House of Commons
Monday 25 March 2019
The House met at half-past Two o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
Support for Veterans
Last year we published the first UK-wide veterans strategy, which looks at what more we can do to support veterans. We engaged with service charities for ideas on how we can enhance support for our veterans.
I thank the Secretary of State for that answer. Vet Fest, an event that will be held in my constituency this summer, will be a celebration of camaraderie for our armed forces veterans and their families and will raise awareness and money for three important charities: Combat Stress, the Royal British Legion and SSAFA. Will the Secretary of State join me in congratulating and thanking those who are putting on that event for their hard work and dedication, as well as all volunteers across the country who work to support our veterans?
I join my hon. Friend in expressing thanks for what they do, and I encourage volunteers across the country to do likewise through such a great initiative. We are always grateful for the many thousands of volunteers who contribute so much to supporting our veterans community, as I know he does.
I am sure the Secretary of State is aware of the Royal British Legion’s excellent campaign to “Stop the Service Charge”. Can he update us on what the Government are doing on the possible removal of visa charges for Commonwealth UK armed forces personnel and their families?
I was delighted to visit the Heyford and Bicester veterans group with my hon. Friend just a few weeks ago and see the amazing work that it is doing to support so many of our veterans. The issue she highlights is vital. The Ministry of Defence continues to work with service personnel and their families to support them, and we are in discussions and working closely with our Home Office colleagues on that important issue.
In the United States, an impressive military charity called Soldier On has established housing co-operatives to give homeless ex-servicemen an affordable place to live and allow them to help control the running of it. Would the Secretary of State consider such an approach here in the UK?
That charity has also been looking at the United Kingdom. We are keen to work closely with it, to see how we can take the lessons learned from the United States and the positive experiences that have been created and ensure that it can benefit people here in the United Kingdom.
Although I certainly endorse the gratitude expressed for the support that many thousands of volunteers give to veterans, is it not time we accepted that it should not be left to charities to look after people who have been injured in the service of their nation? It is not charities that send people into war; it is Governments. What representations has the Secretary of State made to his colleague the Chancellor to ensure that health services, local authorities and other public bodies are adequately resourced, so that the welfare of veterans can be funded from the public purse, rather than relying on charity and volunteers?
This Government have put veterans and our service personnel very much at the heart of not just what the Ministry of Defence does but right across Government. Of course, devolved Governments play a vital role in delivering services. We all recognise the important role that charities play, and they provide a lot of services on behalf of Government, in order to be best able to reach out to people who have served in our armed forces.
I am the proud and entirely unworthy owner of a veterans badge, as my seven years were largely spent in the bar. Is there not an argument that people who truly deserve a veterans badge should have a much more visible symbol of their service, and that perhaps the title should be restricted more to those who truly deserve it, rather than people like me?
Mr Speaker, we will have to see if we can get you one as well in the future.
We are constantly looking at how we can recognise those who have served. The veterans ID card is another important step forward in ensuring that there is true recognition of the service that so many people have given our country.
Armed Forces Recruitment and Retention
We remain committed to maintaining the overall size of the armed forces and a range of measures are under way to improve recruitment and retention. The challenge is kept under constant review. Importantly, the services continue to meet all of their current commitments, keeping the country and its interests safe.
Having served in the Royal Air Force, I know how rewarding a life in the military is, and also how demanding it can be. I also know how difficult recruitment and retention is, particularly retention. Has my right hon. Friend considered free wi-fi for military personnel to help them and their families feel less isolated when they are serving away from home?
We recognise the importance of connectivity for our personnel. I reassure my hon. Friend that for those serving on operations, the Ministry of Defence will pay for internet connection to enable them to connect with family and friends. For those on non-operational tours abroad, the wi-fi costs are also covered through a welfare package.
One way to retain more Royal Marines is to ensure that their accommodation is of high quality. As Plymouth is no longer getting the superbase we were promised, could the Minister set out how the facilities at Stonehouse barracks will be increased, including making sure that all the accommodation blocks have hot water and good heating?
The hon. Gentleman will be aware that a complex programme was announced through the better defence estate strategy. On the specific issue he raises, I am told that the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, my right hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood), intends to visit shortly.
The chief executive officer of Capita says that it will lose a lot of money on its recruitment contract on behalf of the MOD. In that case, I presume that the Government have a strong legal case for simply terminating the contract without compensation and taking it back in-house and doing it properly.
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has certainly made it clear that he has not ruled out the option of terminating the contract. However, in recent months we have seen dramatic improvements in the performance of that contract, partly because of the money that Capita has put in—its own money—to ensure that that is the case.
Every year my home town of Tain in the highlands hosts the Tain highland gathering. It has been a good number of years since I have seen any armed forces recruiting stands at the highland games. These stands have been very successful in the past—children and young people love them—but frankly, as has been said, Capita is not doing very well. May I encourage the Minister and the Secretary of State to get the stands set up again? In my own case, those people would be rewarded with a very large glass of our local amber nectar, Glenmorangie.
The size of the Army is in freefall under this Conservative Government. The number of fully trained regulars has fallen from 78,000 to 75,900 on this Minister’s watch. The Under-Secretary of State for Defence, the right hon. Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood), who has responsibility for defence people, is reported to have said that he will resign if that number falls below 70,000. What about the Minister for the Armed Forces—is he prepared to make that same commitment?
I am certainly not prepared to resign from my role as a member of the Army Reserve, because that would really not help matters, would it? The hon. Lady over-eggs the pudding slightly by saying that the numbers are in freefall. Yes, numbers have fallen but, with the highest number of applications on record in January, we have already explained why we are confident that the numbers will increase. Crucially, the Army remains at 93% manning and can meet all of its operational commitments.
Does that not say it all? The Minister does not even have the courage to put his job on the line. Time and again, he comes here and bluffs his way through with empty rhetoric, but the simple fact is that he has failed completely and Army numbers are falling month after month. At best he is complacent; at worst he has junked the stated target of 82,000 and does not have the guts to tell us. When is he going to accept that it is his responsibility to end this failure and get a grip?
I have been accused of many things in my life, but lacking courage is probably not one of them. If the hon. Lady knew anything about me, she would probably realise why that is the case. None the less, the issue remains a challenge and I am confident—as I have just said, recent figures show the highest number of applications on record in January—that the situation is improving.
Leaving the EU: Defence Industry
The UK defence industry is globally competitive and creates and contributes to jobs across the United Kingdom. I am confident that it will continue to thrive in the future. The Government are seeking the best possible deal for UK industry after exit. We support European collaboration on capability development and are promoting the invaluable contribution of UK industry.
That was a standard complacent reply from the Minister. Ministers are still hanging on to the mythology that EU regulations prevent them from supporting British industry, most recently with the fleet solid support ships. Of course, no one else in the EU holds on to that view or, indeed, behaves like that. However, as leaving the EU looms, will the Minister now show some decisiveness and backbone, instruct his officials to scrap the old discredited dogma and start putting British industry first?
I say to the right hon. Gentleman that we are trying to make our defence industry the most competitive in the world so that we win those international competitions. It would not be right for me to comment on the decisions taken by other countries on FSS, to which the right hon. Gentleman referred, but I note that the EU Commission has publicly questioned the legality of applying article 346 to the procurement of support ships by other member states, so I am glad that we have behaved properly.
My hon. Friend makes a valid point. Of course our commitment to EU security, European security and working with our NATO colleagues will continue after we have left the EU. That is why we are working on ambitious future arrangements. People know that they can rely on the armed forces of the United Kingdom.
The Minister knows that I am a huge advocate of the combat air strategy, and had the first debate on that in the Chamber. Given that we are about to leave the EU and Team Tempest is so far showing impressive signs of movement, when will we discuss a replacement for the Hawk so that we have a full package and a training aircraft, and can secure the jobs at Brough?
The hon. Lady is right about the future combat air strategy. We are in negotiations and discussions with other partner nations. When it comes to the issues around Hawk, we have done an enormous amount of work to try to get more orders for the Brough site. I recognise how important that is. I have visited Kuwait myself to try to get that order over the line. It is still a work in progress, but I hope that we will be successful.
My hon. Friend is right to raise that. I went to see some of the small and medium-sized businesses that are working with our armed forces on some of the projects that have been funded through that, plus the innovation fund—the £800 million over 10 years that is encouraging as many businesses as possible, many of which have probably never worked with defence in the past, to come forward with their ideas.
Today, we saw the ceremony for confirming the move of the EU anti-piracy taskforce from Northwood to a new location near Cadiz. All around us, we are hearing about the consequences of Brexit not only on the defence industry but on our security relationships. Despite there being a rather uncommon consensus in the House about the importance of those relationships, we have heard precious little from the Department. Not only our closest allies, but the defence industry, serving personnel and policy makers need clarity on the UK’s grand strategy. Will the Minister stop hedging their bets and tell us about the defence and security relationship that the Government want with the EU?
Part of the negotiations with the EU has heavily focused on our future relationship and the collaboration we want with EU nations. However, at the end of the day, the cornerstone of our defence is NATO, and those relationships, and our bilateral relationships with many other countries, will form the way that we do defence in the future.
As the Conservative party plays political games and the Cabinet seeks to oust the Prime Minister, the huge uncertainty for our defence industry continues. The Prime Minister’s Brexit deal has been rejected twice, so will the Minister accept that the Government must now do the responsible thing and work across the House to build a consensus for a better deal? Instead of treating this House with yet more disdain, will he confirm that the Government will work with MPs from across the House to determine the course of action?
Support for Veterans
With your permission, Mr Speaker, may I pair question 4 with questions 11, 12, 19 and 23?
I am sure they are all very genuine. The support we provide our veterans is a genuine subject. We owe our veterans a huge debt of gratitude, but it is important that that gratitude is reflected in the practical support we provide. That is exactly why we are investing in a new veterans strategy, which will be fundamental to improving the co-ordination of that support.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that question. It is so important that we engage as much as we possibly can. There are over 400 service-facing charities. They are co-ordinated by the Veterans’ Gateway and Cobseo, forming themselves into clusters so we can provide the necessary support in the various areas required. Every second Monday, the Defence Secretary and I meet people from the charity sector. In the coming weeks, we will be meeting charities based specifically in the arts.
Recently, a monthly drop-in service has been established at Crawley library for veterans to get advice on the services supported by the Royal British Legion and SSAFA, among others. May I have a commitment from the Ministry of Defence that it will continue to work with the voluntary sector, which provides such fantastic support?
My right hon. Friend the Defence Secretary underlined the importance of geographically locally based charities. It is so important that the message gets out that support is available to veterans. The biggest challenge we face is veterans not being aware of where to go for help, so I am very grateful for that work in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency.
Veterans in Hull are very fortunate to have the support of incredible people like Steve from Hull Veterans Support Centre and Paul from Hull 4 Heroes. There is an ambitious plan to build a veterans village in Hull. Will the Minister meet me to discuss the best way that he can support it?
My hon. Friend is right to focus on specific issues where we need to increase our support. One reason why we are putting together the veterans strategy is to understand where we can do more. The prison sector is one area. She touches on the transition process. It is so important that as people depart the armed forces they know where help can be provided. We are now getting back in touch with armed forces personnel and their families 12 months after they have departed to check on their progress.
Ubi-tech is a business in my constituency made up completely of ex-service people. It is expanding fast and provides services to the MOD and others. It also provides resettlement training and is a supporter of the armed forces covenant. Given that, does the Minister agree that it is not surprising that the business regards the decision to prosecute soldier F after 47 years with absolute dismay? How does the Minister respond to that?
The Northern Ireland prosecution service made an independent judgment on that. I think it would be wrong for us to make any judgment on the Government side. What my hon. Friend illustrates is another great example of veterans charities doing fantastic work on a local basis, and if there is an opportunity to visit her constituency, I would be delighted to meet it.
On return from his tour of Afghanistan in 2007, my constituent, Robert Duncan, experienced post-traumatic stress disorder. It has taken this long to have a conversation—that is all he wants—with those under whom he served. Why can he not have that conversation?
I do not know the circumstances of that particular case and I would be delighted to meet the hon. Lady to see what more can be done. As I touched on before, we are now far more engaged with the individuals—all service personnel—who served in Afghanistan and Iraq to track their progress and to make sure that we are in touch to give them the support that they need. If there is a case for an individual to be looked at again, I would be more than happy to do that.
While we know that the charity sector is doing a great deal of work, and we are extremely grateful for that, there is an absence of veterans-focused policies in areas such as welfare and employability. The transition to civilian life can be difficult, so does the Minister agree that the Government must be doing more in this area?
I am pleased that the hon. Lady mentioned that the Government must be doing more. That is absolutely correct. The veterans board was established for exactly this mission—to make sure that it is not just the MOD that does its bit, but that all Government Departments recognise their duty to honour the covenant to ensure that they provide the support that we need to give our brave veterans.
I apologise to the hon. Member for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant) for intervening before he had the chance to ask his question. At Defence questions on 18 February, I asked the Minister about the black soldiers of the East Africa Force, formed in 1940, after an investigation revealed that they were paid only a third of the wage received by their white counterparts. On 13 February, Her Majesty’s Opposition wrote to the Government about this issue and I wrote to the Minister on 28 February, but so far no replies have been received. The Foreign Office claims that this is a matter for the Ministry of Defence, but the Minister told the House last month that this was a matter for the Foreign Office. Will he please confirm that it is in fact his Department’s responsibility, and may I ask him again when the East Africa Force veterans and their families might expect, at the very least, an official apology and compensation for this scandal?
Perhaps it does feel like we are living an episode of “Yes Minister”, and I fully understand that, with Departments trying to establish who has responsibility. We need to iron that out, and we absolutely need to get the answers that the hon. Gentleman deserves. Perhaps I can speak with him afterwards and we can move this issue forward.
Armed Forces: Social Mobility
Armed forces careers are built on merit, creating an environment where potential is defined by effort and talent and not by background. The skills, education and training that they get in the armed forces give many people the chance to achieve so much not just while they serve, but when they leave.
With the appointment of Brigadier Janice Cook as head of regulation at Defence Medical Services in Lichfield and the very recent appointment of Sue Gray as Air Marshal, does this not demonstrate that there is no glass ceiling for women in the armed forces?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to say that there is no glass ceiling. He brings out two brilliant examples of where women in our armed forces can achieve so much and make such a difference. We all recognise that we need to get more women joining all three services. The contribution and value that they bring is enormous, and the opening up of all roles, including close combat roles, has been vitally important in doing so.
The Secretary of State must know that the British armed services used to be one of the greatest players in encouraging social mobility and equal opportunity. They used to be the greatest trainers in Britain in terms of quality, size and capacity. When will he go back to that mission of having a real training programme in the Army that is big, not tiny?
The hon. Gentleman makes a very strong point about maybe expanding our armed forces. We should feel proud that we are the largest employer of apprentices in this country—19,000 service personnel are currently in an apprenticeship—and that we continue to lead on this. The value that these apprenticeships bring is not just to the services; there is also the contribution to wider society, as service personnel often pursue a second career after they leave.
I thank the Secretary of State once again for retaining 40 Commando in Taunton. It is a momentous decision and great for Taunton. That said, only 9% of British soldiers are female. Does he agree that opening up all combat roles to women will make a real difference to our armed forces? I look forward to the first ones joining the Marines.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend, who did so much in campaigning to keep the Royal Marines in Taunton; they play an important role in the local community. I very much look forward to the first female recruits joining the Royal Marines. I am sure they will be welcomed by the whole corps.
In towns such as St Helens and Newton-le-Willows, the armed forces have always been a driver of social mobility and civic pride, but, like many places, we have lost our armed forces careers office. Would the Secretary of State consider reopening not just ours but others in many working-class communities across the country, upon whom the armed forces rely for their recruitment?
One of the key drivers of recruitment is increasingly online, but we need always to look at how we reach out into local communities. I remember how the Green Howards often used to visit my school in Scarborough sending out the message of what an Army career could deliver. We need to look at how we can get service personnel out into the community recruiting.
Service Personnel: Statute of Limitations
We take the prosecution of veterans very seriously. Our service personnel are of course subject to the law, but veterans should not have to face repeated investigations many years after the events in question. That is why we have a dedicated defence team looking at this complex issue. A statute of limitations, which presents significant challenges, is the subject of inquiry by the Select Committee on Defence, and we await its report with interest.
I recently met Field Marshal Lord Bramall, the former head of the armed forces, who is one of my constituents. Since last year when so many of my constituents signed the petition on this issue, how has my right hon. and gallant Friend been ensuring that the political context of the troubles, which Lord Bramall’s book, “The Bramall Papers”, describes, is taken into account in today’s politically motivated witch hunts?
Having served as Chief of the General Staff and then as Chief of the Defence Staff during the height of the troubles, Lord Bramall clearly brings a unique perspective to these difficult issues. The House will understand that prosecutorial decisions in Northern Ireland are taken by the Public Prosecution Service and that the PPS is independent both of the UK Government and of the Northern Ireland Executive. The Government recognise, however, that the current system for dealing with the legacy of Northern Ireland’s past is not working well for anyone, and that is why the Ministry of Defence is working closely with the Northern Ireland Office on new arrangements, including to ensure that our armed forces and police officers are not unfairly treated.
Members of the Defence Committee were very pleased by the way Ministers set up the dedicated unit to look into this question and by the work the Attorney General has been doing. Have the proposals that are apparently to be brought forward in the Queen’s Speech yet been finalised and accepted at Cabinet level?
My right hon. Friend highlights—because he understands them—the complexities of this issue, not the least of which is that it transcends not just Northern Ireland but different judicial systems in the United Kingdom. We are making progress, and we have applied to bring the subject forward in the Queen’s Speech, but we have yet to conclude this work.
Armed Forces Covenant
The armed forces covenant not only obliges Government Departments to recognise their duty to support armed forces personnel and veterans and their families, but encourages organisations and businesses across the country to do the same. I am pleased to say that there are now more than 3,300 signings, and we are signing about 25 companies or organisations each week.
A recent Defence Committee report stated that
“some serving personnel, veterans and their families who need mental health care are still being completely failed by the system.”
We have heard about engagement with charities and mental health support, but a local charity that is doing great work in Midlothian, the Lothians Veterans Centre, has confirmed the sentiment expressed by the Committee, and told me that charities helping veterans are under a huge burden and huge pressures. What are the Government doing to encourage service personnel to report mental health problems without fear of reprisal, and to ensure that there is a greater focus on the provision of mental health care?
The hon. Lady has packed a lot into one question, and it is very important indeed. The critical aspect is removing stigma and enabling people to step forward and say “I’m not okay” without feeling that there will be reprisals, and, thanks to the mental health and wellbeing strategy of 2017, we are doing exactly that. It is taking a while to change the culture, but more people are now willing to step forward and say “Let me get checked out, let me get sorted, let me get back into the line” without fearing that doing so might damage their promotion prospects.
I understand that this issue dates back to a former armed forces Minister’s time many years ago. When we were back in office a couple of decades ago, we discussed it ourselves. I will certainly look into it, but I encourage all those organisations—despite their issues with meat—to sign the armed forces covenant and support our brave veterans and armed forces personnel.
The acute care for armed forces personnel who have had acquired brain injuries in the course of their duties is second to none—no one would doubt that—but the anxiety is that when they leave the forces, or sometimes even before they enter the forces, an acquired brain injury will go unnoticed and therefore untreated and uncared for, which is why so many veterans end up homeless and living on the street. What are we going to do about that?
I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman for the personal interest that he takes in this issue. He is absolutely right: people need signposts so that they know where to go. We are working far more closely with NHS England and the devolved Administrations to understand where the complex treatment services are, and to ensure that when people make the transition, they are handed across to the civilian agency that will look after them.
It is wonderful for me, as the founder of the all-party parliamentary group on the armed forces covenant, to see an Order Paper that is full of those three words, which did not exist a few years ago. This is a conversation that is critical to the House. Will the Minister meet me to move forward the discussion about the creation of an armed forces covenant ombudsman, so that when the issues raised by colleagues get stuck and we cannot find a solution, we have a real authority to fix things?
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for the work that she has done on this issue as chair of the APPG. I should be more than delighted to meet her. It is important that we carry out the necessary scrutiny and are seen to be doing so, and that we do what is best for our veterans.
I am grateful to the Minister for his answer to the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Midlothian (Danielle Rowley), but does he not agree that when 0.01% of the NHS budget is spent on veterans’ mental health care, we have a great deal further to go? Will he at least endorse fully the recommendations of the Defence Committee on the issue?
I was delighted to address the Committee on this matter only the other day, and to discuss it. It is absolutely true that we need to follow the money. We know that £21 billion has been given to the NHS to cover the next 10 years, of which a proportion will go to mental health. The Prime Minister herself wants to see parity between mental and physical health and wellbeing, so let us make sure that we can identify where those funds are. I hope that I, or the Defence Secretary, will have a meeting with the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care as soon as possible to see what more can be done.
The Army continues to work closely with Capita with multiple interventions now in place and the delivery of improvements. Regular soldier applications remain at a five-year high with this year’s “Your Army needs you” advertising campaign seeing over 15,000 applications in January alone. It will take longer to see increases to trained strengths due to the length of the recruitment and training pipeline.
The Secretary of State has said he might re-examine the Capita contract in the next financial year, meaning we will have to wait another 12 months before any action is taken. All the while Capita is failing abysmally, with Army numbers falling year after year. Instead of endlessly kicking the can down the road, why do the Government not deal with the problem now: strip Capita of the contract and bring the service back in-house?
I answered that question earlier and, with respect to the hon. Lady, she clearly did not listen to the answer I just gave her. Applications are up; there is the start of a process. One of the confusions the House has is that we talk about trained strength, which is the number—93% manned in respect of the Army—but that is after a very long process of going through not only basic training but, for example, for Royal Engineers also combat engineer training and then trade training. So this can take up to 18 months from the first time somebody puts a uniform on and considers themselves to be part of the Army. Those in training do not go home and say “I’m not in the Army because I am not fully trade trained yet.” There are some 5,000 soldiers now in that process who are wearing a uniform but are not included in the numbers; in time they will join the Army and we are seeing that uplift. It is the time lag that this House is not fully understanding, but I understand why.
In terms of the effectiveness of recruitment, my right hon. Friend will know that we recruit many armed forces servicemen and women from the Commonwealth, but is he aware of the Royal British Legion campaign to eliminate the current high costs of their applications for indefinite leave to remain, to which they are eligible after four years’ service? This can cost almost £10,000 for a family of four; does my right hon. Friend agree it is time that this issue was tackled in order that we recruit more from the Commonwealth?
The security situation on the Korean peninsula has improved since North Korea adopted a self-imposed moratorium on missile launches. North Korea almost certainly wishes to avoid conflict; however the balance of hard military power on the peninsula has not altered substantively recently. North Korea needs to engage in meaningful negotiations with the United States and take concrete steps towards complete denuclearisation.
The failure of recent talks aimed at securing denuclearisation in North Korea was disappointing, although I welcome South Korea’s attempt to revive them. Will my right hon. Friend assure me that UK Government support for any agreement reached in future would be dependent on a commitment by North Korea to complete denuclearisation?
We have been absolutely consistent that there must be complete denuclearisation, and while it is disappointing as to where talks have gone we must remain hopeful that pressure can be applied for North Korea to come back to the table in order to be able to reinvigorate these discussions going forward.
Will the Government make it clear that North Korea cannot play games, as it has done for more than 20 years, just wanting to get sanctions lifted or get economic support from outside and then reverting to its old policies, and that there will be consequences internationally if it does that?
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point, and I remember visiting South Korea with him back in, I think, 2010 or 2011 where we looked at this. It is vital that Britain stands shoulder to shoulder with our UN friends in terms of the imposition and enforcement of sanctions, which the Royal Navy has been leading on with our other UN partners.
We continue to monitor what is happening in North Korea. It is vitally important that we work with other allies, including the People’s Republic of China, to put pressure on North Korea in order to reduce the amount of nuclear testing it has in the past been conducting.
Air Defence Radar Systems and Offshore Wind Sites
The Ministry of Defence’s first priority is always to guarantee that the UK is able to meet its national security obligations, which include ensuring that our air defence radar systems can operate effectively. The Ministry is supportive of the offshore wind sector deal, and we remain keen to work closely across Government and with the industry to support this.
Over half the new offshore wind sites that the Government have announced they will build will affect aviation radar systems. The Under-Secretary of State for Defence, the right hon. Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood), responded to a written question of mine on 20 February, saying that the solution is
“challenging and requires upgraded or new technologies, which are not currently part of the equipment programme.”
Does that not simply mean that the Government’s ability to deliver on that sector deal is going to be hampered?
The hon. Lady raises an important point because the scale and size of the proposed wind farms are significant. I have been speaking to officials about how we might use the innovation fund, for example, to work closely with the industry to find a solution to this problem.
Defence Industry: Exports and Jobs
In 2017, the UK won defence orders worth £9 billion, making us the second largest global defence exporter. We work actively with the Department for International Trade to support industry, and recent successes include the export of the Type 26 to Canada and Australia, and the US Department of Defence awarding a further £500 million-worth of support work for the F-35 programme in north Wales.
Supacat, the leading specialist in the design and development of high-mobility defence vehicles, is located in my constituency. If it wins a contract in Denmark, it has to offset 60% of that work in Denmark with supplying those vehicles to the Danish Government, yet that is not something that we do here. Will the Minister meet Supacat to discuss what more could be done to ensure that we secure high-skilled defence jobs in this country when defence contracts are lost to foreign companies?
Of course I would be more than happy to meet my hon. Friend and the company in his constituency. The UK and many of our closest international defence partners do not use offset because it can distort the market and lead to reduced value for money, but we look at alternative ways to encourage more inward investment. That is why we are working closely with Boeing and Lockheed Martin, and we are aiming for 60% of the Boxer programme to be undertaken in the UK.
It was a pleasure to see the hon. Gentleman in Glasgow. That was a great event and I was happy to be there. He will know that we are trying to make UK industry as competitive as possible. That is why we are putting this out to international competition; it is not described as a warship. That said, I am delighted that there is a team UK, a consortium of UK shipbuilders, bidding into that competition. There will also be lots of opportunities for the supply chain, which has benefited from other competitions that went international, such as that for the military afloat reach and sustainability—MARS—ships.
Redundant Military Equipment
When defence equipment becomes surplus to requirements, the Defence Equipment Sales Authority disposes of it using compliant contractors or by direct sale to other Governments. Contractors who process or dispose of sensitive defence equipment are subject to a strict ongoing security assurance programme.
The Minister will be aware of the serious allegations relating to the transportation and storage of defence technology from Leonardo by Used Equipment Surplus and Storage Ltd—UES&S—in my constituency. Ministry of Defence police visited my constituents and told them that prosecutions were likely to follow and that they would receive a copy of the investigation report. My constituents are still waiting. Every request I have made for a meeting with Ministers has been turned down for more than a year. Will the Minister meet me and will he give me a copy of the report, because there are serious concerns that there is a cover-up going on here?
I can tell the right hon. Gentleman that there have been inspections at those premises and that nothing was seen to be of concern. However, I understand the issues that the situation is causing his constituents, so I would be more than happy to meet with him and them.
Defence Manufacturing: Employment Trends
The Ministry of Defence spent £18.9 billion with UK industry in 2017-18, directly supporting 115,000 jobs across the country.
I thank the Minister for that response. He will be aware that Dowty Propellers, one of the world’s largest propeller manufacturers, had an unfortunate fire in my constituency four years ago. Owned by an American company, GE Aviation, it could have rebuilt the factory anywhere, but it has chosen to build it in my constituency, thereby securing 350 jobs. I thank the Government for their contribution through the digital propulsion scheme, which will contribute to the success of the company.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on his work in this area and welcome the fact that GE Aviation’s investment is creating this new propeller facility. It will form part of the defence industry’s massive contribution to the south-west and provides the jobs on which many people rely.
In this, the 50th year of the continuous at sea nuclear deterrent, the MOD is proud to continue to protect the security and stability not only of our nation, but of our allies. I will be attending the commemoration service at Westminster Abbey on 3 May, and I hope that many colleagues from both sides of the House will also be able to commemorate this important milestone.
In response to the Defence Secretary’s speech to RUSI on 11 February, particularly his remarks about the deployment of HMS Queen Elizabeth to the South China sea, George Osborne described it as a throwback to an era of “gunboat diplomacy” and Lord Dannatt described the Defence Secretary as wanting to
“use defence as a platform to develop his own career”.
Will the Defence Secretary therefore take this opportunity to explain exactly what he means by that deployment and to say whether he has managed to have discussions with the Chancellor about the finer points of international diplomacy and trade?
As I am sure the hon. Gentleman is aware, we are the second-largest investor in south-east Asia. We have strong and deep links with many allies, including Australia, New Zealand, Japan, South Korea, Singapore, Malaysia and, of course, the United States. It is therefore perfectly natural and expected to continue to operate and exercise alongside our allies.
My right hon. Friend is right that we need to release land that is surplus to requirements. The MOD owns 2% of Britain, and it is important to have a programme of disposal that works with local communities to free up land for important housing.
I am sure that the entire House was distraught yesterday to hear press reports of injuries sustained by UK special forces in Yemen and will join me in wishing a speedy recovery to those affected. I appreciate that the MOD does not comment on special forces operations, but the news certainly illustrates the engagement of UK forces in that part of the Arabian peninsula. Will the Secretary of State make a statement to the House to ensure that we and our constituents can know more about the UK’s ongoing role in that desperate, devastating conflict?
As the hon. Gentleman knows, we neither confirm nor deny the use of our special forces.
As was touched upon earlier, we are very much showing and leading by example with the promotion of many women into some of the highest roles within the Army, the Navy and, of course, the Royal Air Force. We have been looking at how we do our advertising and how we reach out to encourage more women to understand there is a very positive career in our armed forces.
We accept there have been issues with this contract, but we are working very closely with industry to try to resolve it and to make sure there are the training facilities needed for the people who want to take up that career.
That is a very interesting response, but is it not the case that there is this problem because there are shortages of planes and instructors, and that things are so bad that the MOD is paying a private contractor for phantom courses that never take place? On current estimates, it will take another 20 years before the RAF has enough pilots, so how does the Minister propose to remedy this totally unacceptable situation?
The hon. Lady is absolutely right, and that is exactly what we are doing. I was very pleased to host an SME forum in Belfast, and the next one will be in Wales. We have officials all over the country engaging with SMEs, because we recognise the massive contribution they can make to the defence needs of this country.
My hon. Friend touches on such an important issue. If we are to retain people in the armed forces, we need to provide the necessary support on mental health issues. The Prime Minister herself has said that she wants to see parity between mental and physical health, which is exactly what the 2017 mental health strategy seeks to secure.
If RAF Scampton is to close, which everyone in Lincolnshire naturally opposes, in deciding where the Red Arrows should go, will the Secretary of State bear in mind that we have three excellent airfields—Waddington, Coningsby and Cranwell—and, above all, wonderful airspace, and that we should not move the Red Arrows to an inferior county like Yorkshire?
In our spend on defence, it is important that our armed forces get the best, and in respect of naval propulsion systems that means the low-vibration motors produced by GE Energy in Rugby. Does the Minister agree that it is important to maintain that capability in the UK?
My hon. Friend has raised this issue a number of times. I, along with the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, my hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey (Stuart Andrew), who has responsibility for defence procurement, have also met him on this. We are working closely with GE to do everything we can to support the business going forward and this includes the enormous work that has been put into securing export orders as well.
No one in Broxtowe wants the British Army to leave the Chetwynd barracks, especially as we are so proud of our association with the Sappers—the Royal Engineers—but we understand that the land must be sold off. What we are concerned about is the delay in the sale. I would be grateful if the Minister would be agreeable to a meeting so that we can see how we can best dispose of the land for housing.
With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a statement on last week’s European Council. Before the Council, I wrote to President Tusk to seek formal approval for the legally binding assurances on the Northern Ireland backstop and alternative arrangements agreed in Strasbourg on 11 March. I reported your statement, Mr Speaker, which made it clear that for a further meaningful vote to take place, the deal would have to be
“fundamentally different—not different in terms of wording, but different in terms of substance”.—[Official Report, 18 March 2019; Vol. 656, c. 782.]
I explained that, as a result, some right hon. and hon. Members were seeking further changes to the withdrawal agreement, and I requested a short extension to the article 50 process, to 30 June. I regret having to do so—I wanted to deliver Brexit on 29 March—but I am conscious of my duties as Prime Minister to all parts of our United Kingdom and of the damage to that Union that leaving without a deal could do when one part of it is without devolved government and unable, therefore, to prepare properly.
The Council formally endorsed the legal instrument relating to the withdrawal agreement and the joint statement supplementing the political declaration. This should increase the confidence of the House that the backstop is unlikely ever to be used, and would only be temporary if it is. But the Council also reiterated, once again, its long-standing position that there could be no reopening of the withdrawal agreement. So however the House decides to proceed this week, everyone should be absolutely clear that changing the withdrawal agreement is simply not an option.
Turning to extending article 50, this has always required the unanimous agreement of the other 27 member states. As I have made clear before, it was never guaranteed that the EU would agree to an extension—or the terms on which we requested it—and it did not. Instead, the Council agreed that if the House approves the withdrawal agreement this week, our departure will be extended to 11 pm on 22 May. This will allow time for Parliament to pass the withdrawal agreement Bill, which is legally necessary for the deal to be ratified. But if the House does not approve the withdrawal agreement this week, our departure will instead be extended only to 11 pm on 12 April. At this point, we would either leave with no deal, or we would
“indicate a way forward before this date for consideration by the European Council”.
If that involved a further extension, it would certainly mean participation in the European parliamentary elections.
The Council’s conclusions were subsequently turned into a legal decision, with which the UK agreed and which came into force last Friday. So although the Government have today laid a statutory instrument, which will be debated later this week, to reflect that decision in our own domestic legislation, the date for our departure from the EU has now changed in international law. Were the House not to pass the statutory instrument, it would cause legal confusion and damaging uncertainty, but it would not have any effect on the date of our exit.
I continue to believe that the right path forward is for the United Kingdom to leave the EU with a deal as soon as possible, which is now on 22 May, but it is with great regret that I have had to conclude that, as things stand, there is still not sufficient support in the House to bring back the deal for a third meaningful vote. I continue to have discussions with colleagues across the House to build support, so that we can bring the vote forward this week and guarantee Brexit. If we cannot, the Government have made a commitment that we would work across the House to find a majority on a way forward.
The amendment in the name of my right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Sir Oliver Letwin) seeks to provide for that process by taking control of the Order Paper. I continue to believe that doing so would set an unwelcome precedent, which would overturn the balance between our democratic institutions, so the Government will oppose the amendment this evening. But in order to fulfil our commitments to the House, we would seek to provide Government time in order for the process to proceed. It would be for the House to put forward options for consideration and to determine the procedure by which it wished to do so.
I must confess that I am sceptical about such a process of indicative votes. When we have tried this kind of thing in the past, it has produced contradictory outcomes or no outcome at all. There is a further risk when it comes to Brexit, as the UK is only one half of the equation and the votes could lead to an outcome that is unnegotiable with the EU. No Government could give a blank cheque to commit to an outcome without knowing what it is, so I cannot commit the Government to delivering the outcome of any votes held by the House, but I do commit to engaging constructively with the process.
There are many different views on the way forward, but I want to explain the options as I understand them. The default outcome continues to be to leave with no deal, but the House has previously expressed its opposition to that path, and may very well do so again this week. The alternative is to pursue a different form of Brexit or a second referendum, but the bottom line remains that if the House does not approve the withdrawal agreement this week and is not prepared to countenance leaving without a deal, we will have to seek a longer extension. This would entail the UK having to hold European elections, and it would mean that we will not have been able to guarantee Brexit. These are now choices that the House will have the opportunity to express its view on.
This is the first chance I have had to address the House since my remarks last Wednesday evening—[Interruption.]
I expressed my frustration with our collective failure to take a decision, but I know that many Members across the House are frustrated too, and we all have difficult jobs to do. People on all sides of the debate hold passionate views, and I respect those differences. I thank all those colleagues who have supported the deal so far, and those who have taken the time to meet with me to discuss their concerns.
I hope we can all agree that we are now at the moment of decision, and in doing so we must confront the reality of the hard choices before us: unless this House agrees to it, no deal will not happen; no Brexit must not happen; and a slow Brexit that extends article 50 beyond 22 May, forces the British people to take part in European elections, and gives up control of any of our borders, laws, money or trade is not a Brexit that will bring the British people together. I know that the deal I have put forward is a compromise—it seeks to deliver on the referendum and retain trust in our democracy, while also respecting the concerns of those who voted to remain—but if this House can back it, we could be out of the European Union in less than two months. There would no further extensions, no threat to Brexit and no risk of a no deal. That, I believe, is the way to deliver the Brexit that the British people voted for. I commend this statement to the House.
I thank the Prime Minister for the advance copy of her statement and for the meetings that we have had in recent days.
The Government’s approach to Brexit has now become a national embarrassment. After two years of failure and broken promises after broken promises, the Prime Minister finally accepted the inevitable last week, voted to extend article 50 and went to Brussels to negotiate. Last week’s summit represented another negotiating failure for the Prime Minister. Her proposals were rejected and new terms were imposed on her. We now have an extension until mid-April, or 22 May, but despite the clearly expressed will of this House, we still face the prospect of a disastrous no-deal Brexit. This is even more remarkable given that the Minister for the Cabinet Office told this very Chamber that
“seeking such a short and, critically, one-off extension would be downright reckless”.—[Official Report, 14 March 2019; Vol. 656, c. 566.]
This failure has been compounded by the Prime Minister’s attempts last week to pin the blame for this debacle on others. It was wholly inappropriate, last Wednesday, for her to try to pit the people against MPs—elected MPs doing their duty to hold the Government of the day to account, which is what Parliament exists for. In a climate of heightened emotions where MPs from all parts of the House have received threats and intimidation, I hope that she will further reflect and think again about making what I believe to be such dangerous and irresponsible statements.
Every step of the way along this process the Government have refused to reach out, refused to listen and refused to find a consensus that can represent the views of the whole country, not just those of the Conservative party. Large parts of our country continue to be ignored by this Government. It is no wonder that so many people felt compelled to march on the streets or to sign petitions over the weekend. Even the most ardent of leavers think that this Government have failed. It is easy to understand the frustration at this chaos—it exists in this House, in Brussels, and across the country.
The Government have no plan. For them, it is all about putting the Conservative party before the country. Given that the Prime Minister has admitted that she does not have the numbers for her deal, will she accept today that her deal is dead and that the House should not have to waste its time giving the same answer for a third time?
The Prime Minister has succeeded in unifying two sides against her deal. The CBI and TUC’s unprecedented joint statement last week demanded a plan B that protects jobs, workers, industry and communities. Does the Prime Minister have a plan B? The Government have failed, and they have let the people down whether they voted leave or remain. The country cannot afford to continue in this Tory crisis. It is time for Parliament to take control, which is why, later today, we will be backing the amendment in the name of the right hon. Member for West Dorset (Sir Oliver Letwin).
You made it clear last week, Mr Speaker, that, for the Prime Minister to bring back her deal, there must be significant changes. There are none. Rather than trying to engineer a way to bring back the same twice-rejected deal, will she instead allow plans—rather than fight plans—for indicative votes? She cannot accept that her deal does not have the numbers and also stand in the way of finding an alternative that may have the numbers. It is ridiculous to suggest that Parliament taking control is “overturning democratic institutions”. It is not; it is Parliament doing its democratic job of holding Government to account. Will the Prime Minister agree to abide by the outcome of these indicative votes, if they take place on Wednesday?
The Labour party will continue cross-party discussions to find a way forward, and I thank Members who have met colleagues of mine and me to have those discussions. I believe that there is support in this House for a deal—one that is based on an alternative that protects jobs and the economy through a customs union, provides full single market access, and allows us to continue to benefit from participation in vital agencies and security measures. If the Government refuse to accept this, we will support measures for a public vote to stop no deal or a chaotic Tory deal.
The Government have had more than two years to find a solution, and they have failed. It is time that we put an end to this, move on from the chaos and failure, and begin to clean up the mess. It is time for Parliament to work together and agree on a plan B. If the Prime Minister is brave, she will help to facilitate this. If not, Parliament must send a clear message in the coming days. I hope that where the Government have failed, this House can and will succeed.
Once again, the right hon. Gentleman said that we still face the prospect of no deal. As I said earlier, the House has rejected no deal twice now and could very well continue to reject it, but the only way of actually putting that into practice is to support a deal. He also talks about reaching out. I have reached out to party leaders and other Members across the House, and my right hon. Friends the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union have held a number of meetings with Members across the House and with party leaders.
The right hon. Gentleman ended by saying that it is now time for the House to decide. The point is that, up to now, the House has not decided. [Interruption.] Yet again, Opposition Members say that they have not had a chance. The House has had many chances to table amendments. The House has voted twice on the right hon. Gentleman’s plans for the future and rejected them, it has voted to reject no deal and it has also voted to reject a second referendum. The right hon. Gentleman asked whether the Government would commit to abide by the indicative votes. As he accepted, I gave him advance notice of my statement and I then read that statement, in which I clearly said:
“I cannot commit the Government to delivering the outcome of any votes held by this House.”
That’s not good enough.
The shadow Foreign Secretary shouts, “That’s not good enough.” Let us just think about this for a moment. First, we do not know which options will be tabled. Secondly, we do not know which amendments will be selected. But there is another important point: no one would want to support an option that contradicted the manifesto on which they stood for election to this House. The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster will be opening the debate this afternoon, and will refer to the processes of the House that will be involved.
The right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the Opposition said that it was important that MPs were elected here to take responsibility and make decisions. But the MPs elected to the House at this time have a duty to respect the result of the referendum that took place in 2016. Attempts to stop the result of that referendum being put in place or to change the result of that referendum are not respecting the voters and they are not respecting our democracy.
Finally, the right hon. Gentleman mentioned the fact that a number of people had marched on the question of a second referendum. [Interruption.]
The right hon. Gentleman referred to the fact that a march for a second referendum took place. It is, in fact, the right hon. Gentleman’s policy, and I noticed that his deputy went on the march. I thought that the right hon. Gentleman normally jumped at any opportunity to go on a march, but he was not actually there on this occasion; I can only assume that he was involved but not present.
What would the Prime Minister say to a leave voter who wants us to leave on 29 March and thinks that indicative votes are a waste of time because, as she rightly says, the options on offer have already been rejected once or twice in this Parliament?
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right that the options that appear to be on offer have already been rejected by this Parliament. I would have to point out, of course, that for reasons that I explained in my statement—in relation, particularly, to the Governments of parts of the United Kingdom—we have requested the extension to article 50, so the 29 March date is no longer there. But I would say to a leave voter: we can guarantee Brexit and leaving on 22 May, as the Council conclusion suggests, by supporting the deal that has been put forward. That is the way to guarantee Brexit; anything else does not guarantee Brexit.
I thank the Prime Minister for an advance copy of her statement.
We are in a crisis, but one of the Prime Minister’s own making. Her ill-judged speech before she departed for Brussels concluded that everyone is to blame but herself, trying to put herself on the side of the people and blaming parliamentarians. It was Trumpesque. We do not need such raw populism at a time like this—it is truly flabbergasting. Will she now apologise for blaming parliamentarians in the way that she did?
The Prime Minister needs to be reminded: she is supposed to be leading a country. No one on these Opposition Benches thinks she can deliver. Her Back Benchers do not think she can deliver. People right across the United Kingdom do not think she can deliver. Prime Minister, time is up. Today is about parliamentarians taking back control. People at home are watching, and they are ashamed of this Parliament, ashamed of this Government, ashamed of the embarrassment that British politics has become. Today, Parliament must move to find a consensus. We must come together and protect the interests of citizens across Scotland and all other parts of the United Kingdom. I say to Members: we still have a choice.
I want to ask the Prime Minister now, with all sincerity—will she respect the will of Parliament and reject no deal? While she is telling us that our votes do not count, Privy Counsellors are being given briefings by her Government, and those briefings are talking about catastrophe and the real risks that there are to the United Kingdom. It is the Prime Minister who is threatening the people of the United Kingdom with no deal, and a no-deal exit that this Parliament has already rejected. What is the point of us all sitting in this Chamber and voting in debates when the Prime Minister thinks she can ignore parliamentary sovereignty? What a disgrace—what an insult to this place; if our votes do not count, then frankly we may as well just go home.
If this Prime Minister is telling the people of Scotland that our votes did not count when we voted to remain, well, we know what the answer is: the day is coming when the people of Scotland will vote for independence and we will be an independent country in the European Union. So will the Prime Minister tell us, do our votes count? Are they binding on the Government or is this just a puppet show? If that is the case, this is the greatest assault on democracy inflicted by any Prime Minister. If Members of Parliament are prepared to tolerate that, then shame on them—shame on them. Scotland will not be dragged out of the European Union by this Prime Minister. From the very beginning of this process, Scotland has been ignored, and now we learn that Parliament will once again be ignored.
At the weekend, I was proud and privileged to take part in a historic march in London. I was proud to stand with the people, alongside Scotland’s First Minister, and demand that the Government listen to the people. Let me tell the Prime Minister this: she said that no deal is the alternative; well, we on these Benches will move to revoke, because Scottish parliamentarians have made sure that we have that power, and we will stop her driving us off a cliff edge. Over 1 million people marched to have the chance to vote again to stop this chaos. Prime Minister, why are you not listening? The Prime Minister must end this madness. Put it to the people—let us have a people’s vote.
The right hon. Gentleman put forward a number of proposals for the way forward in the speech that he has just given in response to my statement. There was one point at which he said Scotland would vote to become an independent country in the European Union. Of course, what was perfectly clear in the independence referendum in 2014, when Scotland rejected independence and decided to stay—
The right hon. Gentleman says, “Give it a rest!” He stands up here proclaiming the benefits of democracy and yet tells me to give it a rest when I point out that the people of Scotland voted to remain part of the United Kingdom. He talks about coming together. This House has a duty to deliver Brexit. That means, I believe, delivering a Brexit with a deal that enables that smooth and orderly exit. He asks whether his vote counts and votes in this House count. Of course votes in this House count, but so do the votes of 17.4 million people who voted to leave the European Union.
The statutory instrument for the extension of time was laid one hour ago. There is grave concern that there was no lawful UK authority for the decision on 22 March to extend the exit date. Did the Prime Minister seek the Attorney General’s advice beforehand, as clearly required by both the ministerial code and the Cabinet manual, and will she publish that advice? Why did she not invoke the commencement order for section 1 of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018, repealing the European Communities Act 1972?
My hon. Friend talks about the decision to extend article 50. This House had supported an extension of article 50. Yes, the Council took a different decision in relation to the length of time that that extension could take place for, but the House was clear—people are saying to me, “Listen to the House and respect the House”—that an extension of article 50 should be sought, and an extension was agreed.
The Prime Minister has told the House that if her withdrawal agreement is not approved by this Friday, the extension we have been granted will last only until 12 April. If the Prime Minister currently does not intend to bring her deal back for another vote, she will then be faced with only two choices: doing nothing, in which case we will leave with no deal on 12 April, or applying for a further extension. Given the crisis that is facing our country, the public have a right to know which of those two options the Prime Minister intends to choose. Prime Minister, could you please tell us?
The right hon. Gentleman is right that I said that, as things stand, I did not believe there was support for bringing back a meaningful vote, but I also indicated that I was continuing to talk to colleagues across this House. I would hope to be able to bring back a vote in this House that enables us to guarantee Brexit, because the one way of guaranteeing Brexit is to abide by the decision that was taken last week and ensure that we leave on 22 May.
Does the Prime Minister welcome the comments of the Taoiseach over the weekend that he believes that there are special arrangements that could be put in place to maintain an invisible border on the island of Ireland, even in the event that the UK leaves without a deal?
We have, as my right hon. Friend knows—she has been involved in some of these discussions—been looking at the alternative arrangements that could be put in place, and further work is required, but I would also draw her attention to, I believe, a release by the European Commission today, in which it makes clear that, in all circumstances, all EU laws would have to be abided by.
Those of us who were among the 1 million on Saturday naturally regret that both the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition were too busy to join us. Does she agree with the observation of her Chancellor that such a referendum is a “perfectly coherent proposition”?
Virtually every time the right hon. Gentleman stands up when I have made a statement or am opening a debate in the House on this subject, he asks me about a second referendum. My view about a second referendum is very simple. I was not on the march not because I was too busy, as he says, but because he and I hold a different opinion about a second referendum. I believe it is important that this House, rather than talking about and wanting to pass the decision back to the British people again, says to them, “We will abide by the instruction you gave us in the referendum in 2016.”
The cost to the British people and the amount of money that will be payable under the deal that the Prime Minister has put forward is between £34 billion and £39 billion. What do the Government estimate is the cost to the United Kingdom of no deal?
My right hon. Friend asks an important question. We have published economic analysis that shows the impact of no deal. Over £4 billion is being spent by the Government on preparations for leaving the European Union with or without a deal. As I say, there is economic analysis that shows the impact of no deal over the coming months. My own view is that, over time, we would be able to address the issues that arose, but there would be an immediate impact on the economy.
The Prime Minister said that she is prepared to provide for indicative votes and to engage constructively with the process, but she has also many times—she appeared to again today—ruled out supporting a customs union. If a customs union is supported in indicative votes, is she ruling out the Government attempting to negotiate a customs union with the European Union?
The right hon. Lady has asked me on a number of occasions about a customs union, and I have made my view on a customs union very clear. A number of alternative ways forward in relation to a deal have been suggested over time in this House, but there are a number of questions that Members need to ask themselves. When she talks about a customs union, what rules would she see us abiding by? Would it involve abiding by state aid rules? In some of the proposals, there is a real question whether free movement would continue to be abided by. I stood on a manifesto that made reference to a customs union because I and the Labour party both believed we should be able to have an independent trade policy. It continues to be my view that we should have an independent trade policy in the future.
The European Commission said today that all preparations for no deal had been completed, and last week the Under-Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, the hon. Member for Daventry (Chris Heaton-Harris), made it clear in response to the urgent question that good progress had been made by the UK on preparations for no deal. So it is a bit surprising to hear from the Prime Minister that Northern Ireland is “unable” to “prepare properly” because it does not have devolved government. Which areas of Government activity present a problem, and when will they be resolved?
The Northern Ireland civil service does not have the powers to take the decisions that would be needed if the UK left the European Union with no deal. It is possible to address those issues, but had that not been done by 29 March, the question about the impact on Northern Ireland, where there is no devolved government, would be an important one. It is absolutely right that the Government took the view that it was not appropriate to allow no deal to go ahead at a time when the powers were not in place to ensure proper exercise of the decision making necessary in a no-deal situation.
On that last point, the Prime Minister and the House have known for some considerable time that 29 March was the target date, so why have appropriate preparations not been made? Why do we need another two weeks? What will happen in another two weeks that could not have happened up to now? This is a fundamental lack of preparation, and the Government are entirely responsible for that if it is the case. This is an entirely new argument that we are hearing for the first time about why we need an extension.
The former Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, the right hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Theresa Villiers)—who has great experience, having served for four years in Northern Ireland—has pointed out that Leo Varadkar has made it clear that, in terms of no deal, he is very confident that there will be no border checks. [Interruption.] The Prime Minister shakes her head, but that is what he said. Michel Barnier and Angela Merkel have said the same. The reality is that this backstop problem has been elevated. I would like the Prime Minister’s views on this: why does the EU insist on it when, in the case of no deal, there do not need to be any checks? Why did the Prime Minister ever agree to this backstop in the first place when it is the thing that bedevils her agreement?
Today is not the first time that the position of Governments about Northern Ireland in a no-deal situation has been raised. It was raised by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs in the debate on no deal, which took place nearly two weeks ago. I simply say to the right hon. Gentleman that a number of statements are made and have been made by individuals about the situation in relation to the border in Northern Ireland. If we look at the detail of what the European Union has said, we see that it has made it clear that European Union law would need to be adhered to in any circumstance in which there was no deal. We ourselves have said, and the right hon. Gentleman is aware of this, that we would ensure that we were moving towards a period of time—because of the legal situation it could only be for a temporary period—of minimal checks with exceptions, but the legal position is different, given the necessity to be able to have certain checks taking place. The European Union has been clear that EU law would need to be applied in all of these circumstances.
Further to that point, is the Prime Minister suggesting that in order for Northern Ireland to be ready to leave with no deal, there would need to be some form of direct decision making by us in this House in the absence of a Stormont Government?
Yes, my hon. Friend is absolutely right. If there is no Stormont Government and if powers and ministerial direction, which are not currently available to the civil servants, are needed, that would require some form of direct application of powers from Westminster.
The Prime Minister appears to have ruled out bringing back her deal for an indefinite length of time, and yet we have only two weeks before we crash out without a deal. She has said that she will not necessarily take notice of this House’s indicative vote process, and she has also said that she will not continue as Prime Minister if we remain in the EU beyond 30 June. The situation seems to be pointing directly to a prime ministerial dash for no deal. Will she say that that is not what she wants and tell us when she is going to abandon her deal rather than keep postponing the vote on it?
I have always been clear that I want us to leave the European Union. My preference is for us to leave the European Union with a deal. But I have also always been clear—it is a very simple, logical fact—that it is not possible for hon. Members simply to say that they do not want no deal. If they are going to leave the European Union, we have to have a deal if we are not going to leave without a deal.
Sometimes it is hard to believe what one hears in this House these days, but we have it written in black and white that the Prime Minister said this afternoon that she cannot commit to delivering the outcome of any votes held by the House. Does she realise that that makes a mockery of parliamentary democracy? Will she reconsider, and commit to holding a binding vote to avoid a no-deal Brexit?
It is a very simple position—an indicative vote is exactly that: an indicative vote. Members of this House cannot expect the Government simply to give a blank cheque to any vote that came through. For example, the SNP position is that they would like to see the House voting to revoke article 50; the Government’s position is that we should deliver on the referendum result of 2016 and deliver Brexit.
Prime Minister, you have told us from the Dispatch Box on 108 separate occasions that we would leave the EU on 29 March. You have told the House that the date is now 12 April, but you have not changed your mind about ruling out a second referendum, unlike your Chancellor, who on “Sophy Ridge on Sunday” yesterday, effectively opened the door to it. Have you said anything to the Chancellor about this, or has collective responsibility on your watch completely collapsed?
I think the Chancellor of the Exchequer made the point that this was one of the propositions. It is indeed one of the propositions that has been put forward. Members from across the House have referenced that already, but I assure my right hon. Friend that I have not changed my view about it. As I indicated earlier, I believe we should deliver on the result of the first referendum.
The Prime Minister speaks of the frustration felt by MPs. Does she accept that it is born out of her intransigence, which is the greatest barrier to getting a deal? Following on from the question of my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn), if we do not get a deal through Parliament by this Friday, in 18 days—by 12 April—we will have to decide whether we want a longer extension or to crash out without a deal. Given that Parliament has voted twice already not to leave without a deal, will the Prime Minister confirm that, by 12 April, she will seek that longer extension and abide by Parliament’s wishes?
The hon. Lady is right about the result of the Council meeting that took place last week. If we can guarantee Brexit by agreeing a deal this week, we will leave on 22 May, and we have been clear about the commitment to facilitate seeing whether there is a majority in the House for anything. However, the Government cannot be expected simply to say that we will accept anything that comes through. We all stood on manifestos; we all have positions in relation to our duty to deliver on the referendum. I think that that is important and we should keep it in our minds.
The Prime Minister has accepted that the House will have so-called indicative votes to try to find whether there is a majority for a way forward, but she has twice declined to commit the Government to giving effect to a majority in the House, citing the fact that she stood on a manifesto, which she thinks should guide things. May I remind her that that manifesto appeared only halfway through the election campaign? I do not think that it was discussed in Cabinet. It was not circulated to the candidates, who were already fighting their campaigns, and nothing on Europe in that manifesto played any part in the general election. We are all being asked to show pragmatism and flexibility and to put the national interest first. May I ask my right hon. Friend to be prepared to bend from her commitment to the manifesto, apart from the one proposal that she dropped fairly promptly when it first appeared?
First, I do not accept the entire description that my right hon. and learned Friend set out. I say to him that, during the whole process of negotiation, there has been compromise. He was a respected and long-standing member of previous Governments. If he were standing at the Dispatch Box, prior to the possibility of indicative votes—and we will have to see; the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster will give a further explanation of the Government’s position later this afternoon, but if the amendment tabled by my right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Sir Oliver Letwin) passes, those indicative votes will take place—I do not think he would give a blank cheque. I think he is indicating his assent to what I am saying.
The Prime Minister has said once again that the European Union is not going to, under any circumstances, look again at the withdrawal agreement, so I agree with her that indicative votes are a nonsense, because, in the end, they are talking about the future relationship and not the withdrawal agreement. Why will she not start to prepare properly for what I do not call a “no deal”? It is not a no deal; it is a different type of deal that would take us out. [Interruption.] It is a World Trade Organisation deal. Why will she not continue to prepare for that, and to ensure that, in the end, what really matters is the people’s vote, not what this Parliament says?