House of Commons
Thursday 4 April 2019
The House met at half-past Nine o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
Exiting the European Union
The Secretary of State was asked—
European Parliamentary Elections
It should be clear to all Members of the House that asking the public to participate in elections for an organisation that we are meant to have left would damage trust in politics. However, there is no guarantee that the UK will not participate in European parliamentary elections if the House refuses to support a deal.
So no real plans then. Participation in the EU elections will be the death knell for the British public’s waning faith in our democracy. The fact that this week councils were advised by the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and Minister for the Cabinet Office, the right hon. Member for Aylesbury (Mr Lidington) to prepare for EU elections is yet another example of the dire consequences of the Prime Minister and the Government’s failure to secure a deal that commands the majority of the House. Is that not true?
With respect to the hon. Lady, that is a rather confused question, given that she—as I understand it—voted against the withdrawal agreement, which gave us a legal right to leave on 22 May. It is odd to vote against the means of departure and then criticise the absence of a departure.
The Conservative party national convention—the meeting of all local party chairmen—made it clear in February that were Brexit to be delayed so that we took part in the European elections, it would be a betrayal of the referendum result and inflict untold damage on the reputation of the Conservative party. Is that not right and does the Secretary of State agree?
I agree with my hon. Friend that to have European parliamentary elections three years after the country voted to leave would be damaging for our politics as a whole, but he will also have seen the vote in the House last night, which sought to take the option of leaving without a deal off the table. He will also be aware that the House has today refused to back any of the options for a deal that have been put to it.
Whether we participate or not depends on the progress of the talks currently taking place between the Prime Minister and my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition. If those talks do not succeed, the Government have committed to giving the House the opportunity to hold a series of indicative votes. Can the Secretary of State clarify whether the propositions before the House will be drafted and presented solely by the Government, or will Members on that occasion have an opportunity to submit their own motions for discussion and vote?
The right hon. Gentleman, as Chair of the Select Committee, is usually an expert on these matters, but I must, with respect, take issue with the statement within his question. It is not subject to the discussions with the Leader of the Opposition. The vote last Friday in which the right hon. Gentleman and his colleagues opposed the withdrawal agreement means that it is no longer the sovereign right of this Parliament whether we leave: it will be a matter to be agreed at the European Council, because the right is affixed to the withdrawal agreement, not to whatever the House decides in votes in the coming days.
Is it not simply the case that for as long as we are members of the European Union we have rights and responsibilities that go with that, and participating in democratic institutions such as the European Parliament is crucial? Can the Secretary of State confirm exactly what process is needed to trigger the elections? Will there be a debate on a statutory instrument, in the House or in Committee, or is it simply a stroke of the pen by the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster?
The hon. Gentleman is right in terms of the legal position. If we are a member of the European Union, under treaty law we will be required to have European parliamentary elections. Again, there has been some confusion in the House previously, with ideas such as rolling over the existing Members of the European Parliament or having them on a ratio similar to the composition of the House. If we were to still be a member of the European Union, which is not the Government’s intention, we would need to have European parliamentary elections.
DExEU Ministers and officials hold regular discussions with the Department of Health and Social Care. The safety of everyone who uses the NHS health and care services remains a key priority and is reflected in our planning for all scenarios.
As if the fact that the NHS is down by 8,000 nurses since December 2016 was not bad enough, 47% of them in a recent survey cited Brexit as the reason. Reports from Ealing show a similar exodus from the social care sector—distinctly unglamorous but important given the demographic time bomb coming down the track and the Government’s obsession with high-skilled migration. What is the Secretary of State doing to head off a crisis in that Cinderella sector?
I think the hon. Lady mischaracterises the position. The number of staff recorded as EU27 nationals working in the NHS trusts and clinical commissioning groups in England increased by more than 5,200 between June 2016 and December 2018—there has actually been an increase in EU nationals. She also omits to mention the record investment—£20.5 billion a year extra—that this Government are making in the NHS, the NHS apprenticeships we are bringing through, and the change in tier 2 visas for talent around the world in order to attract more doctors and nurses to the NHS.
In my former job, before I came to this place, I was an emergency planner for the NHS locally in Bristol. The NHS has had to put in contingency plans and major incident plans to cope with a no-deal scenario and the future. What compensation will the Government give local NHS bodies for the time and money they have spent and wasted on incident planning that probably will not come into effect because of the Government’s incompetence?
I know from my time as a Health Minister that the hon. Lady always asks very pertinent questions in respect of health matters. She will be well aware of the statement issued by the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, which said how well prepared the NHS was. It has been our priority to ensure that we maintain the supply of medicines and to ensure that the NHS is a priority in our contingency planning. That is the responsible thing for a Government to do.
Brexit Preparations: Cost
Since its formation, our Department has spent £25 million in 2016-17 and £58 million in 2017-18, and it has budgeted £96 million for 2018-19, but of course the Government have also allocated substantial sums to fund departmental preparations and preparations by devolved Administrations for EU exit.
I thank the Minister for his answer. Has his Department conducted any analysis of the costs of running a second referendum, and will he confirm that a second referendum is not Government policy?
I can certainly confirm the latter. A second referendum would create further uncertainty and division. We do not think it is the right way forward.
Has the Minister had a chance to discuss with the Transport Secretary the full cost to the taxpayer of Seaborne Freight, given the extension to article 50 and the costs incurred accordingly?
As the right hon. Gentleman will know, this was a contract where it was supposed to be payment by results, so that full cost is extremely limited.
What estimate have the Government made of the cost to the public purse and the potential damage to the economy if this has prevented them from implementing their manifesto commitment to leave the customs union?
I direct my hon. Friend to the Government’s own published cross-Government analysis, which looks at a range of different scenarios. It is clear that there are opportunities for pursuing international trade that we can take only if we are outside a customs union.
Will the Minister further outline the essential nature of the work to provide support and guidance to businesses, and the vital nature of support to the business community throughout the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland?
The hon. Gentleman makes a very important point. There has been a huge amount of engagement across Government, particularly from our Department, with businesses, both on a no-deal scenario and the contingency planning that has to continue until we have secured a deal, and on the potential for the future partnership. We will continue that engagement with businesses large and small. Of course, a huge amount of information is now on the gov.uk website, which I encourage businesses to look at to see what steps they might have to take in the event of no deal.
The UK and the EU have committed to discussing the reciprocal provision of visa-free travel for short-term visits under the future relationship. Both sides have also said that they do not intend to require visas for short-term visits in a no-deal scenario.
EU countries are some of the biggest contributors to our inbound tourism industry. We had 6 million visitors from the EU in the last three months of 2018 alone, and we are always pleased to welcome hundreds of thousands of them to Worcestershire. Does the Minister agree that the continuation of visa-free travel is vital to our tourism industry, which sustains 3 million jobs in the UK?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Last year, EU residents made 25.6 million trips to the UK, spending more than £10 billion. Like him, I would like to see more of them come to beautiful Worcestershire and admire our part of the world.
They will want us to go there and spend our money, won’t they?
Absolutely. My right hon. Friend is right. That is the indication we have heard from all member states and from the European Union. They will want to continue to welcome UK tourists.
Why then, have the Government not considered sorting out the problems that they have created with the post-study work visa?
The hon. Gentleman will know that the recent suggestions from the Migration Advisory Committee included specific recommendations for lengthening the opportunity for people to stay after study. It determined that the best way to do that was to reform the existing system rather than institute a different one.
Short visits are vital for business as well, whether it is for servicing aircraft engines, installing software or so much else. What plans do the Government have for ensuring that those reciprocal arrangements can continue?
My hon. Friend raises an excellent point. As he will know, we set out to achieve a labour mobility framework that will allow for travel for short-term business visits. This is an important part of the next stage of the negotiations. The absence of a requirement for visas for short-term travel is a useful backdrop to that for both the UK and the EU.
Political Declaration: Dynamic Alignment on Rights and Protections
The United Kingdom has a tradition of exceeding EU standards. We do not need to follow EU rules to continue to lead the way. An example of that is that UK maternity entitlements are nearly three times greater than the minimum EU standard.
Does the Minister agree with the TUC that the Government’s proposals on workers’ rights after Brexit are nothing but “flimsy procedural tweaks”? How will they be strengthened during current negotiations with the Leader of the Opposition?
As the right hon. and learned Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Keir Starmer) knows, we had discussions yesterday and there will be further discussions today. I am sure that workers’ rights will be among a range of issues that we will discuss. The hon. Gentleman will know that the Prime Minister has already said that she will bring forward a package of measures to strengthen enforcement of workers’ rights, and that is in part following discussions that we have had with a number of Opposition Members.
The Secretary of State talks about the Government being committed to exceeding EU standards, but practice does not seem to match his words. His Conservative colleagues in the European Parliament voted against the amendment to the posting of workers directive, which strengthens workers’ rights and addresses many of the concerns expressed about freedom of movement during the referendum. He will know that our obligation to transpose it into domestic law continues as long we are EU members and during the transitional period. When are the Government going to do that?
There is a real inconsistency here. Night after night we are told that we should trust the votes of the House of Commons. The Prime Minister has made a commitment not to lower standards below the current levels for workers’ rights and the environment, and our proposals on immigration go further than the commitments found in standard free trade agreements. It is odd that Opposition Members have so little faith in this House to protect the rights that workers need.
Article 50 Extension
The Prime Minister agreed the terms of a short extension at the March European Council. Were the House to have approved the withdrawal agreement by 29 March, we would have had an extension until 22 May. Given that the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues voted against that, he will be aware that we do not have that right, and the current right will be terminated on 12 April.
We are moving inevitably towards a situation in which we need an extension in order to have a confirmatory referendum. If a trade union negotiated an exit from a deal, it would go back to its members and ask them to confirm that that was still what they wanted, and to confirm the terms. Is that not a logical, sensible and inevitable outcome of this process?
I would have thought it was logical for the hon. Gentleman to follow his manifesto, which said that he would respect the referendum result. Going back to square one and asking the question again is not consistent with the manifesto on which the hon. Gentleman stood at the last election.
I do not know which selective poll the right hon. Gentleman is quoting from, but in our democracy we address these issues through the ballot box. In 2016 we had in essence the ultimate poll and 17.4 million people cast their vote to leave. The key message we get in our constituencies and very clearly from the business community—I do not need a poll for this—is that people do not want this process to drag on further. They want it to come to a resolution, and they want the House, instead of being against everything, to come to a decision. It is time we moved on and got this delivered.
Last night, the House voted to prevent a disastrous no-deal Brexit and to exert greater control over the process of extending article 50. The Secretary of State’s views on an extension are well known, but will he confirm that when the European Union (Withdrawal) (No. 5) Bill returns from the other place, he and the Government will comply with the spirit of it and dutifully seek a further extension of article 50 beyond 12 April?
I am very happy to confirm that, as set out in the “Ministerial Code”, Ministers will abide by the law. If the law of the land dictates a certain course of action, Ministers will, under the code, follow the law. The hon. Gentleman gets slightly ahead of himself, because the Bill passed Third Reading with a majority of only one last night, and it was passed in such haste that many of my colleagues had as little as two minutes to speak on Second Reading. I pointed out to the House flaws in the Bill, which I am sure their lordships will wish to explore. We will need to see what consideration takes place in the other House before any further deliberations are necessary in this place.
The House will have noted—I think with disappointment—the Secretary of State’s attempts to undermine the clear will expressed last night. The Opposition have no doubt that the Lords will discharge their duties quickly and efficiently in the circumstances. Given the clear will of the House as expressed in the Bill’s passage last night, I ask him to set out his view at this stage about what the Government believe the role of this place will be in the event that the European Council proposes a date different from that set out in a motion approved by the House, or if the Council agreed to the proposed date but attached conditions.
That is an odd response, if I might say so. The hon. Gentleman started by saying he was disappointed by my answer, in which I said I will follow the law and the ministerial code—I thought the Opposition would have expected that. He then said that he had “no doubt” that the Lords will pass the Bill, which carried in the Commons by just one vote. That is pretty condescending to the other place. By having no doubt that their lordships will simply approve the Bill, he takes for granted the scrutiny process in the other place. Given the many constitutional experts there are in the other place, I would have thought that their lordships would want to scrutinise this Bill, which was passed in haste with its constitutional flaws.
No Deal: Prevention
On Tuesday, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister set out a process through which we will seek to agree a plan to leave the EU with a deal. She has asked for a short extension in order to do that. The best way to avoid no deal, as the House well knows, is obviously to agree a deal. While no deal remains the legal default, the Government must go on preparing for this scenario as a contingency.
All of the leave campaigns promised that we should leave with a deal. Last week, no deal was rejected by over 71% of MPs, and the Prime Minister’s deal has also been overwhelmingly rejected. Will the Government finally admit that there are alternatives to leaving without a deal that can gain more support from Parliament than the Prime Minister’s deal?
The hon. Lady is absolutely right. If she has followed events this week, she will know that that is exactly why my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has extended the negotiations to and engaged in conversation with the Leader of the Opposition. It is precisely to find a solution to the impasse.
No deal did not appear on any ballot paper in 2016 and was ruled out by all the main leave campaign groups. Does the Minister therefore agree that it would be totally unacceptable to crash out without a deal, without first putting it back to the people?
The hon. Gentleman is quite right: the House has shown no inclination to leave the EU without a deal. That is why my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister is looking for a way forward and engaging with the Leader of the Opposition on precisely that issue.
Leaving without a deal would affect everybody, not least our dentists. I hope you will find it in order, Mr Speaker, for me to raise the issue of dentistry in a no-deal situation at this point. A third of the 6,500 European qualified dental registrants intend to leave UK dentistry. The British Dental Association chair, Mick Armstrong, has said:
“Government has failed to even acknowledge the scale of the crisis”.
I know that Ministers have recruitment and retention issues of their own at the moment, but is not the chair of the British Dental Association right, and what are the Government going to do about it?
I would like to pay tribute to my former colleague, my hon. Friend the Member for Daventry (Chris Heaton-Harris). He was a wonderful Minister and it is a shame that he has left us.
On the issue of professional qualifications, it is in the withdrawal agreement and it has always been the stated aim of the Government that there will be mutual recognition of qualifications. This is not controversial, and I think that it will assure many EU citizens in our country that they can continue to pursue their professions without any interruption or uncertainty.
The Government have had any number of opportunities to take no deal off the table. Last night, Parliament had to start the almost unprecedented step of passing legislation that is fiercely opposed by the Government to put Parliament and these islands where the Government should have put us a while ago. Last week, we had the astonishing spectacle of the Chief Whip going on the record to say that the Prime Minister had got it all wrong. Does the Secretary of State agree with the Chief Whip?
What my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has got right is the fact that we need a solution to the impasse. That is why this week, she has very openly invited the Leader of the Opposition to talks to track a way forward.
It is very noticeable that the Prime Minister is still refusing to talk to anyone who might say anything she disagrees with, but we will see what comes out of the talks. Given that it is the clear will of this House that no deal must be avoided and that this Parliament is in the process of passing legislation to prevent no deal from happening, is it tenable for any Minister of the Crown to continue actively to promote a no-deal Brexit that has been rejected by Parliament and was never endorsed by the people in the first place?
In respect of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister listening to diverse views, my understanding is that she spoke to the First Minister of Scotland yesterday and has been engaged in conversations with her. The position of the Government has always been the same: we favour a deal. We want to leave the EU with a negotiated deal, but it would be irresponsible of the Government not to prepare for no deal, because that still might happen. Indeed, Michel Barnier said this week that it was likely. It is therefore exactly the right thing for the Government to prepare for the scenario of no deal.
Devolved Administrations: Discussions
I regularly meet Ministers from the Scottish and Welsh Governments. On Monday, I spoke to Graeme Dey MSP and Jeremy Miles from the Welsh Assembly. The Secretary of State also meets his counterparts in the devolved Administrations. Indeed, he met his Scottish and Welsh counterparts on his very first day in the job.
Scotland voted overwhelmingly to stay in the EU and to retain free movement of people, which is essential for our economy and social wellbeing. What account has been taken of those facts in developing the UK’s Brexit strategy?
There has been a huge amount of engagement with the Scottish and Welsh Governments through the Joint Ministerial Committee and the Ministerial Forum, which I co-chair. A number of issues have been raised about Scotland’s place in Europe and our shared policy is to pursue, for instance, co-operation with Europe on universities. However, the hon. Gentleman will recognise that Scotland’s share of UK immigration is very low, and it is, as the Migration Advisory Committee has made clear, only really possible to have an immigration policy for the whole UK.
Legislative Proposals: No Withdrawal Agreement
The Government have undertaken extensive work to identify the legislation essential to deliver our exit from the EU. In fact, as I speak, almost all the statutory instruments—93% of them—required for a functioning statute book on exit day have been laid before Parliament.
The Government have failed to pass the Trade Bill, the Agriculture Bill, the Fisheries Bill, the financial services Bill and the environment Bill, and they have even failed to introduce the EU withdrawal Bill. Does that not show those who think we are ready to leave in a no-deal situation on 12 April that the Government are not prepared for that at all?
I reject the assumption behind the question. As I stated, almost all the SIs required—93% of something like 600—have been passed. She is quite right that there are Bills currently in Parliament that are being discussed and that are going through both Houses. All those Bills provide for a range of negotiation outcomes, as she knows, including a no-deal scenario.
Is it not now inconceivable to pass a meaningful vote before the EU Council next Thursday and therefore unavoidable to seek a lengthy Brexit delay and to hold European Parliament elections?
Given what we have seen in the past few weeks, I would never use “inconceivable”; anything can happen, as the right hon. Gentleman knows. I am confident that we will get a deal through. I am hopeful of that, because that is the only way that we will get a negotiated and orderly exit from the EU.
UK Manufacturing: Mutual Recognition of Regulatory Standards
The hon. Gentleman will be aware that we have had extensive meetings across the country, and I have seen many companies. We continue to recognise the importance of UK manufacturing and of maintaining a close trading relationship with the EU. As the political declaration sets out, we have already agreed to establish a free trade area for goods. We recognise that manufacturing is an essential part of the economy.
That was not really much to do with my question, which was about regulatory standards. Weightron Bilanciai, a Chesterfield-based industrial weighing machine manufacturer, had to spend around £50,000 to have all its products re-certified in the Netherlands, because they will no longer be certified and recognised for sale in the EU after we leave. Are the costs paid by UK manufacturing and the impact on British businesses the most serious example of the Government’s failure to come up with a trade deal?
I will tell the hon. Gentleman about failure. What is actually crippling and increasing uncertainty for his manufacturing sector is his repeated rejection of the deal, which would actually have an implementation period and would give certainty and direction to the very companies he seeks to represent in the House.
The Minister said that anything can happen. Total Lindsey oil refinery contacted me this week to warn me about the risk, in the event of no deal, of the equivalent of Chinese steel dumping but with US gasoline if we end up with 0% import tariffs. That will result in the loss or downgrading of up to 900 jobs in my area. Does he agree that that would irrevocably damage our local economy?
The question I ask myself—[Hon. Members: “Answer!”] I am answering the hon. Lady’s question. Given that she has so much concern for manufacturing interests in her constituency, why on earth has she rejected, on three occasions, the only deal that would provide certainty and a degree of consistency for the companies she seeks to represent?
No Deal: EU Citizens’ Rights
The UK Government have been unequivocal that in any scenario, including no deal, EU citizens and their family members living here by exit day will be able to stay. We want them to stay; they are our friends and our neighbours.
I thank the Minister for his response, but can he specifically reassure EU citizens living in Banff and Buchan and, indeed, across Scotland that, contrary to suggestions and letters being circulated by the Scottish National party, the UK Government value them, want them to stay and are committed to upholding their right to live and work in the United Kingdom? [Interruption.] I have seen the letters.
My hon. Friend is exactly right. It is hugely irresponsible for people to stir up fear in the way that we have seen. EU citizens are highly valued members of their communities and play an integral part in the economic, cultural and social fabric of the UK. I enjoyed engaging with EU citizens from the Nordic countries on a recent visit to Edinburgh, where we made it very clear that we want them to stay. We have designed the settled status scheme to help them to stay.
Does the hon. Member for West Bromwich West (Mr Bailey) wish to speak?
Sorry, Mr Speaker—I leapt to my feet rather prematurely.
Ah! A sense of anticipation is now building up.
No Deal: UK Manufacturing Sector
Obviously, manufacturing is vital to everything we do. We remain committed, through our industrial strategy, to making the UK the best place to start and grow a business. There are now 3.5 million more people in work than in 2010. It seems very remiss for Opposition Members to complain about uncertainty when they have rejected the deal not once, not twice, but three times. This deal will provide the certainty that the hon. Gentleman’s manufacturing interests will recognise and appreciate.
We all had a late night last night, but this is a zombie Secretary of State with zombie Ministers. When will they wake up? Yesterday, the all-party parliamentary manufacturing group, which I chair, was told by a leading professor from the business schools of both Sheffield and Birmingham that, however we leave Europe, we will have a 4% to 5% drop in GDP, but that GDP in the constituencies and towns that voted to leave will drop by a crippling 17% to 20%. That may not include Spelthorne, where I grew up, but it will devastate this country’s manufacturing base.
First, I would like to confirm to the House that we are not zombies. Secondly, Spelthorne has manufacturing interests, as the hon. Gentleman’s constituency does. The manufacturing interests in my constituency always tell me, “Back the Prime Minister’s deal—back certainty. Let’s get this thing over the line and move on with our lives.” That is what they want.
The highly integrated supply chains in the motor and aviation industries require convergence and regulatory alignment with product manufacture, both in the EU and in the UK. What guarantees can the Minister give that, in the event that the UK leaves the EU without a deal, we will have a role in shaping the future regulatory framework?
Obviously, it has been the Government’s repeated intention not to leave without a deal. The hon. Gentleman will know that part 3 of the withdrawal agreement deals extensively with the kind of regulations that would be in place in the implementation period, which, if the deal goes through, will give us another 20 months to negotiate a free trade agreement.
My hon. Friend will appreciate that a second referendum would have a very corrosive impact not only on our politics, but on trust, which has been mentioned many times. A clear instruction was given in 2016 to withdraw from the EU, and that is what the Government remain absolutely committed to fulfilling.
I am grateful to the Minister for that answer. Beyond that impact, what assessment has he made of the democratic and financial impacts of pursuing such a change in policy?
My hon. Friend is quite right: holding a second referendum would create enormous uncertainty that would undermine the strong economic achievement of the Government and of our businesses. It would essentially take us back to square one and result in more delay at a time when the public simply want politicians to deliver what they promised.
After the talks with the Labour party leader yesterday, the Chancellor said this morning that a second referendum is more likely. Are we seeing the start of yet another U-turn from a Government who have abandoned all their promises on going forward with no deal, having no border down the Irish sea and ensuring that we leave the EU on 29 March?
In respect of the second referendum, as I said to my hon. Friend the Member for Corby (Tom Pursglove), it is Government policy to honour the 2016 referendum. That is what we have been tasked to do, and that is what we are 100% focused on. The second referendum is a red herring, frankly. It is not something that we countenance. We want to deliver on the 2016 referendum.
Financial Services Sector
As part of the political declaration, the Government have negotiated an agreement on the future relationship for financial services that would be of greater depth than any other the EU has with a third country, while enabling our financial services sector to take up the global opportunities on offer.
Is the Secretary of State aware of the latest Reuters Brexit city tracker index, which revealed that no less than 7.6 million square feet of new leases were signed in the City of London last year, which is a record? The market is currently within 5% of its record high. Fewer than 2,000, or 0.5% of City jobs, have either relocated or been substituted elsewhere on the continent. When is this Armageddon because of Brexit going to happen?
As a former City Minister, I take a close interest in these issues. My hon. Friend is absolutely right to draw the House’s attention to some of the developments we have seen in recent months in the City. The City has opportunities in growth areas of finance. Green finance is a key opportunity, for example, and FinTech is another. There are very good opportunities for the City in a post-Brexit world.
There seems to be some confusion about customs unions. Can my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State confirm that a customs union would not cover how we regulate our financial services, how we fish, how we farm or freedom of movement? It should be perfectly possible to discuss a customs union without using any F-words.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. There is one tweak around fishing and fish, but other than that I absolutely agree with her. I remind the House that financial services alone contribute, from memory, around £71 billion in tax to the UK economy. With an economy that is 80% services, there is an opportunity post Brexit for us to take a more bespoke approach that will enable us to maximise the opportunities on offer.
No Deal: UK Citizens’ Rights
After much urging by the UK, we are pleased that all member states have given some public assurance to protect the rights of UK nationals. We will continue to call on member states to fully reciprocate our unilateral offer. The Government supported the amendment from our hon. Friend the Member for South Leicestershire (Alberto Costa) and have sought the EU’s views on ring-fencing the citizens’ rights parts of the withdrawal agreement. Michel Barnier has responded, and we are now considering our response to his letter.
I thank my hon. Friend for his answer. I am deeply opposed to the legislation that was passed in this House last night. I strongly favour leaving with no deal if we cannot get a deal with the EU. However, I would be grateful if my hon. Friend updated me on the steps he is taking to protect the rights of our citizens in the EU and EU citizens in the UK, should we leave with no deal.
Where I agree with my hon. Friend is that we should absolutely protect the rights of citizens and do everything in our power to do so. We have always been steadfast in our commitment to protecting those rights. Today, we have announced a further series of measures to protect UK nationals in the EU and those who choose to return to the UK after exit. There are important measures on social security co-ordination, a seven-year transition period for UK nationals in the EEA and Switzerland to continue to access student finance and home fee status in England and a transition period for UK nationals who return to the EU with their non-UK family members for those family members to apply to the EU settlement scheme.
It was very welcome news this week that Germany will be unilaterally guaranteeing the rights of UK subjects in Germany. Will my hon. Friend tell us which if any of the EU27 are not known to be guaranteeing the rights of UK nationals?
My right hon. Friend raises an important point. We welcome some of the steps that have been taken. He mentioned Germany, and the Czech Republic has been clear in reciprocating our unilateral offer. There is a varied playing field within the European Union, it is fair to say. Some member states have not been as generous as we might like them to be. We will continue to urge them to meet the generosity of our unilateral offer and continue to explore what we can do reciprocally to ensure that the best possible protections are in place for our citizens.
Since I last updated the House, my hon. Friend the Member for Daventry (Chris Heaton-Harris) has left the Government. I take this opportunity to pay tribute to his outstanding service as a Minister. He will be greatly missed in the Department and by his colleagues, but I know he will continue to serve his constituents in Daventry in an exemplary way.
Since our last departmental questions, we have not only had a large number of debates with the right hon. and learned Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Keir Starmer), but votes, and the House has not yet been able to find something that it is for, as opposed to lots of things that it is against. That is why my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister set out on Tuesday that this division—this lack of conclusion—cannot continue and drag on. We have reached out to the Leader of the Opposition to see whether we can agree on a plan to leave the European Union with a deal. Those discussions will continue later today.
The public know that the withdrawal agreement is a long way from the Brexit that was promised. Does the Secretary of State agree that the public have been badly let down and that whatever agreement is drawn up by this Parliament should now be subject to a confirmatory public vote—on a real rather than a fantasy Brexit deal?
The hon. Gentleman seems to confuse the winding-down arrangements—the withdrawal agreement—with a future deal. The EU has been clear: first, that any deal reached will need to include the withdrawal agreement; and secondly, that that withdrawal agreement is not open to renegotiation. Therefore, any deal to move forward in an orderly fashion needs to come with a withdrawal agreement. That is why it is so remarkable that the hon. Gentleman voted against the withdrawal agreement—whatever the deal to leave the EU, it will require a withdrawal agreement. The only conclusion is that perhaps he does not want to honour his own manifesto and perhaps he does not want to leave at all.
Yes, I am very happy to confirm to my hon. Friend that that is our policy. It was good to meet the Scottish Fishermen’s Federation in his constituency to hear why it sees that policy as a sea of opportunity.
Normally I complain that in these sessions we do not get any of our questions answered. We have moved on this morning: instead of answering questions, the Ministers are now asking themselves questions, or inventing questions that they would like to answer and then answering them. I had better be careful how I frame this question for the Secretary of State.
Last week, the Prime Minister said:
“unless this House agrees to it, no deal will not happen”.—[Official Report, 25 March 2019; Vol. 657, c. 25.]
That was a very important commitment, particularly now that we are eight days from 12 April. The simple question for the Secretary of State to ask himself is this: does he agree that, unless this House agrees to it, no deal will not happen?
What the Prime Minister was referring to, which was played out in the debate in the House yesterday, was that where the House of Commons passes a law—subject to the other place, that is the position of the vote last night—then in law, bound by the ministerial code, Ministers will need to abide by it. At the same time, the Prime Minister has always been clear that the decision by this House not to approve the withdrawal agreement means that any extension will need to be agreed by the EU Council 28, which includes the United Kingdom, but it can be opposed by any member of the European Union. It is not solely within the control of this House whether we leave with or without a deal; it is also now subject to the decision of the EU 27.
When we do get a question and answer, it gets interesting. That is a rowing back on what the Prime Minister said. When she said that unless this House agreed to it no deal would not happen, that was not in the context of the Bill last night—that Bill had not even been drafted. She said it as a general proposition in the debate last week. I hope that the Secretary of State is not rowing back, and I would like him to confirm that he is not rowing back. Otherwise, we have elicited something here of some importance.
May I also go on to ask the Secretary of State whether he now regrets voting against an extension of article 50 in this House on 14 March—that was an extension beyond 29 March? Does he now regret voting against the Cooper-Letwin Bill last night? Had the House followed his vote, does he appreciate that it is highly likely that we would be in a no-deal situation right now?
First, we have the oddity of the right hon. and learned Gentleman accusing the ministerial team of not answering the question, then pointing out that indeed we have answered it in an interesting way. Putting that to one side and going to the substance of his question, as I pointed out to the House, one of the defects of the legislation passed last night is the potential for it to increase the risk of an accidental no deal, where the EU Council decides to offer a different extension from the one agreed by this House. Under the terms of that legislation that would have to come back to this House for approval the following day, by which time the EU Council would have concluded. I do not think that was the intention of the right hon. Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper), but it is a possible outcome. It is subject to their lordships deciding whether they want to correct what I regard as a defect, although the right hon. and learned Gentleman’s shadow ministerial colleague says that, no doubt, their lordships will just nod it all through without scrutiny and without addressing that defect.
Regarding the right hon. and learned Gentleman’s second point, I was alluding to a statement of the law. I do not differ at all from the Prime Minister, who has always been clear that Ministers abide by the ministerial code, and I am sure that he would expect no less.
Thirdly, on the extension, we have addressed this issue in previous debates because the three amendments had all been defeated by the time we got on to the fourth vote. A further commitment had been given to an amendable motion for the following week, which was addressed. But the bottom line is that I want to respect the referendum result. I think asking people to vote for Members of the European Parliament three years after they voted to leave the EU is damaging to trust in our democracy. The question for Opposition Members is: why do they keep voting against everything when their own manifesto said they wanted to respect the result?
The UK’s IP regime does indeed represent a gold standard internationally, and that will not change as we leave the EU.
As the hon. Lady knows, there will be ample opportunity for the House to legislate during the passage of the withdrawal agreement Bill. As she also knows, there is legal wiring—for example, through article 174, which deals with best endeavours and good faith obligations under the withdrawal agreement, and how they connect. If it is one of the matters the House looks at in the future, it will be able to choose to put into legislation negotiating objectives. The point is that the hon. Lady has opposed the withdrawal agreement that the EU says is necessary for any deal, and we cannot get on to the future relationship without a withdrawal agreement.
My right hon. Friend, as always, is short and to the point. He correctly identifies the risk of rule taking. We talked earlier about financial services and the tax take from that sector alone. The UK taxpayer, who underwrites the liabilities of a sector such as financial services, will have concerns if the rules are being set in countries in Europe, rather than in this Parliament.
As the Prime Minister has already informed the House, the Department for Exiting the European Union will lead during the next phase of the negations. As the hon. Lady is well aware, we need to get on to those negotiations in order that the Department can undertake them. That is what businesses up and down the country want. They want this uncertainty to be brought to a close and they want us to get on into the implementation period for the certainty that that will bring. It is also what EU citizens living in this country and UK citizens in Europe want to see.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that question—it is important to make sure the scheme works as effectively and smoothly as possible. The Home Office is providing assisted digital support over the phone from more than 200 centres throughout the UK, and at home with a trained tutor. Applicants can have their identity verified by the identity document checkout at more than 50 locations, one of which I am pleased to see is in my constituency, as well as by post. I am pleased that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary confirmed recently that Apple has said it will make the identity document check available on its devices by the end of the year.
I absolutely disagree with the hon. Lady about the Government’s attitude to this group. We want to ensure that all those who are eligible for settled status, particularly children, are given a smooth and orderly process. I am certainly happy to take up her concerns with the Home Office, but I do not agree that the Government do not take their responsibilities in this regard extremely seriously.
Yesterday, in the International Trade Committee, we heard from the Minister for Trade Policy that, should we ever get there, it will not be DIT negotiating our future trading relationship with the EU but, I presume, DExEU. If that is the case, what lessons will be learned from the fundamental strategic flaws in this opening phase of negotiations? What detailed discussion is under way with DIT about the impact of whatever DExEU negotiates on our ability to build future trade agreements?
My hon. Friend is right that my Department will lead on the future trade agreement—the future economic partnership with the EU—but she will also be aware that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Trade will lead on our trade deals with the rest of the world, and he and I speak regularly. In respect of the lessons from phase 1, as in the corporate world, as in Government: there are always lessons. There are things that have gone well in phase 1 and things on which we can improve. It was a major new endeavour for the Government to undertake and we have had a number of discussions in the Department to ensure we take those lessons on board.
North-east manufacturers have achieved great success as part of integrated, just-in-time pan-European supply chains, which mean that, as one manufacturer puts it, their stock room is somebody else’s delivery van. These manufacturers are now having to stockpile as a consequence of this Brexit chaos, and that has implications for their cash flow and finances. What help is the Minister looking to provide for them and what hope of future economic integration can he offer them in the case of there being a deal without a customs union?
I have travelled in the north-east, although not quite in the hon. Lady’s constituency, and I have seen chemicals firms in the petrochemicals industry. They say with one voice that they want a solution to this impasse, just as we do in this House. They want to have a deal, to have the implementation period and to move on from this.
Forcing the UK to take part in European parliamentary elections would show a fundamental lack of respect for our democratic process, wouldn’t it?
I have already addressed this point. Three years after the country voted by record numbers to leave, there is a strong desire to ensure that we get on with it and do so. The Prime Minister has compromised and reached out. We are endeavouring to deliver on the will of the British people as expressed in that referendum vote, and on the manifesto commitments of both main parties.
The hon. Member for Redditch (Rachel Maclean) appears to be on the receiving end of mentoring from her right hon. Friend the Member for New Forest West (Sir Desmond Swayne). It will probably be extremely helpful to her—it would be to any Member—and it is a great tribute to the right hon. Gentleman.
Can the Secretary of State just enlighten the House as to what he thinks has actually gone well during this first phase?
I think what has gone well in this first phase is that we have an agreement with the EU that gives certainty to EU citizens, that respects our legal obligations and that will ensure that there is no hard border on the border of Northern Ireland. In part, one of the achievements of both parties, but particularly of the Labour party, was the Good Friday agreement. It is why those Members in Northern Ireland get so agitated with Members on the hon. Lady’s Benches over their failure on the withdrawal process. We have a deal; it is on the table; and it is the only deal that the EU is willing to offer.
The clear and solemn commitment in the Conservative party manifesto, on which the Secretary of State and I were elected, was:
“As we leave the European Union, we will no longer be members of the single market or customs union.”
Will he ensure that the Prime Minister does not renege on that commitment at the European Council next week?
My hon. Friend correctly identifies that commitment in our manifesto. He will also be aware that the manifesto gives a commitment to have a deep and special partnership with the EU. It is that balance that we are trying to seek. That is why the Prime Minister brought forward a deal that delivered on the referendum result—on things such as control of our borders, a skilled immigration system, control of our fisheries, control of our agriculture, and putting an end to sending vast sums of money to the EU—but also respected the fact that 48% of the population did not vote for leave. It is that compromise that has not been pure enough for some Members on the Government Benches to support it.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker.
We will take points of order after the urgent question.
Gender Pay Gap
To ask the Minister for Women if she will make a statement on the Government action to close the gender pay gap.
I am delighted that this urgent question has been called today because we are only a few hours away from the deadline landing for private sector employers to publish their gender pay gap results.
Last year, the Government introduced groundbreaking regulations that required large employers to publish, for the first time, the difference between what they pay their male and female staff in average salaries and bonuses. For the first time in this country’s history, the boards of large employers have had to have conversations about how they treat their female staff. By making this information publicly available, we have empowered employees to see the scale of the pay gap where they work, and hold their bosses to account. The vast majority of companies are eager to tackle the gender pay gap themselves. That is why the Government have provided guidance to help employers to develop action plans to close their pay gap.
Reporting is just the start. It is crucial that all employers use this data to identify the barriers that women face and take action to break down those barriers. We are supporting business in doing that by publishing evidence-based guidance on how employers can diagnose the cause of their gap, and the practical actions that they can take to close it. We recognise, though, that overturning structural inequalities in women’s pay cannot be done overnight. Most companies will not see a dramatic reduction this year, but what matters is that they are taking the right action to drive change in the right direction, and progress is being made.
Beyond reporting, this Government are actively working to support women in the workplace and to close the gender pay gap. We are supporting both women and men who have caring responsibilities, through increased childcare entitlements, promoting flexible working and shared parental leave. We are working with business to support and increase women’s progression to senior positions. We are leading by example, and aiming to make the civil service the country’s most equal and inclusive employer by 2020. We are helping women to access every profession, by working to increase the number of women taking qualifications in science, technology, engineering and maths.
Change will not be easy, but we have only to compare where we are now with even 10 years ago to see that a future of fair and equal pay is now within reach. That should be a source of pride for us all.
I am not sure whether the Minister has been reading the same statistics as me, but analysis so far has shown that the median pay gap has actually got bigger than it was last year. The companies that have been reporting this morning show that, on average, 78% reported a pay gap that favours men.
The Government and public sector should lead by example. As we know, the public sector deadline was 31 March, and initial analysis of this year’s public sector report shows that the pay gap has not narrowed. Shockingly, the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport reported a 22.9% pay gap, compared with just 8.2% in 2017. The gender pay gap in the Department for Exiting the European Union increased from 8.9% to 14.5% in 2018—I could go on to mention the Department for International Development and the health service. Basically, the pay gap is getting worse, and I am sure that once we start looking at the race pay gap, we will find that even more distressing.
The Minister must stand at the Dispatch Box and say not only that improvements must be made, but that we must take the next steps to ensure that companies have action plans as part of their reporting procedures, and that if they do not try to close their gender pay gap, they will face additional fines. That is what a Labour Government would commit to do, because at the moment this is unfortunately just a tick-box exercise. I hope that the Equality and Human Rights Commission will be given more funding to issue sanctions.
I am pleased that the hon. Lady asked this urgent question, but she has fallen into the trap of citing figures before the deadline has passed. That deadline passes at midnight, and as she will know—we had the same conversation last year—the last day of reporting is the day on which everybody suddenly realises that the deadline has arrived, and they send in their reports. Overnight we have already seen a 2% increase in private sector employers reporting, so we must not, and I will not, speak about the figures for private sector employers until the deadline has passed.
I am delighted that the hon. Lady mentioned the public sector gender pay gap, and I join her in admonishing those who have not yet reported. It is disgraceful that public sector bodies have not complied with the law in meeting the deadline on Saturday last week, and I am sure that after this urgent question, she will be straight on the phone to the chief executive of Brent Council which, as of this morning, had not reported. The deadline was Saturday and it has had some time to realise that it has passed, but it has not yet reported, so I hope the hon. Lady will communicate to her council the strong message that she communicated at the Dispatch Box.
Let me reassure the hon. Lady that after the deadline has passed I will write to every public sector employer to remind them not only that they must comply with the law, but that I expect them to issue action plans. If we are to tackle the gender pay gap, we must lead by example in the public sector. Once Brent Council has realised that it is acting outside the law, I am sure it will publish its gender pay gap figures and ensure that its action plan is as detailed as the hon. Lady would expect.
In other news, more than 10,500 businesses are having a conversation about the gender pay gap and how they treat their female staff, and it is a delight to see so many hon. Members present today, keen to ensure that women are paid fairly and properly in their employment.
Order. Several Members wish to catch my eye, but the Backbench Business Committee debates are heavily subscribed, and there is a business question to follow. There is a premium on brevity from Back and Front Benchers alike, and I want to move to the business question no later than 11 o’clock. People should take their cue from the right hon. Member for New Forest West (Sir Desmond Swayne), whose succinctness is exemplary. I call Mr Philip Hollobone.
Which sectors of the economy have the biggest gender pay gap, and which have the smallest?
As I said, at the moment it would not be right for me to comment on the pay gap because the figures are still coming in. We know that half of women are employed in the education, health and retail sectors, so we are concentrating on those sectors when providing employers with guidance on how to address their gender pay gaps. We want action as quickly as possible to ensure that women are paid properly.
Women are key to improving the economy—we already know that. As a member of the Select Committee on Women and Equalities, I, along with the right hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller) and many others across the House, have sought to hold this Government to account.
The women in work index has found that closing the gender pay gap could boost the economy by £2 trillion, yet the UK Government have only shifted from 14th to 13th place on the index. Scotland has been a top performer on the gender pay gap in the UK. However, there is still a great deal more to do, including on greater pay transparency, increasing early years and childcare provision, and representation on public boards. The Scottish National party Government have committed to narrowing the gender pay gap by the end of this Scottish parliamentary term, and to tackling labour market inequalities. That is a bold aim and it must be matched by this Government. I call on the UK Government to go further than just auditing larger companies. Real action needs to be taken to ensure that those larger companies are taking the charge. Will the Minister support the SNP’s aim to lower the threshold to 150 employees and to introduce sanctions for employers who do not comply with the current law? Will she match the commitment made by the Scottish Government?
The hon. Lady knows that last year was the first year for reporting gender pay gap figures and this is the second. Although I am impatient to get the gap closed, we have to acknowledge that it will take time for businesses and employers to close it. I would therefore like the data to settle, perhaps for another year or so, before we start looking at reducing the number of employees at which companies and businesses have to start reporting. We acknowledge that it is an extra bureaucratic responsibility for the businesses. We want to make sure that the large employers are doing their best before we move it down, but I look forward to that work.
Labour Members had 13 years to tackle the injustice of the gender pay gap but failed to do so. Will my hon. Friend join me in welcoming the steps that this Government have taken to tackle this historic injustice?
I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for her question. At this time in our nation’s great history, where the public expect us to collaborate and get on with our business and to perhaps lower the heat and anger in some of our debates, I very much hope that colleagues across the House will welcome the fact that 10,500 employers are complying with the law and meeting the expectation that they treat their female staff properly. I hope for more joy and collaboration across the House.
How does the Minister believe the Equality and Human Rights Commission can fulfil its commitment to monitor and act against firms that discriminate at a time when its budget has been so drastically reduced?
I lay on the record my thanks to the EHRC, which did an excellent job last year of pulling in those employers who missed the deadline and ensuring that they reported—some businesses had just made a mistake or did not quite understand what they were supposed to do—and that is how we had 100% compliance by 1 August.
Does my hon. Friend agree that it is important to check the gender pay gap right across the workforce, not just the boardroom? From my 11 years in industry, the biggest gaps often appeared at senior management level, but also among junior managers below boardroom level. We must have a range of information.
My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. This is not just about board level, although of course that is important; it is also about ensuring that women are paid properly and fairly when they start their career. Work on the gender pay gap will help address that, because it forces employers to look at how they treat women throughout the entire structure of the business.
The Minister talks of a future of equal pay, but she knows that that cannot happen as long as well-paid sectors such as engineering and science are dominated by men and low-paid sectors such as care are dominated by women. Will she therefore adopt Labour’s policy of sector-specific diversity charters, so that we can start to address the structural issues in some sectors?
It starts much earlier than that. We must give girls the confidence to carry on with science, technology, engineering and maths in school. That is why we are doing so much work to ensure that girls are encouraged to continue studying those subjects. The hon. Lady is absolutely right to point to industries such as engineering. In fairness, many businesses in those very male-dominated industries are beginning to get more women in at the lower end of the pipeline, but this will take time and, as I have said, I want to bring business with us rather than dictate from on high how society should view female employees. This is as much about cultural shift as it is about structures and legislation.
Will the Minister look at the situation at Christ Church, Oxford, where the dean has been suspended, allegedly for trying to introduce equal pay for men and women?
I must not comment on individual cases at the Dispatch Box, but I would certainly be happy to discuss that with my hon. Friend in due course. The message to academia is that we expect our universities to reflect the society that they serve. We have a wonderful diversity of students now, and one would hope that our universities will reflect that.
How can we lecture other employers on matters of equality when this place has yet to fully implement the recommendations of the Cox report on bullying and harassment?
Of course, that is a matter for the House, but I make this observation. I spend a great deal of my time persuading women to take the big step of coming into public life. I think the attitude and atmosphere in Parliament at the moment is putting a lot of women off—it is pretty toxic. The predictability, or unpredictability, of Commons hours can also cause problems—my little boy started his holidays this week, and I had a bit of an “about-to” this morning trying to sort out childcare—but we will address this. We have to ensure that the Commons is more flexible in how it works so that we can encourage people from across our society to join us.
Looking back at last year’s publication, what lessons were learned going into this year’s process?
First, I think businesses realise that if they do not do as the public expect them to, they will face a great deal of public scrutiny and reputational damage. One employer, for example, did not include its partnership figures in its return. The public spotted that and called it out; and, in fairness to that employer, it revised its figures to include the partnerships. That sort of transparency and scrutiny will help businesses to comply with the law.
I would have expected universities to show leadership on the gender pay gap, so I was surprised to hear it reported earlier this week that they had the widest gender pay gap. If that is true, what is the Minister going to do about it?
I share the hon. Gentleman’s concern about that. As I say, I will be writing shortly to every public sector employer reminding them of their duty to meet the deadline but also to set out their action plans. I do not think there is any excuse, frankly, for public sector employers, who want to lead the world in the way that we conduct our business, not to have an idea of how they are going to address the sorts of gaps that he has described.
Does the Minister agree that there is not just a strong moral case for promoting gender pay equality, but a strong business and economic case for promoting diversity and equality in the work place?
Very much so: drawing on a diverse pool of people for a business or organisational structure makes great business sense. The McKinsey report recently showed that having a diverse workforce can add as much as 15% to a company’s success compared with its competitors.
The Minister might not be aware, but I have a vested interest: I have three daughters and four granddaughters. Progress has been made, but we need to accelerate it. This is a week of celebration: 20 years since the introduction of the minimum wage. Can I encourage the Minister to use the B-word? Tony Blair and the Labour Government introduced the minimum wage and did so much to bring more women into this place, so will she use the “Blair” word when she goes on the media?
I was not expecting that question. I welcome anyone who is committed to the drive to ensure more women and people from different backgrounds and ethnicities in our workplaces, whether political, business or public service.
The Select Committee on Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy looked at the gender pay gap immediately after the first round of reporting last year and drew attention to the improvement in economic performance that could be achieved by fully utilising the talents of women in the workplace. The Minister has already spoken about the challenges that some businesses have faced in calculating the figures. We called for improved guidance for businesses to enable this round to be more easily undertaken by businesses. What progress has been made on that?
My hon. Friend has raised an important point. My officials consult businesses regularly to ensure that our guidance is up to date and practical. We review it constantly, but if they are unhappy with any parts of it, I ask them please to let me know. We are very conscious that the calculations can be difficult and confusing, especially for businesses that do not have human resources departments.
Last year, 19 NHS trusts had median pay gaps of 20% or more; this year, 24 did. Why has that happened?
This is exactly the challenge that we are facing. We know that healthcare is one of the three sectors that employ 50% of the total number of working women. The NHS trusts themselves should be looking into why those gaps have increased. As I have said, I shall be writing to all public sector employers asking for their action plans. We can help them to draw up those plans to ensure that they make a real difference.
Next year is the 50th anniversary of the Equal Pay Act 1970, yet the gender pay gap is still too large. The Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee recommended that employers should have mandatory action plans to show how they were going to close their pay gaps, but the Government refused to adopt its recommendation. Will the Minister say why, and whether she will look at the recommendation again?
Thus far, just under 50% of employers who fall within the gender pay gap reporting regime have issued their own action plans voluntarily. Because we want to bring business with us, I would much prefer employers to ask themselves questions about the way in which they treat their female staff rather than conducting a tick-box exercise, as is alleged to have happened. I will of course keep the position under review, and if we do not think that employers are making enough progress, we will act.
The Minister correctly observed that good-quality childcare is essential for women going back to work, but the number of nurseries closing has risen by 66% in the last year, and only just over 50% of local areas have enough childcare services for parents who wish to work full time. Will the Minister speak to the Secretary of State for Education about the impact that the state of our early years sector is having on women who want to work?
The hon. Lady is right to raise this issue. That is why we were so keen to introduce free childcare for children aged three and above. I will happily raise the point about local nurseries with the Secretary of State, but we are trying to encourage businesses and employers to think more imaginatively about how they can retain the talent from which they benefit. They may have spent many years training and developing female employers through schemes such as flexible working and shared parental leave—bold schemes that will make a cultural as well as a practical difference.
Why have 100 health bodies across the United Kingdom increased their gender pay gaps in the last 12 months? If the Minister is writing to those health boards, what does she expect them to do on receipt of her letter?
I expect them to look at the variety of diagnostic tools that are available on the gov.uk website, and to seek advice about how to better diagnose and then deal with their gender pay gaps. This is not an insurmountable problem, and health trusts need to understand that the gender pay gap expectation applies to them just as it applies to any large multinational company.
Ah! A sentence, please. Jim Shannon.
One sentence, Mr Speaker. Has the Minister had any discussions with the devolved regions about the implementation of reviews throughout the public and private sectors to get a clearer picture of how we stand?
Yes, of course. We are very keen to work with all our colleagues throughout the United Kingdom to ensure that businesses and employers are treating their female staff fairly, regardless of where they happen to be in the United Kingdom.
Order. I think the shadow Minister for Women and Equalities wants to raise a point of order that relates to the exchanges that we have just had, and that point of order, and that point of order only, I am content to take now.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I have just contacted the chief executive of Brent Council, Carolyn Downs, and she has informed me that Brent Council submitted the gender pay gap report on Friday 29 March via the Government’s own portal. I wonder whether the Minister would like to stand and make an apology to Brent Council.
Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. That was not the information I had just before I walked into the Chamber. I am advised that it was not on the gender pay gap portal. Of course if Carolyn Downs has done what she should have done and followed the law I am not sure I will congratulate her; I am just pleased that she is following the law.
We will leave it there. Thank you.
Business of the House
Will the Leader of the House give us the business for next week?
The business for next week is as follows:
Monday 8 April—Motion to approve a statutory instrument relating to the draft Electronic Communications (Amendment etc.) (EU Exit) Regulations 2019, followed by a motion to approve a statutory instrument relating to the draft Trade in Torture etc. Goods (Amendment) (EU Exit) Regulations 2019, followed by a general debate on UN international day for the elimination of racial discrimination. The subject for this debate was determined by the Backbench Business Committee.
Tuesday 9 April—Motion to approve the Burma (Sanctions) (EU Exit) Regulations 2019, followed by a motion to approve the Venezuela (Sanctions) (EU Exit) Regulations 2019, followed by a motion to approve the Iran (Sanctions) (Human Rights) (EU Exit) Regulations 2019, followed by a motion to approve the Republic Of Guinea-Bissau (Sanctions) (EU Exit) Regulations, followed by general debate on housing.
Wednesday 10 April—Motion to approve the draft Regulatory Reform (Scotland) Act 2014 (Consequential Modifications) Order 2019, followed by a general debate on the 50th anniversary of the continuous-at-sea deterrent.
Thursday 11 April—General debate on the definition of Islamophobia. The subject for this debate was determined by the Backbench Business Committee.
As colleagues will be aware, discussions between the two main parties on the subject of EU exit are ongoing. Subject to the progress of those talks, there is the possibility that business will alter, and I will of course update the House as soon as possible in such an eventuality. We do want to enable all colleagues to have a break during holy week, but I would note that we will need to retain flexibility to potentially sit on Monday and Tuesday of that week—15 and 16 April—and I will, as always, endeavour to update the House about business as early as possible. In the same vein, it is likely that we may need to sit on Friday of next week, and I will update colleagues on this as early as possible next week.
Subject to the agreement of the House, Westminster Hall will not sit during holy week, following a discussion with the Chairman of Ways and Means, in order to make sure that as many House staff as possible get a well-deserved break.
Mr Speaker, yesterday was the third anniversary of the detention of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe in Iran. We continue to call for her release, and the Foreign Office is doing all it can to make sure that happens as soon as possible.
This week is also Autism Awareness Week, which gives me the opportunity to congratulate all those who have taken part in fundraising events this week, and to thank all those working so hard to support autistic people and their families.
Order. Today is not as heavily subscribed as sometimes, but the first of the two Backbench Business Committee debates is very heavily subscribed, and of course there is a ministerial statement to follow, so I think the focus today is on brevity.
I thank the Leader of the House for the business. I appreciate that it is difficult to have settled business, but this is yet another sign that the Government cannot govern, because again the Prime Minister has run down the clock. However, I have to say that we have not had an Opposition day—there are Backbench Business Committee debates and general debates—so may I ask again for an Opposition day?
Last week, I asked whether we could have a statement from the Government on the timetable for the progress of the key legislation that needs to pass through Parliament before exit day on 12 April, but the Leader of the House responded by just mentioning the progress of secondary legislation. There are important Bills that need to have their next stages, particularly the financial services Bill. There is cross-party support for the amendment tabled by the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Barking (Dame Margaret Hodge) calling for Jersey, Guernsey and the Isle of Man to have registers in place by the end of 2020. This is a crucial piece of legislation to tackle tax evasion. Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs has confirmed that in a clampdown on offshore tax evasion in 2018, it received reports about the offshore financial interests of around 3 million UK residents or the entities that they controlled. Figures from Accountancy Daily show that this involved 5.67 million individual records detailing offshore financial bank accounts. When will the Government find time for the Report stage of this Bill?
Will the Leader of the House update the House on whether she is confident that all the necessary Brexit statutory instruments will go through the House before exit day? The Brexit process has been a shambles. There is no solution, and Ministers are resigning. The Prime Minister has now decided that she wants to stop speaking Klingon—or should I say ERGon—to the European Research Group and start speaking to the Opposition. In her statement—made at No. 10 Downing Street, not to the House—she failed explicitly to rule out leaving the EU with no deal. The Bank of England estimates that the worst case scenario, involving border delays and a loss of market confidence in the UK, could result in the economy contracting by 5%. Nearly 30% of our food comes from the EU, and some imports are particularly high at the moment because they involve foods that we cannot grow ourselves at this time of year, such as lettuce, tomatoes and soft fruit. Academics at Imperial College say that two extra minutes spent checking each vehicle at Dover and Folkestone could lead to traffic queues of 29 miles on nearby roads.
In the meantime, my constituents want to know why spending per pupil has fallen by 8% since 2010. The Leader of the House has mentioned the fact that it is Autism Awareness Week. It was announced today that 17% cuts had been made for those with special needs in the past four years. Just last week, a constituent of mine was in tears because her 11-year-old daughter has to take two buses or have a 40-minute car journey to school because all the local schools are full. May we have a statement on school places?
We had Home Office questions on Monday, but no statement on knife crime. My hon. Friend the Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker) had asked for a statement, but nothing was forthcoming. One question to the Prime Minister is not sufficient. This is more than a public health issue; it is about giving young people facilities and community places where they can find their talents. So could the Leader of the House ensure that we have a statement, either from the Prime Minister or from the Home Secretary, on the knife crime summit?
It is the 20th anniversary of the national minimum wage, which was introduced by a Labour Government and opposed by the Conservative party. When will the Government implement the real living wage, which should be our goal?
We celebrate today the 70th anniversary of NATO. That treaty was signed by a Labour Foreign Secretary. The Leader of the House will be interested in the report published today by the Defence Committee entitled “Missile Misdemeanours: Russia and the INF treaty”. The Chair of the Committee, the right hon. Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis), says that the continent of Europe is less safe as a result of the Russian decision to develop missiles in contravention of the intermediate-range nuclear forces treaty. We are not a party to the treaty, but the Committee says that the Government need to push NATO for a proportionate response that sends a firm message. Will the Leader of the House find time for a debate on this important report?
The Ministry of Defence has instigated an inquiry into the use of a picture of the Leader of the Opposition for target practice. I am sure that the Leader of the House will condemn that activity. While the investigation is ongoing, will she ensure that the following questions are put to the Secretary of State for Defence? First, what action will be taken under section 19 of the Armed Forces Act 2006 against the soldiers on the grounds of good order and service discipline? Secondly, will the commanding officers and officials higher up the chain in the Ministry of Defence take responsibility, and how will they prevent this from happening further? Thirdly, can they confirm who supplied the image, and can they confirm that there are no other such photos circulating among the armed forces? If the Secretary of State for Defence or the Prime Minister would like to apologise to the Leader of the Opposition, I am sure that that would be very welcome. In the meantime, we would like a response to those questions.
Will the Justice Secretary meet my hon. Friend the Member for West Lancashire (Rosie Cooper)? We rightly paid tribute to her resilience yesterday when she received the House’s appreciation. She may have some suggestions about improvements to the trial process, given the terrible things she was put under while she was waiting for the result.
I do not know whether you are aware of this, Mr Speaker, but BBC Parliament has had excellent ratings. I want to thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper) and the right hon. Member for West Dorset (Sir Oliver Letwin) for their great courage in ensuring that the Government do not put our economy at risk with no deal. Once again, I thank the talented and dedicated staff of the House for ensuring that our business was done.
Finally, it is cherry blossom time, so I urge hon. Members to go outside and look at the blossom.
I can absolutely assure—[Interruption.]
Order. I do beg the Leader of the House’s pardon. People who came in after the statement was issued cannot expect to be called and should not stand. We really must observe the basic principle of respect. The Leader of the House delivers a statement and it is responded to, but people cannot wander into the Chamber and expect to be called. It is quite wrong.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. I was just going to say to the hon. Lady that I would love to be outside looking at the cherry blossom, as I am sure we all would. Maybe that is what some colleagues were doing before they wandered into the Chamber.
The hon. Lady asked about key legislation and the Brexit Bills, particularly the Financial Services (Implementation of Legislation) Bill. As she will know, we want to consider the amendments made in the other place carefully. That Bill is relatively straightforward and seeks to deal with in-flight files during the Brexit transition period, but one amendment would have a more significant impact on the rights of the Crown dependencies, so it is right for the Government to take a bit of time to consider that properly. However, we will bring the Bill back in due course.
The hon. Lady asked about other Brexit primary legislation, and she will be aware that, in addition to the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018, nine other exit-related Bills are in Parliament or have already received Royal Assent. The Nuclear Safeguards Act 2018, the Sanctions and Anti-Money Laundering Act 2018, the Haulage Permits and Trailer Registration Act 2018, the Taxation (Cross-border Trade) Act 2018, and the Healthcare (European Economic Area and Switzerland Arrangements) Act 2019 are all now law. The Bills still in the Commons or the Lords are the Immigration and Social Security Co-ordination (EU Withdrawal) Bill, the Agriculture Bill, the Fisheries Bill, the Financial Services (Implementation of Legislation) Bill, as has been mentioned, and the Trade Bill. Progress is being made, and they are all scheduled to receive Royal Assent before they are needed.
The hon. Lady also asked for an update on the secondary legislation. Almost all the Brexit SIs needed for exit day have been laid—around 515 of about 550. The programme of secondary legislation is in hand and is almost complete. The remaining SIs are planned for completion when they need it.
On schools, I am sure that the hon. Lady will want to celebrate, as I do, the fact that 1.9 million more children are being taught in good or outstanding schools. We created 920,000 more school places between 2010 and 2018, and the gap between disadvantaged pupils and others has narrowed. All those things are important to give young people a good start in life.
The hon. Lady asked for a statement on the knife crime summit. I will certainly take that request away, but I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary will want to update the House.
The hon. Lady mentioned the national living wage, and I am sure that she will share in the delight that it went up on Monday by the highest rate since it was first introduced in 2015, increasing by almost 5% to £8.21 an hour.
Good old Tony Blair.
The hon. Gentleman shouts from a sedentary position, but it was actually George Osborne as Chancellor under a Conservative Government who introduced the national living wage—[Interruption.] No, I am talking about the national living wage. Full-time workers receiving the national living wage will now be more than £2,750 a year better off compared with 2015.
Finally, the hon. Lady raised the serious issue of a photograph of the Leader of the Opposition being used for target practice. That is utterly unacceptable, and I condemn it in the strongest terms, as I am sure all right hon. and hon. Members would. It is vital that anybody with any kind of role in public life is extremely careful about the sort of images and portrayals that they put forward. I understand that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence has written to the shadow Secretary of State to respond to the points made to him.
The brevity tsar himself, Sir Desmond Swayne.
You missed it, Mr Speaker, because your focus was properly on what was happening in the Chamber, but the prolonged demonstration in the Public Gallery was a function of the fact that, first, the police had to be called and, secondly, the police, frankly, have a different way of operating and different priorities. Our Doorkeepers are trained in the practice but no longer carry it out, because the House will not insure them. Can we have a statement next week on how this is to be remedied?
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise this matter and I am tempted to mention the bare cheek of such a demonstration in the Public Gallery. The police certainly had to deal with a very sticky matter. I will be seeing the director general later today to talk about what more we can do.
I thank the Leader of the House for announcing the business for what would have been the first week of our Easter recess, which we are giving up for that. I just hope we will see some more substantial business that would justify our giving up time to be available for our constituents. The thing is she has absolutely no idea what will be discussed and considered next week.
Yesterday’s innovation should be commended, and this House should be proud that we delivered a piece of legislation within a few days that will underpin the seeking of an extension to article 50. Of course, most curiously, there are those among the take back controllers who do not want this House actually to take back control and who would prefer the Government to continue in their ways unfettered and to continue ignoring the decisions of this House. It has taken legislation to get this minority Government to do what the majority of this House wants them to do. Maybe now they know we can do this they will start taking the decisions of this House more seriously, but I seriously doubt that will be the case.
The great unelected ones in the House of Lords will now consider the Bill, and the message from this House to the aristocrats, the Church of England bishops, the cronies and the donors is that they should do nothing to thwart the progress of this Bill. We have already seen loads of amendments tabled down there, particularly, and curiously, by some Scottish Conservative Lords. They must do absolutely nothing that would stop the will of this House and the democratic will of this Parliament.
Can we have a debate about modern romance? There was a real Mills & Boon glow yesterday, as the Leader of the Opposition sat down with the Prime Minister so that she could share the blame for her Tory Brexit with him. Last week, the Prime Minister said that he was
“The biggest threat to our standing in the world, to our defence and to our economy”.—[Official Report, 27 March 2019; Vol. 657, c. 313.]
He is now the saviour of her Brexit.
We in Scotland are watching very carefully the reinvention of Better Together—Better Together 2.0, the sequel, the latest in the Tory-Labour disaster franchise. This time they have come together to take Scotland out of the EU against its will. Scotland is sick of being ignored. The Scottish people are watching our nation being carved out and disrespected, and we will not sit idly by as the usual Better Together squad play their games with our nation and the European Union.
The hon. Gentleman will recognise that Better Together did quite well last time. As he will know, the Prime Minister is seeking to find a way to leave the European Union, and it is extraordinarily apparent to everyone that, so far, the House has not agreed a way in which to leave. It is right that the Prime Minister continues to seek a way to deliver on the referendum, which is why she is talking to the Leader of the Opposition, as the hon. Gentleman well knows.
Can we have a debate on budgeting and the transparency of public projects and their finances, particularly in the light of the delay to the notice to proceed on High Speed 2 and the revelation that it is now spending millions of pounds on consultants tasked with trying to reduce, or even control, the mammoth costs of this project, all of which will be paid for by the taxpayer?
My right hon. Friend raises a very important issue. She will be aware that many of my constituents also have concerns about the cost overruns, and I have written to ask for reassurances on that. The Department for Transport assures us that the project is still working to its budget, but I am sure that my right hon. Friend will continue to seek her own reassurances.
The demonstration in the Public Gallery has been referred to. I wondered whether it was a manifestation of a modern-day Rump Parliament—I’m here all week.
The Leader of the House mentioned that the business next week could be subject to rescheduling. I genuinely offer a hand of friendship and, if there is rescheduling, I hope there will be consultation with me and the Clerk of the Backbench Business Committee, so that we can fill any gaps due to business being moved.
I am a member of the Education Committee, and I wonder whether we could have a debate in Government time on school funding. Figures from the Institute for Fiscal Studies show that school funding in real terms is 8% lighter than it was several years ago. The Minister for School Standards said at the Education Committee on Wednesday that the schools budget has been protected in real terms, like the Department for International Development budget, but the DFID budget is 0.7% of GDP and has been protected at that level—it has grown in financial terms. Education funding has diminished from 5.69% to 4.27% of GDP in only seven years. That is a real-terms cut from both the IFS’s perspective and the GDP perspective. We need to invest in our future if we are going to engage and be successful in the fourth industrial revolution.
I am glad that the hon. Gentleman took pains to flesh out the matter of the protests, but we now need to crack on a bit with the business of the day.
The hon. Gentleman offered to fill in any blanks in the business next week. Of course, if there are opportunities for Backbench business, we will always take them. He also raised the important matter of school funding. He will appreciate that the achievements in our schools are incredibly positive for improving young people’s education, and I pay great tribute to all our teachers’ professionalism. Nevertheless, he makes an important point about funding, and I encourage him to raise that directly with Ministers on 15 April at Education questions.
Will my right hon. Friend find time for a debate on the difficulties that converts to Christianity are having in achieving asylum status in the United Kingdom? While I am sure the House understands that the Home Office has to be very careful, I simply do not understand its reluctance to approve those applications, given all the checks and balances.
My hon. Friend raises an interesting point. All asylum claims made in the UK are carefully considered on a case-by-case basis, taking into account individual merits against a background of relevant case law and up-to-date country information, which covers issues relating to freedom of religion and belief. I can assure him that the Home Office provides protection for all those who genuinely need it, in accordance with our international obligations under the 1951 refugee convention and the European convention on human rights.
Can we have a debate about the challenge we have in our constituencies and in this place in the way we treat one another and the language we use? Could the Leader of the House particularly bear in mind something very offensive that was said last night by the right hon. Member for Rayleigh and Wickford (Mr Francois) at this time, when we are in Lent and approaching Easter weekend:
“Forgive them, Father, for they know not what they do.”—[Official Report, 3 April 2019; Vol. 657, c. 1217.]
As a Christian and former parliamentary churchwarden, I found it deeply offensive for that phrase to be used in the context of a debate on Brexit. I hope we can have a discussion about what is and is not appropriate to say in this House.
As I have always said, it is vital that everybody in this place and in this Palace of Westminster treats each other with courtesy and respect and I completely uphold that. As the hon. Gentleman will be aware, behaviour in the Chamber is a matter for the Chair. On the other hand, I am sure you will also agree, Mr Speaker, that it is vital that everybody is treated with courtesy and respect.
Yes, that is absolutely fair and reasonable. I did not intervene at the time, as the hon. Gentleman will know. The right hon. Member for Rayleigh and Wickford (Mr Francois) felt extremely strongly and expressed himself with force, and I respect the right hon. Gentleman’s sincerity and integrity—I make no bones about that; I do—but moderation in the use of language and the importance of trying to keep the temperature down can hardly be overstated. I think the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman) has served a useful purpose today, of which we can all take note.
Mr Speaker, you will be aware that I go on and on about the lack of accountability of NHS trusts in my constituency and around the country, and there are often lots of nods when I raise this. As the Leader of the House knows, I raised this before and she suggested that I get a Westminster Hall debate. I have got that, so I am back now—going on and on. May we have a debate in Government time about the lack of accountability of NHS trusts, which seem to ignore not just politicians and elected representatives, but the people they are supposed to be looking after?
My right hon. Friend is very passionate on this subject and he is absolutely right to be. If he has exhausted all his own means by which to achieve debates on this subject, I encourage him to go to the Backbench Business Committee and seek the support of other Members across the House. I am sure he would find that there were plenty of Members looking to support their own local hospitals.
I heard the Leader of the House’s answer on the knife crime summit and subsequent events, but it really is unacceptable that the Home Secretary has not been here reporting on the knife crime summit, while our constituents—our young constituents—are regularly being murdered. When will he come here and give a report? Further to that, he really should be coming to this Chamber on a regular basis to give those reports.
The hon. Gentleman raises an incredibly serious issue, as he often does, about the appalling nature of the rise in knife crime, the impact it is having on communities and the fear in communities. There are far, far too many examples of young people being stabbed and murdered. It is absolutely appalling. He will be aware that the knife crime summit on Monday was designed to look at what more the Government can do. There are a huge number of plans in place. We have already had two debates recently on serious violence and what the Government can do, as well as a number of urgent questions and statements on the subject. However, as I said to his hon. Friend the Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz), I will certainly go away and see whether we can organise a statement on the same subject.
Mr Speaker, I hope you will accept that I am willing to call out the Government on occasion when they abuse Parliament—I voted for the contempt motion—but I thought there was a conspiracy to defraud Parliament itself yesterday. On a huge constitutional issue, we rushed the Bill through in a day. There was no time for proper debate. There was not even a Third Reading debate. Amendments were not down. It was a total farce and it was an abuse of Parliament. It seems to me that the solution to this—it was something that both the main political parties agreed to—is a business of the House Committee that is responsible for the timing of debates. The Backbench Business Committee has shown that it works really well. Seriously, will the Government now consider a business of the House Committee and please, Leader of the House, do not blow this off again?
I entirely endorse the first part of my hon. Friend’s question. I draw the House’s attention to the fact that the article 50 Bill contained 58 words and it went through the entire parliamentary business and legislation Committee process. It was consulted on widely and it had five days of debate in this Chamber, compared with the under one hour on Second Reading for yesterday’s Bill. I therefore agree with him that it was extremely damaging to the way in which we carry out business in this place.
On the second part of my hon. Friend’s question, as I have said to him on a number of occasions, I do not believe that a business of the House Committee for determining business would have the necessary flexibility to be able to ensure that, as we are seeing at the moment, swift changes to business can be properly and reliably agreed. From time to time, the House needs to go through the usual channels with a very quick decision when emergency changes are necessary.
I do not want to dwell at any length on what the hon. Gentleman said and I completely respect his sincerity, but I think it is fair just to note, reputationally for the House, that many of the Members who are complaining about the paucity of time for the debate on the Second Reading of the Bill did nevertheless seem untroubled by the absorption of three hours on the business of the House motion. It was partly for that reason that there was so little time left for Second Reading. But there is an argument to be had about the matter and I respect the hon. Gentleman’s point of view.
I have heard what the Leader has said about a business of the House committee. That is the Government’s position. The hon. Gentleman has been a keen and articulate champion of the cause of such a committee for many years, and, as he knows, I have joined him in that quest. It is a matter of recorded fact that the coalition Government were committed to the introduction of such a committee and Prime Minister Cameron—I say this as a matter of fact—reneged on that commitment. It is unarguable, it is incontestable, it is incontrovertible. That is the reality. He may think that the situation changed, but he promised it and he broke the promise. It is as simple as that.
Last weekend proved to be the perfect tonic when I was joined by over 75 members of my constituency for the Great British Spring Clean. Next week I will be out again, in Mirfield, supporting the indefatigable community champion Ruth Edwards in her spring clean. Will the Leader of the House join me in welcoming the incredible work done by the likes of Ruth and others, and encourage our members to get involved in cleaning up their communities?
The hon. Lady is to be hugely commended for taking part in the Great British Spring Clean. My Parliamentary Private Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Victoria Prentis), who is sitting behind me, is a huge fan of it and is yelling in my ear, “Fantastic, fantastic!” I think all Members would agree that it is a superb thing to be involved in a community clean-up. It sends a good message and it cheers us all up to get outside as well. I congratulate the hon. Member for Dewsbury (Paula Sherriff), her constituent Ruth Edwards and all those taking part.
Working parents of children with a disability or serious illness often have to take their entire holiday entitlement off for surgery or hospital appointments. Will the Leader of the House allow a debate in Government time on what support the Government can give to those working parents and how we can ensure they get the quality holiday time that other working parents enjoy?
My hon. Friend raises a very important point. Parents often have additional responsibilities to holding down a job, particularly when they are caring for children with disabilities. It is absolutely vital that they get quality time to spend with their families. I encourage my hon. Friend to seek an Adjournment debate in the first instance, so he can discuss with Ministers what more can be done.
May we have a statement on the attitude taken by Departments, particularly the Home Office, when MPs telephone them? I telephoned the hotline seeking very urgent information and was given another telephone number. I was hung up on when I phoned it. When I phoned back later, they were unable to give me any information—I will be careful about what I say—about what I asked for. I have now emailed on two occasions and not received a response. The challenge is that my constituent faces an approaching deadline, and without that information I cannot advise him and he cannot take action.
I am genuinely very sorry to hear that. My own experience of the MPs’ hotline has been good with the Home Office, but I totally respect what the hon. Gentleman is saying. If he cannot get through to the right people and they are not responsive, that is absolutely unacceptable. I encourage him to perhaps take this matter up through a parliamentary written question, but if he wants to contact me, I can contact the Home Office on his behalf.
Could we get a bit more clarity on the business for the week after next? The Leader of the House said that it is possible that we will be sitting on Monday 15 and Tuesday 16 April, but for the benefit of Members and staff with Easter holiday and childcare problems to sort out, could she perhaps be a bit more definitive about what might or might not happen on Wednesday 17 and Thursday 18 April?
My right hon. Friend is tempting me to get my crystal ball out. As all hon. Members appreciate, and I think we can all agree, we and certainly the staff of the House, need a break. We are very conscious of the need to try to ensure that people are able to meet prior commitments. As well as that, many colleagues have commitments in their constituencies that they need to fulfil. There is no doubt that the Government and I are extremely well aware of the need for colleagues to have a break. On the other hand, as we all know, the business is changing very rapidly. We are extremely keen to ensure that we can leave the European Union with a deal, with a majority of the House supporting it. In order to achieve that, it requires the next few days to be quite flexible. I can only repeat that I will keep the House as updated as possible, but certainly at the moment, as I said in my opening remarks, we need to retain flexibility to potentially sit on Monday 15 and Tuesday 16 April during holy week, but I will update the House as soon as I possibly can.
On Monday 1 April, the all-party group for international freedom of religion or belief, which I have the privilege to chair, hosted a parliamentary briefing investigating the ongoing farmer-herder conflict in Nigeria. Nigeria is awash with weapons. This conflict has claimed tens of thousands of lives since the turn of the century. It is one of the bloodiest in the world at the moment and, as both groups happen to also be divided by religion, with farmers being mainly Christian and the herders being mainly Muslim, it threatens to escalate into a full-blown religious war. Will the Leader of the House agree to a statement or debate on this very pressing matter?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his question. The Government are concerned by the recurrent clashes involving pastoralists and local farmers. We continue to call for an immediate de-escalation of violence and for the Nigerian Government to demonstrate a clear strategy for resolving the conflict, ending the violence and ensuring that the needs of all the communities are taken into account. There is no doubt that these clashes have a devastating impact on lives and communities, as well as, of course, being a major barrier to Nigeria’s economic development.
I am very pleased that the Government are investing £290 million in improving the A1 road north of Newcastle to Berwick-upon-Tweed. Sadly, north of the border, 17 miles of the A1 still remain a single-track road. Transport policy is devolved to the Scottish Parliament and yet the Scottish Government are refusing to take any action to improve this important cross-border route. Could we have a debate about how both the UK and Scottish Governments can work together to improve cross-border connectivity?
As always, my hon. Friend raises an important issue on behalf of his constituents and many others. He is right that under the devolution settlement, roads within Scotland are the responsibility of the Scottish Government, and it is for them to prioritise and fund any relevant schemes. I hope that they will take the decision to do so. For our part, UK Ministers and officials regularly collaborate with their counterparts in Scotland on issues of mutual interest, including cross-border connections, and they have previously discussed the dualling of the A1.
I wonder whether the Leader of the House can provide us with a date when the Timpson review into exclusions will be produced. If she cannot provide a date, perhaps she can explain why we have had a delay since December last year.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her question. She has raised this on a number of occasions and, as I have said to her, I have chased for a date on which this report will be published. She is absolutely right to keep pursuing it and I am continuing to seek to get an answer for her—[Interruption.] She is asking “Why?” from a sedentary position. As I have tried to explain previously, the review is considering the difference in exclusion rates between different areas and why that is taking place. That, therefore, makes the review quite complicated and time-consuming.
The Leader of the House will recall that three weeks ago, I raised with her the accountability of Network Rail. That particularly relates to its proposed closure of Suggitt’s Lane level crossing in my constituency. The accountability issue has become more serious, because the Grimsby Telegraph is reporting that when contractors moved in to lock the gates, they hauled away cars parked near the crossing. Surely Network Rail should not have the powers to haul away private vehicles. Could we have a statement from the Department for Transport on this issue?
My hon. Friend’s concerns sound very justified. Of course the safety of our railways is paramount, but as he knows it is a matter for Network Rail, working with the independent regulator, the Office of Rail and Road. I understand that an urgent meeting on the Suggitt’s Lane level crossing closure has been arranged for Monday between the rail Minister, senior representatives from Network Rail and my hon. Friend himself. I hope that there will be some progress as a result of that.
I thank the shadow Leader of the House for reminding us that it is the 70th anniversary of the signing of the Washington treaty. I also remind the House that London was the first home of the NATO alliance and that the first shots fired by NATO came during a peacekeeping mission in Bosnia in 1996. If the Leader of the House is short of business for next week, may I suggest that we celebrate the NATO alliance, which has kept peace and security across Europe and north America for 70 years?
The hon. Lady is absolutely right to pay tribute to the amazing achievements of NATO, which has been the cornerstone of our defence for 70 years, as she rightly points out. I will certainly take away her request for a debate in Government time and see what can be done.
There is a sense of anticipation in Rugby because the finalists of the “Pride of Rugby” awards, run superbly by our local radio station, Rugby FM, have been announced. They recognise local achievers in businesses and charities and among our volunteers and young people at a time when we hear a lot about the challenges that communities face. May we have a debate to recognise some of the great work going on in our communities?
It is always welcome that business questions gives colleagues a chance to praise the excellent work that goes on in their communities. I congratulate my hon. Friend and join him in congratulating the finalists of the “Pride of Rugby” awards. I wish them all the best for the event. The UK is undoubtedly a very generous place; I understand that the British public donated £10.3 billion to all causes in 2017. That cements the UK’s place as one of the most generous nations in the world—something that we can all celebrate.
Given BBC Parliament’s success and viewing figures in the past few weeks, are there any plans to broadcast Cabinet meetings live? The details of the meetings are leaked within minutes, so should we not just cut out the middle man? Can the Leader of the House tell us which is true: is there more infighting in a Cabinet meeting or in the next episode of “Game of Thrones”?
What goes on in Cabinet would not be a great TV show—too often, what gets reported is not correct. It either has to be a documentary or it is a fabrication. Sometimes I sit in Cabinet and hear one thing and read about it in the newspapers but it is not the same at all—it is someone’s interpretation.
The hon. Gentleman makes a serious point about how Cabinet commentary gets out into the press. There are interpretations on all manner of meetings that take place. What that really says to me, and what I always urge young people to understand when I go to universities and schools to talk to them about democracy, is that people should not believe everything they read—it is definitely not always true. People need to go to the source.
I recently launched a new Saturday bus service in Henley. May we have a debate on buses to show how smaller, more local buses can help?
Congratulations to my hon. Friend—a number of hon. Members would love to do the same in their areas. He will be aware that the bus market outside London is deregulated and that decisions about service provision are primarily a commercial matter for bus operators. Individual English local authorities will make decisions on whether to subsidise bus services. The Bus Services Act 2017 provides the tools that local authorities need to improve local bus services and increase passenger numbers, but I am sure I am not alone in this place in thinking that we need to do more to provide better bus transportation for all our communities.
May a debate be held on the urgent need to fund community-based projects to tackle climate change? North Glasgow Housing Association is the biggest community-owned housing association in Glasgow, and with Lambhill Stables, it is doing fantastic work in all sorts of fields using climate challenge funding from the Scottish Government, including community swapshops for furniture and even using comics to educate young people. Unfortunately, that funding has not been renewed this year, so the projects cannot continue. May we have an urgent debate on the need to advance funding for community-based climate change initiatives?
First, I congratulate the hon. Gentleman’s constituents on their work. It is incredibly important that we do all we can to make people aware of the importance of climate change and the steps we can take to address it. He will be aware that our 25-year environment plan seeks to ensure that ours is the first generation that leaves our environment in a better state than we found it. Within that plan, there are many different initiatives. I encourage the hon. Gentleman to talk to Ministers in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs about what more they can do to support such initiatives.
It was mentioned earlier that it is cherry blossom time. I encourage every Member of the House to come and see the Japanese garden in Clackmannanshire in my constituency, where recently I joined the Japanese consul-general to plant new cherry trees, whose blossoms we hope everyone can enjoy in the near future. May we have time to debate rural development? We spend a lot of time talking about our towns and cities, but our rural communities are working hard to improve prosperity and employment through schemes such as Can Do Crieff shared workspace, which was recently established in my constituency? Country is just as important as town, so may we have more time to debate rural issues?
I completely agree that the countryside is every bit as important as towns, and we need to do everything possible to ensure that our rural communities thrive. We have Housing, Communities and Local Government questions on Monday, and I encourage my hon. Friend to raise with Ministers what more can be done to support rural communities.
The Duke of Edinburgh’s volunteering achievement award has been presented to pupils in Coventry to celebrate 9,360 hours of voluntary service by the city’s young people over the past 12 months. We know that such volunteering efforts help young people to develop, build confidence and gain important life skills, while improving the health and wellbeing of the local community around them. Will the Leader of the House join me in commending Coventry’s young volunteers, and will she arrange a debate in Government time on the importance of volunteering and how it can inspire a generation of young people who care about where they live and are willing to make a commitment to improve society?
The hon. Lady always speaks up for Coventry, and she is right to do so. I definitely join her in congratulating all those young people. I think she quoted a figure of 9,360 hours of volunteering in the past 12 months. That is a superb record of which they can be very proud.
Can the Leader of the House tell me where the Home Secretary is? I asked last week whether he was going to come and make a statement, and she said she would speak to him. We had a knife crime summit, but nobody has a clue what happened there; he has not bothered to come to the House of Commons to explain. We read in the papers about search powers being changed—not a word to the House of Commons about it. We read about extra money for all sorts of groups—not a word to the House of Commons about it. Will the Leader of the House go again to the Home Secretary and tell him to get over here and start making some statements to this House about the national emergency this country faces with knife crime?
I know the hon. Gentleman cares passionately about this issue, as do the many right hon. and hon. Members who raise it frequently at business questions. As a matter of fact, my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary was here yesterday, making a statement on Windrush compensation. He is of course always willing and keen to update the House as soon as some important breakthrough takes place. The hon. Gentleman will know that a tremendous amount of work has gone into our serious violence strategy, the Offensive Weapons Bill, the creation of knife crime prevention orders, the youth endowment fund and the recent discussions about making knife crime a public health matter, so that we can do everything possible to steer young people away from a life of knife crime and violence. I totally understand the hon. Gentleman’s frustration. I will again raise the issue with the Home Secretary, but he is willing to—indeed, has he done so very regularly—come to update this House whenever there is more to say.
At his last meeting with the all-party group on steel, the then Steel Minister, the hon. Member for Watford (Richard Harrington), committed to bring together all the key steel stakeholders to look again at how to progress a steel sector deal. May we have a statement from the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy on how we are to bring about this steel summit?
I was not aware of the commitment that was made, but if the hon. Gentleman would like to write to me, I can take the matter up with the Department on his behalf.
On my way into Westminster, I walk through the Canary Wharf Crossrail station on most mornings. It is a pristine station that cost £500 million. It was opened in 2015, but no trains will use it until at least 2020. It is a bit like the hospital in “Yes Minister”—the Leader of the House might remember—where there were no patients but it was seen to be a very efficient hospital. The Public Accounts Committee has said that the cost of Crossrail has spiralled out of control, at more than £18 billion and counting, and question marks remain over its completion. We cannot get new signage or the toilets sorted out in the railway station in Hull, let alone electrification of the line, so may we please have a debate on investment in rail in the north and not just in London?
I am sympathetic to the hon. Lady’s desire to see more investment in the north. She will be aware that the Government are investing significant sums in new rail infrastructure and in improving the experience of all train users.
With regard to Crossrail, work is now being done to deliver a revised schedule for the project, and the Department for Transport is working closely with the Infrastructure and Projects Authority and the National Audit Office to ensure that lessons are learned for the delivery of major projects. Once built, the new Crossrail line will provide a boost to the UK economy of up to £42 billion and enable 200 million journeys across London and the south-east. I absolutely understand that the hon. Lady wants to see more investment in the north, and that is also happening—it is not either/or but both.
In the past fortnight, households up and down the country have received their council tax bills. Members will be well aware that people have seen significant increases of almost twice the rate of inflation and twice the rate of pay increases. In my constituency, there has been a 5% council tax increase and a 12% increase in the police levy, and residents are concerned that they are getting less for paying more. Against that backdrop, my local authority wishes to build a new council office. May we have a debate on the terrific One Public Estate programme, which was introduced in 2013, so that we can examine where we are with those sorts of programmes?
The hon. Gentleman raises the issue of council tax rises; he will be aware that council taxes have fallen since 2010 in real terms, under the Conservative and coalition Governments. It has been important to hold down those increases. At the same time, I am sure he will want to celebrate that this week there is more than £1.3 billion extra available for local councils, more than £1 billion extra for schools and of course, really importantly, a rise in the national living wage, which has given a full-time worker a £2,750 annual pay rise since its introduction. There is also another rise in the personal tax-free allowance, leaving a basic-rate taxpayer more than £1,200 a year better off than in 2010. I totally sympathise with the hon. Gentleman’s point about council taxes rising, but on the other side of the economy, the Government are taking steps to ensure that there are better services, that people get to keep more of their hard-earned income and that people in our economy are better off through job increases, wage increases and increases in their personal tax-free allowance.
Some of my constituents have received letters this week informing them that the owner of their homes—the freeholder—has changed from one company based in Guernsey to another company based in Guernsey. We have had a very powerful Select Committee report and various vacuous pledges about what will be done to tackle leasehold abuses, but the fact remains that these kind of manoeuvres are making it harder and more expensive for my constituents to purchase outright the freehold of their properties. May we have a statement from the Government about what they will do to protect existing leaseholders?
I certainly share the hon. Gentleman’s concern about the way in which some properties are being sold as leases and then those who have bought them are being charged additional sums on an increasing basis. That cannot be right. We have Housing, Communities and Local Government questions on Monday. I encourage him to raise the matter there.
With permission, Mr Speaker, I will make a statement about Brunei and sharia law.
I appreciate that this issue has been of widespread concern in the House and was the subject of two requests for an urgent question earlier in the week by the hon. Member for Edinburgh West (Christine Jardine). I apologise, too, that, given how late we sat last night, there are slightly fewer Members in the House today than there might have been, as many of them have an understandable desire to head off. I thought that it was worth making a full statement on this issue. There was no criticism of you, Mr Speaker, that you did not allow the urgent questions, not least because we were able to touch on this matter in the slightly unsatisfactory way that one does during Foreign and Commonwealth questions.
Brunei introduced sharia criminal law in 2014, to operate alongside the common law system in that country. Implementation of the final phases of the associated sharia penal code was delayed from 2014 until yesterday. These final phases now introduce the possibility of hudud corporal and capital punishments, which may include amputation for theft, and execution by stoning for witnessed adultery and anal sex.
The sharia penal code requires four witnesses or a confession from the offender for a conviction to be secured. It is a fairly tall ask, but that does not mean it is impossible to achieve. Under the common law in Brunei, homosexuality is already a criminal offence. Whippings are also quite frequently used as a punishment for a variety of offences, and the death penalty remains on the statute book—although it has not been enforced since 1992.
I want to be absolutely clear about the UK’s position on this: this Government consider it appalling that, in the 21st century, people anywhere are still facing potential persecution and discrimination because of who they are and whom they love. We strongly support and defend the rights of the LGBT+ community here in the UK and all around the world.
We absolutely oppose the death penalty in all circumstances and in all forms, and we do not believe that amputation or stoning are legitimate or acceptable punishments. Indeed, we consider them to be illegal under international human rights laws relating to torture or cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment.
We also note that, since the introduction of sharia criminal law in Brunei in 2014, the vast majority of crimes have continued to be brought to justice under the existing common law system, which runs in parallel in that country. However, if implemented, we believe that these extreme hudud punishments would contravene Brunei’s international commitments to respect human rights and individual freedoms. That is why we have expressed deep concerns to the Government of Brunei. I personally raised the matter with His Majesty the Sultan, the Minister of Religious Affairs and the Foreign Minister, Dato Erywan, when I visited the country in August 2018.
Last week, I wrote to Dato Erywan to re-emphasise our concern about the use of hudud punishments, which contravene the international standards and values that the UK and Brunei both uphold. Earlier this week, our outstanding high commissioner Richard Lindsay also raised our concerns with senior Bruneian Ministers, including the Ministers of Foreign Affairs, Religious Affairs and Finance. He received assurances that common law would continue to be the primary means of administering justice and that the burden of proof under the sharia penal code has been set to be almost unattainably high, and, obviously, we welcome that. I understand that the Foreign Secretary will speak with the Bruneian Foreign Minister later today and urge the Government of Brunei to take further steps to ensure that those extreme punishments cannot be used, and to respect the rights and freedoms of all their citizens.
Colleagues may be concerned about the potential impact of sharia criminal law in Brunei on British nationals, for whom we have a specific consular responsibility. I assure the House that our travel advice has been updated to ensure that all British citizens are aware of the introduction of the new laws under the sharia penal code. Supporting British nationals remains our No. 1 priority, and we will continue to provide consular support for all British folk in Brunei should it be required. As many Members will be aware, we have a specific responsibility towards British military personnel and their families who are stationed in Brunei, including as part of our long-standing garrison agreement that dates from the coming into existence of Brunei as an independent state in 1962. I assure the House that necessary protections are in place with the Government of Brunei.
For historical and ongoing reasons we have a close friendship with Brunei, and from my experience both in Brunei and with Bruneians in this country, I know that they regard themselves—with good cause—as a generous, friendly and tolerant people, and they are worried to see the tarnishing of that reputation, given recent press in the UK and across the world. We have an important bilateral security relationship with Brunei, of which the garrison agreement is one part, but that has never prevented us from raising difficult issues. Indeed, I believe that the strength and richness of that relationship permits us to share our views and express those concerns—sometimes openly, sometimes more in private, but always frankly—as we seek to work together to address these issues.
I am sure I speak for the entire House when I say that this Government, our high commissioner and I will continue to urge the Government of Brunei to take all necessary steps to reassure their own people, the United Kingdom and the wider international community that they are fully committed to allowing all citizens and residents of Brunei to live with dignity, and free from violence, discrimination or persecution. As an integral part of our foreign policy work around the world, we will continue to oppose the use of the death penalty in all circumstances and promote the rights of LGBT+ people. Nobody should face punishment for who they are or whom they love. I commend this statement to the House.
I thank the Minister for advance sight of the statement, and for the concern and care that he has brought to this issue, just as he did for other issues including Kashmir and the Rohingya, as well as many other matters covered by his brief. My right hon. Friend the shadow Foreign Secretary spoke the other day about the former Minister, the right hon. Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt), and said that we would miss both the substance and tone that he brought to our debates. As we have seen today, however, this Minister brings the same substance to our debates, and he knows how to set the tone for his Department.
What we have seen in Brunei in the past week with the proposed new laws has been shocking, shameful and deeply sad. Let me read the words of one staff member from our shadow Foreign Office team. She is a young English woman who grew up in Brunei, and when she heard the news she said:
“It breaks my heart that a country I would credit with opening my mind and my heart in my formative years, and deeply embedding in me a love of the world and the people in it, could now preach such utter hatred against people just because of who they love.”
That is absolutely right. Brunei is a beautiful country with a warm and welcoming people, and for a long time it has been home to a diversity of races and nationalities. For it to take such a backward step into the darkness, with these horrific proposals for people to be stoned and whipped to death just because of their sexuality, is truly heartbreaking and fundamentally evil. It is also a clear breach of Brunei’s obligations under the Commonwealth charter on human rights. If it presses ahead with the proposals, surely there must be immediate consequences for Brunei’s membership of the Commonwealth. The Commonwealth has stood for human rights when it comes to democratic abuses in countries such as Nigeria, Zimbabwe and the Gambia, but for far too long it has turned a blind eye to LGBT discrimination in Asia, Africa and the Caribbean.
It is time for the Commonwealth to draw a line in the sand on LGBT rights, and that line must be drawn now in relation to Brunei. We cannot be in a situation whereby a Commonwealth country announces plans to stone and whip LGBT people to death and the Commonwealth does nothing.
I thank the Minister of State for his words and I hope they will lead to action, whether that means suspending our support for Brunei’s armed forces or other measures. Above all, I hope it will include calling an immediate meeting of the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group and agreeing that if Brunei does not drop its proposals it will, with great regret but as a matter of urgency, be suspended from the Commonwealth.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his kind words but also his tone. At a time when so many debates in this House have been very fractious—on matters that we dare not discuss now—it is very important that we are able to unite and work constructively on an issue that is close to the hearts of many of us. On the issue of the garrison, we take very seriously the importance of security in the region, and obviously we are negotiating a range of safeguards for British nationals.
The main thrust of the hon. Gentleman’s contribution was to do with the Commonwealth, so I will touch on that. As he alluded to, the Commonwealth charter states specifically that members are
“opposed to all forms of discrimination, whether rooted in gender, race, colour, creed, political belief or other grounds.”
At the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting here in London last April, the Prime Minister was absolutely clear:
“Nobody should face discrimination or persecution because of who they are or who they love and the UK stands ready to help any Commonwealth member wanting to reform outdated legislation that makes such discrimination possible.”
I think I should put the issue in context. This is not in any way to justify what is happening specifically in relation to Brunei, but it is worth recognising that 30 Commonwealth member states have the death penalty, four have imposed a full or partial moratorium and 19 have abolished it. Obviously, we are working on trying to increase that number. There are 35 member states that still criminalise consensual same-sex relations, primarily as a result of colonial-era legislation, which does not apply in relation to Brunei, obviously. Since CHOGM 2018, two Commonwealth member states have decriminalised same-sex relationships, namely India and Trinidad and Tobago, which together account for well over 1 billion people. Two member states are able, in principle at least, to impose the death penalty for same-sex relationships. Brunei and some 12 states in the north of Nigeria have adopted elements of sharia law through a component of their legal system. That does not mean, of course, that the death penalty will necessarily be enacted.
Clearly, this is an issue on which we and Commonwealth countries have been working and will continue to do so. We would like to think that progress is being made. I very much agree with the sentiment of the House that the imposition of a sharia penal code is a backward step as far as Brunei is concerned, but progress is being made elsewhere and we will continue to work within the broad international community and the Commonwealth to ensure that countries come on board.
The best way to do that, rather than threatening to kick countries out of the Commonwealth, is to try to hold them close and recognise the strong connections. I would refer, at the individual level, to what the hon. Gentleman said about a close member of his Foreign and Commonwealth team staff, whose heart bleeds to see what is happening in Brunei, as it gives a misleading impression of what is a friendly and generous place. Indeed, the Sultan of Brunei has been a great friend of this country over many years. He has, I think, become a little more devout as he has got older, which is one reason why the sharia code—based, of course, on the Saudi Arabian sharia code—has been put in place. However, I am hopeful that we can continue to have a positive and constructive dialogue on this issue, with Brunei and with a number of countries that we would like to see making changes in future.
Looking around the Chamber, I am reminded of some of the transformations that we have seen over generations, which have now become so normal and were so obviously the right decision. I think in particular of the freedom of women to have a say in our public life and in our private life.
One of the things that we have not yet seen is the normalisation of the equality of love. We do not see it totally in the United Kingdom, in cultural senses, and we do not see it around the world, in areas where we should. We are talking about this today because a friend of the United Kingdom has decided to turn in the wrong direction. I have heard what my right hon. Friend the Minister has said, and I strongly support the words that he has been using. However, I urge him not just to press harder directly, but to use the regional approach, which he has deployed so successfully in many other circumstances, and talk to our partners and friends in other countries in the area.
Brunei is a country that we feel very warmly towards and that, as he knows more than anyone, has a battalion of Gurkhas who do an enormous amount of work in defending the monarchy and the people there. This is a moment when Brunei could step forward, change its mind and become again a bastion for peace and, in this case, an expression of equality and tolerance, as it has been in so many other areas.
I thank my hon. Friend, who knows that area of the world well, for his wise words, to which there is little that I can add. For those who have not visited, Brunei is a beautiful country, and it is a matter of regret for us all that this penal code has come on to the statute book. Because of the high bar for proof and the fact that Brunei has a common law stream in its legal system, I am fairly confident that little will happen in this regard. That is one reason why there has been such surprise in Brunei at the international abhorrence that has been expressed. However, we will do our level best, remembering that Brunei has been a strong friend. We want to encourage it to protect and promote values that I hope will become universal.
I thank the Minister for early sight of the statement. I also thank him and the shadow Minister for their robust denunciation of the tactics now being taken up by the Sultan—and also, I suppose, in some ways by the Government of Brunei—on sharia law and its implementation on a range of issues, not just LGBT issues. I admit that, as a gay man, it comes as no surprise to me that we live in a world in which people of my identity are still stoned, hanged and murdered because of their having sex with someone of the same gender, along with lesbian women, who are to be whipped.
But this is not just about LGBT issues; there are also the amputation laws, which are directed at children, who could face amputation. We need to be very much aware of that, so I wonder whether the Minister can say something about that. There are also a range of issues around religious freedom in Brunei, or the reduction of it, so I could not stand here and not call for more robust action, in particular through the Commonwealth. The shadow Minister mentioned the Commonwealth, and the fact that we are now at a moment when Commonwealth 2.0 rhetoric is being deployed by many in this place should not be missed either.
We also need to be clear that Brunei is one of 35 states in the Commonwealth where being lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender is illegal. Indeed, the states that do not criminalise their LGBT citizens are in the profound minority. Given that the Scottish National party’s Westminster group has the largest number of LGBT Members in this place, I am sure that it will come as no surprise that we will be unbending in our support for the fundamental human rights that are enshrined in European institutions—and this country is, at present, a member of the European Union.
Let me make it clear that while many Members may see a return to the days of laissez-faire economics and mercantilism as some sort of liberation, SNP Members will be looking very carefully at the way in which the Government deal with this issue through the institutions of the Commonwealth, with which they claim to have great influence.
Let me ask the Minister some direct questions. Will the Government ensure that they register their strongest objections through the Secretary General of the Commonwealth? Will they consider asking for Brunei’s suspension from the Commonwealth in line with the suspension of Zimbabwe, which was mentioned by the hon. Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr Mahmood) —not expulsion but suspension, until it gets its act together? Finally, will they protect the rights of members of the armed forces, who, if they are also members of the LGBT community, should not have to go to a place like Brunei and put themselves in direct danger?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his words. Obviously, we will take this matter up with the Secretary General of the Commonwealth. Let me say a little about the broader Commonwealth position on LGBT rights, given the context that we have both discussed: more than half the members of the Commonwealth have on their statute books, at least, what we regard as discriminatory legislation.
Using UK funding, the Equality & Justice Alliance is working to create a fairer, more equal and more inclusive Commonwealth for the LGBT community and, more widely, for women and girls. The project involves creating a cross-Commonwealth network and high-level champions, and the alliance is offering technical assistance with the reform of laws that discriminate against, or fail to protect, women and girls and LGBT individuals. We will also take action through the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group. It is currently chaired by Kenya but, as the hon. Gentleman knows, we are members by virtue of our having been the Commonwealth Chair-in-Office since last April. That, I think, will provide a space for some very sensitive discussions, which—I hope—will in turn allow discreet engagement through, for instance, the good offices of the Secretary General.
As the Minister will recall, I raised this issue during Foreign Office questions on Tuesday. What struck me about his reply to my topical question then, and what strikes me now, is the utter paucity of any proposed Government action. I wonder whether the Minister can give us an explanation.
First, when were we aware that this proposal was coming down the track? It is not just about LGBT citizens. A third of the Bruneian population are not Muslim, and plainly the problem of death for apostasy presents a significant threat to anyone who professes a new belief, in a society in which many different belief systems are present. We have heard about the barbaric practices of amputation and the imposition of the death penalty for adultery. I take no comfort from my right hon. Friend’s reference to the requirement for a certain number of witnesses of those crimes, as confessions are obtained rather more easily in such circumstances.
This is an utter affront. We knew that it was coming, so why did we not divert it? What exactly are we going to do to ensure that Brunei at least pays a price that can be paid? It will not be paid through loss of its membership of the Commonwealth, given that two thirds of Commonwealth states still have anti-LGBT laws on their statute books.
The sharia criminal law came into being in 2014, and at that point—and certainly when I was in the country last summer—we were well aware that we were heading down a path towards the sharia penal code. We have tried to warn the Bruneian authorities throughout my time as a Minister, and possibly for some time before that.
I reiterate that the new sharia penal code does not supplant the existing common law, which will apply in most cases, and obviously to non-Muslims in Brunei. The burden of proof for conviction under sharia is incredibly high, and there will be no new intrusive efforts at enforcement. However, I understand the frustrations that my hon. Friend has expressed. I can only say that we have tried to give warnings through the diplomatic network, and that the international outcry caused by the imposition of a penal code has probably come as a surprise to many in Brunei. We will continue to make those diplomatic representations. As I have said, I personally take the view that it would be better to try to keep the country within the Commonwealth, and to make the necessary changes through some of the initiatives that we have in play, than to issue threats of expulsion.
I am sorry that my hon. Friend—who takes a robust view on these and, indeed, many other matters—feels that we have been light and lily-livered. I can only reassure him that, certainly during my time as a Minister, we have been aware of the concerns that were coming down the track, and have done our level best to advise Brunei accordingly.
It is important to note that as well as punishing the other so-called crimes that have been mentioned—obviously they are not crimes—the sharia law prohibits women from having abortions, for which they are subjected to violent punishments, even though that is surely a health matter, and adultery, which is surely a private matter.
Article 1 of the United Nations convention against torture prohibits the use of intentionally inflicted pain as a form of punishment inflicted by a state actor. Brunei is a signatory to the convention, but has not implemented it. We have done so, and we are bound by article 3, which prohibits refoulement. That means that we should not return, expel or extradite anyone to another country if there are substantial grounds for believing that that person will be in danger of being subjected to torture or cruel punishment. What discussions is the Minister having with his counterparts in other Departments about ensuring that we are abiding by the principle of article 3?
I know that the hon. Lady will be leading a debate on this matter in Westminster Hall. Perhaps I will have a second bite of the cherry if, in discussing some of the technical issues, I do not get it right this time round.
This matter is currently being dealt with through the Foreign Office network rather than through other Departments. Clearly, however, in the light of the UK’s international obligations, it will need to be discussed more widely—with the Ministry of Defence in particular, given the number of UK citizens and Gurkhas who are in the garrison.
ISIS pushes gay people off buildings, and now Brunei is threatening to stone gay people to death. Will the United Kingdom take the lead in the Commonwealth in making clear that such punishments are simply incompatible with Commonwealth membership?
As I have said, at the Heads of Government meeting in London last April the Prime Minister could not have made clearer where we stood on these issues. As I have also said, we have tried to work constructively to ensure that changes are made to out-of-date legislation, some which dates from the colonial era. Progress has clearly been made, although perhaps not as rapidly as some Members would like. I believe that trying to utilise the carrot rather than the stick may be the right approach at this stage.
I thank the Minister for giving me prior sight of his statement, and I welcome the tone that he has taken in recognising the inhumanity of these laws. However, I am disappointed by his willingness to accept that the bar may be set high for convictions, and that that might be acceptable. The fact of the law, and the threat of the law to people who are LGBT or young people who might be coping with recognising their own sexuality, are surely unacceptable.
Further to the comments that have already been made, may I plead with the Minister to try to take action through the Commonwealth? We should never forget that it was not an international outcry but action that defeated apartheid, and perhaps action is what we need here now.
I am not sure that the hon. Lady was in the Chamber at the very second when I was praising her. I knew that she had tried twice to secure an urgent question, and I thought that rather than her being disappointed by the Speaker on a third occasion, there should be a statement. I thank her for her kind words, but I too accept that action is needed. I am not trying to belittle the seriousness of the situation, but I am trying to put in context the likelihood of any of these punishments actually being carried out. It is a sharia penal code that has been introduced. But the hon. Lady makes a strong point, and we will try to work closely with the Commonwealth. She drew a comparison with apartheid; I am not saying we should do anything other than have a sense of urgency, but equally sometimes in international affairs there has to be patience. One need only look at the transformation in this country: we are not all the way there, but there has been a transformation in LGBT rights in this country even in my adulthood over the past 30 years. While I understand the frustrations many have in wanting to see all these things achieved immediately, equally sometimes we have to be patient and move in the right direction. I believe we are in a position to do that, but I will make sure the Commonwealth secretary-general is made well aware of the concerns raised in the House today.
The reason, I suggest, why this House cares so much about the introduction of the sharia penal code in Brunei is partly that the kingdom of Brunei is a long-standing ally and Commonwealth partner, and therefore this is a great disappointment to us all, but partly too because Brunei becomes the first country in east or south-east Asia to introduce the sharia penal code. While the trend in the Commonwealth and the world in general is to liberalise—indeed, that is what the Commonwealth charter counts on all members to do—this is a step in the opposite direction. Will my right hon. Friend confirm whether he has any concerns that the introduction of this penal code in Brunei could have an effect on other countries with majority Muslim populations in the region?
My hon. Friend makes a good and wise point. There are obviously other countries in that region with majority Muslim populations, but there is possibly also a sense that there is an exception in the case of the Sultanate of Brunei: as my hon. Friend will be well aware, the connections between it and Saudi Arabian and Qatari doctrine are quite profound. But he makes a good point: whereas on related issues we have made significant progress, we should all be very wary of the fact that there could be a backward movement.
I do not in any way doubt the sincerity of the right hon. Gentleman or indeed of Her Majesty’s Government; as he says, nobody should face punishment for who they are or whom they love. However, this situation does set up real difficulties for this country and our relationship with such a country, because of course it is entirely possible that we will have an LGBT member of HMG visiting Brunei on official business; how will we cope with that?
I remember the movement against apartheid, and I am sure the right hon. Gentleman remembers it as well from his childhood; it started when the South African regime refused to allow Basil D’Oliveira to play cricket in South Africa. What is our attitude going to be if the Brunei regime starts to make concerns felt about having LGBT members of our armed forces serving in Brunei? We cannot have a sensible relationship with a country that refuses to accept that some people are the way they are, and I feel strongly that the Government need to do more.
May I also add that I believe the right hon. Gentleman misunderstood my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol West (Thangam Debbonaire) when she was talking about people seeking asylum in this country? I believe the right hon. Gentleman needs to have a serious conversation with the Home Office—
Order. We still have a lot of business to get through this afternoon, including a heavily subscribed debate coming next, so I urge Members to ask short questions, and hopefully they will receive short answers as well.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker.
I very much respect the hon. Gentleman’s heartfelt concerns. I hope I did not misunderstand what was said earlier; it was on a Home Office matter, and we have not been able to discuss it at length with that Department. He makes a valid point, however, but anyone who goes to Brunei will recognise what a welcoming and open place it appears to be, and that seems so at odds with the idea of having a sharia penal code with all of the potential punishments in place. However, please be assured that we will not be complacent about this matter and will try to ensure that we get some progress along the lines suggested by Members.
I welcome the Minister’s statement and thank him for repeatedly raising concerns regarding these laws with the Government of Brunei. The penal code introduced in Brunei is nothing less than barbaric. What more can the British Government do to put pressure on the Government of Brunei and ensure the strength of opposition from across the world to the introduction of this punishment is felt?
I thank my hon. Friend for his question. The sheer strength of expression here, both in the press and in Parliament, will I think make a strong impression in itself. We will make sure our counterparts, and in particular our high commissioner Richard Lindsay, are made well aware of the universal strength of opinion on this matter and the desire to ensure that we regularise our relations with Brunei partly by seeing genuine progress amidst the concerns raised here today.
I echo the sentiments of my hon. Friend the Member for West Dunbartonshire (Martin Docherty-Hughes), and wish to express my own grave concerns about these changes to the penal code in respect of both stoning and amputation. As hon. Members have rightly outlined, this affects not only the LGBT community but potentially also many young vulnerable children and women in particular. Will the Government continue to exercise their diplomatic and foreign policy efforts in condemning these practices, and at every opportunity call on Brunei to ensure its human rights obligations are upheld? It is shocking and barbaric that in 2019 people can be stoned to death for who they love, so I call on the Minister to simply make every effort possible to bring Brunei into compliance.
I thank the hon. Lady for her words, and I agree. It is important to stress that these threats against what seem like minorities are actually threats to us all—threats to the liberty of all of us. That is the single most important message we will endeavour to get across.
I welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement and fully endorse the actions he says he will take. Can he advise the House on what he will do to proactively engage with international allies, partners and organisations beyond the Commonwealth to lobby Brunei to reverse this abhorrent decision?
I thank my hon. Friend. In part we will try to work with a number of the countries that have already expressed grave concerns. Brunei has a number of other trading partners in the EU and elsewhere, and we will try to work together with them and within international organisations such as the United Nations. I will leave it at that, but we are trying to put together some sort of plan and may well say a little more at the Westminster Hall debate next Wednesday.
I thank the Minister for his unqualified condemnation of these actions by the Brunei Government—these appalling new punishments that are an attack on the LBGT+ community and indeed on vulnerable men, women and children—but can we go further than words? We need to put our money where our mouth is. The Minister was on a trade visit to Brunei in August last year, and the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Paul Scully), the British trade envoy to Brunei, was on a trade trip to Brunei at the end of last year. We have open trade talks with the Brunei Government; can we not just bring those to an end as a very clear signal that we will put our support for human rights and our opposition to human rights abuses above trade links, Brexit or no Brexit?
In fairness, my visit last year was more to do with the broader diplomatic relationship, which is extremely strong. It will sadden many people who know Brunei or have Bruneian blood, and who recognise how strong that relationship is, that this outrage has come forth over the last couple of days over this issue. We do not import hydrocarbons from Brunei, although obviously it is a big oil nation, but we believe having open and honest discussions—rather than going down the route of boycotts, for example—is the best way to encourage Brunei to uphold its international human rights obligations and respect individual freedoms. The people-to-people connection is also important. I am very proud of the fact that we have had a good track record of achieving scholarships—getting young Bruneians to come to the UK. Perhaps that is one of the best ways of them understanding the different, but none the less positive, values we have in this country and returning to perhaps a play a role in public life in that country.
I am very concerned about the implications for the safety of British nationals who are either in Brunei or planning to visit Brunei, following the shocking introduction of these barbaric and retrograde laws. The Minister has said a little bit about the travel advice that has been provided, but may I press him on that? What is the advice now, and how can he be satisfied that British nationals will indeed be protected?
The travel advice obviously changed when it became evident that the penal code was likely to come into play. It simply explains that there is a penal code and that, under that code, certain behaviours could lead to a variety of punishments. We have raised, and will continue to raise, our specific concerns with the Government of Brunei. Hitherto, we have received reassurances that the common law, rather than sharia law, will continue to be the primary means of administering justice in Brunei. We shall continue to provide consular support to any British nationals, as needed. Some British nationals are working there, some are in the garrison, and others are visiting the country.
When the right to choose who you love and to be who you are is taken away, other rights, including the right to believe in and follow your own God, quickly follow in being taken away. I welcome the Minister’s statement today. Will he make it clear to the Brunei Government that this is not about being devout, but that it is about being completely misguided?
I think we will try to find slightly more diplomatic language than that. We understand that a sharia code is in play, and that some in Brunei hold that close to their hearts, but my hon. Friend makes a fair point. We obviously want to see the universality of our values, and that is what we in the international community will continue to press for.
Will my right hon. Friend tell us what can be done to champion the virtues of giving people equal rights? When these rights are denied, it is not just a loss for the individual; it is a loss for society as a whole. We have only to look at our own history to see the denial of the rights of individuals such as Alan Turing, and to see the impact that that had not only on our local communities but on our entire nation. Imagine how much further forward computing would be if we had not sterilised him and pushed him towards the destiny that he ended up fulfilling. How do we champion these rights internationally and pull people towards our vision of a more liberal society, so that individuals and society as a whole can benefit?