House of Commons
Wednesday 22 January 2020
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and Minister for the Cabinet Office was asked—
This Government are working to level up economic and social infrastructure, with an additional £100 billion investment commitment. We will ensure that all citizens across the UK benefit. The Cabinet Office works closely with Her Majesty’s Treasury through the Infrastructure and Projects Authority. This helps to ensure that taxpayers get good value for money. The IPA evaluates and assures major projects from their initial stages through to completion.
May I first congratulate the Minister on his appointment? He should be aware of the detrimental impact on Runnymede and Weybridge from our over- stretched road network, particularly the A320 and M25. What are the Government doing to target investment at the modern infrastructure that all our communities and businesses need?
I thank my hon. Friend for his kind words and congratulate him on his election to this place. I can reassure him that the Government are committed to investing across our regions and nations, including the south-east. A business case has been submitted for the A320 north corridor; it is at an early stage, and the Department for Transport is working closely with the local authority to develop the scheme. Between 2015 and 2020 the Government will have spent nearly £18 billion on England’s strategic roads. On the M25 this is delivering additional capacity, including through junction enhancements.
I too welcome the Minister to his place. He should be aware that Broadland needs the construction of the western link road, the missing link in Norwich’s answer to the M25. What steps is he taking to ensure that public money is spent efficiently so that all communities represented in this House get the infrastructure they deserve?
I thank my hon. Friend for what I believe is his first question in this place, and for his kind words. This is not just a concern of his Broadland constituents; by the sound of it, it is a concern shared by his constituency neighbour and my neighbour here on the Treasury Front Bench, my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich North (Chloe Smith). I understand that a business case for the link has been submitted and that officials from the Department for Transport are engaging with the local authority. My hon. Friend the Member for Broadland (Jerome Mayhew) is absolutely right that the IPA, through direct support, and independent assurance reviews and leading a network of project delivery professionals, helps drive cost-effectiveness across Government.
One of the biggest projects that the Government have to deliver is the restoration and renewal of this Palace, which is one of the most loved buildings in the world. If we are to do that, we need skills that currently are not available in the workforce. Does the Minister agree that this presents a major opportunity to ensure that in every constituency in the land young people are being trained in those skills so that everybody has an investment in this building?
I agree with the hon. Gentleman. This is a great opportunity to ensure that we upskill our workforce. We are very proud of the fabric of this building, and very proud of what it symbolises for our country, and it will be great if we can make certain that we are engaging people across the United Kingdom in the work that needs to be done.
Yesterday it was established that the majority of supply chain contracts for the offshore wind farm Neart Na Gaoithe are going abroad. When are the UK Government going to incentivise the auction process so that bidders who use local supply companies such as BiFab and CS Wind in Scotland are awarded the contracts, creating further green jobs?
Throughout Government we are determined to ensure that we have the simplest possible process for procurement, and the Government Contracts Finder has made certain that we have more transparent procurement, which helps SMEs, among others. The hon. Gentleman raises a good point, but I will have to look into the specifics.
Civil Service Reform
This new Government are committed to delivering on Brexit and seizing on the exciting opportunities presented by our new manifesto, but in order to do this we need to build on the successful reforms of the civil service since 2010, going further and faster to ensure that it has the new skills, such as in data analytics, better training, greater accountability and the right pay and incentives to transform the United Kingdom.
The Institute for Government estimates that the number of civil servants based in London is growing, with two thirds now working in the capital. How does the Minister reconcile that with the Prime Minister’s statements about moving Whitehall Departments to the north of England and making Government more relevant to people in the north, for example my constituents in West Lancashire?
The hon. Lady raises a very important point about the need to move Government activity out of London. That is why, for example, we have created a default whereby when new agencies are created, they must be located outside London and the south-east. I know that the Prime Minister is determined to go further and faster with that agenda.
I welcome the manifesto commitment to offer guaranteed interviews for veterans—people for whom public service is so hugely important—in the public sector. Will the Minister confirm that the Government will be taking that forward with real energy as they consider wider reform?
As ever, my hon. Friend raises an important point. People who have served in our armed forces can also make an enormous contribution to wider life, including in the civil service. That is why I am determined that we deliver on that manifesto commitment, and I have already instructed officials to make that happen.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. This is the first time I have asked a question with you in the Chair, so congratulations.
The Government are right to press forward with looking carefully at how we can modernise the civil service, whose independence and professionalism, as I am sure we all agree, are essential to good governance. On current trends, it looks as though the Government are going to spend £50 million in this Parliament on political appointees. Is that a wise decision? Three of them earn as much as the Prime Minister, more or less, and one of them thinks it is okay to advertise on his blog for “weirdos and misfits” to apply for the civil service. Meanwhile, 40% of professional civil servants in the Department for Exiting the European Union have left in the last year—it is a shambles.
As Minister for the civil service, will the right hon. Gentleman give the House an assurance now that he will protect civil service professional standards, even though that may mean that from time to time he comes into conflict with politically inspired chaos from No.10 Downing Street?
The hon. Gentleman has raised a large number of points. First of all, I can of course reassure him that the independence and integrity of the civil service will be upheld. I notice that he has taken an interest in Dom Cummings’ blog; he is very welcome to register his interest in applying for such a role. However, the point that the hon. Gentleman was making is important: if we are to have a good civil service for the 21st century, it is essential that we harness all the talents of this nation. That includes, for example, people with data analytics skills and a diversity of talent.
I know that my right hon. Friend agrees with me that this is a Government for the entire UK—one of Scotland’s two Governments, in fact. In the spirit of civil service reform, what thought has he given to moving more civil service jobs out of London—to the north-east of Scotland, for example?
As ever, my hon. Friend raises an important point, and I look forward to joining him this Friday in the north-east of Scotland. I am sure that we will discuss exactly those sorts of opportunities. Recently, I saw a large new hub being created in Edinburgh so that we can bring together Government services for Scotland in one place.
Every Government should get the civil service that they deserve, and this oddball bunch of hard Brexiteers are possibly entitled to their army of weirdos and misfits. Given that Dominic Cummings practically runs this Government, let us celebrate this Government of all the wackos!
It is also rumoured that the Minister’s right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster is to be made de facto Deputy Prime Minister. How does he fit into this talent pool agenda? Is he entirely sure that he has the approval of Mr Cummings?
I can think of no one whom I would rather work alongside in delivering reform of the civil service than my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, who has done so much to reform education and justice. I am sure that he will help do exactly the same in relation to the civil service.
Election Candidates: Protection
Everyone should be able to participate in politics without fear. The increasing level of abuse directed at those in public life is a worrying trend, which stops talented people standing for public service and puts voters off politics. We in Government work across a range of Departments and other bodies to ensure a thorough response to incidents and deliver the best security advice and support. We are also committed to introducing a new electoral offence of intimidating a candidate or campaigner in the run-up to an election.
I thank the Minister for that response, and I welcome her back from maternity leave; it is a pleasure to see her back in her place. Does she agree that at times during the last election the commentary and actions of others were misleading, inaccurate and vicious, and that there should be no place for that in our politics, regardless of political persuasion? What steps does she think we should take to ensure that, as leaders in our communities across parties, we conduct our engagement together in an open, respectful and honest way?
I thank my hon. Friend for her kind words and welcome her to her place, along with all new Members. She is absolutely right to set the tone that we should aim to strike in the Chamber and in our work for our constituents. Robust political debate is fundamental, but threats and other forms of abuse are not acceptable. I extend to her the invitation that I have recently circulated to hon. Members, to talk to me about any aspect of the elections that they have recently experienced after this session at 1 o’clock, when I shall be delighted to hear more.
First, I think that companies need to tackle such abusive behaviour and take responsibility for that on their services. That could include taking steps to limit the use or abuse of anonymity. The Government are also taking forward measures to put digital imprints on online political material. That will be a way to help voters to see who is saying what and hold them to account.
Thank you very much for that helpful clarification, Mr Speaker.
We do not assess or regulate political arguments, which can be rebutted as part of normal debate. In a free democracy it is for voters to decide on the value of those political arguments, but we think that our regulation should empower voters to do so and be modernised. That is why we are taking forward the digital imprints regime, which I just referred to.
Thank you, Mr Speaker—I will go again. According to the international fact-checking agency First Draft News, almost 90% of the ads posted on Facebook by the Tory party in the general election were misleading. Does the Minister agree with the Information Commissioner that the current electoral laws on digital campaigning are not fit for purpose?
I welcome the hon. Gentleman back to his place and back to Question No. 5. I think I dealt with the point about regulation in my response, but I am afraid I have to add that the report that he refers to is entirely discredited. I think he misses the point in another way as well: we trust voters to make their decisions on political arguments, and in the biggest decision of all voters chose the Conservatives to take matters forward.
I am sure that the Minister would agree that the UK should lead with best practice when it comes to political campaigning. If she is confident that the Tory party adverts were beyond reproach during the general election, why will she not ask the Electoral Commission to conduct an independent review of political advertising?
I welcome the hon. Lady to her place on the Opposition Front Bench; this is the first time that I have engaged in questions with her. I think that, in her question, she misunderstands the fundamental nature of independence. I am not in a position, and neither is any Minister, to direct the Electoral Commission, and nor should we be. Moreover, she entirely misses the point; the voters took their choice on the validity of the arguments put at the general election, and her side’s were not good enough.
Leaving the EU: Departmental Preparedness
I welcome you to the Chair, Mr Speaker.
In 10 days the United Kingdom will once more be an independent nation and ready to assert our international role with renewed confidence. Departments across Government are undertaking all the necessary work to embrace these new opportunities, and we will continue to do so during the implementation period, which ends on 31 December.
One of the most important things we can do as we approach independence day is to have a highly skilled workforce. Will my right hon. Friend ensure that, when businesses and organisations bid for Government contracts, apprentices make up a high proportion of their workforce?
My right hon. Friend is right that one of the many benefits of leaving the EU is the chance to overhaul Government procurement to make it more efficient, more responsive and more flexible, and to ensure that British talent takes its place at the forefront of wealth creation, and at the heart of that must be more young British apprentices. This will develop the skills we need to succeed in the 21st century.
I am very grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for making the case that was made so eloquently by Vote Leave in 2016. There is more joy in heaven over one Member for Warley who repenteth than over many others who still take a different view. He is absolutely right; one of the many benefits of Brexit is that we can buy British and put British firms, British workers and the whole United Kingdom first.
Office for Veterans’ Affairs
No previous Government have been more committed to our armed forces, as shown by our creation of the new Office for Veterans’ Affairs. The Government are championing veterans and will ensure that the UK is the best place in the world to be a veteran. Today we are publishing our response to the consultation on the strategy for our veterans. This is the first stage of a step change in the nation’s relationship with her military and veterans community.
As a Royal Air Force veteran and president of the Huddersfield branch of the Royal Air Forces Association, I am delighted that the Government are cracking on in delivering the veterans’ railcard, which will leave more money in the pockets of those who have made a unique commitment to our country. Can the Minister confirm details of when the railcard will be available and confirm that discounted rail travel will also be available to veterans’ families?
I thank my hon. Friend for all the support he gives to veterans in the House. The veterans’ railcard will be available by Armistice Day this year, and the support will extend to families so that they can enjoy the advantages of discounted travel as well.
Constituency Boundary Review
As we set out in our manifesto, the Government will ensure that we have updated and equal parliamentary boundaries, making sure that every vote has equal value. We continue to monitor closely the current legal proceedings in relation to the Boundary Commission for Northern Ireland’s final report. The final reports of the four boundary commissions and the 2018 boundary review were submitted to the Government and laid before Parliament in September 2018. We will provide further details in due course.
The year 2020 will be one of growth and opportunity for our entire United Kingdom. The year has started positively with the restoration of devolved government in Northern Ireland, and I pay particular tribute to all the parties involved. I am delighted to say that the Prime Minister has ruled out a divisive rerun of the Scottish independence referendum and has encouraged our colleagues in the Scottish Government to concentrate on the day job and ensure that they improve health and education for the citizens of Scotland. I am glad that the political division and uncertainty that a referendum would cause have been ruled out, and I look forward to meeting Ministers from the devolved Administrations in Cardiff next week to see how we can work together in the interests of all.
Can the Minister take the necessary steps to confirm Heather Anderson as the new MEP for Scotland following the election of my hon. Friend the Member for Stirling (Alyn Smith) to this House, and can he confirm that the UK Government will not allow the voters of Scotland to be under-represented in their European Parliament when it votes on the withdrawal agreement that they have overwhelmingly rejected?
The hon. Lady has made a fair point, and it gives me an opportunity to congratulate the new hon. Member for Stirling (Alyn Smith), who served with distinction in the European Parliament. We will, of course, do everything we can to ensure that there is appropriate representation for every part of the United Kingdom for the remaining 10 days of our membership.
It was one of the joys of my previous job as Environment Secretary to visit farmers in North Devon. Theirs is some of the finest produce in the United Kingdom, and as we leave the European Union there will be an opportunity for us, on a global stage, to ensure that that Devonian produce reaches all the customers that it deserves to reach.
What plans have the Government to bring the House of Lords into the 21st century? If, as I suspect, the answer is none, may I remind the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster that it was the House of Lancaster that won the Wars of the Roses, and may I suggest, if the Government are looking to relocate their lordships, that we have a fine mediaeval castle in the city of Lancaster which has recently been vacated by the Ministry of Justice?
I yield to no one in my admiration for the Duchy of Lancaster. I recognise that as the Government decide where agencies of both Government and Parliament should go we should think fondly of the north-west as well as Yorkshire and the north-east, but I cannot help saying to the hon. Lady that when she talks about fratricidal conflict in mediaeval times, when people were putting each other to the sword, she reminds me of nothing so much as the deputy leadership contest of the Labour party.
The reason that, in just 10 days’ time, we on this side of the House are getting Brexit done is so that we can drive growth across our United Kingdom. From Clacton to Caithness, from Holyhead to Hull, we will be investing millions of pounds in communities, not least £2.5 million in the coastal community of Clackers.
I will be taking a look at that report, and I shall be happy to talk to the hon. Lady further.
First, let me thank my hon. Friend for being such a passionate and effective advocate for the city of Stoke-on-Trent. Let me also welcome my hon. Friends the Members for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis) and for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Jo Gideon), who have joined him on these Benches.
The Government have made it clear that the civil service needs to be less London-centric if it is to attract the best talent and do the best possible job. The Cabinet Office has established the Places for Growth programme to drive the necessary planning and preparation in Departments for the relocation of roles, including senior grades, out of London and into the regions in all parts of the United Kingdom.
Thank you for calling me, Mr Speaker, and congratulations again.
More than 1,000 voters have lost the chance to have their say in local elections because of the identification requirements that have been highlighted over the past two years. That figure is 30 times higher than the total number of allegations made about polling station fraud in the whole of England in 2018 and 2019. Does the Minister agree with Professor Toby James from the University of East Anglia that there is no evidence to justify the introduction of voter ID requirements? I say that because the hon. Lady said earlier that we must trust voters when they make their decisions.
I welcome the hon. Lady to her seat. On this question, the evidence is on our side, the experience is on our side from pilots and Northern Ireland and, what is more, the British people are on our side as this was a core part of our manifesto. The Labour party needs to ask why it is not on the right side of this question.
The Prime Minister was asked—
I welcome the announcement from the Government this week that tougher sentences, an end to early release and a complete review of the management of convicted terrorists are among a range of measures designed to strengthen this country’s response to terrorism—a promise made by this Prime Minister and a promise delivered. [Interruption.] Does he agree that we need to do everything we can, whatever it takes, to stop sickening terrorist attacks taking place?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right about the threat that we face. That is why this Government are putting more resources into catching terrorists, and it is why we have announced a major shift in the UK’s approach to the sentencing and management of terrorist offenders. This Government will do all that we can to keep our people safe.
Next Monday, we will be commemorating Holocaust Memorial Day. It is a time for us all to reflect on the horrors of the past and to remind ourselves of the evils of Nazism, genocide, antisemitism and, indeed, all forms of racism, which we must always be implacably determined to root out wherever it appears.
This Saturday, hundreds of millions of people will be celebrating Chinese new year around the world, and I am sure that the Prime Minister will join me in welcoming the year of the rat and inviting all Chinese people to have a great time.
If a worker earning just over £12,500 a year receives a £300 bonus, how much of that bonus does the Prime Minister think that worker should be allowed to keep?
Let me join the right hon. Gentleman in what he has said about the importance of Holocaust Memorial Day and of stamping out the resurgence of antisemitism in our country. On his point about the low-paid, I think perhaps the best answer I can give him is to remind him that just this week this Government increased the living wage by the biggest-ever amount so that people on the living wage will be receiving an extra £1,000 a year. If he wants further elucidation on his point, perhaps he could ask a better question.
Greggs is currently giving 25,000 workers a £300 bonus, but some of those workers who are on universal credit will be allowed to keep only £75 of that £300. If the Prime Minister can answer my question and show me that that is just and fair, I will buy him a vegan roll from Greggs myself. The first aim of universal credit, which is set to affect 6 million people, was to make work pay, but when low-paid workers cannot even keep their own bonuses, it is clear that the Government are punishing, not supporting, people. Will the Prime Minister do something to ensure that workers at companies such as Greggs who are on low pay will be allowed to keep their bonuses?
Under this Government, people on low pay will be able to keep more of the money that they earn. It is this Government who are cutting national insurance contributions for everybody in the country, and it is this Government who were increasing the living wage. It was the right hon. Gentleman who voted against tax cuts for the low-paid to the tune of £7,800.
The Prime Minister himself fought with unbelievable levels of energy to protect the bankers’ bonus. Why can he not do something about the low-paid on very low wages who need to be allowed to keep their bonuses? The Resolution Foundation report published yesterday highlighted the serious distress caused by the dysfunctional nature of the universal credit system. One claimant says, “Sometimes you are starving”, another said, “It was…horrendous”, and another said:
“It was very hard for me because I’m not very good at computers.”
Does the Prime Minister think that universal credit is meeting its second aim of making the social security system simpler?
Yes, indeed; we are making the social security system simpler because we have massively reduced unemployment. On the right hon. Gentleman’s specific point about Greggs, as far as I can understand the situation, Greggs is producing record figures—£7 million extra. One person, I believe, has complained about the bonus system that the right hon. Gentleman remarks upon, but that is in the context of unparalleled growth in employment, with 359,000 more jobs in this country this year than last year and the International Monetary Fund now confirming that the UK economy will grow faster than the eurozone. When is he going to stop talking Britain down and start recognising the extraordinary achievements of the UK economy?
The real issue is that many people in work are also in poverty and have to access universal credit, with almost 1 million on zero-hours contracts and more people rough sleeping than ever before. Those are the issues that ought to be concerning the Prime Minister. The third aim of universal credit, it was claimed, was to reduce poverty, but we know that it is having the opposite effect. Under this Government, 65 million meals were handed out by the Trussell Trust food banks over the past five years. The five-week delay for new claimants is leaving people without enough money to cover basic needs. Why is the Prime Minister not taking action to end this punitive and vicious five-week wait for benefits?
Universal credit has in fact succeeded in getting 200,000 people into jobs. Contrary to what the right hon. Gentleman says, the number of people in poverty has diminished by 400,000 under this Government and wages have been increasing solidly for the last 22 months. Labour is supposed to have had a period of reflection since the last election—it is supposed to have been reflecting on the result of the general election. Labour has decided, as far as I understand it, that what it wants is even more Corbynism—a four-day week, increases in taxes on working people and uncontrolled immigration from everywhere. I refer the right hon. Gentleman to the answer that the British people gave to him four weeks ago.
Wouldn’t it be truly wonderful if the Prime Minister answered a question about universal credit? He has dodged every question on it. The reality is that about half the people going on to universal credit are worse off as a result. The same is true of the very cruel and callous two-child limit under universal credit, which caps benefits for larger families. There are half a million more children living in poverty than there were in 2010 and the number of children in deprivation has soared in the last few years. Why does the Prime Minister just not have the guts to admit that there is a link between poverty and the two-child limit?
The right hon. Gentleman cannot accuse me of failing to answer the question when I have answered it very clearly a couple of times. There are 400,000 fewer people in poverty and there has been a substantial reduction in child poverty. He does not like the answers. The reality is that there is a massive increase in employment and growth in this economy. I really think it is time that the Labour party changed its tune, although I have some good news for the leader of the Labour party. He was voted by Labour members as the most popular Labour leader since records began. I want him to know that those sentiments are warmly shared by many on this side of the House.
The Labour party will never abandon the poor of this country. The levels of child poverty are a national scandal. The Prime Minister seems unable, incapable or unwilling to answer that question.
Universal credit had three aims. It was meant to make work pay, but low-paid workers are not even allowed to keep their bonuses. It was meant to be simple, but it has created mind-numbing complexity. It was meant to reduce poverty, but it is driving people to food banks. As we have seen today, the Prime Minister is not able to answer questions on it. The fact is that this Government have baked in austerity for tens of millions of people. When will he finally accept that the universal credit system is broken, damaging and dangerous to people’s living standards, and that it should go?
The right hon. Gentleman wants to do nothing else except keep people in the welfare trap and stop helping people out of welfare and into work. I think he should pay tribute to all the people who, by their own hard work, have found fantastic jobs over the last year. He should pay tribute to the growth in employment in the UK economy.
Quite frankly, it is this Government who are getting on with delivering on the priorities of the British people: 40 new hospitals, 50,000 more nurses and 20,000 more police officers. The Labour party is still split from top to toe about whether to stay in the EU or to remain run by the EU. It still cannot make up its mind, and he still cannot make up his mind. We deliver on the people’s priorities.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on the passion he brings to this debate and to this subject. He is entirely right that Ofsted’s most recent report shows that standards for the kids he and I care about are rising, with 86% of schools now rated good or outstanding. Of course there is more to do, which is why we are investing £40 billion more, but I am regretfully obliged to compare the performance of the schools to which he draws attention with the schools in Scotland where, through no fault of the pupils, performance in maths and science is at a record low.
Perhaps the right hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Ian Blackford), who is about to rise to his feet like a rocketing pheasant, will explain why his party is still so obsessed with breaking up our Union rather than delivering for the children and the pupils of Scotland.
I associate myself with the remarks about Holocaust Memorial Day on Monday. We should always stand up against antisemitism and any form of racism.
Last night, the Lords voted to reinstate the Sewel convention that the devolved Governments must give consent to legislation that affects them. Devolution is under attack from this Tory Government. Powers are being grabbed back to Westminster, and there is no respect for the people of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, their Governments or their decisions. Yesterday, the Welsh Assembly became the third devolved Parliament to refuse consent for the Tory Brexit Bill. Why are the UK Government ignoring the principle of consent for our national Governments?
I am afraid that the Prime Minister ignores the Smith Commission, which recognises that it is up to the people of Scotland to determine their future. The Prime Minister just does not get it; this is an unprecedented attack. Scotland said no, and we meant it. Not only does he not have the legislative mandate for his Bill, but he does not—[Interruption.] As those on the Government Benches bray, it is clear that this place simply does not accept the reality that the Scottish Parliament speaks for the people of Scotland. The devolution settlement must be respected. Prime Minister, all three devolved Parliaments—and even the House of Lords—have called on you to end your Government’s attack on devolution. Will the Prime Minister stop the attack on our Parliaments?
I agreed for a second with the right hon. Gentleman, because he said that Scotland said no and it meant it. He was right: the people of Scotland said no to independence in 2014 and they meant it. They meant it because they were told it was once in a lifetime, both by Alex Salmond and his protégé Nicola Sturgeon, and indeed by the right hon. Gentleman; they were told it was a once-in-a-generation event. The people of Scotland did this because they know full well that £9 billion net comes from the UK to Scotland and that 60% of Scotland’s trade is with the rest of the UK, and they can see the vast investments in manufacturing that come from the UK to Scotland, be it in Rosyth—£1.5 billion in building fantastic ships—or at Govan, where there are fantastic investments in manufacturing. We support manufacturing in Scotland; the Scottish National party Members support nothing except manufacturing grievances, and they know it.
The hon. Lady is right to raise this issue with me. Of course it is right that these decisions are independently made by Ofgem, but I appreciate the problem that she raises and we will do whatever we can to ensure that it is sorted out as fast as possible.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. I thank my hon. Friend very much for what she has said. I will certainly do whatever I can to see her in the Derbyshire Dales as fast as possible and to get to the bottom of what we can do to support the bypass at Ashbourne. She is right: we speak for working people. I thought it was sad and surprising that the president of the Durham miners’ gala should say the other day that Conservative MPs are not welcome. I hope that the Leader of the Opposition will dissociate himself strongly from those remarks.
Absolutely. I congratulate my hon. Friend on everything he is doing in Cheltenham to encourage renewable heat supplies, including ground-source heating. I can confirm that we are indeed looking for successor arrangements to the renewable heat incentive.
I might take the hon. Gentleman more seriously if he would deal with the fact that 60% of Scotland’s trade is with the rest of the United Kingdom. His proposals for a break-up of the United Kingdom would necessitate a border at Berwick. He is proposing that the pensioners of Scotland should have their assets now denominated in a new currency whose name the SNP cannot even specify.
We will make sure that the ministerial Dyno-Rod is employed to sort out the blockage that my right hon. Friend is experiencing. It is important that we deal simultaneously with nitrate neutrality and satisfy our environmental needs while ensuring that her community gets the housing that it needs. I think there is a way forward and I would be happy to take it up with her.
The hon. Lady raises an important issue. We are already investing a record £48 billion in rail services, excluding HS2. It is right that we should look at the value that this country could get from a scheme as costly as HS2, with estimates now rising to £100 billion. I assure the hon. Lady that the Oakervee report will indeed be published in full in due course.
My hon. Friend makes a good point, following on from the question from the hon. Member for Halifax (Holly Lynch). We are indeed committed to improving the trans-Pennine route and will be investing very considerable sums to ensure that that is done.
I remind the hon. Lady that this Government are putting another £780 million into SEND provision. We are encouraging the creation of more SEND schools across the country. She mentions Ofsted, which is, of course, a paradox, as Ofsted is the best guarantor and protector of children of all abilities, and the manifesto to which the Labour party is still committed proposes to abolish Ofsted.
The hon. Lady raises a very important point. That is among the schemes that we are certainly looking at and, as you know, Mr Speaker, we are looking also at the potential for free ports around the country, which can deliver a great deal of benefit to coastal communities.
Solihull is next to Britain’s second biggest city, yet many of my constituents—myself included—struggle to get adequate broadband, which is something that is repeated across the House. Does the Prime Minister agree that this is a matter that needs intense parliamentary scrutiny, and will he commit to put the Government’s shoulders to the wheel to get providers to improve our country’s broadband?
Together with the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, I chaired a meeting only a couple of days ago with all the broadband providers. It would be fair to say that we collectively wielded the knout over their heads, because I agree with my hon. Friend that we need to make progress. We will make progress and we will deliver gigabit broadband, with £5 billion going into that programme over the next five years.
The hon. Gentleman’s point is absolutely valid. The discrepancy in life expectancy in this country is a disgrace. None the less, it is coming down, and it will come down. Life expectancy overall is at an all-time high. On his specific issue of the disposal of nuclear waste, I understand that my hon. Friend the Environment Minister has written to him on the matter.
You may have noticed, Mr Speaker, that it has been a long time since I was a teenager. [Hon. Members: “Never!] My memory has faded over the years, yet I still remember the embarrassment and shame that I felt each month when I had my period: we could not afford sanitary products, and I was forced to use toilet paper or, when we did not have that, newspaper. Will the Prime Minister acknowledge the work of Amika George, founder of the Free Periods campaign group, which means that no young women of school age in this country should ever have to feel the shame that I felt and remember all those years ago?
I congratulate my hon. Friend on the campaign that she is waging on this issue, and I am delighted to tell her that free period products are to be made available to all schools and colleges in England so we can ensure that no young person’s education isdisrupted by their period. I would like to pay particular tribute to the work of Amika George, who has done so much to bring about change. I remind the House that it is when we get Brexit done, which we will—and which the Opposition would still block—that we will be able to cut VAT on sanitary products and make period products cheaper for everybody in the country.
As we approach the moment when we will leave the European Union, the Prime Minister will be aware of concerns in Northern Ireland. We welcome his assurance that there will continue to be unfettered access for Northern Ireland businesses to the UK single market, but does that commitment also apply to goods moving from Great Britain to Northern Ireland?
(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department to make a statement on the Home Office’s oversight of the police in their operation of the Prevent programme.
Counter-terrorism policing in this country is operationally independent, and that is an important principle. The operational independence of our police from Government is integral to our democracy. The Home Office does, however, carry out oversight of the police on behalf of the Home Secretary.
We are clear that the right to peaceful protest is a cornerstone of our just society and an indispensable channel of political and social expression. Counter Terrorism Policing South East has, for example, stated categorically that it does not classify Extinction Rebellion as an extremist organisation, and that the inclusion of Extinction Rebellion in its guidance to frontline officers was an error of judgment. The police have recalled the guidance and are reviewing it.
I want to reiterate that Extinction Rebellion is in no way considered an extremist group under the 2015 definition of extremism; the Home Secretary has been clear on that point. The police have also made it clear that they regret any offence caused by the inclusion of the Ukrainian tryzub symbol in their internal educational document. That document was produced to help frontline officers and staff recognise and understand a wide range of signs and symbols that they may come across while on duty. As the police have said, the document explicitly states that many of the symbols are not of counter-terrorism interest. Unfortunately, far-right groups do have a history of misappropriating national symbols as part of their identity, and that was the reasoning behind the inclusion of several symbols. We recognise that the tryzub—Ukraine’s state coat of arms—carries constitutional importance as well as both historical and cultural significance for the people of Ukraine, and we sincerely regret any offence caused to the Ukrainian nation or its people.
The Minister will be aware that guidance issued by the counter-terrorism police on extremist ideologies as part of the Prevent programme did include Extinction Rebellion. He is telling the House now that it was an error of judgment; the Opposition argue that it was a very serious error of judgment. Can he tell the House whether he agrees with Sir Peter Fahy, the head of Prevent from 2010 to 2015, who said that Extinction Rebellion
“is about lawful protest and disruption to get publicity…very different from terrorist acts”?
We also understand that in the guidance document, there is mention of organisations such as Greenpeace, the “Stop the badger cull” campaign, the Palestinian Solidarity Campaign, and the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, and of vegan activists. Can the House be provided with a list of the organisations mentioned in the counter-terrorism police guidance? What is the basis for the inclusion of groups such as vegan activists? Will the Secretary of State accept that in a democracy there is a fundamental right to disagreement and non-violent campaigning, and that interfering with or denying that right—even through an error of judgment—is a fundamental breach of the democratic contract between the Government and the governed?
Finally, there is supposed to be a review of Prevent, which we understand will report back in August. Can the Minister tell me who the leader of the Prevent review is, now that Lord Carlile has stepped down? Can the Minister also assure the House that the review will indeed report back in August?
The right hon. Lady outlined the importance of protest groups and their ability to raise the profile of the issue they are protesting about. We absolutely agree with that. As I said, we are very clear that the right to peaceful protest is a cornerstone of our just society, and an indispensable channel of political and social expression. The police have recalled the guidance and are reviewing it, and both we and the police have said that protest groups are not extremist groups, and that membership of a protest organisation is not—nor should it ever be—an indicator that an individual is vulnerable to being drawn into terrorism. It is important that protest groups have that space. We believe in, defend and fight for freedom of speech, and will continue to do so.
The statutory deadline for the review to be completed and its findings shared remains 12 August 2020. The next steps are being considered right now and will be announced in due course.
There is no doubt that this is a difficult area, but the Home Office always used to see its job as the protection both of life and of our way of life. Unfortunately, in the almost impossible task of preventing every act of violence and of terrorism, the Home Office has sometimes slipped somewhat into thought police mode. Will the Minister remind all the agencies that we all subscribe to the French saying, “I may detest what you believe, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”?
As ever, my right hon. Friend makes a very important point, and he has confirmed my point. I hope that everyone across the House believes in freedom of speech, and in people’s right to that freedom; we need to defend that right. I assure him that the Home Secretary and I meet counter-terrorism police and our agencies weekly, and we will raise this issue with them in our very next meeting.
I congratulate the shadow Home Secretary on securing this urgent question.
The suggestion that campaigning for peace, and for environmental and human rights, should be regarded as an extremist activity is ludicrous, but it is also a threat to civil liberties. Freedom of speech is essential in a democracy, and it is under attack like never before in our society. I want to be assured that the Government will condemn all attacks on freedom of speech, and will also support freedom of assembly.
Last year we saw a striking contrast between the way in which protests outside this House by Extinction Rebellion were policed, and the way other protests were. Extinction Rebellion was kept very far back from Parliament; others—including some leave protesters—were allowed right up close to Parliament, and to shout in the face of female MPs without any interference. Will the Minister look into that?
Scotland takes a very different approach to the Prevent strategy, placing it in the context of Safer Communities, and relying on the traditionally stronger relationships between the community and police in Scotland. Will the Minister consider adopting that approach in England? Does he see that doing so might prevent the sort of problems we saw with this mistake last week, and make the Prevent strategy more effective in England?
To give some context, Counter Terrorism Policing creates a range of guidance documents for use across the whole of policing, not just by counter-terrorism officers or Prevent practitioners. It produces these documents to help frontline officers and other colleagues make informed decisions, including about protecting crowded places at times of protest—something that Figen Murray has done amazing work on.
The signs and symbols document that became the subject of the Guardian article was produced to help the police and close partners identify and understand signs and symbols that they may come across in their day-to-day working lives, so that they know the difference between the symbols for the many groups they may come across. But these things have to be done correctly and in the right context. The police themselves have recognised that this was an error of judgment, and they have withdrawn the document and are reviewing it.
Does my right hon. Friend appreciate the enormous distress and offence that this has caused across Ukraine? Does he share my view that this symbol needs to be removed from the police guidance? Will he also take this opportunity to reiterate that this country remains a very strong friend and supporter of Ukraine?
My right hon. Friend makes a very good point. My right hon. Friend the Minister for Europe and the Americas has spoken to his opposite number in Ukraine today. I am likely to see one of my opposite numbers in Zagreb over the next couple of days, and I will express the huge regret felt by the Government about the fact that this happened. We have a very valuable and positive relationship with our friends and partners in Ukraine. We look to see that continue and strengthen as we look outward as a global country while we leave the European Union.
The only factor that is radicalising people with these concerns is their legitimate and understandable worry that we are not addressing climate change quickly enough. Will the Minister respond to the question from my right hon. Friend the shadow Home Secretary about who is now leading this programme, as he did not manage to address that? Does he share my concern that the Prevent programme and anti-terrorist strategy has had its credibility damaged by this action, and that he will need to work to restore its credibility?
The Prevent programme is fundamentally about safeguarding and supporting vulnerable individuals to stop them becoming terrorists or supporting terrorism. The hon. Gentleman should be acutely aware of the context. Extinction Rebellion should not have been in the document in the first place. The police have outlined that that was an error of judgment; they have withdrawn the document, and they are reviewing it. The Prevent review will go ahead, and we will make further announcements about its chairmanship and progress before the review reports fully in August.
I start by expressing my steadfast support for the Government of Ukraine, with whom I have worked to counter violent extremism and threats from those who cause discontent and division in our country. Violent extremism is a scourge, and Prevent helps to keep us safe. What information can my right hon. Friend share with me regarding the plan for when someone has been convicted of a serious terrorist offence, gone to prison and come out? What support will there be to ensure that they do not become re-radicalised and go on to commit more crimes, and to ensure that we keep our people safe?
My hon. Friend, who has huge experience in this field, makes a very important point. Yesterday the Government announced moves and measures to ensure that people who commit the most heinous crimes, including terrorism, will see longer, more severe sentences, and victims can have confidence in that. It is also right that we continue to do everything we can to ensure that people who commit an offence are able to reform and move forward. There are lessons to learn. The Prevent review is looking at the lessons to be learned from what happened at Fishmongers’ Hall. My hon. Friend is right: we need to continue to work in this area to ensure that we keep our society safe.
The police might say that this was an error of judgment, but it is also part of a pattern. Footage of my arrest for peaceful protest against fracking was used in Prevent training sessions back in 2015. In 2016, the Home Office said that support for anti-fracking was not an indicator of vulnerability to extremism, but years later, evidence shows that four police forces were still identifying anti-fracking as a perceived extremist risk, so can the Minister tell me why we should now trust his Department on this subject? What is it doing differently? In particular, what reassurance can he give us that he will advise the police to ensure that any policing in the run-up to, and at, COP 26 is within the law and appropriate?
First, as I said earlier, the police in this country have independence, and it is important that we protect and respect that. They have said that this was an error of judgment. They have withdrawn the document and are reviewing it. The guidance documents that Counter Terrorism Policing produces are used across policing and by partners to deal with groups, including at public events in public venues. The hon. Lady refers to COP 26, which is coming up soon and is a tremendous opportunity for this country to outline what we do. I have absolute confidence that our police will do as they always do at these events, which is to do our country very proud.
I was glad to hear the Minister make a clear distinction between the rights to free speech and to peaceful protest, which are absolutely part of this country’s values, and terrorist activities. The two should be kept firmly apart, and the latter prevented. Can he be more specific about the use of probation, which will clearly be an important part of counter-terrorist activity in the wake of London Bridge?
As my right hon. Friend rightly outlines, probation is an important part of this, and can play an important role in rehabilitation work. We have lessons to learn from the tragedy of Fishmongers’ Hall, and the system is looking at those. Yesterday, the Government announced changes that we will make to prison sentences, to ensure that we do everything we can to keep people safe and keep those who commit these crimes in prison for longer. We are always looking to learn, and to improve, so that when people come out of prison, they are properly reformed and safe to be in society.
Counter-terror police across the country do great and incredibly important work to keep us safe, but that is why this guidance was such a problem: we cannot afford confidence in their work being undermined. When did the Home Office see this guidance, and has the Minister asked to see all similar guidance from all police forces across the country, to ensure that no other counter-terror groups are making the same mistake?
As I say, the police have withdrawn the document and are reviewing it. I fully respect, and the Government respect, the independence of the police, and those guidance documents are part of their independence. The police produce those documents for their officers in the work that they do, and it is right that we respect that. The Home Secretary and I meet representatives and the leadership of counter-terrorism police and other partners on a weekly basis. We will raise this issue with them, to ensure that they are focused on the importance of getting this right. Those documents are about alerting their officers to all the types of groups and symbols that they may deal with in their day-to-day work. We need to acknowledge the regret that the police have shown over this error of judgment, and the fact that they are reviewing the document.
When the Prevent review takes place, will the Minister ensure that particular attention is given to the intractable problem of proselytising within jails by people who have been jailed for long periods for terrorism offences? They cannot be kept in isolation throughout their long sentences, and if they are not in isolation, there is a danger of them radicalising others. Special attention needs to be given to that problem during the review.
If the Government are serious about conducting a proper, independent review of Prevent, can the Minister give an assurance that they will engage with key Muslim organisations, such as the Muslim Council of Britain, and will heed the advice of the Muslim community?
The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. The reviewer will want to ensure that they engage with a wide range of people across all communities. Of course, Prevent works with not just the Muslim community but the far right and across our entire community. The reviewer will be independent, but we will encourage him to consult very widely.
I wish to echo the previous question. We enjoy policing by consent in this country, and I am rather uncomfortable about the fact that some religious communities feel that the Prevent programme does not subscribe to their view of the world, and in some ways discriminates against them. Will the Minister use the review to engage with the Muslim Council of Britain and others?
As I say, the reviewer is independent and will consult widely with the groups that they see fit to. The Prevent programme, I have to say, is working and is successful. Prevent has made a significant impact. It is stopping people being drawn into terrorism. Just in 2018-19, some 101 projects were delivered in London alone to address vulnerabilities to do with education, socialisation and substance abuse. This project is working; we just want to make sure that what is good gets even better.
I welcome what has been said about the error of judgment being acknowledged by the police. However, further to what other hon. Members have said, I stress that if such an error of judgment can take place the effect is unfortunately to undermine confidence in Prevent and to raise questions about the culture within which it is operating. On the review, what steps will be taken to ensure there is not a culture that allows such an error of judgment to take place and to undermine an important operation?
We need to be clear that the document was produced by the police for the police’s use and purpose. That is separate from the wider Prevent programme, which works across a huge range of communities and organisations around country. It is very successful in safeguarding and protecting vulnerable people and, as a result, our society, which we should be lauding and very pleased with. From the police’s point of view, as I have said, they have withdrawn this document and are reviewing it.
Does the Minister agree that we must never lose sight of the possibility of reform, even for the worst criminals and terrorists who have committed heinous crimes? Will he update the House on when we will start the programme of recruitment for specialist counter-terrorism probation officers, which I think will be welcomed to keep our society and our constituents safe?
My hon. Friend makes a very good point. It is important that we remember that people are able to reform, and we want people to reform. Obviously, we want to get the balance right, while making sure that the British public are clear that the Government are on their side and that people who commit heinous crimes will serve severe, proper and long sentences, because our first priority is to keep people safe. We made the announcement about the increase in counter-terrorism funding just yesterday, and we will be updating the House on when and how it is spent, but we are keen to move quickly to ensure that we keep our country safe.
May I thank the Minister for putting the record straight on Extinction Rebellion and all that? May I also give a plug for the quality of the work of my local police in delivering the Prevent programme and in supporting Members of Parliament? I have recently had some really awful death threats against me and my staff, and I have received such a level of support—not just in being effective, carrying through an investigation and arresting two people, but in phoning up and giving support day to day. I know lots of Members have received that support, and I hope it can continue, but may I thank the people who supply it to Members?
The hon. Gentleman makes a very generous but very correct statement, and I absolutely echo that. I am very fortunate and often humbled in this job on a daily basis in seeing the work that our counter-terrorism police do, in partnership with local police and indeed our agencies. I would argue that we have got the best in the world, and day after day they keep us safe.
I hope Ministers have had a look at Policy Exchange’s paper titled, for better or worse, “Extremism Rebellion”. Although we may defend people’s right to hold views about green anarchism, eco-socialism and radical anti-capitalist environmentalism, I want to make sure that there is no tacit approval from either Dispatch Box for what the right hon. Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) called “disruption”—I would say it is a deliberate policy of disruption. Will the Minister reassure me that the Government know what they are dealing with?
My hon. Friend makes an interesting point. I suspect he is also referring back to some of the difficult situations the police had to deal with not that long ago, but he is right that it is separate. As I have said, Extinction Rebellion is not considered an extremist group under the 2015 definition of extremism, and we are clear on that.
Will the Minister show some common sense and assist the police in understanding the difference between young people being involved in Extinction Rebellion or CND and—within the Prevent programme assessment that will take place this year—looking at the real risks with the insufficient numbers of skilled probation officers looking after extremely troubled and dangerous criminals?
I suspect the hon. Lady has not had a chance to see the document she is referring to, because it does specifically say:
“The document in question…explicitly states that many of the groups are not of counter-terrorism interest”.
As I have said, however, the police have acknowledged that it was an error of judgment to have that reference in there, and they have withdrawn it. They are reviewing it, and it is something that the Home Secretary and I will be continuing to talk to them about.
Prevent is supposed to stop Islamist extremism. This morning I was alerted to the fact that a pro-Iranian regime charity known as the IHRC—the Islamic Human Rights Commission—is apparently circulating to schoolteachers via digital education services a programme for its genocide memorial day. This includes a video that compares the Nazi holocaust to Israeli actions in Gaza, and a series of book and video lists directing children to further material critical of Israel and diminishing the deaths of 6 million Jews in the holocaust. Will my right hon. Friend launch an urgent inquiry into what this organisation is doing and why these things are on digital education platforms? Will he work with the Charity Commission and the Department for Education to stop this happening again?
My right hon. Friend has given a very stark and concerning example of the kind of issues and details that Prevent and indeed our police deal with. He is right to highlight the education sector, which in 2017-18 accounted for some 33% of referrals to Prevent, which works across extremism and not just in one particular area. I will certainly follow up with him directly on the issue he has raised to make sure that this gets proper attention.
I have been a member of Scottish CND for many years. Does the Minister agree with me that it is ludicrous, perverse and offensive that an organisation of people peacefully protesting indiscriminate murder with nuclear weapons has ended up in this document?
The police are reviewing the document. As I said earlier, it is a guide that is there to help the police identify and understand a range of organisations they may come across. It does not in any way suggest that membership of or affiliation with non-proscribed groups would be sufficient to trigger some kind of Prevent referral, or that we would consider non-violent protest as a potential indicator for extremism. I can give her the assurance that, as I say, we protect people’s right to freedom of speech and the right to protest, which I think is an important part of our society, and this document is being reviewed.
Obviously, terrorists who have been released from prison are monitored by probation or the police themselves, depending on the structure of their release. I hope my right hon. Friend will understand that I am not in a position to comment—which I think would be a security issue—on the specific numbers and how we deal with the matter. However, it is an issue we are alert to and it is an issue on which, as I have said, there are lessons to learn from what happened at Fishmongers’ Hall, and that piece of work is ongoing.
The Minister will know that the word “Islam” is the Arabic word for peace. Does he agree that the focus of Prevent activity should be to ensure that people in the Muslim community do not misrepresent, misconstrue and corrupt the words of the Koran, as opposed to what people fear is the focus of Prevent, which is that there is too much Islam and too much Muslim ideology? Surely the focus should be that people do not corrupt the teachings in a way that brings about terror, and we should be encouraging mainstream Muslim organisations to work with us for the good of all.
I understand the point the hon. Gentleman is making, and I think he is right to differentiate between two different issues. The heart of what the Prevent programme is about backs up his point, because the Prevent programme is fundamentally about safeguarding and supporting vulnerable individuals to stop them becoming terrorists or supporting terrorism. It is not about what religion they have and how they practise their religious beliefs; as I say, it is about stopping people becoming terrorists. It is working and it is successful, as I have said, and it does make a significant impact in stopping people being drawn into terrorism in the first place.
Through the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act 2015 —bear with me for a second if you will, Mr Speaker, because the context is important here—we introduced the Prevent statutory duty. That duty requires local authorities, schools, colleges, universities, health bodies, prisons, probation and the police, as part of their day-to-day work, to prevent people from being drawn into terrorism. It does have a very clear and specific purpose, which is about keeping our country, and vulnerable people, safe.
Will the Minister join me in congratulating Waqar Ahmed and his team in Birmingham on all their excellent work with Prevent and on becoming national leaders in the field, which is mostly because a lot of their work is community-led and bottom-up? It is disappointing, therefore, that a number of Birmingham Labour councillors have attempted to undermine the process. Will he do everything he can in the Home Office to ensure that the police are given the powers they need to keep our streets safe?
Absolutely. My hon. Friend is absolutely right to highlight this issue, and the good work that we see in such communities is a huge credit to the organisation and the people he has mentioned. We are determined to make sure that the police know they have our full support in doing all the work they do to ensure they protect vulnerable people and keep our country safe. I think their independence is a key part of the structure of that. We thank them for what they do, and we thank such organisations, as my hon. Friend has so rightly represented.
Is the Minister able to state unequivocally that the Ukrainian coat of arms will now be removed from this document?
As I said earlier, that document has been withdrawn. The police are reviewing it, but I am not going to interfere with the independence of our police. This is a document drafted by the police for the police and we respect their independence, but they have outlined that they regret this happening and have explained why it happened so I do not expect to see this kind of mistake again in future.
County Durham police do excellent work in protecting people right across Bishop Auckland, Spennymoor, Shildon and Barnard Castle. Given the threatening tones I heard yesterday, unfortunately, I will be contacting them to talk about the safety of my team at the Durham miners’ gala in July. Does my right hon. Friend agree that preserving the operational independence of the police, including the counter-terror policing unit, is of the utmost importance in keeping our streets safe?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. All of us in society sometimes see things, as she has rightly outlined, and I did see the comments yesterday, which are very concerning. She is absolutely right to raise that issue with the relevant authorities, and I am happy to discuss that with her as well to make sure that it is properly taken forward. It is right that we continue to defend the independence of our police and make sure that they know that we are there to support them in the brilliant work they do in keeping us safe.
Points of Order
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. This morning, Jaguar Land Rover announced the loss of 500 jobs—accounting for more than 10% of the total—at the Halewood plant in my constituency as it moves from a three to a two-shift system. Given the ongoing uncertainty about Brexit and the UK’s trading relationship with the EU, worse may be to come, so can you, Mr Speaker, advise me about how I can ensure that Ministers and the Prime Minister himself take this existential threat to the auto manufacturing industry in Liverpool as seriously as they should, and seek to help those losing their jobs as much as they can?
This has rightly been raised on the Floor of the House, and I would expect those on the Treasury Bench to have quickly made a note and I am sure this will be brought to the Prime Minister’s attention. This will have a serious impact on the north-west and I recognise how important those jobs are. That is now on the record and I hope others will follow up on it.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Those of us who campaigned in the previous Parliament for a review of the law on assisted dying were informed informally by the Government that an inquiry might take place. In advance of my Westminster Hall debate on this subject tomorrow, may I have some guidance on which Department and which Minister in the new Government we could follow this up with?
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I seek your guidance on how I might use the procedures of this House to resolve a case with the Home Office. This morning, my office received a call from UK Visas and Immigration regarding a visitor visa application. Listed in the application is the daughter of the applicant, a constituent of mine who has the later stages of motor neurone disease. UK Visas and Immigration is refusing to deal with my office regarding the case unless we can produce a signed mandate from the applicant, who is currently in China. My office has never been asked to do this before and this in essence means that everything is being delayed and we are wasting time for a constituent who does not have long left. Can you, Mr Speaker, advise on how we can cut through the red tape in the Home Office and perhaps have a more compassionate approach to dealing with my constituent?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving me notice of this point of order. It is not an issue for the Chair, but I recognise his frustration and he obviously quite rightly wants to take up his constituent’s case and the issue of the child visa. I am sure that people will be listening to this and I hope his concern is now being heard by Ministers and will be acted on.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Do you remember that, when we were first elected, we were not allowed to read our questions? Is there not at least a possibility that were Members required to remember their questions, at least some of them would not bang on for so long, and all our time could be used more effectively?
When the right hon. Gentleman and I came in together in 1997, it was frowned upon to read a question; people had to do the question without help and assistance. We have a new Parliament with a lot of new Members learning the ropes, but hopefully people will get into the habit rather quickly of asking a question without aid.
European Union (Withdrawal Agreement) Bill
Consideration of Lords amendments.
I beg to move, That this House disagrees with Lords amendment 1.
Less than a fortnight has passed since we last debated the Bill in this House. Since then the House of Lords has sat for nearly 40 hours to debate more than 100 amendments. The noble Lords in the other place have asked this House to think again on five matters and I will address each in turn.
Turning first to Lords amendment 1 on citizens’ rights tabled by the noble Lord Oates, I know that noble Lords share the Government’s commitment to putting the rights and welfare of citizens at the heart of our withdrawal negotiations. The first part of the amendment establishes a declaratory system and the second part requires Ministers to bring forward regulations making provisions for those with declaratory rights to apply for a document evidencing their rights. This amendment would mean the successful EU settlement scheme in its current form would need to be abandoned, because there would be no need to register if people could later rely on a declaration that they were already in the UK. This would make null and void the 2.8 million applications and the 2.5 million grants of status that have already been completed. The Government would, under this amendment, also be unable to issue digital status to EU citizens without also issuing physical documents, including to those already holding a digital status under the current scheme. That would increase the risk of fraud and raises costs to Government and citizens.
Surely the Secretary of State is aware that his own Ministers have also been stating that it might be possible for people to print off emails, for example, to provide that confirmation. There seems to be a huge number of mixed messages here. He will also be aware that many of those citizens are already being asked for that proof by employers. Surely the Government should deal with the system as it is actually being used, rather than his imagined reality of it, which is rather different.
The hon. Lady anticipates my next point, which is on the interplay between a physical document and the digital status, because, as she knows, digital status is more secure than any physical document could ever be, and furthermore all successful applicants receive a confirmation letter and can download secure share codes which can be printed or sent to anybody an EU citizen might need to show their status to in the future. The key is the number that is there, and digital status is the most secure, but of course people can print off the email that they receive.
The vote to leave included a desire for greater control of our borders. We need to be able to differentiate between EU citizens who arrived pre-exit and have rights set out in this Bill and EU citizens who arrive after we leave, who will be treated the same as the rest of the world under the forthcoming immigration Bill. Despite the good intentions, a declaratory status does not allow for that differentiation, so I urge Members to reject this amendment.
The Secretary of State will understand that there are, of course, some people for whom the challenge of applying for status is considerable, and the Government have said they will give reasonable consideration to those who have reason not to have applied by the deadline. One group that I and other colleagues are particularly concerned about is children looked after in the care system by local authorities, which do not in many cases have either the resources or the expertise to pursue applications for those children to obtain settled status. Will the Secretary of State assure the House that they will be protected, as they would be under a declaratory system?
The hon. Lady makes a fair point, and I know that she has taken a close interest in the issue over many years. As she will be aware, we have committed £9 million to work with vulnerable groups and to help sectors, including the one to which she refers, with using the settlement scheme, and we have introduced a grace period to allow additional time if there are reasons why people need to apply late.
The fact is that the scheme has no charge and almost 3 million people have applied. It is working well, but we have an outreach programme, which includes 57 organisations and money to address the hon. Lady’s point.
The Government have previously disputed estimates from respected think-tanks that tens—probably hundreds—of thousands of European economic area nationals will fail to apply by the deadline and therefore lose their rights. Do the Government have their own estimate of the numbers? If they do not, how on earth can the Secretary of State dispute those figures?
That is in part why the Government have put a grace period in place; that reflects many previous debates in this House that included concerns raised by the hon. Gentleman and others about whether people might miss the deadline. Almost 3 million people have applied, which is a reflection of the fact that the scheme is working very effectively.
I shall make a little progress before taking further interventions.
I turn to their lordships’ amendments 2 and 3, on the interpretation of retained European Union law. Amendment 2, tabled by Lord Beith, would remove the power to set which courts may diverge from retained Court of Justice of the European Union case law, and how. Amendment 3, tabled by Lord Mackay, would insert a mechanism whereby any court thinking that CJEU case law should be departed from may ask the Supreme Court to decide.
The other place has one of the greatest concentrations of legal talent in the world, and it is only right that the Government’s intentions on such a sensitive matter should be examined by their lordships, and that challenging alternatives should be proposed. The Bill ensures that time is built in to allow consultation of the senior judiciary in all jurisdictions. It is worth repeating what my noble Friends Lords Callanan and Keen said: we will, of course, also consult the devolved Administrations.
In proposing amendment 3, the noble and learned Lord Mackay has made an interesting proposal, but the Government cannot accept this recreation of the CJEU’s preliminary reference procedure.
As a fellow lawyer, my right hon. Friend will know the importance of the doctrine of binding precedence—stare decisis—to our common law system. That was what the amendments sought to deal with.
Anyone looking at the Lords Hansard will see that we were clearly close to a compromise with Lord Mackay, in which the necessary scheme to disapply EU law would be dealt with not necessarily by the Supreme Court but by courts of appellate jurisdiction. If we do not accept this amendment as it currently stands, will the Government try again to find a compromise when the matter goes back to the Lords? This is a fundamental principle on which we ought to be able to find agreement.
My hon. Friend speaks with authority and constructively about how the issue could be addressed. Let me reassure him that the Government do intend to consider and consult rigorously to ensure that CJEU case law is properly domesticated after the end of the implementation period.
Let me set out to the House, especially hon. and learned Members, that the power in clause 26 is sunset until the end of the year—the point at which courts will start interpreting retained EU law. Any change to the rules of interpretation will come in time for litigants and the courts. We will ensure that there is legal clarity at all times on the rules of interpretation.
I rise to support the proposal of my hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Sir Robert Neill), to go back to the Lords for a compromise on the matter. Of all the changes incorporated in the withdrawal Act in the past month or two, this is the weakest; it opens a swathe of problems for both Government and judiciary. Lord Mackay got very close to getting it right, and we should talk to him again.
I always listen intently to the constructive points put by my right hon. Friend, my predecessor but one. I draw his attention to the fact that we are committed to consulting the senior judiciary on our approach to this matter, which is my right hon. Friend’s underlying point.
The Secretary of State says that he is going to consult the devolved Administrations. However, the problem is that at present the Government speak to them without taking any cognisance of their answers. Will he give me an assurance that when he consults with the devolved Administrations on this matter, he will not only listen but actually take their advice on board?
There was a meeting between Ministers and devolved Government representatives yesterday about taking on board the input of the devolved Administrations during our discussions on the next phase of negotiations. There have been instances in which my counterpart in the Scottish Government has paid tribute to one of the Ministers in the Department, for example, in the early consultation on the withdrawal agreement Bill. I appreciate that the hon. and learned Lady’s position will always be to desire more consultation and for the UK Government to take further note, but we are consulting and will continue to do so.
Effective consultation, as the hon. Gentleman says.
As the Secretary of State will know well, the difficulty is that the Cabinet Secretary Michael Russell, the most senior Scottish Government official with whom the British Government deal, is clear: he is listened to if he is lucky, but they never take his advice on board.
I shall make a little more progress before taking further interventions. I urge Members to reject both amendments.
I turn to Lords amendment 4, tabled by the noble Lord Dubs. Although the Government humbly disagree with the amendment, we recognise his sincerity about and dedication to this issue and the constructive scrutiny that he has provided on behalf of vulnerable children. The amendment would remove the provision that amends the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018 to require the Government to report on their policy on unaccompanied asylum-seeking children.
I can only say again, as I did in our previous debates, that the Government’s policy is unchanged. Delivering on it will not require legislation. The Government have a proud record on supporting the most vulnerable children. The UK has granted protection to more than 41,000 children since the start of 2010. In 2018, the UK received more than 3,000 asylum applications from unaccompanied children, and the UK deals with 15% of all claims in the EU, making us the country with the third highest intake in Europe. Indeed, in the year ending September 2019 the intake rose to more than 3,500.
The right hon. Gentleman pre-empts the passage that I am just coming to.
As hon. Members will be aware, my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary wrote to the European Commission on 22 October on this very issue. The amendment in no way affects our commitment to seek an agreement with the EU. Primary legislation cannot deliver the best outcomes for these children, as it cannot guarantee that we will reach an agreement. That is why this is ultimately a matter that must be negotiated with the EU. The Government are committed to seeking the best possible outcome in those negotiations.
Over the past three and a half years, there have been many arguments and debates about European citizens’ rights and their protection. Refugee children are among the most vulnerable in the world—surely none of us, regardless of the side of the argument we were on, wants their safety or the possibility of their being reunited with their families to be undermined in any way. Why, then, are the Government so determined to take such provision out of the Bill rather than going with the amendment, which would offer a guarantee and reassure everyone in the House?