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Volume 666: debated on Wednesday 23 October 2019

The loss of life that we have learned about this morning in Essex—39 people taken from this earth—should distress us all, and we need to dwell on the fact that it happened in the United Kingdom: people put themselves in such situations in the search of a better life. We must not just brush it off as an incident. We have to learn the lessons of why it happened. Our thoughts and prayers must be with everyone, including those from the emergency services who have had to experience this most shocking sight this morning. We need more than just warm words and that being the end of it. As a humanity, we must learn from this terrible, terrible tragedy.

Within the last hour, the First Ministers of Scotland and Wales joined forces to oppose this Tory Government’s damaging Brexit Bill—a Bill that risks jobs, opportunities and our entire economic future. Scotland did not vote for this toxic Tory Brexit or any Brexit. It voted overwhelmingly to remain. Will the Prime Minister stop ignoring Scotland and confirm today that he will not allow this Bill to pass unless consent is given by the Scottish Parliament—yes or no?

I note carefully what the right hon. Gentleman has to say, but, as he knows, the Scottish Parliament has no role in approving this deal. On the contrary, it is up to the Members of this Parliament to approve the deal. I am delighted to say that they did, although it did not proceed with the support of many Scottish nationalist MPs—[Interruption.] Or any of them. But if he really still disagrees with this deal and with the way forward, may I propose to him that he has a word with the other Opposition parties and joins our support for a general election to settle the matter?

There we have it. The legislative consent of the Scottish Parliament is meaningless in the Prime Minister’s eyes. So much for the respect agenda, and so much for the message in 2014 that we were to lead the United Kingdom and that this was a Union of equals—torn asunder by the disrespect of this Prime Minister—[Interruption.] Well, Conservative Members do not like the truth, but the people of Scotland have heard it from the Prime Minister today: our Parliament does not matter. That is what this Prime Minister thinks of our Government in Scotland.

Last night, the Prime Minister was yet again defeated by this House. He said that he would pull his Bill, but he has not. He wants Scotland to trust him, but how can we? Fired twice for lying, found unlawful by the courts, the Prime Minister has sold Scotland out time and again. Parliament and Scotland cannot trust this Prime Minister. If he so desperately wants an election, Europe is willing and waiting, so what is stopping him? He must now secure a meaningful extension and bring on a general election. Let the Scottish people decide our future in Scotland.

Well, what an exciting development! Perhaps the right hon. Gentleman might pass some of his courage down the line.

On the point the right hon. Gentleman raises about our commitment to the Union, he should know that, thanks to Scotland’s membership of the Union, Scotland this year received the biggest ever block grant— £1.2 billion—with £200 million more secured for Scottish farming thanks to the hard work of Scottish Conservative MPs. Who is letting down Scotland? It is the Scottish National party, with its lackadaisical Government: the highest taxes anywhere in the UK; declining educational standards; inadequate healthcare; and a European policy that would take Scotland back into the EU and hand back control of Scotland’s fish to Brussels. If that is their manifesto, I look forward to contesting it with them at the polls.

Q9. When my right hon. Friend was seeking to become leader of the Conservative party, I was possibly the only one of our colleagues who asked him for anything in return for their support. [Interruption.] I am being charitable. I asked him for three things: first, that he would get Brexit done; secondly, that he would make me a duke, because my wife fancies becoming a duchess; and, finally, something on which the Leader of the Opposition certainly agrees with me, which is that Southend becomes a city. When will these things happen? (900078)

I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for his support. I can say to him that our policy remains unchanged: we should leave the EU on 31 October, at the end of this month. We will leave the EU on 31 October if Opposition Members will comply. That is what I will say to the EU, and I will report back to the House in due course. On his other two requests of a—

On a duchess and a city, may I undertake to report back to the House on the progress we are making, Mr Speaker?

Q2. I wonder whether the Prime Minister has seen the heartbreaking images of children being killed, mutilated and seriously injured on the Syrian border. Given that the Turks are members of NATO and old allies of ours, that we have fought with the Kurds, who are good and trusted friends, and that the United States is a major ally of ours and the Prime Minister has a good relationship with Donald Trump, will the right hon. Gentleman step up to the plate and show that the British Government care about this and are willing to do something about it? (900071)

I thank the hon. Gentleman; he is absolutely right to raise this issue. If I may say so, this is an appalling state of affairs, and the House will be aware of what is happening in northern Syria. The British Government have actively deplored this, and I have spoken twice to President Erdoğan on the matter, both last weekend and this most recent weekend. I urged him to cease fire and for a standstill. Everybody in the House shares the hon. Gentleman’s feelings about the loss of civilian life. It is particularly unsettling to see some of our close allies at variance. The UK is working closely now, as he would expect, with our French and German friends to try to bring an understanding to President Erdoğan of the risks that we think this policy is running, and of course to persuade our American friends that we cannot simply turn a blind eye to what is happening in Syria. The hon. Gentleman is entirely correct in what he said.

I am grateful for Members’ comments about the tragic events that unfolded in my constituency this morning. To put 39 people into a locked metal container shows a contempt for human life that is evil. The best thing we can do in memory of those victims is to find the perpetrators and bring them to justice. Will my right hon. Friend join me in paying tribute to all those who attended the scene this morning and showed incredible leadership and professionalism? Let us remember that the scenes they witnessed will stay with them forever.

I entirely agree with what my hon. Friend and, indeed, other colleagues in the Chamber have already said. As the Leader of the Opposition said, it is hard to put ourselves in the shoes of those members of the emergency services as they were asked to open that container and expose the appalling crime that had taken place. I share my hon. Friend’s strong desire that the perpetrators of that crime—indeed, all those who engage in similar activity, because we know that this trade is going on—and all such traders in human beings should be hunted down and brought to justice.

Q3. In a dispute, diametrically opposed outcomes cannot be equally beneficial for both sides. If the Prime Minister’s great deal is so good for Northern Ireland’s seafood producers because it allows them access to the single market and customs union, how would he describe his deal for the shellfish producers of my Argyll and Bute constituency, who fish in the same waters for exactly the same catch but will not have access to the single market and customs union? One has a great deal; what does the other one have? (900072)

The fishing communities of Scotland will have a fantastic opportunity, by the end of next year, to take back control of their entire coastal waters—all 200 miles of them—and to manage their fisheries in the interests of Scotland and thereby drive an even better deal for even better access to European markets. That opportunity would be wantonly thrown away by the abject, servile policy of the SNP, which would hand back control of Scottish fishing to Brussels.

Yesterday, my right hon. Friend achieved the first landmark of his premiership by getting the House to vote, by a comfortable majority, in favour of Brexit. If he now proceeds in the reasonable and statesmanlike way I would hope for, he can go on to deliver Brexit in a month or two’s time, before having a general election on the sensible basis of a mandate for a Government on the fuller negotiations that will follow. Will my right hon. Friend get over his disappointment and accept that 31 October is now just Halloween, devoid of any symbolic or political content, and will rapidly fade away into historical memory? Having reflected, will he let us know that he is about to table a reasonable timetable motion, so that the House can complete the task of finalising the details of the withdrawal Bill? We can then move on, on a basis that might begin to reunite the nation once again for the future.

My right hon. and learned Friend makes a reasonable case; alas, we cannot know what the EU will do in response to the request from Parliament—I stress that it was not my request but a request from Parliament—to ask for a delay. We await the EU’s reaction to Parliament’s request for a delay.

I must respectfully disagree with my right hon. and learned Friend, perhaps not for the first time, because I think it would still be very much in the best interests of this country and of democracy to get Brexit done by 31 October. I will wait to see what our EU friends and partners say in response not only to the request for a delay from Parliament but to Parliament’s insistence that it wants a delay. I do not think the people of this country want a delay and I do not want a delay. I intend to press on, but I am afraid we now have to see what our EU friends will decide on our behalf. That is the result of the decision that the Leader of the Opposition took last night.

Q5. The National Farmers Union reported this week that 16 million apples have rotted away, because the immigrant workers that normally pick them for the country have chosen not to come. Immigration was clearly a big part of the EU referendum, and the Prime Minister has promised a points-based system, but that is not going to allow for people coming here to pick fruit. What does he intend to do to stop the scandal of British food rotting away in the fields? (900074)

To the best of my knowledge, there are more EU nationals living and working in this country than ever before, and, in many ways, that is a great thing, but we have, as the hon. Gentleman knows, the EU national settlement scheme to encourage people to come forward to register if they are in any doubt about their status. We will bring forward an Australian-style, points-based immigration system to make sure that all sectors have access to the labour they need.

I congratulate the Prime Minister on achieving so many things that the establishment said were impossible. In the light of that, may I ask him to instruct the Cabinet Office to examine how we can bring an end to male primogeniture and the ridiculous rules in the honours system that value women less than men—hopefully before he makes good on his undertakings to my hon. Friend the Member for Southend West (Sir David Amess)?

Speaking as the oldest son who has never seen any particular benefits from that rule, I understand completely what my right hon. Friend says. I will reflect on her request. I think that she speaks for many people around the country who wish to see fairness and equality in the way we do these things.

Q7. There are families across the United Kingdom who have children suffering from epilepsy. Many have found that medical cannabis is a great help, but they have been driven either to act unlawfully or to pay huge sums of money to gain access to medical cannabis. The Secretary of State for Health stated on 19 March that in several months’ time it will be made available. End Our Pain wrote to the Prime Minister on 19 September and is still to receive an answer. When will the Prime Minister take the necessary action required to ensure that those children can access medical cannabis legally and at no cost? (900076)

I understand that people who require the medical use of cannabis are going through desperate difficulties, and, of course, it is right that we have changed the way we do things. The chief medical officer and NHS England have made it clear that cannabis-based products can be prescribed for medicinal use. It must be up to doctors to decide when it is in the best interests of their patients to do so. I can tell that the hon. Gentleman does not find my answer satisfactory, so I will take up the matter personally with him and with the Secretary of State for Health so that he gets the satisfaction that he needs, and, more importantly, his constituent gets the reassurance they need.

When a high-profile person has been wrongly accused of a sexual crime and has had his livelihood and reputation destroyed, following which the police, it seems, would rather fight him in court than compensate him, might the Prime Minister consider making it clear to the police that it is their duty to address injustice rather than create and perpetuate it and that they should pay compensation rather than waste taxpayers’ money on malicious litigation designed to avoid doing so?

Yes, I completely agree. There is obviously a very difficult balance to be struck, because clearly we do not wish in any way to discourage the police from investigating and prosecuting offences, wherever they may be and no matter how high in office the people in question may be. None the less, where the police do get it wrong and where they have manifestly got it wrong, there should be a duty on them not just to apologise, but to make amends.

Q8. When is the Prime Minister going to sort out the difference between the BBC and the Government in relation to his party’s manifesto commitment at the last general election to maintain free television licences for the over-75s? When is something going to be done about this? (900077)

The BBC has the funds, as the hon. Gentleman knows full well, and it should be funding those free TV licences. We continue to make that argument vigorously with the BBC. The hon. Gentleman asks me to put the screws on the BBC. Believe me, we certainly will.

Telford needs its A&E and its women and children’s centre. The town will have a population of 200,000 within the next 10 years. It is a new town—a former mining town—with pockets of deprivation and poor health outcomes and, while funding is being pumped into the affluent county town of Shrewsbury some 20 miles away, Telford is losing vital services. Will my right hon. Friend reverse the decision of the Health Secretary to approve this plan, and urge him to listen to the needs and concerns of my constituents and the representatives of the local area?

As I have seen myself, my hon. Friend is a battler for the people of Telford; she does a great deal of good work for them. As a first step, my right hon. Friend the Health Secretary has called on the A&E at the Princess Royal Hospital to stay open as a local A&E, but has asked the NHS to come forward with further proposals for better healthcare in Telford. However, I will certainly take up my hon. Friend’s further points with him.

Q10. The elderly and vulnerable are more at risk from scamming than ever before, and just this week Age UK has highlighted that the Government’s decision to scrap free TV licences for the over-75s will put them at further risk of scamming; it is expecting fraudsters to collect the licence fee, door to door, once the Government’s decision has been implemented. Will the Prime Minister please prioritise the economic crime that scamming is, give the police the funding they need to investigate and prosecute these crimes, and reverse his decision to scrap free TV licences for the over-75s? (900079)

I must correct the hon. Gentleman, who just said this is our decision. It is the decision of the BBC. [Interruption.] No, come on, Opposition Members should be clear about what is happening. It is up to the BBC to fund these licences. The hon. Gentleman’s point about scamming is a reasonable one. We will ensure that we give people the protection and security they need—not least through another 20,000 police officers on the streets of our country.

Given that there is widespread sadness that the very popular and respected hon. Member for Watford (Richard Harrington) will be standing down at the next general election, it gives me great pleasure to call him now.

Thank you, Mr Speaker; it gives me great pleasure to be called. As you have pointed out, this may unfortunately be my penultimate Prime Minister’s questions and will unfortunately be your penultimate Prime Minister’s questions, but I hope that it will not be my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister’s penultimate Prime Minister’s questions.

Is the Prime Minister aware that many Members who, like me, voted for his Bill last night but voted against the programme motion would be delighted to accept a reasonable compromise for the proper scrutiny of the Bill, and that this was not a vote for revocation in disguise?

I thank my hon. Friend for his support. I thought he was going to ask about the hospital in Watford, which I am delighted to say is going to be rebuilt, along with many others across the country. I congratulate him on being the Conservative Member of Parliament for Watford. I am delighted with all the work he has done for his constituency.

On the Bill, I am delighted that the House voted in favour of it. Unfortunately, as I say, it willed the end but not the means. The House of Commons has, alas, voted to delay Brexit again. We must now see what the EU says about that request for a delay, and I will be studying its answer very closely to see how we proceed.

Q11. Last Saturday, Haringey Borough football club players experienced racist slurs, were spat upon, and experienced the most disgusting behaviour during a grassroots football match. Will the Prime Minister congratulate the manager, Tom Loizou, on taking the players off, which was a very courageous decision, and can he explain to the House why bigotry has been emboldened under the current Government? (900080)

I was with the hon. Lady until her last point. I certainly think that racism in football is utterly disgusting and should be stamped out at every possible opportunity. She will have seen what happened in Bulgaria. I am delighted to say that the head of the Bulgarian football association was dismissed from his position as a result of what happened in that match. We will certainly be making sure that we do everything we can to stamp out racism of any kind, wherever it takes place in this society and whatever form it takes.

Connectivity across Angus is one of the most urgent issues in my constituency and I want to see full coverage: mobile roll-out throughout my constituency. I therefore wholeheartedly support the shared rural network initiative, which is a joint initiative between the Government and the four main mobile providers ensuring that we have masts in “not spot” areas and reciprocal agreements between the operators to ensure that my constituents, and constituents across the United Kingdom, have that access. Will the Prime Minister assure me that he understands that connectivity is a top priority in Angus, and will he ensure that the funding that needs to go into this initiative to get it going will be given?

Once again, the voice of Scotland—the voice of Angus. I thank my hon. Friend very much. We are indeed engaged in not just levelling up the provision of gigabit broadband across the whole of the country but improving the 4G mobile signal as well. It is our ambition to have 95% of the UK covered by the 4G mobile signal. We have made changes to the regulations and the planning laws to make it easier for the infrastructure to be put in place—and my right hon. Friend the Chancellor has just assured me that her particular request is going to be addressed.

Q12. The Mayor of London has cut air pollution in central London by a third in the first six months of his ultra low emission zone. Does the Prime Minister support the Mayor’s plan to expand that zone and does he still oppose the third runway at Heathrow that will reverse these gains? (900081)

I am as scandalised as the hon. Gentleman about the failure of the Mayor of London to improve air quality, if that is what I understood him to have just said. When I was Mayor of London, just to pick a period entirely at random, we cut NOx—nitrous oxide—emissions by, I think, 16% and we cut particulates by 20%. I can tell the hon. Gentleman that this Government have the most far-reaching ambitions of any society in the EU to improve air quality. As for the Heathrow third runway, it remains the case that I have lively doubts about the ability of the promoters of that scheme, as I think he does, to meet standards on air quality and noise emissions, and we will have to see how the courts adjudicate in that matter.

In this House, we defend forever the right to peaceful protest, yet on 15 August, and just three weeks ago, pro-Pakistani organisations held violent protests outside the Indian high commission. This Sunday, there is the threat of 10,000 people being brought to demonstrate outside the Indian high commission on Diwali—the most holy day for Hindus, Sikhs and Jains. What action will the Government take to prevent violent protests this Sunday?

I join my hon. Friend, who speaks strongly and well for his constituency, in deploring demonstrations that end up being intimidating in any way. He will understand that this is a police operational matter, but I have just been speaking to my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, and she will be raising it with the police. We must all be clear in this House that violence and intimidation anywhere in this country are wholly unacceptable.

Q13. Eight consultations on, and millions of people are still caught by the leasehold scandal. At what stage are the Prime Minister and his Government going to get a grip and end this feudal system once and for all? (900082)

I thank the hon. Gentleman, because he raises something that is of great importance to all our constituents. We are delivering a strong package of reforms. We will legislate to ban new leasehold houses, reduce future ground rents to zero in all but exceptional circumstances and close the legal loopholes that currently subject leaseholders to unacceptable costs. He raises a very important issue, and believe me, we are on it right now.

A toxic and carcinogenic bromate plume is threatening my constituency. There are plans to drill a new gravel quarry in Smallford, which may disturb the plume and cause it to enter the watercourses. Will the Prime Minister use his good offices to ensure that the Environment Agency does not allow quarrying on this gravel pit until the toxicity of the bromate plume has been fully assessed?

I thank my hon. Friend for raising that point about the toxic bromate plume, which reminds me of the emanations we sometimes hear from parts of this House. I will get on immediately to the Environment Secretary and ensure that she takes it up.

Q14. Women who face sexual abuse often stay silent and suffer alone. They blame themselves for the shame and guilt that they feel. They break down and cry alone because they feel that no one will ever believe them, and they fear repercussions if they speak out. The fear of not being believed means that brave women put on a smile and go about their daily lives, an example of which we heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Rosie Duffield). That silence provides the perpetrators of the abuse with the get-out-of-jail card they need. Today, I ask the most powerful man in the United Kingdom one simple question: does he agree that any woman who is subjected to sexual abuse of any kind should be believed—yes or no? (900083)

The hon. Lady raises a crucial issue that many people in this country feel is not being sufficiently addressed. That is one of the reasons we have expanded the provision of independent domestic violence advisers and independent sexual abuse advisers. Every woman in this country who is a victim or a potential victim of domestic violence or sexual abuse should have the certainty of knowing that there is somewhere she can go and someone she can turn to for reassurance and support. It is vital that, as a society, we ensure that. I do not believe that, as a country, we are doing enough to bring rapists to justice. The level of successful prosecutions for the crime of rape is frankly inadequate, and I wish to raise that with the criminal justice system, because I have looked at the numbers, and they are not going in the right direction. Women must have confidence that crimes of domestic violence and sexual abuse are treated seriously by our law enforcement system.

I know that the Prime Minister, like me, is a big supporter of Spaceport Cornwall, where we aim to launch satellites into space from Europe’s first horizontal spaceport by 2021. To achieve that, we need Government agencies to ensure that the contracts and regulations are in place. Will he ensure that the UK Space Agency and the Civil Aviation Authority have the resources they need and work at pace to make the most of this exciting opportunity?

I congratulate my hon. Friend on what he is doing to promote the prospects of the new spaceport in Newquay which this Government are constructing; he is doing an outstanding job. I think we all have a favourite candidate for the person who is best placed to trial one of the new vessels that we propose to send into space. If it is a horizontal spaceport, I am anxious that it will take off at a horizontal trajectory, in which case, even if we were to recruit the right hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) to be the first pilot, there is a risk that he would end up somewhere else on earth—maybe Venezuela would be a good destination.

Q15.   Mr Speaker,“I would vote to stay in the single market. I’m in favour of the single market,”and if the European Union did not exist, we would have to “invent” it. Those are not my words—they are the Prime Minister’s. What was it about the trappings of power that led him to abandon reason, embrace Brexit and put so many jobs, so much trade and so much prosperity at risk across these islands? (900084)

As I said in the House on Saturday, there are clearly two schools of thought—two sides of the British psyche—when it comes to this issue. The House has been divided, just as the country has been divided. I happen to think that, after 47 years of EU membership, in the context of an intensifying federalist agenda in the EU, we have a chance now to make a difference to our national destiny and to seek a new and better future, as a proud, independent, open, generous, global free-trading economy. That is what we can do. That is the opportunity that this country has, and I hope very much that the hon. Gentleman will support it and help us to deliver Brexit, deliver on the mandate of the people and get it done by 31 October.

Last week saw damaging US tariffs applied to many iconic Moray products such as single malt Scotch whisky and shortbread. These industries have nothing to do with the dispute between the US and the EU, so what are the Government and the Prime Minister doing to get those tariffs removed as quickly as possible?

My hon. Friend campaigns valiantly on that issue, and he is absolutely right. Both the Chancellor of the Exchequer and I have raised the matter personally with our counterparts in the United States. It is a rank injustice that Scotch whisky is being penalised in this way, and we hope that those tariffs will be withdrawn as soon as possible, but it has been raised repeatedly at the highest level.

I would like to associate myself and my Liberal Democrat colleagues with the remarks made earlier about the horrific deaths of 39 people in Essex.

It is good manners to say thank you when our friends help us out, so would the Prime Minister like to express his gratitude to the 19 Labour MPs who voted for his deal last night and to the Leader of the Opposition for meeting him this morning to help push through his bad Brexit deal?

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for giving me that opportunity, and I do indeed express my gratitude, as I think I did last night. I am happy to repeat that today, for the avoidance of doubt, to all Members of the House who have so far joined the movement to get Brexit done and deliver on the mandate of the people. I do not think I can yet count her in that number. Perhaps I could ask her, in return, to cease her missions to Brussels, where, to the best to my knowledge, she has been asking them not to give us a deal. That was a mistake. They have given us an excellent deal, and I hope that, in the cross-party spirit that she supports, she will endorse the deal.

I say to the hon. Gentleman in all courtesy that points of order come later. I am playing for time, as Members beetle out of the Chamber, before I call the Home Secretary. I merely note en passant that there is a distinguished orthodontist observing our proceedings today, accompanied by his splendid wife—I wish them a warm welcome to the House of Commons; it is good to see them. Momentarily, when Members have completed their beetling out of the Chamber quickly and quietly, we will be able to proceed with the statement by the Secretary of State for the Home Department.