House of Commons
Wednesday 13 February 2019
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
Jordan: London Initiative 2019
Mr Speaker, I hope you will allow me to pay a brief tribute to the Department for International Development staff and partners who were caught up in the terrorist attack in Nairobi last month. Some of them, including a British national, lost their lives that day. Despite the trauma of that event, our staff immediately joined the crisis response team, and I want to thank them, as I am sure the whole House wishes to do, for all that they did.
The Prime Minister will lead the London initiative on 28 February to unlock growth, jobs and investment in Jordan. The UK is convening an international coalition of businesses and political leaders to support Jordan’s stability and self-reliance, generating jobs for all, but, in particular, for young people, women and refugees.
May I associate myself with the comments that the Secretary of State made about DFID staff caught up in the attack in Nairobi?
I was pleased to hear that the Prime Minister will be leading the UK-Jordan initiative at the end of this month. The Secretary of State mentions the importance of the inclusion of refugees and Jordanian women in the labour market. Will the Government be taking steps to draw to the attention of the Jordanians the barriers women face, including those relating to transport, access to childcare and a sense of physical safety?
First, I thank the hon. Lady for her interest in this tremendously important conference, which is a real turning point for Jordan. We are absolutely looking to secure investment in that country to enable the public funds to build that infrastructure to support everyone getting to work. Unless women and refugees are included, we will fail in that task.
May I declare an interest, having recently joined the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) on a visit with Oxfam in Jordan? I very much welcome the London initiative. Will urgent steps be taken to take account of the fact that youth unemployment in the country is now some 38%? Not only is there a high level of female unemployment, but the participation rate of women in the workforce in Jordan is even lower than that in Saudi Arabia. Will those urgent objectives be at the heart of what the Secretary of State is trying to achieve?
I can reassure my hon. Friend that that will absolutely be the case. This issue has been a focus for me personally on my visits to Jordan, and I will be focusing on it at the London conference.
Does the Secretary of State realise that one thing holding back development in Jordan is the number of children and young people killed on the roads there? I spoke at a conference in Jordan recently, where we looked at this area. Jordan is one of the better countries in the middle east and north Africa on this, but we need some action to be taken to stop children and young people being killed in Jordan in this way.
I pay tribute to the work the hon. Gentleman has done on this issue. We often think about disease and other such killers of children, but road traffic accidents take an enormous number of lives—I believe that they are the biggest killer of individuals in developing countries. He will know that we have a new programme looking at this, and we will continue to lean in on the issue.
Female Genital Mutilation
The UK leads the world in our support to the Africa-led movement to end FGM. In 2018, we announced the biggest single investment worldwide to date by any international donor: a UK aid package of a further £50 million to tackle this issue across the most affected countries in Africa.
I am sure that I speak for all Members in expressing disappointment that the FGM Bill did not receive its Second Reading in the House last week. I am pleased to see that the Government have committed to bring the Bill back in Government time. Will my hon. Friend confirm that her door always remains open for any Member of this House who wishes to discuss what the Government are doing to stop this appalling crime?
I am pleased to be able to confirm that, and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, wearing her gender equalities hat, has reached out to my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Sir Christopher Chope). She hopes to sit down with him and other colleagues should they wish to discuss this important issue.
Since I got my Female Genital Mutilation Bill through Parliament in 2003, we have had only one successful prosecution. That is a disgrace and I feel embarrassed talking about the eradication of FGM in other countries, but I wish to ask about what is being done in Kurdistan. My past experience leads me to believe there is a problem with FGM there, so are we tackling it?
The right hon. Lady is absolutely right to highlight the fact that FGM happens in many countries in the world. The DFID funding that I mentioned and the work that we have been doing has been focused specifically on 17 African countries. In that regard, I am pleased that 8,000 communities, representing more than 24 million people, have pledged to give up the practice.
Will the Minister tell us why the Government have not introduced legislation—they control the House and could get it through—rather than leave it to the vagaries of a private Member’s Bill? If they are interested in it, they should do something about it.
My hon. Friend would lead me down paths that are best left to the Government Whips and the Ministry of Justice, but the UK does of course believe that we can work with some of the citizen-led movements in Africa to change perceptions around FGM.
The Minister alluded to the Africa-led initiative, which has been positive, but will she not undertake to be much more emphatic in trying to co-ordinate an Africa-wide initiative to eliminate this vile practice?
The hon. Gentleman is right to highlight the fact that this is a worldwide effort. We focus our efforts in countries where the practice is most widespread and where there is the greatest opportunity to work with the African-led movements to really effect change on the ground.
We have just had the first prosecution for FGM in this country; what more can this country do to prevent families from taking their girls abroad to have FGM done to them?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right that we have done a lot in this country to change domestic legislation—for example, to put reporting requirements on parts of the NHS. One must pay tribute to the tireless campaigning by courageous activists, both here and overseas, in respect of changing the practice and changing communities on the ground.
Everyone would agree that we need to tackle female genital mutilation. The Minister will be aware that the private Member’s Bill on the issue was scuppered. In the light of that, does she understand that confidence in the Government’s willingness to deal with the issue has been shaken? It is important that they now move quickly to restore that confidence.
I encourage the hon. Lady to continue with that confidence. We can point to a strong track record of working on this issue, not only in the UK but with some of the African-led initiatives in African countries. She will have heard it announced during the urgent question on Monday that the Chief Whip has committed to taking forward the UK legislation as quickly as possible.
Yemen remains the world’s largest humanitarian crisis, with nearly 80% of the population requiring humanitarian assistance. The UN is set to launch a new $4 billion appeal for 2019 later this month, at a pledging conference at which I hope to represent the UK. The UK is providing £170 million this financial year, including enough food for the equivalent of 4 million Yemenis for a month.
More than 3 million people have been internally displaced and thousands killed in Yemen, mainly as a result of the Saudi coalition bombing campaign. Last year, the cholera outbreak affected 200,000 people. More than 22 million people are reliant on humanitarian aid and millions of children are unable to go to school. When will the Government stop selling arms to Saudi Arabia and work towards an end to the conflict?
The situation in relation to the conflict has moved on a degree with the fragile peace agreed in the Stockholm agreement. That fragile ceasefire and redeployment of forces continues, as a result of which the humanitarian situation is improving. The latest figures I have show that in January commercial and humanitarian imports via sea, over land and via container met 94% of monthly food requirements and 83% of monthly fuel requirements. The situation in Yemen was caused not by the Saudi coalition but by a Houthi-led insurgency.
Before Christmas, there was much discussion about the ceasefire around the port of Hodeidah and the prospects that it would bring for improving the humanitarian situation in Yemen. What further progress does the Minister expect to be made in helping those who have suffered for so long in Yemen?
The ports of Hodeidah and Salif are open and they are taking in more ships. My hon. Friend is absolutely right that the test of whether the political agreement in Stockholm is having an impact will be measured by success on the humanitarian front. We will continue to do all we can to support the UN efforts to find peace in Yemen.
The Stockholm agreement is indeed very welcome, but the Minister is right that it is also fragile. One of the features is the World Food Programme supplies, to which it is hard to get access. Will he update the House on the prospects of getting that access because the head of the Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs has said that there is a risk that the food will simply rot and therefore not be available for consumption?
The hon. Gentleman is right. I spoke to the World Food Programme director, David Beasley, last week. The situation is that it has been difficult to get to the Red sea mills because of mining. There is a concern that some food not only has rotted, but has been stolen by illicit elements, so we have to find out what is there. The continuing progress in relation to peace will make access to those mills more likely, and we will continue to press for that.
I welcome what my right hon. Friend and his Department are doing in this tragic situation. What more can the UK do to make sure that children in particular who are suffering so much are helped more?
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for his words. The best thing that we can do is, first, support the negotiations to ensure that the conflict comes to an end—that is the best thing. Secondly, we should keep up our support for humanitarian aid and assistance, which has been significant. In relation to the children, we should back things such as a nationwide measles and rubella vaccination campaign, which is under way and which will target 13.3 million children in Yemen between 9 and 14 February. That demonstrates how much we owe to the aid workers who are involved there and also the contribution that the UK is making.
There is no doubt that the Minister has done a huge amount of work on this issue, but the key is the resumption of the peace talks. The parties last met on 18 December. When will they meet again? That will unlock the corridor and unlock the humanitarian needs.
The right hon. Gentleman of course knows as much about Yemen as anyone in the House. The peace talks are built on confidence, and the next round will take place when UN envoy Martin Griffiths believes that there is sufficient confidence for those talks to proceed. At present, the ceasefire, although fragile, has held. Confidence is building up between the parties, and when the time is right, we will be able to move forward to the next stage.
Infectious Disease Surveillance
Infectious disease surveillance is vital to global health security. The UK supports global, regional and national efforts to strengthen surveillance, including through the World Health Organisation, the global fund and the global polio eradication initiative. The Department for International Development’s tackling deadly diseases in Africa programme and Public Health England are helping to strengthen regional and national surveillance capacity.
The eradication of polio in the next few years represents an incredible achievement of both vaccination and international co-operation, but the infrastructure and staffing of the global polio initiative has provided a lot of the surveillance that helped to detect epidemics such as Ebola. How does the Minister plan to replace the polio resources and ensure that both vaccination and surveillance continues?
The hon. Lady, who understands this issue very well, is right to point to the importance of the global polio eradication initiative, which has been the bedrock for disease eradication efforts. Innovative approaches have helped to provide timely and high-quality surveillance. What we need to do is ensure, through both in-country programmes and the work being done through WHO, that surveillance on polio does not slacken off because of potential eradication, and we will continue to do that.
What potential is there for the work that the Department did last year with the Met Office, NASA and other US scientists on cholera in Yemen to be scaled up and used in other crisis situations to prevent the spread of disease?
My right hon. Friend points to a remarkable innovation that, recognising the importance of wet and damp weather for the spread of cholera, used the resources of the Met Office to ensure that accurate support was provided in areas of risk. It is a very good use of modern technology, which we intend to see replicated elsewhere.
The Minister will be aware of some of the excellent work done by researchers in universities across the UK, including the University of St Andrews and the University of Dundee, in tackling illnesses such as AIDS, TB and malaria. Given the drop in aid to health spending recently, will he commit to ensuring a fully funded global fund?
We have been one of the leading donors to the global fund, and there is no suggestion that that should end. My father was a graduate of St Andrews and was also at Dundee, and we will be making sure that good research facilities remain key to the United Kingdom’s support efforts.
I associate the Labour party with the Secretary of State’s comments in respect of DFID staff in Nairobi.
We in the United Kingdom are rightly proud of our publicly run national health service, and it is thanks to our incredible NHS staff that we are able to effectively tackle the causes and symptoms of infectious diseases here. Does the Minister agree that this experience should underpin the Department’s work on health and that our overseas development work should therefore focus explicitly on supporting Governments and citizens to invest in their own universal healthcare systems?
Absolutely. Much of our work in global health is designed to support particular projects to eradicate individual diseases, but it is also crucial that we support and sustain health systems where they are. These health systems will do an incredibly valuable job in looking for the sort of illnesses and infectious diseases, such as antimicrobial resistance, that could spread around the world.
The primary purpose of the prosperity fund is to reduce poverty through sustainable and inclusive economic growth in middle-income countries. Other Departments are responsible for ensuring that their overseas development programmes from this fund meet the requirements of the International Development Act 2002.
Climate change will hit the world’s poorest people hardest, so why on earth is 29% of the energy component of the prosperity fund being spent on oil and gas extraction, including supporting fracking in China?
I know that the hon. Gentleman shares my commitment to doing what we can to tackle the incredibly important issue of climate change. We should be wholeheartedly supporting opportunities that work as climate change initiatives to move power beyond coal.
What a pleasure to call a west country knight, no less—Sir Gary Streeter.
I strongly support DFID Ministers’ approach to the prosperity fund, which looks to promote economic reform in middle-income countries, where 70% of the world’s poorest people live. Are not trade and economic reform still the most effective ways to lift people out of poverty?
My hon. Friend is absolutely correct that the way in which the world will end poverty is by having sustainable and inclusive economic growth. To achieve the sustainable development goals, we need to crowd in not just development finance, but $2.5 trillion annually for development.
Alleviating poverty should be at the core of everything that DFID does. As such, I am sure that the Secretary of State will be just as deeply concerned as I was to see the former Foreign Secretary throw his weight behind a report published this week that calls on changing the Department’s purpose from poverty reduction to further
“the nation’s overall strategic goals”.
Will the Minister take this opportunity to confirm that the Department will not become a subsidiary of the Foreign Office and that the 0.7% of GNI will be firmly committed to poverty reduction?
Yes, I can confirm that that is the Government’s policy.
Leaving the EU: Developing Countries
Our Departments are working together to ensure that development stays at the heart of UK trade policy. For example, we are creating a trade preference scheme that will continue to provide the same level of market access to about 70 countries as is provided through the EU’s generalised scheme of preference.
As we learned today that only six of the promised 40 trade deals will actually be in place by the end of March, it seems that the International Trade Secretary is in competition with the Transport Secretary for who can do the worst job. What assurance can this Secretary of State give to the House that we will see full impact assessments on the social, environmental and human rights impacts of any trade deals before they come into force?
What the hon. Lady says is not the case. We are looking at the EPAs—economic partnership agreements—and other arrangements. The numbers she gave are not accurate. Our first priority is obviously trade continuity, and after that we will then be able to introduce the UK’s trade preference scheme, which will grant duty-free, quota-free access to 48 least-developed countries, and grant generous tariff reductions to about a further 25.
Is it not an absolute disgrace that coffee producers in the developing world are, at the moment, not allowed to do the value-added bits of putting coffee into packaging, selling and marketing it, and all the rest of it? Under EU rules, that has to be done within the EU. Brexit will enable those countries now to do the value-added bits in their own countries, thereby being of huge benefit to developing countries.
I could not agree more with my hon. Friend. We want people to be able to trade their way out of poverty, and it is high time that we walked the walk as well as talked the talk.
I am sure that the whole House will be deeply concerned to see the distressing images of the suffering of the Venezuelan people, with the UN estimating that 4 million people are suffering from malnutrition. UK aid will deliver an additional £6.5 million aid package focused on dealing with the most severe health and nutrition difficulties. We have had staff deployed in the region last year and will keep our humanitarian efforts under review. I would call on all actors to ensure that we have unhindered humanitarian access. [Interruption.]
I understand the predictable air of anticipation in the Chamber just before Prime Minister’s questions, but I would remind the House that we are discussing the plight of some of the most vulnerable people on the face of the planet. I think some respect is in order.
Indeed, Mr Speaker, and there are few parts of the world that see more vulnerable people than Gaza. Medical Aid for Palestinians reports that since March last year at least 250 Palestinians have been killed as part of Israel’s use of force against the Great March of Return protests. Among them were three health workers, killed by Israeli forces while trying to reach, treat and evacuate wounded demonstrators. A further 600 health workers have been injured. What are our Government doing to ensure the safety of health workers in Gaza and to hold the Israeli Government to account for these actions?
I look forward to reading the right hon. Gentleman’s treatise in the Official Report tomorrow.
The right hon. Gentleman will know that my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Middle East does as he asks on a regular basis. With regard to the humanitarian work that we are doing, he will know that we have stepped up our offer—in particular, looking at providing additional medical support. We will continue to do that.
I know that my hon. Friend will want to tell the schoolchildren of Dudley, who are supporting this campaign, of the great work that is done through UK Aid, which has ensured that some 7 million children have had access to a decent education.
Why does the Secretary of State believe that the UK’s commitment to spending 0.7% of national income on aid is unsustainable?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for allowing me to remind the House that it was under a Conservative-led Government that the commitment to 0.7% was introduced, and it is a Conservative Government who have retained that commitment. What we want to do in future, though, is look at maintaining that with public funds but reducing the burden on the taxpayer.
I ask that because the former Foreign Secretary has called for the Department to be closed, and the Secretary of State has said nothing. Her party colleagues have called for aid to be redefined away from poverty reduction, and she has said nothing. Is it not the sad truth that Conservative Members who are now circling the Prime Minister know that their leadership prospects are buoyed by appealing to the tiny number of Tory party members who hate aid as much as they want to bring back capital punishment? Why should anyone trust a Government who have pushed 14 million of their own citizens into poverty to stand up for the world’s poorest people?
They should trust me as the Secretary of State and as someone who has been an aid worker. They should trust this Government because we introduced the policy and are retaining it. The hon. Gentleman mischaracterises the comments of certain colleagues. For example, the former Foreign Secretary has not said that he wishes to abandon the 0.7%. I encourage the hon. Gentleman to talk about the global goals at the Dispatch Box. We want to deliver them, and to do so, we need additional funding of $2.5 trillion going into developing countries. That is what this Government are focused on delivering.
Seventy of my staff are embedded in the Department for International Trade, forming a new post-Brexit trade offer, and a great deal of that effort is looking at what we can do to enable developing countries to trade their way out of poverty.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising that critical issue. The Foreign Office is doing a tremendous amount and is meeting its counterparts in not only the US and Canada but in the region to see what more we can do. We stand ready to do more, and what we do will be driven by what we find on the ground. He will understand that this is sensitive, because some of our partners with whom we work in the region are very vulnerable if we identify precisely who they are and what they are doing, but I assure him and the House that we will stand by the people of Venezuela.
My right hon. Friend will know that the restrictive common agricultural policy has damaged agriculture in Africa. After Brexit, what can we do to stimulate trade, particularly with farmers in sub-Saharan Africa?
I am pleased to reassure my hon. Friend that there is already a lot that we can do. There are many products, such as avocados and cashew nuts, that we simply cannot grow in the UK, and I know that UK consumers and African producers will benefit from growth in those areas in years to come.
The Prime Minister was asked—
Later today, this House will have an opportunity to pay tribute to the Clerk of the House, Sir David Natzler. May I take this opportunity to add my own? Sir David has served this House for over 40 years with dedication and tireless devotion. His support and advice on parliamentary procedure and business has been invaluable, and I know that Members from all sides of the House will want to join me in thanking him for his service and wishing him the very best for the future.
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.
May I too pay tribute to the work of the Clerk of the House?
In January, the mother of a three-year-old girl was convicted of female genital mutilation. It is our first FGM conviction, but a chilling reminder that young girls are still being cut not just in Africa and around the world but here in the UK. Will my right hon. Friend make Government time to progress the Bill of my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond Park (Zac Goldsmith) to protect more girls from this abhorrent practice?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise this abhorrent practice and to recognise the importance of the first prosecution that took place on female genital mutilation here in the UK. It is only right that we find time for this Bill, and the Government will provide time to deliver it. We have strengthened the law on FGM, leading to that first conviction, and we are helping communities around the world to end this appalling crime, but it is important that we give time to this Bill and act further to ensure that we end what is an absolutely abhorrent crime that scars young girls for the rest of their lives both physically and mentally.
I am sure the Prime Minister and the whole House will join me in sending our deepest sympathies to the friends and family of the cadet who died at Sandhurst last week. I am sure the Ministry of Defence is supporting the family and fellow cadets at a difficult time, but I also hope it will be reviewing the mental health support it gives to all members of the armed forces at all times.
We also mourn the loss of Gordon Banks, and send our condolences to his friends and family and to the entire football community. He was one of the greatest goalkeepers of all time, with 73 caps for England, including playing in every single game during the victorious 1966 World cup campaign, which I remember with joy.
I too want to thank Sir David Natzler for his work as Clerk of the House and wish him well in his retirement. He has been here even longer than I have and has always been a source of advice to all Members, irrespective of their party, and I always admire his dry wit and humour while describing the proceedings of the House. I think we owe him a big debt of gratitude.
The Government’s handling of Brexit has been costly, shambolic and deliberately evasive. Nothing symbolises that more than the fiasco of Seaborne Freight—a company with no ships and no trading history. On 8 January, the Transport Secretary told the House:
“We are confident that the firm will deliver the service.”—[Official Report, 8 January 2019; Vol. 652, c. 193.]
What went wrong?
First, may I join the right hon. Gentleman in the remarks he made about the cadet at Sandhurst. He referenced the issue of mental health. This is an important issue overall, but it is obviously an important issue in our armed forces as well. I would like to pay tribute to the work of my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Moor View (Johnny Mercer) for the work that he has done in relation to mental health in the armed forces.
I would also like to send my deepest sympathies to the family and friends of Gordon Banks. Like the right hon. Gentleman, I am old enough to remember the 1966 World cup—
Let us be honest in this House; I think that is important.
From being part of that team to something else that I think people remember—the astonishing Pelé save in 1970—Gordon Banks was regarded as one of the world’s greatest goalkeepers. I also know that he did a lot of community work in his local area as well. I know Members from all parts of the House would like to join me in paying tribute to him.
As regards the freight capacity, the Government let three contracts: 90% of that was let to DFDS and Brittany Ferries. Those contracts remain in place, and that capacity has been obtained. Due diligence was carried out on all of these contracts. As the Secretary of State for Transport made clear in this House earlier this week, we will continue to ensure that we provide that capacity, which is important in a no-deal situation, and we will ensure the capacity is there.
The Transport Secretary told the House that the decision to award the contract to Seaborne Freight had no cost to the taxpayer. This week, the National Audit Office found that £800,000 had been spent on external consultants to assess the bid. Will the Prime Minister use this opportunity to correct the record?
I have to tell the right hon. Gentleman that he is a bit late to the party, because I was asked that question yesterday on the statement, I think from the SNP Benches. Labour following the SNP—well, whatever next? Of course, as I just said, when the contracts were all let, proper due diligence was carried out. That included third-party assessment of the companies that were bidding for the contracts. There would have been a cost attached to the process regardless of who the contracts were entered into with.
I am really impressed that the Prime Minister could keep a straight face while she said that due diligence was carried out. The Transport Secretary said that
“its business and operational plans were assessed for the Department by external advisers”.—[Official Report, 8 January 2019; Vol. 652, c. 190.]
On the basis of that advice to his Department, he was told that Seaborne was a start-up company with no ships and that the contract was “high-risk”. Why, if he was told that it was high risk, did he proceed with the contract?
The right hon. Gentleman appears to be suggesting that the Government should never look at start-up companies or at opportunities for new companies. It is entirely right that the Government ensured that the majority of the contracts went to established companies, and it is entirely right that a company on which due diligence had been carried out—[Interruption.] It is no good saying it wasn’t, because it was. We will ensure that the ferry capacity is there.
What we are doing in these contracts is ensuring that we are able to deal with the situation were we to enter into no deal. The right hon. Gentleman has said in the past that he does not want any money to be spent on no-deal preparations. He has also said that he does not want us to go into a no-deal situation. That is fine, but if he does not want us to be in a no-deal situation, he is going to have to vote for the deal.
To be fair to the advisers, it appears that they were instructed to restrict their due diligence to the face value of the presentation put to them by Seaborne Freight—a company that had no trading history. Looking at the directors of Seaborne, it appears that some of them would not have passed a due diligence test.
The Transport Secretary told the House:
“This procurement was done properly and in a way that conforms with Government rules.”—[Official Report, 8 January 2019; Vol. 652, c. 192.]
However, a freedom of information request reveals that the Secretary of State bypassed those rules, because the procurement assurance board—a senior panel of experts and lawyers—was denied the chance to scrutinise the deal. What action will the Prime Minister take over what appears to be a very clear breach of those rules?
The contract was awarded following commercial, technical and financial assurance at a level in line with the company’s status as a new entrant to the market, carried out not only by senior DFT officials but by third-party organisations with experience and expertise in this area, including Deloitte, Mott MacDonald, and Slaughter and May. It was designed in recognition of the risks posed: no money was paid to the contractor and no money would be paid until services were delivered. Therefore, no money has been paid to that contractor.
The right hon. Gentleman has stood here time and again and said that, actually, we should not be doing anything to prepare for no deal. It is entirely right and proper that this Government are taking the action necessary to ensure that, should we be in that no-deal situation—it is not our policy to have no deal; it is our policy to get a deal—we have the capacity we need, and that is exactly what we are doing.
Could I bring the Prime Minister back to the question of Seaborne ferries? Eurotunnel has called the ferry contract procurement a “secretive and flawed” exercise. Taxpayers now face a legal bill of nearly £1 million to contest that—the money goes up and up. The Secretary of State’s decision to award the contract to Seaborne has increased the budget deficit of Thanet Council, the owners of Ramsgate port, by nearly £2 million. When questioned by the hon. Member for South Thanet (Craig Mackinlay), the Transport Secretary refused to give a guarantee. Can the Prime Minister today give a cast-iron commitment to the people of Thanet and confirm that they will not be picking up the bill for the failure of this contract?
The Department for Transport and other parts of the Government are in discussion with Thanet Council about the impact of the contract. I remind the right hon. Gentleman why the Department for Transport has taken these actions in relation to ferry capacity: to ensure that in a no-deal situation we are able to guarantee that medicines, primarily, will brought into this country. We are prioritising medicines being brought into this country. Again, that was a question I seem to remember being asked on more than one occasion yesterday by SNP Members who had an interest in that. The right hon. Gentleman does not seem to be interested in ensuring that we can, in a no-deal situation, provide the medicines that people in this country need. That is what we are doing. That is the sensible approach of a Government who are taking this matter seriously.
Maybe the Prime Minister should follow the advice of the House and take no deal off the table and negotiate seriously with the European Union. It cannot be right that a hard-pressed local council and local taxpayers are footing the bill for the incompetence of the Secretary of State for Transport and this Government.
The spectacular failure of this contract is a symptom of the utter shambles of this Government and their no-deal preparations. The Transport Secretary ignored warnings about drones and airport security; he gave a £1.4 billion contract to Carillion despite warnings about their finances; he oversaw the disastrous new rail timetable last year; and rail punctuality is at a 13-year low and fares at a record high—that is some achievement. And now the Transport Secretary is in charge of a major and vital aspect of Brexit planning. How on earth can the Prime Minister say she has confidence in the Transport Secretary?
Let me tell the right hon. Gentleman what the Transport Secretary is delivering: the biggest rail investment programme since the Victorian era, spending nearly £48 billion on improving our railways to deliver better journeys—20% higher on average every year than under a Labour Government. That is what the Transport Secretary is delivering: commitment to transport in this country and commitment to transport across the whole of this country.
I notice that the right hon. Gentleman wanted to focus his questions in that way, rather than asking more general questions in relation to Brexit. There are still a number of issues on Brexit where we do not know his answers to the big questions. We do not know if—[Interruption.] It is no good Labour Members burying their heads in their hands. We do not know whether their leader backs a second referendum. We do not know whether their leader backs a deal. We do not even know whether he backs Brexit. He prefers ambiguity and playing politics to acting in the national interest. People used to say he was a conviction politician—not any more.
I thank my hon. Friend for raising that with me. Obviously, the quality of school buildings is an important issue in our education system. That is why we are putting more money into it—we are investing £23 billion in school buildings through to 2021. He raised the specific issue of Tiverton High School, and I will make sure that a Minister from the Department for Education will be happy to meet him—and the headteacher and the council, if that is appropriate—to discuss this issue.
I congratulate so many of my colleagues on sporting yellow today as a mark of solidarity with those from Catalonia who are on trial for the political principle of supporting self-determination.
Will the Prime Minister rule out bringing the meaningful vote to this House less than two weeks before 29 March?
The right hon. Gentleman was present yesterday when I made my statement to the House and he heard the process that we will be following. Of course, a debate is taking place tomorrow, and then, as we have made clear, if a meaningful vote has not been brought back and passed by this House, we will make a statement on 26 February and have a debate on an amendable motion on the 27th.
I am afraid that that was no answer from a Prime Minister who continues to run the clock down. This is the height of arrogance from a Government set on running the clock down. Just 44 days from a no-deal scenario, the Prime Minister is hamstrung by her own party and rejected by European leaders. The Prime Minister must stop playing fast and loose. Businesses are begging for certainty; the economy is already suffering. Prime Minister, you have come to the end of the road, rumbled by your own loose-lipped senior Brexit adviser. Will the Prime Minister now face down the extremists in her own party and extend article 50?
The right hon. Gentleman talks about certainty for business. He can give business certainty by voting for the deal—that is what gives business certainty. He complains about no deal, but of course, it was the Scottish National party who wanted to leave the UK without a plan—[Interruption.] Perhaps we should remind the SNP that independence would have meant leaving the EU with no deal.
I am aware of the issues with Slaidburn country practice, and of course, we are aware of the pressures facing GPs. That is why there is going to be a major new investment in primary and community healthcare. This is a very important element of our national health service, and that has been set out in the long-term plan. In the event of a practice closure, NHS England assesses the need for a replacement provider before dispersing the list of patients at that GP surgery. I understand that in relation to Slaidburn health centre, discussions are ongoing on the future of the practice, and the local clinical commissioning group is currently exploring options.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising the action that the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport is taking on social media sites and the action the Home Office is taking in conjunction with DCMS. We want social media companies to do more to ensure that they do not promote harmful content to vulnerable people. He raised the specific issue of the impact on people with eating disorders. We want to take action in a way that helps to keep people safe in looking at images, and I will ensure that a Minister from the Department meets him to discuss this issue.
As my hon. Friend knows, I and the Government have been very clear in our customs proposals that we want an independent trade policy—it is specifically referenced in the political declaration. We believe it is important, and I am pleased to hear what the Governor of the Bank of England has said today about the importance of free trade around the world.
On my hon. Friend’s first point, I am grateful he has asked me that question, rather than relying on what someone said to someone else, as overheard by someone else, in a bar. It is very clear that the Government’s position remains the same: the House voted to trigger article 50; that had a two-year timeline that ends on 29 March; we want to leave with a deal, and that is what we are working for.
As I said previously to the hon. Gentleman, the Department is reviewing Network Rail’s proposals for an effective and resilient solution on the Dawlish line, and there will be an update on funding in due course. The first phase of work to protect the sea wall at Dawlish began in November, of course, as part of the £15 million of wider investment to make the railway at Dawlish and Teignmouth more resilient to extreme weather.
I recognise my hon. Friend’s comments from the doorstep, and I know that he is an assiduous Member who listens to his constituents and brings their views to this Chamber. It is important that we have made more money available to police forces, and I am pleased to say that the number of people joining police forces as officers is at its highest level for 10 years. We made more money available to police forces—£970 million over the next year—although it is a sadness in this Chamber that the Labour party voted against it.
No it is not. On Hitachi and the Wylfa site, we offered a package of support that no previous Government had been willing to consider of one third equity, all-debt financing and a strike price of no more than £75 per MWh. Ultimately, we could not at that stage reach an agreement among all the parties, and Hitachi decided on a commercial basis to suspend the project, but it has made clear that it wishes to continue discussions with the Government on bringing forward new nuclear at Wylfa, and we will support those discussions.
I absolutely agree that, carried out in the right way, stop-and-search is an effective tool for our police forces. We recognise the concern felt about violent crime—the hon. Gentleman has raised the specific issue of knife crime—which is why the Home Secretary published the serious violence strategy, and why we established the serious violence taskforce.
Let me reiterate that we want the police to use stop-and-search properly and lawfully. It is a vital and effective policing tool, but when they use it, we expect them to do so lawfully.
It was, of course, this Government who introduced the energy price cap. That was not done by the previous Labour Government. The cap has protected 11 million households, and energy suppliers will no longer be able to rip off customers on poor-value tariffs. It will save consumers £1 billion a year. Citizens Advice has previously said:
“the cap means people are paying a fairer price now, and will continue to pay a fairer price even if the level of the cap rises”.
I thank my right hon. Friend and the Education Committee for their work on this important issue. Obviously we all recognise that good discipline in schools is essential, but it is also important to ensure that any exclusion is lawful, reasonable and fair. Guidance sets out that headteachers should, as far as possible, avoid permanently excluding any pupil who is subject to an education, health and care plan, and make additional efforts to provide extra support to avoid excluding those with special educational needs. We want to ensure that schools play their part in supporting children who have been excluded, in collaboration with alternative providers and local authorities.
My right hon. Friend mentioned the Timpson review. It is still ongoing, but I can assure him that when it reports in due course, we will look very seriously and very carefully at its recommendations.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising this important issue, and I thank the mindfulness APPG for its work and its recent report. As the hon. Gentleman knows, mindfulness-based cognitive therapy is recommended by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence for adults with depression.
I am aware of the training that staff have received. A few weeks ago, a constituent came to my surgery to talk about mindfulness. A member of my parliamentary staff who was with me had undertaken that training, and was therefore able to speak about the impact that it had had.
The commissioning of psychological therapies is a matter for NHS England, but I will ensure that it is aware of the report.
The hon. Member for Vale of Clwyd (Chris Ruane) is obviously a beneficiary of mindfulness himself. He seems a very calm and phlegmatic fellow these days, which was not always the case in the past.
The honours system is designed to acknowledge and celebrate great public service to our nation. Does my right hon. Friend agree that when a small minority of recipients of honours, like Philip Green, bring the system of honours and business into disrepute by being found to have behaved disgracefully, letting down the vast majority of businesses who set the highest standards, then it is right for this party and this Government to be the first to stand up for decent standards and look at beginning a process for seeing whether people who behave in that way should be stripped of their honour?
As my hon. Friend said, the honours system recognises exceptional service and achievement in a wide range of spheres of public life, and if the recipient of an honour brings that honour into disrepute it is important that steps are taken to review that honour. There is a forfeiture process for that purpose; that includes an independent forfeiture committee which gives recommendations to me for Her Majesty’s approval. That is the process, and it is important that we have that so that when anybody who has been in receipt of an honour brings that honour into disrepute steps can be taken to review that.
As president of the Wargrave girls football club, I am very willing to commend all those girls and other females who play football. Members across this House have been concerned to hear of the disparity between the winnings that the hon. Lady has raised with the House. Obviously this is a matter for the football authorities, but I am sure they will have heard the concern expressed in this House about the current position.
It takes courage and leadership to admit difficult things, because that is how we start to recognise the need for change, so I would like to thank the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions for acknowledging that there has been a link between accessing universal credit and food bank usage. But it is not the case that there has been a link; there is a link. Will the Prime Minister please urgently review the five-week wait and the benefit freeze? Both must go, because the unpalatable truth is that our welfare safety net is no longer holding up those most vulnerable in society; it is tangling around their feet and dragging them under the water.
My hon. Friend and I have discussed universal credit and its roll-out in the past. As she will know, as we have been rolling this out slowly and carefully, we have taken a number of measures to address issues that have arisen. Shortly after I became Prime Minister we cut the taper rate so people could keep more of the money they earned. Subsequently we have of course scrapped the seven-day waiting. We have introduced the two-week overlap in relation to those in receipt of housing benefit. And of course we have also ensured that 100% of a full monthly payment is available to people at the start, for those for whom that is necessary. So we have been taking steps and will continue to look at universal credit, but universal credit is a system that encourages people into work and makes sure that work pays, compared with the legacy system from the Labour party that left 1.4 million people for nearly a decade trapped on benefits.
I recognise the value that people across the country place on having a television, and for many elderly people the connection that brings with the world. That is why the free licences for the over-75s are so important. We have been clear that we want and expect the BBC to continue free licences when it takes over responsibility for the concession in 2020. May I just say that taxpayers rightly want to see the BBC using its substantial licence fee income in an appropriate way to ensure that it delivers fully for UK audiences?
My constituent, Ben Seaman, receives employment and support allowance benefits and was awarded £20,000 after the recent court ruling on ESA underpayments. Ben has to spend a lot of this within a year in order to avoid having more than £16,000 of assets and risk losing his eligibility for ESA. Clearly this is an unintended anomaly, so will my right hon. Friend encourage the Work and Pensions Secretary, who I know is sympathetic to the situation, to resolve this as soon as possible through an exemption for Ben and for any others who are similarly affected?
This is a concerning case that my hon. Friend has raised with me. I understand that the Department for Work and Pensions is aware of it and I am assured that it is looking into the issue, and I will ensure that he receives a response as soon as possible.
I think the hon. Gentleman knows my view in relation to a second referendum; I have expressed it many times in this House and it has not changed. I believe it is important that we deliver on the first referendum, but my colleagues and I are meeting Members from across the House to discuss the issues that they wish to raise in relation to the Brexit matter, and I will ensure that the hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for Sedgefield can meet, if not with me then with an appropriate Minister.
With the return of the Royal Air Force Tornadoes from operations for the last time, will my right hon. Friend join me in paying tribute not only to this remarkable jet, which has given 40 years of operations from the cold war through to the mountains of Afghanistan, but to the remarkable men and women who have flown and maintained her?
I am very happy to join my hon. Friend in paying tribute to the Tornado and to the men and women who have flown and maintained the fleet over the last 40 years. He has referenced the cold war and the mountains of Afghanistan. From the Gulf war through to operations against Daesh in Syria and Iraq, the Tornado has also been an integral and vital part of RAF operations. As my right hon. Friend the Defence Secretary said last week, it is with a heavy heart but enormous pride that we bid farewell to the Tornado from operations after it has played that vital role in keeping Britain and the allies safe. It will of course be replaced with worthy successors in the improved Typhoon and the new F-35s, which will keep us as a world leader in air combat, but I am happy to pay tribute from the Dispatch Box to the plane and to all those men and women who have flown and maintained it over those 40 years.
The UK’s democracy is defunct. Its economy and society are chronically unequal. Britain is breaking. Let us speak as others find us. This plain truth has not gone unnoticed. In pubs, clubs and homes, on pavements, at schools and workplaces, and at a Yes Is More gig in Cardiff on Friday, people are talking about this place and about how Westminster is failing them. When will the Prime Minister lift her gaze above party interests and the Westminster interest? When will she work with others to remake this island as three self-sufficient, thriving nations, rather than perpetuating the assumption of privilege for one?
When I became Prime Minister, I was very clear that I wanted a country that worked for everyone, and that was the entire United Kingdom. I note that in her question the hon. Lady failed to recognise that Northern Ireland was part of the United Kingdom. We want Northern Ireland to remain part of the United Kingdom. I also say to her that democracy is not defunct. Democracy in this country will be shown by this House recognising the vote that took place in 2016, delivering on the result of the referendum and voting for a deal for us to leave the EU.
Despite our comparative size, the UK has more Government Departments than even the USA. We hear in this place all the time about the challenges of cross-departmental working. Will my right hon. Friend commit to looking carefully in the spending review at opportunities to shrink the size of government and instead focus our spending on public services?
The question of the size of government is something that several colleagues raise from time to time. I must put my hand up and admit the role that I played in that by creating the Department for Exiting the European Union and the Department for International Trade, and of course we are also employing more civil servants to ensure that we deliver on Brexit, something which I believe is close to my hon. Friend’s heart.
Maryam is just six months old, and she is beautiful. She was recently diagnosed with a devastating form of muscular dystrophy. Her brother had the same condition and died tragically young. Spinraza is a new and highly effective drug produced by Biogen that is available in 23 countries, but not in England. If Maryam lived in the west of Scotland instead of West Ham, she would get it. Negotiations between the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence and Biogen have been unsuccessful, leaving Maryam and two other babies as tiny pawns in an argument about price and profit. Will the Prime Minister please intervene and help prevent Maryam and others from suffering an early and painful death?
The hon. Lady raises that case with great passion, and I will ensure that a Minister from the Department of Health and Social Care looks at the matter and responds to her.
The consumption of dog and cat meat goes against our British values. They are our companions. They are not food. Does my right hon. Friend agree that a ban on consumption here, where, astoundingly, it is still legal, would put us in a leading position and send a clear message to the rest of the world that the sickening and horrific suffering that the animals experience during slaughter should be stopped? If so, will she commit to the change, which has cross-party support, as demonstrated by my amendment to the Agriculture Bill?
I am aware of my hon. Friend’s amendment, and I thank him for raising the issue. Animal welfare is a priority for this Government. I am pleased that it is illegal to sell dog and cat meat in the UK. No abattoirs are licensed to slaughter dogs and, thankfully, there is no evidence of human consumption of dog or cat meat in the UK. I certainly hope that other countries will join the UK in upholding the highest standards of animal welfare.
Order. In wishing the hon. Lady a very happy birthday and hoping that the House will join me in doing so, I call Rachel Reeves.
Thank you, Mr Speaker—21 again.
My constituent Harriet recently gave birth to her baby three months premature. When Harriet was due to return to work, her baby had only recently come out of hospital, and she had to choose between taking additional time off work but struggling to pay the bills or returning to work but missing crucial bonding time with her baby. The Government had committed to reviewing the issue by the end of January, but we are now halfway through February. Will the Prime Minister commit to taking action and to extending parental leave for the parents of children who end up in neonatal wards?
First, happy birthday to the hon. Lady. We are reviewing the situation, and we are also looking at what applies in other circumstances, such as miscarriage. I will ensure that she receives a written response.
The Leader of the Opposition has shown today that a little knowledge is a very dangerous thing. He chose to ask about Seaborne Freight and Ramsgate port, which is in my constituency, but he does not speak for South Thanet; I do. Can my right hon. Friend assure me that the people of Thanet are ready and prepared to keep the port open for Brexit eventualities? Can she give a commitment to Thanet District Council that it will be indemnified for costs here on in?
No one can doubt the passion and vigour with which my hon. Friend speaks up for the people of his South Thanet constituency. He mentions Ramsgate port, and I am aware of the discussions between the council and the Department for Transport, and I believe that they are continuing. Obviously, I recognise the significance of the possibility of ensuring that suitable capacity is available at Ramsgate harbour, and I will ensure that the Department for Transport looks at the specific issue that he raises.
Order. Yes, on this occasion I will take a point of order from the right hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Ian Blackford) because I gather that it appertains to the session that has just concluded. I very gently say to him that I hope that this is not a cheeky ruse to be deployed on a weekly basis to secure for himself a third question, which our procedures do not allow. That would be very wrong, and I am sure he would not knowingly do anything very wrong. We will put it to the test. [Interruption.] There is a certain amount of chuntering from a sedentary position, not least from the right hon. Member for Broxtowe (Anna Soubry), who suggests that she thinks that he might engage in such behaviour. I am a charitable chap, and I am prepared to give him a chance.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Heaven forbid that anyone would abuse the privilege that you afford us on such occasions.
We all recognise our responsibility for the language we use in the discourse that we have in this House. I want to be helpful to the Prime Minister because she perhaps inadvertently misled the House when she said that there was no plan for Scottish independence. Unlike the Brexit campaign, which was no more than a slogan on the side of a bus, we had—[Interruption.]
Order. I am very grateful to the right hon. Gentleman, who is brandishing a document. I have a feeling it will feature in his next press release. He has made his point with force and alacrity, and it requires no reply. I hope he is satisfied with his prodigious efforts. We will leave it there.
Ah! The hon. Gentleman ought to know about good behaviour in the Chamber and elsewhere as he is a distinguished football referee.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I appreciate your comments. For clarification, given that the right hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Ian Blackford) held up a copy of the SNP’s White Paper, how can I put on the record the fact that it contained many errors and omissions? For example, it did not include any transition costs, it wildly overstated the predicted revenue from oil and, interestingly, many of the proposals in it related to powers that the Scottish Government and the SNP already had in Holyrood in Edinburgh.
The hon. Gentleman has found his own salvation, as he well knows. Hitherto, I had always thought that the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Angus Brendan MacNeil) was a notably cheeky chappie in the Chamber, but I realise that the role of cheeky chappie is not confined to the Scottish National party. We are grateful to the hon. Member for Moray, who has made his point and looks very delighted with his efforts. We will leave it there.
The hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar looks very happy. We do not need to hear from him further at this time. I remind him that he also has cerebral status as the Chair of a Select Committee and should behave with due decorum to reflect the very high standing he enjoys, possibly in Scotland but certainly in the House.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. This is something that has been troubling me for a few weeks now. When I first came here, I was told that the protocol of the Chamber is that hon. Members must never cross the line of sight between you and whoever is speaking. However, on multiple occasions this Chamber has emptied when my right hon. Friend the Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Ian Blackford) has stood up, to the point at which people cut off your line of sight when you are in the middle of speaking to Members. Could you advise us on how that can be corrected?
What I would say to the hon. Lady is twofold. First, it is a breach of the conventions of this House for a Member to walk past a Member who has the Floor on that side of the House. That is unseemly and discourteous behaviour, and it falls into the category that the hon. Lady is helpfully deprecating.
Secondly, I hope the hon. Lady will not take it amiss if I say that it is regrettable that her prodigious efforts on behalf of her party leader have not been witnessed by the right hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber himself, for the simple reason that he has already exited the Chamber. However, the saving grace for the hon. Lady is that her efforts have been observed by no less a figure than the Chief Whip of the Scottish National party, the hon. Member for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady). That probably bodes well for her in the future. We will leave it there for now.
EU Trade Agreements: Replication
(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for International Trade to make a statement on the progress he has made in replicating trade agreements between the United Kingdom and those countries with which the EU has a trade agreement.
As a member of the EU, the UK currently participates in about 40 free trade agreements with more than 70 countries. In 2018, the trade agreements in force constituted about 11% of our trade. They cover a wide variety of relationships, including free trade agreements, economic partnership agreements with developing nations, association agreements that cover broader economic and political cooperation, and mutual recognition agreements.
The Government’s programme for providing continuity and stability for businesses, consumers and investors in our international agreements is of the utmost importance. We are committed to ensuring that those benefits are maintained, providing for a smooth transition as we leave the EU, but the House will be well aware that the best way to provide that continuity and stability is to ensure that we have a deal with the European Union so the UK remains covered by all those agreements during the implementation period.
We have already signed a number of agreements, including with Switzerland—the largest in terms of our trade flows, representing more than 20% of the value of all our roll-over agreements. We have also signed agreements with Chile and the Faroe Islands, and an economic partnership agreement with eastern and southern Africa. The texts, explanatory memorandums and parliamentary reports for those agreements have already be laid in the Libraries of both Houses.
As we leave the EU, we have no intention of making our developing country partners worse off, as the Opposition would have us do by abandoning EPAs. It is important for the prosperity of their people that we maintain our trading relationships so they have the opportunity to lift themselves out of poverty. We have recently reached agreements with Israel and the Palestinian Authority, and we intend to sign them shortly. Just today, we reached agreement on the UK-Pacific EPA. We have also signed mutual recognition agreements with Australia and New Zealand, and will be closing two with the United States soon. A number of negotiations are at an advanced stage. All international negotiations—indeed, any negotiations—tend to go down to the wire, and I would expect nothing different from these agreements. That is the way that countries do business.
To put the economic value of the agreements in perspective, the countries covered by 20 of the smallest agreements account for less than 0.8% of the UK’s total trade. For the countries with which we may not be able to sign a full agreement by exit day, it is responsible to ensure that we have contingencies in place should we end up, unfortunately, in a no-deal scenario. That is exactly what my Department, alongside the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Department for International Development, is doing. We will shortly be updating businesses and the House about the progress on these agreements, and will continue to inform the House as soon as further agreements are signed, in line with our established parliamentary procedures.
Yesterday, the Department’s risk matrix for the so-called roll-over agreements was published in the media. Of the 40 agreements that the Secretary of State famously promised would be ready one second after midnight on exit day, precisely four have been signed. Nine are off track, 19 are significantly off track, four cannot be completed by March 2019 and two are not even being negotiated.
Throughout the passage of the Trade Bill, Members repeatedly said that they were concerned that it would not be possible to replicate the terms of those agreements fully, and that many countries would seek to renegotiate terms in their favour. I therefore ask the Secretary of State to write to me to set out for each country what objections or demands to concluding a new roll-over have been presented, what concessions he has offered in respect of preferential access to UK markets in order to overcome such obstacles, and what assessment he has made of the impact on trade flows with the UK of a failure to conclude a new deal.
Many in the business community feel that the Secretary of State has diverted too many of his Department’s resources to entirely new free trade agreements, and so keen has he been to grandstand with the new that he has ignored the fundamental grinding work of securing what we already have. So I ask the Secretary of State to write to set out: the number of full-time personnel engaged on securing entirely new agreements; the number engaged on securing the roll-overs; and whether he believes his Department has been adequately resourced to handle so many trade negotiations at once.
Recently, the Secretary of State suggested the unilateral liberalisation of tariffs in the event of a no-deal Brexit. Will he explain to the House how he thinks negotiations would go with the remaining roll-over countries once he had given up our key negotiating leverage by reducing all tariffs to zero? Most Members might think that by doing so we were the ones being rolled over. Will he categorically rule out such a proposal? As we speak, goods are being loaded on to vessels that will be arriving in our markets from overseas after 29 March. How does he intend to support business with these transactions, given that nobody knows what tariffs and non-tariff barriers they will face when they arrive at their destination port? Increasingly, the Department for International Trade looks as though it has inadequate resources, focused on the wrong priorities, set by incompetent Ministers.
As ever, the hon. Gentleman gives us a rich menu of the things on which he is wrong. First, if we want to ensure that all our agreements are rolled over, the best way to do that is by reaching a deal with the European Union so that they will apply one minute after midnight. I voted for that continuity. Did the hon. Gentleman? Did his party? Secondly, he asks about the reasons why countries may not want to continue these things. I have had discussions with a number of Opposition politicians about this. Some countries have said that they did not like some of the human rights elements that were incorporated by the EU and they would like us to drop those in order to roll the agreements over. I am not inclined to do so, because the value we attach to human rights is an important part of who we are as a country. The hon. Gentleman was wrong in that, rather than diverting resources in my Department from roll-over agreements to future free trade agreements, I have done exactly the opposite, reducing the number working on potential future FTAs in order to give maximum resource for this. Finally, he was wrong as I did not advocate unilateral liberalisation of tariffs—that was something mentioned in a newspaper—and the Government will determine what their day one tariffs will be as a collective decision in the event of no deal.
My right hon. Friend is right to stress that if we were to leave on 29 March with no deal, it would have a disastrous effect for many industries, because we would suddenly lose very important trading agreements across the world that we have enjoyed for many years. I agree with him on that, but does he not accept that when we get into the transition period he is still going to face enormous difficulties and will need a very long transition period to start negotiating so many trade deals with so many important markets for our economy? Does he not accept that his principal problem is the lack of bargaining power that the UK has on its own compared with what the EU has as a bloc in carrying out bargaining arrangements? He mentions human rights and other things, but very important countries such as Japan and South Korea, and others, are going to expect better terms from the UK, at the expense of the UK, than they have had to give to the EU. He says that they will take it to the wire. He accepts that he is having tough negotiations. Would he contemplate urging on his colleagues, even at this stage, moving to some sort of customs arrangement and regulatory alignment with the rest of the EU which will rescue us from these chaotic negotiations and allow us to enjoy the benefits of trade agreements which, for the most part, were ones that previous Conservative British Governments urged upon our EU partners and took a leading role in getting put in place in the first place?
As ever, my right hon. and learned Friend raises interesting points. Although there would undoubtedly be a greater risk in the case of no deal, I do not agree that this would be disastrous, because we are likely to maintain a high proportion of the continuity of these agreements. Let me just remind him that five of those 40 agreements represent 76% of the trade, by value, that falls into this category. My Department has developed a great degree of expertise and knowledge in the process of transitioning to new agreements. There are those who say, “If we end up getting a deal, much of this work that has been done will be wasted.” I completely disagree with that, as it has created a body of knowledge, experience and expertise in the Department that will stand us in good stead. As for our ability to negotiate with other countries, we remain the world’s fifth biggest economy and many countries have said to us that it would be much easier to do an agreement with the UK as a single country which would then negotiate and ratify than to have to do it with 28 countries, as they do at the moment. On Japan, we have of course made clear our position and finished our public consultation on potential membership of the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership—CPTPP—a subject on which we are likely to have a debate in this House next week. Finally, he asks whether we should not stay in a customs union. That would preclude us from having negotiations on new agreements, such as with the United States, or even with China, with which the EU has no agreement at the present time.
The Secretary of State has just said that countries say it would be easier to do a deal with the UK. One might ask the simple question: if it was so easy, why have we not even been able to roll over more than half a dozen of the deals we currently have? The leaked documents paint a picture of unvarnished failure: with South Korea and Canada we are off track; and with Japan we have no chance of completion. These deals are not simply necessary in the event of a no-deal Brexit; they may well be required at the end of the transition period if the negotiation then is as miserable as what we have seen to date. So why does he not own up? The time to negotiate these deals has run out, and it is highly unlikely that the Prime Minister’s deal, which he supports, will be accepted by this House. This is now the evidence that he and others need to put their weight behind an extension to article 50 so that his Government and his Department at least can complete the simple task of rolling over the deals we currently have.
Again, I make the point: if Opposition Members want us to get trade continuity, the best way to do so is to vote for the deal that the Prime Minister has already set out. As for future FTAs, we could not negotiate those were we to follow the hon. Gentleman’s advice and remain in a customs union.
I have had a careful look at the passage of these agreements through this House in the first place. Every one of them was supported by my right hon. Friend but most of them have been opposed by the hon. Member for Brent North (Barry Gardiner): CETA—the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement—in February 2017; the EU-Japan agreement in June 2018; and the EU-Singapore agreement in September 2018. He voted against those. Does my right hon. Friend share my consternation at this urgent question, given that the hon. Gentleman never wanted us to be in these trade agreements in the first place?
First, let me thank my right hon. Friend for the work he has done in my Department as part of this overall process. What stands out in this debate is the utter humbug we hear from the hon. Member for Brent North, who talks about the need to roll over agreements such as the one with Canada and asks why the Government are late in doing so. The Labour party voted against the agreement in the first place; Labour did not want us to have the agreement. So now, to come to the House asking why we are not rolling it over on time is, sadly, absolutely typical of the way he does business.
The serious matter here is that on 29 March, transition or no transition, the UK is going to be at the mercy of the sovereignty of 70 other countries in their agreeing to the trade deal roll-over. The EU seems to have been very good at these trade agreements, which include human rights. The Secretary of State wants to maintain those agreements, despite wanting to rip up trade agreements with the most important partners, namely the 27 countries in the EU trading bloc.
The importance of the 40-odd trade agreements with 70 countries is recognised by the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders, which warns that even if EU trade agreements are rolled over, advantages will not always be met. For example, the EU-Korea agreement allows for 55% automotive content, but the UK cannot reach 55% automotive content. As the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders has warned, that will put the UK at the disadvantage of not being able to fulfil the rates of the trade agreement, and we will be on the more disadvantageous World Trade Organisation terms as well. In the 40 agreements with 70 other countries, how many other instances are there of clauses such as the one on 55% content that cannot be met? People who trade and export from the UK need to know, and they need to know now, with 44 days to go.
The central premise of the hon. Gentleman’s question is that we intend to rip up our trade agreement with what he describes as our most important trading partner, the EU27. We have no intention of having a breach. We want to have a full, liberal trading arrangement with the European Union. We do not want Britain to be subjugated in a political relationship that the voters have told us to leave. When it comes to continuity, the Government have set out what we will do with the agreements. For each of them, we have set out to Parliament—this is in both Libraries—the text of the agreement, an explanatory memorandum and the political statement on where there is any change between the agreement in place and the one we are rolling over, if utter and complete replication has not been possible. We have done that already, and we shall do that with the others.
I heard the Secretary of State give the commitment on the guidance that he is going to give. My constituents who are seeking to export to countries now do not know, at the point of departure, what regime their goods will face on arrival. I note the Secretary of State’s attacks on the Opposition parties, but he may wish to recall that 117 Government MPs did not vote for the Prime Minister’s deal, many because of their ideological commitment to WTO rules. Given that we are 44 days away, when will that guidance be issued to companies in my constituency? I was one of the 40 Back-Bench MPs who supported the Prime Minister’s deal.
The Government are assessing where we are with each of the agreements. Where we believe that it will not be possible fully to replicate, we will set out a technical notice in the coming days. Let me give my hon. Friend the example of Turkey, which is part of the customs union: unless we get an agreement with the European Union, we will not be able to maintain the current pattern of trade with Turkey, although we would look to see where we could mitigate any problems that came up.
The past two and a half years have been a very painful process, as the wild and optimistic promises about what could be achieved from the Brexit process have collided with reality. That includes what the Secretary of State said to the Conservative party conference in the autumn of 2017. The question I wish to put to him is simply this: why does he think that it has proved so difficult to roll over all these deals, when he told that conference that it would be a very easy thing to do and he was confident of achieving it?
If we get an agreement via the withdrawal agreement with our European Union partners, that is exactly what will happen: those agreements will roll over. Let me explain to the House why: the United Kingdom will be deemed by the European Union to continue to be party to those agreements. We will get continuity, but we will not get the same continuity if we do not get an agreement with the EU. Those who continue, by their actions, to make no deal more likely will have to be responsible for the consequences.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend and Somerset neighbour on achieving a deal with Switzerland so effectively. Does he share my enthusiasm that this is the beginning of an opportunity for this country to trade more freely, to be able to cut the cost of goods coming into the country and to stop acting as a protectionist racket for inefficient continental European companies?
I am grateful to my parliamentary next-door neighbour for his comments. Indeed, we have a great opportunity as we leave the European Union and as we take up our independent seat at the World Trade Organisation to be champions for global liberal free trade at a time when the voices of protectionism are rising. That is important not only for the United Kingdom or, indeed, for the economic wellbeing of the trading world, but for the wellbeing of those we have managed to take out of abject poverty as a result of a liberal global trading environment.
We have seen some delusional performances at the Dispatch Box this week, but this has to be among the worst ever. May I take the Secretary of State back to his non-answer to the Father of the House, the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke)? The Secretary of State dodged the nub of that question, which was about why anybody should give us a better deal on our own than we have as part of the European Union. He has been asked that question over and again, and he has refused to answer it. Now that we are only 44 days away, may I put the question another way? Can he name one country that he is so confident will give us a better deal than we currently have that if such a deal has not been achieved by 30 March, he will resign?
I was not able even to follow all that question, never mind answer it. Countries have said to us that there are areas of policy on which they will seek an agreement with the United Kingdom that they cannot get with the European Union. Data localisation is one policy area where the attitude of a number of European countries makes it impossible to reach an agreement, and that is in fact holding up the trade in services agreement. We will take a more liberal view of that and will be able to do things as an independent nation that we cannot do as a member of the European Union.
It is my understanding, and the Secretary of State has referred to this as well, that the EU has not permitted Turkey to engage in talks with the UK on continuity of trade post Brexit under the terms of its goods-only customs agreement with that country. It is the kind of arrangement that I understand we would fall into under the backstop. Will the Secretary of State please update the House on any progress in talks with Turkey to ensure smooth future trade with this important partner? Does he share my concern about limitations on our ability to negotiate freely with trade partners should we enter into a goods-only customs arrangement with the EU?
There are issues with Turkey, which is in a customs union, although it is a partial customs union, so we can discuss our future relationship in areas such as agriculture and services. I refer in all humility to the shadow Secretary of State, the hon. Member for Brent North (Barry Gardiner), who put it best. He said of a customs union that
“as an end point it is deeply unattractive. It would preclude us from making our own independent trade agreements with our five largest export markets outside the EU”.
That was then; it is not the policy today.
The Secretary of State will recall that last week I asked him to provide this risk matrix to the House, but he would not. Instead, he asserted that if only I listened to his contribution in the International Trade Committee, all would be revealed. I went back and listened to it and nothing was revealed about the content of the matrix. Why would he not make this information, which has now been leaked to The Sun, available to Members of Parliament in the same way that he was happy to make it available to businesses? Is it because he does not believe that we have a role in the scrutiny of his activities? Or was it simply to save him the embarrassment of Members seeing what lack of progress there has been on the 40 trade deals he said would be signed by one minute after midnight on 30 March?
It is tedious to have to give the same answer, but if the same question keeps getting asked, I will keep doing so. The way that we get continuity at one minute after midnight is to have an agreement with the European Union so that we have continuity of the agreements. A number of the agreements are very close to completion, but there is a level of confidentiality around that. At the same time, the Government clearly want to give business an indication of where we think a trade agreement may not be able to be rolled over on time. I will do that in the coming days, following an assessment of where we are at the present time, and I will make a written ministerial statement to the House as well.
Is it not necessary for us to take lessons from the fact that we have failed to land a pre-Brexit trade deal with Japan or with most of the other 70 countries with which the EU enjoys FTAs, such as that actually we would be better off being in a customs union or having some close customs arrangement with the EU, backed up by the firepower of 510 million consumers rather than 65 million?
But we are leaving the EU. Were we to attempt to have a customs union relationship, which is what the Labour party says, we would have no say in that trade policy; we would actually be worse off than we are today in the European Union. The EU has made it very clear—and the European Union treaty makes it very clear—that a third country outside the EU cannot be involved in setting EU trade policy. At best, it is a fantasy, at worst, a dangerous delusion.
On free trade agreements with Japan and South Korea, the Secretary of State for Business made it clear to the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee last week that the deadline for companies exporting to Japan and South Korea is this Friday, 15 February, because shipments take six weeks to arrive. What advice would the Secretary of State give to businesses that are exporting to Japan and South Korea? If the Government get their deal through, will the free trade agreements with those countries roll over? If we do not manage to secure a deal, what happens to those shipments when they arrive at the end of March and the beginning of April?
The hon. Lady raises a very important point. On Japan, the Japanese Government have said to us that if there were a deal with the European Union, they intend to roll over the Japan economic partnership agreement at that point, and the UK would continue to benefit. I have to say, though, that we have been trading with Japan for many years, but trading on World Trade Organisation terms. We have been trading under the Japan EPA for a matter of days. When it comes to British business continuity, firms are used to dealing on WTO terms, and I envisage our trade relationship with Japan to be largely effected by our potential membership of CPTPP, to which the Japanese Government have given enormous encouragement.
But from whom were representations had to the effect that remaining in a customs union would be a disaster?
It would be unparliamentary of me to use the same term as the shadow Secretary of State for some of Labour’s tests that have led it to its policy today. It is nonsensical to say that we can be both in a customs union with the European Union as a third country and still have an effect on trade. Those tests would increase the chances of the UK remaining permanently as a rule taker, which would not be advantageous to the UK.
There has been a great deal of focus on the number of trade deals, but, as the Secretary of State has outlined, the value of the trade in each deal varies significantly. He has indicated that many of the deals will go down to the wire. How many is he anticipating will be signed before that date? More importantly, what is their value as a percentage of our current trade value for the entire third-party free trade deals?
As ever, I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her question. On the UK’s trade, 48% of our trade is with the European Union and 52% with the rest of the world. Of the rest of the world trade, around 11% occurs under EU FTAs. Of the 40 or so agreements, five represent 76% of the 11%, and the bottom 20 represent less than 0.8% of 1%. Therefore, there is very clear advantage in getting those larger agreements across the line first, and we are making excellent progress in that regard.
There are two groups in this House who underestimate the value of free trade agreements. The first includes those Opposition Front Benchers who did not vote for them in the first place and whose leader believes that free trade agreements benefit only multinationals at the expense of everyone else. He should try explaining that on the workshop floor of some of the small and medium-sized manufacturers in my constituency of Gloucester that export around the world. The second group are some Conservative Members who believe that leaving the EU with no deal will be no problem. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that, in the event of no deal, the tariffs that will come into play with the EU will be devastating for farmers and manufacturers and all the rest of the 148,000 companies that export only to the EU and that the simplest way to take this risk off the table is for everybody to get behind the Government’s withdrawal agreement Bill and make sure that all these deals are rolled over without problem?
It seems that the country is caught between the irrational pessimism of those who fail to be reconciled to the referendum result and believe that everything to do with Brexit will be disastrous for the UK and those who are irrationally optimistic that there would be no problem whatever to leave the European Union with no deal. The truth is that we would be better off with a deal, which is why the Government want to get that deal with the European Union across the line. I still urge Opposition Members to support it. If we do not achieve it, we will end up with the uncertainties that they have identified today.
As the Secretary of State rails against irrational pessimism, I assume that he will tell us that the rest of the world is looking at the United Kingdom right now and saying that Brexit is a great example that it must follow.
I wish to go back to the point that the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke) raised yesterday, which is that, under our current arrangements, UK businesses will be part of one of the biggest trade deals ever negotiated between the EU and Japan, but, under the Secretary of State’s policy, UK businesses will not be part of that agreement and we will have to start again. We are told that Tokyo’s trade negotiators are under instruction to extract every advantage possible, as we would expect them to do in a tough trade negotiation. Will he promise UK businesses that their market access to Japan under any deal that he manages to negotiate will be as good as it is under the EU-Japan trade deal, which has already been negotiated?
As I have already said, the Prime Minister and Prime Minister Abe have both indicated that they want a close trading relationship for our countries after we leave the EU, but the Japanese Prime Minister has been very clear that he is hugely encouraging of the UK’s accession to CPTPP, which would then become a trading bloc of almost exactly the same size as the European Union itself. As for his first point, many people are looking to the United Kingdom and saying what a great example it is of democracy that a country wants to take control of its own constitutional future.
And we buy a lot of goods from Japan anyway, particularly cars, and I am sure that it will want us to carry on doing that. Am I not right in thinking that, during the referendum campaign, David Cameron said that, by leaving the EU, we would be leaving the customs union? He recognised that that would be essential. Although a customs union would have the advantage of allowing all these deals to be rolled over, it would be a betrayal of what the people voted for in 2016 because we would still have to pay to access the customs union and there would still be free movement of labour. Furthermore, we would simply not be allowed to do those trade deals with countries such as China, the United States of America and, indeed, some of the fastest growing economies in the world.
My hon. Friend, who has considerable knowledge from his work on the Select Committee, is quite right. If we were in a customs union, but a third country outside the European Union—I do not hear people say that we should stay in the EU and simply behave dishonourably towards the referendum—we would not be able to affect European Union trade policy and would become complete rule takers and would in fact be in a worse position than we are today. As a member of the European Union, we were able to affect policy. We have been given a clear instruction by the voters to leave the European Union, and that means leaving the customs union and the single market.
Manufacturers in Crewe and Nantwich have expressed very real concern about the lack of progress in this area. Does the Minister accept that committing to a new customs union as part of our future relationship with the EU would resolve this issue, allowing us to continue to take advantage of our current deals with all major global markets while allowing us the ability to strike our own deals for trade in services, which make up the vast majority of the UK economy?
Just how would it give us greater certainty in the exercise of our own trade policy if we were a third country outside the European Union in a form of customs union that specifically prohibited us from having a say on that trade policy itself? That would diminish the ability of this Parliament to give certainty to any business in our country, rather than what the hon. Lady suggests.
Does the Secretary of State agree that, if the Labour party really cared about the continuity of our trade arrangements, it would stop blocking the Trade Bill in the other place?
I hope that we will see the progress of the Trade Bill, which the Labour party voted against in this House. Those involved in manufacturing, including in the constituency of the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Laura Smith), will note that the Labour party voted against the establishment of the Trade Remedies Authority, which is how we would protect our businesses from unfair international competition.
The Home Secretary has said in this House on a number of occasions that international student numbers will be uncapped, that the number of skilled workers who are required for the economy will be uncapped and that our public services will be able to get the people that they wish for from all over the world to work in our those services. Can the International Trade Secretary tell us how many of these roll-over agreements—or how many of the post-Brexit agreements—will be rubbished or dictated by the fact that many of our partners that want bilateral trade deals want a lessening of the UK’s hostile environment policy?
The policy on students is to encourage them to come here, and many do so. For example, we are the No. 1 global destination for Chinese students—ahead of the United States. These students come here because they believe that the quality of education is high. As the hon. Gentleman knows, we have no intention of limiting the number of students coming to the UK. Likewise with migration, as my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has said, we look to ensure that the levels of skill required for the UK economy are available to us. In a modern, integrated economy, it makes sense that our migration policy gives priority to ensuring the skills needed for our economic growth.
I was thinking of asking the excellent leave Secretary of State how he managed to maintain such good humour and grace in a remain-dominated Parliament. However, I think what this House wants to know is whether, in the circumstances of no deal—that must be likely, given that the Government’s withdrawal agreement was defeated by the biggest margin in Commons history—his Department will be prepared on 29 March for no deal.
As I have said, our priority is continuity of trade. We want to ensure that we get the roll-over of as many of those agreements—and as large a proportion—as possible. Where that is not possible for other reasons, we will seek as much mitigation as we can. I make the case again that the best way to achieve full continuity is to leave the European Union with the withdrawal agreement. As for my hon. Friend’s initial point, I take comfort from the fact that although this may be a remain-dominated Parliament, it is a leave-dominated country.
The Secretary of State mentioned Switzerland and the Swiss deal in his response to the urgent question. Could he explain why members of the International Trade Committee had to look on the Swiss Government’s website to understand the detail of the trade agreement, and why members of the Committee were not briefed in advance? What will he do to improve the lack of clarity and the lack of a sense of working together across Parliament to achieve the best for trade?
I am grateful for the way in which the hon. Lady continues to press the importance of this issue; it is a view that I share. We set out in our legislation that we would publish the text at the point of signature, not at the point of initialling, and that is what this House ultimately voted for. We also said that we would publish the explanatory memorandum, and that we would set out differences between the original agreement and any changes in a statement, given that the original agreement was already scrutinised by this Parliament when it was introduced as an EU agreement. The hon. Lady raises an important point, however, about future trade agreements that were not covered in the Trade Bill; and following the completion of the Government consultation, I will set out the processes by which we will ensure that both Houses of Parliament are able to get active and real-time scrutiny of the future trade agreements.
Is it not the case that, even if we roll agreements over, it is entirely possible to make further enhancements to those agreements in time as an independent trading nation?
Those of us who have been involved in this process from the beginning will remember that it was initially known as transitional adoption—that is, we would adopt the EU agreement with a view to moving on to a more bespoke agreement later. That is still our aim. For example, in our discussions with the Swiss Government at signature on Monday, we talked about our ambitions to enhance that agreement once Britain has left the EU. Our aim for the moment is continuity; ambition comes later.
The UK Government would probably leave DFS with a full-price sofa. Ministers have already indicated that giving up our protected geographical indicators would be a price worth paying for trade deals, wilfully damaging Scotland’s competitiveness in world markets. What guaranteed protections will the Secretary of State’s trade deals offer Scotland’s precious food and drink sector to compensate?
That is so fundamentally wrong. The Government have said nothing of the sort about geographical indicators. We regard them as having the highest importance, not least in Scotland. On that point, I congratulate Scotch whisky on reaching almost £5 billion of exports last year—exports that we are very keen to protect.
Ministers have always promised that these trade agreements will mirror the terms that these countries have with the EU and which the UK currently enjoys. Has the Secretary of State achieved this in the provisional agreements with Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein, and how does he propose to achieve it in respect of Turkey’s trade relationship with the EU?
We have said that we aim to replicate the terms as closely as possible. There are some issues that mean that it is not entirely possible to do so. The hon. Gentleman correctly raises the issue of Turkey, which is in a particular position because of its partial customs union with the European Union. This of course means that it is difficult to conclude what we are going to do with Turkey until we know the shape of our agreement with the European Union. Again, that simply raises the issues and complications of being in a customs union, rather than being a nation that is able to determine its own independent trade policy.
The fundamental point made by both the hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr Djanogly) and the Father of the House was that the balance of power shifts when we are no longer a member of the EU. This is illustrated by the fact that one of the first agreements that the Secretary of State has achieved is with the Faroe Islands. Will he just tell the House what proportion of UK trade is with the Faroes?
I will admit that the agreement with the Faroe Islands is a small one, but it is very important for people who work in the fish processing industry in this country because it provides the necessary continuity. Labour Members mock it, but they might want to go to places such as Grimsby and tell people there that the agreement has no value, when it clearly does. Countries that are much smaller than the United Kingdom have been able to get trade agreements. For example, Canada—a smaller economy than the United Kingdom—was able to negotiate a perfectly acceptable trade agreement with the European Union, as it has with many other places. It is the utter lack of ambition, optimism and confidence shown by the hon. Lady that I am happy was defeated by the optimism of the British people in the referendum.
The Secretary of State has managed to reach agreement with the Faroe Islands, but not with Japan or Canada. Why has this crucial exercise proved so much harder than he said it would be?
The process continues, but it is worth pointing out that we have reached agreement with Switzerland, which is by far the biggest of all the agreements under this section of our trade. The trade agreement that we have signed with Switzerland this week is, by value, more than 20% of all 40 of the EU agreements. If it is possible to do it with the biggest one, it should be possible to do it with others.
In the unlikely event that the Prime Minister’s deal is agreed, the EU is going to write to the countries that it has agreements with and say, “Please could you agree to treat the United Kingdom as a member of the EU for the transition period?” Will the Secretary of State now admit to the House that there is no guarantee that all those third countries will agree to that request?
All I can say is that I am not aware—nor, as far as I know, is the European Union—of a single country that has said it does not want to continue with the trading arrangements that it currently has with the United Kingdom and the European Union. Why would they?
The Secretary of State, in response to my right hon. Friends the Members for Wolverhampton South East (Mr McFadden) and for East Ham (Stephen Timms), has indicated that the Japanese trade deal will not be replicated at the level it is at now, except that we can join the Trans-Pacific Partnership. How long does he expect us to spend negotiating in order to join the Trans-Pacific Partnership?
As I said, the Japanese Government have made it clear that in the event that we leave the European Union with the withdrawal agreement, there will be the roll-over. If we want to get continuity with that Japanese agreement, there is one way to do it, and that is to ensure that we back the Prime Minister’s deal. It is also true that the Japan EPA does not come in quickly. A lot of the tariff liberalisation, for example, comes in over a period of years—up to eight years in some cases, which is much longer than I would anticipate it would take for Britain to accede to the CPTPP.
If the Government fail to replicate existing trade agreements, we may end up finding ourselves having to rely on trading agreements with the USA. Can the Secretary of State reassure my constituents that he will not sacrifice NHS services or workers’ rights to a deal with President Trump?
This House agreed the agreement with Canada. If the hon. Gentleman goes to the Library and looks at chapters 23 and 24 and annex 2 of that agreement, he will see provisions there that make it against the law for us to water down the workers’ rights or environmental laws we have in order to reach a trade agreement. Annex 2 sets out that we retain our rights to be able to regulate our public services, including the national health service. I would have thought that he would agree with those non-regression clauses. It is therefore sad that he and his party voted against this in the House of Commons.
Northern Ireland: Restoring Devolution
To ask the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland if she will make a statement on her attempts to restore devolution in Northern Ireland one year on from the collapse of the all-party talks in February 2018.
As the House is aware, this Government remain steadfastly committed to the Belfast agreement and its successors. I am continuing to work tirelessly towards my absolute priority of restoring fully functioning devolved government in Northern Ireland. This is a very sensitive matter that requires careful handling. I last updated the House at my Department’s oral questions on 30 January. I have no further update at this stage, but as soon as I have anything to add, I will of course come to the House at the earliest opportunity. I hope that will be soon.
It is two years since we saw the collapse of the Stormont Executive and Assembly. It is 12 months since the Prime Minister and the Taoiseach visited Belfast in the hope of seeing restoration of the power-sharing agreements, but sadly—we all regret this—that led to failure.
Since that time, there have been many calls for the Secretary of State to show significant effort in bringing the parties together to restore power-sharing. However, it would be very hard for anyone to claim that we have seen the sustained action that could have prevented the kind of drift that has envenomed the relationship between the political parties in Northern Ireland and between the communities, or the drift that has seen the failure of political decision making that has led to the consequences in, for example, the health service. We now have a health service that is not delivering the same standards, as it ought to be. We know it needs reform. People are having their health options let down, and ultimately people will die earlier.
As for schools, headteachers have made representations to the Secretary of State and, most certainly, to me about the failure of political decisions, which has an impact on children’s education. In policing and security, we are still upwards of 1,000 police officers short of the Patten recommendations, at a time when Brexit is causing real concerns about security on the Irish border.
But probably the biggest issue, beyond Brexit, where there has been no consistent voice across the communities of Northern Ireland has been reconciliation. Anybody who believes that reconciliation was achieved 20 years ago with the Good Friday agreement is simply wrong. The Good Friday agreement built new institutions that were needed to instil the belief that political change could deliver for the people of Northern Ireland rather than simply relying on the guns and the bomb. In the absence of those institutions, we saw the bomb in Derry. In the absence of those institutions, we see the paramilitaries still with a grip on organised crime in different parts of Northern Ireland. We need to see Stormont back. We need to see the North South Ministerial Council. We need to see the operation of the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference. All those Good Friday institutions are vital and fundamental.
The Secretary of State is now at a crossroads and this country is at a crossroads. We need to seize this time to put a sustained effort into making sure that we see the restoration of those institutions. Alternatively, this House will have to begin to make those decisions. The Secretary of State does not want that. I do not want that. I make her this offer: the Opposition will work with her consistently to see the restoration of those institutions. If she can begin that process of delivery, we will walk with her. We will do everything we can to support her. In that context, I look forward to a further update, in due course, to this House.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman that we want to see the restoration of the institutions that were agreed by the people of Northern Ireland, in a very brave way, in the Belfast/Good Friday agreement and in subsequent agreements: St Andrews, Stormont House, Fresh Start and so on. We need to see those institutions back. There is nothing that the people of Northern Ireland deserve more than the politicians they elected locally making decisions on their behalf.
But I want to correct the hon. Gentleman on a few points. He talked about health reform. He is quite right: there is a need for reform of health, and that is why this Government put £100 million into the budget last year to ensure that work could start on reforming health services and health provision in Northern Ireland. This work needs to be done whether there is an Executive or not, and that money was put in by this Government.
The hon. Gentleman talked about policing. It is a great credit to the politicians in Northern Ireland that we have devolved policing and justice in Northern Ireland, given the difficulties, fragility and sensitivities in that area. This Government took steps to ensure that we could appoint members to the Policing Board so that there is proper governance of policing in Northern Ireland. We have also put in funding to ensure that the Chief Constable can recruit the police officers needed to deal specifically with concerns around Brexit.
The hon. Gentleman talked about reconciliation. I agree with him that reconciliation needs to continue. That is why this Government have consulted on how we progress the agreement that was reached at Stormont House in 2014 to set up new institutions to deal with the matters regarding legacy, which are of great concern to many Members of this House when they see their constituents directly affected.
The hon. Gentleman talked about the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference. I remind him that that body has met twice in the past 12 months. This Government will continue to observe all our commitments under the Belfast/Good Friday agreement.
The hon. Gentleman talked about the incident in Derry/Londonderry a few weeks ago. I was in the city last week, and I met people who were directly affected, including the police officers. They did incredible work that night, working towards danger when others would run, and I pay great tribute to them. But they were very clear, as have been the Police Service of Northern Ireland and many others, that nobody should attribute anything that happened that evening in Derry/Londonderry to either the absence of institutions or Brexit. The only people responsible for what happened in Derry/Londonderry that night were the terrorists, and they are the ones we need to condemn.
I welcome the Secretary of State’s reply. I think there is complete exasperation in this House—and, in fairness, in Dublin and in Washington, where, for years, the two main parties respectively worked incredibly closely together to get the agreement and to get the institutions established—that for two years now these institutions have not been working. As the shadow Secretary of State quite rightly said, sadly, outcomes are failing now in Northern Ireland. Health outcomes are falling behind. There are ambitious plans to improve health, but they need political direction. There comes a point when we are all responsible for the lives of citizens in Northern Ireland. I ask the Secretary of State, although very reluctantly, whether she has begun to consider taking powers back into this House, for what one would hope would be a brief period, to deliver public benefits. At the moment, we are stuck. We come here time and again. We know that the main party in opposition to this, Sinn Féin, is not co-operating. The lives of people in Northern Ireland are falling behind. This would be a big step, but I wonder, reluctantly, whether she is beginning to consider it.
My right hon. Friend has enormous experience of matters in Northern Ireland. He did great work in Northern Ireland as both shadow Secretary of State and Secretary of State, and continues to take a keen interest. I share his exasperation that we have not been able to find a basis on which parties can come together. My priority is finding that basis, because there is no good long-term, sustainable way that decisions can be made for the people of Northern Ireland except locally elected politicians making them.
I do not doubt how difficult the Secretary of State’s job is, but she said that restoring devolution is her top priority, yet the last round of talks was over three months ago. Surely the damaging perception, if not the reality, is that implementing Brexit against the will of the majority of people in Northern Ireland and keeping her government partners, the DUP, is her actual priority. Why has the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference not met more regularly, given the vacuum in Northern Ireland? Twice is not enough.
Appearing before the Brexit Committee this morning, former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern said that he believed Stormont would now be up and running again if it was not for Brexit. Does the Secretary of State accept his experienced analysis? What role has the strained relations between the British and Irish Governments caused by Brexit had on efforts to restore the Executive? Does she believe that her exclusive relationship with a minority party in Northern Ireland has prevented an inclusive process to restore devolution? Lastly, what progress has been made on reform of the petition of concern in the Northern Ireland Assembly—a reform that has the potential to unlock the contentious issues that arose during previous talks?
The hon. Gentleman made a number of points. Although the last round of formal talks collapsed 12 months ago, I assure him that there are continued discussions with all parties to try to find a basis on which we can get people back in a room. But there is no point in my imposing a solution on the parties in Northern Ireland that they do not want to be part of, and there is no point in my demanding that people come to talks if there are no grounds to believe that they will be successful, because that would do a disservice to the people of Northern Ireland.
The hon. Gentleman talked about the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference. It is worth making the point that the BIIGC was established under strand 3 of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement, and it deals exclusively with east-west matters, but of course there are regular bilateral discussions between Ministers from the Irish and UK Governments on a number of matters; they are not exclusively held through the BIIGC. We also have the British-Irish Council, which meets twice a year and which representatives of the Scottish Government attend.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned the petition of concern. That needs to be decided by politicians in Northern Ireland. It is a devolved matter. It is not for Westminster to impose solutions on a devolved Administration because Westminster is not happy with the way that matters are being used in the devolved Administration. I am sure that he, as a member of the Scottish National party, would not wish to see this Parliament imposing solutions on Holyrood that we felt were right but with which he disagreed.
Finally, the hon. Gentleman alluded to the Government’s confidence and supply arrangements with the Democratic Unionist party. I gently remind him that the institutions collapsed before the confidence and supply arrangements were in place. We are all working tirelessly to see those institutions restored.
The Secretary of State will share my dismay at the stalling of plans for the Tyrone to Cavan interconnector—a huge infrastructure project that will have a direct impact upon lives in Northern Ireland. How does she think the guidance she is able to issue under the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation and Exercise of Functions) Act 2018 can be used to resolve that? If it cannot, is she prepared to determine the matter herself, since we cannot continue to kick this can down the road?
My hon. Friend gives an important example of why we need devolved government in Northern Ireland. He alluded to the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation and Exercise of Functions) Act, which allows civil servants to make certain decisions but is no replacement for having Ministers in Stormont making those decisions. That is why I am determined to find a way to bring the parties back together, and I assure him and his Select Committee that I will update the House at the earliest opportunity.
I welcome the Secretary of State’s response to the urgent question. It will be vital that decisions are taken by Ministers in some shape or form once we get Brexit over the line, because we cannot continue in the current scenario after that has happened; the decisions required will be too great. I remind the House that the reason that devolution is not up and running is not that all parties in Northern Ireland cannot agree—four out of the five parties in Northern Ireland would enter devolution tomorrow. Preconditions are being set by one party, which talks a lot about Brexit being an existential threat and yet boycotts this House, boycotts the Assembly and boycotts the Executive. We all see that as the major challenge. Health, education, police, justice and security are all far more vital than some of the preconditions being laid down by a minority party in Northern Ireland. The reality is that we need to get on with the job without preconditions, and therefore, along with all the other parties, I am up for any measures and discussions that can get that to happen.
I welcome the right hon. Gentleman’s comments. I hope we can find a basis on which to get the parties together, talking about and agreeing a basis for government, because he is right; the people of Northern Ireland deserve that.
I know that it may be legally difficult for my right hon. Friend to authorise payments to the victims of historical institutional abuse, but who in the future would object if she were to do so?
I think my hon. and gallant Friend is referring to recommendations from the Hart review, which are currently being consulted on as a process that would need to happen irrespective of whether there are Ministers in Stormont. We are ensuring that work is continuing that would need to be done in any event, so that when Ministers are back in Stormont, they can take the decisions necessary to see redress for those victims
There is nothing in the Secretary of State’s analysis with which I take issue, but the fact is that we find ourselves in the middle of a quite remarkable period of drift. Surely now is the time for us to take more proactive steps and bring in somebody from outside the political system in Northern Ireland—hopefully one who is respected in the way that Senator Mitchell was—to free up this logjam. It cannot be allowed to drift on like this.
I agree that we do not want to see anything drifting on, and I am determined to ensure that it does not. The right hon. Gentleman suggests that an independent mediator or chair may be appropriate. There is not a consensus across the parties in Northern Ireland that that would be helpful, but I am open to exploring whatever the right way to do this is, because I want to see devolution restored and Ministers in Stormont as soon as possible.
There is a party elected to this House that does not take its seats, and yet this institution does not collapse—it continues—but when the same thing happens in Northern Ireland, we allow the institutions to collapse. To follow on from the question from my right hon. Friend the Member for North Shropshire (Mr Paterson), should we not look at the rules regarding the institutions? Should the Secretary of State not reluctantly set a deadline again for parties in Northern Ireland to take their seats, or perhaps get a group of experienced people in this place to come up with suggestions for how the rules might be changed, so that one party does not have a veto on the running of institutions in Northern Ireland?
I do not think it is any secret that sustainability of the Executive was one of the matters for discussion in the talks 12 months ago, and I am sure it will be a matter for discussion if we are able to find a way to get the parties back together. The Northern Ireland Affairs Committee has made proposals for a more sustainable Executive. My hon. Friend has great expertise, as former Chair of that Committee, and if he would like to make any suggestions, I am happy to take them to the parties.
I retain the title of the last direct rule Minister of Northern Ireland, and with respect to the right hon. Member for North Shropshire (Mr Paterson), I hope I can keep that title in perpetuity. In that role, I took hundreds of decisions every week on behalf of this House and the people of Northern Ireland, and now those decisions are being taken without scrutiny. Can the Secretary of State bring together all the interested parties to look at how we can inject greater local scrutiny, pending—I hope—the restoration of those institutions in due course?
The right hon. Gentleman speaks with great experience and knowledge of this matter. The Northern Ireland (Executive Formation and Exercise of Functions) Act allows for transparency in decision making, but there is of course a constitutional issue when it comes to elected politicians scrutinising the decisions taken by unelected officials. Although I understand the desire to see more scrutiny, we must remember that when the institutions are restored—I hope sooner rather than later—those officials are going to have to return to taking direction from political masters, and having political masters who may have scrutinised their previous decisions is probably not a situation in which we want them to find themselves.
The Secretary of State will know that the duty on her to set an election date for further Assembly elections will shortly become live again. Does she plan to extend that date, or will she set a date for those elections to take place?
My hon. Friend is right that the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation and Exercise of Functions) Act sets aside the requirement on the Secretary of State to call an election. That Act expires on 26 March, and we are considering the options.
The Policing Board did not function for many months, as the Secretary of State knows. She recently made political appointments from my party and other parties, including Sinn Féin. Everyone entered without preconditions, and now the Policing Board is functioning. We need to ensure that Stormont and the education and health services do likewise. We have problems. I have issues about fairness, equality and integrity, but I will not put them in front of their functioning for the education and health of our people. If everyone does likewise, we can get Stormont up and running next week.
I very much appreciate the hon. Gentleman’s optimism, and I hope we can deliver.
May I ask the Secretary of State if she really appreciates the deep sense of anger—continuing anger—among the general public in Northern Ireland that Members of the Legislative Assembly continue to receive their salaries with only minor reductions? The last time I asked the Secretary of State how much it has cost the taxpayer to pay MLAs their salaries since the collapse of the Assembly two years ago, in January 2017, unfortunately the Secretary of State was not able to tell me. However, I am confident she has done her homework since then, and will be able to tell this House and the public whether £12 million has been paid in salaries to MLAs when they have not been doing their full job.
I was able to furnish the hon. Lady with the figure that she requested through a written question, but I would like to make sure that I have the most up-to-date figure before giving her further information. It would perhaps be better for me to write to her, unless such a figure should appear in front of me in the next few moments. I do understand the anger. I do hear that anger—I hear that anger every day in Northern Ireland—and I know that people want to see their politicians back doing the job they were elected to do.
Does the Secretary of State accept that there is public frustration with the inertia and inconsistency, which means that on issues A, B and C, she says the Government cannot act because they are devolved, but on issues X, Y and Z, she says that even though they are devolved Westminster has to act? What we need from the Government—from the two Governments, actually—is not passive commentary, but a concerted plan to get the institutions restored. In the meantime, she should take some decisions, and if she does, she will have my support.
I am well aware of the frustration and anger that there is in the general public with the situation we have. As Secretary of State, I have ensured that we do what we need to do to ensure good governance continues in Northern Ireland, but there are of course difficulties, constitutionally, with taking new policy decisions in this place that had not previously been agreed by Ministers in Stormont. I have been very clear that the actions that I have taken—setting a budget, or public appointments, such as to the Policy Board, which was mentioned earlier—were on the basis of continuing existing policies and ensuring that public services can continue to be delivered, but without creating new policy areas or deciding on new policy areas in the absence of Ministers. The hon. Gentleman made the point at the end of his question: the answer is to get Ministers back into Stormont, and I am determined that we will do that.
Is the Secretary of State aware of the article published on “ConservativeHome” on 28 January by Lord Bew? He indicated that the backstop, which the Secretary of State supports, would undermine the Belfast agreement and that there is a better way out of the paralysis. Has the Secretary of State studied that article and looked at the better way out of the paralysis?
As the hon. Gentleman speaks, the noble Lord may of course be in our midst.
I have of course read the article, but the hon. Gentleman will know that there are differences of opinion, legally, on that matter. The Attorney General set out the Government’s position—his view on that matter—in this Chamber a few weeks ago.
In the absence of the Assembly, will the Secretary of State set out what progress has been made in dealing with the breach of women’s human rights in Northern Ireland, particularly in relation to the Victorian law that criminalises women seeking reproductive health care?
The hon. Lady has done considerable work and at length on this issue. She has brought forward private Members’ Bills and other matters because I know how strongly she feels about this. She will know that the amendment was passed to the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation and Exercise of Functions) Act about the law regarding abortion and same-sex marriage in Northern Ireland. I have already reported to Parliament on that situation, and I continue to monitor the situation.
Sinn Féin MPs attend this place and get their full wages, so will the Secretary of State at some stage look at that issue as well? There are many issues that could and should be processed because they have cross-community support—for example, in health and education. The Northern Ireland Affairs Committee is presently doing an inquiry on both those issues. There are indications in the press this week that more power could be devolved to the permanent secretaries of the Departments to enable them to make decisions when it comes to health and education. Has that been considered?
The hon. Gentleman made two points. First, on the pay and conditions for Members of this House, that is of course a matter for this House, not for the Government. On the decision-making power of civil servants, there is a very difficult balancing act—as I said on the question from the right hon. Member for Delyn (David Hanson)—to ensure that we allow civil servants the political cover to make decisions without actually making them accountable for those decisions to political masters. We believe we have struck that balance in the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation and Exercise of Functions) Act, but we are coming to the end of that period, and I will continue to review the best way in which that can continue to be delivered.
What consideration has the Secretary of State given to the suggestion made by the Northern Ireland Local Government Association to look at the role and powers of local councillors as a way to address at least some of the democratic deficit that exists while the Assembly is not sitting?
Both I and my hon. Friend the Minister of State have met NILGA, and it does have some very interesting ideas. However, the powers it is looking at and that it considers may be appropriate to be devolved to local authorities clearly rest with Stormont. They are Stormont’s powers, not our powers to devolve, and it would be a matter for politicians and Ministers in Stormont to make decisions about that. It is probably also worth saying that this Government continue to work with the local councils in Northern Ireland. The Chancellor has announced £350 million for a city deal for Belfast region, and we are working with Derry City and Strabane District Council for a Derry/Londonderry city deal, as well as with rural councils.
Due to Sinn Féin’s ongoing boycott of the Northern Ireland Assembly—for two years now—we have lost the significant and important scrutiny and transparency of the budget process. The Secretary of State has indicated that she will set a budget. Will she outline to the House what she is intending to do to get transparency of that process and of both the decisions made by her and the recommendations and decisions taken by the senior civil service in Northern Ireland?
As I said earlier, it is quite right that, in the absence of Ministers in Stormont, a budget is set and properly set so that money can continue to be spent on public services. I followed a process last year that involved all the main parties and the Opposition to ensure that there was as much transparency as possible. It is a budget process, and without my having full Executive powers, there is clearly a limit to the amount I can do. However, I am determined that we will set the budget, and I will make sure that the hon. Lady’s party and others are involved.
One consequence of not having a functioning Executive is that there has been no political oversight of the scandal of Muckamore Abbey. I have raised this personally with the Secretary of State and written to her. She knows that we had a sanctuary for adults with learning difficulties, and that they were physically abused and assaulted by nursing staff. On Friday, the nurses had their suspensions overturned. Why? Appallingly, the Belfast Trust has not provided the evidence and the CCTV to the Nursing and Midwifery Council.
This is a scandal, but it has not had full consideration here and, without Stormont, it certainly will not receive it at home. The Secretary of State knows that, through the Inquiries Act 2005, she is the only person capable of calling a public inquiry. Without a Minister in Northern Ireland, she is the one person who can do it. I ask her to engage earnestly with the Department of Health in Northern Ireland and with the families and those who need answers on the failure we have seen in caring for those who need such significant care.
The hon. Gentleman has, indeed, raised this issue with me on a number of occasions. It is truly shocking and the reports that we have all seen from victims are ones that nobody should have to read. He makes the point that Ministers in Stormont would be able to make decisions and deal with this matter. I will continue to consider the points he has made and to review the position.
Secretary of State, the outcome of the historical institutional abuse inquiry—the Hart inquiry—was to be tabled just prior to Sinn Féin pulling the rug out and bringing down the Northern Ireland Assembly. It is inevitable that people will pass away—indeed, people have passed away—in the interim. It is vital that we move ahead and get a decision across the table as to how we will recompense some of these individuals.
The Hart inquiry was raised by my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart). As I said in response, David Sterling, the head of the civil service in Northern Ireland, has commenced a consultation, which is ongoing. That would be needed even if there were Ministers in Stormont. The hon. Gentleman is right to highlight the fact that the report was published after the Executive collapsed, and we have therefore had no reaction from Ministers to the recommendations. That makes life very difficult for all of us. We need to see Ministers in Stormont as soon as possible so that they can make the decisions when the consultation ends.
Points of Order
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. This week, 12 Catalan leaders go on trial in Spain’s Supreme Court on charges of rebellion and sedition. If found guilty, they face sentences of up to 25 years in jail. Their supposed crime was organising a democratic referendum on Catalan independence in October 2017. One of their number was the President or Speaker of the Catalan Parliament, Carme Forcadell, whom you graciously welcomed to our House when she visited us as a free woman. Her alleged crime was allowing a debate on Catalan independence in the democratically elected Catalan Parliament.
Mr Speaker, I know that you cannot comment directly on these matters and I wish in no way to put you in a difficult position, but will you confirm that it would be in order for you to allow a debate on Welsh independence in this democratically elected House and for me to take part, and that neither you nor I would be likely to face arrest or long-term imprisonment for so doing?
I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his courtesy in giving me notice of his intention to raise his point of order. Moreover, I am grateful for its substance, both because he raises an important point, to which I shall respond, and because it gives me the opportunity to say that I well remember welcoming Carme Forcadell when she came to this place—it was a privilege to do so.
On the substance of the matter, it is of course entirely orderly for there to be a debate in this House on Welsh independence. Members enjoy immunity for the words they utter in this Chamber and can come to no grief as a result of their freedom of expression. Moreover, I note in passing that as Speaker, I too enjoy immunity for the manner in which I preside over debates. Other people will fashion, and in many cases have done so, for better or for worse, their own arrangements. While ours are by no means incapable of improvement, and there are many people in this House who believe that there is much by way of parliamentary reform that can be accomplished, I think that on the matter that the hon. Gentleman has raised and the importance of democratic principle, we are very content with our arrangements. They could perhaps, in important respects, be imitated by others who proclaim a commitment to democracy. I hope that that is helpful to the hon. Gentleman.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. In the first urgent question on EU trade agreements, I stated that the hon. Member for Brent North (Barry Gardiner) had opposed all 40 of the EU trade agreements in the first place. Can I say, for the benefit of the House, that on closer inspection, he actually abstained on one of them: the EU-Japan economic partnership agreement? Nevertheless, his complaint that the agreements, which he himself never voted to make operable in the first place, might no longer be operable after Brexit day still stands.
I am sure that I am immensely grateful. It was not a point of order, but I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman feels that he has made an important point. If the right hon. Gentleman goes about his business with an additional glint in his eye and spring in his step, and feels that he has achieved a notable parliamentary victory—well, if that brings a little happiness into the life of the right hon. Gentleman, I must say veritably, I am pleased for the feller.
European Union (Withdrawal) (No. 4) Bill
Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 57)
Yvette Cooper, supported by Sir Oliver Letwin, Norman Lamb, Dame Caroline Spelman, Hilary Benn, Nick Boles, Jack Dromey, Mr Dominic Grieve, Stewart Hosie, Ben Lake, Liz Kendall and Clive Efford, presented a Bill to make provision in connection with the period for negotiations for withdrawing from the European Union.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time tomorrow, and to be printed (Bill 335).
Bus Drivers (Working Hours on Local Routes)
Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)
I beg to move,
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to limit bus drivers on local routes to driving for no more than 56 hours in any one week and 90 hours in any two consecutive weeks; and for connected purposes.
The Bill seeks to harmonise UK legislation on bus driving and working hours. It is supported by the road safety pressure group, Brake, and the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers, as well as by many Members in this place. Its origins are to be found in the terrible tragedy that was the bus crash in Coventry in 2015, in which two members of the public lost their lives: seven-year-old Rowan Fitzgerald and 76-year-old Dora Hancox. Such a tragedy is unimaginable for any family. May I start by welcoming Rowan’s mother, Natasha, and his grandmother, Barbara, who are here with us today? I thank them for their courage and encouragement, as I know this will be hard for them. The Bill has their absolute support.
I am not a specialist in transport legislation, nor on the working time directive, but avoidable tragedies such as the one that occurred on that fateful day in October 2015 must lead to the review of and changes to legislation. On that day, the bus driver was incapable of stopping his vehicle. His foot was pressed on the accelerator. Ultimately, it was the front of the Sainsbury’s store in Coventry city centre that brought the bus to a standstill. Rowan Fitzgerald, who was a pupil at St Antony’s school in Sydenham, Leamington, and 76-year-old Dora Hancox of Nuneaton were killed. Rowan was on his way home from watching his beloved Sky Blues—Coventry City. Dora was walking through the city centre on a shopping visit from Nuneaton. Several others, including Rowan’s cousin Paige Wilson, were seriously injured.
It was a busy Saturday afternoon in Coventry city centre. A video that was shown at the inquest revealed that the tragedy could have claimed even more lives. In it, the bus careers across the main road, striking another bus and lamp posts, before hurtling down a pavement and ploughing into a bus stop and then the supermarket. Were it not for the brave actions of Teil Portlock, who managed to disperse the pedestrians outside the Sainsbury’s, many others would have been killed or seriously injured.
What is most concerning is that it was an absolute inevitability that such a tragedy would happen. The driver that day was Mr Chander and the bus operator was Midland Red, which is part of Stagecoach Group. Mr Chander had been driving for the companies for several years and was retained as a relief driver on a casual contract. However, his hours were anything but casual. Although aged 77 years at the time, Mr Chander worked most days and had worked every day in the seven days leading to the accident. In the evidence given in court, it was confirmed that the company did not place any restriction on the number of hours he could work. As one of the controllers based at the Leamington depot put it:
“If there was a shift available and he wanted it, then he was given it.”
In consequence, he worked long hours and often worked five or six days a week. In addition, in the year leading up to the fatal accident, Mr Chander worked an average of 47 hours a week. That statistic disguises the number of hours worked during busy periods, namely school term-time. At those times, he would frequently work an excess of 56 hours a week and could drive school specials.
In the four weeks leading up to the crash he had driven 62 hours, 76 hours, 76 hours and 72 hours respectively, an average of 72 hours a week over that period—this, despite his shocking driving record. Between 2012 and 2014, the company received 16 written complaints from passengers about his erratic behaviour and the innumerable incidents. By Stagecoach’s own measures he should have been banned. The judge’s report provides more insight into those failings and the level of corporate ignorance stating:
“On Saturday 3 October, Mr Chander agree to swap shifts with another driver, meaning that he was now due to work an 11-hour shift”—
what is termed a spreadover.
“He agreed to do that having just completed a working week of 75 hours. In the morning he was driving a single-decker bus and, significantly, the CCTV shows him repeatedly rubbing his eyes as if tired. At approximately 5 pm, Mr Chander was waiting to take charge of a double-decker bus. Another driver told him he looked knackered and that he should say no. Mr Chander ignored that advice and set off, eventually coming to a bus stop on Hales street in Coventry city centre. At no point during the 11-second journey that followed did the driver engage the foot brake, pressing instead only the accelerator.”
In passing sentence, the judge concluded that the company was “highly culpable” and fined it £2.3 million.
This was a terrible tragedy, but of course there are many accidents every day. The data shows that there is a fundamental issue here. The fact that the driver had been driving so many long hours leading up to the crash was undoubtedly the critical factor that led to the accident. Currently, however, this is entirely legal under British law, as local bus drivers are not subject to the same working hour regulations as long-distance bus drivers or lorry drivers. Nor do the laws equate to those in the EU. Hours are clearly detrimental to passenger safety. British laws regulate bus drivers’ hours on local routes—that is, less than the 50 km limit—to just 10 hours a day, with no weekly or fortnightly limit except that in any two consecutive weeks there must be at least one period of 24 hours off duty. This means that it is entirely legal for a local bus driver to drive 130 hours over a period of two weeks. Under EU law, however, a long-distance bus driver or lorry driver cannot drive more than 56 hours a week or more than 90 hours over two consecutive weeks.
I believe this tragedy could have been avoided if driving hours for local bus drivers were capped at 56 hours a week and no more than 90 hours over any two consecutive weeks, as they are already for long-distance bus drivers and HGV drivers. That is the primary purpose of the Bill. However, the Bill also includes proposals for a move to EU regulations including bus drivers’ mandatory breaks, which would ensure a break of no less than 45 minutes be taken after no more than four and a half hours of driving. The break could be divided into two periods, the first at least 15 minutes and the second at least 30 minutes, taken over the four and a half hours. At present, the entitlement to a 30-minute break after five and a half hours behind the wheel often results in drivers taking smaller breaks or none at all due to congestion or other factors beyond their control. Additionally, the changes should be introduced by employers at no detriment to bus drivers’ pay.
The culture of long hours among bus drivers is accompanied by low wage rates, which places a dubious incentive on overtime. Over the past two decades, wages have fallen relative to average incomes. This is causing bus drivers to work nearly six hours a week more than average workers to sustain their incomes at a reasonable level. Regulations must prevent that, but must also ensure that bus drivers are paid properly for the essential public service they provide. This is important at a time when operators are cutting unprofitable routes and local councils are cutting funding to bus services.
There is also the need for regular independent health checks, beyond a driver’s GP, to ensure fitness for work. I am not the first to propose that. Back in 2015, some months before the Coventry crash, my right hon. Friends the Members for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) and for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) proposed such changes in an early-day motion. Coincidentally, earlier that same year a report was published by the London Assembly Transport Committee, which looked into the reasons for bus crashes in London. It concluded that Transport for London should commission comprehensive and independent research into bus drivers’ working conditions. There were reports that bus drivers could be doing 16-hour shifts without adequate breaks. This was followed up in its 2017 report, “Driven to Distraction”, which noted high levels of stress reported among bus drivers caused by long shifts, inadequate breaks and irregular shift patterns. There have been up to 25 fatalities a year and thousands injured in bus incidents in London. It is now the time to legislate.
Way back in 2009, the Department for Transport conducted an extensive review of the effectiveness of the British domestic drivers’ hours rules. Following that review, it was decided not to make any changes, concluding that any additional restrictions would risk imposing unreasonable burdens on the industry. Ten years on and the burdens now lie with the drivers, not the operators. A reduction in routes served and buses has led to a reduction of 8,000 bus drivers since 2010. At the same time, their wages have fallen behind their peers, resulting in drivers working longer hours and more days to try to maintain their monthly earnings.
It is clear that this issue affects drivers across the country. I received comments from far and wide about this. By way of example, one convenor reported that about a third of drivers were working more than 50 hours a week. Elsewhere, a bus driver in Cornwall drives on a route which is longer than the 50 km limit, so it should come under strict EU rules for long distance drivers. However, the company splits the route into three, so that the same driver can continue the route and does not have to comply with the EU working hours restrictions. In Liverpool, a driver who used to work for Stagecoach said that they were regularly forced to work 12-hour shifts day after day, which caused fatigue.
The Bill proposes to limit the working hours of bus drivers and seeks simply to harmonise UK legislation by bringing consistency of working hours and restrictions between drivers on local and long distance bus routes and lorry drivers. It cannot be right that we have different regulation for freight vehicles and passenger vehicles. We must harmonise. We must legislate. I commend the Bill to the House.
Question put and agreed to.
That Matt Western, Mr Jim Cunningham, Alan Brown, Grahame Morris, Ian Mearns, Mr Marcus Jones, Mike Amesbury, Jo Platt, Anna McMorrin, Sir Peter Bottomley and Wera Hobhouse present the Bill.
Matt Western accordingly presented the Bill.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 22 March, and to be printed (Bill 336).
Colleagues, imminently we will come to the motion on the retirement of the Clerk of the House and I will look to the Leader of the House to move the motion of congratulation to Sir David Natzler. Just before I do, I should like to record my own brief tribute.
People across the House will know that David Natzler has served without interruption in this House for over four decades. If memory serves me correctly, he began in our service in 1975. That service has been unstinting, selfless, formidable and, I think and hope all would agree, quite exceptional. Blessed with a brilliant brain, an understated manner, unfailing courtesy, and an absolute and undiluted passion for Parliament, he has given both of his skills and of his endeavours throughout his time here in a manner which I think is universally appreciated. I mention that he has served for over four decades. My own experience of him, I confess, dates back only just over two, but I would like to record a couple of relevant facts.
I got to know David when he served as Clerk of the Trade and Industry Select Committee. I was briefly a member of that Committee, from 1998 to 1999, and was on it with the hon. Member for Coventry South (Mr Cunningham), and indeed, the now right hon. Member for Chorley (Sir Lindsay Hoyle), the Senior Deputy Speaker of this House. The now Chairman of Ways and Means and I, and the hon. Gentleman, worked with and hugely benefited from David Natzler’s expertise—his procedural expertise and his ability to get to grips with the brief of the Committee and to offer us informed and invaluable advice on the vast miscellany of different inquiries that the Committee undertook.
As a Committee, we also travelled with David Natzler. Even if you are travelling somewhere very pleasant and staying in moderately salubrious surroundings, the camaraderie of the group, as I think all colleagues can testify, is important, and part of that is the contribution of our professional staff. David Natzler was a brilliant Clerk of the Committee. I am sure that that will be remembered, too, by its Chair for a decade, the former Member of this House and, between 1997 and 2005, the Member of Parliament for Ochil, now a Member of the other place—namely, Lord O’Neill of Clackmannan, known to many of us as Martin O’Neill. David was superb and he made a big and decisive difference to the operation of the Select Committee.
As Speaker, I have been privileged to know David Natzler in four of the roles that he has discharged for the House—as Clerk of Committees, Clerk of Legislation, Clerk Assistant and, since 2015, as Clerk of the House. As he approaches retirement, he will of course mark four years as Clerk of the House, which is a very normal period to serve as our Clerk, in the final role that a member of the Clerks service discharges to Parliament.
There is much that David has contributed, but I have a sense that he will be particularly proud of the work that he did back in 2009-10 on, and in support of, the Select Committee on Reform of the House of Commons. Colleagues will recall that that Committee was chaired with great skill, courtesy and even-handedness by the former Member of this place for Cannock Chase, Dr Tony Wright.
I do not think I give much away if I say that David Natzler thirsted to clerk that Committee. He knew that it was the will of the House that reforms should be made to the running of this place—not only to the operation of the Chamber, but to the work, remit and manner of composition of our treasured Select Committees. David felt that he could input invaluably to that work, and I hope that colleagues will agree that he most assuredly did. That work had to be discharged, not least because of the proximity of a general election, with considerable dispatch, but with attention to detail and proper discrimination—I use the word “discrimination” in its best sense—between what was important and could not wait and what might be important but could. I think that if Tony Wright were in this Chamber now, he would agree that David Natzler clerked that Committee, to which I remember giving evidence, among many others, brilliantly.
David has been the most assiduous and dedicated servant of the House. He signalled to me, probably a year, if not 18 months ago, his desire to retire around now. I hope that all colleagues will join me—I very much look forward to what the Leader of the House has to say by way of tribute—in wishing Sir David and his wife, Hilary, a very long, rewarding and happy retirement.
Retirement of the Clerk of the House
I beg to move,
That Mr Speaker be requested to convey to Sir David Natzler KCB, on his retirement from the office of Clerk of the House, this House’s gratitude for his long and distinguished service, for his wise contribution to the development of the procedure of the House and to modernising its practices, for his leadership and thoughtfulness in the discharge of his duties as head of the House Service, and for the courteous and helpful advice always given to individual honourable Members.
It is a real pleasure to move this motion in order to give the House the opportunity to pay tribute to Sir David Natzler today. I am sure that I speak on behalf of the whole House when I say that David has given outstanding service to the House of Commons. David began working here in 1975 and has held a variety of senior posts within the Chamber and Committees Team, incorporating the former Department of Chamber and Committee Services and the old Clerks Department. This has included his work as a Clerk to a range of Select Committees, including the Social Services Committee, the Procedure Committee and the Trade and Industry Committee. He was Principal Clerk of Committees, Secretary to the House of Commons Commission, Principal Clerk of the Table Office, Clerk of Legislation and Clerk Assistant.
David served as acting Clerk of the House from September 2014 and was formally appointed as Clerk of the House in March 2015, the 50th person to fill the role. David’s commitment to this place is quite simply unrivalled. When he met his delightful wife, Hilary, at a party in London, he soon discovered that she worked for Hansard. They were married in 1988, and it proved an inspired choice. What a wonderful recipe for keeping a husband on his toes—a wife who can take down his words in evidence and use them against him!
David has been a source of procedural advice and parliamentary wisdom to many a Leader of the House, not just in his role as Clerk, but in many of the senior roles he has occupied. I know that he has relished working with a number of Leaders of the House, dating back to Geoff Hoon and Jack Straw, and more recently, as Clerk with William Hague and with my right hon. Friends the Members for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) and for Aylesbury (Mr Lidington). As Secretary to the House of Commons Commission from 2004 to 2006, David also worked closely with the shadow Leaders of the House, including, at the time, my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May), now the Prime Minister.
Since becoming Leader of the House in 2017, I have personally benefited from the advice and wisdom that David so readily provides to all who knock at his door. Over the past 18 months, David has worked closely with me and my office. We have been through thick and thin. I think it is fair to say that we have a mutually appreciated candour and a clear recognition of each other’s viewpoint in turbulent times. I have a huge amount of respect for David and the work he does. In more than a decade at the Table of the House, among his many talents he has developed an impressive ability to convey a wide range of emotions with the single raising of an eyebrow—something that you often miss, Mr Speaker, as his back is turned to you, but I can assure you that it is very meaningful.
Throughout the highs and lows of the past four years, David has had the best interests of the House at heart, and during that time, he has stacked up a number of important achievements. I know that he was delighted to have secured Richmond House as part of the Northern Estates project, and then, at the start of last year, to see the restoration and renewal programme finally get the approval of both Houses in the form recommended by the Joint Committee. I share his enthusiasm and I am pleased that the Government have worked collaboratively with Parliament in the preparatory work for restoration and renewal and in bringing forward the Bill for pre-legislative scrutiny.
David has also overseen the introduction of the Parliamentary Security Department, as well as the Parliamentary Digital Service. He helped to bring in the governance changes, as recommended by the Straw Committee in 2014, which notably included the recruitment of the Director General.
In recent months, David has led the House service through the immediate aftermath of the Dame Laura Cox report. It was an uncomfortable read for many in the senior House administration and for anyone who cares passionately about this House. However, I want to pay tribute to David for the way in which he and his staff have acted to make swift progress on the Cox recommendations. I know that many staff in the House have appreciated the time that he has taken to get out and talk to them—for example, in town hall meetings—in order to show his personal commitment to getting the House through this challenging period.
Over the years, David has played his part in moving us towards a less antiquated House through a number of changes that have definitely not been without controversy. For example, he oversaw the replacement of vellum with archival paper for the printing of new laws, for which goats around the United Kingdom will be grateful.
I would like to correct one detail, if I may. Sir David was delicate in negotiating between this House and the other place over the matter of vellum and came up with a very nice compromise, which was that laws would be encased in a vellum folder, albeit printed on paper inside. It was a typical David Natzler way of doing things.
It was a good compromise indeed, but in that case I revoke the gratitude I expressed on behalf of goats everywhere.
Sir David has greatly supported the recent introduction of our new ground-breaking proxy voting scheme and has driven forward the removal of wigs and court dress for Clerks at the Table in the Chamber.
I am one of Sir David’s greatest admirers, but the Leader of the House is beginning to say things that are moving in the other direction. Can we go back to his love of tradition?
I was actually about to say that some of Sir David’s colleagues rather wish his clothing adjustments had extended to the scruffy white bowtie. David’s own bowtie tends towards the off-white shades more commonly favoured by trendy interior designers. I am sure my hon. Friend has a strong opinion on that.
It was a different modernising move that was the high point of David’s career. I am reliably informed that his personal high point was working with the Wright Committee on Reform of the House of Commons 10 years ago. This involved twice weekly extended private discussions—bordering on arguments—with a great number of Members about parliamentary politics and procedure. What more could a senior Clerk ask for?
As well as his official duties in the House, David has represented the Lords and Commons cricket team in their regular matches against the Dutch Parliament and played for parliamentary football and tennis teams. In his spare time, he is an ardent Shakespeare enthusiast, a founder member of the Richard Burbage Society and author of a scholarly essay entitled “The Two Gentlemen of Venice”—we can only speculate who they are. David’s intellectual gifts are part of parliamentary folklore—many a Member, myself included, has asked him a question and then struggled to keep up with the sheer subtlety of his arguments—but he is also blessed with a kindly heart and a vivid sense of humour.
I want to say a personal thank you to David both for his service to the House and for the collegiate way he has worked with me and my office in my time as Leader of the House. After 43 years, he should be proud that he leaves the House in a strong position to face the coming challenges of the next few months and years. In particular, I would like to wish him a very restful retirement. Few deserve it more and I imagine he is very much looking forward to it. I commend this motion to the House.
I thank the Leader of the House very warmly for what she has said.
I thank the Leader of the House for her comments and you, Mr Speaker, for your tribute to Sir David Natzler. The Leader of the House rightly paid tribute to his extraordinarily distinguished career in public service and to the range of roles he has occupied with such distinction, and I endorse her words completely.
I want to share with the House more personal reflections on Sir David. It is a slight twist of fate, but my predecessor as Member for Walsall South, Bruce George, was close to Sir David in a number of ways. For a while, David was Clerk of his Committee, and whenever Bruce made a minor comment on a draft report and David said loudly “Oh my God”, while clapping both hands to his forehead, the Chair knew he was getting frank criticism. You do it, too, Mr Speaker, at the Commission, when you say, “David, you are frowning.”
David and Bruce played together in the parliamentary football team. I think they were probably the Laurel and Hardy of the team. I am told that David boasts of being qualified to play for every football team in the former Austro-Hungarian empire. As those who knew him will remember, Bruce played in goal. He was quite large and actually quite a good goalie, but in a recent game they played in together he did not keep a clean sheet. Unlike poor old Gordon Banks—rest in peace—he was having an off day, and David stalked up to him and said, “You’re allowed to use your hands, you know.”
As accounting officer for the House, Sir David has had to have a strong sense of value for money. When he was head of the Table Office, he used to take his staff down to Strangers’ Bar, and there would be quizzical looks on people’s faces, because David’s colleagues would have to whisper code words to the bar staff, such as “Borodino”, “Marengo” and “Leipzig”—he made his Table Office Clerks say the names of Napoleonic battles to bar staff so that no one else could use his tab! I wonder if the tab is still open.
The Leader of the House and you, Mr Speaker, rightly paid tribute to Sir David’s work on the Wright Committee. I managed to speak to Tony Wright, now professor of government and public policy at University College London, and former Member for Cannock Chase, and he said this:
“The fact that David was Clerk of the Select Committee on the Reform of the House of Commons was indispensable to its success. He made sure that what we said was credible and carried authority. At that time the House was in a very bad place, following the expenses scandal, and David shared my belief that one way to restore its reputation was by making changes that would make it count for more, both in terms of elections for select committees and for backbench control of its own business. The fact that these reforms have become embedded in how the House operates is a tribute to the quality of the Reform Committee's report, and that is tribute to David himself. At a personal level, working with him was one of the most enjoyable periods of my parliamentary life. His combination of impish humour and formidable intellect made working with him a real joy. The House owes him a huge debt.”
As the principal constitutional adviser to the House and adviser on all its procedure and business, David has frequently appeared before Select and Joint Committees, and his evidence has always been highly valued. The Leader of the House mentioned the speed at which proxy voting was introduced. David did a lot of work behind the scenes to ensure that the first vote took place on 29 January. He is responsible—though not for much longer—for the 2,500 members of staff who make up the House service and Parliamentary Digital Service.
As Clerk of the House, Sir David has always striven to be helpful to staff and held several open meetings, including question and answer sessions. As well as going the extra mile himself in his daily duties, he has held tea parties to recognise staff who have gone the extra mile too. The staff have great respect and affection for him. One staff member, Dr Anna Dickson, said:
“David played an important role in setting up ParliREACH, the workplace equality network for Race, Ethnicity and Cultural Heritage in 2013. From the name to championing it at board level over the last five years. From chairing events to opening his official residence to the network and, most importantly, he has been a critical friend of the Committee”.
David was one of the first volunteers to take part in the ParliREACH reverse mentoring programme, which allows junior BAME staff members to mentor a senior manager. The objective was to give senior managers an insight into the organisation and its policies from the perspective of BAME staff. He has had two such mentors, both of whom have now left the House service. He thinks he may be partially responsible.
Coming from an immigrant background himself, Sir David has always been a keen supporter of and speaker at all-staff events hosted by ParliREACH, in particular looking at the implications of Brexit for non-UK EU staff working in Parliament. He has made sure that all staff who currently work here feel confident that they will not lose their jobs. After one such event in 2016, he committed the House to supporting people financially with applying for citizenship—a bold step, as you know, Mr Speaker. David was also a regular speaker at ParliREACH’s Holocaust Memorial Day events, where he spoke emotionally of the terrible effects of the holocaust on his own family.
Sir David has also been a champion of the House’s talent management scheme, which aims to enable women and BAME staff to develop their potential within the organisation, and has never shied away from inconvenient truths, even when they have reflected on him. He would always find a way to help people, and to steer ParliREACH in the right direction. He has been a passionate, consistent and entirely approachable supporter. Ken Gall, president of the trade union side, has said:
“He is a decent man who has kept his humour and his humanity during some of the most challenging times in recent parliamentary history. I absolutely trust him to tell me the truth.”
Many say that David’s more detached and calm approach can be attributed to the influence of his wife, Hilary. David would be the first to pay tribute in saying that meeting Hilary, at the time a reporter for Hansard, changed him immeasurably for the better. Hilary was a daughter of the manse, and they were married at Greyfriars Kirk in Edinburgh in 1988, with Hilary’s uncle, the Professor of Systematic Theology at Aberdeen university, officiating. Theirs has been a wonderful partnership, and they have three lovely children, Robert, Beatrice and Michael. Hilary has ensured that all David’s latent kindness and decency have fully emerged. No one who encountered him in 1975 would have thought that he would end up as the DJ—sorry, sound engineer—at the Church of Scotland’s Sunday services at St Columba’s Church in Pont Street.
David’s successor, Dr John Benger, said this:
“Very few can match his relentless intellectual curiosity and the breadth and depth of his knowledge. He has made an enormous contribution to public life and we will miss him.”
Let me add, on a personal note, that he has always been supportive of me in my role, and, on constitutional issues and on any other matters, he has always striven to give a constructive answer. I have to say that he never sounded happier than when I spoke to him on the phone. He was overlooking the Bay of Naples, and was about to deliver a lecture to an international audience, but he still had time to deal with the matter that I had to raise with him. I must also say, on behalf of our Chief Whip and Luke and Simon in the office, that they all value his wisdom and advice at Commission meetings and at meetings with Members. He understands the nature of Parliament and the role of Members, balanced with the constitutional duties of the Clerks and the staff of the House. It was especially pleasing to see him at a “reverse mentoring” event: I actually saw him dishing out potatoes in the Adjournment dining room, wearing his pinny, while the chef, Terry, looked on in amazement.
I thank David for his friendship and his advice, and I thank him for devoting himself to the public service of the House. I thank him for serving democracy in our country, and for leaving behind the legacy of a functioning democratic institution and a legacy of investing in people, so that when others come after him, everything will be the same.
So, David Lionel Natzler, this was your life in Parliament. The whole House wishes you and your family a wonderful life outside Parliament.
Thank you. Both the Leader of the House and the shadow Leader have engagingly captured Sir David’s wisdom, warmth and wit. I too have benefited from all those qualities, and I thank them both for what they have said in leading our debate on this important occasion.
My remarks will be brief, but no less heartfelt for their brevity. It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz), and, indeed, my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House.
I have known Sir David Natzler for 35 of his 43 years in the House, and it has been a privilege to regard him as a friend and colleague. For 21 of those 35 years, I have had the honour to be a member of the Panel of Chairmen. All of us who serve on your Panel, Sir, know how heavily we have come to rely on the advice and the wisdom of all the Clerks with whom we work, and we all know—every single one of us—that without their assistance and guidance, the work would be very much harder, if not impossible. Those of us who have sat alongside Sir David Natzler in Committees and in Westminster Hall—and, on occasion, in Committees of the whole House in the Chamber—have benefited hugely from, yes, his advice and, yes, his wisdom, but also from his friendship and his persistently dry humour at all times.
On behalf of, I hope, all the members of the Panel of Chairmen, I say, “Thank you, Sir David, and we wish you and your wife a long and very happy retirement.”
It is a real pleasure to speak in this debate on behalf of the Scottish National party. My hon. Friend the Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart) sends apologies for his absence. He, and all of us in the SNP, hold Sir David in the highest regard, and I echo all the tributes that have already been paid to him, particularly those relating to his role in the Cox inquiry and the introduction of proxy voting.
I remember that in the 2015 Parliament, when many SNP Members were first elected, Sir David had just been appointed, and I was described by you, Mr Speaker, as a “distinguished ornament” of the Procedure Committee. It was in that capacity that I had the first chance to interact with the Clerk, who was a regular witness at our evidence sessions, not least as the tortuous process of English votes for English laws was being introduced. I suspect that what you, Mr Speaker, have described as his “scholarly cranium” was put to considerable use throughout the devising of those procedures and, indeed, as they have been implemented with varying success in the months and years since then.
As if EVEL were not of enough constitutional significance, Sir David—as the Leader of the House said—also oversaw the reform of the use of vellum and the abandoning of wigs by the Clerks in the Chamber. That was not simply about dusting down stuffy old practices; it had the very practical effect of allowing a far wider range of Clerks to gain experience at the Table of the House, which will encourage the professional development of staff across the Chamber directorate. That, I think, is a testament to the ambition that, as we heard from the Leader of the House and the shadow Leader, the hon. Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz), Sir David has always held for the service of staff in the House.
Let me, on behalf of the SNP, express our thanks and gratitude for the advice and support that we receive from all the Clerks in all the various offices, and, of course, warmly congratulate Dr John Benger on his appointment as the 51st Clerk of the House. He is already a familiar and well-respected figure here in Parliament, and we look forward to working closely with him in the months and years to come. I cannot say for certain whether Dr Benger will end up in the same circumstances in which SNP Members have sometimes led Sir David to find himself—not least during a memorable session of Prime Minister’s Question Time last year when he had to advise you, Mr Speaker, on the application of Standing Order 43 (Disorderly conduct) after my right hon. Friend the Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Ian Blackford) had attempted to invoke Standing Order 163 (Motions to sit in private). I think that we saw Sir David’s arched eyebrow in overdrive during that particular session.
Sir David’s long experience in the House meant that, on that day and in similar historic situations throughout these years of Brexit and minority government, he has been a point of calm, stability and neutral perspective. That, I think, has been appreciated by Members of all parties who have sought his advice. So after these turbulent years and his many decades of service, who can deny him the chance of a bit of rest and relaxation? We wish him and Lady Natzler every happiness for the years to come—although I suspect that we may not have seen the very last of him quite yet. All the best, and slàinte mhath.
You, Mr Speaker, and the Leader of the House and the shadow Leader have recited the encyclopaedic list of Sir David’s achievements. I shall not repeat them, but they will appear in Hansard, and they will be worth reading.
Many of us did not recognise Sir David when we came into the Chamber, because he was one of the three “wigs” sitting on the bench, until the wigs were removed. As has been mentioned, however, a few of us have had the pleasure of working closely with him, either in Committees or individually. I am thinking particularly of the Commission, the Joint Audit Committee and the other Audit Committees. I, for one, always took Sir David’s advice when I asked for it individually, but not everybody did. He is very exacting. One of my colleagues, to her great amusement, was recently informed, politely but emphatically, that a letter was a letter and an email was an email, but an email was not a letter and a letter was not an email. The bemusement was worth watching.
Sir David’s humour keeps sneaking through, however, and anyone who had the pleasure of reading the letters between this House and the other place on the discussion—I will call it a discussion—of the role of the Pugin Room was in for a treat. Key members of staff retiring or moving on often had a thank you party in his rooms facing on to Parliament Street; his thank you speeches were a merciless delight. The hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) and I had regular meetings with him in the office at the back; that was because he is a member of the Finance Committee and I am chairman of the Administration Committee, not for any other reasons. However, it was his role to help the two of us put together an amendment for the restoration and renewal debate some months ago. His advice was that he would help, but it would not be carried. He helped, but he said he was so sure it would not be carried that he would put a bottle of champagne on it failing. I understand that on the evening of the debate he went home early enough to turn on the Parliament channel; that has to be devotion—or is it a case of “get a life”? Anyway, I am reliably told that when the vote went through he gave a cheer with raised arms as if England had won the rugby world cup—a pretty rare possibility—but I still await the champagne.
Like everybody in the House who has got to know Sir David, I wish him and his wife the very best for their retirement. Given his sense of humour, I hope he writes his memoirs, and I would like a signed copy.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Mole Valley (Sir Paul Beresford) and to say a few words on behalf of the Liberal Democrats in this House about Sir David Natzler, a man whose contribution will be enormously missed; he has been an exceptionally distinguished holder of a distinguished office.
As others have said, he entered the House service in 1975, and in 1981 he assumed the office of Clerk of Select Committees, where the early decades of his career were spent. His influence there is to be seen in the way in which the Select Committees have grown in stature as part of the operation of this House. It is difficult to remember now that in 1979 they were something of a radical novelty.
As a Minister and Chief Whip for my party and the former coalition Government, I often had recourse to seek procedural advice from him and his predecessor Lord Lisvane. Sir David’s advice was always everything we would expect from the Clerks’ office: candid, independent, trustworthy and always rooted in an understanding of, and respect for, the rules that govern this House. He understood that for the House to perform its functions as it ought to, it had to have respect for its own rules; indeed, if we do not respect our own rules, how can we expect others to respect the rules we make for them?
Sir David was, however, an enormously approachable figure in what is otherwise a very magisterial office. He was always willing to offer Members of Parliament a way to save themselves if they only had the wit and humility to take it. Indeed, humility was just one of the considerable attributes he brought to the role of Clerk, as seen when he was prepared to acknowledge previous failings that he and all of us have had in how we have carried out our business in the past. That was not easy, I am certain, but it was very necessary, and the fact that he was able to do it with style and gravitas says a lot about the man.
As Mr Speaker alluded to earlier, many years ago now, he and the Chairman of Ways and Means and I served on the Trade and Industry Committee with Sir David and one thing always stands out in my mind about the Clerk of the House: anyone might have thought he was a bit of a Scotsman because he was certainly very frugal, to say the least, about expenditure and paying expenses. Gordon Brown always liked to talk about prudence, and I often wondered whether they came out of the same nest. Nevertheless, he often gave me good advice and he will be badly missed in this House; it will probably be a long time before we see his like again.
I am sure that is the case, and the hon. Gentleman tees up my next thought perfectly. I have been moved to consider what makes a good Clerk. I am sure that there are many qualities and influences that one must bring to bear, but when I consider those who served as Clerk in my time in this House, I think of Sir William McKay, Sir Malcom Jack, the now Lord Lisvane and Sir David himself, and in the lives of two of them, Sir William McKay and Sir David, there have been strong Presbyterian influences. The shadow Leader of the House, the hon. Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz), referred to Sir David’s membership and regular attendance at the Church of Scotland congregation in Pont Street, and it strikes me that to be a Presbyterian often puts one in a place where one has to be close to the establishment and to authority, and to understand it, but not necessarily be part of it. I do not think it would come as a surprise to any of us in these challenging times to think that anyone holding the office of Clerk of the House of Commons might have cause to have recourse to prayer, and I have mused whether in those moments of prayer in the magnificent surroundings of St Columba’s, Pont Street, Sir David was seeking guidance from the Almighty or offering advice. Fortunately and happily, that is known only to Sir David and the Almighty. I venture the thought that of course offering advice to an omnipotent deity should not be undertaken lightly, as one risks incurring the wrath of God. I am sure if that were ever to be the case, Sir David would be able to meet the wrath of God with the good humour, equanimity and aplomb we would all expect from a man of his knowledge and experience.
I had always thought that Sir David had never offered an opinion with which I could disagree, but ahead of today’s debate, I made the mistake of putting his name into Google, and I found an article on the website of the constitution unit of University College London where he is quoted, I hope correctly, as saying,
“most members of the UK parliament do not come to Westminster expressly to legislate, but to support their parties.”
From that one sentence, it is clear that Sir David’s considerable experience has been gained in the Clerks’ office and never in the Whips Office. Now that perhaps his time might permit it, as Liberal Democrat Chief Whip I would be more than happy to offer him a work experience placement in our Whips Office for him to gain a slightly more rounded experience of how this place works. There is one further interesting sentence in that article:
“Natzler concluded with a suggestion for future research on rebellious opposition backbenchers.”
I am not entirely sure why he restricted that to Opposition Back Benchers, but there is clearly a rich vein of future research and discourse to be had here.
Sir David leaves Parliament with an enormous wealth of knowledge and experience acquired over many years of distinguished service. I hope that last sentence from the UCL website is an indication that this is not an end of his engagement with our Parliament and politics. He has had a long and distinguished service in this House, and I am sure all in this House hope he will have a long and distinguished retirement.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for what he has said. Not for the first time, he has reminded us that he has served as his party’s Chief Whip, but I hope that he will not take it amiss if I say that he has indeed served as his party’s Chief Whip, and with distinction, but that since then he has been promoted.
I am sorry that I was late in attending the Chamber, Mr Speaker; the Procedure Committee was meeting.
Sir David has been an absolute brick to this rather gauche Chairman of the Procedure Committee. I bounce into his office on a regular basis, demonstrating the clear thinking of the totally uninformed. I am sat down, and he demonstrates the deep thinking of the totally informed. He never says no. He normally says, “Charles, brilliant idea—let’s work together to make it even better.” By the time I leave his office, we have the kernel of a good idea that we can take forward.
Sir David is a truly great man. His ethos of public service and his commitment to excellence and to this place reverberate around the corridors of the House of Commons. This is seen in all the Clerks who work with him and for him, from the most senior Clerks to those who are just starting on their journey—a journey that might take them to the highest office in this place over the next 40 years. I shall miss his wisdom greatly. He has been a fantastic friend. He is always willing to listen and, most importantly, he has always been willing to guide. In a sense, he is a bit like a father figure. Father figures love to hear the voices of their children and, in hearing those voices, they can often moderate them and direct them to great purpose and better things. He has been a huge influence on my time in this place, and as I have said, I shall miss him immensel