House of Commons
Wednesday 27 February 2019
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
International Trading Opportunities
I start by congratulating coach Warren Gatland and captain Alun Wyn Jones on their most magnificent victory in Cardiff on Saturday. Speaking as a proud Englishman, it was a joy to watch the game. There is no better way to kick off Wales Week in London, in which we champion and celebrate everything that is great about Wales, including its rugby team.
The Wales Office works closely with the Department for International Trade on promoting Wales’s trading opportunities. From trade missions to his work with trade commissioners and sitting on the Board of Trade, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State works continually to create potential both for Welsh exports and for foreign direct investment projects to come to Wales.
I associate myself with my hon. Friend’s remarks, although I preferred the first half.
Many people will have used the M4 this weekend. Given the M4’s potential for promoting international trade in Wales, and indeed in the rest of the country, will my hon. Friend tell me what progress has been made towards honouring the commitment from the 1960s to build the M31 from Reading down to Gatwick Airport, via the M3?
I know that my hon. Friend is a great champion for that project, and rightly so. He is right to raise this important issue. The Department for Transport recognises the importance of cross-border connectivity. It has been gathering evidence to inform the second road investment strategy—RIS2—which will govern investment in England’s motorways and major A roads between 2020 and 2025. Economic growth is one of RIS2’s five stated key aims and will play a part in the appraisal of schemes. It will be published in 2019.
I join the Minister in congratulating the Welsh rugby team on their excellent victory. They are on course for the grand slam this year. The Minister will be aware that REHAU plastics in my constituency, which has traded internationally for more than 40 years, has announced its closure. It will now concentrate its business on the European mainland. Will his Department work with the Welsh Government, myself and local government to try to retain those important trading jobs? They are international jobs, and we need them on Anglesey.
Absolutely. I have a sneaking feeling that rugby might be a running theme throughout these questions. We recognise the importance of REHAU as an employer in the region and on Anglesey, and we will work closely with the hon. Gentleman and with the company to achieve the best possible outcome, most importantly for the important staff who work there.
There are many excellent international trading companies in north Wales, but in order to continue to thrive they need access to the most modern digital infrastructure. What discussions is my hon. Friend having with the North Wales Economic Ambition Board to ensure that growth deal funding is targeted towards improving digital connectivity?
My right hon. Friend is indeed a great champion of north Wales. I recently met with that board to discuss its progress in finalising its proposition to utilise the £120 million that we and the Welsh Government each allocated to the deal. Digital infra- structure is currently an underpinning project, but we have set the region a challenge to go even further and to be even more ambitious about what the project can achieve for the region by working closely with a range of partners, including the private sector.
Short questions and short answers, please.
Jim Callaghan, a Labour Prime Minister, brought thousands of jobs to Ford in south Wales. Why is a Tory Prime Minister taking those jobs away?
I politely remind the right hon. Lady that we have record employment in Wales. Tough commercial decisions have been made in recent months, particularly by Hitachi. However, I point to the good economic news in Wales, particularly the record job numbers.
Dydd Gŵyl Dewi hapus for Friday, Mr Speaker. I pay my good wishes to Sam on the sad loss of Paul Flynn. This is the first chance I have had to do that. He was a great man. He actually stood in my constituency in 1974.
In January, Dyson announced the relocation of its HQ to Singapore, Hitachi ended its interest in Wylfa and Airbus said it was prepared to leave Wales in the event of a no-deal Brexit. The Government’s handling of Brexit has been described as a “disgrace” by Airbus’s Tom Enders and a “state of total confusion” by tycoon Sir Martin Sorrell. What message does that send to international investors and traders about trading opportunities in Wales?
If I might politely say so, the hon. Gentleman is being a little selective with his examples. I would point him to the employment figures. The real figures show that foreign direct investment last year created 3,107 new Welsh jobs, which is a 20% increase. I understand why he might want to paint a gloomy picture. Airbus has made it perfectly clear that it does not want no deal. It wants a deal, and the best thing that he and his party could do is support the deal when it comes before the House.
Withdrawal Agreement Bill: Legislative Consent
This is the first Welsh questions since the sad passing of our friend and colleague, Paul Flynn. He leaves a significant space on the Labour Back Benches.
The Government are engaging extensively with the Welsh Government in preparing the European Union (Withdrawal Agreement) Bill. This includes bilateral engagement and meetings of the Joint Ministerial Committees.
The National Assembly for Wales backed the Plaid Cymru motion calling for work to begin immediately on preparing for a public vote. A recent poll by YouGov also found that more Welsh voters back a people’s vote than do not. If the Secretary of State is truly Wales’s voice in Westminster, as he so boldly claims, will he outline the preparations he has pressed the Prime Minister for to facilitate a people’s vote?
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her question, but I would politely point out to her that Wales voted to leave the European Union in even stronger numbers than the rest of the UK. We have an obligation to act on the instruction that comes from that referendum, but in doing so we will continue to work closely with the Welsh Government to ensure and secure a smooth and orderly exit.
I first met Paul Flynn in 1980. He was absolutely inspirational to me then and he continued to be a source of inspiration throughout the many years I had the privilege to know him.
Will the Secretary of State guarantee that the Welsh Government will be fully represented in any negotiations with the EU that impact on devolved competence and policy?
The UK Government have been open and transparent in their dealings with the Welsh Government on representation and engagement. In fact, the Welsh Government sit on the EU Exit and Trade (Preparedness) Sub-Committee, which shows and demonstrates our positive engagement. I am only disappointed that the same privilege and opportunity has not been extended to the UK Government to sit on the Welsh Government’s similar committee.
I thank the Secretary of State for his answer, but does he understand that if the UK Government negotiate free trade agreements, for example with the USA, which force hormone-injected beef and chlorinated chicken on the people of Wales without the legislative consent of the elected Welsh Government, that will trigger a major constitutional crisis? Is he prepared to risk that?
First of all, I do not accept the basis of the question, but the hon. Lady raises an important point. We will, of course, continue our warm, constructive and positive engagement with all the devolved Administrations. Our work with the Welsh Government on leaving the European Union has proved fruitful so far. We have laid 120 statutory instruments on behalf of the Welsh Government and at their request. In terms of future trade agreements, we will continue to work with them constructively in the interests of the whole of the UK. Clearly, my interests and their interests will be to defend the Welsh interest. I plan to continue to work with them on that positive basis.
Leaving the EU: Economic Support
I meet my counterparts in the Welsh Government on a regular basis, including Baroness Eluned Morgan on Monday, to discuss a range of policy areas. A responsible Government prepare for every eventuality, including no deal, and we continue to work together on operational readiness through the Joint Ministerial Committees.
That is all very well, but the Government’s no-deal assessment made it clear that the impact of a no-deal Brexit on the UK’s food and drink sector would be most damaging in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, where the sector comprises over 5% of those economies compared with just 1.38% in England. How can the Government claim, therefore, that this is a partnership of equal nations when they stand ready to ruin the economies of three, purely in the interests of Tory party unity?
The hon. Gentleman is quite selective with the data that he points to. He has highlighted one scenario, but if he is happy to take that message so clearly from the sector that he has highlighted, that same sector encouraged him to support the Prime Minister’s deal with the European Union. When that meaningful vote returns to Parliament, I hope that he will heed that message then.
Will the Secretary of State recognise that 92% of Welsh lamb goes for EU export? Welsh hill farmers have said that if a no-deal Brexit goes ahead, their industry will be decimated and wiped out—a view confirmed in his economic evidence that was published last night. If that is his analysis, will the Secretary of State for Wales act responsibly and make sure that Welsh lamb is protected?
I would say similarly to the hon. Gentleman that absolutely, we recognise the importance of Welsh agriculture, as we do all the important employment and economic sectors in Wales. The National Farmers Union and NFU Cymru were strong supporters of the deal with the European Union, so if he is happy to repeat their message today, I hope that he is happy to act on their message when it comes to voting on the meaningful vote in this House.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that agriculture is a very important industry not only for Britain but for Wales—particularly, as has already been outlined, Welsh lamb? What measures could be taken in the event of a no-deal Brexit? Clearly the deal would be the first option, but if there was a no-deal Brexit, how would those difficulties be overcome?
My right hon. and learned Friend raises an important point. Agriculture is an extremely important part of the Welsh economy and is disproportionately important there compared with the rest of the UK. We would, of course, act in a way that would protect the interests of that economy to ensure that those jobs are there for the long-term future, in spite of any short-term challenge.
Regardless of whether we have a no-deal Brexit, is my right hon. Friend aware—I am sure he probably is—that it is coming up to the 50th anniversary of the investiture of the Prince of Wales? How can we employ, in that sense of the word, the Prince of Wales’s soft power and so on to promote Wales and the Welsh economy?
Irrespective of membership of or departure from the European Union, with which matter we would not want to involve him in any way.
My hon. Friend makes an important point. As we leave the European Union, there is an opportunity to look outwards, and the Prince of Wales is a great champion of Wales and brings about significant soft power. We rightly recognised him last year by renaming the second Severn crossing the Prince of Wales bridge. I pay tribute to Her Majesty the Queen, who will host a reception next week to mark the 50 years since the Prince of Wales was named such.
The voice of Ogmore will be heard, but I see a great phalanx of men standing and only one female Member. Jo Stevens must be heard!
Thank you very much, Mr Speaker. Every sector of the Welsh economy is going to be damaged by the UK leaving the EU, so will the Secretary of State for Wales confirm that he will be voting to rule out no deal?
I will be voting for a deal with the European Union. The hon. Lady will have an interest in a whole range of sectors, be they agriculture or automotive, and all those sectors have strongly supported the Prime Minister’s deal with the European Union. I am disappointed that the hon. Lady voted against that, making no deal more likely.
I do not want to pre-empt our consultation, which will go out very shortly, but I say candidly to the hon. Gentleman that he will recognise that more than £4 billion—approaching £5 billion—in EU structural funds has been spent in the Welsh economy over the last 17 years; does he honestly believe that we have had the best value from that, and is there not a better opportunity to deliver better value for money for the taxpayer?
I am asking the questions, not you.
The question was a rhetorical one; it requires no answer, and indeed it would be inappropriate, as the Secretary of State knows.
Leaving the EU: Business Preparations
Since the referendum I have been talking to stakeholders the length and breadth of Wales on the implications of EU exit. This includes the discussions I have had with my expert panel and economic advisory board, which met again last month.
I am grateful to the Secretary of State for that answer, but what steps is his Department taking specifically to support small businesses reliant on tourism in Wales?
My hon. Friend is a great champion of his constituency, and I have no doubt that people in Corby and east Northamptonshire will want to visit Wales regularly. This is a great opportunity to highlight Wales Week in London. Wales Week has gone global this year, being held in New York, in Washington and in all parts of the UK. I would be interested in seeing what we can do in my hon. Friend’s constituency next year.
There is absolutely no reason why those employees should have left, because we have respected their rights. I only hope and wish that as we continue to negotiate, all the rights of UK nationals living in the European Union will be respected in exactly the same way. The hon. Lady voted against the Prime Minister’s deal with the European Union, and by doing so she is making no deal far more likely. So I would encourage her to look objectively at the data, and to support the meaningful vote when it comes up.
What discussions has my right hon. Friend had with the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy about relocating the resources that are concentrated on Victoria Street into Wales and into Scotland?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. My right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and Minister for the Cabinet Office already has an agenda to take as many jobs as possible out of Whitehall and relocate them across the rest of the UK on an ongoing basis. Leaving the European Union will bring new responsibilities. I think there is an opportunity for my hon. Friend’s constituency, and I shall be seeking to play my part in ensuring that Wales benefits too.
In respect of Welsh business preparation for Brexit, can the Secretary of State tell me how many of the hundreds of Government Brexit work streams have been allocated exclusively or primarily to the Wales Office?
The hon. Gentleman will be aware that the Wales Office sits and acts right across the whole of Government, but my prime lead is with the Welsh Government. We have now ensured that they sit on the European Union Exit and Trade (Preparedness) Sub-Committee, and as I mentioned earlier, I only hope that they will similarly invite a UK Government representative to sit on their equivalent Committee.
The Government understand that police demand is changing and becoming increasingly complex. That is why, after speaking to all police forces in England and Wales, we have provided a comprehensive funding settlement that increased total investment in the police by over £460 million in 2018-19.
By 2019-20, Gwent police will have seen a 26% cut in its core Government grant compared with 2010-11. Why do this Government keep making it more difficult for Gwent police to keep my constituents safe?
I remind the hon. Gentleman that the 2019-20 settlement provides total funding of up to £14 billion, and it is an increase of up to £970 million on the previous year. I would also politely remind him that the Labour party voted against that increased funding.
The industrial strategy provides a platform for the Welsh economy to thrive, and we have been working closely with the Welsh Government to ensure that we make the most of the opportunities available. We are already delivering a wide range of projects in Wales, such as through the industrial strategy challenge fund, for which Wales is scoring well above its population share.
If you will allow me, Mr Speaker, I would like to pay tribute to my parliamentary next-door neighbour, Paul Flynn. The unique, unforgettable parliamentarian he was will be missed by all in this House.
I wonder whether the Secretary of State is concerned by the news that the Welsh Automotive Forum says that once Honda stops production in Swindon, 12 companies based in Wales will be affected by that decision. If he is worried, what will he do for those small and medium-sized enterprises to open up new markets?
The hon. Gentleman has raised an important point. I was in Japan last week when the ambassador received the news. It is necessary to recognise that this is nothing to do with Brexit; it is about changing market habits and about Honda’s changing approach. We have already been in touch with the Welsh Automotive Forum and are engaging positively with its members. The hon. Gentleman is right about the number of companies, but the exposure is more limited than it might initially suggest.
In terms of the industrial strategy, does the Secretary of State think that the chronic M4 congestion around Newport, which snarled up the England rugby team coach last Friday, was part of a cunning plan to give Wales the edge, or just a consequence of 20 years of failure on the part of a Welsh Labour Government, who cannot build a road?
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. Even the Welsh coach, Warren Gatland, said to Eddie Jones that he would never have travelled through Newport at that time of day because of the congestion in the area. That might be light-hearted, but the reality is that the problem is causing serious reputational damage to Wales. The plan is available and makes a positive recommendation, and the money is available from the Treasury. I wish that the Welsh Government would just get on and deliver the road.
I am sure the House will join me in welcoming the serendipity of the alignment of stars whereby in every year ending in “9” since 1949, Wales has beaten England.
Wylfa Newydd was a key development underpinning north Wales growth deal projects. Now that Hitachi has pulled the plug on Wylfa, what is the Secretary of State doing to secure additional funding, specifically infrastructure investment, over and above the £120 million currently committed by the Government?
The hon. Lady has asked an important question, but Hitachi has paused the project and is maintaining the development consent order. It has not pulled the plug. When I met the chairman last week, he was keen to continue to engage. We will look open-mindedly at the north Wales growth deal, but it is of course a matter for local authorities and businesses to submit bids to me so that I can consider them in due course.
What assessment has the Secretary of State made of the potential use of Crown Estates revenue income from Wales, or other Treasury funds to support the development of energy infrastructure, and specifically to develop the tidal stream energy sector in Pembrokeshire, Llŷn and Ynys Cybi?
The hon. Lady has given some excellent examples of projects that could well gain support through the north or the mid Wales growth deal or the Swansea city deal. Those are the sorts of projects that I should like to explore, but of course they are bottom up. Working with the hon. Lady and with local partners, I shall be happy to see what we can do.
Journey Times: Chepstow to Gloucestershire
We have regular discussions with the Welsh Government about cross-border roads, including the proposed A48 bypass around Chepstow. We know that a bypass could improve journey times between Chepstow and Gloucestershire as well as reduce air pollution, and we look forward to working with the Welsh Government to deliver this vital piece of infrastructure.
There are times when a drive through Chepstow resembles the rush hour in Lagos or Mexico City. Will Ministers therefore do everything that they can to encourage the local authorities in Gloucester, the Welsh Government and the Department for Transport to work with Monmouthshire council to deliver that bypass as soon as possible?
There is no greater champion and voice for Chepstow than my hon. Friend. The Government are dedicated to improving transport infrastructure across Wales, for instance by providing a new relief road. We have abolished the tolls over the Severn, and I know from personal experience on Saturday that Chepstow could do with a bypass.
I call Ian C. Lucas.
Order. The hon. Gentleman must resume his seat. He is a fine man and Slough is a very good place, but it is a long way from Chepstow or Gloucestershire. If the inquiry consists of one sentence and relates either to Chepstow or to Gloucestershire, I will hear it. If it is about Slough, he must remain seated. Blurt it out, man.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. The western rail link to Heathrow will significantly reduce the journey time between Wales and the airport. The Government committed themselves to the link in 2012. When will it finally be built?
The hon. Gentleman—who has been incredibly creative in getting his question in under Chepstow—will be pleased to hear that we are continuing to engage with the Department for Transport on this vital project.
Again there is no stronger voice for Wales than that of my right hon. Friend, who has a long-standing interest in Wales. Yesterday I met the Minister with responsibility for defence procurement, my hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey (Stuart Andrew) to discuss the F-35 contract. The recent announcement puts Wales right at the centre of the global F-35 partnership. It is the largest defence programme in history.
It was a great pleasure to visit the F-35 factory in Fort Worth in the summer of 2016, and of course the F-35 has a huge UK content to it, so does my hon. Friend agree that these contracts show the immense contribution being made by the Welsh defence industry to the UK economy and exports overall?
The aerospace and defence industries are in very good health in Wales. In financial year 2017-18, the UK Government spent £960 million with the Welsh defence industry and commerce; that is up from £946 million. This supports an estimated 6,300 jobs in Wales and the half a billion pound F-35 contract is to be welcomed right across this House.
Will the Minister meet with aerospace businesses such as Tritech, Magellan and Solvay in Wrexham to ensure that in the event of a no-deal Brexit we maximise spend within the UK to benefit our businesses?
I certainly would agree to meet with the aerospace industry. I have already visited a number of companies. I am also committed to holding a roundtable on this very subject and I am more than happy to meet with the hon. Gentleman as well to discuss this further.
The hon. Gentleman raises this issue on the European Union. He voted against the Prime Minister’s deal. That makes no deal far more likely. The only way to secure a smooth, orderly exit from the European Union is to support the Prime Minister’s deal when the meaningful vote comes back to this House.
Since the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Ben Lake) is conscious that he has a question on the Order Paper, he can have it.
RNLI New Quay
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his work on this important issue. The UK Government do not anticipate that the RNLI’s decision to replace the all-weather lifeboat with the Atlantic 85 vessel will have an impact on its capability to co-ordinate search and rescue in Cardigan bay.
I thank the Minister for his answer. He will be aware that the decision to remove the all-weather lifeboat from New Quay has caused considerable concern in Ceredigion and further afield. May I ask him to again raise this matter with the Department for Transport and press for detailed reassurances that the removal will not diminish search and rescue capabilities in Cardigan bay?
I am more than happy to work with the RNLI and to meet the hon. Gentleman to discuss his concerns to ensure there is proper and correct lifeboat coverage in Cardigan bay.
The Prime Minister was asked—
May I first say that the UK is deeply concerned about rising tensions between India and Pakistan and urgently calls for restraint on both sides to avoid further escalation? We are in regular contact with both countries urging dialogue and diplomatic solutions to ensure regional stability. We are working closely with international partners, including through the UN Security Council, to de-escalate tensions and are monitoring developments closely and considering implications for British nationals.
Mr Speaker, I understand that Eve Griffith-Okai in your office retires at the end of the week. She has worked for four Speakers and I am sure that the whole House will want to join me in wishing her the very best for the future.
This morning I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. In addition to my duties in this House, I shall have further such meetings later today.
I thank the Prime Minister for her initial response. In the face of her total failure to secure the agreement of this House, when will the Prime Minister call time on this farce, extend article 50 and put her deal versus remain back to the people?
First, I made a statement and answered 82 questions on these issues in the House yesterday. We will be bringing the meaningful vote back by 12 March. As I said yesterday, if that meaningful vote is rejected again by the House, we would have a vote in this House on 13 March on whether the House accepts leaving without a deal on 29 March. If the House rejects leaving without a deal on 29 March, there would be a vote on a short, limited extension to article 50. On the hon. Gentleman’s final point, I continue to believe that it is right for us to deliver on the result of the referendum that took place in 2016.
Obviously, this is a matter for Labour-controlled Birmingham City Council to resolve: rubbish piling up on the streets because of the failure of the Labour council to get a grip. Not only does it show what a hard-left Labour Government would be like; it shows all of us that, under Labour councils, you pay more and get less.
There is an urgent question coming up on Kashmir, but I will just say that from our side of the House we strongly support rapid dialogue between India and Pakistan in order to reduce the tension and deal with the root causes of the conflict before more lives are lost.
I also join the Prime Minister in wishing Eve a very happy retirement, Mr Speaker. She has been absolutely brilliant in your office over the many years of people rushing in and out and making totally unreasonable demands. She has always sorted it out. Could you pass on to her the thanks of lots and lots of Back Benchers over many years?
The Bank of England forecasts that growth for this year will be the slowest in over a decade. Does the Prime Minister blame her shambolic handling of Brexit or her failed austerity policies for this damaging failure?
First, I think the right hon. Gentleman should have seen the report that actually showed the expectation that in this country over the coming year we will have higher growth than Germany. He talks about the economy, so let us just say what we see in the economy under a Conservative Government: more people in work than ever before; unemployment at its lowest level since the 1970s; borrowing this year at its lowest level for 17 years; and the largest monthly surplus on record. Conservatives delivering more jobs, healthier finances and an economy fit for the future.
I know that the Prime Minister is very busy—I understand that—and she possibly has not had a chance to look at the Bank of England forecasts, which suggest that there is a one in four chance of the UK economy dipping into recession. Manufacturing is already in recession, car manufacturing has declined at the steepest rate for a decade—down 5% in the past quarter alone—and Honda, Jaguar Land Rover and Nissan have announced cuts to either jobs or investment in recent months. Does she blame her shambolic Brexit or her Government’s lack of an industrial strategy for this very sad state of affairs?
I have just explained to the right hon. Gentleman the positives in the economy and the consistent quarter-by-quarter growth that we have seen under this Government. What do we know would be the worst thing for the economy in this country? It would be a run on the pound, capital flight and £1,000 billion of borrowing under a Labour Government.
As manufacturing industry declines, it is skilled well-paid jobs that are lost. But the Prime Minister is right—there is something that is increasing, and that is the income of the top fifth richest people in this country, which went up by 4.7% last year while the incomes of the poorest fell by 1.6%. With the poorest people worse off, will the Prime Minister now commit to ending the benefit freeze, or does she believe that rising poverty is a price worth paying?
Perhaps it might again help to look at some of the facts. The top 1% are paying 28% of income tax, which is higher than at any time under a Labour Government, income inequality is lower than that which we inherited from a Labour Government, and the lowest earners saw their fastest pay rise in 20 years through the national living wage. The Conservatives are building a fairer society and delivering for everyone.
Some of us cannot forget that it was the Conservative party that so opposed the principle of the national minimum wage from the very beginning. Perhaps the Government could start by tackling the scourge of low pay in their own Departments. The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and the Ministry of Justice pay some of their central London workers as little as £7.83 an hour, and they have been on strike again this week, hoping to get a London living wage. Will the Prime Minister intervene and ensure that they do get the London living wage so that they can continue doing their valuable work for both those Departments?
Low pay means that many workers have to claim universal credit just to make ends meet. This month, the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions admitted that universal credit is driving people to food banks. Is it not time to stop the roll-out and get it right, or does the Prime Minister believe that rising poverty is a price worth paying?
No. I am not sure whether the right hon. Gentleman is repeating his previous question, but he talks about universal credit. We have made changes to it as we have rolled it out as we have seen how it has been operating. In my first months as Prime Minister, we cut the taper rate so that people could keep more of what they earn. Since then, we have increased allowances to 100% of a full monthly payment, we have scrapped the seven days’ wait, meaning that people get their money sooner, and we have brought in a two-week overlap for people on housing benefit. When we were making all those changes to universal credit to benefit the people who receive it, why did the Labour party oppose every single one of them?
Can I just give one example of what is happening? Take the food bank in Hastings, which is represented by the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, where demand went up by 80% after universal credit was rolled out, and the Trussell Trust said that a significant proportion of referrals are related to benefit changes, delays or sanctions. It is a huge increase in food bank use.
Some 4.1 million of our children are growing up in poverty, and the Resolution Foundation said last week that UK child poverty was on course to hit record levels. Will the Prime Minister act to prevent that? Will she start by ending the two-child limit? Will she end the benefit cap? Will she restore the 1,000 Sure Start centres that have been lost under her Government?
We want to ensure that we have a welfare system that is fair not only to those who need to use it, but to all the hard-working taxpayers whose taxes actually pay for the welfare system. The right hon. Gentleman talks about child poverty, but absolute child poverty is at a record low. We know that a child growing up in a home where all the adults work is around five times less likely to be in poverty than a child in a home where nobody works. Under this Government, the number of children in workless households is at a record low. So, when the right hon. Gentleman stands up, will he recognise that work is the best route out of poverty and welcome the fact that we now have more people in work than ever before—3.5 million more than in 2010?
It clearly is not working, because so many people who are themselves working very hard, some doing two or even three jobs, have to access food banks just to feed their children. The Prime Minister used to talk about the “just about managing.” Well, they are not managing anymore. Income inequality— up. In-work poverty—up. Child poverty—up. Pensioner poverty—up. Homelessness—up. Austerity clearly is not over. People on low incomes are getting poorer, while those at the top are getting richer. The economy is slowing, manufacturing is in recession and this Government’s shambolic handling of Brexit—[Interruption.]
Order. The right hon. Gentleman will not be shouted down. It is not going to happen. The attempt is foolish and it demeans the House. Stop it. Grow up.
Austerity clearly is not over. People on low incomes are getting poorer, while those at the top get richer. The economy is slowing, manufacturing is in recession and this Government’s shambolic handling of Brexit is compounding years of damaging austerity. Their policies are driving people to food banks and poverty in the fifth richest economy on this planet. Are any of these burning injustices a priority for the Prime Minister?
Manufacturing is not in recession, and what the right hon. Gentleman says about the lowest earners is not the case. If he had listened to my earlier answer, he would know the lowest earners have seen the highest rise in their pay for 20 years as a result of the introduction of the national living wage—the national living wage introduced by a Conservative-led Government.
If the right hon. Gentleman is talking about actually helping people who are in work, let us talk about the fact that we have cut income tax to help people to keep more of what they earn. We have frozen fuel duty to help people for whom a car is a necessity, not a luxury. Since 2010, those measures have saved working people £6,500.
From the way the right hon. Gentleman talks, one might think that he would have supported those measures. But what did he do? No, he voted against them over a dozen times. That is the reality: it is working people who always pay the price of Labour.
I thank my right hon. Friend for raising this issue. Obviously I recognise the concern those people feel, particularly those who live furthest away from the planned new hospital. As he says, health is a devolved matter for the Labour Welsh Government, but I urge them to consider fully the impact of the changes on local residents. We want to ensure that people can access the services they need, wherever they live in the United Kingdom.
I am sure the House will want to join me in welcoming the president of the Dutch Senate and the Dutch parliamentarians who are with us. Goedemiddag. Hartelijk welkom, dames en heren.
Some 100,000 jobs in Scotland are under threat from a no-deal Brexit. The Scottish Government’s top economic adviser has warned that it could create a recession worse than the 2008 financial crisis. The Prime Minister must rule out no deal right here, right now. Why is she still blackmailing the people of this country?
The right hon. Gentleman might not be surprised if I point out to him that there are only two ways to ensure that no deal is taken off the table. [Interruption.] It is no good SNP Members shaking their heads or muttering from a sedentary position. They need to face up to the fact that we will not revoke article 50 because we are leaving the European Union, so the only way to take no deal off the table is to vote for the deal.
I think it will be for Parliament to decide, and of course there are other options: we can extend article 50 and we can have a people’s vote. The Prime Minister should look at the faces of her colleagues; she is fooling no one. Parliament will not be bullied into a false choice between accepting her very bad deal or no deal at all. MPs from Scotland must now decide: will they stand up for Scotland or will they stand up with the extreme Brexiteers on the Tory Benches? Today, the Scottish National party will move an amendment to rule out no deal in any and all circumstances. Scottish MPs can back the SNP or betray voters in Scotland. Will the Prime Minister finally end this Brexit madness and vote for the SNP amendment tonight?
The right hon. Gentleman talks about an extension to article 50 or a second referendum, but that does not solve the problem—it does not deal with the issue. The issue is very simple: do we want to leave with a deal or without a deal? That is the question that SNP MPs and every other MP will face when the time comes. He then talks about betraying voters in Scotland. I will tell him what has betrayed voters in Scotland: an SNP Scottish Government who have raised income tax so that people in Scotland are paying more in income tax than people anywhere else in the UK; an SNP Scottish Government who have broken their manifesto promise and raised the cap on annual council tax increases for homeowners; and an SNP Scottish Government under whom people are facing the prospect of an extra tax for parking their car at their workplace. And all of that—[Interruption.]
Order. There is a fest of undignified arm-waving, and bellowing, Mr Kerr, from a sedentary position. Calm yourself, man. Take some sort of soothing medicament that you will find beneficial.
And all of that in a year in which the Scottish Government’s block grant from Westminster went up. The people betraying the people of Scotland are the SNP Scottish Government.
First, I join my hon. Friend in recognising the work done by the Community Security Trust. It does such important and valuable work throughout the year, and I am pleased that the Government are able to support the work it does. He is absolutely right to say that one can never be too apologetic about antisemitism, but I think what we have heard sums up Labour under its leader: it loses the hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Luciana Berger) and it keeps the hon. Member for Derby North (Chris Williamson). That tells us all we need to know about the Labour leadership: they are present but not involved. Perhaps if the Labour leader actually wants to take action against racism, he would suspend the hon. Member for Derby North.
Order. The hon. Lady must be heard.
One homeless person dying on our streets is enough for national shame, yet the latest figures show that in 2017 nearly 600 died. In that same year, the Vagrancy Act 1824 was used more than 1,000 times to drag homeless people before our courts. Crisis, Centrepoint, St Mungo’s and MPs on both sides of this House agree that it is time to scrap this law. Will the Prime Minister consider meeting us and the charities so that we can make the case for why we should not wait one more day?
As I think I indicated in Prime Minister’s questions last week, the number of people sleeping on our streets has gone down for the first time in eight years, but of course there is more to do. On the wider issue of homelessness, there is more to do in terms of building more homes, and we are doing that. I will ensure that the Minister from the relevant Department meets the hon. Lady to discuss the matter.
My hon. Friend raises a very important issue. I know that, as he said, he has been in touch with the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, as well as the Treasury. As I have said previously, we fully expect building owners in the private sector to take action, make sure appropriate safety measures are in place, and not pass costs on to leaseholders. We have written to all relevant building owners to remind them of their responsibilities. They must do the right thing; if they do not, we are not ruling anything out. I should also point out to my hon. Friend that local authorities have the power to complete works and recover the costs from the private owners of high-rise residential buildings. I am sure that a Minister from MHCLG would be happy to meet my hon. Friend to continue to discuss this matter, to ensure that the residents are given the peace of mind they need by the action being taken.
The Department of Health and Social Care is taking the steps necessary to ensure that medicines are available. We have been clear before that it is not necessary to stockpile and that patients should not be stockpiling medicines. Medicines will be available. If the hon. Lady is so concerned about the impact of no deal—
It is no good the hon. Lady shaking her head. There is a very simple answer: if she does not want no deal, she should support the deal.
We will be introducing a fund to ensure that our towns can grow and prosper. The details will be announced in due course by the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government. I can confirm to my right hon. Friend that Harlow, and indeed other towns across England, will be able to propose ambitious plans to help to transform their communities. Of course, we will work with the devolved Administrations and in Northern Ireland to ensure that towns in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland also benefit from town deals.
Constructive discussions are taking place. This House was clear on what it wanted to be changed in relation to the withdrawal agreement and the deal that we had brought back from the European Union, and we are making progress and having exactly the constructive discussions the hon. Gentleman talks about.
As I said yesterday, in answer to a question from, I think, our right hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon), the first aim of the Government and my first aim is to bring back a deal that can command support across the House in a meaningful vote, such that we are able to leave with a deal. The arrangements within the political declaration have significant benefits in relation to issues such as customs, but they also provide for us to have an independent trade policy and to bring an end to free movement. My hon. Friend talks about trust in politics, but I believe that those were important elements of what people voted for in 2016 and it is important that we deliver on that.
I set out clearly in my statement yesterday and I have repeated it in answer to a question today, the process that the Government will follow. The Government policy is to leave with a deal. We are working to ensure that we can bring back that deal. The hon. Lady talks about the rejection of the meaningful vote and not listening to Parliament, but the constructive discussions that I am having with the European Union at the moment are exactly about listening to Parliament—[Interruption.] It is all very well the shadow Trade Secretary, the hon. Member for Brent North (Barry Gardiner), shouting, “Nonsense!” He might not have noticed that on 29 January this House voted by a majority to say what it wanted to be changed in the withdrawal agreement, and that is what we are working on.
Little moves us more than the death of a child and for bereaved parents that grief is beyond words. Action speaks louder, which is why I have championed, inspired by the hon. Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris), the Children’s Funeral Fund. Will the Prime Minister tell us when the good work of her Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Charnwood (Edward Argar), will come to fruition and the fund will begin to bring support and solace? We cannot mend broken hearts here, but those who have loved and lost deserve better than delay and doubt.
I thank my right hon. Friend for his question and for the work that he has done on this issue with the hon. Member for Swansea East. It is accepted across the House that it is not right that grieving parents have to worry about how to meet the funeral costs when they have lost a child. As he knows, we have confirmed that parents will no longer have to meet the cost of burials or cremations. Fees will be waived by local authorities and paid for by the Government. The relevant Ministries have been working on the most effective way to deliver this, and I can confirm that the fund will be implemented by the summer.
Of course we recognise the concerns about serious violence, which is why my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has brought forward measures such as the Offensive Weapons Bill and set up the serious violence taskforce. In relation to funding for the police, the Metropolitan police will receive up to £2.5 billion in funding in 2019-20, which is an increase of up to £172 million on 2018-19. If the hon. Gentleman also wants to ask questions about funding for police in London perhaps he should speak to the Labour Mayor of London.
With the Government’s review of higher education still under way, does the Prime Minister agree that the reintroduction of maintenance grants is one outcome that could clearly aid social mobility for more disadvantaged students?
I recognise that my right hon. Friend has been, and continues to be, a huge champion for social mobility. She is asking me to provide a solution to higher education funding and student finance before the Augar report has been received and published. All I can do is assure her that Philip Augar and his panel are working on the report and we will look seriously at the proposals they bring forward.
I am sure the whole House will recognise the concerns of Harriet and her family. We want to ensure that patients have access to the most effective and innovative medicines, but obviously at a price that represents value to the NHS. NHS England has proposed its best ever offer for a drug. This offer is the largest ever commitment of its kind in the 70-year history of the NHS, and would guarantee immediate and expanded access both to Orkambi and the drug Kalydeco for patients who need it. We have been closely following the discussions, and the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care has offered a meeting with the global chief executive officer of Vertex, NHS England and the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence in an effort to move the situation forward for the benefit of patients.
Is my right hon. Friend aware that five years ago today Russian special forces seized the Government building in Crimea and raised the Russian flag? Will she confirm that the UK Government remain committed to the restoration of Ukrainian sovereignty over Crimea, and will she look at strengthening sanctions against Russia until that can be achieved?
I am happy to give my right hon. Friend that confirmation. This was an illegal annexation of Crimea by Russia, and we have been doing everything we can to ensure that the appropriate sanctions are imposed that will have an impact. We have been one of the voices around the EU Council table that has been advocating the roll-over of sanctions at every stage and ensuring that, as we look at the actions of Russia here and elsewhere, we enhance those sanctions and rightfully put pressure on those who are responsible.
The hon. Lady knows full way the way in which universal credit operates to encourage people into work, but I will ask the Minister in the relevant Department to write to her on this matter.
Thousands of young girls—including, sadly, some from Taunton Deane—are purchasing so-called quick-fix diet and detox products that are often endorsed by celebrities on social media, something for which these celebrities can be paid thousands of pounds. NHS chiefs say that some of these products can have highly detrimental health effects and are heaping work on our mental health services. In Eating Disorders Awareness Week, and following this morning’s excellent Westminster Hall debate secured by my hon. Friend the Member for Angus (Kirstene Hair), will the Prime Minister agree that the irresponsible and unsafe endorsement of such products should be addressed?
My hon. Friend raises an important issue. I am sure that all Members have had constituency cases where they have seen the devastating impact that eating disorders can have on individuals, and on their families and friends. The Government have been taking steps over the past few years. In 2014 we announced that we were investing £150 million to expand eating disorder community-based care for children and young people, and 70 dedicated new or extended community services offer care as a result. As my hon. Friend said, young people may be encouraged to take products because of celebrity endorsement. The celebrities involved should think very carefully about the impact that these products can have in effecting eating disorders, which devastate lives.
The Prime Minister, and indeed the entire House, knows the conditions under which her withdrawal agreement will have a majority. The whole House, and indeed the country, now knows that as a result of yesterday’s events the prospects of the Prime Minister being able to achieve the necessary changes have been undermined and her negotiating position has been weakened. That is the reality of the situation. Can we have an assurance, in terms of any possible extension—and I would be interested to know what the Prime Minister thinks the purpose of the extension would be—that she will continue to focus on getting those legally binding changes? Hopefully, during any future negotiations, she will not be undermined in the way that she has been so far.
First of all, we are continuing to press for those legally binding changes. Those are the discussions we have been having with the European Commission. It is what I have spoken to every European Union leader about over the last 10 days or so. It is what I was speaking to people about at Sharm El Sheikh over the weekend as well. The right hon. Gentleman talks about the extension to article 50. Can I be very clear again? The Government do not want to extend article 50. The Government’s policy is to get the legally binding changes so a deal can be brought back to this House, and this House can support the deal, and we can leave on 29 March with a deal.
Unlike some Ministers who cannot normally take the view that the Prime Minister’s word is binding, I do take the Prime Minister’s word as being binding. Can I ask that she reiterates our manifesto commitment to leave with a deal or to leave with no deal, and that is our commitment?
Indeed, I have always said that no deal is better than a bad deal. I think we have actually got a good deal from the European Union. It provides for citizens’ rights; it provides certainty for business with the implementation period; it ensures that we have, in the political declaration, the arrangements for customs in the future—for no tariffs, no quotas and no rules of origin; and it covers a number of other areas that I think will indeed be positive for this country. There is an issue that the House wants to see changed. That is what we are working on in relation to the Northern Ireland backstop. I want us to leave with a deal. I want to be able to bring back a deal that this House can support.
Violet Grace Youens was walking home from nursery with her grandma on 24 March 2017. She was hit by a stolen car driven erratically and at 83 mph in a 30 mph zone. The driver and accomplice immediately left the scene, and the driver absconded from the country. Tragically, four-year-old Violet Grace died in her parents’ arms the following day and her grandma suffers with life-changing injuries. The offenders have since been sentenced to tariffs that do not fit the gravity of the crimes.
In October 2017, the Government published a response to the consultation on driving offences and penalties relating to causing death or serious injury. They confirmed proposals to increase the maximum penalty for causing death by dangerous driving from 14 years’ imprisonment to life, along with other tariffs for serious driving offences, and stated that Government would bring forward proposals for reform of the law as soon as parliamentary time allows. Today, after just one week, the public petition “Violet Grace’s Law” stands at more than 74,000 signatures. The Government are repeating the same response—
Order. This is a matter of the utmost sensitivity. I respect that, and that is why I am allowing the hon. Lady to go way beyond the normal length, but she must now put a question with a question mark—one sentence to wrap it up very well. Thank you.
Prime Minister, when do the Government truly intend to bring forward the changes for the reform of the law?
First of all, I am sure that the feelings of the whole House will be with Violet Grace’s family that this terrible tragedy has occurred. I know from a constituency case that I had the concern that parents, family members and others have when they see somebody who has caused a death in this way by their driving being sentenced to a tariff which they feel is less than it should be. The Government have taken this very seriously—that is why we have had the consultation—and we will indeed bring forward our proposals when parliamentary time does allow. But I will ask a Minister from the Department for Transport to meet the hon. Lady to discuss this matter with her.
Mr Speaker, I do not know whether you were as surprised as I was yesterday that, yet again, the media had verbatim reports of the Cabinet meeting straight after it. In fact, there were references to colleagues in front of me as kamikaze pilots. Prime Minister, to sort this issue out, would it not just be easier to televise Cabinet meetings? [Laughter.]
I want to hear the Prime Minister’s answer. This is a very important question.
Mr Speaker, when you did a thumbs-up after that question, I was not sure whether that indicated that you had a view on the televising of Cabinet meetings. My hon. Friend has tried to approach that issue in various ways. I seem to remember that last time he asked me about this, it was not about televising Cabinet but sending his CV in to be a Cabinet Minister. Perhaps these are linked—perhaps he wants to sit round the Cabinet table and be on television all the time.
Well, we never knew that the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr Bone) had such ambitions, but maybe it lurks within him—who knows? For my own part, I was merely acknowledging welcome and friendly visitors to the House.
Jammu and Kashmir
(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs if he will make a statement on the security and humanitarian situation in Kashmir, in the light of the escalating tensions between India and Pakistan.
I understand that the Prime Minister referred to this during Prime Minister’s Question Time. The UK is deeply concerned about rising tensions between India and Pakistan. Understandably, there has been huge interest in this rapidly developing situation. The House will understand that it would not be appropriate for me to comment in detail on reportage at this time, as the situation evolves.
We understand that on 14 February, at least 40 paramilitary Indian police officers were killed in a suicide attack in India-administered Kashmir. The Pakistan-based militant group Jaish-e-Mohammed claimed responsibility for that attack. India-Pakistan tensions, which were already at a high level, rose significantly following the attack, and both countries publicly exchanged heated rhetoric. On Tuesday 26 February, Indian and Pakistani news reported that Indian jets had crossed the line of control between India-administered and Pakistan-administered Kashmir. There have been reports of further ceasefire violations across the line of control overnight, and the situation remains unclear but fast developing.
The Foreign Secretary spoke to his Indian and Pakistani counterparts on Monday to discuss the situation, and we are in regular contact with both countries at senior levels to encourage restraint and to avoid escalating tensions further. We are monitoring developments closely and considering the implications for British nationals. I will be speaking to both the Indian and Pakistani high commissioners this afternoon and will continue to press for the importance of restraint. We urge both sides to engage in dialogue and find diplomatic solutions to ensure regional stability. We are working closely with international partners, including through the United Nations Security Council, to de-escalate tensions.
India and Pakistan are both long-standing and important friends of the United Kingdom. We have many and significant links to both countries through sizeable diaspora communities. As a consequence, we enjoy strong bilateral relations with both nations. The UK Government’s position on Kashmir remains that it is and must be for India and Pakistan to find a lasting political resolution to this situation, taking into account the wishes of the Kashmiri people. It is not for the UK to prescribe, intervene or interfere with a solution or to act as mediator.
I know that the House has previously raised concerns about the humanitarian and human rights situation in both India-administered Kashmir and Pakistan-administered Kashmir. We continue to monitor the situation, and we encourage all states to ensure that their domestic standards are in line with international standards.
Thank you, Mr Speaker, for granting this urgent question. I am grateful to the Minister for his response, but this has been an ongoing situation since independence in 1947, and successive Governments have failed, in dealing with the issues associated with Kashmir, to help facilitate peace alongside our international allies.
As the Minister has said, he is aware of the recent aerial attacks from India and then from Pakistan, following on from the militant attack in the Pulwama district of Jammu and Kashmir and the death of the 40 Indian troops. This is a proscribed group in Pakistan. I understand that it is said to be apparently based there, but as I say, it has been proscribed by Pakistan. I am grateful to the Minister for reporting on the action he has already taken and the dialogue he has already had with counterparts in the high commissions for both India and Pakistan, and I would be grateful if he reported back once he has had meetings on this, because it is a very fast-moving situation.
The Minister mentioned the UN Security Council. What specific action has been decided on there? India has said that airstrikes in Balakot in north-western Pakistan yesterday were in response to the militants’ attack and killed a large number of militants, but Pakistan has said there were no casualties. Will the Minister clarify these reports? Today, Pakistan claims to have shot down two Indian jets when they entered Pakistani airspace, and the Indian news agency Asian News International has reported that a Pakistani jet has also been shot down on the Pakistan side of the line of control. Again, if the Minister could expand on some of this information, that would be very helpful.
In the light of the escalation in military action, will the Foreign Secretary be altering his travel advice to UK citizens? The Minister knows there is large Kashmiri diaspora in the UK, many of whom have families still based there, and their safety is a real concern for them. As I say, the escalating tensions have had a profound effect on our communities. What assurance can he give them that the UK Government are doing all they can not just to de-escalate tensions now, but to work towards a sustainable peace in the region?
Both India and Pakistan are nuclear powers. This is not just an issue for the region; it is an issue for the whole world. As the chair of the all-party group on Kashmir, I have repeatedly reiterated our commitment to supporting a process of peace and reconciliation in the region, but the UK Government need to step up and help to facilitate this, alongside our international partners. We have a vital role to play, as I say, not just in de-escalation, but in terms of a sustainable peace, and I urge the Minister to do all that he can to do this.
I thank the hon. Lady for her calm and wise words. May I say that I appreciate she has a busy day today already, with huge amounts going on near her own constituency following the large-scale fires? We are very grateful for her work, and we all recognise as Members of Parliament that we are sometimes torn between important international issues that are close to our hearts and dealing with those that may seem very parochial. None the less, I am very grateful for her words—her words of calm.
On the UN specifically, the hon. Lady is right that this is a UN issue of some urgency, simply because obviously both Pakistan and India are nuclear nations. It is therefore all the more important that we try to tone or dial down some of the rhetoric and, dare I say it, some of the actions we have seen in recent days. I think there are many friends of India and of Pakistan—and of Kashmir—not just here in the UK but across the world who are doing their best to try to calm this down.
The hon. Lady will I hope appreciate, in relation to the clarification she has requested on some of the reports—she made reference to reports of Indian planes having been shot down over the last 24 hours—that I do not want, and I hope she will understand why, to be drawn into comment on this because it is a fluid situation and many of these reports are unconfirmed. I therefore think that the most important thing, as I say, is to try to produce a slightly calmer approach.
On the issue of travel advice that the hon. Lady requested, we are very closely monitoring the situation, and we shall keep our travel advice under constant review and update it regularly—not just in Kashmir, but obviously in other countries. I should say to the hon. Lady that, as it happens, I am going to be in the region on a long-prearranged trip—provided we get out of this place, anyway, with Brexit votes later on. I am hoping to go to India tomorrow morning for three days. This is obviously a fast-moving issue, and I will speak not just with our high commissioner out in New Delhi, but obviously with counterparts both there and in Mumbai.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams) on securing this urgent question about this very tense situation, and I thank the Minister for his solid answers thus far. Clearly, the escalating tension emanates from the terrorist suicide attack by Jaish-e-Mohammed on 14 February. This group is based in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir and in Pakistan, so clearly the answer to this is that Pakistan has to take action to dismantle the terrorist camps and organise so that the terrorists are brought to justice. Will my right hon. Friend tell the Pakistani high commission to own up to its responsibilities and make sure that the terrorists face justice?
I have a lot of respect for my hon. Friend, who takes a great interest in these issues. However, I think he is making some categorical statements that are not entirely supportable at this point. As I say, I think it is important for all of us as Members of Parliament with significant diasporas—I know that there is a predominantly Indian diaspora in his own Harrow East constituency—to try to calm feelings and to de-escalate some of the concerns, not least as this is a fast-moving situation.
It is fair to say, however, that Jaish-e-Mohammed has claimed responsibility for the 14 February attack. The UK will continue to support a listing of that organisation and indeed of its leader, Masood Azhar, under UN Security Council resolution 1267. The organisation itself has been listed by the UN since 2001, and Masood Azhar is the head of that organisation. However, I think it is very premature to start making categorical statements about any involvement by Pakistan in this issue. We will obviously keep this under review, and as I say, I will endeavour to speak with both the Indian and Pakistani high commissioners this afternoon to ask them for any updates on the situation.
Thank you, Mr Speaker, for granting this urgent question. I want to thank my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams) for securing it, and my hon. Friends the Members for Bradford West (Naz Shah) and for Bolton South East (Yasmin Qureshi), who I know also sought an urgent question today.
At the outset, let me make it quite clear that we condemn the despicable terror attack carried out in Pulwama on 14 February, and I believe that we speak on behalf of the whole House when we do so. India has been absolutely right to take action against the terrorist group responsible and to urge Pakistan to follow suit. It is also high time that China lifted its veto so that the UN can designate the head of JeM as a global terrorist.
Will the Minister join me in urging the Indian authorities, at national and regional level, to protect those innocent civilians of Kashmiri origin who have faced reprisals across India following the Pulwama attack? On the airstrikes and dogfights of the last two days, will the Minister of State join me in calling for immediate talks between India and Pakistan to de-escalate that crisis, but also in urging them to put an immediate stop to any military activity that risks escalating it further? We have heard both sides claim that their actions have simply been designed to send a message, but it is all too easy in those situations for messages to be misinterpreted and for grave and fatal mistakes to be made.
Finally, will the Minister of State join me in asking both India and Pakistan to think first and foremost of the innocent people of Kashmir, who are literally caught in the middle of this crossfire and have been so for 70 years? Their human rights have been serially abused, their humanitarian needs have been neglected, and their own wishes about their own future have been treated as unimportant. No one in India, Pakistan or this country wants yet another generation of Kashmiri children growing up facing the same cycle of instability, violence and fear that has afflicted their parents and grandparents for decades. Only peaceful dialogue can break that cycle. All parties must commit to engaging in that dialogue.
The right hon. Lady is absolutely right that we want a broad-based dialogue, and that the whole House condemned the original attack that took place on 14 February. I have to say that the concern about China’s veto is unfortunately not isolated to issues around Kashmir. There are other areas, not least in relation to the Rohingya population from Burma, on which, as she knows, the prospect of a veto and of a lack of co-operation does not make life easy within the UN Security Council. There are other organisations, such as the European Union and the UN Human Rights Council, through which we will try to utilise as much muscle as we can, again in collaboration in with other countries, to try to bring about the peaceable progress to which she refers.
The right hon. Lady also raised the humanitarian situation. We recognise that there are and have been long-standing human rights concerns in both Indian-administered and Pakistani-administered Kashmir. We believe that any allegation of human rights abuses is of great concern and has to be investigated thoroughly, promptly and transparently. I reassure the House, as I did the Members here who were at the meeting of the all-party parliamentary group on 23 January, that we will continue to raise issues relating to Kashmir, including human rights, at all opportunities with the Governments of both India and Pakistan.
I reiterate the right hon. Lady’s words. It is important for us, given the importance of the diaspora that we have here, to make clear, as she rightly says, that the worst of all worlds would be many more decades of deprivation and humanitarian problems in Kashmir. To intervene or interfere, or to try to mediate in a broader way, is not necessarily the role for the United Kingdom. Our role, not least because of that diaspora, is to at least try to present that there must be a better future for future generations of Kashmiris than the last 70 years. We need to focus more attention on the future, rather than past. I very much hope that one way in which our diaspora here can make a contribution is to try to help to build up industry, to provide some prosperity for future generations of Kashmiris.
I am grateful that my right hon. Friend the Minister is in the Chamber to respond to this important urgent question from the hon. Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams). I am very concerned, as many of us are, about the issues that have led to such violence in Kashmir over the past two weeks.
I understand that my right hon. Friend will not play a part as a negotiator or mediator, but will he at least do his best to get around the UN General Assembly and other members of the Security Council and encourage those who are friends of both countries to help them to get together and talk, at least in the margins and the quiet corridors, so that when they get to the actual talks, there is a conversation to be had? Will he also ensure that those members of the UK population with connections to Kashmir are able to support their families and those who may have been cut off or in any way harmed by the economic shocks affecting the region at the moment?
We shall do our level best. My hon. Friend is absolutely right that active conversations will take place within the UN corridors of both New York and Geneva. I should perhaps say that this goes beyond simply friends of Pakistan and India. The realisation is that this is an extremely serious situation involving two nuclear powers in that part of the world, and that it is therefore in everyone’s interest to see a de-escalation, but with an eye towards trying to solve some of the underlying problems for the longer-term future.
Unfortunately for the man to my right, my hon. Friend the Member for Pendle (Andrew Stephenson), it is the fate of Government Whips that they do not have a chance to say very much—[Interruption.] I am sure that you look forward for that reason to the day I am elevated—or maybe demoted; whichever way one looks at it—to the Whips Office, Mr Speaker. On a serious note, I am well aware that my hon. Friend does a huge amount of work on this, not least because one of the main towns in his constituency, Nelson, has a significant Kashmiri population. I know that that applies to many Members on both sides of the House.
I thank the hon. Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams) for raising this important urgent question. I also thank the Minister for his measured response to the situation to date. However, the House will be concerned about the rise in conflict in that region, especially when the nations involved have access to nuclear weapons. Will the Minister ensure that the serious concerns raised in the House are relayed directly to the Governments of Pakistan and India at the highest level, and that the Foreign Office strains every sinew to make sure that both parties act with responsibility and restraint, and that it insists that escalation is not an option?
Many Members have mentioned positive and meaningful talks taking place. In order to protect the civilian populations on both sides of the border, and indeed within Kashmir, we need to ensure that these populations are not put at any further risk. I know that the Government are focused on other matters at the moment, but I hope that the Minister, or the Foreign Secretary, will be able to keep us up to date with developments on a regular basis.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his constructive words. He is right that this requires a nimble diplomatic approach. I have to say that I have encountered over the last two mornings a blizzard of diplomatic telegrams from Islamabad, New Delhi and, of course, New York recognising the huge amount of work going in from our diplomatic service in trying to keep open lines of communication and trying to speak to individuals in the military and at the political level. We will do our level best as this situation evolves and we are able to say more, and with more certainty, to ensure that the House is kept fully informed.
The right hon. Member for Broadland (Mr Simpson) just entered the Chamber carrying, as per usual, a book. I note in passing something of which the right hon. Gentleman will be well aware. In his party, which used to be my party, it was frequently said that to be seen carrying a book was dangerous, but to be seen reading it was fatal.
I do both. [Laughter.]
I absolutely condemn the perpetrators of the initial act of violence, but I also condemn airstrikes in retaliation for what really could have been a crime, rather than an act of war. Thousands of my constituents will be alarmed about the prospect of escalation because they have families on not only one but both sides of the line of control. Will the Minister join me in saying to the evil people who perpetrate acts of violence for political causes that they defeat their own ends by the revulsion and horror that they cause?
I know full well that my hon. Friend has a significant Kashmiri population in his constituency, not least because I have had the chance to meet some of them in recent weeks. He is absolutely right: it is entirely self-defeating. In many ways, we all want to see some sort of normalcy within the Kashmir area, whether under Pakistani or Indian administration. Above all, the clearest way for that to happen is if there is stability in that region, which would allow for economic prosperity. One only has to look close at hand to our situation in Northern Ireland. It was when the worst of the troubles of the 1970s and ’80s were behind us that we were able to see some progress and international investors could comfortable about being able to build businesses in that country. That is the great prize if we can de-escalate some of these long-standing issues within Kashmir.
Until his election, Prime Minister Modi was banned from entering the United Kingdom for his part in the Gujarat massacre, which resulted in more than 2,000 Muslim deaths. As Prime Minister, he has pursued a divisive, right-wing, Hindu nationalist agenda that has inflamed tensions in both India and occupied Jammu and Kashmir. Instead of pointing fingers at Pakistan for the Pulwama attack, when will Prime Minister Modi look at his own record of persistent state violence and gross human right abuses, as highlighted by both the UN and all-party parliamentary Kashmir group reports, which caused the rise of the home-grown insurgency in Kashmir?
I understand the hon. Lady’s heartfelt passion, but let me just say this: that is not relevant to the present situation. We all know we are in a pre-election period in India, and that is one of the factors of concern. We want to see a de-escalation at the earliest possible opportunity to avoid the sorts of issues to which she refers. She will appreciate that from the perspective of the Foreign Office we want to remain strong friends on all sides. To start condemning, in the way she proposes, would only undermine our position of trying to bring both sides together.
May I ask that the Government recognise the severity of the terrorist threat faced by India in relation to Kashmir, and that our Government offer support where the Indian Government take measures they feel are necessary to protect the security of their citizens?
We will offer support to all Governments who look to protect their civilian populations, but we will do so in a way that is managed, manageable and not focused on an overreaction to what has happened. I appreciate that, as my right hon. Friend rightly says, the attack on 14 February was one of the very worst single episodes for some decades, but equally we would like to see restraint on both sides, recognising the importance of having a secure region to ensure that civilian populations are properly protected.
Just last week, I returned from leading a delegation of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association to Pakistan, during which I met the Prime Minister. The Prime Minister assured the delegation of his commitment, reiterating that he wants a peaceful resolution through diplomacy. I am sure the Minister is aware that the central issue in this crisis is Kashmir. While the people of Kashmir are not given their right to self-determination they will not be free, nor can we truly expect to see long-term peace between India and Pakistan. Does the Minister agree that now is the time to change our policy position on Kashmir and play a central role in helping to resolve the issue that we played a part in creating when leaving the region as a colonial power? Will he consider making an application to the United Nations Security Council on this matter?
I must say—the hon. Lady will recognise this—that I do not agree with her prescription that we should try to intervene. The reality of the situation, as I am sure she is well aware, is that if the UK Government were to offer to mediate or feel that it is our place to interfere, we would simply lose credibility, particularly with the Indian Government. We would therefore end up not being able to play the role we do in trying to ensure a de-escalation of tensions. Our long-standing position is, and must continue to be, for India and Pakistan to find a political resolution to the situation in Kashmir through their own efforts, taking into account the wishes, as she rightly says, of Kashmiri people. If we were to intervene, interfere, prescribe a solution or purport that we can somehow be a mediator, I think that would very much undermine our position on all sides.
I was going to call the hon. Member for Wycombe (Mr Baker), but he now seems very pre-occupied with—[Interruption.] We have already heard the fella. I should not have forgotten so quickly. I will remind myself of the eloquence of his contribution in due course.
The Minister is taking a very fine line, trying to sit on the fence, effectively, mindful that there are diasporas from both Pakistan and India living in this country. He is treading a very fine line in his answers. However, where it is abundantly clear that the terrorists are living in one particular country, will he give an undertaking to this House that the British Government will make it absolutely clear to that host country that it should not be tolerating terrorists who are engaging in activity in another country and that they must face the full force of law?
My hon. Friend will recognise that, as a diplomat or a Foreign Office Minister, sometimes the most effective way to make an argument to our counterparts is not through megaphone diplomacy. There are robust private conversations that will take place. I do not want to go into detail as to what they will say, but let me just say this. We do understand that there is a need and a desire for any country to act proportionately to secure its borders, people and military, but the idea that the UK should be seen to be robustly on one side of this battle rather than another would be entirely self-defeating. I think it is in the interests of us all to take a calm approach. Of course, we will not in any way do anything other than criticise terrorist organisations. That is one reason why the organisation Jaish-e-Mohammed has been subject to a UN listing for almost 20 years and has been proscribed in the UK for that period of time.
My profuse apologies to the hon. Member for Wycombe (Mr Baker), on whose every word, as he knows, I ordinarily hang. My attention was momentarily distracted, and I apologise to him.
I must express my grave concern and alarm at the ongoing escalation of the conflict between India and Pakistan in disputed Kashmir. War will benefit no one, least of all the people of Kashmir. As of yet, however, there are no signs of a serious—I emphasise that word—international attempt to put an end to this crisis. Does the Minister agree that the international community must do more and act now to put an end to these senseless acts of military violence? If so, what steps will his Government be taking to achieve that outcome?
I thank the hon. Gentleman. As I mentioned earlier, we are working as rapidly as we can within all international organisations. If I may touch on a point I did not address earlier about the UN, we are working within the UN. This is a major issue, not least because of the fact that these are two nuclear powers. I suspect there will be a move to de-escalate and negotiate as far as possible. I know from discussions with our US counterparts that they are also expressing concerns. Ultimately, I believe it must be for the Kashmiri people to find a way forward. I appreciate that there is a lot of history. The worry is that a lot of things can be said and done now that could be very difficult to forget. The prize for the future is to try to achieve a more peaceable solution. Ultimately, that must come from the hearts of those who are in Kashmir, whether of Pakistani or Indian origin.
Like my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe (Mr Baker), I have many thousands of constituents who are very worried about family members in Kashmir. I was heartened by what the Minister of State had to say about his robust conversations on human rights with both sides. Does he agree that there is perhaps more we can do as a nation to help investigate human rights abuses and ensure that truth is brought to the forefront, rather than the great deal of misinformation we are hearing at the moment?
Yes, I very much agree with my hon. Friend. She will be aware that any allegations of human rights abuses are concerning and need to be investigated thoroughly, promptly and transparently. She will also be aware that our single biggest Department for International Development budget is in Pakistan. Human rights concerns are part and parcel of the money that is spent out there, trying to build up capacity and capability to ensure that such human rights issues are properly dealt with.
The whole House will support the Government and the United Nations in their efforts to get India and Pakistan to draw back from further conflict, but does the Minister agree that it is the people of Kashmir who are both the victims and spectators of their own future because of the failure of those two countries to reach an agreement on what will happen? Above all else, the people of Kashmir want the chance to live in peace and security, and to have the right to determine their own future, as they were promised over 70 years ago when it was suggested that a referendum might be held. That, of course, has never taken place.
I am not sure I would recommend a referendum to anyone in the current circumstances—certainly, it would not be wise for the UK—but the right hon. Gentleman makes a very serious, fair point. We continue to raise human rights issues and to look at this in a humanitarian sense. To add to my responses to one or two other contributions, we noted the findings of the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights reports and are particularly concerned about allegations of human rights abuses and violations in both India and Pakistan-administered Kashmir. I make it clear that we will continue to raise these issues with the Government in New Delhi.
I draw the House’s attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests; as the former chairman of the all-party Kashmir group, I visited the region. Many thousands of constituents are concerned for family, friends and loved ones in the region and have contacted me to raise their concerns. Does the Minister agree that this situation is worrying on two levels—first, because we have two nuclear powers squaring off against each other, and secondly, because the people on the ground in Kashmir are the ones who are suffering? Given that we have heard about the documented evidence of human rights abuses, does he not agree that the right course of action might be for us to send observers, perhaps with our EU colleagues, to make sure that there are no human rights abuses on the ground in Kashmir?
I know that my hon. Friend is also a former officer of the all-party beer group—I wondered whether he was going to express that interest today. Again, he makes a serious point about having observers, whether at an EU or UN level. We will do our level best, particularly as this situation develops, to ensure that the international community has a chance to see what is going on on the ground in order to de-escalate the tensions.
Further to the answer that the Minister has just given, he set out his fears of somehow being seen to take sides. Let me tell him that the community in Walthamstow, who are desperately concerned about the situation in Kashmir, want him to stay on the side of human rights. He spoke about the importance of the work that the UN can do in investigating these cases. He has also told us that he is going to have phone calls this afternoon with both the Pakistani and Indian representatives. Will he commit now to raising directly the importance of them allowing the UN to go to the region and investigate, so that finally, when we talk about allegations, we can show the truth and the people of Kashmir can have justice?
I thank the hon. Lady for her question, and I will be only too happy to commit to making that pledge, as it were, in the telephone calls that I will have later this afternoon. I talk about not taking sides, but the side we take is obviously with the people of Kashmir to try to ensure that lives that have been so blighted can thrive. The danger with being seen to take a side on this issue is that we will lose any leverage or credibility with one or other of the Governments concerned. We are well aware that there is a large diaspora in this country, but this is not simply about there being a diaspora here; it is about doing the right thing as well, and these human rights issues are clearly of grave concern. As I said, I will commit in my conversations not just today, but in the days to come, to ensure that the voice that she puts across—
I am amazed I am so popular—it is great to see. I will ensure that that voice is properly heard.
Opposition Members’ concern, I say to the Minister, is for the knee muscles of Government Back Benchers buoying up and down in eager expectation of their opportunity to be called.
Apart from being the chair of the all-party group on Pakistan, I was born in Kashmir, and in the 2005 earthquake, I lost 25 relatives, including my grandfather. Muzaffarabad is very near the line of control. The people of Kashmir want peace, prosperity, human dignity and to be masters of their own destiny. As the Minister says, our long-standing position is in line with the 1948 United Nations resolutions 47 and 39, which the United Kingdom signed up to, saying that we will support the people of Kashmir’s right to self-determination. That being the case, will the Minister please push for that at the United Nations and, as other colleagues have said, for a United Nations human rights fact-finding mission? Whatever it says and whoever it finds against—the Indian or Pakistani sides—we will all accept it.
I thank my hon. Friend for his comments. As I said, we note the findings of the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights reports, which are deeply concerning. We will make sure that these are brought up in international committee, both in New York and in Geneva.
The attack in Srinagar was absolutely atrocious, and the prospect of descending into a tit-for-tat exchange is immensely depressing. As the Minister knows, this is an incredibly serious issue. I speak as the former chair of the all-party Kashmir group. Last year, we published our report on our inquiry into the human rights situation, as the Minister knows, because he heard a recent presentation on that. I hear what he says about Government policy, but we have a responsibility to help to support confidence-building measures. We have a legacy responsibility in that region of the world, and the UK has an obligation to lead and show the way forward for human rights and peace in this area.
I take on board what the hon. Gentleman says and support the idea that there is a leadership role, not least within the UN Security Council, where clearly, long-standing connections between the UK and both India and Pakistan will be brought to bear. We will continue to be in the closest possible contact at senior level in both India and Pakistan to try to avoid escalation and ensure regional stability. Part of that is obviously about the capacity building to which he refers. I think he will understand that quite a lot of work goes on both in India and Pakistan to try to ensure that this is brought to bear and hopefully make lives better for all concerned.
My right hon. Friend referred to the discussions and channels that are being used through diplomatic routes both with the UN and directly, and it is very fortuitous that he happens to be visiting the region in the next few days. Before he goes, will he also engage with the Ministry of Defence to encourage senior military leaders and Ministers to engage with their counterparts both in India and Pakistan to make sure that there are senior-level military-to-military back channels between the two armed forces, so that they can help to avoid the accidental escalation of conflict?
I thank my right hon. Friend for his comments. He, of course, was a Defence Minister and will understand that those back channels exist. Clearly they are not always entirely avowed, but the UK has back-channels with both the Indian military and the Pakistani military, and I am well aware that conversations have already taken place and will no doubt continue at pace.
This is the latest chapter in a horrendous story for the people of Kashmir, as I am sure the whole House agrees. What efforts is the Minister making to ensure that day-to-day communication with the diaspora community is ongoing so that they know what is happening to their friends and family in Kashmir?
I very much understand the hon. Lady’s concerns. The picture is very confused at the moment, and I wish we could confirm more what is happening on the ground. Part of the reason that I have not been able to be as expansive as I would like is simply that there are conflicting reports of what is happening. Obviously, we will do our level best to ensure that as many of the diaspora, who must be increasingly worried about the wellbeing of their relatives close at hand, are kept as informed as possible in the circumstances. When I am in the region, I will make sure that we express that.
I thank the hon. Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams) for securing this urgent question. Like many hon. Members, I have a significant community of Kashmiris in my constituency, who are extremely concerned. I am also the senior vice-chair of the all-party Kashmir group. Does the Minister agree that we must condemn the use of violence and the abuse of human rights wherever it occurs and by all parties in Kashmir?
I agree entirely. We do, and will continue to do so.
Those of us of south Asian ancestry were overjoyed recently at the opening of the Indo-Pak border—an historic and commendable decision by both Governments—so that Sikhs and others could pay homage at the final resting place of the founder of the Sikh faith. We had hoped that there would be further border openings, but simultaneously we expressed concern that terrorist attacks or abuse of human rights would once again sow the seeds of hatred and division. Does the Minister agree that we need to impress upon both nations the need to urgently de-escalate tensions, and that we need to work with them to find lasting, sustainable peace for the long-suffering but wonderful Kashmiri people?
I thank the hon. Gentleman, who always speaks with such calmness about such matters. I have had strong dealings with him on a number of issues, at both ministerial and constituency levels. I entirely endorse what he said. I think we all want to see a regularisation of the situation, with as much access as possible for those who are currently living in India, or currently in Pakistan to be able to go to homelands that their forefathers lived in.
I declare an interest as a friend, admirer and former relative of the new Prime Minister of Pakistan. Does my right hon. Friend share my view that everything we have seen so far from the new Prime Minister demonstrates an absolute commitment to tackling extremism and terrorism? Does he agree with the new Prime Minister’s words, shortly after he was elected, that the surest route to peace between India and Pakistan in the long term is to increase and expand the trade movements between the two countries?
I could not agree more. I had a chance to meet Imran Khan, at a time when he was regarded as a potential kingmaker, when I visited KP—Khyber Pakhtunkhwa—the region where his party was the strongest, back in 2017. Obviously, he has arrived at a pivotal time in India-Pakistan relations, with an imminent Indian election, and with all the financial issues concerning Pakistan, which have inevitably taken up quite a lot of his time in his first few months as Prime Minister. Yes, his rhetoric has always been in favour of peace, but he has also shown recognition that having the broadest range of friends across the world is the surest way of seeing prosperity and normalcy in all parts of Pakistan.
Perhaps there is a point on which we can have agreement across the House while, as we sit here today, the drums of war beat once more between two nuclear powers. Surely we must now, in this House, realise our ethical, moral and historical duty to help to provide peace and stability in that region. The central issue, as hon. Members have said, is Kashmir; and the voice that has gone unheard for over 70 years is that of the sons and daughters of Kashmir, who, in the face of oppression, violence and persecution, continue to look towards this House for justice. So, Minister, now is the time to move away from gesture politics and towards finding a concrete resolution, fulfilling our international obligations to actively support the birthright of the sons and daughters of Kashmir, which is self-determination.
Order. Could I just very gently say, and I say it in a convivial spirit to the hon. Gentleman, that the erudition of his inquiry was equalled only by its length, and that has been emblematic of the exchanges on this urgent question—nodding assent to which is provided by the right hon. Member for New Forest West (Sir Desmond Swayne). It would be a pity if we took an hour on an urgent question with only about 30 quizzers, because that really should not happen.
I think he is suggesting that I am at least 50% to blame for that as well.
I respect deeply the passion of the hon. Member for Bradford East (Imran Hussain). I hope he does not feel that gesture politics is involved here. We shall do our level best to bring parties together. While I have always said that there is a set policy that we will not have an official mediation, please be assured that we are doing our level best to bring people together. The one message I would give to the hon. Gentleman is that we need to try to de-escalate and calm some of the passions that we shall see within our own country in the weeks and months ahead. It is in the interests not just of all Kashmiris, but of stability within the UK as well.
Over decades, people have been subjected to violence, oppression and human rights abuses in Kashmir. The events of recent weeks will only compound the challenges and divide people more, rather than bringing a solution in Kashmir. Will my right hon. Friend and the Government do all that they can to use UK influence to bring dialogue between India and Pakistan, to try to prevent the escalation of these issues and the terrorism that is going on, so that we can start again to focus more on dealing with the issue of how Kashmir determines itself?
I thank my hon. Friend for his comments. He is aware that we are trying to do our level best, precisely along the lines that he has suggested. May I just say this to the House? Interestingly, when I speak to many of my Indian, and indeed Pakistani, constituents, they often marvel at the fact that, on my very first visit to India back in 2003, I had the chance to go to both Srinagar and Jammu. The tragedy, in many ways, is that it is a beautiful part of the world and would offer tremendous opportunities not just for tourism; it would be an amazing place for many, many people with Kashmir in their hearts to visit. That is the great prize—to ensure that things are normalised. We know that a painstaking diplomatic approach will be required to bring about that normalisation, so that the beauty of that part of the world may become obvious to many, many people.
The Minister’s focus on the human rights of the people of Kashmir is genuinely welcome, but the fact remains that the humanitarian crisis has been raging in Kashmir for decades, largely ignored by this country and the rest of the world. Hon. Members throughout the House, from all parties, have repeatedly asked for us to take a leading role and to bring diplomatic peace talks to the forefront. Does he agree that it is a terrible shame that it takes an escalation of violence between two nuclear powers to achieve what, hopefully, will be a wake-up call for the British Government?
I am sorry that the hon. Lady thinks this is a wake-up call. This is something that is close to all our hearts, not least because there are significant numbers of diaspora and their many Members of Parliament raise these issues, whether in parliamentary questions or in urgent questions such as today’s, and indeed with the all-party parliamentary group, which I know she attended only a few weeks ago.
Let us be candid. What is particularly serious here, as one or two hon. Members have said, is that we are now dealing with two nuclear powers. The issues of Kashmir were not in a nuclear-to-nuclear state until Pakistan acquired nuclear capability, 25 to 30 years ago. That is why the matter is of particular seriousness. That is not to say that a huge amount of work has not been going on behind the scenes for many years. Obviously, it becomes a lot more high-profile with all that is happening now.
I know that the Minister will not want to comment on the claim and counterclaim around aircraft being shot down and around the specifics of pilots having been captured, but would he perhaps agree that the chances of a calm dialogue between the parties will be much increased if treatment of each other’s personnel is seen to be humane?
I entirely agree. I cannot speculate other than on reports that have come through and I will not go into any great detail on those, but I very much hope that, if there are military captured on either or both sides, they will be dealt with and treated within the Geneva convention and in a humane way.
I do not think any fair-minded person would expect the Government to take the side of Pakistan or India, but we are absolutely expecting the Government to step up and give a voice to the people in Kashmir. In the pursuit of power by aggression, it is always everyday people who pay the ultimate price, and too many people have had their lives on hold for generations. This matters to people in Oldham West and Royton, with a large heritage in that country; when this happens, it happens to their parents, their sons, their daughters, their brothers and sisters. They are just reaching out to the UK Government to say, “Give us a hand. Bring people together, convene and use that role in a positive way.”
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments. We will do all that we can, along the lines that I have suggested. This is a very fluid situation, and obviously the most important thing is to de-escalate the tensions because they are at a very worrying level. He is right to point out, however, that there are underlying issues that also need to be dealt with.
We have all been appalled by this terrorist attack. As has been said, communities like ours across the country are deeply concerned. Many of my constituents have families and friends in the region, and a member of my staff is currently trying to get there to attend a family wedding. Does the Minister agree that any reprisals against entirely innocent Kashmiri civilians elsewhere in India must stop, and will he make it clear to his Indian counterparts that, while we understand their anger, they must ensure that innocent people are not harmed when responding to this horrific attack?
I shall be happy to express those direct concerns when I speak to the Indian high commissioner later today.
May I echo the comments of colleagues? Because of our history in the region, and because of our influence and close relationships with both India and Pakistan, Kashmiri families in my constituency look to the United Kingdom to take a leading role both in the immediate and dangerous conflict that we see before us now, and in bringing long-term peace, justice and freedom to Kashmir.
I am sorry, but as the hon. Lady will appreciate, we are just covering the same old ground. I well understand that each and every Member here wants to have his or her say for a range of reasons—often because of the diaspora, but often as well because they feel passionate about the relations between India and Pakistan. I suspect that there is little new that I can add, but I thank her for her words.
We all condemn all forms of terrorism, and I think we all understand that war is not an option. Many of us have raised this matter multiple times in the House, but have received the same response from the Government time and again. This is an issue between India and Pakistan, but recent events reveal that it is not just an issue between those countries: it desperately requires international attention. The British Government need to facilitate talks and to play a greater role in de-escalating the dangerous level of tension between the two countries. I should like them to do more at a human level to ensure that there is an international investigation of what has happened, and to move towards the core issue, which is the issue of Kashmir.
The hon. Gentleman always adopts a measured tone, which I think is important for all our constituents. He should be assured that a great deal of work has already been done by the United Nations in the last fortnight since the latest phase of escalation. Obviously, the events of the last couple of days have been a great worry and there is concern about what may come to pass, but a huge amount of work is going on behind the scenes diplomatically. The UK has an important, although by no means exclusive, part to play at the United Nations, and we shall continue to bring that to bear.
My constituent Madni Ahmed Tahir is one of my many constituents with Kashmiri roots, and has family in Kashmir. Can the Minister explain in a bit more detail what travel advice will be offered to my constituents, and what consideration his colleagues in the Home Office will give to visa applications that are currently in progress?
As the hon. Lady will recognise, those applications are a matter directly for the Home Office, but there will clearly be liaison between the two Departments. We are closely monitoring the situation relating to travel advice, on an hour-by-hour basis, as we become aware of confirmation of what is happening on the ground. We will keep that advice under constant review, and will update it on the website regularly.
Let me say, at the risk of repeating what has been said by other Members, that we constantly hear of human rights violations in occupied Kashmir, and we cannot be bystanders. What efforts is the Minister making to ensure that a thorough, transparent inquiry into these crimes is commissioned?
The hon. Lady will be aware that the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights produced a report recently. She will forgive me if I do not try to say any more now on the Floor of the House. I will try to write to her, if I may, providing a list of the actions that have been taken over the past 12 months and an account of what we propose to do in the months to come.
I must say that I am very disappointed with the Minister’s response so far. His Government are failing to take the necessary responsibility. This issue is far more serious than he and the Government are suggesting. Tensions are high, and two nuclear countries are on the verge of another conflict. Kashmiris have been dying since 1947. Will the Government take some real action and show some responsibility? Will they put both India and Pakistan at the table, so that they can resolve their issues through dialogue?
I refer the hon. Gentleman to my earlier answers on this matter. Successive Governments have clearly tried to work on it on a bilateral basis, which I think has been more helpful. A huge amount of work goes on. Our high commissions in both New Delhi and Islamabad, and other staff, work closely together in trying to do what can be done on the ground in Kashmir but, as I said at the outset, it is not our role to bring both parties to the table in the way that the hon. Gentleman suggests, and I think that trying to do so would be entirely counterproductive.
Eloquence and brevity combined? Mike Gapes.
While we should not exaggerate the influence that the British Government could have at this time, is it not nevertheless important for us, as a nuclear-weapon state, to do what Jack Straw did in 1999 during the Kargil crisis, when the role of the British Foreign Office was central to ensuring that it did not escalate into an all-out nuclear war?
The hon. Gentleman is right: the issue of being a nuclear state makes the situation particularly serious at the moment, and it is one of the reasons why I think the international community will want to have a part to play. He clearly has some knowledge of and interest in the foreign affairs of 20 years ago, and if he feels that there are important lessons to be learnt from what happened at that time that we could bring to bear on this crisis, I should be happy to speak to him about them.
I declare my interest as the recently appointed co-chair of Labour Friends of India.
The Minister has spoken today about the direct involvement of the Government with embassies and through the United Nations Security Council, but what work should the Commonwealth be doing to bring about stability in the region?
I think that one of the most important things the Commonwealth can do—I am sure its Secretary General will have it very much in her mind—is bring people together and keep lines of communication open. The hon. Gentleman will be well aware that leading figures in the Commonwealth, in both India and Pakistan, have a political or an NGO-related background. We want to have as much dialogue as is possible in these very trying circumstances.
I thank the Minister for his deep interest in this matter. As chair of the all-party group for the Pakistani minorities, I visited Pakistan in September last year as part of a cross-party delegation to inquire into human rights and the persecution of Christians and religious minorities. We met the regional president of the Pakistan-Kashmir province, who made us aware of attacks on and killings of Pakistan Kashmiris, including the sexual abuse and rape of women. The president told us that the United Nations had a key role to play. What discussions has the Minister had with the UN to bring about a peace process?
Discussions about the current issue have taken place at the UN with our head of mission. If the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, rather than giving a glib and quick answer here, I will write to him in detail about precisely what has happened in recent months.
Members of the Kashmir diaspora make an extraordinary contribution across our communities, nowhere more so than in Nottingham. They will understand, as I do, the Minister’s reluctance to pick a side, as he puts it, but will he be absolutely clear with the House and make a solemn commitment that when it comes to working through international organisations—especially the UN —when it comes to human rights and when it comes to humanitarian aid, the British Government will not be found wanting?
I hope the hon. Gentleman will feel reassured that that is very much the British Government’s approach. It is important that we work together on this, not just in the context of the urgent question but in the context of APPGs. I hope that we can work across Parliament, because we will have an even stronger voice if we speak as one. There will of course be disagreements at the margins, but if we can speak as one for Kashmir and Kashmiri people, our voice will be all the more effective in dealing with our Indian and Pakistani counterparts.
I heard what the Minister said about not wishing to be seen to take a side and that he does not believe it is the UK’s role to bring together the Indian and Pakistan sides to form a compromise, but, as my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham West and Royton (Jim McMahon) pointed out, what the Kashmiri community both here and in Kashmir are looking for is a friend and ally who will speak up for them in the international forums, so may I ask the Minister what specific actions he will take inside the UN to make sure it fulfils its responsibility to speak up for that minority community?
I would not wish the hon. Gentleman to misunderstand the situation: we are a friend for all Kashmiris, and we are a friend of that region and indeed a strong friend for India and Pakistan internationally on this and related issues. It is a fluid situation and therefore I cannot go into specifics regarding the UN other than to say that feverish conversations are taking place there, albeit while trying to instil a sense of calm. I am sure this matter will be formally dealt with at the UN General Assembly, as well as at the Security Council in the days to come.
The prime minister of Kashmir was in Glasgow last weekend discussing with a cross-party group of political representatives there the situation in Kashmir. The prime minister of Kashmir is in London today—he cannot return home because of closed airspace. Will the Minister meet him today—he will be in Parliament from 4 o’clock onwards, I understand—to hear directly from the direct representative of the Kashmiri people?
The hon. Gentleman refers to the prime minister of Kashmir. The Foreign Office deals only with those whom we formally recognise. I am not sure of all the facts of this situation, but if he is not an individual we formally recognise, this is not a matter that I can pursue. No doubt, the hon. Gentleman will fill me in on the details in due course. I already have phone calls lined up with the high commissioners for Pakistan and for India during the course of this afternoon and will have other conversations as well.
There have been worrying reports emerging in the last few minutes that the Indian and Pakistani armies are now engaged in heavy artillery exchanges at several locations on the line of control in western Kashmir, so the situation appears to be escalating rapidly. The Minister has undertaken to communicate with both sides in the conflict and understand the situation; will he commit to the FCO updating this House within the next 24 hours on the latest position and the actions the FCO will be taking to de-escalate it, in particular addressing the UN Security Council on this issue?
We have the mechanism of urgent questions to deal with such matters, and if there is an update we will want to make the House aware of it at the earliest possible opportunity. I hope to be in the region in the next 24 hours, so that might not be done in quite the timeframe the hon. Gentleman has in mind, but we will do our best once facts are established to inform the House of what is going on.
Because of the conflict global markets are now trading lower, with Asian investors seeking sanctuary in either the yen or the Swiss franc. Can the Minister give UK investors assurances about their investments within the region? I do not have a huge Indian or Pakistani diaspora, but one UK-born citizen from Dumbarton, Jagtar Singh Johal, is in an Indian jail, held arbitrarily without trial for over 500 days by the Indian republic. Through the fog of impending war, can the Minister, to whom I am grateful for going to India, remind the Indian state of its duty to uphold the rule of international law in border affairs and in human rights for UK nationals in its jails?
The Johal case has been raised on the Floor of the House, and as the hon. Gentleman is well aware, we have met on two or three occasions in the Foreign Office on this matter. I pledge to bring it up in my discussions in New Delhi that I hope to undertake on Friday.
It would be unwise to say anything about the international markets. Suffice it to say that I very much hope that businesses, particularly those where the diaspora is engaged in Kashmir and the region, will feel confident in the longer term that they are doing the right thing by engaging as fully as they are.
This urgent question has taken a long time—well over an hour—and I am struck by how passionate many Members are about this issue, and not just those with significant diaspora communities. This is obviously a fast-moving, fluid situation and I am sure we will come back to the House at some point to discuss it further. The one big message for all of us is to do all we can in our communities to de-escalate and calm the understandable passions that have been raised.
Planning (Affordable Housing and Land Compensation)
Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)
I beg to move,
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to define affordable housing in relation to household incomes; to amend the law relating to land valuation and compensation; and for connected purposes.
Our post-war planning system is a framework for managing change in our towns and cities and ensuring that new development meets the needs of local communities, for brokering and mitigating the gap between individual private interests and collective community needs, and for redistributing the scarce resource of land. Local plans safeguard land for particular purposes, including housing, employment, education, and community uses. Our heritage protection regime and national parks protect the buildings and landscapes that communities value. Planning policies seek to ensure that affordable housing is delivered and that across many dimensions of design, from building height to energy performance standards, new buildings take due account of their surrounding community and wider environment. Despite that, our planning system, deregulated and modified in recent years, too often fails to deliver against either the promises it makes or the real and pressing needs of local communities.
In a wider political environment characterised by a lack of trust in politics, our planning system is part of the problem. Every time a new housing scheme is delivered in which even the “affordable” homes are far out of reach of local people in housing need, every time a new building starts to look shabby after just a short time and every time planning permission is granted but nothing happens on the site for years, trust is eroded a little more. It is time to restore a vision of planning as the key to meeting the needs of local communities while also safeguarding their interests for future generations, and it is time for planning to step up and play its full part in helping to restore trust in democratic processes.
We need an agenda for reform, and I want to set out today two reforms—of the definition of affordable housing and of the rules around land values and viability—that could make an immediate difference. My Bill, which is supported by Shelter and the Town and Country Planning Association, seeks to reform our planning system to deliver the fair outcomes communities desperately need and to accelerate the delivery of genuinely affordable social housing.
The housing crisis is the single biggest practical issue facing communities across the whole country. The critical challenge for our planning system is to deliver the genuinely affordable social homes that are urgently needed in so many places, but there are some major problems that limit the effectiveness of our planning system and work in favour of landowners against the interests of communities.
Too many of the current mechanisms designed to deliver fair outcomes from the planning and development process essentially amount to shutting the door after the horse has bolted. Local planning authorities are required to negotiate affordable housing contributions with a definition of “affordable” that has no relationship to income, and the price of land, which is a key determinant of how many affordable homes are considered “viable”, can be hugely inflated by landowner expectations of a right to “hope value”—future speculative value based on planning permissions which the landowner does not own and has not realised, and which are not confirmed in law.
Our planning system is in need of major reform. The Government’s definition of affordable housing includes homes to buy at up to £450,000 and homes to rent at up to 80% of market rent. I and my party support the delivery of affordable entry-level homes to buy, and although I believe that there are ways to deliver these homes that are more effective and give better value for money than the Help to Buy scheme, my Bill does not cover homes for sale; it addresses the definition of affordable homes to rent.
Market rents vary across the country. Westminster council warned in 2013 that 80% of market rent would require a household income of more than £100,000 to sustain a tenancy on a three-bedroom home, while a two-bedroom home in Southwark in the same year would require £44,000—more than double the average household income in the borough.
The role of affordable housing has always been to meet the needs of those who cannot afford to rent or buy housing in the private market, yet the current definition has completely broken the ability of the planning system to deliver sufficiently for those in the greatest housing need. The figures bear this out. Over the past 10 years, the number of social homes built each year has fallen from around 30,000 to 6,400. At the same time, the number of so-called affordable homes at up to 80% of market rent has increased to 47,000. With 1.25 million families on the waiting list for social housing, there is no justification for a policy that fails to deliver homes that are affordable to households with low incomes. My Bill re-establishes the link between the definition of affordable and income, replacing the current definition of up to 80% of market price with a definition of
“no more than 35% of net household income for lowest quartile income groups in each local authority area”.
Just as important as the definition of affordable homes is the cost of the land on which they are built. Despite reforms introduced last year, which were welcomed, our planning system still affords landowners the right to the future value of development rights or planning permission, which are granted by and in the gift of the planning authority. This so-called hope value dramatically inflates the cost of land, and inflated land prices make it much more difficult for councils to buy land in order to deliver social housing.
In a recent example in south London, a site with an existing use value of £5 million was put on the market at £25 million on the assumption that it could be developed for housing. It was later withdrawn from the market on the expectation that the value would rise even further, setting back the delivery of any housing at all on that site by years and making it almost impossible to deliver affordable housing, even by the current broken definition. This inflation of value either places sites far beyond the reach of councils and housing associations or requires a significant quantum of private homes to be built to cover the costs—homes that either push up density to levels that are unacceptable to the surrounding community or are built at the expense of genuinely affordable homes.
The current viability rules were developed to encourage and stimulate building in a recession, but they have evolved to become something quite different: a quasi-scientific basis for negotiation between developers and councils, with the overt objective on the part of developers of reducing their obligation to build affordable housing. The current system enables this to happen, as viability arguments can justify an appeal against refusal, and cash-strapped councils are reluctant to risk having to pay the applicant’s appeal costs if they lose. These negotiations are often not between equals, as councils struggle to resource the expertise they need to interrogate developers’ figures, and they also slow down planning, often taking years to resolve, creating great uncertainty and frustration.
It is vital that our planning system provides certainty and transparency, and puts an end to speculation on land values that prevents land from being used to deliver new homes. While landowners should receive fair compensation, coded in law, they should not be entitled to speculative value that does not arise from any action or effort on their part. My Bill creates a new requirement in planning law for local planning authorities to have a duty to include a policy in their local plans to capture betterment values where they arise, formally establishing a legal duty in the planning system to capture land value to be used for the benefit of communities and creating a strong justification for councils to argue for the resources they need to engage in viability discussions on equal terms with applicants.
Finally, my Bill seeks to specify in law the key factors used for viability testing in relation to planning decisions, including placing explicit limitations on the expectations of developer profit and land values for compulsory purchase, providing greater certainty and transparency for both landowners and communities. Specifically, my Bill would: amend section 19 of the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004, as amended, and add to it a statutory definition of an affordable home for the purpose of all planning decisions; make further changes to sections 14 to 16 of the Land Compensation Act 1961, as amended; and introduce a new statutory definition of the key factors used for viability testing in relation to planning decisions.
In the context of a national housing crisis, our planning system must be able to deliver the genuinely affordable homes that communities need. More than this, communities must be able to trust that it will do so, and that the promises made in local plans and in planning applications will not be watered down later on the ground of viability. My Bill will reform our planning system to place community need at its heart and increase the speed and quantum of affordable housing delivery to address the housing crisis. I am grateful to Members from across the House who have indicated their support for the Bill, and I commend it to the House.
Question put and agreed to.
That Helen Hayes, Mr Clive Betts, Rosie Cooper, Emma Dent Coad, Ms Harriet Harman, Mr George Howarth, Norman Lamb, Caroline Lucas, Jess Phillips, Andy Slaughter, Alex Sobel and Sir Gary Streeter present the Bill.
Helen Hayes accordingly presented the Bill.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 22 March, and to be printed (Bill 344).
Points of Order
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. In relation to the next item, the Supply and Appropriation (Anticipation and Adjustments) (No. 2) Bill, we have had no amendments to the law in relation to the Finance Bill, Opposition days are as rare as rocking horse dung, we have a Prime Minister who has got dipping and diving off to an art form, and now we are nodding through £242 billion-worth of current expenditure and £39 billion-worth of capital. Can you advise how the House could better hold this Government to account for the way in which they are spending the hard-earned cash of taxpayers?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his point of order, the answer to which, in essence, is twofold. First, the procedure for the treatment of supply and appropriations Bills is contained in Standing Order No. 56 on page 52 of the Standing Orders—a fact of which I suspect the hon. Gentleman, who is well read, is keenly aware—so procedural propriety has been observed, whatever his disquiet or consternation might be. Secondly, the estimates day debates on important matters took place yesterday, when those matters were addressed by the House. The hon. Gentleman has made his point in his own way with some alacrity, and it is on the record for colleagues to study.
Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker—
Well, I am not sure that there is a further point to be made to that, but there is a cheeky grin etched upon the contours of the right hon. Gentleman’s face, which suggests to me that he is about to have some parliamentary fun. Far be it from me to seek to deny the right hon. Gentleman, who is a distinguished Lincolnshire knight.
Further to that point order, I just wanted to remind the House that the Procedure Committee has ensured in its report that estimates days now actually deal with estimates and talk about money, whereas before, when I rose to talk about estimates, I was ruled out of order. We are now holding an inquiry into setting up a Budget Committee, so the House is trying to make progress on getting better oversight of public expenditure. This is just to inform you, Mr Speaker.
That is a noted reform that has occurred, in response to representations from Members on both sides of the House. In making that point—that public service information notice, if you will—the right hon. Gentleman gives me the opportunity to reference the Procedure Committee. He cited it, but he was far too modest to mention the fact that he is a distinguished ornament of it and a contributor on a continuing basis to its work.
Supply and Appropriation (Anticipation and Adjustments) (No. 2) Bill
Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 56), That the Bill be now read a Second time.
Question agreed to.
Bill accordingly read a Second time.
Question put forthwith, That the Bill be now read the Third time.
Question agreed to.
Bill accordingly read the Third time and passed.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. The Supply and Appropriation (Anticipation and Adjustments) (No. 2) Bill and the reform of the estimates process came in response to the introduction of the ridiculous English votes for English laws procedures, but they represent the supply element of the confidence and supply arrangement. I may not be looking properly, but I do not see any Members from the Government’s confidence and supply partners in the Chamber, so is the vote that we have just had actually valid?
There is no requirement for any particular hon. Member to be present at any given time. The vote remains valid. Whether the hon. Gentleman, who rejoices in the celebrity of his status as his party’s Chief Whip, is satisfied with the process is a matter for him, but it is a quite different matter from the question of orderly conduct and procedure, which have been observed.
Business of the House (Today)
That, at this day’s sitting, the Speaker shall put the questions necessary to dispose of proceedings on the motion in the name of the Prime Minister relating to the UK’s withdrawal from the EU not later than 7.00pm; such questions shall include the questions on any amendments selected by the Speaker which may then be moved; the questions may be put after the moment of interruption; and Standing Order No. 41A (Deferred divisions) shall not apply.—(Wendy Morton.)
UK’s Withdrawal from the EU
I have provisionally selected the following amendments in the following order: (a) in the name of Leader of the Opposition, the right hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn); (k) in the name of the right hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Ian Blackford); (c) in the name of the right hon. Member for Meriden (Dame Caroline Spelman); (b) in the name of the hon. Member for South Leicestershire (Alberto Costa); and (f) in the name of the right hon. Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper).
I remind the House that reference may be made in debate to any amendments on the Order Paper, including those which I have not selected. Under the terms of the business motion just agreed to, the debate may continue until 7 pm, at which time the question shall be put on any amendments that may then be moved. To move the motion, I call the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and Minister for the Cabinet Office.
I beg to move,
That this House notes the Prime Minister’s statement on Leaving the European Union of 26 February 2019; and further notes that discussions between the UK and the EU are ongoing.
It is a pleasure, as always, to return to the Dispatch Box to debate European policy matters and to see the familiar cast of colleagues on both sides of the House. I start by making it clear that the Government’s political objectives remain to leave the European Union in accordance with the referendum decision of 2016, to do so in an orderly fashion that protects jobs, living standards and investment in this country, and to do so by means of a formal withdrawal agreement under article 50 that includes clear protections for European Union citizens living in the United Kingdom and United Kingdom citizens in the 27 other EU countries, that provides for a financial settlement, and that ensures that there is no hard border on the island of Ireland. We look forward to negotiating a deep and special partnership on trade, security and political co-operation with the European Union—a community of democracies that will remain not only our closest geographical neighbours, but key partners friends and allies in the world.
I thank my right hon. Friend, with whom I have been debating such matters for the best part of 30 years, for giving way. As for this community of democracies, how can he can justify article 4 of the withdrawal agreement, which would subjugate the United Kingdom and require us to pass primary legislation to achieve that objective when the decisions that would be imposed on the constituents of every single Member in this House, by virtue of what goes on in the Council of Ministers, will be decided by 27 other member states? We will not even be at the table and will not have even so much as a transcript. Is that not a complete travesty of democracy?
No. As my hon. Friend says, he and I have been debating European matters for about 30 years —time flies when one is enjoying oneself—but I think his criticisms would have force if they were describing a situation that was intended to be permanent. All that is covered in article 4 of the withdrawal agreement are the arrangements that are necessary to govern the winding down of this country’s membership of the European Union and the residual obligations that derive from that over a period of months.
In recent days, a number of statements have been made by several different Ministers that have left me somewhat puzzled about, first, Her Majesty’s Government’s policy and, secondly, the policy on collective responsibility. Is my right hon. Friend able to provide some clarification to assist the House?
The Government’s policy is what the Prime Minister set out in her statement yesterday and is summarised in the words that I have just spoken. The approach to collective responsibility is set out clearly in the ministerial code.
On a more positive note, in order to get the withdrawal agreement through, which we should all want, does my right hon. Friend agree that it is not necessary to unpick it? Under international law, we could have a conditional interpretative declaration stating that the backstop is not permanent. If we get that and if the Attorney General changes his mind, will my right hon. Friend join me in urging all my Brexiteer colleagues to vote for this agreement, because the choice is no longer perhaps between an imperfect deal and no deal, but between an imperfect deal and no Brexit?
I agree with my hon. Friend. We all wish my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney General well in his continuing talks with representatives of the European Commission.
I am immensely grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for giving way. Is he aware that the atmosphere in this debate is changing from a massive concern about crashing out and the damage that might do, to, among those of us who want to leave, a worry that we will get no Brexit at all? Therefore, may I through him tell the European Research Group that the choice that we will face when the Prime Minister’s deal comes back is whether we have the certainty of some deal or, as the right hon. Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) said, no deal at all?
The right hon. Gentleman accurately encapsulates the decision facing every hon. Member, from whichever political party or grouping they come.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for giving way, because this may help us later in the debate. Can he provide some clarity about whether the Government will in fact support amendment (b), tabled by the hon. Member for South Leicestershire (Alberto Costa)? As I understand it, the hon. Gentleman has been sacked for doing so, but the Home Secretary is supportive of the amendment. I am confused, so will the right hon. Gentleman set out where the Government stand on the issue?
This may not be the first or last time that the right hon. Gentleman has been confused, but he will have to contain his excitement until I deal with the amendments that have been tabled.
Will the right hon. Gentleman clarify something following the Prime Minister’s statement yesterday? If the Prime Minister’s deal is defeated when it returns to the House and if leaving with no deal is also defeated, will the time period in the motion proposing an extension of article 50 that will be brought on 14 March be amendable by the House?
Whether a motion is capable of amendment and which amendments are in order is, of course, always a matter for the Chair, rather than for Ministers, but I would point out that, in addition to the opportunities for amendment that would arise on such a motion in the normal course of events—I cannot predict at this moment how the Chair will rule—the obligations on the Government in the circumstances that the right hon. Gentleman describes in respect of section 13 of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018 will also remain.
The Minister will be well aware that we are approaching the 21st anniversary of the signing of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement on 10 April, just days after we are due to brexit. I had assumed, and I want him to confirm this, that in the light of the Government’s repeated emphasis on their commitment to the Belfast/Good Friday agreement throughout the Brexit negotiations, and rightly so, the Government have been busy organising and planning a significant event to mark their commitment to the Belfast agreement. Will he shed some light on that anniversary event?
The detail of any event to mark this anniversary would be a matter for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland to announce. What I can say to the hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon) is that the Government, and I personally, regard the achievement of the Belfast agreement and the development of the peace-making and peace-building process in Northern Ireland as one of the most signal political achievements of successive Governments of different political parties in this country during my career in this House.
I remember being called to a meeting in John Major’s office with other Government Back Benchers when he first reported on the message he had received from back channels to Sinn Féin-IRA about the prospect of a process opening up, and I know how much he, Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, David Cameron and my right hon. Friend the present Prime Minister have committed themselves to that process. I believe that every hon. Member of this House will share that commitment.
Does the Minister agree that the phrase “Government policy” implies not just the offering of a choice to the House but an expression by the Government of a preference as to the outcome of that choice? If he does agree, will he inform today’s debate by saying what the Government’s policy will be on either voting for a no-deal Brexit or extending article 50?
The hon. Gentleman is asking me to speculate about hypothetical events. My energies and the Government’s energies are focused on achieving a negotiated agreement with the European Union behind which a majority of hon. and right hon. Members would be prepared to rally.
In relation to the Minister’s answer to the Chair of the Select Committee on Exiting the European Union, my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn), the Prime Minister was very clear yesterday that, if the House voted for an extension, she would bring forward the necessary legislation to change the exit date commensurate with that extension. Can the Minister provide some more clarity? Is he talking about, for example, bringing in a statutory instrument immediately after such a vote to make it happen? Or is he talking about some other way of changing the date? It would be helpful to have some clarity on that point.
I will come to that point when I address the amendment in the name of my right hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Dame Caroline Spelman).
Does my right hon. Friend agree, further to the point made by the hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon), that a good way to commemorate the signing of the Good Friday agreement would be to encourage the European Union to define what it means by “temporary,” as listed in article 1(4) of the Northern Ireland protocol? Without some certainty on that, it is difficult to see how the withdrawal agreement is compatible with the Good Friday agreement.
I agree that the question about the definition of “temporary” is important, particularly in the light of the position, which the European Union has consistently taken in its negotiations with us over the past two years, that a withdrawal agreement negotiated under the terms of article 50 cannot be a secure legal basis for the creation of a permanent partnership with a third country.
If the House will forgive me, I have given way quite a lot and I want to move on to the substance of my speech.
At the end of this afternoon’s debate, this House will have a choice on the Government’s motion and the various amendments that Mr Speaker has selected, but by 12 March, at the latest, the House will have a more important choice when we bring back a second meaningful vote. There has been a lot of speculation, and we have already heard it in the debate this afternoon, about what should happen if the House declines to vote for a deal. Let me start by saying why I am confident that the Prime Minister will be able to put before the House a deal that it can support, and why this House should support such a deal.
My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister spoke yesterday of the extensive work that has been taking place to make good on this House’s call for legal changes to guarantee that the Northern Ireland backstop cannot endure indefinitely. The House endorsed an amendment tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale West (Sir Graham Brady) on 29 January. Since then, the Prime Minister, the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, the Attorney General and I have been engaging in focused discussions with the EU, with the different institutions of the EU and with member state Governments to find a way forward that would work for both sides. We are making good progress in that work, with constructive discussions taking place this week.
As hon. Members will also have heard, there have been discussions on the political declaration, including additions or changes to increase the focus and ambition of both sides to deliver the future partnership, which we both seek, as soon as possible. The ideas we are putting forward in those discussions are not simply the Government’s; they reflect the intensive dialogue we have had with Members on both sides of the House. I have met the right hon. and learned Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Keir Starmer) once and am keen to do so again, as he knows, and I have met colleagues from other political parties and colleagues representing all shades of opinion on this country’s relationship with the European Union.
My right hon. Friend is being very generous in giving way. Before he moves on to the question of alternative arrangements, he and the Brexit Secretary are to be strongly congratulated on getting the European Union to accept the need to set up a taskforce of experienced officials on the European side and the UK side to work up the arrangements proposed by our working group. Will he guarantee that, once those proposals are accepted, there will be a commitment in the treaty that is legally binding and will commit the Government and the European Union to a definite and definitive date by which those arrangements will be implemented?
My right hon. Friend has been championing this approach for a long time. I am grateful to him and to other Conservative colleagues for their detailed discussions with my right hon. Friend the Brexit Secretary and others about the alternative arrangements to ensure the absence of a hard border in Northern Ireland. Let us not forget that the term “alternative arrangements” features in both the withdrawal agreement and the political declaration, so it is already a known concept in the documents that have previously been agreed.
This has led to the consideration of a joint work stream with the European Union that will take place during the next phase of our negotiations. Our objective is to ensure that we have a set of alternative arrangements that can be used even in the absence of a full future relationship deal at the end of the implementation period. The EU has agreed to prioritise what will be an important work stream in the next phase, but we will also be setting up domestic structures to take advice from external experts, from businesses that trade with the European Union and beyond, and from colleagues across the House. This will be supported by civil service resources and £20 million of Government funding.
The right hon. Gentleman mentions a hard border and the backstop. Does he understand why the Irish Government last week produced a Bill, which is going through Parliament, to deal with any problem arising if we happen to go out on World Trade Organisation terms, yet there was no mention of any infrastructure and any hard border? How come the Irish Government can do that, but we are saying that the hard border is such a huge issue?
It is for the Irish Government to explain their policy. We will also have to deal, as I am assuming they will, with the reality of the plans that the European Commission published in December, in which it stated plainly that from the day the UK departs the EU, in the absence of a transitional period, as provided for under the withdrawal agreement, the full acquis in terms of tariffs and regulatory checks and inspections would have to be applied. One striking thing about that Commission publication was that it made no specific reference to, or provided no exemption for, the situation in Ireland. That is something for the Government of Ireland to take up with the European Commission, but it is part of the legal and political reality with which Governments are also dealing.
I wish to pursue the question asked by the right hon. Member for North Shropshire (Mr Paterson). Would I be correct in understanding that these discussions that are going on about the backstop relate purely to the next phase of the negotiations and what can be done in relation to the political declaration, and do not involve any question of opening up the withdrawal agreement and changing its force? That is right, is it not? If we look at the Prime Minister’s statement yesterday, we see that it was all about the next phase—a “work stream in the next phase”, as the right hon. Gentleman just said. Will he clarify that: it is not about opening up the withdrawal agreement?
Let me be clear that when the Attorney General has been talking to representatives of the European Commission this week and when my right hon. Friend the Brexit Secretary has been talking to them, they have been talking about changes to the overall terms of the agreement to facilitate our orderly departure from the European Union.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for what he did yesterday with the publication of the summary of the no-deal papers—let me put it that way. My question to him is: why are the Government only now, after two and a half years, looking at these alternative arrangements, given that the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs did an enormous amount of work on finding some alternatives—they travelled the world—but came to the conclusion that there are no alternatives some considerable time ago?
I thank the right hon. Lady for what she said about the papers published yesterday. I thought she was being uncharacteristically unfair to the Government in her criticisms about not dealing with this earlier. A lot of official and ministerial time has been spent in the past 18 months examining some of these things. One problem that was identified, which still confronts us today and which we are talking to the European Commission about in the context of these discussions about alternative arrangements, is that we have to deal not only with the problem of the technology itself and making sure there is technology that is fit for purpose, but with the fact that, on the sort of model that has been discussed, we would need to see a significant number of derogations by the EU from its normal arrangements. So there are legal, and not just technical, problems that would have to be overcome.
Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that because the political declaration is legally non-binding, any concessions he gives on a level of alignment in respect of the single market, a customs union, standards and the environment are intrinsically changeable in the future, and that the only safeguard in place to prevent a slash-and-burn approach by a future Tory Government is the backstop itself?
I place rather more faith in this House than the hon. Gentleman would appear to do, because I do not think there is any appetite in Parliament for what he described as a “slash-and-burn approach” to standards.
We believe that our deal is the right one for this country and no better one is available on the table. I also believe, as do the Government, that leaving with our deal is better than leaving without a deal.
I will give way to my hon. Friend, as he tried valiantly to persuade you to accept an amendment, Mr Speaker, but was unsuccessful.
Unfortunately, amendment (j) was not selected, but I am sure my right hon. Friend will agree that the Government will have no problem in accepting in principle, and I look forward to hearing about that. Many of us who have wished the Prime Minister well recognise that compromise is required on both sides in these negotiations. The transition period is not brilliant but the backstop does have to be sorted out in respect of its indefinite nature. In recognising that, is the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster at all concerned that the next steps as outlined by the Prime Minister yesterday might make a good deal less likely, because the EU may hope that Parliament does its work for it by taking no-deal off the table and extending article 50?
I genuinely do not fear that, because what I am finding increasingly in my conversations with politicians in different parts of Europe is that they want this issue sorted out. Frankly, they have politics of their own. They have important decisions to make on a range of subjects: the future of the eurozone; the negotiation of a multi-annual financial framework without a UK contribution; the tensions that exist between some of the central European and western European powers within the EU; and the continuing problem of the very large-scale movement of people from Africa into southern Europe. It would be a mistake for hon. Members to think that the leaders of the other 27 countries spend every waking hour thinking and worrying about Brexit matters.