Business Questions 22 February 2018

I raised Brexit with the Leader of the House at Business Questions. It is almost a year since article 50 was triggered and we still don’t know the Government’s position. A letter was sent to the Prime Minister signed by 63 Conservative MPs which reads like a ransom note and makes no mention of what is in the best interests of the citizens of this country or the interests of Northern Ireland.

Below is my speech in full:

I thank the Leader of the House for giving us the business for next week. However, I must echo what Marin Alsop said: it is the 21st century, yet we are still celebrating firsts for women. That must change.

It is helpful to have next week’s business, and I am sure that Members and staff of the House will be pleased to have the recess dates. I note that the business stops on 5 March. Can the right hon. Lady tell us what is going to happen after that, or will the Government continue to announce just one week plus a Monday in advance? If they are looking for something to fill the time, perhaps the Leader of the House could provide us with another Opposition day. I think the last one that was allocated was on 24 January.

Obviously there is time available as the Government do not have any business, so could we consider two statutory instruments that have been prayed against by my hon. Friend the Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Angela Rayner)? The first relates to early-day motion 936, on changing the eligibility of free school meals for those on universal credit.

The second relates to early-day motion 937, which deals with regulations abolishing nursing bursaries for postgraduate nursing students. Could the Leader of the House honour the convention and allow time to debate those matters on the Floor of the House, so that we can have a vote on them before the 40-day period expires?

Will the Leader of the House tell us what news she has of the Trade Bill and the Taxation (Cross-border Trade) Bill? I am sure that the Government will want to scotch rumours that they are being pushed away.

I thank the Leader of the House for her letter—which I received at eight minutes past 8 yesterday—responding to some of the queries that I had raised. It was a bit like the Morecambe and Wise joke in which Eric tells André Previn that he is playing all the right notes, but not necessarily in the right order. In her letter, she answered questions, but they were not necessarily the ones that I asked. On the east coast railway line, for example, I did not ask her to tell me how wonderful Virgin was. I asked her a question about the Secretary of State taking back the contract. I asked her to write to me to tell me what costs were associated with the privatisation in the first place, and with taking the contract back. I also asked whether the Secretary of State had made the decision to privatise a commercially viable service against the advice that had been given to him.

The Leader of the House also did not answer my question about the inspector looking into Northamptonshire County Council. I asked her let me know how long the inspection would take and what the terms of reference were. We also know that Buckinghamshire might be setting an illegal budget—this will be of interest to you, Mr Speaker—and I think that that might be happening today. Over the past five years, its Government support has been reduced from £61 million to £8 million. The Leader of the House needs to respond to that. I ask her this as a matter of courtesy: I know that she has a very able civil service staff, because I meet them on occasions, and I wonder whether she could sign her letters off slightly earlier—perhaps on a Tuesday?

We know from the book by Tim Shipman how the Government used to make their policy, with the two advisers walking in St James’s Park batting policy ideas back and forth. Now that they have lost their jobs, however, it seems that the Government are raiding the Labour manifesto. They are now having a review of tuition fees. It is irrelevant that more young people are going to university—they have been told that if they go to university and get a degree, they will get a better job, but students do not want to start off in life with a debt of £56,000. However, they receive invoices yearly telling them that they have to pay back that amount.

The matter of high pay rises for vice-chancellors was raised during the Education Committee hearing on value for money in higher education, and MPs told a panel of vice-chancellors that the high rate of pay enjoyed by some university leaders is immoral given taxpayer subsidies and rising levels of debt. Will the Government therefore consider that issue in their review of post-18 education? If they will not—we do not know the full terms of reference—may we have a debate on the possibility of further regulation of vice-chancellors’ pay, or will that be parked for another year?

It is almost a year since article 50 was triggered, and at the end of the weekend we may know exactly what the Government’s position will be. I do not know whether you received a copy of the letter to the Prime Minister, Mr Speaker, but although it is marked private and confidential it seems that everyone has seen it. If you have not received it, I am quite happy to give it you. It is actually disrespectful to the Prime Minister. It begins, “Dear Prime Minister,” but it was sent to her at the House of Commons, not Downing Street—her place of work. I am not even going to go into the grammar or anything else, but I want to highlight one thing. It states that leaving the customs union and single market “isn’t a question of ideology, but practicality”.

There is absolutely no mention of what is in the best interests of the citizens of this country or the interests of Northern Ireland. The right hon. Member for Loughborough (Nicky Morgan) was right to say that it reads like a ransom note. It might as well have had a bullet point at the end saying, “Don’t forget to do this,” or, “Do this, or else.” It was signed by 63 Members—well over that magic number of 40.

It is World Thinking Day, which is a day of international friendship. We want to stand by our international friends and with the young people in Florida who decided to remember the 17 people who were murdered last week by walking out of school and into their state capitol to demand change.

The Leader of the House and I could not be at the Brit awards yesterday—I was reading my letter from her at 8.08 pm—but I am sure that she will echo the Leader of the Opposition’s words about a young man who has changed the music industry. He encouraged everyone to vote, pray and speak out about mental health issues, and he won best album and best male artist. Stormzy, congratulations.