Commons Chamber

House of Commons

Thursday 17 December 2020

The House met at half-past Nine o’clock


[Mr Speaker in the Chair]

Virtual participation in proceedings commenced (Order, 4 June).

[NB: [V] denotes a Member participating virtually.]

Oral Answers to Questions

Cabinet Office

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

Strengthening the Union

Ben Everitt (Milton Keynes North) (Con)

What steps the Government are taking to strengthen the Union.

Douglas Chapman (Dunfermline and West Fife) (SNP)

What assessment he has made of the effect of trends in the level of support for Scottish independence on his policies on strengthening the Union.

The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and Minister for the Cabinet Office (Michael Gove)

Mr Speaker, may I wish you and the whole House a safe and happy Christmas, on this, the last scheduled day of the Session?

The Government are committed to protecting and promoting the combined strengths of our Union, building on 300 years of partnership. It is vital that we continue to work across the UK on the challenges that we all face together, such as our recovery from covid-19, and to focus on issues such as protecting jobs and supporting the NHS.

Ben Everitt

I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. Perhaps he will agree that there can be no better example of the strength of our Union and of all four nations—the awesome foursome—working together than the successful funding, deployment, roll-out and creation of covid-19 vaccines, keeping communities safe across all four nations.

Michael Gove

My hon. Friend makes a vital point. Across all four nations of the United Kingdom people are being vaccinated thanks to the energetic efforts of the vaccine taskforce, my right hon. Friend the Secretary State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and, of course, our superb NHS. It is a source of particular pleasure to me that Scotland is enjoying that vaccine thanks to the efforts of the UK Government: proof that our NHS means that we are stronger together.

Douglas Chapman [V]

Today, a poll revealed that 58% of Scots would vote for independence. This is the 17th consecutive poll to show a positive result and we are seeing a rise in support for independence across all age groups. The Cabinet Office can hoist as many Union flags as it wants, but what part of “We are leaving” does the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster not understand?

Michael Gove

Of course, surveys of opinion are always fascinating, but the figures that I am interested in are those which show that the UK Government are spending more per capita in Scotland than they are in other parts of the United Kingdom and that thousands of Scots are now being vaccinated thanks to the efforts of the UK Government. If we look at a map of the world to see which countries are having their citizens vaccinated, Scotland, Northern Ireland, Wales and England are ahead of the pack: stronger together.

Mr Speaker

Can we have the SNP spokesperson, Pete Wishart?

Pete Wishart (Perth and North Perthshire) (SNP)

You most certainly can, Mr Speaker, and thank you.

I listened carefully to the right hon. Gentleman’s answer, and yes, we are grateful for the vaccine, but I did not hear a response as to why he thinks that Scottish independence has now become the settled will of the Scottish people. This is not like him. He is usually quick to give his views about certain things, so why does he think that Scottish independence has sustained majority support, reaching a height of 58%, and is now the settled will of the Scottish people? Why is that the case?

Michael Gove

It is great to have the hon. Gentleman here, live and unplugged, rather than having to rely on a distant video screen, because his performance is always one that we savour. Sadly, however, I fear that his reliance on opinion polls is no substitute for his aversion to hard arguments. Why will he not engage with the facts? The facts show that, in Scotland, per capita spending including on our shared NHS is greater as a result of the broad shoulders of the UK Treasury. As I pointed out earlier, but as he declined to acknowledge, folk in Scotland are being vaccinated now, thanks to the efforts of the UK Government in a world-leading programme. I hope that, in the spirit of Christmas, he will acknowledge that this is a time for giving, and that he will, just once, give the benefit of the doubt to the UK Government.

Pete Wishart

I am likely to be the ghost of Christmas future, because it is not going the right hon. Gentleman’s way. Let me try to give him a few reasons. Let us see if he agrees with any of these: the disastrous Brexit that Scotland did not vote for; the attacks on our democracy; the undermining of our Parliament; and the Prime Minister—him. Maybe they are some of the reasons that we are now in the lead, but the main one is the arrogantly Trumpian way in which the right hon. Gentleman says no to a majority in a democracy. Does he think that constantly saying no to a majority in Scotland will drive support for independence down, or will it only further drive support for independence up?

Michael Gove

The Scottish Parliament is enjoying more powers now as a result of our departure from the European Union. Those powers allow the devolved legislature to have its own agriculture and environment policy, to supplement the leadership that it has been showing in other areas. As we move towards the elections that are coming next year, many people will focus on the record of the Scottish Government. Of course there are admirable Ministers in the Scottish Government, but people will be asking why the UK Government are responsible for vaccinating people in Scotland and yet the Scottish Government are responsible for a decline in educational achievement in Scotland’s schools and a growing divide between the well-off and less well-off. Social justice matters, and that is why, in the forthcoming Scottish parliamentary elections, the Scottish Conservatives will be making gains at the hon. Gentleman’s expense.

UK-EU Negotiations

Dehenna Davison (Bishop Auckland) (Con)

What recent assessment he has made of the effectiveness of negotiations on the UK’s future relationship with the EU.

Mrs Sheryll Murray (South East Cornwall) (Con)

What recent assessment he has made of the effectiveness of negotiations on the UK’s future relationship with the EU.

Sally-Ann Hart (Hastings and Rye) (Con)

What recent assessment he has made of the effectiveness of negotiations on the UK’s future relationship with the EU.

The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and Minister for the Cabinet Office (Michael Gove)

With your permission, Mr Speaker, I will take questions 5, 6 and 7 together, because they are such good questions. They really are superb questions, and it is only right that they be taken together, in a one-er, in a group, as a collective. Intensive talks are ongoing, with both negotiating teams working day and night to reach a deal. We are going the extra mile and continuing the negotiations to see whether an agreement can be reached, and we will of course continue to keep Parliament informed on our progress.

Dehenna Davison

I thank my right hon. Friend for his slightly delayed answer. He showed last week how successful the UK Government can be in negotiating with the EU, in their successful agreement in the Joint Committee. Will he therefore confirm that, although he has shown that the UK can do a deal with the EU, the Government will only conclude a deal on a free trade agreement that is in the best interests of our country and will be willing to walk away if they have no other choice?

Michael Gove

My hon. Friend is right; even if sometimes results are coming later than we might have wanted, I know that we will be doing everything to secure a good free trade agreement in the interests of the whole United Kingdom. The electors of Bishop Auckland, whom she represents so brilliantly, were clear when they voted to leave the EU that we need to do so by 31 December, and we will.

Mrs Murray [V]

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the Opposition’s apparent position of agreeing a deal no matter what is a ridiculous one to take during any negotiation?

Michael Gove

My hon. Friend is right; the Opposition party has taken a number of different position on Brexit over the past few months, weeks and perhaps even days, but one thing that has never been clear is where exactly its red lines are. Ours are clear: we will always stand up for the United Kingdom. May I also pay tribute to my hon. Friend for the magnificent way in which she stood up for our coastal communities and fishing sector? Outside the common fisheries policy they will prosper, thanks to her.

Sally-Ann Hart

Fishing is reportedly a sticking point in the negotiations. My local fishermen in Hastings and Rye need to have faith that this Conservative Government will not sacrifice them, as previous Governments have, for free trade with the EU. Can I be confident in reassuring them that this Government will provide the basis for trust to be restored and built upon?

Michael Gove

Yes; my hon. Friend does an excellent job in standing up for her constituents in Hastings and Rye. The fishermen she represents so effectively know that we, as an independent coastal state, will be in control of our waters at the end of the transition period. Of course we want to make sure that we manage shared stocks in an appropriate way with all of our neighbours, including those outside the EU, but as an independent coastal state we are in control.

Hilary Benn (Leeds Central) (Lab)

We all wish the negotiators well in this final stage, as they demonstrate that sharing sovereignty—gaining benefits by accepting obligations—is what will be required in order to reach the agreement that the Government say they want and which we all want. Can the right hon. Gentleman tell the House whether the legislation that will be required to give effect to any agreement will need to pass all of its stages in Parliament by 31 December this year in order to provide clarity to individual businesses about what they can do from 1 January next year, which is, after all, only 15 days away?

Michael Gove

The right hon. Gentleman reminds us all of the importance of seeking to conclude these negotiations as quickly as possible. If they are concluded satisfactorily, we will request that the House returns in order to make sure that we can legislate effectively. We believe we can pass the necessary legislation before 31 December to give businesses legal certainty for the future.

Paul Blomfield (Sheffield Central) (Lab)

This is how the Prime Minister described his oven-ready deal last November:

“put it in Gas Mark 4, 20 minutes and Bob’s your uncle.”

The Minister is nodding. Clearly, the Government have delivered half of it—leaving the European Union—but we have now passed six of the Prime Minister’s deadlines for the other half, which is the agreement on our new relationship with the EU. In those same comments last November, the Prime Minister promised to end “dither and delay”. This week, we have heard of companies that have stopped exporting to the EU because of the uncertainty created by the Government’s handling of these negotiations. Has the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster made an assessment of how many jobs have been lost through their incompetence?

Michael Gove

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for reminding us that the Prime Minister not only secured a handsome election victory just over a year ago but did so on the basis of having secured a withdrawal agreement that passed this House, which meant that we left the European Union in January. Part of that withdrawal agreement was a protocol on Northern Ireland; some doubted that we would be able to reach a satisfactory conclusion, but we did. Others doubt that we will be able to have a satisfactory cause for celebration at the end of this year, when the transition period ends; I invite the hon. Gentleman to wait and see on that.

Paul Blomfield

I think we are all waiting to see.

Let me ask the Minister about a different part of the negotiations. When I have asked him previously, he has been unable to confirm that we will have access to the real-time information systems that we need to identify foreign criminals at our borders. We both understand why the Government’s position has prevented him from giving that confirmation. This morning, speaking on Radio 4 just over an hour ago, the Home Secretary was pressed on the issue and said:

“All the type of channels that we have used in the past we will continue to use going forward.”

Was she right? Anything less than an unequivocal endorsement will indicate that she was not.

Michael Gove

The Home Secretary is always right.