House of Commons
Tuesday 5 March 2019
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
The Chancellor of the Exchequer was asked—
Infrastructure Funding: Devon and Cornwall
The Government are increasing our national investment in infrastructure to the highest sustained level since the 1970s. In Devon, this will include £83 million towards the widening of part of the north Devon link road, and in Cornwall £78 million towards the St Austell link road.
Mr Speaker, may I wish Cornish Members gool Peran lowen—a very happy St Piran’s day?
I thank my hon. Friend for his answer, although my Cornish is not quite up to his level, given that I am a Devon Member.
The recent announcement of £80 million of funding for major resilience work at Dawlish was very welcome. Can my hon. Friend confirm that this is the first part of the investment plan and that the Government will provide additional investment as further aspects of the plan to secure our key rail infrastructure come forward?
We are fully committed to rail resilience in the south-west, and the Chancellor restated this as a national priority in the Budget Red Book. As my hon. Friend has said, we are investing up to £80 million in the new seawall to provide greater protection to the railway at Dawlish. Network Rail is providing the further options he mentions to protect the line from extreme weather and improve the rail network for passengers in the south-west, and of course we will consider those proposals when we receive them.
Added rail resilience at Dawlish is really important for the far south-west to keep our train line open, but so is added road resilience. Can the Minister set out what additional funding he can put in place to make sure that the A38 is a safer road? At the moment, there are far too many delays and sadly far too many people die on it?
The hon. Gentleman raises an important point. By our decision to hypothecate vehicle excise duty, we have created the largest ever investment in our strategic road network, which could perhaps fund projects such as the one he raises. Additionally, our £2.7 billion transforming cities fund will support Plymouth and its surrounding areas in particular.
Meur ras, Mr Speaker. Gool Peran lowen—happy St Piran’s day—and Kernow bys vyken!
The announcement yesterday on the stronger towns fund did not include any areas from Cornwall, yet Cornwall has always scored very highly on social deprivation and funding. I know that the coastal communities fund has been a help, but what assurance can I have from the Treasury that it will support towns in my area?
The stronger towns fund announced this week will provide support for the south-west and all regions of the country, both in terms of direct funding to be paid to local enterprise partnerships and the competitive fund of £600 million that towns in the my hon. Friend’s constituency and those of other right hon. and hon. Members across the country should bid into.
The port of Brixham in my constituency lands the most valuable catch in England, but it has now reached capacity and needs urgent infrastructure investment to expand opportunities. Will the Minister assure me that our strategically important fishing industry and processing sectors will be fully considered in future infrastructure plans, and will he meet me to discuss Brixham port’s exciting plans for development, which need only modest investment to help them get rapidly off the ground?
I would be happy to meet the hon. Lady. We are investing in port infrastructure, as indeed in other infrastructure projects across the south-west. I believe it was she who asked the Chancellor in the lead-up to the Budget to make that national commitment to Dawlish, for example. We are keen to listen to her opinions in this respect, and I would be very happy to meet her.
The Government have made a very strong commitment to tackling money laundering. Recent initiatives include the creation of the economic crime strategic board and the National Economic Crime Centre. We have also strengthened anti-money laundering supervision through the creation of the Office for Professional Body Anti-Money Laundering Supervision, and we are reforming suspicious activity reports and tackling the abuse of Scottish limited partnerships.
The Economic Secretary to the Treasury knows better than most of us about the nefarious impact of Russia, and I send my best wishes to his constituency, to the Skripals and, most of all, to the family and friends of Dawn Sturgess, one year after the Salisbury attack.
Yesterday, Prince Charles ended up being drawn into the troika laundromat scandal, with money linked via a maze of shell companies back to the Magnitsky case. Criminal and legitimate money is sloshing around together in our banking system. What are the Government doing to close the loopholes and stop legitimising the proceeds of kleptocracy?
I thank the hon. Lady for her kind remarks about my constituency. I am familiar with the reports that appeared in The Guardian yesterday evening about the case to which she has referred. Following the response by the Financial Action Task Force to a two-year review of our standards in the United Kingdom, the Government recognise that we are world leaders in this regard, but there are some outstanding concerns about reports of suspicious activity in the banking sector. Work is ongoing, and I will take a close interest in it.
Can the Minister quantify the amount of extra tax that the Government have collected since 2010 that would otherwise have been unpaid, as a result of the measures they have taken to tackle money laundering?
I cannot give my hon. Friend the exact figure, but we are anxious to crack down on suspicious activity when reports give us reason to believe that further measures are necessary. We have taken action in improving cross-governmental co-ordination, and we are working closely with the Home Office on the suspicious activity reports.
The Financial Secretary was unable to answer this question yesterday, so I shall ask it again. Can the Economic Secretary explain why, although the call for evidence on extending corporate liability for economic crime closed two years ago, we have yet to receive a response or see any action?
The Ministry of Justice is looking at that, and will present its response to the call for evidence later this year.
May I suggest that the answer to the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone) is £185 billion?
I always take my right hon. Friend’s words very seriously, and I am sure that he must be right.
Britain is now a world leader in financial transparency and dealing with money laundering owing to the public register of beneficial ownership. What action do the Government propose to take to stop those standards being undermined by Crown dependencies, which rely on the British passport and British defence protection, but operate in a much more opaque manner?
We are committed to introducing those registers by 2023. Since 2017, we have worked closely with law enforcement agencies through the mechanism of the exchange of notes with the overseas territories, and that has led us to unexplained wealth orders and the forfeiture of bank accounts.
The Government are determined to ensure that the UK is at the forefront of the development of new technologies. Since 2016, I have committed £7 billion more—a 20% uplift —for research and development, thus demonstrating clear progress towards the Government’s ambition to raise investment in R&D to 2.4% of GDP by 2027. Among other things, those funds are supporting a £305 million national quantum technology programme and a £950 million artificial intelligence sector deal, and there is £250 million for connected and autonomous vehicles.
Small modular reactors could bring a wealth of economic, environmental and social benefits. Will the Chancellor confirm that he supports their merits, and that there will be financial and policy support to ensure that they succeed?
The Government do indeed recognise the potential for the UK to become a leader in the development of the next generation of nuclear technologies, provided that there is demonstrable value for money for consumers and taxpayers. To that end, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy is considering an industrial strategy challenge fund proposal for small modular reactors and whether it would provide value for money.
I do not know whether you are aware, Mr Speaker, that up to 50 different metals may be used in a smartphone. What fiscal support could be given to the excellent work done by Birmingham University in addressing the rareness of those materials, as well as the recycling and reuse of batteries?
My hon. Friend is right. Rare earths and other critical elements are at the centre of the electronics industry, which now defines our modern life. Some of the materials are very scarce, and recycling the large amounts that are already in use in batteries is crucial. In the 2017 spring Budget I announced the £246 million Faraday battery challenge, to be funded from the national productivity investment fund. Supported by the fund, the University of Birmingham, together with industry partners, is leading the way in developing new methods of recycling lithium batteries, which power so many of the objects that we use in our everyday lives.
Quantum technology is one of the most mission-critical technologies being developed today, and so far much of the work has been done at research level. How do the Government intend to help leading British companies such as Teledyne e2v in Chelmsford to commercialise this activity, to ensure that quantum technology remains based in the UK?
I knew Chelmsford was going to get in there somewhere.
The additional £7 billion I mentioned earlier is focused on applied research and industry innovation and the commercialisation of the UK’s world-leading science base. Quantum technologies have the potential to be transformative, and the UK is a global leader, so last autumn I committed £315 million for a second phase of the UK’s landmark national quantum technology programme. This investment includes a £70 million industrial strategy challenge fund, which will help leading UK firms such as Teledyne accelerate getting their products to the market.
The Chancellor knows very well that Huddersfield in the Leeds city region is a hotspot for new technology and innovation and a tech centre, but many people in Huddersfield and Leeds are demoralised by the future and leaving the European Union. What can the Chancellor do to give them some hope that there is a future for their businesses and universities?
I am well aware that Huddersfield, like Chelmsford, is a leading centre of industry and technology development. Many of our towns and cities that have traditionally been centres of manufacturing are changing very fast in response to the changing nature of manufacturing industry. What I can say to the hon. Gentleman is that I will be making a spring statement to the House next week in the context of some very important decisions that the House will be making about our exit from the EU, and I will be setting out my vision for Britain’s future.
Renewables is a key future technology sector. Can the Chancellor assure the House that the growth of the offshore sector will not be limited by Government airspace protection rules, or, if it will, will the Government look to invest instead in onshore wind?
I think the hon. Lady is talking about radar interference problems with wind turbines, something I remember from my Ministry of Defence days. The Treasury and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy will always argue robustly for protecting the economic potential of these technologies, but of course we have to look at our national security interests as well and get the balance right.
How on earth do people think that we are going to be improving the UK’s new technology position when we are on the brink in this House of committing to a disastrous Brexit that will undermine our research funding, stifle our skilled migration, hobble in some ways some of the developments in our pharmaceuticals and biotech sector, and wave goodbye to the European Medicines Agency? Is not the truth that actually our task is going to be to prevent a deterioration in our prospects as a country if we go down that route?
I understand the hon. Gentleman’s point and I know he speaks sincerely and from the heart on these matters, but my view is that we have a huge amount of pent-up investment that has not gone ahead over the last two and a half years because of uncertainty. Once we can provide clarity to British business about our future, which we do by supporting the deal that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister will be bringing forward next week, we will unleash that investment, allowing Britain to achieve its rightful potential as one of the world’s leading technology powers.
I started work in 1977 and I am not sure I ever remember that traditional nine-to-five, but the Government are helping people to be more productive and work flexibly by committing over £1 billion of public money to next-generation digital infrastructure, including full fibre broadband and 5G. Obviously, the primary investment will come from the private sector, but the public investment ensures that those parts of the country that would not otherwise be served because they are not commercial can share in this important technology. We are also supporting workplace productivity in other ways, including by investing £56 million to help small businesses to develop leadership and management skills in partnership with “be the business” programme.
I am sorry, but when it comes to funding the new technologies that really matter, this Government, and especially the Treasury, have been abysmal. The climate crisis is upon us now, but this Government’s reaction has been to axe carbon capture and storage funding; to cancel the Swansea lagoon, despite the fact that we were poised to be a world leader in tidal technology; and to slap innovative emerging storage technologies with business rates. At the same time, they are throwing billions into new tax breaks for oil and gas. Does the Chancellor agree that this Government are not facing the climate emergency but creating it?
No, we are committing additional funding to innovation and to research and development—the Faraday battery challenge is a good example—and lots of that money is going into the technologies that will underpin the decarbonisation of our economy. However, we have to get the balance right. Consumers of energy in this country do not want to see their bills rising because we have made imprudent decisions. We have to do this in a way that takes public opinion with us as we decarbonise our energy sector, our homes and our industry in a sustainable way.
I recently visited the north-west of England and saw at first hand the enterprising and enthusiastic spirit of SMEs in the region. I am happy to confirm that, in the 2018 Budget, I backed locally led innovation by doubling the strength in places fund to £235 million. I also committed an additional £5 million to encourage proposals for new university enterprise zones, following a successful pilot scheme that invested £15 million in Liverpool. The made smarter pilot in the north-west is helping manufacturers to adopt digital technologies, and together these measures will ensure that businesses in the north-west can take the lead in the fourth industrial revolution.
National Living Wage: Under-25s
The Low Pay Commission recommends minimum wages for the under-25s, such that they are as high as possible while maintaining young people’s employment prospects. We have seen a 45% reduction in youth unemployment since 2010 as a result.
That is lovely, but it is not actually the answer to the question I asked, which was whether an economic impact assessment had been carried out. Clearly, the answer is no. The Government obviously have an ideological problem with a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work. Given that this is national apprenticeship week, does the right hon. Lady really think that it is acceptable to pay apprentices just £3.70 an hour in this country under UK law? Will she use the spring statement to take action to introduce a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work? If she will not, will she devolve this to Scotland so that we can do the job for her?
The reality is that we have been so successful in reducing youth unemployment—which in 2010 was almost double what it is now—because we have taken a reasonable strategy with minimum wages. We have also had a welfare to work programme and helped young people to get experience and skills. It would be completely wrong to raise wages to the extent that young people were unemployed and unable to get the experience and skills that they need to succeed in life.
No Deal EU Exit: Job Losses
The Government’s analysis indicates that leaving the EU without a deal would not be good for the UK economy, which is why we are so determined as a Government to secure an appropriate deal with the European Union that can pass through this House.
There are 4,000 jobs in the manufacturing sector in Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney. This Government have had two years to negotiate a good deal for that sector, but they have so far failed to do so. Does the Minister share my concern that Nissan’s decision to build its X-Trail in Japan, and similar decisions by Honda, are a sign of things to come as a result of this Government’s chaotic negotiations?
The chief executive of Honda has made it perfectly clear that the company’s recent decisions were not a consequence of Brexit. Other factors across the world are affecting car sales, including the switch away from diesel and, in the case of Honda, the agreement on tariffs that has been entered into between the European Union and Japan, which will mean that, after the move to Japan, exports into Japan will attract no tariffs.
Does not this underline the importance of fine-tuning the deal so that we can jettison the backstop and use existing technology and EU law to take forward the innovative Malthouse proposals, which will ensure that we can move forward and build the new Britain?
The House has made clear the basis on which it would be prepared to accept the deal negotiated with the European Union, and that will necessitate some changes to the backstop arrangements. That is what is being negotiated at the moment and it will come back to the House in due course.
The hon. Lady is right to raise an issue that relates to our tariff policy in the event of a no-deal Brexit. We have made it clear that we will carefully balance this, protecting consumers from unwanted price rises at the same time as using our tariff policy to provide appropriate protection to vital elements of the economy.
Cheshire-based company ABB has stated that investment in automation could result in radical improvements in cost efficiency, allowing work to move back to the UK. Will my right hon. Friend consider incentivising investment in automation through the tax system?
We have already brought in some important measures to do just that, not least by increasing the annual investment allowance from £200,000 to £1 million, as announced at the previous Budget. We keep all taxes under review and I will certainly bear my hon. Friend’s important point in mind.
In a recent survey by the Fraser of Allander Institute, 62% of Scottish businesses said that they did not feel ready for Brexit. Will the Chancellor bring forward an emergency Budget to provide support for small and medium-sized enterprises so that they can cope with the Brexit that he proposes?
My right hon. Friend the Chancellor has made it clear that, in the event of a no-deal Brexit, we will take stock of the situation and take whatever measures are necessary to ensure that we protect and support businesses throughout the United Kingdom.
I was specifically talking about the Brexit that the Chancellor is proposing, which is presumably not a no-deal Brexit, although it looks like 100,000 jobs could be lost in Scotland as a direct result of no deal. However, in relation to the deal Brexit, the Bank of England has said that unemployment could be up to 4% higher by 2023 if the Prime Minister’s deal is approved. Does the Chancellor believe that keeping his job is worth costing thousands of others?
I do not believe that the figure to which the hon. Lady refers is accurate. This Government have seen employment at a record high and unemployment at the lowest level since 1975, and youth employment is half what it was in 2010—unlike the Labour Government, who saw youth unemployment increase by almost 50%.
Road Infrastructure Funding
At the Budget, I announced an extra £420 million for road maintenance, including potholes, and £150 million to ease congestion on local roads. I also announced that, from 2020, all road tax will be invested back into our road network via a national roads fund, which will involve £28.8 billion between 2020 and 2025, including a record £25.3 billion for our strategic roads. That is part of our plan to upgrade our infrastructure so that it is fit for the future and another element of our overall public investment, which is set to reach the highest sustained level for 40 years.
I am grateful for that answer and for the continued investment in our roads, but does my right hon. Friend understand the frustration felt by my constituents, who have seen their area transformed by massive housing developments, but have not seen improvements to the local road infrastructure, particularly the A249 and the M2, to serve the new homes?
We are making good progress on improving junction 5 of the M2 and the A249 Stockbury roundabout, reducing journey times, making journeys safer and supporting future housing and employment growth. All that is in addition to recent investments from the local growth fund in Sittingbourne and Sheppey, including the opening of a new roundabout on the A2500 in December 2018, following a £1.26 million investment, and £2.5 million for the regeneration of Sittingbourne town centre.
Funding for road infrastructure is very important, but I wonder whether the Chancellor thinks it should sit alongside investment in more active travel—walking and cycling.
Both. Of course we want to encourage active travel—cycling and walking—particularly in cities where that is the most appropriate response to dealing with the twin challenges of congestion and air quality. Sheffield has benefited from funding that will allow it to enhance the offer to walkers and cyclists.
Over the last decade, we have seen a 25% increase in the number of enterprises in the fantastic county of Essex. That is despite our crumbling infrastructure and our roads. May I make an urgent plea to the Chancellor to support and invest in the two economic arteries that go through the heart of Essex and the Witham constituency—the A12 and the A120?
This is probably not the first time that my right hon. Friend has asked me about those two roads. She is a formidable champion of the transport infrastructure that runs through her constituency; I congratulate her on that. As I have just announced, we have made a commitment to hypothecate all road tax to the national roads fund. That will make a record amount of funding available for road projects in the next period.
Road traffic accidents are a major cause of acquired brain injury, so I urge the Chancellor of the Exchequer to consider setting up a special fund, in proportion to the amount that he is talking about for road infrastructure—and announce it next week, if he is still going to do his statement next Wednesday—to make sure that there is a fund available to people in the national health service who are developing very innovative ways of rehabilitating people who have had road traffic accidents. If he does not understand, he can ask his hon. Friend the Economic Secretary to the Treasury, who is very good on that.
I reassure the hon. Gentleman that I will be making a spring statement next week and remind him and the House that it is not a fiscal event under the new Budget architecture. We have put very significant additional funding into the national health service. I note the point he makes about acquired brain injury and the research that is happening on that. I will draw the Health Secretary’s attention to his comments.
The Chancellor has rightly made great play of the fact that we need to improve our productivity in this country. One of the biggest drags on productivity in my part of the world is clogged-up roads, and my part of West Yorkshire is one of the most congested parts of the UK. So will the Chancellor use money from either his productivity fund or his road-building fund to ensure that there is enough money in the kitty to progress the long-awaited, much-needed Shipley eastern bypass?
As my hon. Friend will know, we have funded a study into the Shipley bypass. It is absolutely right that, often, the highest-value road investments can be relatively modest local schemes that relieve pressure and allow town regeneration, the release of housing land and the more efficient operation of local industry. We will have a record-sized fund available through the hypothecation of vehicle excise duty.
The Member for Shipley will not stop going on about it until he gets it; I think of that we can be absolutely certain.
No Deal EU Exit: Manufacturing Sector
The steps we are taking to protect our manufacturing in the event of no deal include supporting the Prime Minister’s deal and the negotiations to make sure that we have a smooth exit from the European Union, and the Treasury itself has made available in excess of £4 billion by way of contingency funding for Departments right across Whitehall.
I thank the Minister for that response. Last month, I surveyed businesses in my constituency and they overwhelmingly said that they wanted Brexit cancelled. Will the Chancellor stand up for British businesses, end the uncertainty and use his immense personal prestige in the Cabinet and with the Prime Minister to stop Brexit once and for all?
I hope the Chancellor heard the bit about his prestige.
It is just little old me, I am afraid, but I have to say that I believe we should respect the result of the June 2016 referendum, a democratic exercise that saw a higher turnout than for any other democratic event in the history of our country. The important thing now is that we get the right deal for us to leave, which we are working on. When it comes back to Parliament, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will support it.
We are most certainly not ignoring those businesses—or indeed businesses from a variety of different sectors up and down the economy. We have been deeply engaged with business, through the Treasury, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and other Departments. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that, for example, on the issue of just-in-time deliveries and the flow of trade across our borders, we have done an immense amount of work to prepare for the possibility of a no-deal exit to make sure that we protect the very companies to which he refers.
Single-use Plastic Waste
We are acting to tackle single-use plastic waste at source by introducing a world-leading tax on plastic packaging. The tax, which I announced at the Budget, will provide a clear economic incentive to business to use recycled plastic and, alongside the reform of the plastic producer responsibility system by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, it will transform the economics of sustainable packaging. The Government recently published consultations on the detail of both measures, alongside consultations on consistent waste collection and a potential deposit return scheme for beverage containers. We are determined to be the first Government who leave the environment in a better state than they found it in.
I hear what the Chancellor is saying, but in setting policy will he recognise the positive role that plastic packaging plays in reducing cost to consumers by protecting goods in transit and in reducing the environmental burden of food waste by keeping food fresher for longer?
The points my hon. Friend makes are well made, and of course this is about getting the balance right. The Government recognise that plastic packaging can play an important role, but we want to reduce the environmental impact of single-use plastic waste and encourage more sustainable forms of plastic packaging that can be recycled. The packaging tax will encourage businesses to use more recycled plastic in the production of packaging and will therefore drive a more sustainable packaging industry.
My 10-year-old constituent Emily Haines wrote to me about this issue, and she assured me she had not just copied and pasted. Indeed, when I wrote back to her by hand, her father emailed me to say that he had no idea that his daughter had written to me on this subject. So may I ask the Chancellor not to listen to those who say that he should in any way dilute what he is doing on single-use plastics? Indeed, he should do more and do as Emily says: introduce “tough new taxes” to make sure that we deal with this environmental scourge.
That is what we are doing. This will be the world’s first plastic tax and it is carefully designed to go with the grain of the market: to incentivise manufacturers to use more recycled plastic in their packaging. Because of that, it creates an effective market for packaging and, together with the producer responsibility note system, will transform the way in which plastic packaging enters the circular economy in this country.
I am pleased that the Chancellor is, apparently, taking the issue of plastic waste seriously. The Government have committed £61.4 million to global research to help to prevent plastic waste from entering the oceans. Given the challenge, is that sufficient?
It is a good start. The idea is to identify ways in which we can work with countries around the world, including many of our overseas territories, which are particularly vulnerable to this issue, to ensure that we develop effective methods of avoiding plastic waste entering the ocean. Of course the best way to do that is by ensuring that plastics are not created in the first place, or that they are effectively recycled, but avoiding dumping at sea is our No. 1 priority.
Talking of preventing waste, what with the millions wasted on the ferries fiasco, the drone debacle, the Northern rail mess, the Carillion collapse, the electronic tagging turmoil, the £2 billion East Coast chaos and, finally, £72,000 spent on defending an illegal prisoner book ban, is it not time for the Chancellor, as the custodian of the public finances, to impose a ban on the failing Secretary of State for Transport wasting any more public dosh?
I am not going to take any lectures about waste from anybody on the Opposition Front Bench. This lot are world-champion wasters of public money. They have done it before and given half a chance they will do it again.
Infrastructure Funding: Medway and Kent
The Government are committed to ensuring that Medway and, indeed, the whole of Kent have the infrastructure that they need. The South East local enterprise partnership has secured £590 million from three local growth fund rounds, to support around 30 important transport schemes in Kent and Medway.
Medway Council’s £170 million housing infrastructure bid will have a significant impact on the unlocking of regeneration in the Thames estuary, providing the extra much-needed homes, jobs and transport connectivity. Will the Minister clarify when such excellent bids will be considered and announced? By way of declaration, I am a member of Medway Council.
My hon. Friend has been raising this matter assiduously. At the spring statement in 2018, the Government announced that Medway’s housing infrastructure fund bid was shortlisted for the next stage of assessment, and we look forward to receiving the final proposal later this month. It will be considered alongside other HIF bids.
Social Care Funding
At the autumn Budget 2018, we gave councils an additional £650 million, which could be spent on adult and children’s social care. Since 2017, we have given access to up to £10 billion of dedicated adult social care funding, which has meant above-inflation rises.
Eighty-seven people in this country die each day before receiving the care that they need. Does the Minister agree that that figure is shameful and that the Chancellor should use the spring statement to tackle the funding crisis in social care?
As I pointed out, social care funding and access to it is increasing beyond inflation. In fact, we have seen improvements in many figures. For example, since March 2017, the number of patients who have been delayed leaving hospital due to social care has halved.
Economic Growth and Employment
The Government have worked hard to build a stronger, fairer economy. The economy has grown continuously for the past nine years, employment is currently at a record high, unemployment is currently at its lowest rate since 1975 and real wages are rising.
It is welcome that 75% of those new jobs are full-time and only 3% are zero-hours contracts. It is also welcome that the minimum wage has gone up by 38% since 2010, but what assurance can the Minister give that the policy of dramatically increasing the minimum wage to help the poorest in our society will continue?
I can confirm that the national living wage will rise again this year, to £8.21. I can also tell my hon. Friend that later this year the Low Pay Commission will be set a new remit for beyond 2020. We want to be ambitious, with the ultimate objective of ending low pay in the UK while protecting employment for lower-paid workers.
I suspect the Minister knows that it will be more difficult to increase jobs in services businesses if we replace single market membership with a free trade agreement. Will he set out for the House what estimate he has made of the scale of the difficulty, particularly that facing financial services businesses that want to increase jobs in the current Brexit situation?
Financial services are well protected and ready to engage on arrangements for beyond the implementation period, but the Government are not complacent in respect of the whole economy. We have made a series of interventions through our productivity fund to meet the challenges of the next generation.
Whenever the Government table self-congratulatory questions like that one, there is a need to put on record what is really happening out there. Six million jobs in the UK pay less than the real living wage, 3.8 million people are in insecure employment and 2.5 million people work less than 15 hours a week. Economic growth, where it exists, is so geographically unequal that it does not reflect the reality of what people see around them. Let me ask, on behalf of those people: what is this Government’s strategy for in-work poverty and insecure employment?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. This Government’s strategy is to relentlessly pursue growth in the economy and opportunities for all. We have seen 18.3% growth since 2010, and a record 32.6 million people in work. We will continue to prioritise interventions around technical education, cuts in business taxes and support for new technologies to recognise the new jobs that need to be provided for.
The decision to freeze most working-age benefits for four years from 2016-17 was one of a number of difficult financial decisions that were taken, but to assist claimants who are affected by debt, the Government announced, as part of the 2018 Budget package, a reduction from 40% to 30% in the maximum rate at which deductions can be made from universal credit awards. That change will help 290,000 claimants.
I thank the Minister for his reply. This morning, the Select Committee on Work and Pensions visited Charles Dickens Primary School in my constituency to talk to parents, children and teachers about the impact that the benefits freeze and other welfare cuts have had on local families, many of whom have been pushed into debt, poverty and destitution as a direct result of Government policy. Will the Government listen to the Select Committee and lift the benefits freeze one year early?
The Government have been very responsive to representations over the last two Budgets. There are 637,000 fewer children in workless households than in 2010. We made a number of interventions in the last Budget to increase the availability of interest-free advance loans to those who need them. We are listening, and continue to listen, to the concerns of the sector.
The best way to sustainably drive economic growth is to raise productivity, and that is a priority for this Government. We are increasing public investment in economic infrastructure to its highest sustained level in my lifetime. In the autumn Budget, we set out further investments to support business, technical skills and new technologies.
Last month, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury saw for herself the investment that York-based Pavers Shoes is making to change its productivity, yet local businesses are concerned about the effect of traffic congestion on local productivity. With that in mind, will my hon. Friend the Exchequer Secretary assure me that the Treasury is fully behind the Department for Transport’s proposals to fund the dualling of the York northern ring road?
My right hon. Friend the Chief Secretary says that she saw some very good leopard-print shoes at Pavers Shoes—and she knows a potential customer for them. Pavers is a highly successful business; I have seen for myself in India the success that it is having in selling shoes. We are committed to increasing transport investment in the north of England; the Secretary of State for Transport recently announced the dualling of the A1237 York outer ring road as a scheme in development for the major road network funding.
Does the Minister agree that one of the ways to increase productivity is by maintaining grants at European levels of investment in research and development? We have a lot of good universities in this country.
This Government are absolutely committed to maintaining research and development; that is why we will be investing in it at record levels. We are also supporting the private sector, for example by making research and development tax credits more generous so that businesses across the country can collaborate with universities to drive the economy forward.
Absolutely. We are very excited about the £100 million Ayrshire growth deal and will continue to support that part of Scotland.
Tax Avoidance Enablers: HMRC Resources
The Government take a very serious view of those who enable or promote tax avoidance. We have taken a number of measures to clamp down on them, including penalties of up to £1 million.
In 2017, the Government introduced the Criminal Finances Act to great fanfare, claiming that they were clamping down on the facilitators of tax-dodging. Will the Minister please confirm how many prosecutions have been brought for the new offence of failing to prevent tax evasion?
We have taken action against enablers and promoters, and the cumulative amount of time in prison that has resulted from those particular actions is in excess of 100 years.
I am confident that HMRC will be ready for the outcome of the EU negotiations, whatever that outcome is. We have taken on over 4,000 additional staff to ensure that we are ready, and we have of course invested £2 billion in additional funding since 2010 to ensure that HMRC can operate effectively.
The economy has grown every year since 2010, and there are now 3.5 million more people in work.
Can my hon. Friend confirm that under the Conservatives, in addition to a record number of jobs, wages are growing at their fastest rate in over a decade, meaning that more people have the security of a regular wage to provide for their families?
My hon. Friend is right, and this has not happened by accident; it is because of the decisions that this Government have made to cut taxes and to reform employment and welfare, unlike the Opposition’s approach, which is to say that business is the enemy and damage our economy.
Order. We are running late, so if the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) can manage to ask a one-sentence question with a question mark at the end of it, I will call him; if he cannot, I will not. It is a deal. [Interruption.] No, not one and a half sentence—one sentence. Mr Shannon, get in there.
Can the Minister further outline whether there will be tax benefits available for small businesses that may not be able to sustain this level of wage increase? That was one sentence.
We need to ensure that all businesses succeed. In the spending review, we will be ensuring that business support is just as supportive of new entrants and start-ups.
This one-sentence model could catch on; that would be splendid. I call Stephen Kinnock.
No pressure there at all. Question 23, Mr Speaker.
Don’t look quite so surprised, man—it’s your question.
But may I blend it with topical question 1?
No, but you can blurt it out on the question with which we were dealing, if you want. Unburden yourself, man.
I would be delighted to meet the hon. Gentleman and colleagues to discuss this important issue.
Oh, I see what the hon. Gentleman was driving at in relation to topical questions. Jolly well done; what a prescient fellow. We now come to topical questions. I call Stephen Kinnock.
I cannot think of another question to ask, as my question has been responded to.
I know that the hon. Gentleman does not believe in the hereditary principle, but I do not think that those words would ever have come out of the mouth of his dad. I think he should have a go. Just say “Topical 1”, young man.
I have a sense that by the time I have responded, inspiration will have struck the hon. Gentleman.
My principal responsibility is to ensure economic stability and the continued prosperity of this country. At this juncture, the best way to achieve that objective is to support a negotiated Brexit ensuring a smooth and orderly departure from the EU through a transition period to a new relationship that allows our mutual trade to continue to flourish.
Since the introduction of the minimum wage, only 14 employers have been prosecuted by HMRC for failing to pay the minimum wage. Does the Chancellor agree that that is a completely unacceptable state of affairs? What action is he taking to boost the capacity of HMRC to go after those who are not paying the minimum wage?
HMRC does take action against errant employers. It is always pleased to receive information on suspected non-compliance and will investigate any such cases. I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman had difficulty thinking of a question. Anticipating this situation, I have at least four or five potential questions that he could have asked me, and I am happy to show them to him afterwards.
Colleagues, on a discretionary basis I am changing the order, but, believe me, I know why I am changing the order and there is a compelling reason in this instance for doing so.
We were able to increase the education budget by £1.3 billion last year, which means there have been real-terms funding increases per pupil. We are already the top spenders in the G7 as a proportion of GDP, according to the OECD. But I do recognise that we need to make sure that, going into the future, our education system is properly supported. I would be delighted to meet my hon. Friend and colleagues to discuss this further.
When the Conservatives lost their majority at the last election, the Chancellor conjured up a £1 billion bung to the Democratic Unionist party to buy the Tories back into office. Yesterday, with the announcement of the towns fund, we reached a new low in politics in this country, with the attempt by the Government to purchase the votes of Labour MPs to vote for the Brexit deal. Pork barrel politics has become the new norm under this Government. Can I ask the Chancellor: if the price of a DUP vote has been £100 million each, how much has he calculated a Labour MP’s vote will cost?
The Government have been investing in our cities across the country with interventions such as the transforming cities fund—a £2.5 billion investment. We believe it is important to mirror those investments to drive productivity and economic growth in our towns. This week, we have announced a £1.6 billion intervention to support those towns, building on other interventions that we have made throughout the course of the past 12 months, including the future high streets fund.
I can understand why the Chancellor has broken convention today in not responding, because I think he would be ashamed to respond. Let me tell him what the answer is: if a DUP vote is worth £100 million, what Labour MPs were offered yesterday was £6 million.
Let me ask the Chancellor to undertake another calculation. Seven days ago, he was forced to publish the Government’s assessment, again, of how much a no-deal Brexit would cost this country—in today’s prices, nearly £200 billion. How much of a threatened cost to this country will it take for this Chancellor to find a backbone to stand up to the Prime Minister and the European Research Group to prevent no deal or a bad deal? Or is the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions the only Cabinet Minister willing to put country before career?
Oh dear, oh dear. As the right hon. Gentleman knows very well, I have been working tirelessly to ensure that we avoid a no-deal exit—that we leave the European Union in a smooth and orderly fashion to a new negotiated partnership that allows our complex and important trade relationships to continue to flourish in the future. That is what I spend every working day doing.
As my hon. Friend is aware, because I have said it already this afternoon, the spring statement is not a fiscal event, but I will update the House on the Office for Budget Responsibility’s forecasts for the UK economy and for the public finances. I will follow the approach that I took at spring statement 2018 and also provide the House with an update on progress since the 2018 Budget and set out our intended direction for announcements later in the year. Although it is not a fiscal event, I already anticipate my hon. Friend beating a path to my door before the Budget in the autumn.
As the Chancellor said, the spring statement is not a fiscal event. We are increasing school funding in real terms per pupil, but of course we need to ensure that we are investing properly in our education system. We are looking at human capital and what will be the most important investments, and we will report on that at the spending review.
FE spending is a priority, and we have protected the base rate of funding between 2015 and 2020. I was grateful to receive that letter from colleagues and have organised a meeting on 19 March. I am not sure whether we will be able to fit 164 people in a room, but I hope my hon. Friend will be able to attend.
As I have told the House many times—I will elaborate more at the spring statement next week—in what I now think is the unlikely event of a no-deal exit, the Government have both fiscal and monetary tools available to them to support the economy. Of course, the likely shock would be on the supply side of the economy, and we would have to be careful that fiscal interventions did not merely stimulate inflation. If we are to find ourselves in that situation, we have the firepower and the clear intent to intervene to support the economy.
My hon. Friend is right. We also need to ensure that we are spending money on the right things. For example, the changes this Government have made to phonics have seen our children go from some of the poorest readers in Europe to some of the best. It is about money, but it is also about what we do with that money.
We regard the UK shared prosperity fund as very important, and we will launch a consultation this year on plans for the fund.
It is not possible to provide an estimate down at constituency level about the impacts of the changes in the personal allowance, but I can inform my hon. Friend that no fewer than 234,000 individuals have been taken out of income tax altogether who are living in the south-east, which obviously includes Dover.
Does the Chancellor agree with his right hon. Friend the Environment Secretary, who has told me on a number of occasions that he believes other European countries are looking enviously at the United Kingdom’s withdrawal deal, especially in the context of all the economic analysis the Treasury has carried out on Brexit scenarios?
I am not in a position to comment on private conversations that the hon. Gentleman may have had with my right hon. Friend the Environment Secretary, but I can tell him that I agree with everything my right hon. Friend has said at this Dispatch Box.
Air passenger duty is a per passenger levy paid by all airlines, so there is no reason to believe that it discriminates against smaller airlines. We have now chosen to freeze APD on short-haul flights for eight years and to take children out of it altogether. The Labour party of course want to hike it with its holiday tax.
What is the Chancellor doing to make sure local authorities have sufficient funding to allow care providers to pay sleep-in shifts at a national living wage rate?
We are currently working on this with the Department of Health and Social Care.
The Treasury Committee will today publish the Economic Secretary’s letter to me of 30 January on the current solution to problems faced by mortgage prisoners. This solution requires the private sector to be receptive to providing new mortgages to mortgage prisoners currently trapped with inactive lenders. What update can Ministers provide on the promised Treasury officials’ work with those lenders?
I can tell my right hon. Friend that I am in conversation with the Financial Conduct Authority about its move to a relative rather than an absolute test. I note that there are a range of views out there about how this problem can be dealt with. The FCA has said that it will come back later this spring with its response, and I am happy to meet my right hon. Friend to discuss her concerns further.
This morning, the Financial Times entitled its editorial, “UK territories need to embrace transparency”, prompted by the Government’s decision to pull a vote they knew they were going to lose last night. Does the Chancellor of the Exchequer not feel that he is completely out of kilter with the spirit of the modern age?
Some amendments were tabled on Thursday, and given the constitutional implications of those amendments, I think it is right that the Government work across Departments—with the Ministry of Justice and the Foreign Office—and have dialogue with the Crown dependencies and overseas territories to resolve the matter as the amendments suggested.
Adding to the calls of colleagues, may I ask the Chancellor to ensure that more money is provided for schools? Schools across the country desperately need it, particularly in Cheshire, which is the lowest funded.
In response to my right hon. Friend, I can say that one of the things we have done is to introduce a national funding formula to make sure schools funding is more fair across the country, and it is getting fairer every year. I would be delighted to meet her and other colleagues.
The Chancellor has claimed that the best way to protect the public finances from a decline in the motor industry post-Brexit is to back the PM’s deal. The Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders says the best way is for the Prime Minister to abandon her red lines and be part of a customs union. Who is right?
As the Prime Minister has explained to the House many times, the deal that we have negotiated with the European Union provides for most of the benefits of a customs union, while still enabling the United Kingdom in certain circumstances to be able to strike trade deals with third countries. That is a win-win outcome, and the House should get behind it.
Is it the intention that we will be publishing our draft tariff schedule in the event of no deal before the meaningful vote?
I cannot give my hon. Friend a clear answer on a specific date, but soon as we are in a position to publish the tariff schedule, we will do so.
Personal debt is now higher than it has ever been in British history. Household debt is now also higher than it has ever been and has increased by nearly £1,000 in the past year alone. How sustainable is that?
That is why the Government are concerned that the establishment of a single financial guidance body should happen quickly this year. Some £56 million is spent on debt advice to 530,000 people. This is an area I take very seriously, and I will be going to the credit union conference on Saturday to outline some more policy initiatives.
Order. As is normally the case, demand exceeds supply. I am sorry to disappoint remaining colleagues, but we are well out of time and we must now move on.
Points of Order
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. My hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Luciana Berger) is currently on maternity leave. She has served with great distinction as a member of the Select Committee on Health and as a spokesperson who is nationally recognised for her work on mental health. I am deeply concerned to hear that the Labour party has been seeking names to replace and oust her from her position on the Select Committee. Surely this is unacceptable and sends entirely the wrong message about how we value maternity leave in this place. I am very relieved that none of her former colleagues was prepared to be nominated in that way. May I seek your guidance, Mr Speaker, on that point and on the wider point that Select Committees are surely at their best when Members can leave their narrow party politics at the door rather than being a tool of the Whips Office?
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for the point of order.
If it is, as I believe it to be, on the same matter, I will hear the right hon. Member for Enfield North (Joan Ryan) and then I will respond to the two of them.
Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. May I support the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Dr Wollaston), the Chair of the Health Committee? Members of this House have previously left their parties and become independent or changed party, and I understand from the House of Commons Library that they have remained on Select Committees, only coming off them if they expressed a wish to do so. That is clearly not the case here. May I seek your ruling on the fact that there is no precedent for political parties to seek to remove Members whom the House has said should remain on their Select Committees for the duration of the Parliament?
I am grateful to the hon. Member for Totnes (Dr Wollaston) and the right hon. Member for Enfield North for those points of order. On the very last point, and this is not in any sense a criticism, from my recollection there are precedents. The truth of the matter is that there are precedents for a lot of things in this place and that does not necessarily mean that such a course of action is right. I say that without prejudice to what colleagues might judge to be the merits of the right hon. Lady’s point of order as a whole. She has flagged up a very important issue. The points of order were raised, at least in part, to elicit a response, and I am grateful to the hon. Lady and the right hon. Lady for giving me notice of them. Procedurally, the position is certainly clear in my mind and I hope I can make sure that it is clear in everyone else’s.
Changes in membership of Select Committees are made by this House on debatable and amendable motions. For almost all Select Committees, such motions are moved on behalf of the Selection Committee by its Chair or another member of it. Under Standing Order No. 121, any Member intending to propose that a Member be discharged from a Select Committee shall endeavour to give notice to the Member whom he or she proposes should be discharged from the Committee. In the first instance, I refer the hon. Lady and the right hon. Lady to the hon. Member for North Herefordshire (Bill Wiggin), namely, the Chair of the Selection Committee. I am not aware of any current plan to remove somebody from such a Committee, and I would not necessarily be aware if there were such a plan. Procedurally, what I have said is, I think, accurate and in so far as it contains advice, it is the fairest advice I can offer. I hope that is helpful to colleagues.
I think there was another point of order.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. This morning, the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions published a written statement outlining changes to social security, health and disability. By my calculations there are no fewer than nine announcements that will have a significant impact on hundreds and thousands of ill and disabled people, including, to name a few, changes to the personal independence payment assessment for pensioners; the introduction of a new integrated assessment framework for employment and support allowance, universal credit and PIP; seeking to extend contracts on the delivery of the then work capability assessment; yet another review of the Government’s manifesto commitments to get more disabled people into work, with little or no mention of improvements to the Access to Work scheme; a small-scale test into conditionality and sanctions; and commissioning yet more research into the understanding of the needs of disabled people.
Mr Speaker, the written statement is vague on detail and raises significant questions. It is vital that Members are given the opportunity to question the Secretary of State about the changes. Will you please advise me on how best we can ensure that the Secretary of State comes to this House and answers questions from Members?
I thank the hon. Lady for giving me notice of her intention to raise this matter. She asks me specifically how to ensure that the Secretary of State will address the House on it. The short answer is that, apart from departmental questions and in the absence of an Opposition day facility to probe the matter, the absence of which at present is a matter understood by Members across the House, the recourse would have to be either through an urgent question, conceivably an emergency debate or a debate to take place under the auspices of the Backbench Business Committee. Beyond that, really only an end-of-day Adjournment debate or a debate in Westminster Hall would allow the matter to be aired. Those are the options.
On the procedural question the hon. Lady raises, I have to tell her—unfortunately from her point of view, but it is something I do have to say from time to time—that it is under our procedures for Ministers to decide whether a statement is delivered in writing or orally in this Chamber and whether such statements, rather as with the granting of urgent questions when the Government decide who to field, are delivered by the relevant Secretary of State or by another dare I say it?—more junior Minister.
The hon. Lady has made clear that she finds it unsatisfactory in the case she describes. Those avenues are open to her if she wishes to pursue the matter, as I think she clearly does. My advice to her would be that she discuss this matter with colleagues in her shadow ministerial team. She might consider undertaking the short journey to the Table Office, where further advice will be available to her if she seeks it. I hope that that is helpful to her. I do understand that some of these matters will be very pressing, not just as far as she is concerned but as far as many colleagues are concerned, and there should be an opportunity to air them in the Chamber.
If there are no further points of order—I am grateful to the hon. Lady for hers—I will momentarily call Mr Alan Brown to make an application for leave to propose a debate on a specific and important matter that should have urgent consideration under the terms of Standing Order No. 24. The hon. Gentleman has up to three minutes in which to make such an application.
EU Exit Preparations: Ferry Contracts
Application for emergency debate (Standing Order No. 24)
I wish to give formal notice to request an emergency debate under Standing Order No. 24 to discuss a specific and important matter that should have urgent consideration, namely the latest developments in UK Government ferry contracts for no-deal preparations.
Good governance goes hand in hand with transparency and accountability, and to date we have seen absolutely none of that in relation to the Transport Secretary’s handling of the no-deal ferry contracts. In fact, every time more information has come out, more questions have been raised and have gone unanswered. In a point of order yesterday, I highlighted my frustration about the non-answers. Yesterday, the Health Secretary answered from the Dispatch Box and gave the same blithe responses as the Transport Secretary. It is simply not good enough. We have had a written ministerial statement, three urgent questions and several oral questions, including eight SNP questions at the last Transport questions, and all we have received are arrogant, condescending responses.
We are still to find out how Seaborne was identified as a suitable provider of what are supposed to be vital services in the event of a no-deal Brexit. It is a company with negative equity, no history of running ferry or freight services, no ships and no port agreements to run the ferry services, and Ramsgate port is still to be dredged to have the depth required for ferries. We were told that due diligence had been undertaken, but it turns out that the Department for Transport limited it. Then we learned that there were no financial guarantees, so when the possible backer walked away, the deal collapsed. We need to know how much of the £800,000 due diligence costs were spent on the abortive Seaborne contract.
The Transport Secretary’s lines of defence—that he was supporting a start-up company, and that cancellation did not matter because it would not cost the taxpayer money—stretch the phrase “inadvertently misleading the House” to the absolute limit. We were advised that direct negotiation was possible under regulation 32 of the Public Contracts Regulations 2015, which relates to an emergency situation brought about by unforeseeable events. Given that the Government claim to have been planning for a no-deal scenario for two years, how was this unforeseen? What legal advice was provided?
Eurotunnel took the Government to court and was paid an out-of-court settlement of £33 million. Why did the Government cave if they were confident of the legal position? Why is it now argued that the £33 million settlement is actually prudent planning for a no-deal Brexit and is required to keep our vital medicine supply chain going? We need clarity and a breakdown of compensation cost versus the so-called service improvement.
There is anger in the House, and Members have not had their queries answered. I am asking for this debate so that we can get the Transport Secretary to the Dispatch Box to provide real, meaningful answers.
The hon. Gentleman asks leave to propose a debate on a specific and important matter that should have urgent consideration—namely, the latest developments in UK Government ferry contract awards for no-deal preparations. I have listened carefully to his application, and I am satisfied that the matter raised is proper to be discussed under Standing Order No. 24.
Has the hon. Gentleman the leave of the House? [Interruption.] Somebody is objecting. [Interruption.] I do not want to be unkind to the hon. Member for Rochford and Southend East (James Duddridge), but I am not sure he altogether understands our procedures perhaps as well as he ought to do and as well as I do. In fairness, he is graciously conceding from a sedentary position that the threshold of 40 has been reached. I thank him for his courtesy.
Actually, you lot are ahead of yourselves. People tend to stand up before they need to. [Interruption.] Order. I am saying this because I believe in the public intelligibility and accessibly of our proceedings, which is important. If there is an objection, as there was from the hon. Member for Rochford and Southend East, 40 Members or more must rise in order that the debate can go ahead. More than 40 Members have done, and therefore the Standing Order requirement has been satisfied.
Application agreed to (not fewer than 40 Members standing in support.)
The debate will be held today as the first item of public business after the ten-minute rule motion. The debate will last for up to three hours, and will arise on a motion that the House has considered the specified matter set out in the motion of the hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun.
Well, Mr Brown. I hope, at least for now, that you are satisfied with the result of your prodigious efforts. The debate will come in due course.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Have you had any indications, given the current situation, of whether the Secretary of State for Health or the Secretary of State for Transport will be responding to the debate? It is important, given the detail of the matter to be debated in the House today.
I am happy to accommodate the right hon. Gentleman. The presence of the Secretary of State for Transport is not ornamental. He has come into the Chamber, and my very clear understanding from him is that he wishes to speak in the debate. My expectation is that he will speak relatively early.
Order. There is no need for the hon. Lady to chunter “Ahoy there!” from a sedentary position. That is very eccentric behaviour. It is not the sort of thing I would ever have done as a Back Bencher, I feel sure. We will leave it there. I welcome the Secretary of State to the Chamber.
Gender-based Pricing (Prohibition) Bill
Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 57)
Christine Jardine, supported by Jo Swinson, Wera Hobhouse, Layla Moran, Stella Creasy, Jess Phillips, Tonia Antoniazzi, Hannah Bardell, Tom Brake and Jamie Stone, presented a Bill to prohibit the differential pricing of products and services that are substantially similar other than being intended for, or marketed to, a particular gender; and for connected purposes.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 22 March, and to be printed (Bill 348).
Hereditary Titles (Female Succession)
Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)
We come now to the ten-minute rule motion, for which the hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) has been waiting almost as patiently as he has been waiting for the Shipley bypass.
I beg to move,
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to make provision for the succession of female heirs to hereditary titles; and for connected purposes.
Mr Speaker, you will know that I often argue that the law should treat everyone equally, irrespective of their sex, and where that does not happen, I speak out. For example, I have spoken out to highlight where men are treated much more harshly in the criminal justice system and about how badly women are treated by sharia councils. This Bill would deal with another area where women are treated unfairly for no reason other than that they are women. That is unacceptable and indefensible.
In 2013, male primogeniture was changed to absolute primogeniture in the Succession to the Crown Act 2013, following a report on the rules of royal succession prepared by the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee in 2011. The report also noted that women continued to be ineligible to succeed the majority of hereditary peers. My Bill would seek to extend the Succession to the Crown Act to include all hereditary titles through a straightforward piece of primary legislation consisting of just a few clauses. It would quite simply mean that daughters would be treated the same as sons for the purposes of succession. It seems to me to be a very natural step to take after amending the same principle for the royal family.
As a Conservative, I obviously resist change for change’s sake, but this amendment both should and could be made. Similarly, I was more than happy to see the ending of the centuries-old defence of marital coercion in criminal proceedings—a legal defence that had been available to married women only in one guise or another until recently.
As drafted, the Bill would not apply immediately where there is already a son due to inherit a title, and it would certainly not be retrospective. If there is currently a son in line for succession, that would remain the case.
I want to take the opportunity to thank Charlotte Carew Pole of Daughters’ Rights, who is the Public Gallery today, and Sir David Beamish, the former Clerk of the Parliaments, for their help in bringing this matter to its present state. They should both be commended for the immensely important roles they have played and the time they have spent putting together this legislation.
This modest change would obviously not affect huge swathes of people. According to Debrett’s peerage reports, there are at present 803 hereditary peers, including 24 dukes, 34 marquesses, 191 earls, 115 viscounts, 426 barons, and four countesses and nine baronesses in their own right. They could all potentially be one of the 92 hereditary peers, or on the register to stand as a hereditary peer in a by-election to the House of Lords. I understand that the register of peers for the election currently has 210 peers on it, only one of whom is female—Baroness Dacre. As this demonstrates, it is already possible to be a female hereditary peer, but clearly, because of the current system, it is not as routine as for males and clearly not as fair. The eldest of the four female descendants of the Earl of Balfour, Lady Willa Franks, commented in an article last year that she had had a very tongue-in-cheek suggestion from her father that she could consider a sex change to overcome primogeniture. I should add that the article went on to say that this was clearly a very light-hearted comment from the earl.
I accept that this is not the most important issue facing the country, but that is no reason not to put right this particular unfairness. Some people might look at this as a game of numbers—this change is needed to get more female hereditary peers into the House of Lords—but I want to be clear that this is definitely not where I am coming from. I refute the notion that any institution should have a particular number of men or women in the pursuit of what I believe to be unrepresentative representation by tick-box. I have often said that I could not care less if the House of Commons, for example, was 100% female. As long as people are here based on fairness and real equality of opportunity, their sex should be irrelevant; it should be their views and their contribution that count. That is arguably in the same vein as the change I am proposing today. As long as people fairly inherit titles regardless of their sex, I could not care less how many men and women it affects—that is not relevant to me at all; it is what they do with that title that should be of primary interest.
The Bill is not about men versus women, but about true equality between men and women, and I therefore commend it to the House.
I thought I lived in the 21st century, and although I can commend those sitting in the Public Gallery who are seeking equality within the peerage, and although I understand their frustration, it would be disingenuous of me, belonging to a political party that fundamentally believes in the abolition of hereditary peerage in the House of Lords and of the House of Lords as it sits, and as an individual who is fundamentally opposed to the principle of state-sanctioned privilege, to allow this issue to go undebated on the Floor of this House.
If the hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) believed in equality, he would not have given a 91-minute filibuster against the Istanbul convention on combating domestic violence. It is disingenuous, to say the least, that he should take 10 minutes on the Floor of the House of Commons to debate a so-called principle of equality in relation to privilege and the hereditary peerage. How are we to say to the women of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, especially those in their 50s seeking equal pensions, that we are giving equal rights to the privileged members of the peerage but not to them in seeking the money they paid in for their pension? I have sat in WASPI debates in Westminster Hall and listened to Members—predominantly Government Members—say that they should look to their husbands to help them out. What about women who happen to be married to other women born in the 1950s? It is disingenuous to the core in terms of the principle of equality.
The hon. Gentleman talks about equality for those in the peerage. That would be the monarchy, princesses, duchesses, marchionesses, countesses, viscountesses and baronesses—big dames and ladies. They are few and far between in West Dunbartonshire, I can tell you that, Mr Speaker. The women of my community—the women who elected me and have participated in votes for women candidates in my constituency—would be appalled at the disingenuous nature of this equality. He talked about equality for all.
Order. I have allowed the hon. Gentleman to develop his argument, which he is doing with considerable eloquence and passion, but I have been unhappy about the frequency with which he has used the word “disingenuous”. I say that to him because it entails an attribution of dishonour to the hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies). It would be better if he confined his argument to reasons why the Bill is a bad thing. He should not impugn the integrity of the hon. Member for Shipley. He has a dextrous facility with words and a versatile vocabulary, and he can express himself in other ways that would not incur the displeasure of the Chair.
I did not mean to attribute dishonour to the hon. Member, who is of course entitled to their opinion, as is every other Member of the House—but, for the record, I think he is talking tosh.
There is no equality when we embed privilege for those, be they men or women, who sit in the honoured position of their father—predominantly—being descended from someone who walloped somebody else’s head off in the 1100s. It is an extraordinary position that we should seek to enshrine privilege, whether it be on a man or a woman, in the hereditary peerage. It would be extraordinary in the 21st century if I and many other Members across the House, not just on the Opposition side, were to go unheard in their opposition not just to the peerage in that other place but to the principle of privileged state positions. It would be disingenuous—I use that word about myself, Mr Speaker—of myself and many Members in this House who fundamentally agree with me.
How has it come to pass that unaccountable, unelected Members of the House of Lords, be they male or female, and even—forgive me—members of the Church of England, can bring in legislation while being unaccountable to the citizens of this political state? This is not a matter of equality; it is a matter of inequality. They are unaccountable not only to the men who participate in votes but to the women of this country who fought and died for the right to participate in parliamentary democracy. It is an affront to parliamentary democracy for Members of that other place to have that state-authorised privilege.
I cannot stand here in all good conscience, or even sit on these green Benches, and not articulate a position with which many right hon. and hon. Members—and learned Members—agree. I am talking about Members on the Scottish National party Benches, in the Labour party and even in the Conservative party. How can I look my female constituents in the face and say we are fighting for equality for a privileged class? If we believe in creating equality, let us abolish the hereditary privilege of hereditary peerage. That would create a level playing field for every man and woman, however they identify—that might confuse the hon. Gentleman even more—who is a citizen in a liberal democracy.
The Bill cannot go unchallenged. We cannot sit here in the 21st century, 100 years after women gained the right to vote, and say that this is what equality is about. Equality should exist for us all. I show due regard to those who have campaigned for their rights as women in the familial position of the peerage. I understand their situation—it is an absolute outrage that they should even be in this position—but the principle still exists that privilege, no matter someone’s gender or gender identity, state-sanctioned against the majority of their fellow citizens, is not equality. It is fundamentally a position that none of us should agree with in the 21st century.
I know that you are keen to move on, Mr Speaker, so I will sum up. The hon. Gentleman will be delighted to hear that I will not push this to a vote, because I fundamentally understand the principle of those who have campaigned for the Bill. However, as I said earlier, it cannot be that, in a parliamentary democracy, we believe that someone whose father, in the 12th century, chopped somebody’s heid aff—not “head”, for Hansard’s benefit, but heid—should have a place of honour and economic privilege and political leverage in a parliamentary democracy. That is an affront to those who have campaigned to ensure liberty and dignity for all.
I belong to a political party that believes that citizenship, and equality of citizenship, should not be based on who your father was. It should not be based on your economic privilege. It should be based on the fact that you were born free, male or female, perhaps have a disability, or perhaps come from a minority ethnic community. Those who are part of a privileged society who are unaccountable, and held to be unaccountable, to the citizenry of this state should have no truck with telling me otherwise. They should get no inch, and they will not, from me or from my political party.
Question put (Standing Order No. 23) and agreed to.
That Philip Davies, Ms Harriet Harman, Sir Christopher Chope, Jess Phillips, Esther McVey, Christine Jardine, Tim Loughton, Mrs Maria Miller, Vicky Ford, Sarah Champion and Jo Swinson present the Bill.
Philip Davies accordingly presented the Bill.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 22 March and to be printed (Bill 349).
EU Exit Preparations: Ferry Contracts
Emergency debate (Standing Order No. 24)
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the latest developments in the UK Government ferry contract awards for no-deal preparations.
May I first thank you, Mr Speaker, for granting the debate? You asked me earlier if I was happy now, and I was happy, but given that I had such a short time in which to prepare for the debate, I hope you will forgive me for doing a bit of cursing as well.
I am very glad to have secured the debate. We have a Transport Secretary who has tried to duck some important issues and has had to be dragged, kicking and screaming, to the Dispatch Box. We can see him saying, “Here we go yet again.” The head-shaking has started, and the chuntering: we are talking nonsense, and we do not understand anything. That is why this emergency debate has been granted.
Let me say to Conservative Members who objected to the debate that it is about transparency and accountability, and about how the Government are being run. They should share the concerns of Scottish National party Members about the lack of that transparency and accountability, and the fact that these no-deal preparations have been a pure and utter shambles.
Assuming that the hon. Gentleman wishes to respect democracy and therefore to deliver on the Brexit decision of the British people, may I ask what plans he has to ensure that life-saving, life-enhancing medicines will cross the English channel post Brexit?
Well, let’s see. Perhaps I would ensure that no deal was off the table, so that there would be no hint of that cliff edge with no medicines coming through. That is what I would do to start with. We should also consider extending article 50, to try to give this incompetent Government time to make some real preparations, although I have no faith in the possibility that any more time would actually work for them.
I have mentioned transparency and accountability. Let me record my thanks to the journalist who first broke the story about Seaborne Freight in the new year and to the Public Accounts Committee and the National Audit Office for the work that they have done so far in assessing the diligence. Members on both sides of the House have raised some important questions: for instance, my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Edinburgh South West (Joanna Cherry) first raised the matter of the likely illegal tendering process.
We have still to get to the bottom of the overall process. It started in secrecy; it has been shrouded in secrecy ever since; and the Transport Secretary’s non-answers and evasions have not helped us to secure any further clarity. His Department has form when it comes to procurement issues. I remember, years ago, the collapse of the west coast main line franchise, which came about following another court action challenge. That resulted in Virgin receiving a direct award to extend its services, which clearly does not provide the best value for money for the taxpayer.
If the Transport Secretary believes so much in competition and privatisation, we have to ask why so many rail franchises have received direct awards, because that is the complete opposite of competitive tendering. The Southern rail franchise model has clearly failed, and much of that failure has been due to the inaction of the Transport Secretary, and the fact that somebody just wanted to have a fight with the unions rather than trying to improve markets and get services up and running.
That is the background to some of the systemic procurement failings in the Department for Transport, and it brings us neatly to where we are now. When the information about the award of the Seaborne Freight contract first surfaced, it was almost like a sick joke. This was an emergency contract for a company to provide emergency services. The hon. Member for Bolton West (Chris Green) referred to vital services to keep medicines running. The Government, and the Transport Secretary, chose to pick up a ferry company that had no boats, had negative equity of £374,000, and had no history of running ferry or freight services. Both Brian Raincock, one of the directors, and Ben Sharp, the chief executive, had had companies liquidated when they owed money to Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs. Raincock’s debt was £600,000. I remind the House that HMRC is, effectively, all of us taxpayers.
What, then, constituted the due diligence, and what red flags were identified at that time? We have still to hear the answers to those questions. It turned out—I touched on this earlier—that the due diligence heralded by the Transport Secretary was actually very limited. It was very high-level, that meant that it was not due diligence. The companies which carried it out confirmed that they could not make a proper assessment of the merits of Seaborne being given a supposedly vital contract.
We need to ask some questions, and the Transport Secretary needs to start answering. How on earth did Seaborne get hand-picked for direct negotiation, given the circumstances? Saying that it accounted for only 10% of the vital services is no answer. Saying that that the Government were supporting a vital British start-up company is certainly not an answer. Why should we hand-pick start-up companies for vital emergency services? That makes no sense whatsoever. It was so wrong that it led to a £33 million settlement for Eurotunnel. The Transport Secretary is shaking his head. Hopefully he is managing to multi-task and listen to these points, and will respond to them at the Dispatch Box.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the £33 million for something that never materialised—the phantom ferry contract—is not dissimilar to the £30 million that the Secretary of State’s predecessor committed to the garden bridge? There is nothing to show for that either. It was not even directly a transport project. The hon. Gentleman mentioned rail upgrades. Vital rail upgrades elsewhere in the country were cancelled when the money was committed to this project. It is taxpayer money, and Members should not laugh at this appalling waste.
I thank the hon. Lady for highlighting yet another miserable failure, with more money being thrown down the drain. It is interesting that Eurotunnel was paid £33 million for vital services, given that that seems in one way or another to replace the contract of Seaborne Freight, which was given only £14 million. So we really do have to ask what extra we are getting for the £33 million, or is this all the compensation that Eurotunnel walks away with and the taxpayer has no chance of recouping? Again, the Transport Secretary really needs to explain this.
The Government have argued that direct negotiation was possible under regulation 32 of the Public Contracts Regulations 2015, which relates to emergency situations brought about by unforeseeable events. So, after more than two years of no-deal planning, we suddenly had an unforeseen event—an unforeseen event, however, that allowed such protracted negotiations and £800,000-worth of due diligence. I would like the Transport Secretary to explain how long those negotiations were ongoing in this supposedly emergency situation, because £800,000 of consultants’ money amounts to a fair bit of time in negotiation, so he needs to explain when the actual emergency situation kicked in.
The argument from the Dispatch Box was that Seaborne Freight would only receive the money if it delivered the service, but that misses the point, because if it did not deliver the service, the emergency service it was contracted for would not happen, and that would leave the Government in a right mess in terms of no-deal preparations. The Transport Secretary has also argued that Seaborne has not cost the taxpayer any money. Hopefully he will re-explain these figures, because I would like to know how £800,000-worth of due diligence, at least some of which was on Seaborne Freight, has not cost any money. How did going to court and defending the Government’s position not cost any money? How did an out-of-court settlement with Eurotunnel at £33 million not cost any money that was related to Seaborne, because I am pretty sure a key plank of Eurotunnel’s objections was the fact that the Transport Secretary gave an important contract to a company with no ships? Meanwhile Eurotunnel is a company that obviously provides successful cross-border services. It is no wonder it was at court.
I would also like to ask the Transport Secretary whether there are any more objections outstanding: any more risks of court action. In response to a written parliamentary question I was told that a limited number of representations were received. In my book, a limited number is more than one. We have already had one court case to date; are any more court cases pending?
Are we absolutely sure about that? Given the Transport Secretary’s ability to count, “A hae ma doots,” as they say.
The Transport Secretary has never been able to answer what the loss of the 10% Seaborne contract would actually mean for the impact on Dover? Dover is so sensitive that even 10% would have a massive effect. We have heard about the fact that a minute and a half to two minutes of additional checks per lorry could lead to 30-mile tailbacks. Fortunately, under the Transport Secretary’s competent planning for no deal, we know that the Government have planned for at least 10,000 lorries by doing an exercise involving 89 lorries, driving up and down the motorway! [Interruption.] Yes, and the bin wagons. So 89 lorries driving up the motorway and parking up at Manston airport successfully proves that this Government can handle no-deal preparations! I am relieved; I am happy at that. I hold to my faith in the Transport Secretary.
Is the hon. Gentleman aware that according to reports what those lorries were mostly doing was sitting stationary while the drivers were drinking cups of coffee, so I am not sure the Secretary of State will have learned too much from that?
Well, at least the lorries were not polluting the air so much if the drivers were just sitting drinking coffee; I am sure they enjoyed the exercise anyway. This illustrates a key point, however: if the Government are seriously saying that they are ready for a no-deal Brexit, they need to up their game in what they are doing and show some level of competency. I do not see many Conservative Members wanting to justify that exercise or how the Government handled that.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. Does he share my concerns about the lack of planning for other ports around the country? The Department for Transport and Ministers have been very lackadaisical about making sure that, if there is a no-deal scenario, those ports will be able to operate?
I thank the hon. Lady for that intervention. I assume she is speaking in particular about ports in the north-east of England, and it seems that the Department for Transport has not engaged with any of the Scottish ports either. This is all about mitigating things around Dover, which is fine as Dover is clearly the biggest and busiest port, but one way to mitigate the traffic impact at Dover would be to stop as much traffic as possible travelling from the north to the south and to look at these other ports, and doing some real strategic planning. Strategic planning is severely lacking from the Department for Transport.
I have listened to what the hon. Gentleman has been saying with great interest. He will understand that, as I represent the constituency of Dover, this subject is very dear to my heart. In any negotiation, we have to have contingency planning. That is very important and it is right that the Department for Transport takes measures to ensure that, if there are disruptions at France, as has been threatened by some French politicians, it has alternatives and different ways of getting goods in and out of the country notwithstanding that. Does he not think that in principle the Department for Transport was acting in the national interest?
We could argue that in principle the Department for Transport was trying to do the right things in terms of contingency planning because, let’s face it, a no-deal Brexit could happen. But in practice, it has been a pure and utter failure—a shambles. That is the difference. Contingency planning needs to be absolutely that—putting in place proper, robust procedures for the contingencies. It is clear that that has not happened.
I am sure the hon. Gentleman has, like me, read with interest the National Audit Office detailed report into this. It goes through the decision making in the Department for Transport and it does not come across to me as highly critical. It highlights that
“The additional freight capacity is intended to allow government to prioritise the flow of critical goods into the UK and to enable imports to flow as freely as possible in the event of no deal.”
It has to be in the national interest that we make sure we get medicines and other critical goods into the country and that we are prepared for every eventuality. Does he not accept that as a matter of principle—yes or no?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for gamely trying to defend the Government position. Fair play to him; he is the only one willing to do that. I would like to see him argue to all the members of the Public Accounts Committee that that NAO report was reassuring and that the evidence it took was reassuring, because that is not what I have heard from PAC members. So again I disagree.
If this were a real and robust process, the Government would have defended themselves to the hilt in court. They would not have caved in and done an out-of-court settlement. Again, that is indicative of where the Government are and the lack of confidence they had once they were eight-balled by Eurotunnel.
I also read the NAO report said that warnings were ignored in the “rushed…ineffective” and “inappropriate” privatisation, creating “significant risks”, that it wasted £500 million and that the number of recalled prisoners skyrocketed. But that was about the Secretary of State’s careless probation service legacy. So he clearly has a track record. As a master of understatement, he said that those reforms had not worked as well as he had hoped.
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. I spoke earlier about the systemic procurement failures in the Department for Transport. It is clear there is a common thread between the systemic failure in the privatisation and procurement of probation services and the man who is now in charge at the Department for Transport, who is sitting here lackadaisically thinking everything is okay in the world and he is doing a fine job. I am sorry but that is not the case and that is not how it is seen in the wider country.
I will now return to some questions raised in the Chamber that have still not had satisfactory answers. The permanent secretary at the Department for Transport told the PAC that the Department had awarded Seaborne the contract before Arklow confirmed its backing. So the Transport Secretary needs to be able to provide further clarity on that. We return to the question: where were the written guarantees that he was supposedly assured about from Arklow before it walked away? It is shameful that it turns out that as far as we know no written guarantees were given by Arklow, yet when it walked away some of the most hard Brexiteers, the right-wing Brexiteers, said it was an Irish conspiracy because Arklow is an Irish company. That is shameful. It was the Department for Transport not doing its due diligence
Additionally, the director general at the Department for Transport said that it was no longer possible to complete procurement and operation for any large amount of further capacity across the channel before the end of March by either sea or rail. Can the Secretary of State explain that? Can he explain how the sudden £33 million settlement with Eurotunnel, if it is going to provide all these vital services at the end of March, stacks up against the fact that the previous argument was that the Department no longer had time to be able to source those additional services?
In relation to Seaborne Freight, the Secretary of State said that
“we have spent no money on this contract.”—[Official Report, 11 February 2019; Vol. 654, c. 619.]
I ask him once again if he could please spell out the real financial implications of that award to Seaborne Freight and the handling of the direct negotiations.
At the risk of being called a Government nark—which I am not often called at the moment—I want to ask the hon. Gentleman this question. If this emergency debate is so important to Scottish National party Members, where are they?
I feel as though I have more friends in here than I would have down the pub on a Friday night. This is a really good turnout for the SNP. There are only 35 of us, so this is a good turnout. But wait a minute—I do not understand that intervention. Once we discount the Parliamentary Private Secretaries and Government Front Benchers, how many Conservative Back Benchers are in the Chamber? How many are rushing to speak in this debate and to defend the Government’s handling of this? That is the question that the right hon. Gentleman wants to ask himself.
I am sure my hon. Friend is aware that the right hon. Member for Rayleigh and Wickford (Mr Francois) is a leading member of the European Research Group, which advocates a no-deal Brexit. Given that this issue pertains to no-deal Brexit planning, why are there so few members of the European Research Group here?
That is a fair point—[Interruption.] It is also being pointed out that there are no Scottish Tories here—those Scottish Tories who stand up for Scotland and do such a good job with their independent leading voices. Well, where are they?
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
I will give way once more.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his courtesy. Through him, I wanted to respond to the Labour gentleman sitting at the back there—[Hon. Members: “He’s SNP as well.”] Oh, I am so sorry. That means there are about 13 of them. I do apologise. Most members of the ERG are, as I speak, working towards how our country can be free, so they are otherwise engaged—
Order. There has been a certain amount of frivolity on the matter of attendance at the debate, but perhaps we can now return to the theme of the debate rather than having a constant competition as to who can be more amusing at others’ expense on the matter of attendance.
Thank you, Mr Speaker.
I shall return to the substantive point of procurement. I touched earlier on rail franchising. The Secretary of State always says that he believes in competition. If he believes in competition, why did he have this secretive direct negotiating process? What is competitive about that? How could that provide value for money for the taxpayer? Will he come to the Dispatch Box and justify the expenditure and give us a detailed rationale of how he has managed to provide any value for money for the taxpayer in this entire process?
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the ending of Seaborne’s contract has not in fact cost the taxpayer a penny?
I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention, which proves either that she does not listen or that the Transport Secretary does not understand the meaning of spending money. It actually resulted in an out-of-court settlement of £33 million, in legal fees—we still have to hear how much—in further risk to the Government and in the due diligence costs. That seems to be quite a hefty expenditure loosely related to the Seaborne contract.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
This is getting tiresome but, yes, once more.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way one more time. I am glad to see Scottish MPs taking an interest in the matter of trade across the English channel. I am looking again at the NAO report, which makes it clear that the Department considered that it had to use a faster process. He castigates the Department for not advertising the contract and doing the usual procurement, but the report states:
“The Regulations also allow for the award of a contract through a ‘negotiated procedure without prior publication’”,
when time is of the essence. That is clearly what the Department did. Given the fact that the clock is ticking, it is hard to say that that was an unreasonable thing to do.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for trying once more. The EU referendum was in June 2016, and as I have said, the Government are supposed to have been doing no-deal planning for over two years. So why did this suddenly become an emergency issue? At what point did the Transport Secretary go, “Oh shoot! We might have a no-deal Brexit! We need to put in some plans to deal with that.” So again I rebut the hon. Gentleman’s intervention. By the way, it is also a fact that the Transport Secretary did not even bother to visit the port of Dover until October 2018, even though it was supposed to be so critical. Why did it take him so long to go and see those operations in person?
Was the hon. Gentleman as surprised as I was to hear that no costs had been incurred in this? He has highlighted the £800,000 that was paid out to consultants, but there was also the cost of dredging the port. We were told by the permanent secretary that that was paid for by Seaborne, yet the contract was cancelled. Is the hon. Gentleman as surprised as I am that Seaborne bore the cost of that itself—or was it borne by someone else?
I am actually very surprised at that. I put in a written parliamentary question asking how much the Department for Transport had paid towards the dredging of the port at Ramsgate, and the answer I was given was that it had paid nothing, so I shall be challenging that further. We need to get to the bottom of this, because we know full well that that operation was not done for nothing and that the Transport Secretary was lobbying Thanet Council to keep the port open because of his negotiations with Seaborne. There is more to run on this, and I thank the shadow Secretary of State for bringing it up.
Returning briefly to Eurotunnel, we know that the out- of-court settlement was effectively a Government cave-in. The thing about that Government cave-in is that we have learned that they are going to keep 10,000 documents secret for reasons of commercial confidentiality, which will make it much harder for us to get the bottom of this. We know that they had no confidence in their own position because they settled out of court.
We also need to understand why the Health Secretary came to the Dispatch Box yesterday to tell us that this was such an important contract as it would keep medicines coming into the UK. He said that that was why the Government had negotiated the £33 million settlement with Eurotunnel. He suggested that it was not about compensation but about vital services and improvements. I repeat that we need clarity on this. If that £33 million was related to the provision of vital services, why did Eurotunnel take the Government to court? Why was Eurotunnel not identified as a reputable provider before, when the Government were looking at Seaborne Freight? How much of that £33 million compensation for Eurotunnel has gone forever? What services are we going to see? What updates will the House be given on the progress of those vital services that the Government have procured?
The Transport Secretary has been lax on updating the House from start to finish. We had one ministerial statement at the outset, which he thought would head off the bad press about Seaborne Freight. We have subsequently had to table three urgent questions, and we are now having this emergency debate. And of course, he has sometimes not even turned up to the Dispatch Box. The fact that he is unwilling to come to the Dispatch Box, state his case clearly and leave himself open to questions from Members says everything about his confidence in his own competence.
A procurement matter that I touched on yesterday is that it looks as though Bechtel is going to sue the Government over the HS2 tendering process, so will the Secretary of State identify what other departmental risks exist in relation to procurement? What review of the procurement process has he instigated? Who is heading up the review and when will it report on this matter? It is quite clear that some sort of procurement review is absolutely vital.
I will finish by again describing the Transport Secretary’s litany of failures. We heard about the near £600 million cost of privatising the probation service following his time at the Ministry of Justice.
Will the hon. Gentleman confirm to the House that the probation service contracts are running around £1 billion under budget?
I cannot confirm that. The right hon. Gentleman is quite comfortable with his legacy there, so I will leave that to him; what he said is on the record. No one else seems to appreciate his legacy, including the current Justice Minister, who is trying to deal with the mess.
I cannot believe that the Transport Secretary stood up and defended his probation service reforms. I serve on the Select Committee on Justice, and the Ministers who replaced him and his team at the Ministry of Justice have said time and again that the service is a shambles. I am absolutely amazed that he stood up to defend it. Does my hon. Friend agree?
I agree wholeheartedly. To be fair to the current Transport Secretary, he allowed VTEC, the Virgin-Stagecoach consortium, to walk away owing the taxpayer £2 billion and said that that was not a bail-out. If I let somebody off from owing me £2 billion, it would seem that I had bailed them out. As I touched on earlier, he also has a lot of culpability in the Southern rail franchise and in how the model was set up, and he has been unwilling to get involved in industrial disputes. In fact, in a way he wanted the disputes to continue because of his views on the unions. We had the Northern rail timetable fiasco, where the Government again tried to argue that the taxpayer was not liable, but when Network Rail pays compensation to a franchise holder, that money comes from the taxpayer. All that is in addition to the £800,000 on due diligence and the out-of-court settlement with Eurotunnel. It has been a farce from start to end, but the Transport Secretary is not willing to accept accountability.
When hearing these lists about how the opposite of the Midas touch has affected so many aspects of public policy, we should not forget the introduction of English votes for English laws, which was undertaken when the Transport Secretary was the Leader of the House. EVEL turns the House into a shambolic laughing stock whenever we try to use it.
Order. The hon. Gentleman must confine himself to the subject matter of today’s debate, the terms of which have been specified and which the Secretary of State will answer. This cannot be a general ad hominem attack on the Secretary of State or a replay of other matters that happened at an earlier point in the Secretary of State’s career to which Members want to object.
I will take your guidance, Mr Speaker, and perhaps spare the Transport Secretary any more of his litany of failures.
The right hon. Gentleman has already survived what was effectively a vote of no confidence, but I have several times called for him to be sacked, as has the shadow Transport Secretary, and he should do the right thing and step aside. It is abundantly clear that his handling of this shambles has been truly shameful. I will be interested to hear what he says at the Dispatch Box, but I have no confidence in his handling of this matter and he really should think about walking.
As I have explained to the House on several occasions, the Government entered into contracts with ferry operators to provide additional ferry capacity and services into the UK as part of no-deal contingency planning. However, as we have heard clearly this afternoon, the reality is that the SNP does not believe in preparing for no deal. Even though the hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Alan Brown) accepts that it is a possibility, a risk and a danger, he does not support us in preparing for the risk of a no-deal exit—[Interruption.] The Labour Front-Bench team say, “Take it off the table,” but we can only take no deal off the table by reversing Brexit or agreeing a deal. The reality is that Labour and the SNP have spent week after week trying to prevent a deal, voting against the deal and trying to disrupt the process of getting towards a deal. Frankly, they are acting in anything but the national interest in doing so. We, however, have been acting in the national interest in preparing for all eventualities.
If the Secretary of State really believes that no deal should be an option, why on earth did the Government not begin preparations sooner?
We have been preparing for a no-deal exit for months and months. There was a particular reason, as I will set out in a moment, for this particular procurement at this particular time, but my Department has been working for months to prepare for the risk of no deal. That can be seen in the new international aviation agreements, in Kent, where we have put in alternative resilience systems to the deeply disruptive Operation Stack, and in many other things.
It is not just here that we see the Opposition parties not acting in the national interest, because the same applies to statutory instruments. It is a constant refrain. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the only way of taking no deal off the table is by voting for the Prime Minister’s deal? It is time for the Opposition parties to put narrow party politics aside.
Absolutely. All that we have heard for months is, “Why are the Government getting this wrong?” but we have had no tangible or realistic plans from the Opposition. At every opportunity, they simply work to disrupt the Brexit process. Labour stood on a manifesto that respected the referendum result, but the party is doing anything but respecting the result. If it continues to disrupt the Brexit process, it will pay a heavy price in its heartlands, where people voted for Brexit.
I have been reading the NAO report with considerable interest, and it says:
“Over the summer of 2018, government departments stepped up their contingency preparations for no deal.”
The truth of the matter is that Government policy changed in summer 2018 to step up contingency planning, so the Department for Transport acted from that point onwards because wider Government policy had changed from that point onwards.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right, although I must say that we started some of our planning well before then. However, it is certainly the case that last summer, as we saw the progress in the negotiations, the Government stepped up their preparations for no deal, as any responsible Government should. It is quite extraordinary that the Labour party seems to believe that we can just wave a wand and take no deal off the table. We have voted to leave the European Union, and we will either leave the European Union with a deal or without a deal, or we will reverse Brexit. Those are the only three options.
It is right that Government did indeed step up their no-deal preparations, as my right hon. Friend has quite rightly told the House, but one of the points of debate has been the speed at which the Chancellor of the Exchequer has been prepared to release funding to individual Departments to facilitate those preparations. Does my right hon. Friend think it would be helpful in future if the Chancellor were to lean forward a bit more to ensure that all preparations are fully funded in good time?
I will leave my right hon. Friend to make his point, because I do not want to start debating discussions within the Government.
The hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun asked why we started this procurement when we did. As I have said, we and the national health service had been preparing for disruption at the ports lasting approximately six weeks after exit day. However, based on the negotiations, on comments coming from Brussels and on what we saw happening on the other side of the channel, the analysts changed that assumption late last autumn and recommended that Government prepare for a longer period of disruption.
At that point, the Department of Health and Social Care rightly highlighted the fact that that would put significant pressures on their stockpiles of drugs. The Government therefore collectively decided following discussions in Cabinet Committees to go to the ferry industry to secure capacity to guarantee the delivery of drugs to this country in the event of a no-deal Brexit. That was a collective decision, and it was the right decision. We talked to all the current ferry operators working across the North sea and the English channel, plus any other operator with tangible plans to do so. That is where the procurement came from.
Is this not the key question, however? Did the right hon. Gentleman have advice from his officials that negotiations solely with ferry companies would result in a legal challenge by Eurotunnel, which ultimately he has now paid off with a £33 million investment from taxpayers?
We knew, in accelerating the procurement process, that there was a legal risk. That has been highlighted in the NAO report. However, it was my judgment, the judgment of my accounting officer and the judgment of those who vetted the plan across the Government that that was a risk that we should take, given the need to ensure that we had a supply of drugs into the country in the event of a no-deal Brexit.
The right hon. Gentleman has said that there was a legal judgment that there was an element of risk. He took that risk, and his actions have therefore cost the state £33 million.
We took a collective decision, in the light of the legal advice, which was taken by me, by my accounting officer, and by those who approved this across the Government, and we did so—[Interruption.] We did so because we judged it important to ensure that we had a proper supply of drugs to the NHS in the event of a no-deal Brexit. I challenge Labour Members, as they chunter from the Front Bench, to say that they disagree with ensuring a supply of drugs to the UK in a no-deal Brexit.
I have been listening very intently to what the right hon. Gentleman has been saying. The thing that really surprises and shocks me is the fact that there is a complete lack of humility with regard to the fact that £33 million of public money—taxpayers’ money—has been wasted. Could he just stand up and say sorry to them?
I very much regret the fact that we were taken to court. It was a risk that we acknowledged was there, but I stand by the decision to make sure that we could guarantee the supply of drugs to the NHS in the event of a no-deal Brexit.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that proper preparation is an important role of the Government, and that frightening people unnecessarily, particularly those who are vulnerable and dependent on medicines, such as those with epilepsy, is completely irresponsible and unkind? Can he confirm to my constituents that the medicines will be available, regardless of whether we have no deal or Brexit on the Prime Minister’s deal?
I can absolutely confirm that, and I think it is absolutely right and proper that we took the steps necessary to ensure that continuity of supply. We did so with a collective decision across the Government, taken by Cabinet Committees.
Does the Secretary of State not understand and accept that today he is laying bare the advice that he received—and that he acted in contravention of that advice and he lost? We are not asking for an absence of preparation for contingencies; we are asking for a modicum of competence, and he has singularly failed.
We did not receive legal advice saying, “Do not do this.” We received legal advice saying that there was a risk in taking the approach, and we judged collectively across the Government that it was a necessary risk to take in the national interest.
I am going to make a bit of progress, because I have given way many times.
Let me touch briefly on the issue of Seaborne Freight, which was raised exhaustively by the hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun, and on which I have answered question after question in the House. First, to be clear, the agreement with Eurotunnel was not about the contract with Seaborne Freight; it was about the procurement process, and particularly about the continuing contracts we have with Brittany Ferries and DFDS for additional ferry capacity into the UK, to provide us with resilience. I have spoken exhaustively in the House about Seaborne Freight. I am disappointed that the contract had to be terminated. I stand by the decision to give that company a chance, particularly since it was backed by Ireland’s biggest shipping firm at the time. We have, as a Government, paid no money at all to Seaborne.
The hon. Gentleman keeps asking me about spending money on due diligence. We spend money on due diligence for contracts that we do not award as well as for contracts that we do award, because rightly and properly in government due diligence is applied to a tender of any sort. That is what we did in this case, and what we do in all other situations. That, again, is the right thing to do.
So it is absolutely clear—I want to be absolutely clear—that when it comes to the Eurotunnel litigation, the settlement struck between the Government and Eurotunnel was separate to the issue of the Seaborne debate, and it was struck, I think, in a way that is designed to ensure that the taxpayer actually receives value through the addition of important facilities at the border that will smooth the flows.
On that point, will the Secretary of State give way?
It was a challenge to the procurement process, on which I said I took detailed legal advice at the time of procuring, which I and my accounting officer took into account when awarding these contracts. We expected that if a legal challenge were brought, any court determination would be brought well after Brexit and would not disrupt the process. All this, as the hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun will be aware, has already been looked at by the National Audit Office. We have invited it to take a further look, but I stand by the decisions that we took.
These decisions were not simply taken by me and by my Department; they were decisions taken collectively, in the national interest.
Can the right hon. Gentleman confirm, just for the record, that not a single penny of the £33 million paid out to Eurotunnel will be returned in the event that there is a deal?
The deal that we have done is to pay for additional facilities at the border, to create a smoother flow at the border. That is something that we will benefit from at the borders.
You are not telling the truth.
Order. Look, I understand passions are high, but the hon. and learned Lady must not say that the Secretary of State is not telling the truth, because that—[Interruption.] Order. That is an imputation of dishonesty. The hon. and learned Lady may think that the Secretary of State is wrong, but I am afraid before the debate proceeds further she must withdraw that charge.
I am not debating it.
I will withdraw it and I will speak later in full.
I say to the hon. and learned Lady that I am chairing this debate. The hon. and learned Lady will speak in full, or otherwise, if and when she catches the eye of the Chair. Thank you.
Mr Speaker, I simply reiterate: the settlement that we have reached with Eurotunnel is going to pay for improved facilities at the border, to improve flow, to make sure that our border through the tunnel works more smoothly in future, particularly in the post-Brexit world. That is a simple, factual point about the settlement that has been reached.
I thank my right hon. Friend for giving way one more time. He knows that the port of Dover could see the legal risk of the process that he had undertaken, but decided to act in the national interest. Will he make sure that the port of Dover is not in any way disadvantaged in relation to this matter?
I have to say that the management of the port of Dover have been exemplary for the last few weeks in co-operating with us, not only over this but in preparations for no deal. They rightly judged that it was not in their corporate reputational benefit to try to block the delivery of drugs to the NHS in a post-Brexit world. I am disappointed that not everyone took the same view.
I am going to make some progress.
I simply want to reiterate the point. We have taken the decisions. We collectively, in the Government, back in November; we collectively, a couple of weeks ago; we collectively, about this settlement, have taken the view that we need foremost to put the national interest first. We need to make sure that this country is ready for a no-deal exit, even though we are working very hard to make sure that that does not happen. We are working very hard to make sure that we are prepared for all eventualities. That is the responsible thing for the Government to do. Sometimes you have to take some risks in doing that, but I think sensible Governments take risks in the national interest. I and we and all of my colleagues who took this decision collectively, stand by this decision; we are deeply sorry that it did not work out in the way we had intended, but the reality is, it was the right decision to take, because we were putting the national interest, and particularly patients in our national health service, first—and that, Mr Speaker, you would expect any responsible Government to do.
It is good to see the Transport Secretary finally in his place today, after I tried and failed to bring him to the House yesterday. Instead he sent the Health Secretary as his human shield, but that came as no surprise, considering how the Transport Secretary has made a habit of treating this House with disdain. Perhaps he will reflect upon that.
I thank the hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Alan Brown) for securing this debate. Understandably, the Health Secretary was not able to answer the questions put to him yesterday, so I am going to have another go at getting some answers out of the Transport Secretary, but I am not holding my breath. In the papers filed at court in the weeks before the case was due to be heard, the Government lawyers described Eurotunnel’s case as “embarrassing”. They were bullish and confident, yet in the early hours of the morning of 1 March a settlement was reached between the Government and the company. This sequence of events raises many still unanswered questions.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that there is at least an apparent conflict between the reported out-of-court settlement of £33 million and the Secretary of State’s claim that the £33 million is to pay for “improved security”, and that we ought to be trying to get to the bottom of whether that is accurate?
The hon. and learned Lady makes an important point on an issue to which I will be returning in a few minutes.
I tried to intervene on the Transport Secretary on this point. Was the hon. Gentleman as surprised as I was that only after an out-of-court settlement with Eurotunnel had been agreed was this suddenly all about medicines? We had all the other urgent questions and medicines were never mentioned, yet we come to the Eurotunnel settlement and suddenly this is a health-led initiative. Does he share my surprise?
Yes, I was greatly surprised, but the hon. Gentleman has to concede that there had to be some justification for bringing the wrong Secretary of State to the Dispatch Box, and if a hook could be found to hang that on, that was as good as any. It was a nice try, but it failed totally.
Has my hon. Friend noticed that every time the Government get something wrong through their incompetence, the excuse is that it is “in the national interest”, yet when Labour Governments make mistakes it is a different thing altogether?
My hon. Friend makes a pertinent point. I am just astonished that people can hide behind what they perceive as being the national interest; I fail to see how it is in the national interest to pour millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money down the drain. I do not call that being in the national interest at all.
I understand that the hon. Gentleman is about to turn to some of the questions he would like the Secretary of State to answer, but does he agree that one of them should be about the due diligence process that was carried out? The company that carried out that due diligence says that it could not ask the normal questions of Seaborne Freight because it was such a new entity. So how could the Government be in any way confident in their risk aversion in awarding that contract to Seaborne in the first place?
That is a very good question, and I have raised the point myself. Those who were inquiring into the bona fides of these companies were restricted in the scope they were given. Why on earth they did not look into the track record of the individuals concerned at Seaborne is beyond me, as these things are well known. A mere cursory search of Google tells us about the track record of Ben Sharp in his dealings in the Gulf, but seemingly that was not considered. The hon. Gentleman makes the point well.
Let me return to the settlement that was achieved on 1 March. I want to know why the Department for Transport was so confident about winning the case only a week before. What brought the sudden change in strategy towards the legal challenge? The Department clearly thought it could win. Who intervened? What was the view taken by other Departments—the Department of Health and Social Care Health, the Treasury and Downing Street? Why did they take a different view from the Department for Transport? Why did the Government not settle earlier? Why did they leave it so late? Why did they continue to employ Monckton Chambers and a QC and two barristers, who do not come cheap? How much was spent on this case, both on Government legal fees and Eurotunnel’s fees? Will the Secretary of State say who made the decision to settle with Eurotunnel over the £33 million provision of emergency medical supplies in the event of no deal?
I will give a very specific answer to that question: a Cabinet Committee.
I am grateful for that clarification that it took a Cabinet Committee to make such a mess of things. Can the Secretary of State specifically say what is in this standard settlement—or are there other clauses within it? Ordinarily, when such cases are settled, they are done by reference to a consent order, in which there would be a paragraph dealing with the sum of money to be paid. In these circumstances, it may say “£33 million” and it may say the date upon which that sum is to be paid. It may also say that the costs are to follow the event. So we want to know the answers to those questions.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it would be highly unusual in an out-of-court settlement for the party settling to stipulate how the party receiving the settlement would spend the money?
I absolutely agree with the hon. and learned Lady on that. Having been in practice for the thick end of 30 years, I have never entered into a settlement where the defendant has told me what I am going to spend the money on. That is absolutely ludicrous, so we need to know the answers.
Earlier, the hon. Gentleman said that the Secretary of State was being used as a human shield. Is he aware that many Conservative Members have considerable sympathy with the Secretary of State? We believe he has been urging his colleagues for the past two years to undertake contingency planning for no deal but was frustrated by other people, perhaps in the Cabinet, who did not want to do that. If mistakes are to be made because these decisions have been taken at the last moment, it is not the fault of the Secretary of State, but he is too much of a gentleman to argue that in his own defence.
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for that revealing clarification about the obvious chaos that the Government are in over these important issues. They do not speak with a concerted and singular voice, and people are falling out with each other left, right and centre. That comes as no surprise to me whatsoever.
The hon. Gentleman clearly has a lot more experience than I do in matters of collective responsibility. Let us take the previous intervention at its word. If a Secretary of State is clear that the collective responsibility of the Government is preventing him or her from doing the job properly, is not the only honourable course of action for that Secretary of State to resign? So what the right hon. Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) has done by speaking in his defence is say that the Secretary of State should not resign now, as he should have resigned months ago.
That is a fair observation. We have heard that the Secretary of State was prevented from undertaking contingency planning in the first place because of disputes in the Government and that it took the Government to make a collective decision because nobody could come forward to take a decision on this settlement themselves. That really does characterise a Government in chaos and meltdown. Can the Secretary of State say which Departments contributed towards the £33 million? Yesterday, the Health and Social Care Secretary did not know whether his Department had contributed, so will the Transport Secretary please clarify which Department or Departments paid that bill?
Although I do not agree with the action that Eurotunnel took, it has to be said that this £33 million is clearly being invested in border infrastructure. I would like to see and have been calling for similar investment in Dover. Does it not occur to the hon. Gentleman that this money could have been very well spent as “no regrets” spending to improve our border security and trading links?
I say gently to the hon. Gentleman that that is a ridiculous proposition. Is he saying for a single second that this is wise investment and that it takes a court case for people to come to the right conclusion about investing in our border provision? Is he really suggesting that that is the way to drive public policy? Is he suggesting that we drive Government policy through the litigation process, whereby a claimant puts a case to the Government to say, “This is what you should be doing.”? He cannot possibly sustain that as an argument.
I know the hon. Gentleman wants to get to his feet to retract that comment, so I will let him intervene again.