House of Commons
Wednesday 9 January 2019
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
The United Kingdom is at the forefront of the humanitarian response and has been providing life-saving support to millions of people across Syria from the start of the conflict. To date, we have committed £2.71 billion, our largest ever response to a single humanitarian crisis. This includes the provision of more than 27 million food rations and 10 million relief packages since 2012.
I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. Just before Christmas, I had the rather humbling honour of meeting two Syrian families who fled the horror of that country to find sanctuary in Shaftesbury in my constituency, where they are making their new home. The pictures that they showed me and the stories that they told were indeed horrible. Will my right hon. Friend assure me that, notwithstanding everything else that is going on, Her Majesty’s Government has not forgotten Syria and the underlying and ever pressing need for peace?
I can assure my hon. Friend that no one in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office or the Department for International Development has forgotten Syria. We are all shocked and moved by the plight of those who have suffered so much, and I am familiar with some of the pictures that my hon. Friend describes. We are engaged diplomatically and in humanitarian terms every day in relation to Syria.
The full details of the impact of the US withdrawal have yet to be worked through. Our focus on humanitarian aid will not be changed, and we continue to monitor the situation closely as it develops. Our focus on providing humanitarian assistance to millions of people displaced both externally and internally will remain.
The possibility of a US withdrawal raises serious concerns about civilian protection. Will the Minister tell us what the Government are doing to work with agencies on the ground to ensure that, particularly in the Kurdish-controlled areas and in Idlib, as much as possible is done to protect civilians?
Yes indeed. To reassure the hon. Gentleman, who is the Chair of the Select Committee, we are very concerned about the potential implications, particularly on the Turkish-Syrian border. We are in constant contact with our partners in relation to this and with humanitarian agencies, which are fully abreast of the consequences of actions that have not yet happened. Everything is being done to try to encourage a peaceful resolution of the political conflicts there.
As I indicated to the Chair of the Select Committee, we are all extremely concerned about the potential implications of US withdrawal and what it might mean on the Turkish border in relation to Kurdish areas. Humanitarian agencies are very alert to this, but politically we are doing what we can with partners to minimise any risk of confrontation there.
It is difficult to put full figures on this, to be honest. We believe, as I indicated earlier, that we have provided 27 million food rations, 40 million medical consultations, 10 million relief packages, and 10 million vaccines. If we look at all those whose lives have been protected—the 3.5 million in Turkey, the 1.5 million in Lebanon and the 1 million in Jordan— we can see that United Kingdom aid has played a significant part in that.
Last year the UK Government cut funding to aid programmes in rebel-held Syria, instead shifting focus to this valuable humanitarian work in the region. None-the-less, groups such as the Free Syrian police, whom we supported throughout the conflict, continue to face a number of threats from the regime as they continue their valuable work. Will the Secretary of State assure me that her Department has not simply abandoned these people and that their ongoing protection is still a matter of serious concern for the UK Government?
DFID’s aid has always been focused on humanitarian need, regardless of who has been in control of territory. Provided we can be assured that aid and support are not diverted for terrorist or extremist purposes but get through to those who are in need, that is the guiding principle on which we work, and will continue to be the principle on which DFID will provide humanitarian aid.
Gender equality is considered in the design of all DFID’s programmes, and is essential to achieving the sustainable development goals. Between 2015 and 2018, UK aid provided 16.9 million women and girls with modern methods of family planning, and helped 5.6 million girls to gain access to a decent education.
Action on Poverty, a charity based in my constituency, has done some tremendous work in Africa and Asia, including helping thousands of women to set up their own businesses. What more can the Department do to assist charities such as Action on Poverty?
I pay tribute to the work that Action on Poverty has done, and, indeed, to my hon. Friend’s support for that organisation. We are currently helping it, through UK Aid Direct, to improve livelihoods and food security in Sierra Leone, but, more widely, we want to increase the number of small and medium-sized charities and other organisations with which we work to deliver the global goals.
Let me ask the Secretary of State a pertinent question about empowering women. Does she agree that all the research shows that allowing them to start their own businesses and have control over their own lives is one of the best ways of empowering them, and that that often means giving them the finance that will enable them to start a small business?
Does my right hon. Friend share my concern about the fact that in many parts of the world women and girls are still not being given the education that they deserve, or the same education as men and boys? What is her Department doing to help to alleviate that discrimination and highlight the need for equal opportunities?
Globally, 63 million girls between the ages of five and 15 are out of school. Under the auspices of the Minister of State, Department for International Development, my hon. Friend the Member for West Worcestershire (Harriett Baldwin), we are supporting the global education partnership and, within that, the education challenge. We have refreshed our own education strategy to ensure that it is not just about girls in classrooms, but about the quality of education that they are receiving. Only through a concerted effort in that respect, and by asking other partners to step up, will we ensure that every woman and girl has a decent education.
I welcome the Secretary of State’s ambitious strategy on gender equality, which is a heartening step towards Labour’s feminist approach to international development, but these commitments will remain just warm words if, as we learned last month, 20%—600—of DFID’s staff are to be reassigned to other Departments to help to manage the Tories’ Brexit shambles. Will the Secretary of State tell the House very specifically what impact she expects that huge cut to have on her gender equality strategy, and, indeed, on all her Department’s work?
I welcome the hon. Gentleman to his new role and sincerely wish him well in it, but his assertion is incorrect. That is not the number of staff who have been redeployed. I think that, currently, the grand total of DFID staff who are helping other Departments is 25. However, if the hon. Gentleman is concerned about a no-deal situation, he knows what he needs to do: he needs to vote for the Prime Minister’s deal.
I am grateful to the Secretary of State for her warm words, but I note that she did not rule out the possibility of 600 staff leaving the Department.
Many Members will have been deeply concerned by reports in the media last week that DFID’s independence may once again be up for debate in this summer’s comprehensive spending review, although merging DFID with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office would fly in the face of the evidence of how our aid budget can make the greatest impact. Given that more UK aid money is already being spent by other Departments, given the brazen attempts to use aid to win trade deals, and given that 600 staff are on their way out, is the Secretary of State not overseeing the managed decline of the Department for International Development ?
The hon. Gentleman quotes many statistics and figures at me, so I will help him by quoting some back. All of what he says is not true so, as he starts his new role, I encourage him to talk about the 17 global goals that I hope everyone on both sides of the House is looking to deliver. What he said is not correct.
The United Kingdom is a world leader in efforts to end the AIDS epidemic, including through our major investment in the Global Fund, which provided 17.5 million people with treatment in 2017. We are working to expand access to treatment while reducing new infections, particularly among adolescent girls, women and other groups who face stigma and discrimination.
I thank the Minister for his answer. Along with medication, education has been transforming the spread of HIV in the UK, with infections falling by 28% since 2015. In sub-Saharan Africa, however, three in four new infections among 15 to 19-year-olds affect girls, and globally young women are twice as likely to be infected with HIV as men their age. What steps is my right hon. Friend taking to curb HIV infections within the most vulnerable and susceptible groups?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that question. Women and young girls are indeed a vulnerable group in relation to AIDS. Ending AIDS as a public health threat by 2030 is a priority for the UK, which I was able to re-emphasise when speaking at the International AIDS Conference in Amsterdam earlier this year. Tackling AIDS is possible only if we target the most vulnerable populations, which we are doing by focusing on adolescents in the sexual and reproductive health programmes that we support.
Analysis from the STOPAIDS coalition shows that, despite increased funding to multilaterals, overall DFID funding for HIV programmes has been falling, with bilateral funding for HIV programming falling from £221 million in 2009 to just £13 million in 2017. What steps is the Department taking to fill the funding gap created by that cut? If the Secretary of State is to shift spending to multilateral mechanisms, will the Minister confirm whether the Department will continue to invest in the Global Fund at the sixth replenishment conference in October 2019?
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her questions. There is sometimes a difficulty with comparing spending when taking a snapshot, because programmes last for different lengths of time, but she is right to recognise our strong commitment to the Global Fund. We invested £1.2 billion in the current replenishment process, and we also provided extra assistance to the Robert Carr civil society Networks Fund during the course of this year. We will ensure that funding continues to go to programmes, and we do our best to track it when it goes into the wider programmes where the AIDS spending will actually happen. That remains a priority for us.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for mentioning that programme. In fact, my hon. Friend the Minister for Africa visited the programme recently and was able to see its valuable work on both AIDS and Ebola. That sort of ministerial commitment demonstrates our support on the ground, which will continue and intensify.
Afghanistan: Hazara Community
UK aid provided 2 million people in Afghanistan with life-saving support last year, including members of the Hazara community. The provision of humanitarian assistance is based on need and is delivered across the country, and it includes food, shelter and clean water. Humanitarian partners have been assisting displaced people in central Afghanistan, but they have not requested new funding.
On 4 December, the Minister for Asia and the Pacific said that British embassy staff had met Afghan Government representatives from the affected area to discuss the situation. Can the Secretary of State update us on the progress made on the humanitarian front and on any developments since that meeting?
Obviously I do not know the precise meeting to which the hon. Gentleman refers, because of course we frequently meet regional representatives, as well as meeting representatives based in Kabul. We are assisting people, particularly in that region, because of the territorial changes and the new pressures. At the moment there has not been a further call on us to provide any further assistance in that respect, although in other areas of Afghanistan we have leaned in because of the drought.
SDG10: Reducing Inequality
The Department for International Development’s mission is to reduce inequality by ending extreme poverty.
We often talk in this place, at least on this side of the House, about the importance of universal public services like the NHS and inclusive education in ensuring that everyone, regardless of income, has access to essential services, which will bring about more equal societies. What is the Department doing to ensure that UK aid better supports the development of universal free public services in the countries in which it works?
The hon. Lady is absolutely right that that forms a core part of our work not only on ending extreme poverty but in providing access to essential, lifesaving services. Whether it is helping with infants and preventing maternal mortality or providing 12 years of quality education, the Department is working around the world on those opportunities.
My hon. Friend will be aware that I am a member of the independent commission on sexual misconduct set up by Oxfam following the Haiti issues and that the commission is about to produce its interim report. Does she agree that the way in which staff are treated by non-governmental organisations, showing proper respect and reducing inequality, is an important step towards meeting this development goal?
I thank my right hon. and learned Friend for the work he is doing on this important issue. Last year the Department took a leadership role on addressing such issues not only within the Department but within the providers we work with around the world.
Through our own work, through the International Citizen Service and through our work with many of our partner organisations, including UNICEF, we are working extensively on this issue. I am glad to be able to tell the hon. Gentleman that the UK is the largest donor to the Global Partnership to End Violence Against Children.
The current Ebola virus outbreak has claimed 377 lives in the east of the Democratic Republic of the Congo to date, and more than 600 people have tested positive for the disease. The response effort has been good, but it has been hampered by terrible insecurity in the region, with many humanitarian workers under fire while trying to initiate vaccinations. More than 200 people have survived the virus and the rate of infection is slow. Yesterday, I spoke to Dr Tedros of the World Health Organisation, who has just returned from the country, about what more we can do to contain the outbreak over the next several months. The UK has stepped up its support in response to the situation in the DRC and its preparedness throughout the region. It is a critical time for other nations to do the same.
The all-party group on vaccinations for all, of which I am a member, will release a report next week that highlights the fact that globally one in 10 children do not receive any of the 11 essential World Health Organisation-recommended vaccines. Does the Secretary of State agree that ensuring that all children are fully immunised should be a priority of this Government and vital organisations such as Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance?
I am extremely glad that the hon. Gentleman got to ask that question, because Gavi is our highest performing multilateral partner. It is absolutely right that we keep the programme strong. I shall visit Gavi’s Bognor Regis facility next week. Between 2016 and 2020, UK Aid will have vaccinated 76 million children, saving 1.4 million lives.
Mr Speaker, I believe that my hon. Friend the Minister for Africa is ready to answer Topical Question 3 without its having to be repeated.
May I say to my hon. Friend the Member for Romford (Andrew Rosindell) that there will indeed be scope not only to copy across the existing favourable trade arrangements but to increase the favourability in terms of access to the UK market for many of the poorest countries in the world post Brexit.
Our commitment to global health is designed to ensure that focus is placed on the most vulnerable, and our support for sustainable health systems ensures that the work that is going on to improve maternity and pregnancy services in so many parts of the world is supported and bolstered by the work that we do both in country and multilaterally.
Ethiopia is one of the countries in which the Department for International Development has extensive programmes. I am very pleased to hear that the good folk of Colchester are supplementing that work with this wonderful project to knit hats for babies.
Under the leadership of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, we have led the charge on tackling modern slavery globally, including at the United Nations General Assembly this year where we increased our financial contribution to £200 million to combat the issue. Critically, we have also held events with the private sector, because it is only with the private sector and by ensuring transparency, knowledge and security across all of its supply chains that we can eradicate this terrible practice from the world.
I have good news for the hon. Gentleman because, even with our immense skills, it is impossible to spend any of the 0.7% on anything that is not official development assistance-eligible. I encourage all Opposition Members, as they hopefully join us to deliver the global goals, to start working for a change with the private sector and the armed forces, without which we will not be able to deliver the humanitarian relief that we wish to deliver or achieve those goals.
The US decision to stop funding the United Nations Relief and Works Agency support to Palestine risks vital education and healthcare services there. I welcome DFID’s decision to increase funding in the short term, but is that sustainable in the longer term?
We and other donors have moved very rapidly this year to seek to cover a shortfall in UNRWA funding. Work is going on to ensure that, in the long term, UNRWA is sustainable. Ultimately, though, the issue is not UNRWA, but the unresolved situation of refugees.
Order. Just before we begin Prime Minister’s questions, I hope that colleagues across the House will want to join me in welcoming to the House of Commons today the former Member of Parliament for Glasgow Central and now the Governor of the Punjab, our friend Mohammad Sarwar. Welcome Mohammad.
The Prime Minister was asked—
I am sure that the whole House would like to join me in paying tribute to Lord Paddy Ashdown who sadly died last month. From his service in the Royal Marines through to his time in this House and then as High Representative for Bosnia and Herzegovina, he served his country with passion and distinction and he will be sorely missed.
In recent days, we have seen instances of threats of violence or intimidation against Members of this House, including my right hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe (Anna Soubry), and members of the media. I know the whole House will join me in condemning those threats. Politicians and the media should be able to go about their work without harassment and intimidation.
This morning, I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. In addition to my duties in this House, I shall have further such meetings later today.
I echo the Prime Minister’s comments on Lord Paddy Ashdown and, of course, on the disgraceful behaviour and threats to politicians and journalists going about their business.
Like those in the rest of the UK, 235,000 EU nationals in Scotland were treated to a Christmas removal threat via social media from the UK Home Office telling them to register if they want to stay in the UK after December 2020. Friends, neighbours, colleagues—people vital to the Scottish economy—were shamefully told to pay to stay in their own homes. Will the Prime Minister confirm what will happen to those not registered by December 2020? Does she realise that, for those affected, this feels less like a hostile environment and more like a xenophobic one?
We recognise the huge contribution that EU citizens have made to our economy and our society, and we want them to stay. The EU settlement scheme will make it simple and straightforward for them to get the status that they need. EU citizens have until June 2021 to apply and the cost of applying is less than the cost of renewing a British passport, but if the hon. Gentleman is concerned about the interests of EU citizens, he can back the deal, which enshrines their rights.
My hon. Friend raises a very important issue. I pay tribute to those who have served in our armed forces for their courage and commitment. I also pay tribute to the vital work undertaken by Care after Combat; my hon. Friend is absolutely right about that. We have a range of measures in place to support those who have served in the armed forces who then find themselves in the criminal justice system, and prisons tailor rehabilitative work to individuals’ needs, helping to reduce the risk of reoffending when they are released from prison. The point that my hon. Friend makes about the excellent record of Care after Combat is a good one, and I am sure that a Minister from the Ministry of Justice will be happy to meet him to discuss the matter further.
I join the Prime Minister in paying tribute to Paddy Ashdown, who was elected to Parliament at the same time as me in 1983. He was a very assiduous constituency MP and a very effective Member of Parliament, and he and I spent a lot of evenings voting against what the Thatcher Tory Government were doing at that time.
I agree with the Prime Minister on the point that she made about the intimidation of Members of Parliament and representatives of the media outside this building, as happened a few days ago when the right hon. Member for Broxtowe (Anna Soubry) and Owen Jones of The Guardian were intimidated outside this building. I send my support and sympathy to both of them. We also have to be clear that intimidation is wrong outside this building as it is wrong in any other aspect of life in this country, and we have to create a safe space for political debate. [Interruption.] You see what I mean, Mr Speaker; I am calling for a safe space for political debate.
I am sure that the whole House will join me in wishing a speedy recovery to the two British soldiers who were injured in Syria last week.
The Prime Minister scrapped the Brexit vote last month, and promised that legally binding assurances would be secured at the December EU summit; she failed. She pledged to get these changes over the recess; she failed. Is the Prime Minister not bringing back exactly the same deal that she admitted would be defeated four weeks ago?
First, I absolutely agree with the right hon. Gentleman that there is no place for intimidation in any part of our society. Politicians do need a safe space in which to express their opinions, many of which are passionately held. I hope that he will now ask his shadow Chancellor to withdraw or apologise for the remarks that he made about the former Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, my right hon. Friend the Member for Tatton (Ms McVey).
Let me update the House on the matter of Brexit. The conclusions of the December European Council went further than before in seeking to address the concerns of this House, and they have legal status. I have been in contact with European leaders since then about MPs’ concerns. These discussions have shown that further clarification on the backstop is possible, and those talks will continue over the next few days, but we are also looking at what more we can do domestically to safeguard the interests of the people and businesses of Northern Ireland. That is why this morning we published a package of commitments that give Northern Ireland a strong voice and role in any decision to bring the backstop into effect.
We have also been looking at how Parliament can take a greater role as we take these negotiations on to the next stage. So I can tell the House that, in the event that our future relationship or alternative arrangements are not ready by the end of 2020, Parliament will have a vote on whether to seek to extend the implementation period or to bring the backstop into effect. The Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union will be saying more about this during his opening speech in the forthcoming debate.
No amount of window-dressing is going to satisfy Members of this House. They want to see clear legal changes to the document that the Government presented to this House.
The Foreign Secretary said that the Prime Minister has not been asking for anything new in her discussions with the EU. Does not that tell us that the Prime Minister has been recklessly wasting time, holding the country to ransom with the threat of no deal in a desperate attempt to blackmail MPs to vote for her hopelessly unpopular deal?
The right hon. Gentleman can say what he likes about no deal, but he opposes any deal that the Government have negotiated with the European Union. He opposes the deal—[Interruption.] He opposes the deal that the EU says is the only deal, and that leaves him with no deal. The only way to avoid no deal is to vote for the deal. If the right hon. Gentleman is uncertain about what I am saying, perhaps I can give him a tip—he might like to use a lipreader.
The Prime Minister says that it is the only deal available. If that is the case, why was it not put to a vote on 11 December in this House? Why has there been a delay of five weeks on this?
The Prime Minister said she hopes to get “written assurances” before the vote next week, so can I ask her this: will the changes she is looking for be made to the legally binding withdrawal agreement itself?
As I said earlier in my remarks and I have said previously, there are three elements that we are looking at. One is the undertakings and assurances that we are looking for from the European Union, and we intend that those will be available to the House before the House votes at the end of the debate. We are also looking at what more we can do domestically. I have set out, and the Secretary of State will set out more clearly and in more detail, what we are going to do in relation to the powers for Northern Ireland and on the question of the role of Parliament for the future. We are also looking to ensure that we can provide the assurance and confidence that this House needs on the question of the backstop which has been at the forefront of Members’ concerns. We put a good deal on the table, but yes, we are looking for those clarifications—clarifications which I am sure will ensure that Members of this House know that the backstop need never be used and that if it is used it will be only temporary.
Well, in the midst of that very long answer I did not hear the words “legal changes to the document”. That was my question.
The Environment Secretary has said that no deal would damage the UK farming sector. The Foreign Secretary has said that no deal
“is not something any government”
“wish on its people”,
and £4.2 billion of public money is being wastefully allocated to no-deal planning. Will the Prime Minister listen to the clearly expressed will of the House last night, end this costly charade, and rule out no deal?
I have made it clear to the right hon. Gentleman that if he wants to avoid no deal, he has to back a deal, and back the deal. He stands there and complains about money being spent on no-deal preparations. Today, Wednesday, he is saying that we should not be spending money on no-deal preparations; on Monday, he said that no-deal preparations were “too little, too late.” He cannot have it both ways: either we are doing too much or we are doing too little. So perhaps he can break his usual habit and actually give us a decision—which is it?
This is the first time since 1978 that a Prime Minister has been defeated on a Finance Bill in the House of Commons. Last night, the House made it clear, in supporting the amendment in the name of my right hon. Friend the Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper), that no deal should be ruled out. That is the position of this House.
The UK automotive industry wrote to the Prime Minister in December asking her to take the no-deal option
“off the table or risk destroying this vital UK industry.”
Given that this House has now rejected no deal, will the Prime Minister protect thousands of skilled jobs in the automotive industry and others and rule out no deal?
I recognise that the right hon. Gentleman welcomed the leadership given by the right hon. Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford on that issue. I want to be clear that that amendment does not change the fact that the UK is leaving the European Union on 29 March, nor does it stop the Government collecting tax.
The right hon. Gentleman asks once again about the question of no deal and protecting jobs. We have negotiated a deal with the European Union that protects jobs. What is raising concerns, he says, is the prospect of no deal. It is absolutely sensible for this Government to prepare for no deal, and those preparations are even more important given the position taken by the right hon. Gentleman. With an Opposition Front-Bench team who are opposed to any deal the Government negotiate with the European Union, it is even more important that we prepare for no deal. The deal protects jobs and security and delivers on the referendum, and he should back it.
Instead of backing industries in this country and protecting thousands of jobs in manufacturing and service industries, the Transport Secretary is awarding millions of pounds of contracts to ferry companies with no ferries, to run on routes that do not exist and apparently will not even be ready by the beginning of April. That is the degree of incompetence of this Government in dealing with the whole question of relations with the EU.
The Prime Minister has spent the last week begging for warm words from EU leaders and achieved nothing. Not one single dot or comma has changed. She has already squandered millions of pounds of public money on last-minute, half-baked planning for no deal, which was rejected last night. If her deal is defeated next week, as I hope and expect it will be, will the Prime Minister do the right thing—let the people have a real say and call a general election?
No. We have put a good deal on the table that protects jobs and security. I noticed in all of that that we still do not know what Brexit plan the right hon. Gentleman has. I was rather hoping, as he went through, that he might turn over a page and find a Brexit plan. What do we know about the right hon. Gentleman? He has been for and against free movement. He has been for and against the customs union. He has been for and against an independent trade policy. He was a Eurosceptic. Now he is pro the EU. He wanted to trigger article 50 on day one; now he wants to delay it. He did not want money spent on no deal; now he says it is not enough. The one thing we know about the right hon. Gentleman is that his Brexit policies are the many, not the few.
My hon. Friend raises an important point about GPs. If he looks at the long-term plan for the NHS, which was launched on Monday and is being made possible by the £20.5 billion extra that we will be putting into the NHS by 2023-24, he will see that support for the workforce, including GPs, is a very important part of that plan. Indeed, a greater focus on primary care, which will help to keep people out of hospital—at any point in time, 20% to 30% of people in hospital do not need to be there—is an important part of the plan. GPs are an essential element of that, and I assure my hon. Friend that they will be part of that important workforce planning.
I concur with the Prime Minister in her remarks on Paddy Ashdown. I make the point that all of us collectively have a responsibility to make sure that there is no intimidation in our public life.
The Prime Minister delayed the doomed Brexit vote last year on the promise of written concessions from Brussels. Prime Minister, where are they?
We are used to not getting an answer, and there we have it again. What the Prime Minister promised was that we would get written concessions, and that Parliament would have the opportunity to vote on them; nothing has materialised. A month has passed, and nothing has changed.
Last night, the Prime Minister suffered another humiliating defeat. When will the Prime Minister face the facts? There is little support for her deal or no deal in this House. The new year began without concessions; the Dublin talks failed without concessions; the debate on her deal restarts today without concessions. The Prime Minister is frozen in failure, asking MPs to write a blank cheque for her blindfold Brexit. MPs should not be debating without the full facts. Is it this, or will there be the concessions, not just clarifications? When will the Prime Minister guarantee that the House will see the full details before we start the debate this afternoon?
As I said in response to the right hon. Gentleman’s first question, I set out the position earlier. I referenced, as he will know, the conclusions of the December European Council, which went further in relation to the issues that I have raised with the European Council than they had gone before, and those have legal status, but we are of course working further on those issues.
The right hon. Gentleman cannot get away from the fact that if he wants to avoid no deal, he has to be willing to agree a deal. The deal that is on the table, which the EU has made clear is the only deal, is the one that the United Kingdom Government have negotiated with the European Union. If he really wants, and is concerned about ensuring that we can look ahead to, a bright future across the whole of the United Kingdom, he should back that deal.
Employment: West Midlands
I was pleased to meet the Mayor of the west midlands last October, when my right hon. Friend the Chancellor and I visited the Kings Norton headquarters of adi Group and saw at first hand the opportunities that apprenticeships can afford. That is why we are seeing annual investment in apprenticeships double to nearly £2.5 billion by 2020. It was also an excellent opportunity to see a successful west midlands company doing its bit to give young people a career. I am pleased to say that the latest statistics show employment in the west midlands has risen by 276,000 since 2010.
That is fantastic news, but I think the Prime Minister will agree with me that transport is also key to employment. I want to raise the question of the rail line that lies between Lichfield and Burton, which is currently used only for freight. It passes the National Memorial Arboretum, which gets about half a million visitors a year, but at the moment they all have to come by road, along the busy and congested A38. May I ask the Prime Minister that this rail line be upgraded to a passenger service, providing a valuable east-west connection from Birmingham? Would she also allow me to take her personally around the National Memorial Arboretum?
I of course recognise the important role that transport links play in relation to prosperity and economic growth. Our rail strategy, “Connecting people”, which we have published, actually does look at how we can restore lost capacity where that unlocks housing growth, eases crowded routes, meets demand and offers good value for money, of course. It is for local authorities and local enterprise partnerships to determine whether a new station or train service is the best way to meet local transport needs, but we work closely with local authorities and local enterprise partnerships to take forward the schemes that they are interested in progressing.
In relation to the arboretum, I will of course consider a visit in the future, and I think my hon. Friend has probably given me an invitation it is very difficult to refuse.
The Government are doing exactly what it is necessary and sensible for a Government to do, which is to make preparations for no deal and ensure that we test those preparations. I come back to the point that if the hon. Gentleman is worried about the consequences of no deal, he should back the deal.
It seems plain to anyone who has listened to most of the debates in this House that there is no majority for any proposition on our future relationship with the European Union in this House of Commons, except the majority that is clearly against leaving with no deal. I propose to vote for the Prime Minister’s withdrawal agreement, but I doubt it will pass. If it is passed and we get into a transition, there is no majority or consensus on what the Government are supposed to negotiate for in the years that follow to settle our future political and economic relationships with Europe. The Prime Minister has to be flexible on some things, so if she loses the debate next Tuesday, will she consider moving to the obvious step in the national interest of delaying or revoking article 50, so that we have time to consider what the British actually want?
My right hon. and learned Friend referenced the withdrawal agreement and said that there was no position on what the future relationship should be. Of course, the framework for that future relationship, which is in greater detail than many had expected, is set out in the political declaration, which gives the instructions to the negotiators for the future. In that circumstance, it is right that we consider the role that Parliament will play as the negotiations go forward to ensure that we get the future relationship right. I believe it is possible to have a future relationship with the European Union that is deep and close, but that gives us the freedom to do what we want to do, which is to have an independent trade policy and to develop trade agreements and trade arrangements with the rest of the world.
Every Member of this House knows that drivers and commuters want greater investment to repair our roads and upgrade our railway services, yet we are wasting money on a deeply unpopular project, where the management has failed and the costs are out of control. It will end up costing the taxpayer more than £100 billion —that is about £300 million per mile of track. Why can we not face up to reality, Prime Minister, cancel HS2 and spend the money on the people’s priorities for transport, rather than on this overpriced project that will never deliver value for money for the taxpayer?
First of all, we recognise the concerns that people have about roads, particularly issues such as potholes in their roads, which is precisely why my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer has made more money available to address those issues.
On the question of HS2, it is not just about a high-speed railway; it is about ensuring that we have the capacity that is needed on this particular route, because we are already reaching capacity on the west coast main line. We are already seeing HS2 spreading prosperity. It is encouraging investment and rebalancing our economy, and that is 10 years before the railway even opens. We have seen 7,000 jobs created across the UK, and 2,000 businesses across the UK are delivering HS2. It will bring tens of billions of pounds’-worth of benefits to passengers, suppliers and local communities up and down the route.
First of all, the right hon. Gentleman is absolutely correct: the late Lord Ashdown was deeply respected across this House, across Parliament as a whole and widely across the country. On the question he puts about the review of the loan charge—[Interruption.] I get the point he was trying to make, but may I just make this point? He talked about Opposition and Government MPs uniting. Actually, the Government accepted his review into the loan charge. I think the first stage might be for the Chancellor of the Exchequer to sit down with him and a group of cross-party MPs to look at how that review is being taken forward.
Mr Speaker, I am not going to ask about Brexit. You may be pleased about that. [Interruption.] And happy new year to all of you as well.
I recently had the immense privilege of shadowing Dr Imran Zia at our accident and emergency department at Whipps Cross University Hospital. It was a humbling experience to witness the dedication and fantastic skill of our doctors and nurses. However, they work in buildings that are now well over 100 years old and they know they need better facilities. I have to say to my right hon. Friend that while the NHS set the development of Whipps as the top north-east London priority, in December it announced programmes for investment across London, and yet again north-east London was not included. Will my right hon. Friend please visit Whipps Cross Hospital to see how important and vital it is to the area? Will she work with our excellent Health Secretary, on the basis of a fantastic announcement on Monday, to invest in those buildings and facilities?
I will certainly look at the possibility of taking my right hon. Friend up on that invitation. He makes an important point about the announcement we made on Monday. Our right hon. Friend the Health Secretary has heard what he says about the particular requirements at Whipps Cross Hospital, and will be happy to sit down and talk with him in more detail about that. I will certainly look at my diary and look at his invitation.
Brexit, for example, is clearly in Russia’s geopolitical interest. It was chilling to hear Vladimir Putin parroting exactly the words of the Prime Minister on why we should not hold a referendum but instead
“fulfil the will of the people”.
Meanwhile, poll after poll shows there is a majority for a referendum, because people can see that the Prime Minister’s flailing deal is not in our national interest. So whose side is this Prime Minister on: Putin’s or the people’s?
The fact that the energy price cap has now come in is a very important step that this Government have taken. Something like 11 million households will benefit from the price cap. Households will save money as a result of what this Government have done. We recognise the concern people had about energy prices. It is this Government who have acted to deliver, and my hon. Friend’s constituents in Erewash will see a benefit as a result.
I absolutely respect and recognise the role that the steel industry plays in the United Kingdom. Over recent years, the Government have taken steps to support the steel industry. The hon. Lady talks about the issue of whether we should leave the European Union without a deal. I have been working to ensure that we have a good deal when we leave the European Union. That is the deal that is on the table, and anybody who does not want no deal has to accept that the way to ensure that there is not no deal is to accept and vote for the deal.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. I am wearing my Arsenal tie, and unfortunately those on the terraces here are not quite as well behaved as those at the Emirates.
As I was saying, on Tuesday I will vote for the Prime Minister’s deal. I would like her to look at one particular aspect, for which I have to declare a rather rash financial interest. It relates to page 33 of the withdrawal agreement. Citizens’ residency can be provided either for free by the UK Government or for an amount commensurate with existing costs. At a Brexit meeting in Bexhill, I was so confident that the Government would provide it for free that, rather foolishly, I offered to pay the charge for one particular European citizen who was not quite as confident. Given that this was a decision by the UK public, surely we should welcome our friends, neighbours and essential workforce from the EU, and offer citizens’ residency free of charge, so that they can stay in this country at our cost.
Obviously, I recognise the concern raised by my hon. Friend. The £65 fee to apply for status under the scheme is in line with the current cost of obtaining permanent residence documentation, and it will, of course, contribute to the overall costs of the system, but applications will be free of charge for those who hold valid permanent residence documentation or valid indefinite leave to enter or remain, and for children being looked after by a local authority. Where an application is granted pre-settled status under the scheme, there will, from April 2019, be no fee for applying for settled status. As I said in an earlier response to another Member, the EU settlement scheme will make it simple and straightforward for people to get the status that they need.
As the hon. Gentleman knows, I am working to ensure that the deal that has been negotiated by the UK Government with the European Union is voted on positively by this Parliament. It is a good deal. It does what he wants: it protects jobs and security. It also delivers in full on the referendum result, which is a key issue. We owe it to people to deliver what they wanted, which was control of money, borders and laws, and that is what the deal does.
I thank my right hon. Friend for ensuring that our manifesto commitment to scrap tolls on the Severn bridge crossings has been met. That will put £1,400 a year into the pockets of thousands of motorists, many of whom are my constituents. Does she agree that will help transform the economies of the south-west and south Wales?
This is an important step that the Government have taken. It was advocated by individual Members and the Secretary of State for Wales, and I believe it will indeed have a very positive economic effect on Wales, on the south-west and on constituencies such as my hon. Friend’s.
The hon. Gentleman quoted £84 million. That was actually for a pilot, which is about keeping more children at home with their families safely. We announced an extra £410 million overall at the Budget for social care, which includes children, and spending on the most vulnerable children has increased by more than £1.5 billion since 2010. We are also taking a number of other steps, such as the work we are doing to increase the number of children’s social workers, the appointment of a chief social worker for children, introducing Frontline and Step Up, and getting quality candidates into social care careers. Those are important steps. The hon. Gentleman talks about money; actually, it is about ensuring that the service that is provided is the right one. That is why we do it across the board, and that is why we are looking at those issues around social workers.
I refer the House to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. Ever since former President Gayoom introduced democracy to the Maldives, its legitimacy has been challenged. Just like we have seen with the prophets of doom around Brexit, the recent elections went ahead with no violence and President Solih was elected with a great majority. Will my right hon. Friend redouble her efforts to increase trade, education and cultural links?
I can tell my hon. Friend what I hope is news that he will welcome, which is that a new embassy is being opened in the Maldives. As we look around the world in relation to trade, we will of course see what we can do to improve our trade with a number of countries.
The UK Government have negotiated a deal with the European Union that delivers on the referendum result. I know the hon. Gentleman does not want to deliver on the referendum result. He wants to ensure that the UK stays inside the European Union, at the same time—talking about the economy—as he supports taking Scotland out of the Union of the United Kingdom, which is much more important economically for the people of Scotland. The people of Scotland know that remaining in the United Kingdom is their best future.
Volunteering services are enormously important, and none more so than the Royal National Lifeboat Institution, who put their lives at risk and often rescue people who make perilous crossings to try to get into this country. Is it not time that we looked at the RNLI’s funding? Many people think it is funded by the Government, and it is time we gave some money towards it.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right about the vital role that the RNLI plays. As she says, many people do not realise that it is funded entirely by voluntary contributions. I pay tribute to all those across the country who raise funds for the RNLI, including, if she will allow me, the Sonning branch in my constituency.
Every death of someone while homeless or sleeping rough on our streets is one death too many, which is why we have made a commitment to end rough sleeping by 2027 and halve it by 2022. The hon. Lady says that she does not want to know what we have done, but we have committed more than £1.2 billion to tackling homelessness and rough sleeping. She mentioned mental health services, and asked what we would do in the future. What we will be doing in the future is putting an extra £2.3 billion into mental health services, to ensure that we provide them for the people who, sadly, are not currently able to access them.
More Londoners voted to leave the EU than voted for the current Mayor of London, who is swanning around Europe talking about Brexit rather than his responsibilities, such as crime, housing and transport. Does my right hon. Friend agree that if he insists on being a Brexit diva, he should concentrate on telling his side to vote for this deal—[Interruption.]
I absolutely agree. What the Mayor of London should be doing is looking at what delivers on the overall vote of the people of London—the vote to which my hon. Friend referred—and at what delivers in a way that protects the best interests of Londoners, and that is to vote for this deal.
According to that invaluable website TheyWorkForYou, the Prime Minister has assured the House on no fewer than 74 previous occasions that we will be leaving the EU on 29 March. Will she categorically confirm today that there is absolutely no question at all of delaying that date?
Let me first join the hon. Lady in commending the work that the Cooksons have done with the Charlie Cookson Foundation in raising funds for children and babies with life-threatening conditions. I am sure that the sympathies of the whole House are with the family at this very, very difficult time. The hon. Lady has outlined some of the specifics of the case, but I will ensure that the relevant Minister at the Department of Health and Social Care meets her to discuss the issue further.
We do want to change the culture on organ donation in order to save more lives. That is why we are planning to introduce a new opt-out system in England in 2020. The new law will be known as Max and Keira’s law, in honour of Max Johnson, who received a heart from Keira Ball, and Keira, who sadly lost her life in a car accident. However, the hon. Lady has outlined a tragic case, and I will ensure that a Minister from the Department speaks with her about it.
Points of Order
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. As you are aware, at the beginning of Prime Minister’s questions when I was expressing my deep sadness at the loss of Lord Ashdown and his concern for the state of where we are now, the hon. Member for North West Leicestershire (Andrew Bridgen) loudly shouted from a sedentary position, “From the grave.” I find such a comment disgraceful, and I ask for guidance on how the hon. Gentleman might, for example, retract such a statement and on whether it was becoming of the sort of conduct that we should expect from Members of this House.
I did hear those words. I did not hear a particular Member, and I did not see a Member mouth those words, but I did hear those words. I think it was most unfortunate that that was said. People sometimes say things instinctively and rashly, but it was most unfortunate. The hon. Lady was perfectly properly paying tribute to an extremely distinguished former Member of this House and someone that many would regard as an international statesperson. What was said should not have been said. If the person who said it wishes to take the opportunity to apologise, it is open to that person to do so.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. As you know, I have always regarded you as an exceptional Speaker and a defender of Parliament, which I continue to do. However, I also regard the Clerks of the House in exactly the same light. I went to the Table Office late last night to look at the Business of the House (Section 13(1)(b) of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018) (No. 2) (Motion) to see what shenanigans the Government were up to. It had been published, and I thought of proposing an amendment, but I was told that that would be totally out of order and that no other amendments had been tabled. However, there is an amendment to that motion on the Order Paper today, which puts me in something of an unfortunate position, so could you rule on what action might be taken?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his point of order. First, let me thank him for his kind remarks that prefaced his inquiry. This is the first that I have learned of the matter, and that makes it difficult for me to give immediate advice. It is a matter upon which I may need to reflect before giving him what I would call substantive advice.
Obviously, I was not aware of the hon. Gentleman’s visit to the Table Office, of which he has now informed me. I understand that he is telling me that he was advised that the motion was unamendable, and I do not know whether he went into the Table Office before the right hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield (Mr Grieve) or after. All I know is that in my understanding the motion is amendable—I am clear in my mind about that—so insofar as the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr Bone) is disappointed that he was unable to table an amendment, I understand that. Whether there is an opportunity for him to do so now seems doubtful. I would have had no objection to him seeking to table an amendment, but I was unaware that he was attempting to do so. That is my honest answer to him. I absolutely accept that he is a person of complete integrity and will always try to do the right thing, and the same goes for me. I am trying to do the right thing and to make the right judgments. That is what I have tried to do and will go on doing.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I hope you will bear with me because, as a relatively new Member who has never raised a point of order before, there may be some inaccuracy in the process. Given the comments that you have just made, I wonder whether you could point me towards the precedent that would allow for what seems to be an unamendable motion to be amended.
I am immensely grateful to the hon. Gentleman. I am not in the business of invoking precedent, nor am I under any obligation to do so. I think the hon. Gentleman will know that it is the long-established practice of this House that the Speaker in the Chair makes judgments upon the selection of amendments and that those judgments are not questioned by Members of the House. I am clear in my mind that I have taken the right course of action.
By way of explanation to the hon. Gentleman and to the House, the motion in the Prime Minister’s name is indeed a variation of the order agreed by the House on 4 December. Under paragraph (9) of that order, the question on any motion to vary the order “shall be put forthwith.” I interpret that to mean that there can be no debate, but I must advise the House that the terms of the order do not say that no amendment can be selected or moved. I cannot allow debate, but I have selected the amendment in the name of the right hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield. At the appropriate point, I will invite him to move it once the motion has been moved. That is the position.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. For the convenience of the House, I have brought with me a copy of the original business motion, which was passed by this House on 4 December 2018, and paragraph (9) states:
“No motion to vary or supplement the provisions of this Order shall be made except by a Minister of the Crown; and the question on any such motion shall be put forthwith.”
That was a motion of the House.
Now, I have not been in this House as long as you have, Mr Speaker, but I have been here for 18 years and I have never known any Speaker to overrule a motion of the House of Commons. You have said again and again that you are a servant of this House, and we take you at your word. When people have challenged you in points of order, I have heard you say many times, “I cannot do x or y because I am bound by a motion of the House.” You have done that multiple times in my experience, so why are you overriding a motion of the House today?
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his point of order and for his characteristic courtesy. The answer is simple. The right hon. Gentleman referred to a motion and said that no motion in this context, for the purposes of precis, may be moved other than by a Minister of the Crown. ‘Tis so. We are not treating here of a motion but of an amendment to a motion.
In my opinion, in recent years this House has seen a considerable diminution of its powers and has often seemed rather indifferent to the eroding of some of the powers we used to have to hold Governments to account. You, Mr Speaker, have been assiduous in maximising the opportunities for the House to hold what happens to be the Government of the day to account and in giving the opportunity for debate and for voting. I find it unbelievable that people are putting such effort into trying to exclude the possibility of the House expressing its opinion on how it wishes to handle this matter, and I suggest to some of my hon. Friends—the ones who are getting somewhat overexcited—that perhaps they should don a yellow jacket and go outside.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. You are in an invidious position: you have an extremely difficult job to do, but can you confirm in relation to your rulings—whichever way they go; sometimes we will agree, and sometimes we will disagree—that it would not be in order for you simply to respond to the loudest voice at a particular point of time, or in any way to be pushed by a minority view because some are acting in a co-ordinated way to attempt to overrule your rulings?
I note what the hon. Gentleman says, and he will not be surprised to know that I share his judgment in the matter. For the avoidance of doubt and the understanding of people who are not Members of the House but are attending to our proceedings, and are possibly even present in the Palace of Westminster today, let me say this so that it is crystal clear from the vantage point of the Chair: what the Chair is proposing to do is select an amendment because in my honest judgment it is a legitimate selection. It is for the House to vote upon—[Interruption.] Order. It is for the House to vote upon that amendment, and indeed to vote upon the motion. The Chair is simply seeking to discharge the responsibility of the holder of the office to the best of his ability. That is what I have always done, and no matter what people say or how forcefully they say it, or how many times they say it or by what manner of co-ordination it is said, I will continue to do what I believe to be right.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Will you confirm that no amendment to the European withdrawal motion can have any legislative effect and therefore cannot override the express repeal of the European Communities Act 1972 in any shape or form, which was passed under section 1 of the withdrawal Act by this House and by Parliament on 26 June this year?
The short answer is yes, the hon. Gentleman is right. [Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman is right: only statute can overrule statute. As usual the hon. Gentleman’s exegesis of the situation is entirely correct. [Interruption.] Somebody chuntered from a sedentary position, “Not as usual”; well, that was my evaluative comment on the hon. Member for Stone (Sir William Cash) based on long experience of him, and on this particular point I absolutely accept that he is right.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. You have often drawn our attention not just to what goes on within the House but the view the public might take of the priorities we hold, so may I ask you to confirm what I believe you just said: if people do not like the amendment you have selected, the simple answer is to vote against it?
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. May I ask you to rule on a different matter, regarding Standing Order No. 118 on how delegated legislation is dealt with in this House, which states at paragraph (6):
“The Speaker shall put forthwith the question thereon”
after orders have been debated upstairs and brought to the Floor of the House? That has always been thought and understood to mean that these motions are unamendable: “forthwith” means unamendable. Why have you changed your interpretation of that word in this case?
My understanding is that the motion today, and the amendment, are undebatable: there is to be no debate on them. I have not made, as the hon. Gentleman suggests, a change of judgment specifically for today. I understand what the hon. Gentleman tells me in respect of the traditional treatment of delegated legislation, upon which he may himself be a considerable authority. I think it reasonable to say by way of response that I cannot be expected to make a comprehensive judgment on that related question now, but I stand by the view I have expressed to the House. I completely respect the fact that the hon. Gentleman takes a view that differs from my own, but that is in the nature of debate and argument.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. The Government have a track record on this: they have a track record of trying to prevent this House from having its say over all aspects of the Brexit process, and what the public cannot see is the Chief Whip sitting there at the end of the Treasury Bench feverishly briefing journalists and texting Members in a co-ordinated attempt to undermine your judgment, Mr Speaker. The hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr Bone)—[Interruption.]
The hon. Member for Wellingborough made a reasonable point about going into the Table Office and being able to table an amendment. Is there not a problem here, Mr Speaker, as the fact is that the Government have had four weeks to get this right, but did not table the Business of the House motion until well gone 6 o’clock last night? Indeed, Members of this House were sitting in a meeting with the Prime Minister and Chief Whip and there was complete confusion about whether the Business of the House motion had gone down; there was a deliberate attempt to prevent amendments from being tabled and the House knowing what was going on. Do you agree that that is not acceptable, Mr Speaker?
My understanding is that the Business of the House motion was tabled yesterday afternoon by the Government; I confess I do not know at precisely what time, but my recollection and understanding are that it was tabled yesterday afternoon. It is for Members to judge in the light of the chronology of events of recent weeks whether that was altogether helpful. Clearly the Government Chief Whip will do what he judges to be right on behalf of his Prime Minister and his Government; I acknowledge that. Whether Members elsewhere in the House found it particularly helpful is perhaps an essay question which I leave to others.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I have to tell you that I am absolutely hopping mad. When I became an MP three years ago I was determined that I would not become part of the establishment. Do people in this House have any idea how out of touch the general public think we are most days? We are talking about 79 days to potentially crashing out of Europe without a deal; our focus should not be on the detail of, and arguments about, the process in this place; it should be about getting on with a plan B if Parliament decides next week that the Government’s plan is not the one for the people. When are we are going to start acting like public servants and doing the right thing and having the debate and getting on with it?
I have the highest respect for the hon. Lady, as she knows. I take on board what she says and I do not dissent from it. Equally, however, if Members raise points of order it is my responsibility to deal with them as fairly and effectively as I can. Clearly there will, I think, be a desire at some stage to proceed to the substance of the matters with which we are supposed to be dealing, but if there are further points of order, of course I will hear them and do my best to respond.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. In my previous job in the European Parliament I often found that I was being asked to vote on amendments that had not been debated, and one of the things I really like about this House is that, before we vote on amendments, we get a chance to debate them. Can you confirm that, if this amendment is put to a vote today, we will have had a chance to debate it?
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. You will appreciate that there are Members around the House who have concerns about your decision today. I think it would be very helpful to the House if you could confirm that your decision was taken with the full advice and agreement of the Clerk of the House of Commons and, perhaps to help the House, you might agree to publish that advice so that the House can understand the reasons for your decision. [Interruption.]
Thank you, Mr Speaker. As you will have heard today, there are some concerns about the decision you have taken in the context of the Business of the House motion. Could you therefore please confirm that your decision was taken with full advice from the Clerk of the House of Commons and other senior parliamentary advisers and whether, under these circumstances, you might consider publishing that advice?
Order. I thank the Leader of the House for her point of order, and what I say to her is twofold. First, of course I consult the Clerk of the House and other senior Clerks, and I hear their advice. That advice is tendered to me privately, and that is absolutely proper, but it is also true that I had a written note from the Clerk of the House, from which I quoted in responding to an earlier point of order.
If the right hon. Lady is inquiring whether there is what she might consider to be, in governmental terms, full written advice, a paper or a written brief, or whatever, there is none such. I have just told her what the situation is, I quoted from what was provided to me by the Clerk of the House and I have given my ruling. That is the situation.
The answer is that I have discussed the matter with the Clerk of the House. [Hon. Members: “Ah!”] Order. The Clerk offered me advice, and we talked about the situation that faces the House today. At the end of our discussion, when I had concluded as I did, he undertook to advise me further in the treatment of this matter—that seems to me to be entirely proper. That is the situation, and I think that is what colleagues would expect.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Just before I begin, I wish Michel Barnier a happy 68th birthday today. The contention in which this amendment is held is surely all the justification required for Members to vote on it and to decide one way or the other, and you are correct in what you are doing.
Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. As you know, I respect the Chair and I would never push my luck with you. I do not challenge the decision by any means, and it is your right to make it from the Chair, but over the past 24 or 25 years I have on a number of occasions, particularly during the Maastricht debates, asked the Clerks whether we could amend a Business of the House motion. I was always told categorically that precedent says it is not possible and, therefore, there was no point seeking to do so—I say that only as a statement.
Because this has a big impact on the Government’s ability to get their business, regardless of Brexit, will the instruction go to the Clerks that, in future, a Back Bencher wishing to amend a “forthwith” motion will now have such an amendment allowed and accepted against any business in the House?
It seems entirely reasonable for me to say to the right hon. Gentleman that I would like to reflect on that matter. [Hon. Members: “Ah!”] Order. Members cavil as though there is an assumption that there should be immediate and comprehensive knowledge of all circumstances that might subsequently unfold. It may be that there are Members who feel they possess such great wisdom and, if so, I congratulate them upon the fact. I do not claim that wisdom, so I am giving what I absolutely admit is a holding answer to the right hon. Gentleman. I will reflect on the point, but if he is asking whether I think it is unreasonable that people might seek to amend a Business of the House motion, I do not think it is unreasonable. If, in future, Back Benchers were to seek to do so, it would seem sensible to me to say, “Let us look at the merits of the case.”
Finally, in attempting to respond not only to the right hon. Gentleman but to some of the concerns that have been expressed, I understand the importance of precedent, but precedent does not completely bind, for one very simple reason. [Interruption.] I say this for the benefit of the Leader of the House, who is shaking her head. If we were guided only by precedent, manifestly nothing in our procedures would ever change. Things do change. I have made an honest judgment. If people want to vote against the amendment, they can; and if they want to vote for it, they can.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Can I remind the House that, further to what you have just said, it was because of your courage in allowing an amendment to a Loyal Address, which enabled a referendum test to be applied in this House, that we had the referendum in due course and we are where we are? Let nobody suggest that you, by your actions, have been undermining Brexit. It would seem to me to be an absolute own goal for this House if we started undermining your position in the Chair. As an independently-minded Government Back Bencher, I strongly resent the fact that the Government pairing Whip, my hon. Friend the Member for Pendle (Andrew Stephenson), who is on the right-hand side of your Chair, has been trying to orchestrate objections to your decision.
Let me say this to the hon. Gentleman. So far as his last remark was concerned, I think I can cope with that. Government Whips going about their business in their own way is something to which the Chair is very well and long accustomed. The notion that a Government Whip might now and again do things that are unhelpful to the Chair is not entirely novel. I have broad shoulders and I am not going to lose any sleep over that—never have done, am not doing so and never will.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his characteristic courtesy and his sense of fairness. He recalls the record accurately: I did indeed select an additional amendment to the Humble Address, if memory services me correctly, in 2013, and that was in the name of Mr John Baron. That amendment was on the subject of a referendum on British membership of the European Union, so what the hon. Gentleman says is true.
The fact is that there is a responsibility on the Chair to do their best to stand up for the rights of the House of Commons, including the views of dissenters on the Government Benches—that is to say, independent-minded souls who do not always go with the Whip—and to defend the rights of Opposition parties and very small parties, as well. I have always sought to do that, and on the Brexit issue, as on every issue, what the record shows, if I may say so—and I will—is that this Chair, on a very, very, very big scale, calls Members from across the House with a very large variety of opinions. Ordinarily, as colleagues will acknowledge, when statements are made to the House, my practice, almost invariably, is to call each and every Member, whether the Government like it or not. That is not because I am setting myself up against the Government, but because I am championing the rights of the House of Commons.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Do you agree that over the past few years we have seen a big evolution in the way the Government treat motions in this House? That was partly brought about by the Wright reforms, but we have seen the widespread ignoring of motions passed in this House, and the beginning of a practice of not voting on motions—especially Opposition motions—that the Government feel are somehow awkward for them. Do you agree, Mr Speaker, that this has taken away from the importance of the decisions that this House of Commons makes? Do you therefore also agree that allowing this House of Commons to vote on more issues, in a context in which those votes have to be taken and put into effect, empowers this House of Commons and demonstrates that it is taking back control? As Speaker, you have an absolute duty to ensure that this House of Commons is taken seriously, which is why I commend you for the decision you have taken today.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. The advice of the Clerks is entirely properly between you and the Clerks—that is an accepted principle—but if this place is to operate properly and effectively, it has to be on an established, rules-based system, as referred to by my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr Duncan Smith). May I ask you, Sir, to reflect on two things? First, if there is to be what one would consider to be a fairly seismic change in the definition of terms in this place, the role of the Procedure Committee in that should be taken into account. Secondly, I say this to you personally, Mr Speaker. We need to reflect in this place not on the personalities or the politics, but on the dignity of the office of Speaker and the dignity of the Chair. I think we are—I say this with sadness—in pretty choppy and dangerous waters at the time in our nation’s affairs when, frankly, we can least afford it.
I am extraordinarily grateful for the point of order from the hon. Gentleman; I know he is deeply versed in the affairs of the House and takes his responsibilities to it very seriously indeed. I shall reflect most carefully on every word of what he has said to me today. I agree that there could well be a role for the Procedure Committee in relation to this matter, and thank him for what he has said.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Given the crisis that the country is facing over Brexit, the fact that, as my hon. Friend the Member for Wallasey (Ms Eagle) has just said, the House of Commons is taking back control is to be welcomed, rather than feared. Mr Speaker, you have made your ruling; it is clear; the House should respect it. I wonder whether you could advise us on how we could now move on to the business of the day, to which I think the nation expects us to turn our attention.
The short answer to the right hon. Gentleman is that I am in the hands of colleagues, and I think he knows me well enough to know that I have never ducked a challenge. That is not in my nature; it has been no part of my DNA, either since I have been in this House or in all my life before I came into Parliament. [Interruption.] The right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Frank Field) says from a sedentary position words to the effect of “Let’s get on.” I would like to move on, but I do wish to treat colleagues with courtesy. [Interruption.] Somebody said “You can,” but I will take a few remaining points of order if people wish to raise them. I say very gently to the hon. Member for North Dorset (Simon Hoare), who just raised his point of order and talked about the dignity of the Chair and the importance of our procedures, that if people are going to invoke that importance, it would be helpful if they did not undermine that self-same point by continuous and repetitive dispute.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I have two points on which I would be grateful for clarity. First, section 9 of the order of the House that sets out the terms of the debate says that no motion may be made other than by a Minister of the Crown, and you have interpreted that to mean that an amendment can be made to the motion. The question on that motion, as amended, then has to be put, and that is the motion that, under the order, needs to be moved by a Minister of the Crown. Is it therefore the case that the question may not be put on the motion, if amended, unless the motion is adopted by a Minister of the Crown?
I then have a second point. [Interruption.] If I may come to the second point, which is the precedential—[Interruption.]
The second point relates to the interpretation of the word “forthwith” and, for the benefit of the Commons Journal tomorrow, how it is to be understood in future when such matters arise. Page 458 of “Erskine May”, which I am sure you have, Mr Speaker, says that such questions
“must be put forthwith without any possibility of amendment”.
That reads as a single set, rather than as though “forthwith” was simply being qualified. The question that then arises is on the other important Standing Orders that are affected by the “forthwith” question. I think particularly of Standing Order No. 44, relating to disorderly conduct, which states that the question must be put forthwith but makes no mention of amendment one way or another. It seems to me that it would be deeply troublesome if “forthwith” came to allow amendments under such circumstances, so I think that the precedential effect of your ruling needs to be clarified.
I am happy to reflect on the second point, which is not altogether dissimilar to that raised earlier by the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr Duncan Smith). It is a very serious question and it warrants a serious reply. I am not sure whether it is reasonable to expect a full reply today—I am not sure whether that is what the hon. Gentleman is seeking—but if the hon. Gentleman is saying to me in his typically courteous way that this is an important matter and that we need a judgment on it, either from the Chair alone or from the Chair acting on the advice of, for example, the Procedure Committee, I agree with him.
On the hon. Gentleman’s first point, the answer is that if the motion has been moved, the question on it must then be put. For the avoidance of doubt, I say that on the basis of specialist advice.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. My point is equally important constitutionally. Are there any means available to this House of communicating to the Conservative party that we are all now bored and tired of all these points of order? The nation is increasingly embarrassed by them. How do we therefore get on with today’s debate?