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?
The intelligence co-operation between our two countries is enormously valuable. It proceeds regularly on a basis of complete trust and adds importantly to the security of the wider world.
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?
As the hon. Gentleman appreciates, I do not personally cover Sri Lanka. However, I am confident that, across the world, we work very closely together on all issues of human rights, and we will continue to do so in countries as appropriate.
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?
It is a strong pillar of our foreign policy that we believe in multilateral organisations and participate in them fully. Obviously, we will soon be leaving one of them, but that will not diminish our co-operation with the EU27 thereafter.
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?
I am hearing a lot of chuntering from my left, as I have two DFID Ministers beside me—
And a former one.
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.
May I urge the Government to use their soft power and diplomatic network to enthusiastically support the efforts of Cypriots to deliver a negotiated settlement for a free and united Cyprus?
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.
The continuing bloodshed in the Sudan is threatening Christians and Muslims alike. What plans do the Government have to deal with the Bashir regime, to make sure that we bring some peace to that bedevilled country?
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.
One sentence! Tom Tugendhat.
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?
I shall try to give a one-sentence answer. The Bishop is free to make whatever recommendations he likes, and we have facilitated introductions to other Departments so that he can liaise with them during his review.
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?
According to my assessment, two agreements and one confirmation are required.
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.
Distinction to be equalled only by brevity: I call Mr Andrew Mitchell.
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 think distinction is still a long way ahead.
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—
Order. Resume your seat, Mr Russell-Moyle. There is a lot of pressure on time. We have not got time for lists; what I want is a question with a question mark, and then we will have a ministerial answer.
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.
One of the big problems the Palestinians have is that they do not speak with one voice. Is there any sign of a reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas?
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.
Too often, resolution of this conflict feels like a lost cause, but the British Government could prevent that from being the case by recognising the state of Palestine formally. Why will they not do that?
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 the Foreign Secretary intend to continue sanctions against those persons, groups and entities currently subject to EU sanctions?
Broadly speaking, yes.
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.
When the hon. Lady is not in Taunton Deane, she could trog around some of those territories if she were so inclined.
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
The UK looks forward to co-chairing the Equal Rights Coalition with Argentina from May this year. We will use our role to promote and protect LGBT rights globally.
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.]
Blurt it out, man; don’t be distracted.
Does she still believe, as the previous Foreign Secretary claimed, that the UK should act as a champion for the Sisi regime that is carrying out the repression?
I can reassure the hon. Gentleman that my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Middle East and our ambassador to Egypt regularly raise the examples that the hon. Gentleman cites as part of the ongoing engagement with the Egyptian Government.
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.
Child soldiers represent a major human rights concern. What more can be done to condemn and improve the situation of child soldiers in Yemen, both those on the Houthi side and, crucially, the Sudanese children being exploited by the Saudi forces?
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?
The hon. Lady is right that that is a major issue. My right hon. Friend the Minister for the Middle East raised the matter when he was in the region last week and will continue to do so.
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?
My right hon. Friend the Minister for the Middle East, who has responsibility for north Africa, spoke to the Libyan Foreign Minister about that issue yesterday, and I spoke to the Italian Foreign Minister last week about immigration issues more generally.
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?
Any and every decent person in this House utterly condemns the barring of much needed humanitarian aid from getting into Venezuela. We all stand together in condemning those who are preventing that much needed source of supplies.
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?
We are fully adhering to the obligations and requirements of the Act that was passed. The hon. Gentleman is quite right that 2023 is the date by which we hope every requirement will be met in respect of public registers.
Will the Minister update us on what steps are being taken to support recently liberated areas in Iraq?
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?
Let me tell the hon. Gentleman that if we had followed his policy and stopped our strategic relationship with Saudi Arabia, there would be no peace process in Yemen and we would not have the first prospect for four years of solving the problem.
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.
I have a wonderful Chagossian community in Wythenshawe. In the light of yesterday’s International Court of Justice decision, what does the Minister have to say to that community?
I repeat what I said earlier: the court decision yesterday was an advisory opinion, not a judgment. We will continue to uphold our commitments, as we have frequently stated in this House.
What work are the Government doing to support relations and enhance the interaction between all political groups, in both opposition and government, in Iraq?
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.
In the light of the detriment that older people experience globally, what steps is the Foreign Secretary taking to advance a UN convention for the rights of older people?
It is an issue that I have a great deal of interest in because of my previous role. I can assure the hon. Lady that, having the third largest development budget in the world, we continue to champion this issue at every opportunity.
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 putting 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—
Order. I am not trying to get any alternatives to a backstop. Speak through the Chair, man.
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.]
Order. I appeal to the House to give the right hon. Gentleman the respectful attention that he probably wants and I think he should have.
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.
This is a shameful moment. Nothing has changed—apart from the fact that some of us who used to sit on the Government side are now sitting on the Opposition side. One of the reasons for that is that yet again we see from the Prime Minister can kicking at the same time as fudge is being created and a failure to put the country and the nation’s interests first. Instead, the future of the Conservative party is put first and foremost. Right hon. and hon. Members who sit on the Government side made it clear that they would vote in accordance with their consciences and the national interest—[Interruption.]
Order. Mr Blunt—be quiet. Be quiet. You are not the arbiter of what the right hon. Lady says. I will be the judge of that. Do not try to shout her down. It is beneath you—and more importantly, it will fail.
Actually, I did not hear what the hon. Gentleman said; that is the benefit of being older and a bit deaf, Mr Speaker.
In any event, the important point is this. Right hon. and hon. Members on the Government side—those in government, and senior Back Benchers—made it very clear that they would vote to take no deal off the table, break a three-line Whip and, if necessary, either resign or be sacked from the Government. Will the Prime Minister confirm that indeed nothing has changed and that no deal remains firmly on the table?
The right hon. Lady talks about acting in the national interest. At every stage of this, the national interest has been the focus of the work that I have been doing. That is why I negotiated what I believe to be a good deal with the European Union. That deal was indeed, as others have referenced, rejected by this House. It is why I have then listened to the views of this House on what the House wanted to see changed in the withdrawal agreement and in the package negotiated, to ensure that the House could support that package. That is why we are in talks with the European Union on that. That is why I intend to work to bring back to this House changes that this House can support and changes that ensure that we will be able to leave the European Union, and do so with a deal.
Most of my constituents are in awe of the stoic way in which the Prime Minister has acted over these past two years, dealing with a subject that no other Prime Minister has ever had to deal with. There is no book to go and check what happened before: she is breaking new ground. Can the Prime Minister tell me, though, what she thinks is the maximum extension she would seek to our withdrawal?
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend. My view on this is very simple. First, I do not want to see an extension—[Interruption.] Yes, it is very simple. Secondly, were there to be an extension, I believe that it should be as short as possible. It is already the case that we are nearly three years on from the referendum in 2016. People who voted for us to leave the European Union are rightly questioning that timetable and want to see us actually leaving the European Union. Should the House vote for a short limited extension, I would want to see that being as short as possible.
The Prime Minister was worrying that the Bill 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) would set a precedent. But there is a very easy solution to this: the Prime Minister could bring forward that Bill in Government time, as a Government Bill, and whip for it. My suspicion is that the Prime Minister is yet again leaving herself wriggle room on the issue of no deal. We have already voted against no deal in this House. She says she is going to allow us a vote on no deal, but then she says that no deal will still be on the table even if we do that. Will she confirm, yet again, that there will be no legal impediment to no deal at the end of this process? So what is this extension for?
What we have seen, of course, is that, yes, the House voted in the way the hon. Gentleman indicated, but we are now working with the European Union. We will bring changes agreed with the European Union back to this House for a further meaningful vote. Members of this House will then have the opportunity to determine whether they want to leave the European Union with a deal or not. Should they reject no deal, the further votes that I have given a commitment to will take place.
Mr Blunt, having heard you—it was rather unwelcome—from your seat, perhaps we can now hear you on your feet.
I rather suspect that given all the enthusiasm that Brenda of Bristol had for the last general election, the prospect of an extension of this debate for several months will be received with dismay by the country. However, underneath that dismay is massive uncertainty. There is a real price for extending this debate, and I urge my right hon. Friend to stick to her guns and make sure that there is a choice between her deal and leaving to World Trade Organisation terms. That is the choice that the European Union faces, which hopefully will bring it to end the backstop, and that is the choice that the Labour party should face as well.
My hon. Friend is right that we can indeed bring an end to the uncertainty. We can do that. I believe that the best way to do that is through a meaningful vote in this House to support the deal that the Government will bring back from the European Union.
We all know that no deal would be an absolute catastrophe on so many different levels. Does the Prime Minister acknowledge that her own deal will have a huge impact on the economy as well? Cutting immigration of EU nationals by 80% will be the ruination of many cities and towns across our country.
I say to the hon. Lady that we now have the opportunity, as a result of leaving the European Union, to put a new immigration system into place—yes, to bring an end to free movement once and for all; that was an important element of the referendum debate and the reason why, I think, quite a number of people voted to leave the European Union. We can now put in place an immigration system based not on where somebody comes from, but on the skills they have and the contribution they will make to this country.
The right hon. Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis) has perambulated from one part of the Chamber to another, but fortunately I can still see him. He is now next to the Father of the House—a very important position.
Thank you, Mr Speaker, for that warm-hearted introduction.
There may be a special place in hell for those of us who want a clean break with the European Union, but does my right hon. Friend agree that there will be the devil to pay for any party that tries to hold a second referendum to reverse the result of the first one?
I absolutely agree with my right hon. Friend. Our party campaigned to respect the result of the referendum and the Labour party campaigned saying that it would respect the result of the referendum. It is important that we do just that.
As we speak, the Prime Minister’s Government are preparing to apply tariffs to basic food items such as cheese and meat, the price of which will be paid by families in this country who have suffered enough. Is this really the Tory party that the Prime Minister thought she would lead—banging on about Europe, all the while creating new burning injustices every day it is in office?
We have negotiated a deal with the European Union that is very clear on the issue of no tariffs. It is open to Members of this House, with the changes that will be brought back following our discussions with the European Union, to support that deal.
I also say to the hon. Lady that this Government have been dealing with a number of burning injustices in this country, which were not dealt with by a previous Labour Government. I cite things like the action we have taken on stop and search, in relation to mental health and on the race disparity audit.
Clearly, having no deal with our largest trading partner is deeply unattractive, which is why I have supported the deal. The Government position has been to leave with a deal, and the Conservative party manifesto was very clear that we wanted both a trade deal and a customs arrangement. If we do get to 12 March and, unfortunately, the deal is not accepted, will my right hon. Friend confirm that the Government’s position will remain that we want to secure a deal and that, if our negotiators need that little bit more time, the Government will not be whipping their Ministers to block the extension?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right in saying that the Government have been very clear throughout all this that we believe that the best route for the United Kingdom is to leave the European Union with a deal. That will continue to be this Government’s position. I want to work to ensure that the situation she refers to does not arise because we are able to get that agreement in the meaningful vote and get a deal agreed.
Can the Prime Minister explain how she intends to obviate the need for checks on rules of origin without accepting common external tariffs? Is it not the case that the only realistic way of meeting that commitment in the political declaration is to negotiate a new customs union with the EU?
We put forward proposals on how we could achieve that some months ago, and there will of course be a debate on the balance between alignment and checks when we come to the next stage of the negotiations.
The withdrawal negotiations are nearing their final, most crucial and most delicate stages. Against that background, does my right hon. Friend not agree that talk from certain quarters of her Government of immediately extending the article 50 process and taking no deal off the table is simply giving succour to our interlocutors in Brussels, and, if anything, undermining the position of the British negotiators?
As I have said on a number of occasions, simply extending article 50 does not resolve the issue of the decision that the House will have to make. When the time comes, it will be for every Member of the House to decide whether we should respect the result of the referendum and whether we should do that by leaving with a deal, with the changes that will be achieved through the negotiations that are currently being undertaken with the European Union. However, that choice—no deal, a deal, or no Brexit—will be before every Member when the time comes.
I always admire a good U-turn on either side of the House, and I am delighted to welcome the Prime Minister’s screeching U-turn today and her acceptance that the House must have a chance to vote against no deal; but can she be clear, because she has not been thus far? If we have that vote on 12 or 13 March, will her Government be voting in favour of no deal or against it?
I am hearing conflicting views from across the Chamber. On one hand I am told that nothing has changed, and on the other hand I am told that we have done a U-turn.
The Prime Minister was told a long time ago that this would be the easiest deal in history, and that we would be in an implementation period and not a transition period. Given the importance of the future trade arrangements to this country, will she commit herself to ensuring that red lines are put before Parliament for Parliament’s democratically elected representatives to vote on, in relation to the future trade agreement? That is the way to ensure that the credibility of our democracy is not undermined.
Let me give my hon. Friend some reassurance. I have indicated on a number of occasions in the House that as we look to that next stage of the negotiations—which will indeed cover the trade relationship that we will have with the EU in the long term, but also other issues such as our security arrangements, and some underpinning issues such as the exchange of data—we will be seeking more involvement from Parliament, and my right hon. Friends the Brexit Secretary and the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster are considering what form that interaction with Parliament should take in the future.
European leaders have made it pretty clear that they would only agree to an extension of article 50 for a good reason, not just to enable the Prime Minister to faff and dither and delay and do some more can-kicking down the road. That extension must be for a purpose. Will the Prime Minister therefore make another U-turn and support the proposal for a confirmatory public vote, which is now gaining support on both sides of the House?
I have made my views on this issue clear on a number of occasions in this Chamber. There are those who are talking about a confirmatory vote on the deal, and including on that ballot paper the option of remaining in the European Union.
The hon. Lady says yes to that. I have to say to her that it would not be respecting the result of the referendum, and that 80% of the votes cast in the last general election were for parties that said they would respect it.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that the whole history of the European Union has shown that time and again, when there are intractable disputes, agreement is obtained, often late at night, with about an hour to go before the clock runs out? Will she therefore stick to her deadline, and will she impress on the European Union that there is a majority in the House for her agreement if the necessary changes to the backstop can be made?
I thank my right hon. Friend for drawing attention to that issue in relation to the European Union. We are indeed in the process of those talks with the European Union, and have made clear to it that—as the vote in the House showed—there is support for a withdrawal agreement provided that we can see those necessary changes in relation to the backstop.
I feel so enraged this week by the complete and utter lack of bravery to do the right thing for our country. Perhaps it is because I have spent my week in my constituency trying to put out the burning injustices that the Prime Minister’s Government have started where I live. I will not sit one more day and listen to the Prime Minister crow about employment going up, while where I live employment is falling and hunger is rising. I currently have one midwife—one!—for the entirety of my constituency. There are people in my constituency who are living in hotels, and who have to move out because Crufts is coming to Birmingham.
Will the Prime Minister do a brave thing and do, once, what is best for the country, not what is best for any of us? Will she be brave, and will she at least answer the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Pontypridd (Owen Smith)? Will she at least vote against no deal herself?
I recognise the passion with which the hon. Lady has made the point about her constituency, but time and again I am asked questions in the Chamber the implication of which is to try to deny the facts of the situation that are before us. The facts of the situation are very simple. The House will have a decision to make, but only three options will be before it: to leave the European Union with a deal, to leave without a deal, or to revoke article 50 and have no Brexit. I have made clear that the last of those options is one that I will not support, and I believe that the House should not support it, because it would be going back on the result of the referendum.
I do believe that the Prime Minister has shown some courage today, because there is some welcome pragmatism in what she has announced. She has acknowledged the fear that people have of time running out, and, like the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips), the desperate need of the businesses in our constituencies to have certainty. Without a doubt that certainty can be provided by Parliament’s voting for her deal when she puts it forward, but given that it may not be carried, will she confirm that the UK will now only leave the EU without a deal if Parliament explicitly provides consent?
As I said in my statement, if when we bring the meaningful vote back Parliament rejects that meaningful vote, we will table a motion to ask Parliament its view on whether or not we should be leaving without a withdrawal agreement and a future framework. On that basis, we would only leave without a deal with the consent of Parliament. But I echo the point that my right hon. Friend made at the beginning of her question: the best thing for Parliament to do is to vote for a deal, such that we can leave with a deal.
The first thing that South Wales Police raised with me when I was elected in 2001 was the problem they were experiencing with obtaining up-to-date information from other police forces in Europe so that they could tackle paedophilia in the south Wales valleys. We have managed to achieve obtaining that over recent years, as I am sure the Prime Minister knows from her time as Home Secretary, but if we leave without a deal—as she rightly said in her first letter to the European Union triggering article 50—we will not have a deal on security, and that means that the police, from the day afterwards, will not have access to that information. How are we going to make sure that we are safe if we proceed down the no-deal path?
Let me say first to the hon. Gentleman that I do indeed recognise the issue that he has raised. One of the early things that I did when I became Home Secretary was agree that the United Kingdom should be part of the European Investigation Order. I stood at this Dispatch Box while the hon. Gentleman’s right hon. and hon. Friends tried to prevent me from ensuring that we could keep measures such as the European arrest warrant.
Let me also say to the hon. Gentleman, however, that I believe that leaving with a deal is the right thing to be done for this country, for a variety of reasons. Most people focus on the trade and customs issues, but the security issues are just as important. That is why obviously in no-deal preparations we work with others across the European Union to see what arrangements can be in place in a no-deal, but it is also why the deal we have negotiated is the best thing to happen, because it allows us access to key areas such as the passenger name records and Prüm.
Will my right hon. Friend please confirm whether over the last fortnight in conversations with EU members she has heard anything to suggest that any EU country would fail to give us an extension to article 50, and if that is the case what those reasons might be?
I have not been discussing with individual member states an extension to article 50; what I have been discussing with them is what the UK Parliament requires—what this House requires—in order to get the change that would secure a majority in this House for the withdrawal agreement. However, the point is very simple: were it to be the case that an extension of article 50 were requested by the UK, that would require the unanimous consent of all 27 members of the European Union. I have not had that discussion with them.
The Prime Minister will remember that I started off feeling sympathetic to her, especially when she began saying that she wanted to talk to people, and then I felt rather sorry for her. But I have to tell her on behalf of my constituents and myself that I feel very frightened by what she has said today. I believe that the Prime Minister has lost her sense of direction and lost the real message that every Prime Minister should have in mind. Forget about referendums—I think of Mussolini when I think of referendums. The responsibility of the Prime Minister is the national interest and the health, welfare and prosperity of the people we all represent. Will she remind herself of that, face down the people on her Back Benches, and do something that delivers to this House? There is a two thirds majority for a sensible conclusion; let us bring those on all the Benches together and discuss this. Two thirds of the Members in this House want a sensible solution.
I am thinking precisely of the national interest when I sit down with the European Commission and other European Union leaders with a view to negotiating changes to the withdrawal agreement and the package we agreed, such that we can bring that back to this House and get agreement for a deal.
So that I can prepare to realign myself to the metaphysical plane: what is my right hon. Friend’s estimate of the possibility of our leaving on time?
It is my estimation that it is within our grasp to get changes such that we can bring a deal back to this House to enable this House to confirm in a meaningful vote its intention to leave the European Union with a deal on 29 March.
For 22 years I have served the constituents of Don Valley, and I have dealt with many constituents and their plights. At no time in those 22 years have they looked to the EU to supply the answers to the injustices they have faced, whether in terms of poverty or housing or having a decent education or health service; a Labour Government supply the answers to those issues. That is why it is so important to recognise that in this House there are people on the remain and the leave side for whom no deal will ever be good enough. The time has come to recognise, as is said in the first line of the first leaflet of the 2017 election from Labour, that the decision to leave has been made by the British people. We said in the relevant chapter of our manifesto that we are here to negotiate Brexit, not stop it. Does the Prime Minister agree that she needs to show compromise, but so does everybody else in this House?
I absolutely agree. Compromise is necessary of course and we have seen compromise already in relation to the deal that has been negotiated, but the right hon. Lady is absolutely right to point out, as I referenced earlier, that 80% of the votes at the last general election were cast for parties that were clear in their manifestos that we would respect the result of the referendum, and we should be doing just that. I believe the best way to do that is to leave the European Union with a deal, and I intend to bring a deal back to this House of Commons that I would hope and expect the House can support.
Is it not still the reality that the withdrawal agreement—warts and all, amended or not—remains the only serious show in town if we are to leave the EU, and does the Prime Minister think that if this deal keeps getting voted down by this House she will need to stand alongside the Leader of the Opposition, go on television and explain and level with the British public why this House is institutionally and politically incapable of delivering Brexit?
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right that we are seeking changes to the withdrawal agreement, but the bulk of it remains the same. It is about intricate issues such as the legal aspects for those businesses that have contracts with the European Union after we leave the European Union, and citizens’ rights and ensuring the guarantees and protections for citizens’ rights. He says that in the event that this House did not vote for a deal I should stand by the Leader of the Opposition and explain why this House had not voted for a deal; that might be a little difficult because, given his new policy, the Leader of the Opposition does not seem to want to deliver Brexit.
The Prime Minister’s language, borrowed from the extremists, in describing the Bill from my right hon. Friend the Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper) and the right hon. Member for West Dorset (Sir Oliver Letwin) as commandeering the House is totally irresponsible. Does the Prime Minister not understand that this is a parliamentary democracy, that we own the Standing Orders and that we can vote to change them either permanently or temporarily at any time?
Of course it is absolutely right that the Standing Orders of this House can be changed by this House; in recent times the Standing Orders of this House have often been interpreted in ways that were not expected.
The vast majority of my constituents in Gloucester would echo every word the right hon. Member for Don Valley (Caroline Flint) said; they voted and the country voted to leave and we in our manifestos chose to respect the result of that referendum. So there is no question about us leaving; the only issue at stake, and the only issue my constituents worry about, is the inability of this House to get behind the Prime Minister and resolve the withdrawal agreement Bill. Given that business, and particularly manufacturing, is hurting and will hurt with every day going forward, will my right hon. Friend confirm that if she can agree with the European Union the changes she is rightly looking for before 12 March, she will come back to this House earlier and put the question as soon as possible?
I thank my hon. Friend for the point he makes; he is absolutely right that the vast majority of members of the public want to see this House delivering leaving the European Union and doing so in the best way for this country, and we will be working to ensure we get those changes as soon as possible. When I said there will be a vote by 12 March, I meant that that is the last date for a vote, and if it is possible to bring it earlier I will do so.
Listening to this mess it is no wonder that in Scotland the EU is more popular than the UK. The only sovereign decision this Parliament can take is to revoke article 50, to prevent leaving without a deal. An extension to article 50 means the Prime Minister has to beg the EU27 and put the UK at the mercy of the kindness of the EU27. Does she not agree that revoking article 50 is better than leaving without a deal, which is the current trajectory for the UK given the letter she wrote on 29 March 2017?
I do not agree that revoking article 50 is a better route for this country. Members across this House gave people in the country the opportunity to decide whether to leave the European Union or not; they voted to leave the EU and I believe it is imperative that we respect that vote and deliver on that vote.
When the Prime Minister brings her deal back to the House of Commons I will vote for it the second time; as the right hon. Member for Don Valley (Caroline Flint) has said, it is time and we need to support the deal. If the deal, however, does not succeed in the House, will the Prime Minister then give the House the option of voting for Britain joining the European free trade area—Common Market 2.0, the Norway option—which commands support from across the House and from some Eurosceptics such as Daniel Hannan?
I thank my right hon. Friend for the commitment that he has given in relation to the meaningful vote. I think he is trying to step forward to a stage beyond, when we have taken those other votes through this House. As I say, the first aim of the Government, and my first aim, is to bring back a meaningful vote that can command support across the House, such that we are able to leave with a deal. I believe that the arrangements within the political declaration have significant benefits in relation to issues such as customs and also provide for us to have an independent trade policy and no free movement. Those are important elements of what people voted for in 2016.
I am glad the Prime Minister has finally recognised that if she cannot get her agreement through, we will need to extend article 50 to avoid the risk and disruption of no deal on 29 March, but like many others, I fear that we will just end up here again at the end of any extension, however long it might be, because the Prime Minister will not change course. She keeps talking about the facts, but there are different facts out there, if only she would open her eyes. Is it not the truth that she could get her agreement through if she changed her red lines and worked across the House, or if she had the courage of her convictions and put her withdrawal agreement back to the public? That is the way to break the Brexit deadlock.
The hon. Lady knows my answer in relation to putting the deal back to the public. I believe it is our job to respect the result of the referendum and to deliver on that. There are those who wish to put that deal back to the public against a no deal, and those who wish to put it back to the public against remaining in the European Union. I think that remaining in the European Union is not the right course for us to take. We should be leaving the European Union, and the best way to do that is with a deal.
Public trust in this institution is low and falling. I welcome the Prime Minister’s statement that she, this Government and this party will honour the referendum result. She, like me, campaigned for remain, and we are equally committed to getting a deal. I beg colleagues who do not think that this deal is perfect to vote for it so that we can move on and deliver what the British people asked for. In the event that the House rejects the Prime Minister’s deal again, which I hope it does not, and rejects no deal, can we use the extension period to reach across the House—in the spirit of what the right hon. Member for Don Valley has said—and look at EFTA instead of the backstop, and at other variations? We need to deliver a Brexit in the national interest, not party interest.
My hon. Friend is right to say that we are working to deliver a deal in the national interest. We have reached across the House, although we have so far had limited discussions with those on the official Opposition Front Bench. We are happy to continue those discussions with the Opposition Front Bench, but we have also been talking to Members from across the House. It is important that we get a deal that the House is able to support, and the stronger the support across the House, the better that will be.
The Prime Minister can surely not be unaware of the fear out there in the country about what no deal means. Surely her constituency surgeries, like mine, are full of people who cannot sleep at night for worrying about their businesses and their jobs and because of the fear of no deal. She has told us today that in the event of her deal being rejected again by this House, there will be a vote on 13 March to take no deal off the table. I will vote to take no deal off the table. She has been asked several times today about this, and she has lectured us all about personal responsibility, so how will the Prime Minister herself vote in those circumstances? If the House votes down her deal and she brings forward that motion, how will she vote? It is not just MPs who deserve an answer; it is the public.
The hon. Lady misses out a stage. There is a stage before we get to that point, which is the vote in this House on the meaningful vote and the deal, and I can assure her that I will be voting for a deal.
May I gently remind the Prime Minister that we trade on World Trade Organisation terms with the rest of the world outside the EU and that we do so very profitably? She should not be deflected. Colleagues knew what they were voting for when triggering article 50. A concern must be that, at this crucial stage of the negotiations with the EU, the Prime Minister’s next steps will now make a good deal less likely, because the EU will hope that Parliament will defeat no deal and extend article 50. When I voted against the Iraq war, I knew that I had to resign to do so. Has the time not come to face down those Ministers who have threatened to resign, in order to ensure that we achieve the best possible chance of a good deal?
I agree with my hon. Friend that we need to achieve the best possible chance of a good deal. Actually, we trade with other parts of the world on terms that are part of the EU’s trade agreements with those other parts of the world, and we have been working to ensure that those would continue in the event of no deal, should there be no deal. I think that he and I are of one mind in that we want to leave according to the timetable that has been set and to leave with a good deal for the UK.
The Prime Minister is now countenancing an extension to article 50. May I ask her to do the same in relation to a people’s vote, and to acknowledge that a people’s vote in a fair campaign, devoid of the extensive cheating of the campaign 900 days ago, is the best way of uniting the country around either her deal or staying in the European Union?
I refer the right hon. Gentleman to the answer that I have given to that question earlier this afternoon, and indeed to the answer that I have given to the same question that he has asked me in every statement I have made on this issue in recent months.
I thank the Prime Minister for coming to the House yet again to update us on the European Union. She has been tireless in keeping the House informed, and her ability to keep going and trying to get a deal is welcomed across the House. I do hope that she will be able to come back with a deal that the whole House can vote for. However, if that is not the case, she has said 108 times that we will leave the European Union on 29 March, and if that is not possible, does she not think that the country will regard that as a betrayal?
What the country wants is to see us delivering on Brexit and delivering leaving the European Union. The timetable of 29 March was set and accepted by the House when it accepted the vote on article 50. As I have said, I want us to be able to do that and to leave on the basis of a deal, and we will be continuing to work to ensure that we can do that. The important issue that Members must consider when they come to vote on the next meaningful vote is delivering on Brexit and giving the public the reassurance that we are actually going to do what they asked us to do.
What would be the better democratic outcome for the country: accepting a second-rate deal resulting in a second-rate future, or holding a second public vote asking the public whether they support or reject a second-rate future for their children and grandchildren?
I think the best thing for the democratic health of this country is to deliver on the referendum result of 2016. As the right hon. Member for Don Valley (Caroline Flint) has pointed out, people from across the House have campaigned on a manifesto to respect the referendum and deliver on Brexit. And the deal before the House is not a second-rate deal; it is a good deal for the UK.
It is encouraging to hear from my right hon. Friend that, in her words, good progress has been made towards securing an alternative to the vexed issue of the backstop, but it is critical that hon. and right hon. Members have the opportunity to consider such new arrangements in advance of any vote. Is she confident that we will indeed have that opportunity in advance of the vote on 12 March?
I recognise the concern that Members will have. Of course, the bulk of the proposals that will be put back would be the withdrawal agreement and the political declaration, which have already been considered by the House, but I am clear that Members will need to have an opportunity to look at any changes that have been made and to consider them before they vote in the House.
The Prime Minister has been forced to admit today for the first time that we do not have to leave without a deal on 29 March unless Parliament explicitly approves it. However, there is little point in applying for a two-month or three-month extension simply to carry on the same circular discussions with the same parliamentary gridlock. If we are to apply for an extension of the article 50 period, would it not be better, rather than specifying a time, to secure an extension for a purpose, which should be clarity on our future relationship with the EU? The lack of clarity is not down to the national interest, but because it is in the Conservative party’s interest not to have to face up to the fundamental choices posed by Brexit.
No. We have considerable detail in the political declaration—more than many people thought it would be possible to achieve at this stage. It is not possible to have a legal text, but the EU cannot agree legal texts with us until we are outside the EU. People are focusing on an issue at the heart of the future negotiations, which is the question of the balance between alignment with rules on goods and agricultural products and checks at the border. The spectrum is identified in the political declaration, because the UK Government’s clear position is that we are aiming for and want to work towards frictionless trade, and the EU is concerned about the impact of that on the single market. It is that discussion between the UK and the EU that is at the heart of the political declaration.
In seeking to limit us either to an agreement that ties us to the EU without a clear end, an extension of this corrosive period of limbo, or a second public vote, does the Prime Minister share my profound democratic concern that Members of this House are contriving to deny those whom we serve any option that honours the referendum result?
As I have said on many occasions, I am clear that we should honour the result of the referendum. I believe that the deal we put before the House, which was rejected by the House, did that. The deal that we will bring back will reflect the work that we have done with the European Union in response to concerns that have been raised by this House. I expect and hope that I will be able to bring back a deal that Members across this House will see is the best way for us to leave the European Union.
From what the Prime Minister says, I understand that from her point of view the backstop is the crux of the matter. She stated:
“We discussed the legal changes that are required to guarantee that the Northern Ireland backstop cannot endure indefinitely”
but then she stopped, so what progress has been made to date in relation to those legal changes?
As I have said, we are in discussions about the legal changes. The hon. Lady says that it appears from listening to me that the issue is the backstop. Actually, this House made it clear that the issue was the backstop, because that is how this House voted on the 29 January.
First it was a people’s vote, and now it is a confirmatory vote. Are not hon. Members using these euphemisms because, in reality, their proposal is for a second referendum and that, by definition, they are dishonouring the result of the first? Will the Prime Minister accept that many of us who fought hard for remain nevertheless accepted the result that the British people had given us and wished to implement that result? We have no admiration whatsoever for hon. Members who campaigned for the referendum, who stood on a manifesto to implement the result, who supported the referendum decision in a vote, who voted to trigger article 50 less than two years ago, and who now are in plain sight reneging on those promises.
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. Whether it is called a people’s vote or a confirmatory vote, it is a second referendum. It is putting the decision back to the British people. We said that we would honour the decision, the Labour party stood on a manifesto of respecting that decision, and we should both do just that.
The Prime Minister says that she wants to unite the nation and this House, and she has again presented us today with her deal, no deal or no Brexit. Her deal faced the biggest ever defeat in this place, and no amount of backstop tinkering is going to change things for us on the Opposition Benches. Given that no deal has already been rejected twice by this House, what contingency planning she has done for no Brexit in the same way as for no deal, the assessment of which she is publishing today? If she will not rescind article 50, will she not accept that, ostensibly, the only sensible thing to do with 800 hours to go is to put her negotiated settlement back to the people, so that we can get a fresh assessment of the will of the people—the most accurate one—and then that can prevail?
I refer the hon. Lady to the answer that I gave to that question earlier.
I encourage the Prime Minister to continue her discussions with our European friends. May I gently warn the House against prejudging the outcome of those discussions, which I have heard decried across this place during these exchanges? Whatever happens over the next few days, weeks and hopefully not months, I know she will agree that holding a second referendum would be an affront to the people of Basildon and Thurrock, who knew full well what they were doing, and 73% of whom voted to leave.
Yes, my hon. Friend is absolutely right that we should honour the referendum result. We stood on a manifesto to do that, and other Members of this House stood on a manifesto to respect the referendum, and we should deliver Brexit.
I hope the Prime Minister will forgive me when I say that every time she makes a promise from that Dispatch Box it is met with cynicism among the Opposition because of the number of promises she has broken and the number of votes in this House that she has decided not to take forward. That has been emphasised further today by her failure to answer a simple question: when the Division bell rings in this House to prevent no deal, will she vote for or against?
As I have said to other hon. Members and to others outside this House, one of the frustrations in this debate is the way in which people will not focus on the immediate issue before us. The immediate issue before us is negotiating changes to the deal such that we can take a meaningful vote in this House on a deal to leave the European Union.
Yesterday, I was contacted by an engineer working for a laser manufacturer in Rugby involved in highly competitive export markets. As 29 March gets closer, he is very concerned about the viability of his company and the future of 100 jobs as a consequence of tariffs and delays that would be involved in no deal. How will the Prime Minister’s statement today set my constituents’ minds at rest?
I hope that my hon. Friend’s constituents will take some reassurance from the fact that the Government are having constructive talks with the European Union and making progress in relation to the changes that this House has required to the withdrawal agreement and to the package that was agreed with the European Union in November, such that we can take a vote and leave the European Union on 29 March with a deal. I hope they will also take some reassurance from the fact that if this House again votes to reject that deal, I have set out the steps that would be taken in relation to further votes on no deal and on an extension to article 50
With every answer that the Prime Minister gives from the Dispatch Box, there is a collective sinking of hearts in the country, because she seems to engage in nothing but wishful thinking, and the country is fed up with watching its Prime Minister chase unicorns. Will she please confirm in what specific circumstances she believes, or has been told, that this one-off extension to article 50 will be granted by the EU? What specifically would she use that time to achieve?
As I said earlier, I have not discussed an extension of article 50 with other leaders around the European Union table. However, the European Union—in the form of the EU Council and the European Commission—has made it clear that it would expect any extension to be on the basis of a clear agreement that there was a plan for achieving the deal. I want to ensure that we can achieve the deal before we get to that point, and if the hon. Lady is worried about uncertainty in the House, it is very simple: vote for the deal.
I voted remain in the referendum but, just like the right hon. Member for Don Valley (Caroline Flint), I completely accept the result and the fact that I stood on a manifesto committing me to implement it, but the Official Opposition have dishonoured their own manifesto with the U-turn that they announced yesterday. Despite its imperfections, I also accept that the currently proposed withdrawal agreement is the best way we have of implementing the referendum result, so the Prime Minister can expect my support in the Division on 12 March. However, if that is not successful, an extension strikes me as unlikely to lead to any change. Given that we have ruled out a referendum, the only remaining way of honouring the referendum result is to make a transition to WTO terms. Should the House not confront that choice now and be prepared to make that decision?
I thank my hon. Friend for the commitment he has given. I say to him, as I have said to others, that it is the case that, when we come to look at the changed withdrawal agreement, it will be necessary for every Member of this House to ask themselves whether they want to honour the result of the referendum and, in honouring the result of the referendum, whether they wish to do so by leaving with a deal. That will be the opportunity available to Members of this House when we bring back a meaningful vote and I hope that Members on both sides of the House will vote for a deal, to leave and to honour the referendum.
The Prime Minister knows that the public are sick and tired of this impasse, born of politicians always putting their party political interests above the national interest. May I ask her not to belittle the genuine, heartfelt concern that many hon. Members have about the real lives, the real jobs and the real livelihoods that are at stake in a botched Brexit? That cannot just be swept under the carpet, and we should not just turn a blind eye. If we want to break through this gridlock, let us give the public a chance by having a people’s vote now.
I recognise the uncertainty and the impact of that uncertainty on businesses and on people. The clear message I get when I speak to members of the public—I was out on the doorsteps again at the weekend—is that they want to see this resolved and that they want Parliament to get on with the job of voting for a deal and ensuring that we can leave the European Union. The hon. Gentleman knows my answer in relation to a people’s vote, but were we to go for a people’s vote, it would simply extend the uncertainty for a further period of time.
I welcome the fact that, contrary to certain less than well informed opinions in this House, even among my right hon. Friend’s Cabinet and junior Ministers, significant preparations have been undertaken by the EU, UK and Ireland for any eventuality. We now know, for instance, that aviation, financial derivatives, euro clearing, aerospace manufacturing, auto making, agriculture and other sectors of our economy will have access to the EU, that electricity interconnectors will be licensed, that UK insurance and extradition will be operative in Ireland and that simplified customs procedures will eliminate, or greatly reduce, checks at our borders. Three further practical enhancements to border efficiency are suggested by my work with customs and freight operators that my right hon. Friend now has in her hands to implement in the national interest. [Interruption.]
Be more lively, man.
Will my right hon. Friend, first, authorise intermediaries to have access to transitional simplified procedures? Secondly, will she allow them to be authorised consignees for the purpose of the transit system? Thirdly, will she instruct the Treasury to help underwrite a scheme that allows responsible intermediaries to guarantee liabilities to customs authorities within the transit system? [Interruption.] This way they can shoulder much of the responsibility for customs away from the border—
Order. Resume your seat, Mr Fysh. [Interruption.] Order. I indulged the hon. Gentleman, whose sincerity I greatly admire, but may I very politely suggest that he needs to develop some feel, some antennae, for the House? The House’s fascination with his points is not as great as his own.