House of Commons
Monday 7 November 2016
The House met at half-past Two o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Business Before Questions
That the Speaker do issue his Warrant to the Clerk of the Crown to make out a new Writ for the electing of a Member to serve in this present Parliament for the County Constituency of Sleaford and North Hykeham in the room of Stephen James Phillips, who since his election for the said County Constituency, has been appointed to the Office of Steward and Bailiff of Her Majesty’s Manor of Northstead in the County of York.—(Gavin Williamson.)
Before we get under way with proceedings, I am sure that the whole House will wish to join me in offering our warmest congratulations to Andy Murray on becoming the men’s singles world No. 1—the first British man to do so since the inception of the ATP rankings in 1973. It is a tribute to his talent, to his big-match temperament and to his tireless endeavour over many years.
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
Procurement Programmes: Supply Chain
May I add my congratulations to Andy Murray? Having said those remarks, I am sure that Mr Speaker will be able to watch many more matches played by the world’s No. 1 tennis player. It is absolutely fantastic news.
Small businesses are vital for growth and innovation, whether they work directly with the Ministry of Defence or through our prime contractors. We have committed to increase our direct and indirect procurement spending with small and medium-sized enterprises from 19% to 25% by 2020.
It is good to hear from the Minister that our armed forces can benefit from the innovation and entrepreneurship of small businesses. However, one such business in my constituency tells me that dealing with the Department can sometimes be overly bureaucratic, including the need to apply to remain on a list of approved suppliers. Can the Minister take any steps to simplify the process and encourage even more small businesses to come forward?
We recognise that processes are overly bureaucratic. We have got rid of the idea of an approved suppliers list, and we are working hard to reduce red tape. We are introducing a shorter contract and a network of supply chain advocates. May I suggest that any businesses in my hon. Friend’s constituency or any other contact the relevant supply chain advocate? I look forward to sending my hon. Friend those details later today.
Will the Minister outline what steps are being taken to help British businesses? In that context, will she tell us why the Department decided to procure combat garments for the Army from a Spanish company rather than a Scottish one?
We welcome competition in procurement for all our contracts. We also recognise that our £178 billion equipment budget is being spent with more than 5,000 businesses here in the UK.
SMEs make up a large part of the helicopter manufacturing industry in my constituency and they are worried that the potential local closure of GKN foreshadows an erosion of that. What support can my hon. Friend provide to keep a full helicopter manufacturing capability in the Yeovil area?
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend’s fantastic work representing his constituents in Yeovil and the magnificent work that they do. We took delivery of the most recent Wildcat helicopter just in the last month. We look forward to working with Leonardo in Yeovil as part of a major strategic partnership agreement. It is important that my hon. Friend puts such issues about helicopter manufacturing forward as part of the industrial Green Paper that the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy will produce later this year.
Last week’s announcement on the Type 26 frigate was good news for Scotland. What steps have been put in place to ensure that UK SMEs and larger companies, for example those based in the north-east of England, will gain work from this contract?
The hon. Gentleman is right to highlight this fantastic news for companies up and down the country, including our shipbuilders on the Clyde. We have already announced contracts worth some £1.9 billion which are related to this programme right across the UK. Importantly, we will be publishing, alongside our prime contractor, the opportunities for the British steel industry to bid into this manufacturing opportunity.
One reason we have bureaucracy, which was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Rugby (Mark Pawsey), is to ensure that SMEs stay in business during the whole course of a contract. The biggest enemy of any SME is a poor cash flow. What is the Department doing to ensure that SMEs are paid promptly?
My hon. Friend is right to highlight that this is an important issue, which is why the Ministry of Defence is so committed to being able to pay our invoices promptly. We give that guidance to our prime contractors, and I would certainly like to hear of any examples from Members of where prime contractors are not passing on that prompt payment from the MOD to their suppliers.
The Minister will be aware of the fabulous job being done by SMEs and large companies to deliver the Royal Navy carriers at Rosyth, both of which are on time and on budget. How does she plan to reward Rosyth and its highly skilled workforce after the carriers are gone? What good news has she got for Rosyth today?
I would have thought the hon. Gentleman might have started by welcoming Friday’s announcement about the shipbuilding jobs on the Clyde, but he is absolutely right that it is a wonderful national moment as we complete these two fantastic carriers at Rosyth. I am sure he and I are both looking forward to seeing the Queen Elizabeth sail down the Forth some time next year. Given the ambitious shipbuilding strategy that we have and the national shipbuilding strategy that will be announced nearer to the autumn statement, I am sure that there will be great news for shipbuilding across Scotland and the whole of the UK.
Iraq and Syria: RAF Campaign
The RAF’s significant contribution to the fight against Daesh is second only to that of the Americans. To date, we have conducted 1,048 airstrikes in Iraq and 67 in Syria. In Iraq, the RAF has helped Iraqi security forces to halt and push back Daesh, with about three quarters of the current strikes now supporting operations to retake Mosul. In Syria, the RAF has struck oilfields and supported the liberation of al-Shaddadi and Manbij.
What further support is the Secretary of State going to give to the Iraqi Kurdish forces in recapturing Mosul? He has outlined an up-to-date version of events, but what further support can he give them?
We are supporting the Mosul operation through airstrikes, through surveillance and reconnaissance from the air and, above all, through the training that we have supplied to Iraqi and Kurdish forces. I can tell the House that British troops have now trained more than 30,000 Iraqi soldiers, including Kurdish.
The Secretary of State will recall that the decision to launch airstrikes, both in Iraq and latterly in Syria, was taken not under the royal prerogative, but by resolution of this House. Does he agree that that precedent might well be useful in discussions in the months ahead?
My hon. Friend tempts me into a matter to be considered by this House a little later this afternoon.
Reports at the weekend suggest that the deployment and moves into Raqqa are imminent. Can the Secretary of State give us any update on what is going to happen and what support we will be providing to the efforts against Daesh in Raqqa?
Yes, I can tell the House that we expect operations to first isolate, then encircle and then liberate Raqqa to begin shortly. Our forces—the RAF—will be involved in a similar role there, providing intelligence and reconnaissance from the air, but they will also be providing close air support to troops on the ground.
The Royal Air Force is world renowned for the accuracy of its missile strikes. Will my right hon. Friend confirm what I think is still happening, which is that innocent casualties are at an absolute minimum when the RAF strikes in Iraq and Syria?
I hope that I can reassure my hon. Friend on that, because we take great care to plan our missions in a way that will minimise the risk of civilian casualties in accordance with the rules of engagement that I laid down at the beginning of the campaign. In more than 1,000 airstrikes now conducted by the RAF as part of the campaign, we have found no evidence yet of civilian casualties, and we do carry out an assessment after each of the British strikes.
In the run-up to Remembrance Day, we think of all those who have served our country as well as those who are currently serving it around the world, and we remember the immense sacrifices that have been made to defend our freedoms.
We support the RAF’s involvement in the campaign to liberate Raqqa. Daesh has used the city as its headquarters to plot attacks against British citizens, and it is vital that that evil organisation is routed for good. Before launching the operation to free Mosul, the Iraqi Government made careful plans about exactly which groups would be allowed to enter the city to avoid the real risk of sectarian violence. Will the Secretary of State tell us whether similar plans have been made in respect of Raqqa?
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her question. Let me formally welcome her and her team to Defence questions, and echo the tributes that she paid—and that we will all be paying over the next few days—to the work of our armed forces here and around the globe.
The hon. Lady is right that a lot of work went into the preparation of the Mosul campaign to ensure that there was sufficient reassurance for its predominantly Sunni population that the way that it was to be isolated, encircled and eventually liberated would not further exacerbate the tensions in that already complex city. Raqqa is predominantly an Arab city, and it is the coalition’s view that its encirclement and liberation should be accomplished by a predominantly Arab force.
We are also all deeply concerned about Russia’s corrosive role in the Syrian conflict. Its planes have hit schools and aid convoys and now, as we understand it, the signs are that it is preparing for a devastating assault on Aleppo. I am sure that the Secretary of State agrees that what the people of Aleppo want is an immediate cessation of hostilities. What is the Government’s strategy for achieving a meaningful ceasefire agreement?
I think there is agreement across the House that Russia’s actions speak far louder than its words. The key is to stop the violence and return to the cessation of hostilities as originally agreed. There have been a number of these ceasefires and, in each case, they have been broken by the Assad regime and its Russian supporters. It really is time now that Russia called a halt to the slaughter and got engaged with us in finding a political settlement so that Syria can finally live in peace.
Mosul: Reconstruction and Governance
We encourage the Iraqi Government’s efforts to protect civilians, minimise the humanitarian impact, and support political reconciliation. A successful military operation must be followed by sustained stabilisation and reconstruction. The UK is providing £15 million to help secure liberated areas, clear explosives and support the renovation of power networks, clinics and schools. This year, we are also providing £90 million of humanitarian assistance to help people across Iraq, including those affected by the military operations in and around Mosul.
The Government spent £320 million on bombing Libya and only £25 million on its reconstruction when the campaign ended. Libya is now fragmented and lawless. In Mosul governorate, towns have been destroyed and people such as my Yazidi friend Elias Qirani have been displaced to camps in Sinjar, freezing and without adequate food this winter. Will the Secretary of State assure the House that the lessons of Sinjar and Libya have been learned and that this Government have planned for peace and reconstruction in Mosul and Raqqa?
Yes, I think it is fair to say that we learn the lessons from each of these successive campaigns. This is a campaign being helped by the international coalition and led by Iraqi forces, but yes, we have made our contribution to the United Nations effort to ensure that there are sufficient tents, food aid and medical supplies for those towns that are liberated. I hope the hon. Lady supports the overall aim of the campaign, which is to allow the Yazidi people to return to their homes and to live in peace.
Given the complex ethnic make-up of Mosul and the split between Sunnis and Shi’as, what plans are there for some kind of international observer force to be on the ground in the city once it is liberated?
It is for the Iraqi Government in the first instance to determine the future local government of Mosul. It is, as my hon. Friend says, a very complex city and not entirely a Sunni city, and it is important that the administration there after liberation can command the confidence of all groups represented in that city. We have made our views on this known to the Government and military commanders of the operation.
We welcome the progress in the operation to liberate Mosul and we fully support this important offensive. I recently met the Iraqi ambassador, who reiterated the need to defend the border between Iraq and Syria to ensure that Daesh cannot return to re-establish itself in Mosul or anywhere else. What role will the UK play in securing the border and defending the territorial integrity of Iraq?
It is not for us in the west to question the territorial integrity of Iraq. In the end it is for the Iraqi people to decide their borders. One of the aims of the counter-Daesh coalition, which I shall be chairing at its next meeting next month in London, is to focus on the period after the liberation of Mosul and after the final mopping-up operations along the Tigris and in the Euphrates river valley, to see what more can be done by the coalition countries to help Iraq to reinforce its border and ensure that Daesh does not come back through it.
The UK is not a member of the Saudi Arabian-led coalition. British armed forces personnel are therefore not involved in selecting targets, carrying out strikes, or directing or conducting operations in Yemen.
The UK continues to supply arms to Saudi Arabia, despite repeated bombing of civilian targets and non-governmental organisation hospitals in Yemen. The most conservative figures from the United Nations Human Rights Council demonstrate that there have been at least 10,000 casualties and 4,000 confirmed dead in a country facing humanitarian disaster. Will the Minister and the Secretary of State heed the previous call by the Business, Innovation and Skills and the International Development Committees to end export licences for these arms, or are these casualties just considered a fair price to pay?
We will be responding to those reports imminently, but I want to put on record that we have one of the most robust arms export control regimes in the world. We are aware of the alleged violations that the hon. Lady mentions and we take alleged violations in this conflict extremely seriously.
I am sure the Minister will agree that in this situation we have to be careful what we wish for, given the alternatives. Will she outline what support the UK Government are giving to the parties involved to ensure compliance with international humanitarian law?
My hon. Friend is right to say that in this situation the UK particularly supports a political solution. We believe that this is the best way to bring long-term stability to Yemen and to end the conflict. With respect to ongoing support, the UK backed UN resolution 2216, as my hon. Friend knows, and we have an ongoing defence engagement relationship with the Saudi Arabian Government.
Last Monday, the Security Council discussed Yemen for the first time in six months. I observed the proceedings. There was unanimous support for an immediate ceasefire and the four-point plan put forward by Matthew Rycroft, our ambassador. Will the Minister speak to the Foreign Secretary in person or through the Defence Secretary to ensure that a new resolution is tabled as soon as possible so that it can be discussed and passed, and the humanitarian and military crisis can be dealt with?
The right hon. Gentleman, who pays such close interest to this subject, will be aware that the UK continues strongly to support the work of the UN special envoy, Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed, and we strongly support a political solution. I will certainly pass on the sentiments he has just expressed to colleagues in the Foreign Office.
Armed Forces Covenant
The implementation of the covenant is overseen by the covenant reference group, chaired by the Cabinet Office. Next month’s annual report will detail the fact that considerable progress has been made across Government and with the wider public, private and third sectors, including on key areas of education, healthcare, accommodation and access to commercial services.
I thank the Minister for that answer. The head of the forces charity SSAFA has warned that the armed forces covenant
“provides excellent guidance but there is no guarantee of enforcement.”
Forces families often find themselves in real difficulty when seeking housing or school places. In this week, when our thoughts are with those forces families who have made the ultimate sacrifice, what are the Government doing to make it clear to service providers that the guarantees contained in the covenant are legal duties, not just optional extras?
The hon. Lady is right to raise that, because it was this Government who enshrined the covenant in law. We have made substantial progress in recent years, not least through the £22.5 million that has now been spent on the service pupil premium or the £20 million that has been invested in veterans’ accommodation. However, I do recognise that more needs to be done, and I feel that I have a duty to ensure that local authorities across the country are doing their bit to enforce the covenant.
Does the Minister agree that the recent report published by the Royal United Services Institute on the corporate covenant is a really important step in highlighting where the Government need to do much more to reach out to a much wider group of companies to get them to support those who are leaving the service and those families who need support.
Of course we recognise that the covenant is very much a partnership between Government, the third sector and the corporate world, which is why I was delighted to see that we recently passed 1,200 signatures on the corporate covenant.
What discussions has the Minister had with the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland to see the armed forces covenant enforced in Northern Ireland? What steps has his Department taken in the interim to work with veterans’ services in Northern Ireland until the scheme is fully implemented?
Of course, we have unique challenges in Northern Ireland, but I am pleased to report that we estimate that 93% of covenant issues are being enforced in Northern Ireland. Clearly, we need to do better, and that is going to be my focus for the year.
While there are many examples of good practice across the United Kingdom, it is clear that not everyone in the forces community is experiencing the benefits of the covenant. A recent report by the Local Government Association found that nearly 40% of those who served in the armed forces felt that their service left them disadvantaged. What are the Government doing to ensure that the covenant becomes a reality for every serviceman and woman across the country?
I welcome the hon. Gentleman to his post, and I encourage him to look at the last four covenant reports, which detail the progress we have made over the last four years. However, his point is well made, and it is precisely why, earlier this year, I commissioned the Forces in Minds Trust to do a review so that we can ensure that best practice from the various local authorities across the United Kingdom is shared.
Mental Health Services: Veterans
I will meet the Under-Secretary of State for Health, my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington South (David Mowat), shortly. I had several such meetings with his predecessor at which we discussed mental health.
Part of the problem is that only about 50% of veterans who have mental health issues come forward with them because of culture, stigma, or whatever. What are the Government doing to reach out to those who do not seek treatment to ensure that they also do so?
The hon. Gentleman makes a valuable point. The problem is not specific to veterans; for some time, we have had problems in society whereby mental health has been a stigma and people are reluctant to come forward. We are working closely with the Department of Health, because ultimately this is its responsibility, but we also have a number of programmes within the Ministry of Defence, not least the veterans and reserves mental health programme, which ensures that veterans are contacted one year after they leave the service to be encouraged to seek support if they need it.
Servicemen and women are able to access defence mental health services for up to six months after they leave the military, but poor mental health can kick in at any time. Given that the NHS is frankly on its knees in relation to mental health services, will the Minister consider extending the access period to allow veterans proper priority in mental health services? That would also take the pressures off the NHS.
This is an interesting area. Ultimately, the national health service is responsible for our veterans because, as a society, we do not have a specialist veterans department; I think that is the right approach. Nevertheless, we have invested over £13 million of LIBOR money in this specialist area. We do indeed allow people access for up to six months, and I am happy to look at the hon. Gentleman’s suggestion to see how we can perhaps do more.
The provision of a psychologist specialising in trauma services would be of huge benefit to the many veterans in Devon, particularly in East Devon, suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. Will my hon. Friend commit to having an early discussion with the Secretary of State for Health to make such a provision available to my constituents and others?
As I mentioned in my original answer, I have a regular meeting with my counterpart at the Department of Health, and I am happy to add my hon. Friend’s suggestion to the agenda.
While it is always a pleasure to hear from the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mrs Trevelyan), she has already had a substantive question. She can have another go in topicals, but Members cannot speak twice in substantives, I am afraid.
I should declare my interest as a serving reservist. From my own experience of being mobilised on three occasions over recent years, I can say that it has been interesting to see the extra support I have had on returning from mobilised service latterly compared with when I first did it in 1999 to 2007. Progress is definitely being made. As I said, we have the veterans and reserves mental health programme, which ensures that extra support is given to reservists. I fully recognise that when reservists are demobilised they do not always have the same support as those returning to a regular unit.
In certain circumstances, veterans should have priority treatment. That is precisely why, on 13 July, I announced the new integrated high dependency care system, which is a partnership between the Ministry of Defence and the Department of Health to ensure that those who need specialist support can continue to get it from Defence Medical Services.
This Government put our security first. The spending review confirmed that the Ministry of Defence’s budget will rise by 0.5% above inflation in every year to 2020. We will spend 2% of GDP on defence each year, and the defence budget will rise to almost £40 billion by the end of the decade.
Sentinel aircraft based at RAF Waddington in my constituency play a vital role in the fight against Daesh, so may I welcome the Department’s announcement of £130 million support contract funding from our growing defence budget? Will the Minister confirm how many jobs that will sustain?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to highlight the important role played by Sentinel aircraft based in his constituency. The contract is good news for the UK defence industry and it will sustain about 120 jobs at RAF Waddington in Lincolnshire, and about 40 jobs at Hawarden airfield in Broughton in north Wales.
The pound has dropped nearly 20% in value and the price of vital military kit that we buy abroad is set to sky-rocket, so will the Minister confirm that we have enough contingency to pay for the F-35 fighters planned for the new aircraft carriers?
The hon. Gentleman will know that there is a double lock in terms of the budget and that it is based not just on 2% of our economy, which I am pleased to say grew again in the third quarter. There is also a lock in terms of a rise of 0.5% above inflation every year to 2020.
Will my hon. Friend confirm that this issue arose from the first review for about 30 years to result in an increase, rather than a reduction, in the size of the armed forces? Does she agree that, as the world gets more dangerous, it is all the more important that we get more bang for the buck from every pound spent?
May I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for his efforts during his time at the Department? They resulted in the settlement in the 2015 autumn statement, which I mentioned earlier. He is absolutely right to say that defence spending is going up every year, and that is so that we can invest in the new Type 26 frigates, aircraft carriers, attack helicopters, fast jets, armoured vehicles and, as we heard last week, our cyber-defences.
May I begin by sending my condolences to the family and friends of Lance Corporal Joe Spencer, who was tragically killed at RAF Tain last week?
On Friday, I warmly welcomed the announcement that steel would be cut on the Type 26 frigates in summer 2017. However, I repeat my point that the contract remains unsigned, so will the Secretary of State get a move on and sign it? The defence procurement Minister said last year that Type 23s would be replaced by Type 26s on a like-for-like basis. Is that still the case?
I think I detected in that question a sliver of a welcome for the fact that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State announced on Friday two decades’ worth of shipbuilding work on Type 26 frigates in Scotland. I remind the hon. Gentleman that none of that shipbuilding would have happened if he had achieved his desired outcome in the Scottish referendum.
Is it not the case that only the original order for 13 Type 26s would have kept the yards working until 2035? Now that there are only eight and there is no confirmation of the general purpose frigates, how can an order for just eight Type 26s secure two decades’ worth of work on the Clyde?
Did you, Mr Speaker, detect any mention there of the five offshore patrol vessels that are also being built on the River Clyde? The hon. Gentleman’s comments are absolutely extraordinary. I am reminded of the P.G. Wodehouse phrase—[Interruption.]
Order. It is bad enough for the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Brendan O'Hara) to ask a question that is too long, but for him to rant for too long and then, when the Minister gets up to reply, to continue ranting is not statesmanlike behaviour by the hon. Gentleman, for whom I previously had high hopes.
As P.G. Wodehouse said:
“It is never difficult to distinguish between a Scotsman with a grievance and a ray of sunshine.”
As the former Minister responsible for Type 26s, may I warmly welcome the order for them, although I and the nation could well do with more? I also welcome the decision to maintain defence expenditure at 2%, but may I remind my hon. Friend that last year that was done only by viring £1.2 billion of expenditure from the Department for Work and Pensions to the Minister of Defence? Why is it that I am hearing from senior officers that their budgets are being cut this year and that they are having to find in-year savings? Where is the extra cash?
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for his enormous contribution. He has always made the case for a growing defence budget. I am sure that he, too, will welcome not only the announcement we made last week about the Type 26 frigates, but the announcement made at last year’s strategic defence and security review that we would develop a general purpose frigate and commit to at least five of those.
It is right that the Government are sticking to our NATO commitment to spend 2% of GDP on defence, but as the Select Committee on Defence has noted, the Government are doing so only by including areas that were not previously counted. Can the Minister tell us what defence expenditure would be as a percentage of GDP if we used the accounting rules that were used in 2010?
We use exactly the methodology that NATO approves, and everything is consistent with NATO’s definition. I would like to take this opportunity to clarify whether the Labour party will also commit to spending 2% of the country’s GDP on defence.
British Forces are involved in 28 operations in more than 25 countries, protecting the United Kingdom and its interests from a range of threats and promoting security in key regions of the world. The Royal Navy deploys some 29 ships and submarines across the globe, supported by more than 8,000 sailors and Marines.
Women have served alongside men with distinction aboard Royal Navy ships in combat service for many years. Does the Secretary of State agree that opening up front-line roles to women in the Royal Marines, the Army and the RAF will enhance their effectiveness in operations?
The Royal Navy has been ahead, as one might expect of the senior service, in demonstrating how women serving in front-line roles improve the capability of our armed forces. Five Royal Navy vessels and one shore establishment are currently commanded by women, and some 9% of the Royal Navy is now female. Opening ground close combat roles to women will provide further opportunities to attract and retain talented women from the breadth of society. Doing so is fundamental to the successful delivery of operations now and in the future.
May I press the Secretary of State on the co-operation that we need to be effective? Is he happy with the level of co-operation we get across NATO, where many of our NATO friends are not spending sufficient amounts of money on their defence? Is he worried that if the presidential election in the United States went one way tomorrow, we would be hard put to be an effective force against Putin?
A number of NATO members have much more to do. Some of them still spend less than 1.5%, and a few of them even spend less than 1%. But in the deployments that are being agreed on the eastern border of NATO we are seeing more co-operation, with countries such as France and Denmark coming alongside the battalion that we will lead in Estonia next year.
Will the Secretary of State, in the context of the operational effectiveness of our forces, emphasise that such things are normally done in partnership with other countries? Does he therefore agree that it is vital that members of the US Administration and other NATO partners recognise that they are strengthened by the contribution that NATO countries collectively make to the defence of the United States?
It is probably the wrong day to comment on the position of the United States. Yes, NATO is a collective defence organisation, and we all, in that respect, rely on each other. I note, for example, that when Britain leaves the European Union, three of the four battalions on the eastern border of NATO will be led by non-EU countries.
Speaking as a ray of sunshine, may I ask whether the Ministry of Defence has made any assessment of how the Army’s new Ajax fighting vehicle would fare against Russia’s equally new T-14 main battle tank?
I do not think it is right to compare one particular armoured vehicle with a completely different type of armoured vehicle. What is important is to look at our armoured vehicles and our combat systems as a whole across the range that we have deployed and are going to deploy, including the new Ajax armoured vehicle.
Military Campaign against Daesh
In Iraq, operations to liberate Mosul are continuing to make good progress, with Iraqi forces reaching the outskirts of the city. In Syria, the Manbij pocket has been closed, restricting Daesh’s access to the Turkish border, through which they were bringing in fighters, and in September they were expelled from the culturally significant town of Dabiq.
The military success against Daesh in Iraq is to be welcomed. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that after the eventual liberation of Mosul we will continue to support Iraqi forces in their fight to defeat Daesh?
Yes. The Iraqi security forces, including the peshmerga, are playing the primary role in the fight against Daesh in Iraq, but the support and training provided by the global coalition, including the United Kingdom, has been a key contributor to their success. This fight will not end with the liberation of Mosul, nor will United Kingdom support.
What discussions has the Defence Secretary had with his counterpart in Turkey to ensure that the Turkish military and Turkish-backed militia are not working against the overall aims of the international coalition during the recapture of Mosul and, above all, that they are ensuring the protection of civilians and the provision of humanitarian aid?
I last met my Turkish counterpart a couple of weeks ago at the NATO Defence Ministerial. Key to the success of this campaign is that all the various parties involved in what is a complex situation in northern Iraq respect the sensitivities of the very complex make-up of the individual towns and villages. That applies to the encirclement and the liberation, but it will also of course apply to what we call the “day after”—the day after liberation—when we have to restore local administration and essential services.
Will the Secretary of State say what progress is being made in destroying and degrading Daesh’s capability to recruit and, indeed, to infect the minds of young people in this country? What success have we had on that front in recent months?
We have seen a reduction in the flow of foreign fighters from this country to Syria and Iraq. We have intensified the work we have been doing with other countries in strategic communications to lessen the appeal of Daesh by interdicting some of their material—taking down material from their websites and reducing the appeal they have through social media—and we will continue to work at that. Meanwhile, there are perhaps 200 to 300 British citizens still involved with Daesh in Iraq and Syria. We will have to make sure that they no longer pose a threat to this country and, indeed, are held to account for any criminal acts they may have committed.
I am sure the whole House is in agreement in hoping that Mosul can be decisively liberated from Daesh as quickly as possible. A devastating consequence of this ongoing conflict is the effect it is having on the city’s children. It has been estimated that about half of the civilians fleeing Mosul are children, while recent reports have found that Daesh are kidnapping boys as young as nine to use them as soldiers. What are the UK armed forces doing specifically to aid the children in this city?
Our armed forces are not involved in combat on the ground in and around Mosul. We have been supplying close air support, intelligence and training. It is important to remember that those children were suffering before the operation began—they would have been suffering in Mosul anyway—and I think we can best help by making sure, as these areas are progressively liberated, including the suburbs of Mosul, that UN agencies are ready to go in and provide the necessities of life and get those children out if they can.
Mosul has suffered deeply from cultural destruction. As we look forward to the ratification of The Hague convention, what will the armed forces do to limit further damage to the cultural heritage of Mosul and support the good work of Lieutenant Colonel Tim Purbrick’s cultural property protection working group, more catchily known as the monuments men?
We have consulted international partners on best practice and have tasked the Army with establishing a cultural property protection unit, which will help to ensure that cultural property is protected from damage and looting, will provide advice, training and support to operational planning processes, and can investigate, record and report cultural property issues from any area of operations. I know that my hon. Friend will join me in welcoming our intention to ratify the convention, through legislation before the House, early next year.
Yes. The United Kingdom is absolutely committed to supporting the Kurdish peshmerga in their efforts to defeat Daesh. I visited them while they were training recently. Our commitment is demonstrated by our participation in the building partner capacity programme. Among the peshmerga are the Kurdish women whose bravery and resolve have had such a tremendous impact on the campaign. I am sure the whole House will wish to join my hon. Friend and me in paying tribute to the female peshmerga for the contribution they are making.
The Ministry of Defence meets the Treasury regularly as part of its routine business. The spending review set out the Ministry of Defence’s spending plans for the rest of this Parliament. The defence budget is growing at 0.5% above inflation each year until 2020. We also have access to the new joint security fund. These commitments mean that the defence budget will rise to almost £40 billion by the end of the decade.
I thank the Minister for her answer. I listened carefully to the answer she gave to my hon. Friend the Member for Blaenau Gwent (Nick Smith) on the cost of the pound and the purchasing power of the Ministry of Defence. The Royal United Services Institute has suggested that the purchasing power of the UK’s defence budget could be cut by 2% as a result of the fall in sterling. What plans do the Government have to offset that?
Again, I put on the record the fact that defence spending will go up regardless of currency fluctuations because of the double lock on the defence budget. As part of ongoing management of the budgets at the Ministry of Defence, we pay and have paid regard to the currency risk in terms of our procurement programme.
When Ministers meet the Chancellor of the Exchequer will they remind him that although the defence budget is going up in absolute terms it is nevertheless at a lower proportion of GDP than ever before? We really ought to be looking at something approaching the 3% mark, bearing in mind the fact that the level of threat we face today is similar to that of the 1980s, when we regularly spent between 4.5% and 5% of GDP on defence.
My right hon. Friend was calling for 5% the other day—“Go for five and stay alive” was the catchphrase he came up with, I think. He is right that it is important that we continue to keep the Ministry of Defence’s budget under review, and we were very pleased that last year the spending review committed to a rise of 0.5% above inflation every year during this Parliament. Another spending review will have to look at the budget again in due course.
My priorities remain the fight against Daesh and implementing our strategic defence review. I am delighted to confirm to the House today that the United Kingdom has been chosen by the United States to become a global hub for maintenance and support services for the F-35 programme. The initial contracts will generate hundreds of millions of pounds of revenue and support thousands of highly skilled jobs. It is excellent news for the UK economy, and for Wales in particular, where the hub will be based.
May I welcome the fact that steel cutting will belatedly begin on the Type 26 frigates in the summer of 2017? However, the fact remains that, for the total of 19 frigates and destroyers to be maintained, each frigate will have to be replaced at the rate of one a year. Will the Secretary of State confirm that if the steel cutting begins in 2017, the first ship will be ready to enter service at the same time as HMS Argyll, the first of the Type 23 frigates, is due to leave service in 2023?
Yes, I can confirm that it is our intention to replace the anti-submarine frigates within the Type 23 force with eight new Type 26 anti-submarine frigates.
What assurances has the Secretary of State given to our NATO ally Estonia after a recent report by the US army-linked RAND Corporation showed that the current mismatch of forces in the Baltic region could result in Estonia being overrun by Russian troops within 36 hours in the event of an invasion?
I appreciate that the hon. Gentleman comes new to these matters, but he may have heard me announce three weeks ago that we are sending 800 British troops to Estonia next year, backed up by French and Danish companies. There will be similar battalions in each of the Baltic states from next year, along with a battalion in Poland, which is all part of NATO’s measures to assure and help to deter any possible aggression.
There is a still a large number of British nationals in Syria and Iraq fighting against Daesh on the side of the Kurdish forces, yet there seems to be no Government line on whether it is a criminal offence to do so under the Terrorism Act 2000, leaving a number of people, including my constituent Aidan Aslin of Newark, in legal limbo upon their return. Will the Secretary of State look into the matter and get a policy to help those British citizens on their return?
I am very happy to undertake to look into that particular matter, but our emphasis, as I am sure my hon. Friend would agree, must be on the 200 or 300 British citizens who have gone to Iraq and Syria to fight for Daesh and pose a potential threat to this country, and who may well have committed criminal acts in fighting alongside Daesh. They are the people who need to be investigated first.
It is good news. The hon. Lady and my hon. Friend the Member for Gower (Byron Davies) have been absolute champions when it comes to pursuing the opportunity for cadets in Wales to glide in Wales, so I am pleased to announce that I will facilitate summer gliding camps at St Athan on a trial basis next summer, with a view to continuing them in future.
We have heard a lot this afternoon about the Type 26 frigate, but I should like to ask about our minesweeping capability. What progress and innovation in minesweeping technology has been made for the Navy?
I was delighted recently to announce, along with our French partners, an unmanned maritime minesweeping capability. We are building the demonstration phase, which will be an innovative and interesting investment in minesweeping technology.
Yes, and I provided that certainty at the recent meeting of the EU Defence Ministers in Bratislava. I made it very clear that while we remain members of the European Union, we will be full members of it. We will continue to participate in Operation Sophia in the central Mediterranean, to which we currently contribute two ships, and in Operation Atalanta to curb piracy off the horn of Africa.
During the passage of the Armed Forces Bill, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State undertook to review the current policy that means that not all sexual offences are referred to service police. Will he provide an update to the House?
We have always made it clear that there is no place for sexual offending in the armed forces. However, following concerns raised in this House I have decided to bring before Parliament draft legislation to add the offences of sexual assault, voyeurism and exposure to schedule 2 of the Armed Forces Act 2006. I will write to those who have previously raised such concerns shortly.
I will look into the matter the hon. Gentleman raises and write to him.
Most of us in this place would welcome the announcement, made last week, with regard to the Type 26 ships. Does my right hon. Friend share my bemusement at the carping and pettifogging from some hon. Members about this rather welcome announcement?
It is extraordinary for a pledge of 20 years of work for the Clyde to be welcomed in such a grudging fashion. Let us be very clear that if Scotland was outside the United Kingdom, these frigates would not be built on the Clyde. If Scottish National party Members had been successful in defeating the renewal of Trident, we would not have needed anti-submarine frigates.
The right hon. Gentleman is very knowledgeable about these matters, so, again, I would have thought he would welcome the fact that we are acquiring this capability, which will be based at Lossiemouth in Scotland. Discussions with Boeing are ongoing in relation to the substantial inward investment it is making in the United Kingdom.
The increase in Russian aggression is concerning many of our NATO allies. Can my right hon. Friend provide reassurance on what reassurance he has given to them in the face of this increased aggression?
Yes. We have, as NATO, agreed to the deployment of four battalions in the three Baltic states and Poland from next year. In addition, I announced two weeks ago that we would be deploying RAF Typhoons for the first time to assist southern air policing, based in Romania, from next year. That will provide considerable assurance to countries such as Romania and Bulgaria in curbing any Russian aggression in the Black sea region.
This country has led the way in getting money assembled for the reconstruction of Syria. First, of course, we have to get the civil war brought to an end. So far as Iraq is concerned, we have contributed to the United Nations fund. That money is now ready to go in to the reconstruction of the towns that have been liberated and to provide as quickly as possible the power and hospital and school services that the population needs.
Will the Secretary of State give the House an update on progress in providing specific support and welfare provision for those of our armed forces in the Iraq Historic Allegations Team system to support their families and themselves through this traumatic period?
I am pleased to say we are making progress in this area. We expect the number of claims to go down quite substantially. We hope to report to the House shortly.
Last week I felt really powerful as an MP, given that the Secretary of State flew up to Glasgow to make an announcement just because I had a question on the Order Paper. I thank him for that. Instead of trading insults back at us, will he give a straightforward commitment that the five general purpose vehicles will be built on the Clyde as well?
Just on Friday, I announced that the first eight Type 26 anti-submarine frigates would be built on the Clyde. It is too early to say how the new general purpose frigate, which is still to be designed, will be manufactured and assembled, but of course BAE Systems on the Clyde will be in pole position.
With permission, I would like to make a statement on the process for invoking article 50. The Government’s priority at every stage following the European Union referendum has been to respect the outcome of that referendum and to ensure it is delivered on. To leave the European Union was the decision of the British people. It was taken after a 6:1 vote in this House to put that decision in their hands. As the Government told voters:
“This is your decision. The government will implement what you decide”—
no ifs, no buts. So there can be no going back; the point of no return was passed on 23 June.
Implementing the decision to leave the EU means following the right processes. We must leave in the way agreed in law by the UK and other member states, which means following the process set out in article 50 of the treaty on European Union. We have been clear about the timing. There was a good reason why the Government did not take the advice of some in this House on 24 June and trigger article 50 immediately. Instead, the Prime Minister was clear that she would not invoke article 50 before the end of this year. That gives us time to develop a detailed negotiating position, but we have also said that the process should not drag on and that we intend to trigger article 50 by the end of March next year.
Let me now turn to the issues at hand this week. Legal action was taken to challenge the Government on the proper process for triggering article 50. We have always been of the clear view that this is a matter for the Government, and that it is constitutionally proper and lawful to give effect to the referendum result by the use of prerogative powers. As I have said, the basis on which the referendum was held was that the Government would give effect to the result of that referendum. That was the basis on which people were asked to vote.
Our argument in the High Court was that decisions on the making and withdrawal from treaties are clear examples of the use of the royal prerogative, and that Parliament, while having a role in the process, which I will come on to, has not constrained the use of the prerogative to withdraw from the EU. Our position in the case was that the Government were therefore entitled to invoke the procedure set out in article 50. The Court has, however, come to a different view. It held that the Government do not have the prerogative power to give notice under article 50 without legislation authorising them to do so.
The Court said that the starting point was that the Crown does not have power to vary the law of the land using its prerogative powers unless Parliament legislated to the contrary. It held that the European Communities Act 1972 brought rights arising under EU law into the law of the United Kingdom, and that the Crown has no prerogative power to withdraw from the EU because the effect of withdrawal would be to take away those rights.
Let me be clear about this: we believe in and value the independence of our judiciary, the foundation upon which our rule of law is built—[Interruption.] I have to say to the Opposition that I have a little more background in protecting that independence than they have, in view of the previous Government. We also value the freedom of our press. Both those things underpin our democracy.
The Government disagree with the Court’s judgment. The country voted to leave the European Union in a referendum approved by an Act of Parliament. Our position remains that the only means of leaving is through the procedure set out in article 50, and that triggering article 50 is properly a matter for the Government using their prerogative powers. As a result, we will appeal the High Court’s judgment at the Supreme Court.
Given our appeal, it would not be appropriate to comment further on the details of the legal arguments—I am sure that the House understands this—but let me say a brief word about the process of the appeal. We have taken two necessary procedural steps. First, the Government have been granted a certificate to bypass the Court of Appeal and leapfrog the case to the Supreme Court. This will ensure that, when we lodge our appeal, it will be heard directly in the Supreme Court without further delay. Secondly, we will this week apply for substantive permission to appeal to the Supreme Court. It is likely that any hearing will be scheduled in the Supreme Court in early December. We would hope that the judgment would be provided soon after. This timetable remains consistent with our aim to trigger article 50 by the end of March next year.
We are now preparing our submissions to the Supreme Court in the usual way. As I have said, it would not be proper to go into those in great detail here today, but the core of our argument will remain that we believe that it is proper and lawful for the Government to trigger article 50 by the use of prerogative powers.
Of course, litigation is also under way in Northern Ireland. It is considering a number of specific issues linked to Northern Ireland’s constitutional arrangements. The High Court in Belfast found in the Government’s favour on these points. A hearing is being held in Belfast tomorrow to consider whether an appeal by the claimants in that case should also leapfrog to the Supreme Court, and whether the issues that overlap with the English courts should remain stayed pending the outcome of the hearing in the Supreme Court. Again, it would not be appropriate for me to say more at this stage, except that in the event of any appeal in the Northern Ireland litigation, the Government will robustly defend their position. For the avoidance of doubt, our view is that the legal timetable in relation to this case in the event of an appeal should also be consistent with our commitment to notifying under article 50 by the end of March next year.
I have said that because of our appeal, I will not go into detail on the points that were raised in the High Court’s judgment, but let me set out some fundamental principles for how we move ahead. First, our plan remains to invoke article 50 by the end of March. We believe that the legal timetable will allow for that. Secondly, the referendum result must be respected and delivered. The country voted to leave the European Union in a referendum provided for by an Act of Parliament. There must be no attempts to remain inside the EU, no attempts to rejoin it through the back door and no second referendum. The country voted to leave the European Union and it is the duty of the Government to make sure that we do just that. Parliament had its say in legislating for the referendum, which it did in both Houses, with an overwhelming majority in this House and cross-party support. The people have spoken and we intend to act on their decision.
Thirdly, irrespective of the ongoing court process, there is an important role for Parliament. Parliament will have a central role in ensuring that we find the best way forward, and we have been clear that we will be as transparent and open as possible. There have already been a number of debates and parliamentary statements on Brexit, and the Prime Minister has pledged that that process will continue before article 50 is invoked. I informed the House in October that there would be a series of debates on Brexit in Government time—the first will take place today—and that is on top of a number of other debates and opportunities for scrutiny. The new Exiting the European Union Committee has been established, and it provides another place for parliamentary scrutiny of our withdrawal from the EU. If I remember correctly, its members will be visiting my Department tomorrow.
The Government will introduce legislation in the next Session that, when enacted, will repeal the European Communities Act on the day we leave the EU. This great repeal Bill will end the authority of EU law and return power to the United Kingdom. We have made it clear that European Union law will be transposed into UK law at the time we leave, providing certainty for workers, businesses and consumers. We intend that this Act of Parliament will be in place before the end of the article 50 process.
It is important to remember that article 50 is the beginning of the process, not the end. As the Prime Minister has made clear, there will be many opportunities for Parliament to continue to engage with the Government once article 50 has been invoked. When negotiations have concluded, we will observe in full all relevant legal and constitutional obligations that apply. However, there is a balance to be struck between parliamentary scrutiny and preserving our negotiating position, which was why the House unanimously concluded last month that the process should be undertaken in a way that respects the decision of the people of the United Kingdom when they voted to leave the EU on 23 June, and does not undermine the negotiating position of the Government as negotiations are entered into. We will give no quarter to anyone who, while going through the motions of respecting the outcome of the referendum, in fact seeks to thwart the decision of the British people.
We are disappointed by the Court’s judgment in this case and we will appeal against it in the Supreme Court. None of this in any way diminishes our determination to respect and deliver the outcome of the referendum, and to notify under article 50 by the end of March next year. We are going to get on with delivering on the mandate to leave the European Union in the best way possible for the UK’s national interest—best for jobs, best for growth, and best for investment.
I thank the Secretary of State for advance sight of his statement. This is the third statement that he has made to the House in just a few months. Nobody could accuse him of not being willing to turn up to the Dispatch Box; it is just that each time he does so, we leave none the wiser about the Government’s basic approach to the negotiation. Today was no different; he has not even made clear what will happen if the Government lose their appeal. I was going to say it is all process and no substance, but I realised I said that last time and that I am in danger of repeating myself—there are only so many times I can say, “Is that it?”
What we do know is that last week was not a good week for the Government. On Thursday, the High Court ruled the Prime Minister is acting unlawfully in seeking to use prerogative powers to invoke article 50. The Court had to remind the Prime Minister that only Parliament can make and repeal laws, and it is because the Prime Minister is seeking to use prerogative powers to change the European Communities Act that the judgment went against her. Only Parliament can do that. As the Court had to make clear to the Prime Minister, when it comes to legislation, Parliament is sovereign. That sovereignty matters.
The Government have approached their task in the wrong way and their approach is now unravelling, and I am afraid to say it is unravelling in the most divisive and ugly way. In the aftermath of the High Court judgment, we saw a series of appalling personal attacks on the judges, including the suggestion that they are “enemies of the people”. Some of us have worked in countries where judges do as the Executive tell them, and believe you me it is highly corrosive of democracy. Robust comment on, and criticism of, court judgments is right in a country that respects free speech, but we all have a duty to stand up for the rule of law and the independence of the judiciary. The Lord Chancellor has a special duty to do so because, by convention, judges do not engage in public debate and are thus unable to defend themselves. Yet the Lord Chancellor has been too slow and too reluctant to do her duty. It was disappointing that the Secretary of State did not take this opportunity to put on record the Government’s clear and unambiguous condemnation of personal attacks on our judges, and I ask him to do so now.
Turning to the approach that the Secretary of State has set out, it is clear that the Government intend to appeal last week’s ruling. Clearly, legally, they are entitled to do so, but would it not be better for the Government to stand back and ask whether it is right to continue with the approach they are taking? No one expects the Government to reveal the detail of their negotiating hand, but there are big headline issues that matter to everyone in every part of the UK. What relationship with the single market are the Government aiming for? What is the opening stance on the customs union? How do the Government envisage our future co-operation with EU partners in combating terrorism and serious crime? Do the Government have a plan for transitional arrangements in March 2019? These basic questions require clear answers.
Labour has repeatedly made it clear that we accept and respect the outcome of the referendum—[Interruption.] I have said that every time I have stood at this Dispatch Box. There is a mandate to leave. We will not frustrate the process by voting down article 50, but we cannot have a debate in a vacuum. The future relationship of the UK with our EU partners is at stake. The future relationship of the UK in the world is at stake. The Prime Minister simply cannot keep all this to herself. The Government need to act in the national interest—build a consensus; act not for the 52%, but for the 52% and the 48%; and put the country first. I call on the Secretary of State to abandon the furtive Executive approach that has been taken so far and to commit to a course of action that respects the role of Parliament and provides for proper scrutiny and challenge—to commit to a course of action most likely to deliver the right outcome for all of us and for generations to come.
The hon. and learned Gentleman finishes by calling me “furtive”, having started his contribution by commending me for the number of times I have appeared at the Dispatch Box—an interesting idea. I thank him for his reply none the less. I shall respond to his points in a moment, but let me first say that I am determined to work constructively with Opposition Members who want to make a success of Brexit. I have said that the Government will be as open and transparent as possible as we approach these vital negotiations—this must be the 20th time I have said that—and that Parliament will be closely and repeatedly engaged in the process of exit.
The hon. and learned Gentleman suggests that his party respects the referendum result and is not seeking to undermine the decision of the British people, but I have to say that the approach being taken by certain Opposition Members rather gives the game away. The shadow Foreign Secretary, the hon. Member for Islington South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry), has declared that what the referendum result—the biggest democratic mandate for a course of action achieved by any Government—needs is an “injection of democracy”. The hon. Member for Pontypridd (Owen Smith) has suggested that Labour would amend any article 50 Bill to bring about a second referendum.
The right hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr Clegg), the former Deputy Prime Minister, who is in the Chamber, suggested after last week’s result that his party would seek to amend any legislation on triggering article 50 to allow for a second referendum on our new relationship with the EU. He did not like the first answer given by the voters, so he is seeking to put the question all over again in the hope of getting a different one. These are not constructive proposals to enable Britain to make a success of Brexit. I am sorry to say that they look increasingly like attempts to thwart and reverse the decision that was taken on 23 June—[Interruption.]
Order. Mr Bacon, I always regard you as a cerebral denizen of the House, not the sort of person who would point across the Chamber. That is profoundly discourteous and very un-Bacon-like, if I may say so.
As we are speaking of cerebral issues, Mr Speaker, I shall return to the hon. and learned Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Keir Starmer). I read in the Financial Times that he recently attended a private event in Parliament at which he was hailed as
“the man who’ll make sure we stay in the EU”.
Apparently he winced at that because he
“does not want expectations to get out of hand.”
We have had a weekend of Labour confusion. The Leader of the Opposition suggested he might seek to block the triggering of article 50 if various conditions were not met. A few hours later, the deputy leader said that that was not right. I heard the hon. Member for West Bromwich East (Mr Watson) on the radio this morning and he now appears to be suggesting a different approach. He says that triggering article 50 should be conditional on our going into this negotiation with all our cards face up for everyone on the other side of the table to see.
I have said repeatedly that we will be as open as we possibly can be. Indeed, we have set out our strategic aims for the negotiation again and again. I have told the House before—I do so again today—that they are: to bring back control of our laws to Parliament; to bring back control of decisions over immigration to the United Kingdom; to maintain the strong security co-operation we have with the EU; and to establish the freest possible market in goods and services with the EU and the rest of the world. But there are none so deaf as those who will not hear.
We will not achieve a good outcome, however, if the negotiation is being run by 650 people in the House of Commons and nearly 900 in the other place. No negotiation in our history has been run in that way. Indeed, if Parliament insists on setting out a detailed minimum negotiating position, that will quickly become the maximum possible offer from our negotiating partners, and the talk of a second referendum from some Opposition Members will simply encourage the EU27 to impose impossibly difficult conditions in the hope that the British people will change their minds. In other words, their whole approach is designed to wreck the negotiations.
So, Parliamentary scrutiny—yes. Telling the Prime Minister which cards to play and forcing her to disclose her hand to those she will be negotiating with—no. That will not be the approach taken by our EU counterparts. The European Commission states in a public document on how its negotiations are conducted:
“The negotiations and their texts are not themselves public...A certain level of confidentiality is necessary to protect EU interests and to keep chances for a satisfactory outcome high. When entering into a game, no-one starts by revealing his entire strategy”.
I will consider any suggestions that the shadow Secretary of State constructively has to make. We have said that we want as broad a consensus as possible, but we will not do anything to compromise Britain’s negotiating position or give grounds to those who want to thwart the result of the referendum.
The shadow Secretary of State did raise another point that I do not want to let pass. He accused the Lord Chancellor of failing to defend the judiciary. I do not accept that. I have the quote in front of me and the Lord Chancellor said:
“The independence of the judiciary is the foundation upon which our rule of law is built and our judiciary is rightly respected the world over for its independence and impartiality.”
I have been in this House for a little while. Over the past decade or so—since about 2004—there have been a number of occasions when I was sitting on the Opposition Benches that the Labour Home Secretary of the day criticised by name and in terms individual judges. I never did that. I did not attack him because I thought he was doing something he believed in—even if he was wrong. Nevertheless, I certainly never ever undermined the judges when I was in that position. A little later in that decade, Mr Peter Hain was threatened with prosecution for criticising judges, and I led the campaign to stop that prosecution, so I will take no lessons from Labour on this subject.
As usual, I want to accommodate the enormous interest of the House in this important statement and will strive to do so, but I must say to the House that questions and answers must be brief from now on.
Does my right hon. Friend recall that during the passage of the European Union Referendum Act 2015 the then Foreign Secretary, now the Chancellor, made it unequivocally clear that the purpose of the Bill that was being passed into law was to give to the British people the absolute right to decide whether we stayed in or left the European Union? At no stage was that unclear. Does my right hon. Friend therefore deplore all those, including 70 Opposition Members, who now say that that decision does not stand and that we should fight to stay in the EU regardless of the public’s decision?
My right hon. Friend is quite right. The then Foreign Secretary said in terms to this House, “This is giving the decision to the British people.” The Government of the day also spent £9 million circulating a leaflet saying just that: the decision was the public’s to take and that the Government would implement it.
I thank the Secretary of State for early sight of his statement. We are about to embark upon one of the greatest constitutional upheavals that the United Kingdom has ever experienced. It will have an impact on almost every Government Department and every area of responsibility of the devolved Administrations. That means that scrutiny of the work of the Executive by the legislature is now more important than ever and should not be done on a nod and a wink. Just as the judges did their job in upholding the rule of law, so should this place have a full role in scrutinising the Government’s work.
Will the Secretary of State tell us whether a White Paper or any other preparatory materials for a Bill are being produced? Furthermore, will he acknowledge that democracy no longer begins and ends here and that there will be a significant impact on the devolved Administrations? Will he therefore tell us what meaningful involvement those Administrations will have over and above a hotline that takes 36 hours to answer?
Finally, the Secretary of State mentioned what he believes. Does he agree, and has he told his boss the Prime Minister, that we could have saved this Government, their lawyers and Ministers, and High Court judges a lot of time and effort had Parliament approved the Parliamentary Control of the Executive Bill that he brought before the House on 22 June 1999? It would have clearly restricted the use of the Crown prerogative until
“the assent of the House of Commons has first been obtained”,
“to exercise executive powers not conferred by statute”.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that. I have to say that I am a little surprised at his comments on the devolved Administrations and their involvement, as the very first thing the new Prime Minister did was visit the First Minister of Scotland to discuss exactly the issue we are talking about today. This week, we are having the second Joint Ministerial Committee meeting, at which Scotland’s Government will be represented.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that the European Union Referendum Act 2015 and the Lisbon treaty Act of 2008 are both constitutional Acts—sovereign Acts—of the first order? Does he also agree that not only did the 2015 Act expressly and clearly give the voters the absolute right to leave the EU, but the 2008 Act also clearly intended that the Government would give notice to leave under article 50, and that the Government stated that both before and after the referendum?
My hon. Friend is exactly right, and that was the subject of our case.
The Government have at various times in the past few months said that they wanted to unify the country, heal our divisions and build a national consensus, and all of us, in each part of this House—leave and remain—should want to see that. But how is it remotely possible to build that national consensus unless the Government are far more transparent with the country and this House of Commons about their plan for the Brexit negotiations?
It is not possible by trying to thwart the will of the people by all sorts of parliamentary games, but what I will say to the right hon. Gentleman is this: I agree that we want to unify the people of Britain about a common position, but in truth there are very few differences across this divide. When I looked at what the Leader of the Opposition said on Sunday, I thought I could agree with at least two thirds of it. I do not think the divide is quite as wide as the right hon. Member for Doncaster North (Edward Miliband) thinks.
Will the Government remind the Supreme Court that prerogative powers have regularly been used by Ministers over the past 44 years to introduce and change British law by accepting European decisions and regulations, without any referendum cover? Will they also give all the abundant evidence that this was not an advisory referendum to that same Court?
My right hon. Friend is inviting me to comment on the case in detail. I will not do that, but I will agree with him in one respect: prerogative power has been used for the past 40 years to increase the burden of European legislation but it seems not to be to reduce it.
Is the Secretary of State aware that the Governments of the day, of different political persuasions, published White Papers on their negotiating priorities ahead of the Amsterdam treaty, the Nice treaty, the constitutional treaty and the Lisbon treaty, and that Maastricht treaty negotiations were preceded by two whole days of debate under John Major’s Government and a vote in this House? Can the Secretary of State explain to the House why an approach involving Parliament’s prerogatives of scrutiny is appropriate for amendments to EU treaties but not appropriate to the much larger endeavour of pulling the UK out of the EU altogether?
What the right hon. Gentleman forgets of course is that we have announced already, right at the beginning of this process, that we will introduce the great repeal Bill, which will lead to an enormous length of debate in this House on exactly what powers will be kept and what powers will remain—most will remain. After that, there will be other Bills, I should think, that will also deal with the individual elements of the negotiation, which will inform the House, with the House having the right to both amend and vote on them. So I do not see what he is complaining about.
Our country is deeply divided. In my county of Nottinghamshire, hate crime is 18% higher today than it was a year ago. Is it not important that, in everything that we say and do in the years and months ahead of us, we watch the language and make sure it is temperate, and that we involve everybody? Seventeen million people voted to leave the EU and 16 million of us voted for us not to leave the EU, and most of us have accepted that we are now going to leave the EU. In that spirit of bringing our nation together, in the interests of everybody, will my right hon. Friend now take this opportunity unequivocally to condemn the language and the vilification of our judges, including the homophobic abuse of one of our judges? Will he now please set the tone for us to work together?
I wholeheartedly deplore the threats and the violent language used against the individual who I think launched this judicial case—that is utterly to be deplored. The point of division when one defends free speech is the point at which it encourages violence. In that respect, I absolutely agree. Hate crime is despicable, and those sorts of assaults are despicable.
The Secretary of State indicated last Thursday that, in all probability, legislation would be required to trigger the article 50 process if the judgment is upheld. Is that still his view? If so, will he give the House an assurance that, before that legislation is brought before the House, the Government will have published their negotiating objectives for the great endeavour on which the nation is about to embark. Whether people voted for or against remaining in the European Union, what all of them want to know now is: do the Government have a plan? The more he stands at the Dispatch Box and does not reveal one, the more worried people become.
First, on the question of legislation, the actual outcome will depend on what the Supreme Court judges rule. What I was commenting on was the state as of the hearing or declaration last week. On the negotiation, as I have said before, we will be as open as possible subject to the overwhelming national interest of preserving our negotiating position. It is no good creating a public negotiating position, which has the simple effect of destroying our ability to negotiate—full stop.
The independence of our judiciary is a very precious thing and it must be respected. The independence of our free press is also a very precious thing, and it must be respected. The fact that 17.4 million people—a majority of the British people—voted for our national independence is a precious thing and that must be respected. Will my right hon. Friend guarantee to me that he will not allow the efforts of the right hon. Members for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr Clegg) and for Doncaster North (Edward Miliband) or indeed any Member of the other place to thwart the mandate that this Government have been given in order to ensure that we can take back control of our laws, our money, our trade and our sovereignty?
I am happy to give my right hon. Friend that undertaking.
The Secretary of State’s words about the independence of the judiciary were welcome, but he will know that the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government said last week that the High Court decision was an attempt to frustrate the will of the British people. Does he agree that that was a deeply unhelpful thing for him to say, particularly at a time when the UK Independence party is calling for democratic and political control of judges—that was this morning—and when we all have a strong responsibility to ensure that the process of Brexit strengthens democracy and the rule of law in Britain and does not undermine and subvert it?
I did not hear the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government speak. I have seen—[Interruption] Wait a minute. I have seen some of the reportage of it. I say to the right hon. Lady that we can respect the judiciary’s independence and disagree with the conclusion that it arrived at—that is perfectly proper within our country.
Will my right hon. Friend confirm that, like the European Parliament under article 50, this Parliament will have a vote on any prospective deal with the EU 27 at the end of the negotiations, and that although it is very important that he informs his negotiating position by consulting all shades of opinion and interest in the country and in this House, our decision will be at the end of this process, not at the beginning?
My hon. Friend is right. I have said to the House on a number of occasions that we will—I have used the same formula—obey all the laws and conventions. He will know that that includes, for example, the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010 and other Acts, including the European Union Act 2011. Before then, as I have said already, we will have the great repeal Act, which will be a major Act debated at length in this House, with possible consequential legislation, which may also be amendable. There is both a ratification process at the end and an amendment process along the way.
I thank the Secretary of State for the advance copy of his statement and for the regular meetings that he is having with Members in the devolved Assemblies and Members from the devolved regions about this important matter. He can be assured that on the Ulster Bench the Government’s fixity of purpose is supported. Have last week’s events been a reminder that the courtroom is not the place for Britain to conduct its politics? Does he foresee any circumstances in which this case could end up in the European courts, and is there a contingency plan to address that matter?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his supportive comments. Both cases in front of the courts are issues relating to the UK constitution, and the European Court has absolutely no locus in that area.
If the result had gone the other way, leavers like me would have unequivocally accepted it—[Interruption.] That is absolutely the case. Therefore the same should be expected of hon. Members who were defeated by the referendum result. Given that they all say that they would vote for article 50 in a vote in the House of Commons, why do we not hold such a vote straight away on a straightforward resolution, so that we can see whether that is sincere or whether they are as cynical as their reaction to the true statement that I made seems to suggest?
My right hon. Friend tempts me, but the proper route for the Government to pursue is to await the outcome of the court case and then act properly under the law.
The basis of the judgment last week was that rights conferred by legislation cannot be taken away by royal prerogative. The Secretary of State said in the wake of that judgment that it was his understanding that therefore legislation would be needed to give effect to the judgment. Is that still his understanding, or does he think that the judgment can be given effect without legislation?
As the judgment stands, that is my understanding. Basically, the right hon. Gentleman is right. What the court said, in effect, was, “You cannot remove rights without legislative power, and to give the Government legislative power, you have to have legislation”, but remember, we are now waiting on the Supreme Court outcome, which may be different.
Some 105 years ago it was a Liberal Government who established the supremacy of the elected over the unelected Chamber, so would it not be a scandalous state of affairs if Lib Dem peers were to use a parliamentary vote to frustrate the will of the people of this country?
I am tempted to say that Lloyd George would be spinning in his grave.
Is not the pressure on us, not on the judges? At elections the people give us sovereignty to exercise on their behalf, and at referendums we return that sovereignty to them. Woe betide us if we do not abide by that. Will the right hon. Gentleman hazard a guess as to how many remainers’ turkeys will vote for Christmas in next May’s election?
The right hon. Gentleman will not tempt me again, but he is quite right: 17.4 million people is the biggest vote—the biggest mandate—any Government have had in the history of this country, and we have to obey it.
Is there not a way to cut through the debate and to start to heal the rift between Parliament and the people? The Secretary of State has an opportunity this afternoon to say that there will be a one-line Bill authorising the triggering of article 50, which would be introduced to this House and then pass through the House of Lords. I would urge him to bring that Bill forward soon to test the will of this House and the House of Lords, which I think will approve the passing of that Bill, and we can then get on with negotiating the exit.
I hear what my right hon. Friend says, and I have to say I am very tempted, but what I also have to say is that this whole issue is a matter of extreme importance, and we do have to complete the test in the courts that is necessary to establish the law.
In 2010, responding to a House of Lords constitutional affairs report, the Government Minister asserted:
“Under the UK’s constitutional arrangements Parliament must be responsible for deciding whether or not to take action in response to a referendum result.”
Can the Secretary of State explain what has happened since 2010 to change the Government’s view on that?
What happened in 2015 was that the Government Minister responsible, the Foreign Secretary, said to the House of Commons that this gives the decision to the British people—full stop, no ifs, no buts. The Government then published a number of documents saying the same thing over and over again. If we betray the people by not responding to that properly, I think it will be very difficult to ever make a referendum matter again.
I am delighted with the certainty my right hon. Friend has that we are sticking to the current timetable, but he will have noticed that those who voted to remain are putting out a false narrative that we now have a choice between soft Brexit or hard Brexit. Will he please confirm that the biggest majority in British history voted to take back control, and that means making our own laws in our own Parliament?
My right hon. Friend is exactly right. We were given a national instruction, which we will interpret in the national interest, not in terms of any fictional soft or hard, or any other sort of, Brexit. We will get the outcome that suits this country best.
The Attorney General, who is helpfully sitting next to the Secretary of State, will know that the Government failed in the European Union Referendum Bill to set out how notification under article 50 would be given in the event of a leave vote. Consequently, the courts have had to intervene. So should the Secretary of State not come to the Dispatch Box and condemn the hysterical, vicious, personal attacks on our independent judiciary and condemn some of the comments from those on his own Front Bench?
The hon. Gentleman knows from our many operations together over the years that I am a great defender of the independence of the judiciary. In respect of the Bill, the presumption is that the prerogative exists, unless it is taken away, and it exists in this case.
Is my right hon. Friend aware that some people have been describing this moment as some kind of constitutional crisis? I will be inviting the constitution Committee of the House of Commons to take an interest in this crisis, if it is a crisis. In the meantime, may I commend my right hon. Friend, and indeed the whole Government, for taking a cool and calm approach to this? May I invite him to pursue the appeal to the Supreme Court, because the present judgment leaves unanswered a number of questions that need to be resolved? May I also say that it is quite possible that the Supreme Court may choose to exercise its independence by reversing the decision of the High Court?
My hon. Friend is, as ever, perspicacious about this. There are many issues to be resolved. It is not a constitutional crisis; it is simply the operation of the rule of law in the United Kingdom, which is how we like to see things done.
The Government’s handling of this situation does not inspire confidence at any level: Ministers cannot convince the High Court that their actions are lawful, they are fearful that they cannot persuade Parliament that their negotiating strategy is the right one, and they cannot even agree a UK-wide strategy that involves all the devolved Parliaments. On what basis are we expected to believe that this Government can persuade our partners in the EU that we should get a good deal from Brexit?
Yet again, I am astonished that Scottish National party Members are saying that we cannot agree a UK-wide strategy. We are two meetings into the process. We presumably intend to try to agree a strategy—or is it the intention of the hon. Lady’s party not to let one happen?
While it would be improper for Ministers to criticise judges, though not judgments, and disorderly for this House to criticise judges, except under a specific motion, is it not absolutely right that our press are free, fearless and outspoken, because there may be less happy times when judges need to be held more firmly to account?
My hon. Friend is exactly right. There are a number of pillars of our democracy. One of them is the independence of the judiciary, which we have maintained for centuries, and another is the freedom of the press, which we are still maintaining after centuries.
It is now more than four months since a clear majority voted to leave. In a spirit of constructive engagement, and further to what the right hon. Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis) said, may I suggest that Secretary of State bring a motion, as opposed to a Bill, before the House ahead of the Supreme Court hearing in January, because doing so might underline where the balance of opinion lies both in this House and in the unelected place?
As I said to my right hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis), it seems to me that the proper approach of the Government is to respect the ruling of the Court and therefore wait on the final outcome in the Supreme Court.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that nothing in the High Court judgment in any way constrains the ability of Parliament to determine its own procedures, and that, in light of that, it would be possible for both Houses of Parliament to amend their procedures in such a way as to bring forward a Bill and to pass it, long before the Supreme Court judgment?
Does the Secretary of State agree with the view expressed by some of his colleagues that the High Court ruling was “clearly an attempt to frustrate the will of the people”?
The ruling of the Court is simply a judgment, no more, no less, and I do not see it in any political context.
Will the Secretary of State celebrate the fact that parliamentary sovereignty is now embraced even by those who campaigned to leave it in Brussels?
My right hon. Friend makes a point that I may agree with but dare not make myself.
Of course we should all accept the outcome of the referendum, but that does not necessarily mean that we all have to agree on the detail or that we should rush ahead with triggering article 50—particularly in March, ahead of the German and French elections, and before the Government have even developed a plan. As we now know that if the Secretary of State loses the Supreme Court judgment we are likely to have a Bill—primary legislation—he should entertain the idea of an amendment that considers triggering article 50 after the summer, not before September, so that we have the time to get this right.
I refer the hon. Gentleman to the leader of his party, who recommended that we trigger article 50 on 24 June.
The Prime Minister is currently in India attempting to begin negotiations on a trade deal that the UK may, in the event, not have the authority to conclude—not, that is, unless the Government have already quietly decided to leave the customs union. Will the Government give at least some indication of when they will set out their negotiating position on the core objectives of whether we remain in the customs union, whether we are attempting to retain full access to the single market, and whether we intend to retain passporting for our financial services?
As my right hon. Friend well knows, the issue of the customs union is a complex one. There are many different configurations. Turkey is inside the customs union but outside the single market, Norway is inside the single market but outside the customs union, and Switzerland is outside the customs union and partly inside the single market. We have to make a judgment on what is best for Britain in toto, in terms of its access both to the European market and to the rest of the world. We will make that judgment in due course and make it public in due course.