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Commons Chamber

Volume 672: debated on Thursday 27 February 2020

House of Commons

Thursday 27 February 2020

The House met at half-past Nine o’clock.

Prayers

[Mr Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions

Cabinet Office

The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and Minister for the Cabinet Office was asked—

Small and Medium-sized Businesses: Government Contracts

1. What plans he has to support small and medium-sized businesses in bidding for Government contracts. (900971)

7. What plans he has to support small and medium-sized businesses in bidding for Government contracts. (900978)

13. What plans he has to support small and medium-sized businesses in bidding for Government contracts. (900984)

17. What plans he has to support small and medium-sized businesses in bidding for Government contracts. (900990)

We have introduced measures to tackle barriers faced by SMEs in the procurement process. In the last financial year, we spent almost £2 billion more with SMEs than we did in the preceding year.

In my constituency of Bridgend in south Wales, the SME market will be absolutely key to making a success of Brexit. Will my right hon. Friend commit to working with the devolved Administrations, so that all parts of the UK will see progress when it comes to SMEs accessing Government contracts?

I congratulate my hon. Friend on all the work that he has been doing to open up opportunities for his constituents, and particularly SMEs and entrepreneurs. I can commit to, and have already had, conversations with the devolved nations. The contract finder that the Department has set up, offering greater transparency about those opportunities, is just one way that we are assisting, and I would be happy to meet him to discuss other ways that we can support his efforts to ensure that all his constituents have maximum opportunity.

I thank my right hon. Friend for her previous answer and it is great to see her on the Front Bench. Ninety-nine per cent. of businesses registered in Guildford are SMEs. What steps is the Minister taking to simplify the bureaucracy involved and minimise the cost to SMEs of quoting for Government business?

I congratulate my hon. Friend on the work that she is doing for all the businesses in Guildford. We have committed to removing barriers to small businesses in our commercial arrangements, and have already removed the complex pre-qualification questionnaires that people used to have to fill out for even low-value contracts. We will continue to look at other ways that we can ensure that SMEs have maximum opportunity to bid for work.

I welcome the Minister’s comments. Does she recognise the role that business support organisations play—such as the Institute of Directors, the Federation of Small Businesses, the British Chambers of Commerce and local enterprise partnerships, which lead on the growth hubs—in helping to bridge the knowledge gap for SMEs that have to deal with such difficult processes?

I thank my hon. Friend for the opportunity to pay tribute to those business organisations, and it is great to see him in this place, with all his expertise in this area. Those organisations play a critical role, and we must listen to what they are saying and look at ways to increase the opportunities for all their members. We want to improve our communications and relationships with those organisations.

Small businesses often tell me that late payments are a significant concern when bidding for not just Government contracts, but all contracts with large companies. What steps can my right hon. Friend outline to ensure that there is a level playing field for small businesses applying for Government contracts?

We want SMEs to have confidence that they can bid for work. The prompt payment measure, which was introduced last September, has been a key part of the Government’s work to focus on breaking down those barriers for small and medium-sized enterprises. Suppliers that do not comply with that will be struck off, and we have done that. There is more that we are looking at; my hon. Friend will know that there is debate about channelling some of the fines for those with poor practice into compensation for small enterprises.

All the friendly questions from the Whips Office do not hide the reality, which is that the Government have had 10 years to get this right. More small businesses than ever have given up trying to win Government contracts, and I am afraid that the figures do not stack up; they are worse now than when the Government came in. When will they stop giving the lion’s share of lucrative Government contracts to the Carillions of this world and start treating our excellent small businesses fairly?

I notice that there were no facts in that question. If the hon. Member looks at the facts, he will see that a greater and growing number of small and medium-sized enterprises are registering to become suppliers. He will see that 12 Departments in particular are massively increasing the amount of work that they are doing with small enterprises. Rather than criticising my Government colleagues, he might like to start standing up for small businesses in his constituency.

I think there is unanimity across the House about the need to improve access to Government contracts for small and medium-sized enterprises, but I would prefer it if they were British small and medium-sized enterprises. What action will the Secretary of State take to amend Government procurement regulations so that Departments can start to prioritise British firms, British products and employment of British workers?

The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. He knows this Administration are focused on increasing opportunities across every part of this country. Now that we have left the EU, we will have new opportunities as we design the future procurement rules. I hope that both sides of the House can come together behind that work, so that we have maximum opportunity for every part of the UK.

Can the Minister confirm that post Brexit, contracts’ scoring metrics will be able to add weight for local builders, so that we can keep the money in the local economy?

As the hon. Gentleman knows, we are considering what reforms we can bring in. We have set out clearly the principle that this is not just about the immediate return on investment; it is about the long-term opportunities that procurement would open up for every part of the UK.

Voter Identification: Voting Fraud

2. Whether his Department has made an assessment of the extent to which the use of voter identification will tackle voter fraud. (900972)

The Government are committed to introducing voter ID, as well as extra postal and proxy voting measures, to reduce the potential for electoral fraud in order to give the public greater confidence that our elections are secure. Evaluation by the Electoral Commission and the Cabinet Office of the pilots we ran shows that they were a success, and that public confidence in the electoral system was higher in the areas involved.

The Minister will be unsurprised to hear that I am unimpressed by this illiberal idea. The Electoral Commission says that fraud relating to proxy voting, postal voting, bribery, undue influence or tampering with ballot papers, on which voter ID will have no effect, accounts for three quarters of electoral fraud, so what are we doing about that?

As I mentioned, we are looking at a range of measures, including ways to improve the security of postal and proxy voting. It is important to recognise that electoral fraud in any form is a crime, which is why we should stand by measures to deal with it. We should be on the side of the victims of that crime, whose voices are taken away—indeed, stolen—by such fraud. That is a good reason why this was in our manifesto, on which, I gently remind my right hon. Friend, we both stood.

Of course those citizens whose voices are taken away because they do not have photographic ID are also victims. As the Minister is concerned about fraudulent votes, can she tell the House how many fraudulent votes were prevented in each of the pilot areas?

As I have already said, evaluations of the pilots set out a range of data. The hon. Gentleman’s question is not the sort that can easily be answered, as I hope the more cerebral Members of the House will understand. That is because it is hard to put a figure on crime that is deterred. The question Labour Front Benchers really have to answer is: in the dying days of this Labour Front-Bench team, whose side is Labour on, given that the Leader of the Opposition employed a convicted electoral fraudster in his office?

May I say what a pleasure it is to see such a well stocked Treasury Bench for Cabinet Office questions, and how much I am looking forward to working with these Ministers? I am sure the feeling is mutual. In the excellent Conservative manifesto, the Government said they would set up a constitution, democracy and rights commission to address these matters. Will my hon. Friend expand on the scope, remit and timing of that commission?

I welcome my hon. Friend to his post as the new Chair of the Select Committee on Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs. I look forward to working with him, as do all the members of the team here this morning. The commission will examine broader aspects of the constitution in more depth and make proposals to restore trust in our institutions and in how our democracy operates. Full details will be announced in due course. Careful consideration is required, and I am confident that there will be high-quality discussion of the proposals with the Select Committee.

European Union: Future Relationship

Now that we have honoured the wishes of the British people and got Brexit done, we will publish later today detailed aspects of our future relationship with the European Union, and I shall be making a statement after these questions. Formal negotiations will begin next week.

When it comes to the negotiations that will begin next week, no one knows what the Government’s bottom line is, and we will not find out until later this year, but will the Minister explain to the House today why on earth the Government believe that the reputational damage that will be inflicted, not just in EU capitals but around the world, by our casual reneging on a number of commitments set out in the political declaration, which was signed in good faith with the EU after the recent general election, is a price worth paying?

I have great respect for the hon. Gentleman, but I am afraid that his question is wholly misconceived. We have absolutely no intention of doing anything other than honouring the withdrawal agreement, honouring the protocol that we have signed, and making sure that we achieve the political declaration’s aim of ensuring that we have a comprehensive free trade agreement with no tariffs, no quotas and no quantitative restrictions.

Does my right hon. Friend think the EU has spotted that we have actually left and no longer need to negotiate our terms of release?

My right hon. Friend has made a very good point. There are a range of views—a spectrum of opinions—in European capitals, but I think that the pennies, the pfennigs and the centimes are dropping as a result of the Prime Minister’s speeches and the lecture given recently by the Prime Minister’s sherpa David Frost.

Veterans: Employment

21. What steps the Office for Veterans’ Affairs is taking to support veterans to gain employment in the public sector. (900995)

Veterans offer a vast range of skills and talent to employers, and we want to see more of them working throughout the economy. We are making it easier for them to join the civil service, introducing a national insurance break for their employers, and investing £5 million in Jobcentre Plus armed forces champions.

It is concerning that 18% of UK businesses surveyed said that they would be unlikely to take on former armed forces personnel because of negative perceptions of those who had served in the forces. Both the Minister and I know that the armed forces actually provide skills for life that can be brought into different sectors. I warmly welcome the decision by the Cabinet Office to guarantee interviews to former armed forces personnel if they meet essential criteria, which is already being done in my Bridgend County Borough Council area. What more can the Minister do—including making representations to the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster—to ensure that the scheme is implemented across Government?

The whole concept of the Office for Veterans’ Affairs is about making experience of being a veteran equal across the country. We are introducing the scheme that the hon. Member mentions later in the year, and we are also introducing legislation to ensure that the armed forces covenant is implemented correctly throughout the country, so that no veteran suffers disadvantage because of his or her service. The Prime Minister has shifted the dial in respect of what it means to be an armed forces veteran in this country, and I am determined to make this the best place on earth in which to be one.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the ex-service personnel already working in the civil service bring invaluable skills and experience learned from the armed forces, and that guaranteeing veterans interviews for civil service jobs will boost the employment prospects of residents of Broxtowe and improve the civil service?

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend, and thank him for his question. It is clear that in this country we are moving away from the idea that we should give veterans a job just to keep them busy, and are recognising the incredible skills and attributes that they bring to any job in society following 10 or 15 years of what has been pretty hard combat over the last few years. I pay tribute to those in the civil service, and to those who lead the way so that others can come through behind them.

Let me begin by saying that, with permission, my hon. Friend the Member for City of Chester (Christian Matheson) and I will be leaving this Question Time early to take part in an armed forces parliamentary scheme visit. I am sure the House will understand that no discourtesy is intended.

The Forces in Mind Trust reports that veterans experience a postcode lottery when looking for work, and fewer than half of those in the north say that it was easy to find employment. Is the Minister assured that support for veterans is being sent to where it is needed most in order to tackle that regional inequality?

Regional inequality is a key factor in what the Office for Veterans’ Affairs is trying to do. Today we have the latest figures from the career transition partnership, and we have more people going into work and education than ever before. In fact, people are now more likely to be in employment if they are a veteran, but we are not complacent about that in any way. There is no reason why anybody coming out of the military cannot go into a job, which is the single biggest transformative factor in improving their life chances.

Relocating Public Bodies

The Government are committed to levelling up across the UK, and relocating roles to the regions and nations of the UK. The Places for Growth programme in the Cabinet Office is driving the necessary planning within Departments and public bodies, and a commitment to relocating 3,000 roles within public bodies has already been secured.

I thank my right hon. Friend for her answer, and I welcome her to her place. Darlington remains a transport hub for our entire region, thanks to the hard work of our excellent combined authority Mayor, Ben Houchen. Teesside airport has reopened Tees Valley to the rest of the country and to international interest. Given the area’s international links and its excellent rail, road and air connections, will my right hon. Friend consider Darlington and Tees Valley as a location for public bodies?

I would like to start by paying tribute to Ben Houchen and all his excellent work as the Tees Valley Mayor, and also to my hon. Friend for highlighting the strengths of Darlington. There are already approximately 800 civil servants in Darlington, and 29,000 across the north-east. Given this strength, the north-east region will certainly benefit from the relocation of civil service roles under the Places for Growth programme.

I welcome the Minister to her place. Cornwall has 650 miles of the most beautiful coastline in the country and a fishing industry desperately keen to make the most of the opportunities of Brexit. Does my right hon. Friend share my view that Cornwall would be a great location in which to base the Marine Management Organisation?

I congratulate my hon. Friend on making sure that Cornwall’s voice is well and truly heard. Our focus is on relocating civil service roles in public bodies across the UK, and as part of this we are ensuring that any functions that are repatriated following EU exit are established in the regions and nations of the UK. My hon. Friend will be reassured to hear that the Marine Management Organisation already has several offices in the south-west, including one in Cornwall.

Office for Veterans’ Affairs: Staff

The Office for Veterans’ Affairs is staffed by civil servants, two of whom, including the director, are veterans. I myself am a veteran, and I have seen at first hand the need to support our veterans. The OVA is also setting up a veterans’ advisory board, which includes veterans and representatives from academia, business and the charity sector.

My hon. and gallant Friend the Minister will recognise that veterans represent the very best of selfless service to our country, and no one understands veterans’ needs better than veterans themselves, so what plans does he have to increase the number of veterans, including disabled veterans, in his Department?

People come and work in the Office for Veterans’ Affairs based purely on what they can add to the organisation. A number of veterans are working there at the moment. We are still conducting a recruitment process for certain roles, but it is an embryonic organisation that is finding its way through Government, and I look forward to giving my hon. Friend an update in writing later in the year.

Office for Veterans’ Affairs: Mental Health Support

8. What steps the Office for Veterans’ Affairs is taking to ensure that veterans can access mental health support. (900979)

The Government are providing the best mental health support for veterans, spending £10.2 million a year on veterans’ mental health services through the transition intervention and liaison service and the complex treatment service.

I thank the Minister for his answer. May I ask him how the Government are helping veterans to transition back into civilian life? Will he also tell the House about any new initiatives in the pipeline?

I thank my hon. Friend for his question and pay tribute to his service. Veterans’ mental health care in this country is changing fundamentally, and the nation is finally realising its inherent responsibility to those who have served. We are rolling out a comprehensive NHS treatment programme through the complex treatment service and the transition, intervention and liaison service, which is the high-intensity service. Beyond that, there will be space for every brilliant third sector organisation to contribute. I am determined that this country will have the world’s best mental health care for veterans, and I look forward to updating my hon. Friend in due course.

I am sure that the Minister will recognise that veterans’ mental health also carries on into retirement. Does he agree that it is time to exempt the war disablement pension for veterans who access it in order to improve their income, opportunities and mental health in the long term?

Pensions are a complex area that we are constantly examining. Several schemes over the years have advantaged certain groups and disadvantaged others. I am having continual conversations to ensure that the armed forces covenant means something in this country, that those who have served have a special place in this nation’s heart, and that we look after people in the way that they deserve.

Further to the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Bracknell (James Sunderland), I have an excellent idea that should be in the pipeline. The single biggest barrier to some veterans improving their mental health is getting and keeping a place to live because, disgracefully, we have some veterans who are homeless. Will my hon. Friend and the Cabinet Office, together with the Ministry of Defence, the Department for Work and Pensions and, indeed, the Ministry of Justice, consider supporting a pilot project to turbocharge the excellent work already being done by the Community Self Build Agency in this area?

It will be of no surprise that I am a huge fan of the CSBA, which does incredible work in my Plymouth constituency. We must be careful about this idea of homeless veterans. In my experience of extensive studies, the situation is not quite as it is represented in the media, but one is one too many. Along with the rough sleeping initiative that is being announced today, I am determined to zero in on the issue. No veterans should be sleeping rough on this country’s streets, and we are determined to get there.

I am aware that suicide is normally lower among veterans than among their civilian cohorts. However, I have noticed that that has changed in the past six months, as the Minister will be aware, with my old platoon commander and several other people I served with having committed suicide. What is the Minister doing to support veterans in this area?

I thank my hon. Friend for his service. Suicide is an immensely complex area, and I work on it every single day. He is right that, traditionally, someone is less likely to take their life if they have served in the military, but we are experiencing a cluster of events, and we are working every day to understand why they are happening. I meet with the families of those who have been through this journey, and we are determined to ensure that we have done everything possible in every situation. Each one is a tragedy not only for the family and the individual, but for the military as an institution. I assure my hon. Friend that we are spending every waking moment trying to deal with this current series of events.

EU Nationals: Voting Rights

No, we do not intend to grant that right. The Representation of the People Act 1918 sets out which non-UK nationals resident in the UK can vote in our parliamentary elections. The right is restricted to citizens from Commonwealth countries, including Malta and Cyprus, and to those from the Republic of Ireland who meet UK residency requirements.

We currently give Commonwealth citizens, who may have been here only one month, but there are no reciprocal rights for British citizens to vote in Commonwealth countries. Why do we not give the right to vote to EU citizens, who may have lived here for 20 years, paying tax throughout that time? Do the Government not believe in representation and taxation?

First, it is right to pay tribute to the contribution to this country that EU citizens make, have made and will continue to make in the future. As my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and other Ministers have set out, we welcome that contribution to the life of our nation, and we are making the settled status scheme available in order to further it. However, as far as we are aware, no other EU member state currently allows non-nationals to vote in national elections—besides Ireland, which has a long-standing bilateral agreement with the UK—so we think our approach is reasonable.

The Minister acknowledges the contribution that EU citizens have made here in Britain. Of course, during the transition, EU citizens currently have the right to vote and stand for election at local level. Many EU nationals are currently serving as local councillors up and down the country for all political parties. What commitment can she make that EU nationals who currently serve in local government as locally elected councillors will be able to complete their term of office? Can she give them any guidance on whether they will be able to seek re-election and whether the communities they serve will be able to re-elect them?

I am absolutely confident that the hon. Lady is a close reader of all parliamentary questions that are answered in this House, and she will know that we have already answered that question on the record. Those who are elected to office will be able to serve their full term, including those elected before 2020. As I say, I am repeating my answer to an earlier parliamentary questions so the House is clear that EU citizens will be able to vote and stand in the May elections.

Code of Conduct for Special Advisers

11. What recent assessment he has made of compliance by Government special advisers with the code of conduct for special advisers. (900982)

The code of conduct for special advisers clearly outlines the standards of behaviour and conduct required of special advisers throughout their appointment. Where it may be suspected that an individual has failed to meet those standards, agreed disciplinary processes are carried out in line with the terms of the model contract for special advisers.

The code of conduct says that special advisers must not involve themselves with controversy. After calling for weirdos, misfits and “PJ Masks”, Dominic Cummings hired someone who has promoted eugenics. How is that acceptable?

There is little to add to what the Prime Minister said on this matter yesterday, which is that those views of Mr Sabisky have no place in this Government. Mr Sabisky has left the employment of the Government, and I do not think there is more to be said on the matter other than that they are not my views either.

Talking of Mr Sabisky, the Minister no doubt agrees with the Minister for Business, Energy and Clean Growth, the right hon. Member for Spelthorne (Kwasi Kwarteng), that his views are offensive and racist. How come such a man was employed to work in Downing Street?

I do not think there is anything to be gained by going into individual instances of employment. I assure the House once again that those views are not shared by anybody on the Treasury Bench, and I am sure we would all agree on that.

That is all waffle, isn’t it? The truth is that a right-wing extremist sat in official meetings with the Prime Minister and with defence staff—that is a fact. When the political operation in No. 10 is out of control, it is a problem for politicians and the Government Front Bench. But when the vetting system breaks down or is sidestepped, is it not a problem for national security?

Does the Labour party honestly expect me to say from this Dispatch Box that the vetting system does not work? That would be a breach of national security, and I am not going to do any such thing. The hon. Gentleman ought to ask better questions.

Is not one way to solve the problem this question raises to have pre-appointment scrutiny of special advisers—or at least of senior special advisers, who, in some cases, are more powerful than Cabinet Ministers—by making candidates appear before a Select Committee before their appointment, as we do with other appointments?

As I have already said in my opening answer, the code of conduct is very clear about what is required, and the model contract likewise. The appointment procedure for special advisers is found in those documents, and the fact is that Ministers take decisions. The Prime Minister takes decisions about who is to be appointed to his team, which is as it should be—Ministers decide and advisers advise. Although I welcome my hon. Friend’s considered point on the processes that could be added, I think the current processes are adequate. Again, this was answered by the Prime Minister yesterday.

The Minister has just been clear that Ministers and the Prime Minister decide. She will be familiar with the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010, the code for Ministers and the code for special advisers, which states clearly in section 9 that

“all appointments of special advisers require the prior written approval of the Prime Minister”.

So did the Prime Minister give prior written approval for the appointment of Andrew Sabisky—yes or no?

Infrastructure Investment: Value for Money

18. What steps his Department is taking to ensure value for money in infrastructure investment. (900991)

The Government are committed to delivering value for money, including from the additional £100 billion of investment in infrastructure that we have recently announced. That means that spending will not just be narrowly focused on where it brings the highest immediate economic return; it will also be focused on where it may unlock productive potential in the future.

In London, under the stewardship of Transport for London and the Mayor of London, Crossrail is £2.5 billion over budget and two and a half years behind schedule. Will my right hon. Friend ensure that those mistakes are not made elsewhere in the country?

I know that this is a frustration for my hon. Friend’s constituents. The Infrastructure and Projects Authority has worked with the Department for Transport and across Government to identify and implement the key lessons to be learned from such major projects, and the IPA provides challenge that is fair and accurate, through an independent assurance review of major Government projects.

Will my right hon. Friend assure me of the Government’s commitment to vital rail infrastructure funding for Dorset and the surrounding counties, given that we have a three-hourly rail frequency in our county and it takes us almost three hours to get to London?

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for his election and, as the whole House is aware, for going above and beyond the call of duty in ensuring that his constituents could use train services during the recent strikes. As I say, we are investing an additional £100 billion in infrastructure, and we are seeking to ensure that we prioritise the right projects, taking a whole-network and whole-life-value approach. His representations have been well made, and they are being listened to.

Now that HS2 has been approved, how will my right hon. Friend ensure, if necessary working with Ministers from other Departments, that costs are firmly controlled, so that all taxpayers nationwide, including in my constituency, through which this line unfortunately runs, can be confident that they have received value for money?

My hon. Friend makes a very valid point. Obviously, the DFT is leading on the delivery of HS2. The IPA will continue to work with the DFT to support the delivery of this initiative, through expert advice and challenge in independent assurance reviews. The recent review of and recommendations on HS2 are very focused on ensuring that costs are controlled and that there will be no further delays.

Import Controls: EU

14. What discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for International Trade on the introduction of import controls on goods from the EU from 2021. (900985)

I have regular meetings with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Trade covering a number of issues, not the least of which is our border arrangements. Import controls are necessary to keep our borders safe and secure, and to ensure that we treat all partners equally, especially when it involves collecting the right customs, VAT and other excise duties.

I am grateful to the Minister for answering this question. During the referendum, he said that we would be part of a

“free trade zone…from Iceland to the Russian border”,

with

“full access to the European market”.

However, this month he has been clear that we will lose frictionless trade, and that will introduce red tape and vast impacts on our businesses. How can businesses trust his future pronouncements? Will he clarify when he abandoned the idea of frictionless trade?

The whole point of our negotiations with the European Union, now that we have left, is to ensure that we do have a comprehensive free trade agreement that will ensure there are no tariffs, quotas or quantitative restrictions. That is entirely consistent with the broader approach towards free trade, which does indeed exist from Iceland to the Russian border.

Voting at 16

As the Minister will be aware, my country of Wales has, along with Scotland, already passed legislation to give young people aged 16 the vote. It is a positive move and the right thing to do; it will enable young people to engage in the political process and influence decisions that affect their lives. Surely it is time that the Minister followed our excellent lead and listened to what young people want; it is their future, after all.

If it is good enough for the Welsh and the Scottish, why on earth are 16 and 17-year-olds in England and, indeed, Northern Ireland not entitled to the vote? It is a question of equality. If someone can go to war for their country and pay their taxes for the country, we should extend the franchise to them. From Peterloo to the extension of the franchise to women through the women’s suffrage movement, the north-west has a proud history of extending the franchise. Come on: do the right thing for the English, Minister, and give 16 and 17-year-olds the right to vote and, indeed, those in Northern Ireland as well.

That was a brilliant question in the style of orator Henry Hunt at Peterloo, but I am afraid we have to accept that in the United Kingdom the devolved Administrations quite rightly make decisions within their competence but the UK Government have no intention of altering the franchise in the way that the hon. Gentleman suggests. We are getting on with the people’s priorities: investing in our NHS and fighting crime, improving education and levelling up the economy. Those things are more important than constitutional changes.

Government Suppliers and Subcontractors: Payment

20. What steps he is taking to ensure that Government suppliers and subcontractors are paid on time. (900994)

The Government have a commitment to pay 90% of valid and undisputed invoices from small and medium-sized enterprises within five days. Departments also have a non-executive director responsible for prompt payment, and suppliers now risk being excluded from winning large Government contracts if they cannot demonstrate prompt payment in their supply chain.

I thank the Paymaster General for that answer. Following on from her responses to my hon. Friends’ questions earlier regarding small and medium-sized businesses, the cash flow of those businesses is the most important factor in their survival, so what assurances can my right hon. Friend give that the timely payment commitment will always extend further down the chain so that small and medium-sized businesses in my Delyn constituency are able to plan ahead with confidence?

I can give my hon. Friend those assurances: we do take those things into account. As far as the Cabinet Office is concerned—of course, it is similar for many other Departments across Government —we are meeting the five-day payment target, and in 99% of cases all invoices are paid within 30 days.

Topical Questions

Next week, we will start negotiations with the EU on our future relationship, and I will shortly make a statement to the House on our approach. Whatever the outcome of the negotiations, the transition period will end at the end of this year. We are working closely with businesses and border groups on preparations for the end of the transition period, and I will be meeting representatives from our ports, freight and haulage sectors later today.

I take this opportunity to welcome to the Front Bench my strengthened and hugely talented ministerial team. I look forward to working with them to deliver on our priorities in the months ahead: overseeing the transition period, strengthening the integrity of our precious Union, ensuring that our constitution is fit for the 21st century, and reforming our civil service and public sector in line with the people’s priorities.

The SNP Scottish Government’s groundbreaking legislation ensures that everyone who chooses to make their home in Scotland, including refugees and EU citizens, can vote. That follows up on the enabling of votes at 16, which the Government here continue to oppose. Will the Minister now look to follow the lead of the Scottish Government and Scottish Parliament towards a more inclusive democracy, or have this Government given up entirely on democracy?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for outlining the approach to the franchise that the Scottish Government take, but one of the most important lessons that democracy teaches us is that we must respect votes. Of course, Scotland voted to remain part of the United Kingdom in the referendum in 2014, and I am afraid his party still refuses to acknowledge the legitimacy of that referendum.

T4. I am delighted to hear my right hon. Friend confirm his commitment to strengthening our precious Union. Would he be happy to expand on how he would like to do that? (901000)

I thank my hon. Friend for asking that question. The truth is that our United Kingdom is proof positive that a union of nations is stronger together, and it is important that we ensure that the benefits of our Union are spread equally. That means making sure that public sector jobs are deployed effectively in Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland. It also means that the strength of our Exchequer is the foundation that our economy provides for human flourishing across these islands. All these things are reflective of the strength of our Union, the single most successful political union and enterprise that anyone has seen on this earth, and that is why it is so important that we fight for it from Fermanagh to Forfar and to every part of England and Wales as well.

As the father of a 16 and a 17-year-old, I can assure the hon. Lady that I am not in the least scared of them.

T6. I am very proud to be part of a party that is delivering on leaving the EU and that is investing billions in our health and education sectors. Will my right hon. Friend outline the steps that his Department is taking on public procurement to make sure that that money is spent wisely? (901002)

I thank my hon. Friend for that excellent question. She will be aware that leaving the EU is a golden opportunity to reform our procurement rules. We must cut red tape. We must drive innovation and make it easier for small businesses to win those public sector contracts. We will achieve that by creating a bespoke system for British businesses that also complies with our international obligations.

May I ask the Secretary of State, and explicitly him on this question, what role does Dominic Cummings have in the Cabinet Office, and will he outline his professional and personal relationship with him?

The gentleman concerned is a special adviser who works for the Prime Minister. All special advisers work for the Prime Minister. I have the highest regard for the special advisers who do such a wonderful job, supporting the Government in the delivery of the people’s priorities.

Yesterday, the former Chancellor said that he had resigned because of the interference of Dominic Cummings and the working arrangements of what is the second office of state. Never before has such a senior member of the Government resigned because of the dictates of an unelected official. Is it now Mr Cummings and his weirdos and misfits who are running this Government? How many other Sabiskys are lurking around in Departments, and how does the right hon. Gentleman now fit in to the operation and mechanics of government?

Again, I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his question. [Interruption.] Forgive me. It is only a matter of time, I suspect. The broader point is that the Cabinet Office, the Treasury and No. 10 work seamlessly together to ensure that the wishes of the British people, as expressed in the last general election, to strengthen our United Kingdom, to level up our economy and to make sure that people have the opportunity to excel in every sphere are carried out with harmony, unity and energy.

T8. Given the ridiculous bluster and sabre rattling that we have heard from the European Commission in the past few days, what assessment have the Government made of the damage the European Union would do to its own economy if it denied itself access to the United Kingdom market? (901004)

My right hon. Friend makes a characteristically acute point. It is the case that the European Union exports more in goods to the UK than we export to the EU. Were some voices—I stress that it is a minority of voices in the European Union—to prevail and were they not to progress these negotiations in the way that, I am sure, we would all want to see, there would be damage to the EU’s economy, and that is the last thing that I want to see.

T3. Does the Government intend to legislate for the proposals in the 2018 review of parliamentary constituency boundaries, or will they conduct a new review? (900998)

We were clear in our manifesto that we are committed to equal and updated boundaries, and we will bring forward proposals in due course on how to meet that commitment.

In February 2019, the deputy national statistician said that, for the census to go ahead as planned in March 2021, the legislation needs to be passed this April. Does my hon. Friend agree that delays to the laying of the census order now means that it is impossible for that legislation to be passed before April, and what is being done to ensure that the census will take place in March next year?

My hon. Friend has clearly already got himself into the detail of the Department in the most admirable way, which is what we would expect from the new Chair of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee. He is right that this legislation is pressing and that behind it sits a very large programme being delivered by the UK Statistics Authority, with which I work closely. We will bring forward the order shortly to Parliament, and I look forward to its scrutiny in this place so that we can have a successful census in 2021.

T5. Was Andrew Sabisky recruited to work on the defence and security review that the Prime Minister announced yesterday? (901001)

Does the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster not think it odd that the very people who want votes at the age of 16 changed the law so that 16-year-olds cannot buy cigarettes or go into a tanning salon, and does that not reveal just how empty their aspirations are?

My hon. Friend, in typically pithy fashion, draws attention to the fact that when we consider the whole question of when people reach the age of maturity, the landscape is complicated. The previous Labour Government—this was led by Ed Balls—raised the participation age in education to ensure that 17 and 18-year-olds had to be in employment, education or training. That was a welcome recognition of the need to support young people to be everything they can be at the appropriate moment. This Government are committed to ensuring that young people have the right opportunities, but it is important to acknowledge that, for example, even though young people can apply to join the armed forces at 16, they cannot be deployed in a battlefield situation until they are at least 18. It is important, when discussing 16, 17 and 18-year-olds, to appreciate the complexity of the situation and to show sensitivity.

T7. I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman will agree that, when it comes to Andrew Sabisky, we should call a Spad a Spad. Can he confirm whether someone appointed as a Government political adviser, even on a contractor basis, can in any way be exempt from the Spad vetting process or the requirement for prime ministerial approval? (901003)

As my hon. Friend the Minister of State, Cabinet Office, pointed out earlier, there is a difference between special advisers, who are appointed by and work for the Prime Minister, and contractors, who exist in all Departments.

Why does my right hon. Friend not prevent enterprises from bidding for Government contracts unless they can demonstrate a record of having paid their suppliers on time?

Companies do have to demonstrate that, and if existing suppliers do not comply with the targets we have set, they will be booted off the supplier list.

T9. This morning, I did a quick Google search—other search engines are available—for “Government jobs”, which came up with dozens of Government positions described as being inside IR35. That is the worst of both worlds, because an individual would be taxed as an employee but would have no employment rights. Does the Cabinet Office agree that that is an untenable state of affairs for people working for the Government? (901005)

The hon. Gentleman raises a thoughtful point. He will be aware that Her Majesty’s Treasury has led a review of those rules. I think that we all agree that we want to see employees treated accurately and fairly, whichever category they fall into, and of course that the public purse is protected by taxes being brought in and made available for public services. I am happy to look at the matter in slightly more detail if he thinks there is something beyond that.

I pay tribute to Combat Stress for the immense work it has done over many years for those who suffer with mental health challenges when they return from operations. The situation is difficult. There is no doubt that the model of healthcare for our veterans is fundamentally changing, to a realisation of the responsibility that the NHS has towards those who serve. Within that model of care, there is a role for everybody. As we undergo that transition, services are available and their uptake is being monitoring every single day.

T1. Apologies, Mr Speaker, for not being in my place earlier.Since 2017, and under successive Tory Governments, civil service leaks have apparently become commonplace. Have the Government carried out an assessment of why so many civil servants now seem to believe that it is in the public interest to go behind the backs of Ministers and leak information? (900996)

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for raising that question. Civil servants must of course abide by the civil service code, and we deprecate the leaking of any Government information. I will reflect hard on the point behind her question.

I declare an interest as a vice-president of Combat Stress. May I point out that Combat Stress is facing a crisis because the Government are withdrawing funding for the 1,200 or so veterans who use its services every year? There is now an instance of a veteran taking their own life because they were refused treatment by Combat Stress and referred back to their GP. This is a very serious situation. Will my hon. Friend please ensure that Combat Stress gets the funding it needs to deliver the care to the veterans it looks after?

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend and his work with Combat Stress. The reality is that Combat Stress is facing challenges at this time, and not exclusively because of issues with Government contracts. These challenges are reflected across the third sector because mental health care is changing. We must always be driven by the evidence about what works when it comes to accessing and treating more and more people, as the awareness of mental health goes up. I have met Combat Stress a number of times, and I have met my hon. Friend to discuss this issue. I am happy to continue meeting to find a solution to this very difficult problem, the answer to which is not always throwing money at it and hoping that it gets better.

In response to my earlier question, the Minister of State, Cabinet Office, said that no other European country grants non-citizens voting rights. I think that might have been slightly erroneous. Portugal grants Brazilians who meet a certain threshold voting rights at the national level, and there is a similar arrangement in Scandinavian countries through the Nordic Passport Union. Will the Minister think again about our out-of-place system, whereby people who may have lived here for 20-odd years, people who pay tax here and even people who may have been born here, are not able to vote here? At least, let us open the conversation.

To be clear, I said that that was the case as far as I was aware, so I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for adding two further examples to the debate. He is right that we should be aware of such examples and have that conversation, but the Government’s stance is as I set out earlier—that it is reasonable and right to focus on the voters who are currently enfranchised by the Representation of the People Acts. I think that citizenship restrictions are commonplace for participation in national elections across not only the EU but most democracies, and the weight of evidence is with the Government’s position.

We intend to take forward policy to ensure that British citizens around the world—who may have travelled far from Britain but are none the less still British citizens—can vote in elections. That is how our democracy should be run. I look forward to speaking further with the hon. Gentleman. I understand from this morning’s Order Paper that he has joined the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, so I look forward to further such discussions in time.

Some Welsh companies wishing to bid for public contracts in Wales frequently find themselves unable to do so because of EU procurement requirements. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that procurement regulations will be changed post the implementation period to enable Welsh companies to bid for contracts in Wales?

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. There are some big opportunities for us to change those procurement rules. I have already had conversations with the devolved nations, and I will visit them shortly to take forward and listen to the ideas of businesses so that we can ensure that the new rules and regimes reflect their needs.

The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster might want to be very careful with the answers he gives to the House about Mr Sabisky in relation to the defence and security review—a point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Sefton Central (Bill Esterson) a moment ago—because he well knows that teams of civil servants have been working on that review for some time; it did not just start yesterday, when the Prime Minister announced it. Can he answer this question: did Mr Sabisky meet any of the officials working on the defence and security review—yes or no?

I welcome the veterans interview guarantee, but I have spoken to veterans in Stoke-on-Trent Central, where we have quite a number, and sometimes the issue relates to pre-employment in that they need help to prepare for being ready for an interview. Will the Minister give some idea of whether we can support them on that?

Preparing those who have served for civilian life is a huge part of what we do. We put a lot of money into the Career Transition Partnership. Its statistics out today show that veterans have an 86% employment rate, and that continues to rise year on year. They have a higher employment rate than the civilian cohort. We are not resting on our laurels. We will continue to do all we can in the “pre” phase before individuals leave service to make sure that they have the best possible opportunity to make the most of their skills when they rejoin civilian life.

European Union: Future Relationship

With your permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a statement on the Government’s approach to our future relationship with the European Union.

Now that Britain has left the EU, we are entering a new chapter in the history of these islands. This Government have honoured the clearly expressed wish of the British people. Their instruction to us, their servants, to secure our departure from the EU has been followed. The votes of 17.4 million people—more than have ever voted for any democratic proposition in our history—were implemented on 31 January and we are now on a new journey. As a sovereign, self-governing, independent nation, we will have the freedom to frame our own laws, control our own borders, lower all our taxes, set our own tariffs, determine our own trade relationships, and ensure that we follow the people’s priorities on security, the economy, and democratic accountability. Over the next nine months, we will negotiate a new relationship with our friends and partners in the EU based on free trade and friendly co-operation. We have today published the approach for these negotiations, and copies of the document, “The Future Relationship with the EU”, were made available to Members in the Vote Office from 9.30 am.

Talks with the EU on our future relationship begin next week. It is our aim to secure a comprehensive free trade agreement as well as agreement on questions such as fisheries, internal security and aviation. We are confident that those negotiations will lead to outcomes that work for both the UK and the EU, but this House, our European partners, and, above all, the British people should be in no doubt: at the end of the transition period on 31 December, the United Kingdom will fully recover its economic and political independence. We want the best possible trading relationship with the EU, but in pursuit of a deal, we will not trade away our sovereignty.

The Government’s vision for the UK’s future relationship with the EU was outlined with crystal clarity by the Prime Minister during the general election campaign, and the election result comprehensively confirmed public support for our direction of travel. In his speech in the Painted Hall in Greenwich on 3 February, the Prime Minister laid out in detail how we will reach our destination. The first principle of our approach is that we wish to secure a relationship based on friendly co-operation between sovereign equals. We respect the EU’s sovereignty, autonomy and distinctive legal order, and we expect it to respect ours. We will not accept or agree to any obligations where our laws are aligned with the EU or the EU’s institutions, including the Court of Justice. Instead, each party will respect the other’s independence and the right to manage its own borders, immigration policy and taxes.

The second and allied principle of our approach is that we will seek to emulate and build on the types of relationship that the EU already has with other independent sovereign states. We will use precedents already well established and well understood to ensure that both sides’ sovereignty is respected. By using already existing precedents, we should be able to expedite agreement. We will seek functional arrangements that the EU will recognise from its many other relationships. Our proposal draws on existing EU agreements such as the comprehensive economic and trade agreement with Canada, the EU-Japan economic partnership agreement and the EU-South Korea free trade agreement. That approach should enable us to move swiftly towards the goal envisaged in the political declaration agreed last October, in which both sides set the aim of concluding a zero-tariff, zero-quota free trade agreement.

As well as concluding a full FTA, we will require a wholly separate agreement on fisheries. We will take back control of our waters as an independent coastal state, and we will not link access to our waters to access to EU markets. Our fishing waters are our sovereign resource, and we will determine other countries’ access to our resources on our terms. We also hope to conclude an agreement on law enforcement and judicial co-operation in criminal matters, so that we can work with the EU to protect their citizens and ours from shared threats, but we will not allow our own legal order to be compromised. By taking back full control of our borders, we can implement measures to make the British people even safer, and we can tackle terrorism and organised crime even more effectively. We also wish to conclude a number of technical agreements covering aviation and civil nuclear co-operation, which will help to ensure continuity for the UK on its new footing as an independent sovereign nation.

Securing agreement on all those questions should not, in principle, be difficult. We are, after all, only seeking relationships with the EU that it has with other nations—relationships that respect the interests and the sovereignty of both partners. It is in that light that we should view discussions about what has been termed the “level playing field”. It has been argued that EU demands in this area will make full agreement difficult, yet there is no intrinsic reason why requirements that both parties uphold desirable standards should prejudice any deal.

The United Kingdom has a proud record when it comes to environmental enhancement, workers’ rights and social protection. In a number of key areas, we either exceed EU standards or have led the way to improve standards. On workers’ rights, for example, the UK offers a year of maternity leave, with the option to convert it to parental leave, so that both parents can share care. The EU minimum is just 14 weeks. On environmental standards, we were the first country in the world to introduce legally binding greenhouse gas emission reduction targets through the Climate Change Act 2008. We were also the first major global economy to set a legally binding target to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions across the economy by 2050.

We will not dilute any existing protections. Indeed, as the Environment Bill debated yesterday demonstrates, we wish to go further and faster than the EU in improving the natural environment. We do not need the EU’s permission to be a liberal nation leading the world in the fight against climate change and for social progress. That is why the UK Government seek an FTA with robust protections for the environment and labour standards, but we do not see why the test of suitability in those areas should be adherence to EU law and submission to EU models of governance. The EU does not apply those principles to free trade agreements with other sovereign nations, and they should not apply to a sovereign United Kingdom.

Some argue that we must accept EU procedures as the benchmark because of the scale of UK trade with the EU, but the volume of UK trade with the EU is no greater than the volume of US trade with the EU, and the EU was more than willing to offer zero-tariff access to the US without the application of EU procedures to US standard setting. The EU has also argued that the UK is a unique case, owing to its geographical location, but proximity is not a determining factor in any other FTA between neighbouring states with large economies. It is not a reason for us to accept EU rules and regulations. We need only look at the United States-Mexico-Canada agreement for an example of a trade agreement that does not require regulatory alignment to one side’s rules or demand a role for one side’s court. Geography is no reason to undermine democracy.

To be clear, we will not be seeking to align dynamically with EU rules on EU terms governed by EU laws and EU institutions. The British people voted to take back control, to bring power home and to have the rules governing this country made by those who are directly accountable to the people of this country, and that is what we are delivering.

The negotiations are due to begin next week, led by the Prime Minister’s sherpa, David Frost, and I would like to end by looking ahead optimistically to the coming months. There is ample time during the transition period to strike the right deal for the UK. We hope to reach a broad agreement ahead of the EU Council’s high-level summit in June, whereupon we will take stock.

We know that our proposals are measured and our approach is fair. We know what we want to achieve. We are ready to go, and this Government are committed to establishing a future relationship in ways that benefit the whole UK and strengthen the Union. We are committed to working with the devolved Administrations to deliver a future relationship with the EU that works for the whole UK, and I take this opportunity to reassure colleagues that our negotiation that will be undertaken without prejudice and with full respect to the Northern Ireland protocol.

This Government will act in these negotiations on behalf of all of the territories for whose international relations the UK is responsible. In negotiating the future relationship between these territories and the EU, the UK Government will seek outcomes that support the territories’ security and economic interests, and reflect their unique characteristics. As the Prime Minister committed to do on Second Reading of the European Union (Withdrawal Agreement) Act 2020, we will keep Parliament fully informed about the negotiations, and colleagues will be able to scrutinise our progress.

This Government are delivering on our manifesto commitments with energy and determination. This Government got Brexit done, and we will use our recovered sovereignty to be a force for good in the world and a fairer nation at home. We want and we will always seek the best possible relationship with our friends and allies in Europe, but we will always put the welfare of the British people first. That means ensuring the British people exercise the democratic control over our destiny for which they voted so decisively. That compact with the people is the most important deal of all, and in that spirit, I commend this statement to the House.

I thank the Minister for the Cabinet Office for prior sight of his statement. He talks about having got Brexit done, but he knows that is not the case. We have taken the first step in leaving the European Union, but Brexit, as he knows, is far from done. The Government’s ambition for our new relationship with our most important trading partner is, frankly, underwhelming. They started with a commitment to securing the exact same benefits; then scaled it back to frictionless trade to protect our vital supply chains; then it was Canada-plus-plus-plus; and now it is Canada so long as that does not get in the way of ending our alignment with the standards that we have previously enjoyed.

The Minister talked about the Government’s mandate in the general election, which was based on a withdrawal agreement and a political declaration that says the free trade agreement will be

“underpinned by provisions ensuring a level playing field”.

They now apparently reject that. The Minister spoke of higher UK standards than are required within the EU, and he is right—there are some examples; there are also contrary examples—but EU standards are a floor, not a ceiling. May I ask the Minister: if the Government have no intention of falling below those standards, why are they unwilling to make that commitment?

I spent Monday evening with manufacturing companies from across the north of England, and they are not worried by alignment; indeed, they want it. They are concerned about the barriers to trade undermining their position in the crucial European market. I know that the Prime Minister has made his contempt for the views of business well known, but will the Government not think again at this crucial moment, because they are taking serious risks with our economy, people’s jobs and their livelihoods?

The Treasury analysis from November 2018 predicted that a Canada-style FTA would shrink the economy by up to 6.4%. I know the Government have rubbished their own analysis already, but what new analysis have they done? May I ask the Minister: will the Government publish a full economic impact assessment of the deal that they are seeking? Will they also publish the assessment of the other trade deals that he mentioned? A recent freedom of information request revealed that the Department for International Trade has commissioned and received, but not yet published, assessments of the impact on the UK economy of the FTA with the US, of that with Japan and of the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Will he commit to publishing those impact assessments immediately?

The Prime Minister has told us time and again that his Brexit deal

“represents stability and certainty for business.”—[Official Report, 19 October 2019; Vol. 666, c. 594.]

But in ruling out extending the transition period, the Government are taking business from one set of uncertainties to a new set. They are expecting to complete enormously complex negotiations in just 10 months, with a cavalier disregard for the consequences of failing to do so. The Minister’s warning to business that customs checks are “inevitable” and that “almost everybody” will face extra barriers at the border is deeply concerning. Indeed, the one place where the Government claim that there will not be checks—for GB trade with Northern Ireland—is the only place where they have actually so far committed to having them: down the Irish sea. In light of the conflicting statements from so many of his colleagues, will the Minister clarify the extent of checks along the border that the Government have created down the Irish sea?

Labour wants the best deal for Britain in trade, security and all the other areas mentioned by the Minister. That means maintaining the closest possible relationship with our most important trading partner, and it is on that that we will hold the Government to account.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his questions and for the constructive way in which he approaches these matters. This Government are wholly committed to implementing the withdrawal agreement, to respecting and enacting the Northern Ireland protocol, and to giving effect to the political declaration and its aim of securing a comprehensive free trade agreement without tariffs, quotas or quantitative restrictions. He asked specifically about the maintenance of standards, and the requirement that we follow EU law and ECJ judgments in order to secure workers’ rights and environmental protections. We do not believe that is necessary, and the EU does not require submission to its legal order from any other sovereign independent state. Ultimately, the best guarantor of environmental protections and workers’ rights is a sovereign UK Parliament that is determined to lead in the world, just as this Government are doing in those areas.

It is vital to ensure that our manufacturing sector, like all sectors of our economy, is equipped to take advantage of new economic opportunities. That is what the Government are doing, and my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer will say more about how we can supercharge every part of our economy when he delivers the Budget statement on 11 March. The free trade agreement that we seek should ensure tariff-free access to markets, and provisions on rules of origin that will allow the manufacturing sector to flourish in the future.

The hon. Gentleman pointed out that the need to ensure that negotiations are concluded by the end of the transition period on 31 December necessarily means that they will have to proceed at pace. They will, but as I pointed out, and as he acknowledges, because we are seeking relationships for which there is already a precedent between the EU and other countries—precedents such as those between the EU and Canada, Japan, South Korea and others—it should be possible to make rapid progress. I note that my good friend, Dr Martin Selmayr—he is now the EU’s permanent representative to Austria, and he previously worked for the President of the Commission—has said that it would be entirely possible to conclude those negotiations in a timely fashion, and not for the last time, Dr Selmayr and I are in complete agreement on that.

The hon. Gentleman made a point about customs checks and a border down the Irish sea. There will be no border down the Irish sea, and we will ensure that there is unfettered access for Northern Ireland businesses to the rest of the United Kingdom.

I acknowledge the hon. Gentleman’s sincere beliefs and his commitment to appropriate scrutiny, but the problem for the Labour party more broadly is that its approach to Europe would mean that we would have no control over our fishing borders, no effective control over our borders, and no way of charting our own independent economic destiny. Looking at that proposal, I am afraid all I can say, as someone once said, is, “No, no, no.”

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his clear statement, and on his view that since the standards we set are higher than those in the EU, he will therefore not be demanding that the EU aligns with our standards as we go forward. That is refreshing. The settlement on Northern Ireland in the withdrawal agreement included provision on state aid, and since then, the EU has interpreted that as bringing the whole UK under state aid provisions. Will he confirm that in any future agreement with the EU, we will not accept that the UK leaves itself under the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice when it comes to state aid provision?

My right hon. Friend makes an important point. Of course we must respect the integrity of that protocol, but it is not the case that the CJEU should be governing the application of state aid in the way that some have envisaged, which would be quite wrong.

What a load of bunkum, baloney and codswallop! This is nothing other than a route map to the cherished no deal, which is the real ambition of the Brexit zealots on the Conservative Benches. They are, even now, prepared to break international law to achieve that outcome.

Let us dispense with the unicornism and see if we can start to make sense of the real world and what we are actually dealing with. The EU expects nothing other than the political declaration to be implemented in full. It expects that level playing field to be realised and it will not accept anything else. How many times do the Government need to be told that the UK will not leave with a better deal and arrangement than that which is currently enjoyed? It does not matter if it is Canada-plus. It does not matter if it is Australia. It does not even matter if it is outer space-minus-minus-minus. The Government will have an inferior product at the end of the day when we finally get an agreement with the EU. Look at who we are up against: it is the clown-shoe UK up against the efficient, effective EU, with its negotiating experience—[Laughter.] Conservative Members are laughing, sitting there with their proposals which mean absolutely nothing. They will be trounced by the EU in the negotiating process. Their hard Brexit will do nothing but hurt my nation. Even with one of these free trade agreements, our GDP will be hit by 6.1%. If they get their cherished no deal, the consequences will be absolutely catastrophic for my nation of Scotland.

Scotland wanted nothing whatever to do with this ruinous Brexit and we will not accept it. I am sure the hon. Gentlemen who have been laughing and scoffing have seen the opinion polls in Scotland. There is now sustained majority support for independence for Scotland. One of the things driving that is all of them saying no to Scotland and pursuing their hard Brexit. Scotland is not going to be a part of this, Secretary of State. We will not accept it. When will you allow us to have a referendum, so we can get out of this mad Brexit?

I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his remarks. First, may I use this opportunity to place on the record my thanks to Mike Russell MSP from the Scottish Government for the work he has done, along with leaders from other devolved Administrations, in helping to shape our approach?

Of course, the Scottish Government and the Welsh Assembly Government will in some areas take a different view from the UK Government, but it is undoubtedly the case that our negotiating position is enhanced as a result of the conversations we have with our colleagues in the Scottish National party and the Scottish Government. Indeed, a number of changes have been made to our approach and to this document, following conversations I have had with the Scottish Government over the course of the past week.

It is also the case, however, that Scotland, like every part of the United Kingdom, will benefit hugely not just from our departure from the European Union but from the new trading relationships we will develop with other countries. It is the case, for example, that when we conclude a new free trade agreement with the United States, Scotland will be one of the sectors that benefits most from the new trading opportunities. It will also be the case, as the Scottish Government have themselves pointed out, that tens of thousands of new jobs will be created in north-east Scotland in the fishing sector as a direct result of our departure from the European Union—jobs that would not be created if we followed the SNP approach of staying in the common fisheries policy.

Ultimately, the greatest threat to the prosperity and security of the people of Scotland is the reckless approach the Scottish Government take towards the 2014 referendum and their determination to overturn the settled will of the Scottish people to stay in the United Kingdom. Their approach, I am afraid, would mean that we would have border posts at Berwick and they would not be able to use the pound sterling in Stirling. We must give that madness a miss.

I very much welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement. Does he agree that those who continue to peddle the line that we somehow need to tether ourselves to the EU’s rules and standards are in fact making a case to hold Britain back?

Is the Secretary of State aware that 60% of international exports from Wales go to the European Union? The Welsh Government have said that there must be a level playing field and frictionless trade with the EU in the interests of the Welsh economy. Is he aware of that?

I am very well aware of the views of the Welsh Assembly Government, thanks to the excellent work done by Jeremy Miles AM, the Brexit Minister and Counsel General. I enjoy the conversations I have with Jeremy, Mark Drakeford and others to ensure we can work together.

I appreciate that negotiating a comprehensive free trade agreement with the EU is a priority, but will the Minister confirm that we will also look to reach free trade agreements with other countries, that such negotiations are either under way or will be shortly, and that we have the civil service capacity to reach them?

My hon. Friend makes a very good point. Yes, we do—the Department for International Trade has a team of trade negotiators, lawyers and other policy experts. There have already been a number of informal and formal contacts with the United States, Australia, New Zealand and other participants in the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, and we will proceed at pace with negotiations with partners across the globe to forge free trade agreements in the interests of every part of the United Kingdom.

Brexit is clearly far from done. It had cost us £130 billion by January and the average UK household is £900 worse off. Will the Minister tell us what he estimates the price tag will be at the end of this year, and, given the gendered impact of trade, where is the equality impact assessment that the Government have a statutory duty to provide?

Looking at most of the indices of economic performance, such as the measures of increased investment and increased capital expenditure recently, it is the case that the United Kingdom economy, following the Conservative victory in the general election on 12 December, is powering ahead—indeed, powering ahead by comparison with EU nations. I would like to make sure that we get a comprehensive free trade agreement so that other EU nations can benefit from the dynamism of the UK economy and that men and women across Europe can benefit from the right economic relationship.

Financial services are critical to this country’s economy, contributing 11% of our total tax take. Will my right hon. Friend assure my constituents who work in financial services that their interests will be protected during free trade negotiations?

Absolutely—financial services matter not just in the City of London, but in Edinburgh, Perth, Leeds and across the United Kingdom. It is a dynamic and growing sector and it is important that we make sure we have the right arrangements for them. We hope that the EU will report by June on the prospects for equivalency in financial services. That commitment was made in the political declaration. It did not subsequently appear in the EU’s negotiating mandate, but I am confident that by June the EU will have completed those equivalency assessments.

In our future relationship, it is important that musicians, performers and so on can move freely and continue to go to Europe, and that European performers can come here on a reciprocal basis. What is the Minister’s understanding of the Government’s position on that?

The hon. Member makes an important point. He will see that in this document there are details on how we can ensure that those who provide professional services, including artists and musicians, can continue to do so at the end of the transition period. It is critically important that the cultural excellence that so many UK musicians are responsible for continues to be available to European nations. Whether it is the Bayreuth festival or pop concerts in Belgium, we need to make sure that British talent has a chance to shine.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that an agreement on a future relationship by the end of the year is perfectly feasible, and that the EU and its negotiators need to recognise the reality of a sovereign, independent United Kingdom with a strong, dynamic economy?

Yes, that is absolutely right. As I mentioned, a number of EU leaders have said that a deal is doable because we are operating on the basis of precedent, and it should then be possible to conclude all the necessary agreements. Having concluded these agreements by the end of this year, we can then move on to deepening the many bilateral and multilateral relationships that we have with our friends and partners in Europe to the benefit of all.

The right hon. Gentleman referred to other deals that he is hoping to emulate. He will be aware that the EU’s deal with South Korea took eight years from the start of negotiations to implementation and that the Canada deal took seven. Given that the Government are seeking a much more comprehensive arrangement than either of those, his optimism that it can be done and ratified in 10 months remains to be proven, but will he confirm that if it is not possible to conclude a deal, we will exit the transition period on 31 December with no agreement whatsoever?

We already have an agreement—a withdrawal agreement that safeguards the rights of UK and EU citizens, settles our financial obligations and makes provision through the protocol for Northern Ireland’s position. As for the free trade agreements to which the right hon. Gentleman refers, it is more difficult to begin when one is designing a prototype; now that the prototypes exist and have become precedents, it is much easier to replicate their provisions.

Further to the previous question, some two years ago I attended a presentation, complete with slides, given by Mr Michel Barnier, at which he indicated that, as things then stood, the only post-Brexit trading arrangements available to the UK were those enjoyed by South Korea and Canada, which is precisely the arrangement that the Government are seeking. Since then, the EU seems to have resiled from that position. Does my right hon. Friend know why the EU is apparently showing such bad faith?

As my right hon. Friend knows, having served with distinction in government, there is a range of views across the European Union, but the EU mandate has now been concluded, with unanimity, and we are confident that we can negotiate using our approach and that mandate to reach an appropriate deal, similar to the one that he has outlined.

I have often referred in this place to the concerns of the highland tourism industry, in particular hotels, about the continuing employment of EU nationals, many of whom are heading homeward, and the concerns of fish processors about getting their fresh produce to European markets in good time. Will the Secretary of State, who is a good Scot, consider coming to the highlands to meet representatives of those industries? He would be most welcome.

I would be delighted so to do. Any opportunity to visit the hon. Gentleman’s constituency is a welcome one. He is absolutely right that the hospitality industry is integral to the success of the highlands economy. We want to make sure that in the future those who provide such a high standard of hospitality have access to the skilled labour they need.

I thank my right hon. Friend for his statement and his clear message on fisheries. He will know that memories run deep in our fishing communities, and that great concern continues to be felt because of the way the fishing industry was treated previously. Will he make it absolutely to clear to fishermen in Cornwall and around the country that access to our fishing waters will not be used as a bargaining chip to be traded off against other priorities?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right: memories of what happened in the 1970s certainly do run deep, and for very good reason. That is why I sought to stress that we, as an independent sovereign state, regard control of our own resources as something we cannot barter away. Of course we want to co-operate in the management of stocks with our neighbours, but the approach we take will be similar to that of other sovereign states or regimes such as Norway, Iceland and the Faroes. As an independent coastal state, we will regulate access to our own waters on our terms.

I welcome the right hon. Gentleman’s commitment to trying to secure a comprehensive free trade agreement, but does he accept that many of my constituents who work in the automotive industry are seriously worried about the impact of a potential 10% tariff on motor vehicles? Will he give a firm commitment to making sure that their interests are as protected as possible?

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for making that point. Throughout his time in the House, he has been a strong, consistent and powerful voice for the rights of workers. He is absolutely right that those who work in our automotive sector deserve the best possible future, and it is for that reason that we will seek to avoid any tariffs on cars or automotive products.

British farmers are proud to produce food to the highest standards, and the British consumer benefits from that. Will my right hon. Friend reassure the farmers and consumers of my constituency that those high standards will be maintained in any free trade agreement?

Absolutely. The Agriculture Bill, which was introduced by my right hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet (Theresa Villiers) during her outstanding tenure as Environment Secretary and which is being carried forward by her successor, will ensure that farmers have a firm foundation on which to plan for the future. In all our trading relationships, we will make sure that there are appropriate protections for the environment and for animal welfare, to ensure that the peerless standards set by our farmers are used as a badge of excellence to enable them to do even better in the future.

Can the Secretary of State confirm that fishing fleets and fish processors in Portavogie in my constituency, Ardglass, Kilkeel and elsewhere will have the same rights as their fellow fleets and processors in Scotland, Wales and England, and that Northern Ireland will not be disadvantaged by the border down the Irish sea?

There will be no border down the Irish sea, and the fishing fleets of Northern Ireland will enjoy all the rights that they deserve, similar—indeed, identical—to those of other fishermen, and fishers, throughout the United Kingdom.

Striking a deal is far easier and far more likely from a position of strength. Does my right hon. Friend agree that, in contrast to what happened in 2017, going into these negotiations with clarity and unity, backed up by a strong electoral mandate, should give us all reasons for optimism, not pessimism?

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. As I have said before from this Dispatch Box, given a 52-48 referendum result and 650 different views in the House, not everyone will be satisfied with every aspect of our negotiating approach; but with a united Government, a clear approach and a general election mandate, and given that this document is underpinned by clear work by lawyers, trade negotiators and others, I believe that we can secure a deal, and I am sure Members throughout the House recognise that we should not make our own personal perfect the enemy of the common good.

The Minister’s statement and the document published today show that the Government have made a fundamental choice, which is to prioritise sovereignty over any economic argument or consequence for either goods or services. Is there not a danger, however, that having made that choice, the Government will impose long-term economic consequences on the country in pursuit of the prize of a sovereignty that they will end up not using very much, because at the end of the day good standards in the environmental, labour market and consumer sectors actually make sense?

The right hon. Gentleman always makes thoughtful contributions to our debates, and I take his point. It will be for this Parliament and future Parliaments to decide how our sovereignty is exercised in accordance with the wish of the British people, but the experience of history tells us that the countries with the maximum amount of control over their own destinies are the best equipped to succeed economically and, indeed, to secure a greater degree of equity for all their citizens.

Does my right hon. Friend recognise the distinction between EU regulations and European technical standards? The latter are set outside the EU, and without a loss of sovereignty, by expert bodies of which the British Standards Institution is one of the most respected and admired in the world. Does my right hon. Friend share my hope that British standards expertise will continue to be able to influence European and international standards?

My right hon. Friend has made an excellent point, which reflects the brilliant work that he did as Business Secretary. It is absolutely the case that there are common technical standards in which British experts play a distinguished part. We will want to ensure—and I know that others will want to ensure—that those common standards can help to underpin successful commerce and trade.

The Minister began by saying that the Government were not asking for anything that was not already in an existing agreement between the EU and another country, but then gave an answer on financial services which the document backs up, saying that the Government were seeking an enhanced, comprehensive equivalence regime for our major sector. I must respectfully say to him that those statements cannot both be true. There is no single equivalence regime—it is a patchwork of regulations—and there are major bits of legislation that contain no equivalence provisions at all, such as cross-border payments regulation, the motor insurance distribution directive and the single euro payments area. So, with respect, we are asking for something additional, and one of the answers that the Minister has given is not really correct.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his thoughtful intervention, but all that we are seeking is straightforward equivalence in financial services. The European Union has said that it will review that, and we will know the conclusions of its review by June.

What an excellent statement the Minister made, outlining our principles, but can he assure me that the principles will not change when the EU says no to something? Over the last few years I have listened to excellent speeches from that Dispatch Box, only to find that our principles change when the EU says no.

I am a restless seeker after consensus wherever it can be found, but, more important than that, I am a democrat. The British people made it clear in the referendum and again in the general election that they wanted us to leave the European Union, and the Prime Minister made it clear in the general election, as he did during the referendum campaign, that that meant leaving the single market, leaving the customs union and leaving the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice. We will not move from those principles.

Regrettably, the British Government, through this statement, have decided to take a belligerent approach to the second phase of Brexit negotiations. Their opening move is to try to reopen the agreement reached after the first phase of Brexit, and to set further arbitrary deadlines for the infinitely more complicated second phase of Brexit dealing with trade. Rather than playing Russian roulette with people’s jobs and economic wellbeing, would it not be better for the Government to take a grown-up approach to these negotiations and remove any arbitrary deadlines for the conclusions of the negotiations?

There are no arbitrary deadlines. The deadline of 31 December for agreement is in the political declaration. If we were to take that out, we would be altering the political declaration. However, we are honouring the political declaration, and far from being belligerent, all we are doing is simply setting a deadline. When I was an editor in the world of newspapers, setting a deadline for correspondents was not an exercise in belligerence; it was a way of making sure that we could serve the people.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that we have higher standards than the EU in a number of areas, particularly in maternity, and that it might be useful for the EU to recognise that in some of its discourse?

My hon. Friend is absolutely bang on. Across the nations and countries of the continent of Europe, there are different approaches to some of these questions. There are also countries outside the European Union, such as Norway, that have exemplary standards in environmental protection, as well as in maternity and social rights. The UK, like Norway, is a progressive, liberal, modern country, and that is something that we should celebrate across the House. Outside the European Union, we can aim even higher.

The Minister knows that Canada, South Korea and Japan are not in the single market or the customs union, so we are starting from a different position. Will he therefore accept that if we diverge from EU environmental standards and workers’ rights, there will inevitably be restrictions? Is it not really his plan to lose British jobs and simply blame the EU? Would it not be better to keep up the standards and keep up the trade, because people did not vote to lose their jobs when they voted to leave the EU?

I completely understand where the hon. Gentleman is coming from, but we have had a referendum and a general election, and in both it was very clear that we were going to leave the single market and the customs union and take back control in the interests of the British people.

I very much welcome the statement, and the document to which my right hon. Friend refers. I particularly welcome the clarification and increased detail on the subject of fisheries, and not least the point that, as he said in his statement, “we will require a wholly separate agreement on fisheries. We will take back control of our waters as an independent coastal state, and we will not link access to our waters to access to EU markets.” Will he confirm to the House and to the constituents of Banff and Buchan, particularly those in the seafood sector—the catchers and those on the processing side—that we will retain sovereignty and get the best deal for our fishermen across the United Kingdom, despite the assertions from the EU and the seemingly wishful thinking of Scottish National party Members?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. For folk in Banff and Buchan, Moray and across the United Kingdom, a sea of opportunity beckons when we leave the European Union, and it is a great pity that the SNP and the Scottish Government, despite the many talented Members that they enjoy, still want us to remain in the EU and the common fisheries policy. This is one of a number of ways in which they would sell Scotland short, and it breaks my heart.

This Government have today ignored the voice of Scotland in the referendum and ignored the compromise proposals from the Scottish Government. They are showing that they are willing to ride roughshod over a Sewel convention. Now the right hon. Gentleman has reneged on his offer as chair of Vote Leave for Scotland to have its own immigration policy. Which one of these aspects will strengthen his so-called precious Union?

We are respecting the referendum result. In 2014, the people of Scotland voted to remain in the United Kingdom. This is a settled decision that, sadly, the Scottish Government seek to unpick to the detriment of all. After Scotland voted to be in the United Kingdom, the United Kingdom, whole and entire, voted to leave the European Union, and we are working to ensure that that democratic decision works in the interests of all.

I welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement. The UK’s economy is primarily service based, and while I hear that taking back our borders means a separate treaty for fishing, which many people in coastal communities will welcome, many of my constituents are in financial services and probably represent more people than are employed by fishing in the entire UK. We have talked about taking back control of our money, so why not have a separate treaty for financial services? If not—I have heard his comments on equivalence—will he set out the Government’s position on equivalence when it comes to the derivation period?

As my hon. Friend makes clear, financial services matter not just in Wimbledon, but across the United Kingdom, which is why, as stated in the document published today, we wish to conclude an agreement that will make provision for financial stability, market integrity and investor and consumer protection for financial services. We also want to secure mutual recognition of professional qualifications to ensure that everyone in our service sector can continue to have access to opportunities in every market in which they currently work.

May I ask the Minister for further information to the chapter on digital in the report, which refers to an

“open, secure and trustworthy online environment”

and encouraging regulatory co-operation? With the Government moving to tackle online harms on various platforms, will he set out in more detail what he means by ensuring that there is co-operation on regulation in any future trading agreement?

Yes. As the hon. Gentleman knows, we are compliant with the general data protection regulation that the EU introduced, and we want to ensure that we get an equivalency judgment from the EU on data adequacy, so that we can continue to ensure that data flows, which are so integral to business and others, can continue in an appropriate way.

I welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement for its clarity and optimism, which people of Montgomeryshire and, indeed, the majority of people in Wales will welcome. To tackle some of the scaremongering, will he meet with the Welsh farming unions to outline again that we will not seek to lower food standards? Indeed, if my hon. Friend wants a Welsh farmhouse breakfast, we can certainly do that in Montgomeryshire.