introduction of the scheme, which is why we are amending it, as I set out in the smart export guarantee consultation, and I look forward to receiving the response of the right hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake).
Does the Minister agree that households exporting to the grid should be paid a fair rate? Will she ensure an explicit minimum price for exported electricity to allow the market to recover some confidence that new solar homes will receive treatment consistent with that of other electricity generators?
I completely agree that nobody should be exporting power to the grid for free, or indeed below zero as has happened in some other countries. The level at which that export tariff and the mechanism are set is a matter for consultation, and I look forward to the right hon. Gentleman’s points on that subject.
Industry surveys show that 30% to 40% of solar firms installing domestic systems are now contemplating closure, given the mess that the Minister’s Department has made of policies for smaller-scale renewables. The Government’s own figures show that deployment of solar PV was less than 300 MW last year, down 90% compared with 2015, and Ofgem’s targeted charging review now threatens even the few solar farms that have been built without subsidy. Will she now meet the Solar Trade Association and its colleagues as a matter of urgency to discuss this latest threat to a part of our energy market that is critical to delivering carbon reduction?
I agree entirely with the hon. Lady about this being an important part of our energy market, which is why I am so proud that 99% of our solar installations have happened since a Conservative-led Government have been in power. I frequently meet the Solar Trade Association, which is always a pleasure. I encourage her to look beyond a regime of subsidy for delivering renewable energy, as the evidence of the numbers suggests that there are 2.3 GW of solar projects in the pipeline that already have or are awaiting planning permission and that could be delivered without subsidy. We are moving rapidly to a subsidy-free world for solar generation. [Interruption.] The hon. Lady shakes her head, but it is true. It is important that we do not equate subsidy with output, and with actually delivering the power we want.
My hon. Friend raises an excellent point. He will know that building regulations now set minimum energy standards, couched in performance terms rather than being prescriptivist about the types of technology that should be used. Builders are increasingly adding renewable energy systems, but I am always interested to see what more we can do to bring forward such a good way of lowering bills and CO2 emissions.
Both solar and wind have been very successful in driving down industry costs, but does my hon. Friend recognise that that poses a challenge to technologies such as wave and tidal that are competing against solar and wind? Such technologies are chasing a number that is always falling faster than they can keep up with.
I do. I was pleased to meet the Marine Energy Council a few days ago. The meeting was supported by a cross-party group of MPs, and we discussed exactly this issue and how, in a cost-effective way, we might look to continue supporting technologies that are further from market.
On Friday children across the country will go on strike, saying they have lost confidence in the Government’s ability to tackle climate change. Does the Minister think these children are wrong, or can she explain to them why the UK is spending £10.5 billion to subsidise fossil fuels—more than any other country in Europe—at the same time as scrapping the solar export tariff and forcing some people to give their surplus solar energy back to the grid for free?
There are a number of inconsistencies in that question, but I think it is incredible what young people across the world are doing. They did the same thing at COP, where we had some compelling statements. Young people expect us to wake up to the reality of the future, which is why I am so proud to stand here and tell them that they live in a country that has led the world in decarbonisation over the last 20 years and is the first major industrial economy to ask for real advice, rather than a few fake words, on how we will get to net zero. [Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman chunters on about net fossil fuels, but there are no direct subsidies for fossil fuels. I think he is suggesting that we should not have an oil and gas industry in the UK. I would like to see how that plays out with his colleagues north of the border.
Yes, that is absolutely correct. I know that my hon. Friend takes an interest in this, so I wish to emphasise that we recognise the value of community energy, which has benefited in many cases from this scheme. If people have the chance to respond to the consultation emphasising the value of that, it would be much appreciated.
Britain has a very strong record in this area, with the highest level of employment in our history, combined with some of the strongest rights for workers in Europe. Last month, I announced new measures to counter discrimination at work against women returning from maternity leave, and we are one of the first countries in Europe so to do.
I thank the Secretary of State for that reply, but may I remind him that unemployment in my constituency is up by almost 1,000 on the same period last year, to 2,860? May I also tell him that a fire at Country Style Foods in Peterlee in my constituency has left a number of people looking for work, including one temporary worker employed through an agency? She had worked for the same company for seven years on a zero-hours contract, but a short break in her employment has stopped her accessing contributions-based benefits. In most zero-hours contracts, this “flexibility” is illusory. When would he consider that zero-hours contracts are inappropriate?
Two thirds of workers on zero-hours contracts say that they do not want any more hours and that they are content. On the break in service, the hon. Gentleman will know that that relates to one of the recommendations of the Taylor review that we have committed to implementing.
It has been almost two months since the Minister announced that workers on zero-hours contracts would get the right to request a stable contract. There are 65,000 people in the east midlands whose main job is on a zero-hours contract; our region has the highest percentage of people on these contracts, according to the Office for National Statistics. That means tens of thousands of people vulnerable to unfair treatment at work, uncertain about whether they can afford to get through the next week, let alone plan for the future. In this HeartUnions Week, the TUC is rightly calling for a ban on exploitative zero-hours contracts. When will the Government act to tackle insecurity in the workplace, rather than just tell workers to ask nicely for a permanent contract?
The Taylor report, and indeed the Select Committee, considered the recommendation that has come from some sources to ban zero-hours contracts. The Taylor report concluded that banning zero-hours contracts
“would negatively impact many more people than it helped.”
The joint report by the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee and the Work and Pensions Committee found that people on zero-hours contracts preferred to have that flexibility, for the most part—[Interruption.] That was the evidence given to the Committee. The hon. Lady will know that we have committed to bringing in the right to request a stable-hours contract.
I refer colleagues to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. Last week, the GMB and Hermes struck a landmark deal that proved that secure work is compatible with new and emerging industries. Today, I am writing to DPD, which has a depot in my constituency, to ask it to meet the unions and follow suit. Will the Secretary of State say today that it is important that we establish good laws in this country, but companies can get on with it now? They can get around the table with their unions and secure the jobs for their people in their workplace.
The hon. Gentleman makes an excellent point. I met Tim Roache, the head of the GMB, last week and congratulated him and Hermes on having come to their agreement. It shows that good employers can work with their employees to agree what is the best for them mutually, and it is a very good example of that.
According to the TUC, 3.8 million people are working in insecure jobs with no guarantee of hours, which represents a 36% increase since 2010. One of my constituents in Lincoln, Dan, is struggling to break out of the cycle of precarious work. He told me:
“You cannot support a family”—
and he is doing his best—
“if every morning you’re turning up for a job that might not exist.”
Does the Minister agree that the unacceptable increase in insecure work fundamentally undermines the UK’s high employment levels?
I am glad the hon. Lady mentions our high employment levels—she is right to do so—because for people to have the best opportunities for prosperity we have to ensure that there are jobs available. She will know that we have more jobs and more vacancies in this country than we ever have had. The number of workers on zero-hours contracts is just 2.4% of all employees, and that is falling, as it happens. As I say, two thirds of them prefer that flexibility. The right approach, in line with the recommendations of the Taylor review, is to give workers the opportunity to request a stable, fixed contract, but to allow flexibility for those who want it.
My right hon. Friend is right to recognise that zero-hours contracts give flexibility to particular groups of people, many of whom have caring responsibilities and peripatetic work patterns. Without those contracts, they would not be able to enter the world of work and benefit themselves. Does he recall that it was the last Labour Government that had these contracts as exclusive and that we got rid of that abuse?
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. We made that change, and it was of great benefit. We should be proud of the increase in employment that has taken place. According to the Resolution Foundation, the biggest gainers principally have been women, ethnic minorities, single parents and disabled people. That is something we should be proud of.
Rugby has the second highest rate of people in work in the west midlands, and one reason for that is the flexibility in the local labour market, especially in the growing logistics sector. Does the Secretary of State agree that for many people, the ability to choose the hours they work is important to them?
The hon. Member for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood) says that the east midlands has the highest proportion of people on zero-hours contracts, but she failed to add that we also have the highest economic growth outside of London and the south-east. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the best guarantees of improving workers’ rights, conditions and wages are a strong demand for labour, a growing economy and the control of unskilled migration, which is something we will be able to do after Brexit?
Last week, it was reported that the Government plan to bring forward legislation to commit to guaranteeing workers’ rights outside the EU. Will the Secretary of State confirm that no Government can bind their successors? As easily as legislation can be passed, a future Tory Government could take those rights away, just as this Government have done by introducing tribunal fees, passing the draconian Trade Union Act 2016 and failing to crack down on bogus self-employment. Why would Members on the Opposition Benches trust anything that the Government say about ensuring workers’ rights in law?
The record of this Government has been to extend workers’ rights way beyond what the European Union has offered. In the UK, we have 52 weeks of maternity leave, for example, compared with a requirement of 14 weeks in the EU. This House has chosen to give rights of paternity leave and pay to fathers and partners that are not yet available in the EU. The measures that the hon. Lady knows we are about to introduce for people returning from maternity leave makes us a leader in Europe on the issue. She should be confident in the ability of this House to promote and protect workers’ rights.
Under-25s: Working Conditions and Pay
Through the good work plan, the Government are strengthening employment rights for all workers. We are introducing measures that will support innovative businesses, while ensuring that workers of all ages have access to fair and decent work. In April, we will introduce inflation-beating increases to the national minimum wage rates, benefiting 350,000 young workers directly.
Despite the PM promising on her first day in the job to tackle burning injustices, this Government have consistently refused to introduce a real living wage for all, with the under-25s particularly hard hit. If Government will not act, will they devolve these powers to Holyrood?
I point out that some of the highest unemployment rates are among that age group so our priority is to make sure that young people are able to gain secure work and experience. In actual fact, nine out of 10 workers between the ages of 18 and 24 are paid above the national minimum wage rate, and we are continuing to work towards increasing that year on year.
Supermarket Supply Chains: Human Rights
The retail sector is the UK’s largest private sector employer and recognises that it has a responsibility for this issue, and it is pioneering responsible sourcing practices. The Government welcome campaigns such as the British Retail Consortium’s “Better Retail Better World” and Oxfam’s “Behind the Barcodes”. The Government remain determined to eliminate exploitation, and the landmark Modern Slavery Act 2015 increases specialist support for victims and places requirements on businesses to be transparent about their supply chains.
I thank the hon. Lady for raising this question and for giving us an opportunity to talk about this matter. The retail sector regards human rights and supporting sustainable markets as fundamental principles within its psyche. The British Retail Consortium has played a pivotal role, and it was a founder member of the “Stronger Together” scheme. Under the Modern Slavery Act, there is a duty on employers to submit modern slavery statements, and they should be doing so by the end of March.
May I invite my hon. Friend to meet Sir Charlie Mayfield, who is the chairman of the John Lewis Partnership, which of course includes Waitrose? She will know that it has an audit trail to ensure that all its goods are produced ethically. When can she meet him?
I thank my hon. Friend for his question and say that we meet Sir Charlie Mayfield regularly. This gives us a great opportunity to highlight the fact that there are thousands of businesses really stepping up to the mark on this issue. ASOS and Co-op are leading the way on transparency, and are identifying risks and taking action. M&S, Unilever and Tesco are also signing up to the employers’ pay principles.
We all want to be able to buy food in the supermarkets without trampling on the human rights of the people who produced it. Yet less than half of all agricultural companies are complying with their requirements under the Modern Slavery Act 2015, so what changes will the Government make to ensure that companies properly report what they are doing to tackle problems with human rights in their supply chains?
I thank the hon. Lady for her question. The Home Office has written to more than 17,000 businesses reminding them of their obligations to submit their modern slavery statements. We are committed to the Guiding Principles for Business and Human Rights, a UN initiative, and we are proud to be the first country to have an action plan in place, but, as with all these things, we will continue to keep them under monitoring.
In my role as the Prime Minister’s trade envoy to Nigeria, I am aware that Guinness Nigeria is being sold by Tesco. Is the Minister aware that Diageo and other companies in Nigeria have pledged to eradicate modern slavery from their supply chains?
I thank my hon. Friend for his suggestion. He is quite right. That is just another example of where the sector, working with Government, is taking action to stamp out these practices where they identify them and telling us how they are taking action to eradicate them.
Leaving the EU: Consumer Rights
We are committed to protecting consumers and providing clear information so that they understand their rights. That is why we have launched a public information campaign to reach out to consumers, citizens and businesses. As part of that, we have provided tailored information to consumers about their rights after EU exit. We are working closely with partners such as Citizens Advice on this issue.
The hon. Lady raises an important point. Every piece of no-deal legislation that we have brought through the House has had an impact assessment, and we have already submitted five pieces of legislation. We have been very clear that consumer rights will be protected when we leave the European Union, and I am committed to doing that.
My hon. Friend is right to highlight that the new Office for Product Safety and Standards has got its strategy plan together. We are working through that, working with data-led intelligence to ensure that we tackle product safety inequalities when they appear.
As the Government continue to threaten the public with a catastrophic no-deal Brexit, which they admit themselves would be detrimental to consumers, a report by Which? shows that a staggering 82% of people said that the Government had communicated either too little information or no information at all about the impact of such a Brexit. Will the Minister tell the House whether that is a result of sheer incompetence, or is it simply that the Government no longer care about consumers?
This Government are committed to retaining the high levels of consumer protection that we have. We have been very clear about that; we set out our intentions in the consumers Green Paper. We have launched advertising campaigns and published guidance on the Government’s website regarding certain elements of consumer rights. We are working closely with the Consumer Protection Partnership, which brings together the enforcement and the information bodies that work with consumers. We are committed to delivering for consumers, and that will not change—in or out of the EU.
Tendring: Skilled Jobs
The South East local enterprise partnership, which covers the district of Tendring, has received £590 million through the local growth fund to drive regional development. Business support for small and medium-sized enterprises is available through the LEP’s Business Essex, Southend and Thurrock growth hub. The LEP is funding projects to strengthen coastal communities, including Tendring, as well as supporting the highly skilled offshore renewables sector.
High-skilled jobs are clearly useless without anyone to fill them, and the employee supply chain necessitates a clear role for further education. I recently signed a cross-party letter to the Chancellor calling for further education funding to be increased to above inflation in the next financial year. Does the Minister agree with me and 164 other colleagues that that is a good idea?
The Government have protected the base rate of funding for 16 to 19-year-olds until 2020 and are working closely with the post-18 funding review led by Sir Philip Augar to ensure a coherent vision for further and higher education. As part of its local industrial strategy for the district of Tendring, I welcome the fact that the South East LEP is investing in further education, including £10 million for the Colchester Institute’s Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics Innovation Centre, its Learning and Technology Centre in Braintree, and a centre of excellence in health and care in Colchester.
Energy Market: Diversity Supply
My right hon. Friend is quite right that we have a diverse energy supply and we must continue to maintain that, guided by the principles of lowest cost, lowest carbon and the maximum exploration of overseas trade opportunities. As the Secretary of State set out in his recent speech, we should continue to use market mechanisms wherever we can to maintain this diversity of supply.
I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. However, can she reassure the House, and many of our constituents, that the move from the existing feed-in tariff to the smart export guarantee will not jeopardise the viability of solar energy anaerobic digester producers and that they will continue to be paid for exporting energy to the grid?
My right hon. Friend is quite right. As I said earlier, we are very keen to ensure, through the smart export guarantee, that we move to the lower-subsidy or subsidy-free future that we know we can get to, but that we continue to see the sorts of viable projects that he references. I would urge him to make sure that the views of his constituents are reflected in the consultation that closes on 5 March.
Has the Minister had recent conversations with the power distribution networks? They are very powerful, they transmit all the electricity, and they are owned by very strange people, in my view. Warren Buffett owns all the power distribution in the north through Berkshire Hathaway. The Chinese own it all in London and the south-east through the Cheung Kong and Li Ka Shing enterprises. Are they efficient? Are they effective? Do they work in the national interest, or in somebody else’s national interest?
The hon. Gentleman, I am sure, shares my view that we should have the most efficient and well-invested energy system going forward that keeps costs down for consumers. He will also know that since privatisation—[Interruption.] Well, if he wants an answer perhaps he could stop shouting at me and listen. We have seen a large reduction in power outages and an increase in energy security. We have to make sure that the system is fit for the future because, as he knows, much of what happens in the future will not be creation of energy on the old coalfield sites and distribution down the transmission lines—there will be far more decentralised energy, and we continue to look forward to that development. [Interruption.]
I very much agree with diversity of energy supply, but will my right hon. Friend assure me that there will be no diminution in the controls over the fracking industry, which has agreed to the regulations and has to stand by them?
I thank my right hon. Friend for asking a very topical question. The situation is this. We have set out very clearly our need to explore soberly and scientifically this potentially important resource. We rejected the companies’ request during the process of extraction from the first well to change the regime, on the basis that it was fit for purpose. I have been very well aware of all the scientific suggestions that somehow this regime should be reviewed. Of course, we now have an independent regulator, the Oil and Gas Authority, and it is within its remit, should it wish, to look at the science. For me, it is a scientist-led decision—it is nothing to do with politicians.
The hon. Gentleman will know that we continue to look actively at this sector. Indeed, we have invested over £50 million in innovation in the sector over the past few years. However, it was right to reject the most expensive power station ever proposed in the form of the Swansea tidal lagoon. It is very pleasing to see that that project has now been brought forward in a form that does not require any Government subsidy. That is clearly a vote of confidence in this sector and this technology going forward. Our door is open for innovative proposals in this area. I was pleased, as I said, to meet the Marine Energy Council to see what more we can do.
Research and Development Trends
The Department regularly assesses comparative levels of R&D expenditure in the UK and in EU member states. The Office for National Statistics has estimated that overall gross R&D expenditure in the UK was £33.1 billion in 2016—1.7% of GDP, compared with the EU average of 1.9% of GDP. We must do more, so in our industrial strategy we have committed to spending 2.4% of GDP on R&D across the UK economy by 2027.
Many British-based scientists are concerned that their participation in cross-border science networks might be jeopardised by Brexit. Can the Minister confirm that it is this Government’s intention that the UK should continue to participate in Horizon Europe’s next framework programme, FP9, and that the best way for us to help to make sure that that happens is for this House to support the withdrawal agreement?
I entirely agree with my hon. Friend on this issue. The Government’s priority is a smooth and orderly exit from the EU as set out in principle in the EU withdrawal agreement. Voting for the agreement would provide continuity and reassurance for researchers in continuing to participate in the Horizon programmes. It is no secret that we want to explore association with Horizon Europe. The political declaration makes clear our joint intention to establish terms and conditions regarding UK participation in EU programmes as part of our future relationship.
As I said to the Minister yesterday, I have two universities in my constituency, and they are very concerned about research and development; they do a lot of work for companies like Jaguar Land Rover, and mainly in the industrial sector. What guarantee can the Minister give that the level of funding will be maintained after 2020? The Chancellor has not committed to that so far.
I am proud, as the Universities Minister, that we have in this country three of the world’s top 10 universities when it comes to research. We want to ensure that we continue to have that international reputation. We have made Treasury guarantees on the underwrite extension, ensuring that we continue to be part of all the projects that are part of Horizon 2020. We want to ensure that the association with Horizon Europe has universities at the front and centre of it.
Leaving the EU: Support for Businesses based in Scotland
The Chancellor and I work closely together to support businesses right across the United Kingdom, but as I said before, the best option for Scotland in facing Brexit is to provide certainty to business by supporting a deal that has been proposed with the European Union.
I am not entirely convinced by that answer. With the risk of red meat facing tariffs of around 40%, the president of the National Farmers Union of Scotland, Andrew McCornick, described a no-deal Brexit as “catastrophic” for Scotland’s farmers and crofters. In the event that the Prime Minister is unable to get her deal through the Commons and opts for no deal instead of extending article 50, and given what the Secretary of State has said about no deal, will he resign?
I am delighted to say that we work closely with the Scottish Government and universities and businesses across Scotland. One example is the sector deals that we have struck, including the life sciences sector deal, in which Scotland is strong, which means investment going into Scottish institutions and creating good jobs now and in the future.
A recent survey by Ernst & Young found that 92% of Scottish firms do not feel fully ready for Brexit. They are being left adrift by this Government. Given the calamitous collapse of the phantom deal for the ferry company with no ships—the Seaborne Freight fiasco—does the Secretary of State stick by his comment that the contract was “prudent and responsible”?
The Secretary of State for Transport gave a statement on that yesterday and was clear that no Government money had been put into that. When it comes to building confidence for businesses in Scotland, which I hope the hon. Gentleman and I want to do, he will know that the way to allay businesses’ concerns is to ensure that we conclude an agreement. There is one that has the support of businesses in Scotland and across the country, and I hope his party will back it.
That answer is simply not good enough. Even the former head of the civil service, Bob Kerslake, said that the fiasco will
“just confirm the view of many that this country is in a mess”.
If the UK Government cannot put in place their own services, will the Secretary of State support the SNP’s demand for the Chancellor to use the spring statement to provide firms with the fiscal support they need to put in place their own measures to get them through this Tory Brexit mess?
I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman would raise fiscal matters, when some of the fiscal decisions taken in Scotland recently have further diminished investors’ confidence. For Scotland to be the highest-taxed part of the United Kingdom is a terrible signal to not only workers but businesses.
Yorkshire: Economic Development
I know that the hon. Gentleman is a proud Yorkshireman, and he will know that we frequently discuss the economic success story that is Yorkshire and the Humber. It may be a little bit politically incorrect, but I am sure he is proud of the fact that in the first three years of the Conservative Government from 2010, Yorkshire created more jobs than the whole of France.
But given that economic growth in Yorkshire and the Humber has on average been about 1% since 2010, compared with 3% in London, does the Minister see merit in the proposals and the economic case for One Yorkshire devolution that have been presented to Ministers? It is backed by 18 local authority leaders, many of them distinguished Conservatives.
I know my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government is reviewing the proposals. I see in his place the Mayor of the Sheffield city region, the hon. Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis), who is doing a fantastic job. I say to the hon. Member for Keighley (John Grogan) that in the places where large-scale mayoralties are working well, such as the west midlands with Andy Street or on Teesside with Mayor Houchen, a cross-party proposal has been brought forward, bottom up, for the Government then to make a decision on.
Our modern industrial strategy for our whole country will ensure that the UK remains one of the most competitive locations in the world for manufacturing investment. We are investing over £600 million in the high-value manufacturing Catapult, and up to £167 million in our “Made Smarter” industrial digitalisation programme. I hope and believe that this will help UK manufacturers develop, adopt and exploit new technologies to make us really successful in the future.
The British soft drinks industry plays a very important part in the manufacturing sector in our country and should really be applauded for the way in which it has adapted to meet the recent sugar tax. With the Government’s announcement that a bottle return scheme will be introduced in the next few years, will my hon. Friend assure the industry and this House that this scheme will be uniform right across the country?
Much as I would like to do so, I cannot give my hon. Friend that assurance, because waste and recycling policy is a devolved matter. However, it is our preference that the scheme is UK-wide, and we will really be pushing that with the devolved authorities.
The latest monthly figures from the Office for National Statistics reveal that manufacturing output has collapsed into recession territory, with a sixth consecutive month of falling output. As part of that, manufacturing fell 4.9% in the final quarter of last year. Will the Government listen to Labour, trade unions and businesses, and take the threat of a no-deal Brexit off the table to restore manufacturing sector confidence and protect my constituents’ jobs?
I agree with the hon. Lady and with the Prime Minister that a hard Brexit without a deal would be a disaster for the economy of this country, and Toyota, Jaguar Land Rover and many people have said how important the just-in-time process is. I hope that the hon. Lady will listen, and that she will vote for the Prime Minister’s deal, which will give the motor and manufacturing industries the transition period they need.
The UK automotive sector is a vital part of our economy, generating £78 billon of turnover and directly employing 160,000 people in manufacturing alone. We are working with the sector through our industrial strategy and, in particular, the automotive sector deal, to make sure that our industry leads in the technologies of the future.
The Secretary of State knows that diesel efficiency helps to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, he knows that new diesel engines are also much cleaner and he knows the importance of diesel production for our motor industry as it makes an orderly transition to new propulsion systems, so why is he letting his fellow Cabinet members the Secretaries of State for Transport and for Health and Social Care grandstand in demonising diesel, and why is he not standing up for our car industry and our car workers?
I say to the right hon. Gentleman, who I know takes an interest in this, that I have always been clear, and indeed the “road to zero” strategy is very clear, that having a new diesel engine is a perfectly reasonable choice as we move towards zero-emission vehicles in the future. That is very clear: I have said it, my colleagues have said it and I am happy to repeat it to the House.
Our car industry is a global success story facing existential challenges—climate change, technology change, market change and Brexit. As 80% of our imported parts come from the European Union and 80% of cars made are exported, including half to the European Union, motor manufacturers say a no deal could mean £4.5 billion in tariffs, affecting hundreds of thousands of jobs. The Secretary of State and the Under-Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, the hon. Member for Watford (Richard Harrington) are known to favour a customs union in private, but with 45 days to go, do they not have a duty to make the private public, to take no deal off the table and to stand up for a permanent customs union and British jobs?
I would say that the hon. Lady and her colleagues have a duty to listen to what the employers that she mentions have to say. I could mention Ford, which said:
“It’s important that we get the agreement ratified that’s on the table at the moment”.
Aston Martin has said that it is “obvious” that the deal
“meets the needs of all the requests we put forward as an industry”,
and that its needs it to be ratified. McLaren has said that the withdrawal agreement would provide urgently needed certainty. If the hon. Lady wants to follow the representations of our employers, she should do what they say and back the deal.
Rural Post Offices
The Government recognise the importance of post offices to rural communities across the UK and are committed to the post office network’s future. The Post Office offers targeted financial support in recognition of the unique challenges of running a rural post office. Postmasters who run community branches that are the last shop in the village can receive packages combining fixed and variable remuneration to reflect their special circumstances.
Post offices in my rural villages of Newick, East Dean and Alfriston are still temporarily closed because the Post Office local model, on a transaction-fee basis, is not enticing potential postmasters. Will the Minister look at returning to a community-based Post Office model to help these post offices to reopen?
The Government have invested significantly in post offices in recent years. While there is no programme of post office closures, some unexpected closures, for some reasons beyond the control of the Post Office, as in my hon. Friend’s constituency, can occur. Work is currently under way in regard to her constituency, and there is hope that the services will be restored. I will also ask the Post Office to liaise directly with my hon. Friend on those issues.
Given that many rural post offices are barely profitable if they are profitable at all, is it not time for Ministers to consider giving business rates relief to all rural post offices—in particular, those housed by the Co-op movement, which continue to provide a service to local communities?
The hon. Gentleman will know that the Government have doubled permanent small business relief and increased the threshold at which businesses pay business rates. We are investing in community branches. The Post Office has launched a smaller community branch development scheme, which is guaranteed to benefit another more than 700 post offices. We will keep working with the Post Office to make sure that we maintain our network of 11,500.
It is true: it has been too long since I have had the opportunity to visit my hon. Friend’s part of the country. I have met some of his colleagues to talk about post office opportunities in the south-west. As I have already reiterated, we are committed to delivering those rural post offices.
As the Minister will be aware, in the Postal Services Act 2011 the House has already given its in-principle agreement to mutualise the post office network. Will she indulge a former Post Office Minister and agree to meet me to discuss how the powers in sections 4 and 5 of the Act could be used to take forward this exciting policy innovation?
The right hon. Gentleman is quite correct: the Post Office is at the forefront of looking at new ways in which it can modernise and increase the services delivered through our post offices. I will be more than happy to listen to any suggestions that he has—so, yes, of course, at some point I will meet him.
In the past five years we have halved late payments and through our call for evidence we are looking at what more we can do to end the scourge of late payments affecting small businesses. In January, we announced £2 million of funding for our business basics programme, supporting 15 innovative projects. We continue to do that as we try to improve productivity.
Many of the excellent small businesses in North Devon are in the hospitality sector. Will the Minister assure me that the Government will continue to support those excellent small businesses, which give such good service to our visitors and tourists?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. North Devon is a wonderful part of the country. The tourism sector is particularly important for our economy, providing 1.6 million jobs across all regions and contributing £67.7 billion in gross value added. The Government are committed to supporting the sector and to continuing to work with small businesses through our industrial strategy and the sector deal that is under way.
Sadly, HBOS managers were found guilty of defrauding their own small business customers, yet the Financial Reporting Council has steadfastly refused to seriously consider whistleblower evidence that KPMG and the bank colluded to cover up bank losses partly attributable to that fraud. What will my hon. Friend do to ensure that this matter is seriously investigated?
My hon. Friend raises a really important question. There have been several criticisms of the FRC, which is why the Secretary of State commissioned Sir John Kingman to lead a review of the regulator. We are taking forward Sir John’s recommendations to create a stronger regulator with stronger powers. I assure my hon. Friend that I will continue to meet him on the particular issue he raises, so that we can find a resolution.
Does the Minister agree that we should support workers who keep small businesses like cafes and pubs going? In his so-called “Good Work Plan”, the Business Secretary boasted that the Government will ensure that all tips go to workers in full. Where exactly is the Bill that was first promised three years ago?
The Secretary of State for International Trade seems to be hell-bent on destroying our businesses, judging by his support for zero import tariffs. Can the Business Minister confirm that she understands the damage that unilaterally imposing zero import tariffs would do to businesses and jobs in this country? Will she confirm whether she or the Business Secretary will remain as members of the Government if that policy is adopted?
I am glad the hon. Gentleman has raised this issue. We engage with the small business community, the wider business community and all business representation organisations on a weekly basis. It is quite right that we consult a plethora of businesses throughout the UK on any decision that will be taken on customs and tariffs. We will take into consideration their views when we set our policy, which will be announced in the near future.
Parental Leave: Children with Severe Illnesses
The Government are committed to supporting working families. We are conducting a short and focused review of the provisions for parents of premature, sick and multiple babies, focusing primarily on barriers to the labour market. I have met colleagues, Bliss and The Smallest Things.
I thank the hon. Lady for allowing me to talk about this issue. A short internal review has been carried out by my officials and I expect to receive information on that shortly. I have already committed to keeping cross-party colleagues updated and I happily extend that commitment to her.
Since our last departmental questions, we have been continuing to implement the industrial strategy. We are doing more, for example, to protect businesses and consumers from online threats, with the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund backing research to make hardware more secure. As we leave the EU, we are determined to continue to be a pioneer in setting the highest standards, including proposals—currently being consulted on—to expand protections for pregnant women and new parents returning to work after having children.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her question. It was one of the first sector deals. We were very determined to act on the report of Sir Peter Bazalgette, which celebrated the potential for new jobs to be created. It is going extremely well. Investments are being made in virtual reality, creating new opportunities for small businesses to benefit from the technology that larger ones have.
Since the start of the year, the Financial Times, The Observer, The Times, POLITICO and The Spectator, as well as many specialist publications, have described the looming energy crisis facing the UK following the collapse of plans to develop three nuclear power stations at Wylfa, Moorside and Oldbury, but back in November 2018, the Secretary of State announced that the energy trilemma—the challenge of providing energy that is green, cheap and secure—was coming to an end. Is he still of this view?
That was straight and very to the point. The Secretary of State may have pointed to the falling cost of renewable energy, but he cannot disown his Government’s policies, unfortunately, which are plunging that industry from crisis to crisis. New deployment of solar has fallen 90% since 2016. New onshore wind deployment has fallen 80%, so that certainly does not sound like the end of the energy trilemma. With people getting nervous about how we are going to keep the lights on, will he describe in detail where exactly he expects the UK to source low-carbon electricity from by the end of the 2020s?
We have a proud record of being one of the world’s leaders in renewable energy. The proportion of renewable energy on the grid at the moment has hit 33% for the first time in our history. We are the world’s leader in offshore wind. The challenges that the hon. Lady identifies come from the fact that energy sources are falling in price. They are more abundant than ever before and we have established ourselves as the place in the world with the technology to be able to deploy them on the grid. She should welcome that.
That is an excellent point from my hon. Friend, as we would expect. Luckily, we are on the case and have the Automotive Council skills working group, with which we are doing our best to deal with the problem that he mentions as a partnership between Government and industry.
I am very pleased to assure the hon. Lady that we are not only doing enough, but leading the developed world. Our renewables generation has increased fourfold since 2010. We have decarbonised our economy—as our four nations—more than any other country in the G20, and we were the first industrialised county to seriously look at that shocking Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report and ask our own independent Committee on Climate Change for its advice on how we can get to a net zero-carbon economy going forward.
I thank my hon. Friend for that question. Let me be clear: pregnancy and maternity discrimination is unacceptable and illegal. That is why, last month, the Government announced a consultation on pregnancy and maternity discrimination. The consultation seeks to extend redundancy protection for pregnant women and it seeks views on what the Department is doing to tackle pregnancy and maternity discrimination. I point out that this will go beyond what the EU currently allows.
The hon. Lady is correct to say that cyber-resilience must be a key part of our industrial strategy. I was in Northern Ireland last Friday to discuss with organisations how they could be involved in our AI programme and with setting up masters programmes in cyber-security.
I would love to come to Penzance if time permits—it is an area of the country I would love to visit—and I will continue to work with my hon. Friend to deliver post office services in his region. He is a passionate supporter of the Post Office and I welcome his support for me in my role as the Minister in that area.
With much pleasure. We published figures last week showing that we continue to reduce our emissions, which are down 3% year on year. I say again that we are decarbonising faster than any other country in the G20. We are doing our bit domestically as well as internationally with our £6 billion of climate spending, and we have formally put our name forward to host the crucial climate change talks in 2020, although we must remember that other countries are still interested.
I recognise the distress felt by constituents in cases of insolvency and where companies cease to trade. The redundancy payment service, operated by the Insolvency Service, has already made statutory redundancy payments to 157 eligible employees. Payments in respect of unpaid wages cannot be made while the company is still not in formal insolvency procedures, but we remain ready to act.
My hon. Friend is a doughty campaigner for what could be a very valuable source of heat from flooded mine workings. It seems apposite to recognise the effort that went into digging them out, and it would be good to use them in our low-carbon future. As he knows, I continue to look at his ideas with great interest.
Central to economic development in Yorkshire will be the design of the new UK shared prosperity fund. What work is the Secretary of State doing across Government to ensure that the fund works to the maximum benefit of the Yorkshire economy?
My right hon. Friend was right to tell the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee that business was crying out for clarity on Brexit, but we cannot have that clarity until we have a meaningful vote. Will my right hon. Friend therefore confirm that the Government will bring that meaningful vote back to the House as a matter of urgency? It would be wholly irresponsible for it to be held within a matter of days before we are due to leave the European Union.
The mineworkers’ pension scheme has boosted Government coffers by billions while ex-miners and their widows receive an average pension of £80 a week. Will the Secretary of State meet miners’ representatives and the trustees of the scheme to hammer out a fairer pension deal?
As the very proud daughter-in-law of a miner’s widow who benefits from the scheme, I take its stewardship very seriously. I believe that it will be debated in the House in a couple of days, and I should be delighted to discuss it further. I should point out that the extraordinary arrangements that were developed between the Government and the trustees have delivered much higher returns to the beneficiaries than similar schemes, but I continue to be happy to meet Members to discuss the issue.
Leaving the EU
With permission, Mr Speaker, I will make a statement on the Government’s ongoing work to secure a Brexit deal that honours our commitments to the people of Northern Ireland, commands the support of Parliament, and can be negotiated with the EU.
On 29 January, the House gave me a clear mandate and sent an unequivocal message to the European Union. Last week, I took that message to Brussels. I met President Juncker, President Tusk and the President of the European Parliament, Antonio Tajani. I told them clearly what Parliament wanted in order to unite behind a withdrawal agreement—legally binding changes to the backstop—and I explained to them the three ways in which that could be achieved.
First, the backstop could be replaced with alternative arrangements to avoid a hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland. Yesterday my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union met Michel Barnier to discuss the ideas put forward by the Alternative Arrangements Working Group, which consists of a number of my right hon. and hon. Friends. I am grateful to them for their work, and we are continuing to explore their ideas. Secondly, there could be a legally binding time limit to the existing backstop, or thirdly, there could be a legally binding unilateral exit clause to that backstop. Given that both sides agree that we do not ever want to use the backstop and that if we did so it would be temporary, we believe it is reasonable to ask for legally binding changes to that effect.
As expected, President Juncker maintained the EU’s position that it will not reopen the withdrawal agreement. I set out the UK’s position—strengthened by the mandate that the House had given me—that the House needs to see legally binding changes to the backstop, and that that can be achieved by changes to the withdrawal agreement. We agreed that our teams should hold further talks to find a way forward, and President Juncker and I will meet again before the end of February to take stock of those discussions.
So our work continues. The Secretary of State and the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster are in Strasbourg today, and last week the Attorney General was in Dublin to meet his Irish counterpart. Following my own visits to Brussels, Northern Ireland and Ireland last week, I welcomed the Prime Minister of Malta to Downing Street yesterday, and I will be speaking to other EU27 leaders today and throughout the week. The Leader of the Opposition shares the House’s concerns about the backstop; I welcome his willingness to sit down and talk to me, and 1 look forward to continuing our discussions. Indeed, Ministers will be meeting members of his team tomorrow.
I think that there are a number of areas in which the whole House should be able to come together. In particular, I believe that we have a shared determination across the House not to allow the UK’s leaving the EU to mean any lowering of standards in relation to workers’ rights, environmental protections, or health and safety. I have met trade union representatives and Members on both sides of the House, and my right hon. Friend the Business Secretary is leading work to ensure that we fully address all concerns about these vital issues. We have already made legally binding commitments to no regression in these areas if we were to enter the backstop, and we are prepared to consider legislating to give these commitments force in UK law. And in the interests of building support across the House, we are also prepared to commit to asking Parliament whether it wishes to follow suit whenever the EU changes its standards in these areas. And of course we do not need to automatically follow EU standards in order to lead the way, as we have done in the past under both Conservative and Labour Governments. The UK has a proud tradition of leading the way in workers’ rights whilst maintaining a flexible labour market that has helped deliver an employment rate almost 6 percentage points above the EU average.
Successive Governments of all parties have put in place standards that exceed the minimums set by the EU. A Labour Government gave British workers annual leave and paid maternity leave entitlements well above that required by the European Union. A Conservative-led Government went further than the EU by giving all employees the right to request flexible working; and I was proud to be the Minister for Women and Equalities to introduce shared parental leave so that both parents are able to take on caring responsibilities for their child—something no EU regulation provides for.
When it comes to workers’ rights this Parliament has set a higher standard before, and I believe will do so in the future. Indeed we already have plans to repeal the so-called Swedish derogation, which allows employers to pay their agency workers less, and we are committed to enforcing holiday pay for the most vulnerable workers—not just protecting workers’ rights, but extending them.
As I set out in my statement two weeks ago, the House also agrees that Parliament must have a much stronger and clearer role in the next phase of the negotiations. Because the political declaration cannot be legally binding and in some areas provides for a spectrum of outcomes, some Members are understandably concerned that they cannot be sure precisely what future relationship it would lead to. By following through on our commitments and giving Parliament that bigger say in the mandate for the next phase, we are determined to address those concerns. The Secretary of State has written to all members of the Exiting the EU Committee seeking their view on engaging Parliament in this next phase of negotiations, and we are also reaching out beyond this House to engage more deeply with businesses, civil society and trade unions.
Everyone in this House knows that the vote for Brexit was about not just changing our relationship with the EU, but changing how things work at home, especially for those in communities who feel they have been left behind. [Interruption.] Addressing this and widening opportunities is the mission of this Government that I set out on my first day as Prime Minister, and I will continue to work with Members across the House to do everything we can to help build a country that works for everyone.
But one area where the Leader of the Opposition and I do not agree is on his suggestion that the UK should remain a member of the EU customs union. I would gently point out that the House of Commons has already voted against that, and in any case—[Interruption.]
Order. There is a lot of noise and heckling, but the record shows that everyone gets a chance to question the Prime Minister. I think it is right that she should have a proper and respectful hearing, and the same courtesy must be extended to the Leader of the Opposition in due course.
First, I would gently point out that the House of Commons has already voted against that, and in any case membership of the customs union would be a less desirable outcome than that which is provided for in the political declaration. That would deliver no tariffs, fees, charges or quantitative restrictions across all sectors, and no checks on rules of origin. But crucially it would also provide for the development of an independent trade policy for the UK that would allow us to strike our own trade deals around the world, something the Labour party once supported.
On Thursday, as I promised in the House last month, we will bring forward an amendable motion. This will seek to reaffirm the support of the House for the amended motion from 29 January—namely to support the Government in seeking changes to the backstop and to recognise that negotiations are ongoing. Having secured an agreement with the European Union for further talks, we now need some time to complete that process. When we achieve the progress we need, we will bring forward another meaningful vote, but if the Government have not secured a majority in this House in favour of a withdrawal agreement and a political declaration, the Government will make a statement on Tuesday 26 February and table an amendable motion relating to the statement, and a Minister will move that motion on Wednesday 27 February, thereby enabling the House to vote on it, and on any amendments to it, on that day. As well as making clear what is needed to change in the withdrawal agreement, the House has also reconfirmed its view that it does not want to leave the EU without a deal. The Government agree, but opposing no deal is not enough to stop it. We must agree a deal that this House can support, and that is what I am working to achieve.
I have spoken before about the damage that would be done to public faith in our democracy if this House were to ignore the result of the 2016 referendum. In Northern Ireland last week, I heard again the importance of securing a withdrawal agreement that works for all the people of this United Kingdom. In Belfast I met not just politicians but leaders of civil society and businesses from across the community. Following this House’s rejection of the withdrawal agreement, many people in Northern Ireland are worried about what the current uncertainty will mean for them. In this House we often focus on the practical challenges posed by the border in Northern Ireland, but for many people in Northern Ireland, what looms larger is the fear that the seamless border between Ireland and Northern Ireland that helped to make the progress that has followed the Belfast agreement possible might be disrupted. We must not let that happen, and we shall not let that happen.
The talks are at a crucial stage, and we now all need to hold our nerve to get the changes that this House requires and to deliver Brexit on time. By getting the changes we need to the backstop, by protecting and enhancing workers’ rights and environmental protections and by enhancing the role of Parliament in the next phase of negotiations, I believe we can reach a deal that this House can support. We can deliver for the people and the communities that voted for change two and half years ago and whose voices for too long have not been heard. We can honour the result of the referendum, and we can set this country on course for the bright future that every part of this United Kingdom deserves. That is this Government’s mission, and we shall not stint in our efforts to fulfil it. I commend this statement to the House.
I usually thank the Prime Minister for giving me an advance copy of her statements, but this one was handed to me just as I was leaving my office to come down here, so I can only assume that she entrusted it to the Transport Secretary to deliver it to me.
Our country is facing the biggest crisis in a generation, yet the Prime Minister continues to recklessly run down the clock. We were promised that there would be a deal last October; it did not happen. We were promised a meaningful vote on a deal in December; it did not happen. We were told to prepare for a further meaningful vote this week, after the Prime Minister had again promised to secure significant and legally binding changes to the backstop; that has not happened. Now the Prime Minister comes before the House with more excuses and more delays.
In her statement, the Prime Minister has failed to answer even the most basic questions. What progress has she made on identifying and working up the alternative arrangements? Have they been presented to the European Union? If not, when will they be presented? Will she set them out before this House and ask for its approval of them? In truth, it appears that the Prime Minister has just one real tactic: to run down the clock, hoping that Members of this House can be blackmailed into supporting a deeply flawed deal. This is an irresponsible act. She is playing for time, and playing with people’s jobs, our economic security and the future of our industries.
Yesterday, growth figures showed the lowest growth since 2012 and our manufacturing sector mired in recession. The decision by Nissan last week to pull its investment from its Sunderland plant may be only the thin end of a very long wedge. Uncertainty and falling confidence in this Government’s ability to deliver are putting jobs at risk. The Prime Minister, the Chancellor and the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy will be hearing the same warnings as I am: that several major manufacturers—household names employing tens of thousands of people—are poised to follow in Nissan’s footsteps.
Earlier today, we heard from the Leader of the House that the next meaningful vote may not happen until after the EU summit on 21 March—just days before Brexit is due to happen. If that is not the case, will the Prime Minister tell the House today when the meaningful vote will be? We also learned from the Leader of the House that any changes to the backstop will not be written into the legally binding withdrawal agreement. Will the Prime Minister confirm that?
Is the Prime Minister really prepared to risk people’s livelihoods, jobs and investment in a desperate attempt to push her deeply flawed deal through Parliament? She has just told this House to hold its nerve. Tell that to Nissan workers in Sunderland and the thousands more worried about their job security and the future of their communities. No Minister who is serious about protecting jobs in this country would allow a Prime Minister deliberately to run down the clock and play chicken with people’s livelihoods. To stand by and do nothing would be a complete dereliction of duty.
As I received the Prime Minister’s letter yesterday in response to Labour’s Brexit plan, it became clearer to me that the Prime Minister is merely engaged in the pretence of working across Parliament to find solutions. She has not indicated that she will move one iota away from her rejected deal or any of her red lines. On the backstop, the Prime Minister has pointed out that Labour also has concerns. But let us make no mistake about it—that has never been a major issue with the Prime Minister’s deal. In order to stop the UK falling into the backstop, we need a permanent customs union and a strong single market deal. That is the key to maintaining an open border on the island of Ireland and to protecting jobs, industry and living standards in this country. That is why it is backed by businesses that employ and trade unions that represent millions of workers in this country.
To correct the Prime Minister’s claim in her statement, we want to negotiate a new UK-EU customs union, as I set out in my letter. The Prime Minister says there is no need to negotiate a customs union as her deal provides for the benefit of being in one, but I am afraid that that is simply not the case. The deal that the Prime Minister negotiated means that there will be barriers to trade in goods and there will be no frictionless trade, putting manufacturers across the country at a huge disadvantage. That is made quite clear in the political declaration when it says that
“the Parties will form separate markets and distinct legal orders”
and concedes that that
“can lead to a spectrum of different outcomes for administrative processes as well as checks and controls”.
Nothing is secured.
The Prime Minister is also trying to win support for her deal by promising to protect workers’ rights after Brexit. Well, just look at the record of the Conservatives. They attacked trade union rights through the Trade Union Act 2016. They kept this House up all night opposing the minimum wage in 1997. They are the party that introduced employment tribunal fees and the public sector pay cap. For many of them, ripping up rights is what Brexit is all about. Take the Secretary of State for International Trade, for example. He once wrote:
“It is too difficult to hire and fire and too expensive to take on new employees. It is intellectually unsustainable to believe that workplace rights should remain untouchable”.
It is no wonder that trade union leaders such as Tim Roache of the GMB and Frances O’Grady, the general secretary of the TUC, have rejected the Prime Minister’s inadequate pledges. It is also vital that we keep pace with the best consumer safeguards and environmental protections. As if the warnings of the destruction of our biodiverse natural life are not serious enough, we have to be serious about all environmental protections and indeed make them much stronger.
There is a sensible way forward, but the Prime Minister is refusing to listen. Labour’s alternative has been widely welcomed as a way of breaking the impasse by business leaders, European leaders and even some Conservative MPs, but the Prime Minister refuses to listen. I urge all Members to think about the damage that the Prime Minister’s strategy is doing—the threat to industry, unskilled jobs and communities all across this country. Now is not the time to stand idly by. Now is the time to stand up and do the right thing, to rule out no deal and to back Labour’s alternative plan.
The right hon. Gentleman mentioned the announcement by Nissan, but it is important that the House recognises that Nissan has confirmed that none of the current 7,000 jobs at the plant will be lost. It remains committed to the UK and more capital will be invested in Sunderland than was originally planned in 2016. He asked me about the progress on the alternative arrangements and whether they were going to be put before the European Commission. I remind him of what I said in my statement:
“Yesterday my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union met Michel Barnier to discuss the ideas put forward by the Alternative Arrangements Working Group, which consists of a number of my right hon. and hon. Friends.”
I think that answers his question.
The right hon. Gentleman talked about Labour’s proposals. I referenced the issue with the customs union in my statement, but of course he also talks about being a member of the single market. Being a member of the single market means accepting free movement and one of the things that people voted for when they voted to leave the European Union was to bring an end to free movement. That is what this Government will deliver.
The right hon. Gentleman asked about the dates for votes that are going to take place in this House. I set those out in my statement as well. He referenced businesses quite a lot but, of course, businesses backed the deal—[Interruption.] They did. He talked about uncertainty but, of course, the best way to end uncertainty is to vote for a deal. He talked about running down the clock, but I wanted to have this sorted before Christmas. I brought a deal back—[Interruption.]
Thank you, Mr Speaker. The deal was negotiated before Christmas, so it is not I who is trying to run down the clock—[Interruption.] It is no good Labour Members who voted against the deal pointing their fingers across the House. Every time somebody votes against a deal, the risk of no deal increases.
The right hon. Gentleman talked about acting in the national interest. Yes, we should be acting in the national interest and the national interest is in getting a deal agreed through this Parliament. That is why we are working with the European Union in everything that we are doing.
The right hon. Gentleman made several references to the issues of businesses, the issue of jobs and protecting jobs. We are going back to deal with the issue of the backstop, but the deal that we have negotiated with the EU—the political declaration that sets out the future—is a deal that protects jobs. The one thing that we know would threaten jobs in this country would be a Labour Government.
My right hon. Friend will recall that, when we served together in the Cabinet, the coalition Government were very enthusiastic about the prospect of negotiating EU trade deals with important trading partners around the world, including the prospect of a trade deal with Japan. The Japan deal was concluded on 1 February, and I think it covers a bigger proportion of the global economy than any trade deal negotiated so far. Does the Prime Minister aim to seek a customs arrangement that enables us to continue to enjoy, or to begin to get, the benefits of this important deal after 29 March, or is she insisting that we have to leave it and have our own trade policy, and begin our own negotiations with a country that has a much bigger economy than our own and is likely to demand concessions from the United Kingdom that it was not able to demand from the European Union?
My right hon. and learned Friend is absolutely right that the economic partnership agreement with Japan came into force on 1 February. Of course, prior to that, we had been trading with Japan on World Trade Organisation arrangements. It has been the policy of the Government, in relation to the trade deals that have been agreed between the European Union and countries around the world, that we see continuity in those agreements at the point at which we leave the European Union—we have also been working to see continuity were we to leave with no deal—but we also want to ensure that we can enhance our trade arrangements with countries around the world, and so build our own trade agreements with those countries. The best and most sensible approach is to maintain trading relations as they are as we leave the European Union, and then build and enhance those trading relations with our own independent trade agreements.
Sometimes I think the Prime Minister must live in a parallel universe. We have just heard that she wanted this concluded in December. Talk about rewriting history—it was the Prime Minister who denied us the right to have a meaningful vote. [Interruption.] She sits there laughing. Sometimes you should be honest with yourself, never mind being honest with the people of the United Kingdom.
Here we are, once again: a statement from a Prime Minister lost in a Brexit fantasy. We are 45 days from Scotland being dragged out of the European Union against our will, 45 days from economic catastrophe. She talks about Japan. Goods leaving Japan in the next few days will arrive after we leave the European Union, and we do not know what the tariff regime will be for those imported cars and training shoes, or whatever else. The ongoing mess of this Government never ceases to amaze.
Does the Prime Minister understand that EU leaders have refused to budge on any changes to the withdrawal agreement? Donald Tusk said on 6 February that the EU is not making any other offer. What does the Prime Minister not understand in that statement? Why does she not understand that the EU will not reopen the withdrawal agreement that she signed up to? Does she realise the danger of running down the clock? Forty-five days to go, and here we are with a Government who cannot even deliver a ferry contract.
Prime Minister, your response to my letter requesting sight of what economic analysis you have done on your own deal poses more questions than answers. The question is simple: have you done an economic assessment of your deal’s impact on the UK economy? I want a simple yes or no.
Prime Minister, you are asking this House to vote on your deal and you cannot even be honest about the economic impact. You expect MPs to vote for this, but your binary choice is simply laughable. A growing number are calling for an extension to article 50. Extend article 50 today.
The Prime Minister’s deal is a fraud. Ending freedom of movement and leaving the biggest trading bloc in the world, this will be catastrophic for Scotland. The UK is already suffering the cost of Brexit. Will she put an end to this economic madness?
Prime Minister, as students get set for university applications and as business owners look to prepare for the new financial year, your Government are causing a new wave of uncertainty. We on these Benches refuse to accept Scotland being dragged out of the European Union against our will. Ultimately, Scotland will have a choice: be an independent European nation or remain part of an inward-looking UK. Scotland’s voice must be respected.
Order. Forgive me, but I did not hear what was said. [Hon. Members: “He said, ‘Liar.’”] I hope the word “liar” was not used. [Interruption.] Order. I am perfectly capable of handling this matter with alacrity, and I shall do so. [Interruption.] Order. If that word was used, it must be withdrawn at once without equivocation or qualification. [Interruption.] Order. If a Member on the Front Bench used that word—I am sorry, but I am not debating it, I am not arguing and I am not negotiating—it must be withdrawn at once.
I admit that I did not see which Member used the word, but I am advised on good authority that it was used by the leader of the Scottish National party. If so—I want the debate to continue, and it will—I simply ask the right hon. Gentleman to withdraw that word. He cannot accuse another Member in this House of dishonesty. Withdraw.
There are plenty of precedents for that. I remember doing it once myself, and I remember a member of the shadow Cabinet, the hon. Member for West Bromwich East (Tom Watson), once doing it out of deference to the Chair rather than out of deference to the person whom he had been attacking. That is enough.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. To continue my explanation to the right hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber, the Government have put forward an economic analysis of their proposed deal. We did that in the economic analysis published before the withdrawal agreement was put before the House. In it we recognised that areas of the political declaration had not yet been confirmed and that variations in relation to the degree of friction across the border would come from that. We could have taken a very low variation, which would have been very close to the Government’s deal, and we could have taken a high variation, but we took a midpoint, which is entirely fair for the Government to do. The economic analysis shows that, if we are to honour the referendum, the deal that delivers best for the British economy is the deal that the Government have put forward.
The right hon. Gentleman also talks about putting an end to the current situation. As I have indicated, we can indeed move forward when we have agreed a deal across the House. If he is so concerned about avoiding no deal, I assume that, when a deal is brought back from the European Union, he and SNP Members will vote for it in order to support the future of the United Kingdom.
Once again, the right hon. Gentleman talks about the economic impact on Scotland of leaving the European Union and he talks, virtually in the same breath, about his view that Scotland should be independent from the United Kingdom. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”] That may raise cheers on the SNP Benches, but it would not raise cheers from those people in Scotland whose economic future depends on being a member of the UK.
Order. Of course there is enormous interest, which, as per usual, I want to accommodate. May I appeal to colleagues at this time, with the country watching us, to have a robust but respectful debate? It is perfectly possible for colleagues to make their points with considerable force but to do so with courtesy. I know we will be led in this matter by a former party leader and a notably courteous right hon. Gentleman, Mr Iain Duncan Smith.
May I thank my right hon. Friend for her statement, in which she referred to the successful amendment tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale West (Sir Graham Brady)? She will recall that its successful passage was heavily based on a thing that has become known as the “Malthouse compromise”. She has also said that this proposal was discussed yesterday in Brussels by the Secretary of State and one of the negotiators. For the avoidance of doubt, will she confirm that this proposal forms part of Government policy?
I know my right hon. Friend has been involved in the meetings that have taken place with the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, looking at the proposals that have come to be known as the Malthouse compromise. Of course, a number of alternative arrangements have been proposed over the past months. The possibility of alternative arrangements to replace the backstop is recognised by both the UK and the EU in the political declaration that was agreed in November. There are some issues and some questions in respect of the proposals that have been tabled. I raised the issue of alternative arrangements with the European Commission, European Council and European Parliament when I was there last week. As I said, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State was able to discuss these issues with Michel Barnier yesterday.
As I set out in my previous statement to the House, what people across this House want to ensure is that the backstop, as it currently exists, cannot become a permanent arrangement in which the UK could find itself. There are various ways of dealing with that: as I set out in my previous statement, one is to replace that backstop completely with alternative arrangements; and another is to ensure that the backstop can never be permanent. Those are the issues that have been discussed, but I have laid Parliament’s views clearly before the EU.
Now that the Prime Minister has reached out to the general secretary of Unite the Union, and to the Leader of the Opposition and his entourage, she is no doubt better informed as to how Trotsky might have dealt with the Brexit crisis. But will she elaborate a little more on her discussions with the general secretary of the TUC and its 6 million affiliated members, and the official Brexit spokesman of the Labour party, who have made it very clear that the best way to protect workers’ rights is to give workers a say on the final deal, and the option of remaining in the EU and keeping the workers’ rights they already have?
I say to the right hon. Gentleman that the issue I have discussed with trade union leaders, the secretary general of the TUC and Members from across this House is the concern to ensure that there is no reduction in workers’ rights in the UK, a commitment that this Government have given and will continue to meet.
I agree with the Prime Minister, and have done for many months, that the best way to avoid a no-deal outcome to Brexit is to have a deal put in place. That is why I have been pleased, at the request of the Prime Minister, to work as part of the alternative arrangements working group. But is it not now clear that to get that agreement through the House those alternative arrangements are going to have to command the confidence of a majority of Members on this side, our confidence and supply partners, and some Labour MPs? The tenor of the Leader of the Opposition’s response today shows that, unfortunately, working on a cross-party basis is unlikely to deliver a vote for the agreement and certainly not continued votes for the necessary legislation. That is the reality of the parliamentary arithmetic, isn’t it?
I thank my right hon. Friend for the work she has been doing on the issue of alternative arrangements. Obviously, I want to see a deal that can get through the House, supported by all Members from my party and by our confidence and supply partners, but it is in the interests of this Parliament and of taking legislation forward to see a strong vote from across the whole House on this issue. As she has said, the tone of the response by the Leader of the Opposition did not give much encouragement on that issue, but we will continue to talk with the Labour party Front-Bench team. As I said, the Brexit Secretary and other members of the ministerial team will be meeting the Leader of the Opposition’s team to take forward those discussions and to explore the issues that the Labour party wishes to raise.
Although strength in pursuit of a principle is to be admired, inflexibility and denial in the face of the facts is not, especially when the future of the country is at stake. The facts are that alternative arrangements for the Northern Ireland border were examined extensively last summer and found wanting; that the EU has made it clear that it will not reopen the withdrawal agreement; that the rolling over of the trade deals that the Father of the House referred to is not going well; and that businesses are spending millions of pounds and pulling their hair out because they fear the prospect of a no-deal Brexit on 29 March. I do not believe that the Prime Minister would do that to our country. I do not think that Ministers would allow her to do it, so why does she continue to pretend that she might?
I have consistently said— and I made the point in my statement this afternoon—that what I want and what the Government want is a deal with the European Union. But there is only one way to ensure that we avoid no deal. I know I say this a lot, and I know right hon. and hon. Members shout out at it and so forth, but if they do not want no deal, they have to agree a deal.
My right hon. Friend is facing intransigence both from the undemocratic EU and from MPs who voted for the European Union Referendum Act 2015, the European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Act 2017, the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018 and the repeal of the European Communities Act 1972 but who are now trying to reverse this with their own votes. She has not signed the withdrawal agreement, which itself contains undemocratic and unconstitutional features, including the backstop and article 4, which removes control over our lawmaking. If this undemocratic intransigence continues, will she therefore walk away from the negotiations?
Obviously, what we are doing now is working with the EU to achieve what this Parliament has said it wants to see achieved, notably legally binding changes to the backstop that deal with the issues that have been raised by this Parliament. I continue to work on those points, but my hon. Friend made a very important point at the beginning of his question, which is that Members from across this House overwhelmingly voted for a referendum. It was clear at the time that this House would respect the result of the referendum. The Government of the time made it clear that we would respect the result of the referendum. This House over- whelmingly voted to trigger article 50. Article 50 had a two-year timeline to it, which ends on 29 March, and this House voted for the withdrawal agreement Act. At every stage so far this House has been willing to put into place the result of the referendum. What the House now needs to do is agree a deal, so that we can leave on 29 March and progress on to the next stage of negotiations and progress on to a brighter future.
The country’s counter-terror chief has said that no deal would be a “very serious flaw” in our security arrangements. The police chief in charge of preparing for Brexit has said that no deal would leave us less safe. The Prime Minister and I have always previously agreed on the importance of not undermining our national security or public safety, but she knows that her continued delays have increased the risks of no deal on 29 March, so if she has failed by the middle of March to persuade this House to back a deal, is she still ruling out extending article 50—yes or no?
The extension of article 50 does not solve the problem. The only way to solve the problem of having no deal is to agree a deal. The right hon. Lady says that my delays have caused the position we are in. We are in this position because I negotiated a deal with the European Union and brought it back to the House of Commons, and the House of Commons, including Members on her side of the House, rejected that deal. We are now working to address the issue raised by the positive vote that the House of Commons gave on 29 January. That vote ensured it was clear what changes the House of Commons felt were necessary to agree a deal.
We are all acutely aware that time is racing away, which is why more and more Members are saying we must extend article 50. We also need time for all the necessary legislation. Will the Prime Minister confirm that in the numerous statutory instruments being laid that are not debated, there is not one planned for next week, when some MPs may be away, committing us to zero tariffs in the event of no deal? Zero tariffs would decimate our agriculture and food industries and start a race to a bottom. Such a significant decision would have far-reaching consequences and would demand full parliamentary scrutiny.
There will be a number of statutory instruments that the House will be addressing. The House will be working hard on Brexit arrangements next week. On the issue of tariffs in the event of no deal, discussions are still being undertaken with businesses and other sectors.