House of Commons
Monday 21 October 2019
The House met at half-past Two o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
Halfway through the recruiting year, approximately 70% of the Army’s regular soldier requirement have either started training or are due to do so. In addition, direct entry officer and reserve recruitment targets are all expected to be achieved.
I thank the Minister for that answer, but he must be aware that since 2010 the number of service people has declined each year. The latest figures, which I believe are from 1 July 2019, show that the Army has 74,440 personnel against a target of 82,000; the Royal Air Force has 29,930 against a target of 31,750; and the Royal Navy and Marines have 29,090 against a target of 30,450. What will the Government do to address the shortfall?
I think we are doing a lot, actually. As I said, we need only look at this year, where all the signs are very positive. The real challenge we have faced recently has been in the other ranks in the Army. Officer entry is full, and the Army reserve is growing. The target for other ranks in the Army is 9,404. We have already achieved 70% of that target in the first six months. The second we get to 80%, Army numbers, assuming that outflow remains constant, will remain the same and will not fall. In every single other rank where we manage to recruit over 80%, that will mean an increase in Army numbers. Within the first six months, we have already achieved 70%, so we have 10% more to do within the next six months to maintain numbers, and everyone after that will represent an increase in Army numbers.
I am very proud that there are now no roles in the British Army that are not open to women, so all ground and close combat roles are open. We have seen the first women join the Royal Armoured Corps. We also have women in training to join the infantry. I cannot give my hon. Friend an exact number, but I will write to him with that detail.
Is the Minister aware that in 1982, at the time of the Falklands conflict, we had 327,000 people in the armed services and now we are below 100,000? Is it not a fact that if Mr Putin came steaming towards us tomorrow we would not be able to defend this country?
No, that is certainly not the case. It is certainly true, to quote Stalin, that:
“Quantity has a quality all its own.”
However, the modern armed forces are very different from those of the 1980s. We need only look at the Queen Elizabeth, our new carrier, which, compared with Ark Royal, her predecessor, has a complement that requires just one quarter of the number of crew.
Kent is proud to host a number of Gurkhas across the country, including within the Queen’s Gurkha Engineers, currently located at Invicta Park barracks just outside my constituency. Will my right hon. Friend join me in welcoming the number of personnel in the Brigade of Gurkhas, which has increased by 25% in the past four years?
I have to declare my interest: the first Army unit I joined was the Queen’s Gurkha Engineers back in 1988 in Hong Kong. I am delighted that, speaking off the top of my head, we currently have 69 and 70 Gurkha Field Squadrons serving in Invicta barracks in Maidstone. I am also pleased to be able to announce that the aspiration is to create 67 Squadron from 2021, and a second further Gurkha engineers squadron, 68 Squadron, from 2023, so the Brigade of Gurkhas continues to grow.
We all know about the Government’s disastrous record on recruitment of UK personnel, with the fully trained size of the Army, as we have already heard, having now just fallen to 74,000 personnel. But the Government are failing to recruit enough Commonwealth troops, too, and we now hear that they are cancelling plans to proactively recruit from overseas. Can the Minister explain how this decision guarantees sufficient recruitment to our armed forces, and how on earth he plans to meet the stated target of 82,000 soldiers?
I have already explained part of what we are doing. I sense that the hon. Gentleman wrote his question before listening to my answers and has not been able to adapt it, which is a shame but often the case in this House. Equally, I think he has fallen into the trap of reading a Daily Express or Sunday Express article which states what is factually not the case. We have always recruited from the Commonwealth, and over the last two years we have been increasing our recruitment from the Commonwealth.
I have listened to the Minister’s answers, and he intimated that we are replacing quantity with quality. Much of this problem goes back to the Capita contract for recruiting soldiers, sailors and airmen, which was massively criticised in a Public Accounts Committee report earlier this year in terms of both quantity and quality. Today, 10% of our troops are incapable of deployment abroad for medical reasons. What can he do to fix those problems?
Let us be clear: the House is absolutely right to scrutinise this Government over recruiting into our armed forces. I welcome that, because it enables me to put pressure on our service chiefs. While there were, without doubt, challenges with that Capita contract, I have explained today how we have already reached 70% of our target within the first six months of this year. That contract is now performing in a way that it was not before. My right hon. Friend is right about medical standards, which is why there is a series of reviews at the moment of how we can prevent those injuries from happening in the first place.
Strait of Hormuz: UK Shipping
Happy Trafalgar day, Mr Speaker. Ships transiting the strait of Hormuz are currently exposed to the threat of being harried by units of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards and, in some cases, illegal seizure. While the international community is working to de-escalate tensions, up to four ships of the Royal Navy have been active in the strait since July.
No matter how capable, a Royal Navy ship cannot be in two places at once. On this anniversary of the battle of Trafalgar, given that 95% of our trade is seaborne, is it not obvious that we need a much larger surface fleet, including a larger number of cheaper ships, if we are to play our full part in keeping world sea lanes open?
I agree strongly with my hon. Friend’s point, which is why this Government have invested in not only the new Type 26 frigate but the Type 31, which will be designed to be more affordable and will increase the overall number of frigates and destroyers that we are able to deploy. In this example, we very quickly managed to have four ships in the region to tackle the problem. We have now gone back down to supplying two ships there, but it was not the case that we could not get ships in the right place at the right time.
I thank my right hon. Friend for his answers thus far. Clearly the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps is a constant threat to shipping in the strait of Hormuz. Does he agree that it is now time that the entirety of the IRGC was proscribed, with their assets sequestered and sanctions imposed on them and their leadership?
My hon. Friend makes an important point about the threat that the IRGC poses to not only the region but countries such as ours. The Quds force is currently proscribed. Further proscription considerations are a matter for the Home Office. However, what is really important is that, where the IRGC poses a threat, like-minded countries around the world challenge that threat and ensure that it is dealt with.[Official Report, 24 October 2019, Vol. 666, c. 6MC.]
Trafalgar day has been mentioned, and later today, when “Up Spirits” is piped, we will all drink a tot to the immortal memory. I hope that the Minister will place on record his recognition and understanding that the Royal Navy and Royal Marine personnel currently on active service represent the very finest tradition of our services. Let us put that on the record.
Happy Trafalgar day, Mr Speaker. Yesterday I had the pleasure of seeing the sea cadets parade in a splendid fashion for Trafalgar day. I welcome the Secretary of State and the new Ministers to their posts.
The situation in the strait of Hormuz and the wider Gulf has significantly escalated in the past few months. We have seen unlawful aggression in the international seas, British flagged ships seized by the Iranian regime, attacks on Saudi oil facilities and a recent commitment by the US to send an extra 3,000 troops to Saudi Arabia. We need to de-escalate tensions. With that in mind, can the Secretary of State confirm that the UK will not be sending troops to Saudi Arabia?
The hon. Lady is absolutely right that we have to de-escalate the situation in the Gulf, but what we will do is make sure that our allies in the Gulf are able to protect themselves by offering advice about how they can protect their airspace and protect themselves from loss of life, which is incredibly important. One of the ways to make sure this is de-escalated is to ensure, if there was another Iranian attack, for example, on an oil facility or any other facility in that part of the world, that it does not lead to loss of life because that for sure would lead to some form of escalation. We stand ready to help our allies with knowledge on how to do that, and that is the best way we think we can proceed to keep calming the tensions.
I thank the Secretary of State for his answer, but he will also be well aware of the catastrophic impact of the US withdrawal from the Iranian nuclear deal. Sadly, this is not the only commitment that the Trump Administration have very publicly undermined—withdrawing from the intermediate-range nuclear forces treaty and putting the chances of a new strategic arms reduction treaty in doubt—so what discussions has the Secretary of State had with his US counterparts on upholding and strengthening existing international security agreements?
On the joint comprehensive plan of action, dealing with the Iranian nuclear capability, I have made it clear to the United States, as have my colleagues in Europe, that we support the maintenance of that agreement. We think that is the best way forward to make sure Iran does not develop a nuclear weapon, but also to deal with the concerns that the Iranians have had over the years about their security. We will continue to press that, as we continue to press in the areas of Turkey and Syria for upholding international and human rights obligations.
I look forward to working with my right hon. Friend. I think I am going in front of his Committee later in the week, and no doubt I shall bow to his knowledge as he will no doubt grill me.
I understand the point that my right hon. Friend has made. All our defence capabilities have to match our ambitions across the board—that is the first point—whether that is land, sea or air. It is the case that our surface fleet is of over 50—of course, 19 are frigates and destroyers—and that means we do allow flexibility in our fleet to meet certain needs, such as disaster relief, which was done by a Royal Fleet Auxiliary ship. However, in case the threat changes, we must always be prepared to move to match that threat, and we will always keep under review the size of our fleet, but it is also why we are continuing to invest in new ships—more capable sometimes than numbers because of the very potency they pose. The Type 26 frigate will be a world-leading capability, and that in itself will be a deterrent to many of our adversaries.
Service Personnel: Recruitment and Retention
We remain committed to maintaining the overall size of the armed forces, and we have a range of measures under way to improve recruitment and retention. Those measures are kept under constant review. Importantly, the services continue to meet all their current operational commitments, keeping the country and its interests safe.
The Harrogate and Knaresborough constituency is proud home to the Army Foundation College, which has 1,100 junior soldiers in training. Last year, the college received an “outstanding” classification from Ofsted. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the educational excellence on offer is a key part of the recruitment package for the college, and that the qualifications the junior soldiers receive set them up not just for their careers in the Army, but for the whole of their lives?
I thank my hon. Friend for being such a champion of this outstanding college, and he is absolutely correct. There are a multitude of excellent opportunities, of which the Ministry of Defence and the Army are extremely proud. These are reflected not just in the formal qualifications and apprenticeships but in the self-esteem, confidence and leadership skills the junior soldiers gain.
In Harlow, we have outstanding cadet forces and outstanding cadet leadership. They provide the training that young people need and they develop qualities of leadership. May I ask my right hon. Friend: what more can we be doing to support our cadet forces in Harlow and elsewhere to encourage young people into the services, and will he come and visit one of our great Harlow cadet forces?
How could I resist such a kind invitation? I should be delighted to visit. Indeed, I started life as a cadet, so I know the value of it. In accordance with the UN convention on the rights of the child, that is not a conduit for entry into the armed forces. However, it is a fact that while just 4% of cadet forces joined the armed forces, 20% of the armed forces were once cadets.
Our cadet organisations give young people an invaluable insight into the potential of a career in the armed forces, but they need places in which to meet. I understand that the Ministry of Defence will help to give financial support to buildings and other facilities for Army and air cadets, but not for sea cadets. Given that today is Trafalgar day, will my right hon. Friend meet me to discuss how we can help to raise money for a new home for Chelmsford’s excellent sea cadets?
A training ship, Upholder, in Chelmsford is indeed an excellent base for the Chelmsford Sea Cadets. It is right that the sea cadets have a different funding formula from the other two services. They receive a mix of funding from the MOD and other sources. Each sea cadet unit is an individual charity. There has been much debate over the years as to whether or not that is the right way to move forward, but I should be delighted to meet my hon. Friend.
In the past, the MOD has offered a number of bespoke packages to recruit people whose skills they need—for example, qualified doctors when the medical services have been short. Does the MOD intend to offer more bespoke packages to get people with a range of skills into the armed services?
My hon. Friend makes a really interesting point. As we move forward there are different specialist skill sets that we need—cyber is an example, as well as medical services—and have to consider whether or not we should look at different models for joining the armed forces. One area that we are looking at is greater use of the reserves for those specialist skills and, equally, whether or not we should have some form of lateral entry, as we do with medical services.
For the past two years, I have been honoured to be part of the wonderful armed forces parliamentary scheme. I graduated only last week. I have visited all three services, which are engaging people with amazing work to keep the peace and keep us safe. Overwhelmingly, they get great satisfaction and lead interesting lives, but I was shocked to hear that some universities are resistant to those terrific people visiting and advertising that unique career path to students. I should like to ask my right hon. Friend what more can be done to get our young people to engage with an armed forces career?
I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s comments about the Armed Forces Parliamentary Trust. Indeed, that is a scheme from which many hon. and right hon. Members have benefited. When it comes to young people, we are the largest provider of apprenticeships in the UK, and when it comes to encouraging university students to join, we have a bursary scheme as well as an undergraduate scheme. There is also the university officer training corps, the university air squadrons and university Royal Navy units, in which undergraduates can participate.
It is normally family pressures that are the No. 1 reason cited by members of the armed forces for leaving the armed forces, which is why it is absolutely right that we get this whole package correct. Faslane, as the hon. Lady knows, will soon be the home of the entire submarine force for the Royal Navy. It has been subject to large amounts of investment, and it has some of the best accommodation for the armed forces. The mess itself has faced challenges, and I will happily write to her to update her on exactly where we are on that issue.
During visits with the NATO PA and, indeed, the Select Committee on Defence to Finland, Norway and Sweden, I have noted their highly selective and competitive attempts to recruit young people to national service schemes, to the armed forces, and Government defence agencies. Those are much sought-after schemes in all those countries, and are highly effective not only in recruiting young people but in retaining them in the reserves. May I ask the Minister to look at Elizabeth Braw’s excellent article on this in The RUSI Journal, and will he look at that as an example for the UK?
I am grateful to the hon. Lady—Madam President—for those words of advice, and indeed for that constructive suggestion. I am more than happy to consider any way we can encourage more people to join and, crucially—this is the other side of the coin—remain in the armed forces.
The north-east has traditionally provided a higher proportion of armed services personnel than any other region in England. Can the Minister confirm whether that is still the case following the recruitment shambles, and can he set out the improvements to pay and housing that he will make so that the sacrifices of our armed forces are in the interests of the country, not austerity?
The hon. Lady rightly highlights the important contribution that the north-east and the north-west have made to recruitment to all three services over many years. I am determined that our armed forces should reflect modern Britain, which is why we are trying to encourage more members from black, Asian and minority ethnic communities to join the armed forces and, equally, more women—currently we are achieving 7.3% for the former and 12.2% for the latter. Last year we saw a decent pay increase of some 2.9%, and we continue to invest an awful lot of money in improving accommodation standards for our armed forces.
May I first declare an interest, as my son-in-law will soon be going on active deployment with the reserves? I also wish to point out the magnificent contribution made by the Carlton reserve base in my constituency. I want to ask the Minister a simple but really important question. The reserves are a crucial part of our armed forces—I know he knows that—but there are really significant problems in recruiting and retaining reserve personnel and integrating them into our armed forces, so can he say a little more about what the Government are doing about that?
The hon. Gentleman makes a really important point. It will come as no surprise to him that, having been a serving member of the reserves for 31 years, I take reserve service very seriously. I think that maintaining that offer is absolutely key, which is one of the reasons why I have imposed a target to ensure that at least 5% of our reserve community have the opportunity to go on operations, as his son-in-law is doing. It is that offer that is so key.
I congratulate the Minister on holding his post, and I welcome the new team to the Government Front Bench. His boss is, of course, a Scot, and he will tell him that Scots do not take kindly to broken promises from Tory Governments. At the Scottish independence referendum we were promised that there would be 12,500 personnel in Scotland by 2020, but at the last count the figure stands south of 10,000, so will that not be another broken promise from this Tory Government?
I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman does not seem to welcome the fact that Scotland will soon be home to all Royal Navy submarine personnel. I am sorry that he does not seem to recognise that there will continue to be an Army brigade based in Scotland. I am sorry that he does not seem to recognise the important investment in Lossiemouth, as the P-8 is soon to be based there.
Outsourced Departmental Contracts
The Ministry of Defence routinely monitors the performance of all contractors, including those who provide outsourced services. Performance against contract targets is regularly scrutinised and officials take appropriate action when standards are not met.
The latest figures show that the Army is currently more than 9% under strength, and that the full-time trade trained strength is now well below the Government’s stated target. It beggars belief that Capita still holds the contract for recruitment. Have the Government just given up trying to hold Capita to account?
I warmly welcome my hon. Friend to her new post, which is very well deserved. She is a graduate of the armed forces parliamentary scheme—that is where she learned everything—so I am glad that she is now at the Dispatch Box. I very much welcome the fact that the new Type 31s are to be built in Rosyth, which should be a very good contract indeed, but what evidence can she bring forward that the contract will be delivered on time and within budget?
You know that your comments may go to my hon. Friend’s head, don’t you, Mr Speaker? I thank him for his question. Indeed, one of the most exciting things that I have had the opportunity to do in this role so far has been to set running the new Type 31 class of general purpose frigate. It will be built in Rosyth under Babcock’s guidance. At the moment, the contract is being drawn through to the final details so that we can hopefully get cracking early in the new year.
I welcome the new Minister to her post. A report in the Financial Times today demonstrates that botched public sector outsourcing contracts wasted more than £14 billion-worth of taxpayers’ money just in the last three years, with the MOD found to be the biggest culprit, accounting for £4 billion-worth of the extra cost. At a time when our defences are badly in need of investment after nine years of Tory cuts, does the Minister accept that this Government’s ideological obsession with outsourcing is failing our armed forces and the taxpayer alike?
I thank the hon. Lady for her question. I have had a chance to look a little at the Reform think tank’s paper, which highlights some issues. All of us would agree that contracts have not always been managed as tightly as possible. I direct her, most importantly, to the outsourcing review that was done by the Cabinet Office and was set in place by the former Prime Minister in February this year. It has been very clear and set some really good guidelines for all Government Departments on thinking more proactively about early market engagement, in particular—I think that has been a weakness historically—and being much more active in the management of contracts, so that when we have great contracts, such as with Leidos and a new contract that I have just signed with Atos, we make sure that we are responsible in the governance of those contracts so that we get the best for our money and that the contractors provide the service that we need.
I am sorry, but I did not quite catch the start of the hon. Gentleman’s question. In relation to call centres and Capita, we have to remember that those who are applying, who are 16 and upwards, live in a digital world. They live on apps and dealing with those systems is very much part of that. The call centre is one part of the whole. That service ensures that young people can really ask those questions and get to grips with their initial questions about whether joining the armed forces is for them. How that follows on from that is something that, as I think we would all agree, my colleague the Minister for the Armed Forces has spoken about at length this afternoon. We are making huge progress in making sure that we get the numbers that we need in the armed forces.
We are committed to supporting the UK defence manufacturing industry. On 14 March, the Government provided an update to Parliament on our ambitious defence prosperity programme, which includes work to sustain an internationally competitive and productive UK defence sector. In 2017-18, the MOD spent £18.9 billion with UK industry and commerce, directly supporting 115,000 jobs.
I thank the Minister for his response, but last week the former head of MI6, Sir John Sawers, said that the deal for Cobham, which is being taken over by Advent, the private equity company, should be blocked. The Business Secretary said that there would be guarantees, but we know that in the case of GKN and Melrose, those guarantees were worthless. If the US President can say that the US automotive industry is a concern that should be protected for national security, what sort of protections do we have in place for our industry?
The hon. Gentleman makes a really important point about protecting our sovereign capability and I take that incredibly seriously, as someone who worked previously in QinetiQ, in the UK aerospace sector. The issue with Cobham is ongoing. It is currently before the relevant Department in Whitehall. We have made our internal submissions on that and I therefore cannot comment on that particular issue. It is important that we maintain and keep our sovereignty, where that is viewed as necessary for our future, but we should also not forget that the reason we are the second biggest aerospace exporter in the world is that we take an international consortium attitude towards it.
Given the recent increase in our settlement of £2.2 billion, of which a large proportion will go on investing in the capital part of our budget, the future for UK aerospace should be bright and looks bright. The Type 31 frigate, for example, will be made in Rosyth and will be delivered by UK yards.
Although the bulk of its work in the United Kingdom is civilian, Airbus also does some military work—for instance, on the A400M transport aircraft. More importantly, leaving aside the problems with that aircraft, which are dreadful and multifarious, the current chief executive, Guillaume Faury, and his predecessor both threatened to withdraw up to 14,000 jobs from the United Kingdom if we left without a deal and in a disorderly manner. Now that we have a deal and are not planning to leave in a disorderly manner, does the Secretary of State agree that the chief executive of Airbus should withdraw that threat and should start talking about investment into the United Kingdom rather than disinvestment?
Although the order for the CVRT replacement, the Ajax tank, was placed with General Dynamics, Lockheed Martin and Rheinmetall—American and European companies—the hulls are being kitted out in Merthyr Tydfil and the turrets are being built in Bedford. How important is it that, if we place orders for the best equipment available in the free world, we should have as much UK content as possible?
I welcome the new Ministers to their posts. A little more than three months ago, a prominent Conservative Member of this House said:
“We must continue to hammer home the importance of sovereign capability”—[Official Report, 16 July 2019; Vol. 663, c. 277WH.].
That was, of course, the new defence procurement Minister, speaking before she was promoted. Thinking about the fleet solid support ships, for example, can I ask the Secretary of State why his Ministers do not practise what they preach?
The hon. Gentleman is tempting me to comment on an ongoing competition. As he knows, if we were to prejudice that competition, both the UK taxpayer and potentially UK industry would be at risk of being sued by the other consortium. The Under-Secretary of State for Defence, my hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Anne-Marie Trevelyan), whom I welcome to my team, was not the Minister at the time of that competition, so to hold her to account in that way is unfair.
Defence Manufacturing Capabilities
To help sustain future capabilities we have published strategies for shipbuilding and combat air and refreshed our defence industrial policy with a new emphasis on supporting growth and competitiveness, which are central to our procurement programmes, including, for example, the Type 31 frigate and Tempest.
The UK has a world-beating defence industry that is dependent on high-value design. How is the Department supporting the Government’s “Engineering: Take a Closer Look” campaign to ensure that people understand how vital engineering is to our defence industry?
I congratulate my hon. Friend on being appointed engineering envoy by the Government. Engineering is incredibly important, which is why we support the “Engineering: Taker a Closer Look” campaign, which will form part of that legacy and focus on STEM youth engagement, targeting not only young people but the gatekeepers, such teachers and parents. We are fully supportive of the campaign objective, which is to increase consideration of a career in engineering with a specific focus on 11 to 16-year-olds, especially among under-represented groups, such as girls and black and minority ethnic groups.
To keep skills and innovation here the Government have been determined to invest in home-grown innovation. It is the best way to sustain UK capability in the long term. That is why the defence and security accelerator, launched in 2016, is so important, as is the defence innovation fund, under which £800 million will be spent in that sector over the next 10 years.
Thousands of people in north Hampshire contribute to the defence of our country, and the ability of companies such as Fujitsu, Harris and BAE Systems and their supply chains to recruit experts from across the world to work with our domestic home-grown talent is an essential part of our winning formula. How will the Government ensure that that recruitment can continue after we leave the EU?
My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has been very clear about the need for a points-based system to enable us to secure the skills that we need, but, again, the long-term solution is investment in our skills base. I was pleased about the increase in further education funding that was announced in the recent spending review, which will be important to ensuring that that happens. In my constituency in Lancashire, investment in schools and higher and further education colleges is the bedrock of BAE’s capability.
I know that the Secretary of State is reluctant to talk about the fleet solid support ship contract, but may I ask him what percentage of the bid is being taken into consideration in terms of support for UK jobs and manufacturing? Will he really be content to be the Secretary of State who is willing to export jobs to Spain rather than investing in this country?
I think that the last part of the right hon. Gentleman’s question anticipated the result of any competition that will take place, and I am not going to comment on who or what is going to win if we progress to that stage with competent bids. It will be important for all the bids to include an element of UK capability, and we will ensure that we take that into consideration. It is important to us, and to the skills in this country, for the customer—the MOD, which is spending all that money—to secure not only an export market but a UK base.
Project Tempest is delivering and investing in a future fast jet programme. However, given what we are hearing about the potential closure of Brough, may I ask what conversations the Secretary of State is having with BAE Systems about replacement training jets, and what investment he is planning to make in some new Red Arrows?
I shall have to write to the hon. Lady about the Red Arrows, because I was not expecting that question, but the Tempest project is an important signal to BAE Systems that the Government are committed to another generation of fast jets. I shall be meeting representatives of BAE soon, and I shall ensure that its desire to be part of the programme is reflected in the locations of its workforce around the country.
The Secretary of State made a very significant statement from the Dispatch Box a while ago when he said that companies should invest where the skills are and where the customers are. That only applies if the customers are prepared to use their buying power to insist that the manufacturing takes place in the UK. Why will the Secretary of State not change Government policy, even before Brexit, and insist that the solid support vessels are built in British yards? Make a decision, man!
The two aircraft carriers are built in British yards, the Type 26 is built in British yards, the Type 45 is built in British yards, the offshore patrol Batch 2 is built in British yards, the Type 31 is currently built in British yards, and we will continue to invest in our yards. The right hon. Gentleman will have heard the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Ruth Smeeth) ask how we could ensure that BAE continued to invest in its workforce. It can continue to invest in its workforce because it also manages to export around the world When we export, we must recognise that we need an international consortium, because we cannot sell purely to ourselves; we have to export around the world.
Armed Forces: Capability and Strength
Our armed forces have suffered decades of being hollowed out to meet short-term pressures. Eventually, that takes its toll on the men and women of the armed forces and the equipment and maintenance programme. The funds announced recently in the spending review will allow us to reinvest and to maintain our forces at their present levels. The adequacy of our capability is of course defined by the extent of our ambitions, and by whether we as a nation are willing to fund them.
My hon. Friend has raised some concerns about the engagement with Europe, and, indeed, about Europe’s ambition. I think it absolutely right that the European Commission has a strong ambition for a single defence capability. We have made it clear that we will only join any part of this European defence arrangement voluntarily, and on condition that there is a unilateral mechanism for exit. That is the key purpose. We will, of course, work with international partners often to face threats.
If the Secretary of State wants to assess the strength of the armed forces, does he now agree that it is about time that they had a trade union to stand up for ordinary members of the armed forces against his puny Government?
Coming from a party that would reduce the armed forces to a rubber boat in Scotland, I do not think we should take any lectures from the hon. Gentleman and the SNP. It is absolutely clear: the SNP is obsessed with trade union representation rather than investing in armed forces.
Service Personnel Families: Pupil Premium
I have already met the Schools Minister on this issue. We work hard to get the message out there through payslips, posters and an advertisement campaign. We can all, as MPs, play a role in making sure the families of those who serve receive the benefits they are entitled to.
There are over 400 serving armed forces personnel in the Wakefield district, and they make a huge contribution to our nation’s defence, but there are concerns from the Army Families Federation that the service pupil premium is not being used properly by schools to improve pastoral outcomes for service children. What discussions has the Minister had with schools on guidance?
When the Minister next comes to visit the Royal Military College in Shrivenham in my constituency, will he pop into Watchfield primary school, where he will see a brilliant primary school that educates children from all over the world—the children of those of many nationalities who study at the military defence college—and when he gets back will he ask the Secretary State why the Ministry of Defence gives no financial help to this primary school for the language teaching it has to do for those children?
All service personnel with non-EU citizen dependants are subject to the minimum income requirement when applying for visas to enter the UK. I recently met my hon. Friend the Member for South Ribble (Seema Kennedy), the Immigration Minister at the Home Office, to discuss the minimum income requirement for visa fees. This is now being taken forward by officials from both Departments, and I am very hopeful of a good outcome.
Penicuik in Midlothian is home to the Royal Highland Fusiliers at Glencorse barracks, and the battalion has had a number of serving Commonwealth soldiers, particularly from Fiji. Commonwealth citizens have made significant contributions to the defence of the UK throughout history, and continue to do so. I appreciate the warm words from the Minister and that he has had conversations, but is it not time that we repay their sacrifice by scrapping the minimum income requirement so they can be reunited with their families?
I pay tribute to those from Commonwealth countries for their sacrifice and service over the years, which is exactly why we are looking to recruit more people from those parts of the world. I am in conversations with the Home Office to try and work out ways to get over the minimum income requirement, and a lot of options are being looked at—such as whether we can work with credit unions or advertise on payslips—but I am more than happy to meet with the hon. Lady.
Much like ordinary civilians, Commonwealth soldiers are being unfairly treated by the Government under their hostile environment policies. Is the Minister aware of the significant difficulties that Commonwealth personnel have encountered in bringing their families to the UK, and will he engage with me to address these issues?
I will be delighted to engage with the hon. Gentleman, and I would reiterate my point about the sacrifice and the service of so many of our Commonwealth soldiers, who have contributed so much to the armed forces in this country and who make them such a diverse and incredible set of armed forces that do such a good job on our behalf.
Leaving the EU: Defence Exports
Defence exports will continue to be supported, not just by the Ministry of Defence but by other Government Departments including the Department for International Trade, after the UK leaves the EU. Work is ongoing to explore how to strengthen the competitiveness of UK industry and to support exports, both to the EU and globally. My right hon. Friend the Defence Secretary has regular conversations with the Secretary of State for International Trade, including through the defence security and exports working group.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on her appointment. I know that she is a fervent champion of the tremendous exporters that we have in the defence sector. She will know that they often face non-tariff barriers when they export to the United States. Can she reassure me that she will be championing their cause and ensuring that those non-tariff barriers are broken down when we have a new trade deal?
I thank my hon. Friend for her kind words. I reassure her that, through our long-standing bilateral relationship with the US, we work closely across the full spectrum of defence, including on issues of shared economic interests such as reducing barriers. Free trade agreements are not used as a means of increasing defence exports. For non-sensitive and non-warlike defence goods and services, the UK may pursue greater access to US public procurement opportunities through the free trade agreement.
The 13 old nuclear submarines tied up alongside Devonport provide a really important case not only for generating jobs in Devonport but for exporting skills and technology around the world. Will the Minister put forward a strategy for how we are going to recycle those old nuclear submarines within the next year?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his optimism that anything so big as that project could be done in a year, but I will certainly take up the challenge. I have been described by some in the Department as a poacher turned gamekeeper on this particular subject, especially as I have made it a priority to move this forward. I saw the work being done on the Resolution project up in Rosyth a couple of weeks ago, and I have been encouraged by the progress being made there. We are starting to see a structured framework that will enable us to move this project forward and move our way right through our elderly submarines that are now in need of retirement.
In the light of recent events at the Syrian border, the Government urge all parties to ensure that they comply with international law, including international humanitarian law and obligations on human rights. We urge a swift de-escalation of the conflict by all parties.
I note that changes were made last week to the political declaration on the future relationship between the EU and the UK. Can my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State confirm that no member of the British armed forces would ever be obliged to serve alongside any EU army without Ministers’ support?
My hon. Friend makes the key point when she suggests that this could not happen without Ministers’ support, or indeed without the intention of this Government to voluntarily join an EU task force, a NATO task force or any other type of international task force. I can absolutely reassure her that we will not enter into any of these European schemes without doing so voluntarily and without a unilateral exit.
As we approach Remembrance weekend and the launch of the Royal British Legion’s poppy campaign, we remember all those who have given their lives for our country and of course all the veterans who have served. Many veterans have accessed the veterans gateway for help and support, but there is significant concern that the funding for the gateway is not guaranteed. Will the Minister address that concern today and guarantee the necessary funding to enable the veterans gateway to continue its good work?
The veterans gateway received an initial period of funding, and it is supported by a consortium of charities. It has been a success in helping veterans access help in this country, and a long-term plan is being devised for it at the moment. I would be more than happy to meet the hon. Gentleman to discuss that in due course.
I welcome the opportunity to meet my right hon. Friend to discuss the Eastriggs site in his constituency. I am aware of the aspiration of Rail Sidings Ltd to develop its railway rolling stock storage business at MOD Eastriggs. Defence Medical Services continues to manage the site and may support initiatives to commercially exploit the rail infrastructure, provided that any increase in use does not conflict with the primary demands of defence.
The UK remains fully committed to the long-term security of the region and to the counter-Daesh coalition. We continually assess UK and coalition logistical capability to ensure that we are well placed to continue to contribute to the counter-Daesh effort, and we remain at the forefront of the coalition’s air campaign.
The issue of protecting our servicemen and women from vexatious and repeated prosecution in Northern Ireland is something that the Government take incredibly seriously. Regular meetings are now ongoing between me, the Attorney General, the Secretary of State for Defence and the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. We are absolutely committed to the Prime Minister’s determination that there will be no vexatious or repeated allegations and prosecutions without new evidence, and we will achieve that objective.
I have not had any discussions with the Mayor on this issue. Transport is devolved to the Greater Manchester Authority, so it is a matter to be decided upon locally. However, as a supporter of the armed forces covenant, Transport for Greater Manchester provides free travel on Metrolink for veterans on important days, such as Remembrance Sunday. I am of course happy to meet the Mayor to discuss the matter further.
I recently met some veterans of the far east campaigns of the 1950s, and they impressed upon me the gross unfairness of the pension situation for some of them who served for 15 years. Will the Government change the rule that means that people who served before 1975 must have served for 22 years to get a full pension?
In respect of pensions for those who served pre-1975, there is a long-standing convention for which responsibility lies with the Treasury. We simply do not have the resources to backdate pensions, as has always been the case with pensions across the public sector.
Ministers will be aware that Hawk manufacturing at Brough is due to end in 2020 after more than 100 years of aircraft manufacture. I thank the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Anne-Marie Trevelyan), for agreeing to meet me on Wednesday, but ahead of that meeting will she please consider all suitable BAE MOD contracts and what pressure can be put on BAE to ensure that some of them are manufactured in Brough?
I have regularly met the unions from Brough over the years, and not only because I represent a site in Lancashire that also employs BAE workers. The key is for us to support BAE to get more export bids and, at the same time, to prepare for the next generation of fighter. With that, we will make sure that with our money and with taxpayers’ money comes a commitment from BAE that the jobs are as much based here, throughout the country, as they have always been.
The University of Northampton’s research into the social impact of cadet forces, including those in state schools, suggests that membership can increase social mobility and help children reach their potential because of the activities they undertake. That is precisely why this has been such a successful process.
The hon. Lady is right that white phosphorus is permitted only for use in signals and markers; it is not allowed, under the Geneva convention, to be used as a weapon. A number of people are collecting evidence about that and many other incidents. When that evidence is presented either to me, to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons or to the UN, we will consider together what the next step should be.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. I welcome what the Minister has just said and what the Prime Minister has said repeatedly—in March, in July and last week—that we must not let politics trump justice. I trust that legislation is coming to stop vexatious prosecutions, but when?
On Saturday last, as reported at column 658 of Hansard, the Leader of the House rose on a point of order to announce the Government’s intention to bring forward a motion today under section 13(1)(b) of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018. Unfortunately, the point of order did not prove to be a prelude to an emergency business statement on which colleagues could question, probe and scrutinise the Leader of the House.
Rather, for approximately an hour, 30 points of order were raised with me by no fewer than 24 colleagues expressing disquiet and consternation that the Government intended to require the House to consider again on Monday the same matter which it had decided 48 hours earlier, on the immediately preceding sitting day. It was my privilege to listen and respond to the views of colleagues. I then undertook to reflect further on what Members had said and to give a ruling this afternoon, which I shall now do.
There are two issues, one of substance and the other of circumstances, to consider, and I shall address each in turn.
First, I have to judge whether the motion tabled under section 13(1)(b) of the 2018 Act for debate today is the same in substance as that which was decided on Saturday. Page 397 of “Erskine May” is clear that such a motion
“may not be brought forward again during that same session.”
It is equally clear that adjudication of cases is a matter for the Chair.
I invoked “Erskine May” and ruled on this issue as recently as 18 March 2019. Saturday’s motion sought approval for the withdrawal agreement, the political declaration on the future relationship between the EU and the UK and the declaration concerning the operation of the democratic consent in Northern Ireland provision. Today’s motion seeks approval for the withdrawal agreement, the political declaration on the future relationship between the EU and the UK and the declaration concerning the operation of the democratic consent in Northern Ireland provision. It is clear that the motions are in substance the same. However, this matter was decided fewer than 49 hours ago. After more than three hours of debate, the House voted, by 322 to 306, for Sir Oliver Letwin’s amendment, which stated that
“this House has considered the matter but withholds approval unless and until implementing legislation is passed.”
The second matter for me to consider was whether there had been any change of circumstances that would justify asking the House to reconsider on Monday what it had decided on Saturday. On the face of it, unless an event or development external to the House had interceded, it is hard to see a significant change of circumstances that would warrant a reconsideration on the next sitting day—in this case, a reconsideration pre-announced by the Leader of the House just under 21 minutes after the result of the Division was announced. However, the Government might argue—though, to date, they have not put forward any argument or explanation at all—that the change of circumstances is the Prime Minister’s application on Saturday night for an extension of article 50. This is not persuasive. The application is part of a process, rather than a significant event in itself.
In summary, today’s motion is—[Interruption.] I am extraordinarily grateful to the hon. Member for South Suffolk (James Cartlidge). If he would bear stoically and with fortitude, I shall complete my statement. In summary, today’s motion is in substance the same as Saturday’s motion, and the House has decided the matter. Today’s circumstances are in substance the same as Saturday’s circumstances. My ruling is therefore that the motion will not be debated today, as it would be repetitive and disorderly to do so. For the benefit of colleagues not closely familiar with the so-called “same Question” convention, which is very strong and dates back to 1604, I will summarise the rationale for it in a sentence: it is a necessary rule to ensure the sensible use of the House’s time and proper respect for the decisions that it takes.
If it is not legitimate for the motion to be taken today, what is it legitimate for the Government to do? The answer is that, as the Prime Minister signalled in his point of order on Saturday, as reported at column 653 of Hansard, and in his letter to Members that evening, the Government can introduce their EU withdrawal and implementation Bill. Indeed, they have done just that, presenting the Bill for its First Reading today. I have no doubt that the Leader of the House will offer further details of the intended timetable for the Bill when he makes a business statement later today. Meanwhile, I hope that this ruling and explanation are helpful to the House.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I entirely follow the logic of your argument, but what weight did you give to the fact that when we were debating on Saturday, nobody knew whether the Prime Minister would send a letter, and since that has happened, although you are quite correct, Sir, to say that the motion is the same, an event outside has dramatically changed it? Given that the motion on Saturday was clear that final approval cannot be given until the deal has gone through in legislation, would it not be, as you have always said, for the House to decide on this matter, notwithstanding the fact that the previous motion is clear about what is going to happen? That would give the country the opportunity to know whether the House approves or disapproves of the Prime Minister’s deal.
I am extremely grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his point of order. My response is as follows. I did not consider, in reaching a judgment on this matter, whether a letter would be sent; the letter was sent on Saturday evening. More widely, on whether the question whether a Minister of the Crown would obey the law would be a material consideration for the Chair, the honest answer to the hon. Gentleman is that that consideration had not entered my mind as pertinent to my reflection on the matter.
I note the wider point that the hon. Gentleman makes, and I respect the fact that it is a point of view. I intend no discourtesy to him when I say that I think I have made the argument for and explained the rationale behind the judgment that I have made. I am not seeking to rubbish the hon. Gentleman; I am simply making—[Interruption.] No, I am not seeking to rubbish the hon. Gentleman; I am simply making the point that, having reflected on all the considerations and the interests of the House, I have reached the conclusion I have reached. It is important that colleagues hear all parts of it. The hon. Gentleman did not like part of it, as he politely explained in his point of order, but he will also have heard me say what it is open to the Government to do. The Government can introduce their Bill, propose a programme motion for it and proceed with the support of the House, between now and the end of the month, as collectively Parliament prescribes. That seems to me to be entirely proper.
Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. As you will recall, on Saturday afternoon, I was the Member who made the point that the Leader of the House should have been making an emergency business statement at that time, rather than relying on the device of a point of order to try to change the business today. I described it at the time as “low-rent jiggery-pokery”. Is it not time that the Government, instead of playing games with the business of the House, actually subscribed to the usual practices, informed the Opposition of their intentions and, indeed, informed the Speaker of the House of their intensions in advance, so that we can all get on with the important business we have to conduct?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. Let us focus on the arguments and the issues. As a long-serving Member of this House who is sadly no longer with us once said, “It’s about policies; it’s not about personalities. It’s not about personalities; it’s about policies.” I do not want to get into the personalities of it. I know that the Leader of the House disapproves of jiggery-pokery, because I have heard him say so in the past—if memory serves me correctly, on 26 March 2015, in the Chamber, he made the very point that he deprecated the use of jiggery-pokery.
I do not want to get into that, but I suppose what I want to say is this: there are precedents for changes in business being announced on points of order—it is not the norm, but there are precedents—and I do not want to ascribe any improper motive to the Leader of the House, whose personal courtesy to me over the years has been and remains unfailing, and I hope that I have reciprocated it. He made the judgment that he made. There was very little notice that he was going to say what he said, but that was really perhaps a product of the circumstances.
The hon. Gentleman might think that the circumstance could have been anticipated and some advance notice would have been helpful, but we were where we were. I do not complain about having to respond to points of order. The Leader of the House did not stay for all the points of order—he stayed for some of them—but I feel certain that he will since have familiarised himself with all of them. We will hear from the Leader of the House later, and I am sure we look forward to that.
Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. A couple of days ago, on a point of order, I said that the law of the land was set out in section 1 of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018, which quite unequivocally states:
“The European Communities Act 1972 is repealed on exit day.”
Exit day is on 31 October. The Benn Act 2019 has not yet done anything, other than in respect of the letter, to change the repeal of the 1972 Act. Therefore, I simply put it to you, Mr Speaker, that, as you mentioned in your statement, the question whether there are issues relating to the law being obeyed is not an issue at this stage in proceedings. For that reason, I simply ask you whether it is possible for you to reconsider your decision, because the reality is, I am afraid, that the law of the land remains as it was last Friday.
I am extremely grateful to the hon. Gentleman, whose experience in these matters and whose prowess as a lawyer I readily acknowledge. I hope that he will not take it amiss—but if he does, it is a regrettable inevitability—when I say that he has put on record his understanding of the legal position, and he has said it, as he has on previous occasions, with crystal clarity. Other people have a different view about the legal position and the significance of the so-called Benn Act. If memory serves me correctly, I did not dwell in my statement on adherence to the law. I touched on that matter only in response to the point of order from the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr Bone). I totally understand what the hon. Member for Stone thinks and why.
Moreover, I made clear in the statement the option open to the Government, and I reiterated it in response to the hon. Member for Wellingborough. The amendment in the name of Sir Oliver Letwin, I remind not just Members but those attending our proceedings, explicitly specified that the legislation should come first. Suddenly to have at the next sitting day a debate on the same matter upon which an explicit conclusion was reached on Saturday would seem very unusual, and I have made the judgment that I have made.
Colleagues, I am stating the obvious, but when you make a judgment on these matters, manifestly some people, if it is controversial, are pleased and other people are displeased. That is in the nature of the responsibility. I have simply sought to discharge my obligations and to do what I believe to be right, and that is what the Speaker has to do.
Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. My point of order is about the nature of this power in the Chair to prevent Parliament being asked to vote again and again on the same thing. Surely this is to prevent an over powerful Executive—[Interruption.]
It is an attempt to prevent an Executive from browbeating Parliament and making certain that it votes again and again on the same thing until it gets it right. Surely, Mr Speaker, this is an important defence of freedom in our democracy, and do you agree that this is even more important when we have a Government who are attempting to browbeat Parliament and set up a Parliament versus the people false narrative?
The short answer is yes. I sought, colleagues, to frame my statement in factual terms, and it was—whether people agree with it or not—closely argued. I did not go in for adjectival excess on this occasion. It is, however, part of the thinking of the Chair that the House should not be continually bombarded with a requirement to consider the same matter over and over and over again. There are people who are concerned about such a prospect—that is, about the possibility of being browbeaten, harassed or intimidated. In the context of the statement I made to the House on 18 March, I was very aware of commentary in the public square along the lines of, “Well, we’ll bring it back—26 times if necessary—until we get the outcome.” That was a factor in my judgment that a ruling from the Chair needed to be given.
Absence of Speaker intervention on this same convention since 1920 or thereabouts is attributable, colleagues, not to the discontinuation of the convention, but rather to general compliance with it, and that is for the protection of the House. We also do not want contradictory and conflicting judgments to be reached in very short order, and what could be shorter order than the next sitting day after the last judgment was made? It may not appeal to everybody, but that is the rationale for the perfectly reasonable judgment that I have made.
Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. I am most grateful to you for allowing me to speak. I rather imagine that if you did not enjoy being bombarded, you would not so much enjoy sitting in that Chair. I note that the dilemmas you face mean that, on occasion, you will sometimes have to please some and not others, but it is becoming remarkable how often you please one lot and not the other lot. You have also inveighed against most unusual things happening in this House that you did not like, and I would say that it is most unusual for a Speaker so often to have prevented the Government from debating the matters that the Government wished to put before the House. It has been one of your mantras that the House should be permitted to express its view, even when it comes to changing the meaning of Standing Orders, and yet you have denied the House the opportunity to express its view on this matter. This motion that was never voted on on Saturday—[Interruption.]
This motion was never voted on, and it ceased to exist as soon as it was amended. I confess, Mr Speaker, that I am surprised that the reason my right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Sir Oliver Letwin) tabled his amendment has failed to enter your head. The reason was that there was an anxiety that the law was not going to be complied with and the letter would not be sent; so the circumstances have changed in that respect. May I just alert you and the House to the fact that my Committee—the Select Committee on Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs—will be holding a hearing on the role of the Speaker, somewhat in the light of the experience of recent months?
First, I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his multifaceted point of order—and it was multifaceted; there were several features to it, and that is important.
Secondly, I hear what the hon. Gentleman says about his Committee conducting an inquiry into the role of the Speaker, and that is absolutely proper—
I think he said something from a sedentary position about tomorrow, with evidence being taken and witnesses being heard, and that is absolutely right. I do not know what he expects me to deduce from that. I would not dream of seeking to comment adversely—still less to trespass, which it would be quite improper to seek to do—upon the legitimate autonomy of any Select Committee of this House. It is perfectly proper for his Committee to undertake such an inquiry. I am entirely untroubled by it, and it is a reflection of his conscientiousness that he should do it.
Thirdly, with regard to how unfortunate it is that one side seems to be disadvantaged by judgments from the Chair, I say to the hon. Gentleman—and there are people in this Chamber who know very well the truth of what I say—that I do not have, off the top of my head, a count of the number of times that I have in the past granted urgent questions, and in some cases, though they were less fashionable at the time, emergency debates, to people of what was then called a Eurosceptic disposition and would now be called a Brexiteer disposition—and he was one of them. When I was granting him and some of his hon. and right hon. Friends the opportunity to challenge, to question, to probe, to scrutinise, and, in some cases, to expose what they thought were the errors of omission or commission of the Government of the day, I do not recall him complaining that I was giving him too many opportunities to make his point and that it was not a fair use of the House’s time—that it was very unfair on his party and a violation of the rights of his Government. Now, it may be that sotto voce he was somehow making this point, but if so, I did not hear it.
I remind the hon. Gentleman additionally, and fourthly, I think, that—yes, I will make this point because it is an important point to make—his hon. Friend the Member for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron) tabled an amendment to the Queen’s Speech in 2103 on the case for a referendum on UK membership of the European Union, a most unusual though perfectly proper thing for a Government Back Bencher to do, and I selected that amendment. I did so because I thought that it was well supported and there was a compelling case for it to be considered. So what I am saying to the hon. Gentleman is that when he was getting the decisions in his favour, he was not grumbling. He is grumbling now because he does not like the judgment I have made, but the judgment is an honourable and fair one, and I am afraid that if he does not like it, there is not much I can do about that. I am trying to do the right thing for the House as a whole.
My last point to the hon. Gentleman—and it is very important not just for, or even particularly for, Members of the House, but for those observing our proceedings—is that nothing in what I have said in any way impinges upon the opportunity for the Government to secure approval of their deal and the passage of the appropriate legislation by the end of the month. If the Government have got the numbers, the Government can have their way, and it is not for the Speaker to interfere. The judgment I have made is about the importance of upholding a very long-standing and overwhelmingly observed convention of this House. That is what I have done, and I make absolutely no apology for it whatsoever.
Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. I am seeking clarification on the implications of the Benn Act for the proceedings over the next week or so. I am happy to put this in writing if that is helpful, and I am sorry for not having done so already. The Benn Act, as you know, was amended by the amendment put forward by my hon. Friend the Member for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock). You may recall that in the debate my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Frank Field) asked my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn) why there was no purpose to his Bill, to which the latter Member of Parliament said, “We do not want a purpose to this Bill”, and the implication was to keep it open-ended. Clearly, the amendment that was then passed by this House included the amendment by my hon. Friend the Member for Aberavon, which stated very clearly that there could be no extension beyond 31 October unless it was to secure a deal. So could I have some clarification from you, Mr Speaker, or maybe in writing tomorrow, that when amendments come forward over the next few days or the next few weeks, only those that are pertinent to securing the deal, in relation to the essence of that deal, rather than revoking article 50 or having a second referendum, will be taken, because it is all about securing the deal?
My response to the right hon. Lady is twofold. First, it is not for the Chair to interpret the Act. People will make their own assessment of that. That does not fall to me. Secondly, if she wishes to engage with me on that matter in correspondence, I am not promising to come back to her tomorrow but I will study any letter from her and respond in as timely a way as I can, compatible with a substantive response being provided. I shall be delighted to try to oblige her in that regard.
That is perfectly possible. For that to be the case, a self-denying ordinance is required on the part of people who otherwise wish to raise points of order with me, but I note what the hon. Gentleman has said, and colleagues either will be guided by him or not.
Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. May I make a helpful suggestion, which is that you send a photocopy of “Erskine May” to members of the Government? On a more serious note, the Government keep insisting that Members of this House should have the opportunity to change their minds. Is it not time that they extended the same courtesy to the British people?
I note what the hon. Lady has said. The second point is a political one, to which I will not respond. In relation to “Erskine May”, it is available free online. In relation to the same question convention, I simply make the point that when I pronounced on the same question convention on 18 March, one of the early responses came from an hon. Member who said:
“may I say how delighted I am that you have decided to follow precedent, which is something I am greatly in favour of?”—[Official Report, 18 March 2019; Vol. 656, c. 778.]
He went on to make other supporting points. The person who responded in that way was none other than the current Leader of the House, the right hon. Member for North East Somerset (Mr Rees-Mogg). The Leader of the House was very much with me at that time on the same question convention. I take the same view seven months later, and it is for him to explain whether he does.
Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. However unfashionable it might be, I believe that you are quite right, and by the same token, it is quite wrong to expect the voters to have to answer the same question a second time.
I have known the right hon. Gentleman for 22 years. I like him so much that I do not want to ruin a burgeoning political career, as he is only probably a quarter of the way through his, but one of his great merits is that he is a model of consistency, principle and fair-mindedness.
Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. The meaningful vote process is one which Parliament has insisted the Government adhere to. All the Government are trying to do is stick to a process set out by Parliament. The motion was amended on Saturday. Now we can have a clean vote, because I think there is an appetite among the country and this Parliament—these Benches are not exactly empty—to get a view on the Prime Minister’s deal. I agree with my right hon. Friend the Member for New Forest West (Sir Desmond Swayne): I think your ruling is probably right. But unlike most of “Erskine May”, we are prone to follow the EU constitution, which means at the moment that we will leave the EU at the end of this month. There is limited time, but we will be treated to the spectacle of empty Benches in this House when we go home, and we may be sitting late or at weekends to try to get Government legislation on the statute book. I am not sure that the British people will understand that.
I just say to the hon. Gentleman—I genuinely apologise to him if I have misunderstood any part of his point, but I am reacting on the hoof—that whether or not there were the debate today, the Government require the passage of the requisite legislation. Therefore, in so far as the hon. Gentleman is concerned about the time required for the legislation, the programme motion for it, the sitting hours entailed by it and the inconvenience that might flow from it, those considerations would apply whether or not we had the debate today. The issue is whether we make a pragmatic judgment and allow for the breach of a long-standing convention or make a principled judgment, and I have made a principled judgment. There is every opportunity for the Government, with the support of the House, not only to have their say, but to get their way by the end of October, and I do not think I need to add anything to that. It is dependent on parliamentary opinion.
Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. Before you reflect on this, I acknowledge that we have known each other for over 30 years—in many ways our personal political lives seem to have gone off in very different directions in the course of that time—and I acknowledge the kind remarks you made to me on another occasion outside this House last week, but I am one of the Members who have formally recorded my anxiety about your partiality in the Chair, and I think the right way to do that is to do it formally.
Having done that, like my right hon. Friend the Member for New Forest West (Sir Desmond Swayne), and having noted the narrow terms in which you gave your ruling today, I think those terms in your coming to your judgment are reasonable. However, would our knowing what the response is to the letter imposed on the Government by this House to request an extension be a sufficient change of circumstances for you to reconsider the conclusions you have come to today?
As the hon. Gentleman will know, repetition is not a novel phenomenon in the House of Commons, including when perpetrated by me. I have made the point often—forgive me, but I make it again—that I tend to subscribe to the dictum of the late Lord Whitelaw in these matters. He famously used to say, “Personally, I think it is better to cross bridges only when I come to them”. It is a hypothetical question, and I would have to reflect on it and make a judgment in the circumstances of the time.
I do not want to fall out with the hon. Gentleman, and I appreciate his courteous opening remarks. He will not be surprised to know that, although I absolutely defend his right to his opinion, I do not accept his characterisation of my speakership. I have tried to do the right thing by Parliament. Sometimes people like it when it goes their way and sometimes they do not when it does not, but that is my honest approach. If he disapproves of it, I am sorry about that, because I have known him a long time, but I will live with that. I do not mean that in any discourteous or patronising way, but I will live with that. It is one verdict, and there will be others. However, I have made the judgment I have made, and let us wait and see how events develop.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. This is a genuine point of order. First, my understanding of “Erskine May” is that the repeat question applies to a Session of Parliament, so the fact that we have had a Prorogation since 29 March might mean that the Government could—I am not saying they would want to do this, but they could—bring back the same question as they asked the House on 29 March. Secondly, would they be able to ask a variant of the motion on the Order Paper today that included, for example, paragraphs (1) and (3)?
I am very grateful to the hon. Lady. It is a genuine point of order, and my response to it is as follows. First, when I referred—I do not mean this impolitely—not to 29 March, but to 18 March, I was referring not to a motion on that day, which was indeed in the last Session, but to the statement or ruling I gave at the time on the same question convention. The ruling on the same question convention has not just survived from one Session to another; it has in fact survived for the last 415 years, so I do not think we need trouble ourselves unduly on that matter.
Secondly, I very specifically was making the point that the matter has been treated of as recently as Saturday, with a very clear decision reached by the House on the amendment to the motion, and therefore it would not be appropriate to consider that matter today.
Thirdly, when the hon. Lady inquires about whether a different formulation of words, or a section or subsection would render such a motion open to a different judgment on the same question and convention, I hope that she will understand when I say that I cannot possibly pronounce on that until I know the circumstances. I would have to see the particulars, and I am grateful for the rather vigorous nodding of the head by the right hon. Member for Wokingham (John Redwood) who, at least on that point, seems to agree with me.
Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. In citing your ruling, you spoke of the importance of precedent and convention, yet earlier this year, when you allowed a motion that was unamendable to be amended, you said:
“I am not in the business of invoking precedent, nor am I under any obligation to do so…If we were guided only by precedent…nothing…would ever change.”—[Official Report, 9 January 2019; Vol. 652, c. 366-372.]
Can you understand, Sir, in the light of your comments, why some people perceive, perhaps incorrectly, that the only consistency one can find in your rulings is that they always seem to favour one side of the argument, and never the Government, who are trying their best to carry out the mandate given to them by the British people in 2016?
I am extremely grateful to the hon. Gentleman—and I mean this very sincerely—for his point of order and, in particular, in the best traditions of his service, for his explicit, direct challenge. I respect that. No whispering behind his hands or muttering into his soup, or anything like that—he is challenging me directly. I do not agree with him. I think the consistent thread is that I try to do what is right by the House of Commons, including by, in many cases, minorities whose voices need to be heard. What I said when I allowed the amendment tabled by the right hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield (Mr Grieve) on, if memory serves me correctly, 9 January this year, was that the will of the House should be tested. It may well be that it had not been the norm for such motions to be amended, but I felt that the circumstances were different. Very specifically, I sensed that there was a very strong appetite for that amendment among several parties in the House, and a resistance to it by a very much smaller number of parties, and I thought that the will of the House should be tested.
It is true that we are guided not only by precedent, but I would say to the hon. Member for Monmouth (David T. C. Davies) that just because we are not guided only by precedent does not mean that we are not guided at all by precedent. What one has to do is make a balanced judgment about what best serves the interests of the House. All I would say to him is that as recently as Saturday, at the insistence of the Government—and I think with the support of the House—the House met to deliberate on this very matter. Simply to allow the matter to be reconsidered two days later, on the very next sitting day, seems to me to be entirely unreasonable. Nothing that I have said by way of conclusion today flies in the face of contrary expert advice that I have received. I have consulted, I have taken advice, I have listened to people expert in these matters, and I have not been counselled that what I have said today is wrong. I have not been counselled that what I have said today is wrong, and I have a very strong sense that there is a pretty wide acceptance that on this matter my judgment, however inconvenient and irksome to some people, has the advantage of being procedurally right.
Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. I respect your judgment and share your love of precedent, but given what you have said, and given that the House has already voted a number of times on holding a second referendum, and rejected it, will you apply the same precedent on repetitive votes in your deliberations if amendments proposing a second referendum are put forward?
I am extremely grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for what he has said. The principle that I have enunciated has wider application. The same question convention applies to consideration of the same matter in the same Session. I very gently say to him that we are now in a new Session—a point that is so blindingly obvious that I am sure it will not have escaped the right hon. Gentleman, who is a very clever fellow, for a moment.
Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. Some of my constituents have written to me today to express their concern that the reason the vote is not being allowed is that the result would go in the Government’s favour. I have heard the reasons that you have given for that, but on Saturday the amendment was brought forward by the right hon. Member for West Dorset (Sir Oliver Letwin), who has since said that, were the vote to be brought forward now, he would not amend it again, and that he would support the Government’s legislation. Is that not a sign that something has changed since Saturday?
The short answer to that is no. I do not recall every single word that the right hon. Member for West Dorset (Sir Oliver Letwin) has said, although I am familiar with the thrust of his argumentation on these matters. It is a matter of record that the right hon. Gentleman has voted for the withdrawal agreement three times, and it is a matter of record that he has expressed support for the Government’s latest deal with the European Union, causing him therefore to be inclined to vote for the legislation. He can vote for the legislation if he so wishes—I have every expectation, on the strength of what he has said, that he will do so—but he does not determine what the judgment is about the same question convention. I mean, he could if he were the Speaker of the House. If the hon. Lady is going to make a belated attempt to persuade the right hon. Gentleman to abandon his retirement plans and seek election to the Chair, she might have success with him, or she might not—I do not know; he does not seem to be offering me any encouragement on that matter. I have made the judgment that I have made, and I think that it is the right judgment to make.
Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. Her Majesty the Queen thought that she had five weeks to write her Gracious Speech, but then she was given just a few days, and now she is waiting intently to hear the House’s response to it. However, the Leader of the House has put down a motion that is basically a copycat of Saturday’s motion, in breach of “Erskine May”, and, predictably, you have ruled it out of order. Is this not a discourtesy to Her Majesty, and a further reason why the Leader of the House should consider his position, given his incompetence?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, but I do not think that we should get ahead of ourselves. I certainly am not accusing the Leader of the House of discourtesy—in fact, I have celebrated his unfailing courtesy to me, and I think that he would acknowledge mine to him. We are going to hear from the Leader of the House with the business statement. If the hon. Gentleman wants to question the Leader of the House on the business statement, and to express his indignation, I very much doubt that any force on earth would stop him doing so.
If that exhausts for now the appetite of colleagues to raise points of order—I am grateful to colleagues for what they have said, and for the courtesy with which they have expressed themselves, whether they agree with my ruling or not—we will move on to the first of our urgent questions.
European Union (Withdrawal Agreement) Bill and Extension Letter
(Urgent Question): To ask the Prime Minister if he will make a statement on the publication of the European Union (Withdrawal Agreement) Bill and his letter of 19 October to the European Council seeking an extension to the period provided under article 50.
Notice of the withdrawal agreement Bill was given to the House on Saturday. The Bill was handed to the House yesterday, as agreed with the House authorities. It will be introduced for First Reading at the start of the main business today. Publication of the withdrawal agreement Bill is therefore now being delayed by the Leader of the Opposition, because he has tabled this urgent question requesting publication of the withdrawal agreement Bill—genius.
The withdrawal agreement Bill could not be finalised until the European Council on Thursday 17 October, and then there followed an historic meeting of this House on Saturday 19 October. It has been introduced on the following sitting day, and, as you said a moment ago in response to a point of order, Mr Speaker, what could be sooner than the next sitting day? The sooner that this urgent question and the next urgent question are concluded, the sooner it will be available to Members.
In respect of the Prime Minister’s letter to President Tusk of 19 October, that was sent in compliance with section 1 of the Benn Act. The President of the European Council has accepted the request as valid and indicated that he is considering it and consulting member states.
I do admire the Secretary of State for keeping a straight face while he gave that answer, and I am very grateful to you for granting this urgent question, Mr Speaker.
The Prime Minister has not deigned to grace us with his presence today, but I am reassured that, despite his pledge, he is not to be found anywhere in a ditch. I welcome the fact that the Prime Minister has sent a letter over the weekend to the EU President Donald Tusk to comply with the European Union (Withdrawal) (No. 2) Act 2019. As we have come to expect with this Prime Minister, this has been done with posturing and attempts to distract, but despite having told the British public over and over again that he would never do it, the letter has in fact been sent. Not only is the request legally necessary and prevents us crashing out of the EU with no deal, but the extension allows this House the space to scrutinise the Prime Minister’s Brexit deal. I pay tribute to all those Members who have worked hard to ensure that a no-deal Brexit is ruled out, and I will continue to work across the House to ensure that this continues to be the case.
The European Commission has confirmed today that Brussels is now considering the terms of an extension. Can the Secretary of State tell the House when he expects any extension to be granted? Can he categorically rule out the absolutely ridiculous reports yesterday that Conservative MPs are trying to amend the law to jail Members of Parliament alleged to have colluded with foreign powers? Does he, like me, fear for the hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski), who is telling everyone who will listen that he is trying to collude with the Polish and Hungarian Governments to veto any possibility of article 50 extensions?
This type of nonsense is doing nobody any good at all. If the Prime Minister wants to get his deal through, he should bring forward the withdrawal agreement Bill for scrutiny. Will he also bring forward an economic impact assessment, which has so far not seen the light of day? And will he allow this House ample time to scrutinise what this deal means to the communities that we all represent?
I can tell the House what has been ditched—the right hon. Gentleman’s manifesto, with him moving from the commitment he gave to respect the referendum result to one that is now characterised by dither and delay. The Leader of the Opposition questions the letter from the Prime Minister. What the Prime Minister made clear was that we would abide by the law, and Lord Pannick, among many others, has confirmed that the Prime Minister has done so, so there is no question as to the commitment from him. Of course, the Leader of the Opposition disagrees with the action, but the position of the Prime Minister and his commitment to leaving on 31 October will not surprise any Members either of this House or of the European Council.
The Leader of the Opposition talks about collusion. In this House, we want to collude with the British public to respect the referendum result and to get Brexit done. When he talks about delay, he should answer this question: he wants a second referendum, as we know the shadow Brexit Secretary does, but how long is that going to take? How long will the primary legislation take? How long will the Electoral Commission requirements take? How long will he leave the House in purgatory? He gave a commitment that if we went past 31 October, there would be a general election, and yet on the “Andrew Marr” programme on Sunday, the shadow Brexit Secretary said that he wanted a further delay to have a second referendum. When will the Leader of the Opposition accept the Prime Minister’s challenge? When will he have a general election? Or are we to have, as the shadow Brexit Secretary said, more dither, more delay and more shirking of his responsibilities?
Will my right hon. Friend try to ensure that the Government stop giving this sacred quality to the date of 31 October, which is a really rather silly point that has intruded into the extremely complicated arguments we are having? I would be quite happy if we concluded a withdrawal agreement along the lines the Prime Minister is proposing by 31 October, if we could do it properly, but the date was not selected by the British public or the British Government; it was a compromise in the EU between President Macron and the rest and was plucked out of the air. Will he agree that what matters is that we get the right withdrawal agreement, carried with the tenuous majority the Government may have, through Second Reading and Third Reading so that its form can be settled, and that we then proceed in a way that future generations, if we get it right—or even if we get it wrong—will regard as much more important than whether we made it by a particular day in October 2019?
The date was set by the previous European Council, and it is not a unilateral decision for the UK Parliament whether that date is changed. Previously in the House the Father of the House said that what mattered was avoiding no deal. The Prime Minister has secured a deal that does that. What matters now is that we end the uncertainty for businesses and citizens, deliver on the deal the Prime Minister has negotiated—one agreed by the EU27 as well—and get Brexit done.
I congratulate the Leader of the Opposition on lodging the urgent question, but of course it was a question to the Prime Minister about his behaviour. Where is he? Where is his respect for the House? He was utterly humiliated by his defeat on Saturday, which saw the House reject his unfair and anti-democratic deal and has forced him to send a letter to the EU Council requesting an extension. But what did he do? He sent a letter not on headed paper and unsigned. Is he used to sending unsigned letters in his capacity as Prime Minister? If so, how many such letters has he sent? I want a direct answer, although I think we know the answer.
The Prime Minister’s behaviour lacks dignity and respect and is not becoming of any Prime Minister. Once again, he has shown himself to be unworthy of the office he holds. I have with me a copy of a joint letter sent from the First Ministers of Scotland and Wales to President Tusk, properly addressed, with their official letterheads and duly signed. The Prime Minister should take note: that is a lesson in how to behave. His actions show disrespect not only to the House but to the Court in Scotland and to President Tusk himself. Despite the Prime Minister’s childish game of sending a contrary letter, the SNP is pleased to see that the grown-ups in the room—namely, the European Council—are now considering an extension, which must be secured to protect our interests from the economic oblivion that would follow from a no-deal Brexit.
I join the Leader of the Opposition in expressing the Scottish National party’s outrage that the Prime Minister has instructed his Government to publish the withdrawal Bill without securing adequate time for parliamentary debate and scrutiny. Once again, this Conservative Government are showing disregard for democracy. It is absolutely imperative that representatives here are able to do their jobs and scrutinise this legislation, given the magnitude of its ramifications.
I say this to the Prime Minister, through the Secretary of State who is present: if he is not afraid of democratic debate, let him secure the extension, and let us have the time that we need for full scrutiny of the Bill. Let me also ask him this: if he is so sure that the people are with him, will he confirm today that he will seek support for the Bill from the Scottish Parliament, which must give consent first?
The crux of the issue is that the Prime Minister has complied with the law, but it is right that alongside that, he has set out his well-known views, and that should not come as a surprise to the right hon. Gentleman any more than it should to any other Member. What is unworthy is to hold referendums and then ignore the results, which is the position of the right hon. Gentleman in terms of not just the 2014 referendum but the referendum of 2016.
More than 1,200 days have passed since the referendum, and the one thing that I do not think the House has lacked is opportunity to debate the issues contained in the withdrawal agreement Bill. The Bill will be published—it is with the House—in order for further debate to happen. It is time for the House to begin that debate, back the Bill, get Brexit done and get on to the domestic priorities: the record investment in our health service, the extra 20,000 police officers we are recruiting, and the levelling up of all parts of the United Kingdom as part of strong economic delivery.
I am glad that the Government wish to base our future relationship with the EU on comprehensive free trade agreements, but will they get on with tabling one, and show urgency in trying to secure one? The sooner we can secure one, the more reassuring it will be for Northern Ireland; and the public, who are heartily sick of all this, do not want to waste another 15 months.
May I personally thank you, Mr Speaker, for avoiding groundhog day today? I heard all the arguments on Saturday, and I do not think that I need to hear them again.
I agree with my right hon. Friend: we need to get on to the future relationship. The House has been endlessly debating the winding-down provisions, which are contained in the withdrawal agreement Bill. The political declaration sets out a clear framework for a best-in-class free trade agreement, and we need to pass the Bill in order to get on with that.
The Prime Minister was withering in his criticism of the first Brexit deal, and yet he voted for it. He said that no Conservative Prime Minister should ever accept a border down the Irish sea, and yet he has done so. He said that he would never ask for an extension of article 50, and yet he sent a letter doing just that. If the Prime Minister is allowed to change his mind, surely the Government should give the public the opportunity to do the same by putting their Brexit deal to a people’s vote.