The Prime Minister was asked—
I have been asked to reply on behalf of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, who is today in Belfast attending the funeral of Lyra McKee. This was a brutal, cowardly murder of a young woman, a brilliant journalist, who represented all that is good in Northern Ireland. Those responsible for her murder have nothing to offer anyone from any community in Northern Ireland. I am sure that Members right across the House will want to join me in sending our deepest sympathies to Lyra’s partner Sara, her other family members and her friends. As her family have asked, we today say that we stand with Lyra. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”]
The attack on three Christian churches and three hotels in Sri Lanka on Easter Sunday was a horrific and cowardly act. The House will know that a number of British citizens were killed. Yesterday, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister spoke to the Prime Minister of Sri Lanka to send her condolences to all affected and to offer his Government any assistance they may need. I am sure the whole House will want to join me in sending sympathy and condolences to all who were caught in that horrific attack, but I hope, too, that the House will perhaps reflect on the fact that that atrocity, committed on Easter Sunday, came just a couple of weeks after an equally brutal and appalling attack in Christchurch, New Zealand upon the Muslim community worshipping there. As we stand today between Easter and, next week, the beginning of the solemn month of Ramadan for our Muslim fellow citizens, I hope that this will be a time for not just Members, but all our fellow citizens of all faiths and none, to come together and stand up for the values of mutual respect, tolerance and religious diversity, which embody what is best about our country.
I echo those thoughts of sympathy and condolence.
Rejuvenating our town centres in Stoke-on-Trent is absolutely essential. Will my right hon. Friend join me in welcoming the Open Doors pilot that was recently announced for Fenton in my constituency and agree that our future high streets fund bid for Longton must also succeed?
I am happy to join my hon. Friend in welcoming the Open Doors pilot in his constituency. We very much welcome bids from places such as Longton town centre for this fund. My right hon. Friend the Communities Secretary is going to study all the bids carefully before making a decision later this year, but he and I know that my hon. Friend will be a doughty champion of the claims of his constituency in particular.
The Minister for the Cabinet Office and I usually enjoy trading a few jokes at these sessions, but sadly, this really is not a week for laughter. We on the Opposition side join him in standing in solidarity and shared grief with the people of Sri Lanka and all those who lost loved ones in the Easter Sunday slaughter of peaceful worshippers and innocent tourists, at least 45 of them children. Among them was the eight-year-old cousin of my hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Tulip Siddiq). It was an act of utter depravity and evil, which stands in sharp contrast to the words of love written by Ben Nicholson about his wife and the children that he lost.
Yesterday we also celebrated the life, but mourned the loss, of Billy McNeill, the first Briton to lift the European cup and a man who spent his life fighting against sectarian hatred. And last Thursday, we mourned the senseless murder of the brilliant young journalist Lyra McKee, whose funeral the Prime Minister is right to attend and whose death was a horrific reminder of where sectarian hatred ultimately leads. We stand with Lyra. In her name, can I ask the Minister to tell us what the Government are doing to bring her killers to justice and protect Northern Ireland from a return to terror?
I very much welcome both the tone and the words of the right hon. Lady. I also share in her tribute to Billy McNeill, who died on Monday. He made no fewer than 790 appearances for Celtic, and it is a testament to an extraordinary career that he also won 31 major trophies as a manager and a player. Our thoughts and sympathies are with his family and friends.
As the right hon. Lady will fully understand, decisions about criminal investigations in Northern Ireland are a matter for the Police Service of Northern Ireland and the independent Public Prosecution Service. We very much hope as a Government that any member of the public who has information that will lead to Lyra’s murderers being brought to justice will come forward. I am hopeful, given the sense of community solidarity that there has been in Londonderry/Derry and in Northern Ireland generally, that that information will be forthcoming.
I thank the Minister for his answer, and I know that he speaks with huge authority and passion on this issue. Reading the statement from the so-called New IRA last week, with its talk of “attacking enemy forces” and its “sincere condolences” for Lyra’s death, was a sickening throwback to the days that we thought that we had left behind 20 years ago, from despicable individuals whose only desire is to turn back the clock and destroy the progress that has been made. Does the Minister agree that that is one of the central reasons why we must find an answer to the Northern Ireland border question rather than give these evil terrorists the divisions that they crave?
I would draw a distinction. I regard both issues that the right hon. Lady raises as important, but I do not think those murderers in Derry were motivated by any thoughts about the border or customs arrangements, important though those issues are. I agreed, however, with what she said about the utter unacceptability of references to police officers in Northern Ireland as if they were somehow a legitimate target. One of the great achievements of the peace-building process in Northern Ireland has been the very difficult and controversial reform of the police service whereby young men and women from both Unionist and nationalist communities now serve gladly together, upholding law and justice in Northern Ireland. All of us in this House should continue to send every officer in the PSNI our full support.
I agree entirely with the sentiments expressed by the right hon. Gentleman, but can I bring him back to the issue of the border? I agree with the ends he is trying to achieve, but the fundamental problem remains the means. We all know that his own party and the Democratic Unionist party will not accept the current backstop, but the only way the Government plan to avoid that backstop is by delivering a so-called invisible border. Last week, we saw a leaked Home Office presentation stating: “No government worldwide” currently has such a system in place; that current
“realisation for a…technological solution in the UK is 2030”;
and that there
“is currently no budget for either a pilot or the programme itself.”
Is the Home Office wrong?
I will not comment on alleged leaks from Government Departments, but I can tell the House that the Government have allocated £20 million to invest in work on alternative measures that would bring benefits in terms of seamless trade to the border between Northern Ireland and Ireland and that, if successful, could be applied more generally to give us smart borders on all the United Kingdom’s external borders, and perhaps offer us some export opportunities for that technology as well.
It is interesting what the Minister says, but the Home Office also says there are six problems with deploying these technological solutions: one, it is expensive and there is no budget; two, it has to operate with 28 different UK Government agencies; three, it needs to operate on both sides of the border; four, it will not be deliverable until 2030; five, the Government have a poor track record—to say the least—on big tech projects; and six, no one in the world has done anything similar. That is hardly a recipe for success.
The real answer to the Northern Ireland border question is staring the Government in the face. Twenty-eight months and two Brexit Secretaries ago, I told the Minister from this Dispatch Box that the only way to avoid a hard border was to stay in the customs union and to align all rules and regulations. He himself said three years ago that for anyone to pretend otherwise
“flies in the face of reality”.
That was the truth then, and it remains the truth today, so why will the Government not wake up to it?
I told the right hon. Lady in my previous answer that a £20 million budget had already been earmarked for this work. Whatever she may be reading in the newspapers about timetables, it is also the case that not just the United Kingdom but the European Union has committed itself to trying to get these alternative measures agreed by 2020. The European Commission has not entered into that undertaking and commitment lightly or without some thought and analysis of the chances of achieving it. The solution she identifies for a frictionless border on the island of Ireland would be delivered by the Government’s withdrawal agreement, so she should be urging her right hon. and hon. Friends to vote for the Government’s proposal, instead of rejecting it and therefore blocking the Brexit that her party’s manifesto commits her to.
Let’s face it: we have heard it all before. The only point that the Minister did not make this time was that Britain must be able to establish her own international trade agreements. Perhaps he was listening to Nancy Pelosi last week, when she made it clear that if the UK Government disrupted the open border in Northern Ireland, we could forget all about a free trade deal with the United States.
So the Government are going to spend millions on giving Donald Trump the red-carpet, golden-carriage treatment in June. The state banquet might even be worth it, so long as he is forced to sit next to Greta Thunberg—or how about this? He could have Greta on one side and David Attenborough on the other. That would be three hours well spent. The truth is, however, that it will all be a giant waste of taxpayers’ money, because the US Congress will never agree to a trade deal unless we have a solution to the Irish border issue that will actually work, and this Government simply do not have one.
Just two short years ago, the right hon. Lady said that we should
“welcome the American President…We have to work with him.”
I wonder whether something has changed about the United States Administration or something has changed about the right hon. Lady’s own leadership ambitions to alter her words in this way.
I thought that both the Government and the Labour party wanted to see no tariffs, no quotas, no rules of origin checks and a seamless border on the island of Ireland, yet on three occasions the right hon. Lady and her colleagues have voted against a deal that would deliver those things to which they claim to be committed. It is about time that she put principle and the national interest ahead of party advantage.
I think we will find that there is only one side of the House that is engaged in a leadership contest at the moment, and it is very active as we speak.
In a week like this, when we have all been shocked and saddened by horrific acts of terrorism at home and abroad, we remember that the first job of any Government is to keep our country and our citizens safe. Even before our concerns about the economy, the main reason we need to keep an open border with Ireland is to preserve the peace and security on which millions of British and Irish citizens have come to depend, but which, in a week like this, seem to hang by a thread. If the Government are serious about putting the country first—the whole of our country—will the Minister accept that that means finally getting serious about the cross-party negotiations, and putting the option of a customs union on the table?
I appreciate that the right hon. Lady has not been in the room at times—I think she is now being described as being in the “outer inner circle” around the Labour leadership—but I can say to her that the substance and the tone of the conversations between the Government and Opposition teams have been constructive. I think that there is a genuine attempt to find a way through. However, I will not hide the fact that this is very difficult, because if it is going to work it will mean both parties making compromises and our ending up with a solution which, unlike any other proposed so far, will secure a majority in the House. So far, the House has rejected our deal; it has rejected the Opposition’s proposals; it has rejected a referendum; it has rejected revocation; it has rejected a customs union; and it has rejected common market 2.0.
This is not just a matter for the Government, or even for the Opposition Front Bench. It is a matter for every Member of the House to take our responsibilities to the country seriously, and to find a way in which to agree on an outcome that will enable us to deliver on the referendum result and take this country forward.
The Government are very clear indeed that we do not agree with a second referendum, and we have voted against a second referendum. All of us recall telling our electors in 2016 that their decision was going to be final and would be accepted, whatever the outcome of that referendum would be. I think it would do harm to the fragile confidence in our political institutions, were that commitment to be set aside.
The Scottish National party joins in saying that we are horrified by the atrocious attacks in Sri Lanka. The Minister for the Cabinet Office is right to say that all of us, from all religions and none, should be considering religious tolerance and ensuring that we champion it. Also, as her funeral commences shortly, our thoughts are with the family and friends of Lyra McKee, and we would like to make it clear that we stand with Lyra. We would also like to join the celebration of Billy McNeill’s life and work. Of course, in addition to being the manager of Celtic, he was previously the manager of Aberdeen.
Climate change is the biggest crisis facing the world today. Even the Environment Secretary has admitted that this Government have failed to do enough. Yesterday, he promised that the UK Government would take action. This Government have spent millions on nuclear power, cut support for renewable energy projects and continued to pursue fracking. Does taking action include reversing those damaging policies?
As my right hon. Friend the Environment Secretary said yesterday, there is clearly more that needs to be done. All of us who are of an age to be here would probably recognise that our generations have not done sufficient to meet this challenge, but I think the hon. Lady underestimates how much work has been done by the United Kingdom. Since 2010, we have reduced CO2 emissions faster than any other G20 nation. Between 2010 and 2018, we reduced greenhouse gas emissions by about a quarter overall. Our renewable energy capacity has quadrupled since 2010, and the proportion of our electricity coming from low-carbon resources has increased from 19% to more than half in 2018, a record year for renewables. There is a lot more to do, but I think that that is a good record on which to base that future action.
I do not think that that answer recognises the scale of the challenge that we face. The Scottish Government have already brought forward a Climate Change Bill with some of the most ambitious statutory targets of any country in the world, with the aim of Scotland being carbon neutral by 2050. If we need to go further, we will. The UK Government commissioned new advice from the UK Committee on Climate Change on what the UK’s targets should be, and that advice is due next week. Can the right hon. Gentleman confirm that when the advice is published next week, the UK Government will adopt the recommended targets immediately and in full?
I am going to wait to see what the advice is, and I am sure that the House could want to do that, as well as to learn from the Government directly what their decisions are going to be. Passing legislation can get us so far, but actually we need not just legislation but a change in attitudes and approach that runs right across society and industry. The UK has cut its emissions by 40% since 1990, but I am encouraged that in that same period our economy has grown by two thirds. Greater prosperity and green policies are not incompatible; they can and should be made to work together.
As I would have expected, my hon. Friend rightly champions both the produce of his constituency and the needs of businesses there. We have established a two-year pilot that provides for a six-month scheme for non-EU migrants to work on UK farms. Although specifically designed to help the horticultural sector, the pilot was never designed to meet its full labour needs, so we will need to evaluate what happens in practice. However, the Secretaries of State for Scotland and for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs will be looking closely at the impact on the north-east of Scotland.
The facts are that the Government have increased police funding by more than £970 million for the next year, and the Labour party voted against that increase when the order came before the House. However, the hon. Lady is right to say that this situation is not only about policing and new laws, but about early intervention. That is why my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has secured £220 million for early intervention projects to try to steer young people at risk of knife crime and other violent crime away from the gangs that can seduce them into that appalling way of life.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for the way in which she has championed this and other environmental issues during her time in the House. I can certainly say that a Minister—I do not know whether it will be the Prime Minister—will be happy to see her and other parliamentary colleagues. I hope that she will understand that we will want to look at the advice of the independent Committee on Climate Change to understand what would be needed to achieve that net zero emissions target early and the practical steps that that would involve. However, I can assure her that we are investing more that £2.5 billion to support low-carbon innovation in the UK over the next six years alone. Clean growth is a priority for the Government and will remain so.
I completely understand the concern, particularly among hard-working civil servants in Cumbernauld who expected to be reassigned. There is now a difference in the way in which citizens choose to interact with HMRC, with fewer people wanting or needing to access an office and more people being willing and choosing to work with the taxman online, which is clearly going to have implications. It seems to me that the priority has to be to maintain a high quality of service for businesses and individual taxpayers.
The Minister will be aware of the wildfires burning across the country, including one in Moray that started near Knockando on Monday and continues despite the efforts of more than 50 firefighters. Will he join me in congratulating and praising incident commander Bruce Farquharson, all the teams involved and the other emergency services that have made this a multi-agency response? Will he also urge people to assist the fire service by keeping away from the area to allow the dedicated and committed firefighters to bring this blaze under control?
The problem with that proposal is that, so far, whenever the idea of a second referendum has been brought before the House there has been a majority against it. I do not think the right hon. Gentleman’s proposal would actually deliver the outcome he seeks.
I associate myself with the remarks about Sri Lanka. Will my right hon. Friend tell the House whether he thinks it likely that we will leave the European Union by 22 May? Does he agree with me that both the major political parties are likely to suffer at the polls if we do not? What does it say to my Leicestershire constituents about the democratic process if this House cannot get the withdrawal agreement to leave the European Union over the line?
I completely understand and share the sense of exasperation that my hon. Friend expresses. It has been made very clear from this Dispatch Box on several occasions that the consequence of the House voting to reject the withdrawal agreement and in favour of an extension is that the Government would need to make preparations, as required by law, for those European elections. The way in which we solve this problem is for Parliament to assemble a majority behind a deal, to vote for it, to get the legislation through and to give effect to our departure from the EU.
There has been, because of the scale of the deficit that was inherited in 2010, a need for severe restraints on public expenditure, including public sector pay. Where we are today is that there is flexibility within the overall pay ceiling, Department by Department, for Departments to negotiate arrangements with their workforces that permit higher wage increases than the ones to which the hon. Lady refers.
On Sunday, more than 40,000 people will take part in the London marathon. Many of them will be supporting the dementia revolution on behalf of Alzheimer’s Research UK and the Alzheimer’s Society, and some of them are sitting on the Government Benches. The UK is the world leader in dementia research. I visited the Dementia Research Institute with members of the Science and Technology Committee today. Will the Government continue to support dementia research, encourage more people—especially those in their 30s, 40s and 50s—to take part in research trials, and wish the very best of luck to everyone in the marathon on Sunday?
I join my hon. Friend in wishing success and strength to everybody taking part in the marathon on Sunday, particularly to Members from all parts of the House and, I suspect, one or two people in the Press Gallery as well. My hon. Friend makes an important point about dementia. One of the welcome changes we are seeing is that as a society we are more open about the fact that many of us will live with dementia at some stage in our lives. The Government commitment to which she referred, to dementia research and to trying to remove the stigma from dementia, will be maintained.
At the last count, I was aware of no fewer than 16 hon. and right hon. Members of the House intending to take part in the London marathon, including the Secretary of State for Wales and the hon. Member for Brentford and Isleworth (Ruth Cadbury), from whom we heard earlier, but who was too modest or self-effacing to mention her prospective involvement.
The aid budget and the Foreign Office diplomatic expenditure budget give, and will continue to give, priority to human rights, including the rights of Christians and people of other faiths. The right hon. Gentleman is quite correct in saying that in many countries Christians face persecution and discrimination. We work to try to improve standards of justice and civil rights in those countries, and we work with Christian and other religious communities who are under threat. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has recently commissioned a review of our work to help persecuted Christians overseas, to make sure that we are focusing the right degree of resource and effort on delivering the improvements in outcome that the right hon. Gentleman quite rightly seeks.
Current immigration requirements oblige Commonwealth service- men and women to pay £2,389 to apply for indefinite leave to remain after four years’ service, or almost £10,000 for a family of four. That considerable cost does not reflect the nation’s respect for those who are prepared, in extremis, to give their lives for our country. I have therefore written a cross-party letter with the hon. Member for Bridgend (Mrs Moon), signed by 130 Members of Parliament, to the Home Secretary to seek his support to abolish these visa fees. At a time when the UK is chair of the Commonwealth, will my right hon. Friend and the Prime Minister give their support to this great non-party political cause, which is supported by the Royal British Legion?
I want to pay tribute to men and women from Commonwealth countries who serve in our armed services. That service is something that this and previous Governments have valued enormously. On the particular point that my hon. Friend makes about immigration requirements, I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary will take very seriously, and look very carefully at, the representations that my hon. Friend is making.
Every Member of this House will condemn without reservation the behaviour to which the hon. Gentleman referred; it should be regarded as completely beyond the bounds of acceptability in our society. My hon. Friend the Sport Minister will want to sit down with the hon. Gentleman and any other colleagues in the House who make this issue a priority, to discuss what more might be done.
Yesterday, Jane Golding, who chairs British in Europe, which represents more than 1.3 million British nationals in the EU27, reminded me that Michel Barnier’s letter in response to the House’s requirement that we carve out the citizens’ rights element of the withdrawal agreement is almost one month old. Given the absence of the passage of a withdrawal agreement, will my right hon. Friend inform the House of what actions the Government have taken since they received Michel Barnier’s letter?
As I recall, my hon. Friend was successful in seeking that the Government should make representations to the European Commission to ask it to carve the citizens’ rights elements out of the overall withdrawal agreement. There are legal problems with that, in that the withdrawal agreement stands together as a package, and as a package has been submitted to the European Parliament, having been formally and legally approved by the European Council. To separate elements of the agreement might therefore mean having to go through those European procedures again, assuming the political willingness to do so were there. I will ask my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union to speak urgently to my hon. Friend to update him on where we are on the issue.
The rules on emissions from shipping are not unique to the United Kingdom: the standards of measurement are global. As I said in earlier exchanges, the Government are the first to say that more needs to be done, but the hon. Gentleman does us an injustice in not acknowledging that we have a better track record on this issue than any other member of the G7. He asked about investment: our annual support for renewables will be more than £10 billion by 2021. We have opened the world’s largest offshore wind farm, which is capable of powering 600,000 homes, and the world’s first ever floating offshore wind farm. Some 99% of the solar power we have in the UK has been deployed since 2010. That is a good track record.
Legally speaking, Huawei is a private firm, not a Government-owned company, but my right hon. Friend takes us to the question about the proposed roll-out of 5G networks. The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport has commissioned a wide-ranging and thorough review of this matter. We are giving priority to stronger cyber-security practice across the entire telecommunications sector, greater resilience in telecommunications networks and, critically, diversity in the entire 5G supply chain, because this question goes beyond any single company. When we have taken decisions about that review, we will announce them to the House in the proper way.
We are investing record amounts in Wales’s railway infrastructure. Network Rail investment in the Wales route for control period 6, which takes us up to 2024, will be more than £1.5 billion. It will deliver improved journeys for passengers in Wales on the most advanced new trains. In south Wales, passengers and commuters are already experiencing real improvements thanks to the new Intercity express trains, each of which have 130 extra seats compared with the typical high-speed train. I really wish that the hon. Gentleman had paid tribute to that achievement, rather than carping.
I will, if I may, add a few words of tribute of my own to Billy McNeill, who was a childhood hero of mine and a truly legendary Celt. His family have described his brave struggle with dementia—a subject reminiscent of the question that was asked earlier by my hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford (Vicky Ford). My own mother passed away earlier this year owing to the effects of dementia. Scottish universities are doing world-leading research into the prevention of dementia and they currently receive about £100 million of funding each year from the European Union. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that that funding will be maintained and that this research will be protected as we leave the European Union?
If we get the implementation period that is envisaged by the withdrawal agreement then those funding arrangements will continue until the end of that period. At that point, there will need to be decisions by Government as a whole about their spending priorities, including on medical research, but, as I said in response to my hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford (Vicky Ford), the Government’s commitment to dementia research and to ending the stigma of dementia is something that will continue.
What we are seeing in this country is not only the £10 billion that I spoke about in the earlier exchange, but enterprising innovative companies—large and small—seizing the opportunities of developing green technology and renewable energy technology in a way that will take advantage not just of the change in the domestic market, but of that growing export market globally as well. Through their industrial strategy, the Government will continue to work for green growth, and I hope very much that businesses in Midlothian and elsewhere in the UK will benefit from that.
At the most recent indicative votes, the Opposition did move one of their key red lines and supported a proposal that did not specify a permanent customs union. In fact, they supported customs arrangements—a temporary customs union followed by alternative arrangements. Now that the Government and Opposition are virtually on the same page, is it not time to put party politics to one side and agree a deal in the national interest?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. As we look to the future relationship with the European Union, we are looking at the customs arrangement that would be in place as part of that future relationship. We have already indicated—as reflected in the existing text of the political declaration—that we want to retain the benefits of a customs union, with no tariffs, no quotas and no rules of origin checks. We remain focused on agreeing an approach that delivers on the result of the referendum, which was for the UK to leave. I hope that it would be possible to bring Members from all parties of the House together in support of a customs arrangement as part of a wider approach to our future relationship with the European Union that enables us to get on with this task in the way in which the British people expect.
Let me go back to the subject that the Minister started this session with. In a few minutes, the funeral of Lyra McKee will begin in Belfast. The Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition are both there, and rightly so. We extend our deepest sympathies to Lyra’s partner Sara, and to her family and friends, at this terrible time. The message across Northern Ireland is that violence is not acceptable and will never succeed; it has never been acceptable and it never will be. Does the Minister agree that it was an utterly repulsive statement from those who carried out this terrible atrocity that, somehow, the murder of police officers is totally legitimate and it was just an accident that Lyra was killed? In standing with Lyra today, we stand with everyone—journalists, police officers and all who serve the community in Northern Ireland. An attack on any one of them is an attack on us all.
I agree with every word that the right hon. Gentleman just said. I thought that the finest riposte to those sickening claims by the terrorists was that the leaders of both the Democratic Unionist party and Sinn Féin came together, there in the Creggan estate in Derry, and put aside the real differences between them to reject the path towards violence and terror—the joint statement by all party leaders in Northern Ireland rejecting terrorism. The visible expressions of grief and anger towards the terrorists by the communities both of nationalists and of Unionists in the city of Derry/Londonderry has been a visible riposte—but also the most compelling and moving one—to the evil claims of those behind that terrorist act. Those political leaders and communities in Derry spoke for the reality and for the heart of the people of Northern Ireland.