House of Commons
Wednesday 7 December 2016
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
The Secretary of State was asked—
Security (Northern Ireland)
What recent assessment he has made of the security situation in Northern Ireland.
The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (James Brokenshire):
Yesterday, I laid before the House the 10th biannual statement to Parliament on the security situation in Northern Ireland. The terrorist threat level in Northern Ireland remains unchanged at severe, meaning that an attack is highly likely. The need for vigilance remains, and I pay tribute to the brave men and women who work tirelessly to keep communities safe.
I thank the Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Kris Hopkins), for meeting me recently, when I was able to tell him about my constituent. I understand that the Secretary of State is unable to discuss that individual case, but does he agree that any security review must take account of such legacy cases?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend, and I know that she has met my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary to discuss the issue. The approach to individual cases is clearly the operational responsibility of the police, but I agree that we must find a better way to investigate legacy cases. The requirement for the Police Service of Northern Ireland to investigate the past puts pressure on its ability to police the present. That is why I remain committed to moving ahead with the Stormont House legacy bodies, which I believe will provide a much more proportionate response to the need to get to those issues.
Mr Nigel Dodds (Belfast North) (DUP):
The Secretary of State will be aware of recent footage that has emerged of dissident republicans, heavily armed and carrying rocket launchers, in Ardoyne, part of north Belfast, near where Michael McGibbon was murdered recently. It was a scandalous and appalling display. Does the Secretary of State agree that the police, who have been very quick to arrest and charge people for very minor breaches of parading legislation, really need to get a grip on those kinds of displays and arrest and pursue people, because the people in these communities absolutely do not want those kinds of displays of paramilitary activity?
I entirely agree with the right hon. Gentleman’s sentiments. The video is utterly repugnant. In my statement yesterday, I pointed out that support for such dissident groups
“remains limited, despite their attempts to seek legitimacy in a wider society which continues to reject their use of violence.”—[Official Report, 6 December 2016; Vol. 618, c. 12WS.]
That contemptible video was intended to be a show of strength, but I see it as a sign of weakness, and it is important that the PSNI continues its investigations.
I agree with the Secretary of State and commend the widow of Michael McGibbon, who has spoken so bravely against these people, and who has, unfortunately, been forced out of her home. Her words are a ringing endorsement of the peace process and the political process in Northern Ireland. On tackling dissidents, the cross-border joint agency taskforce, set up under the “Fresh Start” agreement, is doing great work. I would be grateful if the Secretary of State could update us on the work that it is doing to tackle dissident republicans and other criminal gangs.
The right hon. Gentleman is right to mention the very brave testimony of Joanne McGibbon. Our thoughts are with all of those who have lost loved ones to terrorism. This House should continue to send out that strong and important message. The joint agency taskforce, which brings together different agencies to confront organised criminality and those linked to terrorism, is doing very good work, and we need to do more of it.
Some very good work is taking place among our agencies in Northern Ireland, as well as those in the Republic of Ireland. That is in a stronger position. Of course, there is still room for further improvement, but significant seizures of arms and weaponry have been made as a consequence of that work. It is important to underline that.
Lady Hermon (North Down) (Ind):
My constituent, Austin Hunter, was an outstanding journalist who covered the security situation in Northern Ireland for many years. He was not only a brilliant journalist and a great family man, but a remarkably fine man in his own right. Will the Secretary of State take this opportunity to join me—and colleagues from across the House who will have known Austin Hunter as a distinguished journalist in Northern Ireland—in sending condolences to his family, who are absolutely devastated by his death in a tragic traffic accident in Bahrain over the weekend?
I thank the hon. Lady for that. Although I did not have the privilege of meeting Austin Hunter, I know, from all the powerful testimony that I have heard, not only that he was an incredible journalist, but how warm and human he was. It was a tragic accident, and I join the hon. Lady in sending my condolences to his friends and family, and everyone who knew him. He clearly made a remarkable contribution, and he will be missed by so many.
Mrs Theresa Villiers (Chipping Barnet) (Con):
People who give information to the police about terrorist activities have saved many lives in the past, and continue to do so today. Is it not entirely wrong to claim, as some groups do in Northern Ireland, that any case that involves an agent somehow also involves police misconduct?
My right hon. Friend is absolutely correct that we save lives as a consequence of the support of people in communities, often at great personal cost. That should be recognised, in terms of some of the really powerful intelligence that is provided and the impact that it has.
Tom Elliott (Fermanagh and South Tyrone) (UUP):
I congratulate the Police Service of Northern Ireland and other security agencies on stopping a number of terrorist attacks. Would the Secretary of State give us some information on whether dissident terrorists are still recruiting and increasing in numbers in Northern Ireland?
As the hon. Gentleman will have seen in my written statement yesterday, at there is an enduring threat from terrorism, which is why I underlined the need for vigilance. Support for those terrorists remains limited, but we must continue to be aware and confront it in every way, which is why I pay tribute to the work of the Police Service of Northern Ireland and the successes that have been achieved. Equally, however, we must remain absolutely focused on security issues, which underlines the points that I made in yesterday’s statement.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is important that service personnel, who put their lives on the line for our security on a daily basis, including former paratrooper Lance Corporal J, who was arrested and questioned in November last year, or other former members of the Parachute Regiment who had to go to the High Court to battle against detention and extradition, should not face legal reprisals, which may be taken for political reasons?
I hope that my hon. Friend understands that I cannot comment on individual cases. I will be unswerving and unstinting in underlining the huge contribution of our armed forces in helping to bring about the peace that we enjoy today. Part of that is the rule of law. Where there is evidence of criminality, it is important that the rule of law is upheld, but I know very clearly the incredible contribution that many members of our armed forces have made.
Deidre Brock (Edinburgh North and Leith) (SNP):
Does the Secretary of State agree that the prospect of a hard border would provide opportunities for organised crime and would cause additional problems for the security services, including police services? Does he therefore agree that it is essential that Brexit does not result in a hard border?
The hon. Lady has heard me say on a number of occasions that I do not want a return to the borders of the past. Part of that, yes, is about the politics, but it is also about how we ensure that that continued good relationship between us and the Irish Government is maintained, and security is a key factor in that.
Security Service Personnel (Northern Ireland)
What discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on the protection of data relating to security service personnel who are based in Northern Ireland.
I thank the Secretary of State for his answer. He will know from his previous role that any breach of the security data of a member of the security services poses an obvious threat and risk to them and their families. Will he undertake a desktop review of all data handling and the security of postal communications between the Northern Ireland Office and security personnel, both former and serving? Will he also undertake to press this matter with the Department of Justice, as they must join up with the NIO to tackle this?
The hon. Gentleman has raised an individual case with me, and I shall write to him with my response. I do take the security of information relating to people who serve by guarding and protecting us very, very seriously. I meet the military, the PSNI and the Justice Minister; I undertake to raise the importance of ensuring the appropriate protection of the personal data of security force members at the next meeting, and to consider the issue further.
Stormont House Agreement
What steps he is taking to build consensus across Northern Ireland on establishing the legacy bodies included in the Stormont House agreement.
The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (James Brokenshire):
I continue to meet victims groups, the Executive and others to establish the legacy bodies set out in the Stormont House agreement. When I am confident that there is sufficient political consensus, I intend to move to a public phase, to allow wider community consideration, and to build confidence and momentum behind the creation of the new legacy bodies.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is vital that the legacy bodies in the Stormont House agreement operate in ways that are fair, balanced, impartial and proportionate if we are to counter the one-sided focus on cases involving the state, whereas over 90% of deaths in the troubles were caused by terrorists?
My hon. Friend makes a powerful and important point. I agree that the legacy bodies must be balanced and proportionate. That was at the heart of the phraseology in the Stormont House agreement and will be important in delivering that more balanced approach.
Conor McGinn (St Helens North) (Lab):
Part of addressing the legacy of the past is breaking down divisions that exist today. Will the Secretary of State therefore join me in expressing sympathy to the family of Danny Murphy, the secretary of the Ulster Gaelic Athletic Association, who died this morning and who worked tirelessly to build peace and reconciliation and to bring people together through sport? He is a loss to all of us and to that vital work.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for drawing to the attention of the House the sad death of Danny Murphy. I am sure all of us extend our condolences to his friends and family. It is worth reflecting at this time on the powerful way in which sport can unite people and bring them together.
Gavin Robinson (Belfast East) (DUP):
Does the Secretary of State recognise the sheer hypocrisy of republicans who seek 100% transparency on 10% of the deaths in the troubles, but offer none in return? Until they do, and until they offer the assurance that they will give information about the killings, deaths and murders that they were responsible for, it will be incredibly difficult to build the consensus that we need.
It is important for everyone to work together to move the process on. That is why I continue to commit significant efforts and work to doing just that. The hon. Gentleman is right: at present, the system is heavily focused on the 10% rather than the 90%, and the balanced, proportionate measures that I put forward will assist in changing that.
Mark Durkan (Foyle) (SDLP):
First, I associate myself with the tributes paid both to the fine journalist Austin Hunter and to the fíor Gael Danny Murphy, who was such a good servant of community relations and reconciliation. Would the Minister not do better in building consensus if he did not revisit pejorative remarks that give offence to victims of state violence? In relation to having a balanced approach, surely having a stronger provision in respect of thematics would be much better—one that was not restricted to killings, as other measures are, but would examine the patterns and practices of paramilitaries.
The hon. Gentleman will be well aware that the legacy bodies contemplated cover a range of issues. Yes, of course, part of this is about investigation, and part is about more information and consideration of the issues to come forward in a number of different ways. That is why it is a priority that we move forward with the Stormont House bodies, and why that remains a key focus for me.
Mr David Anderson (Blaydon) (Lab):
One of the most serious omissions over the past years has been the failure to address the desperate plight of people who have been seriously injured as a result of the troubles, and who have been unable to work and therefore unable to build up second pension provision. Notwithstanding what the Secretary of State said about the need for political consensus, will he meet me and representatives of the WAVE trauma centre to see how we can work together to try to resolve this tremendous anomaly as quickly as possible?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising this issue. I have met with the WAVE trauma centre previously, and look forward to continuing engagement with it. I am conscious of the issue of pension rights. Discussion is continuing with the Northern Ireland Executive, and I will continue to seek to gain the necessary consensus to make progress on this important issue.
Northern Ireland Office: Leaving the EU
How many civil servants in his Department have been assigned to work on issues relating to the UK leaving the EU; and how many additional civil servants his Department estimates it will need over the period leading up to the UK leaving the EU.
The Northern Ireland Office did little preparation for Brexit, and it appears from the response to a written question that I tabled that several private consultancy firms are profiting from this lack of preparation. How many contracts have been awarded to consultancy firms and external organisations?
Mike Wood (Dudley South) (Con):
Will my hon. Friend update the House on what action his Department is taking to promote business and community engagement ahead of Brexit?
There is constant dialogue between business, local government and the voluntary sector, and the NIO has been used as a conduit to make sure that Cabinet members and colleagues fully understand the implications for Northern Ireland, and that we get the best possible deal for Northern Ireland.
Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP):
The agricultural and fishing sector in Northern Ireland creates some 70,000 jobs. It also produces 3.25% of Northern Ireland’s gross value added, which equates to £1.1 billion at basic prices. Could the Minister confirm that civil service personnel will be in place in sufficient numbers to ensure a smooth transition for the UK out of the EU?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that question. We do recognise the importance of that sector in Northern Ireland. There is a good dialogue between the sector and the Department. Cabinet members have met leading food manufacturers and members of the agricultural sector, and that dialogue will continue.
Mr David Anderson (Blaydon) (Lab):
Recent reports in the United States show that advice given by our civil servants to the US State Department prior to the referendum was that it need not do any preparatory work, because “Brexit can’t possibly happen, so don’t worry about it.” Was the same crass advice being given by the NIO to our partners, and especially to the Irish Government?
I do not recognise the comments that have just been made. We have an extremely good relationship with the Irish Government. We will continue that dialogue and work with them.
Businesses (Northern Ireland)
What steps he is taking to consult businesses in Northern Ireland on strengthening the Northern Ireland economy.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Kris Hopkins):
The Secretary of State has established a business advisory group to help understand the economic priorities of the Northern Ireland business community. A series of sectoral meetings have already been held with key industrial sectors, including the agricultural food sector, manufacturing and the creative industries.
I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. What impact will the Government’s industrial strategy have in revamping the private sector in Northern Ireland, and what discussions is he having with the Executive on this topic?
It is important to recognise the huge contribution—some £23 billion—that is incorporated in the industrial strategy, and also to recognise the movement and growth in private sector business, with some 14,410 jobs created in the last year alone.
David Simpson (Upper Bann) (DUP):
I am sure the Minister will agree that the lowering of corporation tax in Northern Ireland will certainly help the economy and companies. However, will he also agree that one area we all need to concentrate on is productivity and the recruitment of new apprentices?
I do recognise the points the hon. Gentleman makes. We are working closely with the Executive to raise productivity. They have a really important budget coming up, and we have made a commitment of around £250 million of capital investment to assist in that process.
Does my hon. Friend welcome the additional £250 million of capital expenditure that is being provided to the Northern Ireland Executive in the autumn statement? Does he agree that it will create a real opportunity for the Executive to invest in important infrastructure?
I completely agree with that statement. There has been huge growth in jobs in Northern Ireland—nearly 60,000 new jobs since 2010. We need to keep building on the great steps that have been made, and the Government working with the Executive is a key part of that.
Ms Margaret Ritchie (South Down) (SDLP):
May I, too, associate myself with the condolences offered in respect of Danny Murphy, who was my constituent for many years? He was a powerful force for reconciliation and mutual understanding, not only on the island of Ireland but between Ireland and Britain. Could I also ask the Minister to consider the recent report on apprenticeships from the all-party group on the visitor economy, with particular reference to fiscal flexibilities?
May I offer my condolences to Danny Murphy’s family as well?
I recognise the impact that tourism has on the hon. Lady’s constituency. The Mourne mountains are a great attraction, and the Newcastle air show in the first week of August is really important for the local economy. I hope that I can also make a contribution to that in the near future.
Mr Owen Paterson (North Shropshire) (Con):
The campaign to give powers to the Assembly to reduce corporation tax united all political parties in Northern Ireland and pretty well the whole of business in Northern Ireland. A business in Craigavon told me that it would double its turnover and its workforce if the rates were down to those of the Republic. Will the Minister guarantee that he and the Secretary of State will use every opportunity to push the Assembly and the Executive to get this through?
I recognise the contribution that my right hon. Friend has made in trying to achieve this. It is right that we challenge the Executive, and fiscal responsibility is an important part of that process. There is an important budget coming up at the moment, and there is ongoing dialogue between the NIO and the Executive.
Stormont House and Fresh Start Agreements
What progress has been made on the implementation of the Stormont House and “Fresh Start” agreements.
The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (James Brokenshire):
Good progress has been made on implementing the agreements. This includes legislation on welfare reform, a joint agency taskforce to tackle crime, an Executive strategy to disband paramilitary groups, and an independent reporting commission to report on progress towards ending paramilitary activity.
Both agreements contain important provisions to place the finances of the Northern Ireland Executive on a sustainable footing, which is vital to the continued economic success of Northern Ireland. Will the Secretary of State enlarge on progress in these specific areas?
I think that we have made significant progress. Considering the position this time last year, there have been important steps forward, but there are still additional steps to be taken, including the establishment of an independent fiscal council to publish an annual report on the Executive’s finances and to give further assurance on progress.
Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson (Lagan Valley) (DUP):
May I associate myself and my colleagues with the tributes paid to Austin Hunter and to Danny Murphy?
Will the Secretary of State give an assurance that he will not allow the Stormont House and “Fresh Start” agreements to be unpicked? Crucially, in relation to legacy issues, will he hold fast on national security and not allow those who want to rewrite the history of the past to do so?
I am very clear on the need to continue to make progress in relation to Stormont House and “Fresh Start”. There have been significant steps forward. Equally, though, I will not be party to a rewriting of the issues of the past, and that is why a proportionate approach is required.
Danny Kinahan (South Antrim) (UUP):
Part of the Stormont House agreement involves the legacy issues. Almost weekly, news items prejudice up-and-coming cases by giving just one side of the story. Will the Secretary of State take action so that we do not have future cases prejudiced by stories in the newspapers, or will he pause the legacy issues?
It is important that the rule of law is clearly upheld and that appropriate investigations are undertaken. However, I make the point that I made earlier about the imbalance within the existing system: 90% of those who lost their lives lost them as a consequence of terrorism. That is why the new bodies are important to deliver a balanced, proportionate approach.
UK Decision to Leave the EU: Ireland
What discussions he has had with the Irish Government on the implications of the UK’s decision to leave the EU.
The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (James Brokenshire):
I have met and will continue to meet counterparts in the Irish Government as we prepare for the UK’s exit from the EU. The UK-Irish relationship has never been stronger. In the coming months we will deepen co-operation and secure a deal that works in the interests of Northern Ireland and the best interests of the island of Ireland.
In recognising the closeness and importance of the relationship between the United Kingdom and Ireland, will my right hon. Friend assure the House that while there can be no question of Ireland negotiating with the EU on behalf of Northern Ireland, ultimately any process should serve to strengthen and enhance existing relationships with the Republic?
I am very happy to give that assurance. Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom, and the UK Government will continue to speak on its behalf in their negotiations with the EU.
Dr Alasdair McDonnell (Belfast South) (SDLP):
May I associate myself with the condolences to the families of Danny Murphy and Austin Hunter?
Does the Secretary of State recognise the real need for bespoke and in-depth protection for all aspects of the Good Friday agreement, or the Belfast agreement, and the need—[Interruption.]
Order. The hon. Gentleman is asking about protections for Northern Ireland in respect of the Good Friday agreement. I say to the hon. Member for North East Hampshire (Mr Jayawardena) that this is a very important matter that the hon. Member for Belfast South (Dr McDonnell) should be able to articulate for his constituents with a respectful audience.
Dr Alasdair McDonnell:
Does the Secretary of State agree that there is a real need for bespoke and in-depth protection for all aspects of the Good Friday or Belfast agreement, and for the constitutional principles in annex A of the agreement to be given full recognition in any future UK-EU treaty? Northern Ireland’s unique interests will in no way be satisfied by a mere consultation with the First and Deputy First Ministers.
The Government stand by their commitments under the Belfast agreement and subsequent agreements. There are fundamental issues such as consent. I can say to the hon. Gentleman in terms that we will not do anything as part of the negotiations that unpicks or seeks to undermine those essential values contained in the agreements.
Mr Gregory Campbell (East Londonderry) (DUP):
The democratic reverberations that have echoed around Europe since the end of June no doubt affect the Irish Republic as well. Will the Secretary of State ensure that the particular circumstances that exist in Northern Ireland regarding the border with the Irish Republic are at the forefront of his mind in negotiations as we go into 2018?
I can give the hon. Gentleman that assurance about the significance and importance of the border issue. A critical aspect of our approach is that we do not see a return to the borders of the past.
Mr David Anderson (Blaydon) (Lab):
Last week, in response to a written question on the status and rights of UK state pensioners living in the Republic of Ireland post-Brexit, I was told by Department for Work and Pensions Ministers that that was a matter for negotiation. They simply do not know what the future of those people is. What will the Secretary of State do to get this issue resolved as a matter of urgency? Is this not yet another example of why he should be a permanent member of the Brexit team, not just an add-on?
I can say to the hon. Gentleman in terms that we are playing a key role in ensuring that there is a UK-wide negotiation and that the interests of Northern Ireland are heard loud and clear in those preparations. One of the aspects of that is the Ireland Act 1949—the rights of Irish citizens in the United Kingdom—and that is part of the work that we are doing.
The Prime Minister was asked—
If she will list her official engagements for Wednesday 7 December.
The Leader of the House of Commons (Mr David Lidington):
I have been asked to reply. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister is visiting the Gulf Co-operation Council summit in Bahrain.
This morning I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. In addition to my duties in the House, I shall have further such meetings later today.
Yesterday’s signing of a memorandum of understanding with Houston spaceport and the Rice Space Institute brings the reality of a Prestwick spaceport closer, with the huge boost that that could give to the UK aerospace industry. Will the UK Government join the Scottish Government in supporting an Ayrshire growth deal to literally get this off the ground?
I can certainly assure the hon. Lady that the Government are looking keenly at the opportunities for Scotland, and indeed the whole United Kingdom, arising from the possible future development of commercial space operations. The Ayrshire project that she has described will, I am sure, be examined closely by my ministerial colleagues who are particularly concerned about this area of policy. We definitely want to see the UK as a pioneer in seizing these new commercial opportunities.
Perhaps thinking of rail passengers trying to get to their jobs, the general secretary of the TUC has spoken about “shafted and abandoned” workers, while Unite’s Len McCluskey is doing a UKIP dance move by resigning before trying to return. Will my right hon. Friend encourage union and other political leaders to tell the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers that 250 people with guaranteed employment should not be putting the lives, jobs and safety of 600,000 Southern rail passengers at risk?
I am sure that my hon. Friend speaks on behalf of thousands of rail passengers in his constituency and many others in the south of England. It is deeply disappointing that some unions are threatening to strike over the Christmas period. The Government are now investing record amounts in improving our railways—up to £40 billion over the next five years—and we need everyone in industry, both management and unions, to work together to secure the best deal for passengers.
I have to say that the RMT’s action shows co-ordinated contempt for the travelling public, and it seems designed to do nothing except to bring about the maximum damage to people’s lives—[Interruption.] There is some heckling from Opposition Members. The Conservative party is on the side of rail passengers, and I hope that the Labour party will join me in saying to the rail union leaders, “Sort it out, put the travelling public first, stop the squabbling, and tell your members to get back to work.”
Emily Thornberry (Islington South and Finsbury) (Lab):
I am sure that the whole House will want to join me in commemorating the 75th anniversary of the Pearl Harbour attack, in which thousands of American service personnel and civilians died. The next day, Winston Churchill summoned Parliament to debate the British response and said:
“It is indispensable to our system of government that Parliament should play its full part in all the important acts of State”.—[Official Report, 8 December 1941; Vol. 376, c. 1358.]
These words are a vital reminder that even at a time of crisis—in fact, especially at a time of national crisis—the role of Parliament is central.
In the same spirit, we welcome the Government’s decision to accept our motion today; they will show Parliament their plan for Brexit before article 50 is triggered. May I ask the Leader of the House one central question about this plan: do the Government want the UK to remain part of the customs union?
I join the hon. Lady in marking the anniversary of Pearl Harbour and remembering all those who lost their lives at that time, and also in marking—with a sense of some celebration, even—the fact that Prime Minister Abe is joining President Obama in going to Pearl Harbour. He is the first Japanese Prime Minister so to do, and that sign of reconciliation and putting ancient conflicts behind them is welcome.
To turn to the hon. Lady’s point about Europe, the Government have always made it clear that we would seek to give additional clarity about our position at the earliest opportunity, but it has been the case, as my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has said many times, that one of our core objectives will be to secure the maximum freedom for British companies both to have access to and to operate within the single European market.
I thank the Leader of the House for that answer, but I respectfully say to him that surely on this issue the answer should be straightforward. We all know that it would be a disaster for British business if we did not remain part of the customs union. The Leader of the House said himself in February:
“Everything we take for granted…—trade…without customs checks or paperwork at national frontiers…—would all be up in the air... It is massive what is at risk.”
On this side of the House, we would agree with him—we could not agree with him more—so can he put it beyond doubt and tell us right now: do the Government want the UK to stay in the customs union?
The hon. Lady and I—she is right—both argued passionately for the remain cause during the referendum. What separates us now is that I am part of a Conservative Government who are working together to respect the democratic verdict of the British people and to secure the best possible outcome for the prosperity and security of the entire United Kingdom from the negotiations, whereas the hon. Lady, even just two months ago, was telling us that she wanted
“to go back to the British people in some way”.
She needs to decide whether she accepts the democratic verdict or not.
Of course we accept the democratic decision of the British public—[Hon. Members: “Ah!”] Of course we do. The difference between our side of the House and the Government side is that we want to leave the European Union on behalf of 100%—on behalf of the whole of this nation.
We really need a straightforward answer to a straightforward question. Leaving the customs union would mean having to check every container coming in at Dover. It would mean UK firms having proof of origin tests whenever they export to Europe. It would mean chaos and it would mean gridlock for cross-border supply chains. As the Leader of the House said in May, I believe about lamb and beef exports:
“They go tariff free, they go without any extra…checks…you cannot guarantee any of that if we are outside.”
Again, Labour Members agree with what he said six months ago. The question is: does he still agree with himself?
I thought it had not escaped even the hon. Lady’s attention that there has been a rather significant referendum since February. That changes the context in which we are now having to operate. We face a deep, challenging and wide-ranging negotiation, and it would be harmful to the national interest for me or other Ministers to engage in the sort of detailed exposition of our negotiating position that she is now pressing upon me. None of the other 27 Governments are doing that; nor should we.
Dear oh dear. We are not asking for details; we are asking about a central plank of the negotiations. If the right hon. Gentleman cannot give us an answer on the customs union—[Interruption.]
Order. Both the questions and the answers will be heard. If the juvenile behaviour could stop, that would be really helpful to the scrutiny process.
We have not had an answer on the customs union as a whole, so may I ask the right hon. Gentleman a question about one specific point? Since 1993, there have been no customs checks on the land border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic. In May, when visiting Northern Ireland, he said that if the UK
“were not part of the customs union…there would have to be customs checks at the border.”
He also said that for anyone to pretend otherwise
“flies in the face of reality.”
Will he confirm that that remains the position? If that is right, he really must make it clear today that the Government are determined to avoid that situation.
The Prime Minister and the Northern Ireland Secretary have repeatedly made it clear that we want the very long-standing common travel and free trade arrangements across the Irish border to continue, as indeed do the Irish Government. We are actively engaged in talking both to the Northern Ireland Executive and to the Government of the Republic of Ireland about those matters. There is goodwill on all sides towards trying to reach a solution that works for people north and south of the border.
The Leader of the House has made the familiar arguments—he cannot give answers; it is all to be resolved through negotiations; Brexit means Brexit; Brexit means breakfast—but that was not what the Secretary of State for Brexit said when he was asked about the customs union in September. He said that he had looked at the matter carefully and that
“that is exactly the sort of decision that we will resolve before we trigger article 50.”—[Official Report, 5 September 2016; Vol. 614, c. 54.]
If the Government are going to decide their position on this issue before 31 March, will the Leader of the House confirm that the British people and the British Parliament will be told some answers to my questions before the Government tell the rest of Europe?
If the answers sound familiar, it might be because we need constant repetition before the hon. Lady understands and appreciates the principal argument. The Government are at the moment engaged in a consultation with more than 50 sectors of United Kingdom business to ascertain precisely which aspects of European Union membership work well for them, which they see as harmful and where the opportunities beyond EU membership lie. We will come to a decision and we will go into negotiations on behalf of the full 100% of the United Kingdom population and all four nations of the UK.
The fact is—the Leader of the House knows it, as do we all—that he can consult as much as he likes, but the answer will come back that we should be part of the customs union. It is hugely disappointing that on a day when the Government are committing to greater transparency on their intentions for Brexit, we are getting the usual stonewalling. We have a Government who are promising to tell us the plan while refusing to give us answers to the most basic of questions, and who are promising to give Parliament a say while spending we do not know how much taxpayers’ money across the road in the Supreme Court trying to stop Parliament from having a say on this. In short, we have a Government who cannot tell us the plan because they do not have a plan. In February, the Leader of the House said that what he was hearing from the leave campaign was “confusing, contradictory, nonsense”. My final question is this: are we hearing anything different from the Government today?
We will publish, before article 50 is triggered, a statement about our negotiating strategy and objectives, as the Prime Minister said yesterday. The hon. Lady seems to be in a state of utter denial about the consequences that flow from the referendum decision. No other EU Government are seeking to reverse or question the legitimacy of that vote in the way that she and a number of her colleagues are still trying to do. I am afraid that that just indicates how distant the Labour party now is from any aspirations to be back in government again. We watch them in action, quarrelling like “Mutiny on the Bounty” as re-shot by the “Carry On” team. [Interruption.]
Order. There is far too much noise. I want to hear the words flowing. There is no reason why the Chair should be denied the hearing of these matters. It is very important.
They are rudderless. They are drifting on Europe, as on so many other aspects of policy. It is little wonder that so many decent working people, who for generations looked to Labour to be their champion, have given up in despair and are turning to the Conservative party as the authentic voice of working families.
In 1943, a 16-year-old girl was forcibly taken to Auschwitz-Birkenau, where she witnessed the horrors of the death camps. On liberation, she came to this country with her mother. She raised a family and became a nurse. She dedicated her life to making sure the people of this country and beyond know the horrors of the holocaust. Last week, that lady turned 90. Kitty Hart-Moxon is with us today at Prime Minister’s Question Time. [Applause.] Will my right hon. Friend join me, and I think the whole House, in wishing Kitty a very happy belated birthday, and thank her for her lifetime of dedication to raising this important issue? Will he also pay tribute to the Holocaust Educational Trust, which does everything possible to ensure we all remember and bear witness to the horrors of the worst part of the 20th century?
First, I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising this important issue. I would like to join him in marking the achievements of Kitty Hart-Moxon and the Holocaust Educational Trust. I can never forget the impact of discovering, as a schoolboy, that two of the boys in my class had fathers who survived Auschwitz. It is only a couple of generations ago that Europe was plunged into this unspeakable horror. It is important that not just the Holocaust Educational Trust but all of us play our part in ensuring that the memory of the holocaust lives on, and that the wider lessons of that dark period in our history are learned. I would be grateful for the support of all Members, right across the House from all political parties, in working together to ensure that that vital work continues.
Angus Robertson (Moray) (SNP):
Some of the most deprived communities in the country are in Glasgow, yet today we learn that apparently the Government plan to close jobcentres in those very communities, in Parkhead, Bridgeton, Easterhouse, Castlemilk, Langside, Anniesland, Cambuslang and Maryhill. Is it true that the Government are planning to close these important offices and bring misery to the lives of the many tens of thousands of people in Glasgow who currently use these centres?
Clearly, the Department for Work and Pensions, like every Department, looks from time to time at its estate and the number of offices it has, but the right hon. Gentleman makes a perfectly reasonable point on behalf of people in Glasgow. I will ask my right hon. Friend the Work and Pensions Secretary to contact him with the details he is seeking.
I am sorry but that is not good enough. [Interruption.] I am being heckled while standing up for deprived communities. That will ill behove Tory Members in Scotland.
The Leader of the House is correct that the Department has plans to cut the estate by 20%, but it is planning to cut it by 50% in Glasgow. Why are the Government planning disproportionately to cut vital jobcentres in some of the most deprived communities in our country?
The key element in any such decision that a Department has to make is not the raw number of offices there should be but how accessible the offices and the services they provide continue to be for the people who need to use them. I am absolutely confident that that criterion is at the heart of my right hon. Friend’s thinking in planning for the future of offices in Scotland and everywhere else in the United Kingdom.
Passengers on the Chase line face chaos and utter misery every autumn, and this year it has been worse than ever. Delayed, cancelled and overcrowded trains are leaving passengers stranded at stations and making them late for work and school. Will my right hon. Friend outline what measures the Government are taking to penalise poor-performing train operators?
I sympathise with my hon. Friend and her constituents, and all passengers who come across these problems on the Chase line. It is clearly unacceptable, and it is important that the operator works hard to secure a rapid and sustained improvement. The Government have introduced new rules to ensure that rail passengers will soon be able to claim compensation if their train is more than 15 minutes late, but as the Transport Secretary said yesterday, more needs to be done, and we want to see much closer working right across the railway industry so that this kind of problem can be resolved much more swiftly.
Does the Leader of the House agree with the hon. Member for North East Somerset (Mr Rees-Mogg) that Brexit offers an opportunity to remove pesky emissions standards? In the red, white and blue of Brexit, will his Government still commit to continued tough targets to protect our environment, or will tackling global warming become just a load of hot air?
The Government remain utterly committed to both national and global ambitions and targets on climate change. Indeed, my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, in her previous job, played a key role in brokering the Paris agreement last year—the first ever global agreement on climate change. I hope that the hon. Lady would welcome the fact that we are going to be ahead of our targets and ambitions in delivering on the proportion of electricity provided by renewables in this country and that we continue to work to get our carbon emissions down.
There has been much talk recently about paying for access to a tariff-free single market. I think that that is a very good idea. Given that the UK is the fifth-biggest economy in the world and we have a £70 billion trade deficit with the EU, would the excellent acting Prime Minister tell the House how much the EU should pay for tariff-free access to the UK’s single market?
I thank my hon. Friend for the upgrade, but I hope that that does not turn out to be a career-limiting compliment. He makes a good point in that a settlement at the end of our negotiations that maintains maximum access to and freedom to operate within the European market—for UK companies elsewhere in Europe and European companies here—is in our mutual interest. I hope that will inspire negotiators on both sides.
How does closing Maryhill jobcentre in my constituency, one of the most deprived parts of the country, help my constituents who want to find a job? Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that travelling further to other centres will mean increased costs for people already on the lowest incomes and an increased risk of sanctions? Why do the Government continue to target the poorest and most vulnerable in our society?
If the Government have been targeting the poorest and most vulnerable, it has been to get them back to work in record numbers and to provide a boost to the pay of people on low incomes through the introduction of and the increase in the national living wage. I wish the hon. Gentleman was prepared to welcome and celebrate those achievements.
As we are about to commence the most important negotiation for decades, does my right hon. Friend agree that forcing the Government to disclose their negotiating strategy at this stage is rather like showing one’s hand of cards to an opponent before a game of poker. I urge him to take no advice from the Labour party; it has only one card to play—and it is always the joker.
We have always said that we would come up with some more details about our strategic aims going into the negotiation, but it would harm our national interest if we were to go into the sort of detailed explanation of our negotiating position that the Opposition urge upon us. That is not how any of the other 27 Governments are either acting or thinking, and we should learn from that example.
Mr Nigel Dodds (Belfast North) (DUP):
Does the Leader of the House agree that tonight’s vote on the Prime Minister’s amendment, which we fully support, is a vote of the highest significance and greatest importance, because for the first time right hon. and hon. Members will have the opportunity to vote on whether they respect the will of the people of the United Kingdom and whether they will get on and implement it? People will be able to read in tomorrow’s Hansard who stands by respecting the will of the people of the United Kingdom. Does he also agree—I am sure he will—that the more red, white and blue he makes it, the better for us on the Unionist Benches?
As so often, the right hon. Gentleman makes a powerful and important point. The vote tonight will be the first opportunity for Members to decide whether or not they support the Government’s timetable for triggering article 50 by the end of March 2017. Any right hon. or hon. Member who votes against that motion will, in my view, be seeking to thwart the outcome of the referendum in the most profoundly undemocratic fashion.
This country’s nuclear deterrent is our ultimate defence, and it must be maintained at all costs, yet hundreds of my constituents who work at the Atomic Weapons Establishment are currently on strike or work to rule in a dispute over pensions. These are people who, more often than not, have devoted their entire working lives tending our nuclear defence and to whom promises were made during privatisation. Will the Leader of the House commit to sit down with the Prime Minister to review the situation to ensure that those promises are being kept?
I will certainly ensure that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister is informed about this matter. My hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise these concerns on behalf of his constituents. My understanding is that the proposed changes to the Atomic Weapons Establishment pension scheme are a matter for the company as the employer, but I can assure my hon. Friend that my right hon. Friend the Defence Secretary has been in close contact with AWE throughout the process and has also met the trade unions. He is now carefully considering recent developments to see what else might be done.
Anna Turley (Redcar) (Lab/Co-op):
I know that the whole House will join me in sending heartfelt sympathies and condolences to the family of David Brown, from Eston, who, aged just 18, took his own life. The inquest into his death has heard that he did so on the day he was due to sign on at the jobcentre, after saying that he felt “belittled” by staff despite actively looking for work and seeking an apprenticeship. Shortly before taking his own life, he told his mum:
“The way the Jobcentre treat people, it is no surprise people commit suicide.”
Will the Leader of the House undertake to review that individual case? Will he also undertake to take stock of six years of brutal welfare reform, and look into the way the Department for Work and Pensions treats its most vulnerable constituents, particularly young people?
Let me first express my own unreserved sympathy for the family of David Brown. No parent, no family, should have to go through that kind of shocking experience.
Clearly, human beings in any organisation sometimes make decisions that get things wrong, and I will ask the Department for Work and Pensions to have a look at the particular case that the hon. Lady has described. However, I have to say to her that I think the principle remains right that while staff should always behave with courtesy towards people seeking to claim benefits, it is also right for us to expect people who are receiving benefits to be subject to the kind of disciplines that apply to people in work even if they are on low pay. There is a principle of fairness here, which is what lies behind the approach that the DWP takes.
I applaud the Prime Minister’s vision of a Government for all, but, as chair of the all-party parliamentary group for communities engagement, I can tell the House that fewer than 4% of those on the boards of the companies in the FTSE 150 are from ethnic minorities. Will the Government support a vision of helping to increase that proportion to 10% by 2021?
It is clear that boardrooms should do more to reflect the reality of modern Britain. The Government certainly support the principle of increasing the diversity of boards, which is why we are supporting the business-led ethnic diversity initiative chaired by Sir John Parker. We strongly encourage businesses to act on Sir John’s recommendations.
Tracy Brabin (Batley and Spen) (Lab):
The response to a recent freedom of information request shows that Pinderfields hospital has diverted ambulances destined for its accident and emergency department to Dewsbury hospital, in my constituency, 61 times in the past 12 months. Dewsbury is scheduled for a downgrade next year. In the light of evidence showing that Pinderfields cannot currently cope, will the Leader of the House pledge urgent Government support to keep Dewsbury A&E open?
The NHS is certainly busier than it has ever been in its history, which is why it should be a matter of thanks and tribute to hard-working NHS staff that 90% of people going to A&E are still being seen within the four-hour target. The point about the configuration of local services in any part of the country is that they need to be driven by local clinicians through trusts working together with the clinical commissioning groups, who manage and understand what is needed in each locality. Local authorities, through their health committees, have the right to call in proposed changes in services and refer them to the Secretary of State if they are uncomfortable with them.
I know that my right hon. Friend will agree with me about the importance of the creative sector to our economy. That, in conjunction with the Welsh language, makes S4C, or Sianel Pedwar Cymru—which is currently based in my constituency—hugely important to the Welsh and British culture and economy. Will my right hon. Friend reaffirm the Government’s commitment to protecting the S4C budget while we review the future of the Welsh language broadcaster?
We are fully committed to the future of Welsh language broadcasting, and to S4C. I am pleased to say that the licence fee settlement that we have agreed has provided financial certainty, protecting S4C’s funding at more than £74 million a year for the next five years. We are absolutely committed to ensuring that the channel continues to make first-class shows and serve Welsh-speaking audiences in my hon. Friend’s constituency, and, for that matter, throughout the United Kingdom.
Naz Shah (Bradford West) (Lab):
Is the Leader of the House aware of reports of Rohingyan children being massacred and thrown into fires, of Rohingyan women being raped, and of houses being razed to the ground? What representations have the Government made to the Burmese authorities or the military in that regard?
Those reports from Rohingya are extremely concerning. As the hon. Lady knows, there is a long history of discrimination against the Rohingya people in Burma. British Ministers and the British embassy and officials in London make our concern very clear at regular intervals to the Burmese authorities.
Following the revelations in the BBC “Panorama” programme, Clinton House in my constituency is now closed. Three further care homes run by the Morleigh Group have now been rated as inadequate by the Care Quality Commission and two others are under inspection. Concerns have been raised about these care homes for many years, and it cannot be acceptable that it took the BBC to provoke the action that was desperately needed. Does the Leader of the House agree that it is now time to urgently review the role of the CQC to ensure that in future concerns raised by residents, families and staff are properly and promptly addressed?
Older and vulnerable people deserve the highest quality care possible. There is no excuse for services that fall short of expectations in the way my hon. Friend has described. The CQC has extensive powers in law to ensure that nobody in the chain of responsibility is immune to legal accountability, and I would expect the CQC to exercise those powers in full in this case. But my hon. Friend has made some criticisms of the CQC and the Government have been looking into ways to improve its processes and increase its efficiency. The Under-Secretary of State for Health, my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington South (David Mowat), is the Minister responsible for community health and care, and he discussed this very issue with the CQC earlier today.
Geraint Davies (Swansea West) (Lab/Co-op):
US satellite data show that 6% of methane from fracking is leaked through fugitive emissions. Given that methane is 86 times worse than CO2 for global warming over a 20-year timeframe, will the right hon. Gentleman support the Council of Europe’s call for the banning of fracking, or at least for a maximum of 0.1% fugitive emissions at the wellhead?
No, Mr Speaker. The Government took their decision to give a go-ahead to fracking after extensive consideration of both the economic and the environmental risks and opportunities involved. We are confident that fracking can be carried out in a way that is safe and does not harm the environment, but which also provides job opportunities for this country and makes us less dependent on the import of energy.
I expect my right hon. Friend will be astonished, if not aghast, to learn that a succession of journalists from the BBC have contacted me seeking to create—to manufacture—stories of Back-Bench rebellion on the issue of the EU. [Interruption.] Will he—[Interruption.]
Order. I want to hear about these activities.
Does my right hon. Friend agree with me that on these controversial issues the BBC should stick to its charter obligations on accuracy and impartiality, instead of seeking to create problems for the Government?
I am sure that my hon. Friend is shocked at the thought that anybody should look to him as a source of information about rebellions against the Government. I hope he will be able to find some comfort in the fact that the new royal charter and agreement require the BBC to deliver impartial news—the very first time impartiality has been enshrined in the BBC’s mission.
Carolyn Harris (Swansea East) (Lab):
Having now received a response from the Prime Minister to my request for a children’s funeral fund, I was disturbed to be told that the social fund could provide a “simple and respectful funeral.” This answer is both insensitive and totally lacks any understanding of my original request. Has the Leader of the House the authority to facilitate a meeting with me and other bereaved mothers, so that we can explain to the Prime Minister exactly what we are asking for? This request is important to us as parents, many in this House and, judging from my postbag, many people and organisations across the country.
Burying a child must be an incredibly painful experience for any family, and I think we all pay respect to, and have enormous sympathy with, the hon. Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris). She says she speaks on behalf of thousands of parents who have had to go through that anguish. As the Prime Minister has said, there are mechanisms in place for making financial support available from central Government, and local authorities are of course free to waive funeral fees for child burials, and many of them do so. I will talk to my ministerial colleagues about the hon. Lady’s request for a meeting, and I am sure that she will receive a response to that.
Good train links are vital in enabling our constituents to get to work. It is therefore incredibly frustrating for my constituents that, of the 63 services a day that CrossCountry operates between Birmingham and Bristol, only three stop at the city of Gloucester on the way. Will my right hon. Friend ensure that when Ministers extend the train operator’s franchise, they do not allow CrossCountry to go on treating Gloucester like a leper to be avoided at all costs, and that they instead oblige the company to deliver the kind of service that every city deserves?
My hon. Friend is as always speaking up strongly on behalf of his constituents. Any of us who have been to Gloucester will know that it is a place we want to be able to visit frequently and easily. The Government are investing record amounts in improving our railways and, in his particular case, Transport Ministers are working with CrossCountry and Great Western to see how the Gloucester service can be improved.
Order. We come now to the 10-minute rule motion, and I want to point out very gently—and, I hope, with proper courtesy—to the hon. Member for North East Hampshire (Mr Jayawardena) that 10 minutes is the maximum speaking time. There is another matter for debate today that is somewhat preoccupying the House, and there is no obligation on the hon. Gentleman to speak for the full 10 minutes if he does not feel inclined to do so. The House would be very sympathetic and understanding if he refrained. We will see.