House of Commons
Tuesday 1 October 2019
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
The Chancellor of the Exchequer was asked—
Economic Effect of No Deal
We would prefer to leave with a deal, and we continue to work energetically and determinedly to get a better deal, but the Government are turbo charging their preparations to ensure we are ready to leave without a deal on 31 October. All necessary funds have been made available. The fundamentals of the British economy are strong: real wages are growing; employment is at a record high; and unemployment is at an historic low.
The Government’s Yellowhammer document, or base case scenario, states that there will be job losses, that food supplies will decrease and that financial services and law enforcement data and information sharing will be disrupted. Last night, we heard about customs clearance zones in Ireland and Northern Ireland, and the Brexit Secretary has admitted that there is insufficient time to complete the work. The Government spent £100 million on a PR campaign called “Get Ready for Brexit”. Is it not time that the Chancellor admitted that the Government are far from ready for Brexit and instead are heading for causing chaos in our country?
The hon. Lady will appreciate that the uncertainty around Brexit has caused businesses significant concern. They want to see the Government deliver on Brexit and leave on 31 October, and that is what we will do. Significant preparations have been made for a no deal, including trade agreements reached, increases in personnel at Border Force and more than 600 statutory instruments laid in this Parliament. If she wants to help, she should support the Government in getting a deal.
There is evidence of a rise in short positions being taken out against the pound. Is the Chancellor confident that the hedge funds taking those short positions, some of which donated to the Prime Minister’s leadership campaign and the Conservative party, have no inside information about the planning or timing of a no-deal Brexit?
That is such a ridiculous suggestion it does not deserve an answer.
If we leave the EU without an agreement, do we get to keep the £39 billion?
The figure of £39 billion is based on a deal. If we end up leaving with no deal, that £39 billion number is no longer relevant.
Is the Chancellor aware that the chief executive of the port of Dover has said that we are 100% ready to leave the EU, and will he help that readiness by bringing forward plans to dual the A2 to the port of Dover?
I thank my hon. Friend for drawing the House’s attention to this issue. I am aware of that. I know, for example, that the investment the Government have made through Border Force, including the extra officers, is helping, and I am confident that in all circumstances we can keep trade flowing.
We do not know that at all. That is just scaremongering from the Scottish National party. We know that businesses throughout the UK, including in Scotland, want this uncertainty to end and want us to leave on 31 October.
Does the Chancellor agree that if we were to leave with no deal, there could be a potential economic impact on our European partners and that therefore it is as much in the EU’s interests to reach a deal as it is in ours?
My hon. Friend has made an important point: it is in everyone’s interests—ours and our European friends and partners—that we reach a deal. Intensive negotiations are going on, both with the Irish Government and with other European partners, and there is a very strong recognition that it is in all our interests that we reach a deal.
Is the Chancellor aware that the Office for Budget Responsibility’s alarming fiscal analysis of a no-deal Brexit assumes that the Government’s preparations are successful—and so result in a miraculously benign no-deal Brexit—and that even with this least-damaging no-deal Brexit the OBR predicts a hit to Britain’s finances that would destroy every single spending announcement by the Prime Minister and the Chancellor? Given that, is it not unacceptable for a Chancellor in a Government publicly contemplating a no-deal Brexit to fail to tell the truth to the British public that spending on health, schools and police will be slashed in the event of a no-deal Brexit?
First, I do not recognise that picture at all. It has been made up by the Liberal Democrats. Secondly, the right hon. Gentleman talks about what is unacceptable. What is unacceptable is for the Liberal Democrats to pretend that the referendum on the European Union never happened.
We have heard in the media today that the UK Government will have proposals ready to send to the EU by the end of the Tory conference this week. The Prime Minister’s main negotiating strategy seems to be to convince the EU that we are willing to accept no deal, and hope that it will capitulate at the last minute. Can the Chancellor name one occasion on which the EU has folded at the last minute in international negotiations?
Can the hon. Lady name a single negotiation in which we have not had the ability to walk away, out of the room?
These are supposed to be questions to the Chancellor, not to me.
Businesses are not ready for a no-deal Brexit. They are already losing EU workers, and are closing down as a result. In a no-deal Brexit, they will be hit by tariffs, and many more of them will sink as a result of that. People will lose their jobs. Given that there is now less than a month until Brexit day, does the Chancellor really believe that there is time to negotiate a deal? If not, will he ensure that the Prime Minister respects the law and requests an extension?
Significant work is going on to prepare the whole country for a potential no-deal outcome, and that includes helping businesses. I have allocated an additional £2.1 billion on top of the £2 billion that was already there, and that means that we can do much more to help businesses, including sending them more than 750 communications on preparedness and more than 100 technical notices.
The Government’s current policy is that we can have higher public spending, falling debt and a no-deal Brexit, but those three things are impossible to deliver together, so on which of them are the Government not telling the truth?
The Government are focused on leaving the European Union on 31 October. We are trying to do that with a deal, but if we do not, we will leave with no deal. The hon. Gentleman talks about the Government’s policy. At least this Government have a clear policy on Brexit; what is the policy of the Labour party?
The Government have listened to concerns expressed across the House about the loan charge, and, as the House will know, an independent review is now in progress under the leadership of Sir Amyas Morse. While it is under way, it is right for the loan charge to remain in force and for the Government to implement legislation on which the House agreed. The review will conclude by mid-November, to let anyone who may be affected know, and to give people time to plan in advance of the January self-assessment filing deadline. To help taxpayers who may need longer to pay, Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs has confirmed again that there is no maximum time limit for payment plans.
The loan charge is the worst form of retrospective taxation. It is causing real hardship and distress to law-abiding taxpayers, and this week it was reported that a seventh person had taken their own life because of it. How many more people are going to take their lives before the loan charge is scrapped?
Let me correct my hon. Friend on the facts. We have been notified of three suicides that may have some connection with the loan charge, and which have been referred to the Independent Office for Police Conduct. In one case there has been a referral back to HMRC, but in all other cases there has been no further development, so I do not recognise the picture that my hon. Friend has described. Let me also remind him that although these effects have been much bruited, there is also the question of collecting the several billion pounds of back tax that is due.
What is clear is that the retrospective loan charge is causing huge pain and upset as people’s livelihoods and homes are threatened. Will the Minister ensure that the review hears directly from people who have been so affected, and will he either suspend the loan charge or at least tell HMRC that those who have signed a settlement agreement can pause their payments until the review has been concluded?
I am grateful for the question. Of course any injury to individuals from any act of Government or their agencies is to be deeply regretted. I recognise that, and if it has happened here, it is appropriate for the House to feel that way.
I have no powers to direct Sir Amyas Morse. I understand that he is taking evidence from external sources, including the loan charge all-party parliamentary group and the Loan Charge Action Group, which acts as its secretariat. I have met the APPG and the secretariat separately. So the matter is being fully addressed. The details of settlement have been set out on gov.uk.
On the issue that my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough (Mr Bone) raised with the Minister, the hard fact is that seven people facing challenge or investigation for the loan charge have taken their own lives. He can attribute cause as he wishes. The fact is also that the distress has been caused by the historical incompetence of HMRC and the subsequent willingness of Ministers to use retrospective taxation. Are the Government going to give up on the premise of using retrospective taxation, or does it fall to the House to pass laws that will stop them doing so in future?
The legislation is not retrospective. [Hon. Members: “It is.”] There are defined circumstances in which HMRC and the Government may seek to use retrospective taxation, and they do so with extreme care and attention. All that I am doing is referring my right hon. Friend to the facts as reported to the IOPC. As he will be aware, these are immensely difficult cases in which many circumstances and factors may be in play.
Despite the review, the loan charge remains in place and HMRC continues to pursue people for advance payment notices for which there is no right of appeal. That clearly goes against the spirit of the review. Will the Minister now suspend all activity?
The review is designed to assess whether the Government’s policy is appropriate, and it would be wrong to change it until the review has had chance to make a decision on it. The Treasury and the House have a great interest in supporting the provision of public services, which the recovery of tax avoided in this way, in many ways egregiously, is designed to fund.
I honestly do not think that the Minister is paying attention. These comments are coming from Members behind him, not opposite him. [Hon. Members: “From all sides.”] These people followed professional advice and declared their arrangements to HMRC, which did nothing. Yet it is now going back and taxing them retrospectively, all the way back to 1999 in some circumstances. The Minister cannot stand at the Dispatch Box and just ignore what he is hearing from the Benches behind him.
Nothing could be further from the truth. We are carefully attending to concerns that have been expressed. That is why I announced changes in July and have written on two occasions to colleagues to inform them of changes and developments. That is why we have instituted this independent loan charge review, the purpose of which is precisely to scrutinise the extent to which Government policy is appropriate.
The Minister is bound to be aware of the scale of concern across the House and among those who are directly affected. He has outlined a date of mid-November. Immediately upon that date being reached, will he take urgent action to assist those affected?
I have no idea what the loan charge review will conclude, but I guarantee that we will look at its findings with all due speed and dispatch.
Like many Members, I have constituents who have been egregiously affected by the loan charge. The Minister’s response is unacceptable from their perspective. He should suspend all the loan charge activity while the review is under way and until the Government have responded to it. What preparation is happening in HMRC for the policy shift if the review says that the loan charge is unfair and needs to be changed? How will he deal with my constituents who have already had to pay but may be proven to have paid erroneously?
I am unable to comment on what the review will conclude. We can certainly look at whether there may be changes that HMRC would take rapidly thereafter. It possesses the capacity to do so quite quickly if necessary, as does Government. We will have to review that moment when it comes.
The hon. Lady is absolutely right to focus on the activity of the promoters. They are extremely ingenious in operating within the framework of law, but doing some very nasty and duplicitous things. They often operate offshore and it is extremely difficult to close them down when they are constantly mutating from one company to another. I assure hon. Members that we are looking at the problem extremely closely, and I hope to return to the House at some point fairly soon with some thoughts.
I worry that the Government characterise those who are suffering from the loan charge as in some way egregious tax avoiders, when it is abundantly clear that in the case of my constituents they acted on advice, openly, and in the belief that the scheme was approved by HMRC. I also worry that HMRC is behaving towards taxpayers in a fashion that is new, and in many cases, tax advisers say, unprecedented. I also think that the retrospectivity is deeply questionable.
I must say, I am surprised to hear a man of my right hon. and learned Friend’s legal standing and status regard this as retrospective, because it plainly is not. [Hon. Members: “It is!”] There are many parts of tax policy that have to look back to the basis of an asset or a liability, and that has happened here. In this case, HMRC has taken quite vigorous action over the years, in different forms, to let people know. Of course, it is subject to the loan charge review; we will see what that concludes. However, I remind my right hon. and learned Friend that these people were in many cases paying very little or zero in tax. [Interruption.] Of course the circumstances can differ, but there are a large number of people who knew, or should have known, that they were avoiding tax, and doing so un—
Order. We must speed up.
The recent spending round has delivered the fastest real growth in day-to-day spending in 15 years, targeting additional money on the people’s priorities of healthcare, education and tackling crime. We will publish alongside the next Budget an analysis of how these spending changes are distributed.
We on the SNP Benches welcome the Chancellor’s announcement on his pretendy living wage, because we have been calling for it for four years, but his promises still fall 5p short of the London living wage today, never mind in 2024. A 16-year-old today would have to wait five years to be entitled to it. Will he end the state-sanctioned age discrimination of his pretendy living wage, so that all people, regardless of age, can receive a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work?
I welcome the hon. Lady’s support. It was this Government who introduced a national living wage in 2016. It was this Government who increased the rate, as recently as April this year. The announcement that we have made, which I will have more to say about later, will help to end—actually will end—low pay for good in our great country.
The best way to improve living standards is to reduce tax burdens. Does the Chancellor share my concern that anyone in Scotland earning more than £27,000 is paying more than the equivalent English taxpayer, and that more than 1 million Scots are paying £500 million in extra taxation?
I believe the First Minister actually promised not to raise taxes, but in fact the SNP have raised taxes on more than 1 million Scots. Doctors, teachers and police are all paying more in Scotland than in any other part of the UK. Scotland is now the highest-taxed part of the UK, and the Scottish people will remember that at the next Scottish elections.
Since this Government came to power, they have relied heavily on monetary policy. The Chancellor of the Exchequer will know that quantitative easing and interest rates have now been cut to the bone. Is he concerned by noises coming from the Bank of England that interest rates could rise, and the effect that that would have on heavily indebted middle-income families?
The hon. Gentleman should know that the Bank of England is independent, and therefore monetary policy decisions are independent. I know that his friends on the Opposition Front Bench do not recognise or respect that, but it is a very important part of our economic system.
The Chancellor will know that one of the Government’s fiscal policies that is fundamentally wrong is the loan charge retrospective taxes on our constituents. Whether it is one death, no deaths or seven deaths, families are being destroyed because of the retrospective charge. Surely we should put a stop to it now.
Order. The matter in hand is the effect of fiscal policies on living standards.
Well, it is fiscal policy, Mr Speaker, in the interests of my right hon. Friend, and he is right to raise the matter. He will have heard the Financial Secretary to the Treasury, in answer to the previous question, point to the independent inquiry that is taking place, led by a gentleman who has considerable respect. We will await the outcome of that inquiry.
The effects of the Government’s fiscal policies on living standards have been devastating, especially for vulnerable people, so is it still Government policy to remove the benefits freeze in April 2020?
The hon. Gentleman talks about the Government’s fiscal policy, which is a core part of our overall economic policy, and it is that policy that has led to a jobs boom, with 3.7 million more people in work since 2010, and over 1 million fewer working households in our country living in poverty. The real threat to the living standards of working people is the agenda of the Labour party.
It would have been helpful to get an answer to the question. We have a Prime Minister who cannot be candid even with the Queen, a Health Secretary who claims there will be 40 hospital rebuilds when in fact it is just six reconfigurations, and a Chancellor who worked at a senior level for a bank that a US Senate Committee found had caused
“material damage to ordinary people and the wider global economy”.
Why would anyone believe a word that this self-serving Government say? They are led by a Prime Minister who, many claim, believes that telling the truth is an illness to be avoided.
I do not believe that I detected a question.
Free-to-use Cash Machines
The UK has an extensive and internationally enviable free ATM network. We know that many people still use cash day to day, and we have committed to safeguarding cash for those who need it. I am delighted that UK Finance and LINK are leading industry efforts to protect free cash access. That culminated in UK Finance launching the Community Access to Cash initiative just yesterday.
The Minister says that, but news that NoteMachine is to convert 3,000 of its 7,000 free-to-use cash machines to pay-to-use machines is of great concern to my constituents. According to Which?, we have lost 15% of our free-to-use ATMs over the past year alone. The previous Labour Government formed an agreement with ATM operators and the Treasury to plug gaps in financially deprived areas where people had to pay to access their cash, so what are this Government going to do to prevent people being charged just for trying to access their own money?
Use of cash has reduced significantly faster than expected over the past 10 years. I am meeting UK Finance and LINK tomorrow to ensure that their mechanism is good for the current situation. The new initiative to which I referred in my previous response will give communities up and down the country the opportunity to engage with UK Finance on better and new solutions.
We will hear from a Devon knight, I think. Sir Gary Streeter.
Is not the closure of ATMs linked to the decision by high street banks to close their branches left, right and centre? Will the Minister, in his regular meetings with the chief executives of high street banks, remind them that they do have some duty to elderly customers and small businesses?
I do that regularly. We are also trying to ensure that the transfer of responsibility to the Post Office runs smoothly, because 99% of people live within 1 mile of a post office, so it is a very good alternative for the vast majority of their banking services.
Hull’s high street is still very cash-reliant, and I am really worried about the blow that this reduction will give to an already struggling high street. Will the Economic Secretary please speak directly to the Payment Systems Regulator about what further measures can be taken to prevent the reduction in free-to-access cash machines?
Yes, I am very happy to continue to engage with the regulator, and I noted the hon. Lady’s urgent question application earlier today. Digital payment alternatives improve local cash recycling and support cashback initiatives. Mastercard and Visa have a number of initiatives under way, and I am determined to see progress in this area.
With a third of banks, many of which had ATMs, closing in rural areas, and with very poor mobile connectivity in those areas meaning that digital payment schemes are not possible, I was very pleased to learn of yesterday’s announcement by UK Finance on Community Access to Cash, to which the Economic Secretary referred. That is the way forward, but what can he do to reassure business providers that if they provide ATMs, they will be safe from break-in?
We have to ensure that there is a wide range of options in rural areas. A number of trials are under way to provide solutions, underpinned by the investment in gigabit infrastructure that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor announced yesterday, which will ensure that we have even better connectivity in remote rural areas.
The Government remain committed to ending rough sleeping. That is why I announced £54 million of new funding to reduce homelessness and rough sleeping in last month’s spending round, following on from discussions with my right hon. Friend the Housing Secretary, which will take total resource funding to £422 million next year.
It has been revealed today that two rough sleepers died on the streets every day last year. The Government committed to halving rough sleeping by 2022, but their own guesstimate is that it fell by only 74 people last year, not the 500 required for them to be on target. That puts them three decades behind schedule, so when will the Treasury provide councils and homelessness charities with sufficient funds to properly tackle this national shame?
This is an important issue, and I am glad that the hon. Gentleman has raised it today. He will know that there are multiple causes of rough sleeping, which means that we need action across Government. That is why the Government have set out a rough sleeping initiative to deal with the causes, such as mental health, family breakdown and addictions. I think he will appreciate that we need cross-Government work. That needs to be properly funded. The £422 million that I referred to a moment ago is a 13% real-terms increase, and it will end rough sleeping by 2022.
Many people going to work today, not just in London but in cities and towns across England, will have seen at least one fellow citizen sleeping rough. Eight thousand beds have been lost, universal credit has cost tenants their homes, and as we have heard, 726 people died on the streets last year. Charities say that the funding gap is £1 billion. The Chancellor has said that ending rough sleeping is in our gift, but how many more of our fellow citizens will have slept on our streets before he delivers?
I hope that the hon. Lady welcomes the extra resources being put into fighting homelessness and rough sleeping—as I said, a 13% real-terms increase. She might recall that when I was Housing Secretary, we introduced new programmes to deal properly with rough sleeping, for example the Housing First pilots that are taking place in three parts of our country and showing real resource. We are starting to see falls in rough sleeping for the first time in a number of years, and I think the British people would appreciate cross-party co-operation on this very important issue.
NHS Hospital Projects
The Government have just announced the largest hospital building programme in a generation, with £2.7 billion of investment in six new large hospitals. I am delighted that one of those is the Princess Alexandra in my right hon. Friend’s constituency, and I pay tribute to him for his years of campaigning for his constituents on this issue.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that the hundreds of millions of pounds pledged for a new hospital for Harlow will mean not only that we have a building fit for purpose for the 21st century, but we will continue to attract the best and brightest staff, including through healthcare apprenticeships?
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right about that. May I take this opportunity to congratulate all the hard-working staff in his trust for their efforts in campaigning for this. They do a wonderful job serving their community, and I am delighted that with this support they will have the resources they need to keep doing that for years to come.
This is just a fraction of the hospital building programme that took place under the last Labour Government. Why on earth should anyone believe a single word this Government say, given that they themselves admit that a no-deal Brexit will damage the economy and the public finances? So there will be less money for hospitals and everything else, will there not?
The legacy of the last Labour Government’s hospital building programme is that we are left with £10 billion in private finance initiative payments every year, rather than this being spent on people’s healthcare. This Government are investing in hospital upgrades up and down the country, with 20 announced on the steps of Downing Street, six more announced this past weekend and business plans for another 20 more—and diagnostic equipment. This Government are committing to the NHS, and we will ensure that every patient gets the care and consideration they deserve.
I welcome the announcement of the makeover of the out-patient facilities at Heartlands Hospital, which serves some of the most deprived wards in east Birmingham and in my constituency. Does the Minister agree that it is possible to put this additional capital spending into the health service only because a Conservative Government have repaired the nation’s finances?
I welcome my right hon. Friend’s comments. She is absolutely right: the only way we get strong public services is with a strong economy, and the only way we get a strong economy is with a Conservative Government.
Oh very well. I call Tim Farron.
You are very kind, Mr Speaker. In his announcement this week, the Chancellor chose not to invest a single penny in the Westmorland General Hospital in Kendal, but will he at least end the Treasury’s 3% deficit tax on our local hospitals trust, which has cost £4 million from hospital spending in the past three years? That is money that should have been spent on a new radiotherapy centre for local cancer patients.
On cancer treatments, I am delighted that survival rates are at the highest they have ever been. On diagnostic treatments, the recent announcement of £200 million to upgrade diagnostic equipment up and down the country will make an enormous difference to early screening and testing. On funding in general, we are in the first year of a record five-year investment in the NHS—£34 billion more promised by this Government.
Student Funding: 16 to 19-year-olds
Treasury Ministers regularly engage with Secretaries of State on all aspects of public funding, including 16 to 19 education funding. At the spending round, we chose to invest £400 million more in the sector next year, which will mean that the base rate of funding will rise to £4,188 and be growing at a faster rate than core school funding.
Away from the fantasy figures being peddled in Manchester this week, college heads and principals are struggling to work out whether to continue to raise their class sizes or to restrict subject choice. Will the Chancellor therefore tell Cambridge Regional College and the excellent sixth forms and sixth-form colleges in Cambridge whether they are going to be getting the extra £760 that the Raise the Rate campaign has calculated is necessary or the meagre £188 per pupil per year he is offering?
The hon. Gentleman might call these fantasy figures, but this is the biggest increase in funding for 16 to 19-year-olds in a decade, and it has been hugely welcomed by the sector. It includes £212 million of targeted interventions, on the courses that are the most costly to deliver, such as engineering and construction. I would have thought he would have welcomed that.
Order. If the hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski) wishes to shoehorn his Question 20, which will not be reached, into this Question 10, which has been, he is free to do so. If he takes me up on his generous offer, we will have a double dose of Daniel.
Question 20, Mr Speaker.
No, no, your moment is now, Sir. Your opportunity has arrived—expatiate.
My hon. Friend will know that in the spending round I announced a £4.6 billion increase in school spending. I know that he has campaigned on funding for his local schools and can tell him that 80% of the secondary schools in his area will see their funding level go up to at least the new minimum level of £5,000 per pupil.
A new business starts in the UK every 75 seconds. Following the patient capital review, we announced a £20 billion action plan to finance growth in innovative firms. To support that, we have established a new business finance council to ensure that Government, banks and other lenders work together to help small and medium-sized enterprises to access the finance that they need.
I welcome all of the Treasury team to their places and thank the former Chancellor, my right hon. Friend the Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Mr Hammond), for letting me work so closely with him. It was an amazing privilege.
I spent an amazing day with my constituency businesses in the village of Beckley. They are concerned about business rates, on which I support their call for reform, as well as about the VAT threshold and lack of taper. They will also now be writing to me about the welcome increase to the national living wage. Can we do more to support small businesses? They are the backbone of rural economies and without them we will not have employment.
I thank my hon. Friend for his question and take this chance to thank him, on behalf of the Government, for the work he did with the former Chancellor. He is quite right to talk about tax reform. Of course, since 2016 we have announced business rates reforms and reductions worth more than £13 billion by 2023-2024. On VAT, in the run-up to the 2018 Budget we consulted on the threshold, which is the highest in the EU and the OECD. We have committed to keep that in place until 2022, but I am genuinely always interested in suggestions that I can discuss with colleagues.
When is the Minister going to do something about the delays in payment to small businesses that often affect their cash-flow? We have debated the issue for many years; is it not about time that the Minister did something about it?
Responsibility for this issue falls between the Treasury and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. A late-payment regulator has been set up. I talked about this issue with businesses at the Conservative party conference on Sunday; I take it very seriously and they highlighted it as an ongoing concern. It should come out loud and clear from the House that all businesses, particularly larger ones, have a responsibility to meet their payment terms, because that is crucial for small businesses. I think everyone in the House can unite around that common principle.
East Yorkshire knight—Sir Gregory Knight.
Is the Minister aware that one of the main difficulties facing small rural businesses is the non-availability of fast and reliable broadband? In the light of the announcement that the Chancellor made yesterday in Manchester, can we now assume that the days in which a geographically isolated business is also digitally isolated really are numbered?
My right hon. Friend is of course absolutely right that broadband connectivity lies at the heart of a modern economy. It was so welcome to hear my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer yesterday set out how £5 billion of investment is going to be devoted to making sure that we can deliver on the Prime Minister’s pledge to ensure full fibre broadband access by 2025.
Will the Minister outline whether he has considered tax incentives for businesses to take on apprentice staff in administrative roles, with special reference to young people from learning-difficulty backgrounds, who take more time and patience to train? There are simply not enough places available; will the Minister undertake to make places available?
Again, that is a unifying principle to bring to the House. The Government have done an awful lot to try to promote the uptake of apprentices—we have seen action on things such as national insurance to try to make it more affordable for businesses to employ young people. The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy is very interested in all the work that goes on around supporting access into work for disabled people and people with learning disabilities, and would be interested to hear more from the hon. Gentleman about those ideas.
Moray Growth Deal
I discuss matters of importance regarding the Scottish economy with Government colleagues on a regular basis. In July, £32.5 million was allocated for the Moray growth deal.
The £32.5 million investment that the Minister has just mentioned, which was also matched by the Scottish Government, made the Moray growth deal the highest funded per head of population anywhere in the country. The next key milestone will be the signing of the heads of terms, so can he update us on the progress made towards that?
I thank my hon. Friend for his question. He has been a great champion for the growth deal, which will unlock huge benefits for the people of Moray. We hope to settle the heads of terms this month to allow this whole project to move forward quickly.
I think that we are about to hear the prodigious knowledge of the hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent (Nick Smith) on the Moray growth deal. Wonders never cease.
That was a truly ingenious question. Of course, the UK shared prosperity fund is really important. We continue to make good progress on its design. Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government officials have so far held 26 engagement events across the UK with over 500 representatives from a breadth of sectors. This is something that, obviously, has massive implications for Wales, and we are very happy to ensure that we engage everyone in that process.
The Moray growth deal, like the Clackmannanshire and Tay Cities growth deals, is bringing unprecedented investment into Scotland. Are the Minister and the Treasury considering reprofiling the investment over 10 years, as opposed to 15, as the local councils are asking me to do, so that we can get this investment and this transformational change in our communities?
I thank my hon. Friend for that question. Clearly, we want to see this investment move forward as quickly as possible. If he wants to raise that matter with us and indeed with the Secretary for Scotland, we can certainly talk about it, but I obviously cannot make any commitments here today.
On the subject of growth deals, may I ask the Minister, in addition to discussions on the Moray growth deal, what discussions has he had with Cabinet colleagues on the progress of the Mid Wales growth deal?
We are committed to bringing forward growth deals across the UK. Obviously, in the devolved Administration areas, we want to bring forward money from our side, but with effect from the Welsh and Scottish Governments as well. We want to see progress across the UK; it is not restricted to Scotland.
Free Ports: Foreign Businesses
We are developing an ambitious and attractive UK free port offer to create hubs that will attract inward investment, create jobs and boost trade. Typically, free ports only offer customs benefits, but we are looking to go further than that to ensure that these turbo-charged areas can drive growth for their community.
I thank the Minister for that answer and for his speculative phone call earlier trying to tease out the nature of my question to him. The Conservative Mayor for Tees Valley, a member of the Government’s very carefully selected free ports advisory group, says that he hopes to see reduced corporation tax and exemption from employers’ national insurance contributions. Has the Minister made an assessment of the impact of these Tory proposals on the Exchequer and the state pension fund?
I pay tribute to the Conservative Mayor, Ben Houghton, in Teesside for championing his community. He has been advocating a free port because he believes that such a phenomenon will create jobs in his area, drive inward investment and boost trade. I hope that the hon. Lady would welcome that for her community in Grimsby, where the seafood industry and Associated British Ports, the port employer, has loudly called for such free port status for her area. I hope that, when the opportunity comes, she will support her community in applying for that.
My right hon. Friend is truly a champion of free ports, but will he agree to meet me to discuss the potential benefits for ports such as the port of Poole and the advantage for the wider region as well?
I would be happy to meet my hon. Friend. I believe that it is his birthday today, so I wish him a happy birthday. I am happy meet him and his colleagues from Poole to discuss free ports. We believe that these should be opportunities for the entire country to take advantage of.
The unadulterated charm of the Chief Secretary has, in my experience, not been surpassed—at any rate among Treasury Ministers.
That was a cruel blow for my right hon. Friend, Mr Speaker, if I may say so.
In answer to the hon. Lady’s question, the House will I am sure rejoice that between 2010 and 2019 the personal allowance has been increased by more than 90%, so that those on the lowest incomes do not pay any income tax, and since 2015-16 alone 1.74 million people have been taken out of income tax altogether. We will publish a full distributional analysis of the recent spending round alongside the next Budget, and it will also capture the effect of any budgetary announcements made at that time.
Can the Minister explain how it is fair that a small handful at the very top have run into the distance, making up the top 10% of the population and owning 44% of the nation’s wealth?
The hon. Lady may not be aware that at the moment the top 1% of the country pay 29% of all tax. That is up from the 25% in 2010-11.
I have three clear priorities as Chancellor: to ensure a strong economy, to get Brexit done and to deliver on the British people’s priorities. That is why I am pleased to confirm that this Government will bring an end to low pay. We are setting two new targets for the national living wage over the next five years: raising it to two thirds of median earnings and extending it to workers aged 21 and above. That will give 4 million workers an average pay rise of £4,000. I will set out further details in the next Budget. This Government are proving again that they are on the side of working people. Thanks to the hard work of the British people, we are moving from a decade of recovery to a decade of renewal.
When the Chancellor was Home Secretary, he told me and other More United MPs that officials were looking into the potential economic benefits of lifting the ban on asylum seekers working, which the Lift the Ban coalition says would bring £42 million into the economy. Now that he is Chancellor of the Exchequer, will he lift that ban in order to allow asylum seekers such as those in my constituency to contribute to the economy and to have the dignity that they deserve?
The hon. Lady makes an important point, and I am glad that she has brought my attention to it again. As Chancellor, I want to ensure that across Government every Department is doing its bit for the economy. Some of the people she is talking about will be vulnerable people and the current rules are worth looking at again. It is something that the Home Office is taking very seriously.
I thank my hon. Friend for that question. I have addressed the substance of it, but let me make a point about Sir Amyas Morse. I think that Sir Amyas is a superb choice. As my hon. Friend may be aware, in a debate in the House of Commons on 6 March 2019, the Chamber united across the parties in praise of Sir Amyas. The Chair of the Public Accounts Committee, the hon. Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier), called him
“a fearless advocate for what is good in the public sector and for challenging Governments of whatever party”.
The Liberal Democrat spokesman, the hon. Member for Oxford West and Abingdon (Layla Moran), said that he was not only “unfailingly courteous”, but had
“an intelligence of steel. He has a knack for calling out obfuscation, fudge and imprecision”,
“a reputation for being completely fair.”—[Official Report, 6 March 2019; Vol. 655, c. 1004-05.]
He is a very good choice to lead this review.
Will the Chancellor give the House a quick fact-check of his speech yesterday? The Conservatives have cut funding for buses by £640 million a year. Yesterday, he announced nothing new; he simply reannounced £220 million from the spending review. His Government have cut £900 million a year from annual youth services budgets. Yesterday, he offered £500 million, possibly as a one-off. The National Infrastructure Commission says that we need £33 billion to roll out full-fibre broadband. Yesterday, he offered £5 billion. All of those promises will count for nothing if there is a no-deal Brexit. Has he not just followed the Cummings code: grab a headline, possibly wrap it around a bus and ignore the truth? But there is one figure that I would like to ask him about: 120,000. What significance does the figure 120,000 have for him?
The right hon. Gentleman knows that the last time his party was in office, we had the biggest budget deficit in our peacetime history and the biggest banking collapse this country has ever seen, and our country was virtually bankrupt. Now our economy is strong, with the lowest unemployment rate in 45 years, and it is because the economy is strong that yesterday I could make the announcement of investments in buses, roads, youth facilities and full fibre. If he wants to see that kind of investment continue at the next general election, he should vote Conservative.
I did not ask about the Chancellor’s record at Deutsche Bank; I never asked about the products he was selling that brought about the financial crash.
Let me tell the Chancellor what the figure 120,000 means. It is the number of deaths linked by the British Medical Journal to the Conservatives’ cuts since they came to power in 2010. No amount of spin will wash away the memory of nine years of this scale of human suffering. He claimed yesterday:
“We believe in a society where everyone knows that if they work hard, and play by the rules then they will have every opportunity to succeed.”
But isn’t it true that the Conservatives have broken the link between people working and being able to lift themselves out of poverty, when 70% of our children living in poverty are in households where someone is at work? And isn’t it the case that, despite the Chancellor’s pathetic attempt yesterday at playing catch-up to Labour party policy, under the Tories’ plans no one will reach the Tories’ target minimum wage until five years from now? And isn’t it the truth that, with this Chancellor and Prime Minister in charge, the Conservatives will always be the party of tax avoiders, bankers and the super-rich?
Let me tell the right hon. Gentleman a fact: the Labour party no longer represents working people and it is no longer the party of working people. That stopped a long, long time ago. He should reflect on his own policies of renationalisation; mass confiscation of private property, including the shares and homes of individual investors; protectionism; and state control. He calls business the real enemy, but the fact is that the Labour party is no longer fit to govern. It would wreck the economy and it would be hard-working people who would pay the price.
I have had heartbreaking meetings with constituents from Hastings regarding the loan charge, where I have heard tragic and sad stories about the destruction of families and their finances. Although I of course welcome the review that is to take place, may I urge the Chancellor to reconsider the position of not suspending the loan charge during the review period?
I do not know whether my right hon. Friend caught the discussion we had about this matter earlier, but the purpose of the review is to establish whether the Government are pursuing the right policy. It makes no sense at all to change the policy until we have heard from the review. I absolutely sympathise with the concerns that have been felt across the House, and both the Government and HMRC itself have taken steps to try to mitigate them.
I share the hon. Gentleman’s desire to ensure that all parts of our great country are benefiting from our strong economy. We have seen a jobs boom since 2010, after the deepest recession in our peacetime history under the previous Labour Government. Of the 3.7 million jobs that have been created, 65% are outside London and the south-east, which will be benefiting his communities and so many more.
One of the ingredients of economic growth—we have talked about boosting small businesses—is improving the productivity within the economy. What are the ministerial team doing to boost productivity?
I thank my hon. Friend for his question; he was obviously responsible for this when he was Exchequer Secretary. Last week I met Charlie Mayfield for a very good discussion about the Be the Business fund that the Government have set up to support business-led movement to improve small business productivity. This includes running pilots in Cornwall to support the hospitality sector and in the north-west to support family businesses. There are other schemes, such as Made Smarter, which is a good pilot, in addition to a £31 million package announced at conference 2018 to improve SME management through peer-to-peer networks.
I will make certain that the Business Secretary is aware of the hon. Lady’s concerns. The Treasury obviously takes an interest in this issue but she will know that the Department for Business is taking the lead on it. Obviously, and rightly, she is concerned about jobs in her constituency. She would welcome the fact, I hope, that because of the policies of this Government more generally since 2010, we have seen in her constituency a 50% fall in the headline unemployment rate.
As we leave the EU, we need to reinforce our international reputation as a powerhouse of scientific excellence. In 2017 we spent 1.7% of national income on research and development, while Germany spent 3% and Israel 4.3%. So will the Chancellor use his next Budget to make substantial progress towards our 2.4% target and recommit to the medium-term target of 3% of national income going into research and development?
First, may I thank my right hon. Friend for his excellent work as Business Secretary, including in this hugely important area of research and development? He set some ambitious targets. We intend to stick to those targets, if not go even further, which I am sure he would welcome. Obviously I will not set out the Budget now, but I absolutely share his ambition, and I think he will be pleased with what we eventually do.
We are investing in York and investing throughout the country by creating a dynamic, free enterprise economy that is creating jobs. We have the lowest unemployment rate in our country in 45 years. I would think that a party that calls itself Labour would actually welcome that. In the hon. Lady’s own constituency, since 2010—since the Labour Government were kicked out—we have seen a fall of 12,300, or 64%, in the unemployment numbers. That is something she should welcome.
I welcome the introduction of the new business banking resolution service that will start to hear cases of historical problems later this year. In the previous Chancellor’s letter of 19 January, he stated that that scheme should carefully consider all cases that come before it. How is that possible when the research of the all-party parliamentary group on fair business banking determined that 85% of cases are excluded?
I thank my hon. Friend for his question. He is a powerful advocate for this redress scheme and I thank him for the work that he has done. In our conversation on 10 September, I reiterated the Government’s position that the scheme should not reopen complaints that have sometimes gone multiple times through the courts, but I welcome the fact that the new scheme will give access to 99% of those claims going forward, and I will continue to engage with him where I can to provide solutions on individual cases.
I can see that this is an important issue, and I will ensure that a meeting takes place with the appropriate Minister.
The hon. Member for Solihull (Julian Knight), the House will want to know, is a former money and property editor of The Independent and a very distinguished fellow, I am sure.
I am sure whatever cachet I had has now been completely ruined; thank you, Mr Speaker. There are reports that the Government are looking at bringing forward the date of the banning of diesel and petrol cars. Does the Chancellor share my concerns about the fiscal damage of lower new car sales, the lack of electric car infrastructure and the negligible impact that such a virtue-signalling move will have on emissions?
I thank my hon. Friend for his question. He is a tireless champion of the motor industry, which we all take very seriously. The Government have made a commitment to delivering net zero emissions by mid-century; that is hugely important and has cross-party support across the House. We will not be making any precipitate moves that would concern him without proper consultation fully across Government about the ramifications of any change in that date.
I do not have the number to hand, but I would be glad to write to the right hon. Gentleman with it.
I welcome the Chancellor’s commitment yesterday of £5 billion to support gigabit broadband across the whole of the United Kingdom. He will be aware that, historically, the Scottish Government have been responsible for the roll-out of superfast broadband, which is way behind what they promised, and not a penny of the £600 million that they announced in 2017 has been spent. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that future broadband funding will be paid directly to local authorities, bypassing the Scottish Government, who have failed rural constituents such as mine more than most?
The investment that I announced yesterday is hugely important for the entire country, including Scotland. My hon. Friend is right to point to the abysmal record of the Scottish Government in delivering broadband for their people, so we should certainly look at whether there is a much better way to deliver it.
This Government passionately believe in helping those at the bottom end of the pay scale, which is why the Chancellor announced yesterday an increase in the national living wage, to abolish low pay in this country once and for all. Our track record over the last few years in this area has been exemplary. The fastest growth in incomes has been for those at the bottom end of the pay scale. Today, someone earning the national living wage is £3,500 better off than they were when we came into office. This is a Conservative Government on the side of those who are working hard.
I very much welcome the Prime Minister’s announcement of pound-for-pound replacement through the shared prosperity fund of the EU funding that Cornwall receives. We are really ready in Cornwall to drive our economy forward. Will the Chancellor meet the local enterprise partnership and all Cornwall’s MPs, so that we can make rapid progress in designing that fund?
I thank my hon. Friend for her question. She is right that we need to ensure that the UK shared prosperity fund works for all the regions and nations of our country. I would be delighted to meet her, to ensure that we get all the suggestions from Cornwall as part of the process of designing that new fund.
Can the Minister answer the question asked earlier by the right hon. Member for Hastings and Rye (Amber Rudd): what is the reason for not suspending the loan charge scheme until the inquiry is completed? It is a request not for a change of policy, but just to suspend the scheme.
The reason is that the inquiry is designed to test the policy, and the policy remains in place until the inquiry is over. If the policy were ended now or suspended, all that potentially would occur is more confusion if the inquiry took the view that, ultimately, the Government were in the right.
I thank Ministers for providing funding to help evidence and establish the business case for reopening Middlewich railway station—a key priority for my constituents. What wider fiscal steps are they taking to support my constituency by supporting the northern powerhouse and midlands engine?
I thank my hon. Friend for working tirelessly on behalf of her constituents to ensure that more infrastructure, including rail and road, is delivered locally. She will know that one of the first commitments of the new Administration was to Northern Powerhouse Rail and further funding for the midlands engine. She may also know that yesterday I announced a White Paper on further devolution, which I think she will welcome too.
The social security benefits freeze has led many children and families into poverty and destitution. The Chancellor failed to answer the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Bootle (Peter Dowd), so I ask him again: yes or no, will he lift the social security freeze next year?
Announcements on welfare will of course be for the Budget, but it is important to note that this Government have done the most important job in lifting people out of poverty, which is getting them into work. Today, a million fewer people are living in workless households as a result of the actions taken by this Government.
So many shining stars in the parliamentary galaxy and so little time. Which star shall shine? Justine Greening.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. The Government seem to be making pre-election spending pledges with all the velocity of a high-power water jet. I wonder whether the Chancellor will point it in the direction of Hammersmith bridge. It has been closed for several months, but even its repair plan would not enable it to take double-decker buses. Will he look at whether his bus pledge can extend to the capital required to enable it to be successful?
I know that this is a very important issue for my right hon. Friend and her constituents. I share some of her concerns, which is why it has troubled me that the Mayor of London is not taking this issue seriously. Why is that? He has the funding available if he chooses to deploy it. He can make a difference immediately, but he refuses to do so.
Irish Border: Customs Arrangements
(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union if he will make a statement on the Government’s proposals for checks and customs arrangements on the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland to replace the current backstop.
We are committed to finding a solution to the north-south border that protects the Belfast/Good Friday agreement. We can best meet those commitments if we explore solutions other than the backstop. The backstop risks weakening the delicate balance embodied in the Belfast/Good Friday agreement, which was grounded in agreement, consent and respect for minorities. Removing control of the commercial and economic life of Northern Ireland to an external body over which the people of Northern Ireland have no control risks undermining that balance. Any deal on Brexit on 31 October must avoid the whole or just part—that is, Northern Ireland—being trapped in an arrangement where it is a rule taker.
The Government intend to set out more detail on our position on an alternative to the backstop in the coming days. In the meantime, I assure the House that under no circumstance will the UK place infrastructure, checks or controls at the border. Both sides have always been clear that the arrangements for the border must recognise the unique circumstance of the island of Ireland and, reflecting that, be creative and flexible.
The Prime Minister’s European Union sherpa, David Frost, is leading a cross-Government team in these detailed negotiations with taskforce 50. We have shared in written form a series of confidential technical non-papers, which reflect the ideas the United Kingdom has been putting forward. Those papers are not the Government setting out their formal position. These meetings and our sharing of confidential technical non-papers show that we are serious about getting a deal—one that must involve the removal of the backstop.
I am grateful to the Minister for his reply, but we are not much the wiser. Today, there are no border posts or checks on goods crossing the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, and the backstop is there to ensure that remains the case after Brexit. That is what the joint declaration of December 2017 committed to. The Government’s position now, however, is that the reality of Brexit will require customs checks on the island of Ireland. That is the inexorable logic of the Prime Minister’s statement this morning that a
“sovereign united country must have a single customs territory.”
Whatever proposals have in fact been put to the EU taskforce, the Tánaiste, Simon Coveney, has described them as a “non-starter”, an Irish Government spokesman says the taskforce has indicated that the UK’s non-papers
“fall well short of the agreed aims and objectives of the backstop”,
and the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland has told the BBC that
“it’s not possible to put anything like a customs facility in Newry, Fermanagh or many other locations away from the border”.
I have the following questions to put to the Minister. Are the Government proposing customs clearance sites or zones anywhere in Northern Ireland? Does the Minister understand the risks that any such sites would create for the peace brought by the Good Friday agreement, and have the Government taken legal advice on the compatibility of their proposals with that agreement? Do the Government’s proposals comply with section 10(2)(b) of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018, which rules out regulations that
“create or facilitate border arrangements between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland after exit day which feature physical infrastructure, including border posts, or checks and controls, that did not exist before exit day”?
Are the Government proposing to track lorries cleared at any such sites using GPS? How can an alternative to the backstop be built on systems and technology that are not currently in place? Finally, when exactly will the Government share with this House and with the people of Northern Ireland their proposals for a replacement to the backstop? I ask because it is unacceptable for us to be kept in the dark about what is being proposed in our name on such an important matter.
There were eight or nine questions there, and I will try to cover them all, but if I do not, perhaps we will pick them up in questions. I think it is completely reasonable that the Government can use non-papers to have those technical discussions. The Government are seeking to have a good discussion with the Commission, rather than disguising anything. The previous Government shared more, and actually it led to proposals being rubbished before they were properly worked through. These technical papers are not even our final proposals to the Commission—they are very much working documents—but we will be giving proposals to the Commission shortly.
Clearly, the Government will want to comply with subsection (2)(b). The right hon. Gentleman asked about legal advice. I think he will understand that I am not going to get into whether legal advice has been taken, or what legal advice has been given; for normal reasons, those things are not shared with the House. He asked about the impact of physical checks. There is no intention to have physical checks at the border. I am not choosing my words carefully there; there are no plans to do that, I can reassure him. Perhaps he was thinking about some of the reports in the Northern Ireland press suggesting there might be checks near the border. That is not the intention. Those reports simply are incorrect. The right hon. Gentleman also referred to GPS and technology. I am afraid I cannot get into the detail of the proposals at that level now, because they are subject to ongoing negotiations and discussions at the Commission.
In his discussions with businesses, is the Minister finding the same as I am, which is that the real challenge businesses are facing is the prolonged uncertainty of kicking the can down the road? Of course, all businesses would rather leave with a deal, but when faced with the choice of leaving at the end of October with no deal or prolonging the agony for many months to come, businesses simply want this done and for us to leave at the end of October.
I thank my hon. Friend for that, and he makes a very good point. The British public do want us to get on with this, and the best way we can get a deal is continuing serious discussions, through use of these technical papers, with the EU and coming forward with more concrete proposals shortly.
Let us return to the question of the Irish border, because it matters. The Good Friday agreement was a guarantor that we had moved beyond the period of conflict. What we are risking now is not only a dangerous time in the history of this country, but our relationships across the island of Ireland and the world. We are 70 days into the premiership of Prime Minister Johnson and there are 30 days until the Brexit date. It is now time that the House had clarity from this Minister or from other Ministers about what the Government intend to do to deliver on the Irish border.
Everybody in the House knows that the backstop was there to guarantee that there would be no hard border across the island of Ireland. That is fundamental to delivering on the Good Friday agreement. We all know that while the European Union has said that it is prepared to negotiate around the words of the backstop, it is not prepared to compromise on the spirit of it—that Northern Ireland should be part of the customs union and the single market regulatory standards of the European Union. When the Prime Minister says that “the reality” of Brexit is that there will need to be customs checks on the island of Ireland, it is in stark contrast to the words of the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland this morning that there would be no checks five or 10 miles into Ireland. That would be in breach of the joint declaration of 2017, and importantly, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn) pointed out, would be in breach of section 10 of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018, which made it clear that any arrangements for Northern Ireland after exit day that featured border posts or customs controls would not be acceptable.
The Minister has to come clean to the House about what the future holds for us. The Good Friday agreement is far too important for us to put it at risk by fooling around. If this were just farce, we might all laugh at the high-wire tricks of the Prime Minister, but this is dangerous. It puts the Good Friday agreement and its hard-won gains in jeopardy. It is not just Northern Ireland and Ireland that deserve better, as the Irish Foreign Minister said, but this House and the whole country. The Minister has got to do better.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman: the Good Friday/ Belfast agreement is essential. Where we differ is on where we feel conflicts may be brought about on that agreement. He feels they will be brought about by removing the backstop; I think there is a greater risk of leaving the backstop there and ending up in a situation in which Northern Ireland is part of the customs union in perpetuity and takes a different direction. I think that is the greater risk, and I remind him that the alternative arrangements are not a solution to the backstop. The alternative arrangements would always have to be there. What we are doing is putting a date on when we will get that sorted out, rather than leaving an indefinite period.
The country is facing no deal precisely because the Government have not published a Brexit plan, yet. The key protagonists who sold Britain Brexit are now in charge, and all we are asking is for them to get on with it and tell us what the plan is to deliver what they promised. Back in April 2016, the then Secretary of State for Northern Ireland—now Secretary of State for the Environment—said:
“There is no reason why we have to change the border arrangements in the event of a Brexit”.
Clearly, what is being discussed now is something very different from what voters were told during the referendum campaign. The House is simply asking what the plan is to deliver what was promised. I do not understand why the Government will not just get on with it and tell us what their plan is.
The Government are actively getting on with it, and that is what the negotiations are about. I would gently say that revealing the detail of our negotiating position—the technical papers and emerging proposals—would actually deliver what the right hon. Lady and I do not want. We do not want no deal: we want a deal—
You’ve given it to them!
To be clear, we have given technical non-papers. We will give the proposal to the Commission shortly.
The future of peace and normality on the island of Ireland will critically depend on the actions of the Prime Minister over the next few weeks, and I for one am deeply concerned that he shows every sign of not understanding or not caring, or both, about the potential implications of the course that he is following.
What discussions have the Government had with the Government of our co-guarantors of the peace process, the Government of Ireland, before lodging this non-plan? What discussions did the Government have with the political parties that represent a significant majority opinion in Northern Ireland before lodging this non-plan? Is the Minister even mildly concerned that the director of the CBI in Northern Ireland has said that the proposals suggest that the
“U.K. govt doesn’t take NI’s economy or peace process seriously”?
Does that comment cause any concern to the Government?
Through various Ministers at the Dispatch Box, the Government have sworn blind that they are negotiating hard for a better deal, but the Minister let the cat out of the bag—there is not even a detailed proposal on which to negotiate. Will the Government now own up to the fact that there is no detailed proposal, there have been no proper negotiations and the Government’s strategy is to look for a no-deal Brexit while blaming everyone but themselves for the problem?
Will the Minister unequivocally repeat the comments of the previous Prime Minister that there will be no customs controls at the border or anywhere else, as required by the Good Friday agreement? Given that this Prime Minister has unilaterally reneged on a promise that he personally signed up to as Foreign Secretary in December 2017, is it any wonder that this side of the House, the other side—increasingly—and an increasing number of Governments in the European Union are coming to the conclusion that he simply cannot be trusted?
Northern Ireland is key to the Government and the Prime Minister. In fact, it is the principal discussion point with the Commission. The Prime Minister has said that we want to get rid of the backstop and this is “the most important thing”. Far from Northern Ireland being on the side as part of the negotiations, it is at the centre of them.
The hon. Gentleman asks about discussions: clearly, extensive discussions have been had with the Irish Government and other entities in Northern Ireland. He says that I have let the cat out of the bag by saying there are no proposals: there are technical papers in the non-papers, and the final proposal will come shortly. It is very much actively being discussed with the Commission on a daily basis. He asked me to confirm on behalf of the Government that there will be no customs control at the border, and I am happy to say that that remains unchanged.
Will the Minister confirm that it is the Government’s position that they want to leave with a deal if possible? Will he also confirm that should the European Commission and European leaders decide not to accept the proposals, the Government will leave with no deal? My constituents voted 63% to leave. They have been waiting three years for Brexit. Will the Minister tell the Prime Minister that they are behind him and to make sure that we get on and deliver Brexit on 31 October?
I thank my hon. Friend and his constituents who overwhelmingly supported Brexit. I can confirm that plan A is to get a deal, and that is what we are working towards and why there is so much focus on the proposal that will come shortly. It makes no sense to share the detail of the negotiation with the House if it makes getting a deal done less likely. Collectively, the House wants a deal and the strategy that we are taking forward makes it more likely that we get a deal while being fully prepared for no deal.
As a Member who lives in the non-customs zone that has not been discussed, and given that we will, I hope, get definitive proposals in the next few days, can the Minister at least draw a little comfort among the negativity that has pervaded the EU that they are no longer talking about no reopening of the withdrawal agreement, that it is sacrosanct and there is no possibility of ever going back to it? At least now there is a glimmer of light.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question because it gives me the opportunity to say how things have changed. There was a time when Michel Barnier was saying, “No more negotiations”, and that he did not have a mandate to negotiate on issues that are important in Northern Ireland and across the United Kingdom. Now the Prime Minister’s sherpa is regularly in Brussels and there are regular discussions at prime ministerial level and between the Secretary of State and Michel Barnier.
Many people speak on behalf of the communities affected in Northern Ireland, but what have the Government done to speak directly to those communities on what ideas they have for alternative arrangements that would be acceptable to them?
Specifically on alternative arrangements, there is an architecture that supports these discussions. There is a technical-level group, which is chaired by the Secretary of State, and which includes industry experts, and there is also a business consultative group working towards alternative arrangements under a deal that will come after exit day.
You don’t believe that.
The hon. Gentleman says he does not believe it. I chaired the group last time, along with the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. There is constructive agreement and frank discussion within that group, and that happens outside the consultative group forum as well—I have set up several bilateral meetings with businesses since.
Section 10(2)(b) of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018, on the Irish border, says there can be no hard border that undermines the Northern Ireland Act 1998, which enacted the Good Friday agreement. It also makes illegal an agreement that creates or facilitates border arrangements between Northern Ireland and the Republic that feature physical infrastructure that was not there before. Can the Minister explain how on earth what we learned overnight is compatible with the law?
I am unclear what the hon. Lady means by “what we learned overnight”. If she means the press report on RTÉ in Ireland, I can tell her that it simply is not true. I can categorically say to her that there are no plans and never have been any plans for any physical checks. This is not a right to reply, but I will be more than happy to take that up with her in more detail, in relation to the Act and more generally, particularly when everything else has come out in the wash.
Does the Minister agree that this whole Northern Ireland-Republic border issue is confected nonsense designed to derail Brexit? Has he considered the Jameson lorry that goes from the south to the north and the Bushmills lorry that goes from the north to the south—different currencies, different excise duties and different tax rates? These are trusted traders. They are trusted now and will be in the future. Does he consider that the current VAT system of Intrastat returns and quarterly accounting could form the basis upon which a proper border arrangement can be easily made?
There are different people in this Chamber: some have a legitimate desire for Brexit not to happen; equally, some Members have genuine concerns and recognise the legitimate decision of the general public and the need to get on with Brexit. It is unhelpful to conflate the two. My hon. Friend refers to a specific solution. There are many solutions being considered that were in the non-papers, but I do not want to comment on those until the proposal is formally made to the Commission.
On the “Today” programme this morning, the Prime Minister said that he would like to “veil” the Government’s proposals on the Irish border in “decent obscurity”? Can the Minister explain how individuals and businesses are supposed to prepare for Brexit if it is veiled in decent obscurity? For clarification, could he say how much he expects these proposals will cost small and medium-sized enterprises in Northern Ireland and how many of those businesses he expects to fail as a result of the Government’s proposals? Will he finally admit that there is no version of Brexit that works for Northern Ireland?
The point of the business consultative group that met in Belfast a few weeks ago was to share ideas in confidence so that the UK Government could develop their position and feed that into the consultative papers, so there is structurally a process in place to involve businesses. Under the terms of reference, that is purely to look at deal relationships. In many ways, deal and no deal could be similar in terms of the crossover of systems that could be used, but those discussions are very much ongoing.
Given that we cannot know what is needed to make the Irish border work until we have sketched the outline of our future relationship, and regardless of the shortcomings of the backstop, is not this fixation on trying to find an alternative permanent solution to the border now a complete waste of time, energy, money and, ultimately, political capital?
We need to find a solution to the border issue, and the original withdrawal agreement gives us extra time beyond exit date to do so. We are trying to bring forward those issues, work on them closely now and get more of the work done before a deal and exit day in order to avoid ending up in a long-term and complicated situation that causes problems in Northern Ireland, for the integrity of the UK and for our relationship with the EU.
I want to take the Minister back to the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Wallasey (Ms Eagle) about the Government’s obligations to obey the law and abide by legislation passed by the House. Section 10 of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018 says that Ministers must
“have due regard to the joint report from the negotiators…during phase 1”—
in December 2017—and that nothing in the Act
“authorises regulations which…create or facilitate border arrangements…which feature physical infrastructure, including border posts, or checks and controls, that did not exist before exit day”.
He has told us to discount reports from RTÉ overnight that suggest that the Government were planning infrastructure a few miles from the border. Would he regard such physical infrastructure a few miles back from the border as incompatible with the legislation this House has passed?
I am tempted to give a simple answer to a straight question, but, because it relies on detail, I will write to the right hon. Gentleman and confirm what I think is the bleeding obvious. Given what he says, it seems to me that there is an obvious answer—[Hon. Members: “Give it!”] I have said I will give him a good answer and make sure it is proper in relation to that Act.
The British Government are not going to build a hard border in Northern Ireland, the Irish Government say they will not allow a hard border in Northern Ireland, and the EU cannot build a hard border in Northern Ireland, so who is going to build this hard border?
My hon. Friend eloquently makes a point. We have said that we will not put a border in place, the Irish do not want to put a border in place, and the EU do not want to put one in place along the north-south line.
The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland told BBC Radio Ulster this morning:
“I’m clear that we can’t have customs facilities in the places mentioned in the reports”
overnight, but Parliament needs to know; we need clarity. The people deserve to know what the Government’s plans are. Can the Minister tell us who is speaking for the Government on these matters—the Prime Minister or the Secretary of State?
Will my hon. Friend, with his customary good grace, take this opportunity at the Dispatch Box to confirm the seriousness with which the Government are seeking to respect the Good Friday agreement, in contrast to the unworthy characterisation by the Labour Front Bench that this is part of some great big game? Secondly, can he alert the House to whether there are existing procedures in the north and south of Ireland by which companies import and export to countries outside the EU using existing customs clearances and checks?
The answer to the second part of my right hon. Friend’s question is that there are established systems that can also be used.
The issue of Northern Ireland is incredibly important. It is central to the delivery of a deal on Brexit. One of the first things that I asked to be able to do was visit the border. It is sometimes difficult to get down to the border: there is a certain resistance to allowing Ministers out of Whitehall, or, if they do get into Northern Ireland, allowing them out of Belfast. However, I went down to Newry and insisted—although I think that some people were not too keen—on visiting the border and criss-crossing and talking to people about the issues. I think that that is the responsible thing to do, to understand the problems at least broadly, so that we can develop solutions as much as possible.
A significant proportion of the exports of the Northern Ireland food industry, particularly ready meals, goes through the Republic, through Holyhead and then on to the UK home market. What assessment has the Minister made of the effects of Government policy on the border—whatever that is—on the viability of the Northern Ireland food trade, on the supply for the home market, and, critically for me, on the economic prospects of Holyhead?
We are prioritising free flow across the border rather than customs revenue in the case of no deal, but we want as much free flow as possible in either scenario. There is detailed thinking on the ports at a thematic level, and also specific thinking port by port.
As the Minister will know, in a deal or a no-deal Brexit, the use of the transit convention will mean that there will be no need for any infrastructure checks or controls at the Dover border. Could that not be applied to Northern Ireland as well? May I also ask whether the Minister agrees that all that the House really needs to know is what discussions Members of the House who are not members of the Government have been having with the European Union?
I thank my hon. Friend for all his work on the short straits. I understand that the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster has visited both the Dover and the Calais sites, and I thank my hon. Friend for the support that he has been giving to the Cabinet Office, particularly in looking at no deal. I think that Dover was ahead of the game; other ports can learn from that, and have indeed done so, as has the Department.
As for my hon. Friend’s second question, I do not really want to get into the weeds when it comes to how people took advice on other Bills in the House. I will limit myself to the nature of the question asked by the right hon. Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn).
Does the Minister accept that any new infrastructure or surveillance at or near the border carries serious risks? The Northern Ireland journalist Dearbhail McDonald has said:
“It’s hard to explain to those who have not lived through a conflict that claimed more than 3,500 lives, in a region with a smaller population than most large UK cities, how the border permeated every aspect of our lives.”
Should the Government spend a bit more time talking to those communities?
As I have said, I went to the border. It does not take long to feel the pain, the fear and the uncertainty. That is part of daily life, separate from Brexit in many ways, and I take it incredibly seriously. I discussed it while I was there, and reflected on it throughout the day and subsequently.
May I add, on a more light-hearted note, that the hon. Lady has still not taken me up on the kind offer that I made when responding to my last urgent question? I look forward to having a cup of tea with her.
During my time in the Cabinet Office, some colleagues and I produced a paper based on customs collaboration, which meant using existing ports and airports and enabling EU and UK customs officials to work together in undertaking checks to ensure that there was no border infrastructure. It also involved leveraging existing VAT and cross-border accounting systems, again to ensure that there was no requirement for a border. Can my hon. Friend give us any more details of the current proposals, and tell us whether they run along similar lines?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for all the work that he is doing. There are themes in which I have seen him very much engaged. I am not sure that I have seen the specific paper that he has mentioned, but I would welcome a briefing from him—with officials—so that it can be fed into the Government’s thinking.
Ministers regularly refer to their commitment to the Belfast/Good Friday agreement. Even the Prime Minister trots out the words that he is “committed to the Belfast/Good Friday agreement”, but I wonder whether he has any idea of what that actually means. It means the Prime Minister standing up and defending the agreement, not only in his words but in his actions. Will the Minister take the opportunity to rule out the suggestion, contained in a UK Government document, that there will be a string of border posts, not at the border but some miles from it? That would represent a physical infrastructure, which this Government must know is contrary to both the spirit and the letter of the Good Friday agreement. Will the Minister accept and confirm that?
Obviously I recognise the importance of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement. As for the specific terminology “a string of border posts” being in a Government document, I have certainly not seen it. I can say to the hon. Lady that I do not think it is in any Government documents, and that I can refute the contents of the RTÉ article. If she wants to pick out bits of the article, or any document that she thinks it refers to, I shall be more than happy to look at them, but that is not Government policy, that is not what we are doing, that is not the intent, and as far as I am aware, the report is incorrect.
Given that 95% of cross-border trade on the island of Ireland is engaged in by trusted traders who want to comply with whatever the new arrangements will be, and given that the Republic of Ireland’s own no-deal planning assumes controls away from the border even at the point of destination, what is the problem?
It is a complex situation, but one to which we think we can find an answer. A category of “trusted traders” is certainly something that any competent Government would be looking into, but I do not want to go into the details of the proposals, for reasons that I have already given.
Let us try again. Can the Minister simply confirm that any new physical checks or infrastructure, whether at the border or away from it, would be illegal under the Good Friday agreement and the withdrawal Act passed by the House last year?
I think I have already answered that question in part. I have agreed to write in response to the part that I have not answered, and I will copy the right hon. Gentleman into my response.
Does my hon. Friend agree that at this stage of the negotiations, it is not unreasonable to be able to share proposals before they are definitive and to be able to probe a response, and does he agree that the best course—before we reach the stage at which a formal submission is made—is for the confidentiality on both sides to be reflected, to provide the maximum space for the progress that is required?
I recognise that as a potential way forward. I think it would limit the Government’s negotiating capacity, and there will clearly be opportunities for the House to interact in that way at some point in the future, but I will reflect on my right hon. Friend’s comments and discuss them with the Secretary of State.
The House is being asked to take it on trust that the Government have credible proposals for alternatives to the backstop, so let me put the Minister to the test in a slightly different way. Is he confident that this border that is not going to be a border will be fully developed and ready for operation, and in compliance with the Good Friday agreement, at one minute past midnight on Friday 1 November 2019?
That is certainly our intention. While on my feet, may I take the opportunity to say that I think I misheard the right hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark) and may have answered the question that I thought he asked rather than the question he actually asked? I apologise. I will look at Hansard and get back to him properly.
Anyone with any business experience knows that complex and sensitive negotiations are not best conducted in public or with the input of those who may want an entirely different outcome to the purpose of those negotiations. Anyone claiming otherwise is in my view motivated by a desire to undermine Brexit rather than a desire for greater detail.
I know it to be true because, before my hon. Friend came to this House, I had to negotiate the cost of my printing requirements at elections, and I know that he is a very canny negotiator who knows all the tricks. I listen to him carefully when he says what happens in business negotiations. I have great respect for his position.
I think that the Minister is seeking to assure us that there will not be any customs posts, checks or controls anywhere at or near the border.
But the Prime Minister has said this morning that Irish customs checks will be the reality after Brexit. So where will the checks envisaged by the Prime Minister take place?
The right hon. Gentleman is right in his first statement. I am entirely trying to reassure the House on behalf of the Government of the first point. I had the pleasure while getting changed this morning of listening to my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister on Radio 4. I did not have the pleasure of tuning into Radio Ulster, but I will hot foot my way back to the Department and ask for a transcript of what I presume the right hon. Friend is referring to.
Is it not the case that whatever is put forward as the solution to the Irish border will not be sufficient for some in this Chamber; it will not be good enough for those who want to revoke and remain; and it will not be good enough for those who want more dither and delay? May I urge my hon. Friend to press on with his determination and with his clarity and to ensure that, come what may, we leave on 31 October?
I thank my hon. Friend for that supportive comment. We are resolved. We will press on. We will try to get a deal. That is our preference, and we will do so and leave on 31 October.
Governments are notorious for getting IT projects wrong in terms of both cost and time for implementation. Can the Minister confirm that one of these non-papers states that this mythical off-the-shelf technological solution that could be implemented in the event of a no-deal will be able to be adapted to any future arrangements and will answer the question posed by Michel Barnier about how a virtual solution can check cows?
As tempting as it is, I have been clear that I will not get into the detail of those proposals or non-papers.
May I remind everybody that this Government are creating a new customs border because they want to leave the European customs union and they do not want to accept the backstop. Customs checks are primarily there not for loads that are compliant and have the right documentation, but for goods that enter a country illegally. How do the Government intend to deal with non-compliant cargo and stop widespread illegal activity?
That is clearly a very important issue. It is one of the issues that I looked at when I was on the border.
I am not sure that I used exactly the right words in the House. I should have said that the Government will never put in place infrastructure checks or controls at the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland. Just to be very clear, that is what I meant to say.
Has the Minister read the non-papers? If he has not, how can he say what is or is not in the non-papers?
First, I have not said what is or is not in the non-papers. As a Minister, I see all the papers I need to see. I am not going to list papers that I have seen, papers that I have read, papers that I have had input into, drafts or versions. I am not going to get into that.
Despite the fact that border checks or infrastructure are not mentioned in the Belfast/Good Friday agreement, this Government have committed to avoiding a hard border, which this party agrees with. The Minister will be aware of the surprise and dismay among many in Northern Ireland at this leaked RTÉ proposal. What engagement does the Minister intend to undertake with businesses, which are particularly impacted by this? Will he repeat to them what he has said here today—that this is not Government policy, and nor will it ever be Government policy, because such a proposal would for many constitute a hard border?
I thank the hon. Lady. It is important that, as well as my saying it, Government communications rebut the inaccuracy. I will make sure that that happens rapidly and in the right forums across Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom. I thank her for that. I will do that. It is not something I was immediately going to do, having said it in the House, but it is certainly something I should do, and it is a helpful suggestion.
Can we just be clear here? The Minister said earlier that there would be no customs checks at the border, which obviously suggests that they will be done elsewhere, yet he suggests that what RTÉ is reporting is untrue. He has now just had to correct himself. The Prime Minister said that there would be customs checks in Ireland. So who are we to believe in this process? None of those things are compatible and none of them appear to be compatible with section 10(2)(b) of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018, let alone the Belfast/Good Friday agreement.
To clarify, the Government have no plans to put in those checks. We clearly cannot compel the Irish Government to do or not do anything.
There has been much talk of a 10-mile buffer zone on the border. Can the Minister outline the stage that discussions are at as they pertain to where the Republic of Ireland intends to carry out its checks and in what form? The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland has said clearly that it will not put up any border controls at all, so how ironic is it that, in the event of a no deal, it will be the Republic of Ireland and the Taoiseach that will have to erect and man hard border controls?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his continued support and thoughts on this issue. He and other colleagues feeding into the process have added great value, and I hope that we will continue those discussions as we move through the process, as the Commission are given proposals and the House debates these issues more fully.
I crossed the border several times this weekend, and what was remarkable about the crossing was that it was utterly unremarkable. So it should remain. To me, there are three options available to us. There is a border in the Irish Sea; there is a hard border on the island of Ireland—which of course puts at jeopardy the Good Friday agreement—or we all remain in the customs union. The Minister has said that remaining in the customs union is a greater risk than jeopardising the peace brought about by the Good Friday agreement. Can he explain why?
Unlike the hon. Lady, I do not want to put a border in Northern Ireland or in Scotland. I believe full-heartedly in the Union. It creates a risk in terms of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement because it puts Northern Ireland into a different position if alternative arrangements are not dealt with, and that is unacceptable. The Government believe that that would cause problems in relation to the Good Friday agreement.
The Minister will know that the Good Friday agreement provides for a referendum for the people of Northern and southern Ireland on reunification if they so want. He will also know that 58% of the people in Northern Ireland voted to remain. Given that we have this problem with an open border with open migration, and with a closed border in breach of the Good Friday agreement, would it not be best for the Prime Minister to come forward with his agreement, which I assume will be the backstop within Ireland itself, and put it to the people in a public vote so that we can get Brexit done by finding once and for all whether we want this Brexit mess or not—as opposed to his divided kingdom?
The hon. Gentleman accused me of dividing the kingdom, but he asked specifically in the same sentence for a vote on parting the United Kingdom. The United Kingdom, as one—the Union—has voted, and it voted for Brexit. That is what we are going to deliver.
In order to make a proposed border solution work, there will have to be an element of Northern Ireland Executive control over the implementation of any putative agreement. With no extant Northern Ireland Executive, the only solution for that would be imposition on the people of Northern Ireland through direct rule. One does not seek to address democratic issues on one part of these islands by taking democracy away from another, so will the Minister tell the House what his Government are doing to address this democratic outrage?
We are trying to get Stormont back up and working.
The Minister said there would be no hard infrastructure at the Irish border. Does the term “hard infrastructure” include cameras?
I do not want to get into the detail of the actual proposal, but I will say that while there are not cameras across the whole of the border, there are cameras on parts of the border. However, the hon. Gentleman should not infer anything from that; I do not want to get dragged into the detail, but clearly it would have been one of the options that were looked at.
Will the Minister accept that customs clearance sites would involve physical infrastructure, and that it would not matter whether they were at the border or some miles distant from it?
I have been very clear that there will be no infrastructure on the border. I have also been clear that the proposals are currently under negotiation, and I will not go into the detail of those proposals in the House.
The Irish Government stated last night that these non-papers are a non-starter. With just 30 days to go until exit day, when does the Minister propose to put forward credible proposals that can be negotiated with the EU?
The Prime Minister has been very clear: that will happen before this weekend.
Over the last 15 minutes, the Minister has been at pains to stress the distinction between technical non- papers and final papers which are forthcoming. On the basis of that distinction, may I therefore ask him a simple question: without going into the detail, can he give the House an assurance that any final proposals that relate to the Irish border will not row back in any way from any of the solemn commitments signed up to in December 2017 in the joint report between the UK and the EU?
First, may I thank the hon. Gentleman genuinely for his service on the Front Bench? When I took over this role, my predecessor said how much he respected the full team, and now that he is on the Back Benches, perhaps we can have a fuller and more honest discussion than we might have had when we were both Front Benchers.
The Prime Minister has said that there will be checks, so whether at a border or a non-border, that does create a border. Whether in a non-paper or a paper, the reality is that there will be checks if the leader of our country has said so. However, the European Commission has said that it has not received any proposals from the UK that meet all the objectives of the backstop, as we have been reiterating and demanding. When will the EU see these proposals?
Before the weekend.
So far, we have had nonsense and non-answers on these non-papers, so can we have a clear answer on this question? Can the Minister rule out direct rule being imposed to implement any of these alternative arrangements on the border?
Is the hon. Gentleman asking whether the Minister will rule out imposing direct rule?
Temporarily, for the border arrangements.
That is not the Government’s plan. The Government’s plan is to get Stormont going.
I thank the Minister for acknowledging that the Belfast agreement is not a one-dimensional document—that it is concerned not solely with north-south relations, but with east-west relations as well. Given the noises that we have heard from Dublin last night and this morning, will he reflect on the comments made by Shane Ross, the Irish Transport Minister, in the summer, who talked of border checks and customs checks in the Irish Republic until he was told that it was politically inconvenient to talk about that, or even those made by the European Commission, which at the start of September recognised, and spelt out very clearly, that it would require customs checks on the Irish side?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that question because it gives me the opportunity to note how much work has already been done. That which was unacceptable and unresolvable, we are now discussing actively and moving forward on. We are at a snapshot between now and next Friday, with those proposals being delivered to the Commission. So we really are moving forward.
It was always going to be the case that some of the negotiations happened nearer the end of the time limit, but progress has been made consistently, from what was quite an entrenched position, which was particularly disappointing given the sensitivities around Ireland and Northern Ireland and the border and the Good Friday agreement. It would have been nice to have done this in a slightly more deliberative way, and earlier; but we are trying to set up the negotiations in such a way that we will get the best possible result for the United Kingdom and Northern Ireland, and that is getting a deal.
Deaths of Homeless People
To ask the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government to make a statement on his Government’s action to prevent the deaths of people who are homeless.
Every single death on our streets is a tragedy. Today’s statistics have provided us all with a stark reminder that there is so much more to be done. Every death on our streets is one too many, and this Government will work tirelessly to ensure that lives are not needlessly cut short. The fact that 726 people—mothers, fathers, siblings, all somebody’s loved one—died while homeless in 2018 will concern not just every Member of this House, but everybody up and down our country.
As you know, Mr Speaker, this Government are committed to putting an end to rough sleeping by 2027 and halving it by 2022; and we have changed the law to help make that happen. In April 2018, the Homelessness Reduction Act 2017—one of the most ambitious pieces of legislation in this area for decades—came into force. We now have a year’s worth of evidence, which is showing that more people are being supported earlier, and this is having a clear impact on the prevention of homelessness.
The Government last year published the first rough sleeping strategy, underpinned by £1.2 billion of funding, which laid out how we will work towards ending rough sleeping for good. Indeed, last year we saw a small change—a reduction in rough sleeping. A key element of that was the rough sleeping initiative. A total of £76 million has been invested in over 200 areas. This year, that initiative will fund 750 additional staff and approximately 2,600 new bed spaces. We know that next year, we must go further. Today’s statistics demonstrate that. We will be providing a further £422 million to tackle homelessness and rough sleeping. That is a £54 million increase in funding on the previous year—a real-terms increase of 13%.
The cold weather is a particularly difficult time for those sleeping rough, so the Government have launched a second year of the cold weather fund. We are making available £10 million to local authorities to support rough sleepers off the streets. That will build on last year’s fund, which helped relieve more than 7,000 individuals from rough sleeping over the winter.
These statistics have reminded us starkly of the fateful impact of substance and alcohol misuse. We know that the use of new psychoactive substances is rising. These are dangerous drugs with unpredictable effects, and that is why it is so important that people get the support that they need. In 2019, we brought forward new training for frontline staff to help them engage with and support rough sleepers under the influence of such substances. We are working with the Home Office to ensure that rough sleepers are considered in the forthcoming alcohol strategy, which will focus on vulnerable people.
There is so much more to be done. Our work is continuing, our funding is increasing, our determination is unfaltering and we are committed to making rough sleeping a thing of the past.
Seven hundred and twenty-six people died homeless last year. Wherever we sit in this House, wherever we live in this country, that shames us all in a nation as decent and well-off as Britain today. Every one—in shop doorway, in bedsit, on park bench—has been known and loved as someone’s son or daughter, friend or colleague. We have heard from the new Minister today, but this demands a response from the Prime Minister himself, tomorrow, in his party conference speech. It demands that he leads a new national mission to end rough sleeping and the rising level of homeless deaths.
The official statistics released today confirm a record high total and a record high increase—up by a fifth over the past year alone. This record high has been 10 years in the making: investment in new social housing has been slashed; housing benefit has been cut 13 times; 9,000 homeless hostel places and beds have been lost as a result of Government funding cuts; and Ministers have refused to step in and protect private renters. There is the widest possible agreement, from homeless charities to the National Audit Office and the cross-party Select Committees of this House, that Government policy has helped cause the rise in homelessness every year since 2010.
Will the Minister therefore acknowledge that high levels of homeless deaths and homelessness are not inevitable? Will he accept that, just as decisions by Ministers have driven the rise in rough sleeping, Government action now could bring it down? Will he back Labour’s plans for £100 million for cold weather shelter and support to get people off the streets in every area, starting this winter? Will he tackle the root causes of this shocking rise in deaths with more funding for homelessness services, more low-cost homes and no further cuts in benefits?
These high and rising homeless deaths shame us all, but they shame Government Ministers most. This can and must change.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his questions. There is no shying away from the statistics, which are heartbreaking. He is absolutely right that every person who has died on our streets is somebody’s brother, mother or sister. He will find no complacency in this Government. We are increasing funding next year by £54 million, which is a 13% real-terms increase. It is important to note that in the areas where we piloted the rough sleeping initiative we saw a direct fall of 19% in rough sleeping in the first year. Next year we are delivering 750 more staff and 2,600 more bed spaces.
The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to raise these issues. While visiting homeless hostels and shelters across the country over the past few weeks, I have been struck by the welfare issues that people have raised with me, especially those with complex and difficult needs, and by the complexity of navigating the system in order to get the right support. That is why we have designed a number of safeguards, including individualised support from Department for Work and Pensions frontline staff. It is important to note that we have also allocated £40 million next year for discretionary housing payments. There is a huge amount more to be done on affordable social housing. He is right to highlight the importance of the issue, which has been raised with me by homelessness charities time and again. We have made £9 billion available through the affordable homes programme, to deliver 250,000 new affordable homes.
The right hon. Gentleman is also right to raise the role of health services. We see in today’s statistics the impact of the high prevalence of drug and alcohol abuse. That is why the support that we are putting forward as part of the rough sleeping strategy, including £2 million to test community-based health models to help rough sleepers access services, including mental health and substance abuse support, is vital. I look forward to working with him, and indeed with every Member of the House, as we try to tackle this hugely challenging issue for our country.
The number of rough sleepers in Newbury has dropped from the mid-30s to nine as of last week. That is nine too many, but that drop has been achieved by an enormous effort from local community groups, but also by statutory bodies such as West Berkshire Council using Government money, for example from Housing First and Making Every Adult Matter, to really bring down the numbers. The Minister will know that dealing with the hardest to reach—that is really what we are talking about in this urgent question—is about trying to get them the medical attention they need. Will he make every effort to work with his colleagues in the Department of Health and Social Care to ensure that GP surgeries and other health bodies are as open as possible to receiving rough sleepers and ensure that they are directed to where their serious problems can best be dealt with?
Absolutely, and I thank my right hon. Friend for raising these important matters. I pay tribute to the local organisations and voluntary bodies in his community that are working so hard to support homeless people and rough sleepers. Housing is part of the solution, but he is quite right to highlight that health services have a hugely significant role to play, alongside other public services. It is right to highlight the £30 million that NHS England is providing for rough sleeping over the next five years, specifically to tackle some of the high instances we have seen in today’s statistics. He is absolutely right and we will continue to make that money available.
Every death of a homeless person is a preventable tragedy. Although housing is a devolved matter, in many ways the policies that are causing those deaths are reserved to Westminster. The Guardian reports that drug-related deaths in England and Wales have gone up by 55% since 2017, and that is directly related to failing Home Office policy. In Glasgow we are facing the twin risks of so-called street Valium flooding the city and an ageing population of intravenous drug users. They run the risk of being put out of their accommodation for drug use and are extremely vulnerable. Will the Minister ask his Home Office colleagues to lay the statutory instrument that would amend the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 to allow drug consumption rooms, as they have in countries around the world, including the incredibly successful Quai 9 in Geneva, which I visited recently?
People are also being plunged into debt and eviction due to universal credit, so will the Minister end the five-week wait, which makes it so hard for people to get out of that cycle and get their lives back on track? Will he also look at amending advance payments, because this only keeps people in debt for longer, rather than resolving the issues? Will he work with the Scottish Government, whose “Ending Homelessness Together” action plan is helping to ensure that those facing homelessness are supported into a permanent settled home and that their needs are met as quickly as possible? Will he look across Government, as I have asked, particularly to the DWP and the Home Office, and ask his colleagues to take action now on the issues that are causing the deaths of so many homeless people in England and Wales and also in Scotland?
The hon. Lady started by stating that every death of a homeless person is preventable, and I absolutely agree. There is so much more that we can do. She talked specifically about the importance of cross-departmental working, both with the Home Office and the Department of Health and Social Care, and I completely agree. We are continuing to work with colleagues in those Departments on the forthcoming independent review of drugs policy, led by the hugely respected Dame Carol Black. We will study her findings extremely carefully. The hon. Lady also talked about universal credit. It is important to put on the record that housing benefit will remain outside universal credit for all supported housing, including homeless shelters, until 2023. She raised a number of extremely important issues, and of course I am happy to work with her colleagues in the Scottish Government and to meet her to discuss how we can take these issues forward.
Fundamentally, we will deal with this only by providing many more truly affordable homes of secure tenure. Does my hon. Friend agree that we should consider changing the rules that currently require us to get the best price for public land, and that really we should make that land available to provide many more ultra low-cost homes?
I thank my hon. Friend for that question. He is an expert in the field and I take what he says extremely seriously, along with all the recommendations of the Communities and Local Government Committee, of which he is a member. I look forward to meeting him to discuss his proposal in more detail.
I welcome the Minister to his new post. Does he accept that two of the main drivers of the increase in homelessness are the shortage of social housing and the impact of the Government’s welfare policies? On housing, he said that the Government are making money available for affordable homes, but does he not accept that the Government’s definition of affordable homes, at 80% of market rates, means that they are simply unaffordable for most homeless people? On welfare, has he read the National Audit Office’s report, which draws a direct link between welfare policies and the rise in homelessness? Will he now accept that there is a need for a review of that link and then for a commitment to change the welfare policies to ensure that they do not drive homelessness up even further?
I thank the Chairman of the Select Committee on Housing, Communities and Local Government for his questions, and I look forward to working constructively with him in the weeks and months ahead.
I would note that we have raised borrowing caps for local authorities so that they can borrow to build, and I say again that we are putting £24 billion a year into housing benefit, which will remain outside universal credit for all supported housing, including homelessness shelters, and making £40 million in discretionary housing payments available for 2020-21. I come back to the point about the difficulty of navigating the system and the importance of ensuring that people are provided with the support they need to do so.
Can the Minister confirm that as part of the rough sleeping strategy, special training is being provided to frontline staff to help people under the influence of narcotics, to ensure that such tragic deaths can be prevented in the future? We have had this problem in Derby, and I know that the police have had real difficulty in dealing with it.
I can absolutely confirm that, and my hon. Friend is right to highlight the importance of that training, which is going directly to the frontline. It is also worth pointing out that the rough sleeping strategy has created a specialist rough sleeping team made up of rough sleeping and homelessness experts with specialist knowledge across a wide range of areas, including addiction and alcohol issues. It is working with local authorities to reduce rough sleeping. I absolutely take on board what she says.
Cuts have consequences. Quite clearly, if we take £37 billion a year out of social security, there are consequences. It is time to end the benefits freeze and build genuinely affordable housing, especially social and council housing—does the Minister agree?
There is absolutely no shying away from today’s figures, so I take what the hon. Gentleman says head-on. The local housing allowance freeze is, of course, due to end in March 2020, and the Government are considering options for after the freeze. We are having continuing conversations about that issue.
Will the Minister join me in congratulating Lewes District Council, which along with Wealden and Rother managed to secure £120,000 earlier this year from the £46 million rough sleeping initiative? Does he agree that it is this Government who, for the first time, have got serious about tackling the causes of homelessness by introducing the Homelessness Reduction Act 2017 and providing £1.2 billion of support for tackling all the causes of homelessness?
I thank my hon. Friend and congratulate her local authority. One of the important points about the Homelessness Reduction Act is that for the first time, we have a year’s worth of data showing the importance of the early intervention that she talks about. She is right that it is backed up with £1.2 billion of funding, but of course today’s statistics show that there is so much more to be done.
The fact that, in this city—arguably one of the wealthiest on the planet— 110 people lost their lives last year is a complete outrage. I am afraid that the fact that the figure has increased by 20% year on year is a damning indictment of the Minister’s Government.
Why are we continuing to criminalise people who are sleeping rough on our streets and begging? Is it not time that we got rid of the Dickensian Vagrancy Act, which is criminalising people instead of giving them the support that they need?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that question. We have of course been reviewing the Act, and I take what he says extremely seriously. We are engaging with the police, local authorities and community groups to see what the most effective method of both support and enforcement is, but he is right that these are heartbreaking statistics, and the number of people who lose their lives on our streets is completely unacceptable.
I welcome the Minister to his position, and I welcome the assured way in which he has dealt with his debut performance on this difficult subject.
In Worthing, we have an innovative project whereby Roffey Homes, a developer, bought a nurses’ home and has given it to Turning Tides, a homelessness charity, to use for the next five years, before it wants to develop it. With the support of Worthing Council and with Government funding, it has taken more than 30 people off the streets, providing not just accommodation but mental health support, training support, benefits advice and everything else. It is not without problems, not least the constant complaints and undermining by local Labour councillors, but does the Minister agree that we need this sort of innovative approach if we are to find sustainable solutions for people living and sleeping rough?
I thank my hon. Friend for raising that example of good practice in his constituency. I was not aware of that project, but I would be happy to visit it. Of course, that good practice does not disguise the fact that there is so much more for us to achieve as a Government to tackle rough sleeping by 2027.
How many of the homeless people who have died were in receipt of benefit, and how many were not, and why not? If the Minister does not know the answer, will he undertake to write to me and place the answer in the Library so that we can all know the truth?
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for that question. I do not have that information on me today, but if we have it, I absolutely give that undertaking.
The causes of and solutions to rough sleeping are never simple. I welcome the action that the Government have taken and encourage them to work with local authorities and the extraordinary range of charities and voluntary organisations, such as Churches Together in Basildon, which works tirelessly to tackle homelessness and get people off our streets, giving them a warm and dry place to sleep and a hot meal and, more importantly, helping them to access the support systems that are available but that they seem to have fallen out of.
I am absolutely delighted to place on record my thanks to Churches Together, both in his constituency and across the country. He is right that there is a vital role for community groups and charities around the country in the prevention of homelessness.
My local authority, Westminster, has the highest number of rough sleepers in the country. Its rough sleeping strategy found that a third of rough sleepers had been discharged on to the streets from prison, and of course others are ex-servicemen. Can the Minister tell us how many deaths have occurred among people who have been released on to the streets from prison? If he does not know, will he place that information in the Library, and can he tell us how on earth that is allowed to happen?
I completely understand the importance of this issue to the hon. Lady’s constituency and in Westminster. If we are to end rough sleeping, we need to ensure that people leaving prison are supported into accommodation—I say that as both a Minister and someone with three prisons in his constituency. It is important to note the offender accommodation pilots that are under way at HMP Bristol, Leeds and Pentonville, but I am happy to meet her and the local council again to see how we can take this further.
I had the privilege of serving on the Public Bill Committee on the Homelessness Reduction Bill, which was piloted through by my hon. Friend the Member for Nuneaton (Mr Jones) and passed on a cross-party basis. In welcoming the Minister to his place, may I too invite him to pay tribute to local organisations that support the homeless? In my areas there are organisations such as Routes to Roots, in Poole. What more can we do to support such organisations?
My hon. Friend is right, and I thank him for his work not just on the Bill Committee on the Homelessness Reduction Act but in working with charities in his constituency. I absolutely pay tribute to them for their work, and I hope to visit them with him soon to hear more about their work.
Leeds City Council, through its very impressive street support team, which brings together all the agencies working with the street homeless in our city, is making effective use of funding under the Housing First programme. That enables people who might not be able to comply with the conditions that hostels reasonably require, because of their drug and alcohol problems, to get into permanent accommodation with support. May I urge the Minister to increase the support that he is making available to local authorities such as Leeds through that programme? I have seen from that team that it is being put to extremely good use.
I welcome the tone of the right hon. Gentleman’s question. He is right that the Housing First pilots are working very well. In a lot of instances they are backed up by international evidence that supports the programme, and we are building a strong evidence base to see how it can be continued and expanded. I thank his local authority for the work that it is doing.