House of Commons
Thursday 16 May 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—
Withdrawal Agreement: Public Vote
I have regular discussions with my ministerial colleagues, but those discussions are always short because we agree that it would be a bad idea.
Einstein is widely credited with saying that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing multiple times but expecting different results. If the Government intend to bring their withdrawal agreement back to Parliament in the form of a Bill, is it not the case that it is only likely to receive any sort of majority in this House on condition of an amendment in support of a public vote? Does the Secretary of State accept, in the words of his own Chancellor, that that is a “perfectly credible proposition”?
As the hon. Gentleman should know, part of the reason we have been having discussions with his Front-Bench colleagues is to look at how the legislation might evolve to take on board the earlier votes by the House. One could make a similar accusation against the Labour party. If we look at its policy on a second referendum, we see people such as Len McCluskey saying that it
“risks tearing our society further apart, as the ignored majority believe their views have been scorned”,
while other Labour members say it is the way forward. There is no consistency among Labour Members, and that is part of their problem.
It is not only that I do not agree; the hon. Lady’s own Front-Bench colleagues do not agree. She says that a public vote is the only way, but that is not the current policy of her party. Her party’s policy is to say that if its deal were accepted, it would not put it to a public vote. [Interruption.] The hon. Lady asks what I think, but I answered that at the start of my response. I do not agree that a public vote is the way forward; the vote is for Members of this House, who cannot make a decision. The point is that I am not the only one who thinks that a public vote is not the way forward; the hon. Lady’s Front-Bench colleagues think so too, because it is not their current policy.
What about a vote on the Prime Minister’s deal? In a few weeks’ time, the Prime Minister will have asked MPs no fewer than four times whether we agree with her deal. Does the Secretary of State not think it would be fair to ask the public once whether they agree with the deal?
Again, the hon. Gentleman will need to look at the Bill when it comes forward. What we voted for on previous occasions was a meaningful vote. We have been in discussions with Opposition parties and, as referenced in an earlier question, Members across the House, to take on board some of the concerns raised in those debates, and those will be reflected in the legislation brought to the House.
The Secretary of State could point out that the Opposition’s wish will be granted when the European elections take place next Thursday. That will be a genuine vote on what people think in this country. We will need to look at the policies of the party that finishes up with the most votes. Does he agree that that will clearly show what the people want?
I am sure my hon. Friend will agree with me that we have had a people’s vote. It was won in 2016 and that was reflected in the Labour party’s manifesto. Once again, we hear Labour Members saying one thing to the electorate when they face an election but doing another when they come to the House.
I do not think that any Member of this House thinks that my right hon. Friend is anything other than virtuous in all that he does. In our commitment to bring forward the withdrawal agreement Bill, we have listened to the concerns of Members across the House and have reflected that in the draft legislation that is being prepared. It will be for Members to reach a decision on that or one of the two other alternatives—either we risk not leaving at all, which I think would be a huge betrayal of the 17.4 million people who voted to leave, or we leave with no deal, which would create issues for the Union and the economic disruption that would flow.
Many of my constituents tell me that they would not vote in a second referendum because they are angry and frustrated that Parliament has not delivered on the first one. Does the Secretary of State agree that a second referendum would continue the divisiveness and uncertainty, and would almost certainly not settle the issue, because the turnout would be smaller?
I very much agree with my hon. Friend on that. I would urge his constituents to vote, and to vote Conservative, in that election, but he is right to say that any such second referendum would be both divisive and not necessarily decisive. They have perhaps taken their lead from many Members of the House, who seem unwilling to confront the real choice that lies before them and vote, which is why they are seeking to have a second referendum.
The Government’s position is that it is democratic to come back to the House of Commons for the fourth time to try to persuade us to change our minds. They are entitled to try, although it may be unwise. Can the Secretary of State explain to the House, therefore, why it is undemocratic to ask the British people, given what we now know, whether they wish to change their minds or not?
Because we had a decision; we gave the British public that and we have not delivered on it. I would have much more time for the right hon. Gentleman’s position if behind the language of a confirmatory vote he wanted to explore the different ways of leaving: if he was saying, “The public gave a clear instruction to leave, but we want to have a vote between leaving with the Prime Minister’s deal or leaving with no deal.” But his position is to revoke. He does not want to say that he supports revoking, so he wants to hide behind this veneer, façade and impression whereby this can be can done through a second referendum. I urge him to have some candour and say he wants to revoke. Come out and say it. That seems to be the right hon. Gentleman’s position and that is what is he should say.
I want to revoke article 50 and so do the vast majority of my constituents. Does the Secretary of State not see the glaring failure of logic in giving this House four votes but not being prepared to give the population a second vote? That is why people who do want to remain in the EU will be voting for the Scottish National party in the forthcoming European elections in Scotland.
Well now, what is always glaring from SNP Members is their desire to overturn democratic decisions. They did this on the referendum in 2014 and they want to do it on the referendum in 2016. They then want to say to this House that a further referendum is one they will abide by, but we know that if they get the wrong result, it will be three strikes and yet again they will say that they are still not out.
Support for Farmers
I continue to have regular discussions with ministerial colleagues across government. As my hon. Friend will be aware, we have pledged to commit the same cash total in funds for farm support until the end of this Parliament.
Export sales of organic produce totalled £188 million in 2016, supporting countless British jobs, particularly in the agricultural sector. What assurances can the Secretary of State give me on the certification that protects that organic produce in respect of exports to the EU after we leave?
I know my hon. Friend’s constituency very well, as it is where I was born and grew up. He is absolutely right to highlight the importance of this issue in the farming sector. I am happy to give him the commitment that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is looking at this issue. My hon. Friend will be aware that this is part of a wider approach, where we can take a much more bespoke approach to our farming needs once we are out of the EU, rather than the catch-all, one-size-fits-all approach in which the common agricultural policy applies.
The Minister will know that food processing is very much related to farming, and it is our biggest manufacturing sector. Has he talked to that sector? Does he not realise that research by King’s College London shows that every leave constituency of this country will be 20% worse off leaving the EU—on any terms?
First, may I join the Prime Minister in recognising the hon. Gentleman’s service? He said at Prime Minister’s questions yesterday that he was a Eurosceptic when he came into the House; there is still time for him to return to his true beliefs.
As the hon. Gentleman is well aware, I represent one of the key farming constituencies in the country, in the fens. He will also be aware that the majority of farmers voted to leave because they see the opportunities—for example, in respect of things like the three-crop rule, which is restrictive for many in the farming community. Through the Agriculture Bill, we can have a much more bespoke approach. The key issue is to speak to those who actually farm. The overriding message from the National Farmers Union is to back the deal, and farmers themselves want the liberty of being outside the straitjacket of the EU. That is what this Government will deliver.
My hon. Friend has championed the livestock sector extremely assiduously, and I know he has met my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to discuss these issues. We have given a commitment to match funding, but we must ensure that we do so in a more bespoke way. I am happy to meet my hon. Friend to discuss that further so that we can give his constituents the support that they need.
The hon. Gentleman is right to highlight an under-discussed area of policy. Some Members want only to talk down the opportunities of Brexit, rather than to talk about what we can do with the freedoms that Brexit unlocks. One of those freedoms is in respect of food labelling, which is an area in which the United Kingdom can apply a more bespoke approach and in which there will be opportunities. Indeed, last week I was in Scotland with manufacturers and we discussed just such issues.
In November 2018, the Government published their economic analysis of leaving the European Union. In doing so, the Government delivered on their commitment to provide appropriate analysis to Parliament. The publication provides an assessment of how different exit scenarios may affect the sectors, nations and regions of the UK economy in the long run.
If the rumours are true, the withdrawal agreement Bill will come back to the House shortly. There is no credible analysis, including from the Government, that shows that any form of Brexit will be beneficial to the UK economy, so will the Bill include a detailed economic and environmental impact assessment of its impact on every single sector, region and nation of this country?
The hon. Gentleman has been in the House long enough to know that I cannot possibly reveal details of the Bill ahead of its introduction. What I can say generally is that the UK economy is performing strongly—much more strongly than many of his doom-mongers and naysayers have suggested. Employment levels have broken all records, and there are 3.6 million more people in work than there were in 2010. Business investment in the UK stood at almost £47 billion in the first quarter of this year—that is an increase of 30% since we took office in 2010. Generally, the UK is the top destination for inward investment in Europe. Amid uncertainty, the economy is performing well.
Financial services are a critical part of the UK’s economy and one of our top exports. Will my hon. Friend confirm that the withdrawal agreement does not include a specific section on financial services and that access to the EU market after any transition would be a matter of separate negotiation? Will he update the House on his most recent discussions on the issue with his EU counterparts?
The withdrawal agreement is not the end state of the relationship between the UK and the EU; it is merely a mechanism to get to that end state. In a free trade agreement, which I hope we get, our financial services will absolutely be able to have more freedom. They have a brighter future outside the EU than within it.
I refer the House to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. The creative industries tell me that their economy is already suffering, with the concerns of musicians in particular, for example, not being addressed in any part of the Government’s negotiations or deal. They will have to move kit and people around the European Union, and they are already losing out on bookings. What discussions is the Minister having with representatives of, for instance, the Musicians Union about this problem?
I refer the hon. Lady to the answer I gave just a minute ago. The withdrawal agreement itself does not describe the end state of our relationship between the UK and the EU. It is simply a means to the end. We are discussing all the time with representatives of the creative industries, and we hope that, once the agreement is passed, we can then go on to the second phase of the discussions.
The European Union is mired in low economic growth. Many of its countries have eye-watering levels of youth unemployment and its currency has to be constantly supported by quantitative easing. Can my hon. Friend understand why anybody would want to chain us to this rotten corpse?
I fully appreciate the force of my hon. Friend’s argument. The idea that the EU simply represented the be-all and end-all of economic prosperity has been completely exploded by his remarks. If those record high levels of youth unemployment occurred in the constituencies of any Labour Member, they would be rightly outraged. We have great opportunities outside the EU, which is why I hope that we can pass the Bill and move forward in these discussions.
The Minister reminded us that the Government have done an economic analysis of a number of Brexit scenarios, but, very pointedly, they have not given us an analysis of the impact of the scenario that they are going to ask us to vote on in a few weeks’ time. Every analysis they have done of every Brexit scenario has shown that the economic damage to Scotland caused by Brexit is always made even worse if we also lose our rights under free movement of people. How does the Minister justify imposing this additional economic damage on a country that rejected Brexit by 62% in 2016?
I fully appreciate the concern of the Members from the Scottish National party. They campaigned for two referendums. They got beaten in both of them and now they simply want to re-run them. The fact is that the United Kingdom voted to leave and this Government—and Ministers—are pledged to deliver on that referendum result.
I want the result of the referendum to be respected. I want the 62% of sovereign citizens in my nation to have their declared will respected. Does the Minister not realise that, every time he or his colleagues say that Scotland has to put up with this because Scotland is part of the Union, they are driving another nail into the coffin of that Union? Does he not appreciate that his comments today will simply persuade more and more Scots that, next week, the way to protect Scotland’s interests is by returning an increased number of SNP candidates to the European Parliament and by making sure that, in 2024, Scotland participates in those European elections as a full sovereign member of a partnership of equals?
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State was in Scotland last week, and the opinion there is very divided on this issue, as it is in the rest of the United Kingdom. The hon. Gentleman will appreciate, as a democrat, that the vote in 2016 was a national vote—a United Kingdom vote—and we are pledged to respect the majority result, which was to leave the European Union.
Any assessment will depend on the counterfactuals that it is measured against, and those were considered in the economic analysis that was put out in November.
Many of my constituents in Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough contact me regularly with their wide-ranging views on Brexit. Will the Secretary of State reassure them that they would be no worse off if we left without a customs union and without the elusive trade deal that the Secretary of State for International Trade has failed to deliver despite stating that it would be the easiest thing in human history to negotiate?
There is nothing elusive about the text of the political declaration, which makes it clear that the Government can negotiate the benefits of a customs arrangement alongside an independent trade policy. The economic analysis shows that that is the best way forward of the options open to the Government.
On Monday, the Secretary of State’s two predecessors, 11 other former Cabinet Ministers and the Chair of the 1922 Committee wrote to the Prime Minister urging her
“to reject a customs union solution with Labour”.
Many Cabinet Ministers clearly agree with them. Does the Secretary of State?
I have been clear throughout that we have an approach that I think is the best way forward. There are conflicting views in all the parties including, as the hon. Gentleman well knows, on his own Front Bench. We are discussing these issues with the Labour party to seek a way forward on behalf of the House that will allow us to deliver on the referendum result. If he is asking about my personal position, I have always been clear that we made a clear manifesto commitment with regards to the single market and customs union, and we are trying to look at how to deliver on the referendum result. As the shadow Secretary of State would say, those discussions are ongoing.
I guess that might have come close to a suggestion that the Secretary of State does agree with those who are opposing the Prime Minister’s position. But this is, after all, a Secretary of State who voted with those two predecessors against his own Government’s proposal on extending article 50, even after he had recommended it to the House, so I think we deserve some clarity on these issues. The authors of Monday’s letter also said of any agreement that is reached:
“No leader can bind his or her successor…so the deal would likely be…at best temporary…at worse illusory.”
Does he agree with that?
It is not a revelation to this House that I supported leaving in the referendum, that I still support leaving, that I have voted consistently on every occasion to leave, that I have voted against extending article 50 and that I have stood by the manifesto on which I was elected. The question for Labour Members is why they repeatedly—at every opportunity—refuse to stand by their manifesto commitment. Why will they not honour their promises to the electorate? Yes, I do support leaving. I support leaving with a deal, and I have made it clear that if we do not leave with a deal, of the two alternative options I would leave with no deal. My position has been consistent. Why hasn’t theirs?
EU Settlement Scheme
This is a hugely important scheme designed to help EEA and EU citizens take up their rights and deliver on the Government’s commitment that we want them to stay. I regularly meet colleagues in the Home Office to discuss the scheme, and it is important to note that the Home Office has received more than 650,000 applications so far, with thousands more being received every week. Applications are free and there is plenty of time to apply.
If the Government really wanted to make non-UK EU nationals feel welcome and wanted them to stay, they would make this an easy system. In fact, people have to have the right phone. If they do not have the right phone, they have to go to an ID scanning centre. But just look at where those centres have been placed; they are all around London, so the Secretary of State’s constituents and my constituents have to travel all the way to Bedford, Peterborough or London. Why is there not at least an ID scanning centre in every county?
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point about the accessibility of the scheme, and I agree that it should be accessible. There are going to be 200 assisted digital locations across the UK to support people to register, including one in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency of Cambridge, which he should welcome.
It is all well and good for the Minister to say that there are going to be these centres, but they are not here yet. My constituents are having to travel to Glasgow for ID scanning because there is not an opportunity to do that in Aberdeen, where there is only a small library centre. I am incredibly concerned—this issue has been highlighted to me—that women fleeing domestic violence are being told that that, because their application is a bit more difficult, they will have to go all the way to Glasgow, when they are already suffering from destitution as a result of domestic violence.
I take on board the hon. Lady’s point and I am happy to discuss it with colleagues at the Home Office. As well as the assisted digital locations and the scanning centres that she mentioned, it is also possible for people to apply via the Android app. My colleagues at the Home Office have also been in regular talks with Apple to ensure that applications can also be made through its devices. There is a whole range of ways in which people can apply. Face-to-face support at home is also available to help particularly vulnerable people complete their applications.
I know that the hon. Gentleman has consistently championed leaving the EU on the grounds of sovereignty. The referendum was a call to reclaim the UK’s sovereignty by ensuring that the decisions that affect us are made by those whom we elect. On borders, free movement will end, with Parliament deciding our domestic immigration policy in the national interest. On money, vast annual payments to the EU will end, and the UK will leave the EU budget. On laws, EU law in the UK will end, as will the jurisdiction of the Court of Justice of the European Union. All this can be achieved by voting for the withdrawal agreement.
People voted in the referendum for the United Kingdom to be independent, democratic and self-governing, but the BBC recently broadcast a comment by the Belgian Liberal politician, Guy Verhofstadt, about the UK becoming a “colony” of the EU. What are the Government going to do to avoid such a humiliation?
I think the hon. Gentleman will recognise that some of these statements may be made to provoke rather than necessarily to inform. We have a very clear agreement, in the withdrawal agreement and the political declaration, on the UK coming out of and separating itself from the European Union. That is something that Members across this House, bearing in mind the manifestos on which they were elected, should get on and support.
The BBC documentary “Brexit: Behind Closed Doors” was a devastating exposé of the incompetence of the Government’s Brexit negotiating strategy. It showed the contempt the EU has for the Prime Minister’s stance and showed that the EU has run rings round us at every opportunity. With two exit dates having come and gone, despite over 100 assurances from the Prime Minister on the Floor of the House, is it not clear that the simplest, cheapest, cleanest and most honest way to deliver Brexit is to leave with no deal on 31 October?
A YouGov poll published today indicates that a majority of people are not happy with the European Union and feel that it may break up in the next 20 years. There is also widespread concern about the political elite both at European and national levels. Does this not show that at some time in the near future, Europe is going to go through major reform, and is it not better for us to be there and be part of that reform? Should we not therefore now be considering, in the light of the fact that there is no majority here for no deal or for a second referendum, revoking article 50?
I admire the hon. Gentleman’s honesty in setting out that his position is clearly to revoke article 50. These are arguments that were made before the referendum. We had a negotiation with the European Union, and we put that approach to the people in the referendum and said that they should decide. I think we should listen to their decision and follow it through.
Political Declaration: Security
In November 2018, the Government published an assessment of the future security partnership as set out in the political declaration. The political declaration itself recognises the shared threats faced by the UK and the European Union and provides a framework to safeguard our security. That framework, as the hon. Lady will know, covers law enforcement, judicial co-operation in criminal matters, foreign policy, and security and defence co-operation in areas where we hope to have mutual co-operation.
Protecting our national security from organised crime and terrorism is of course the first duty of any Government. My constituents want to know that we will still be able to participate in the European arrest warrant and share criminal record checks if or when we leave the EU, so what further progress has been made on what was put into the political declaration so many months ago?
The hon. Lady will appreciate that those matters are for the second phase of the discussions between us and the EU. To get to that second stage, I sincerely recommend that she support the withdrawal agreement. That is the only mechanism by which we will get to phase 2 of the negotiations, where we can discuss some of these matters, which are critically important to her constituents and to the country.
DExEU Ministers continue to hold regular discussions with Department of Health and Social Care Ministers.
Nearly 500 people working for Lewisham and Greenwich NHS Trust are from the EU. The Royal College of Nursing tells us that 7,000 EU nurses have left the register since the referendum. With the number of trained nurses declining, what will the Government do to ensure that quality of healthcare in my constituency does not suffer if and when the UK leaves the EU?
If the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman) gives me a moment, I will answer with some specific numbers on recruitment. As a former Health Minister whose portfolio covered the workforce, I have always taken an interest in this area, so if he gives me a moment to get past the first two words, I will try my best to respond. It is not a widely known fact that, since the referendum, there are 700 more doctors from the EU27 countries working in the NHS and over 5,200 more EU27 nationals working in NHS trusts and clinical commissioning groups.
The hon. Lady is right that we need to do more on nurse recruitment. The Department is doing a huge number of things, including on the apprenticeship levy, looking at the skills mix and professional qualifications and investing up to £20.5 billion extra a year in the NHS, a lot of which is targeted at improvements to the workforce. She is right that we need to look at how to strengthen nurse recruitment, but it is misleading to keep presenting to the House the fiction that, since the referendum, there has been a fall in the number of EU staff working in the NHS, when 700 more doctors are working in it since then.
Some 64% of medical professionals think that the NHS will get worse after Brexit. They have not been fooled by a slogan on the side of a bus. Can the Secretary of State explain why the Government are struggling to convince those who work for the NHS that there will be a Brexit dividend?
I suspect that this constant drumbeat of negativity around it does not help. The fact is that we have committed to a 10-year plan. The hon. Lady should listen to people like Simon Stevens, the former Labour adviser and the chief executive of NHS England. She should look at the 10-year NHS funding commitment that this Government have made, with up to an additional £20.5 billion a year. She should look at the areas of improvement to care and stop talking down our NHS. In terms of Brexit, there are things, if one looks at the October 2017 paper, to protect the NHS, but it is time to stop talking down the NHS and look at the funding commitment this Government have made.
I should declare an interest: I have several family members working in the NHS. As we have heard, there is huge concern about the lack of nurses—particularly specialist nurses—coming from the EU. The NHS used to have a recruitment programme in Portugal, where the training is excellent, particularly in intensive and post-operative care, and there is good care but not enough jobs. The NHS can no longer do that. In addition, medical research teams are in despair because they cannot exchange specialist researchers to further medical science. Can the Secretary of State reassure the medical profession that this is keeping him awake and that he has a response to it?
It is quite remarkable that the hon. Lady makes no mention of the five new medical schools that this Government have committed to, of the record expansion in doctor training that this Government have committed to or of the lifting of tier 2 visas for not only doctors but nurses, so that we can recruit around the globe. The Opposition seem to think that recruitment into the NHS stops at Europe, but we recruit talent for the NHS from around the globe, and we have lifted tier 2 visas to facilitate that. This constant drumbeat of negativity from the hon. Lady does not reflect the reality of this Government’s commitment to our NHS.
I declare an interest: many members of my family work in the NHS. The NHS depends on tax and national insurance revenues. What is the Government’s assessment of the impact of leaving the European Union on those tax and national insurance revenues?
My hon. Friend is right to say that we need a strong economy to have a strong NHS. The option set out in the economic analysis that was published by the Treasury in November makes it clear that the Prime Minister’s plan is the one that will deliver the strongest economy and enable us to make that record, 10-year commitment of up to £20.5 billion more a year to our NHS. That is a sign of the Conservative party’s commitment to the NHS, and for the majority of years that the NHS has existed, it has been run by a Conservative Government.
I hope the hon. Member for Kensington (Emma Dent Coad) will take it in the right spirit if I say that it was most solicitous and courteous of her to notify us that her family members work in the national health service, but for the avoidance of doubt, it is not necessary to declare an interest simply because one visits a doctor from time to time.
I was going to say that both my parents were nurses, as was the shadow Secretary of State’s mum, but I obviously do not need to. I remember being accused of negativity, as the Secretary of State has done repeatedly today, when we warned of the dangers of privatising the probation service, and look how that worked out. It is our job to challenge the Government. They might not like it, but that is one reason we are here. Public health is potentially at risk from Brexit. Chlorinated chicken is a public health risk.
I suggest that the hon. Gentleman take that up with the right hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove). How can we trust this Government to protect our public health or our NHS in any trade deal with the United States when they cannot agree within Cabinet? The Environment Secretary says that chlorinated chicken will be banned, but the Secretary of State for International Trade says it will not be. Who speaks for the Government on that issue?
The hon. Lady is right that it is her job to challenge the Government, and unfortunately for Government Members she usually does that more effectively than we would like her to. On this issue, however, I disagree with her. Labour policy is that it wants a say on EU trade policy, even though EU treaties do not allow that. For many years, Conservative Members have been told by the Labour party that we cannot go into things such as the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership because that will be a threat to our NHS—that is what Labour Members have said repeatedly. Now they say that they want to pass control of our independent trade policy to the EU, but that that will not be a threat to the NHS. Once again, Labour Members say one thing when it suits them, and another thing today. There is no consistency in their trade policy.
Support for Towns
The Department continues to work closely with colleagues in the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government to ensure that towns and communities across England are supported post Brexit. In March, the Government announced a new £1.6 billion stronger towns fund for England, which will boost growth and give communities a stronger say in their future after Brexit.
Earlier this year, the Government announced that £55.6 million will be made available to local government to cover the additional expenditure resulting from Brexit, and it is important that councils such as Stockport are prepared from day one after we leave the EU, so that my constituents can have uninterrupted local services. How will my hon. Friend ensure that, as local authorities make their bids for the stronger towns fund, towns and villages such as Cheadle are able to feel the benefit?
I congratulate my hon. Friend on her tireless work representing and championing her constituents in the north-west. More than half the allocated stronger towns fund will go to towns across the north of England, and just over £281 million will be allocated to the north-west region. There will be further opportunity to deliver locally led projects, create new jobs and support the Government’s commitment to building a more prosperous economy across the United Kingdom.
One of the ways that the Government could start moving on regeneration, not just in England but across Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, is to set out when the consultation on the shared prosperity fund will start. It was meant to start before December 2018, but Ministers from the Treasury, the Wales Office and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy do not know when it will be. Perhaps Ministers from the Department for Exiting the European Union can give us some answers for a change.
The hon. Gentleman will have observed that we have not yet reached a deal on the withdrawal agreement. The shared prosperity fund is the pot of money that will be allocated across the UK once we have left the EU. The withdrawal agreement still has to go through. We recognise the importance of reassuring local areas at that point that the shared prosperity fund will be distributed, but it does not make any sense to do that ahead of the ratification of the deal.
Revoking Article 50: Voter Confidence
Revoking article 50 would cause irreparable damage to the relationship between voters and the Members of Parliament who represent them. It would reverse the outcome of the 2016 referendum, betraying not only the 17.4 million voters who voted to leave but everyone who voted, putting their faith in our democracy at risk. Revoking article 50 would break the trust the British people place in politicians, in voting and in democracy.
I am grateful to the Minister for that answer. What steps is his Department taking to maintain the public’s faith in the importance of their votes and confidence in this Government delivering what they said they would deliver, particularly as we head into European elections that the public did not want, vote for or support?
Ultimately, there are only three ways that this situation can resolve itself: the UK leaves the EU with an agreement; the UK leaves without an agreement; or we revoke article 50 and do not leave. Leaving without a deal is undesirable, but not leaving is unacceptable. That is why the Government maintain the position that they want to leave the European Union with an agreement as quickly as possible, restoring people’s faith in the democratic process and honouring the commitment we made in the 2016 referendum.
Next month, it will be three years since the referendum. Does the Minister regard the referendum choice as binding for all time? Does he not recognise that at some point it will be necessary to go back to the people and ask whether they still think leaving the EU is a good idea?
Will not the biggest danger to confidence in democracy come when the promised sunlit uplands fail to materialise? Is not the only way out of this mess to go back to the people and ask them to exercise their democratic choice?
The British people have already exercised their democratic choice. I do not subscribe to the negative predictions that the hon. Gentleman and others have made about a post-Brexit British future. More importantly, international businesses do not agree with him; inward investment into the UK is still flourishing. The employment market does not agree with his predictions either, because unemployment is still reducing and employment is still increasing. I am confident—the Government are confident—that there is a bright future ahead for this country outside the European Union. That is what we are committed to delivering and that is what we are working towards.
Last week, I was in Sibiu, where I made clear that we face common and evolving threats to European security. Those threats demand close co-operation and the UK has a leading role to play in that.
My right hon. Friend will know that the Bundesnachrichtendienst has already made it absolutely clear that the United Kingdom is one of the biggest intelligence services in the world and a member of Five Eyes and that Europe is dependent on the United Kingdom for intelligence. We also wish to co-operate with them. Does that not make complete nonsense of what some Opposition Members say—that if we left the EU, without a deal or otherwise, the EU would not continue to co-operate with us for its own benefit?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right that there is a shared interest between the UK and the European Union in close collaboration on security. He is right that the UK is the only European member of the Five Eyes intelligence network and that we are the only EU country that contributes both the NATO 2% and the overseas aid 0.7% commitments. It is in both sides’ interests to work closely on our shared challenges, because many of those challenges lie beyond Europe.
Additional EU exit funding allocated by Her Majesty’s Treasury to Departments and devolved Administrations covers all scenarios. No-deal spending cannot readily be separated from deal spending, given the significant overlap in plans in many cases. Since 2016, the Treasury has allocated more than £2.4 billion of funding for all exit scenarios.[Official Report, 20 May 2019, Vol. 660, c. 6MC.]
Despite talking up and legitimising a no-deal outcome for two years, the Prime Minister applied for two different extensions to the article 50 period to avoid that outcome, because she knows it would be damaging to the country. The Minister talks of £2.4 billion. Would that money not have been better spent on the fight against knife crime, on helping families struggling to cope with universal credit or on 100 other causes that would benefit our constituents, rather than on an argument that, by the Prime Minister’s actions, she has shown she does not even believe in?
Her Majesty’s Government have never had the policy to take no deal off the table; the House has committed the Government through votes to do so. The right hon. Gentleman talks about spending in other Departments. We have, for example, seen record spending in the national health service, making good on the Government’s commitment. If he does not want to see any more money spent on no-deal preparations, it is incumbent on him to bring this to a conclusion, and the best way of doing so is by voting for the withdrawal agreement Bill when it is presented to the House, giving this country certainty and the ability to move forward in a post-Brexit world.
In an op-ed in The Sun on Saturday, the Brexit Secretary argued that
“it would be inexcusable for the Government to not use the coming months to continue to prepare”
for no deal. Indeed, based on his answers today, no doubt he would like to accelerate those preparations. However, as the public know, given that they get advance sight of pending public rows in their morning newspapers, the Chancellor of the Exchequer takes a different view. He recently issued an edict that no further Treasury money will be provided for no-deal planning ahead of the 31 October deadline. When it comes to no-deal planning, will the new Under-Secretary tell us who actually speaks for the Government?
The Treasury has already allocated money for no-deal preparation. We continue to prepare for no deal, because at the moment there is still the possibility that on 31 October the United Kingdom will leave with no deal. Members of the House who are uncomfortable with that position can take a no-deal Brexit off the table by voting for a withdrawal agreement and leaving with a deal, which remains the Government’s policy. If we were to do that, we could move on to the second stage of the negotiations and set about creating a strong working relationship with our European partners and other nations around the world.
Support for Fisheries
We continue to work closely with the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs on supporting our fishing industry. The Government’s vision for a sustainable and profitable fishing sector was set out in the fisheries White Paper in July 2018. As an independent coastal state, we will control access to UK waters and pursue a fairer share of fishing opportunities for the benefit of fishermen in Banff and Buchan and across the UK.
I thank my hon. Friend for his response. Will he confirm that, whatever form the withdrawal agreement takes, we will leave the common fisheries policy, as he just said, and take part in annual negotiations as an independent coastal state no later than December 2020?
My hon. Friend is right. He continues to be a passionate and persistent champion of the fishing industry in his constituency. The best way to ensure our taking part in those negotiations by December 2020 is to vote for the withdrawal agreement, as he and I have done, to secure those rights, and not to try to trap us in the common fisheries policy as the SNP has done.
The UK is a world leader in the provision of legal services. English law has a reputation for excellence across the world. The political declaration outlined the EU and the UK’s commitment to ambitious arrangements for services and investment that go well beyond World Trade Organisation terms and existing EU free trade agreements.
Legal services in the UK are a success story, with the sector making a significant contribution to the economy each year. The Law Society estimates it at about £25.7 billion, with £4.4 billion in net exports and 370,000 jobs. That relies in part on uniform market access across the EU and the European economic area. Will the Minister therefore work with representatives from the legal sector to ensure that it is maintained by the UK-EU future relationship?
The hon. Gentleman is a diligent member of the Justice Committee, and he is absolutely right about the importance of the UK legal services sector to exports and its contribution to the economy. We have listened to EU leaders, and we understand and respect the position that the four freedoms of the single market are indivisible and there can be no cherry-picking. Although we are not seeking single market membership, we are seeking ambitious arrangements for services and investment that build on recent EU FTAs. We are working closely with colleagues from the Ministry of Justice and engaging with industry stakeholders, including the Law Society, to achieve a deal that works for the UK legal services sector in terms of both market access and civil judicial co-operation.
Since our last questions session, over the past six weeks the Government and the Opposition have held constructive meetings. The Prime Minister met the Leader of the Opposition earlier this week, and discussions continue with the aim of reaching a compromise that could command a majority in the House. The Prime Minister has also said that the Government will introduce the withdrawal agreement Bill in the first week after the recess, which will allow more time for the talks to continue, but with a view to ratifying the withdrawal agreement before the summer recess.
I wonder if the excellent Secretary of State has had an opportunity to watch “Brexit: Behind Closed Doors”. The BBC has hidden it away on BBC Four, but it is quite a revealing programme. In it, the lead negotiator for our exit from the European Union, Olly Robbins—who I think is in Brussels this week—says that because he has done such a rotten deal he cannot come back to the United Kingdom and is applying for Belgian citizenship. Is that appropriate, Secretary of State?
Without straying too much into my television viewing habits of recent weeks, I must confess to my hon. Friend that I am intending to watch that documentary. I have seen clips of it, including the one to which he has referred. As he will appreciate, given my current diary, I do not have a huge amount of television time, but I will be sure to make time to watch it in the coming days.
In February, the Secretary of State told the House:
“the withdrawal agreement Bill is a significant piece of legislation and we will need to get it through the House, but the key issue is getting the deal through, because once we have done that, we will have the basis for the necessary consensus in the House to approach that legislation.”—[Official Report, 28 February 2019; Vol. 655, c. 505.]
That makes sense—deal first, implement second—so will the Secretary of State tell us whether the Government are going to hold a fourth meaningful vote before the withdrawal agreement Bill is introduced, or whether the House will be asked to do the opposite of what he advocated in February and implement a deal that has not been approved?
I do not want to stray into territory that is rightly much more a matter for the Chair, but I think I am correct in saying, Mr Speaker, that you have been very clear in your directions regarding meaningful votes and whether they would be considered. As for the deal, we have talked about whether an agreement could be reached with the Opposition. As the right hon. and learned Gentleman knows, those talks are ongoing, including the discussion between the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition this week. We have made it clear, and the Prime Minister has made it clear, that we will bring the withdrawal agreement legislation to the House in the week after the recess, and the House will have an opportunity to vote at that point.
I should have thought it was patently obvious that if the Prime Minister’s deal is put to the House for the fourth time—if that is allowed—it will fail, just as it has failed three times already.
Let me make it clear that Labour opposes the idea of passing the withdrawal agreement Bill without an agreed deal. That would put the cart before the horse, and Labour will therefore vote against the Bill’s Second Reading. How on earth does the Secretary of State think that a Bill to implement a deal that is not before the House can be passed in two weeks’ time—or is this about keeping the Prime Minister in office for another week and giving her a lifeline for today’s meeting of the 1922 Committee?
The talks with the Opposition Front Bench team have been going on for over six weeks, and the House has now looked at the meaningful vote on three occasions and made its view clear. The question therefore arises, as came through in amendments from a number of Members of this House—such as the Snell-Nandy amendment—whether there are changes to the withdrawal agreement Bill that would enable it to command wider support. It is on that basis that not only have we had those discussions but indeed the right hon. and learned Gentleman has welcomed them. When the House sees that legislation, it will be for it to decide whether it commands a majority of the House. The right hon. and learned Gentleman’s personal position might be that what is in that text is irrelevant, because he personally wants to have a second referendum, but that is not the basis on which the discussions have been held; that may be his personal position, but it is not, as I understand it, the official position of the Leader of the Opposition. It will be for the House to make a decision, and the Prime Minister has made it clear that there will be an opportunity for it to do that in the week after the recess.
The Secretary of State looks physically fit and is in good shape and I expect he goes to the gym a lot. If he decided to leave his gym and the gym said to him, “You’ve got to give us two years’ notice; when you leave, you have to pay four years’ worth of membership fees up front; and after you’ve left, we’re still going to control your fitness programme,” would he regard that as a good deal or a bad deal?
I fear that we are straying slightly into territory that is not primarily relevant to the legislation we will be considering after the recess. My gym attendance is a bit like my television viewing: a little non-existent at present. The point is that we as a House know that we need to confront not just the issue of the legislation in the withdrawal agreement but the consequences that would flow from it. When I gave evidence to the Lords Select Committee yesterday, in the usual joyful comments to which my social media feeds are accustomed, people seemed surprised that if we do not leave the EU with a deal, the House will need to face a choice as to whether it then leaves without a deal or whether Members of this House, as they have done with no deal before, seek to prevent that and seek to revoke such an outcome. I do not think that that is a revelation, although it seemed to be greeted as one; I think it is simply a statement of fact and logic, and Members of the House need to confront that when they consider the withdrawal agreement Bill that comes before the House after the recess.
I am very pleased that the hon. Gentleman has raised that question. I have not visited his constituency exactly, but I have been to Teesport and seen many representatives of the chemicals industry, and the one thing they are very anxious to do is create some certainty: they want this phase of the Brexit process to be completed and feel we should back the deal and back the withdrawal agreement. They have, unlike many Opposition Members, accepted the result of the referendum and want to move forward with this process.
What preparations have the Government made to establish a UK investment bank to take over the responsibilities and functions of the European Investment Bank and indeed to do more for investment in the infrastructure and businesses of the UK?
My hon. Friend raises an important point. As the Treasury has set out, there will be extra support for the British Business Bank to play a role in that regard. I would also point him towards the important role of the UK shared prosperity fund in replacing elements of structural funding.
What I am saying is that there will be consequences to both options. Revoke would involve a betrayal of democracy, going back on the commitments that this House has given and having a divisive, but not decisive, second referendum that could end up with the same result as before. Businesses are experiencing uncertainty, including in Dundee, where I was on Thursday. It has the fastest growing chamber of commerce in the United Kingdom, and people there want to see a deal and to see this country move forward. That is the way forward, but if we do not support a deal, a no-deal would have consequences. However, the much more severe consequences would be those for our democracy and for our international reputation as a country if we were to undermine such a major democratic decision.
I can absolutely confirm to my hon. Friend that planning is continuing for no deal and that funding is allocated. It is important for the Government to use the time that we have between now and 31 October to ensure that we are prepared, should that eventuality arise, but it is in our interests to secure a deal so that that becomes unnecessary.
EU nationals play a really important part in all our universities, and I regularly meet the university sector to discuss them. We will absolutely continue to welcome EU nationals to study at our universities after Brexit, but of course, part of the arrangements between us will depend on the future relationship, which will be determined in the next phase of the negotiations. I want to move on so that we can secure the best possible future relationship for our universities.
As we set out in our manifesto, it is in the interests of this country to have an independent trade policy. That is what the Prime Minister has negotiated, and that is the best way for us to deliver the global vision, which is why my hon. Friend and I supported Brexit in the first place.
I am sure that the whole Government Front Bench team will be aware of the bad news today from Thomas Cook, whose travel business looks unsustainable as a result of the Brexit process. There is no such thing as a good Brexit, and we can only imagine the economic disaster of a madcap no-deal Brexit. Before the European elections next week, will the Secretary of State confirm that he will respect the views of this House and take a no-deal Brexit off the table completely?
Any news regarding an individual company is always concerning, in particular because our minds turn to the staff and their families who are dealing with the situation. This is an area in which the parties traditionally come together and work together to try to resolve the issue. However, we should not take these things out of context. Only this week, we had the lowest unemployment since 1974, and that is an indication of our economic strength. When bad news is always blamed on Brexit, as some Opposition Members seem to want to do, it is always worth remembering that we have not yet left.
The hon. Gentleman seems to be saying that the people in those communities that voted to leave should not be trusted with their vote, but that is not what he says at a general election when those same communities return Labour MPs. He does not say, when those people look at the economic policy of the Leader of the Opposition, that they are too stupid to be trusted with a vote, yet when it comes to the biggest vote in our country’s history, he seems to be saying that their vote should not be respected.
Earlier this month, the House unanimously declared a climate change emergency. Does the Minister agree that when it comes to tackling the catastrophe that is climate change—or, for that matter, challenging the overweening arrogance of the tech giants or protecting our citizens—we are stronger and have more influence as a consequence of international agreements, and that those agreements therefore enhance rather than diminish our sovereignty?
I agree with every word the hon. Lady just said. That is one of the reasons why we are seeking to secure the international agreement we have already negotiated with the European Union to allow an orderly withdrawal—one that will allow us to work together effectively on those issues in the future. Indeed, our Prime Minister has been in European capitals this week working collaboratively with other European countries.
The Minister knows that the Government’s myopic obsession with ending freedom of movement is causing a recruitment crisis in the health and social care sector—indeed, the King’s Fund said recently that it was becoming a national emergency. Why are his Government determined to drag that sector into that national emergency?
The only myopic obsession is the Scottish National party’s obsession with an independence referendum. The hon. Gentleman says it is the Government’s obsession, but it is the Migration Advisory Council that said this is a UK-wide issue, which needs to be approached on a UK-wide basis. I remind the House of the answer I gave earlier: there are now 700 more doctors from EU27 countries working in the NHS than there were at the time of the referendum. The numbers are going up, yet the hon. Gentleman constantly talks our country down.
Investigation of Veterans
Before I call the right hon. Member for Rayleigh and Wickford (Mr Francois) to ask his urgent question, I remind right hon. and hon. Members that, under the House’s long-standing resolution on matters sub judice, they must not make reference to individual cases currently before the courts.
(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Defence if she will outline the Government’s plans for dealing with legacy issues and the investigation of veterans who served in Northern Ireland during the troubles.
I begin with an apology because, as everybody will no doubt have observed by now, I am not the Secretary of State for Defence—I don’t have her hair. I wanted to explain why there has been some to-ing and fro-ing since the terms of the urgent question became clear in the last hour.
I am here because we have concluded, at least for the moment, that it would be better that I try to respond to my right hon. Friend’s question about soldiers serving in Northern Ireland—obviously the Northern Ireland Office addresses that directly—particularly because the rules were different when soldiers were serving in Northern Ireland. They were there in support of the police and in support of civil powers, which forms a different legal basis than the one that applies if they are fighting abroad in other kinds of conflict. I shall endeavour to be as helpful as I can to my right hon. Friend; if he has any remaining questions he wants to address, I will be happy to follow through with him later, but let me at least try to respond to the burden of his urgent question as it was asked.
I strongly agree, as I suspect that all Members on both sides of the House will strongly agree, that my right hon. Friend is absolutely right that the current system—the current situation—in Northern Ireland is not working properly for people on all sides. It is clearly unsupportable and it is unfair in many ways. If a former soldier or a former police officer—perhaps now in their 70s—is concerned about being pursued through the courts for events that happened 30 or 40 years ago, that is a constant worry to them, their family and their friends. Equally, a family member of a victim of republican terrorists in a case where the perpetrators were never brought to justice has a feeling of great worry and concern, and has difficulty moving on. That concern affects people on all sides of the community in Northern Ireland, and my right hon. Friend is absolutely right that it has to be addressed.
It is for that reason that not just the Government but—I think I am right in saying—parties on both sides of the House and right the away across Northern Ireland believe that a new approach is vital if we are to put this right. That was why the original Stormont House agreement was announced some years ago, and it is why most recently we have been consulting on how to take this forward. We received more than 17,000 responses to the consultation, which shows the depth, breadth and intensity of concern about the current situation. We have now pretty much finished going through those responses. Some trends are starting to emerge, and we will of course bring them to the House as soon as we decently and responsibly can.
One thing is clear to everybody: everyone agrees on the aim. The difficulty is that, 30 or 40 years after some of the events of the troubles, we need a process that, while having a judicial element, is broader than just judicial. It must allow all sides of the community in Northern Ireland to establish the truth, where it can be established, be fair to all sides and allow people—society as a whole—to draw a line and move on.
While comparisons cannot be exact, because the situation in Northern Ireland is unlike anything else on the planet, this has been done in other societies. One famous example, of course, is the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa. Clearly, that would not work precisely in Northern Ireland, but it is essential that we find an equivalent process that aims at the same outcome of allowing people to feel that justice is being achieved with the truth established, wherever it can be, so that closure can be achieved for all sides on an equal basis wherever possible. That matters particularly for soldiers and police officers who served in Northern Ireland, but also for the families and grieving loved ones of victims.
I will endeavour to respond to my right hon. Friend’s further questions—I am sure he has many—but I hope that helps to set the scene.
I am very grateful to you, Mr Speaker, for allowing this urgent question. There has been a great deal of media speculation over the last week about what the Ministry of Defence and the Northern Ireland Office want to do, yet no information has been given to the House. I sought this UQ to try to achieve some clarity—we will see how we get on, Sir.
The Secretary of State for Defence gave a very confident and front-footed speech at the Royal United Services Institute yesterday. I was in the audience and it was an excellent speech. She mentioned her intention to try to provide legal protection particularly for veterans who had served in the campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan. We have seen articles in The Times and elsewhere to that effect, but thus far I am afraid we have had no specific details. If press reports are accurate, the MOD is aiming at something along the lines of a statute of limitations, taking force perhaps 10 years after a conflict has ended, after which no prosecution would be possible unless exceptional or compelling evidence were to come forward.
If that is the case, the Defence Secretary would be honouring the Conservative party’s 2017 manifesto—that would make a nice change—which reads:
“We will protect our brave armed forces personnel from persistent legal claims, which distress those who risk their lives for us, cost the taxpayer millions and undermine the armed forces”.
That is plain as a pikestaff, and if she is to do it, well and good, but we would like more details.
I will explain one reason why this is so pressing, in terms of the persecution of Iraq veterans. The MOD set up the Iraq Historic Allegations Team, which spent years looking into these cases, but unfortunately it became a racket. Several law firms—particularly the ironically named Public Interest Lawyers, led by an appalling man called Phil Shiner—trawled Iraq to encourage people to come forward and make false allegations. Basically, they made some of it up. That all came out in a court case when the trial collapsed after they admitted that they had fabricated evidence. My hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Moor View (Johnny Mercer)—a fellow member of the Defence Committee—then conducted a Sub-Committee inquiry into IHAT, which proved so shocking that the then Secretary of State for Defence, my right hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks (Sir Michael Fallon), shut the team down. I am sure that the whole House would agree that we must never do that again.
Turning to Northern Ireland, the Minister—I have a great deal of time for him, but perhaps slightly less time for his Department—rightly said that the NIO, under the Stormont House agreement, agreed with the parties in Northern Ireland to establish so-called legacy institutions to look into the past. The NIO’s interpretation of that means that it will set up some form of commission that will go back 50 years to 1968-69 and re-examine every fatality since—some 3,500 cases. Any serviceman or member of the Royal Ulster Constabulary, George Cross, who fired a fatal shot will therefore be reinvestigated. However, the alleged terrorists will not because, under the Good Friday agreement, Tony Blair gave them so-called letters of comfort, which mean that they are immune from prosecution. No alleged terrorist who was given one of those letters has been successfully prosecuted. The nearest we came was with the alleged Hyde Park bomber, but when he produced his letter of comfort in court, the judge abandoned the trial and declared an abuse of process. The entire process will be utterly one-sided, because service personnel and members of the RUC GC will be liable to prosecution, while those with letters of comfort get off scot-free.
After the appalling, tragic events in Londonderry, we all want the Northern Ireland Executive re-established—of course we do—but that cannot come at the price of some rancid, backstairs deal between the NIO and Sinn Féin-IRA that sells Corporal Johnny Atkins down the river. Up with that, I believe, this House will not put. We have a moral duty to defend those who defended us, and we abrogate that duty if, for reasons of political convenience, we allow the scapegoating of our veterans to pander to terrorists.
I want to ask the Minister six very specific questions—
We are both addicts, Mr Speaker.
First, while I know that the Ministry of Defence is not the Minister’s Department, will he give us some indication of when the MOD will provide the House with more details of its proposals? Secondly, when will the NIO publish the response to the consultation on legacy issues to which the Minister referred? Thirdly, will the Minister confirm that a Bill will be required to set up the legacy institutions—or, as I call them, IHAT mark II? Fourthly, what discussions have taken place between NIO Ministers and civil servants, and Sinn Féin-IRA, and is there any truth in the rumours that they have demanded the continued investigation of British veterans as the price of re-entering the Executive? Fifthly, when will the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland come to the House to make an oral statement to update us so that Members can question her in detail about the NIO’s proposals?
Sixthly, and lastly, what would the Minister say to former Royal Marine David Griffin, aged 78, whom I met on Monday? He is being reinvestigated for a shooting in 1972 for which he was investigated, and completely cleared, at the time? If he wants to discuss the matter with Mr Griffin in person, would he be kind enough to go down to the Royal Hospital Chelsea, because that is where he now lives?
I will endeavour to respond to those six points, but may I begin by saying that I am sure that my right hon. Friend speaks for everybody in this House—he certainly speaks for me—when he says that we will have no rancid political deals here? That is not acceptable. If we are going to ask people potentially to put their lives on the line by serving in Her Majesty’s armed forces anywhere in the world, we need to make sure that we do the right thing by them when they have done the right thing by their country. As somebody who has served and who understands the importance of military discipline, my right hon. Friend will know that that is not unqualified, because there are rules within the armed forces. However, provided that people have adhered to those rules, we in this place, on both sides of the aisle, and more broadly across society, owe something in return, so there absolutely will be no rancid political deals on my watch, and I am sure that my right hon. Friend will be absolutely certain to make sure that that will not happen more broadly.
Before I come to my right hon. Friend’s six questions, may I put him right on a couple of other things? On his point about whether or not the Secretary of State announced a statute of limitations or an intention to move towards one, he is right that the details have not yet been fully put out. I understand that there will be a consultation with more details attached to it. Some press reports are talking about a presumption of non-prosecution rather than a statute of limitations; we will have to wait and see.
My right hon. Friend’s first question was about when the MOD will publish details. I am afraid that I cannot answer that as a Northern Ireland Office Minister. I imagine it will want to move forward fairly briskly, but to get a categorical answer, I am afraid he will have to raise that point either privately or at the next Defence questions.
My right hon. Friend also made a point about the letters of comfort that were issued by a previous Government. I reassure him and other Members that legal reports have been issued on those letters since the cases that he mentioned saying that they are not an amnesty from prosecution. If a case can be made, letters of comfort will not in future be body armour against prosecution—[Interruption.] He is right to say that we will have to wait and see how that plays out when or if one of the cases comes to court, but that is the latest and strongest legal situation.
My right hon. Friend asked when we will publish the responses to the consultation. We have received 17,000 responses, and the answer is as soon as we decently can. We are very nearly there. It has taken a very long time to go through those responses. As I am sure that everybody will appreciate, they came from people with stories of tragedy to tell, so they needed to be gone through with a degree of respect and care, as I am sure that everyone would expect. It has taken some time to go through the process properly and to honour the reasons why people wrote in. We are very nearly there and we will bring them forward as soon as we decently can.
My right hon. Friend asked whether a Bill would be required to put new legacy arrangements in place as and when we come up with proposals. The answer is almost certainly yes, so the House will have an opportunity for full scrutiny according to the usual process—I suspect that that was why he asked the question. Everybody will have a chance to ask detailed questions about how this thing is being put together—
To vote on it, and to confirm the important point, on which my right hon. Friend and I agree, that no rancid deals have been done.
My right hon. Friend asked whether Sinn Féin-IRA, as he characterised them, demanded a price in the talks. Not to my knowledge at all, but I think that goes back to his point about no rancid deals.
My right hon. Friend asked when the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland would make a statement on our plans. I think the answer to that is as soon as we have had a chance to discuss the issue in detail with different parties, both in Northern Ireland and here. I hope all Members will understand that while there is agreement on the direction and the outcome that everybody wants, the details matter hugely. He gave examples of real concerns about the initial set of Stormont agreement proposals for dealing with legacy. He could have given examples about other concerns. We have to deal with those and come up with proposals that work in detail and that have acceptance from all sides of the community in Northern Ireland. It is worth everybody’s while to take a little bit of extra time now to get the details right to come up with a process that everyone can live with, and to do the detailed design work—the pre-legislative scrutiny, if you like—so that we get that essential work right. The answer, therefore, is as soon as we decently can, but given the sensitivities involved and the precision required to come up with a process that, after decades, will stand the test of time and of warring views within Northern Ireland society, I hope my right hon. Friend will understand that we need something that is robust and put together with enormous care.
The Minister rightly began by talking about victims—those who were killed, those who were killed unlawfully—and the families of those victims, who all these years on still seek truth and to know what has happened to their loved ones. As a matter of record, which I know the Minister will confirm, the overwhelming majority of the killings that took place in Northern Ireland were committed by paramilitaries, republican or loyalist—
I am happy to join the right hon. Gentleman in using that word. Therefore, by definition, those were illegal and in need of investigation, where there can be no bar because of the passage of time. Every serving soldier swears an oath of allegiance to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, to
“observe and obey all orders of Her Majesty, Her heirs and successors and of the generals and officers set over me.”
It should be axiomatic that when a soldier has obeyed those Queen’s regulations and acted within the orders set out, that individual soldier should be protected from vexatious attacks—that is legitimate whether in foreign fields or in the context of Northern Ireland. But I have to say to the Minister, and I am not sure he wants to disagree with me on this, that it is very hard for me to recognise that when a soldier has broken that solemn oath of allegiance to the Queen—a solemn oath to uphold our laws—and wilfully broken it, leading to the death of individuals, that should be put beyond time for investigation. We have to be very clear in this House that investigating the most serious crimes, where death has taken place, we have to be resolute and absolute in saying there can be no statute of limitations. Crime is crime. Murder is murder, and we need to establish as a House, as a nation, that our principles uphold the rule of law and uphold not simply our international obligations, but our moral obligations.
In that context, can the Minister confirm specifically that the Police Service of Northern Ireland now—and any other investigatory body—will, by law, be enjoined to investigate those most serious crimes, whether committed by republican terrorists, loyalist terrorists or those in the police service or the Army who wilfully have broken our laws? That is the important distinction. The important distinction is between protection from vexatious claims for those who legitimately carried out the Queen’s orders—that is right and proper and we should establish that—and no protection for those who wilfully broke our laws.
I think the hon. Gentleman is making a central and uncontroversial point, but we need to be very careful in how we approach it. He has to be right that outright crimes such as murder must be pursued, and be pursued even-handedly. In defence of my right hon. Friend the Member for Rayleigh and Wickford (Mr Francois), I should say that I do not think he is suggesting anything else.
As I was saying earlier, military discipline means that the duty we all owe to members of Her Majesty’s armed forces is not an unqualified one—there are limits to it for people who may have failed to follow the orders they were given or failed to act in the right way. But we need to be careful about being resolutely even-handed about it. One of the many difficulties that many people have about the situation currently in Northern Ireland is that it is extremely difficult to mount effective investigations into many of these deaths. The hon. Gentleman rightly said that the majority of the deaths that occurred originated from republican terrorists, and it is therefore difficult in many cases to find enough evidence to make those cases stand up in court. It is not necessarily a question of prosecuting authorities not trying to be even-handed; they have to be able to follow evidence that is available to them and see whether or not there is a decent case.
The fact remains that the Government are a great deal better at maintaining records 30 or 40 years later than perhaps the IRA was at all. It is therefore extremely difficult to pursue some cases, which is one of the major reasons—it may not be the only one—why, to many eyes, the ratio of prosecutions is as skewed as I think the hon. Gentleman was trying to suggest. That is the concern that people have, but I can reassure him, as I am sure everybody else present would, that it has to be everybody’s intention to pursue cases for which there is evidence on a completely even-handed basis. We obviously need to make sure that we deal with all the others, too, which is why we have to have a process that is broader than just a judicial one and that allows people to get to the truth, in so far as it ever can be reached at this late stage, to move on with their lives and to draw a line under a pretty terrible series of episodes in Northern Ireland’s past.
The simple answer to that is that the analysis is only just starting to emerge now, and I have not seen it broken down in the way that my right hon. Friend describes, so I am afraid I cannot give him a factual answer. Once the results are out, I am sure people will pore over them and we may then be able to come up with an answer. I apologise that I cannot come up with a solid factual answer for my right hon. Friend at the moment.
We acknowledge the challenges that come with military service. We do need to be sensitive to those challenges and to recognise the volatile circumstances that came with serving in Northern Ireland during the troubles, but nobody is above the law. The Good Friday agreement remains incredibly important today, and we have a duty to defer to the frameworks underneath it. When he was Prime Minister, David Cameron gave a formal apology for the events of Bloody Sunday. He said:
“What happened on Bloody Sunday was both unjustified and unjustifiable. It was wrong.”—[Official Report, 15 June 2010; Vol. 511, c. 739.]
I suggest that, having acknowledged that, it is reasonable that we determine whether—whether—anyone is culpable of criminality for the events of Bloody Sunday. Are the Government committed to ensuring that those who lost loved ones, on all sides of the conflict, have the means to pursue both justice and truth?
The straightforward answer to that last question is yes, and I do not think there is any disagreement, on either side of the House, about that central aim. The question, of course—I think this is inherent in what the hon. Lady asked—is about the details of how. Once we have had a chance to announce to the House the results of the consultation, we will need to start work on the detailed reactions to that consultation, to formulate a Bill that will be acceptable to deliver what we are talking about in a way that works for all sides of the community in Northern Ireland.
On the point about Bloody Sunday cases, the hon. Lady will of course be aware that the Director of Public Prosecutions recently announced, having reviewed all the various different cases, that all but one of them will not be taken forward. There is not enough evidence for any sort of reasonable prospect of a prosecution, so all but one of them have been withdrawn.
I completed seven tours in Northern Ireland, all with the infantry or associated units. I lost many men and I was involved in fatality shootings. I was investigated, along with others. The investigations were thorough, aggressive and bloody awful to go through. When the investigations were completed, we sometimes had to go to court to prove that we had acted in accordance with the yellow card. In 1978, I told two soldiers who were with me that because they had been to court and been proved innocent and had acted within the law, they would never, ever be asked to do such a thing again. How the hell can our Government allow such people possibly to be investigated again?
My hon. and gallant Friend speaks with huge authority given his personal background and experience in the armed forces. I think the whole House understands that the examples that he has just given are a specific and very good illustration of my earlier comments in response to the initial question of my right hon. Friend the Member for Rayleigh and Wickford (Mr Francois) about why the current situation is not working properly for anybody. We need to get to a point where, unless there is some brand new and credible piece of evidence that changes the situation, but in most cases that is not the case—
Exactly so. Unless there is something that is brand new and that was not available at the time—in the vast majority of cases that is not the case—then at that point people should be entitled to consider that they do not have to face further pursuance through the court. Therefore, my point is that we must get this sorted and sorted soon, and we must come up with a process that works for all the different sides of the equation, as I laid out in my initial response. I guess what I am saying is that we are in violent agreement on this. My hon. and gallant Friend illustrates forcefully and accurately why the current situation is not acceptable and cannot be allowed to stand.
I thank the Minister for his response so far. Will he explain the fundamental difference between soldiers following orders in uniform in Afghanistan and Iraq and soldiers following orders in uniform in Northern Ireland, other than a drive by militant republicans to rewrite history to make it seem as if their bloodlust against Captain Nairac and the three Scottish soldiers and all those other men and women slaughtered by evil people was in some way acceptable? We must have equal treatment for all who have served in Army uniform wherever it was, or is, in the world.
May I start by saying that I certainly agree with the underlying premise of the hon. Gentleman’s point, which is that we need to make sure that we are doing the right thing by our armed forces? The difficulty lies with the legal underpinnings. The legal difference between soldiers serving abroad versus soldiers serving in Northern Ireland in support of the police is important. It means that our route to arriving at the goal that he wants to get us to, and that I want to get us to, has to be a different one. Let me take a specific case in point: people who suggest that we should have some kind of a statute of limitations for forces that have been serving abroad need to realise that if we try to do that in the UK, that statute of limitations, according to human rights law, would have to apply to all sides of the conflict in Northern Ireland.
The Northern Ireland letters of comfort, as I have already said, do not stop prosecutions under the latest legal guidance. Therefore, we have to come up with something that gets us to the point that the hon. Gentleman is trying to illustrate, but it must have a different legal foundation to it. I wish it were simpler. I wish that it were not the case, but it is and we have to take the world as we find it. That should be an explanation about why it is hard, but not a satisfactory justification for not trying and not getting there, and not getting there soon.
May I say to the Minister of State that I have every sympathy with his position at the Dispatch Box? I did exactly the same and had exactly the same advice, which was fundamentally wrong, when I was in the Northern Ireland Office as well as in the Ministry of Defence. Like many colleagues, I served in Northern Ireland. When I came back, I was given a general service medal. I was on operations. To us, peacekeeping there was no different to peacekeeping anywhere else in the world. That is what British Army soldiers do. To stand here and say that there is a legal difference between a soldier going on ops in Iraq, Cyprus or anywhere else in the world and a soldier going on ops in Northern Ireland is fundamentally wrong, and I challenged and challenged and challenged that advice. How on earth have we got into this position where we will not defend our own soldiers because of some technicality that we were not on ops? We were on ops and we were defending the public and our guys were killed. I will not have terrorists mentioned in the same breath as British soldiers.
I could not agree more. My right hon. Friend rightly points out that he has stood in my shoes on this issue. I am sure he is absolutely right that, to anybody serving in Her Majesty’s armed forces—whether they served in peacekeeping operations or not, and whether they served in Northern Ireland or in other parts of the world—the practical effect will feel the same.
As my right hon. Friend rightly points out, he was given a medal for it. The only point on which I would pull him up is that, although the practical effect may feel the same, the legal underpinnings—again, I appreciate that he contested this—are different. Although we may wish that were not so, it is so. Therefore, we have to come up with something that will withstand legal challenge. As my right hon. Friend for Rayleigh and Wickford rightly pointed out, there are people out there who will try to knock legal holes in any answer that we come up with unless it is legally robust. We have to acknowledge the legal difference and find an answer that works, even though we are trying to get to the same answer in each case. If we cannot do that, we may come up with something that sounds great when we announce it, but that will get legal holes knocked in it; and that would mean that we were not protecting our veterans in the way in which everybody here wants us to do.
I represent Darlington, which is the nearest large town to Catterick garrison, so there are many hundreds of veterans living in my constituency. None of them has ever asked or expected to be treated differently or as if they were above the law in any situation, but there is deep concern about this issue. There is also deep concern in the wider community that individual soldiers may be held responsible for failings that they alone do not own—that a lack of preparedness, or a lack of understanding or anticipation of the context in which they would be serving at the time, may have led to certain things happening that those individuals could be held responsible for. That is a real and deep worry. Will the Minister assure me that individual veterans in my constituency will not be held responsible for actions that they alone are not responsible for?
That is precisely why we need to come up with these proposals as fast as we can. It is clear from both sides of the House that the time for action is now—well, it was probably several years ago actually—and that this situation cannot be allowed to persist. The hon. Lady’s example is only one of a spectrum of concerns, depending on which part of the community one talks to in Northern Ireland and who one talks to in the UK. However, that concern is absolutely valid and we cannot allow this situation to continue. We will come back to this as soon as it is decent to do so; and by “decent”, I mean when we have a chance of getting something that is practically going to work, rather than something that sounds good as a soundbite. We need to ensure that this thing works under legal challenge.
Is it not ironic that throughout the whole Brexit process we have been bending over backwards to treat Northern Ireland the same as the rest of the UK, and we are now about to treat Northern Ireland differently? I understand the sensitivities of the Good Friday agreement and the Stormont House agreement, but surely this can be sorted out with robust and strong leadership. I put it to the Minister that no other country in the world would treat their veterans in this way. He goes on about taking more time, and going through this and that. All this time, veterans—including in my constituency—are suffering.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I certainly did not want to imply that we are countenancing being leisurely about this. This situation has been wrong for many years. The only reason for not announcing something tomorrow—or, indeed, today or yesterday—is simply that we need to ensure that we have put all the answers from the consultation out and in front of the House, so people have a chance to work through the details and ask, “All right, what does this mean in practice then?” We need to move as fast as we can, but it has to be as fast as we can in a way that is consistent with forging a consensus in Northern Ireland. We have to ensure that whatever answer we come up with sticks, survives and works for both sides of the community, otherwise it will come unravelled in the fullness of time and we will have failed to protect our veterans from the kind of problems that we have all heard about and that I think everyone here agrees are absolutely unacceptable.
The right hon. Member for Rayleigh and Wickford (Mr Francois) is quite right when he says that this question really ought to be answered by the Secretary of State for Defence, because it is her intervention that has left the Government with a policy that is totally lacking in any coherence.
Quite apart from the inconsistencies that others have highlighted, we are now, we understand from the Secretary of State for Defence, to disapply the European convention on human rights in this area. Is that Government policy that she speaks of, and if so, where does the Minister, as a Minister of State in the Northern Ireland Office, think that leaves the Good Friday agreement?
Let me first address the right hon. Gentleman’s point about whether this is a matter for the Ministry of Defence or the Northern Ireland Office. He is of course right that the Ministry of Defence has a major, major stake in getting this right. As he would expect—as everybody would expect—the Secretary of State for Defence wants to make sure that this issue is dealt with as promptly as possible. The Ministry of Defence is not the only Department to have a stake, because clearly there are former police officers in Northern Ireland—members of the PSNI—who could also be vulnerable to such predatory legal attack, or whatever, and we need to make sure that they are properly dealt with too. He is right that the MOD is a vital part, but it is not all of it, and that is why the issue goes broader than just veterans of Her Majesty’s armed forces.
On human rights, as I said earlier, all we have to go on at the moment are the press reports and the outlines of the Secretary of State for Defence’s proposals. I did not see those as having—and I do not think she meant them to have—anything to do with contradicting human rights. It is clear that anything we come up with, if it is to be legally robust, has to be compliant with article 2 in human rights terms, because if we do not have a process that is compliant with article 2, we will have failed to protect our veterans, whether they are former members of the armed forces or former members of the Police Service of Northern Ireland. If we fail to protect them from proper legal challenge because we have designed a process that is not compliant with article 2, we will have failed in our duty and failed to deliver what everybody here, of all parties, wishes to achieve.
I understand that the Legacy Inquest Unit is powering through its work. May I urge the Minister to consider the timescale for inquests while considering what other bodies he is going to set up? May I also urge him to make sure that veterans are properly supported throughout the inquest process? To most people, an inquest looks like a court and smells like a court, and it is very important that they are helped through the process.
My hon. Friend makes a very important point about people facing current cases, regardless of whether we wish to design an alternative process that may mean in future many of them will not have to undergo the process, which I think everybody here agrees would be sensible where possible and appropriate. For those who have to do so, however, we absolutely need to make sure that there is proper legal support. As I said, I would regard that as absolutely part of the duty that we owe to our former soldiers and other members of our armed forces.
The Minister is speaking as though this issue has landed on him unexpectedly from a clear blue sky, but we are talking about events that happened 40 years ago, and much of it could have been predicted. Although of course we want malicious cases to be dismissed, will he confirm his exact policy on cases that may have some legitimacy but have already been tried and within which we would expect soldiers to be treated fairly?
I assure the hon. Gentleman that this issue has not landed on anybody’s desk in the Northern Ireland Office out of a clear blue sky—it has been taking up a very large proportion of everybody’s care and attention. It is probably fair to say that it was doing so under former Labour Governments as well as the current Government, and indeed the coalition Government. It is certainly not a new problem, and it has clearly defeated successive attempts to solve it. That is why we have to proceed as fast as possible, but with care.
With regard to people who have already faced cases, clearly we need to make sure that they are treated fairly within the law. Bearing in mind Mr Speaker’s earlier strictures, I probably should not comment on individual cases, but I am sure that everybody here would stand up for the notion that yes, clearly, everyone should be treated fairly within the law.
I deployed to Afghanistan twice and to Iraq and to Northern Ireland, all in quite quick succession. I can tell the Minister that I received operational training and operational kit. I carried operational rules of engagement. I received operational pay, and I received an operational medal for all four of those tours. The distinction that a soldier is aware of the legal premise on which they are deployed is not true—it is not fair, and it stinks. Troops do not get to choose whether they deploy on an operational tour because of the legal underpinning that the Government have chosen, and it is unreasonable to assert that now. We must limit their liability immediately.
I completely agree. I was trying to make this point in response to a couple of earlier questions, but let me have another crack at it. For members of Her Majesty’s armed forces serving on the ground, no matter where they are, if they are on similar kinds of operation, the practical effect and feel of those operations will be the same. My hon. Friend, who is my parliamentary neighbour in Somerset, is absolutely right to make that point. It is not an acceptable justification for inaction for any Government to say, “The legal basis is different, and therefore we cannot solve this.”
All I am saying is that the legal solution has to be different because the legal basis is different, even though soldiers may not care or worry about it. If we do not take that difference of legal basis into account, the answer we come up with will not work in protecting them. We want to protect them properly and successfully. If we do not, the first malicious prosecution that is mounted in a court and knocks a hole in it will show that our efforts have been in vain. My hon. Friend is right. This is an explanation of why it is different; it is not a justification for not acting, nor is it a justification for not succeeding in coming up with an identical outcome, even though it has to be based on different legal foundations.
Chester is a proud garrison city, and I am proud to represent ex-service and current service families, many of whom have raised their concerns with me. Their concerns are generally twofold. The first is that these seem to be arbitrary fishing investigations—and investigations are just as stressful as prosecutions. Secondly, the right hon. Member for Rayleigh and Wickford (Mr Francois) talked about rancid deals. Of course there had to be a deal under the Good Friday agreement, but my constituents’ concern is clear: that deal should be applied equally and fairly to all sides.
“Equally and fairly to all sides” have to be our watch-words for the outcome of publishing the results of the consultation and the process of coming up with a Bill that works. It has to be equal and fair to both sides, otherwise it will not endure, it will not work, and it will not protect our forces in the way that we all want.
As the MP for Moray, I represent a large number of veterans, and I share their disgust at the way they have been treated by this Government. The Minister’s answers have been full, but when speaking about future legislation and the results of the consultation, he has said “soon”, “very quickly” and “shortly”. He has given no specific timeframe. When can my constituents and people across the United Kingdom expect to hear from the Government specific dates for the plans, to ensure that we can hold the Government to account on their promises?
I wish I could give my hon. Friend a specific date. We are trying to get through this as fast as we can. I hope he will understand that, with 17,000 responses, each telling a story of personal tragedy, we needed to ensure we were honouring the sense in which those were provided. Having worked through that, we need to move at pace, and we will endeavour to do so. I cannot give him a precise date today, but I will undertake to take back to the Department the very clear message from today, which is that we need to get on with this and move as fast as we can, but we need to ensure we are proceeding in a way that will endure and come up with a robust answer that, as we just heard, is fair and equal for all sides.
Like all Members here, I have veterans in my constituency who are very angry at the way this issue has been handled and extremely concerned about issues being dredged up from 20, 30 or 40 years ago in what they consider to be an unfair manner. There has been a lot of press speculation in recent days and mixed messages from the Government, which has only increased the anxiety that many veterans feel. Does the Minister understand the concern caused, as well as the need for clarity and certainty that it will be dealt with as quickly as possible?
The borough of Kettering is blessed with many veterans who served in Northern Ireland, and they are outraged by this process. The previous Labour Government issued letters of comfort to known terrorists, and now a Conservative Government are effectively threatening prosecution of veterans, many of whom have already faced court cases. The Minister says he has received legal advice from the Northern Ireland Office. Will he reassure the House that he is challenging that advice, not simply accepting it? He said that Sinn Féin is not pressing for these cases to be examined—he said he had no knowledge of that. Can he confirm 100% that Sinn Féin is not pressing for these veterans to be prosecuted as a condition of setting up the new Northern Ireland Executive?
I am not in that part of those talks, so I would not be able to tell my hon. Friend that one way or another. I can say, however—this returns to my earlier answer to my right hon. Friend the Member for Rayleigh and Wickford—that rancid deals should have no part in how we treat our veterans in any case.
The best way for wounds to heal is to stop picking at the scabs, and we must stop treating Northern Ireland as “other”. Our military, police or civilians will have far greater confidence only when rules apply globally, and I see no merit in perpetrating the “otherness” of Northern Ireland. Rules should apply to our military, police and civilians, whether in Basra or Belfast. The status of the unbalanced letters of comfort must be reviewed and clarified as they distort the arguments. The scales of justice must be able to balance, but those letters distort them beyond all chance of that happening.
I agree strongly that the scales of justice must be able to balance, and it is not just a question of balancing in one or two cases—they must balance for all cases, and be seen to balance by all sides. We are all here today because there is a widespread perception, on both sides of the community in Northern Ireland, that those scales are tilted for different reasons in different ways. My hon. Friend is right to make that point, and I remind him of my earlier answer on the letters of comfort. Those letters have now been reviewed, and the latest legal report states that they do not provide immunity from prosecution—