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.
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?
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.
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?
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.
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.
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?
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?
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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)
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.