House of Commons
Thursday 16 July 2020
The House met at half-past Nine o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Virtual participation in proceedings commenced (Order, 4 June).
[NB: [V] denotes a Member participating virtually.]
Oral Answers to Questions
The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and Minister for the Cabinet Office was asked—
Covid-19: UK-EU Negotiations
The coronavirus is a global pandemic, and the UK is collaborating extensively with international partners, including the EU. The UK has been leading the way to find a vaccine, with the University of Oxford and Imperial College undertaking the research that will be available to the UK and the rest of the world. The UK is also seeking a deal with the EU that would facilitate continued trade in all medicinal products, but of course the United Kingdom will be ready for all scenarios after the end of the transition period.
I thank the Minister for that answer. I welcome the news out of Oxford regarding a vaccine, but the Government’s border delivery plans announced on Monday bring into stark relief the extent of new barriers to trade in goods and services and movement of people across the border from 1 January. How will he ensure that during covid and in the event of future health emergencies or a second wave, that will not result in any delays to supplies reaching patients or interruption to the flow of vital machinery and equipment?
The hon. Lady makes an important point. Of course, the health of citizens is the first concern of Her Majesty’s Government, and we will be working with the Department of Health and Social Care and other Departments to ensure that category 1 goods, which include vital NHS supplies, can reach those on the frontline.
Covid-19: Regional Economic Growth
The Government have taken unprecedented steps to support people and businesses across the country during this period. So far, we have helped 1.1 million employers across the UK through our coronavirus job retention scheme and 2.7 million self-employed individuals, and we have provided £10.5 billion in small business grants. Furthermore, the Prime Minister has set out our vision to double-down on levelling up, unite the country and spread opportunity. As part of that, the plan for jobs announced by the Chancellor supports all regions through upgrades to local infrastructure, with £1 billion of investment for local projects to boost local economic recovery in the places that need it most.
In the light of the Government’s avowed intent to build, build, build our way towards economic recovery, will my right hon. Friend put her full support behind key infrastructure projects in Eddisbury in the north-west, including the roll-out of full-fibre broadband and the construction of the Knights Grange women and girls’ football national centre of excellence, which will bolster Winsford’s jobs and economy for many years to come?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his question. His constituency is one I know well, as he is my mother’s MP. The Government remain committed to delivering nationwide gigabit connectivity as soon as possible. We want to become a world leader in connectivity, increasing the UK’s productivity and competitiveness and boosting the economy in the aftermath of covid-19. I welcome the Cheshire Football Association’s commitment to provide a new world-class facility for women and girls’ football in Cheshire, and I am confident that the pros’ centre will become an excellent sporting asset for the local community.
We have a golden opportunity for much-needed investment in Broxtowe. We have a shovel-ready project: the Toton link road. Toton is the site of the new High Speed 2 east midlands hub. The road would link to houses that we are building in Chetwynd barracks and then on to the A52 and M1. The whole development area will create up to 4,500 new homes, and it is linked to an innovation campus, where we are creating up to 6,000 jobs, many in the high-value area of research and development. Will my right hon. Friend commit to explore this £30 million shovel-ready project, which will support the economic renewal of Broxtowe and help to level up the economy?
I agree with my hon. Friend that shovel-ready projects will play an important part in our economic renewal and the levelling up of the UK. I congratulate him on setting out the case for the Toton link road. I encourage him to work with his local highway authority, so that such schemes are ready to seek funding when suitable opportunities are available following the next fiscal event.
I thank the Minister for her answer. Does she agree that schemes such as the River Thames scheme not only provide flood defences for Runnymede and Weybridge but will be a huge boost for the local economy and our natural environment?
I congratulate my hon. Friend on bringing that issue to the attention of the House. I recognise that the proposed River Thames scheme might have the potential to better protect thousands of homes, contribute to the local economy and increase the social and environmental value of the river. I understand that the Environment Agency has offered to brief him on the progress of the scheme, and I encourage him to take up that offer.
During the pandemic, certain sectors and regions have been disproportionately hit by this economic downturn. In many cases, this is falling on the shoulders of those who are least able to carry it. In Lancashire, 82 businesses have collapsed in May alone and almost 19,000 jobs in the county have been lost during the pandemic. A failure to provide sector-specific, regionally focused support to those most at risk could end up costing many more jobs. What steps are the Government taking to apply a regional lens to this crisis and, in particular, to provide vital investment to counties such as Lancashire?
Mr Speaker, you will know that I know Lancashire very well, having lived there for 15 years myself. We recognise that every region and community will be feeling the impact of covid-19. That is why the Government have introduced unprecedented support for businesses and workers across the country to support them through this economic crisis.
Fixed-term Parliaments Act
The Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 led to parliamentary paralysis at a critical time for our country. It is for that reason that the Government made a commitment in our manifesto and in our Queen’s Speech to take forward work to repeal it. An announcement about that legislation will be made in due course.
I thank my hon. Friend for her answer. She is absolutely right to highlight that the paralysis of the previous Parliament, which dithered, delayed and blocked the democratic will of the people of Stoke-on-Trent North, Kidsgrove and Talke, who overwhelmingly voted for us to leave the EU, should never be seen again. What assurances can she give my constituents that this reform can be achieved quickly and with support from all parts of the House to ensure that that kind of Brexit-blocking Parliament we saw last year will not be seen again?
There are two points to make to my hon. Friend. The first is that repeal of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act had cross-party support. It was in the manifestos of both the Government and the Opposition, so I hope that that gives it a good wind, but it is also the case that the policy does need to be carefully developed and well scrutinised so that we do not repeat past mistakes with an important part of our constitution.
I thank my hon. Friend for her answer and associate myself with the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis). The problem we had last year was that we had a Government who were manifestly unable to get their core legislative agenda through. They did not have the confidence of the House for that, but the House voted that it had confidence in the Government. I understand that repealing the Act will not necessarily get us back to the status quo ante, so what mechanism does she envisage will make sure that we can never again be in that position where the Government do not have the confidence of the House on their core legislative agenda?
I thank my hon. Friend for putting his finger on a very important part of what was wrong with that scenario and what is wrong with that legislation: it divorces the issue of confidence from the issue of calling an election. One thing we want to do as we look at its repeal is to make sure that that central tenet of the constitution and of parliamentary operation can be properly functional.
I look forward to the appearance of my hon. Friend before the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee next week to discuss this matter at length. She will know that the Fixed-term Parliaments Act requires, by the end of November, a review committee to be established to review the Act in its entirety, so can she describe the arrangements for this Committee and its remit?
I am extremely grateful to my hon. Friend, and I look forward to discussing more on this subject with him and his Committee next week, because it is very important and we have already begun to identify in these exchanges some of the things that need to be put right. Of course the Chair of the Select Committee is absolutely right in that the Prime Minister is required, between June and November this year, to make arrangements for a committee to undertake a review of the operation of the Act. Again, I look forward to bringing details about that forward in due course, and, as part of that, answering the particular points that he put about its composition and arrangements.
Covid-19: Government Contracts
The coronavirus pandemic is an unprecedented national emergency, and Labour understands that in response there has been a need for the Government to procure goods and services at speed, but the flexibility required by extraordinary circumstances is no excuse for reducing transparency or abandoning any attempt at due diligence. How does the Minister explain reports that contracts to the value of more than £830 million have been awarded to at least 12 different companies for personal protective equipment that has never materialised; that £108 million of public funds has been handed to PestFix, a company with just £18,000 of assets; and that £830,000 for communications advice has been given without any tender process to Public First, which is owned by friends of the Prime Minister’s most senior adviser, and although the payment was justified as part of the coronavirus response, it appears to relate to Brexit? How are we to believe that this Government have any kind of a grip on public spending during this crisis?
Authorities are allowed to procure goods and services in extreme emergency situations, but that does not mean that scrutiny or value-for-money principles go out the window, and the hon. Lady will understand that. I am shocked to hear that the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster may know people in Public First; I wish further offences to be taken into account and confess that I, too, know people who work for Public First—as does every Member on the Front Bench and every Member on the Back Bench on both sides of the House, because one of Public First’s associates is a much-loved former Deputy Speaker of this House. If the hon. Lady has serious concerns—other than insinuation—about any contracts, there are clear processes to go through, and I urge her to do so.
Government Planning: End of the Transition Period
Earlier this week, we launched a communications campaign to ensure that people and businesses know what they need to do to prepare for the end of the year. Most of the actions will need to be completed whether or not we get a negotiated outcome. While a negotiated outcome remains our preference, our priority is to provide timely and comprehensive guidance on the changes that businesses and citizens will need to make in any scenario.
The leaked letter from the Secretary of State for International Trade demonstrates the alarm and confusion at the top of the Government. Despite Monday’s announcement, the Minister cannot convince his own Cabinet that the border will be ready by 1 January. Does he recognise the concerns expressed by the Institute of Directors, which found that only one in four businesses are ready for the end of transition because
“preparing for Brexit proper is like trying to hit a moving target”?
I understand the frustration that many businesses will have felt as deadlines that were set during the previous Parliament shifted as a result of votes in Parliament, but we now know that, as a result of the general election, the transition period will end on 31 December. There are many “no regrets” actions that businesses should undertake, and I had the opportunity to talk to the chief executives of a number of leading businesses yesterday to make sure that that message was put across in a collaborative way.
The withdrawal agreement stated that both parties would endeavour to conclude equivalence decisions by June 2020. Will my right hon. Friend give the House an update?
I appreciate how hard my hon. Friend works on behalf of businesses, including financial services, in her constituency. We have completed our side of the bargain—we have provided the European Union with the information that it needs for its own autonomous decision on equivalence—and we await that decision with eagerness.
Universities throughout Wales and the UK are working flat out to cope with the effects of covid and Brexit. Some stability and reassurance would be provided by Horizon Europe and Erasmus. Has the Minister now secured full, rather than associate, membership of these valuable programmes?
Continued participation in Erasmus is one of the negotiating requests that our team are making. We will find out from the EU the terms on which it is happy to grant continued access. We have acknowledged that we may continue to be a net contributor to schemes such as Erasmus and Horizon 2020, but it is also important that we continue to collaborate with other countries beyond the continent of Europe when it comes to education and science.
On Monday, when asked about a lorry park in Ashford, the right hon. Gentleman told the House:
“It is not the case that any specific site has been absolutely confirmed. We are in commercial negotiations with a number of sites”—[Official Report, 13 July 2020; Vol. 678, c. 1278.]
So can he answer a specific question: how many sites in Kent is he looking at to put infrastructure on? How many of those sites will be to check the paperwork of goods leaving the UK and how many will be to check goods coming into the UK, because, as we all know, there is no space to do that at Dover?
We were looking at five sites, and yesterday the Department for Transport confirmed that a site at Ashford has been secured. These sites are there to facilitate traffic management and the flow of goods out of the country. When it comes to the appropriate checks on goods coming into the country, at Calais the French authorities will be seeking to check export declarations.
Continuing on the theme of lorries, the Government’s border operating model sets out the obstacles to trade from 1 January, but it promises jam tomorrow on support for businesses. For example, it warns:
“HGV drivers without the correct documentation risk being stopped from boarding services”—
“fined, or sent back to the UK”
on arrival in the EU. It also highlights the risk of long queues on the roads to UK ports. The Government’s solution, the smart freight service technology, is only in development and there has been no consultation on its use in Kent. The Minister often talks about providing certainty, which is important, so can he confirm to business that the smart freight service technology will be ready in time for companies to test it and train their workers on it so that it can be operational on 1 January?
That is a very good point. The smart freight technology of which the hon. Gentleman speaks does need to be tested before it goes live, but it is important to stress that it is just one piece of the range of measures we are putting in place to ensure the free flow of trade. Businesses have the information now, as a result of the border operating model, to make sure that they have all the details they need and are in compliance with the rules governing trade.
I am afraid the right hon. Gentleman dodged giving a direct answer yet again. Ambiguity and confused messaging are becoming a trademark of this Government, and his answer certainly will not reassure the Road Haulage Association, which has said that this technology will not be much use unless it has the opportunity to test it and train its people before January.
Let me raise another issue. The NHS Confederation and others in the Brexit Health Alliance have warned of potential disruption to the supply of healthcare products. The border operating model says:
“For imports of medicines, regulatory licensing information will need to be included as part of new customs declarations”.
But it goes on to say:
“The requirements for regulatory licensing information are subject to negotiations”.
Recognising that we are in the middle of a global pandemic that has already put enormous pressure on existing medical supply chains, will the right hon. Gentleman say when the details of those requirements will be ready?
The details of almost all requirements are, on a no-regrets basis, available, but of course the hon. Gentleman is right, in that we seek a negotiated outcome that will mean that are neither tariffs nor quotas and indeed that there can be a degree of confidence on the part of all businesses about exactly what they need. He talks about ambiguity and uncertainty. We had a vivid example of that in the Chamber yesterday when the Scottish National party, on its Opposition day, requested an extension to our transition period. The Government voted against it, but the Labour party was conspicuous by its absence. I am afraid that allegations of ambiguity sit ill with the Labour party’s decision to be ambiguous on the biggest question this country faces.
Covid-19: Local Lockdowns
The Government’s recovery strategy, published on 11 May, stated that we would move from a series of national restrictions to a more targeted set of local measures. We have put in place tools to help us do that, including the Joint Biosecurity Centre.
Although areas in the Jarrow constituency are not currently at risk of going into a full lockdown, like the one that we have seen in Leicester, it is vital that the Government take proactive measures to prevent further local lockdowns. Councils are getting testing data that is sometimes nearly a fortnight old, and they have little information, which is often of little or no help. Will the Minister provide assurances that the Government will improve communications and that data from any test and trace app, when it is operational, will be shared with local authorities to enable them to respond effectively to outbreaks in local areas?
The hon. Lady raises an important point, and I hope that I can give her those reassurances. I gave evidence earlier this week to the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, where I emphasised that sharing local data, whether on testing or other planning assumptions, with local authorities, but critically also with the local resilience forums, is vital. They are in the frontline of this fight, so I hope that I can give her those assurances.
The report on preparing for a challenging winter by the Academy of Medical Sciences makes for sobering reading. It warns of a reasonable worst-case scenario in which the R rate rises to 1.7 from September onwards, leading to a second wave of hospital admissions and deaths similar to or worse than the spring. But it also offers hope. As Professor Stephen Holgate says, with relatively low numbers of covid-19 cases at the moment, this is a critical window of opportunity to help us prepare for the worst that winter can throw at us. I am confident that the Minister will have read the report. Will Cabinet Office and the Government grasp that opportunity and act now to implement the report’s recommendations?
It is vital that we do prepare, and we all know the challenges the NHS in particular faces in winter months. Clearly, with the prospect of a second wave, that will be intensified. Yes, we must prepare, but it is also a reason why we still all need to follow the chief medical officer’s advice to ensure that we minimise the chances of a serious second wave.
Northern Ireland Protocol
We continue to engage intensively with business as we take forward our implementation work, and that includes the important work of the business engagement forum, which has now met seven times, most recently on 3 July.
I thank the Minister for that answer. Many business sectors across Northern Ireland are extremely concerned about the challenges for their individual areas. May I urge the team over the summer to work as hard as possible to ensure sector-specific approaches to implementation so that we do not just go for a one-size-fits-all policy?
I can give my right hon. Friend those assurances. Departments across Whitehall will be liaising in particular with individual sectors. In addition, in the next few weeks, we will bring forward guidance on the protocol for traders, which will set out details of the extensive end-to-end support that we will offer those engaged in those new administrative processes.
SMEs: Public Contracts
We are ensuring that SMEs are awarded public procurement contracts. Last year, we spent £14.2 billion with SMEs, nearly £2 billion more than the previous year. We have gone further to help to ease the procurement process by introducing a range of measures to tackle the barriers faced by SMEs, such as simplifying pre-qualification questionnaires. We now have the opportunity to make procurement even simpler for SMEs following the end of the transition period.
An SME in my constituency has recently redeployed to the manufacture of PPE equipment in response to the covid-19 pandemic, but it is finding it very hard to secure public contracts and, indeed, is in competition with international suppliers who actually cost more. What can be done to support SMEs who have redeployed to meet the national effort as we tackle coronavirus?
We have received an extraordinary response from people offering to supply PPE and UK manufacturers wanting to make equipment from scratch, including the firm my hon. Friend mentions, and we are hugely grateful to everyone who has come forward. As a result, we have now contracted over 3 billion items of PPE through UK-based manufacturers alone. Although further personal protective equipment offers are not needed at the moment, we continue to invite other forms of support from industry.
Border Planning: End of Transition Period
On Monday, I made an oral statement to this House announcing the publication of the Government’s detailed border operating model, following extensive consultation. This will allow for the border industry and traders to help prepare for the end of the transition period. We have also made available £705 million for upgraded border systems and infrastructure, and we have launched a new communications campaign.
I thank the Minister for his response. What support will the Government provide to business ahead of those new processes taking effect in order to help with the transition?
My hon. Friend is quite right to speak up for his constituents and for the businesses that need support. That is why we have devoted £84 million to making sure that customs intermediaries can be there for businesses, small and medium-sized as well as large, to ensure the free flow of goods, so that his constituents can be certain that their efforts are rewarded in the market.
Promoting and Protecting the Union
This Government will never be neutral in expressing our unequivocal support for the strength of our United Kingdom. In the summer economic update last week, the Chancellor of the Exchequer announced millions of pounds of additional support for businesses across the UK through his VAT cut and other measures. We have also announced an additional £8.9 billion for devolved Administrations through the Barnett formula. The Union is stronger for the contribution that all of its four nations make, and this Government will continue to support its strength.
I thank my right hon. Friend for his answer. He will be aware of the support on the Conservative Benches for the Union, nowhere more so, perhaps, than in north Wales, where seven of the nine Members of Parliament are from the Conservative and Unionist party. In the recent Ditchley annual lecture, my right hon. Friend said:
“We need to be more ambitious for…North Wales.”
Will he agree to meet me and my colleagues in north Wales to hear just how ambitious I am for Aberconwy and they are for north Wales?
Absolutely. From Ynys Môn to Wrexham, there is a team of fantastic Conservative and Unionist Members of Parliament representing the interests of north Wales with vigour and energy. I would be delighted to meet them. We need to do more to ensure that the businesses and people of north Wales get the support they need from this UK Government, working alongside the Welsh Government, to strengthen our Union.
There is no doubt about the right hon. Gentleman’s enthusiasm for the Union, but perhaps he could answer me this. Why does he think that support for independence has now reached 54% among the Scottish people and reached a sustained majority in the past year?
Opinion polls come and go. I am always interested in what opinion polls tell me, but I am rather more interested in real votes cast in real ballot boxes. The last time the people of Scotland were asked if they wanted to remain in the United Kingdom they decided that they did want to by a whopping 10 percentage points—facts are chiels that winna ding—and since then we have seen how the strength of the United Kingdom has supported Scotland’s economy. Indeed, I was very interested to see earlier today that one of the economic advisers to the First Minister said that the support of the UK Government would be vital to Scotland’s economic recovery.
The right hon. Gentleman might not like opinion polls, and of course they are transitory, but let me tell him about another couple of opinion polls. Support for the Scottish National party is now at 55% and we are seeing support for independence growing month by month. He did not give an answer to this, so I will try to answer it for him and he can tell me which one of these he agrees with. Support for independence is rising because of the Government’s Brexit and the way that they are imposing on us their Brexit that, as a country, we rejected; the disrespect; the condescension; the power grab; the barely hidden contempt for our nation from his colleagues behind him on the Conservative Benches; the mistreatment of our Parliament and our democracy; and, of course, the chaotic leadership of his right hon. Friend the Prime Minister. Which one of those does he think is rising independence most?
I am very grateful for that multiple-choice question from the hon. Member. It reminds me that when I sat my O-levels and multiple-choice exams when I was a schoolboy in Aberdeen, Scotland’s schools were stronger than England’s schools. Now, after 10 years of SNP Government, Scotland’s schools have fallen behind. The record of the SNP in government, I am afraid, has been one of complacency and neglect. That is why I believe we need to have a strong UK Government working alongside MSPs from every party in order to make our United Kingdom stronger than ever.
Civil Service Reform
The Government were elected with an ambitious agenda. The civil service must continue to change to deliver that agenda, which means focusing laser-like on improving citizens’ lives. I was proud to be able to talk to civil servants yesterday at Civil Service Live and to be able to share with them an ambitious reform programme that has the support of public servants across the United Kingdom.
A number of my constituents are civil servants, and they have written to me to express their understandable shock and upset about the recent announcement about their jobs, which will be cut. Given the extraordinary challenges that our public sector now faces—dealing with covid, the economic downturn and Brexit—can the Minister tell me why the Government have chosen to shrink the civil service at this crucial time, and will he commit to reviewing this decision?
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for raising that question on behalf of her constituents. We value everyone who works in the civil service. I will look at the specific cases she mentions, because we want to ensure that everyone who has talent and commitment, and who wants to serve the public, has a chance to do so. If she would be kind enough to write to me about the specific cases, I will respond as quickly as I can in support of her constituents.
One of the justifications for demolishing Richmond House was that we needed extra places for civil servants working for us and generally for the national machine. Now that we have had covid and the civil service is so successfully working from home—and there are long-term plans to move to a three-day week and to allow civil servants to work two days a week—would the Minister accept that we no longer need all this office space in central London, and we can actually make some money by leasing it out to the private sector?
My right hon. Friend makes an important point. People have been working more flexibly as a result of the covid pandemic, and that is something that we would like to encourage, support and facilitate. We also want to ensure that more decision making is taken closer to the people, which means more civil service jobs—particularly senior civil service jobs—being located outside London, and that does create commercial opportunities for the Government.
In his recent Ditchley speech, my right hon. Friend referred to transferring energy sector civil servants and policy makers to Humberside. Will he outline what progress he is making with that, and will he push forward and ensure that the Cleethorpes constituency plays its part?
My hon. Friend is right. I said that there were at least three possible locations for the relocation of jobs in the energy sector: Teesside, Humberside and, of course, Aberdeen. There are already civil servants in Aberdeen working in this area, but we want to ensure that more jobs are dispersed to areas at the forefront of the green energy revolution—and, of course, Cleethorpes is right at the heart of that.
On the important subject of civil service staff, what does it say about the Government’s approach to bullying that it now appears that the director of propriety and ethics, who investigated serious allegations about the conduct of the Home Secretary, is to be moved?
I am not aware of any plans for the extremely distinguished deputy Cabinet Secretary and head of propriety and ethics to be moved. Just because the story appears in The Guardian, that does not sadly these days mean that it is true.
Angela Crawley is not online to ask her supplementary question.
List of Ministerial Responsibilities
The list of ministerial responsibilities document was last updated in October. It is taking longer than usual to compile a new document, and that is in part because Ministers have been focused on responding to the challenges of covid-19. An update will be published when possible.
I am grateful to the Minister for that update, but of course it is not just the booklet; the responsibilities of individual Cabinet Office Ministers have not been available on the gov.uk website, so perhaps that could be updated too. The Cabinet Office has been particularly resistant to transparency and slow to share information in recent times. It is one of the worst performing Departments in responding to freedom of information requests, despite being responsible for FOI policy. In 2019, the Cabinet Office was the Department that was referred the most to the Information Commissioner’s Office. What is the Minister doing about this?
I hope it is the case that Cabinet Office Ministers—the team here today—have accounted for ourselves and our responsibilities adequately. I know that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and I, and all the Ministers, look forward to coming here to do exactly that, and ensuring that all our correspondence, parliamentary questions and all sorts of other things are properly answered. I hope that hon. and right hon. Members can use the contact details that are already available and those that have been updated during covid to ensure that Parliament can rightly get the information that it requires from our Department.
On the particular issue that the hon. Gentleman refers to on transparency and freedom of information, of course the Cabinet Office proudly leads the way in assisting the rest of Government in our duties under the Freedom of Information Act 2000 and other proactive transparency measures that we have put in place over the years to ensure that citizens can get the information that they need and deserve. We intend to continue leading the way, and we think it is very important to do so.
National Security Adviser: Appointment
As with previous National Security Advisers, David Frost will be the principal adviser to the Prime Minister and the Cabinet on national security strategy, policy, capability and civil contingencies. He will be supported by the civil service in the same way as any other political appointee, with openness, honesty, integrity and impartiality.
Yesterday, MPs stopped someone clearly unsuitable becoming Chair of the Intelligence and Security Committee. Sadly, no such mechanism exists to prevent an ill-judged political appointment to the post of National Security Adviser. When will the Government stop putting the Prime Minister’s political fortunes before our national security?
I think that is very unfair to one of our colleagues, and I ask the hon. Gentleman to reflect on that. I know that following last night’s events he tweeted that national security should always be placed ahead of politics, and he is right. On that basis, I urge him, as a fellow Portsmouth MP representing that great garrison and naval city, and as a shadow Defence Minister, to work to build a constructive relationship with the new National Security Adviser. If he actually met him, he might be pleasantly surprised. For the sake of our city and our armed forces, he owes them the opportunity to build that constructive relationship with the person who will lead the independent review.
Internal UK Market
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy will outline the United Kingdom’s White Paper on the internal market later today. Not only will this approach deliver more powers to the devolved Administrations, as the Prime Minister made clear yesterday, it will allow business and trade across all parts of our United Kingdom to prosper and flourish.
The head of the Vote Leave campaign in Scotland was quite clear about the automatic devolution of powers to Holyrood after Brexit, saying:
“Any repatriated power that isn’t already explicitly denoted as ‘reserved’ in the Scotland Act 1998 is assumed to be the remit of the Scottish Parliament.”
Why is that promise being reneged on by the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, just as his own promise of migration powers for Scotland is being reneged on?
No promise is being reneged on; a power surge is occurring. Scores of new powers are going to the Scottish Parliament and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Moray (Douglas Ross) pointed out yesterday, no Scottish National party MP, MSP, councillor or activist can point to a single power currently exercised by the Scottish Parliament that is being taken away. There is no power grab; there is simply an example of SNP myth-making, which this internal market Bill finally puts to bed.
Government Supply Chains: Sustainability
The Government prioritise the environment at every step, investing in sustainable infrastructure to fuel economic growth and to create green jobs.
Contracting authorities are already required to consider social, economic and environmental impacts of their procurement. This year we will take a step further, implementing a new social value model so that those impacts are monitored in Government procurement and our high standards are maintained through effective contract management.
I was thinking particularly of economic sustainability, which also affects the private sector, not least the Scottish whisky industry, which has suffered a 65% downturn in trade to the United States, 30% of which is because of the tariffs. Can we have some clarity from the Government on how they will protect that and make it sustainable in this trade war?
I am sure we are all aware, as many people have spoken in this House about it, of the importance of the Scottish whisky industry. I am sure we will continue to have discussions on the matter.
As I mentioned earlier, it was a privilege to be able to join the new permanent secretary to the Cabinet Office, Alex Chisholm, yesterday for the Civil Service Live event. I had the opportunity then, and I would like to repeat it now, to thank all public and civil servants across the United Kingdom, in the UK Government and the devolved Administrations, for the amazing hard work they have put in to helping us to deal with the covid crisis. I am sure the whole House would want to take this opportunity to thank our brilliant civil service.
[Inaudible.] the Home Secretary [Inaudible.]. The chairman of the [Inaudible.] has raised concerns about its lack of [Inaudible.] and the Leader of the House has [Inaudible.] to be impartial. Does the Secretary of State agree that the Electoral Commission should be scrapped and replaced by [Inaudible.] that the people [Inaudible.]?
If you can make something of that, that would be helpful.
The technology may have been faulty, but my hon. Friend’s judgment is not. Questions have been raised about how the Electoral Commission operates, and those are matters that the Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission will investigate with appropriate consideration.
The right hon. Gentleman said in his recent Ditchley Park speech that,
“Government needs to be rigorous and fearless in its evaluation of policy and projects.”
On that we agree. During the covid crisis, the Government have published details of outsourced contracts worth about £3 billion, while the true figure is likely to be many multiples of that. Today I have written to the National Audit Office, asking it to review the Government’s approach to public procurement during this pandemic. Will the right hon. Gentleman, to ensure the rigour that he desires, join me in asking the National Audit Office to take a look and to help the Government to ensure value for money and the very best possible public services?
That is the best answer I have had from the Minister so far. I welcome his support, and I hope he will follow up with the National Audit Office and encourage it to do that work, particularly to help us if we face a second wave or more local lockdowns. On the theme of the privilege of public service, can he inform the House when the report into the conduct of the Home Secretary will be published, following the resignation of the permanent secretary, citing a culture of bullying?
Can the right hon. Gentleman also explain or justify the decision of his party to withdraw the Whip from the right hon. Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis), a Conservative MP for 23 years, former Royal Navy reservist and Chair of the Defence Committee, for the crime of being elected Chair of the Intelligence and Security Committee? Losing the Whip used to be the result of serious misdemeanour, not independent thought. What does this say about the Government’s approach to expertise and scrutiny?
The hon. Lady asks about two very important matters. On the first, the inquiry is quite properly independent, and Ministers such as myself have no role or oversight. It is the case that the deputy Cabinet Secretary, the Director General for Propriety and Ethics, with the help of the Prime Minister’s external adviser on the Ministerial Code, will be conducting the conversations required. I am afraid I can say no more, because I know no more.
On the second question, the Intelligence and Security Committee’s membership was chosen by this House and an election has appropriately taken place, but whipping matters are quite properly matters for the respective Whips Offices of our parties and not for those who, like myself, exercise a different constitutional role.
My hon. Friend makes a very important point. It is important that we all work together. That is why throughout this week I have been talking to businesses large and small about the changes, challenges and opportunities as we leave the transition period at the end of this year. The Government’s information campaign should provide all businesses with the details they need in order to get going. If more needs to be done, this Government stand ready.
The hon. Lady makes an important point, and when the legislation comes in on 24 July, I hope that everybody will comply with it, because one of the reasons for making sure we can have this law is to give confidence to people that they can shop in the knowledge that public health comes first.
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. It is vital that, for example, Welsh lamb can be sold across the United Kingdom. It is vital also that we recognise that the labelling requirements that relate to Welsh mineral water, which enable Welsh firms to sell a superior product with confidence across the United Kingdom, are respected as well. Making sure that we work hand in glove with the devolved Administrations strengthens the Union for all its citizens.
It is a very important point. Nottingham has an outstanding university, great MPs, a superb location and much to offer, and it is the case that close to Nottingham we have world-leading companies such as Boots that play a critical role in the economy of our country. We need to ensure, as the Chancellor has, that we provide financial support and the regulatory environment for business to thrive. The Government have a role to play, and I look forward to discussing with the hon. Lady the many opportunities for relocating parts of the civil service to the beautiful city.
I have great affection for the hon. Gentleman, but I am not quite sure to what he refers. If he is referring to the UK internal market White Paper, there is a consultation that starts today. I thank him for the thumbs up. That consultation will take place over the summer. Arrangements in the House on how Members participate and vote are decided by the Leader of the House through the usual channels and, of course, with the blessing or not of the Speaker.
I absolutely do. One of the main advantages of Runnymede and Weybridge is that it is adjacent to Surrey Heath, and so therefore it is in one of the best parts of the country to do business. My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Many of my constituents, like his, work in and around Heathrow, and it is absolutely vital that we do everything we can to ensure that trade flows but also that aviation and aerospace continue to get the investment that they need.
It is difficult to know where to begin in that concatenation of invention, innuendo and mistake. I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman has completely the wrong end of the stick.
Absolutely. Cornwall has many, many attractions, but of course the reliance of a large part of the Cornish economy on tourism and on seasonal trade renders parts of it uniquely vulnerable, particularly in the wake of the pandemic. That is why the Chancellor of the Exchequer took the steps that he did in order to support hospitality, but more of course requires to be done. Cornwall has amazing people and so much to boast about. We do need to do everything we can to make sure that my hon. Friend and other Cornish MPs play a role in our economic recovery.
The paper has been shared with the Welsh Government and with other Labour colleagues as well. One of the things that frustrated our capacity to have discussions on this area was the withdrawal of the Scottish Government from some of those discussions. However, I have had fruitful discussions and will continue to have fruitful discussions, including later today with representatives of the Welsh Government. I am sure that the hon. Lady would recognise that Newport’s position on the border of England and Wales gives it, in many respects, the best of both worlds, and ensuring that her constituents continue to have unfettered access to the rest of the UK market must surely be in their interests and in hers.
Absolutely. Northumberland is a fantastic county. To my mind, the communities of Blyth and Cramlington are particularly important because the solidarity they have shown over generations is wholly admirable. Anyone who follows football cannot help but be inspired by the giant-killing achievements of Blyth Spartans. The fact that Blyth Valley has an articulate local boy here in the House of Commons as a Conservative MP is a reminder of what a fantastic part of the world it is. We must do everything possible to ensure that the community spirit, which my hon. Friend embodies, is celebrated and protected in future.
In order to allow the safe exit of hon. Members participating in this item of business and the safe arrival of those participating in the next, I am suspending the House for three minutes.
British Overseas Troops: Civil Liability Claims
(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Defence to update the House on the overseas operations Bill’s impact on the rights of British troops serving overseas to bring civil liability claims against the Ministry of Defence and its implications for the Armed Forces Covenant.
We have introduced the Overseas Operations (Service Personnel and Veterans) Bill to lance the boil of lawfare and to protect our people from the relentless cycle of reinvestigations against our armed forces. Let me be absolutely clear: none of the measures will prevent the Ministry of Defence from being held to account for any wrongdoing.
To allay any further misunderstanding, let me provide some context. The Bill takes account of the uniquely challenging circumstances of overseas operations. It reassures our personnel that they will not be called on endlessly to defend against historic claims. It does that by introducing what we are calling a longstop. This restricts to an absolute maximum of six years the time limit for bringing civil claims or Human Rights Act claims for personal injury or death in connection with overseas operations.
It is simply wrong to assert that the Bill prevents service personnel, veterans or their relatives from bringing claims, because it does not change how the time limit is calculated. That will continue to be determined from either the date of the incident or date of knowledge. Conditions like post-traumatic stress disorder may not be diagnosed until much later, so the six years would start from the date of diagnosis.
The spirit of the armed forces covenant runs right through the legislation. Fairness is at its heart. We want to ensure that all claims are assessed fairly to achieve a fair outcome, yes, for veterans, but also for victims, service personnel and the taxpayer.
Yes, service personnel and veterans will still be able to bring claims against the MOD for such conditions, even if they are more than six years from the date of the incident. But also yes, this Government are going to war against lawfare. The days of veterans living in a persistent state of worry simply for having served this nation are coming to an end. Under this Prime Minister and under this Government, we will restore fairness to the process.
This urgent question, with the summer recess next week, is the only way of getting Ministers to set the record straight and reassure veterans who have won claims against the MOD after knowing about their PTSD or their hearing loss for years, who rightly feel and fear this Bill will block their comrades from such compensation in future. We also want to protect serving and former troops against the Minister’s relentless cycle of vexatious legal claims or repeat investigations. I say to him that the Government have got important parts of this Bill badly wrong.
I asked the Minister on 6 July why he is legislating to reduce the rights of our armed forces personnel who serve overseas to bring civil claims against the Ministry of Defence if they miss this hard six-year deadline or his longstop. He told the House:
“The Bill does not do that.”—[Official Report, 6 July 2020; Vol. 678, c. 646.]
But of course it does, in clause 11. One week later, his written answer to me confirmed that 70 of 522 such settled claims have been
“brought more than six years after the…incident.”
So he has got the chance to correct the record today.
Why is the Minister legislating to deny those who put their lives on the line for our country overseas the same employer liability rights as the UK civilians they defend? Why are the Government breaching their own armed forces covenant by disadvantaging these troops, and why was the most senior military lawyer, the Judge Advocate General, not consulted on the drafting of the Bill? Is this the reason that Judge Blackett rightly says the Bill is “ill-conceived” and likely to increase prosecutions of UK service personnel in the International Criminal Court?
It is not too late to think again about the best way to protect service personnel from vexatious litigation while ensuring also that those who commit serious crimes during operations are prosecuted and punished appropriately. We are ready to assist, but Ministers have got to get a grip and they have got to get down to some serious work over the summer.
I am grateful to the right hon. Member for his interest in the Bill. I would ask him to consider for a moment, given the history I have in this place, if I would attempt in any way to restrict the rights of service personnel to sue the Ministry of Defence or to claim for compensation after the event. I have read the Bill because I wrote the Bill, and the Bill very clearly states that it is from the point of knowledge or the point of diagnosis that that limitation comes in. We have always had limitations in this country. In the Limitation Act 1980, for example, there are limitations on various claims that are made through the tort system through the courts.
The reality is that introducing this legislation is not going to please everyone, because throughout the legal system that has thoroughly abused this process for many years, an awful lot of money has been made and the lives of our service personnel and veterans have been at the bottom of the priority list. Well, I am afraid that is changing, so I have no qualms at all that some people will disagree with elements of the Bill. But one thing that is beyond debate is that this is enhancing the quality of life and this nation’s responsibility to its service people and veterans; it is not going in the other direction. If there is any genuine concern out there from any individual who can show me that this will inhibit their rights, I am more than happy to look at it. But the issue around limitation is, I am afraid, misunderstood, because it is not from the point of when the injury happened or the incident that caused the injury; it is from the point of awareness or the point of diagnosis. The Bill does not change that. As far as I am concerned, it enhances the armed forces covenant. This will be a good thing, and a tool in our efforts to lance the boil of lawfare in this country.
As someone who chaired the armed forces covenant in the Black Country for a year, I am proud to be part of a Government who are taking veterans in Dudley and across the country seriously, listening to them and giving them the support they need. Will my hon. Friend reassure me that these changes will ensure that our troops and veterans are protected from unfair and persistent pursuit?
The objective of this Bill is very clear. It is to restore fairness in the system for veterans, service personnel and victims, for whom this process has not worked for many years. I am afraid that veterans and their families have not been considered in a lot of these processes, and some of their experiences have been totally unacceptable. This Government were elected to change this nation’s relationship with our veterans. I am very proud that we are doing that now, and the whole House should be supportive of what we are trying to do to get this right.
I congratulate the right hon. Member for Wentworth and Dearne (John Healey) on securing this urgent question. I start by declaring my interest, as my husband is a veteran.
The Government are not short on rhetoric on the importance of our armed forces, but as usual the rhetoric does not match the reality. Part 2 of the Bill is yet another attack on our personnel and veterans. Those who have risked their lives in the service of our country will now have a limited period in which to pursue a claim. I know that the Minister said this morning that the six-year limit is from the point of diagnosis, but the culture in the military means that some personnel are told that they are unable to pursue a claim while they are serving, or told by those higher up the chain of command that they do not have a valid claim. Given that many conditions, such as deafness, asbestos poisoning and the impact of radiation exposure, can get worse over the years, what protections will be in place to enable such personnel to pursue their claims? According to the Government, the rationale for these proposals is that they will be beneficial to our armed forces personnel and veterans, so will the Minister give us some real evidence and examples of how personnel and veterans will benefit from this limit?
It is also unacceptable for the Government to introduce the Bill before publishing a formal response to their consultation, so when will that response be published? Why was an impact assessment not published alongside the Bill? The Government seem to be taking advantage of the fact that they are unique in their ability to legislate to restrict legal claims against them. Is it not in fact the case that, under the guise of benefiting service personnel and veterans, the Government are simply saving money from legal claims at the expense of injured veterans?
I hope you will forgive me, Mr Speaker. I have an enormous amount of respect for many of my colleagues, but I have never heard such a load of rubbish in all my life. This Government have done more than any before them to improve the lot of veterans in this country, bar none.
What about the questions?
I am answering the question—[Interruption.] Yes, I am answering the question. When it comes to the Bill, if the hon. Member for Glasgow North West (Carol Monaghan) has genuine concerns about how the rhetoric differs from this Government’s actions, I would ask her to look at some of the things we have done prior to the Bill, including establishing the Office for Veterans’ Affairs and the forces railcard, getting the census question in, and ensuring a guaranteed job for those in the civil service. The Government have fundamentally shifted the dial on this. Having written the Bill myself, I totally reject the idea that it reduces soldiers’ ability to make claims. For example, on the radiation question, the claim starts when the condition is diagnosed, as is the case with all other claims in this area.
It is worth saying how the Bill will change people’s lives. Had it been brought in prior to 2003, there would have been a 72% drop in the thousands of claims that were brought against service personnel in this country, of which none—none—were referred to prosecution. I urge hon. Members who are quick to champion and extol the values of veterans to shift from that, do something about it for once, and support the Bill.
I thank the Minister for not only his answers, but his dedication to improving the lives of service personnel in our country. I am grateful that the Government are committed to improving the lives of our armed forces personnel. Does he agree that it is our duty to end the unfair trials of service personnel who have served their country and our country?
I agree wholeheartedly with my hon. Friend. That has been an injustice for many years. I often thought to myself, before I came to this place, how has that process been allowed to continue where those who serve this country on operations are treated like that afterwards?
It is clear to me that in this place, we are good at saying, “Aren’t our veterans brilliant? Don’t we owe them a huge debt?”, but when it comes to doing something about it—something a bit difficult and challenging—everybody runs for the hills. Well, this Government are not going to do that. We are going to legislate to protect those people from those who want to rewrite history to line their own pockets. Those days are over. I fully expect all hon. Members to support that effort.
I agree with the Minister’s intention to remove the ability to bring vexatious claims against our military personnel, which is why we have to get the detail of the Bill right and consider any possible unforeseen consequences of getting it wrong. Does he accept that there are often good and perfectly reasonable reasons why a soldier or veteran may not be able to bring a claim within six years, even if they knew about their injuries? How can we factor that in?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that constructive point. Let me be clear: I am absolutely happy to amend the legislation on the suggestion of any hon. Member to get it right, but it has to be based on fact and reality. The armed forces compensation scheme has a seven-year limit on it anyway. The Limitation Act 1980 also limits the time in which claims can be brought. If hon. Members want to discuss that more widely, clearly that is a broader issue. All we are doing is bringing into line our military personnel and veterans’ experiences.
I will be honest that I cannot, off the top of my head, think why individuals would be diagnosed and choose not to do anything about it, then choose to do something about it much later. I have not come across that in all my experience in the field, but I am happy to learn. If that is the case, I am happy to change the Bill, but that is not what experience shows us. I urge hon. Members to come up with constructive criticism and debate, so that we can really work on the Bill to get it right, because we all agree that we need to do it.
I welcome the spirit of the Bill. To congratulate the Minister, I will send him a copy of my book, “Tommy This an’ Tommy That: The military covenant”. He has done well to bring it thus far, but it is tipped to be heavily amended as it progresses through this place, not least because of Judge Jeff Blackett’s remarks. I press the Minister to look again at part 2, because it seems to me that the “no disadvantage” enjoinder within the military covenant is in danger of being overlooked. I know that he would not want to see that.
I am more than happy to look at any part of the Bill, but as I am also bringing in legislation to make the armed forces covenant law and make it actually mean something, it would be quite bizarre for me to bring in another Bill that reduced it. I will, of course, look at that, but I do not accept that the Bill brings any disadvantage to those who have served.
Will the Minister explain the rationale for six years rather than five years or, indeed, seven years, which he said was the time limit for one of the other claims? Given that these important issues obviously need independent oversight, does he think there is a role for the Intelligence and Security Committee to have that oversight?
It is not for me to say what Committees should do. In terms of the timeframe, all this does is bring it into line with other HRA claims that can be brought forward at the moment. There is no finger in the air—“This is what we’re going to go for.” At the three-year point, courts will now have to consider special provisions that will have to be exceptional for a prosecutor to bring a claim, which brings this into line with other human rights legislation.
The first time I met my hon. Friend the Minister, in Kandahar, Afghanistan, both of us had somewhat smaller bellies and somewhat shorter hair. The lesson that we learnt out there about looking after the guys and girls we served with was an important one. Can he explain to the House what fundamental change this will make to ensure that their lives are better and that their families are not disrupted?
That is a really good question, and I thank my hon. Friend for it. The way that this is going to change lives is by ending the uncertainty. If you have served on operations and you have not committed an offence, you will not be endlessly hounded by those who seek to bring spurious human rights claims. Let us remember how the IHAT process started. We had Public Interest Lawyers driving around Iraq, essentially acting as legal team for the Mahdi army—it was absolutely bizarre. This will change the experience for service personnel, veterans and their families and provide certainty for them and for victims, to clear this mess up and restore fairness to the process.
It should be possible to build an easy consensus in the House on protection for those who have given service in the past, but the Bill that the Minister claims to have drafted himself does a lot more than that. A prescription and limitation on actions brought in respect of torture, crimes against humanity and war crimes is a significant departure on which he will not build a consensus and for which those who give service in our armed forces would not want people to be protected. Will he look again at that provision?
I am happy to look at any aspect of the Bill, but let me be clear: the retrospective application of the Human Rights Act to the battlefield is inappropriate and has caused a lot of the problems that we have had. We want to restore the supremacy of the law of armed conflict in the Geneva conventions. We do a good job of holding our people to account. We are not going to allow the legislation that the right hon. Gentleman mentions to be abused and used in a way that it was never designed to be used in order to bring claims against our service personnel and make their lives a misery.
The rules of engagement for overseas land operations are covered by what is known as Card Alpha. Could the Minister reassure the House that soldiers who pull the trigger in accordance with Card Alpha or its tri-service equivalent can get on with their lives, safe in the knowledge that they will never again be pursued by ambulance-chasing lawyers?
For me, service in the military is very clear. You adhere to the law. If you break the law, you will be charged and prosecuted. If you do nothing wrong, you have nothing to worry about. You operate within the law of armed conflict. Those who are elected to this place to look after you will, from this point on, do their job and protect you.
The Minister has stated that fairness is at the heart of this, and I thank him for that. Does he agree that soldiers who are injured or deployed internationally in service of Queen and country deserve the same route to civil satisfaction as the civil servants in Whitehall, who have no restrictions and no limitations on their civil liability claim ability?
I believe that those who operate in our armed forces are entitled to the protection they deserve. This Bill protects them. That is why I struggle to understand the context, because this is all about protecting our servicemen and women from an abhorrent process that has ruined some of our finest people over the years. I am happy to look again at all aspects of the Bill, but I want to build a collegiate approach in this House to get the Bill through. We agree that this must happen—let us get it done.
As a Northern Ireland veteran who served during the troubles, it would be remiss of me not to say this: I am very grateful for everything my hon. Friend has done to get us to this point, but now that he is the Minister, will he apologise on behalf of the MOD for the decades of harassment that our troops and veterans have faced?
Look, there is no doubt that the prominent protagonists in this have been human rights lawyers, who have abused that system in order to make money, abusing some of the poorest people in the world in the process. But what I would say is that, yes, there are elements that the MOD could and should have done better and for some of our people, those experiences have been unacceptable—and for those, yes, I do apologise.
The Minister now says that he is willing to relook at all aspects of the Bill, which is precisely what my right hon. Friend the Member for Wentworth and Dearne (John Healey) asked him to do half an hour ago. Across the House, there is an understanding about the desire to get away from these vexatious claims, but what Members on both sides are telling him is that there are unintended consequences from the way that the Bill is currently structured. He should listen to prevent veterans being penalised while he is trying to do something that we all support.
Veterans are not being penalised. If they were, I would not bring this legislation in. I have not said that I am going to look at all aspects of the Bill; I have made it very clear that I am happy to discuss amendments and changes that people want to make to get the Bill through, but I will also not do it on the back of things that are patently untrue.
In my short time as MP for Bosworth, I have had veterans writing to me and coming to my surgery. They do not want to be above the law, but they do not want vexatious claims either, so these changes are well overdue. What will my hon. Friend do to make sure that the balance is preserved and that servicemen and women, both past and present, are of course held to account, but also protected?
A huge part of my efforts in the MOD is about having a better system to hold our servicepeople to account. There is no doubt about it—if we had had better investigations in the first place, we would not be here, so there is a twin-track approach, trying to get the balance of fairness so that those who break the law are held to account, but ultimately, if people have done nothing wrong, they can live the rest of their life in peace.
Can the Minister explain why British soldiers should have less recourse to compensation from their employer than the civilians they defend?
They do not. The armed forces compensation scheme is out there for everybody to read. It is a good scheme. It is constantly reviewed and it has come on leaps and bounds in the last 10 or 15 years. I am sure that there will be another review of it in the future, but I am afraid that the points that the hon. Lady makes are simply incorrect.
Brecon is a proud garrison town with a high concentration of infantry veterans. The Minister has met me a number of times to discuss my constituents’ concerns, so I have seen at first hand his commitment to righting the wrongs done to our veterans. Does he agree that the closure of Brecon barracks, erasing the history of the Army in Wales, would be another such wrong?
The closure of barracks and the footprint of the military in this country is something that we take very seriously, but let me be clear that the defining issue in that will be the quality of life for our service personnel, and we will make sure that it is acceptable.
The House should know that I have a brother who is a current Army officer and another brother who is a retired Army officer. I also have constituents who have waited years to have medical issues brought on by their service even recognised by the military, never mind the fight that they then have to get the correct support. Taking what the Minister has said about wanting to ensure that there is no disadvantage to veterans, will he outline how exactly he will guarantee that, and that the 60-year rule will not harm injured veterans, as there is great concern among them right now?
Again, I wonder if anybody could show me how this legislation is going to genuinely make somebody’s life worse—the compensation claim starts when that illness or injury is recognised or is a point of knowledge. This does not affect that in any way.
I endorse the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton South West (Stuart Anderson) and thank the Minister for his very clear answer, which is an apology for what has happened, fundamentally. I remind him that we still have the problem of veterans in Northern Ireland, but I will not linger on that. The only point I would like to make is that having listened to what people have said today, it seems to me that everyone in the House is up to sort out any little problem that might occur. We all want the best possible circumstances for our servicemen and women, either past or present, and for their conditions to be as good as they can be, and I think that my hon. Friend would agree with that.
I completely agree with that, but we are not going to base policy on things that are simply incorrect. This has been an issue for 40 years because people have not wanted to tackle difficult matters. This Government are going to do that, and we will bring forward legislation in September.
We owe a great deal of gratitude to our serving armed personnel, and I was lucky enough to meet Luke Davison from Keighley who served in the Yorkshire Regiment. Does my hon. Friend agree that it is our duty, through this Bill, to ensure that we get the protections the armed services need when deployed?
My hon. Friend is right. The Bill seeks to attain the balance between justice for victims and for veterans. We need to restore fairness to this process, and this Government are determined to do so.
That concludes the urgent question. It might be helpful for hon. Members to be aware that I will permit the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care to make an important statement providing an update on coronavirus at 5 pm today. Member Hub will be open shortly for Members who wish to take part, and it will close at 1 pm.
To allow the safe exit of hon. Members who have participated in this item of business, and the safe arrival of those who wish to participate in the next debate, I will now suspend the House for a few minutes.
Before business questions, I would like to take this opportunity to put on the record our recognition of Banqueting Floor Manager Rui Duarte for his long service in the House with his team before his retirement at the end of this month. He has served this House for 44 years, starting on 28 June 1976. He has been responsible for more than 150,000 events throughout a period of eight Prime Ministers, starting with Jim Callaghan, and went through to see seven Speakers, including George Thomas at the beginning. Along with many Members of this House, I wish Rui all the very best for his well-earned retirement.
Business of the House
Will the Leader of the House please give us the forthcoming business?
The business for the week commencing 20 July will include:
Monday 20 July—Remaining stages of the Trade Bill.
Tuesday 21 July—Remaining stages of the Counter-Terrorism and Sentencing Bill, followed by, if necessary, consideration of Lords amendments.
Wednesday 22 July—Matters to be raised before the forthcoming adjournment.
At the conclusion of business, the House will rise for the summer recess and return on Tuesday 1 September.
The business for the week commencing 31 August will include:
Monday 31 August—The House will not be sitting.
Tuesday 1 September—Second Reading of the Fisheries Bill [Lords].
Wednesday 2 September—Second reading of the Private International Law (Implementation of Agreements) Bill [Lords].
Thursday 3 September—Consideration in Committee and remaining stages of the Non-Domestic Rating (Public Lavatories) Bill.
Friday 4 September—The House will not be sitting.
For the convenience of the House—[Laughter.]—I can confirm that, following correspondence from the Chairman of the Procedure Committee, I will be tabling motions on Monday’s Order Paper to give the House the opportunity to agree an extension to the current proxy voting arrangements until 28 September.
In addition, I am aware of the understandable desire for Members from all parties to see the return of business to Westminster Hall. It may help if I update the House by saying that discussions are already taking place with the House authorities with a view to Westminster Hall debates resuming as soon as practicable. I understand from the House authorities that the aim is for business to resume from 5 October, if possible.
Now that we have flushed that through, we will go back to Valerie Vaz.
I am going to stay away from the lavatory jokes.
I thank the Leader of the House for the business for next week and the first week of September. The first thing I am going to ask for is a list of updated ministerial responsibilities, please—perhaps we could have that next week.
In his response on Nazanin last week, the Leader of the House missed out Anousheh, and there was no mention of Luke Symons. None of them have done anything wrong. The Leader of the House said that Nazanin’s case is a top priority, but there was also no response to the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Tulip Siddiq), who made a separate but important point about Iran.
My colleagues and I are extremely concerned that the responses from Ministers to our letters are falling somewhat below what should be expected. Ministers are obliged to provide meaningful responses. It is quite an easy phrase: “Ministers’ meaningful responses”—MMR—so it would be quite good if we could give them a poke by thinking of it as an injection. Perhaps we can send copies of all the letters that we have received to the Leader of the House so that he can have a look at them. I received one from the civil servants—this is nothing to do with the civil servants—that was a generalist response and contained nothing about the case that I had raised.
The Leader of the House keeps talking about the accountability of this Government, and he ended the virtual Parliament. He wanted us to come back, he said, because it keeps Ministers accountable, so let’s have it. What about the accountability of the purchase of 27 acres near Ashford in Kent, without the knowledge of the local MP and without the people who live near this lorry park even knowing it would be based there? The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster told the House that there were no plans to build a lorry park in Dover. What he failed to go on to say was that it would be in Ashford. In his statement he mentioned technology, but there were no details of the technology, how it would work or how it would be used for border checks. Can we have an urgent statement on the delivery plans for these borders and all EU-facing ports and also a statement on the border with Ireland, which the Minister said he would make later this month? Well, the House will not be sitting, so can we have an urgent statement on the plans for a border with the island of Ireland?
The Secretary of State for International Trade needs to an updated statement, too. She has now put together a Trade and Agriculture Commission, which she announced on Sunday by press release, but not to this House. Will the Leader of the House confirm that there will be regular updates to the House? I know that the commission will be reporting to the Secretary of State, but hon. Members would also like to know what the Commission does.
The Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy will be making a statement later. I cannot ask a question, so will the Leader of the House ask him why Walsall Council cannot use its full discretionary grant for local authorities of £7.6 million? BEIS officials have capped it at £2 million and stopped it using the balance. We are the neighbour to Birmingham and we are just a tiny place, so it is really important to keep our local economy going. The head of Blue Coat School has asked why Walsall libraries are not open, so can the Leader of the House confirm that Government guidance was that pubs and libraries could open from 4 July?
Will the Leader of the House join me in commending the education service, and all hon. Members of Parliament, for their efforts on Parliament Week, which is at the beginning of November? David Clark said that 4,192 organisations have signed up for it. Last year, more than a million people took part, and there were 11,000 activities. North East Somerset came 11th and Walsall came 17th, so we are hoping to beat you this year. Congratulations to everyone—hon. Members and the Parliament team—on raising awareness of Parliament at this important time.
I have one quick point. Depending on what happens in September and how the Procedure Committee reports on its inquiry, can the Leader of the House think about whether we could have an Aye queue and a No queue when we are voting? It would mean that we did not need to have the Whip standing in the middle. Perhaps we could have the Aye queue out of the Members’ Lobby and down those stairs, and the No queue through Central Lobby and down to St Stephen’s stairs. That would mean that the queues would be separate in Westminster Hall and we would know which queue to go to.
Mr Speaker, I join you in congratulating Rui Duarte on his 44 years of service and his retirement. Every event I have attended has always run smoothly in this House. We wish him a well-deserved retirement.
Finally, Mr Speaker, I thank you, your deputies and everyone who works in this House. They have got together to use their talents, their abilities and their skills—that includes Members and our staff. We had the first virtual Parliament in the world. I want to wish everyone well, thank them all for their work and tell them to stay safe.
The right hon. Lady is absolutely right, as you are, Mr Speaker, to thank Rui Duarte for his amazing service to the House. It is illustrative of how fortunate we are as parliamentarians to have this support. There have been 150,000 functions with one man to oversee them. That is quite phenomenal. We are served so well.
As we come to the end of this Session—these are the last business questions before the end of the Session—the right hon. Lady is also right to thank the staff of this House in all sorts of areas, both seen and unseen, for the work that has been done to ensure that Parliament continued doing its job in extraordinarily difficult circumstances. This covers such a wide range of staff. It is the cleaners who have been ensuring that it was safe to come back. It is the organisation of the House that has ensured that the lines are put out so that we can sit in a covid-safe manner. It is the Doorkeepers who constantly work to ensure that everything runs smoothly and that the right number of Members are in the Chamber. I see the Clerk of the House sitting at the table—the team he leads has done a phenomenal job under his inspired leadership, so we are very lucky.
Mr Speaker, I see your own secretary standing next to you. Her work has been absolutely invaluable in making sure that everything works well and, from the Leader of the House’s Office, she is an absolute pleasure to deal with. I fear that the honourable lady is going red as I say this, but the tribute is, none the less, greatly deserved.
I wish to address the points the right hon. Lady raises on Nazanin, Anousheh, and Luke. I can reassure her that consular efforts are being made in all those cases and that support is also being given to Mr Ashoori, supporting the family. It is really important that this support is given and takes place. Consular access to British nationals in Yemen is extremely difficult, given that our embassy operations are suspended, but we continue to press the Houthis to release Luke on humanitarian grounds. The efforts are being made, and the right hon. Lady is right to raise this issue every week.
On ministerial responsibilities, the right hon. Lady knows that this list is always produced in as reasonably timely manner as can possibly be achieved, but ensuring that it is accurate and kept up to date is a complex and time-consuming process, and therefore the list will be provided in due course—in the fullness of time. She is right to raise the point about letters from Ministers; I have received complaints from across the House. Ministers are aware that it is a basic courtesy that replies come from Ministers, not from officials, and I am reminding Ministers of that. We hold the Government to account, not officials to account. That is our role, and I will remind people about that. However, on the accountability point, since we have been back accountability, the Chamber has improved enormously, with a full hour of Question Time.
The right hon. Lady complains that there was no holding to account about the buying of land in the Ashford constituency, but that is exactly what she was doing; she was raising the point and trying to hold me to account for a decision made by the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster. So proper accountability is taking place, and I am delighted that she is so assiduous in ensuring that we are held to account, as she is doing on the issue of the Irish border. The thing to remember on that issue is that there will be no obstacle to trade from Northern Ireland coming to Great Britain, that Great Britain and Northern Ireland remain in a single customs area and that the UK will not be divided by any agreements made with the European Union.
As regards the trade and agricultural commission, the Agriculture Bill is in the other place, having completed its passage here. The commission will be set up and it seems to me an extremely sensible way to proceed.
On the opening of libraries, not everything that can be opened has been opened. Some people, be they councils or businesses, have decided, for their own private reasons, not to open immediately that they have been allowed to do so. The right hon. Lady will notice that in central Westminster not every restaurant has reopened since it has been allowed to do so, and that is a decision for the individual businesses.
I am delighted to discover that we in North East Somerset won the competition against Walsall South in regards to Parliament Week, but I do not think that that is a reflection on the individual Members of Parliament for those constituencies—it was merely good luck. It is a great event and I certainly encourage participation in it this year.
Finally, on the issue of the Aye queue and No queue, I initially thought that the r hon. Lady was referring to the intelligence level of Members on her side of the House, which I think is extraordinarily high but misguided, whereas on our side of the House the level is extraordinarily high and rightly guided. However, her suggestion will be borne in mind, and I am sure that the Procedure Committee will take it up with interest.
This Government have given unprecedented amounts of financial support to businesses and local authorities throughout the covid pandemic, but many businesses in my constituency are saying that urgent reform needs to happen on local authority parking charges, which are stopping many people coming into our town and inhibiting their shopping habits. So will my right hon. Friend commit to having a debate in Government time on this issue?
My hon. Friend raises a very important point. As we try to encourage people back on to our high streets, we of course want to make it as easy as possible for them to get there to support local businesses. Obviously, local authorities have the power to make decisions on parking charges and need to balance the interests of local people, but I am sure that we would agree that it would be wrong for local government to use parking charges as cash cows without considering the wider effects on local businesses. He may wish to return to this matter in the pre-recess Adjournment debate.
Good morning, Mr Speaker. Those who observe these Thursday morning exchanges will know that I have tried, over the past few weeks, to get a debate on the fiscal framework within which the devolved Administrations are constrained. It was not designed to deal with a global pandemic and it is hindering the Scottish Government’s ability to respond. As I have made clear consistently, this is not an argument about the amount of money but about what can be done with it. The Leader of the House has consistently evaded my questions, referring instead to the sums involved. I think that I now know the reason for that evasion: it seems that, far from enhancing the competence of the Scottish Government, the Tory Cabinet is now determined to constrain it further.
This week, there has been a three-pronged attack on devolution. An announcement on state aid made it clear that Westminster will overrule Holyrood when it comes to providing support for our businesses to recover from this crisis, and it was followed by a statement on the so-called shared prosperity fund, which made it clear that the Scottish Government will have no control over whatever funding replaces EU structural funds. The biggest assault will be announced here shortly: a Government press release tells us that the UK will seek to override and set aside decisions by the Scottish Parliament if they feel those decisions affect UK trade. Were this already in force, it could have overturned decisions on free university tuition, smoking bans or minimum alcohol pricing.
This is a major attack on devolution, taking power away from Scotland, but the details are unclear, so I have three specific questions for the Leader of the House. Is it true that the Government will establish an unelected quango to override the decisions of the Scottish Parliament? Do the UK Government intend to force this on the devolved Administrations if they do not consent? Will these measures require new legislation, and if so, when will this be introduced, and what will happen if it cannot be passed before the end of the transition period? I would appreciate straight answers to these questions, perhaps this time without personal references to my appearance or demeanour.
Finally, since this may be our last business statement before recess, may I take this opportunity to wish you a good summer break, Mr Speaker? I am sorry we were unable to get you up to the Edinburgh Festival fringe this year as planned, but I hope we can do so in 2021.
Thank you, Tommy.
As always, the hon. Gentleman brings a little ray of sunshine into the Chamber, and we are grateful for that. A light shineth in the darkness. To come to his point, there is a difference between a question not being answered and being given an answer that he does not like. That does not mean the question has not been answered.
I will therefore remind the hon. Gentleman that some £4.6 billion has gone to Scotland under Barnett consequentials from the UK taxpayer. Without the UK taxpayer, the Scottish Government would find it very hard to make ends meet. That has provided support for 146,000 self-employed people, and 628,000 people have joined the furlough scheme, so a very large number of people —more than 750,000 Scottish people—have been helped because they belong to the United Kingdom, and that is something of which we should all be proud.
The hon. Gentleman mentions the devolution settlement, and it has to be said here that the position of the Scottish Government and Scottish nationalists is bizarre. They want the powers to be with Brussels. There are no powers being taken away from the devolved authorities. What is happening is power is returning to the United Kingdom. We will have the authority to decide for ourselves these issues with regard to things that affect trade. Subsidies will be a matter for the UK Parliament rather than unelected bureaucrats in Brussels. We have the separatists in Scotland and we have their leader who wishes to build a metaphorical wall against England and who wishes to do all sorts of things that are not in the interests of the people of United Kingdom or the people of Scotland and wishes to kowtow to Brussels. We wish to make a strong United Kingdom, which has £4.6 billion to help the Scottish economy with.
Childhood obesity is increasing at an alarming rate. It leads to a range of long-term health conditions that adversely affect life chances and life expectancy, particularly in less affluent constituencies such as Stoke-on-Trent Central. The impact of health inequalities has been highlighted by the covid pandemic. Will my right hon. Friend be so kind as to agree to hold a debate in Government time on how we best tackle childhood obesity and the underlying issues such as food poverty?
My hon. Friend raises an interesting point. The relationship between obesity and other comorbidities and covid-19 has been much discussed in recent months, and the Government are looking at it closely. The Prime Minister has expressed personal interest in tackling childhood obesity. The Government have been clear that every single one of us, no matter who we are, where we live or our social circumstances, deserves to have the chance to lead a long and healthy life.
Public Health England has emphasised that we must do more to level up health across the country and reduce health inequalities, something that the Government have already committed to in our manifesto, and we are working closely with local authorities to enable them to do that. In addition to what we are already doing, we are keen to ensure that good health is integrated into all facets of life, including housing, transport, education, welfare and the economy, because we all know that preventing ill health—mental and physical—and improving health outcomes is about more than just healthcare.
I thank the Leader of the House for his response to my letter, although I am afraid to say that I was a little disappointed with his attitude towards not protecting the time for the estimates day debates. The Backbench Business Committee has 30 unaired debates on our waiting list. They range across a number of subjects, including very important ones such as redundancies in, and the future of, the aviation sector; support for the self-employed and freelance workers in the aftermath of the covid virus pandemic; support for the tourism industry; mental health support for frontline workers; and, going further afield, the plight of Rohingya, the situation in, and plight of, the people of Yemen and the situation between Israel and Palestine—and many more. I note in the Leader’s response to the question about businesses that there is an intention to try to get Westminster Hall reopened, but can that not be done sooner than the beginning of October?
Given all those unaired debates, I cannot help but note that we have a general debate on restoration and renewal this afternoon. I think that the vast majority of Members on both sides of the House would say that that subject is not filling up their casework inboxes. There is also a general debate on matters to be raised before the forthcoming Adjournment. We have an awful lot of disgruntled Back Benchers with very important debates waiting to happen. I appeal again to the Leader of the House to get us some time for Backbench Business as soon as possible after the summer recess.
The hon. Gentleman mentions protected time. It is always a difficult balance in this House to ensure that time is available, and it depends on what other Members ask for and are given, but a lot of right hon. and hon. Members value the certainty of a set end point for the day’s business. I absolutely understand his concern about the 30 important issues before the Backbench Business Committee. The pre-recess Adjournment debate will provide an opportunity for Members to raise all those points, so it is an extremely useful opportunity for issues that have not been raised so far to be brought forward. The Government have ensured that the priorities of Back Benchers have been brought forward, both before and after the Backbench Business Committee was established, with supply days being made available and with time being made available to the Petitions Committee and, indeed, for restoration and renewal, a subject that is of great interest to a number of Back Benchers. Time has been facilitated as far as possible, but it is obviously my hope that we can get back to giving the Backbench Business Committee the time that it is entitled to under Standing Orders.
May I have a statement on the public scrutiny of planning applications? Understandably, the opportunity for public meetings has been curtailed during the covid pandemic, but I have a number of controversial large housing applications, including ones at Netherthong and Netherton. I am sure that my right hon. Friend would agree that local residents must be heard when their communities will be hugely impacted by those kinds of huge developments.
I think there is not a single Member of this House who has not had, in his or her constituency, an issue raised of a planning kind that is of great importance to local constituents. It is important that local views are made known and that facilities have been kept during the coronavirus pandemic to ensure that virtual planning committees, with local planning authorities across the country, are implementing planning decisions. However, they are also still required to consult on and publicise planning applications to get the views of local communities. I think that is the right way to proceed.
I want to support the comments of the shadow Leader of the House, my right hon. Friend the Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz), on the lack of accountability. Throughout this crisis I have received a very high level of casework, with many issues raised by constituents about the lack of financial support for them from Government schemes, but, having written to Ministers, I have often received template replies from correspondence officers rather than from the Ministers themselves. Those replies merely restate details of existing schemes, rather than dealing with my constituents’ concerns. The Leader of the House talks of courtesy, but can he tell me what he will do to ensure that I get full responses from Ministers when I raise constituents’ issues? Anything less than that is a betrayal of the democratic role we play.
The hon. Lady is right. Responses from correspondents in Departments is not the correct way to treat Members of Parliament. If I may make a brief defence of Departments that did that at the height of the pandemic, I think they were almost overwhelmed with correspondence at that time and I had a certain sympathy with them at that time. However, I think that time has passed and that we have a right to expect proper answers. What have I done? Well, as of yesterday I wrote to one Minister. I raised, jointly with the Leader of the House of Lords, the issue of responses to written questions with Ministers some weeks ago. I will take up, and have taken up, individual cases of poor answers for individual Members of Parliament. If the hon. Lady would like me to take up any cases on her behalf, I will happily do that. It is essential and a key part of holding the Government to account that correspondence is responded to in a timely way by a Minister.
May I associate myself, Mr Speaker, with your kind words to Rui, and to the House staff for all they have done over the past few months?
In September, children in this country will be returning to their schools. Around the world it is estimated that over 1 billion children have not been in school during the covid-19 crisis. The Malala Fund this week estimates that in September there will be some 10 million children, mainly girls, who will never return to school. May we have a debate in Government time in September to mark that milestone and to talk about the Government’s own pledge for 12 years of quality education for every child in the world?
My hon. Friend raises a very important matter. Standing up for the right of 12 years of quality education for all girls is the top development priority for this Government. The UK is a world leader in supporting girls’ education around the world. Between 2015 and 2019, the Department for International Development supported 14.3 million children to gain a decent education, of whom at least 5.8 million were girls. There will be an opportunity to debate these issues in the pre-recess Adjournment debate, but the figure my hon. Friend brings forward of 1 billion children losing out on education is one that should concern us all. It will be important to try to make up what has been lost in future months and years.
There has been a significant increase in the number of individuals in Vietnam imprisoned for non-violent expression of their beliefs, with as many as 251 prisoners of conscience being held in 2019 alone, according to a new report by the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom. Many of them are Christians who have also seen a worrying increase in persecution. For example, the family of imprisoned pastor Nguyen Trung Ton was recently subject to violence and detention by Vietnamese authorities. Will the Leader of the House—he is always very helpful—agree to a statement or a debate on these ongoing developments?
The hon. Gentleman is an absolute champion of freedom of conscience and has brought before this House on a number of occasions scandals from across the world where people have not been allowed to express their views and their beliefs or have been punished for doing so. This is a matter of concern to the Government, and the Foreign Office continues to take it up. I will bring the Foreign Office’s attention to the 251 prisoners of conscience held in Vietnam to whom he refers.
Alcohol addiction can not only destroy lives but end lives. Five years ago, I lost my older brother Mark to alcohol addiction. Trying to find services and help for him at the time was extremely difficult and, indeed, a postcode lottery. Will my right hon. Friend allow for a debate in Government time to discuss drug and alcohol rehabilitation and addiction, and the need for a Government strategy on alcohol to help ensure that no one else needlessly loses a loved one?
My hon. Friend raises a very difficult issue. It is true to say that overall alcohol consumption has fallen over the past 13 to 14 years, but the harms associated with alcohol remain too high, and every death caused by alcohol misuse is a tragedy—and a terrible family tragedy, particularly. The Government are committed to tackling health harms from alcohol and supporting the most vulnerable to risk from alcohol misuse. We do aim to publish a new UK-wide cross-Government addiction strategy that will include alcohol. We have the best health service in the world, and we need to marshal those resources to help people suffering from addiction, particularly addiction to alcohol.
The Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders described the Government’s target to ban the sale of petrol, diesel and hybrid cars by 2035 as a “date without a plan”. With only 147 battery electric vehicles licensed to addresses in my constituency, we need to work faster and do more to support zero-emissions vehicles, so can the Leader of the House ensure a debate in Government time about how the required market transformation for these vehicles can take place?
Huge advances are being made in the ability to provide zero-emissions cars, and market forces are coming to work. The Government have been enormously supportive of those and have set an ambitious date for the removal of petrol and diesel cars. That has been a very sensible approach, and we are seeing companies across the world developing cars that are able to operate with zero emissions.
Under current Government and parliamentary procurement rules, purchases of less than £10,000 do not require an open tendering process. This freezes out many local ceramic companies in Stoke-on-Trent, such as Steelite and Churchill China, from the possibility of supplying high-quality, English-made tableware in Government Departments or at Chequers, the countryside residence of the Prime Minister. Could my right hon. Friend advise me on how best to ensure that Stoke-on-Trent’s ceramic companies get a fair crack of the whip in supplying Government with their world-beating products?
It is very important that companies such as Churchill China and Steelite have the opportunity to supply the Government and to make a success of their businesses. I congratulate my hon. Friend on his question. He is a wonderful campaigner for the businesses of Stoke-on-Trent. Supporting high-quality small businesses through the procurement system is something that many Members want to see realised. As we return powers from the European Union, the Government are interested in looking at how public procurement works and how it can be improved. As regards purchases for Chequers, I think that is a matter for a private trust. However, I am sure that with his indefatigable charms, he will make sure that the trust that runs Chequers knows where china can come from.
The House rises next Wednesday, but just two weeks later, on 5 August, it will be one year since the Indian Government revoked article 370 of the constitution and the people of Jammu and Kashmir were locked down. Human rights were attacked, and subsequent violence has resulted in many deaths. The Backbench Business Committee had listed a debate on human rights abuses in Kashmir on 23 March, and then on 26 April, but, as the Leader of the House is aware, debates were cancelled due to covid-19. The situation in Jammu and Kashmir is of urgent importance to many of my constituents in Luton South and those of other Members. Will he ensure that time is found early in September for a debate on human rights abuses in the region?
The hon. Lady is absolutely right to ask for a debate on this issue, and I note what she says about the Backbench Business Committee’s willingness to give her one. It will of course be possible to raise this at the pre-recess Adjournment debate, when a Minister will be answering, and I would encourage her to do that. We expect Westminster Hall to reopen from 5 October, so that will provide the opportunity for more debates. I hope that it will be possible to facilitate Backbench Business Committee debates once we are back after the recess.
May I join the call of the Chair of the Backbench Business Committee, the hon. Member for Gateshead (Ian Mearns), in appealing to the Leader of the House to grant more time for Back-Bench business debates? The first debate the hon. Gentleman mentioned, on aviation and redundancies, is in my name and has been signed by more than 150 MPs from across this place. I think we all see in our inbox a real desire from employees for MPs to stand up and give them their voice, and I would like to do so but cannot because that time has not been granted. May I please appeal to the Leader of the House, who always stood up for Back Benchers when he was sitting very close to where I am standing now, to give us more time to debate these important matters?
I hear some heckling that suggests I was sometimes accused of reclining when I was sitting in that corner, but my backbone has now been stiffened by joining the Front Bench.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman) phrases himself brilliantly, because he says it has been impossible to raise these issues in the House, and then raises them in the House with great panache. He is absolutely right to do so; we have all had correspondence from constituents on aviation redundancies. These companies are vital to the economy and they are being supported in a number of ways by the Government with the time to pay scheme. The demand for debates will be met when we are fully back to normal, and we get back to normal step by step.
The Conservative manifesto at the last election promised a fan-led review of governance of football. As we emerge from covid, many clubs are going to fall into financial difficulties. My local club in the royal borough of Greenwich, Charlton Athletic football club, is currently in that situation. Some dubious characters have got involved with the club, separating off the ownership of the ground and the training ground, which is in my constituency, and undermining the future of the club. We need the Government to make an urgent statement about reviewing the governance of football to stop these bad actors getting into the game, and we need them to do that before the recess, because the season is going to end and many clubs are going to find themselves in difficulties, so we need that urgent statement.
I am delighted that the hon. Gentleman paid such close attention to the Conservative party manifesto; I hope it influenced his vote in the right direction. He is obviously right to raise the point, as other hon. Members across the House have, about the difficulties football teams face in the current environment. I refer him once again to the pre-recess debate, which is an opportunity to air this issue.
I am very grateful to the Leader of the House for announcing the recommencing of Westminster Hall debates, but, like the Chairs of the Backbench Business and Transport Committees, I would be grateful for reconsideration and for those debates to start in September. As the chairman of the all-party parliamentary group on blood cancer, I have been unsuccessful in securing Adjournment debates, and therefore would put in a request for such a debate at the earliest opportunity.
My hon. Friend raises an important point and he is right to ask for those debates. As I say, we cannot manage it before 5 October. The House authorities have been very pressed with all the commitments that they have to ensure that Select Committees are running, that Bill Committees are running and that the Chamber is running within the constraints of people’s still being asked to work from home, the pressures on the broadcasting team and so on, but it is important that this comes back so that hon. Members can raise issues such as the one he mentioned on blood cancer.
Is it not time that we had a debate on the appalling performance of the Health and Safety Executive? Cranswick Foods in Wombwell has had numerous cases of covid-19 and three deaths, yet it took the Health and Safety Executive three months to visit the factory and I am yet to receive a response to my letter. It clearly has no interest in health and no interest in safety, so will this Executive abolish the HSE and finally put workers first?
We had questions earlier on Ministers not responding to letters. I think for public bodies to fail to respond to letters is an even greater discourtesy, because they are funded out of Parliament and they are ultimately responsible to Members of Parliament. Therefore, if the hon. Lady would like me to take this up with her and with the HSE to ensure that she gets a response, I would be more than happy to do so.
Will my right hon. Friend find time for a debate on the illegal harvesting of shellfish? He will recall only too well that 21 undocumented migrants tragically lost their lives in Morecambe bay—a place where I did a charity walk, and which is very dangerous—and last year 39 people lost their lives being trafficked into Essex. Activity is going on illegally off the coast of Southend. I want to avoid another tragedy happening.
My hon. Friend raises an important and tragic issue. The Morecambe bay tragedy shone a light on the appalling practices in the employment of many trafficked people in this country, and is one of those disasters that will not be forgotten by anybody who was reading newspapers at that time or who heard of the terrible events that occurred there. Governments of both parties, from that time onwards, have made great progress in tackling these abuses, but I am aware there is more to be done. If my hon. Friend knows of specific instances, I would urge him to report them to the police. The legislation to tackle modern slavery is there to try to eliminate these abuses not just in terms of shellfish, but following the recent revelations from Leicester.
The first line of a new report warning of up to 120,000 additional coronavirus deaths this winter states:
“July and August must be a period of intense preparation”
to prevent such a scenario. Will the Government schedule an urgent debate so that the public can know if the Government are undertaking such intense preparation, and to show they have learned the lessons from their handling of this so far, which has led to one of the highest death tolls in the world?
The hon. Gentleman may want to go on to MemberHub in a moment, because he could apply to put in a question to the Health Minister who will be making a statement at 5 o’clock.
My right hon. Friend knows how good Sedgemoor District Council is, but I do not know if my right hon. Friend is aware that it has just approved the imaginative plans for the Gravity site, on the M5, of 600 acres, which even Elon Musk, I believe, has been down to see. This will create 4,000 jobs. May we please have a debate in Government time on the importance of enterprise sites, of which this is one, and their role in creating opportunities for all of the United Kingdom, but especially where district councils should be praised for the imaginative work of making sure they create jobs in their areas?
It is wonderful to see somebody from God’s own county. The more we hear from Somerset and about Somerset, the better, and I join my hon. Friend in congratulating Sedgemoor District Council. It is actually a rare treat to have Members come in and praise their local council; normally, it is a litany of woes where local councils are concerned. However, 4,000 jobs is a great achievement, and enterprise sites are a very good way of encouraging business. I am very grateful to him for highlighting the success of Somerset, which goes from strength to strength.
May I ask the Leader of the House for an update on the integrated review? In welcoming the decision to remove Huawei from our critical national infrastructure, we must brace ourselves for both covert and overt repercussions. We are now recognising that China has not matured into the global citizen that we want it to be; indeed, it is pursuing a very different and competing geopolitical agenda. We do need a full foreign policy reset on China, and the vehicle for that is the integrated review.
My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has said that he is having a deep dive into foreign policy in relation to China. The behaviour of the Chinese Government with regard to the joint declaration and their failure to follow that is a matter of great concern, because it is fundamentally a matter of trust. I am sure that my right hon. Friend, as a distinguished chairman of a Select Committee, will ensure that these issues are properly scrutinised and followed.
May I take this opportunity to thank my hon. Friends the Members for Edmonton (Kate Osamor) and for Nottingham North (Alex Norris) for acting as my proxy after I was lucky enough to become a mum in February?
During this pandemic, the world of work has changed for many people. This place should seize this moment as an opportunity to modernise Parliament further and to set an example to other employers. Will the Leader of the House commit to gathering feedback from MPs who have benefited from proxy votes for new parents and, now, from the hybrid Parliament, so that he can make this House more accessible to people from a wider range of backgrounds and circumstances, including those without a family nanny?
May I congratulate the hon. Lady on the birth of her child in February? There is no greater joy than a new life coming into the world. As regards how this House operates, the Procedure Committee is looking at the issue of proxy voting for maternity and paternity leave, which seems to be a scheme that has worked well. I know that the hon. Lady gave evidence to the Procedure Committee recently on that subject. Ultimately, though, Parliament must be a coming together of Members from across the country physically, and as soon as it is safe to have it entirely physical once again, that is what we must get back to.
May I make a controversial statement—that we live in a parliamentary democracy? As regards wearing face masks, I do not think that there will be time, because the order has not been laid, to have a debate. Surely the Leader of the House—indeed, the Government—in a matter as controversial as the enforced wearing of face masks from an increasingly authoritarian Executive, know that there should be a debate here and a vote. After all, this is highly controversial and everybody in the country has a view. Up to 70 million people will be affected by it. Lincolnshire has an infection rate of 150 in 150,000, so we have natural social distancing anyway. Why can we not just have more democracy and less authoritarianism from this Government?
As I understand it—although I will be corrected if this is not right—it is a made affirmative statutory instrument that will have to come to the House in due course, in accordance with the normal procedures. But my right hon. Friend is absolutely right; we are a parliamentary democracy, so decisions made by the Government have to be supported by this House. It is worth bearing in mind that the House passed the emergency legislation which provided the powers for these things to happen.
Further to the comments of the Chair of the Backbench Business Committee, may I say to the Leader of the House that it is deeply regrettable that we will, even for the first week back, not have had an opportunity in this Chamber to discuss the proposals by Israel to annex the Occupied Palestinian Territories? It is a matter on which this House should express a view, as we have historic obligations in the region. I gently say to him that perhaps it might have taken precedence, in terms of the time available in the Chamber, over the rating arrangements for public lavatories, which could be dealt with in Committee—for everyone’s convenience?
On the issue of Israel, the Government remain committed to a two-state solution. Any moves towards annexation would be damaging to efforts to restart peace negotiations and contrary to international law. We have conveyed our opposition to Prime Minister Netanyahu on multiple occasions, and reiterated this message in a statement to the UN Security Council on 24 June.
The remaining stages of the Non-Domestic Rating (Public Lavatories) Bill—without making any more puns on that issue—have to be taken on the Floor of the House. Report stage and Third Reading need to be completed as well as Committee stage, although I do not imagine that proceedings in Committee will take up a great deal of time.
Yesterday the Intelligence and Security Committee elected my right hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis) as its Chair. He is exceptionally well qualified and will do an excellent job. However, some in No. 10 seem to be having a huge hissy fit about the decision. Will the Leader of the House confirm that he will not bring forward a motion to remove my right hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East from the ISC?
The right hon. Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis) was playing ducks and drakes with the Labour party, and that is why the Whip has been withdrawn.
It is with deep sadness that my work over the last few weeks has exposed the significant risks of covid-19 to those in care homes in York: no PPE; no family visits; no GP visits; no Care Quality Commission inspections; agency staff not knowing residents; and poor oversight by the local authority. This has exposed and exacerbated the risk to the most vulnerable members of our community, increasing infection and mortality. This is very serious. Can we have a debate in Government time before the recess about social care during the pandemic, including a review of the Coronavirus Act 2020 and, most urgently, the way in which deaths are reported and recorded?
There will obviously be an opportunity for the hon. Lady to raise this matter at the Adjournment debate pre-recess, but with regard to care homes it is worth reiterating that every death from this virus is a tragedy. Care homes have worked incredibly hard under very difficult circumstances. The Government have set out their comprehensive plan to support adult social care in England throughout the coronavirus outbreak. They have provided £3.7 billion to local authorities in un-ring-fenced form, plus £600 million for infection control. They have overhauled how PPE is delivered to care homes. Considerable efforts have been made under difficult circumstances to help the people running care homes, who have done incredibly well under the most trying circumstances.
The Cumberlege review said that the Primodos drug should have been taken off the market in 1967, that the harm caused to the victim was “avoidable” and that a discretionary financial scheme should be set up for all three affected groups to help them cope with life, so imagine my disappointment when the Minister, whenever she was asked about Primodos last week, quoted legal privilege. The Government can set up a discretionary scheme, with a clear caveat that that does not constitute an admission of liability. Will the Leader of the House ask the Minister to come back to the House to make a statement as to why she has taken that view and why a discretionary scheme cannot be set up? The Leader of the House knows I am not giving up on this.
The hon. Lady gives me the opportunity to congratulate her personally, or as personally as one can in this virtual setting, on the work she did in regard to Primodos and the Cumberlege review, and the comfort she has brought to thousands of families across the country, who knew that something had gone wrong and now have a report that accepts that what they were saying was true and that it should have been known by the powers that be. The work she has done is admirable and a model of how an MP should hold Parliament to account. She knows my sympathy with her, because I served on her all-party parliamentary group. I will therefore more than happily take the matter up directly with the Minister and try to get her a fuller response.
The Leader of the House did not answer the question from the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr Bone), who asked whether it was his intention to bring forward a motion to remove the newly elected Chair of the Intelligence and Security Committee from that Committee. What is the answer?
I announced the business forthcoming at the beginning of the statement.
My right hon. Friend will be only too aware of the recent Turkish ruling that Hagia Sophia, that Byzantine masterpiece inscribed on the UNESCO world heritage list, should be turned into a mosque. This architectural wonder was built by Justinian the Great, then turned into a mosque and finally dedicated as a secular museum by the great reformer Atatürk. It now risks having its beautiful murals, mosaics and frescoes damaged or destroyed. That would be a loss to the whole world and, furthermore, would exacerbate community tensions. Will my right hon. Friend hold a debate in Government time on Turkey’s actions, UNESCO’s response and the protection of this important world heritage site?
We have noted President Erdoğan’s decision to turn Hagia Sophia into a mosque, and while that has caused concern internationally—I particularly note the comments of the Holy Father—the Government regard this as a sovereign matter for Turkey. However, we would expect that Hagia Sophia, as part of a UNESCO world heritage site, remains accessible to all, as testament to Turkey’s rich and diverse historical and cultural legacy, and that its precious artefacts are preserved. We therefore welcome the public statements by Turkish leaders that this historic building will continue to be accessible to people of all faiths and nationalities, which is consistent with the Turkish constitution’s provision for freedom of conscience and religion for all.
It is for states party to the world heritage convention to ensure that their designated world heritage sites comply with the terms of the convention. We work closely with UNESCO, its advisory body and partner Governments to promote the highest standards of heritage protection. That will ensure that designated sites are protected effectively for the whole of humanity and for future generations.
“Business needs certainty” appears to be the Government’s default response when they have nothing of substance or clarity to offer. Despite the Paymaster General’s recent assurances that answers would be made available soon, businesses in my constituency of Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath and elsewhere still lack any certainty on tariffs, regulations, customs processes, cross-border arrangements or the recognition of professional qualifications such as the validity of pilots’ licences from next January. This matter was brought sharply into focus by the International Trade Secretary’s assessment that current plans could lead to smuggling—
Order. Leader of the House.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. The Government are still in negotiations with the European Union about how things will work out after 1 January, but businesses should naturally prepare themselves for a variety of eventualities.
I want to get through the list. If we speed up, we will get through it.
Our key workers have kept the nation going throughout lockdown and I want to see local and national celebration of that. In Harrogate, a local electrical firm and a private donor have paid for a set of rainbow-coloured lights on the side of the Stray parkland to be a permanent tribute. May we have a debate on how we can celebrate key workers, both locally and nationally?
May I begin by commending the local electrical firm for doing that? I wholeheartedly agree that we should pay tribute to all those people who helped keep the country running throughout the peak of the crisis, from doctors and nurses to police officers, bus drivers, cleaners, caterers and, of course, supermarket workers. Those people, along with millions of others, deserve our respect and heartfelt thanks.
British Airways has treated its workers disgracefully, threatening to fire all 42,000 and rehire around two thirds on terms and pay that will set people back decades. It is frustrating that the Prime Minister has not yet made clear what consequences BA will face, including for its favourable landing slot allocation. Will the Leader of the House therefore invite the Prime Minister to make a statement to the House before the recess on exactly what action the Government will take to halt BA’s shocking behaviour?
That ties in with the question of my hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman) about a debate on the aviation industry more generally. I suggest that the hon. Gentleman raises the matter in the pre-recess Adjournment debate.
Our pilots and cabin crew have been through a difficult number of months, but many have focused their efforts on helping others, including Moray-based Captain Emma Henderson, the co-founder of Project Wingman. That sees thousands of cabin crew, in hospitals across the UK, including in Dr Gray’s Hospital in Moray, helping our dedicated NHS staff by giving them a first-class experience. May we have a debate in Parliament to congratulate Emma Henderson, Dave Fielding and everyone involved with Project Wingman?
My hon. Friend has managed to convey congratulations. He is right to do so. I hope he will give the people he mentioned a framed copy of Hansard showing how much the House of Commons appreciates the work that they have done.
The Government sat on the Dame Mary Ney review into funding oversight of our further education colleges for nine months. The written statement that the Minister for Apprenticeships and Skills provided could have been written in nine minutes. May we have a proper debate and statement on the findings of that review, which exposes how the job cuts throughout the civil service in the Education and Skills Funding Agency have prevented the Government from having proper oversight of our further education sector?
The Chancellor made announcements with regard to the additional funding that will be made available to further education. The Government have shown their absolute commitment to ensuring that further education is as good as it can possibly be and to improving standards. I say to the hon. Gentleman, as I have said to others, that there will be an opportunity to raise such matters specifically in the pre-recess Adjournment debate.
May we have a statement from a Minister in the Department for Transport on the operation of local transport schemes? Harrow Council intends to close several roads, which will severely inconvenience the residents who live in those areas and force them to travel on congested roads, and then blames the Government for making it happen. If we can clarify the matter through a statement, everyone will be clear about whose responsibility this is.
My hon. Friend raises a crucial question. Local authorities have changed their traffic rules, and some may have worked, but others have caused real irritation, annoyance and increased congestion. The Department for Transport published statutory guidance to local authorities, providing advice on the changes the Government expect them to make to their road lay-outs to give more space to cyclists and pedestrians, but it is important that motorists’ interests are not ignored.
We said that others would follow if action was not taken following the British Airways fire and rehire announcement, and so it has proven, with Centrica, easyJet and Menzies Aviation all engaging in that disgraceful behaviour. My Employment (Dismissal and Re-employment) Bill has been delayed, so will the Leader of the House help to facilitate a meeting between me and the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy so we can work together to improve employment and employment law and protect workers?
One of my roles is always to try to facilitate meetings between Members of this House and Ministers. If the hon. Gentleman has not already, I urge him to start the process by correspondence, but if that does not achieve the result he requires, then if he comes to my office, I will do what I can.
My constituents are starting to get a little impatient that some key public services are not reopening and there is no set date for them to do so—for example, for interviews for new passports. Could the Leader of the House find time for a statement before the recess so we can have a road map of when everything will reopen, as long as the virus stays under control?
Things are reopening in a staged way to try to ensure that it can be done in a way that does not take any unnecessary risks. We see that across the country. My hon. Friend is right to say that there is more to be done, but I am sure that announcements will be made in the normal way as more things open up.
I thank the Leader of the House. The House is suspended.
UK Internal Market: White Paper
For centuries, the United Kingdom’s internal market has been the bedrock of our shared prosperity, with people, products, ideas and investment moving seamlessly between our nations, safeguarding livelihoods and businesses and demonstrating that, as a union, our country is greater than the sum of its parts.
Today, I am publishing a White Paper on the Government’s plans to preserve the UK internal market after the transition period. Since the Acts of Union, the UK internal market has been the source of unhindered and open trade across the country, one which pulls us together as a united country. I know that the right hon. Member for Doncaster North (Edward Miliband) cares as much about our precious union as I do.
Since 1973, EU law has acted as the cohering force for the UK internal market. In 2016, the British people voted to repeal this legislation, allowing us now to articulate the continued functioning of the internal market. The Union’s economic strength is unrivalled. Since the Acts of Union, the size of our economy has multiplied over 170-fold. Successive UK Governments have legislated to share this prosperity and protect workers’ rights—for example, through the introduction of the national minimum wage and now the national living wage, and by providing for more generous holiday and maternity leave than required by the EU. Today we are announcing plans to continue this hugely successful economic Union. We will legislate for an internal market in UK law, as we leave the transition period and the EU’s single market. Our approach will give businesses the regulatory clarity and certainty they want. It will ensure that the cost of doing business in the UK stays as low as possible.
But let me be clear: preserving the coherence of the UK internal market will be done in a manner that respects and upholds the devolution settlements. On 1 January 2021, hundreds of powers previously held by the EU will rightly flow directly back to devolved Administrations in the United Kingdom. For the first time, because of our approach, the devolved Administrations will be able to legislate on a whole range of policy areas. Each nation that makes up our United Kingdom will hold an unprecedented level of powers after the transition period.
To respect devolution and uphold our internal market, we propose to legislate this year. Businesses across the UK will be given a market access commitment. That will be underpinned by the principles of mutual recognition and non-discrimination, which will guarantee that goods and services from one part of the United Kingdom can always be sold into another. The simple principle at the heart of this approach is a continuation of our centuries-old position that there should be no economic barriers to trading within the United Kingdom.
The economies of our four nations, within one United Kingdom, are strongly integrated. At the time of the last census, 170,000 workers commuted daily from one part of the UK to another. Scotland makes over £50 billion of sales per year to the rest of the UK, accounting for over 60% of all exports. Indeed, Scotland sells three times as much to the rest of the UK than to the whole EU put together. About 50% of Northern Ireland’s sales are to Great Britain, and 75% of exports of Welsh final goods and services are consumed in other parts of the UK. In some parts of Wales, over a quarter of workers commute across the border. It is in the clear economic interest of the whole United Kingdom that its internal market continues to function successfully and seamlessly, as it has done for centuries.
As part of our proposals, we will also clarify in law the position that subsidy control is a reserved matter for the whole United Kingdom. This has never been a devolved matter. The Government have been clear that, after the end of the transition period, the UK will have its own domestic subsidy control regime. We will develop our policy proposals on this in due course, consulting widely.
We will only recover from covid by working together. Just over two weeks ago, the Prime Minister set out how we would strengthen the incredible partnership between England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland through our economic recovery. That will be underpinned by a strong UK internal market and avoid the damaging uncertainty for businesses of a fractured economy. It will provide the unquestionable advantages of continued open trade. It will benefit businesses, workers and consumers across the country through lowering trading costs and allowing different regions to specialise in sectors where they enjoy a comparative advantage.
Our proposals are designed for co-operation between all four nations. We invite all devolved Administrations to work together and to agree common approaches to cross-cutting issues such as regulatory standards.
The UK economy has some of the highest standards in the world. We go beyond EU rules in many areas, including health and safety in the workplace, workers’ rights, food, health and animal welfare, consumer protections, household goods, net zero and the environment. We will maintain our commitment to high standards, as we negotiate trade agreements that will provide jobs and growth to the United Kingdom. Through our common frameworks approach, we will support regulatory consistency across our internal market, so if the devolved Administrations seek to agree standards across the UK economy, I say simply this: come and work with us.
The UK internal market is a historic achievement for the United Kingdom, which for 300 years has supported unrivalled economic growth and innovation within our great Union. That has underpinned the best of our United Kingdom’s innovation and prosperity: the Scottish enlightenment, the steam engine, the world’s first vaccine, the telephone, the electric tramway, penicillin, radar, pneumatic tyres, the breaking of the Enigma code, the sequencing of DNA, and the world wide web. As we rebuild and recover from covid, we will work together as one United Kingdom to support jobs and livelihoods across our whole country. We will maintain high standards for consumers, and deliver our commitment to devolution by giving more power to the devolved legislatures. I commend this statement to the House.
I thank the Secretary of State for his statement. We support the principle of maintaining the UK’s internal market, which is vital for trade, jobs, and prosperity across the whole United Kingdom. The way the Government go about that has profound implications for whether we drive up standards across the UK, or drive them down, and for whether that issue becomes a source of tension across the four nations of the UK. We believe in our United Kingdom, and there is a big responsibility on the Government to seek to build consensus, and ensure that we do not drive a wedge between our nations or give an excuse to those who wish to do so.
By those standards, there are significant problems in the announcement. On the process, for example, the Welsh Government were promised a draft of this White Paper last March, yet when I talked to the Welsh First Minister yesterday afternoon, the Government had still not shared it with him. That approach does the Secretary of State and the Government no good. On the substance, we should be honest that there is a real challenge regarding how we maintain an internal market without barriers in the UK as we leave the European Union, while at the same time respecting devolution when issues such as food standards and labelling, animal welfare, and other important environmental issues are devolved.
For the past 40 years, including 20 years of devolution, that has been achieved by the EU setting minimum standards, which all four nations had to abide by. The crucial question is not whether we have an internal market, which we need, but how we now set minimum standards to ensure that each nation has a proper voice in doing so, and a means of resolving any disputes that arise. By answering those questions, we can do what we need to do, which is both keep the internal market and respect devolution. Unfortunately, despite the warm words from the Secretary of State, the approach of the White Paper as presented for England, Scotland and Wales appears to be simply to legislate that the lowest standard chosen by one Parliament must become the minimum standard for all.
The risk is that one legislature would be able to lower its food safety standards and animal welfare standards, and force the other nations, which would have no recourse, to accept goods and services produced on that basis— in other words, a race to the bottom. The Secretary of State talks about levelling up, but there is a real risk of levelling down. That is not in the interests of consumers, workers or businesses, and it does not adequately respect devolution. For Northern Ireland, if standards in the UK diverge significantly below those of the EU, there is a real risk that checks on food and other products going from Great Britain to Northern Ireland would increase in parallel.
The Secretary of State must, in the course of this consultation, provide better answers for how we avoid that race to the bottom, so let me ask him four specific questions. First, will he explain what is the mechanism, if any, by which the four nations of the UK will agree minimum standards that respect the voice of each nation? He mentions the common frameworks process and an ongoing process of dialogue, but he must realise that that is superseded by the White Paper, which simply states that the lowest standard among the nations wins. If the framework process is to prevent that danger, how will it be incorporated into legislation?
Secondly, there needs to be a means of resolving disputes that can command confidence. The White Paper states:
“The Government will consider tasking an independent, advisory body to report to the UK Parliament”.
That is far too weak. Surely the Secretary of State must recognise that any independent body, if it is to respect devolution, must be accountable to all four nations, with its functions agreed by all four nations.
Thirdly, the Secretary of State must understand that the anxiety caused by the White Paper is partly due to the gap between the Government’s warm words about raising standards—we heard them again today—and their deeds. They had a chance in the Agriculture Bill to agree that no trade deal would be signed that lowered animal welfare, environmental protection or food safety standards, through an amendment tabled by their own side, but they refused to do so. The spectre of a Trump trade deal that would drive down standards and be imposed on the whole of the UK hangs over this White Paper. For years they have denied that their real agenda is a bonfire of much-needed standards. Great, but if they do not plan to lower standards, why cannot the Secretary of State agree to legally binding commitments?
Fourthly, the state aid rules need to be in place in just five months’ time, but even after this White Paper we still do not know any details about how they will work. Will the Secretary of State tell us when we will get the Government’s plans?
I want to end by saying to the right hon. Gentleman that we absolutely need to maintain the internal market from 1 January, but it is time the Government showed—in deeds, not just in words—their commitment to levelling up, not levelling down. It is time, too, that they showed a desire to build constitutional consensus, rather than risking constitutional conflict, and the White Paper is not a good start. The Secretary of State and the Government must do better in the weeks and months ahead.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his comments and for his support for the principle of the UK internal market. I hope that that is something we will hear echoed across the House as we open up to questions. Let me address some of the points that he has raised. The first thing worth noting is that he talked about anxiety. The real issue at the moment is giving certainty to businesses, so that they know from day one that they are able to operate as they do now within a coherent, seamless internal market. That is what this White Paper proposal absolutely gives them. I have spoken, as I am sure he will have done, to business representatives and organisations over the last 24 hours, and they have told me that this is one big issue off the risk register of companies.
The right hon. Gentleman talked about standards. I would point out to him once again that the UK has some of the highest standards in the world across a whole range of areas. I have listed issues around maternity and paternity pay, around the exclusions and around zero-hour contracts. I say to him once again—I am sure that this issue will be raised by others as well—that we are not going to be compromising our high environmental standards, our high animal welfare standards or, indeed, our high food safety standards in the deals that we do.
The right hon. Gentleman then raised the issue about working together. He will know that the common frameworks programme has been running for some time, and we have had consultations and discussions around that. If colleagues in the devolved Administrations want to have a discussion about standards, that is absolutely the right forum in which to do it. He also mentioned the state aid rules. I know that he will understand the reason that we want to continue to have this as a reserved matter. We want to ensure that there is effectively equality across the whole of the UK and that there are no distortions. I understand his desire for us to set out the details on this, and that will come.
In conclusion, the White Paper gives certainty to businesses. It is about protecting jobs and livelihoods, and about supporting businesses in making their investment decisions. That is good for consumers as well. It is about underpinning our recovery from covid as we seek to work together. I say to all colleagues that this is about businesses and people, not about politicians, and I hope that that is the spirit in which we will conduct the rest of this debate.
Nothing is currently more important for our whole United Kingdom than the protection of public health and the support of our economic recovery. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the proposals in the White Paper will ensure that all four nations—indeed, all four corners—of our United Kingdom can overcome this crisis by working together and promoting good co-operation between Westminster and the devolved Administrations?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right: that is precisely what I want to do. This is a consultation; we are consulting and we want to get people’s views. My door is very much open to having a dialogue and discussion with anyone who wants to come forward.
I thank the Secretary of State for his statement.
What we have seen put forward by the Tory Government is the biggest assault on devolution since the Scottish Parliament reconvened in 1999. It is clear that the Government either do not get Scotland or cannot even be bothered to get it, so let me remind those on the Government Benches that in 1997 more than 75% of Scots voted to establish the Scottish Parliament. The Tories at the time were hostile to the establishment of that Scottish Parliament; they were out of step with Scotland. Plus ça change. Today, the Tories want to strip our Scottish Parliament of its powers.
Let us myth-bust some of the lies that have been circulated this morning. Scotland is not getting 70 new powers. The UK Government say that new powers are coming on animal welfare, energy efficiency and land use; has the Secretary of State not heard? The Scottish Parliament already has those powers: just last month the Scottish Parliament passed a Bill on animal welfare; last year, the Scottish Parliament passed a Bill on forestry; and energy efficiency was part of the Climate Change (Scotland Bill) in 2009, more than a decade ago. We have these powers.
The Secretary of State’s proposal will impose what is being called a mutual recognition regime. The only recognition here is that it is a plan for a race to the bottom on standards. It will mean a reduction in standards in one part of the UK driving down standards elsewhere, even if that is in direct contradiction of the devolved Administrations and their rights and powers.
We all know how desperate this Tory Government are to sell out food standards in return for a US trade deal. There we have it: no new powers and a plan to destroy Scotland’s world-class food and drink standards—not a Parliament in Edinburgh of equals, but one where we legislate only with the approval of Westminster. I have to say to the Secretary of State: this is not a good look. Will he guarantee to the House that these plans will not be imposed on Scotland and that he and his Government will respect, as the Prime Minister often says, the Scottish Parliament’s decisions on them as an equal?
The right hon. Gentleman talks about understanding Scotland; the one thing that is clear from the statements he has just made is that he certainly does not understand business in Scotland and he certainly does not understand the people of Scotland on this issue. The UK internal market—[Interruption.] The UK internal market is about—[Interruption.]
Order. Mr Blackford, I can hear what you are shouting. Please, desist.
The UK internal market is about preserving jobs across the United Kingdom. It is about making sure that investment can come in, confident in the knowledge that we have a level playing field—an internal market in which businesses can sell services and products across the United Kingdom.
The right hon. Gentleman talks about the powers that will be coming back at the end of this year—at the end of the transition period. It will be the biggest transfer of powers in the history of devolution. I do, though, agree with him that it is not going to be 70 powers coming back to Scotland; I think it is closer to 111. His colleagues in the Scottish Parliament will have an opportunity to set rules and regulations. The problem, of course, is that SNP Members are not interested in that—they are not interested in taking control; they are interested in being ruled by the European Union. The right hon. Gentleman should spend more time talking to businesses and to people whose jobs would be at risk if we did not have this seamless internal market in the United Kingdom.
Finally, the right hon. Gentleman talks about standards. I have already explained to the right hon. Member for Doncaster North (Edward Miliband) that we have some of the highest standards in the world, and we are not going to compromise on that. The right hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Ian Blackford) talks about wanting to have a dialogue. I respectfully remind him that it was the Scottish Government who walked away from the discussion that we were having on the UK internal market last year, so, in the spirit of co-operation, I hold out my hand to him and say, “Let us talk. Let us continue the discussion. Come back to us on the consultation and continue to work with us on the common frameworks programme.”
Will my right hon. Friend assure me that Scotland, England, Wales and Northern Ireland will also see more powers coming back to them as a result of these proposals when the transition period ends?
Yes, indeed. My hon. Friend is absolutely right: powers will flow back to all the devolved Administrations—around 70 to Wales and around 150 to Northern Ireland.
This talk of powers being returned disguises the fact that the Government are denying us all here a much more important power—that of scrutinising the trade deals that are struck in our name. The British people used to have this power through their elected representatives in Brussels, but the Trade Bill comes back to the House on Monday and there is no provision in it for this Parliament to have scrutiny of the trade deals that are being struck in our name. Will the Secretary of State accept that trade flows throughout the United Kingdom can best be secured by instituting a robust and respected dispute resolution process, and will he confirm that implementing such a mechanism will be a priority as he progresses his plans?
I say respectfully to the hon. Lady that she needs to move on. The British people decided that we were leaving the European Union in 2016 and we are implementing that vote.
Scotland sells more to the rest of the UK than it does to the entire rest of the world put together. Does my right hon. Friend agree that preserving the UK’s internal market is vital to protecting jobs, businesses and livelihoods in all four nations of the UK?
I could not agree more. Modelling shows that Scotland would suffer a GDP loss of four times higher than the UK as a whole from unmitigated differences in regulations.
When the UK Government seek to strike trade deals with the rest of the world, they need to be able to speak with one voice for the whole United Kingdom, so will the Secretary of State commit in the Bill that he brings forward to making sure that arrangements are in place for proper consultation with all the devolved Administrations and proper scrutiny by this Parliament and the elected representatives of the British people?
I have just said that the White Paper is indeed a consultation and he, along with everyone else in our country, is able to set out his views.
On 17 March, the Chancellor said that companies such as Square One in Leighton Buzzard in the events industry
“that have business properties will be eligible”—[Official Report, 17 March 2020; Vol. 673, c. 964.]—
for business rates relief. Local authorities do not seem to have got that message, so will the Business Secretary stick up for the events industry and make sure that what the Chancellor said should happen will happen?
I thank my hon. Friend for that question. I know that this is a very difficult time for very many businesses up and down the country, and that is why we have supported them with a whole range of measures, including grants and loans that they have been able to get. He will also know that I set out a £617 million discretionary grant fund for local authorities. I hope that local authorities will have used that discretion to support local businesses, but I am happy to take up that individual case if he would like.
The thing is that there are lots of people who have been excluded from all those. There are about 3 million people who have recently become self-employed or are company directors of small limited companies—people who have not received a single penny from the Government—and their business has really suffered. I just hope that the Government still have something more to say about those people because they are in real financial trouble and they need support now. My local authority still needs £2.5 million to make sure that Tylorstown tip does not fall further into the river, and that is the responsibility of the Westminster Government. Will he please guarantee that that money happens now?
I completely understand that, as my hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) and the hon. Gentleman have said, some businesses and individuals are facing real difficulties at this point. We have provided £160 billion-worth of support in the past few months and the Chancellor announced another £30 billion. I say to the hon. Gentleman that through the self-employed scheme we have supported about 2.6 million individuals, and of course businesses are able to get bounce-back loans, more than 1 million of which have been approved. Again, if he has individual cases to raise, I am happy to look at them.
I welcome the Secretary of State’s statement on the internal market, but may I press him to ensure that the interests of small food producers, particularly those in Lancashire, are given equal weighting to all these additional powers that have been given to the Scottish Parliament, because we do not want any part of the United Kingdom to be left behind?
My hon. Friend is right to say that we do not want any part of the UK, or indeed any business across the UK, to be left behind, which is precisely why we have set out our proposals on mutual recognition and non-discrimination.
Words such as “mutual recognition regime” sound benign, yet some 1 million people have signed a National Farmers Union petition and organisations such as the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and Compassion in World Farming have expressed their fears, so why should my constituents believe the Minister’s promises of munificence? To paraphrase the old adage, should we beware this time not of Greeks but of the British bearing gifts, less than a Trojan horse but this time for Trump’s America?
I am not sure how I respond to all that, except to say that the proposal we are putting forward is about protecting businesses and jobs across the whole UK.
I welcome the Minister’s statement. Does he agree that these proposals will maintain current economic freedoms, which are vital to ensure that all of our nations survive and thrive post covid? This is good news for business and for job security, and, fundamentally, it enables us to level up across our great United Kingdom.
Absolutely. As ever, my hon. Friend speaks a great deal of sense. This is about levelling up and making sure there is an equal opportunity for businesses across our country to be able to sell and trade.
The Secretary of State talked about the economic recovery after coronavirus, about which my constituents and I have immediate concerns. In the past week alone, more than 8,000 jobs have been lost in the west midlands, manufacturing and higher education sectors have been particularly hit, and in Coventry we fear an unemployment tsunami when the furlough scheme ends. Will the Government extend the furlough scheme on a sectoral basis, invest in green manufacturing in the west midlands, and provide a plan for higher education that protects jobs and funding?
The Chancellor set out the position on the furlough scheme clearly. As the hon. Lady knows, he announced the job retention bonus. On green jobs, she will also know that in his summer statement he announced an extra £3 billion for energy efficiency in homes and in public buildings, and that will support about 140,000 green jobs.
This White Paper, in ensuring the seamless internal market within the UK that this Government are delivering, is an excellent thing, particularly given that we are delivering the democratic will of the people in leaving the EU. Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is particularly good for small and microbusinesses in vast rural constituencies such as mine, where 97% of businesses are small or micro-sized?
Yes, indeed, because if there were regulatory barriers, for instance, if there were even small differences on things such as food labelling requirements, costs would of course be raised for small businesses, which they ultimately may pass on to consumers. Therefore what we are proposing is good not only for businesses of all sizes, but for consumers.
These structural arrangements are enormously important, but they only go so far because so are political culture and drive to ensure that we get Britain back to work. Yet Government purchasing rules and practice still grovel to so-called EU rules—unlike, incidentally, most other EU countries. Now the Government are free of those rules, when are they going to actively back British business and British workers in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland? There are no more EU excuses. Act now!
The right hon. Gentleman, for whom I have enormous respect, as ever makes his case very forcefully. He talks about public procurement, and I look forward to his thoughts as part of the consultation.
I warmly welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement. The internal market could not be more important to my constituents. Their businesses and jobs and, crucially, our economic recovery from covid depend on seamless trade throughout the UK, particularly because of the border we share with England. Will my right hon. Friend ignore any hysteria from the Labour party in Wales and press full steam ahead with the Bill, because my constituents will welcome it?
I thank my hon. Friend for her question. She will also know that almost three times as many intermediate inputs used by businesses in Wales come from the rest of the UK than from the rest of the world put together. That is why it is important that we continue with a seamless internal market, which is good news for her constituents. I would just say to her that I am not prone to hysteria.
The European Parliament, the Court of Justice and the European Commission have 60 years of jurisprudence for how to deal with these issues. The reality is that under the proposals every single power, budget and competence, not just of the Scottish and Welsh Parliaments and the Northern Ireland Assembly but of local government in each of those countries, will be subject to a politically appointed panel that has no jurisprudence whatever. What will be the rights of the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Parliament and the Northern Ireland Assembly to input people on to that panel, and what dispute resolution mechanisms will they use? If this is not a fair and impartial arbiter, it is a power grab over every single competence that we have.
Perhaps I can clarify once more, in case it has not been clear enough, that there is no power grab; this is a power surge. We are ensuring that all devolved policy areas stay devolved, and additional powers are returning to the devolved Administrations.
I thank my right hon. Friend for his statement and welcome the White Paper. Like thousands of my constituents, my dad and brother work in the building sector and travel to their jobs in England every day. I implore my right hon. Friend to ignore the attempts by the Welsh Labour Government to hold our Union and constitution to hostage over political points, and to crack on with building the single market that is essential to my Welsh constituency.
My hon. Friend speaks a great deal of sense. As I said at the start of the statement, I want to work co-operatively with colleagues across the devolved Administrations. That is precisely what we have been seeking to do over the past period, and we will continue to do that. I look forward to their representations as part of the consultation.
It has been eight weeks since the Prime Minister of this country has bothered to contact the First Minister of Wales—eight weeks during a global pandemic that for many has felt like a lifetime. It has been a lifetime for the hundreds of workers at General Electric in Nantgarw in my constituency, who have just been served redundancy notices due to the lack of support from this UK Tory Government. The 2019 Conservative and Unionist party manifesto stated that the Conservatives were committed to strengthening the Union between all four nations of the UK, but we have actually seen this UK Tory Government completely ride roughshod through devolution. The White Paper is yet another assault on Welsh powers. Could the Secretary of State tell the House precisely when the White Paper was presented to the Welsh First Minister?
May I just say to the hon. Lady that I want to work collaboratively with all colleagues across all the devolved Administrations? She talks about the First Minister of Wales, and I can tell her that the Secretary of State for Wales has tried on two occasions recently to get a meeting. I think that one was due to take place in the last 24 hours, which unfortunately did not. There may be perfectly good reasons why that did not happen, but my commitment is to speak to my counterparts in Wales, for us from a UK Government perspective to speak to our counterparts and there is a consultation. The hon. Lady should look at the document and then respond.
For centuries, the internal market has ensured that the British people have the right to sell their wares and move freely between any nation in our United Kingdom. Does my right hon. Friend agree with me that we must do everything in our power to protect the status quo and those ancient rights? There must be no border at Berwick. Welsh lamb should be sold in Scotland. English barley should supply Scotch whisky.
Quite simply, yes. My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and that is why we are putting forward proposals to ensure that we continue with our seamless internal market in the United Kingdom.
Since I was elected, many of my constituents have written to me about their concerns for food standards, whether they are people who eat food or even the 20 or so members of the National Farmers Union in my constituency who produce it. In the White Paper, the Government make several references to past action on standards, but the future-focused language is extremely weak. Will the Secretary of State commit to minimum standards, which people can improve on but not go below?