House of Commons
Wednesday 25 September 2019
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Colleagues, welcome back to our place of work.
The UK Supreme Court ruled yesterday that
“Parliament has not been prorogued”
and that the Speaker of the House of Commons and the Lord Speaker
“can take immediate steps to enable each House to meet as soon as possible”
to decide upon a way forward.
I will arrange for the citation for that judgment to be entered in the Journal of this House and accordingly direct that the item relating to the Prorogation of Parliament in the Journal of Monday 9 September is expunged and the House is instead recorded as adjourned at the close of the business. I instruct the Clerk to correct the Journal accordingly and to record the House to have adjourned at the close of business on Monday 9 September until today.
Members should also be aware that Royal Assent to the Parliamentary Buildings (Restoration and Renewal) Bill, which formed part of the royal commission appointed under the quashed Order in Council, will need to be re-signified.
I wish to record my thanks, and I hope colleagues across the House will join me in doing so, to the staff of the House, including the security, catering, Chamber business, parliamentary digital and in-house services teams, who have worked exceptionally hard over the past 24 hours to prepare for this resumption.
You will know—but in the name of the public intelligibility of our proceedings, I think it worthwhile to note—that there is no ministerial Question Time today, including therefore no prime ministerial Question Time. The reason for that is very simple. As colleagues will be aware, there are notification requirements: questions ordinarily are tabled three sitting days before the exchanges take place, so there are no Prime Minister’s questions today. However, there is scope, as I indicated in public yesterday, for urgent questions, ministerial statements and other business.
Legal Advice: Prorogation
(Urgent Question): To ask the Attorney General if he will make a statement about his legal opinion on the advice given to Her Majesty the Queen to prorogue Parliament.
As the hon. and learned Lady knows, the Supreme Court gave judgment on this issue yesterday, and that judgment sets out the definitive and final legal position on the advice given to Her Majesty on the Prorogation of Parliament. The Government’s legal view during the case was set out and argued fully before the Supreme Court. The hearing was streamed live and the Government’s written case was, and is, available on the Supreme Court website.
I took a close interest in the case—[Interruption]—and I oversaw the Government’s team of counsel. I have to say that if every time I lost a case I was called upon to resign, I would probably never have had a practice.
The Government accept the judgment and accept that they lost the case. At all times, the Government acted in good faith and in the belief that their approach was both lawful and constitutional. These are complex matters, on which senior and distinguished lawyers will disagree. The divisional court, led by the Lord Chief Justice, as well as Lord Doherty in the outer house of Scotland, agreed with the Government’s position, but we were disappointed that, in the end, the Supreme Court took a different view. Of course, we respect its judgment.
Given the Supreme Court’s judgment, in legal terms the matter is settled, and, as the hon. and learned Lady will know, I am bound by the long-standing convention that the views of the Law Officers are not disclosed outside the Government without their consent. However, I will consider over the coming days whether the public interest might require a greater disclosure of the advice given to the Government on the subject. I am unable to give an undertaking or a promise to the hon. and learned Lady at this point, but the matter is under consideration.
I too took a close interest in the case. Let me start by assuring the Attorney General that I am not going to call for his resignation—yet.
Yesterday was a very special day for Scots law and the Scottish legal tradition going back to the declaration of Arbroath that the Government are not above the law. Following in the footsteps of Scotland’s Supreme Court, the UK Supreme Court asserted the rule of law and the separation of powers, and it restored democracy. It is worth emphasising that the decision was unanimous, as was that of Scotland’s Supreme Court, chaired by Scotland’s most senior judge, the Lord President of the Court of Session. Both Courts unanimously found that the decision to advise Her Majesty to prorogue Parliament was unlawful, void and of no effect. However, the question I am interested in is how it came to pass that that was ever allowed to happen.
Redacted documents lodged with the Scottish Court confirmed the suspicion that this was a plan cooked up in No. 10 by the Prime Minister and his special advisers. I want to ask about documents that mysteriously found their way into the public domain yesterday afternoon, when an unredacted version of one of those lodged with the Scottish Court found its way to Sky News and revealed that the Attorney General had said that the advice to prorogue was lawful and that anyone who said otherwise was doing so for political reasons. Knowing the Attorney General, I am sure that his advice was considerably more detailed and nuanced than the three sentences that appear in the unredacted document. Can he tell us whether a legal opinion was made available to the Prime Minister or the Cabinet?
The right hon. Member for Hastings and Rye (Amber Rudd) has said that when she was in the Cabinet, Cabinet Ministers requested to see the advice but it was not handed over. Is that correct? Can the Attorney General tell us what was given to the Prime Minister, if not to the Cabinet? Many of us believe that the Attorney General is being offered up as a fall guy for the Prime Minister’s botched plans. Does he therefore agree that releasing the advice in its entirety will help him avoid being the scapegoat for a plan dreamed up by the Prime Minister and his advisers? Will he give the undertaking, which he hinted he might give, today?
I am extremely grateful to the hon. and learned Lady for her kindness and solicitousness for my welfare. I am particularly attracted by the tempting prospect that she dangles before me, but she will know that I am obliged by the convention to say that I am not permitted to disclose the advice that I may or may not have given to the Government. But I repeat: the matter is under consideration.
Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that if, in the future, we were unfortunate enough to have a Corbynista Labour Government—[Interruption.] That is obviously not thought to be a very likely prospect, but if that misfortune were to occur, if that Government were to decide to suspend the House for a long period because there was a parliamentary majority against their principal policy, and if that Government also decided that constitutional law was not challenged by that, and challenged the right of the courts to overrule it, the Conservative party would be likely to get very excited. Can my right hon. and learned Friend reassure me that this Supreme Court judgment has settled that matter finally, that this kind of action can never be taken by any future Government and that parliamentary sovereignty therefore remains intact?
I certainly can say to my right hon. and learned Friend that it is important when we reflect on judgments that may be seen to go against the short-term interests of any particular Government that we remember that they stand as precedents and principles for the future. I invite all my hon. Friends to reflect on precisely the situation that my right hon. and learned Friend has set out before the House, which is that this would stand for Governments of a colour of which those on my side would not approve and for their actions too. It is important that when we comment on the decisions of judges we remember that those judges are both impartial and independent, and they are entitled to reach the view that they have reached. We are fortunate in this House to have one of the finest judiciaries, I believe, in the world, and it is important to remember that the principles they set apply to both sides, as my right hon. and learned Friend has said.
I congratulate the hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh South West (Joanna Cherry) for securing the urgent question and for her work on this matter. Yesterday’s decision of the Supreme Court—I give credit to all those who brought the cases—was the most damning judicial indictment of a Government in modern times: that the decision to advise Her Majesty the Queen to prorogue Parliament was unlawful.
This Government stand in shame, tendering illegal advice to our monarch and not even able to uphold that most basic and important of principles: abiding by the rule of law. What we know from yesterday’s leaked document is that the Attorney General said that his advice on the question of the law was that this was
“lawful and within the constitution”,
and that any accusations of unlawfulness were “motivated by political considerations”. If that is in any way accurate as to his full advice, he was wrong on both counts. His “close interest” simply was not enough.
I will ask the Attorney General a number of questions. Can he confirm why the Government gave no witness statement to the Court? Indeed, the Court was left in a position where it said:
“No justification for taking action with such an extreme effect has been put before the court”.
Why not? The Attorney General talks about respecting the decision of the judges, but the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster was on the radio this morning saying that he disagrees with the decision. He should tell us which parts of the judgment the Government disagree with. May I give the Attorney General a simple piece of advice for his considerations about the publication of this advice over the next few days—a simple suggestion? Just publish it and make it open to Parliament and the public.
On this Attorney General’s watch, the Government have been found in contempt of Parliament. Now they have been found in contempt of the law. Does he not accept that he does not have a shred of credibility left?
I do not know whether in the hon. Gentleman’s practice at the Bar he felt that just because he had given advice that might not have been upheld by a court he had no credibility. That is an absurd and ridiculous proposition. Furthermore, it was advice that was agreed with by the first instance court in Scotland and by the Lord Chief Justice of England. Is the hon. Gentleman calling for his resignation as well? Is he calling for the resignation of the Master of the Rolls? Is he calling for the resignation of the President of the Queen’s bench division? Is he calling for the resignation of Lord Doherty? [Interruption.]
Order. If the Attorney General could resume his seat momentarily, I should be deeply obliged to him. The Attorney General has a distinctive and resonant baritone, which is well known throughout the House, but it is a challenge even for him to be fully heard if there is constant catcalling. There will be ample opportunity for colleagues to question and probe the Attorney General—of that they may be assured—but I wish myself to listen to his mellifluous tones.
I will say one thing for the Scottish National party and the hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh South West (Joanna Cherry) if I may. Whereas in the hon. Gentleman’s case, no shameless piece of cynical opportunism is left on the floor, the hon. and learned Lady is a lawyer and a Queen’s counsel, and she knows that it is the most puerile and infantile of criticisms to say about a lawyer whose advice has been upheld by courts right the way up to the Supreme Court that somehow or other he should be held culpable for that advice. The fact of the matter is that this advice was sound advice at the time. The court of last resort ultimately disagreed with it, but in doing so it made new law, as it was entirely entitled to do.
I am extremely mindful of the difficult task that my right hon. and learned Friend has as Attorney General in providing advice to Government, and I am sorry if his legal advice has been partially leaked, because he is entitled to give advice in private. Without that, he cannot do his work. I would also say that for him to get the law wrong in an area of difficulty is not necessarily something to be held to his discredit, but he may agree with me that one of the issues in this matter was one not just law but propriety, and the propriety went to the unconstitutional or constitutional nature of the act of Prorogation itself, in view of the motivation of the Government for doing it. In those circumstances, I was struck by the fact that in the leaked document his opinion is referred to as believing it is constitutional, when I had understood from comments he made as far back, I think, as July, when Prorogation was first being mooted in order to achieve a no-deal Brexit on 31 October, that he considered that such an act would be unconstitutional. I wonder therefore whether this is not one issue that he ought to clarify.
I know that my right hon. and learned Friend will understand that it is not right for the Attorney General or any Cabinet Minister to comment on leaks of matters that occurred within Cabinet, be they accurate or inaccurate—it would set a wholly undesirable precedent—but let me say this. It was being mooted some weeks ago that Parliament might be prorogued from the beginning of September or even earlier until 31 October. I say straightaway to him that if that had been the proposition, I could not have stayed in the Cabinet while it was done.
Does the Attorney General believe that yesterday’s judgment of the Supreme Court represented a constitutional coup, and if he does not share that view, could he explain why he thinks it is wrong?
I do not think that it was a constitutional coup. I know the right hon. Gentleman will know that I do not, and I do not believe that anybody does. These things can be said in the heat of rhetorical and poetical licence, but this was a judgment of the Supreme Court of a kind that was clear and definitive. It often happens that Governments lose cases. We did not agree with it, because of course we argued against it, but we accept the ruling of the Supreme Court, and we are proud that we have a country that is capable of giving independent judgments of this kind.
I welcome the Attorney General’s very clear statement of the importance that he and, I am sure, the whole Government attach to the impartiality and independence of the judiciary. Let me also say to him that many lawyers might well have given exactly the same advice as he did on the weight of precedent. Does he accept, however, that it is most important that the convention that the advice that the Attorney General gives to Government is not leaked and is not disclosed should not be lightly set aside? Would he also perhaps think it rather regrettable that such an important matter, which warrants very careful and calm and considered language and discussion, should be used for the purpose of rather unworthy ad hominem attacks and party political knockabout when so much is at stake?
I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s question. I do of course agree with him that legal advice, and particularly the role of the Attorney General, is always difficult, because one polices and intersects a very difficult line between giving advice of an impartial, and politically impartial, character, and being a political Minister, but I hope that I have endeavoured to do that with all the conscience and candour at my disposal—and when I say to the House, as I do today, “I accept that we lost; we got it wrong on the judgment of the Supreme Court; but it was a respectable view on the law to take, and that view was taken by four of the seven judges who had opined up to the point of the Supreme Court.”
The Supreme Court has made new law. Let us be absolutely clear: from now on, the prerogative power of Her Majesty, advised by the Prime Minister, can be the subject—the justiciable subject—of the court’s control, and that was a judgment that the Supreme Court was perfectly entitled to make. What the implications are for the future of our constitutional arrangements will have to be reflected upon in the coming months and years, but it is never wise to reflect upon a court case and its implications in the immediate aftermath of that case. It will have to be done carefully and deliberately, and this House will have to decide, ultimately, whether these matters and these powers are for this House to regulate and control, or whether they are for the judiciary; but, at the moment, the Supreme Court has spoken, and that is the law.
The Attorney General’s acceptance at that point that the Government got it wrong in this case is very welcome. Will he now advise the Prime Minister and the Government to accept and agree with the content of the Supreme Court’s judgment—not just the obligation to abide by its conclusion—and, in particular, to accept that it is wrong for this Government, or any Government, to seek to prorogue Parliament for five weeks, rather than just for a few days, without giving any reason, let alone, in the words of the Supreme Court, a good reason, to the public, to Parliament, or to the courts?
The judgment is clear. The Government are assessing its short-term and long-term implications now, but the right hon. Lady can be quite certain that they will abide by its ruling, and by the content and implications of its judgment.
What limits are there on the powers of the Supreme Court to intervene in how Parliament conducts its business, and what powers are there for it to intervene over the highly political matter of when and how we leave the European Union?
I think I understood my right hon. Friend’s question correctly. The Court in this case was giving its judgment on a particular issue—whether or not Prorogation of this length could be the subject of judicial control and, if so, what was the correct test to apply to that judicial control. It chose to delineate a test that suggests that from now on, a Prorogation of any length must be reasonably justified. The Court included in its analysis the fact that there was before the House, and before the country now, a particularly acute constitutional controversy, which made it even more important that the House should sit. I have to say, and I think there is nothing wrong in venturing to express respectful disagreement, that what that will mean in future is that the Court will be obliged to assess whether or not a particular political controversy is sufficiently serious, excites sufficiently heated controversy, as to warrant the House sitting for any particular length of time; but be that as it may, that is the test that the Court has set, and that is the test that now must be applied.
What message does the Attorney-General have for his colleagues in government who have been smearing and undermining the Supreme Court judges? Some of this is not done in the heat of the moment: we have been hearing from one journalist that he has been sent copies of articles about Iranian judges, comparing Supreme Court judges to them. Is he going to give an unequivocal message to his colleagues that they should resign if they undermine the Supreme Court’s independence?
The judges do not exist immune from criticism. There is nothing wrong at all in any member of the public, be it a Member of Parliament or otherwise, criticising a court judgment, but what is wrong is that motives of an improper kind should be imputed to any judge in this country. We are defenders of the entire democratic constitution and we must be sure, in everything we say—I agree with the hon. Lady if this is what she means—that we do not impute improper motives. With the judgments, we can be robustly critical; with the motives, we cannot.
Is it not important, even in the course of argument on matters as important as these, to remember why we have the constitutional conventions that we do, and that Governments are entitled, as any other organisation or individual is, to receive legal advice in private? If they do not, and if those who ask for it to be published get their way, that legal advice will become increasingly guarded, increasingly equivocal and progressively less useful to Government in ministerial decision making; and the consequence of that will be less good legal advice and less good ministerial decision making.
My right hon. and learned Friend has great experience, as does my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr Grieve) sitting next to him, of the role that I now have the great privilege to occupy. He knows how important confidentiality is to the ability of the Attorney General to give frank, unvarnished and sometimes unwelcome advice to those who are conducting the policy of the Government. So he is quite right. He discharged his functions, as did my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Beaconsfield, with great distinction and I am proud to have been a successor of theirs.
The right hon. and learned Gentleman has made it quite clear that the Supreme Court judges had every right to come to the decision they came to, and in fact they came to it unanimously, in an excoriating judgment which should put the Government’s Front Bench to shame. What is his view, therefore, of a Leader of the House who persists in believing, and makes it known that he feels, that the Supreme Court has instituted a constitutional coup? Surely he cannot remain in his post if he has that view.
There is nothing wrong with expressing robust critical views about a judgment. In so far as it imputes an inappropriate or improper motive, then it is wrong. I think it is a question of wording and of being careful with one’s language, but I took that remark, in so far as I saw it reported, simply to be a robust criticism of the judgment and nothing more—to which my right hon. Friend is entitled.
I have absolute respect for the integrity and competence of the Attorney General. In the light of what he has told the House this morning, can he guarantee absolutely that—save potentially a few days before a Queen’s Speech—there can be no question of his permitting Her Majesty’s Government to have a Prorogation between now and 31 October this year?
What I can undertake to my right hon. Friend is that there will be no Prorogation that does not comply with the terms of the judgment of the Supreme Court.
The Attorney General has said that he is going to review whether advice should be published, but in answer to the former Attorney General, the right hon. and learned Member for Kenilworth and Southam (Jeremy Wright), he upheld and defended the privacy of that legal advice. Can he tell the House the scope of the review he is undertaking? Is it just related to the Government’s defeat in the Supreme Court or will it be drawn more widely?
What I am considering is the public interest, and whether or not there are factors in this case connected closely with the public interest generally that should outweigh the Law Officers’ convention and lead to disclosure, but that is not only my decision. I am in the position, in a rough and approximate way, between a lawyer and his client, and I must ensure that there is proper consultation and proper reflection on what the public interest requires. That is what I have undertaken to the hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh South West to do, and in due course I will make my mind up.
Did it come as a surprise to my right hon. and learned Friend that the Supreme Court ruled that the act of Prorogation was not a proceeding in Parliament? If that is the new law to which he has referred, would it be open to Parliament to change the law back to what we thought it was before?
My hon. Friend asks whether this came as a surprise. Quite a lot about the judgment came as a surprise, but that particular part proceeded from a quite strict, narrow interpretation of the Bill of Rights on what was a proceeding. It was interpreted to apply the protection afforded by the Bill of Rights to the core and essential business of Parliament, and it was held by the Supreme Court that such a proceeding—namely, the execution of the Queen’s Commission in the Lords, in the presence of Mr Speaker and those who attended that proceeding—was not sufficiently close to its core and essential business to attract the protection of the Bill. It would, of course, be open to the House to decide to legislate otherwise, and no doubt that is one of the implications of this judgment that will have to be reflected upon in the coming months and years. I know that there was a widespread view that it was indeed a proceeding in Parliament, but the Supreme Court is as entitled to redefine, or at least to take a view of, its definition of the protection afforded by the Bill of Rights as it is to invent a new legal principle, as it did in this judgment.
I am sure many of us would like to congratulate the hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh South West (Joanna Cherry) and Gina Miller on making sure that this remains a sovereign Parliament. The hon. Lady asked a question of the Attorney General which he has not answered. She asked him whether he could confirm that the Cabinet or members of the Cabinet—he is a member of that Cabinet —had asked to see his advice but were denied that opportunity. Can he confirm that his advice was requested by fellow members of the Cabinet but was denied?
Let me make it plain that I have never denied any member of the Cabinet any sight of any advice of mine. I am not certain who else asked for that advice and when, but I certainly have never denied it.
Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that, rather than being some new-fangled innovative decision, this was a profoundly conservative decision by the Supreme Court, asserting the ancient sovereignty of Parliament, and that fundamentally the principle at stake here is that, of course, neither that Court nor any other court should determine whether Brexit takes place—that decision has been made by the people—but that it is for this House, the only directly elected representatives of the people, to determine the form in which that Brexit happens?
Let me say to my right hon. Friend that the Supreme Court invoked the principle of parliamentary sovereignty and the convention of ministerial accountability to Parliament as a justification for making justiciable the decision to prorogue. That is what it was entitled to do, and it effectively amounts to converting a political convention into a legal rule. That, traditionally, was not thought to be possible; the Supreme Court has decided that it is, and I certainly do not in any way complain with its right to do so. I agree that Parliament has to determine the terms on which we leave, but this Parliament has declined three times to pass a withdrawal Act to which the Opposition had absolutely no objection. [Interruption.]
We now have a wide number in this House setting their face against leaving at all. When this Government draw the only logical inference from that position, which is that we must leave therefore without any deal at all, they still sets their face, denying the electorate the chance of having their say in how this matter should be resolved. This Parliament is a dead Parliament. It should no longer sit. It has no moral right to sit on these green Benches, and whatever—[Interruption.]
Order. The House must come to order. We have a lot of business to transact: there is a further urgent question and there are no fewer, I say for the benefit of those observing, than five ministerial statements. The Attorney General must be heard, and so, I hope, will lots of other people.
They don’t like to hear it, Mr Speaker. They don’t like the truth. Twice they have been asked to let the electorate decide whether they should continue to sit in their seats, while they block 17.4 million people’s votes. This Parliament is a disgrace. Given the opportunity—[Interruption.] Since I am asked, let me tell them the truth. They could vote no confidence at any time, but they are too cowardly to give it a go. They could agree to a motion to allow this House to dissolve, but they are to cowardly to give it a go. This Parliament should have the courage to face the electorate, but it won’t, because so many of them are really all about preventing us from leaving the European Union at all. But the time is coming, Mr Speaker, when even these turkeys won’t be able to prevent Christmas.
I think the Attorney General will find that the moral right I have to sit in this House is due to an election called by the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May), in which she lost 13 seats. I will represent my constituents as long as I sit in this House, and I am elected by the people to do so.
Will the Attorney General tell the House how much taxpayers’ money he has spent on closing down our voice?
All I am suggesting to the right hon. Gentleman is that he give his constituents the chance to elect him again. [Interruption.]
Order. I say to the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull East (Karl Turner) that, as a result of my prodigious efforts last week, audiences in New York, Boston and Zurich are now aware that he is the noisiest Member of the House. I always enjoy listening to him, but preferably when he is on his feet rather than in his seat.
If the right hon. Member for Delyn (David Hanson) is so confident that his electorate will consider that his moral right to sit here is so strong, why does he not submit it to them now? All we need—I offer this to the Labour Front Bench—is a one-line Bill, which we could put through with Mr Speaker’s help, to fix the date of a general election by a simple majority, and we could have the election. Why does he not tell his Front Bench to put his confidence in his constituents to the test?
I wonder if my right hon. and learned Friend, having read the full summary of yesterday’s judgment by the Supreme Court, was also struck by something that seems to be missing within its methodology. When it stood up, it said, for the right of Parliament to hold any Executive to account, at no point did it reference that one of the ways of avoiding or dismissing a Prorogation would have been to pass a vote of no confidence in the Government or to vote for a general election. Does he agree that that would have been a sure-fire way for the Opposition parties to secure an end to any Prorogation and an immediate change of Government, if they so wished, but that they were frightened?
I entirely agree with my right hon. Friend. In our constitution, when a Government can no longer govern because Parliament has withdrawn its assent, the moral and constitutional thing to do is to have the courage of your convictions, which this spineless gang on the Opposition Front Bench do not, and to table a motion of no confidence, but they have not got the guts to table that motion of no confidence because most of them do not want their own leader in power.
None of us on the SNP Benches is worried about a general election. The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster has suggested that the unanimous verdict of the Supreme Court is the equivalent of the view of just a few academics, and the Leader of the House has described the verdict as a constitutional coup. Unfortunately these views gain traction among members of the public, so will the Attorney General take this opportunity to give a strong statement of support both for the judgment of the Supreme Court and for the importance of the independence of the judiciary?
In answer to the hon. Lady’s last point, I completely and firmly support the independence of our judiciary. In Scotland, in England, in Wales and in Northern Ireland we have one of the finest judiciaries in the world. The fact of the matter is that the Supreme Court gave its judgment, and its judgment must be respected, but that does not prevent robust criticism of the terms of that judgment, which will no doubt be subjected to that criticism—that is onside. What is not onside is the imputation of improper or inappropriate motives.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr Duncan Smith) is right: we had notice of the intention to prorogue. With your assistance, Mr Speaker, we could have entertained motions against it, or even a motion of no confidence. So it was a coup, wasn’t it?
I know that my right hon. Friend knows that, when it comes to the judges—though not to this shower on the Opposition Benches—I want to be, if I can, respectful and careful. It is important that we understand that these judges are protectors of all our freedoms and all our rights—
Order. I do not normally offer stylistic advice to the Attorney General, but his tendency to perambulate while orating is disagreeable to the House. He should face the House with confidence and assurance, and an acknowledgement that the House wishes to hear his every utterance.
I wonder if you, Mr Speaker, in a well-earned retirement, would like to give lessons to Front Benchers. It could be the beginnings of a new and very glorious—or even more glorious—career.
I have now lost my thread entirely—
The Opposition want me to sit down, so I will gratify them and do so.
I came into the Chamber today thinking I felt sorry for the Attorney General—I did!—but every word he has uttered today shows no shame, no shame at all. The fact is that this Government cynically manipulated the Prorogation to shut down this House, so that it could not work as a democratic assembly. He knows that that is the truth, and to come here with his barrister’s bluster to obfuscate the truth, and for a man like him, a party like his, and a leader like this Prime Minister to talk about morals and morality is a disgrace.
I am not sure I discerned a question in that marshmallow of rhetoric, but in so far as there was a question, there is an answer. If the hon. Gentleman thinks the Government should no longer be governing, he should tell his leader to bring a motion of no confidence this afternoon and to agree to a simple one-line statute that fixes the election by a simple majority. We would be delighted to meet the right hon. Gentleman wherever he chooses in front of the electorate, who will judge whether the machinations he supports and the devices to which he resorts to make sure that this dead Parliament continues are right or wrong.
The Attorney General speaks of moral and constitutional courage. Can he explain to the House why the Government did not have the moral and constitutional courage to file in the Supreme Court a witness statement attesting to the truth of the position that was outlined to the Supreme Court judges?
I cannot comment on matters that are plainly covered not only by the convention but by legal professional privilege, but I say to my hon. Friend that the Government’s position was set out clearly in argument—if she followed it all, she will know it went on for a very long time—and the Supreme Court decided against it. We accept that position.
Having lost in court, the Attorney General is keen to try his hand at another test—an election. Perhaps I can help him. In paragraph 41 of the unanimous judgment, the Supreme Court refers to
“Two fundamental principles of our constitutional law”,
“The first is the principle of Parliamentary sovereignty: that laws enacted by the Crown in Parliament are the supreme form of law in our legal system, with which everyone, including the Government, must comply.”
Can the Attorney General confirm that he and the Government will comply with the law known as the Benn Act, recently passed by this Parliament and which has received Royal Assent?
Is it not the case that, contrary to the shouted opinions from the Opposition Front Bench, the Supreme Court has invented a new constitutional rule, just as Lord Sumption told us on the “Today” programme this morning? Lord Sumption also said that this was a revolution—he described the decision as revolutionary. Is it not the case that—[Interruption.] The hon. Member shouts “shocking”, but it was Lord Sumption who said it. Is it not the case that, prior to this revolutionary decision by the Supreme Court, it is quite likely—indeed probable—that my right hon. and learned Friend’s advice was correct, but the Supreme Court changed the law?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for the question. I cannot disclose what advice I gave. The hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh South West, who first asked this urgent question, had that answer, and I am afraid I am going to have to keep giving it today. However, what I would say is that the Supreme Court did indeed, as it overtly and explicitly said, develop the law. It took what was a political convention—hitherto, in all the constitutional textbooks, described as unenforceable by a court—and decided that it would set a test and convert it into a legal principle and legal test. It was perfectly entitled to do that, just as this House will, in the coming months and years, have to reflect on the implications and on whether it is content to leave that position untouched. However, for the moment, that is the law, and the law must be obeyed.
Can the Attorney General be very clear? Were the director of legislative affairs, Nikki da Costa, and the Cabinet Secretary, or indeed any other advisers, including in the office of the Leader of the House, asked to make sworn statements in these cases? Did they refuse to do so, and, if so, why?
I simply cannot comment on matters that pertain to the internal preparation of cases, which are covered by legal professional privilege. It is simply not reasonable to ask people to do so, particularly when it relates to individuals. The hon. Gentleman should make no assumptions one way or the other from what I am saying. The fact is that cases are covered by privilege, and that must be respected.
There are many extremely distinguished and experienced lawyers in this House, but some of us are not lawyers, and many of our constituents are not lawyers, so could my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney General explain the situation very clearly? Is this a new law? Does it set a new precedent? If it is a new law and a new precedent, will the Government comply with the new law and the new precedent?
It is a new principle of law, which has been found to exist by the Supreme Court, and where, hitherto, it has not been thought that a court could go. However, the Court is entitled to develop the common law, and that it has done. This does set a precedent; it is binding, unless this House, in due course, considers that it should take action to alter that position.
While yesterday’s Supreme Court decision upholding parliamentary sovereignty was extremely welcome, it should never have come to this. Our centuries-old unwritten constitution, based on gentlemen’s agreements, is not fit for purpose when dangerous populists are in office. Will the Attorney General therefore consider urgent proposals for a written constitution, developed with real citizens’ engagement, since our democracy belongs to all of us, not just those who think they are above the law?
I have a degree of sympathy with what the hon. Lady says. I think that, as we depart the European Union, there is ground for thinking again about our constitutional arrangements and how they should be ordered. I think that, in doing so, a widespread public consultation of the kind that she is describing would be essential, because any new constitutional arrangements would have to be sanctioned by the widest possible public support and assent, so I do have some sympathy. No doubt over the coming months and years, this will be a subject of important concern to the House.
Given that three of the most distinguished lawyers in the country, including the Master of the Rolls and the Lord Chief Justice, found in the lower court that the Government’s case was entirely correct, can the Attorney General enlighten puzzled non-lawyers like me as to why not even one out of 11 Supreme Court judges could be found to agree with them?
My right hon. Friend is asking me to look into a crystal ball. Far be it from me to fathom the inscrutable minds of their lordships in the Supreme Court as to why they chose not to dissent if they were minded to dissent, or to agree if they were minded not to agree.
I for one am delighted that we are sitting, but the Attorney General is absolutely right about one thing: the result of yesterday’s ruling is that all future Prorogations will be justiciable by the courts. The only answer to that, frankly, is legislation by this House. My gentle suggestion is that it might be a good idea if, in the future, Prorogation were only allowed to proceed if there had been a vote in this House in favour of it.
Well, if I may say to the hon. Gentleman, that is as I would expect from him, particularly in his new guise as an aspirant to even higher office—it is constructive, helpful, impartial and a model to us all.
I think, but I am not sure, that the Attorney General is seeking to help the hon. Gentleman.
In applying this new legal principle that has been created or invented by the Supreme Court, how many Prorogations in the last century would have passed muster to the test that has been created? How can this longest Session of this House since the civil war now be lawfully brought to an end, and a Queen’s Speech lawfully brought forward? Finally, is Royal Assent a proceeding in Parliament?
As to my hon. Friend’s first question, I say that, plainly, if one re-examines the historical records, there is no doubt that there would have been some—possibly quite a few— Prorogations that, under this test, might have had difficulty in passing. For example, Ramsay MacDonald prorogued this Parliament in 1930 for some months, during the course of a minority Government, at a time when the great Wall Street Crash had happened in 1929 and when I have no doubt that some would have said that the House should sit to determine the onset of the great depression and debate those important matters, but the courts looked on—they looked on impassively—as that Labour Government decided to prorogue. It happened again in 1948 and right up into the 1990s when it was said that a Parliament had been prorogued in order to avoid an embarrassing Select Committee inquiry. From now on, when a Prime Minister has to prorogue Parliament, he will have to look at all the Select Committees, see what inquiries they are doing and which Chairmen of which Select Committees might say in a mortally wounded and offended manner, “Why, to prorogue and not to allow my Select Committee to report is a matter of public importance, for which I will go to court and stop the Prorogation.” I do think that this test set by the Supreme Court invites quite a number of significant questions.
The Attorney General has told us that he does not agree with the judgment and that he argued against it. If that is the case and the Attorney General was so convinced that Prorogation was lawful, why did not he and the Government provide a witness statement to the Supreme Court to make that case?
There are all kinds of reasons why, in judicial reviews, witness statements are not given in cases of this kind. I cannot discuss the internal counsels of the preparations of a legal case because, as I am sure the hon. Lady understands, they are covered by the wholly appropriate legal professional privilege.
Given that Parliament is at the apex of our constitutional system, does the Attorney General believe that the appointment of Supreme Court judges should receive the formal approval of Parliament?
I understand my hon. Friend’s question and say to him, quite frankly, that I think it is a matter which this House may need to reflect upon in the coming months and years, depending on the status of our constitutional arrangements, as indicated by the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas). I do think that we are going to have to look again at our constitutional arrangements, and we should see if we can find some common ground. We need to have a proper consideration of these matters. As we leave the European Union, a great gap opens up, whereby we take away from legal integration all this European Union law, and we need to think about the implications. I therefore agree that there may very well need to be parliamentary scrutiny of judicial appointments in some manner. I have to say that I am not enthusiastic about that, but I understand why my hon. Friend asks.
The Attorney General’s defence today with regard to the Supreme Court judgment appears to be that because the Government won the semi-final, they should have been awarded the trophy. That is not how it works and he should acknowledge that, in the final, the Government lost 11-0. With regard to his call, which repeats the call from the Prime Minister, for the public to break the Brexit deadlock by casting their votes, if he is so keen for a public vote on Brexit, why does he not offer the public the chance to vote on the final Government Brexit deal, however that turns out?
I will tell the right hon. Gentleman why: first, because it would be an insult to the millions of people who voted in the first referendum to have a second one before we had implemented the first. [Interruption.] That is what I think. I know that people disagree, but it is a legitimate point of view. Secondly, the question now of this House is whether the Government are going to be permitted to govern. If the Opposition do not wish to allow the Government to govern, the morally correct thing to do is to seek to have an election. What I object to here is that the Labour party and others have repeatedly sought to block that and to prevent the electorate from having its say, when this Parliament is as dead as dead can be.
Following on from that, would the Attorney General accept that the vast majority of people I talk to have great faith in this Government, but have no faith in this remain Parliament? Although there are important legal implications from yesterday’s ruling, the practical implication is that this remain Parliament, which has talked about Brexit for over three and a half years, will now get several more weeks to do what it possibly can to talk about Brexit, but to make absolutely certain that 17.4 million people never get what they voted for.
I wholly understand the strength of feeling of my hon. Friend, and I agree with almost all of it.
The Attorney General accepts that his legal advice was wrong—that the Government got this wrong. Whether in law or not, it was patently obvious to everybody watching that it was wrong to prorogue Parliament in that way. The United Kingdom Head of State was asked by the Prime Minister to agree to an illegal course of action based on incorrect advice. What does the Attorney General believe should be the consequences for those responsible?
The same consequences that flow from any good-faith implementation of advice that, at the time, is perfectly respectable and tenable advice, as this was. The fact of the matter is that the Government’s position was that the Prorogation was lawful and it was constitutional. That was the advice that the Government had, it was the advice that they gave to those who asked them, and the Supreme Court has decided we are wrong. We accept that, as I have said. It was a tenable, reasonable and respectable point of view.
My constituents voted to leave the European Union, and many of them have written to me since yesterday’s judgment concerned about whether that will be delivered. Can my right hon. Friend the Attorney General confirm that there is nothing in this judgment that will prevent us from leaving the EU on 31 October, as they voted for in the referendum?
There is nothing in this judgment that applies directly to the question of our departure from the European Union. As the justices made clear, this was a decision solely on the lawfulness of the Prorogation.
Further to the question by my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford (Nick Boles), have the Government been seeking a route not to comply with the Benn Act, as several Ministers have made clear, and has the Attorney General been asked to offer legal advice to that effect?
I cannot answer the last question, as the hon. Gentleman well knows, as Attorneys General have long maintained the convention that we cannot disclose either the fact or content of any advice. But I will deal with the first point. There is no question of this Government not obeying the law. There is a question as to precisely what obligations the law might require of the Government, but once those obligations are ascertained with clarity—and I am not saying that they are not clear; I am just saying that it is a legitimate consideration the Government must go through—the Government will obey them.
Set alongside the decision of the Supreme Court, what force in law does the decision of the British people to leave the European Union have?
The law in relation to the referendum is that it was not binding upon this Parliament. It was binding in every moral sense upon those who promised the British people that it would be implemented, but it was not binding as a matter of law.
The Attorney General excuses recent comments by Members of this House as simply the expression of robust critical views, but would he agree that in fact those who have been arguing recently that Brexit would give back control to the UK courts and the UK Parliament have now completely U-turned and are actively working to undermine those institutions?
No, I think that is a ridiculous assertion, in fact. The reality is that what we who believe in leaving the European Union have fought so long for is to return to the United Kingdom the power to chart its own course ungoverned by unelected or other institutions in the European Union. How we arrange our constitutional arrangements is a matter for us, and it should be a matter for us. It should be a matter for the democratic assent of all the people of the United Kingdom. So I do not believe for a moment that this Government or those on this side of the House are trying in any way to avoid that. What we are trying to do is make sure that those powers come back to the British people, where they should reside.
Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that, contrary to the repeated claims of the Prime Minister’s many political opponents that the moment he announced Prorogation, he broke the law, the fact is he did not, because as we all know now, the Supreme Court judgment yesterday set new law?
The Supreme Court judgment said that the Government got the law wrong. We have to accept that, but it is perfectly true that in doing so, it effectively invented or created a new legal principle which hitherto had been a political convention and defined that principle in a new legal test. It is crystal-ball gazing to know whether any court would decide to do that. It did, though the Court below, led by the Lord Chief Justice, concluded that it should not.
During the Attorney General’s theatrical rant earlier, he inadvertently forgot to answer the question from my right hon. Friend the Member for Delyn (David Hanson). How much has this Prorogation and all the legal advice and legal consequences cost the UK taxpayer?
I do not know—that is the answer to the question—but if the hon. Gentleman wants to know, he can put down a written question, or I am happy to write to him if he would like. I am very happy to disclose that in due course, once the costs are known. But I say to him that all those costs could have been saved if he had just voted for an election. We could have avoided these cascades of cash falling upon so many lawyers in so many jurisdictions by the simple act of him having the moral guts and not being chicken.
On the subject of taxation, could my right hon. and learned Friend advise me? These legal actions, I believe, have been part-funded by crowdfunding. Will that funding be taxable, and will the tax payable on that crowdfunding have to be paid by the individuals bringing the cases?
I do not believe that it is taxable, but if my right hon. Friend will permit me, I would need to look into it, and if she wishes, I will certainly write to her on the subject.
Earlier this morning, the Attorney General set out again his long-held views about why publishing his advice is not a good idea, so has he requested a leak inquiry to discover who gave documents to Sky News last night? If he has not, is that because he is worried it will unmask machinations in No. 10?
They are not just my long-standing views, as I know the hon. Lady will accept; they are the long-standing views of successive Attorneys General of all Governments over many, many years. As to her second question, I am not aware whether there is a leak inquiry, but these days, I am so used to the porousness of Government that, frankly, I use Cabinet to advertise whenever there is some particular cause that I want to espouse. The reality is that this Government and this Parliament are in a position where we need to go to the electorate, and I urge her to support that as soon as possible, because the only morally right thing to do is subject these debates to the public again.
I must raise my concerns about the Attorney General constantly saying that this Parliament is dead. This Parliament was elected in 2017. It reflects the divisions in this country, the divisions in our communities and the divisions in our families. The failure is that we have not yet reached a compromise. Many of us long to leave the European Union, as we set out in the referendum, but are frustrated by the fact that we have not been able to find a consensus among the different factions. May I urge the Attorney General to work with colleagues to try to find that compromise and to cease this language of pitting Parliament against the people?
I assure my right hon. Friend that if I had not been driven to this language, I would never have used it. The fact is—[Interruption.] The fact of the matter is that the Opposition will not let the Government govern. They will not do what the Opposition should do in these circumstances, and that is to vote for an election. By any standards, the Government are in a minority. The Order Paper is being taken over from the Government again and again, with no doubt further attempts to come. That is the very definition of a Parliament that will not fulfil its responsibilities, either to let the Queen’s Government be conducted or to opt for a general election. That is why I call this a dead Parliament and I do so advisedly. My right hon. Friend knows that nobody worked harder than I did for compromise. Nobody worked harder than I did to put through the withdrawal agreement that was put before this House. I—and she—worked hard to put this through. I have now reached a sad and heavy conclusion that this Parliament is no longer worth the candle and it should be gone, for any good it is doing.
May I say to the right hon. and learned Gentleman that his approach today should probably have been to show more humility and less levity, because there is widespread sympathy for the difficulty of his position offering legal advice in such challenging circumstances? To build on previous questions, in view of his advice on Prorogation having been found to be unlawful, will he tell the House whether he has been asked by the Prime Minister to proffer advice on whether it would be lawful to ignore the instruction of the Benn Act? The matter of whether or not he has offered advice is not subject to privilege.
Words fail me; they really do. The hon. Gentleman rises in the full force of his morality, having been elected for one party and sitting on the Benches opposite for another—and with the hon. Member for Totnes (Dr Wollaston), who did the chicken run, or the rat run, before him having said already that she thinks there should be a by-election when Members change their parties—and has the nerve to suggest that somehow I should have affected greater humility. I think he should be on his knees to his own constituents, begging their forgiveness for his betrayal. The fact of the matter is that the question is subject to the Law Officers’ convention as he knows, and I cannot answer him. I suggest that he asks me when he is back here, re-elected by his constituents, as no doubt he has confidence that he will be, and maybe I’ll give him an answer outside.
Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that if Her Majesty’s Government choose to push their prerogative powers to the limit, as they are entitled, if perhaps not well advised, to do, they should both expect the challenge that they have had and the conclusion that has arisen from it? [Interruption.]
I am very sorry but I did not hear a word of that.
There was a very unattractive rant fest taking place between hon. Members on opposite sides of the House, gesticulating aggressively at each other. It is a very undesirable state of affairs. Let us have a bit of calm and have the question again and the answer, but we want to proceed very quickly.
You are most generous to hear me again, Mr Speaker. Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that if Her Majesty’s Government wish to push their prerogative powers to the very limit, as they are entitled, if perhaps not always well advised, to do, the kind of consequences we have seen in the past few days are inevitable?
In any situation where constitutional powers are pushed to their limits, strain is bound to be caused. I completely accept that we are in an unprecedented time, when constitutional limits are being pressed on all sides, in this House, by seizing control of Order Papers, by rejecting the opportunity for a general election, and by not letting the Government govern. These are factors that place huge strain upon our constitutional arrangements, and I agree with my hon. Friend that it would be good if we resumed calmer waters, which we no doubt will as I have every faith and confidence in the good sense of this country and, in the end, the good sense of this House to be able to come to a solution. That solution must be, I believe, a general election.
Order. A number of hon. and right hon. Members are standing to contribute who were not standing at the start of the statement. That in itself is perfectly reasonable and I will seek to accommodate them if a thought has occurred to them that they want to convey, or a question that they want to put would otherwise go unasked, but once those who are standing have asked their questions pithily, we must move on to the next urgent question. I call Clive Efford.
The Attorney General has tried to take the high moral ground, but I have to wonder what morals were applied by the Government that led to yesterday’s Supreme Court decision. When did he first become aware that the advice given to Her Majesty the Queen, the Speaker of the House and the House itself about the reasons for Prorogation was not true?
In advocacy terms, that is what we used to call a “When did you stop beating your wife?” question. I do not accept the premise of the question. There is no question that the Supreme Court found in any way that any advice that had been given was consciously or knowingly misleading.
Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that there is a judgment that is superior to that of any court’s? That is the judgment of the British people. It has once been given on the question of whether this country should remain a member of the European Union, but it has twice been prevented from being expressed in a vote of this House. Is it not now time that we allow them to give their judgment on this Parliament?
I could not agree more with my right hon. Friend. The time has come. The fact is that this Parliament has no further point. There is no possibility of our governing while this Parliament continues to block everything we do.
Extreme brevity is now required. Single-sentence questions, please, without preamble. I call Lady Hermon.
Thank you, Mr. Speaker. I have listened very carefully to the Attorney-General—I have not agreed with a fraction of what he has said—but I would like him to answer a specific question. Did it never cross his mind that if the Prime Minister made a ridiculous decision to prorogue Parliament for five weeks in the run-up to Brexit, which is the greatest constitutional change to the UK for years, the courts would rule that to be an unlawful Prorogation of Parliament?
If I were to answer that question—tempting though it is, particularly from the hon. Lady, who is also a friend—I would be transgressing the Law Officers’ convention, because I would be telling her what advice I had or had not given. But if she is asking, “Did it occur to me?”, my answer is that of course it did. Any barrister who enters into litigation without it occurring to him that he might lose is a bit of a nit, isn’t he? Of course it occurred to me that we might lose; it would be ridiculous for it not to occur to me.
Does the Attorney General agree with the view of the overwhelming majority of my constituents that the continued delay in delivering on the result of the referendum by 31 October is leading to a lack of public confidence in our democratic process, and that the only way to resolve that now is to have an election and let the public decide?
I completely agree with my hon. Friend, who has put his finger right on it. This continuing artificial prolongation of this dead Parliament is undermining people’s confidence—[Interruption.] I know why Opposition Members are not doing it; they know they will not survive, but they have to have the courage of their convictions, get on it, and put it to the country.
The Attorney General is trying to exonerate his and the Government’s determinations by saying, at the Dispatch Box, that the Supreme Court created new law. Is it not the role of the Supreme Court to interpret existing law, and is that not the action it took?
That is, of course, one function of a court’s role, but a court is perfectly entitled to develop the common law. I do not think there can be any doubt that that is what happened in this case.
It is often said that a lawyer who acts for himself has a fool for a client. It is also worrying if the lawyer is not aware of the costs of continuing with the advice. When the Attorney General makes a statement about the costs to the taxpayer, could he include the costs to the House authorities of having to reconvene on 24 hours’ notice and the inconvenience to staff?
May I place on the record, Mr Speaker, my endorsement entirely for your expression of gratitude to the staff of the House? They do an extraordinarily great job. We are deeply grateful to them for that and for the speed with which they have been able to facilitate the resumption of Parliament.
The question remains unanswered of who had sight of the legal advice before the decision was taken, so I ask the Attorney General once again: did the Cabinet and the Prime Minister’s chief adviser, Dominic Cummings, have sight of the legal advice?
The hon. Lady will know that I cannot disclose whether I gave advice or the content of any such advice. It is covered by the Law Officers convention. The question, “Was the advice shown?” presumes that there was advice. It simply contradicts the Law Officers convention. I wish I could answer her question, but I cannot.
I presume that following yesterday’s Supreme Court judgment the Prime Minister got in touch with Buckingham Palace and offered his apology to Her Majesty the Queen for giving unlawful advice. Did the Attorney General speak to the Prime Minister before that conversation took place?
I did not, no.
Does the right hon. and learned Gentleman agree that any reasonable Attorney General, acting with due care, would query, challenge and perhaps even laugh at any suggestion that five weeks of Prorogation was necessary in order to prepare for a Queen’s Speech?
I think I understood the hon. Gentleman’s question, but I do not agree with its premise.
The Attorney General has accepted the Supreme Court’s judgment that the Government acted illegally in closing down democracy. Does he accept that his fundamental duty is to uphold the rule of law and democracy, not to fan the flames of hatred, pitting the people against the courts and democracy on the road to fascism, as he appears to be doing today by making fun of the Supreme Court and saying that the justices are making things up as they go along? We make the law, they interpret the law, and he and all of us should obey the law.
The hon. Gentleman really needs to listen more closely to what I say. The Supreme Court was perfectly entitled to reach the view it did. It did so by reasoned decision making and it was entirely within the scope of its jurisdiction, but there is no question but that in doing so it developed the common law. That is all I have said, and that is what courts often do.
It is not fear of the electorate that drives some of us in this House, but our determination to do the right thing by our constituents and the country against a Government who are determined to deliver Brexit at any price. Government Ministers have said today that somehow the judgment handed down by the Supreme Court could be disputed by other parties, but they never say which aspects of it they disagree with and on what basis. When Ministers cast doubt on this judgment, what exactly do they disagree with and why are they saying it in public?
The hon. Gentleman asks why Ministers might contest parts of the judgment. There is nothing wrong with the Government, the hon. Gentleman or any member of the public seeking to argue that parts of the judgment were either mistaken or poorly reasoned. I would not necessarily agree with that, but there is no harm in people doing it, because that is part of democratic debate. What is wrong, and what I deplore and urge all Members of this House not to do, is to impugn the motives of those who make the decisions. These are fine judges who reach their decisions impartially on what they think is the best view of the law. I have no doubt that that is what the Supreme Court did in this case.
I am not going to go into all the areas of the judgment that are fragile or vulnerable to alternative arguments. The arguments of the Government were set out in writing. The judgment of the Lord Chief Justice in the divisional court was brilliantly reasoned and was, in the Government’s view, entirely right, but the Supreme Court chose to disagree with it.
Despite the Prime Minister’s repeated denials, it is obvious from the angry reaction of Brexiteers over the past 24 hours that this attempt at Prorogation was about Brexit and nothing else. Is not the real reason why nobody would testify under oath as to what the Government’s reasons were that nobody, even in Government, believed that the Prime Minister’s reasons were the truth?
If the Prime Minister had wished to prevent this House from debating Brexit, he would have prorogued it from 5 September to 14 October. Is the hon. Gentleman seriously suggesting that the Government were blind to the possibility that in the first few days of resumption after 4 September it was not possible that exactly what happened would happen? If we had wished to close down all debate and prevent the option of legislation, which was ultimately taken by this House with the consent of Mr Speaker, we could have prorogued it from the 5th, but we did not. Furthermore, from 14 October there would have been two and a half more weeks for this House to act. With respect, all this talk about a coup is just nonsense—inflamed political tripe, invented and inflated so that this gang can justify clinging to the Opposition green Benches for another few undeserved weeks. That is what it is all about.
The authors of this failed political trick—the Prime Minister and Dominic Cummings—have form in treating Parliament with contempt. What is truly contemptible and cowardly is Dominic Cummings, who refuses to give evidence to a Select Committee and has been found in contempt of Parliament, hiding behind the skirts of the Prime Minister. The Prime Minister is supporting an individual who works for the Government but who will not give evidence to a Select Committee. Does the Attorney General think that that is a respectable position?
I am not sure that that is a question for the Attorney General. I am sure the hon. Gentleman can find somebody who is able to deal with it better than I could, but what I will say is that attacking people who cannot answer for themselves in this House is not appropriate and I would not choose to do it myself.
Will the Attorney General explain why there was a lack of signed witness statements? Is it the case, as we all know, that civil servants could not defend the indefensible and thought that the Government were at it all along?
As I have said in the past, I cannot answer questions about witness statements or the internal preparations of the Government’s case for this Supreme Court.
The Attorney General says that this Parliament does not want to do any work and does not wish to legislate. He is wrong. We are desperate to legislate on many very important issues, none more so than the Domestic Abuse Bill, on which Members across this place and the other place have worked together for two years. It could easily come before this place and we could get it into law and improve the lives of tens of thousands of people across the country. Will the Attorney General put aside his confected outrage and ask the Leader of the House to schedule for tomorrow and next week the important stages of this crucial Bill?
I certainly will talk to the Chief Whip about the matter. If there is consent from all parties, we might as well do something while we are waiting for the Opposition to make up their minds to go for an election.
The Queen has been misled, the law has been broken and Scotland’s Supreme Court has ruled that the Prime Minister has been less than honest, yet there is not a hint of humility from the Government Benches. What sanctions does the Attorney General think that the Prime Minister’s playing fast and loose with our democratic institutions merit? Is the Attorney General seriously before us today to tell us that the Prime Minister’s position is tenable? Is it not the case that the decent thing for the Prime Minister to do is go?
May I then encourage the hon. Lady to ensure that we vote for the election motion that will come before the House shortly? That way she can try to ensure that what she hopes for will take place. However, I do not agree. The Supreme Court found no impropriety on the part of the Government, the Prime Minister or anybody else.
Does the Attorney General believe that the judgment has left 17.5 million people feeling more disfranchised than ever? How should the Government and the House repair that damage?
I completely agree. This House’s actions are bringing it into discredit. It is abandoning almost all reasonable precedent. The time has come for a general election, and to resist it is immoral, unparliamentary and undemocratic, but that is the decision that the Opposition have taken. Let us wait and see what the electorate make of it, but I hope they will understand that the Government are trying to fulfil the mandate of those 17.4 million people. We will never cease until we succeed.
It is reassuring to see that we are indeed carrying on where we left off. As a senior lawyer, does the Attorney General agree that any attempt to describe the considered, unanimous and unambiguous decision of the Supreme Court as a constitutional coup is nothing more than constitutional bull?
I am not sure I could have put that language in a parliamentary way. The Supreme Court’s decision was legitimate, perfectly reasonable and proper. We should be proud of our judiciary and proud of its independence in all jurisdictions—I apply that to the inner house, the outer house, the divisional court. Lawyers will disagree on some of those complex and fundamental principles, and that is what has happened here.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker.
If the point of order relates to the matter of which we have just treated, I will take it.
During the urgent question, the Attorney General made a joke about the phrase, “When did you stop beating your wife?” Part of the reason people are so upset about Prorogation is that the Domestic Abuse Bill has fallen, as my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham North (Alex Norris) just said. May I seek your advice on how the Attorney General can perhaps learn to moderate his language and not make jokes about domestic violence?
It is open to the Attorney General to respond if he wishes, although he is not obliged to do so.
If I have given offence, I certainly did not mean to. It is an old saying at the Bar, which simply relates to a cross-examination technique of asking a question that presumes the premise. It is the way in which we were taught. If I have given offence, I apologise.
I thank the Attorney General for responding. It is a matter of extreme sensitivity and it is incredibly important that we are sensitive to the wider implications and interpretation of what we say. Society’s mores change and sometimes one can find that things that one has freely said in the past without causing offence can no longer be said without causing offence, but each Member must make his or her own judgment. The Attorney General made his and he has said what he has said. I thank him for that.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I apologise for not giving notice of this point of order, but I seek advice that is relevant to our discussions. We have heard much about the way in which the Supreme Court has extended its remit to the actions of the Executive and how that may play out in future. Can you give advice, perhaps to your successor, about whether the Speaker’s actions and decisions should be similarly subject to judicial review and how that may work in future?
I am extraordinarily grateful to the hon. Gentleman, but as an attempted point of order, frankly, in old-fashioned O-level terms, with which I am familiar and of which the hon. Gentleman is probably aware, it would get an Unclassified. It was not even a good try. I do not bear the hon. Gentleman any ill will, but if people are going to have a go at these things, a degree of nuance, subtlety and ingenuity would at least command respect. There is a grade and I am afraid that the attempt was way below it.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker.
I will take the point of order if it is on the matters we have been discussing and not beyond.
Apologies for not giving you notice, Mr Speaker. During the previous exchanges, the Attorney General repeatedly said that this Parliament was a dead Parliament. He said that it should no longer sit and that we had no moral right to sit on these green Benches. How can we ensure that the Attorney General makes a statement to retract those words? They are beneath him and this place. I was sent here by the people of Livingston and of Scotland, as my colleagues were sent by their constituents. Our position should not be undermined by such flippant and ridiculous language.
There is an important issue here. Is something that causes offence required to be withdrawn? I say in all candour to the hon. Lady, whose sincerity I respect, that the answer to that is no. Lots of things are said that may cause offence or provoke umbrage and about which there will be dispute, but there was nothing disorderly about what the Attorney General said. The hon. Lady has registered her view with considerable force and alacrity, and it will be on the record for her constituents to observe. No impropriety has taken place.
(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport if she will make a statement on payments made by her Department to Hacker House, and on how her Department manages possible conflicts of interest.
I thank the hon. Lady for raising this question today. I am answering it because it is part of my portfolio.
As hon. Members may know, the Department runs a programme known as the cyber-security immediate impact fund. It is one of a range of programmes designed to increase the number and diversity of people who pursue careers in the cyber-security profession. Through the fund, we want to support new, creative and innovative projects that are delivered by a range of organisations, including start-ups and small and medium-sized enterprises.
We have supported a variety of initiatives, awarding grants of between £20,000 and £500,000 since March 2018. Hacker House is one of the businesses that was awarded a £100,000 grant in February 2019 as part of our second funding round. To date, it has been paid around £47,000 for work completed. The grant was awarded by officials from DCMS, the Department for Education, techUK and, indeed, people from the National Cyber Security Centre. If the hon. Member for Oxford West and Abingdon (Layla Moran) wishes to impugn the motives of those officials, I invite her to think carefully before she does so.
To date, we have awarded 11 companies grants to deliver 12 initiatives. More than 400 people have benefited from support through the fund. Our objective is that even more people will benefit as the businesses with which we partner further invest in a sector that I know the hon. Lady agrees is vital to the future of our security and our economy. That is part of our mission as a Department to identify untapped talent and help a broader range of individuals who have the capabilities and aptitude to develop their careers in cyber-security. I assure the House that all grants are awarded through an open, transparent and competitive process. Each grant is judged on specific assessment criteria and is approved by the panel I referred to earlier, with cross-departmental and industry representation. We are, of course, aware of the claims raised recently by The Sunday Times, and the Department is reviewing the decision that was taken, but we monitor all initiatives that have been awarded grant funding and we treat any allegations of impropriety with the utmost seriousness. As soon as I have any further information to share on this matter, I will, of course, update the House at the earliest possible opportunity.
I thank the Minister for his reply. I should make it clear that I care very little about the personal life of the Prime Minister, but I care a lot about how this Government manage conflicts of interest and how they spend taxpayers’ money. On that basis, I am concerned that the Department appears to have given Hacker House a £100,000 grant in January 2019 as part of the cyber skills immediate impact fund, a grant that was open to initiatives based in and that operate from Britain. Furthermore, these grants should not exceed 50% of the company’s revenue.
We now know that Hacker House is not based in the UK. The Sunday Times reports that its owner, Jennifer Arcuri, moved back to the USA in June 2018. The grants were not open for application until November. The registered address of the company is in fact a house in Cheshire that she used to rent, and the current occupant apparently sends any post addressed to Ms Arcuri back to the sender.
Where is the due diligence? What steps did the Department take to ensure that Hacker House was indeed based in and operating in the UK? Why did officials waive the rule that the grants could not exceed 50% of the company’s collective income? How many of the other companies that we now find have had these grants have had this kind of preferential treatment? Did the Prime Minister, then a Back Bencher, make any representations, official or otherwise, to the Department recommending Hacker House for the funding? The Department says that it will investigate the award of the grant, but will the Minister tell us when will that review conclude and will it be made fully public?
The misuse of public funds and conflicts of interest in relation to Ms Arcuri run deeper than just this matter. I appreciate that the Minister will not be able to speak for the actions of the Prime Minister when he was the Mayor of London, but would he, on behalf of the Government and the Prime Minister, ensure that all Departments fully co-operate with the investigation being launched by the London Assembly’s oversight committee into how the Mayor’s office handled conflicts of interest?
We are back in the Commons today because the Prime Minister has been shown to ride roughshod over the laws of this land. It would indeed be disappointing if we were to find that the Prime Minister has form in bending the rules for personal or political gain.
I want to start by saying that the Prime Minister and his staff have had absolutely no role in the award of this grant; I suspect I will be saying that a number of times, but it will remain the case.
In answer to the hon. Lady’s other questions, the review will report by the end of next month, and I have said that I will update the House where necessary. Of course, we will fully co-operate with any other inquiry. She raises the matter of the match funding of 50%. The officials involved in awarding such grants scored the application very highly in all other aspects; as they routinely do in a number of other situations, they decided that the other aspects more than outweighed that particular criterion.
On the question of where the company is based, the officials have done the usual due diligence on the company. The hon. Lady herself mentioned the address where it is based. It will, of course, be a part of the review that we are doing, but, as I say, this is a company that is based in Britain as far as Companies House is concerned. It is a company with a British phone number. We will review that, but we have no reason to think that there is anything untoward in this particular matter.
Finally, to address the range of issues that the hon. Lady raised at the end of her question, if she wants to raise matters about a grant that was awarded by officials through the proper process, this is of course a completely legitimate forum for her to do so. If she wants to use this opportunity to try to spread tittle-tattle that is much more about politics, she should think very carefully before doing so.
I welcome what the Minister said about the review being conducted in the Department. He will know that the Secretary of State is due to give evidence to the Select Committee on Digital, Culture, Media and Sport on 16 October. Will he or the Secretary of State write to the Select Committee before then with an update on the terms of reference for the review and the results of the review so far, as well as the details of other awards made to other companies and how much was given under the same scheme?
I thank the Chair of the Select Committee for that question. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State assures me that we are more than happy to write to his Committee. Of course, the awards that were made to other companies are no secret. A press release was put out about these things. We are of course happy to provide him with more details of that.
I welcome the Minister to his new role, and I thank the hon. Member for Oxford West and Abingdon (Layla Moran) for her forensic questioning this morning. This company, Hacker House, got a grant of £100,000. I have looked at the stated aim of the fund, and it says that it is
“to increase the diversity and numbers of those working in the UK’s booming cyber security sector”
“developing a sustainable supply of home-grown cyber security talent”.
As I understand it, Hacker House is a company headquartered in California and the principal owners of the company live in the United States. The company claims to have employees in London, but refuses to reveal who they are or where they are.
It is very difficult to see how the company fulfilled the criteria for these grants, so will the Minister explain to us how Hacker House did so? Was the connection with the then Foreign Secretary, or any other MP in this House, declared when the application was made? Will all applications and paperwork relating to the Hacker House grant now be published in the Library or made available for public scrutiny? Did any MPs lobby on behalf of the company in regard to this or other grants granted by Government Departments?
The broader questions that the Minister has alluded to need answering, because they keep coming back to the current Prime Minister. The issue of whether he has represented the interests of the company or other companies requires scrutiny, as the Chair of the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee alluded to. This is fundamentally a question of character and of suitability. Is the Prime Minister of sufficient character to occupy high office and disburse public funds? Is he suitable? Does he understand that the trappings and privileges of power come with restrictions and restraints? Is he capable of restraining himself?
The truth is that our Prime Minister does reckless things. He is a man whose character renders him unsuitable and unfit for the office he holds. I want answers to these questions, but we all know the broader essential truth. We can all see who Boris Johnson is.
The hon. Gentleman said that it was a pleasure to see me in my place, and it is a pleasure to see him still in his, although I am not sure how many of his hon. Friends share that view.
I am, of course, happy to repeat what I said before. The Prime Minister has had no role whatsoever in this application, and it is, I think, important to bear in mind that this is a decision made by officials, including people from the National Cyber Security Centre, the Department for Education and the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport. These are honourable people doing the right thing, and their reputation should not be impugned in the way the hon. Gentleman seeks to impugn it.
I have said that there was no lobbying, from either the Prime Minister or any other Member of Parliament, and we will seek to make public the bid submitted by Hacker House—I have it here—so long as there are no commercial sensitivities. The aim of the cyber skills immediate impact fund is to build our strength and depth in what is, as I know the hon. Gentleman will agree, a vital area. The Hacker House bid seeks to train people and to build a platform to train more people. That platform has already been built. He can check it out online for himself—he could even sign up—and we will seek to ensure it reaches hundreds of people. That is part of the bid and an important part of this country’s national cyber-security strategy. I would have hoped that he would have supported it, rather than raise a whole host of issues that are not relevant to this question.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on the assumption of his office. I quite agree that the cyber skills immediate impact fund is a crucial driver for Britain to upweight its skills in this vital and growing area. I commend the DCMS officials and those at the National Cyber Security Centre who have managed this fund, but I ask him to look closely at its performance in relation to the grant given to Hacker House in the light of the information shared with the House by the hon. Member for Oxford West and Abingdon. Close scrutiny of what it is doing with the money is of paramount importance.
I pay tribute to the hon. Lady for her work as my predecessor. It is an honour to follow her at the Dispatch Box. She is completely right. She will know that we as a Department routinely talk to those in receipt of grants and ensure as much oversight as possible, and that process will continue. As I have said, there is a review into this particular grant to make sure it delivers maximum value for money for the taxpayer.
I too welcome the Minister to his place. I wonder if when he was discussing accepting the job he knew he would be doing the Prime Minister’s bidding in cleaning up his mess.
It is fair to thank and to pay tribute to the bravery and determination of those who fought through the courts to ensure we could be back here today and able to hold the Government to account: my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Edinburgh South West (Joanna Cherry), Gina Miller and Jo Maugham of the Good Law Project. We thank and salute them.
The blame and bluster that has come out of this Government over this issue and the matter of what happened in the Supreme Court is outrageous. The Prime Minister is under significant pressure to declare what interests and relationship he had with Jennifer Arcuri. There is no disputing that the work is important—I agree with the Minister on that—but, despite what he says about other Members impugning her character, in reality it is the Prime Minister who is impugning her character because of the lack of transparency and his unwillingness to answer questions about their relationship.
The Minister will be aware that Hacker House received £100,000 from the DCMS. Members have already raised the matter of where that business is domiciled. Given the huge amount of public money spent, does he think it appropriate that his Department is investigating itself in those discussions and in that process? I would suggest that that is highly inappropriate and that there should be an independent—
Order. I am extremely grateful to the hon. Lady, but she has exceeded her time by 50% already, so that’s the end of that I’m afraid.
I am glad that the hon. Lady welcomes the importance of this work. This process, like all Government grant-giving processes, is conducted in a transparent way. The review will not be the Department marking its own homework, and as I said, we will put any further updates to the House as they become available, which will be by the end of next month.
I understand that Ms Arcuri’s mother has described the Prime Minister as her daughter’s sponsor? What kind of sponsorship does he provide?
I struggle to see how that question is directly relevant to the one that I am here to answer, but I would say, as I have said before—[Interruption.] I am not here to answer for anyone’s mother. As I have said before, the Prime Minister had no role whatsoever in the application, but none the less we are reviewing the process.
I welcome my hon. Friend to his place. I also welcome the support he is providing to small and medium-sized enterprises in this area. Can he confirm that clear criteria are applied in the awarding of these grants and that grants are made on the basis of a business case and adherence to those criteria? Does he agree that Opposition Members should probably learn from the past and suspend making wild allegations until a proper review has taken place?
I thank my hon. Friend for his kind words. He is absolutely right that supporting SMEs in such a sector is particularly important. It is something we will continue to do. On the process, I referred to the bid earlier. I have the form here—several dozen pages—that must be provided to access Government funding. That is right and proper. He is right also that we should all shy away from making unsubstantiated allegations.
Many of us will have constituents who represent companies that might bid for Government funding and constituents with concerns about this place and the probity of anything that happens. It was a former Prime Minister who said that sunlight was the best disinfectant. The Minister has already said he is looking to publish the details of the bid, which might contain commercially sensitive information. If he wants to defend the Prime Minister’s reputation, why does he not save us all the freedom of information request and commit to publishing all the documentation regarding the bid, including anything his officials received? I am sure some of those trainers could show him how to do it online today if he wanted.
As I have said, we are doing a review into the decision, and I hope we will be able to publish as much as possible as a result. She is right that sunlight is the best disinfectant in many cases. It is a policy the Government apply very widely, including in this Department.
Probity and ethics seem to have gone out the window with this Government, so can the Minister assure us that the Prime Minister will co-operate fully with the Department’s inquiry and with the Greater London Assembly’s inquiry? If not, is it not only right that the Metropolitan police open an inquiry into whether there has been any misconduct in public office?
The hon. Gentleman is obviously right to ask the question, but the review will go wherever it needs to, and I have had no indication that anyone is not going to co-operate, be it the Prime Minister or anyone else.
The Minister insists on calling this a review. Why is he shying away from referring to it as an inquiry? What will the scope and terms of the review be?
I have already said to the Chair of the Select Committee, who is no longer in his place, that we will write to him with more information on that. All I can say now is that the review will leave no stone unturned.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on his new position. I am sure he will also thank you, Mr Speaker, for choosing this UQ from the 44 that were submitted. Can my hon. Friend tell the House how long ago this took place and for how long we have had a Labour Mayor of London who could have investigated this before now?
I am grateful to you, Mr Speaker, for providing me with my Dispatch Box debut, as my hon. Friend alluded to. He is right to refer to the fact that this matter concerns a company that was founded in 2016 and that the Government did not hide anything—we put out press releases. Perhaps the Mayor of London does not check the gov.uk website as often as we might like.
Some £47,000 of the £100,000 grant money has now been awarded to Hacker House. Will the remaining £53,000 be withheld until a review has been concluded?
As with all such processes, while the review is ongoing that process will be paused, but I should like us to get on with ensuring that the good work done under this fund continues as rapidly as possible.
The Times revealed today that the Prime Minister previously planned to set up a £100 million fund with the owner of Hacker House. May I remind Members that, as Mayor of London, the Prime Minister oversaw the Garden Bridge project, which was the subject of allegations of corruption and was riddled with conflicts of interest? Will the Minister reassure the House that there will be no further examples of “friends with benefits” funding from the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport or any other Department?
Of course I speak for the DDCMS, but, as I have said, this is a process that is scrupulously transparent, it is a process that is rigorous, and it is applied equally to all. The hon. Lady mentioned something about the Garden Bridge; perhaps she was pre-empting the Secretary of State for Transport, who will be here shortly.
The Minister has said that this whole process has been rigorous, open and transparent, and he is rightly making the bid available and accessible to all MPs in the Library. However, if he is completely confident that there have been no issues with this process, and if he does indeed believe in its being open and transparent, why does he not put all correspondence relating to the bid in the Library so that we can see it, instead of hiding behind his own governmental review? Show us the evidence!
That is, of course, part of the point of having the review. As I said earlier in answer to another question, I will encourage those conducting the review to make as much of its material as is commercially possible in any circumstances as public as possible. The hon. Lady shakes her head, but I have agreed to the premise of her question, and we will do it.
This is not just about money. It is also about influence, because it has been alleged that the Prime Minister and former Mayor of London obtained access to trade missions for Jennifer Arcuri, despite her apparently not meeting the criteria for those trips. Can the Minister tell me on how many other occasions the Prime Minister has intervened to secure junkets for his pals?
As I have said repeatedly, there is no input from the Prime Minister at any stage in this process. Opposition Members can say it as often as they like, but that will not make it true.
Last week’s open letter from the Committee on Standards in Public Life to all public office holders describes the
“long-established principles of selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty and leadership”
as “a personal responsibility”. Given the Prime Minister’s seeming disregard for conflicts of interest and his refusal to answer questions, does the Minister agree that he has not the character to lead this country?
The hon. Lady has talked about the Prime Minister. He will be here later, and she can put that question to him herself. She has also talked about the principles of public life. What I think the public cannot get their heads around is how they can have a Parliament that is blocking the will that they expressed in a referendum.
The Minister will realise that this is not going to go away any time soon. Does he agree that only a full independent inquiry will be able to remove the stench of sleaze and scandal that is currently engulfing the Prime Minister, and that any inquiry must investigate the circumstances of this use of public funds to check that it was legal and appropriate, that there was no conflict of interests, and that at no time did the now Prime Minister abuse his position or misuse public funds? If that does not happen, the stench of sleaze and scandal that currently engulfs the Prime Minister will linger long.
It will not surprise the hon. Gentleman to learn that I do not accept the vast majority of the premise of his question, but he says that this is not something that will go away, and he is right. We are having a review. We are not seeking to make it go away, and we will leave no stone unturned.
The Minister has given assurances that no Member of the House of Commons was involved in lobbying for Hacker House, but can he give the same reassurances about the House of Lords?
As I have said, we are having a review. I have no indication whatsoever before me that there is a positive answer to the hon. Lady’s question, but we are having a review, and we will make sure that that is covered.
A great number of people out there are trying to get start-up businesses off the ground, and to those people a grant would be hugely welcome. Can the Minister at least see that the impression—I use my words carefully—of money being dished out to mates is corrosive to public confidence in the grant system, and that that, in turn, is damaging to the reputation of any Government?
I agree that that impression is, in part, why we are having the review, but I would also say very gently to the hon. Gentleman that one of the things that is corrosive to public confidence in that process is people repeatedly making allegations when we have not had that review, and have not yet had any proof.
There have been reports that the Prime Minister, when Mayor of London, had a close relationship with Jennifer Arcuri, which included receiving personal, one-to-one technology lessons from her. Can the Minister assure us that, even if no representations were made directly by the now Prime Minister, no representations were made on his behalf?
I have said that, and I am happy to say again that there was no undue lobbying to the best of my knowledge. As I have said, we are having a review and we will make that public, but I think that the hon. Gentleman’s attempt to broaden the scope of this will not change the fact that there is no evidence whatsoever that the Prime Minister sought to do anything improper.
Has this company, or its directors, applied for any other Government funds? If so, over what period, and successfully or unsuccessfully?
The two other companies that are related to Miss Arcuri have not made any applications whatsoever to this Department. Of course we will be double-checking that as part of the review, and I am sure that the review will also look at other Departments, but, as I have said, this is a process that is scrupulous, transparent, and rigorous in its independence, whichever company is in receipt of Government money.
I am sorry that the Minister is rattled, as evidenced by his dismissal of questions about the Prime Minister’s possible conflict of interests when he was London Mayor as “tittle tattle”. That is contemptible, and sadly shows—as did yesterday’s announcement of the result of the court case—the staggering sense of entitlement that is at the heart of this Government, with a Prime Minister who thinks that he can do as he pleases. Will the Minister confirm that he believes that this Parliament and the public are perfectly entitled to hold the Prime Minister and his Government to account, and that any hints or suggestions to the contrary about “tittle tattle” only show yet more disrespect for the democratic process?
The hon. Lady tells me that I am “rattled”. I am enjoying this debut rather more than I expected, but none the less, it is always a pleasure to answer pre-written questions. [Interruption.] The hon. Lady shows me that it was pre-written; that is very good to see.
To be fair, the hon. Lady has raised an important constitutional principle. It is an important constitutional principle that this Government absolutely respect, and will continue to do so.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker.
Does it appertain to these exchanges?
Earlier in our exchanges, Mr Speaker, the Minister suggested that I try to register with Hacker House. I looked at social media, and saw that many people online had tried to do that, but had received the error message “502 Bad Gateway”. Can you explain why Hacker House seems to have disappeared?
The Minister is under no obligation to respond to the point of order, but it is open to him to do so if he wishes.
It is, of course, a part of the Department’s processes that we will make sure that the services we procure are properly delivered. We are very happy to have a look at that, and we will continue to do so.
With your permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a statement about the steps that the Government have been taking to support those affected by the collapse of Thomas Cook, particularly for the 150,000 passengers left abroad without a flight back and the 9,000 people here who have lost their jobs in the UK.
This is a very sad situation. All parties considered options to avoid the company’s being put into administration. Ultimately, however, Thomas Cook and its directors themselves took the decision to place the company into insolvency proceedings, and it ceased trading at 2 am on Monday 23 September. I recognise that this is a very distressing situation for all those involved. I assure Members of the House that the Government are committed to supporting those affected, including by providing repatriation flights free of charge for all those people.
We have been contingency planning for some time to prepare for this scenario, under Operation Matterhorn. The Government and the Civil Aviation Authority have run similar operations in the past and have been working hard to minimise the disruption to passengers and to try to assist Thomas Cook’s staff. Even with our preparations, and previous experience with Monarch, the task before us represents the largest peacetime repatriation ever undertaken in the UK. Some disruption and delay is therefore inevitable, and we ask for understanding, particularly for Thomas Cook’s staff, many of whom are still working, alongside the Government, to try to help ensure the safe return of their customers.
For example, the media reported on the situation in Cuba overnight. That aircraft has now left this morning, and all the passengers from Cuba who were scheduled to come home today are on that flight.
Normally, the CAA’s responsibility for bringing back passengers would extend only to customers whose trips are covered by the ATOL scheme. However, there would have been insufficient capacity worldwide in the aviation market to allow people whose trips were not covered by the ATOL scheme to book tickets independently and bring themselves home. Some passengers would have had to wait for perhaps a week or longer, and others would have suffered financial and personal hardship as they waited for another flight. In my view, that would have created further economic problems, with people unable to return to work and unable to be reunited with their families. With tens of thousands of passengers abroad and with no easy means of returning to the UK, I instructed the CAA to ensure that all those currently abroad were able to return, ATOL or non-ATOL.
Due to the size, complexity and geographical scope of the Thomas Cook business, it has not been possible to replicate the airline’s own flying programme and its schedule. In the case of the Monarch collapse back in 2017, the CAA was able to source enough aircraft of the right size and the right types to closely match the airline’s own aircraft. But Thomas Cook was a much bigger airline, and it also provided a global network of package holidays; as a result, this operation has been much more challenging. Some passengers will be travelling home on commercial flights, where other airlines have available seats. I know that the whole House would want to thank all the airlines and ground staff who have offered assistance to Thomas Cook passengers in this difficult situation.
I would like to update the House with the latest information and give hon. Members a sense of the scale of the operation that has been going on. We have put arrangements in place to bring back 150,000 people, across 50 different countries.[Official Report, 30 September 2019, Vol. 664, c. 9MC.] That requires over 1,000 flights by CAA-chartered aircraft over the next two-week period. Passengers will be able to complete their holidays, so that they should not be leaving early, and should return on the day that they were intending to.
So far, in the first two days of the operation, we have brought home nearly 30,000 of the 150,000 passengers, on over 130 dedicated CAA flights. We hope to repatriate a further 16,500 passengers today, on about 70 flights. I checked before I came to the House, and the operation is proceeding according to these amended schedules.
So far, 95% of people have been repatriated to their original point of departure. Again, we have not been able to bring everybody back to the airport from which they left, because of the difference in size and shape of available aircraft. In the first two days, we have therefore provided onward travel for 2,300 passengers, and have arranged an additional fight from Gatwick to Glasgow to relocate passengers who have flown back to the wrong airport because of that scheduling issue.
The CAA has reached out to over 3,000 hotels, issuing letters of guarantee to ensure that British holidaymakers can remain in the hotels in which they are booked, and that has been followed up by calls and contact from FCO officials.
Over 50 overseas airports are involved—around the Mediterranean, in north Africa and in north America—and 11 UK airports are engaged in this programme. There have been over 100,000 calls to our customer service centres, and on the first day alone there were over 2 million unique visitors to the CAA’s dedicated website—thomascook.caa.co.uk—with close to 7 million page views. In total, 10 Government Departments and agencies have been involved, including the Department for Transport, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and Department for Work and Pensions, in London, and our extensive diplomatic and consular network in the affected countries.
I have been hugely impressed, as the programme has been rolling out in the past couple of days. The response from everyone involved, including Thomas Cook passengers, has been generally positive, with many praising the CAA, local staff and government officials, even though there has been considerable disruption. For example, people have not been able to check in in advance, as they are used to doing these days, but have instead had to queue to check in for every single flight. That has caused some of the queues that we see on television. The programme has, though, been generally well organised and all those involved have been extremely professional.
Despite these robust plans and their success so far, this is an incredibly distressing situation for all concerned. One of my top priorities remains helping those passengers abroad to get back to the UK and do so safely, but in addition to supporting passengers, we have been working across Government to ensure that the 9,000 former Thomas Cook employees in the UK and those overseas receive the support that they need. The decision by the Thomas Cook Group’s board has been deeply upsetting for employees, who are losing their jobs. DWP’s Jobcentre Plus rapid response service is in place, helping workers get back into employment. The Jobcentre Plus rapid response managers across the UK are ready to engage with the liquidators to start that vital work. Special arrangements are in place for UK employees who are owed redundancy pay and notice pay by their insolvent employer: the redundancy payments service in the Insolvency Service can pay statutory amounts owed to the former employees through the national insurance fund. I want to say more about that later, but I will do so in answer to questions.
My colleague the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy is establishing a cross-government taskforce to address the impact on employees and local communities. That will help to overcome barriers to attending training, securing a job or self-employment, such as by providing child care costs, tools, work clothes and travel costs.
My colleagues and I have been in contact with those Members whose constituencies will have been hardest hit by these job losses, and have given assurances that we will work with the industry to offer what support we can. In fact, pretty much every hon. Member’s constituency is affected in some way, even if only through the number of people working in a single shop location.
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy has written to the Financial Reporting Council to ensure that it prioritises, as a matter of urgency, an investigation into both the causes of the company’s failure and the conduct of its directors and auditors.
I am also aware of the duty that this Government have to the taxpayer, and while affected passengers have been told they will not have to pay to be flown back to the UK, we have entered into discussions with third parties with a view to recovering some of the costs of this large operation. Around 60% of passengers have ATOL protection, and the CAA’s air travel trust fund will contribute proportionately to the costs of the repatriation, as well as refunding ATOL future bookings. We will also look to recoup some of the costs from the relevant credit and debit card providers and travel insurers, and will look to recover costs from other travel providers through which passengers may have booked their Thomas Cook holiday. We are also in discussion with the Official Receiver to understand what costs can be recouped through the company’s assets.
The final cost of the operation to repatriate Monarch passengers back in 2017 was about £50 million, including ATOL contributions. The repatriation effort for Thomas Cook is now known to be about twice the size and is more complicated, for reasons that I have explained.
I have also seen it suggested in the press that the Government should have avoided the collapse with a bail-out of up to £250 million for the company and shareholders. Given the perilous state of the business, including the company’s own reported £1.5 billion half-year loss which was reported in May and followed by a further profit warning in November, this simply was not the case, with no guarantee that an injection would have secured the future of the company. Our concern was that if we put in £250 million, we would risk throwing away good money after bad and still having to pay the cost of this repatriation. It is quite clear that in the last several years the company ran into a number of problems by trying to expand itself through investing more in the high street rather than less, while the entire market was moving in the opposite direction.
The loss of an iconic British brand with a 178-year history—one of the oldest travel companies in the world—is an extremely sad moment. However, this should not be seen as a reflection on the general health of the UK aviation industry, which continues to thrive. Passenger numbers are actually up, and people are traveling more. However, the truth is that the way people book their holidays has changed an enormous amount over the years, but it did not change as much within the company. None of this should distract us from the distress experienced by those businesses reliant on Thomas Cook, by passengers and by Thomas Cook employees who, as I have said, have worked above and beyond, particularly in recent days during this distressing situation.
We have never had the collapse of an airline or a holiday company on this scale before, but we have responded swiftly and decisively. Right now, our efforts are rightly focused on getting those passengers home and looking after those employees who have lost their jobs, but we also need to understand whether any individuals have failed in their duties of stewardship within the company. Our efforts will then turn to working through the reforms necessary to ensure that passengers do not find themselves in this ridiculous situation again. We need to look at the options within ATOL, and also to ascertain whether it is possible for airlines to be wound down in a more orderly manner. They need to look after their customers, and we need to be able to ensure that their planes can keep flying so that we do not end up having to set up a shadow airline for no matter what period of time. This is where we will focus our efforts in the next couple of weeks, but in order to do this we will require primary legislation and, dare I say it, a new Session of Parliament.
In what has been a challenging time, I want to put on record my appreciation for the work of all those involved in this effort, particularly Richard Moriarty, the chief executive officer of the CAA. He and his team, and my officials in the Department for Transport, have done an extraordinary job so far. I am also grateful for the support of others, including the Mayor of Manchester, who has acknowledged the Government’s repatriation effort and its work with all the agencies involved in helping to get people home. This has been an unprecedented response to an unprecedented situation, and I am grateful to all the parties who have stepped in to support these efforts. I commend this statement to the House.
I would like to thank the Secretary of State for giving me timely advance sight of his statement; that is a welcome change. What I do not welcome is the collapse of Thomas Cook, which is a tragedy for the 178-year-old business, its customers and its staff. The travel company went under because successive chief executives failed to steer the group effectively or to evolve the business. Thomas Cook had five offers for its airline business, yet these were rejected by the board. I, too, would like to pay tribute to Richard Moriarty and his team at the Civil Aviation Authority for the work done yet again to repatriate holidaymakers. I applaud their sense of public service and duty.
Aviation is a fiercely competitive industry that has lost services because of terrorism and Brexit uncertainty. The Government’s dithering on their aviation strategy has only added to these difficulties. In May, speaking on airline insolvencies, the Secretary of State’s predecessor said that the Government
“will work swiftly to introduce the reforms that are needed to ensure a strong level of consumer protection and value for money for the taxpayer.”—[Official Report, 9 May 2019; Vol. 659, c. 33-34WS.]
This was misleading. The Government have done nothing to protect consumer or taxpayer interests. The Government have sat back and let the company fold.
Yesterday, Governments in Scandinavia stepped in to back Thomas Cook subsidiaries in that region. The German Government also stepped in with a loan of €380 million for the Thomas Cook subsidiary Condor, to help that company to survive. The chief executive of Thomas Cook Airlines, Christoph Debus, has seamlessly just gone to work for Condor, and jubilant scenes of the survival of the subsidiary are doing the rounds on social media. Can the Secretary of State tell the House what steps his Government took to enter into a joint investment with other interested nation states? It is reported that the Governments of Spain and Turkey were understandably willing to do this, but seemingly the UK Government were not.
We are somewhat reassured that there is provision to return holidaymakers to the UK, but sadly there is no provision for the return of Thomas Cook’s staff. The unions Unite and the Transport Salaried Staffs Association have valiantly fought for their members, while this Government have done nothing. Can the Secretary of State guarantee that all staff will be repatriated? Can he say what provisions he is putting in place to ensure that customers who have lost their planned holidays are fully compensated and able to make alternative arrangements at no expense to themselves?
The Government learned nothing from the Monarch collapse two years ago. Monarch cost taxpayers £40 million in repatriation costs and Thomas Cook looks set to cost a similar amount or more, not to mention redundancy and future welfare payments. Can the right hon. Gentleman give us an estimate of what the total costs are likely to be? Monarch was the victim of financial engineering by Greybull Capital two years ago, and of conflicts of interest with the company’s administrator. Similarly, the collapse of Thomas Cook raises major questions about the accounting of the firm by PwC and EY, never mind the bonuses paid to senior executives. On that point, will the Secretary of State make it clear to those executives that they should return their undeserved and unwarranted multi-million pound bonuses, including that of Peter Fankhauser, who has had £4.6 million in bonuses since 2014?
I say again that the Government have not acted to protect the public interest, and that nothing has been learned or done to improve how our insolvency arrangements deal with such exceptional and complex circumstances. What is more, the ATOL fund has been much reduced by the Monarch fiasco and has had to rely on insurance to make up the shortfall. Does the Secretary of State believe that the reforms of ATOL enacted by his Government have been effective? The Government must confirm that they will immediately guarantee the workers full compensation for unfair dismissal, given the lack of proper consultation, and that those workers will not have to pursue the matter through the courts. Can he confirm that they will be relieved of that burden and stress?
In a further sad development, we also learned today that Northern Ireland’s last manufacturer, Wrightbus, has gone into administration with the loss of 1,400 jobs. In July, the Prime Minister said that
“we will do everything we can to ensure the future of that great UK company.”—[Official Report, 25 July 2019; Vol. 663, c. 1496.]
Is it not the case that this Government are guilty of the industrial neglect of this country? In contrast to other countries, UK Ministers have stood by and let some of our great companies wither and die. This Government are engulfed by inertia and incompetence. They are not a functioning Government, because of the Brexit chaos and Prorogation paralysis that they have brought upon themselves. The people of Britain are paying a high price for their inadequacy. They have failed to reform insolvency rules and failed to improve financial reporting. This is a colossal failure of political leadership from this Government. They were warned, but they did nothing. That is a shameful failure to fulfil their duties and their responsibilities.
Let me see what we can deal with here. It is true, as the hon. Gentleman outlined, that the world has changed. In 2007, Thomas Cook bought MyTravel just as the internet was starting to take off. In 2016, when the high street was clearly struggling because the internet had taken off, it bought the high street shops of Co-op Travel, further expanding its problems and its massive debt to £1.7 billion. I agree with him that this was, in the end, a very poorly run business that was going in the wrong direction at the wrong time.
The hon. Gentleman made a very sensible point in his query about the return of the bonuses that we have all been reading about. I have described how my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy has written to the Insolvency Service. Under the Insolvency Act 1986, the official receiver has the power to require the return of bonuses in certain circumstances. I absolutely agree with the hon. Gentleman that that needs to be fully looked into, including the role of the auditors.
That is where we agree. Where we disagree is that it is not the case that this situation is somehow unique to Thomas Cook. As I mentioned, airlines elsewhere in the sector are in good health. Many of them have been very helpful in bringing Thomas Cook passengers home over the past couple of days and have offered extraordinary help, even lending aircraft and, in the case of one well-known airline, cutting prices for Thomas Cook customers, rather than charging more. However, in response to what the hon. Gentleman said about this insolvency, it is only right to point out that Germania, a German airline, went bust; Primera Air, a Danish airline, went bust; Air Berlin, a German airline, went bust; as did Cobalt Air of Cyprus and FlyVLM of Belgium. This is not a UK issue; this is an issue where some airlines manage to do the right things and succeed, and others do not.
The hon. Gentleman rightly mentioned what has happened with Condor. Here, we will find partial agreement and partial disagreement. Condor was operating under a somewhat different business model. In Germany, people do not book holidays in quite the same way as they do in the UK, partly because UK citizens tend to use the internet in a different way and are much more becoming their own travel agents. With Condor, the business remained profitable. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell) asks what difference that makes. The difference is that it was a profitable business, unlike the business here.
It is also the case—this is where I think there will be a degree of agreement—that German insolvency rules allow for administrations to take place, and then for aircraft to carry on being used and for other buyers to come in during the administration process. That is not something that our current rules on airline liquidation and insolvency allow for.
The hon. Gentleman rightly pointed out that the previous Secretary of State said he wanted to do something about that and commissioned a review. So that we are all clear on the timeline, that review reported on 9 May 2019. It suggested that we should have rules that are not dissimilar to the German rules to allow our airlines to trade in administration. That would make repatriation massively easier, because we could use those airlines. I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman on that. Perhaps he did not hear me mention it during my statement, but we need a new Session of Parliament to introduce that primary legislation in order to bring that in. We are very happy to have a new Session of Parliament. If we get agreement, perhaps that is something we can progress.
I believe that, given the number of people and the number of lives that have been affected by this situation, we should be working together cross-party to get this job done. I welcome the hon. Gentleman gesturing that he will provide support to sort out this problem, because that would clearly be in everybody’s interest.
The hon. Gentleman referred to whether foreign Governments were prepared to ride to the rescue. I confirm that I received no approach from the Turkish Government and that the only contact via the Spanish Government was not a viable plan and came so late in the day that the company was already starting its administration proceedings. There was no viable plan out there at the time.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman that the ATOL system should be reformed. As he rightly pointed out, although the funds are limited because of Monarch, ATOL itself is reinsured to cover most of that cost. Finally, on a point of accuracy, he mentioned that £40 million has been spent on Monarch. In fact, we think that the final cost was £50 million.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker.
We cannot take points of order during a statement. Points of order will flow after either this statement or other statements at the discretion of the Chair.
The UK headquarters of Thomas Cook are based in my constituency. The collapse of the company has meant the loss of 1,200 local jobs. Our thoughts go out to all those people and to the thousands more across the UK who have been affected. Will my right hon. Friend join me in paying tribute to the many local organisations and companies that have come forward offering jobs to those who have been affected? The local newspaper, the Peterborough Telegraph, has been co-ordinating the activities. We have also seen acts of kindness. Peterborough United and Peterborough Phantoms, a local ice hockey team, are offering free tickets to those who have been affected. Does my right hon. Friend recognise that at this difficult time we need to appreciate and applaud the generosity that is coming through?
May I start by paying tribute to my hon. Friend, who has been working very hard through the last few difficult days with people from Peterborough who have found themselves without work? He has done tremendous work with his community to support all those who have lost their jobs. There are 630 jobcentres running the rapid response service that has been mobilised to pick up this issue for every single former Thomas Cook employee who has lost their job as a result of this appalling news. I should say that the best thing we can do is to make sure that we operate an economy where there is record high employment and record low unemployment, because that will give people the best opportunity to get back into a good job.
I thank the Secretary of State for advance sight of the statement. I pay tribute to the work of the CAA and to the Thomas Cook employees who have gone above and beyond to help stranded holidaymakers. I express my sympathies for all those who have lost their jobs.
Instead of the UK Government using the mantra that this is the biggest peacetime repatriation, they should be apologising for this collapse happening on their watch. The Secretary of State spoke of reforms and new legislation that are required to stop this happening again with another company, but why were lessons not learned from the collapse of Monarch just two years ago? What are the timescales for the new legislation? I point out that, procedurally, a new Session is not required for legislation. The Government could bring it forward if they wanted.
Will the Secretary of State explain the position with Spain and Turkey, and the fact that they were looking at ways to keep Thomas Cook trading, while the UK Government were not willing to? The German Government led the way in keeping Condor going.
The Secretary of State said that £250 million would have been good money after bad, but what discussions did the Government have with Thomas Cook and what financial appraisal did the Government make before saying that they could not fund that money? This is a Government who can find £100 million to advertise that Brexit is good for us. I think they should spend that money on supporting jobs instead.
Will the Secretary of State explain what impact Brexit had on the collapse of Thomas Cook, because it warned about the impact of Brexit? What impact did the collapse of sterling have on the company’s trading position? What assessment have the Government made of the pension liabilities of Thomas Cook? What plans do the Government have to curb outrageous executive pay, given that close to £50 million has been taken out of Thomas Cook in recent years?
I welcome the update on the holidaymakers in Cuba, but are any other holidaymakers effectively being held to ransom or captive? What discussions are the UK Government having with foreign Governments when such ruthless actions are taken?
Thomas Cook vouchers are now worthless. When will the Government finally implement the scheme to protect vouchers and gift cards when companies become insolvent?
What actions are the Government taking to support the 13,000 employees who are still abroad?
Finally, I have constituents who have lost their jobs. Can the Secretary of State look my constituents in the eye and honestly say that there is nothing more the Government could have done to save their jobs?
I should have picked up the point about Thomas Cook employees abroad in answer to a previous question. We are actually bringing back some of those people, starting with the crews and the operational people. I think I am right in saying that yesterday we had brought back about 150 so far. We are not ignoring them, but we need to bring passengers back first. I have asked the CAA to be as flexible as possible in bringing back Thomas Cook employees, and the hon. Gentleman is right to remind me that I had not mentioned that before.
The hon. Gentleman asked a number of other questions that I have previously answered, and I do not want to go round in circles. The House must know that no Government would want to lose an iconic, 178-year-old famous British name. I hear people ask, “Why don’t you just put the money in?” All those people have to do is open the books to realise that there is a £1.7 billion debt, with £1.5 billion lost in six months alone, and that another profit warning had been issued.
I am afraid that this situation is entirely different from that with Condor, which is a fundamentally profitable airline, and it just would not be responsible to throw good money after bad. We would probably be back here in a very short time to offer a bail-out to get people home, rather than to bail out the company. This company just was not a going concern with which we could do that.
The hon. Gentleman asks sensible questions about whether other holidaymakers are being held to ransom or being held captive elsewhere in the world, and I am not aware of any other location in which that is the case at the moment. However, it is a live and moving situation, and under our direction the CAA has been issuing proactive letters to explain that holidaymakers’ bills will be settled in places were some hotels have not had bills settled for the past three months because of the company’s bankruptcy. I pay tribute to and thank our foreign mission in Cuba for proactively getting in touch with Ministers yesterday to resolve that appalling situation.
I think that covers the majority of the questions that I had not previously answered.
As somebody who worked in the travel industry for many years, I am saddened to see the demise of Thomas Cook, but it is also worth noting that the sector has seen some notable collapses over the years. The scale and complexity of this repatriation operation are significant, and I thank my right hon. Friend for his update. After this urgent work on repatriation has been completed, and because this sector is prone to significant collapses, may I ask him to focus on the industry structure and a sector insurance scheme that would protect passengers and taxpayers in the future?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The airline insolvency review, which reported in May, provides a few useful ideas about things that could be done, including some that require primary legislation and others that do not and on which we have already started to act. We cannot keep returning to this situation. It is terrible for passengers and for all those involved, and there is a problem in finding sufficient aircraft to solve this problem when it happens.
The Secretary of State will be aware that the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Andrew Jones) is a distinguished former Transport Minister. Indeed, I well recall that when he served as Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for buses, being a man of the people as he is, he was wont to come to work on the bus, no doubt to the very considerable delight of his fellow passengers.
Following the sudden collapse of Thomas Cook, which was headquartered in Peterborough, and the loss of 1,200 jobs there, many of my constituents turned up for work only to find that their jobs were lost with Christmas fast approaching. The hon. Member for North West Cambridgeshire (Mr Vara) is absolutely correct that there has been an incredible outpouring of unity from individuals and businesses in Peterborough who have stepped up to show their support and solidarity at an extremely difficult and distressing time for so many in Peterborough.
Can the Secretary of State tell me what specific support the Government are giving to my constituents, who have mortgages and bills to pay and families to support, in finding alternative employment? What measures have they put in place to support the city’s economy as a whole, given the loss of so many good jobs?
The hon. Lady is absolutely right, including on the response in Peterborough, which I have been tracking closely through hon. Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for North West Cambridgeshire (Mr Vara) and others. A bespoke service will be available through Jobcentre Plus, and I have spoken at length to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, who is leading a cross-Government taskforce that is meeting again tomorrow afternoon to continue to work on the issues of helping people to find new jobs.
I mentioned in my statement the additional assistance that is available through retraining, or even simple things like childcare while people go for interviews and the like. It is heartening to know that jobs are available regionally, but it would be an economic shock to any region to lose 1,000-plus jobs. Through the various mechanisms, particularly the rapid response service, we are determined to support all the constituents of the hon. Member for Peterborough (Lisa Forbes) and my hon. Friend the Member for North West Cambridgeshire.
I thank my right hon. Friend for what he is doing, but my constituents have lost their jobs. The directors go back to their £1 million-plus houses, having taken £47 million in bonuses and wages over the past few years. My constituents worry about their jobs and their pensions. Should we not be seizing the assets of the directors who plundered this company and took it to ruin? Will he guarantee that my constituents’ pensions will be protected?
I understand my right hon. Friend’s concern, and I congratulate him on his work over the past few days with his constituents who have lost their jobs.
We have touched on this before, and there have been a lot of reports in the newspapers, but it is important to allow the correct channel, the official receiver, to do its job. I stress to the House that, under the Insolvency Act 1986, the official receiver, as liquidator, may seek to overturn a range of transactions made prior to the liquidation, which includes things like bonuses, although I think we need to leave it to due process to see whether that would be appropriate.
There is also the Company Directors Disqualification Act 1986, and I fully support that idea. As I said in answer to a previous question, the Government were concerned to ensure that we did not prop up an organisation that was already doing things wrong.
I begin by welcoming the tremendous efforts of the Civil Aviation Authority, staff across Government and others to repatriate and support the many thousands of stranded holiday- makers, but I ask the Secretary of State to provide clarity on two points in relation to his previous answers. Can he confirm that all Thomas Cook staff will be helped to return home? He referred to some of them, which I do not understand. Why not all of them?
In the four and a half months since the airline insolvency review reported, what action have the Government taken to implement its recommendations?
First, with regard to the repatriation of staff, it is not the case that all the staff necessarily want to come straight back. Aircrew, for example, have been or are being repatriated, but many others are still assisting with the operation on the ground in many different locations, and we are hugely grateful to them.
The next two weeks are critical. The largest group of people, the 150,000 holidaymakers, is so large that there is no way to get them back other than chartering aircraft to fly them back. The number of other people involved is of a size at which commercial flights can be used to return them.
We are urgently addressing not only the cabin crew and that side of things but the other employees and the scheduling for when they need to get back. I have been clear with the CAA that it should offer them every possible assistance along the way.
Sorry, I have forgotten the hon. Lady’s second question.
If they are important, what have you been doing in the past few months?
I did not come into this job until 23 July. Some recommendations of the airline insolvency review have already been taken into account and, indeed, used in this particular case, but we also require primary legislation and I am happy to have cross-party discussions about that.
It is not, as one might imagine, quite as simple as it seems. There are ideas around, including allowing what happens in Germany, where the airline is run in administration, and, separately, the interaction between ATOL and a proposed additional charge per flight of perhaps 50p or so for every flight taken, regardless of whether it is to a holiday destination. There are different ideas to be worked through; discussions are ongoing and I am keen to accelerate them.
I find this situation maddening, because two years ago, during the statement on Monarch, I welcomed the then largest peacetime repatriation effort—I welcome the current largest peacetime repatriation effort, too—and I called for reform, so that we had an insolvency regime for airlines similar to the chapter 11 arrangement in the United States and the regimes in Germany and Italy. I was told by the then Secretary of State that the Government would consider that. Two years on, we have had a review but not delivered anything. Rather than repeat what has happened before, will the current Secretary of State make sure that we reform the sector, so that jobs are not put at risk, holiday experiences are not ruined and taxpayers’ money is not lost? It is all about actions, not words.
In simple terms, yes. As I mentioned, the review reported on 9 May, and I have been in my post since 23 July. However, the answer is yes, we will get on with it.
Further to the important question from the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman), will you indulge me, Mr Speaker, by allowing me to repeat three important sentences in the statement the Secretary of State shared with the House? It says:
“our efforts will turn to working through the reforms necessary to ensure passengers do not find themselves in this position again. We need to look at all the options, not just ATOL, but also whether it is possible for airlines to be able to wind down in an orderly manner and look after their customers themselves without the need for Government to step in. This is where we will focus our efforts in the weeks and months ahead.”
Exactly the same words were used in the response to the collapse of Monarch in October 2017 given by the previous Transport Secretary, the right hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling).
Where is he now?
He is not here, but the House has heard everything the current Secretary of State said. Frankly, it is appalling that, two years on, we find ourselves in exactly the same position. What has happened to the Government’s plan, and what could have been done to ensure that the devastating impact on staff and holidaymakers, as well as the cost to this country, did not happen again?
I reject the assertion that nothing has happened. The airline insolvency review required time—in fact, the final version was published only on 9 May. A few months later, we are getting on with it. I will ensure that we work on this, and I hope we can do so on a cross-party basis. It is not quite as simple as one might imagine, because there are multiple facets to address, not one single thing to be done, but the hon. Lady has my undertaking that we will get on with this.
I thank my right hon. Friend for his statement. I especially liked the passage on employees, having received a call today from a constituent who was a senior employee of Thomas Cook Airlines and has been made redundant. He is, quite rightly, seriously aggrieved that directors of Thomas Cook Airlines are continuing to function as directors of Thomas Cook Condor, and to be remunerated. My right hon. Friend mentioned in his statement that our right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy has asked for a report from the Financial Reporting Council. Will he commit to looking at the relationships between Thomas Cook Airlines and Thomas Cook Condor, and the propriety of directors continuing to receive compensation while other employees are all being made redundant?
It is for the official receiver to do that work. The official receiver has the powers of the Company Directors Disqualification Act 1986, and will no doubt use them. I should say that we know, rightly, about all the payments to executives because of the transparency established, also rightly, over the past few years to ensure that, among other things, shareholders can see and hold CEOs to account.
Order. To this point, the erudition of questions has been equalled only by their length. Unfortunately, there is a premium on time, as we have other matters with which we have to deal, so I appeal to colleagues to cast aside pre-written scripts and to confine themselves to single sentence—preferably short sentence—questions, without preamble, so that we can make progress.
The BEIS Committee believes that Thomas Cook’s directors and auditors have serious questions to answer. In the past five years, £20 million in bonuses has been paid to directors, and the company has now gone under with debts of more than £3 billion. Will the Secretary of State for Transport confirm that the directors of Thomas Cook will not be able to continue as directors at any other firm until the Insolvency Service has completed its investigation? Will the Government commit to replacing the FRC with a regulatory framework that holds directors to account, as our Committee has called for?
I think I answered the first question about the Insolvency Act and the Company Directors Disqualification Act. As the hon. Lady knows, it is for the official receiver to do that part of the work, and I cannot pre-empt it. She tempts me to stray into other areas, which are a long way from the transport brief, so I think I had better not answer now.
In my experience, the hon. Member for Stafford is a notably well-behaved fellow, so I am sure he will confine himself to a single sentence.
Is there any way the disgraceful hiking of prices—often double or triple—by other providers can be looked at under competition regulation?
My hon. Friend will be interested to hear that I put those questions to the CAA just yesterday, and asked it to investigate for me. The CAA believes that automatic pricing kicked in and was then quickly overridden. I mentioned in my statement that some airlines have done the opposite—Easyjet actually cut its prices by 15% for Thomas Cook passengers—and I am grateful to them and to the airlines that have lent their aircraft.
With more than 3,000 Thomas Cook employees in Greater Manchester, our economy is being hit particularly hard. May I press the Secretary of State on what has been done in the past four or five months, when the warning signs were all there but people could still buy package holidays 24 or 36 hours before the collapse? Should we not be doing more when the warning signs are so clear?
I do have a lot of sympathy with the hon. Lady’s comments. To me, the process of knowing that an airline is struggling and having Operation Matterhorn underway without being able to say anything, lest it precipitate collapse, is highly unsatisfactory. Many hon. Members have mentioned the need to have a route out of this situation—one that includes administration, so that there is no instant collapse and there is a much better and more controlled path for everyone, including employees. I agree absolutely with the hon. Lady, and we will get something done about this.
Will the Secretary of State join me in praising Thomas Cook employees who turned up for work on Monday to help to repatriate passengers? Will he make sure that the inquiries by the Insolvency Service take in the impact on Thomas Cook of the 20% depreciation in the pound against the euro, to help an assessment of whether other travel industry firms based in the UK are vulnerable to those currency movements?
My hon. Friend is right about the extraordinary work done by employees who know they have lost their job still working, even today, and by those who are uncertain about their future in many foreign and British locations. I pay tribute to them on behalf of the whole House, I am sure.
Many factors led to the collapse of Thomas Cook. Management, which has been mentioned many times, makes a large contribution, but so do other factors, including a very hot summer last year, which stopped people from going away, following the wrong business model, and the growth of the internet—problems that stretch back way before any of us in this House voted to have a referendum on Brexit.
The Secretary of State says we need to legislate to reform the travel industry, and we need a new Session of Parliament to do that. Will he guarantee the presence of a Bill to that effect in the Queen’s Speech?
Although I do not want to reveal the contents of the Queen’s Speech, I hope the hon. Gentleman will appreciate that I have hinted broadly at where we want to go. With the reassurance of those on the Opposition Front Bench, I think he will have his asks answered.
Will the Transport Secretary join me in paying tribute to airlines such as Virgin Atlantic and EasyJet and to travel operators such as TUI, which have reached out to former Thomas Cook employees offering employment? I encourage the Government to get on with changing insolvency law and adopting a system similar to chapter 11 protection, which has saved so many US airlines.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. He mentioned some airlines, and I should mention British Airways, TUI, Virgin, EasyJet and Ryanair. All of them, and others, have been incredibly helpful. It is also worth mentioning that many of them are very profitable; there is nothing systemic in the British business that is causing a problem, and most of these British airlines are doing very well. I have already answered the point about chapter 11 or an equivalent.
I have two constituents who are stuck in Mexico. They were told they were on a flight; when they turned up for it, they were told they were not. They face the real possibility of no accommodation and no flights. They are tired, they are anxious and they are running out of money. What have the Government done under Operation Matterhorn to help people stuck in transit who are trying to get home?
It is hugely distressing to hear about people who are stuck. The CAA is actively monitoring anyone who calls in—the line is there, and the website is there—and even people who post on social media. If the hon. Gentleman would like to get assistance for his constituents, I will make sure that he is able to hook up with the CAA to get the message through. It should be said that I do not know his constituents’ particular circumstances, or whether they are under ATOL—in other words, whether their hotel is automatically being paid for, although it looks like it is not—but every effort is being made to bring people home. I hope the hon. Gentleman will understand that hiring 45 aircraft, when the 737 Max is out of commission and the market is therefore restricted, has made this an enormous project. Sometimes that has meant that we have had the wrong size aircraft for the number of passengers. However, the hon. Gentleman’s constituents, if they are stuck, will be given every assistance, and I think he and I can help get them that assistance.
Given that we cannot distinguish in this situation between passengers on a package holiday booking and passengers on a flight-only booking, does the Secretary of State agree that we should now bring flight-only bookings into the ATOL regime so that we have a fair contribution from those passengers and airlines?
It is not quite the case that we cannot distinguish, although I take my hon. Friend’s point. We can distinguish between the two, but there is a strong argument for making sure that, when someone books a flight one way or the other, it is insured and that the cost does not ultimately fall on the taxpayer.
The directors have walked away with millions while hard-working employees of Thomas Cook, such as Jemma Lynch in my constituency, who contacted me at the weekend, have lost their jobs. Will the Secretary of State outline how she and others can contact the Department for Work and Pensions for the help that has been outlined? Secondly, will he comment on the pensioners in receipt of pensions and on the future pension arrangements for those who have already paid into the pension schemes?
On the pensions front, I think there are four different Thomas Cook pensions, the largest of which is a £1 billion fund. That will now be handled through the usual insolvency pension fund process. It is, of course, a worrying time for everyone involved. With regard to the constituent the hon. Gentleman mentioned, the DWP is ready for her to make contact through the rapid response unit. If there are any difficulties, will the hon. Gentleman please alert me? I will make sure that the Business Secretary and the taskforce are immediately switched on to any problem that occurs. We are very keen to get realtime feedback on this.
Like many colleagues, I have a Thomas Cook branch, in Sudbury, in my constituency, which has closed, and I am grateful to the Secretary of State for the work he will be putting in place to support redundant staff. However, does he agree that the biggest cause of the collapse was the unsustainable debt that the company had, which came from a merger strategy that was completely flawed? Does he agree that those who oversaw those mergers, who would have earned handsomely from them, and those who have run this company into the ground must be held to account?
I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. Look, companies do sometimes go bust. The problem here is that they are going bust leaving a massive number of people and leaving this country with an enormous problem to resolve. That is why he is right about everything he has just said.
Airports such as Stansted have really stepped up in terms of helping people come home, but they also offer job opportunities. Can I have an assurance from the Secretary of State that every Thomas Cook employee will be made aware of the opportunities that are available at airports such as Stansted?
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. Stansted and, in fact, all the other airports—I have been in touch with many of them—have been very forthcoming with their assistance. Stansted is building a science, technology, engineering and maths college, with lots of job opportunities. The hon. Gentleman has made the point, which is on record, that Thomas Cook employees, who are losing their jobs, will no doubt find some of those travel-related jobs very interesting.
Moray had two Thomas Cook branches prior to the collapse—one in Buckie and one in Elgin. I have been in discussions with the Business Secretary over the last few days, but can the Secretary of State reiterate what the Government are doing to support, advise and help former employees of this company, not only in high streets across Moray and the United Kingdom but abroad?
Yes, absolutely. This Jobcentre Plus rapid response service is absolutely set up, ready and mobilised to assist. As I said in a previous response, if any of my hon. Friend’s constituents walk in and find that that is not the case, I will certainly want to know about it, so that we can work on the cross-Government taskforce to ensure people are getting the help they need.
Following the closure of 588 Thomas Cook outlets, including the one in Abbeygate Street in Bath, what are the Secretary of State and the Government doing about halting the further decline of the high street?
My right hon. Friend the high streets Minister has already been in contact with me about the further hole that this leaves in our high streets. He has a number of fantastic programmes, and the local authorities of many of us in the House will be bidding under them to enhance and improve high streets. As this latest collapse has shown, our high streets are dramatically changing as people need to come to the high street for an experience or a service that they cannot get elsewhere, including perhaps online. My right hon. Friend will be very happy to speak to the hon. Lady about that.
I welcome the action taken on the priorities, which are to repatriate customers as soon as possible and to help innocent staff, such as those at Thomas Cook in Gloucester, to get new jobs as quickly as possible. However, does my right hon. Friend agree that, as well as carrying out an investigation into the corporate behaviour, the directors’ decisions, the future protection for pensioners and so on, his Department should also look at the aviation sector, and at great British strengths in general, to see whether parts of that sector—particularly package tour operators—have not adjusted to changing circumstances as quickly as they should and to see what more can be done?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right: there are very profitable parts of this sector. One large British airline has just made record profits, which shows that there is money to be made in the sector. However, I would not want to be in the position of dictating to the sector how it runs its businesses—some will succeed, and some will not. What I am passionately interested in is that, when they do go wrong, as has been discussed, the problems do not fall on the taxpayer’s shoulders.
I can tell the Secretary of State that my constituents are not happy with the Government’s response. However, at the heart of this problem is a company that was signed off by auditors last year. The Government know that the audit system is not working well, and they had the Kingman review look into this issue and make recommendations. In terms of the cross-Government arrangements the Secretary of State is speaking about, what have the Government done to reform audit, alongside the recommendations that they themselves asked for?
The hon. Lady is well versed in these matters, and she will know that there are moves afoot to change the process. We have expressed concerns ourselves over the audit approach in this country. I do not want to completely jump to conclusions; because someone reads something in the weekend paper, that does not always mean that it is true. I read that repatriation would cost the taxpayer £600 million, but that is not the case. We do need to allow the process to work its way through. I know that the hon. Lady is actively involved in ensuring that the way that auditing takes places in this country is changed and improved. The taskforce will no doubt work on that as well.
I thank the Secretary of State for the support he has given to Thomas Cook employees in my constituency. Can he reassure me that British officials at embassies and missions around the world are also working hard to provide support where needed?
I must pay tribute to the extraordinary work that has been done in the foreign missions around the world. We are very grateful to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office staff, without whom we could not carry out that work. I also want to put on record my thanks to the surge staff from HMRC and the Civil Aviation Authority who have been absolute troopers in airports across the world.
Thousands of people in Greater Manchester, including many in Wigan, have lost their jobs, but the Scandinavian and German subsidiaries of Thomas Cook are still flying. The Government have failed not just to provide the financial assistance that would have been necessary to keep those companies going, but to bring forward legislation that would enable those airlines in the UK to continue flying in protective administration. It did not have to be like this. This Government have barely brought anything to this House in recent months. They do not need a Queen’s Speech to do that; they should do it right now.
The hon. Lady confuses two points. It is absolutely true, as I have said many times, that we need a new administration regime, but the fundamental difference that she refers to in the Scandinavian and German examples is the profitability of the underlying business there due to the different influences in their particular markets and the way that the businesses have been run at that sub-level.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that we should always be cautious about bailing out private sector businesses, particularly ones that are £1.9 billion in debt and struggle to make money even in a good year? We should also look at our competitions policy and try to avoid businesses getting so big that when they fail, they have a widespread effect on UK consumers.
My hon. Friend makes a very good point. We do get back to this fundamental point that I know is causing some concern on the Opposition Benches, which is that the underlying business has to be profitable; otherwise there is nothing to bail out—there is nothing to lend money to. When money is being lost at that rate, the idea that yet more taxpayers’ money is pumped into something that will lose it in a matter of weeks or months seems to me to be crazy.
What advice does the Secretary of State have for my constituent, Alan Paterson, who is stuck right now in Ibiza? He did not realise that he was entitled to a repatriation flight home, and, as he wanted to get back for his new job this weekend, he spent hundreds of pounds on flights that he did not need to buy in the first place. KLM is now refusing to refund him that money. Does he agree that that is mean-spirited, and that it should not be profiting from this disaster?
I am very sorry to hear about his constituent’s situation. No airlines should be trying to profit out of this situation. As I have mentioned, the UK airlines in particular have really tried to assist once we got over this issue of some initial surge pricing that seemed to kick in. For the most part, they have been extraordinarily helpful, lending aircraft and cutting some of their prices. I am very concerned to hear about this KLM case.
We are living through a digital age, and businesses that do not adapt will struggle, but may I thank the Government for thinking about the people who have been affected here? What assistance is there likely to be for people who have bought flights or holidays that have not yet started?
A large number of people have bought holidays that are yet to start. If they were package holidays, they are ATOL-protected and people will simply get their money back. Those who have bought flights-only will not automatically get that money back, and will want to refer to their credit cards, debit cards, holiday insurance and, sometimes, an alternate travel agents from whom they have booked.
Yes, there are legal differences between the UK and Germany, but there is a big, big difference in political will as well. The Secretary of State keeps mentioning Air Berlin, so I have one little general knowledge question for him. The German Government loan that was provided to Air Berlin enabled its operations to be transferred in a planned manner into other companies. Has it, or has it not, been paid back?
The big difference with the airlines that are surviving or even sub-surviving within this group is their profitability. I think we have gone round this quite a few times. I am in agreement with the hon. Lady that we do need to have an airline administration system that enables airlines to continue flying, but those two differences—profitability and/or the ability to be in administration—are fundamental differences to the situation that existed here. This idea, which I think is the third option that she is trying to inject into this, that somehow for some crazed reason the Government would not want to do everything possible to try to save a 178-year-old British icon is completely ridiculous. Of course, we want to save it.
The Thomas Cook branch in Clarkston was operated by a small but excellent team who are now worried about their futures and it also occupied a key high street unit. I very much welcome the cross-departmental taskforce, but can the Secretary of State ensure that Members across the House continue to be updated as to its progress, so that we can continue to provide the best support and advice to our constituents?
I will ask my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, who is part of the cross-departmental taskforce, to make sure that that happens and I will continue to take a keen interest in the matter myself.
My constituents and many, many other constituents across the country have been affected by this awful situation. What I do not understand is the fact that this Government and the Opposition, and pretty much everyone, have recognised that we need new legislation. Why the heck do we have to wait for a new Queen’s Speech? Why can we not have emergency legislation next week?
This has been the most interesting part of this afternoon. As has been discussed, we have an airline insolvency review that has now reported, and there seems to be a very strong desire across the House to do something with that. So let us talk about it.
Will my right hon. Friend work with other travel companies, as well as ministerial colleagues, to ensure that the skills of Thomas Cook employees up and down the country can be retained within the sector?
My hon. Friend will be pleased to know that the skills are in high demand and that many of the other travel companies are employing. Indeed, as we have heard from other hon. Members, both airlines as well as skill centres, such as those in Stansted, are actively reaching out. I am very hopeful that those who have lost their jobs through Thomas Cook will, in fact, be employed very quickly within the travel sector.
What discussions are the Government having with the commercial lending sector, both in relation to the very substantial debt that will be the legacy of this debacle, and to the personal debt of employees? Some of my constituents are extremely concerned about the attitude of their creditors to their mortgages and other loans.
My right hon. Friend the Business Secretary is writing to the lenders on this specific point, and so perhaps can provide more detail about what she has asked them to do at this Dispatch Box, or I will ask her to write separately. It is also the case that we will be looking to provide as much support as possible. It is important to remember that the deal that Thomas Cook was trying to arrange was actually with a Chinese company for £900 million, so the corporate funding issue is another interesting part that will, I know, be unpacked over time.
On behalf of my constituents in Aberdeenshire, who have found themselves in difficulty of late, may I thank my right hon. Friend, all the staff at the Department for Transport and the CAA? For those people who might find themselves in difficulty after the two-week period of the official operation has ended, will he commit his staff at the Department for Transport and the CAA to continue their support for those who find themselves in difficulty in a fortnight’s time?
I should mention why it is a two-week period. It is actually because the holidays mostly coincide with those dates when people are coming back on the normal day of their holiday, after which point there would be sufficient capacity in the travel system to get people home on regular commercial flights. We will stand by people who have already booked, who are already out there, and who are perhaps on a two-and-a-half week holiday, to get them home by alternative means.
I have many constituents who are pilots. Two holiday reps who have been affected by this crisis have contacted me. Is the Secretary of State aware that some former and current employees until very recently of Thomas Cook are affected themselves, because employee holiday benefits do not appear to be covered by ATOL? I know of one constituent whose relative is now currently stuck in Turkey. They used employee holiday benefits and are not covered by ATOL. Will he look urgently at that matter, because it is a double whammy for the employees of Thomas Cook?
Yes, that is right. The hon. Gentleman will know the strict rules that apply through the Insolvency Service on people’s redundancy pay, which cover the holiday element as well as the non-holiday element being tax free. If the hon. Gentleman wants to write a letter to me, I would be very happy to look into the case for his constituent.
Will the Secretary of State pay tribute to Peel Park firm AGO Outsourcing in my constituency, which is very keen to offer job opportunities to the staff affected at the two stores in my area? It really is remarkable and we are so pleased that the company is doing that. East Kilbride is particularly affected by the situation, so I would be grateful if the Secretary of State would arrange for me to have a meeting with the taskforce to ensure that I can help people on the frontline.
I am very pleased to pay tribute to the employers in the hon. Lady’s constituency that are providing or offering employment. She is not the first Member this afternoon who has suggested that others are stepping in to offer employment. I would also be very happy to ask my right hon. Friend the Business Secretary to set up that meeting.
Those of my constituents who have lost their jobs tell me that the airline was indeed profitable, so why did the Government not intervene to ensure that the airline and any other parts of the business that were profitable—along with the jobs in those businesses—could have been saved?