Queen’s Speech: Alok Sharma leads debate on Britain’s place in the world

15th October 2019

Alok Sharma leads debate on Britain’s place in the world.

Rt Hon Alok Sharma MP speaking in the House of Commons, October 2019

Britain’s Place in the World

It is indeed an honour to open the debate.

We live in the best country in the world: a country that leads on the world stage, as a permanent member of the UN Security Council and in NATO, the G7, the G20 and, of course, the Commonwealth. Ours is the only major country that is simultaneously meeting the NATO target of spending 2% of our GDP on defence and the UN target of spending 0.7% of GNI on international development. We should be proud of meeting both those targets, and of maintaining our security while supporting some of the poorest and most vulnerable people in the world. They are targets that this Government, under the Prime Minister, will continue to honour, and they are targets that are possible only with a strong economy.

Yesterday my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister set out a very positive agenda for government—a positive vision of what we can achieve, working together and delivering on the priorities of people throughout the United Kingdom—but if we are to move forward, we must first get Brexit done.

As the Secretary of State has just said, those are the priorities of people throughout the United Kingdom, but studies in Scotland have shown that the place that will be most adversely affected by Brexit is my constituency. With what direct money—what quantity—will the UK Government compensate the people of Na h-Eileanan an Iar for their political project, Brexit, given that those people will suffer the worst effects of it?

I have to say that the hon. Gentleman is always incredibly negative about the future of the country. I wish that he would be more positive. I wish that he would actually support the Union. He wants to break up our country, and we on the Conservative Benches do not want that.

My right hon. Friend has talked about the importance of the United Kingdom’s helping and engaging with third world countries. Does he agree that when we pull out of the European Union, we will be able to give Commonwealth and third world countries much greater access to our marketplace than the current protectionist racket of the European Union?

Indeed, and I will come on to that, but, of course, once we are out of the European Union we will be able to set our own trade policy.

Let me be as positive as my right hon. Friend about our place in the world. This Government have made a big effort to encourage investment from Israel, and to encourage bilateral treaties with it. What will happen about that in the future, and how will we take it forward?

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for the work he does as a trade envoy in Africa. He has talked about trade deals in the future. We are, of course, having relentlessly positive discussions about those, but, as I have said, we must first make sure that we get Brexit done before we move on to the next stage of this agenda.

I campaigned to remain in the European Union, but ahead of the vote I said that I would respect the outcome of the national referendum, and in 2017, along with the vast majority of Members, I stood on a manifesto to deliver on that outcome. Well, it is high time we honoured that promise to respect the vote to leave. We must get Brexit done. We do want to leave the European Union with a deal, and that is why we have set out our fair and reasonable proposals. I believe that, should we get a deal, it is the responsibility of the whole House to deliver Brexit without further delay.

May I point out that I stood on a manifesto promising to fight for a second referendum, a referendum on the deal, so that the people could have the final say on whatever is stitched up in the vape-filled rooms in Brussels and London? May I also point out that in the Lake District, where we have a marvellous export—our tourism industry—one in three of the staff on whom we rely are from overseas, most of them from the EU, and the Government’s proposal to introduce a £30,000 salary floor for those people would decimate our tourism industry? Will the right hon. Gentleman sort that out before he causes such enormous harm to such an important part of our economy?

We are, of course introducing an immigration Bill, which will focus on a points-based system to ensure that people who come here have the skills that the country requires. Let me also say to the hon. Gentleman that he calls himself a Liberal Democrat, but his policy is illiberal and anti-democratic.

In my constituency, 73% of people voted to leave. They did not directly express how they wanted to leave, but what I hear day after day is that we must leave, and we must leave on the 31st. I know that there are people who are concerned about a no-deal Brexit, but the best way to avoid a no-deal Brexit is to support a deal in the House, so that we can all leave with some degree of security.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. What should be happening is that we should be coming together, but I must tell Opposition Members that we could have left the European Union by now if they had only supported the previous deal. [Interruption.] They did not do that. They did not do that, Madam Deputy Speaker. They are the ones who put jobs, the economy and business at risk because they did not support the Government.

I want to continue.

When we leave the EU, there will be opportunities across the world. As my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said yesterday, this Conservative Government will ensure that the United Kingdom continues to play a leading role in global affairs, defending our interests, promoting our values, and seizing those opportunities.

Countries around the world are judged according to the values for which they stand, and the United Kingdom always advocates for democracy around the world. Does my right hon. Friend agree that if we do not deliver on the mandate that the public gave us in 2016, it will be completely and utterly wrong and will undermine our democratic process? Does he agree that we should therefore leave on 31 October with a deal, or, if that is not possible, without a deal?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Unfortunately, what has happened over the last few months—after we did not leave at the end of March—has indeed been a sapping of trust in democratic processes across our country, and that is why we must leave on 31 October.

The Minister has talked about a no-deal Brexit. In evidence to the Brexit Committee the representative of the Ulster Farmers Union, when asked what a no-deal Brexit would mean for his industry, replied that it would be “catastrophic”. Would the Minister like to explain to farmers in Northern Ireland, and everyone else who would be affected, why it is the Government’s policy if there is not a deal that that catastrophe should be inflicted upon the farmers of a part of the United Kingdom?

I have a lot of respect for the right hon. Gentleman so I am sorry to have to say this to him, but the Bill that he brought forward, which we refer to as the surrender Act now—I know other colleagues would refer to it differently—reduced the negotiating position of the Government. Our policy still is a preference for a deal, but he must take his share of responsibility if we end up with no deal on 31 October.

Will the Minister give way on that point?

No, I will not; let me make some more progress.

I was talking about the opportunities that we will have outside the European Union, and of course there will be opportunities that will boost British businesses with strong trading relationships with countries around the world, championing free trade.

The Minister talks about future opportunities for businesses. Rightly, this Parliament requires our businesses to observe very high standards of animal welfare, environmental regulations and workplace regulations. Will he make sure that future trade agreements do not undermine our competitiveness against imports from other jurisdictions that do not have to observe such high standards?

My hon. Friend makes an important point, and as he will have seen in the Queen’s Speech and indeed the speech the Prime Minister made yesterday, environmental issues are very much at the top of the Government’s agenda.

Talking about the opportunities we have, in January our country will host Governments from across Africa here in London for the UK-Africa investment summit. The summit will bring together businesses, Governments and international institutions to encourage investment in Africa. This will also create opportunities for the City of London.

To state the obvious, Britain leaving the EU will decrease our influence in the world, not increase it. Seven of the countries with a seat at the table in Brussels this week have a population that is smaller than that of Wales, yet they will have greater influence over the future of Europe than the UK might have. Does the Minister not agree that Wales therefore will be better placed in the world with our own seat at the table, rather than in this Union of unequals?

First, may I just say that we are determined to respect the outcome of the referendum? Indeed, colleagues across the House, including some who now argue against it, at the time said this was a once-in-a-generation vote. Well, let’s get together; let’s respect the outcome of the referendum. And I have to say to the hon. Lady that I wish she was a bit more positive about our future as a country. I have outlined the fact that we lead the world in very many institutions; that will absolutely continue, and I hope that she will find that she is able to be a little bit more positive about our future.

The hon. Lady may recall that in the aftermath of the vote to leave many people said that the economy would turn down and we would lose jobs. That is not what has happened: the economy has stayed strong; employment is at record levels.

In DFID, our ultimate goal in tackling poverty is to support countries to help themselves and meet the sustainable development goals, to become economically self-sustaining and our trading partners of the future. I want developing countries to trade their way out of needing aid.

Of course the shadow Chancellor sees business as the enemy; that is his stated position. We do not; we see it as an enabler. The private sector has had the biggest impact in tackling poverty in the developing world in the last 100 years, and this Government, as my hon. Friend the Member for Henley (John Howell) said, are relentlessly pursuing free trade agreements; these will benefit businesses and consumers in Britain and in the developing world.

Governments around the world collectively spend around $140 billion every year on aid. However, the United Nations estimates that an additional $2.5 trillion is required annually in developing countries to meet the sustainable development goals. That investment gap needs to be met largely by the private sector. That is why I have established an International Development Infrastructure Commission to advise on how we can mobilise additional private sector funds.

But global Britain is about more than Brexit or free trade; it is also about the role we have to play in tackling some of the biggest issues facing our world.

If we are going to be great again and set an example to these other countries and help them, we need to be a healthy nation across the country, so what are the Government going to do about addressing health inequalities in our own nation—and perhaps deliver the hospital for Stockton in my constituency that was taken away by the Liberal Democrat-Tory Government in 2010?

We have record investment going into the NHS. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister announced investments in hospitals, and I say to the hon. Gentleman that whether for aid or the public services the only way we can find that money is to keep our economy strong—something that would not happen under the Labour party.

My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister met leaders at the G7 this summer in Biarritz; all those countries support the UK’s campaign to give every girl in the world 12 years of quality education.

Britain can be proud of its global record of development. Will the Minister encourage some other European countries to step up and match Britain’s international aid commitment? Countries including France and many others only contribute about half the national wealth that this country does, and they can learn a lot from global Britain.

My hon. Friend makes a very important point, and of course we urge all developed nations to come forward and match us in our 0.7% target. I would add that there are certain areas such as the fight against the spread of Ebola where the UK has been leading, and it would be very helpful if some of our international partners came alongside us in such endeavours.

As I have said, all those countries in Biarritz supported the UK’s campaign to ensure that every girl in the world receives 12 years of quality education, and we know that educating girls is the tool that can address a whole host of the world’s economic and social problems. Educating girls prevents child marriage and early pregnancy, helps women into the workforce and boosts household incomes and economic growth. We announced new funding at the G7 to provide education for children in the developing world caught up in crises and conflict; girls, who are more than twice as likely to be out of school in conflict areas, stand to benefit most from this support.

Since 2015, the UK has supported almost 6 million girls to gain a decent education. At the UN in September, the Prime Minister announced measures that will help to get over 12 million more children into school. That will boost future economic growth and improve women’s rights in some of the poorest countries in the world.

I was listening very carefully when the Minister was talking about the importance of being positive about Brexit because the Institute for Fiscal Studies said last week that the UK is £60 billion worse off already as a result of Brexit, and we have not left yet, and it also said that the UK economy is now 2.5% to 3% smaller than it would be had the Brexit process not been started. Importantly for me, as I am sure the Minister will understand, 21% of my constituents in North Ayrshire are assessed as being vulnerable to the Brexit shock. What advice does the Minister have for the 21% of people in North Ayrshire who will be adversely affected?

I do not think the hon. Lady was in the House in 2010 when we had an emergency Budget to deal with the economic mess we were left by the Labour party. I remember that in those debates, the Opposition told us that a million jobs would be lost as a result of the policies we were putting in place. Almost 10 years on, there are more than 3 million extra jobs in the economy, wages are outpacing inflation and we are seeing growth in the economy year after year. If she wants to avoid the uncertainty of no deal, why did she not support previous deals? Will she commit to supporting a deal if one comes back from the European Council?

Perhaps I can move to another topic that we lead the world in tackling—namely, climate change. We were the first major economy to legislate for net zero, and at the UN General Assembly, the Prime Minister doubled our support to help developing countries to tackle climate change. Climate change is not a problem created in the developing world, but the world’s poorest will be hit hardest by it and we have a responsibility to act. Some weeks ago, we saw the catastrophic effects of climate change in the Bahamas. The first responders on the ground saw the devastation caused by Hurricane Dorian and described the scenes as “apocalyptic”, with roofs ripped from buildings, homes under water and families left devastated by the loss of their loved ones. I am proud that our armed forces, supported by DFID and FCO expertise, led the British response. This was a joint global-British response to a natural disaster.

Sadly, disasters like these will become all the more common. Almost 1 million plant and animal species are at risk of extinction with floods, droughts and storms becoming increasingly frequent. Each one pushes yet more people into poverty. We cannot ignore this global threat. The Bills announced by the Prime Minister yesterday will continue the word-leading efforts that this Conservative Government have taken to protect our environment. Our new environment Bill will guide our country towards a cleaner and greener future. Under the Conservatives, we will continue to proudly lead the world in this area.

What are the Government doing to stop fracking on a global scale?

Perhaps the hon. Gentleman did not listen to me when I talked about the fact that we were doubling our commitment in terms of international climate finance. An enormous amount of work is going on in this area, and more will be set out. I would have thought that these are the areas he should be praising the Government on. This is somewhere where we have a joint and common endeavour. I wish that Opposition Members would occasionally be positive about what the Government are doing and what we are achieving in the developing world to help the poorest people across the globe.

It is not just on climate change and education that global Britain is leading the way. The senseless injustice of preventable deaths must end. Last week in Lyon, I announced more details of our pledge to the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria. AIDS is the biggest killer of women aged 15 to 49 globally. Our commitment to tackle these deadly diseases is a vital part of this Conservative Government’s decision to ramp up efforts to end the preventable deaths of mothers, newborn babies and children in the poorest parts of the world by 2030. We are investing in British expertise, and we work with the international community to ensure that, wherever somebody is born, they have access to the vital health services they need. That must include sexual and reproductive health and rights for women. That is why, at the UN General Assembly, I announced a package that will help 20 million women and girls to gain access to family planning each a year up to 2025.

A few minutes ago, the Minister mentioned the vital role of our armed forces in doing good works around the world, and all of us of a right mind here support our armed forces. As the hon. Members for North Wiltshire (James Gray) and for Glasgow South (Stewart Malcolm McDonald) know, Mr Vladimir Putin is not about the good of the UK; he is not our friend. In tackling the Salisbury situation, the co-operation of our EU friends was crucial. Is it not an incontrovertible truth that pulling out of our membership of the EU will make the task of our armed forces that much more difficult?

No, I do not believe that is the case. Of course, we will continue to co-operate with our friends around the world, and of course we will continue to play a leading part in NATO.

I am pleased to hear what my right hon. Friend says he is doing for women and girls around the world. Can he confirm that the Government will also be looking at spending more and raising the profile of female genital mutilation, both here and abroad, and also of female education, particularly at primary level?

I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend, who did such good work during his time at the Foreign Office tackling precisely these issues. Of course we will continue to work on supporting initiatives in these areas.

Will the Secretary of State give way?

If I may just continue, I will come back to the hon. Gentleman.

Our country is leading the world in tackling some of the greatest challenges facing our planet today, whether in dealing with natural disasters or with the fallout from humanitarian crises around the world. We only have to look at the support we have provided to people fleeing Venezuela. We do not stand idly by while the Maduro regime brutalises its people. The leader of the Labour party may celebrate the achievement of that despotic ruler, seeing it perhaps as his blueprint for Britain, but we do not—[Interruption.] The right hon. Member for Islington South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry) suggests that what I am saying is inaccurate—

Outrageous!

Perhaps—

And sexist, by definition!

Order. I did not hear the word, but if the word used was that which has just been put to me, it was tasteless. [Interruption.] I know that the right hon. Member for East Devon (Sir Hugo Swire) means well, but I am not sure that I regard him as a great arbiter on these important matters, although he may be starting to negotiate the learning curve. I am sure he is well intentioned and trying his best.

Irrespective of whether or not that comment was offensive, may I just enlighten the right hon. Lady on what her leader said at a Solidarity with Venezuela event in 2015? This is what the Leader of the Opposition said:

“When we celebrate, and it is a cause—”

That was four years ago.

If the right hon. Lady would only listen. The Leader of the Opposition said:

“When we celebrate, and it is a cause for celebration, the achievements of Venezuela, in jobs, in housing, in health, in education, but above all its role in the whole world as a completely different place, then we do that because we recognise what they have achieved.”

My goodness, if that is a sort of achievement we are going to have under a Labour Government, is pretty clear that they should not be let anywhere near Downing Street.

Let me go back to the Venezuela of today. Its economy has collapsed, public services have collapsed and the very being of the country is on life support. I am very proud to say that it is Britain that has stepped forward to provide life-saving humanitarian support to millions of Venezuelans. Last month, I announced an aid package that will deliver life-saving medicines and clean water to those suffering from this dire crisis, quite simply because it is the right thing to do.

My right hon. Friend is talking about a humanitarian crisis. A few weeks ago, a large group of us were in Bangladesh where we witnessed the plight of the Rohingya. I know that his Department has announced more money to assist the Rohingya. What further efforts is the Department going to make to lessen the plight of the Rohingya and enable them to return home to a safe environment?

My hon. Friend raises an incredibly important point. That major humanitarian crisis has been caused by the military in Myanmar. We have announced further funds of about £87 million to provide food, healthcare and shelter, and that support will help to reach over 1 million refugees but also, importantly, host community members. Of course I commend the Bangladesh Government for the support that they are providing for relocations, but we are very clear that we agree with the assessment of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees that conditions are not yet in place to allow safe and sustainable returns to Rakhine state.

Will the Minister give way?

I will not, because I am now going to wind up. I spent a year as a Foreign Office Minister, and I have now spent around three months in my current role. As I have gone around the world, I have seen and heard for myself how highly regarded our country is. We are respected for our values, for our support for democracy and the rules-based international system and for championing economic empowerment across the world. When the United Kingdom speaks, the world listens. I commend the Gracious Speech to the House.

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