House of Commons
Wednesday 22 May 2019
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
The threat from dissident republican terrorism continues to be severe in Northern Ireland after the appalling killing of Lyra McKee. This Government’s first priority is to keep people safe and secure. Vigilance against this continuing threat is essential, and we remain determined to ensure that terrorism never succeeds.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend on securing the £105 million of UK Government funding for the new Derry/Londonderry city deal and the inclusive future fund. Does she agree that it is vital that we provide young people with the jobs and skills they need to move on in the future in a world that is rejecting violence and that all these things will help?
My hon. Friend makes a very important point. I am sure that she will have heard the words of Father Martin Magill at the funeral of Lyra McKee; he said that young people need jobs, not guns. It is exactly right that we should focus our efforts on providing jobs as well as tackling terrorism, so that we can give those young people the alternative to violence so that they can have a future that is fit for them.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that the Police Service of Northern Ireland is doing an outstanding job and showing tremendous courage and professionalism in dealing with violence and dissident activity? What can the Government do to support the PSNI to ensure that it faces down the dissidents and people who are spreading hatred and violence?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. This Government’s first priority is to keep people safe and secure across the whole United Kingdom. We saw incredible bravery from the Police Service of Northern Ireland on the night of Lyra McKee’s killing. Although the police faced an onslaught of petrol bombs and shooting towards them, they got out of their vehicles to try to save Lyra, and we all owe them a debt of gratitude. We need to see people across Northern Ireland working with the PSNI to stamp out terrorism, and the Government stand steadfast in our commitment to assisting that work.
It is vital that we give the right message to young people. However, we have recently seen, yet again, shots being fired over coffins at funerals and before funerals by IRA and INLA terrorists, using weapons that were supposed to have been decommissioned. Is it not incumbent on all political parties in Northern Ireland, including Sinn Féin, to make it clear that such paramilitary displays with weapons are harmful to our society, send out the wrong message to young people and should stop immediately?
I agree with the right hon. Gentleman that these sorts of outward displays of violence are not acceptable. What I saw after Lyra’s killing was the community coming together and rejecting those outward displays, leading to the cancellation of the proposed march through Londonderry on Easter Monday.
I am sure that the Secretary of State will have had a briefing earlier today—or, indeed, perhaps yesterday—from the Chief Constable of the Police Service of Northern Ireland about the security situation in Northern Ireland. In that context, would the Secretary of State update the people of Northern Ireland about the success of the PSNI in stopping the spate of ATM thefts and apprehending those responsible? Such an update would be very welcome.
The hon. Lady is absolutely right that I saw the Chief Constable yesterday, and I share her concern about the issue. This is an ongoing operational matter, but the actions of the PSNI are to be applauded.
The whole House will share the Secretary of State’s admiration for all the officers of the PSNI—and of the Garda Siochana—who have stopped numerous hideous incidents over recent months and years. What assessment has she made of the PSNI’s morale and of the situation for recruitment to the PSNI and other security forces, should there be a different regime for the veterans of Operation Banner compared with other military operations in other theatres?
I have seen that the PSNI conduct a very difficult job. I am always pleased to have the chance to meet police officers—particularly at Strand Road in Londonderry, where I have made a number of visits following dreadful incidents that we have seen in that city—and to hear the camaraderie and commitment shown by those individuals. I am determined that we will deal with the matters regarding the legacy of Operation Banner appropriately, lawfully and in a way that reflects exactly the commitment that we see today from the Police Service of Northern Ireland.
Is not one of the challenges for dealing with the security situation in Northern Ireland to build the confidence of communities right across Northern Ireland, working with the Police Service of Northern Ireland and others? In the face of recent terrible events, we have seen the community doing that, but what more can the Secretary of State do to encourage communities to work with the security forces?
The hon. Gentleman, I know, has great experience in this area and he is right that we do need to see co-operation between communities and the Police Service of Northern Ireland. We did see a real step change following that appalling killing where people were welcoming the PSNI into their homes, but it is an incredibly difficult job. We need to make sure that the inclusive future fund—the £55 million that the Government have committed to Derry/Londonderry—is used in part to support those activities.
The Secretary of State will know that the security situation depends on, among other things, the perception that the police and the judicial process are independent. Families of victims of the troubles of the past are, in many cases, still waiting for answers. Does she agree that those families, and those young people who can be pulled into terrorist acts, would be influenced dramatically if they believed that there was a rule saying that there would be a statute of limitations for state actors when, quite rightly, we seek to prosecute those who perpetrated either murder or manslaughter from whatever background?
The hon. Gentleman will know that this Government are committed to implementing the institutions that were agreed at Stormont House. We have had a consultation on that matter and received more than 17,000 responses—individual personal responses. We will publish the summary of those consultation responses in due course.
I am happy to confirm that the latest labour market statistics for Northern Ireland show employment at a record high and unemployment at a record low. This is a long-term and consistently improving trend, and with continued political stability, we hope that it will continue in future.
Those are very welcome statistics. What is my hon. Friend doing to further grow employment and jobs in Northern Ireland and the rest of the country?
I am delighted to give some examples. Not only is unemployment now the lowest of the UK nations, at 2.9%, but the ratio of public sector to private sector jobs is rebalancing healthily. Exports have grown to more than £10 billion, and we expect a tourism surge from the golf open at Portrush. We will continue to pursue those and other measures, including the city deals that have just been mentioned.
Employment levels are improving, as the Minister has said, but does he agree that we need to attract above-average salary levels now to try to grow the economy? In that respect, the Heathrow logistics hub is an excellent project. Will he join me in pressing and persuading those behind the hub to look at Ballykelly, which is a very attractive environment?
The hon. Gentleman is a doughty battler for his constituents and for his constituency. I am sure that those involved will have heard his words and will be considering them carefully, but he is right about that and many other examples of important local investment in Northern Ireland.
The short, focused set of roundtable talks aimed at restoring devolution continues. Northern Ireland’s five main political parties have reaffirmed their commitment to restoring a power-sharing Executive and the other political institutions set out in the Belfast agreement.
I thank my right hon. Friend for her answer and for the work that she has done thus far. Does she agree that it is absolutely vital to get devolved government up and working as soon as possible, so that the victims of historical institutional abuse receive full and fair compensation for what they have suffered?
I do agree with my hon. Friend that we need to see the restoration of the institutions. I also agree that we need to see fair redress for those victims of historical institutional abuse. I have met those victims. Their stories are heartrending and absolutely dreadful. No one should have suffered the way that they did. I am not prepared to wait for restored devolution to take action in this matter. I am determined that we will do everything we can for those victims of historical abuse and that we will take measures forward as soon as possible and not wait for restored devolution.
On that subject, the Secretary of State and, indeed, the whole House will be aware of the sense of outrage that there is across the entire community in Northern Ireland and among the victims of abuse about her approach to this issue in recent days. Frankly, many people are saying that far too much time has already elapsed, given the fact that she has the ability to make this move faster. People are outraged at the idea of having to wait another couple of years, as she appeared to indicate. Will she now undertake to bring forward measures immediately to deal with this issue?
I do not shy away in any way from my responsibilities in this area, and I am absolutely determined that we will act as soon as we can. The two years the right hon. Gentleman referred to is an estimate by the civil service of Northern Ireland; it is not an estimate that I have put forward. As he will know, following the end of the consultation that I asked the head of the civil service in Northern Ireland to conduct, a number of decisions need to be taken—decisions that require ministerial input. I have asked the five parties in Northern Ireland to assist me in getting a resolution to those questions as soon as possible, so that I can act as soon as possible, as I am determined to do.
The Secretary of State will be aware that this is one but probably the most terrible example of a whole series of decisions that have cross-community and cross-party support but that she has refused to do anything about, even though this place and her Government are responsible for the administration of Northern Ireland. The fact of the matter is that people are being told that she has now placed another series of questions that need to be answered, and people see this as further delay. What are the questions that she now wants further answers to, who originated those questions, when did they first come to her—when were they put on her desk —and why is this being used as further reason to delay the proper process of compensation for these victims?
I have enormous respect for the right hon. Gentleman—he is an honourable man who works very hard for his constituents and for Northern Ireland—but I disagree with him on this matter. The head of the civil service and Executive Office has put forward 15 questions that need a response. I have asked the parties in Northern Ireland to help me to get decisions on those questions. But I am not shying away from my responsibility in that area; I am merely asking them if they will help me to answer the questions that David Sterling has posed to me to enable me to take this to the next stage so that we can deliver for the victims as soon as possible.
The head of the civil service in Northern Ireland, David Sterling, has asked for legislation to be made in this place. When the Secretary of State talks about action on historical institutional abuse, is she talking about bringing legislation through this House?
I have said on many occasions that I am prepared to do the legislation wherever it is quickest that we do it. I want to see redress for these victims as soon as possible. But there are some fundamental questions that David Sterling has posed that need answers, and I will get to those answers more quickly if I have the support and co-operation of the parties in Northern Ireland in working with me.
I know the sense of outrage. I have met those victims. I want to see action. It is quite right that the parties in Northern Ireland, when they were in government, set up this inquiry. It is absolutely right that they did that, and I applaud them for doing so. There is an opportunity for us to make progress on this quickly, but I cannot do it alone. I need the guidance and support of those in the parties in Northern Ireland, because ultimately they will be the Ministers who will have to implement whatever institutions and whatever system is created. I need their support so that we can make progress quickly. I am not delaying anything. I am determined to act for these people, and I will do whatever it takes to do so.
The House will be aware that today, to the very day, is the 21st anniversary of that occasion when a sunshine ray of hope pierced the dark clouds in Northern Ireland and the Good Friday agreement was ratified, and we must give the victims and survivors some of that hope. Their agony is becoming unendurable. I do not doubt the good nature and the good will of the Secretary of State. She met the survivors, as I did I. But we cannot—we must not—wait for another two years. It would be impossible—unconscionable—for us to do so. Thirty-six have already died; we cannot let more die. I can assure the Secretary of State that she will have the support of Labour Members, but can she please bring this forward and end the agony and the misery of these survivors and victims?
I am very grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s offer of support. We spoke about this matter yesterday. I am determined to take this forward as quickly as possible. It would be good to work with him in addressing the fundamental questions that need a response before legislation can be finalised. We are also working with Sir Anthony Hart to get answers to those questions, because we need to get this right. There is no point doing this in haste if we fail to deliver for the people who deserve redress as soon as possible.
Confidence and Supply Agreement
The Secretary of State has not had any meetings with my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister on the confidence and supply agreement. The agreement is between the Conservative party and the Democratic Unionist party for the length of the Parliament, and as the agreement makes clear, the Secretary of State is not involved in confidence and supply discussions.
Last year, I met two incredibly brave women, Sarah Ewart and Denise Phelan, who have been directly impacted by Northern Ireland’s near total abortion ban and are working with Amnesty UK to change the law. Their harrowing experience of being unable to access safe and legal abortion in Northern Ireland demonstrates the reality of that restrictive regime. In Denise’s case, the foetus died and decomposed inside her. When will the Secretary of State realise that her Government’s agreement with the DUP is holding back the human rights of women in Northern Ireland, and what is she going to do about it?
I am not quite clear what the very important and, I agree, very difficult issue of abortion laws in Northern Ireland has to do with the confidence and supply agreement. It is not in the confidence and supply agreement at all. It is a very difficult and knotty issue that needs to be addressed as soon as we can get the Stormont Parliament up and running.
Can the Minister confirm whether there have been ongoing discussions between any members of the Cabinet and the DUP, seeking support for the Prime Minister’s latest attempt to bring back her Brexit deal? If so, will the new DUP bung be subject to the Barnett formula?
I tried to make this clear earlier, but let me repeat it, so that everybody is crystal clear. The confidence and supply agreement is not something that the Northern Ireland Office gets involved in, and rightly so. It is done at a much more senior level between No. 10 and through the usual channels, and it is not something that the Northern Ireland Office would have any particular participation in.
Will the Minister outline the benefits that confidence and supply one—I use that term in anticipation that we will have another—has brought to the population of Northern Ireland?
There has been a great degree of investment in Northern Ireland as a result of the confidence and supply agreement; the hon. Gentleman is right. There has been extensive spending. We have so far spent £430 million in Northern Ireland on things such as health, education and infrastructure. There is a further £333 million, subject to Parliament’s approval, and the remaining £323 million will be allocated in due course.
The Minister’s answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Motherwell and Wishaw (Marion Fellows) simply was not good enough. The current confidence and supply agreement between the Tories and the DUP has denied Scotland a total of £3.4 billion in Barnett consequentials. Would the Minister care to find out what the next bribe to the DUP will cost the people of Scotland, so that we can tell them?
It is very clear that the confidence and supply agreement does not incur Barnett consequentials and is separate. In that respect, it is rather like the city deals. I gently point out to Scottish National party Members that Scotland has done extremely well out of the city deals—it has had something like £1.25 billion. It is all very well them gesturing that away, as if it is nothing at all, but this is real money going into important investments in local economies across Scotland, as it is in Northern Ireland as well.
I have had discussions with the five main parties in Northern Ireland since the local elections, and they have all reaffirmed their commitment to restoring a power-sharing Executive and other political institutions set out in the Belfast agreement.
As someone who is half Northern Irish—in fact, proudly half Northern Irish—I am well aware of the profound sectarian issues that have scarred the nation for many hundreds of years. Consequently, I was delighted to see that the party that did best at the local elections, with the highest increase, was the non-sectarian Alliance party. Would the Secretary of State share with me the joy at seeing that tremendous non-sectarian result?
The message I took from the local elections is that what people on the doorstep want is restored devolved Government as soon as possible and that is what I am working to deliver.
Does my right hon. Friend share my hope that, having got the local elections under our belts and on the cusp of the European elections—with both of those out of the way—a really firm, positive focus can be placed by all parties on restoring the devolved Assembly in Stormont?
I know that the parties in Northern Ireland are determined that they will do all they can to deliver restored devolved Government. That is what is best for the people of Northern Ireland and it is what the people of Northern Ireland want. But this will not be easy—there are challenges—and I ask that we all offer our support to the parties in Northern Ireland to help them to take those difficult decisions.
Would the Secretary of State like to comment on or make an assessment of the election of Councillor Gary Donnelly—former spokesperson for the 32 County Sovereignty Movement—in the electoral area where the murder of innocent by-stander Lyra McKee took place and where police and bystanders were unapologetically and indiscriminately fired towards; and what progress has been made in that murder investigation and the process as well?
The hon. Gentleman is a fan of the dash and the semi-colon.
Very good in the use of a sentence. I repeat that the lesson I took from the local elections was that people want restored devolved Government as soon as possible.
As the House heard earlier, we had over 17,000 responses to the consultation, many of them containing tales of personal tragedy and loss, so I hope that everyone will understand the need to consider them all respectfully and carefully. The process is almost finished and I hope that we will be able to publish an analysis of the views they contain—[Interruption.]
Order. This is very unfair on the Minister, who is answering a question about the legacy of Northern Ireland’s past. This is a matter of the utmost seriousness and solemnity and I think that the Minister and the questioner should be accorded respect.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. I was just finishing my remarks by saying that the process of considering those tragic submissions is almost finished and I hope that we will be able to publish an analysis of the views they contain very soon.
Does my hon. Friend agree that we must listen carefully to this consultation and does he agree with the words of the Secretary of State in the foreword to the consultation:
“amnesties are not the right approach and”
“believes that justice should be pursued”?
Yes, I do. Any solution must allow both unionists and republicans to achieve closure, and for all of Northern Ireland to draw a line and move on. Otherwise it will not last. We have been working closely with the political parties in Northern Ireland, as well as colleagues across both Houses, on the way forward and, last week, the Secretary of State met the Victims’ Commissioner and legacy groups as well.
Part of the dark past of Northern Ireland is also the question of historical institutional abuse. The Secretary of State has said that she now intends to act. The victims groups this week called on her to stand down and resign. She needs to regain their confidence. She needs to give a very clear timetable as to when she will take action in this House and elsewhere. Will the Minister now make it clear when that will happen?
I thought I heard just now the Secretary of State doing a pretty good job of showing the personal commitment and the urgency with which she is treating this. I am afraid I cannot add any more detail to the timetable, but I hope everybody here will have understood and heard the passion in her voice and the determination to move this forward promptly and swiftly.
Prosecution of Veterans
My hon. and gallant Friend gave a very powerful speech on this on Monday, and I would encourage anybody here who has not heard it to go back and listen again. I think he and I agree that the current situation is not working for anyone. The question is not whether things need to change, because they clearly do, but how, so we have laws which work for police veterans as well as armed forces, for unionists and for nationalists, for victims and their families on all sides of the community, and which bring truth and justice and closure so society can move on. We will bring forward proposals as soon as possible.
As an ex-soldier, and now a Member of Parliament, I am ashamed that my Government have not sorted this matter out. I ask the Minister, and especially the Secretary of State, who has been in post longer—how much longer before it can be sorted out, and are you not ashamed?
My hon. and gallant Friend, having served in Northern Ireland, speaks with huge authority on this matter. I suspect that successive Governments have to share some blame for failing to fix it over many years. Clearly, as I said in my previous answer, the situation cannot be allowed to continue—it is not right; it is not just. It must be sorted out as promptly as possible. On that, I hope that he and I agree.
It was with regret that yesterday we got the revelation from the Government—through a written ministerial statement, rather than an oral statement—about the proposals for the way forward. We should hang our heads in shame that we intend to treat service personnel who served in Northern Ireland differently from those who served overseas. When I questioned the Attorney General on the issue on 31 January, he said clearly that to treat service personnel differently would plainly be wrong. He was right, Minister, was he not?
The important thing, as we heard repeatedly in last week’s urgent question and in Monday’s Westminster Hall debate, is that for those servicemen and women who served under Operation Banner it felt the same no matter what. Our challenge is that, if we are to come up with an answer that will work when it is taken to court by the lawfare-mongers, as it inevitably will be, we must have something that works on the basis of the different legal starting points for things that happened in the UK, as opposed to things that happened abroad, but which ends up with an answer that feels the same to our servicemen and women and provides them with the same robust protections no matter what.
The Prime Minister was asked—
Today marks two years since the Manchester Arena attack. It was a cowardly and sickening attack that deliberately targeted innocent and defenceless children. Members across the House will want to join me in sending my thoughts and prayers to the families and friends of all the victims. I am sure that Members will also want to join me in paying tribute to the emergency services for the immense bravery and courage they showed that night.
This morning I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others and, in addition to my duties in this House, I shall have further such meetings later today.
I know that the whole House will want to associate themselves with the Prime Minister’s words about the Manchester attack.
The Prime Minister may not have long left—good luck with those meetings later today—but she can act now against the return of banned chemical weapons. British experts are this morning investigating a suspected chlorine attack by al-Assad in Idlib. If it is proved, will she lead the international response against the return of this indiscriminate evil?
The hon. Gentleman is right to raise the issue of the evil that is the use of chemical weapons. We of course acted in Syria, with France and the United States, when we saw chemical weapons being used there. We of course suffered the use of chemical weapons here on the streets of the United Kingdom, and we made a robust response, supported by our international friends and allies. We condemn all use of chemical weapons. We are in close contact with the United States and are monitoring the situation closely, and if any use of chemical weapons is confirmed, we will respond appropriately. But our position is clear: we consider Assad incapable of delivering a lasting peace, and his regime lost its legitimacy due to its atrocities against its own Syrian people.
My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. We, like her, absolutely recognise the importance of this issue. The Government are committed to improving energy efficiency in 2.5 million homes by 2030 and our aim is to bring 2.5 million fuel-poor homes up to an energy performance certificate C rating by 2030. As she says, that will help to save energy and bring down bills.
I join the Prime Minister in commemorating all the victims of the Manchester bombing two years ago. Our thoughts are with the friends and families of all those who were killed, the survivors, and the emergency service workers who gave such heroic service that night. They will live with the horrors of that night for the rest of their lives and 10.31 tonight will be a very poignant moment for many people in Manchester.
I want to pay tribute to the last survivor of the Hull “headscarf revolutionaries”, Yvonne Blenkinsop. She is visiting Parliament today. She led a campaign for basic safety in the UK fishing fleet in the 1960s. As a result, many lives were saved. People like her have made such an enormous contribution to our national life. They should be recognised for it.
I also want to express, on behalf of the Labour party, my outrage that the Government have again failed our steel industry, putting 5,000 jobs at risk at British Steel and 20,000 more in the supply chain. The Government have failed those people. Even at this late stage—there is a statement later today—they must step in and save those jobs.
Why are schools having to close early on Friday afternoon due to spending cuts?
First, I say to the right hon. Gentleman, because he raised the issue of British Steel, that, obviously, we recognise that this is a worrying time for the thousands of dedicated British Steel workers and their families, as well as those in the supply chain and local communities. The Government have been working tirelessly with the company, its owner Greybull Capital and lenders to explore all potential options to secure a solution for the company. We showed, through the emissions trade scheme agreement, that we were willing to act, but we can only act within the law. It is clear that it would be unlawful to provide a guarantee or loan on the terms requested by the company. We will be working with the company and others, and the official receiver, in the days and weeks ahead to ensure we pursue every step to secure the future of the operations at Scunthorpe, Skinningrove and on Teesside. My right hon. Friend the Chancellor has agreed an indemnity for the official receiver to enable British Steel to continue to operate in the immediate future. There are no job losses at this time and the official receiver has already said that staff will continue to be paid and employed. My right hon. Friend the Business Secretary will be updating the House in a statement later this afternoon.
On the issue of schools, as the right hon. Gentleman knows we are putting record levels of funding into our schools.
That would explain why 26 schools close early on a Friday every week because they do not have enough money to keep themselves open. More than 1,000 schools across England are turning to crowd- funding websites with a wish-list of things they want to raise money to buy—really exotic things such as pencils, glue and textbooks. Why are they forced to do that if they allegedly have enough money in the first place?
I say to the right hon. Gentleman what I have said before and just quoted: we are putting record levels of funding into our schools. We have also put in place a fairer distribution of the funding between our schools. We are giving every area more money for every pupil in every school. What is important in our education system is not just what the Government put in, but what quality of education is received by the children. There are more children in good and outstanding schools, the disadvantage attainment gap has been narrowed and record rates of disadvantaged young people are going to university. That is a record to be proud of.
I do not know if the Prime Minister has had a chance to listen to or read the words of the general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers. He said:
“The fact so many schools are doing this should be ringing serious alarm bells for the government”.
The Prime Minister does not seem to be aware of the crisis that is facing so many in education at the present time, so can she be very clear with the House: has per pupil funding risen or fallen since 2010?
As I said to the right hon. Gentleman, we are giving every area more money for every pupil in every school. Why are we able to do that? It is because the Conservatives have taken a balanced approach to our economy and managed our finances well. What would Labour give us? One thousand billion pounds extra borrowing. That would mean higher taxes, fewer jobs and less money to go into our schools.
I can help the Prime Minister out in two ways. One is that a Labour Government would properly fund our schools—it would not short-change our children—and we would not use Orwellian words like “fair funding” while we are cutting. Per pupil funding —just so the Prime Minister understands it—has fallen by 8%. For sixth forms, it is 24%.
At the end of last year, the Prime Minister said “austerity is over.” Maria, who describes herself as a
“teacher in an underfunded school”
wrote to me this week and asked this—[Interruption.] Maria is a teacher in an underfunded school—I think Conservative Members need to listen to her. She asked:
“when will the government stop making false claims of increased funding for schools and start to tackle the serious problems faced by teachers?”
When will the cuts end for our children’s schools?
I repeat: we are giving every area more money for every pupil in every school, but let us just see the situation that this Government inherited and that we would see under a Labour Government in the future—having to spend more on debt interest than on our schools budget. That is not because of what this Government are doing, because we are bringing debt down. It is the legacy of a Labour Government—more money on debt than on our schools.
What this Government have squandered is what they inherited: children’s centres, Sure Start, children taken out of poverty. They squandered the future for so many of our children. [Interruption.]
Order. Mr Burghart, you are an educated young man. When you came into the House, you struck me as a very well behaved fellow. Calm yourself and listen.
The Department for Education’s funding chief met school leaders recently and told them:
“the first thing to say is obviously they are not generous budgets”—
he is very cautious with his words—
“They are budgets which leave schools with real pressures to face”.
Everyone agrees that the creative industries in this country are an enormous strength to our economy, so why have the arts borne the brunt of the Government’s brutal cuts to school funding? So many children are losing out on music and creative arts in our schools because of decisions by central Government.
The right hon. Gentleman started his question by claiming that this Government had squandered what had been left by the last Labour Government. Let us look at what was left by the last Labour Government. [Interruption.] Oh. They do not want to be reminded what they left the last time they were in government. What did the last Labour Government leave? Unemployment higher than when they went into office. What did the last Labour Government leave? The biggest deficit in our peacetime history. And what were we told by the departing Chief Secretary to the Treasury? We were told: under Labour, there is no money left.
My question was actually about funding for arts and creative subjects in schools. A survey has shown that nine out of 10 secondary schools have cut back on lesson time, staff or facilities in at least one of the creative arts subjects. Are the artists and actors of tomorrow only to come from the private schools, while the Prime Minister continues to cut the funding for state schools?
When the Prime Minister says that school funding has been protected, she is denying the daily experience of teachers, parents and pupils. She is denying the incontrovertible evidence of the Institute for Fiscal Studies, education bodies and teaching unions. She is actually in outright denial. When the wealth of the richest 1,000 people has increased by £50 billion in the last year alone, do not tell us that the money is not there for our children’s schools. This Government have cut vital public services to give tax cuts to the privileged few. Can the Prime Minister name a more damaging policy—a more short-sighted policy—than cutting investment in our future: our children?
The richest have paid more tax every year under the Conservatives—[Interruption.] Wait for it! They have paid more every year under the Conservatives than in any year under a Labour Government. The right hon. Gentleman talks about what happens in our schools. As I have said, we are putting record funding into our schools, but what matters is the quality of education our children get. Labour opposed the phonics checks, it wants to scrap academies and free schools, and it would abolish SATs. That does not help to raise standards in schools. Let us just look at the Labour record. When it was in government, standards were lower than they are today. Where it is in government in Wales, standards are lower than in England, and if it was to get into government, we would see more of the same—lower standards, less opportunity, less opportunity for young people for a brighter future. It is the Conservative party that gives good quality education, good jobs and a good future.
My hon. Friend should not necessarily believe all the reports he reads in the newspapers, but let me be very clear on this particular issue. Around 3,500 people were killed in the troubles. The vast majority were murdered by terrorists. The legal position is clear. Any amnesty or statute of limitations would have to apply across the board. It would apply to terrorists. I am not prepared to accept a proposal that brings in amnesties for terrorists.
I associate myself with the Prime Minister’s remarks about the heinous crime that took place two years ago in Manchester. We must all stand together against terrorism.
The Prime Minister’s customs tariff plan has been described by the UK’s former representative to the EU as the “definition of insanity”. Her customs union compromise has already been dismissed by the EU. Is this new deal not just a fantasy?
I have set out the 10 points about the new deal. There is an issue about customs. There is a difference of opinion in the House on the future customs arrangement with the EU. That is why it is important that the House comes to a decision on that issue. Allowing the Second Reading of the withdrawal agreement Bill will enable the House to come to a decision on that issue. It will also enable the House to come to a decision on a second referendum, which I continue to believe would not be the right route for this country to go down. We should deliver on the first referendum before suggesting anything about a second.
My goodness—talk about ignoring reality! Prime Minister, look at the Benches behind you. The Prime Minister is fooling no one but herself. The truth is that the people of Scotland do not want her deal, her own party does not want her deal, and now even the pro-Brexit Labour Front Bench will not support her deal. Her time is up. Tomorrow, people in Scotland will have the choice to send a message by sending pro-European, outward-looking Scottish National party MEPs to Brussels to stop Brexit. What party does she think the people of Scotland will choose?
There is only one party in Scotland guaranteeing no more referendums, and that is the Conservative party. [Interruption.]
Order. Colleagues, calm yourselves. Dignity. Restraint. Let us hear Mr Heappey.
I know that all Members across the House—it will have been obvious in response to his question—will want to join me in sending deepest sympathies to my hon. Friend’s constituent. As my hon. Friend will know, the courts can already, and do, consider harm caused to a mother or unborn child in sentencing for an offence. I know my hon. Friend has discussed changing the law on this particular issue with the Ministry of Justice. They are concerned that there could be far-reaching unintended consequences of doing so, but I have asked them to keep the law under review. I know that my hon. Friend, along with others in this House, will continue to work on this issue. I am sure everybody recognises the compassion that my hon. Friend is showing in raising this issue. What we want to ensure is that what he is proposing is not something that could lead to other, unintended consequences, of the sort that he would not wish to see.
I fully understand that these cases are desperately difficult, and my sympathies are with the families and friends. The Government did change the law, as the hon. Gentleman said, and specialist doctors on the General Medical Council specialist register can now prescribe cannabis-based products for medicinal use where there is clinical evidence of benefit. NHS England and the chief medical officer have made it clear that cannabis-based products can be prescribed for medicinal use in appropriate cases, but we must trust doctors to make clinical decisions in the best interests of patients.
Obviously, it is important to remember that the events at HBOS Reading branch constituted criminal activity, and it is right that those responsible were brought to justice. The FCA is currently conducting two investigations into the events at HBOS Reading, including on the bank’s communications with regulators following the discovery of the misconduct. Lloyds has appointed a former High Court judge, Dame Linda Dobbs, to consider whether issues related to HBOS Reading were properly investigated and reported by Lloyds Banking Group. Those findings will be shared with the FCA, and I look forward to the conclusion of all those investigations.
We have been putting more money into special educational needs. I recognise that for many parents getting the support that is required for their children can be a difficult process with the local authorities. We recognise the importance of special needs and that is precisely why we have been putting extra support in there.
May I thank the Prime Minister for the amount of British aid that flows through to the World Food Programme in Yemen and ask if she has noted in the last 48 hours a report by its excellent director David Beasley drawing attention to the diversion and theft of aid in Houthi-controlled areas by Houthi authorities? Will she urge the international community to increase the pressure on Houthi leadership to resolve this and further the efforts for peace in Yemen, rather than take the slightly easy course of always focusing on the Yemeni Government and the Saudi-led coalition?
My right hon. Friend raises a very important point. We are all concerned about the humanitarian situation in Yemen. As he rightly says, this Government have a good record in terms of the amount of money and the aid we are providing to help those in Yemen, but of course it is only of benefit if it is able to reach those who need it, and it is incumbent on all parties to ensure that that aid reaches those who need it. We will continue to support the efforts to bring a lasting peace to Yemen. A political settlement there is the way to get that sustainability and security for the future, but it is incumbent on everybody to make sure the aid that is being provided for those who are desperately in need can reach those who need it most.
May I say first that it is indeed right that the eyes of the world will be on Portsmouth for the D-day national commemorative event? This will be putting our veterans first. It remembers their sacrifices and their achievements, and we will highlight the historic strength of the western alliance and the trans-Atlantic partnership. The hon. Gentleman has raised a specific issue in relation to coroners’ reports and I will write to him in response to that, but may I say that I look forward, as do others, to being in Portsmouth to commemorate this very important anniversary?
Forty three years ago I, like many others, was ordered to serve in Northern Ireland to keep the peace while terrorists were attacking and killing civilians in Northern Ireland. Many of my colleagues and others did not come back, including one, Robert Nairac, a friend, who was tortured and murdered, and his body has never been found nor his murderers ever brought to justice. In answer to an earlier question from my hon. Friend the Member for North East Hampshire (Mr Jayawardena) my right hon. Friend talked about an amnesty. I must tell her that none of those who served has called for an amnesty; what they have called for is fairness and justice. Many old veterans are now finding, having been cleared decades ago, that the Police Service of Northern Ireland is proceeding against them with no new evidence. Will my right hon. Friend please answer me: how can I say to my old colleagues that this Government have not abandoned them?
May I say to my right hon. Friend that we absolutely value the service that he and others gave in Northern Ireland? This was a very difficult time for a part of the United Kingdom and the work that the police and the armed forces did in Northern Ireland during that time was absolutely crucial. We are pleased that we have seen the peace that has come since the Belfast/Good Friday agreement but there was obviously much injury and loss of life during the troubles. As I indicated earlier, around 3,500 people were killed during the troubles; the vast majority of them were murdered by terrorists. My right hon. Friend talked about a fair and just system. We want to ensure that there is a fair and just system that is working across the board to deal with these legacy issues, but at the moment there is a disproportionate emphasis on cases that involve the police and the armed forces. There are cases involving terrorists that are being looked into, but I think people would recognise that there is a disproportionate emphasis on the police and armed forces. It is therefore important that we bring in a system that has full support and will enable people to see that fairness and justice are being applied. That is what the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland is working on. She has been working on that with the various political parties in Northern Ireland, and it is what we will put forward in due course. We recognise the sacrifice, the bravery and the determination of our armed forces and the work they did in Northern Ireland, and we, too, want to see fairness and justice.
As the hon. Lady knows, there is only one way for this House to ensure that we leave the European Union without no deal, and that is to leave with a deal and to support the Second Reading of the withdrawal agreement Bill and to take that process through this House. I am sure that she also knows that the legal default position continues to be no deal. Were we to get to 31 October—I want us to leave the EU before then—but were we to get to the 31 October position, it would be a matter for the 27, not just for this country, to determine whether there was no deal or not. This is why it is absolutely right that the Government are continuing to make preparations for no deal.
Like so many people in this Chamber, I want to see more money for schools, hospitals, the police and transport. Is not the best way of doing this to agree a deal that allows us to legally exit the EU, thereby unlocking the three years of pent-up investment that is sitting on the sidelines seeking the certainty that the Prime Minister is trying to deliver and that this party should be trying to deliver?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. There is pent-up investment there, and there are companies that have been holding investment back until they see the Brexit deal being resolved. It is important that we see that deal going through this House, and supporting the withdrawal agreement Bill is the way to ensure that we deliver the Brexit that the people voted for and that we do it in a way that Conservatives stood on in their manifesto at the last election and actually that Labour Members stood on in their manifesto at the last election. Once we are over this and once we have left the European Union, we will be able to take advantage not only of the deal dividend but of that increased investment, and to see that bright future for our country.
The hon. Gentleman has raised an important point, and I recognise the force with which he has raised it and the concern that he has for the victims of that terrible attack. Sadly, we have seen too many people in this country being victims of terrorist attacks. The Lord Chancellor has indicated that the Ministry of Justice is reviewing this situation. He has heard the specific proposal the hon. Gentleman has put forward, and I am sure that he will take it into account in that review.
Returning to Northern Ireland, there has now been no devolved government there for two and a half years. Every week in the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, we hear about the impact of this on ordinary people. Whether on equality issues, on funding for the Police Service of Northern Ireland, or on a pay rise for teachers, who are paid 6% less than teachers in the rest of the United Kingdom, Northern Ireland is being left behind. Will the Prime Minister do all she can to restore devolution before the end of the year?
I can give my hon. Friend that reassurance. I am as keen as she is to ensure that we see the restoration of devolution in Northern Ireland. I believe that all the parties have recently come together for talks with the Secretary of State and, as appropriate, the Irish Government, and we are ensuring that those talks are continuing. Obviously, there are matters that need to be addressed and concerns from the political parties on different issues. Those need to be overcome such that we can see devolution restored because, as my hon. Friend says, this is a matter for the people of Northern Ireland, ensuring that they have a devolved Government that can ensure good governance in Northern Ireland.
We have been listening to those who have raised concerns about that particular issue. Last year, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government announced that no new Government funding scheme will be used to support the unjustified use of leasehold for new houses. We have had a technical consultation on how to improve the market for consumers, and we are analysing the responses. We will shortly respond to the consultation and to the recent Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee report on leasehold reform, and we will introduce legislation in due course.
In reply to my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr Duncan Smith), the Prime Minister quite rightly paid tribute to the 300,000 security personnel who through their courage, professionalism and skill maintained the rule of law in Northern Ireland, without which the Belfast agreement would never have been signed, but she did not quite answer his question. None of the people who served and defended the rule of law wants a blanket amnesty; they want a categorical assurance that the prosecuting authorities will not bring forward a fresh process within the existing framework of law unless there is clear new evidence and an assurance that, no doubt whatever, a fair trial will proceed.
I absolutely appreciate the points that my right hon. Friend and our right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr Duncan Smith) have made in relation to this issue. The problem we face in Northern Ireland is that a number of processes have been aiming to deal with justice in relation to deaths during the troubles, but all the processes that have been followed so far have been found to be flawed in some way. That is why it is necessary to go through the work that we have been doing to find a process that will not be flawed, that will be legally supportable, and that will enable the fairness and justice that we all want to see to be brought to the fore.
The Government have been dealing with the issue of pay for sleep-in cover. We have had to address the matter as the direct result of a court case. We have been responding to that case, so I recognise the issue about pay for sleep-in cover. We are going to bring forward proposals in relation to the wider issue of social care. We want to ensure that we have a sustainable social care system for the future.
Will the Prime Minister welcome, with me, the launch of Radio Reminisce, a fantastic, new dementia-friendly, subscription-based radio service? It is designed to help and comfort people over 70 with early-onset dementia, and it was produced and developed in Belper in my constituency.
I thank my hon. Friend for raising the issue of support for people with early-onset dementia and for highlighting the new radio service. As she will know, the Government are committed to doubling spending on research into dementia by 2020. The radio service is obviously a practical way of providing support for people with early-onset dementia, and I am happy to join my hon. Friend in welcoming the new service. I am sure that it will provide important help to those who are suffering with dementia.
My view on what should happen in relation to abortion is clear, and I have made it clear in the past, but this is a devolved issue and we believe it should be addressed by the devolved Administration in Northern Ireland when that is restored.
As we look forward to the visit by the President of United States, does my right hon. Friend agree with me that it is in the national interest that we support his visit and unite across the House, and across the country, to make a success of the visit so that our special relationship endures, grows and supports the success of this country as we exit the EU?
I thank my hon. Friend for raising this issue, and he is absolutely right. We are looking forward to the state visit of the President of the United States, and we are also looking forward to President Trump joining me and other leaders to commemorate the 75th anniversary of D-day. This is an important commemoration where, as I said in response to the hon. Member for Portsmouth South (Stephen Morgan), we will recognise the sacrifice made by British armed forces, American armed forces and others from so many other countries to ensure the freedom of Europe.
My hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe (Mr Baker) is also right that we have a deep and special relationship with the United States of America. It is important, and it is our closest and deepest security and defence relationship. It is a relationship that has helped to keep the peace around the world, and it is one we want to see continue. Every Member of this House should welcome the President of the United States of America to the UK.
I suggest that, if the hon. Gentleman wants to listen to the people of Scotland and their view on their future, he starts listening to the decision they took in 2014 to remain part of the United Kingdom.
If polling is to be believed, the winning party in tomorrow’s Euro elections will be the Brexit party. This party, in contrast to the Vote Leave campaign in 2016, has clearly stated that a no-deal Brexit is its policy. On the basis of normal turnout, that means between 6 million and 7 million people will have voted for a no deal, which begs the question: what of the other 10 million Brexit voters in 2016?
It concerns me, and has long concerned me, that we do not have the consent here in this House to deliver the Brexit that is likely to emanate from this House. With that in mind, and I congratulate the Prime Minister on the first steps towards acknowledging it yesterday, will she commit to reaching out across the House to bring about the vote, which remains to take place, on the choice between having a final say of the British public or a no-deal Brexit?
I do not recognise the choice that my hon. Friend sets out. First, as I said earlier, I have not changed my view on a second referendum. I have been clear that I believe this House should be delivering on the result of the first referendum, and I believe that the choice before this House is whether it wants to deliver on the result of the first referendum and on the manifestos on which the majority of the Members of this House stood, which were clear that we want to do it with a deal. We can do that, and we can do it by giving a Second Reading to the withdrawal agreement Bill, by seeing the Bill through the House to Royal Assent, by ratifying the treaty and by leaving the European Union.
What the DWP is doing is spending not just its resources but its effort—I thank all the staff in the DWP for this—out there, helping people into the workplace and ensuring that when they are in the workplace they are able to keep more of the money they earn.
Two years ago, the Prime Minister visited the fishing village of Mevagissey—I am sure she remembers it, because she bought me some chips for lunch. The people of Mevagissey now face losing their only GP surgery because the remaining doctor has given notice to hand back the contract to the NHS. I am sure the Prime Minister would agree that it is vital that these rural and coastal communities retain their primary care services, so what more can the Government do to attract GPs to rural and coastal communities? Will she use her offices to ensure that everything possible is done to make sure Mevagissey keeps its GP service?
I thank my hon. Friend for reminding me of the visit to beautiful Mevagissey and of the good chips that he and I shared on that occasion. He is absolutely right about the importance of GPs to local communities, and I recognise the concerns in Mevagissey on this issue. We are giving additional incentives to attract GP trainees into areas where it has previously been hard to recruit, such as rural and coastal communities. I am sure that a Minister from the Department of Health and Social Care would be happy to meet my hon. Friend to discuss this issue.
For over two years, the victims and survivors of historical institutional abuse in Northern Ireland have been waiting for justice and compensation, following the independent report of ex-Justice Hart. The fact of the matter is that many of them are dying without seeing the compensation come through. The Northern Ireland Office’s policy of refusing to do anything in Northern Ireland, even when it has cross-community and cross-party support, has now culminated in victims of abuse dying without seeing justice—this has got to stop. Will the Prime Minister intervene and make sure that action is taken to get immediate action for these victims?
I fully appreciate the extent of concern that there is about this issue. Of course, we also have our independent inquiry into child sexual abuse here in England and Wales, and I recognise the impact on all those who have been victims of this sort of abuse. We call it “historical”—as the right hon. Gentleman said, the investigation is referred to as an “historical” investigation—but for those who have been victims it is not historical; this rests with them for the rest of their life. I recognise the concern about the issue he has raised. Obviously, if the Northern Ireland Executive were in place, this would be a matter that they would be addressing. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland has been looking at this issue, and I will discuss with her what response can be given on what I recognise is a matter of deep concern to many people in Northern Ireland.
I have a question to the Prime Minister from a Northern Ireland veteran. He is Royal Marine David Griffin, a Dublin-born Irish Catholic who joined the British Army and transferred to the Royal Marines. In 1972, in Belfast, he killed an IRA gunman who was about to assassinate one of his comrades at a guard post. Forty-seven years later, he is now being investigated by the Police Service of Northern Ireland. He is watching these proceedings now, Prime Minister, from his home, at the Royal Hospital Chelsea. He asked me to ask you this: “I served my Queen and country in uniform for over 20 years and I was commended for my service in Northern Ireland. Acting under the lawful orders of my officer commanding, I killed a terrorist who was about to murder one of my comrades, yet I am being investigated as if I were a criminal. The IRA have ‘letters of comfort’—we don’t. Why, Prime Minister, are you pandering to Sinn Féin-IRA, while throwing veterans like me to the wolves?” What is your answer, Prime Minister, to this Chelsea pensioner and all the veterans he represents?
My right hon. Friend has put his case and that of the veteran he is representing, a Chelsea pensioner. We thank that individual, as we thank all those who served in Northern Ireland for their bravery and the determination with which they acted in Northern Ireland. As my right hon. Friend the Member for North Shropshire (Mr Paterson)—a former Northern Ireland Secretary—said, that bravery and determination enabled the peace that we see today in Northern Ireland.
It is not the case that the terrorists currently have an amnesty. [Interruption.] No, it has been made very clear that evidence of criminal activity will be investigated and people should be brought to justice. I want to ensure that we have a fair and just system. I do not believe that the system is operating fairly at the moment. I do not want to see a system where there is an amnesty for terrorists. I want to see a system where investigations can take place in a lawful manner, and where the results of those investigations can be upheld and will not be reopened in the future. In order to do that, we need to change the current system, and that is what we will do.
Over the last few days, I have received distressed emails from a number of constituents who are EU citizens living in the UK, but who will not be able to vote tomorrow. Their predicament arises because of this Government’s late decision to participate in the elections, which did not give many EU citizens enough time to fill out the necessary form declaring that they will not be voting elsewhere. Will the Prime Minister use all the power of her office to take immediate steps this afternoon to ensure that the necessary form is made available at polling stations tomorrow so that EU citizens living in the United Kingdom will not be disenfranchised?
We take every step to ensure that those who are entitled to vote in elections are indeed able to do so. The hon. and learned Lady says that it was a late decision by the Government to enter into the European elections. Of course, that decision was taken because of a decision by this House on 29 March not to agree a deal that would have made it unnecessary to hold European elections.
I think the Prime Minister is beginning to understand the level of fury of veterans when it comes to their treatment by this place over this years. The most disturbing part of last weekend was the insinuation of equivalence between those who got up in the morning to go and murder women, children and civilians, and those who donned a uniform to go and protect the Crown. Will the Prime Minister take this opportunity to tell the nation that she sees no equivalence whatever between those two groups, and that the line that preferential treatment should not be given to veterans is not right?
I would hope that it is absolutely clear from everything that I have said at this Dispatch Box that I value the sacrifice, bravery and commitment of our armed forces, whose work in Northern Ireland—alongside the police in Northern Ireland and others—enabled us to get to the stage at which we are at today, whereby we have the Belfast/Good Friday agreement and have had peace in Northern Ireland for many years now, and long may that continue. There is no question of equating that bravery and sacrifice with the acts of terrorists. I think the implication of my hon. Friend’s question is that he is urging me to put in place a system that would equate terrorists with members of the armed forces. Any statute of limitations and any amnesty that is put in place would, as a matter of law, have to apply across the board. I do not want to see—and I will not see—an amnesty for the terrorists.
I thank the Prime Minister for recognising the impact on steelworkers and their families of the devastating news that British Steel has gone into liquidation, and for recognising the high quality of work that they do on Teesside, at Skinningrove and in my constituency of Scunthorpe. Will she meet cross-party MPs whose constituencies are affected by this news, so that we can look together at how best to ensure that this great industry moves forward to serve this country into the future?
As I said earlier, I recognise that this is a worrying time for the hon. Gentleman’s constituents and others. The Government have been actively looking at what we can do. We have given support through the ETS agreement, but have not lawfully been able to give the further support that was requested. I will certainly meet the hon. Gentleman and a group of MPs to consider the issue. This is about one company, owned by Greybull Capital. However, we have taken steps in the past to ensure that the United Kingdom continues to have a steel industry, and we will want to look at the wider issue.
Order. Just before we come to the Prime Minister’s statement, I think it is fitting for me to refer again to something that was mentioned at the start of questions to the Prime Minister by the Leader of the Opposition.
Three trawlers set out from Hull during January and February of 1968 and never returned, leading to the loss of 58 lives. Yvonne Marie Blenkinsop is the last surviving member of a group of women from Hull who became known, following that tragedy, as the headscarf revolutionaries. The women campaigned for better protection for their husbands, fathers, brothers and sons. Through their actions, countless lives have been saved. I am reliably informed that Yvonne Marie Blenkinsop is with us today, observing our proceedings. We salute her and her fellow women, and we extend to her the warmest welcome to the House of Commons. [Applause.]
Leaving the European Union
Before I make my statement, may I too recognise the work of Yvonne Marie Blenkinsop and others, and indeed all those who have campaigned over the years to ensure that those in the workplace can have the degree of safety and security that they need?
With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a statement on the Government’s work to deliver Brexit by putting forward a new deal that Members of this House can stand behind.
We need to see Brexit through, to honour the result of the referendum and to deliver the change the British people so clearly demanded. I sincerely believe that most Members of this House feel the same—that, for all our division and disagreement, we believe in democracy, and that we want to make good on the promise we made to the British people when we asked them to decide on the future of our EU membership. As to how we make that happen, recent votes have shown that there is no majority in this House for leaving with no deal, and this House has voted against revoking article 50. It is clear that the only way forward is leaving with a deal, but it is equally clear that this will not happen without compromise on all sides of the debate. That starts with the Government, which is why we have just held six weeks of detailed talks with the Opposition—talks that the Leader of the Opposition chose to end before a formal agreement was reached, but which none the less revealed areas of common ground.
Having listened to the Opposition, to other party leaders, to the devolved Administrations and to business leaders, trade unionists and others, we are now making a 10-point offer to Members across the House—10 changes that address the concerns raised by right hon. and hon. Members; 10 binding commitments that will be enshrined in legislation so they cannot simply be ignored; and 10 steps that will bring us closer to the bright future that awaits our country once we end the political impasse and get Brexit done.
First, we will protect British jobs by seeking as close to frictionless trade in goods with the EU as possible while outside the single market and ending free movement. The Government will be placed under a legal duty to negotiate our future relationship on this basis.
Secondly, we will provide much-needed certainty for our vital manufacturing and agricultural sectors by keeping up to date with EU rules for goods and agri-food products that are relevant to checks at the border. Such a commitment, which will also be enshrined in legislation, will help protect thousands of skilled jobs that depend on just-in-time supply chains.
Thirdly, we will empower Parliament to break the deadlock over future customs arrangements. Both the Government and the Opposition agree that we must have as close to frictionless trade at the UK-EU border as possible, protecting the jobs and livelihoods that are sustained by our existing trade with the EU, but while we agree on the ends, we disagree on the means. The Government have already put forward a proposal that delivers the benefits of a customs union but with the ability for the UK to determine its own trade and development policy. The Opposition are sceptical of our ability to negotiate that and do not believe that an independent trade policy is in the national interest. They would prefer a comprehensive customs union with a UK say in EU trade policy, but with the EU negotiating on our behalf.
As part of the cross-party discussions, the Government offered a compromise option of a temporary customs union on goods only, including a UK say in relevant EU trade policy, so that the next Government can decide their preferred direction. We were not able to reach agreement, so instead we will commit in law to let Parliament decide this issue and to reflect the outcome of this process in legislation.
Fourthly, to address concerns that a future Government could roll back hard-won protections for employees, we will publish a new workers’ rights Bill. As I have told the House many times, successive British Administrations of all colours have granted rights and protections to British workers well above the standards demanded by Brussels. I know that people want guarantees, and I am happy to provide them. If passed by Parliament, this Bill will guarantee that the rights enjoyed by British workers can be no less favourable than those of their counterparts in the EU—both now and in the future—and we will discuss further amendments with trade unions and business.
Fifthly, the new Brexit deal will also guarantee that there will be no change in the level of environmental protection when we leave the EU. We will establish a new and wholly independent office of environmental protection, able to uphold standards and enforce compliance.
Sixthly, the withdrawal agreement Bill will place a legal duty on Government to seek changes to the political declaration that will be needed to reflect this new deal, and I am confident that we will be successful in doing so.
Seventhly, the Government will include in the withdrawal agreement Bill at its introduction a requirement to vote on whether to hold a second referendum. I have made my own view clear on this many times—I am against a second referendum. We should be implementing the result of the first referendum, not asking the British people to vote in a second one. What would it say about our democracy if the biggest vote in our history were to be rerun because this House did not like the outcome? What would it do to that democracy and what forces would it unleash? However, I recognise the genuine and sincere strength of feeling across the House on this important issue. To those MPs who want a second referendum to confirm the deal, I say that you need a deal and therefore a withdrawal agreement Bill to make it happen. Let it have its Second Reading and then those MPs can make their case to Parliament. If this House votes for a referendum, it would require the Government to make provisions for such a referendum, including legislation if it wanted to ratify the withdrawal agreement.
Eighthly, Parliament will be guaranteed a much greater role in the second part of the Brexit process: the negotiations over our future relationship with the EU. In line with the proposal put forward by the hon. Members for Wigan (Lisa Nandy) and for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Gareth Snell), the new Brexit deal will set out in law that the House of Commons will approve the UK’s objectives for the negotiations. MPs will also be asked to approve the treaty governing that relationship before the Government sign it.
Ninthly, the new Brexit deal will legally oblige the Government to seek to conclude the alternative arrangements process by December 2020, avoiding any need for the Northern Ireland backstop coming into force. This commitment is made in the spirit of the amendment tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale West (Sir Graham Brady), passed by this House on 29 January. Although it is not possible to use alternative arrangements to replace the backstop in the withdrawal agreement, we will ensure that they are a viable alternative.
Finally, tenthly, we will ensure that, should the backstop come into force, Great Britain will stay aligned with Northern Ireland. We will prohibit the proposal that a future Government could split Northern Ireland off from the UK’s customs territory, and we will deliver on our commitments to Northern Ireland in the December 2017 joint report in full. We will implement paragraph 50 of the joint report in law. The Northern Ireland Assembly and Executive will have to give their consent on a cross-community basis for new regulations that are added to the backstop. We will work with our confidence and supply partners on how these commitments should be entrenched in law, so that Northern Ireland cannot be separated from the United Kingdom.
Following the end of EU election purdah, the withdrawal agreement Bill will be published on Friday so that the House has the maximum possible time to study its detail. If Parliament passes the Bill before the summer recess, the UK will leave the EU by the end of July. We will be out of the EU political structures and out of ever closer union. We will stop British laws being enforced by a European court. We will end free movement. We will stop making vast annual payments to the EU budget. By any definition, that alone is delivering Brexit. By leaving with a deal we can do so much more besides: we can protect jobs, guarantee workers’ rights, and maintain the close security partnerships that do so much to keep us all safe. We will ensure that there is no hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland, and we can bring an end to the months—years—of increasingly bitter argument and division that have both polarised and paralysed our politics. We can move on, move forwards, and get on with the job that we were sent here to do and what we got into politics to do. That is what we can achieve if we support this new deal.
Reject the deal, and all we have before us is division and deadlock. We risk leaving with no deal, something that this House is clearly against. We risk stopping Brexit altogether, something that the British people would simply not tolerate. We risk creating further division at a time when we need to be acting together in the national interest. We also guarantee a future in which our politics becomes still more polarised and voters increasingly despair as they see us failing to do what they asked of us. None of us wants to see that happen. The opportunity of Brexit is too large and the consequences of failure too grave to risk further delay. In the weeks ahead, there will be opportunities for MPs from all parts of the House to have their say, to table amendments, and to shape the Brexit that they and their constituents want to see.
In time, another Prime Minister will be standing at this Dispatch Box, but while I am here, I have a duty to be clear with the House about the facts. If we are to deliver Brexit in this Parliament, we will have to pass a withdrawal agreement Bill. We will not do so without holding votes on the issues that have divided us the most. That includes votes on customs arrangements and on a second referendum. We can pretend otherwise and carry on arguing and getting nowhere, but in the end our job in this House is to take decisions, not to duck them. I will put those decisions to this House because that is my duty and because it is the only way that we can deliver Brexit. Let us demonstrate what this House can achieve. Let us come together, honour the referendum, deliver what we promised the British people, and build a successful future for our whole country. I commend this statement to the House.
I thank the Prime Minister for an advance copy of the statement. In fact, I received it yesterday when she made an appeal entitled, “Seeking common ground in Parliament”. Where did she make that appeal? Not in Parliament, but in a small room just down the road.
It is now clear: the bold new deal that the Prime Minister promised is little more than a repackaged version of her three times rejected deal. The rhetoric may have changed, but the deal has not. I thank the Prime Minister for her letter, but it offers no change on a customs union, no change on single market alignment, and no dynamic alignment on environmental protections. This Government are too weak, too divided, to get this country out of the mess that they have created. For more than two years, the Prime Minister bullishly refused to consult the public or Parliament.
She did not seek a compromise until after she had missed her own deadline to leave, and by the time she finally did, she had lost the authority to deliver. That became evident during the six weeks of cross-party talks that ended last week—talks that were entered into constructively on both sides to see if a compromise was possible.
But while those talks were going on, Cabinet Minister after Cabinet Minister made statements undermining what their colleagues in the room were offering. The Foreign Secretary, the Leader of the House, the International Trade Secretary and the Treasury Chief Secretary all made it clear that they would not tolerate a deal that included a customs union, while Tory leadership contender after Tory leadership contender took it in turns to make it absolutely clear that any compromise deal would not be honoured. Therefore, no matter what the Prime Minister offers, it is clear that no compromise would survive the upcoming Tory leadership contest. The multiple leaks reported from the Cabinet yesterday show that the Prime Minister could not even get the compromise deal she wanted through her own Cabinet, and it is clear that the shrunken offer that emerged satisfied no one—not her own Back Benchers, not the Democratic Unionist party and not the Official Opposition either. No Labour MP can vote for a deal on the promise of a Prime Minister who only has days left in her job.
Even if the Prime Minister could honour her promises, the deal she is putting before us does not represent a genuine compromise. Her 10-point plan is riddled with contradiction and wishful thinking. First, the Prime Minister pretends she is delivering something new with a temporary customs union. This is not a compromise— it is just accepting the reality. Under the withdrawal agreement, we will already be in a temporary customs union through the transition period, which can last up to four years, and if not, we will enter the backstop, which, in effect, keeps us in a customs union, too, without any say.
Secondly, why would this House legislate for a plan that has already been comprehensively rejected by the European Union? The Government want to align with the European Union on goods to keep frictionless trade, but they also want to pursue trade deals that would undermine this process. It is simply not compatible. The technology they need to continue to pursue their Chequers plan simply does not exist. It has already been ruled out by the EU as illegal, impractical and an invitation to fraud. The Government have failed to provide any economic analysis to show that this would make us better off. Why would the House support such a chaotic and desperate approach?
Labour set out a sensible compromise plan over a year ago, including a comprehensive and permanent customs union with the EU that gives us a say, which would allow us to strike trade deals as part of the world’s biggest trading bloc, bringing investment, while maintaining the highest standards. It is credible and achievable, and the best way to protect industry, manufacturing and jobs—something that this Government are woefully indifferent to, as the latest crisis in the steel industry shows today. The Government must be prepared to step in and take a public stake to save thousands of high-skilled jobs at British Steel—a foundation industry for any major economy. Instead, the Tory obsession is for striking trade deals with the likes of Donald Trump. They prioritise chlorinated chicken, further NHS privatisation and deregulation over protecting supply chains and jobs in this country.
On workers’ rights, we have yet to see the full package the Government intend to bring forward, but many people in the trade union movement remain very sceptical. As Frances O’Grady of the Trades Union Congress said yesterday:
“This reheated Brexit deal won’t protect people’s jobs and rights.”
On environmental protections, it is clear that the Prime Minister is not offering dynamic alignment and that under her proposals the UK would fall behind in a number of areas, with only a toothless regulator under the control of the Environment Secretary in place of binding international commitments to protect our environment.
Finally, on a confirmatory vote, I am sure that nobody here will be fooled by what the Prime Minister is offering. Will she tell us now, if this offer is genuine: will she give her party a free vote on this issue or will she, as before, whip against a confirmatory referendum? If the Government truly believe this is the best deal for the economy and for jobs, they should not fear putting that to the people.
For too long, our politics has been seen through a prism of leave or remain. This is dividing our society and poisoning our democracy. It means that vital issues are being neglected—the crisis in our schools and hospitals, the housing crisis and the cruelty of social security policy and universal credit. Our country needs leadership to bring us together. However, this Prime Minister is not the person to do that. Throughout the last three years, she has made no attempt to unite the country. She has been focused only on keeping her divided party together—and it has not worked. Her time has now run out. She no longer has the authority to offer a compromise and cannot deliver. That is why it is time for a general election to break the Brexit deadlock and give the country a say.
I think that the right hon. Gentleman gave the game away when he made it absolutely clear that, as far as he is concerned, the way to get this through the House is for everybody else to compromise to his plan and only his plan. He was very clear that he was not making any proposals to compromise. The Government have indeed compromised. We have recognised that there are issues on which this House will need to decide—and that is the plain fact.
There are different opinions across this House on the two key issues of the future customs arrangement and the second referendum. I have made my position very clear on these. The Government have set out their position. But it is for this House to decide, and the best vehicle to do this is within the withdrawal agreement Bill, so then this House can finally make its mind up on what it wants the future customs arrangement to be and whether it thinks there should be a second referendum.
The right hon. Gentleman talks about free votes on a second referendum. Well, of course, in the indicative vote process that went through, we did indeed give Conservative Members a free vote on this issue, and the second referendum was rejected across the House.
The right hon. Gentleman made some inaccurate comments. He talks about the environmental regulator. It will be an independent body that is able to hold the Government to account on environmental standards. I think that he shows his blinkered view on trade when what he sets out is that, as far as he seems to be concerned, the only people he wants to trade with are in the European Union. Actually, what we want to see is a good trade deal with the EU and good trade deals with other countries around the world—that is the best way forward for the United Kingdom.
The right hon. Gentleman talks about British Steel. I answered questions in Prime Minister’s questions on British Steel and what the Government are doing. He talked about Labour’s position of wanting a comprehensive customs union, all the dynamic alignment and single market alignment. What the Labour party wants to achieve in its relationship with the EU would make it even harder for a British Government to take action to protect industries such as the steel industry. He has always complained about state aid rules, but he wants to tie us into those state aid rules with what he proposes.
The right hon. Gentleman talks about different opinions across the House. Of course, the one issue that has never properly been resolved in this House and that the withdrawal agreement Bill would force to be resolved is whether he himself is for Brexit or against it. If he is for Brexit, he will vote for the withdrawal agreement Bill. Voting against the withdrawal agreement Bill is voting against Brexit.
The Environment Secretary was on the radio this morning, and when asked whether it was certain that the Bill would be brought to Parliament for Second Reading, he did not answer in the affirmative. He said that the Government would “reflect” and listen. Having presented this statement at the Dispatch Box, is the Prime Minister absolutely certain that she will bring the Bill to the House for Second Reading? If so, could she name the date now and then say she will stick to it?
We have already made the Government’s position clear: the Second Reading of the withdrawal agreement Bill will be brought to the House after the Whitsun recess.
It is customary to thank the Prime Minister for advance sight of her statement. It was some surprise that we all saw the statement being delivered not in the House of Commons but elsewhere yesterday. Why was the usual protocol of Parliament being the first to hear such statements from the Prime Minister not followed?
Let me give the Prime Minister some friendly advice: this deal is dead. Stop the charade, and let us get on with putting the decision back to the people once and for all. The headlines this morning cry of doom. Conservative Members are concentrating on ways to mount a leadership coup. Where are they? That is exactly what they are doing this afternoon—they are not here to support the Prime Minister.
This is no way to run a Government. The Prime Minister is asking MPs to vote for a deal that takes Scotland out of the single market and eventually out of the customs union. That simply cannot be allowed to happen. This is a rookie Government attempting to blackmail MPs. If we look behind the smoke and mirrors, we see a new, revised deal that has not even been negotiated with Brussels; a second EU referendum, but only if we vote for the Bill; a possible temporary customs union that a future UK Government could change and the European Union has dismissed; and a trade tariff arrangement that the former UK representative to the EU has described as “the definition of insanity”.
None of what the Prime Minister announced yesterday was discussed with the devolved Government in Edinburgh. This goes to the heart of the problem. In December 2016, the Scottish Government published a compromise position, which was rejected without discussion. Scotland’s voice has been ignored time and again. Brexit has meant powers being stripped away from the Scottish Parliament. There is no respect for the devolved Administrations by this Government. Westminster has ignored Scotland.
This is a sorry mess. Look around—there is no support for the Prime Minister’s deal. This deal faces an even bigger defeat than the last vote. Tomorrow, communities will make their voices heard in our democratic European elections. A vote for the Scottish National party is a vote to stop Brexit, a vote to stop this economic madness and a vote to respect Scotland’s decision in 2016. The Prime Minister has lost the confidence of her party. Parliament will not support her, and she has lost the trust of the people. It is time to go, Prime Minister. Will you do it?
The right hon. Gentleman talks about discussions with the Scottish Government. Of course there have been discussions with the Scottish Government. I have met the First Minister, and my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster has held a number of meetings with the Scottish Government. The devolved Administrations have been party to the debates and discussions that have been taking place.
The right hon. Gentleman says that a vote for the Scottish nationalists is a vote not to leave the European Union. A vote for the Scottish nationalists is a vote to betray our democracy and to betray the view of the people of the United Kingdom. People asked us in this House to deliver Brexit. We have a responsibility to do that. The question is how we do that. The withdrawal agreement Bill gives us the opportunity to debate the issues about how we do that. This House should have those debates, come to a decision, stop ducking the issues and get on with the job that the British people instructed us to do.
What does the Prime Minister say to the many members of the public who think the Government should have kept their promise to take us out on 29 March with or without the draft treaty? What does she say to the millions of angry leave voters who do not see the agreement as any kind of Brexit, but a lock-in for many months with no clear way out?
With the greatest respect to my right hon. Friend, what I say to voters who expected us to leave on 29 March is that the Government’s position was that we should leave on 29 March. The majority of Government Members voted for us to leave on 29 March. Sadly, Opposition Members and some others voted to keep us in on that date.
Given that this Bill appears to have been sunk even before its publication, the Prime Minister must know that the only way now to break the deadlock—which, as today’s terrible news about British Steel shows, is damaging our economy—is to put the choice back to the British people. At this eleventh hour, may I urge her to take that one final step, change her mind and say that she will support a confirmatory referendum?
As I have indicated in a number of answers to questions this afternoon, I have not changed my view on a second referendum. I believe that we should be putting into effect the views of the people expressed in the first referendum, but I recognise the strength of feeling in the House on this issue from the right hon. Gentleman and others, particularly on the Opposition Benches. That is why it is important that we in this House are able to determine this issue, which is best done through the passage of the withdrawal agreement Bill. That is why I have confirmed yesterday and today that there will be a vote during the passage of the withdrawal agreement Bill on whether to hold a second referendum. The Government’s position will be clear: we do not think it right to hold a second referendum. But it will be for Members of this House to come together and determine that, for those who believe there should be a second referendum to put their case to the House, and for the House to come to a decision.
The Prime Minister tells us that, if MPs vote for the withdrawal agreement Bill—which we have not even seen, let alone the amendments that will be tabled to it—we would leave the European Union by 31 July. How on earth does she know that?
Because I have been discussing, and business managers have been discussing, a timetable for the Bill’s passage. Obviously a business motion and a programme motion have to be agreed by the House. It is very clear, and the determination of the last European Council makes it clear, that bringing the Bill back for Second Reading after the Whitsun recess would enable us to do exactly what I said and leave the European Union on 31 July.
Given the awful news about British Steel, it is crucial that the Government stand up for British manufacturing. The Prime Minister will know that a customs union is immensely important to manufacturing across the north and the midlands, and that industry needs a long-term deal to support investment. Given the reports coming out of Cabinet yesterday, can she tell us: has the Cabinet ruled out a long-term customs union being part of the future partnership with the EU that they are supposedly going to negotiate after this withdrawal agreement? Have they ruled out a long-term customs union—yes or no?
The right hon. Lady referenced what has happened to Greybull Capital’s company, British Steel. She will be aware, as others will, that a number of issues and a number of challenges face the steel industry—not just in the UK, but globally—and part of that, of course, is the overcapacity issue because supply is outstripping demand. Of course, much of the excess production is coming from China. That is why in the G20 two or three years ago we acted to bring China around the table to try to deal with that issue.
The right hon. Lady asks about the long term. The compromise solution on the customs that I put forward and referenced in my statement is designed to ensure that a future Government can take that issue in the direction that they wish to take it, and for the House to determine what those negotiating objectives should be. What matters to our manufacturing industry is the frictions that take place at the border and having the benefits of the customs union in no tariffs and no quotas. That is exactly what is already in the political declaration—the benefits of the customs union—and, as I say, we are committed to ensuring that trade is as frictionless as possible.
It is difficult to make any judgments about a Bill when it has not been published. If there were issues with purdah, the announcement should not have been made this week. Next week, this House is in a recess, which is very nice for all of us, but it is not needed, given the seriousness of the situation. I will probably vote for the Bill when it comes back, but please can I ask the Prime Minister to reflect very carefully on whether it should be put to Parliament, because the consequences of its not being passed are very serious? If she really wants to heal the divisions and to get on with it, I ask her to reflect very seriously about this Bill not being put to Parliament in early June and being allowed more compromise and more time being taken.
My right hon. Friend is right that, if the Bill is not passed, this House will be faced with a stark choice. That choice will be whether Members go for no deal, for revoking article 50 or for a second referendum, with the intention that many have, in asking for a second referendum, to stop Brexit. That will be the choice that will face this House.
People talk about the compromises that have been made so far. There are people who are telling me that I have compromised too much in the package that has been put forward and others who are telling me I have not compromised enough in the package. At some stage, the House has to come together, and we have to decide the distance that we will go together in order to deliver Brexit and to deliver on what people asked us to do.
The Prime Minister has referred a lot in this statement and yesterday to the new deal—the new Brexit deal—but is it not a fact that the deal itself has not changed? The treaty is as it is, and these are a series of domestic legislative provisions to try to mitigate what is, in some cases, a very bad deal, but they will not actually change the Brexit deal itself. To illustrate that, the alternative arrangements proposal that she has put forward seeks merely to legally oblige the Government to conclude their own processes, but will she confirm that there is absolutely no obligation on the European Union to agree alternative arrangements? Indeed, the final decision about whether it accepts them or views them as reasonable is entirely a matter for the EU. It will not even be a matter of objective assessment. If a member state Government decide that they would rather keep us in the customs union, that is what will happen. There will be no means of getting out of it.
We have put forward to the House today a package of proposals. It is a new package of proposals. The right hon. Gentleman has been clear that, in relation to the operation of the backstop, one of his key concerns was making that UK-wide. That commitment is there in the statement that I have made today. As I have said, we are happy to sit down and discuss how we can ensure that these are enshrined in law, which I know has always been an issue of concern to him.
As regards the alternative arrangements, the groups to do that work have been set up by the Government and the money has been afforded by Government to do that work. But the European Union was clear—and it has committed itself in the legally binding commitments that have been made at recent Council meetings—that it will also work with us to ensure that those alternative arrangements are in place and are available by the end of December 2020.
Has the European Union agreed to any changes to the withdrawal agreement that are legally binding in international law?
I have said to my right hon. Friend and others on many occasions, and the EU Council has made it clear on many occasions, that the EU is not reopening the withdrawal agreement. What we have done in the processes that we have taken through the House up until now—until the most recent discussions with the European Union—is to be able to have certain legally binding commitments made by both the UK and the European Union in addition to the text of the withdrawal agreement, which cover a number of issues that have been of concern to people in this House.
Does the Prime Minister understand that she will not get enough support from Members on the Opposition side of the House to allow her withdrawal agreement to pass unless she includes a confirmatory vote in the Bill? She has come to the end of the road. But if she and indeed any Conservative MP wants to stop the Prime Minister’s successor from inevitably pursuing a no-deal Brexit, they must back giving the public the final say. Time is running out. Prime Minister, please change your mind.
This is an issue on which, as I say, there are very strong feelings across this House. I have met Members from all sides of the House who support a second referendum and who have put forward their case with their sincere belief in that second referendum. I have a different view. I believe we should be delivering on the first referendum, but I believe—because of the strength of view across this House, on both sides of the argument—that it is important that the House has the opportunity properly to consider it in a way that is appropriate, and that is through the withdrawal agreement Bill.
One of the ironies of resigning from Government is that it gives you rather more freedom and emphasis when you choose to support the Government, and I will be supporting the Prime Minister’s Bill. I thank her for her efforts and ask her to recognise that there are still many people in the country who believe that the best future for the UK outside the EU is with a compromise deal based on the interests of both, rather than a reckless and increasingly bitter pursuit of a single type of no-deal leaving—at a cost to many businesses, industry and agriculture and a cost to the country—so expertly skewered by the Chancellor in his speech yesterday?
I do indeed agree with my right hon. Friend that I think there are many people across this country who want to see us leaving the EU in an orderly way and with a deal. Indeed, that was the manifesto on which he and I, and those of us who sit here as Conservatives, stood at the last election. We stood to deliver the best possible deal for Britain as we leave the European Union, delivered by a smooth, orderly Brexit, with a new, deep and special partnership, including a comprehensive free trade and customs agreement with the European Union. Those are the objectives that I have been pursuing. I have put forward today a new package that does change the situation that has been voted on previously. I hope all those who want to leave the European Union with a deal will indeed support it.
In 1992, the Prime Minister and I toured the working men’s clubs of north-west Durham and I was hugely impressed with her resilience in front of audiences that were as hostile to her as they were indifferent to me. [Hon. Members: “What’s changed?”] Indeed. But it turns out that the audience behind her is tougher still. She will fail in her bid in two weeks’ time because people behind her who are for Brexit refuse to vote for Brexit. That is not her fault, but it is her problem. For old times’ sake, I want to help her out. If she will agree to put her deal—to be fair to her, it is the only concrete version of Brexit we have yet seen—to the British people in a confirmatory vote, I will join her in the Lobby. Will she help me to help her?
May I say to the hon. Gentleman that I fondly remember those days in 1992 in north-west Durham? I also say to him that I think, if this House does not pass the withdrawal agreement Bill and if the House does not enable the treaty to be ratified, what this House is saying is that it does not want to leave the European Union with a deal. I believe that the majority of people in this House do want to leave with a deal. This is the vehicle to do it.
May I correct my right hon. Friend on two points that she has made today? First, she said that it was up to the House to decide about a customs union and a second referendum. It is not up to MPs to decide that; the country decided to leave—spelled L.E.A.V.E—the EU. It is as simple as that. It is not for the House. Secondly, when she responded to my right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham (John Redwood), she said that we could not have left the EU on 29 March. The legal position was that we could have done so, but she and, dare I say it, a very heavily remain Cabinet decided not to take us out.
I and my colleagues across Government voted to leave the European Union on 29 March. We continue to believe that the best way to leave the European Union is with a deal. That is the manifesto on which my hon. Friend and I both stood at the last general election, and I believe it is important that we recognise that and deliver it for the British people. He makes the point about whether it is for the House to decide. The British people voted to leave. I have been trying to leave the European Union. I am looking forward to voting a fourth time to leave the European Union in the withdrawal agreement Bill. Sadly, Opposition Members and some of my colleagues have not voted alongside me. How we do it is a matter for this House, because the deal must be ratified by this House, and the Government and this House must determine the objectives for the next stage of negotiations. I have been clear that those negotiations will be taken forward by somebody else leading this Government, but I am also clear that we cannot get on to that second stage of negotiations until we get over the first stage. That is what the Bill is about.
The Prime Minister rightly referred in her statement to the need to avoid the risks inherent in the Brexit process. Does she not realise that her latest proposals hard-wire those risks into the process?
If the right hon. Gentleman is talking about the issues on which there is significant division in this House—namely, customs and a second referendum—and taking those through in the withdrawal agreement Bill, the Government are committing to ensuring that those issues can be addressed during the passage of the Bill. The reality of the way legislation works is that people would table amendments to any Bill brought before the House, and amendments could be seen on a whole range of issues, including those. The key question is what this House determines in response to those issues. This House will have to come to a decision.
On the basis of the negotiations thus far, what arrangements alternative to the Irish backstop does my right hon. Friend consider to be most capable of securing agreement?
A set of proposals have been put before the European Union, with a number of elements in them that bring together both technological approaches, some of which can be improved as we see technology developing, and the key issues that have been debated and discussed so far—those around elements of the derogation from EU law that will be necessary in order to enable the alternative arrangements to provide for no hard border in the way that both sides intend them to.
With respect, the Prime Minister is asking us to put our faith in her deal while, frankly, authority is slipping from her grasp with every passing hour. The Tories have had three years to agree a deal among themselves, including weeks of full-on collaboration with Labour, yet there is no guarantee that she will be in a place to bring the Bill back next month. How can we believe that there is any guarantee of a people’s vote, when she cannot even bring herself to put it on the face of the Bill?
The right hon. Lady and I have different views on the issue of a second referendum, but I am saying that we will ensure that this House is able to determine that issue. She wants to ensure that there is a people’s vote, but that will be for this House to decide. It has already been rejected by this House, but it will be for the House to come to a decision on that issue, and for the House to accept that decision.
We cannot continue to leave our country in this uncertainty. This has to stop. The whole House needs to stop saying no to everything on the table, just because it is not our favourite dish. The EU negotiators also need to stop saying no every time we have an issue, but we have to end this uncertainty. If we vote for the Bill, we can move on and the discussions on the next stage can start. I ask the Prime Minister: what happens if we say no again?
My hon. Friend is right that we need to be able to move on. We can move on, while respecting the wish of the British people, by taking the Bill through and ensuring that we ratify and that we leave the European Union. If this House chooses not to take the Bill forward, it will face a choice of no deal or no Brexit; that is the choice that will be available to people in this House. I still believe that there is a majority in this House who want to deliver on the referendum result, but to do so with a deal. This is the Bill that will enable that to happen.
It is clear that the House will reject the Prime Minister’s deal a fourth time, and she has indicated that she will then set out a timetable for her departure. She has also just said that there is no mandate here, or indeed in the country, to leave without a deal. Regarding that timetable, if a change in Prime Minister occurs near the end of October, leaving her successor no time to negotiate a further extension, will she request a further extension herself before the September recess, to stop us leaving with no deal?
I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman knows my answer to that: if he really wants to ensure that we do not leave the European Union without a deal, the best way is to agree a deal, and that is the Bill.
It is the saddest irony that those of my colleagues who most want to leave the European Union have so far frustrated us from doing so by voting with Labour and the Scottish nationalists. The Prime Minister is right to highlight the dangers of Parliament not supporting the withdrawal agreement Bill the day before the European elections, which none of us on this side wanted to happen. Does she agree that the superficially seductive line from the Brexit party, “Just leave on WTO terms,” holds enormous dangers, above all for our farmers and manufacturers, and would in fact cause the break-up of the United Kingdom?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right, particularly in the point he makes about the dangers of a no-deal Brexit for the future of the United Kingdom. That is a key concern of mine in relation to that issue. It is also surprising to see that some of those who, at the time of the referendum, while encouraging people to leave, were talking about leaving with a deal, being like Norway and accepting those sorts of restraints on the United Kingdom’s ability, are now unwilling to accept a deal that would enable us to leave and would be good for the future of the UK. When people come to vote at the European elections tomorrow, they have an opportunity to vote for a party that not only believes in delivering Brexit but can do it, and that is the Conservatives.
The Prime Minister has said that this 10-point offer was framed after having listened to the devolved Administrations, yet there is nothing in it to address the concerns expressed by Scotland’s Government, the cross-party majority in Scotland’s Parliament and the majority of Scottish Members elected to this House. Now that her days of sneering at the democratically elected representatives of voters in Scotland are nearly at an end, does she concede that her successor will need a more intelligent approach to Scotland than she has felt able to adopt?
We have consistently engaged with the Scottish Government, and with the Welsh Government, throughout our discussions and negotiations on our future in the European Union. What is important is that we all recognise the responsibility we have to deliver on the vote that took place in 2016—
I don’t have that responsibility.
The hon. and learned Lady says she does not have that responsibility. She is an elected Member of this House and she has a responsibility in the votes that she casts. She has said consistently that she does not want us to leave without a deal. That can only happen if we have a deal, or, of course, if we choose to stay in the European Union. She says that we have not listened to the Scottish Government. What the Scottish Nationalists have made clear at every stage is that they wish to revoke article 50, they wish to go back on the referendum result of 2016, and they wish to keep the United Kingdom in the EU. The majority of the British public do not want that; they want the party in Government and parliamentarians in this House to deliver on what they asked us to do.
The Prime Minister rightly referred in her statement—[Interruption.]
Order. This is a most extraordinary situation. The hon. Gentleman is seeking to ask a question in a seemly way and is effectively being heckled and prevented from doing so by the chuntering from a sedentary position in pursuit of Scottish tribal warfare by the hon. Member for Ochil and South Perthshire (Luke Graham). Calm yourself, man. The Prime Minister is perfectly capable of looking after herself. She was asked a question and she has given an answer. There can be differences of opinion and interpretation as to what is the responsibility of a Member of Parliament, and those issues have been aired. The hon. Gentleman has not in any way benefited the mix by his disorderly chunter.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. The Prime Minister rightly referred in her statement to the importance of leaving in a way that maintains the closest possible security, policing and judicial co-operation with the EU27. That is what we have at the moment. The Justice Committee was given clear evidence by the head of the National Crime Agency that to do otherwise would severely impair our ability to fight organised crime and terrorism, and keep our country safe. Does she agree that to fail to leave without a deal—to fail, therefore, to pass the only available means of leaving with a deal—will be to put the security of the country at risk? That is not something that any Member of this House could responsibly contemplate doing.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise the issue of security. It is one that is rarely raised in these debates. The majority of questions tend to be about the economic and trade relationship, but the security relationship is fundamental to us being able to keep ourselves safe. That is why I am pleased we have negotiated, in the political declaration, the strongest possible security relationship with the EU for the future of any country that would be outside the European Union. Of course, if we were to leave with no deal, those security relationships would not be open to us. Could we negotiate some for the future? That is, of course, possible, but it would require further negotiation and at the point of leaving those security relationships would be stopped.
I agree with the right hon. Member for Loughborough (Nicky Morgan), who has left the Chamber. The essence of what she was saying was that everyone should take a breath, take stock of what is on the table and look at the published Bill when it arrives on Friday. All colleagues across the House need to be mindful of the results of the European elections. The Prime Minister has said several times already that if the Second Reading of the Bill does not succeed, there will not be another opportunity to leave with a withdrawal Bill. The only course and direction will be to leave without any deal at all. Does she agree that anybody who claims to be against no deal, on whatever side of the House, should, without any commitments right now, give this proposition due consideration, think about how they would amend it, and, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper) said recently in a newspaper report, stop the shouting and start agreeing on what we can agree on to move forward?
The right hon. Lady is absolutely right. The point of the process of legislation that we have in this House is that once we are beyond Second Reading of the Bill it will be open to Members across the House to table amendments to it and to have those debates about the precise detail of how we are leaving. Anybody who wants to ensure that we leave with a deal and that we do not see a no-deal situation should support Second Reading and enter into that debate. That debate, of course, does not make commitments towards the end of that process. I hope that we would see the Bill passed and therefore the treaty ratified, but it will be open to have that debate while the Bill is progressing through the House.
As so often, the right hon. Member for Don Valley (Caroline Flint) speaks with a great deal of common sense. Will my right hon. Friend spell out what she has heard the consequences will be for our economy of leaving without a deal?
There have been a number of analyses of the impact of leaving without a deal. I think there would be an immediate impact economically of leaving without a deal. Over time, of course, we could restore our fortunes, but I think it is much better to be in a position where we are leaving with a deal, which will unleash, I believe, significant business investment in this country and see that positive future for our economy that is possible by leaving with a deal.
I have been listening to the Prime Minister respond to several questions about the consequences of no deal. Given what is likely to happen in the European Parliament elections tomorrow and in the Conservative party leadership election to follow, on which she has fired the starting gun, does she regret legitimising and normalising a no-deal outcome in the minds of the public through the repetition of the mantra, “No deal is better than a bad deal”?
No, I don’t. No Government could have said they would accept whatever they were offered, rather than be willing to see no deal. If it had been a bad deal, I stand by what I said in relation to that matter. I also say to the right hon. Gentleman that anybody sitting in this Chamber who believes that we should not have a no-deal situation has to support a deal. That is the only way of making sure we do not leave with no deal. The vehicle for doing that, for determining the details of that leaving, is the withdrawal agreement Bill.
Unlike in 1831, the 1832 Reform Bill got through, because some of those who opposed the Government did not vote against it and that led to progress.
As a national interest Conservative, I have by choice voted with the Government on every single vote, because I think it is right. I hope that others who think that no deal is bad and that trying to reverse the referendum is bad do so.
The majority in this party, this House and the country would prefer to see the withdrawal agreement Bill at least get through Second Reading, so we can make progress and have a chance of a better future for our country.
Absolutely right. If we get through Second Reading we can determine the details, through the progress of the Bill, of the precise nature of our leaving. That will enable us to see progress for this country. To pick up on what my hon. Friend said, I believe it is absolutely in the national interest that we should leave the European Union as the referendum vote set out, but that we should do it with a good deal for this country. That is what is on offer.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) asked the Prime Minister if she was intending to offer a free vote on the second referendum. I would like to ask her the same question about the customs arrangements, which she knows are extremely important for manufacturing industry. Would it be her plan to offer a free vote on those customs arrangements?
As in the normal progress of these things, whipping decisions will be taken when we see the proposals on the table. I reiterate the point I made in response to the right hon. Gentleman. The key issues raised around manufacturing industry are, yes, the benefits of a customs union—they are in the political declaration already—and ensuring we reduce friction for trade at the border. That is not just about customs, but the benefits of the customs union are in the political declaration already.
Ah yes, a Lincolnshire grandee: Sir Edward Leigh.
Not so grand, Mr Speaker, but just a question. The Prime Minister knows of my warm, personal support for her. I voted for her deal not once, not twice but three times. I have to say, as somebody who wishes her well and wishes the agreement well, that I am worried about the tactics. I thought we had agreed with the EU that we were going to have binding indicative votes, which would enable people such as me to express our opposition to a permanent customs union or a referendum and vote for the withdrawal agreement. Now when it is not necessary, because Parliament could do it anyway, I have been asked to vote for a Bill that has, on the face of it, a nod towards a second referendum, which I believe would be disastrous to the Union and to the vast majority of people who voted for Brexit.
I ask the Prime Minister to be very cautious, to listen to our party, to remember that the one vote we won was on the Brady amendment, and, if we cannot get this through, that, given the incalculable disaster of losing the Bill and not being able to bring it back again in this Session, she will, if necessary, think again and not bring it back?
My right hon. Friend refers to the indicative votes. I propose that during the passage of the Bill it will be possible to address these issues and to come to binding decisions on them—particularly the one he references on customs. The fact is that regardless of what indicative votes had been taken and what decisions had been put in the Bill from those indicative votes, had that been the way we progressed, those matters would have been within the scope of the Bill—it would still have been possible for Members to put down other amendments to that position and to vote differently from the way in which they had voted in the indicative votes. That is why it is better to bring these matters to the point of decision, which will be the point within the Bill where Members are deciding not just to indicate a position but what position comes into legislation.
Is the Prime Minister aware that I sincerely want to help her get a good deal through this House—but could she help me? My good, common-sense folk in Huddersfield, who are very clever people, are saying to me that, after three years and now that we know the full consequences of leaving the EU, why can they not have a chance to say what they think of the deal once it comes out of this House?
I have responded to similar points from the hon. Gentleman’s honourable and right honourable colleagues this afternoon. He wants to put a decision back to the people—we have to have a deal to do that, as I think he indicated at the end of his question—which means getting a withdrawal agreement Bill through, and it will be possible for the House to determine its position on this matter within that Bill. As he will know, the House has rejected a second referendum on a number of occasions, but at the point at which it takes that decision within the Bill it will be making that decision in a different environment. As I say, my position continues to be that we should deliver on the first referendum.
A choice between such distinguished colleagues—I call Mr Jacob Rees-Mogg.
My right hon. Friend must have noticed the response in this House and overnight to her statement. In proposing this folderol, is she going through the motions or does she really believe in it?
I do not think I would have been standing here at the Dispatch Box and have been in receipt of some of the comments that I have been in receipt of, from colleagues on my side and across the House, if I did not believe in what I was doing. I am doing it because I genuinely believe that it is in the national interest for us to leave the European Union with a deal. The only way to get a deal through is to get a withdrawal agreement Bill through this House. There are issues that this House disagrees on. I believe that those issues should be put to the House and it will determine them. At that point, the House and all Members of it will have to come to some decisions.
At the moment, it has been possible through indicative votes to give indications, but they have not been decisions that will be put into legislation. When the time comes to look at this matter, these will be decisions about what should go ahead in the Government’s position and what should be in legislation. People will not be able to duck the issues. It will be necessary to come to an agreement. [Interruption.]
The hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman) does not need to chunter from a sedentary position. He is a very illustrious representative of Huddersfield, but the hon. Member for North East Somerset (Mr Rees-Mogg) has just used a noun that, I hazard a guess, has probably not been used on any other occasion in this Parliament, or if it has, only by the hon. Gentleman.
It is because he’s got a Lib Dem council now. [Laughter.]
I am very grateful to the right hon. Gentleman.
What I welcomed most about the statement yesterday was its change in tone, which was markedly different from the ones that had gone before. I express my gratitude to the Prime Minister for the amount of time that she has personally spent with Members from across the House—including me—with whom she has disagreed but engaged in recent weeks. It is clear, though, that the contents of the statement yesterday have widened, not healed, divisions going forward. In the two weeks before the Bill comes before Parliament and this House, I urge her to carry on that engagement with an open mind and to enter into discussions at least about what can be changed on the face of the Bill going into Committee, in which case we will all have something to talk about. Otherwise, it is not even worth putting it forward in the first place.
Obviously, I am happy to continue engaging across the House, as I have been, and I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments. I also suggest that, as his right hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley (Caroline Flint) said, it will be helpful to all Members of the House to wait and see, when the Bill is published, what its actual terms are. He is encouraging me to put a position on the face of the Bill with which I do not agree, but it is right that what we do in the Bill is enable this House to come to a decision.
A Hampshire knight who represents a beautiful forest—I call Sir Desmond Swayne.
Out by the end of July, she says! A Brexiteer of whatever flavour could grant the Bill a Second Reading, saving their reservations for Committee, and make their final judgment on Third Reading, could they not? And what is a folderol?
There are different definitions. A showy and useless item, allegedly, or an unnecessary or inconsequential fuss, or something—but that is only the view of the matter from the hon. Member for North East Somerset (Mr Rees-Mogg). I am not expressing any view on that matter; I was just intrigued by the endless lexicon of the hon. Gentleman.
I have to say, I think that when my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset (Mr Rees-Mogg) used that word, he was not intending it to be complimentary about the package that the Government have brought forward. My right hon. Friend the Member for New Forest West (Sir Desmond Swayne) is absolutely right: for the Bill to get through, for the treaty to be ratified and for us to be able to leave at the end of July, it is about not only getting Second Reading through but ensuring that the Bill is confirmed on Third Reading. By getting through Second Reading, it is possible to have those debates during the progress of the Bill on the key issues that remain and on which there remains disagreement between Members of this House, such that it will be possible—I believe—to come to an agreement that can see us leave the European Union.
The Prime Minister has made it clear that she does not intend to put a commitment to a second referendum on the face of the Bill on Second Reading. In the spirit of compromise, therefore, will she commit to giving her MPs a free vote in Committee when we debate and vote on that measure?
As I have said, what we intend to put in the Bill is the commitment to have a vote on whether to have a second referendum and that the Bill cannot be completed and the treaty ratified until that vote has taken place. I hope that that gives confirmation to Members of the House who are in favour of a second referendum that that issue will be addressed properly within the passage of the Bill. As I said, whipping decisions will be taken closer to the time. I note the keenness of some Opposition Members to determine what the whipping arrangements for those on the Government Benches should be, but with no reference to their own whipping arrangements.
The Prime Minister asks what it would say about democracy if we put this back to the public. The Leader of the Opposition has said from the Dispatch Box that if the Prime Minister likes her deal so much—this is roughly what he said—she should not be afraid of putting it back to the people, and I agree with him. She is putting it back to us time after time after time when we have already rejected it time after time after time. Why does she not trust the people? Why will she not go back to them and ask them what she thinks of her deal?
I do trust the people. That is why I believe that it is our duty to put in place what the people asked us to do.
After weeks of negotiations between a pro-Brexit Prime Minister and a pro-Brexit Labour leadership, it is clear that we have not been able to get an agreement on the terms of this process. It is also clear that no Parliament can bind its successor and no lame-duck Prime Minister can bind her successor. Is it not clear that this Parliament is unable to resolve these matters and that we should go back to the people in a people’s vote, or, if we are unable to do that, revoke article 50 and have more time to find a way forward?
It is clear from the Court judgment that we cannot just revoke article 50 to create more time to consider a deal and then re-trigger it and go back into a negotiating process. Once we revoke, we revoke, and we stay in. I believe we should not stay in. We should leave.
In her statement, the Prime Minister said that
“to address concerns that a future Government could roll back hard-won protections for employees, we will publish a new workers’ rights Bill”.
It was this Government who rolled back those protections in the anti-trade union Bill. If she is serious about workers’ rights, will she reinstate those lost protections in this new Bill?
The Government have enhanced workers’ rights and are putting in place the recommendations from the Taylor review. Ours is the first Government to consider seriously what workers’ rights are suitable for the economy of today. We have enhanced workers’ right and will continue to do so.
I will support the Bill when it comes to the Floor of the House for the simple reason that it is the only deal on the table that will protect under international law the rights of British citizens living in the EU as well as those of EU nationals living here. I am grateful for the comments the Prime Minister made last September following Salzburg about unilaterally protecting certain rights of EU nationals. I regret that there was no mention of British citizens in her statement. What message does she have for British citizens living in the EU?
My message has been consistent. It is that we have been working for their interests as well as those of EU citizens living in the UK. That is why I was pleased that we achieved the reciprocity in the withdrawal agreement—it is an important part of the withdrawal agreement and therefore of the withdrawal agreement Bill. We continue to work with the other 27 member states to ensure they can confirm that in a no-deal situation—as I say, that remains the legal default—they would also protect the rights of British citizens living in those 27 member states.
This is the Prime Minister’s deal. Others in the House want to leave on WTO rules, some want Norway plus, some common market 2.0, others Canada plus—the list goes on and on. Which option does she think the people voted for in 2016, and how can the Government know that their definition of Brexit is the option people voted for without asking them?
The hon. Gentleman references the different opinions in the House. That is precisely why I think it is important that we crystallise those opinions to a position that can command a majority across the House. People voted in 2016 to leave the EU, to end free movement, to ensure our courts were supreme, and to ensure we did not send vast annual sums to the EU. They wanted us to be that independent nation. I believe that an independent trade policy is part of that independence, which is why I have proposed and supported the position I have on customs, but it will be for the House to determine the customs union objectives—we are talking about the objectives—for future negotiations.
With the inevitable end nigh for the Prime Minister and our still being in the EU under an extension to an extension, and with burning injustices still unextinguished everywhere, will the Prime Minister tell us, under her premiership, factoring in the two new Ministries she has created, the civil servants from all over redeployed to this exercise and her costly and sometimes incompetent no-deal planning experiments—she now tells us no deal would be a bad thing—how much Brexit has cost the public purse?
The hon. Lady knows full well that the Treasury’s figures for the two Departments preparing for Brexit, in whatever form it takes, have been made public. She alludes to other work the Government have undertaken. I am very pleased that this Government introduced, for example, the race disparity audit and that we are taking action to ensure that those in certain communities who find it harder to get into the workplace are given the support they need, and introducing changes to domestic abuse legislation. There are many areas where this Government are acting to deal with exactly the injustices I have referred to previously.
The Prime Minister knows that her promises are only valid for as long as she is Prime Minister—that is probably now measured in hours rather than days—because her successor can tear them up. Even if the House were to vote for what has come to be known as “May’s Brexit mayhem”, we could end up with “Boris’s Brexit boorach”. Is it any surprise that the people of Scotland are not prepared to accept that and that tomorrow they will once again declare our determination that our nation remain in the EU? If her nation insists on leaving, it had better reconcile itself to leaving without us.
For those in Scotland who want us to leave the EU with a deal that is good for the whole United Kingdom, including Scotland, there is only one party to vote for, and that is the Conservatives, and for those in Scotland who want Scotland to remain part of what is, economically and in other ways, its most important union—the United Kingdom—there is only one party to vote for, and that is the Conservatives.
The Prime Minister states that those of us seeking a public vote should support her withdrawal agreement and make our case to Parliament on Second Reading, but we have already and repeatedly made our case in the Chamber for a public confirmatory vote. If the Prime Minister wishes to be bold with her new offer, she must allow the public a voice on her deal, which would be democratic. Does she agree?
I think I answered that question earlier. I refer the hon. Lady to that answer.
At the latest count, eight Ministers or Members of Parliament who sit beside or around the Prime Minister are jostling for her job. Most, if not all, appear to be enthusiastic endorsers of a kamikaze no deal. Given what she knows about no deal, can she understand why any of those candidates would want to advocate one?
The right hon. Gentleman can leave the issue of the determination of the leadership of the Conservative party to the Conservative party. The House has to decide whether it wants to leave the EU with or without a deal. The withdrawal agreement Bill is the vehicle that enables us to ensure we leave with a deal.
The Prime Minister has been very clear that she believes that her deal is what the public want, but she is also very clear that she is not supporting a second referendum or confirmatory vote. Does she see the inconsistency in that argument? What is she scared of?
It is very simple. As I say, if we get through Second Reading of the withdrawal agreement Bill, it will be possible for people who want a second referendum to put that case to the House and for the House to come to a decision on that matter. I have made changes to the offer I have put forward. I set those out today in my statement to the House. They reflect the discussions we have had across the House and address concerns raised by Members.
In her statement, the Prime Minister talked a lot about compromise. I agree that compromise is required. Since the referendum result in 2016, the Scottish Government have sought to compromise. Can she name one single part of the document “Scotland’s Place in Europe” that she agreed to compromise on?
We have had discussions with both the Scottish and Welsh Government about their concerns, particularly around trade across the EU, and our proposals reflect those concerns, together with our discussions with business across the whole UK. As I understand it, the position of the Scottish nationalists now is that they want to revoke article 50. That is not a compromise. It is a position that goes back on the result of the referendum.
MPs from around the House have suggested that the Prime Minister’s deal is not sustainable because she has announced her resignation and that it is not future-proofed. Does she agree that neither her deal nor any other deal can be future-proofed or sustainable unless entrenched by a public confirmatory vote? On that basis, if she wants to heal the wounds and make it sustainable, she should put that public confirmatory vote in the Bill itself.
No, I am afraid the hon. Gentleman is wrong. The concern people have about entrenching for the future is about the objectives for negotiating in the future stages. Those will not be determined by a people’s vote—by a second referendum—because, by definition, they will be part of a negotiation with the European Union in the future. Nobody can say at this stage absolutely what will come out of those negotiations; it will be part of a process.
I spent 24 years on the frontline of the NHS, and like the vast majority of clinicians, I am desperately worried about the impact of a no-deal Brexit—a WTO Brexit—on the NHS, social care, science and research, and public health. I really want to help the Prime Minister get her deal across the line if it is subject to a confirmatory vote, but I do not believe it has the consent of even the loudest voices among the Brexiteers, let alone of constituents across this nation. Will she please commit to ending all of this? Her deal would get across the line with the support of so many colleagues across this House if she would just agree to make sure that it was genuinely the will of the people?
If the hon. Lady wants to ensure that we do not leave without a deal, and she wants to press the case for a second referendum, the way to do that is to vote for Second Reading of the withdrawal agreement Bill. Then, during the progress of that Bill, we will be able to have that debate about a second referendum and, indeed, about other issues on which there is disagreement across this House, and come to a determination on them. That is the proper process to follow; it is the process that enables this House to take that decision.
The reality is that we are getting the same withdrawal agreement coming back that has already been rejected three times, with some additional legislation on things such as workers’ rights, which the Government could have brought forward over the last nine years. The political reality is that the Prime Minister’s deal is not going to pass in this House unless there is a guarantee of a second referendum. Why is she willing to risk her deal rather than reach a compromise?
What I want to see is this House voting to leave the European Union with a deal. I have compromised, and I have moved on the issues that have been raised as concerns by Members across this House. There are two elements of the deal with the European Union—the withdrawal agreement and the political declaration. We have made it clear that we will be seeking changes to the political declaration to reflect the package that I have put to the House today. It is important for the House to make decisions on this matter and to ensure that we can deliver on the result of the 2016 referendum, but to do that with a good deal.
May I strongly urge the Prime Minister to look across this House and to understand, as I am sure she does, that there is no majority for any version of Brexit compromise, or therefore for her Bill? That is causing so much harm to our businesses, our communities and our democracy. The only way to avoid the threat of no deal and to get this Bill passed is to put a confirmatory vote back to the people for a democratic say.
The hon. Lady talks about the impact of the situation we are in on British business. Yes, uncertainty is never good for business, and business always wants to have the certainty of knowing the way forward, but what she proposes will not remove that uncertainty from British business—
I am sorry, but it will increase the period of uncertainty for the British people. Anything that extends the point of decision making actually increases that uncertainty for a further period of time. It will be for this House to decide. If the hon. Lady is certain of her arguments, she should not be worried about the House having the opportunity to hear those arguments and make a decision.
Given that the Prime Minister has indicated that she will publish a new workers’ rights Bill, will she confirm whether the publication of that Bill relies on the withdrawal agreement Bill being passed? It seems to me that the House could decide to pass the workers’ rights Bill and not the withdrawal agreement Bill. Will she also say how the workers’ rights Bill will work in practice? I am thinking specifically of rights for workers in the gig economy, where Europe seems to be offering better and stronger protections than those that our Government have proposed in relation to the Taylor report.
What will happen is that the withdrawal agreement Bill will be published and the draft workers’ rights Bill will be published, and we will see them progressing in tandem.
The Prime Minister has repeatedly talked about having a democratic mandate. However, the Information Commissioner’s Office found repeated data breaches in Cambridge Analytica’s work for Vote Leave, and Chris Wylie, the Cambridge Analytica whistleblower, said,
“if we allow cheating in our democratic process …what about next time? What about the time after that? This is a breach of the law. This is cheating…this is an irreversible change to the constitutional settlement of this country.”
Does the Prime Minister not really need a democratic mandate for this withdrawal agreement, considering how tampered with and damaged the campaign was in the last referendum?
The hon. Gentleman refers to issues in relation to the conduct of the last referendum. Of course, the Electoral Commission has acted on a number of the issues, but if we look across what happened, we see one of the most significant exercises in democracy in our history from people who came out to vote in the referendum. What the hon. Gentleman is saying is that we cannot actually trust the British people to exercise their vote according to their judgment and their instincts. I believe that is what the British people did, and we should listen to them.
Yesterday, in her prequel to this statement, the Prime Minister referred euphemistically to the “devolved lock” that would come forward as part of the withdrawal agreement Bill, but her comments did not stretch as far as whether legislative consent would be required from the devolved Administrations. Will she therefore confirm that she accepts that legislative consent will be required for the Bill, and that she will accept the mandate given to her by the Scottish Parliament as to whether it will grant legislative consent?
The hon. Gentleman is, I am sure, very clear about the legislative consent requirements that relate to the Scottish Government and the Welsh Government in relation to these matters. Of course, I am well aware that the Scottish Government have made it clear that they do not wish to give legislative consent to matters that are put forward in relation to this issue, but we will be discussing that with the Scottish Government when the time comes.
What is the purpose of bringing forward withdrawal agreement mark 4 if no attempt has been made to address the backstop, which continues to be a key obstacle to any way forward? I reiterate firmly but gently that we seek and need protection for Northern Ireland that is both legally binding and time-limited. What talks have there been, and what effort has been made, to address the backstop?
Obviously, the hon. Gentleman has raised this point with me on a number of occasions. As he knows, we have had a number of discussions with the European Union that have led to further commitments in relation to alternative arrangements, for example, and we will also enshrine those in UK domestic legislation. The key issue about the separation of Great Britain and Northern Ireland is one we have committed to dealing with. As I said in my statement, we will work with our confidence and supply partner, the DUP, to look at how that commitment can best be enshrined in law.
With your permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a statement about British Steel.
It was announced this morning that the court has granted an application by the directors of British Steel to enter an insolvency process. Control of the company will now pass to the official receiver, an employee of the Insolvency Service, who will run a compulsory liquidation. The official receiver has made it clear that British Steel employees will continue to be paid and employed, and the business will continue to trade and to supply its customers while he considers the company’s position. In fact, employees were paid early, with the May payroll being run yesterday through cash being advanced by the company’s lenders.
As the House will recall, I made a statement on 1 May setting out details of a bridging facility that the Government agreed to provide to ensure that British Steel was able to meet its obligations under the EU emissions trading scheme, which fell due on 30 April. The Government provided the facility to purchase allowances worth £120 million against the security of 2019 ETS allowances, which are currently suspended pending ratification of the withdrawal agreement.
Without this facility, British Steel would have faced a financial pressure of over £600 million—the ETS liability, plus a £500 million fine. This would not only have placed British Steel in an insolvent financial position, but the charge attached to its operational assets would have been likely to prevent any new owner from acquiring these assets in the future. This transaction demonstrated the Government’s continuing willingness to work closely with all parties to secure the long-term success of this important business.
Following this agreement, the Government have worked intensively with the company for many weeks to seek solutions to the broader financial challenges it has been facing. The Government and individual Ministers can only act within the law and this requires that any financial support to a steel company must be made on a commercial basis. In the case of the ETS facility, this was based on the security of future ETS allowances.
To provide liquidity to the business in the face of its cash-flow difficulties the Government were willing to consider making a cash loan to the company and worked hard to investigate exhaustively the possibilities. However, the absence of adequate security, no reasonable prospect that any loan would have been repaid and the shareholder being unwilling to provide a sufficient cash injection itself meant that this did not meet the required legal tests.
I am placing in the Library the accounting officer’s assessment of these proposals, drawing on professional and legal advice, which concludes:
“It would be unlawful to provide a guarantee or loan on the terms of any of the proposals that the company or any other party has made or any others we have considered. You must note that such an offer cannot be made legally and that by making it you would be in breach of the Ministerial Code.”
The insolvency removes Greybull from day-to-day control of British Steel. Given the Government’s willingness to help secure British Steel’s future, demonstrated in the ETS facility, and the discussions that have taken place in recent weeks, the Government will work closely with the official receiver and prospective new owners to achieve the best outcome for these sites.
The Government have provided an indemnity to the official receiver, who is now responsible for the operations. We will take every possible step to ensure that these vital operations can continue, that jobs are secured and that the sites at Scunthorpe and Skinningrove and on Teesside continue to be important centres of excellent steel-working. During the days and weeks ahead, I will work with the official receiver, the special managers and a British Steel support group of trade unions, management, suppliers, customers and the local communities to pursue remorselessly every possible step to secure the future of these valuable operations.
This is a very worrying time for everyone associated with British Steel. Each one of British Steel’s sites has a proud record of steelmaking excellence, and I am determined to see it continue. Britain and the world will continue to need high-quality steel, and British steel is among the best in the world. Today is a very big setback for these operations, but it is far from being the end and we will take every step possible to secure a successful future for these vital assets, both people and plant.
I thank the Secretary of State for advance sight of his statement.
This is indeed very worrying news for the workers, their families and the communities who rely on British Steel directly in Scunthorpe, Skinningrove and Teesside and all the way through the supply chain. At least 25,000 people will be worried sick this morning, wondering whether they will have a job this time next week.
As the Secretary of State knows, however, the sector is critical to our manufacturing base and is strategically important for Government procurement from rail all the way through to defence. It is therefore imperative, given that the Government now have some control via the official receiver, that this business is stabilised and confidence is given to customers, workers and businesses right across the supply chain. The message from the Government today must be that British Steel is one of the linchpins of our industrial strategy and to that end they will move heaven and earth to ensure business as usual continues.
It is reported that the owner, Greybull Capital, was asking the Government for a loan of £30 million. The shadow Minister for steel, my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough (Gill Furniss), asked for more information yesterday, but we were given none. Can the Secretary of State confirm today what the asks of British Steel were in the negotiations? Were they just the reported £30 million or was that part of a wider package of measures to support steel production?
I welcome the publication of the accounting officer’s assessment, but can the Secretary of State confirm Greybull Capital’s reasoning in asking for a loan, while reportedly being unwilling to put money on the table and simultaneously investing over £40 million in a French steelworks last week?
The Secretary of State has said in his press statement today that he will
“pursue remorselessly every possible step to secure the future of the valuable operations in sites at Scunthorpe, Skinningrove and on Teesside”,
and I welcome that. I also welcome the indemnity he has referred to, but can he outline exactly what other possible steps he will be pursuing in the coming days? Do they include bringing British Steel into public ownership as Unite the union and the Labour party have called for? Do they include discussions with other interested stakeholders to examine options for saving the company, including with Network Rail, which procures 95% of its rails from the Scunthorpe site? It is clear that we simply cannot countenance warm words and no real action as was the case with the SSI steelworks almost four years ago.
The truth of the matter is that the cost of British Steel collapsing is far greater than any short-term outlay the Government must make now. The Institute for Public Policy Research has estimated that British Steel’s collapse could lead to £2.8 billion in lost wages, £1.1 billion in lost revenue and extra benefit payments and that it could reduce household spending by £1.2 billion over 10 years. This is a significant economic disturbance, if the Secretary of State would like to dust off his state aid handbook.
We know Network Rail sources 95% of its rails from Scunthorpe. Last year, Network Rail signed a £200 million contract with the company. The loss of this supply could have serious consequences for Network Rail’s cost base and the quality of the steel used to maintain and upgrade the British rail network. Notwithstanding the great commitment by Network Rail to British Steel, however, we also know the Government’s wider public procurement of UK steel has been disappointing, with only 43% of steel used in Government projects traced to firms based in the UK, according to UK Steel analysis. So will the Secretary of State confirm today what steps he is taking to positively procure British steel for more of our key infrastructure projects?
Finally, there is no doubt that the UK steel industry is in a difficult place. Uncertainty about future trade with the EU and the dangling prospect of no deal are having a severe impact. Domestic issues like uncompetitive electricity prices, business rates and lack of support for steel in the so-called industrial strategy are also undermining the sector’s ability to compete, but UK steel has a proud history in the UK and there is no reason why this cannot continue. The ball is in the Government’s court: they can take action now to save British Steel and support the wider industry, or they can accept that their legacy will, yet again, be industrial decline. We in the Opposition know which side of history we want to be on, and I hope the Secretary of State wants the same thing.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for the spirit in which she approached her response to the statement, recognising that there is a total common purpose across both sides of the House to provide the confidence for new investors to be able to take on these assets, and we all, wherever we sit in this Chamber, want this to be a change of ownership rather than something that puts a stop to steel production.
The hon. Lady was right to refer to SSI, and she will recall—as will her colleague the hon. Member for Middlesbrough (Andy McDonald)—the situation with Corus in 2010. One thing we know about steel assets is that they are not like other kinds of facilities; once they close, it is very difficult for them to come back into life. So it seems to me that we have a special responsibility to make every effort to ensure there is no interruption whatsoever in production. That is my purpose, and I see it reflected in what the hon. Lady said.
I agree with the hon. Lady about the strategic importance of steel. It presents a strategic opportunity as well, because this country and the world will always need steel and British steel is among the best in the world, so we should be looking to supply it. I think my commitment was demonstrated in the move I made to provide £120 million to make sure that the liability under the ETS was addressed. Crucially, if we had not removed that liability, it would have hung over the assets, preventing any new partner from taking them on.
The hon. Lady also asked about the reports of the £30 million facility. The assessment of the accounting officer gives more information on that. In fact, that £30 million was not for a permanent refinancing of British Steel; it was a contribution to an administration only. The assessment was that the contribution from all parties would not be enough to withstand the cost requirements during that administration. She will see clearly set out the assessment of the proposals that were given. I have been exhaustive in pursuing the possibilities with British Steel over many weeks. If she is in government, she will find that she is obliged to follow the ministerial code, under which we are not allowed to make a decision that would be illegal, immensely frustrating though it is. I would have much preferred to have given the opportunity of this loan rather than go down the route that has been taken, but that is the requirement and there is no possibility of setting that aside.
On the motivation of Greybull in investing its cash in other facilities in France, one of the requirements in the case of any company failure is that the official receiver conducts an investigation into the reasons for the failure and the lessons to be drawn from it. I very much look forward to seeing the official receiver’s report. I dare say that the Chair of the Select Committee will also want to inquire closely, on behalf of her colleagues, into this as well.
On the question of new possibilities, I understand that there are buyers who have already made contact. The hon. Lady is right to say that important stakeholders such as Network Rail, which has been very supportive in recent weeks and has pledged to continue to be supportive, will work together. That is why I have invited everyone with an interest in this, including colleagues on both sides of the House, to work together so that we can make a demonstrable and clear case that the cross-party and cross-House of Commons consensus that reflects the importance of the steel sector is available to any new investor.
Finally, I agree with the hon. Lady’s assessment, relating to the report she mentioned, that the consequences are important not only for the workforce and those in the supply chain, vital though they are; they are also important for whole communities and indeed for the country. This furthers my resolve, which I know she shares, to do everything we can in the days and weeks ahead to ensure that there is continuity in these operations.
Order. Colleagues, I will shortly come to Members with constituency interests, and indeed to the hon. Member for Watford (Richard Harrington), the former Minister, but I would like to begin with a new, young Member who once worked for British Steel. I call Sir Peter Bottomley.
That was quite some time ago, Mr Speaker, when it was the British Steel Corporation rather than the old Appleby-Frodingham steel plant that we are discussing today.
I put it to my right hon. Friend that we ought to go on following his non-partisan line, but we ought also to remember what happened to steel production and steel employment during the last Government. Will he also tell us what can be done on energy costs, which form a large part of steel production costs?
Can my right hon. Friend confirm that this is an industry in which the worldwide steel cycle has a massive impact? The House will be grateful to him for doing all that he can to mitigate its effects on this country.
I agree with my hon. Friend. I was unaware that he had had that early experience in the steel sector. I do not want to make a partisan point, so perhaps I can take this in a historical sense to illustrate that the steel sector has been through periods of turbulence and difficulty in this country and around the world, and it is clearly going through one now. It was the case that steel production fell by 50% between 1997 and 2010, as did employment in the sector, but I do not blame that on the Government of the day. It was a feature of the market at the time, but I think that we should learn the lessons from some of the decisions that were taken then. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Middlesbrough reminds us from a sedentary position that the blast furnaces at Redcar were mothballed, which made it difficult to return them to service. They did come back with SSI, but it was very difficult to do that. The point is that we should have the maximum possible continuity, and attend to the lessons from that time. Criticisms were made at the time of the approach being taken both there and in SSI, and in the present situation we should learn the lessons and ensure that we have maximum continuity.
I thank the Secretary of State for giving me advance sight of his statement.
Since I was sworn in as a Member of this House four years ago, I have watched two Tory Prime Ministers and two Business Secretaries fail the steel sector across the UK. Time and again, they have refused to level the playing field for steel in relation to energy costs and to rates in England. I have been happy to show solidarity with those in the steel sector who face the prospect of not having a job and with those who work in the supply chains. We cannot keep on repeating this.
The UK Government need to achieve a sector deal for steel and, by their actions, fully commit to the steel industry’s future across the UK. A first step would be to listen to the industry and its concerns on Brexit, and I am glad to hear the Secretary of State say that he will do that. The inaction and apathy of this Government and this Prime Minister towards industry are reminiscent of another Tory Prime Minister. We are still recovering from the damage that Margaret Thatcher did to the steel industry in Scotland. Do this Tory Government recognise the danger inherent in pursuing their current policy regarding industrial strategy?
In 2015, by contrast, the SNP Scottish Government saved the Scottish steel industry. They saved the Dalzell works in my constituency and the Clydebridge works in the Rutherglen and Hamilton West constituency. Indeed, I am going there on Wednesday to sign the UK steel charter with the Scottish Minister for Trade, Investment and Innovation. Will the Secretary of State look to what was done by the SNP Scottish Government in setting up a Scottish steel taskforce, and commit to saving steel across the UK? The Scottish steel taskforce was a model committed to saving those works, and it did so because it started out with that commitment as its sole objective, in contrast to the UK steel summit that we had in 2015. Minister, you have a grave responsibility here and I hope that you will come back and tell us that you have achieved what we all want for British Steel.
I recognise that responsibility, and the intention of the group that the hon. Lady describes is precisely what I have set out. We all need to join forces to provide the best prospect for continuity for these operations. She referred to the important steelworks in Scotland. Sometimes, for the reasons I have set out, it is necessary for a Government to participate in a sector where discontinuities and interruptions can be difficult to recover from. I think she would be generous enough to concede that the £120 million that I informed the House of on 1 May gave precisely the possibility for these operations to continue, without which we would have been unable to have this discussion today about the prospects for the industry.
The hon. Lady asked about energy costs. Energy-intensive industries obviously incur significantly higher energy costs than other sectors. Over the past few years, we have paid £291 million in compensation to energy-intensive sectors, including steel. The industrial strategy contains an industrial energy transformation fund to increase the energy efficiency of energy-intensive operations, and that is worth about a third of a billion pounds. That constitutes, I think, the kind of action that she would expect. We now need to ensure that that is applied to the situation facing British Steel so that it can continue to operate and, indeed, to flourish.
Order. We need to speed up a little bit.
I thank my right hon. Friend for his statement, which will be hugely reassuring to my constituents who work at Skinningrove steelworks, most of whom live close by. It is vital that we prevent the closure of that plant, just as it is vital that we prevent closures at Scunthorpe and Lackenby and all the other sites that are affected. With that in mind, I welcome that the Government have provided the indemnity to the official receiver to try to keep British Steel operational while a buyer is sought. Beyond that, may I emphasise the case for public ownership or, indeed, a public-private partnership in order to serve as a bridge to new ownership? The priority is to save jobs. Everything else—all matters of ideology—must come second.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We need to do everything we can. The situation is not entirely in the hands of the Government, because the official receiver is obviously responsible for the operations, and the trade unions and local communities want also to participate. This morning, the director general of UK Steel was asked whether he thought that the Government have done everything they can, and he said that he thought that we have. There is a recognition, which I am sure my hon. Friend will find in the sector, that we are serious about doing everything we can within our legal limits to help to give stability and a good future to this industry.
This is a desperately sad day for our steel industry and those who work in it, and I am sure that the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee will want to look at what triggered the collapse of the company. The Government are now paying the wages of British Steel’s workers, which is welcome, and 25,000 jobs depend on production continuing. Will British Steel continue to take new orders under the Government’s official receiver in order to maximise the chances of the company’s survival? Will the Government guarantee to pay the wages and continue new production at the site until a new buyer can be found?
I am grateful to the hon. Lady, and I would welcome her Select Committee, on which many Members currently in the Chamber serve, looking into this matter. There may be wider lessons to learn about how assets of such importance, where continuity is important, are held.
When it comes to paying the employees’ wages, we should be clear that the official receiver is responsible for that, not the Government. The Government have provided the official receiver with an indemnity, and his responsibility is to manage the business and to make a judgment about the business’s future prospects. He started today with a clear statement that the business continues to trade and that the workforce continue to be employed and to be paid. I hope that that was reassuring for the members of staff.
On behalf of the thousands of my constituents whose livelihoods rely on Scunthorpe, may I thank the Secretary of State for his personal interest and dedication? He has worked incredibly hard to try to find a solution here. I echo the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland (Mr Clarke) about not applying any ideology to the ownership model moving forward. We want to keep this site together, and we do not want any cherry-picking if it can be avoided.
Will the Secretary of State also encourage the official receiver to work with North Lincolnshire Council and the local enterprise partnership, which commissioned and paid for a study into how British Steel could make better use of other parts of the site to generate money? Some of it could be used for energy generation or for housing, but such proposals have not been taken forward by the current owners. Will he ensure that the official receiver looks closely at that?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend, and I will certainly do that. As I said, the official receiver is independent, but it is very much in his interests to maximise the opportunities on the sites that are now in his charge, and I daresay that that study will be helpful.
I completely agree with my hon. Friend that we should not take an ideological approach. We need to do what is right for the jobs and livelihoods of the people who work in and around those sites.
I thank the Secretary of State and his Ministers and officials for their work over a long period to get this business to where we all want it to be. I thank him for his statement, the commitments in it and his recognition of the strategic value of this industry and the business not just to the workers and families in my constituency and others but to the UK. Will he commit to ensure that these national assets are secure and to involve the workforce in all discussions through the excellent trade unions that work in the steel industry, so that they can be full partners as we take this business into a better future?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his comments. The town that he represents has a proud history of steelmaking, and I want that to continue for many years. It should be making history in the future, as it has done in the past. It is vital in that to reflect the sense of community in the steel industry, both in particular places and across the country. Through my contact with the trade unions and the workforce, I will certainly involve them in the discussions about the future, and I will encourage the official receiver, who will want to benefit from those discussions, to do the same.
The Under-Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, my hon. Friend the Member for Pendle (Andrew Stephenson), said in answer to yesterday’s urgent question that he and the Secretary of State would leave no stone unturned to save British Steel. As a former Minister in this area, I can confirm that the Secretary of State’s commitment is second to none.
I was impressed with British Steel. Some of its management was very good, as was the workforce. The trade unions had a responsible attitude, and I want to pick out Roy Rickhuss of the Community union, who is very committed to this site. It seems to me that the company has a good business plan. It produces a product that people throughout the world want to buy, but one of the main dangers, and one of the reasons behind this situation, is the threat of WTO rules and the disgraceful tariffs that this country would be lumbered with if this House was not sensible and did not vote for a deal to rule out the burden that WTO rules would have on the steel industry.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for the hard work that he put into understanding and helping the steel industry during his time as a Minister. I know that it was well appreciated. I echo his tribute to Roy Rickhuss. My hon. Friend, the new Minister and I have always had a good relationship with the trade unions. I spoke to Roy Rickhuss and Steve Turner of Unite this morning, and they share the intention of everyone in this House to get the best possible future for British Steel.
One reason, although it is not the only reason, for the problems that British Steel is experiencing is the uncertainty around whether our future relationship with the European Union will involve tariffs—at least that is what the management say. Like my hon. Friend, I have a high regard for the management of British Steel, which needs to be taken at its word. We should resolve that uncertainty as quickly as possible, because that would be a major contribution that we can make to the future of British Steel.
I am grateful to the Secretary of State for his approach in recent weeks and for his statement today. I thank him for his comments about the difficulty of turning off steel mills like a tap, because they cannot be turned off and on like that. We are all grateful to hear that the wages will continue to be paid for the moment and that the company continues to trade. Will he say anything more about the official receiver’s capacity to keep the situation going so that a new buyer can be found?
I am grateful for what the right hon. Gentleman says. It is important that I should state, and that the House should recognise, that the official receiver is independently appointed by the court. The official receiver has a team of special managers from Ernst & Young who were appointed today, and their responsibility is to secure the best possible resolution for the assets they inherit. They have strict duties to the court, and they cannot be directed by me. My experience of the Insolvency Service and the official receiver is that they will want to recognise the importance of continuity, which I contend will help to secure the best value for the future of the site. From my conversations I know they have that very much in mind, but it is important to emphasise that they are independent and do not take direction from me.
I impress upon my right hon. Friend the expectation of my constituents in Corby that he must pull out all the stops to secure the future of this business. Will he advise the House of whether any other steel businesses have indicated a willingness to take on the business at this stage?
I certainly agree with, and will act upon, the first part of my hon. Friend’s question. It is a matter for the official receiver to consider but, during the course of the day—after all, it was just this morning that the company went to court—I have had some early indications of interest. I intend to be active in helping to promote these important assets to prospective investors, whether or not they are currently aware of the opportunity this may give them to invest in successful facilities in the future.
I thank the Secretary of State for engaging with me constructively on the phone this morning, which I appreciate. I also pay tribute to all those at British Steel who have worked so hard, particularly over the last three years, to try to make a success of the company. I was proud to be at the launch at the Lackenby beam mill in 2016 when, out of the ashes of the SSI disaster, we felt that British Steel would rise and be a strong, fantastic brand. Obviously, today is extremely disappointing for those workers and for others all across the country.
I implore the Secretary of State to learn the lessons of SSI from 2016. He spoke movingly today of the importance of keeping the assets going, which is the No. 1 priority. We cannot turn this off because of the consequences for individuals, for families, for communities and for local economies. We are still facing the clean-up costs, three years down the line, of a rotting, decaying site that is still toxic. That cannot be allowed to happen again. We must ensure that the assets are maintained and preserved and jobs safeguarded.