House of Commons
Tuesday 26 February 2019
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
Foreign and Commonwealth Office
The Secretary of State was asked—
The UK works closely with Europe and the US to promote a strong transatlantic partnership. It is vital for our security and prosperity that we work with the Trump Administration to promote transatlantic unity through NATO. Since July’s NATO summit, we have urged allies to increase defence spending and have encouraged the US to recognise the significant allied progress.
May I welcome the efforts my right hon. Friend has made in his role to strengthen those ties and ask in particular what assessment he has made of the security and intelligence co-operation between our two countries on which so much of our peace and security depends?
Later this year, the UK will host a NATO summit that will mark the 70th anniversary of the organisation’s founding. Does my right hon. Friend agree that, as America’s closest ally in Europe, we need to be willing to make the argument to our European partners that the financial burden of defending our continent needs to be shared fairly and that other countries need to follow the UK’s example by meeting the NATO defence spending pledge?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right—indeed, that is exactly what my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has been doing over the past week in his travels around the capitals of Europe—and I fully agree with her, as do Her Majesty’s Government, that burden sharing is important. We have been making that point with European partners—NATO partners in Europe —and I am pleased to say that there is progress, but there is still more to be done.
A strengthened transatlantic alliance could lead to more action in Sri Lanka to tackle human rights abuses. Will the Minister of State urge the Trump Administration to join him and the Foreign Secretary in putting pressure on the Sri Lankan Government to tackle human rights abuses and to respect international calls for a war crimes inquiry?
The Minister knows that, after two world wars, we set up the United Nations, we set up NATO and we set up the European Community in an early form to stop our ever having wars again. Is he not concerned about some of the words and some of the actions coming out of the White House under President Trump at the moment?
What assessment has my right hon. Friend made of the impact on the transatlantic alliance of the recent talks in Vietnam between North Korea and America? Does this have the potential to strengthen our security in the west?
My understanding is that those talks are happening today, so it is not easy for me to comment on something that has not quite yet taken place. However, my skills of foresight are well recognised in this House, as I well appreciate. I hope that these conversations and discussions will lead to a more peaceful world and are as successful as we would wish.
Yesterday, the International Court of Justice found that the UK’s control of the Chagos islands is illegal and wrong. This damning verdict deals a huge blow to the UK’s global reputation. Will the Government therefore heed the call of the ICJ to hand back the islands to Mauritius, or will they continue to pander to the United States military?
The hon. Lady is labouring under a serious misapprehension: yesterday’s hearing provided an advisory opinion, not a judgment. We will of course consider the detail of the opinion carefully, but this is a bilateral dispute, and for the General Assembly to seek an advisory opinion by the ICJ was therefore a misuse of powers that sets a dangerous precedent for other bilateral disputes. The defence facilities in the British Indian Ocean Territory help to keep people in Britain and around the world safe, and we will continue to seek a bilateral solution to what is a bilateral dispute with Mauritius.
UK Soft Power
We should be proud of the UK’s soft power and the contribution that independent institutions such as the BBC and the British Council make to it. That is why the Foreign and Commonwealth Office has trebled its investment in Chevening scholarships since 2015, helped to fund the biggest expansion of the BBC World Service in 70 years and provided additional funding for the British Council’s work in developed countries. It is also why my Department is developing a cross-Government soft power strategy to further project our values and advance our interests overseas.
The Minister rightly mentioned the BBC World Service. Will he join me in celebrating the excellent work that that organisation does, given how important it is for expressing the UK’s soft power overseas, and in calling on the BBC to expand and enhance its reach?
I am delighted to join my hon. Friend in recognising the excellent work of the BBC World Service, which brings the UK and its values to the world at large. Since 2016, Her Majesty’s Government have been funding the World 2020 programme, which has seen the World Service undergo its biggest single expansion in the past 70 years, with 12 new language services opened in 2017-18, and I have been very proud to watch some of that excellent work in India.
The plays of Shakespeare have been translated into many languages and performed in many countries around the world, including China, so does the Minister agree that Britain has amazing cultural and linguistic assets that we can use to project our soft power around the world and to support democratic values, freedom of speech and creativity, as we build a new relationship with the world?
I do indeed agree with my hon. Friend. For example, in 2016, the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death was marked by an HMG-funded cultural programme called Shakespeare Lives, which was jointly delivered by the British Council, the GREAT campaign and the FCO, involving the BBC and the Royal Shakespeare Company.
I congratulate my hon. Friend and his colleagues on their excellent work to co-ordinate better our soft power effort, but does he agree that it is very important that there is a proper plan to follow up on some of the very successful royal visits overseas with a very well co-ordinated effort, particularly in soft power?
I thank my right hon. Friend. We have already had questions today on Shakespeare and the BBC, but he is absolutely right that our royal family is one of our greatest soft power assets, and we will do our level best, through the GREAT campaign and elsewhere, to ensure that strength continues.
An important part of our soft power is our commitment to tackling global poverty and to international development. Will the Minister therefore take this opportunity to reaffirm the Government’s commitment to 0.7% spending on overseas aid and to the Department for International Development as a stand-alone Department, independent of the Foreign Office?
And a former DFID Minister, too.
I agree with the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg), and this is a matter not just of soft power, but of hard power. There is little doubt that the 0.7% commitment has an important part to play. I see it in all parts of Asia, not least in Pakistan and Bangladesh, which have the two single biggest DFID budgets. It is important for aid and development and, indeed, for the prosperity fund, which will allow British companies to prosper in the years to come.
Over the past three years, this Government’s chaotic approach to Brexit has shredded our international credibility and diminished our soft power. Whether Brexit goes ahead or not, there is an important job to be done to repair our international standing in the world and build alliances, so will the Minister have a word with the Defence Secretary and ask him to cut out the foolish rhetoric, which has real consequences?
I obviously represent Asia and the Pacific abroad, and whenever I go to that part of the world, I always come back much more uplifted about the UK’s brand. We find that many countries in that part of the world—indeed, this applies globally—have had strong dealings with the UK for decades, if not centuries, and they recognise that we will have strong connections in the years to come. They know that there is obviously a small amount of uncertainty with the Brexit arrangements that are taking place now, but the positivity of the UK’s brand, our reliability as a partner and the sense that we project international values are important.
The Minister is right to point out outside organisations. Will he, like me, pay due credit to the brave non-governmental organisations that do fantastic work and enhance our soft power in some of the most difficult conflict environments in the world, not least Yemen? Today, the United Nations is appealing for £3.2 billion to help organisations such as Saferworld and International Rescue Committee. Should that not be our focus, rather than the £4.6 billion we spent on arms?
We have announced only today, in the aftermath of the Sharm el-Sheikh negotiations, that we will be putting a further £200 million into Yemen. It is important to recognise the tremendous contribution made by so many British citizens and British NGOs across the globe. That is one aspect of soft power that will enhance our standing in the years to come. It is in this sort of area where I hope we will continue.[Official Report, 27 February 2019, Vol. 655, c. 2MC.]
I welcome the Minister’s commitment, but that is outstripped by our arms sales. The UK could be a serious player for peace in the region. Will we move away from arming combatants and move towards finances that will help to prevent poverty and migration, because that prevents conflict—not arms sales?
We have made agreements—not least the negotiations that have taken place in recent months in Stockholm—to try to work together to ensure that the worst offenders do not have arms sales. It is not the case that we do not have an eye on the ethics and the moral values that are close to the heart of many of our constituents across the country. We will continue to work closely and utilise as much soft power as we can in the years to come.
I am happy to answer that in short order: yes. My right hon. Friend the Minister for Europe and the Americas has worked tirelessly in that regard and we will continue to do so. I think that those in the diaspora in the UK, both Turkish and Greek Cypriots, recognise that it is important that we put 45 years of great difficulty behind us. I think that the UK has had an important part to play in helping to bring those sides together.
We are discussing soft power. I want to ask the Minister about an issue where the exercising of that power is growing long overdue. When we gather for the next Foreign Office questions on 2 April, it will be six months to the day since Jamal Khashoggi was murdered in Istanbul. Will the Minister ask his boss, the Foreign Secretary, to guarantee to the House that before we reach that sad milestone, he will present the Government’s findings on who, ultimately, is responsible for that murder and what actions the Government are taking in response?
My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary will be going to Saudi Arabia this week, and I hope that there will be progress in relation to the very serious issues the right hon. Lady raises. She will be aware that we will be hosting a conference in this country in July—again, a very important part of British global soft power—that will look at the dangers journalists face across the world. I think that the fact we are doing that will reflect well, and I hope that she and the Labour party will want to play an important part in that role. We need freedom for journalists to be able to go about their everyday business. The situation with Khashoggi is the worst and most glaring example, but some 80 journalists were murdered going about their business last year and many hundreds have been locked up. Internationally, we need to come together to stand up for those values.
I thank the Minister for that answer. While a conference is important, it is hardly an answer to the question of the murder of Jamal Khashoggi. There are no official answers and there are no official actions. Worse than that, the Foreign Secretary went to Berlin last week and told one of the few Governments willing to act on the Khashoggi murder, by banning arms sales to Yemen, that they are wrong to do so. May I ask the Minister to once more ask his boss the Foreign Secretary—it is a simple request—whether he will, by the time of the next Foreign Office questions, six months on from the Khashoggi murder, be telling us all the people he believes are responsible and what action they are going to take in response?
As I said, my right hon. Friend will be in Saudi Arabia and clearly, this issue will be discussed. I hope that he will be in a position to update the House on 2 April or, indeed, prior to that time. The right hon. Lady raised the issue of the arms trade. We are proud to build on the contribution made by Robin Cook when he was Foreign Secretary that means that arms sales regulations here in the UK are among the strictest across the western world, and they will continue in that vein.
Iran’s Ballistic Missile Programme
Iran’s ballistic missile programme presents a threat to the security of the middle east and Europe that cannot be ignored. The Foreign Secretary raised the issue of ballistic missiles with Foreign Minister Zarif in Tehran on 19 November, and on 5 December, the Foreign Secretary issued a statement following Iranian testing of a medium-range ballistic missile. Alongside our partners, we continue to call on Iran to act consistently with all UN Security Council resolutions in relation to its ballistic missile programme.
Earlier this month, crowds on the street chanted, “Death to Theresa May,” and called for the destruction of Israel and America. Will the Minister condemn that rhetoric, and does he share my concern that President Rouhani has also stated that he is going to continue his programme of uranium enrichment?
My hon. Friend is right: of course, the rhetoric that flows so often from staged public demonstrations in Tehran does not help very much, but it has to be seen in the context of Iranian politics. On uranium production, the International Atomic Energy Agency recently confirmed for the 15th time that Iran was not in breach of the provisions of the joint comprehensive plan of action. We still believe that that is a fundamental bank of relationships with Iran to try to curtail its activities, and of course we would strongly condemn any move away from those JCPOA principles by Iran.
Is the Minister concerned, as I am, that Iran is using Yemen as a testing ground for its missile programme? We have seen the UN panel of experts talk about the new kamikaze drones that are coming out of Iran. We have had the Badr-1—the missile system that looks like the V2—being launched into Saudi Arabia, and we are seeing from technical reports that the enhancements being applied by Iran in that war are considerable. This is very worrying.
The UN has already declared that missiles of Iranian origin have been fired from Houthi-controlled areas in Yemen towards Saudi Arabia, sometimes with lethal effect. Of course, it is essential to get the conflict in Yemen to an end to prevent that sort of threat, to prevent it being used as a base for the testing of weapons and to bring some comfort and humanitarian relief to people in Yemen.
Is it not the case that neither the carrot of the nuclear deal nor the stick of sanctions and other policy measures has so far encouraged Iran to be a responsible member of the international community? What more does the Minister think can be done to persuade Iran to desist from supporting terror, insurgency and pursuing its ballistics programme?
My right hon. Friend is right, and of course the short answer is that we keep on going, because the consequences of a confrontation leading to a conflict in the middle east involving Iran and others would be catastrophic. We will continue with our efforts. We have sanctions against elements in Iran. There are the economic sanctions employed by the United States and others, but we have to keep looking for a way in which we end the risk of a serious confrontation in the middle east. It is not to be encouraged by harsh rhetoric on either side, and I think that the United Kingdom’s diplomatic efforts to try to bring some resolution in the area are the best thing that we can do.
Given the extent of the human rights abuses of the Iranian regime, the detention of British citizens and so on, and the continued state sponsorship of terrorism and terrorist groups such as Hezbollah and Hamas, how does the Minister assess the success of the nuclear deal and efforts to bring Iran into a proper state of affairs as far as international relations are concerned?
The right hon. Gentleman puts together two things, quite rightly. First, the success of the nuclear deal can be measured in the fact that, as I said, the IAEA confirms that there has been no progress by Iran in relation to its nuclear ambitions. That is important in its own context, but secondly, did it lead to any change in behaviour in the region? The short answer is that no, it did not, so we need to continue to demonstrate that we are as concerned about the other aspects of Iran’s behaviour as we are about nuclear issues and get to see some change in that behaviour if we are to avoid the confrontation that I mentioned earlier.
Persecution of Christians
The UK has long championed freedom of religion, but I am concerned that we could do more for the 240 million Christians estimated to be facing persecution for their faith around the world. I have therefore asked the Bishop of Truro to conduct an independent review into what more the FCO can do. Last week, I agreed the terms of reference for his review.
I thank the Foreign Secretary for that review. When I meet Christians from countries where they are under pressure or persecuted, I see loyal citizens who contribute enormously to those countries, whether in health, education, business or so much else. Why do those countries persecute their citizens for their faith?
It is often because they are in the grip of totally misguided ideologies. I thank my hon. Friend for his long championing of this issue. It is a little known fact that around 80% of the people who suffer persecution for their faith are Christians, often in some of the poorest countries in the world—and particularly in the middle east, which 100 years ago had a population that was about 20% Christian. Now that is down to 5%.
Given that a third of Christians in China and Asia are experiencing high-level persecution—that is 140 million people—what discussions have the Government had with the Chinese to end that? What protection can the Government give those Christians facing persecution?
We do all we can to raise these issues. I raised freedom of religion issues with my counterpart, Foreign Minister Wang Yi, when I went to China last August. We raised them in November in the Universal Periodic Review—a regular review of human rights issues in China. The noble Lord Ahmad is in Geneva this week for the UN Human Rights Council, where he will also be raising the issue of freedom of religion in China. My hon. Friend is right to be concerned.
It was reassuring to see the Pakistan Government protecting the independence of their courts in overturning the blasphemy conviction against Asia Bibi. What support are this Government giving the new Government in Pakistan to ensure consistent protection of Christians from persecution?
We have excellent relations with the new Government of Pakistan; in fact, I spoke to the Pakistani Foreign Minister yesterday. We co-operated on the Asia Bibi issue. We wanted to support them because we recognise that the situation on the ground there is extremely fragile. They are trying to do the right thing. As one of the biggest aid donors to Pakistan, we play a crucial role in stiffening their resolve to do the right thing.
As the Foreign Secretary will know, the Chinese face mounting criticism over the treatment of Uighur Muslims, up to 1 million of whom are said to be in detention. What action are we taking in Geneva to try to establish oversight of the situation of the Uighur Muslims?
On 4 July last year, Lord Ahmad, who is in Geneva at the moment, was appointed the Prime Minister’s special envoy for freedom of religious belief. He is himself from a persecuted Muslim minority, so he understands these issues. The answer is that China is, of course, a sovereign country but we raise this issue at every opportunity. We are very concerned about it. If we do not raise these issues, we have to ask who will. That is why we have a big obligation.
My right hon. Friend the Minister for the Middle East met the Foreign Minister of Sudan yesterday. We remain concerned; Sudan is one of the five countries where Christians suffer the worst persecution, alongside North Korea, Somalia, Afghanistan and one other country. We are very concerned and continue to raise the issue at every opportunity.
First, I thank the Foreign Secretary for his hard work and dedication to the job in hand. I declare an interest as chair of the all-party parliamentary groups on international freedom of religion or belief and on Pakistani minorities. Christians are being persecuted across the world. What steps is the Foreign Secretary taking to collect data about persecuted Christians and belief groups in order to support policy making?
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to raise that issue. Good data is available from the campaigning organisation Open Doors, from which we get the figure that there are 240 million persecuted Christians around the world. One of the recommendations that I am sure the Bishop of Truro will be considering is whether we need to be more robust in our data collection, so that we can better inform debates in this House.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. [Laughter.] The Bishop of Truro’s review of the Foreign Office’s work is very welcome. Will the Foreign Secretary include Ministers in other Departments to ensure that the Bishop’s work in relation to the persecution of Christians, and the British Government’s handling of that support, are cross-governmental?
Fundamental political and economic reform in line with Zimbabwe’s own constitution is vital for a peaceful and stable Zimbabwe. I spoke to Foreign Minister Moyo on 29 January, and made clear that the Zimbabwean Government must investigate all alleged human rights violations and deliver on President Mnangagwa’s public commitment to reform.
Does the Minister agree that, first, the elections in Zimbabwe were seriously flawed, and secondly, the recent repression of peaceful protests was completely unacceptable and outrageous? Can she confirm that there is currently no question of Her Majesty’s Government’s supporting Zimbabwe’s return to the Commonwealth, and does she agree that we should now consider extending targeted sanctions?
I agree, Mr Speaker. There were at least three questions in there, and I will try to answer all of them.
External and international observers were invited to see the recent elections, and judged that, while imperfect, they were freer and fairer than those that took place in 2013 and 2008. As for sanctions, my hon. Friend will be aware that, along with the EU, we renewed them recently, targeting specific individuals and focusing on one organisation.
Zimbabwe has applied to join the Commonwealth. I must say that given the recent behaviour of the security forces, it would be difficult for the UK to support the application were it to come before the Commonwealth Secretariat in the near future, but that is a hypothetical situation.
In view of the continuing police and army brutality, will the UK Government immediately withdraw any support for the review of Zimbabwe’s relationship with the international community, step up efforts—working with neighbouring states—to hold President Mnangagwa to account, and ensure that the Home Office does not deport any asylum seekers to Zimbabwe while the current human rights violations continue?
My hon. Friend asked about the ongoing engagement with neighbouring countries. I discussed the situation in Zimbabwe recently with the South African Government, the Government of Mozambique and the new high commissioner from Botswana. I think it important for those in the region to send similar messages about addressing the recent well documented and credible reports. My hon. Friend may want to raise the Home Office issues with Home Office colleagues, but my understanding is that around the world the UK would return people to their country of origin only when we and the courts considered it safe to do so.
On 12 February, my constituent Victor Mujakachi was detained. The intention was to deport him to Zimbabwe, which has seen tragic human rights abuses in the past few months. What assessment did the Government undertake of the human rights situation in that country before they sought to deport Victor and others?
The hon. Lady will, of course, want to raise that case with Home Office colleagues, but my understanding is that each case is taken on its merits, and that neither the UK Government nor our courts would deport someone unless it was widely agreed by the courts that it was safe to do so.
Does the Minister not agree that much more direct liaison is needed between the nation states in the south of Africa to ensure that greater pressure is applied for efforts to impose additional sanctions that will produce the desired result in Zimbabwe?
I do not think we can particularly count on the southern area nations for support for sanctions; in fact their public statements have been critical of the sanctions that the EU has put in place. However, the UK believes there is a role for very specifically targeted sanctions on individuals and Zimbabwe defence industries, and we believe that those sanctions do not have a wider economic impact that harms the people of Zimbabwe.
Since 14 January there has been wholesale persecution by the military of the civilian population: documented cases of rape of civilians by the military, use of live rounds, and 17 civilians shot dead. Will the Minister make clear through our excellent new British high commissioner in Harare the terrible price Zimbabweans are paying for the economic mismanagement of their country and the subversion of the rule of law?
I join my right hon. Friend in paying tribute to our ambassador and indeed the whole team in our embassy in Harare, who are working heroically on what have been some sickening reports from credible sources. He will know that we provide a wide variety of support to civil society in Zimbabwe, and I had a meeting with civil society leaders when I was in South Africa recently. My right hon. Friend will be aware that for their own security we cannot disclose which organisations we support, but we endorse the credible reports he alludes to.
Israel and Palestine
Yesterday I met the Foreign Affairs Minister of the Palestinian Authority, Riyad al-Maliki—I met the Sudanese Foreign Minister on the same occasion—and I had a meeting with the Israeli Foreign Ministry last week in London and Israeli Ambassador Regev. We keep in constant contact with all parties who might have an influence on the middle east peace process to demonstrate how fundamental it is to United Kingdom foreign policy that this long-standing matter is finally settled.
I have here the names of four young Palestinians, all under the age of 18, who are currently in prison: Yaccob Qawasmeh, Akram Mustafa and Ahmad Silwadi, and one who is 15 years old, Akram Daa’dou, who in the early hours of the morning in the presence of—
In the early hours of this morning, in the presence of his family, Akram Daa’dou was dragged from his home by Israeli occupation forces. His family have no idea where he is. Will the Minister raise with his Israeli counterpart questions about where this gentleman and the other young people are, and ensure that their rights under the fourth Geneva convention are upheld, as they should be in the Palestinian occupied territories?
Through the consulate-general in Jerusalem we regularly express concerns to Israel about activity relating to minors on the west bank. We have offered help and support for dealing with children who may have been detained and we are constantly in contact about any risk of incursion there and the effect on civil rights.
Labour is committed to a peaceful two-state solution that guarantees a secure Israel alongside a viable state of Palestine. For anyone working towards that goal it is worrying that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has struck an election deal with two extreme nationalist parties whose leading members have advocated the forced expulsion of millions of Palestinians. Will the Minister commit to using all available diplomatic measures to ensure that that coalition does not threaten a peaceful two-state settlement?
Coalitions in Israel and matters affecting the Israeli elections are not a matter for the UK Government. Our position on a two-state solution and a comprehensive solution to the middle east peace process is exactly the same as that of colleagues on the other side of the House and, as I said earlier, it is a fundamental part of UK foreign policy that we will continue to press for that.
My hon. Friend is correct: the issues between those in authority on the west bank and those in Gaza—between Fatah and Hamas—have long been a difficulty in getting a consistent Palestinian voice. My understanding is that conversations about reconciliation are continuing, and they are being handled very much by the Government of Egypt. If there is to be the peaceful settlement of issues in the middle east peace process that we want, it is essential that there is a consistent voice from Palestinians based around the Quartet principles and that the efforts made towards security and peace by the Palestinian Authority over a lengthy period are followed by others.
I welcome the decision of the British Government to proscribe Hezbollah. Would my right hon. Friend care to consider the distinction between Iran, which is using its rocket technology to produce ballistic missiles, and Israel, which will shortly be landing a scientific explorer on the moon?
My hon. Friend is right to make reference to the fact that the United Kingdom has found it impossible to continue any longer with the distinction between the military and political wings of Hezbollah, hence my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary’s decision yesterday in relation to proscription. Israel’s scientific technology and its progress in recent decades has been quite remarkable, and the use of technology for peace is something that we would all wish to see, but it is a complex region and a difficult neighbourhood. We support continuing efforts for peace in the region.
As I think the House knows, I have been anxious for many years to ensure that this is not a lost cause and that we have to keep at it. It remains fundamental in the region, and we will keep at it. The recognition of a state of Palestine would not, per se, end the issue, but we are pledged to do that when it is in the best interests of peace and of the peace process in the region.
Leaving the EU: Diplomatic Network
On 31 October, I announced the largest expansion of our diplomatic network for a generation. It involves opening 14 new diplomatic posts and 335 additional personnel overseas, and it will raise the number of sovereign missions to 161, second only to the USA and China.
I have seen at first hand the value of our missions around the world to raising our global aspirations, so I particularly welcome the announcement of the new posts and missions in Africa. What thought has been given to ensuring that those roles work across trade, diplomacy and development?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to ask that question, particularly about Africa, where the high commissioner or ambassador is the most senior person on the ground and has people from all Government Departments in the UK reporting to him. Making sure that we have a one-Government approach to our diplomacy will be a central part of our new fusion doctrine.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that this newly strengthened diplomatic network should work in tandem with our soft power influences, such as using 40 Commando, based in Taunton Deane, to be rushed out in times of natural disasters or hurricanes, as happened in the Caribbean? Working together, we can really demonstrate the qualities of this great nation.
I thank my hon. Friend, the consul for Taunton Deane. On the expansion of the diplomatic network, among the 14 new overseas posts will be three new resident commissioners, in Antigua and Barbuda, in Grenada and in St Vincent the Grenadines, which I hope might be of interest to colleagues thinking about their careers.
As the chair of the all-party parliamentary group for Africa, I welcome the expanded network. Following our recent constructive meeting with the Immigration Minister, may I urge the Secretary of State to meet her to see how the network can be used to support cultural and business exchanges between African countries and the UK, and particularly to provide the local knowledge that is essential for visa applications, which remain a matter of huge concern?
The hon. Lady is absolutely right to say that if we are going to get this right we have to combine all that we do, particularly in terms of our soft power. The British Council has an immensely important role in Africa. In particular, we need to be better at joining up the work between the Department for International Development and the Foreign Office, and that is why we are proud to have joint Ministers on the Front Bench to ensure that that happens.
Equal Rights Coalition
I thank the Minister for that answer. It is good news that the UK is taking over this role, but the Equal Rights Coalition is in its infancy and needs more work to ensure that the global fight for LGBT rights is effective. Will the Minister assure me that she will commit sufficient resources to the UK’s chairmanship of the Equal Rights Coalition and ensure effective co-ordination between Departments in this important year?
I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend’s leadership and to his all-party parliamentary group on global lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender rights for drawing cross-Government work together. I can assure him, on behalf of both the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Department for International Development, that we will certainly give the organisation the resourcing it needs. He will be aware that its work fits in with the Equalities Office’s overall strategy, including the international element.
We have seen a repressive crackdown on the LGBT community in Egypt, with routine detentions even for waving rainbow flags on social media. What can the Minister do to raise such concerns? Does she still believe, as the previous Foreign Secretary claimed, that—[Interruption.]
The hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Catherine West) will be pleased to know that the UK is wholeheartedly committed to the promotion and protection of human rights worldwide. As a result, we continue to support the work of the UN Human Rights Council and the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. The UK is one of the longest-standing members of the UNHRC, and we are keen to maintain that record at next year’s elections.
The hon. Lady is right to point out that the situation is absolutely heartbreaking. I am the father of an 11-year-old son, and boys of roughly that age are fighting in parts of the world such as Yemen. I reassure her that my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary will raise the matter when he is in Saudi Arabia in the days ahead.
Human rights defenders around the world are under attack. They are censored, imprisoned and sometimes even murdered for speaking out, and women who speak out in countries such as Saudi Arabia are particularly vulnerable. Does the Minister agree that we need to do more to support the women around the world who are brave enough to stand up for what they believe in?
When I was chair of the Inter-Parliamentary Union, we tried on a couple of occasions to raise human rights violations against LGBT citizens around the world, but our attempts were regularly blocked by Uganda, China, Russia and several other countries. Will the Minister use his influence, particularly in the Commonwealth, to try to raise such issues so that we can give hope to millions of people living in those countries?
My hon. Friend is right that the issue is still contested. We will continue to make the case for LGBT rights, and all Foreign Office Ministers and other Ministers with broader foreign affairs responsibilities will make it clear when abroad that we need to stand up for these important rights.
On 5 April, Professor Zaffaroni, a justice of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, will present to His Holiness the Pope a report on the consequences of the criminalisation of same-sex relations in the Caribbean. The Government will be invited to be represented at the presentation, so will the Minister ensure that they are?
I thank my hon. Friend for his question. These are important issues, and clearly we will be represented at the most senior level possible. It may be difficult for a Minister to be present, but we will ensure that our ambassadors and other leading figures in the Foreign Office are there to make the case to which he refers.
Was the Minister as appalled as I was last week that it took an order from the European Court of Human Rights to force the Orbán Government in Hungary to provide food to the starving asylum seekers being held at the border? Further, has the Foreign Office protested to the Orbán Government about this disgraceful episode?
Clearly this is something that causes great concern. The shadow Minister will be aware that it is not an issue for which I have direct responsibility, but I know my right hon. Friend the Minister for Europe and the Americas will ensure that our embassy in Budapest is in a position to make the case in the way he has expressed it. Obviously we will try to return to the House at some point with more information, or do so in writing.
I will travel to Saudi Arabia, Oman and the United Arab Emirates later this week to add further impetus to the peace process in Yemen. My aim is to build on the agreement reached in Stockholm in December, which allowed a sustained reduction in fighting in the port of Hodeidah, and to encourage all sides to carry out the redeployments they agreed at Stockholm. This may be one of the last opportunities to prevent a return to fighting and secure desperately needed humanitarian aid.
According to Oxfam reports, 6,400 people are being held in Libyan detention camps, which is the result of a deal between Libya and Italy. They have been trying to escape across Europe, only to be returned to Libya. They face malnutrition, violence and human trafficking. Has the Foreign Secretary spoken to Italy and Libya about this deal?
As pioneers of the first marine protected area in the Southern ocean, the UK is working actively to see new designations in the Weddell sea, the east Antarctic and around the Antarctic peninsula. Ascension Island intends to designate a marine protected area this year, and a consultation is under way.
The people of the Democratic Republic of the Congo are in an invidious position in that they have the temporary peace and stability that they desperately want and need but a new President for whom they did not vote. Does the Secretary of State agree that we cannot simply shrug our shoulders and say this is a trade-off that we accept but that, instead, the people of the DRC deserve both peace and democracy?
The people of the Democratic Republic of the Congo clearly voted for change in December 2018. We urged the Government to hold elections in line with the accord of Saint-Sylvestre. The elections took place on 30 December, and the official announcement has gone against what some observers felt was the case, but the UK is engaging with President Tshisekedi and his team following the elections. We clearly believe that the Congolese people voted for change, and we believe that the new Government need to be as inclusive as possible.
The UK is disappointed that Japan has announced that it will withdraw from the International Whaling Commission in order to resume commercial whaling, and we urge it to rethink its decision. The Prime Minister raised this with Prime Minister Abe on 10 January, confirming that the UK is and remains strongly opposed to commercial whaling.
We are working closely with the Colombian Government in defending the continuation of the peace process. They have borne a massive burden of people who have left Venezuela, and we are at the forefront of European efforts to make sure that we can find a solution in Venezuela, in response to the absolutely unacceptable conduct of Mr Maduro.
As I set out to the Foreign Affairs Committee last September, the Government’s assessment is that border changes in the western Balkans would risk instability and contagion in the region and beyond. We support efforts to reach a normalisation agreement between Kosovo and Serbia, one that is deliverable and sustainable, and enjoys wide domestic support in both countries. We would support such an agreement.
I was in Bahrain last week, where I met the chair of the independent monitoring committee, who has taken a special interest in some of the cases that have been raised in the UK to make sure that proper human rights are available to those who have been convicted in Bahrain. We still monitor a number of cases, but I urge people to go through that independent process because we are confident that it is genuinely independent and it is making a difference to the administration of justice in Bahrain.
We think that that £200 million will mean that 3.7 million people get access to food they would not have otherwise had and 2 million get access to sanitation and fresh water. This will make a significant difference, but the most important thing of all would be to stop the fighting in Hodeidah to allow the Red sea mills to be opened up and food to be transported to the capital, Sana’a.
My constituent Luke Symons has been held for some considerable time as a captive in Sana’a, and his family feel that the Foreign Office is not doing enough. Will the Minister undertake to give priority to this case, so that Luke can get out of Yemen with his family and back to the UK?
We continue to have contact with Luke’s family. This is a very distressing case. We are not able to offer consular assistance in Yemen. We appreciate that he was in Yemen before the conflict broke out and we will continue to exert every effort we can to try to find a way to get him home.
Russia’s action against Ukrainian vessels near the Kerch straits on 25 November was not in conformity with international law. Continued Russian restrictions on access to the sea of Azov should be ended immediately. We have worked with our partners to support Ukraine, including through securing political agreement in the EU for new sanctions listings, targeted on those responsible for the attacks on the Ukrainian vessels.
EU observers saw that
“violence has marred the election day, and significant obstacles to a level playing field remained in place throughout the…electoral campaign”.
What steps are the Government taking to ensure that the rights of minorities during election time in Bangladesh?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his heartfelt question. We were clearly concerned by the outcome of the elections in Bangladesh, and we are waiting for the Electoral Commission to come up with its full report. One aspect of it clearly has to do with various minorities in the Bangladeshi state. I shall be visiting Bangladesh in the course of the next six weeks and hope to be able to write to the hon. Gentleman in due course to answer his question in full.
My right hon. Friend will have been as shocked as I was to see the appalling scenes of Venezuelan troops using violence and intimidation to prevent vital aid from entering their country, which has been ravaged by socialism for decades. Will my right hon. Friend join me in calling on all parties around the world, and in particular the Labour leadership in this House, to condemn utterly Maduro’s actions and his illegitimate regime in Venezuela?
Several British overseas territories are still refusing to implement full transparency and to have public registers of ownership. Why are the Government refusing to obey the command of this House, which was to introduce legislation swiftly? Why are they refusing to do it until 2023?
Significant ones. I was in Iraq two weeks ago and met the new President of Iraq, and its Prime Minister and Foreign Minister. Iraq knows that it must complete its introductory reconstruction efforts. It is important that those who have been abandoned in the Nineveh plain are able to get back, but the security situation remains crucial. Only when there is a strong security situation, organised and controlled by the state, will it be safe for everyone to go back. The United Kingdom is playing a leading part to encourage and support the efforts to promote reconstruction and the safety of those who have been displaced.
Fourteen million people in Yemen face the threat of starvation because of a blockade imposed by Saudi Arabia. How can the Government ever justify selling a billion pounds’-worth of weapons per year to a country that is deliberately using famine as a weapon of war?
The recent terrorist attack by the group Jaish-e-Mohammad in Pulwama, where 49 Indian servicemen and women lost their lives, has been widely condemned. Will my right hon. Friend utter a clear and unreserved condemnation of this suicidal attack and call on Pakistan to stop funding these terrorist groups?
The UK Government unequivocally condemn the appalling terror attack in Pulwama on 14 February. We are actively encouraging the Governments of both India and Pakistan to find diplomatic solutions and to refrain from actions that could jeopardise regional stability. We are also working in the UN Security Council to ensure that the perpetrators are brought to justice.
The formation of the Iraqi Government and the efforts being made—in particular by the President of Iraq, who is from the Kurdish region—to ensure better relationships between Irbil and Baghdad certainly seem to us to be paying dividends. Every effort is being made to enable the relationships to become stronger so that reconstruction right throughout Iraq can take place and it can once again be a strong and independent country in terms of its foreign policy, and serve all its people.
The stability of Lebanon is vital to the wider security situation in the middle east. It has taken Prime Minister Hariri nine months to put together a Government that reflects all the different complex denominations and sects in Lebanon, including several Ministers from Hezbollah. What discussions have the British Government had with Prime Minister Hariri or the Lebanese Government about the proscription of the political wing of that organisation?
By good fortune, the Prime Minister and I met the Prime Minister of Lebanon on Sunday at the summit in Sharm el-Sheikh. We were able to discuss not only the issue relating to Hezbollah, but our own efforts to support the stability of the Government of Lebanon. Prime Minister Hariri recognised the support that the United Kingdom gave. We want to see Lebanon’s Government formation completed and also for the Government to go forward economically, a process in which our own investment conference in December was a landmark event.[Official Report, 27 February 2019, Vol. 655, c. 2MC.]
Leaving the European Union
With permission, Mr Speaker, I will make a statement on the Government’s work to secure a withdrawal agreement that can command the support of this House.
A fortnight ago, I committed to come back before the House today if the Government had not by now secured a majority for a withdrawal agreement and a political declaration. In the two weeks since, the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, the Attorney General and I have been engaging in focused discussions with the EU to find a way forward that will work for both sides. We are making good progress in that work. I had a constructive meeting with President Juncker in Brussels last week to take stock of the work done by our respective teams. We discussed the legal changes that are required to guarantee that the Northern Ireland backstop cannot endure indefinitely.
On the political declaration, we discussed what additions or changes can be made to increase confidence in the focus and ambition of both sides in delivering the future partnership we envisage as soon as possible, and the Secretary of State is following this up with Michel Barnier.
I also had a number of positive meetings at the EU-Arab League summit in Sharm el-Sheikh, including with President Donald Tusk. I have now spoken to the leaders of every single EU member state to explain the UK’s position. And the UK and EU teams are continuing their work, and we agreed to review progress again in the coming days.
As part of these discussions, the UK and EU have agreed to consider a joint workstream to develop alternative arrangements to ensure the absence of a hard border in Northern Ireland. This work will be done in parallel with the future relationship negotiations and is without prejudice to them. Our aim is to ensure that, even if the full future relationship is not in place by the end of the implementation period, the backstop is not needed because we have a set of alternative arrangements ready to go. I thank my hon. and right hon. Friends for their contribution to this work and reaffirm that we are seized of the need to progress that work as quickly as possible.
President Juncker has already agreed that the EU will give priority to this work, and the Government expect that this will be an important strand of the next phase. The Secretary of State for Exiting the EU will be having further discussions with Michel Barnier and we will announce details ahead of the meaningful vote. We will also be setting up domestic structures to support this work, including ensuring that we can take advice from external experts involved in customs processes around the world from businesses that trade with the EU and beyond—and, of course, from colleagues across the House. This will all be supported by civil service resource as well as funding for the Government to help develop, test and pilot proposals that can form part of these alternative arrangements.
I know what this House needs in order to support a withdrawal agreement. The EU knows what is needed, and I am working hard to deliver it. As well as changes to the backstop, we are also working across a number of other areas to build support for the withdrawal agreement and to give the House confidence in the future relationship that the UK and EU will go on to negotiate. This includes ensuring that leaving the EU will not lead to any lowering of standards in relation to workers’ rights, environmental protections or health and safety. Taking back control cannot mean giving up our control of these standards, especially when UK Governments of all parties have proudly pursued policies that exceed the minimums set by the EU, from Labour giving British workers more annual leave to the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats giving all employees the right to request flexible working. Not only would giving up control go against the spirit of the referendum result—it would also mean accepting new EU laws automatically, even if they were to reduce workers’ rights or change them in a way that was not right for us.
Instead, and in the interests of building support across the House, we are prepared to commit to giving Parliament a vote on whether it wishes to follow suit whenever the EU standards in areas such as workers’ rights and health and safety are judged to have been strengthened. The Government will consult with businesses and trade unions as it looks at new EU legislation and decides how the UK should respond. We will legislate to give our commitments on both non-regression and future developments force in UK law. And following further cross-party talks, we will shortly be bringing forward detailed proposals to ensure that, as we leave the EU, we not only protect workers’ rights but continue to enhance them.
As the Government committed to the House last week, we are today publishing the paper assessing our readiness for no deal. I believe that if we have to, we will ultimately make a success of a no deal. But this paper provides an honest assessment of the very serious challenges it would bring in the short term and further reinforces why the best way for this House to honour the referendum result is to leave with a deal.
As I committed to the House, the Government will today table an amendable motion for debate tomorrow. But I know Members across the House are genuinely worried that time is running out—that if the Government do not come back with a further meaningful vote, or they lose that vote, Parliament will not have time to make its voice heard on the next steps. I know too that Members across the House are deeply concerned by the effect of the current uncertainty on businesses. So today I want to reassure the House by making three further commitments. First, we will hold a second meaningful vote by Tuesday 12 March at the latest. Secondly, if the Government have not won a meaningful vote by Tuesday 12 March, then they will, in addition to their obligations to table a neutral, amendable motion under section 13 of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018, table a motion to be voted on by Wednesday 13 March, at the latest, asking this House if it supports leaving the EU without a withdrawal agreement and a framework for a future relationship on 29 March. So the United Kingdom will only leave without a deal on 29 March if there is explicit consent in this House for that outcome.
Thirdly, if the House, having rejected leaving with the deal negotiated with the EU, then rejects leaving on 29 March without a withdrawal agreement and future framework, the Government will, on 14 March, bring forward a motion on whether Parliament wants to seek a short, limited extension to article 50, and, if the House votes for an extension, seek to agree that extension approved by the House with the EU and bring forward the necessary legislation to change the exit date commensurate with that extension. These commitments all fit the timescale set out in the private Member’s Bill in the name of the right hon. Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper). They are commitments I am making as Prime Minister, and I will stick by them, as I have previous commitments to make statements and table amendable motions by specific dates.
But let me be clear—I do not want to see article 50 extended. Our absolute focus should be on working to get a deal and leaving on 29 March. An extension beyond the end of June would mean the UK taking part in the European Parliament elections. What kind of message would that send to the more than 17 million people who voted to leave the EU nearly three years ago now? And the House should be clear that a short extension—not beyond the end of June—would almost certainly have to be a one-off. If we had not taken part in the European Parliament elections, it would be extremely difficult to extend again, so it would create a much sharper cliff edge in a few months’ time. An extension cannot take no deal off the table. The only way to do that is to revoke article 50, which I shall not do, or to agree a deal. I have been clear throughout the process that my aim is to bring the country back together. This House—[Interruption.] This House can only do that by implementing the decision of the British people, and the Government are determined to do so in a way that commands the support of this House.
But just as Government require the support of this House in delivering the vote of the British people, so the House should respect the proper functions of the Government. Tying the Government’s hands by seeking to commandeer the Order Paper would have—[Interruption.]
Order. This is rather discourteous. The Prime Minister is delivering a statement, and it should be heard. I understand the strong feelings, but colleagues know from the record that everybody will get the chance to question the Prime Minister. The Prime Minister’s statement must be heard.
Thank you, Mr Speaker.
Tying the Government’s hands by seeking to commandeer the Order Paper would have far-reaching implications for the way in which the United Kingdom is governed and the balance of powers and responsibilities in our democratic institutions, and it would offer no solution to the challenge of finding a deal that this House can support. Neither would seeking an extension to article 50 now make getting a deal any easier. Ultimately the choices we face would remain unchanged: leave with a deal, leave with no deal, or have no Brexit. When it comes to the motion tomorrow, the House needs to come together, as we did on 29 January, and send a clear message that there is a stable majority in favour of leaving the EU with a deal.
A number of hon. and right hon. Members have understandably raised the rights of EU citizens living in the UK. As I set out last September, following the Salzburg summit, even in the event of no deal, the rights of the 3 million EU citizens living in the UK will be protected. That is our guarantee to them. They are our friends, our neighbours and our colleagues. We want them to stay. But a separate agreement for citizens’ rights is something the EU has been clear it does not have the legal authority for. If it is not done in a withdrawal agreement, these issues become a matter for member states, unless the EU was to agree a new mandate to take that forward.
At the very start of this process, the UK sought to separate out that issue, but the EU has been consistent on it. However, my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has written to all his counterparts, and we are holding further urgent discussions with member states to seek assurances on the rights of UK citizens. I urge all EU countries to make this guarantee and end the uncertainty for these citizens. I hope that the Government’s efforts can give the House and EU citizens here in the UK the reassurances they need and deserve.
For some hon. and right hon. Members, taking the United Kingdom out of the European Union is the culmination of a long and sincerely fought campaign. For others, leaving the EU goes against much that they have stood for and fought for with equal sincerity for just as long. But Parliament gave the choice to the people. In doing so, we told them that we would honour their decision. That remains the resolve of this side of the House, but last night we learned that it is no longer the commitment of the Leader of the Opposition. He has gone back on his promise to respect the referendum result and now wants to hold a divisive second referendum that would take our country right back to square one. Anybody who voted Labour at the last election because they thought he would deliver Brexit will rightly be appalled.
This House voted to trigger article 50, and this House has a responsibility to deliver on the result. The very credibility of our democracy is at stake. By leaving the EU with a deal, we can move our country forward. Even with the uncertainty we face today, we have more people in work than ever before, wages growing at their fastest rate for a decade and debt falling as a share of the economy. If we can leave with a deal, end the uncertainty and move on beyond Brexit, we can do so much more to deliver real economic progress to every part of country.
I hope tomorrow this House can show that, with legally binding changes on the backstop, commitments to protect workers’ rights and the environment, an enhanced role for Parliament in the next phase of negotiations and a determination to address the wider concerns of those who voted to leave, we will have a deal that this House can support. In doing so, we can send a clear message that this House is resolved to honour the result of the referendum and leave the European Union with a deal. I commend this statement to the House.
I would like to start by thanking the Prime Minister for an advance copy of her statement.
I have lost count of the number of times the Prime Minister has come to this House to explain a further delay. They say history repeats itself—the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce—but by the umpteenth time it can only be described as grotesquely reckless. This is not dithering; it is a deliberate strategy to run down the clock. The Prime Minister is promising to achieve something she knows is not achievable and is stringing people along, so will she be straight with people? The withdrawal agreement is not being reopened. There is no attempt to get a unilateral exit on the backstop or a time limit.
In Sharm el-Sheikh, the Prime Minister said that
“a delay in this process, doesn’t deliver a decision in parliament, it doesn’t deliver a deal”.
I can only assume she was being self-critical. She has so far promised a vote on her deal in December, January, February and now March, and she only managed to put a vote once—in January, when it was comprehensively defeated. The Prime Minister continues to say that it is her deal or no deal, but this House has decisively rejected her deal and has clearly rejected no deal. It is the Prime Minister’s obstinacy that is blocking a resolution, so if the House confirms that opposition, then what is the Prime Minister’s plan B?
I pay tribute to others across the House who are working on such solutions—whether that is the proposal that is commonly known as Norway-plus or other options. Labour, I would like to inform the House, will back the Costa amendment if tabled tomorrow, and I also confirm that we will back the amendment drafted by the hon. Member for South Leicestershire (Alberto Costa) on securing citizens’ rights for EU citizens here and for UK citizens in Europe, some of whom I met in Spain last week.
The Prime Minister has become quite the expert at kicking the can down the road, but the problem is that the road is running out. The consequences of running down the clock are evident and very real for industry and for people’s jobs. For now, the Prime Minister states that the can can be kicked until 12 March, but the EU cannot now ratify any deal until its leaders summit on 21 March. After all, section 13 of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act states that the final agreement will be laid before this House before it can be voted on, so can the Prime Minister confirm how there can be a vote in this House if the EU has not yet agreed any final exit, or is the Prime Minister now saying that there will be no change to either the withdrawal agreement or to the political declaration, so we will be voting again on the same documents?
Every delay and every bit of badly made fudge just intensifies the uncertainty for industry, with business investment being held back, jobs being lost and yet more jobs being put at risk. The real life consequences of the Prime Minister’s cynical tactics are being felt across the country, with factories relocating abroad, jobs being lost and investment being cancelled. Thousands of workers at sites across Britain’s towns and cities are hearing rumours and fearing the worst. The responsibility for this lies exclusively with the Prime Minister and her Government’s shambolic handling of Brexit. Even now, with just one month to go before our legally enshrined exit date, the Prime Minister is not clear what she wants in renegotiations that have now dragged on since it became clear in December that her deal was not even backed by much of her own party, let alone Parliament or the country at large.
Labour has a credible plan—[Interruption.] Labour has a credible plan that could bring the country together, provide certainty for people, and safeguard jobs and industry. It is based around a new customs union with the EU to protect our manufacturing industry, close alignment with the single market to protect all of our trading sectors and keeping pace with the best practice on workers’ rights, environmental protections and consumer safeguards. The people of this country deserve nothing less. The Prime Minister talks about giving commitments on future developments, but that is way short of a commitment to dynamic alignments on rights and standards when we know many on her Front Bench see Brexit as an opportunity to rip up those vital protections.
In recent weeks, I have been speaking to businesses, industry organisations and trade unions. Last week, along with our shadow Brexit Secretary, my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Keir Starmer), as well as my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds East (Richard Burgon) and Baroness Chakrabarti, I travelled to Europe to meet EU officials and leaders to discuss the crisis and explain Labour’s proposals. We left with no doubt whatsoever that our proposals are workable and could be negotiated, so tomorrow we will—[Interruption.]
Order. I indicated to the House that the Prime Minister should be fairly and courteously heard, and the same goes for the Leader of the Opposition. If the usual suspects could just calm down, it would be in their interests and, more importantly, those of the House.
Thank you, Mr Speaker.
Tomorrow, we will ask Parliament to vote on these proposals—they are workable and negotiable—which back the demands of working people all across this country and industry all across this country. I urge Members across this House to back that amendment to respect the result of the 2016 referendum and to safeguard jobs, investment and industry in this country. Labour accepts the result of the 2016 referendum, but we believe in getting the terms of our exit right, and that is why we believe in our alternative plan.
The Prime Minister’s botched deal provides no certainty or guarantees for the future, and was comprehensively rejected by this House. We cannot risk our country’s industry and people’s livelihoods, so if it somehow passes in some form at a later stage, we believe there must be a confirmatory public vote to see if people feel that that is what they voted for. A no-deal outcome would be disastrous, and that is why we committed to backing the amendment, in the names of my right hon. Friend the Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper) and the right hon. Member for West Dorset (Sir Oliver Letwin), to rule out that reckless cliff-edge Brexit.
The Prime Minister appears to be belatedly listening to the House. Any extension is necessary only because of the Prime Minister’s shambolic negotiations and her decision to run down the clock, but until the Prime Minister is clear about what alternative she would put forward in those circumstances, then she is simply continuing to run down the clock. She promises a short extension, but for what? If the Government want a genuine renegotiation, they should do so on the terms that can win a majority in this House and on the terms, backed by businesses and unions, that are contained within Labour’s amendment, which I urge the whole House to back tomorrow.
I will first respond to a couple of the right hon. Gentleman’s questions. He asked about the meaningful vote and whether new documents would be brought before the House. Of course, we are in discussions with the EU about changes—changes that this House said it wanted—to the Northern Ireland backstop. We are discussing those with the European Union. Any changes that are agreed with the European Union would be put before this House before the meaningful vote.
The right hon. Gentleman raised the issue of citizens’ rights. As I covered in my statement, the EU does not have the legal authority to do a separate deal on citizens’ rights without a new mandate. This is a matter, unless it is part of the withdrawal agreement—obviously, we have negotiated something within the withdrawal agreement; good rights for citizens within the withdrawal agreement—for individual member states. We have taken up the issue with individual member states. A number of them have already given good guarantees to UK citizens and we are encouraging those that have not to do so.
The right hon. Gentleman referred to workers’ rights. I think it is important. [Interruption.] I am answering the points that he has made, but he does not seem to be too interested in listening to the answers that I am giving. He advocated dynamic alignment on workers’ rights. I have to say that we on the Government side of the House think that those decisions should be taken in the UK, and in this House. One of the reasons for taking those decisions on workers’ rights in this House, as I have said, is that Governments in this country, of different colours, have consistently given greater rights to workers than the European Union has negotiated.
The right hon. Gentleman referenced the Labour party’s approach to a deal. Of course, its approach is that it wants a customs union, to be in the single market and to have a say on trade deals, in a way that says, “Well, please, if you’re very nice to us, can we sit around the table and maybe some time we might be able to put an opinion on the trade deals?” If he wants the benefits of a customs union—no tariffs, no fees and no charges—they are there within the political declaration, in the deal that has been negotiated by this Government. In that political declaration, we also have the right for us, as an independent country, to strike our own trade deals again, and not to have to rely on those struck in Brussels.
The right hon. Gentleman then spoke about the time running down to 29 March. My sole focus throughout all of this has been on getting a deal that enables us to leave the European Union on 29 March with a deal. It is the right hon. Gentleman who has kept no deal on the table, by refusing to agree to a deal. He talks about uncertainty on jobs, but he could have voted to end uncertainty on jobs by backing the deal the Government brought back from the European Union.
Finally, the right hon. Gentleman says that he and the Labour party accept the result of the referendum, yet we also know that they back a second referendum. By backing a second referendum, he is breaking his promise to respect the result of the 2016 referendum. He will be ignoring the biggest vote in our history and betraying the trust of the British people.
May I congratulate the Prime Minister on accepting that we are not remotely ready for the chaos of a no-deal departure on 29 March? I agree with her that no deal at any time would bring very damaging medium and long-term prospects for the British economy and our wellbeing. I will continue to vote for any withdrawal agreement that she manages to get with the other EU countries, but I doubt that she will command a majority for any such agreement in the near future.
Can I turn to the real issue now? How long is the delay that we are contemplating? The Prime Minister seems to be giving us a date for a new cliff edge at the end of June, but is not the danger that we will merely continue the present pantomime performance through the next three months, and that the public will be dismayed as we approach that date and find that there is similar chaos about where we are going?
May I suggest that we contemplate a much calmer delay, that we have indicative votes following debates in this House, to see where a consensus or majority lies, and then that we prepare our position for the much more important long-term negotiations that have to take place on the eventual settlement? We cannot have several more years of what we have had for the past two years. We have to start proper negotiations with the EU on what exactly we contemplate as our long-term relationships with the Union.
Of course, we have the framework for that long-term relationship with the European Union set out in the political declaration—that is the set of instructions to the negotiators for the next stage—but my right hon. and learned Friend is right that we still have to go through that second stage of negotiations. He asked about any extension to article 50, should that be necessary. I am very clear that I do not want to see an extension to article 50. Should we be in the position that such a proposal was put before this House, I would want it to be as short as possible.
I thank the Prime Minister for advance sight of her statement. I have to say that I find myself once again agreeing with the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke). There is the possibility that we will extend article 50 beyond the end of June. In the light of that, may I give a helpful suggestion to the Prime Minister? The Scottish National party is already putting in place candidates for the European elections. May I suggest that the Conservatives consider doing the same?
There are only 19 parliamentary days until Brexit day, yet the Prime Minister wants to delay the meaningful vote until 12 March—why? From 12 March, there are only 10 parliamentary days before Brexit. We will have lost nine days in which this issue could have been resolved. The Dutch Prime Minister says:
“We are sleep walking into no deal scenario.”
There was no breakthrough in the 45-minute meeting with the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel. Council President Donald Tusk said that an extension of article 50 would be the “rational” decision. Although, that would suggest that this Government are capable of making rational decisions—there is little evidence of that.
Prime Minister, your strategy to run down the clock is disastrous. Is it not the case that you have continued to fail to reach an agreement on the backstop? Is it not the case that you cannot get the alternative arrangements on the backstop that you promised at the end of—
Mr Speaker, is it not the case that the Government cannot get the alternative arrangements on the backstop that were promised at the end of January, because the EU will not renegotiate? The EU has repeatedly made it clear that the withdrawal agreement is non-negotiable. What does the Prime Minister not get about that?
Prime Minister, businesses and citizens are worried about no deal—worried about the supply of medicines and food. It is the height of irresponsibility for any Government to threaten their citizens with such consequences. The Prime Minister sits and laughs at what she is doing to the people of the United Kingdom—what a disgrace! This Prime Minister indicates that she is simply not fit for office. Prime Minister, will you accept the overwhelming advice of business, MPs and your Cabinet? Rule out no deal and extend article 50, but do it today. This should not be left until the middle of March.
Mr Speaker, we cannot trust this Prime Minister. Parliament should take the opportunity to impose the timeline that she has set out today, so that she cannot dodge this.
The right hon. Gentleman made various references to the discussions with the European Union. He asked why the meaningful vote was not being brought back this week, or before the latest date of 12 March. The answer is that we are taking this time to negotiate the changes required by this House to the deal that we negotiated with the European Union. That includes the work that has been done on alternative arrangements. As I indicated in my statement, further work on those alternative arrangements has already been agreed with the European Union. There were all those questions about there not being an opportunity to renegotiate or get any changes, but that is not the case; we are in talks with the European Union and we are talking about the issues that this House required.
Finally, the right hon. Gentleman talked about uncertainty: the uncertainty of not having the arrangements in place. If he wants to end uncertainty and if he wants to deal with the issues he raised in his response to my statement, then he should vote for a deal—simples.
I welcome my right hon. Friend’s—[Interruption.]
Very kind of you, Mr Speaker. I welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement. Clearly, she is right that we would prefer to have a deal. In the statement, she talked about alternative arrangements, which are based, it appears, on the Malthouse compromise details. May I remind my right hon. Friend that it is clear, behind closed doors, that UK Government officials and the EU recognise that what is currently in the backstop is unworkable and that they will therefore have to implement alternative arrangements? When she sits down with them to ask for that, could she now say that those alternative arrangements must reach a point of a deadline date and be bound legally, so that they cannot renege from that after we leave?
In fact, there has not been the suggestion that the arrangements in the backstop are unworkable. What there has been in the discussions with the European Union is an acceptance of the desire to discuss those alternative arrangements, work on them, and have them in place such that, were it the case that we ended the implementation period without the future relationship in place and that insurance policy for no hard border in Northern Ireland was necessary, we would have the alternative arrangements to put in place, rather than the backstop as it is currently within the withdrawal agreement. One of the key issues raised by the European Union around the alternative arrangements actually relates to the significant number of derogations from European Union law that will be necessary to put the alternative arrangements in place.
While I welcome the fact that the Prime Minister has, at long last and with the greatest reluctance, been persuaded by a group of her own Ministers to accept that there is no majority in this House for leaving the European Union on 29 March with no deal, does she not understand that in all likelihood there will continue to be no majority in the House for leaving with no deal, whether it is March, June or October? Therefore, the question I want to put to her is this: if we are going to have an extension to article 50, what does she intend to use that time for?
I have been very clear that I want the work we are currently doing to ensure that we get a deal that can command the support of this House. What I said in my statement is that if we lose another meaningful vote, we will then put a vote to the House on its view on leaving the European Union on 29 March with no deal. Were it the case that the House rejected the meaningful vote and voted for not leaving without a deal, then a motion would come before the House in relation to a short, limited extension of article 50. The right hon. Gentleman talks again—he has raised this previously in the House—about there being no majority for leaving with no deal. As I say, the House has to face up to the fact that if it does not want to leave with no deal then either it wants to stay in the European Union, which would betray the trust and the vote of the British people, or it has to accept and vote for a deal.
Today’s statement cannot have been easy for the Prime Minister to make, because she is rightly determined that we should honour the result of the referendum. I say that as somebody who campaigned very strongly for us to remain in the EU. But it probably has not been greeted with great alacrity in the country, because the uncertainty out there, affecting businesses and individuals, is now crushing. Can she please make it clear that a deal which can command a majority of this House is eminently possible if there can be agreement on changes to the backstop and putting in place alternative arrangements? Can she also confirm that it is then incumbent on MPs on all sides of the House to vote for this deal, which will be in the national interests of this country?
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. First, in the talks with the European Union we are discussing delivering the changes required by this House regarding its concern about the potential indefinite nature of the backstop. There is the prospect—I believe we have it within our grasp—to get an agreement such that we can leave the European Union on 29 March with a deal. When those changes are brought back I hope, as my right hon. Friend says, that every Member of this House will recognise their responsibility to deliver on the vote of the referendum in 2016 to deliver Brexit, and to do it in the best way possible, which is with a deal.
The Prime Minister has said, for the first time, that she is willing to put a motion extending article 50. I hope that reflects the strong arguments that have been made from all parts of the House about the damage no deal would do to this country. But she will also know that promised votes have been pulled before, that Commons motions have been ignored before, and that when the Commons previously voted against no deal the Brexit Secretary told the House that Government policy was still to leave on 29 March with no deal if the deal had not been passed. He said:
“Frankly, the legislation takes precedence over the motion”.—[Official Report, 14 February 2019; Vol. 654, c. 1070.]
If there is no legislation in place, what assurances do we have that: votes will definitely be put; the Government will abide by any motions; and the entire Cabinet will abide by any votes? What will the Government’s policy be in those circumstances? Will it be to argue for no deal or will it be to argue for an extension?
First, the right hon. Lady references the Cabinet. This has been discussed by Cabinet, so this is a position that the Government have taken. I would not have brought it before the House today if it were not a position that the Government had taken on this issue.
I have set those dates. If she would care to look at what I have been doing over recent weeks, she will see the points where I have said I would come back today. On the previous time I came back to the House there was a guarantee that I would come back to the House. I said I would bring a motion, and we brought a motion. We will bring a motion tomorrow. So there is a clear and firm commitment from this Government to ensure that we bring those votes to this House. The House then has that opportunity.
I recognise the concern of right hon. and hon. Members to ensure that the voice of the House is heard. That is why I said that those votes will be brought before the House should we lose the meaningful vote. I continue to want to see this House supporting a meaningful vote, so that we can leave with a deal. As she will have heard in my statement, in the case that a vote for no no deal and then a vote for an extension had been put forward, we would take that to the European Union. The decision would not be entirely ours. There has to be a unanimous decision of the 27 member states of the European Union to agree that extension, but were that agreed, we would bring forward the necessary legislation.
Will my right hon. Friend accept that the Bill to delay article 50, to which the right hon. Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper) has just referred, would incur many billions of pounds of taxpayers’ money that would otherwise be available for public services and would otherwise not be handed over to the EU if we left on 29 March? Will she also accept that the Bill is effectively aimed at overturning the democratic will of the British people, which Parliament itself expressly entrusted to the British people and must be honoured?
My hon. Friend raises a number of points about the Bill proposed by the right hon. Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford. Given the commitments the Government have made in relation to these issues, I hope Members would consider that the mechanisms in the Bill have constitutional implications beyond simply the Brexit issue, in terms of the relationship between Government and Parliament, and our democratic institutions going forward. I have been clear today. I want to see a deal that this House can support and which enables us to leave on 29 March with a deal. That is what the Government are working on and that is what the Government continue to work on.
The Prime Minister is right that simply postponing a cliff edge for three months is pointless or worse, but now that the Leader of the Opposition has listened to advice from his colleagues, Liberal Democrat Members and others and accepted the principle of a people’s vote with the option to remain, will she not listen to the advice of her own Ministers, who are saying that a no-deal Brexit—whether at the end of March or the end of June—would be so damaging that it must now be firmly ruled out?
I say to the right hon. Gentleman yet again that he talks about firmly ruling out a no-deal option and there are only two alternatives to no deal: one is to revoke article 50 and stay in the European Union, which we will not do, and the other is to agree a deal. If he wants to take no deal off the table, I hope that when the deal is back, he will vote for that deal.
It is abundantly clear just from listening to the questions today that there is not a consensus in this House and that we do face gridlock. We have now run down the clock, and rather than wasting more time repeating votes that we have already had and that this House has already expressed its will on—for example, on no deal and on the Government’s deal and the withdrawal agreement—is it not now time that we all put our effort into recognising the gridlock and taking responsibility for deciding how we get out of it? I do not believe that it is going to change and we can keep on going round in circles, with all the damage that that does to businesses and jobs, or we can confront it, decision it and find a route forward for Britain.
Obviously, I recognise that my right hon. Friend feels very strongly about these issues. I want to see us able to deliver on the result of the referendum and to do that in what I believe is the best way for this country, which is to leave with a deal. That is what we will be working on. She talks about decision points. There will be a decision point for this House in a meaningful vote, looking at the changes that have been agreed with the European Union, and at that stage, I hope that every Member of this House will recognise the need to respect the result of the referendum in 2016 and to leave the European Union with a deal.
Is not the crucial difference between what the Prime Minister is proposing and the proposal of the right hon. Member for West Dorset (Sir Oliver Letwin) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper), who chairs the Home Affairs Committee, that theirs is watertight and legally binding and that the Prime Minister’s is not. Given the number of times that she has gone back on her word and caved in to the European Research Group, why should we trust anything she is saying?
There is a difference between the proposal that the right hon. Gentleman refers to and the commitments that I have given today—that is, the proposal that has been put forward goes much wider than the issue of Brexit. I have a concern about the future relationship between the Government and Parliament—about ensuring that we can continue to maintain what has been a balanced relationship between the Government and Parliament that has stood this country well over many years and about retaining that into the future.
I congratulate the Prime Minister and the Brexit Secretary on persuading the European Union to accept a taskforce to work up the alternative arrangements group’s proposals into a practical proposition, because what has emerged from our discussions is that the customs arrangements have been cut and pasted from the old Turkish agreement. They are archaic and would require 255 million pieces of paper to be stamped with a wet chop, as in Ming dynasty China. If the Prime Minister could make these proposals legally binding with a definitive implementation date, she would remove the toxic backstop and get many Government Members to vote for the agreement. Will she get a legally binding change in the text to deliver that?
I say to my right hon. Friend that the commitment is that we will ensure, as I said to our right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr Duncan Smith), that were we to get to the point of it being necessary to exercise what is known as the backstop, or the insurance policy for no hard border in Northern Ireland, at the end of the implementation period where it is necessary, we want to have the alternative arrangements ready to go at that point such that the backstop, as currently drafted, never needs to be used. That is the aim and the intent. We want to work on this quickly so that we have those clearly ready and understood before that date, but the commitment is to ensure that those alternative arrangements can indeed replace the backstop and ensure that it does not need to be used.
The Prime Minister’s withdrawal deal agreement as proposed in draft was defeated in this House by 230 votes—she hardly needs reminding of that—and the reason primarily for the loss of the majority was the backstop. She has committed to binding legal changes in terms of the backstop, effectively reopening the withdrawal agreement, and she must know that without a legally watertight way out of the backstop, we certainly could not support any future withdrawal agreement brought to this House. Does she think that the machinations of some of her Ministers and the proposals that she has announced today will have the effect in Brussels and on European leaders of making them more likely to concede what is necessary or that perhaps they will just sit back and wait?
The discussions I have had in the European Union with EU leaders and, indeed, with the European Commission are very clear: they are entering into those talks with us with the intention of finding a resolution to the issue that this House has raised and that the right hon. Gentleman has just referenced again—that is, to ensure we have that legally binding change that ensures that people can have the confidence that the issue that the House raised about the potential indefinite nature of the backstop has been addressed and resolved. That is what we are working on. I recognise that the right hon. Gentleman has always been consistent in his references to the need for the right legal status for that change, and that is what we are working for.
I am pleased to hear from my right hon. Friend a willingness to consider the possibility of an extension of article 50 to prevent a catastrophic no-deal Brexit. She also said, rightly, that across this House there are widely divergent views on why the deal that she has negotiated in good faith has been rejected. My concern is simply this: I see no reason to think that that situation will change, because despite what she has done in good faith, it is a second-rate outcome for our country. If this is to continue, how are we indeed to break the logjam? And here I have to say to her that her browbeating of the House, which she did today—indicating that unless we simply go along with a deal that is considered to be inadequate, there is no solution but a no-deal Brexit or a unilateral revocation—is simply inaccurate, because surely it is perfectly possible and utterly democratic for us to go back and ask the public whether the deal she has negotiated is acceptable or not.
My right hon. and learned Friend says that there are diverse views around this House and that there has been no indication, therefore, why the withdrawal agreement was rejected. Indeed, the House did indicate why the withdrawal agreement was rejected. It did so in a majority vote on 29 January that indicated that it was an issue around the backstop, that changes to the backstop were required and that the House would support the withdrawal agreement with the necessary changes to the backstop. It is not right to say that this House has not indicated the result that it wishes to see. He also aims slightly to chastise me on the options that I have put before the House today, but I say to him that a second referendum does not change the fact that ultimately, the three options open to us are to leave the European Union with a deal, to leave it with no deal, or to have no Brexit. Those will remain the options.