House of Commons
Thursday 14 March 2019
The House met at half-past Nine o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
Trade and Investment: Switzerland
How are you, Mr Speaker? It has been so long.
I met with Federal Councillor Guy Parmelin during my visit to Switzerland in February. Together we signed the UK-Switzerland trade agreement. This was an important moment, ensuring continuity of a trading relationship worth over £32 billion in 2017.
I thank the Secretary of State for that answer. Recently we had the brilliant ambassador for Switzerland, Ambassador Fasel, visit my constituency looking at the potential for greater trade opportunities between our great countries. Can the Secretary of State clarify this point? He talks about continuity and I welcome the agreement he has signed but, on post-Brexit trading opportunities, the United Kingdom has identified the United States, Australia, New Zealand and trans-Pacific as key priorities. Can he confirm that Switzerland—our bilateral trade totals over £34 billion—will always be a key priority, certainly in looking forward to enhancing sectors such as finance and IT?
The countries my hon. Friend mentions are for new free trade agreements, whereas of course the agreement with Switzerland was a continuity agreement. In fact, it was an unusual agreement because, rather than being a single agreement to roll over, there were some 58 different ones. It was to the tremendous credit of the Swiss Government that they were able to carry out that work as expeditiously as they did and we owe them a great deal of gratitude.
Does not the Secretary of State realise that the Swiss deal is a tiny deal—nothing wrong with it, but it is tiny? Could we have a list of all the trade deals he has secured across the piece because, as I have been tracking them, they are very small indeed? May I also tell the Secretary of State that it was not his finest hour last night when he did not have the courage to take an intervention from the Father of the House?
Sometimes one wonders how small people can actually become in this House of Commons. The Swiss deal is not small, it is not insignificant; it is worth over £32 billion a year. Switzerland is Britain’s seventh biggest trading partner globally. The hon. Gentleman should know that.
I do not want to invest levity into these important proceedings, but equally one must not lose one’s sense of humour. That £32 billion volume of trade with Switzerland is very important, but I always say the best thing about Switzerland is not its watches, its financial services or its chocolate; the best thing about Switzerland is Roger Federer.
I must say that I am tempted to answer questions this morning due to the constitutional innovation of Ministers no longer having to resign when they disagree with Government policy, but I will ask this one. Trade with Switzerland represents about 21% of all the trade of all the countries that have the continuity agreement. Does my right hon. Friend agree that it shows the growing success of this programme and the importance of ensuring that we have those trade agreements in place in the event of a Brexit without a deal later this month?
I half-expected to see my right hon. Friend on the Front Bench with us this morning given the turn of events, but he is absolutely right that this is an important agreement. Over 20% of all the trade done under EU trade agreements is represented by Switzerland.
Mr Speaker, it is unlike me to disagree with you, but I do wonder whether on the morning after Roger Federer has defeated Kyle Edmund it is not a touch unpatriotic to be quite so pro-Swiss.
The Secretary of State may have heard an exchange a couple of days ago in which my right hon. Friend the leader of the Liberal Democrats highlighted the fact that, in the existing EU-Swiss trade deal, 19 technical standards have been brought in in common, whereas under the current UK-Swiss trade deal, only five technical standards have been brought in in common. What assessment has the Secretary of State made of the impact of that on UK business?
Of course a number of those who are engaged in trade continuity discussions with the UK are waiting to see what we will do in terms of Britain’s approach to the EU. They will be much more likely to sign up to those agreements when this House of Commons is clear about what it is going to do.
Leaving the EU: Agricultural Sector and Overseas Goods
I am grateful for the whip on Ministers having been imposed for as long as it was, otherwise I should not be standing here, but credit of course goes to my right hon. Friend the Member for Chelsea and Fulham (Greg Hands).
When we leave the EU, we will maintain our current domestic standards. We will keep our existing UK legislation, and the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018 will convert EU law into UK law as it applies at the moment of exit. This includes the regulatory regimes for environmental, food safety and animal welfare standards. Without exception, of course, imports must continue to meet all relevant UK product rules and regulations, as they do today.
The tariff package announced yesterday is a balanced package. It is a temporary package. It is a response to the potential effects of leaving the EU without a deal. There are sectors that are vulnerable to competition from imports, are not as nimble as others and cannot change as quickly—farming is one of those. We believe that the balanced package we have put together will sufficiently protect farming interests in the UK.
I thank my right hon. Friend for his question. Of course, if the Prime Minister’s deal is passed through this House in its third iteration, it will provide for regulatory alignment not to continue and therefore we would be able to pursue trade deals internationally. Of course we can do so in any event, as not all trade deals are to do with goods.
During the BSE crisis of the 1990s, the foot and mouth outbreak of 2001 and the scare of 2007, even some members of the European Union took advantage of these crises to ban British meat imports, even long after any risk had expired. If we leave with a bad deal, such as the one Parliament has now rejected twice, countries will not need an excuse to act with opportunistic protectionism in that way. So how will we make sure that our farmers are protected in the deals we strike in future?
Of course, the hon. Gentleman has a real constituency concern and interest in this. The simple fact is that the UK intends to operate within the World Trade Organisation and subscribe to the world’s rules-based order on trade, and that gives us a great deal of protection. We are always able to bring disputes if we feel that WTO rules are being flouted inappropriately.
In the United States, pork is produced using ractopamine, which causes heart disease, and it is not treated for trichinosis, which can lead to stomach upset. The US National Pork Producers Council wants its standards included in the US-UK trade deal, and it has the support of its Government in that demand. This threat to food safety is completely unacceptable, so will the Minister rule out any reduction in food standards in international trade agreements?
I repeat what we have said from this Dispatch Box and this Department many, many times: we absolutely agree with the hon. Gentleman that our food standards should be maintained. As for the requirements the US has laid out in its provisional negotiating strategy for its agreement with the UK, if he looks carefully at previous such agreements and previous such outline mandates from the US, he will find that they are almost exactly the same in every respect. That does not mean to say that they are delivered in that form.
Leaving the EU: Health Services and Legal Action
The Government are considering their future approach to investor state dispute settlement. Where included in a trade agreement, ISDS will not oblige the Government to open the NHS to further competition, and overseas companies will not be able to take legal action to force us to do so.
The Secretary of State did not rule out the use of legal action against other companies in this country, so what message would he give to all those idealistic people who voted to leave the EU because they thought that the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership would open us up to hostile lawsuits from US companies? Does he think that now that the truth is out they ought to have a chance for another vote?
I am not sure what the connection was between some of those points. Let me be clear that, through ISDS, investment claims can be made only in respect of established investments; the mechanism cannot be used in relation to an alleged failure to open up public services to a potential investor. It could not be much clearer that what was being put about was a complete myth.
It would be absolutely ridiculous of any Minister to try to tell businesses what they can and cannot do. I can tell the hon. Gentleman, though, that last year foreign direct investment into the United Kingdom rose by 20%; in continental Europe, it fell by 73%. The hon. Gentleman should draw his own conclusions.
In the recent debate on international trade, I cited two examples of the Canadian Government’s having to withdraw public health measures after legal challenges by businesses under the terms of the North American free trade agreement. When the Secretary of State is considering health protections in future UK FTAs, will he ensure that they go wider than direct NHS provision and encompass wider public health policy?
We will look to replicate the success we have already had in bilateral investment treaties. UK investors have successfully brought around 70 cases against other Governments. No private company has ever brought a successful case against the United Kingdom in respect of our bilateral investment treaties.
The British public are clear that they do not want our national health service to be bargained away as part of trade negotiations, and they do not want foreign companies to have the right to sue our Government for decisions taken in the interests of public health, yet that is exactly what could happen if we accept ISDS and the negative-list approaches in the future agreements that the Government are proposing. Will the Secretary of State now rule out agreeing to a single clause of a single trade deal that could threaten our NHS?
There are days when I genuinely have to thank God that the Labour party is the Opposition and not the Government of this country. We have £1.3 trillion of outward stock invested, including things like pension funds that British people will depend on for their prosperity. Were we to abandon the concept of investor-state dispute resolutions, what would happen to the protections for our investment overseas? The Labour party needs to start to think about the wider interests of this country.
Future Trade Deals: NHS and Other Public Services
Existing EU trade agreements, such as the EU-Canada comprehensive economic and trade agreement and the EU-Japan economic partnership agreement, contain provisions that ensure that it remains for the United Kingdom to decide how our public services are run. As we leave the EU, the Government will ensure that all future trade agreements continue to protect the UK’s right to regulate public services.
Technically, there is little that MPs and the public can do to prevent the Government from signing trade deals that could negatively impact on the NHS. Will the Secretary of State assure the House that he will expand the transparency and scrutiny mechanisms that pertain to any future trade deals?
Conservative Ministers chose to include the NHS in their approach to the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, which could have made it impossible to bring privatised NHS services back in-house. The Secretary of State will know that privatisation is proceeding apace in the NHS—it certainly is in my constituency, in our cancer-scanning services—so will he give us a cast-iron legal guarantee? That is what we will need to show that his Government are committed to excluding the NHS from future trade deals.
Where do I start? First, this Government did not negotiate TTIP; the European Union negotiated it on behalf of this country, so it was not for the United Kingdom to determine the mandate. None the less, the hon. Lady should look at the agreements that are already out there. For example, article 9.2 of CETA talks about the exclusion of
“services supplied in the exercise of governmental authority”.
It is quite clear from what the Government included in the CETA ratification that we intend to make provision to ensure that Governments have the right to regulate public services. I think that is a good idea, so I cannot understand why the Labour party voted against it.
The Secretary of State has publicly stated that he supports CETA as a model for future trade agreements—an agreement that prevents future Governments from tackling the failed privatisation agenda in both our health and transport services. Does he agree that trade agreements cannot be allowed to constrain future policy decisions?
I do not know where that briefing came from, but the hon. Lady should ask for her money back. There is nothing in CETA that stops the Government regulating their own public services; that is specifically what the exclusion is for. It is in the interests of the country that we get Government regulation of our own public services so that we can have proper scrutiny, including through this House, and that is what is included in the agreement.
Last year I saw at first hand how the New Zealand Parliament handles the scrutiny of trade agreements to ensure that they deliver for the country’s economy and protect key public services. What learnings and reassurances is my right hon. Friend taking from the experience of the New Zealand Parliament in scrutinising trade deals and ensuring that they deliver their promised benefits?
We have looked widely at what other countries are doing, particularly when they have similar legislatures and legal systems, but what we have set out in the Command Paper is a bespoke arrangement for the United Kingdom. For example, our consultation period is longer than the European Union’s because we thought that it was right to have increased scrutiny in the UK. It is a UK policy, made for the UK.
Leaving the EU: Interim Trade Tariffs
The Government announced details of the temporary tariff yesterday in a written statement to the House. This is a balanced tariff policy that aims to minimise costs to businesses and mitigate price impacts on consumers, while also supporting UK producers as far as possible.
Now that the details have been published at last, I noticed that slippers are going to be charged at 17% less under these tariffs. Given the disorientation of some ministerial colleagues last night, perhaps a few might like to invest in a pair and retire early. On a more important point, can we get away from the obscene nonsense whereby, in the past, we have given international aid money to countries such as Ethiopia to encourage cocoa farmers to produce agricultural products—quite rightly—only for the EU obscenely to charge them tariffs of 30% when they try to sell the products of their hard labour back to us?
My hon. Friend is right. The temporary arrangements that we are putting in place recognise that there are developing countries that we have long supported and have agreements with, and which require tariff-free access to our markets to ensure that they can sustain themselves through trade. Sections within the proposal keep tariffs on certain lines to allow those countries preferential access to the UK market to their advantage.
The National Farmers Union is profoundly concerned that it has only two weeks to prepare for the new tariff regime, particularly in view of the fact that cereals and egg producers will have no protection whatever. What discussions has the Minister had with the appropriate Ministers in other Departments to ensure support and compensation for those farmers?
Of course, the farming community is protected by a commitment to the payments they were expecting through to 2020. As the hon. Gentleman will know and would expect, we consulted widely with colleagues across Government, so this is a collectively agreed decision. We have placed tariffs on quite a large number of vulnerable agricultural products, and we hope that the mix is the right decision not just for producers, but for consumers.
I remind the House that, for people in the bottom 10 percentage points of income in this country, food is a very real cost every single day; some 20% of their weekly income is spent on food. If we allowed inflation to roar away on products of this sort, people at that end of the income scale would find it very hard to feed themselves, and we believe that we have to mitigate that situation for them, as well as for farmers’ incomes.
Hundreds of my constituents work in the fish processing industry in the Grimsby-Cleethorpes area, and the supply of fish from Iceland is essential to them. Can the Minister give an assurance that no decisions on tariffs will be detrimental to those supplies?
There are two points on this. First, we have transitioned the free trade agreements the EU has with the Faroes—something that Opposition Members have derided us for as to the scale of the deal. To certain communities, particularly in my hon. Friend’s part of the world, these fish products are extremely important to keep people in work and keep people in the country. Secondly, we are having extensive discussions with the European Free Trade Association countries and European economic area countries about transitioning the free trade deal, and we would hope to be able to get some news on this to the House in due course.
Only yesterday, trade arrangements were announced between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, and they give us some concessions. However, the Ulster Farmers Union has indicated that it has some concerns over the arrangements that have been made. What discussions has the Minister had with the Ulster Farmers Union in Northern Ireland to discuss this?
The hon. Gentleman identifies an extremely important issue. I am not going to sidestep the question—I will give him an answer—but of course in the end this is a matter for the Department for Exiting the European Union and, indeed, for the Government more widely. There is no doubt that the choices that have been made for the position on the border in Northern Ireland were made against an extraordinarily difficult backdrop. There were no easy decisions. The decision we have made is temporary. We believe that it is World Trade Organisation-compliant. We recognise that there are real difficulties. I spoke to representatives of the agricultural community in Northern Ireland only yesterday and explained this. While very disturbed by what was going to happen, they understood why the decision had been taken.
My Department is responsible for foreign and outward direct investment, establishing an independent trade policy, and export promotion. Following this session, I will be signing the trade continuity agreement between the UK and the Pacific Islands in the event of no deal. This is part of our commitment to reducing poverty through trade, and it will ensure continued supply of key consumer products.
There is a lot of scaremongering on this issue that is concerning a number of my constituents, so will the Secretary of State set out what steps the Government are taking to ensure that contracts for the delivery of NHS services will be excluded from future trade deals?
As I have already said, the Government will ensure that all future trade agreements continue to protect the United Kingdom’s right to regulate public services. It could not be simpler. Any attempts to distort that basic message are political propaganda and they are untrue.
One of our most distinguished former diplomats, the noble Lord Kerr, spoke last week, during the passage of the Trade Bill in another place, of the value of having a mandate as a negotiator. He said:
“Having negotiated against Americans, I know that it greatly strengthens their hand to be able to say, ‘Here is the proof that I cannot give you what you want, because Congress would turn it down’.—[Official Report, House of Lords, 6 March 2019; Vol. 796, c. 671.]
Recently the US trade representative published the negotiating mandate for a US-UK trade deal—no concern about commercial confidentiality here, just openly and transparently setting out all the objectives they have for penetrating UK markets, with American healthcare and agribusiness to the fore. In the same week, the Secretary of State published his Command Paper. It is against mandates. Indeed, the Government tried unsuccessfully to defeat Lord Kerr and others who supported Lord Balmacara’s amendment. What does the Secretary of State know about negotiations that Lord Kerr does not, and will the Government try to reverse their lordships’ decision when the Bill returns to the Commons?
The Trade Bill was and is about trade continuity, including trade agreements and including the Trade Remedies Authority. It has been used, I am afraid, in the other place to hold debates on future trade agreements that will come in due course here. There is of course a difference between setting out negotiating objectives, which the United States did, and a mandate, which is how the negotiators actually go about it. It seems that the hon. Gentleman has not grasped that point yet.
I thank my hon. Friend for his question. He is right; the world’s largest sovereign wealth fund has said that it will continue its investment here. The latest figures from the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development show that the UK strengthened its position last year as the No. 1 foreign direct investment destination in Europe. The hundreds of thousands of jobs and higher wages that result would be threatened by the Labour party if it got the chance to jack up corporation tax rates and put in place other business-unfriendly policies. That would reverse the investment that has brought so much good to this country since Labour left in 2010.
The Government’s policy is that we do not have to have these rollover agreements because we want to get an agreement through the House so that we can continue with the Prime Minister’s plan. If the hon. Gentleman wants to help the businesses that he mentions, he can vote for the Prime Minister’s agreement at the next opportunity.
My hon. Friend is right. Tourism is a great example—I use the word “great” advisedly. The GREAT brand is used across the whole of UK Government. It is that rarest of things—a joined-up government policy that actually works. It has added huge value to our tourism sector. In 2017 we saw record numbers of visitors to the UK, and a contribution to the UK economy of £24 billion.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for the interest that he has shown in this issue. The experience of other countries in using the ability of free ports to increase economic activity is valuable and something that the Government are considering in an optimistic and positive way.
We have signed a memorandum of understanding with the five biggest banks so that they can encourage businesses to utilise UK Export Finance. One of the main areas where it is under-utilised is small businesses, but the positive side is that last year more than 70% of the agreements signed by UKEF were with small businesses. That is a trend that we would like to see continue.
I take the opportunity to praise the work of the Fairtrade organisation, which is so well led and co-ordinated by my very good friend Lord Price. It is essential that we look at these issues because free trade is not a free-for-all. There need to be rules around it and there needs to be fair trade. The Government will look sympathetically at what the hon. Gentleman suggests.
Following the visit of the Taiwanese representative and the Philippines ambassador, does my right hon. Friend join me in welcoming the announcement that the Qatari ambassador, together with a trade delegation, will visit Southend on 25 March as we move towards city status, to explore the opportunities of trade and business investment as we leave the EU?
I welcome the announcement by Qatar’s ambassador to the UK, His Excellency Mr Yousef Al Khater, and his accompanying delegation of a visit to Southend. I am pleased to say that the UK is one of Qatar’s major investment destinations globally, with more than £35 billion already invested in the UK.
This is an issue that the Government take seriously because we want to ensure that British companies have the right to trade where we think it is appropriate and where the British Government’s foreign policy indicates that. I have had and will continue to have discussions with my American counterparts on that issue.
I am not sure whether the hon. Gentleman missed the statement we had in the House on this, but I made it very clear that those arrangements would be rolled over. It will not be the Government’s intention in any way, shape or form to leave our businesses less protected than they are today, which is why those trade remedies will continue.
Women and Equalities
The Minister for Women and Equalities was asked—
Shared Parental Leave Uptake
In 2018, we ran a successful £1.5 million campaign to promote awareness and take-up of shared parental leave. Last month, we launched a further campaign to maintain the high level of awareness achieved. We are currently evaluating the scheme, looking at take-up and the barriers to take-up, and we expect to publish the findings later this year.
I thank the Minister for that response. Since becoming an MP, I have taken a real interest in the close links between Scotland and the Nordic countries. At the Nordic Co-operation conference this week, the Swedish Government said that they wanted to re-emphasise their commitment to sharing care, saying that parental leave was good not just for women, but for the health and wellbeing of men. What discussions has the Minister had with the Scottish Government to support further progress on this approach?
I quite agree, and this Government are committed to delivering the take-up of shared parental leave. We know that it is good for employers, for the family and for employees. The scheme has been in place since 2015. We are evaluating it, and we will continue to consult with all partners on how we can increase take-up.
I would point out to the hon. Gentleman that, as I outlined in my last response, we are currently evaluating the scheme, which we are committed to delivering, as I have already said. However, in relation to self-employed people, I must point out that one of the benefits of implementing shared parental leave in the first place is that some people who are employed do not have the flexibility of the self-employed. Obviously, we are not ruling anything out, and we will continue to keep our policies under review. As I say, we will respond on the outcomes of our evaluation later on.
In the future, we will look back at the inequality of parental leave between fathers and mothers, and wonder how on earth we thought it was okay for it to be like that. Does my hon. Friend agree that we need to rebalance parental leave between men and women—fathers and mothers—so that parents get equal opportunities to spend time with their children and pursue their careers?
Absolutely. I agree with my hon. Friend that it is important that both parents are able to spend quality time with their children, particularly in their first year. I would like to highlight to my hon. Friend that Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs reported that, in 2017-18, 9,200 employees took up the scheme, of whom 80% were men.
No. We want to encourage further take-up. Currently, the take-up is between 2% and 8%, which is in line with our prediction. A figure of 80% is a good start, but I want to see more mothers and more fathers taking advantage of this shared parental leave policy.
With take-up of shared parental leave at 2%, it is clearly not working for families across the UK. If we are serious about closing the gender pay gap and tackling maternity discrimination, the Government must increase statutory paid leave for new fathers. Will the Minister confirm that as part of her ongoing review, she will consider extending statutory paid leave to four weeks, to incentivise fathers to take it up?
In reality, we are looking for a wider culture change. Other countries that implemented such schemes decades ago are still working to increase take-up of shared parental leave. We are committed to looking at what the barriers are, and at why people are not taking up such schemes. When we have that evidence base, we will tweak our policies to ensure that more people are able to take up those schemes.
It is very good of the hon. Member for Banbury to drop in on us, and we welcome her to the Chamber. I hope that she has fully recovered her breath, after what must have been an arduous excursion from wherever she was to the Chamber, and that she is now ready to deliver her question, which we await with bated breath.
I cannot thank you enough for calling me, Mr Speaker, because this is a very important issue. Will my hon. Friend update the House on the progress of the research programme announced in September 2018 on gender equality in the workplace, and particularly on parental responsibilities? I know it is an evidence-based research programme, and we are all awaiting its results.
The research programme into the workplace and gender equality will invest £1.1 million in academic research over two years. So far that programme has commissioned an evidence-based review of family-friendly policies and women’s progression, as well as considering how parents share caring for their children, and what motivates employers to improve their offer of shared parental leave. That programme will be based on evidence and advice from employers regarding how we can improve those family-friendly policies.
Highly Paid Professions: Girls and Women
My colleagues in the Department for Education regularly meet Ofsted and the Children’s Commissioner, and I will ask them to raise that matter at their next meeting. It is critical to get more women into professions where they are under-represented, not least because that will help close the gender pay gap.
The Minister knows the information and data that those two organisations hold on the fact that so many bright girls are diverted early on away from science and maths, and away from other subjects that have a clear link with progression to high management. Surely that is criminal, and we should do something about it on an all-party basis.
I think the hon. Gentleman for the opportunity to discuss this issue again. He is right, and this is an issue on which Members across the House will agree. Progress has been made, including a clear increase in girls choosing those subjects, which shows that effort does pay off, but there are still too few such cases, and we must not let up in our work to encourage women to have such choices and to go forward in those professions.
Women who enter high-paid professions face blatant discrimination—40% experience sexual harassment, 50,000 women a year feel forced to leave their jobs because they are pregnant, and organisations such as the BBC feel that it is okay for them to break the law by paying men and women differently for the same job. Why is there no mention of enforcing antidiscrimination law in the Government’s “Good Work Plan”, which is their employment strategy? Surely that should be at the heart of what they are doing.
The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy is consulting on that matter. My right hon. Friend mentioned a list of issues, and it is important to track the impact that policies are having on women and their choices. We will produce measures and metrics to sit alongside the strategy that the Government Equalities Office will produce on women’s economic empowerment, so that we can all see how we are doing.
On 20 February I raised concerns with the Ofsted Chief Inspector that some schools are not following new safeguarding guidance on peer-on-peer sexual abuse, but at best, the Chief Inspector’s response required improvement. Will the Minister meet me to discuss how we can enforce safeguarding in schools?e
Further to the question asked by the Chair of the Women and Equalities Committee, the right hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller), one of the barriers to women holding highly paid positions is maternity discrimination. What further steps will the Government take to tackle this issue?
The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy is leading on a number of pieces of work. The women’s economic empowerment strategy is considering all these policies in the round to look at what more we can do to ensure that women are supported and treated fairly, and can have full careers. It will be published later this spring.
Differential Gender-based Pricing
Although I share concerns on this issue, prices in the UK are set by competition, not by the Government. As intelligent questioning consumers, women should not be afraid to challenge retailers or manufacturers who are trying to rip us off and, where we are not satisfied, to vote with our purchasing decisions. The Government stand ready to back up any woman who wants to do that.
I thank the Minister for her comments. Research shows that women pay more than men for basic products 42% of the time. Manufacturers claim that this is competition or that more is involved in producing women’s products. Scientists tell us that that is nonsense: we all have the same hair and skin types. Given what she has said about women standing up, will the Minister back my Bill on the pink tax, which is currently going through Parliament, or help to encourage manufacturers and retailers to do away with what is a sexist and outdated practice?
I congratulate the hon. Lady on her private Member’s Bill. The Government will not be supporting it, but we welcome the focus she is bringing to this important issue. In the 21st century, things like social media will help to get the message out to manufacturers and businesses that they simply cannot rip women off. The work uncovered on Friday in the Rose review of access to finance, which female entrepreneurs are sadly not getting at the moment, is precisely why the Government are looking to help female entrepreneurs to set up businesses that will not rip women off.
I regret to say that I do not have that list to hand at the moment, not least because I was preparing answers on the pink charge on female products, but I will endeavour to write to my hon. Friend with a list. I know the work he has done on this vital topic. I am sure that, like me, he was delighted at the Chancellor’s announcement yesterday that we will be providing free sanitary products to secondary schools.
I am delighted to hear the Minister’s commitment to supporting women who wish to take the matter of the pink tax to task. As it happens, we are in the process of establishing an all-party group concerning the beauty industry. I would welcome the Minister joining the group, so she could, alongside me and colleagues, encourage companies to look at the pink tax. It seems an irony, given that women’s earning potential is less than men’s. We really should be looking at this issue far more closely.
I am extremely grateful, as always, to the hon. Lady for her kind invitation. Sadly, I am not sure that, as a Minister, I am allowed to join an all-party group, but I very much look forward to learning from its work. Of course, if it ever wished to invite me to a meeting, I would be happy to accept the invitation.
I am convening a new taskforce of experts from all sectors to ensure that we end period poverty in the UK. The taskforce will build on good work already being done and recent announcements of funding for sanitary protection in schools and hospitals.
I absolutely agree. That is why we have also launched a new campaign to step up international action to end period poverty globally by 2030, in line with the global goals. This will be kick-started by £2 million of funding for small and medium-sized charities working in the Department for International Development’s priority countries. We are building on our existing international work, because obviously this is embedded in all our education work.
I absolutely agree. The Government strongly believe that VAT should not apply to these products. That is why we took the initiative in 2016 to introduce legislation to enable a zero rate to take effect as soon as possible. In the meantime, we currently apply the lowest rate that we can—5%—to these products.
Yes, we have. I am sure that all Members across the House will welcome the recent announcements on schools, hospitals and colleges, but we want to look at the issue in the round. That is the job of the taskforce, and it will be about Departments, the private sector and the third sector coming together to create ways to sort this for any woman or girl who may find herself in that situation. On other issues such as primary schools, workplace settings and so forth, the taskforce is looking at all those, but I am also interested in ideas that hon. Members have, because I know that there are many great schemes out there in their constituencies.
I thank Amika George, the Red Box Project, the British Medical Association, the Communication Workers Union, Girlguiding UK, Plan International, Bloody Good Period, Beauty Banks, On The Ball, Hey Girls, Bloody Big Brunch, my hon. Friends the Members for Dewsbury (Paula Sherriff) and for Midlothian (Danielle Rowley), and Monica Lennon, the Labour Member of the Scottish Parliament, who helped with the policy on period poverty. I thank the Secretary of State and the Chancellor for the announcement yesterday. I am really pleased to hear that there will be a taskforce, and I wonder whether the Secretary of State would like to work with me and Monica Lennon so that we can make sure that refugee and homeless shelters all have free menstruation products.
Absolutely. This is an issue that can unite the whole House, and we need such issues, especially at times like this. When I launched this, I also paid tribute to many organisations, including those that the hon. Lady mentions, for the fantastic work that they are doing. We do not want to reinvent the wheel. There is great, sustainable work out there, and we want to take those ideas, help them scale up and ensure that we can end this issue for good.
Public Spending: Disabled People
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Truro and Falmouth (Sarah Newton)—I am sorry that she is not in her place today and that the sector will be disappointed that it has lost a good Minister. We need to take into account the impact not just of our policies, but of the policies of other areas, such as local government.
Disabled people have been absolutely hammered by this Government, with cuts of £4.8 billion in social security alone, so why was there absolutely nothing in the spring statement yesterday for disabled people, who are at the end of their tether? And please do not say that it was not a fiscal event, because there were spending commitments made yesterday.
The Department for Work and Pensions has been continuing to do the work that was outlined in the health and work review 12 months or more ago and is making progress. The Department is considering how we can ensure not only that the welfare system works better in supporting disabled people, but that it dovetails with other schemes such as Access to Work. I shall make sure that the Department is aware of the specifics to which the hon. Lady refers.
Members will know the figures well. The amount currently spent on disabled people and those with health conditions is £50 billion. We are closing the disability employment gap, but there is still much more to do. One of the things that the Department has been doing well is looking at this in the round, along with other issues such as accessibility. We need to support disabled people in relation to every aspect of their lives and every ambition that they have.
Pension Age: Women Born in the 1950s
The state pension age reform is focused on maintaining the right balance between sustainability of the state pension and fairness between generations in the face of demographic change. Without equalisation, women would be expected to spend an average of more than 40% of their adult lives receiving the state pension.
I should declare an interest: I am a WASPI woman myself, having been born in the 1950s. Many of my friends, neighbours and constituents have been hit hard by changes in their pension arrangements that are forcing them to work for an additional five years beyond their planned retirement date. Does the Minister agree that women who have set aside careers to care for families, unpaid, for many years should not be treated in the same way as men who have been able to pursue their careers unencumbered? Equality is not always achieved by treating men and women in the same way.
I thank the hon. Lady for raising that issue. It has been well debated, and additional transitional arrangements have been introduced. One development that we should all welcome is that since 1994, the rate of pensioner poverty has fallen faster for females than for males.
That, too, is an issue that has been debated extensively in a number of Parliaments, and it has been encountered by Governments of all political persuasions. On our watch, we redoubled efforts to ensure that there was the maximum amount of communication so that people could make informed decisions.
This is LBT women’s health week. We know that lesbian, bisexual and transgender women are less likely to participate in services such as cancer screening, which means that they face a wide range of health inequalities. That must stop. As part of our LGBT action plan, we will shortly announce the appointment of a national LGBT health adviser to help to improve the delivery of healthcare services for LGBT people. We will also announce the membership of the new LGBT advisory panel before the first conference, which will take place next week.
Will the Minister support calls from my hon. Friend the Member for Central Ayrshire (Dr Whitford), other Scottish National party Members and women’s advocacy groups for the introduction of separate payments of universal credit to protect victims of domestic violence and financial coercion?
The hon. Gentleman raises important issues that are being considered by both my hon. Friend the Minister for Women and our colleagues at the Department for Work and Pensions, and the new Secretary of State is particularly attuned to them. I will ask Ministers to write to the hon. Gentleman to update him, and I will pass on his concerns today.
I recall the visit that I made with my hon. Friend to see how his local community was looking after vulnerable people in Gloucester. We believe that people who want to leave prostitution should be given every opportunity to find routes out, and this is why we are spending more than £2 million across the Government to support prostitutes and sex workers who are at risk of abuse and exploitation. Indeed, we have a piece of work at the moment involving ongoing research conducted by the University of Bristol into what prostitution in the 21st century looks like, precisely so that we can address the issues that that research identifies.
The primary victims of religiously motivated attacks are women, but how can the Government reassure Muslim women that they are serious about tackling Islamophobia when they choose to ignore and shut down the voices of the British Muslims in their own party who are calling for an independent inquiry into institutional Islamophobia? Speaking as a British Muslim, I believe that it is disgraceful and patronising that the Conservative party continues to refuse to act and tells British Muslims in the party that there is not a problem. Will the Minister at least accept that her party has a problem?
The Conservative party took immediate action to suspend 14 members who put issues in, so we are not going to take any lectures from a party that refuses to suspend people or throw them out of the party for antisemitism.
We are proceeding with this as soon as a suitable legislative vehicle is available. However, I can update my hon. Friend and tell him that the guidance that we promised to publish alongside it has now been produced. It is there to help employers, service providers and individuals to understand the context of the Equality Act, and it is going out for consultation with stakeholders this week.
That is a really excellent question. The Government are investing an extra £16 billion in that sort of primary care and prevention to make sure that we have the public health investment that helps people to tackle alcoholism and ensures that women get the breast cancer support that they need. Today, we have released a written ministerial statement responding to the inquiry on breast cancer screening.
I am delighted that my hon. Friend has asked this question, as it gives me an opportunity to thank Alison Rose for her review, which tries to ensure that the business landscape is as fair for women as it is for men. It is a shocking fact that women’s average starting capital is 50% less than that of men. I was at a fantastic reception at No. 10 last week, where there was a room full of female entrepreneurs, some of whom were world-leading entrepreneurs. We have fantastically talented, capable and creative female entrepreneurs in this country, and we absolutely must support them. We must ensure that businesses, banks, venture capitalists and angel investors are all doing their bit to help these women.
We have launched a consultation on the use of NDAs and have proposed to make it explicit that NDAs should not prevent individuals from reporting any kind of harassment, sexual or otherwise, to the police. I hope that that answers her question.
May I ask the Minister for Women and Equalities whether some MPs are more equal than others? Back Benchers—the poor bloody infantry—have to traipse through the Lobby for every three-line Whip, but Cabinet Ministers can sit brazenly on the Front Bench and then slope off in their limousines after betraying the people and the Prime Minister.
All the Ministers on the Front Bench this morning are here and ready for their duties, in particular the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend the Member for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson), who was ironing his shirt 20 minutes before this session started. We are in turbulent times, but we must trust our institutions and trust in democracy. I am also the Secretary of State for International Development, and I will take messy democracy over any other system in the world.
There has been an impact assessment all the way through. If the hon. Gentleman highlights a good group, I am sure that the Minister with responsibility for pensions would be delighted to meet its representatives.
I urge the Government to work with NHS England to provide support to women GPs who have left the workforce but want to return after caring responsibilities. They should be supported to return to practice so that patients can get the benefits of their skills and experience.
My right hon. Friend is right. As well as having more GPs in training than ever before, we need to attract GPs who have left the workforce back into work. In March 2017, we launched a major “return to practice” campaign that aimed to attract 500 GPs. So far, 263 have completed the scheme, and a further 266 are in train.
As has been extensively covered in several debates, we have allocated an additional £1.1 billion of transitional support. The recent uprating order included an additional £3 billion to support the uprating of the state pension, and we will continue to support pensioners of all genders.
My hon. Friend raised a constituency case during the International Women’s Day debate last week, and we want the draft Domestic Abuse Bill to support both the victims of the many forms that such abuse can take and the children who live in abusive households. I urge my hon. Friend to write to the Joint Committee on Human Rights, which is scrutinising the Bill, to make her point.
As the Minister for Women and Equalities knows, the estimated 18% gender pay gap is likely to grow following Brexit as women in public services and retail are disproportionately affected. Does she accept that the women who voted to leave did not vote to leave themselves worse off and that they deserve a final-say referendum on the exit deal?
No. We do not want a second referendum, which would be disastrous. We are doing specific work in those sectors to close the gender pay gap. However, I caution that some companies that are doing the right thing will see their pay gaps widen because they may be recruiting many more young women, so we must look at the figures in detail to see that good progress is being made.
I know that Ministers on the Treasury Bench wish to examine in great detail the work of the Women and Equalities Committee when we issue our reports, but could the Secretary of State perhaps explain to me why it has taken five months for the Government to respond to our very important report on sexual harassment in public places? This issue needs urgent action, not more deliberation.
I am sorry that we have taken a long time over responding to the work of the Select Committee. I would rather publish a response that will actually take the right action than put out something swiftly that is not going to do the job. I hope that my right hon. Friend will understand that we want to be doing things that ensure we address the issues she has raised.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. Will the Minister for Women and Equalities join me in condemning the wording of letter ESA65B from the Department for Work and Pensions—the letter asks general practitioners to cease issuing fit notes to people with disabilities awaiting an appeal for employment and support allowance—and help ensure that such blatant discrimination against disabled people, which resulted in the death of my constituent who was forced back to work against his doctor’s advice, will cease immediately?
Point of Order
Thank you, Mr Speaker. The Public Prosecution Service for Northern Ireland is, as we speak, announcing its intention to proceed to prosecute a number of people in relation to events that occurred on the day known as Bloody Sunday in Londonderry.
It is not my intention to intervene in any way on the legal process, but I was born and raised in the city, which I now represent in Parliament, and as a teenager I was there in the city centre on the day. I watched the events that led up to that day, including the murder of two police officers in the vicinity of the parade just three days before that parade commenced. No prosecutions have ensued as a result of any investigation, either through the Saville inquiry or any other police investigation since.
I seek your guidance, Mr Speaker, on what a parliamentarian like myself can do to draw attention, for example, to Peter Gilgun and David Montgomery, the police officers who were murdered, and to the massive imbalance in legacy investigations into our troubled past in Northern Ireland. Many innocent civilians, police and soldiers have not had their investigations carried out and no prosecutions have occurred, yet we have the announcement we are having today.
In truth, I think the hon. Gentleman knows that he has found his own salvation. He asks, in essence, what recourse is available to him, and he has found it. He has registered his view, and it is on the record. I know he will appreciate that it is not a matter for adjudication by the Chair. Specifically, however, in the light of what he has said, I hope that it is helpful to the House for me to point out that, in the event that any charges are brought, the House will want to respect the autonomy of the judicial process and to observe our own sub judice resolution. I will leave it there for now, and I think he understands that.
Business of the House
The business for next week will be:
Monday 18 March—A motion relating to the Human Medicines (Amendment) Regulations 2019, followed by a motion relating to amendments relating to the Provision of Integrated Care Regulations 2019, followed by a motion to approve the draft Organic Production (Control Of Imports) (Amendment) (EU Exit) Regulations 2019, followed by a motion to approve the draft Organic Production and Control (Amendment) (EU Exit) Regulations 2019.
Tuesday 19 March—A motion to approve the draft Food Additives, Flavourings, Enzymes and Extraction Solvents (Amendment etc.) (EU Exit) Regulations 2019, followed by a motion to approve the draft Materials and Articles in Contact with Food (Amendment) (EU Exit) Regulations 2019, followed by a motion to approve the draft Genetically Modified Food and Feed (Amendment etc.) (EU Exit) Regulations 2019, followed by a motion to approve the draft Novel Food (Amendment) (EU Exit) Regulations 2019, followed by a motion to approve the draft Animal Feed (Amendment) (EU Exit) Regulations 2019, followed by motions relating to Select Committee appointments.
Wednesday 20 March—A motion to approve the draft Relationships Education, Relationships and Sex Education and Health Education (England) Regulations 2019, followed by a motion relating to the draft Non-Domestic Rating (Rates Retention and Levy and Safety Net) (Amendment) and (Levy Account: Basis of Distribution) Regulations 2019, followed by a motion to approve The Flags (Northern Ireland) (Amendment) (EU Exit) Regulations 2019.
Thursday 21 March—A general debate on services for people with autism, followed by debate on a motion relating to NICE appraisal processes for treatments for rare diseases. The subjects for these debates were determined by the Backbench Business Committee.
Friday 22 March—Private Members’ Bills.
Mr Speaker, this has been an important week for Parliament. There have been difficult decisions to make and at times some challenging exchanges. With such strongly held views across the House, that is to be expected, but it is vital that we continue to listen to each other with respect and understanding. Over the centuries, the country has looked on as Parliament has faced historic decisions, and even in the most challenging of times we have pulled together and put our duty above all else. I hope the House will come together to find a consensus that delivers on the will of the people to leave the European Union and does so in a way that inspires confidence in Parliament and in us as MPs.
I do not know what to say to that, other than that it feels like a wash-up and that we should be getting ready for a general election. I was going to ask for an Opposition day. With the Government losing votes, it feels like we have already had them, but we have not. When my hon. Friend the Member for Blaenau Gwent (Nick Smith) asked the Leader of the House when the next Opposition day debate would be, she said they were announced every Thursday, so, today being Thursday, I invite her to give us an Opposition day. The last one was on 13 November.
I was going to ask for statutory instrument debates, but I see they have already been tabled for next week. Following what has been an absolutely astonishing week, we have a series of SIs. More importantly, the hon. Member for Camborne and Redruth (George Eustice), who recently resigned, said that a few SIs had been deprioritised and would not be passed by the end of March, which was confirmed by a No. 10 spokeswoman. Will the Leader of the House ensure that a list is published of the prioritised and deprioritised SIs? What criteria are the Government using to deprioritise some of them?
Several Bills have to be passed before exit day. The Trade Bill had its Report Stage in the House of Lords yesterday, but other essential Bills—the Immigration and Social Security Co-ordination (EU Withdrawal) Bill, the Agriculture Bill, the Fisheries Bill and the Financial Services (Implementation of Legislation) Bill—have yet to have theirs. When are they likely to be debated? I raised the financial services Bill and the cross-party amendment last week after the debate was pulled. The Leader of the House said that she wanted
“time to look properly at the proposed amendments and consider their impact with the Crown dependencies, which are separate jurisdictions with their own democratically elected Governments.”—[Official Report, 7 March 2019; Vol. 655, c. 1135.]
That is right, but the UK Government are responsible for the good government of the Crown dependencies, and it is already Government policy, passed in the Sanctions and Anti-Money Laundering Act 2018. The right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Barking (Dame Margaret Hodge) have said that offshore secrecy represents a threat to UK national security. Could the Leader of the House say whether there are any conflicts of interest in the Cabinet that are preventing the amendments from being debated?
Today we will debate another motion on section 13(1)(b) of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018. It is about the negotiated withdrawal agreement, which was laid before the House and voted upon on 15 January and 12 March. Today’s motion is substantially the same as the previous two, so the House is being asked to vote on the deal once again. “Erskine May” states—I have looked it up, Mr Speaker—that that is a matter for the Chair to decide, because this is the same motion. I do not want to trivialise the matter, but it sounds rather like that line from Morecambe and Wise: the same words, but not necessarily in the same order. The motion is effectively the same, with a few other words added. The footnotes in “Erskine May” state that the last time this provision was used was in 1920, and the reason it was put into “Erskine May” was to prevent MPs and the Government from putting motions again and again.
It is the Government who have put us in this position. Their red lines were drawn right at the beginning and formed the boundaries for the negotiations. There are ongoing investigations into how the vote was conducted. There was secrecy and a lack of information, and Parliament was bypassed and ignored. That is pernicious to democracy.
One of the biggest announcements on Wednesday, apparently, was the Chancellor’s spring statement. He used it to set out a “deal dividend”—if Parliament votes to leave the EU with a deal, we can have the money. That is effectively blackmailing us. He also said that austerity is coming to an end. Yes, and the people have said that they want authenticity, not austerity. But the latest figures show that the Office for Budget Responsibility has cut its growth forecast for 2019 to 1.2%, which is the weakest growth rate since 2009. That is a significant cut from its predicted 1.6% expansion, and that is from the Government’s own economic watchdog. Who is right: the Chancellor or the OBR?
It is no good the Leader of the House telling us that there are more people in work. Yes, there are, but they are self-employed, on zero-hours contracts and in insecure work. There was absolutely nothing in the spring statement about local authorities or social care. The Health for Care coalition has said that the Government’s failure to protect social care is “a national disgrace”. When will the social care Green Paper be published? It was expected last summer. The Women’s Budget Group said that there have been cuts to youth services of 65%, cuts to Sure Start of 50%, and cuts to subsided buses of 48%. All of that has to be addressed. When will we have a debate on the spring statement, or do I have to make an application to the Backbench Business Committee?
Next Thursday is the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination—importantly, it is also the day when the European Council meets. It is important that we are careful with our language in areas surrounding race and accept that there is unconscious bias. More importantly, tomorrow our young people are being explicit; they are taking action to protect the very thing that gives us life. We must listen to them. I also want to send the House’s good wishes to James Shaw, New Zealand’s Climate Change Minister, who has sadly been attacked.
Finally, on a slightly happier note, I want to wish a very happy birthday—today is a triple birthday—to my hon. Friends the Members for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough (Gill Furniss), for Wirral West (Margaret Greenwood) and for Bethnal Green and Bow (Rushanara Ali).
The hon. Lady has asked a number of questions, but I would like to start by sharing in her good wishes to all who are celebrating their birthday today, and I would add to her list my hon. Friend the Member for Dover (Charlie Elphicke) and of course my hon. Friend the Member for Moray (Douglas Ross), who is celebrating the birth yesterday of his new baby boy—fantastic news.
The hon. Lady asks about Opposition days. She will recognise that we have had incredibly important business this week, and for next week I have announced a range of important secondary legislation. I hope she will welcome the fact that I have announced debates on two statutory instruments requested by the official Opposition: the Human Medicines (Amendment) Regulations 2019 and the Amendments Relating to the Provision of Integrated Care Regulations 2019. I will continue to consider carefully the hon. Lady’s requests for different types of business.
The hon. Lady asks about the Brexit SIs generally. I am still confident that we will meet all the necessary SIs required to be laid by 29 March in a no-deal scenario and in a deal scenario; that is what the Government have been working towards. Over 500 EU exit SIs have now been laid, and I pay tribute to the sifting Committee, which has considered over 210 negative SIs, recommending over 60 of them for upgrade to the affirmative procedure. There is a huge amount of work going on, and many thanks to all hon. Members who have taken part in Delegated Legislation Committees.
The hon. Lady asks about primary legislation for Brexit Bills. She will know that in addition to the EU withdrawal Act, nine exit-related Bills are in Parliament or have already received Royal Assent; the Immigration and Social Security Co-ordination (EU Withdrawal) Bill completed its 10th sitting in Committee last week; the Agriculture Bill, Fisheries Bill and Financial Services (Implementation of Legislation) Bill are currently before the House of Commons; and the healthcare Bill and Trade Bill are progressing through the House of Lords.
The hon. Lady asked particularly about a financial services Bill. She will be aware that as I said last week, which she has pointed out, we are considering the amendment put forward, but on transparency in general it is this Government who are taking the lead on international transparency measures at home and around the world. It was Conservatives in government who led the world with the first public registry of company beneficial ownership in the G20, and it is the Conservatives who have driven the global agenda on tax transparency.
The hon. Lady asked about the Brexit decision today, and particularly the motion on the Order Paper. Today’s debate is not about forcing the House to make a decision on whether the Government should seek a short or a long extension. The Government’s motion simply sets out the factual position so that Members can take a decision on extension in full knowledge of the consequences. The Government’s position is clear, and this is backed up by the comments made in Brussels over the last 24 hours. A short extension only works if a deal has been agreed by the House and the extension period is used to pass the necessary legislation to give effect to, and allow ratification of, a withdrawal agreement. A short extension does not work in any other circumstances, and a long extension would mean the UK having to participate in the EU elections.
The hon. Lady asked about the same question rule. “Erskine May” sets out that a motion
“which is the same, in substance, as a question which has been decided during a session may not be brought forward again during that same session.”
However, any motion that we would table for any further approval would reflect the situation at the time—if it were to be tabled.
The hon. Lady says the economic data in the spring statement was not positive. I simply disagree: borrowing so far this year is at its lowest level for 17 years; our economy has grown for 24 quarters in a row, the longest streak of growth in the G7; wages are growing at their fastest rate for a decade; and from April the national living wage will rise again, taking the total annual pay rise for a full-time worker to over £2,750 since its introduction.
Finally, I join the hon. Lady in commending all the young people who are doing so much to indicate their support for protecting our global climate challenge. I absolutely pay tribute to them, but say again that the greatest gift of any society to its children is a good education, and I urge them not to take valuable time out from school on this subject, but instead to spend their time campaigning for it, which is the right way to do it.
Will my right hon. Friend find time to ban the use of living animals for warfare experiments? In the last year 3,865 animals were experimented on for chemical weapons at Porton Down, which is an absolute disgrace and totally unacceptable in what is supposed to be a civilised society.
My hon. Friend raises an important matter that I know is of interest to many Members of this House. The Defence Science and Technology Laboratory at Porton Down has an active programme to minimise the use of animals in experiments, in accordance with the principles of the three Rs—reduction, refinement and replacement. The Ministry of Defence does not conduct animal experiments for the development or testing of offensive weapons, and the Home Office does not grant licences for those purposes.
I thank the Leader of the House for announcing the almost comical business for next week. We are still considering our whip on the draft Novel Food (Amendment) (EU Exit) Regulations 2019 motion, which we will be considering as an important measure next week.
Today is a bit like the morning after the night before, with people collectively asking, “What on earth happened last night?” We had members of the Cabinet failing to support the Government on a three-line Whip against their own motion but still keeping their jobs. Politically, the UK is now close to becoming a failed state, with a Government barely able to function, and now we have today’s Government motion and this woeful business statement. There is only one item of business this Government covet, and that is another crack at their dead deal. Today’s motion is exclusively designed to allow that, in the vain hope that the threat of an extended delay will bring the Brexiteers back on board. How many times are the Government going to try to get this deal through? They are like vampires with an ability to survive a stake through the heart. I know that you will make a ruling on this, Mr Speaker, but as I heard the shadow Leader of the House say, the position on bringing a motion is clear. Page 397 of “Erskine May” states:
“A motion or an amendment which is the same, in substance, as a question which has been decided during a session may not be brought forward again during that same session.”
But that is exactly what this Government are intending to do. I am sure you know, Mr Deputy Speaker, that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. Therefore, this is a Government who should be certified.
We also need to see the legislation that will honour last night’s decision. The House has now voted three times to take no deal off the table, but the House remains ignored. The Government are right to say that the default position is to leave without a deal—that is what the legislation says—but what we have to do is bring forward legislation to honour and respect the wishes of the House. If the Government are not prepared to do it, let the House do it.
This has been a disastrous week for the Government: they have been defeated on their deal; no deal has been taken off the table; and tonight there will be an extension to the 29 March departure date. Those of us who just despise this chaotic Brexit are beginning just to see this nightmare possibly slipping away, but let us be in no doubt that we are certain in Scotland that we are not going down with this doomed ship.
The hon. Gentleman will appreciate that I, as a democrat, am absolutely determined to fulfil the will of the people in leaving the European Union. He, on the other hand, is determined to ignore the will of the people of the United Kingdom, both on leaving the EU and on the question of independence. So we know where he stands.
I make it clear again that today’s debate is not about forcing the House to make a decision on whether the Government should seek a short or a long extension. The Government’s motion simply sets out the factual position so that Members can take a decision on extension in full knowledge of the consequences. If Members think it would be possible between now and June to agree a new negotiating position in the House, to secure agreement in Europe for a new deal based on that position and to pass the primary legislation needed to give effect to a new deal, that is a matter for hon. Members to put forward in today’s debate, particularly given the frequent representations I get here in business questions from Members from right across the House who have concerns about having the time they need to scrutinise and debate legislation.
I think the hon. Gentleman is in cloud cuckoo land. Do not take that from me, because Donald Tusk today says:
“During my consultations ahead of #EUCO, I will appeal to the EU27 to be open to a long extension if the UK finds it necessary to rethink its #Brexit strategy and build consensus around it.”
Michel Barnier says today:
“Why would we extend these discussions?”
“The discussion on article 50 is done and dusted.”
He then says that they are waiting for the “answer” and that
“the House of Commons says what it doesn’t want”
“Now this impasse can only be solved in the UK.”
That means everybody in this Chamber needs to look at the consequences of what they are doing, and today is a very important day.
May we have a debate on the Vienna convention on the law of treaties? The law is complex, and it is difficult in the big debates to get more than a few minutes to describe it, but the Vienna convention may well provide an exit route out of this impasse, because a state can abrogate part of a treaty if there is a change of the circumstances that are the basis of consent. I tabled an amendment to the first meaningful vote, and since then I have been talking about the idea of a unilateral declaration, but these are complex matters and we need to discuss them in full. Perhaps that would allow the Attorney General to come back with a different opinion so that more of our colleagues can vote for the Prime Minister’s deal.
My right hon. Friend has long championed this idea, and I commend him for that. He will know that the Attorney General has considered these matters in great detail and come to the House to answer questions on them for several hours. If he has more to say on the matter, I am sure he will come to the House to say it.
I need to put something right for the record. The shadow Leader of the House, my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz), suggested that she might apply to the Backbench Business Committee for a debate on the spring statement; I am afraid that as a Front Bencher she does not enjoy the privilege of being able to apply to the Backbench Business Committee. I apologise and wish I could accommodate her, but I am afraid that the Standing Orders prevent me from doing so.
I thank the Leader of the House for the business statement, and for announcing the two debates next Thursday on services for people with autism and a motion relating to NICE appraisal processes for treatments for rare diseases. My Committee has a hefty queue of important debates waiting for time. There are more than a dozen, including on heavily subscribed subjects such as school funding, fracking, the use of restraint on children and court closures, so we would be very grateful for any more time we can get.
I thank the Leader of the House for being in her place and attending to her duties. May we have a debate about those Ministers who seem to think that supporting the Government is optional, despite their evident willingness to draw a Government salary paid for with our constituents’ taxes?
I absolutely understand my hon. Friend’s concerns. He will appreciate that there are widely held views right across the House among different Members, and it is extraordinarily difficult, at this time that is so important for the nation, to try always to deal with every single aspect of all eventualities. My hon. Friend knows that yesterday Government Members were given a free vote on the Government’s motion, but in the end that was not what the Government were voting on. The motion was amended by the House, which is why the challenging whipping arrangements occurred.
The Leader of the House will surely not be surprised to hear me sounding outraged. Nine statutory instruments are to be taken on the Floor of the House next week, of which seven are from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. There are also back-to-back DEFRA statutory instruments upstairs on the Committee Room corridor. I know that as the shadow DEFRA Whip, and the Leader of the House and her DEFRA Whip must know that. I cannot see how physically we can possibly get through all these statutory instruments in the time available. It is not proper scrutiny, either, which is another consideration. Is it not time for the Government to admit that we need to extend article 50 and put back the date for leaving the EU?
The hon. Lady will be delighted to know that we have a motion on exactly her suggestion for the House to vote on today. Perhaps she had not noticed. I take this opportunity to pay tribute to the DEFRA officials and Ministers who have worked day and night to ensure that they get on top of the many DEFRA SIs that are necessary to prepare either for a deal or for no deal. That is what they have achieved and I am delighted to say that we will be prepared, with all the SIs necessary, for 29 March.
The hand that fate deals can make or break lives, and those with acquired disabilities and those who have always had disabilities pay dearly. The disability equality charity Scope recently published “The Disability Price Tag 2019”, which sets out some of the additional costs faced by those with disabilities—things such as therapies, home adaptions, transport and insurance. Will the Leader of the House arrange for a debate on why too many disabled people continue to pay too much? The Government should make their abiding mission the redistribution of advantage.
I am sure that my right hon. Friend will agree that this Government have been absolutely determined to ensure that everybody in our society gets the best possible opportunity. He will know that we spend £50 billion a year on benefits to support disabled people and people with health conditions. That is up more than £8 billion in real terms since 2010. I am so proud that the number of disabled people in work has increased by over 900,000 over the last five years under this Government, giving more people the chance to do something meaningful and useful, and to improve their circumstances in life.
Can I ask the Leader of the House for some guidance that would be helpful for all Members? I understand that the House authorities have been notified of possible industrial action for a period of three days next week. This will affect visitors coming to see Members in the House over those three days. Will she assure me that access will not be denied to people who have appointments with Members of Parliament in that time?
The right hon. Lady is right that the Public and Commercial Services Union has announced, following a ballot of its members, that security staff at the Palace of Westminster have voted in favour of strike action. This is a matter for the House authorities, and I am assured that Parliament is putting in place business resilience plans to maintain both the security of the estate and the continued functioning of the business of both Houses. The priority will be to ensure that the business of the Houses, including Select Committees, is unaffected. I will take away the right hon. Lady’s request, but I am aware that priority will be given to people who have appointments with their Member of Parliament.
The stronger towns fund has the potential to regenerate towns in areas such as Erewash that were neglected for so long by the Labour Government. Will my right hon. Friend ask the relevant Minister to bring forward further details of how bids can be submitted to the fund?
My hon. Friend is a great champion for her constituency. She will be aware that the new stronger towns fund will provide £1.6 billion of investment in the future prosperity of English coastal, market and industrial towns; £1 billion of investment will be targeted at the towns with the greatest need and will be distributed by local enterprise partnerships, and £600 million will be available as part of a competitive process that any town will be able to bid into. My hon. Friend might like to table a written question to the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government for further details on how to apply for that funding.
Tomorrow is the Nottingham North jobs fair, which is a collaborative effort between the council, the Department for Work and Pensions, the Futures Group, my office and my charity, the Rebalancing the Outer Estates Foundation. Last year we helped 150 people to find work in my community, and we will be at the Bulwell Riverside from half-past 9 tomorrow morning. Would the Leader of the House find Government time in which we can have a wider debate on supporting communities such as mine into work?
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on organising a jobs fair. I know that many right hon. and hon. Members do so, and it is incredibly appreciated by their constituents. Such fairs are amazingly successful at bringing together employers and those seeking work. I encourage him to seek an Adjournment debate so that he can discuss with Ministers whether more can be done to support these excellent initiatives.
World TB Day is on 24 March. Tuberculosis is the world’s deadliest disease; it still kills 1.7 million people a year globally, which is more than AIDS and malaria combined. There are still thousands of cases in the UK and drug resistance is a growing global health threat. Can we have a debate on this issue and on the importance of the successful replenishment of the global health fund? It is time to end TB.
First, I acknowledge the work of my right hon. Friend as chair of the all-party parliamentary group on global tuberculosis. It is an absolutely terrible disease that we must beat. The Government are already doing a great deal, including providing support through our commitment to the global fund. There is more to do, and the UK will continue to lead in this important area, but the whole world must act together if we are to eradicate this terrible disease.