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House of Commons Hansard
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Oral Answers to Questions
23 March 2017
Volume 623

DEPARTMENT FOR INTERNATIONAL TRADE

The Secretary of State was asked—

Medical Research and Development (Israel)

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1. What steps he is taking to strengthen the trade relationship in medical research and development with Israel. [909448]

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As we begin our questions today, it is appropriate that we recommit ourselves to the values that this Parliament represents. Those who carry out such wicked and depraved actions as we saw yesterday can never triumph in our country. We must ensure that it is not violence, hatred or division, but decency, goodness and tolerance that prevail in our country.

The United Kingdom and Israel have a strong and important trading relationship, with nearly £5 billion in bilateral trade last year. We will continue to liaise closely on strengthening our trading links, including in important sectors such as medical research and development. The Life Sciences Organisation within the Department for International Trade currently supports companies wishing to export to Israel from the earliest stages of research and development through to manufactured medicines and medical devices.

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I join you, Mr Speaker, and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State in expressing sincere condolences to the victims of the terrible atrocity yesterday, and particularly to the family of PC Keith Palmer, who died so that we can carry out our democratic duties.

I thank my right hon. Friend for his answer. Companies in the Israeli economy are responsible for more than 100 million prescription drugs consumed in this country every year, and one has recently launched the ReWalk device, whereby people are encouraged to develop. Will he set out what further plans he has to ensure that we benefit from Israel’s pharmaceutical industry?

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UK industry will have a strong and important trading relationship with Israel, and the Department for International Trade supports and will continue to support life science companies from Israel that invest in the UK, and those seeking to export from the UK. The companies range from large multinationals to small and medium-sized companies such as the one my hon. Friend mentioned. We support all stages, whether that is by facilitating investment in research and development or setting up commercial operations, such as manufacturing, to export from the UK.

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I, too, express my condolences to the families of all those who died, and I wish the very best for those who were injured.

One notable thing about Israel’s trade relationship with the EU is that Israel is part of Horizon 2020. Has the Secretary of State considered whether, after Brexit, we should stay in Horizon 2020 and the European Medicines Agency?

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The latter decision will be part of our negotiations. We have made it clear that our intention is to roll over in full the trading agreements that the EU currently has with third countries. That will include Israel, on the basis of the current negotiations.

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In his trade discussions with the Israeli Government, will the Secretary of State convey the House’s sympathy for and solidarity with Israel, which has so often suffered the same kind of terrorist attack as we suffered in this House yesterday?

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What we have in common with all terrorist attacks is the fact that such acts of savagery against the innocent can never be justified or excused by creed or by politics.

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May I echo the opening words of the Secretary of State and indeed the condolences that have been expressed for the police officer and the families of others affected by this tragedy?

The world-leading Institute of Cancer Research in the London borough of Sutton already does a lot of work with Israel. Can the Secretary of State confirm whether the post-grads who work at the institute, a third of whom come from the European Union, will be able to carry on working in those projects for years to come?

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The Government have already made it clear that the United Kingdom wishes to see an early resolution on the status of EU citizens. Those who collaborate with our research institutes do so on the basis of the quality of the research, and I am sure that that will continue.

Trade Facilitation Agreement

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3. What assessment his Department has made of the effectiveness of the WTO trade facilitation agreement. [909450]

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4. What assessment his Department has made of the effectiveness of the WTO trade facilitation agreement. [909451]

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The World Trade Organisation agreement on trade facilitation entered into force on 22 February 2017 once two thirds of WTO members had accepted the new agreement. This is a very significant event. Once fully implemented, the agreement could add more than £70 billion to the global economy, and of that we expect a benefit to the UK of up to £1 billion.

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I should say for the benefit of the House, because there was a quizzical air in the Chamber, that Question 2 was withdrawn. That is a situation which is not dissented. I can see that the hon. Member for Weaver Vale (Graham Evans) is in his place, but the question was withdrawn.

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I am very grateful to the Secretary of State for the work he is doing to try to secure a bespoke trade deal, and to his Ministers for the work they are doing as well. We do not want to fall back on to WTO rules, but, if we did, what would happen to airlines, digital data flows and trade and services?

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There is a difference between some of the agreements mentioned, which are bilateral agreements, and WTO tariffs that largely apply to goods. We hope to get a comprehensive agreement with our European partners across all the sectors that my hon. Friend mentions so that we will see no interruption to the business as we have it today.

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The WTO trade facilitation agreement’s coming into force last month brought about great reforms such as reducing fees on imports and exports and quickening clearance procedures. What impact will the reforms have on UK businesses that are importing and exporting?

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UK exporters in particular will benefit from the customs reforms being introduced, and implementing the agreement will reduce delays at the borders of participating members and improve the trading environment for businesses engaging in international trade, making it easier and cheaper for UK businesses to export their goods across the globe.

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May I associate the Democratic Unionist party with the sentiments that have been expressed for the innocents who were murdered yesterday? Our thoughts and prayers are very much with those who were injured.

With the initial period of this agreement now under way, will the Minister determine how we can enhance and further build capacity in this area? Does he believe that lessons learned here can and will affect our approach to Brexit, trade and negotiations?

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As most European Union countries are already higher than the bar set by TFA, that will not have a huge effect on intra-European trade, but it will have a beneficial impact on European exporters, especially if they are exporting to markets such as sub-Saharan Africa, where the greatest benefit of the trade agreement is likely to be felt.

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Will the Secretary of State give some reassurance to Welsh lamb and sheep farmers, who have faced 40% tariffs under WTO, and ensure that if we do have a trade agreement with New Zealand we will not be flooded with New Zealand lamb?

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When we get to the point at which we begin to have those discussions, we will want to take into account a balance between UK producer interests and UK consumer interests, and we will also wish to ensure that we are making a contribution to a global liberal trading environment that benefits everybody.

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This agreement is potentially of greatest advantage to the least developed countries, in which we have put very considerable investment. Will the Secretary of State continue to drive forward that agenda?

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Yes, and we have actually invested a large amount of money in supporting the agreement itself and in ensuring that it can be introduced in as beneficial a way in as many countries and as quickly as possible, because, as my right hon. Friend correctly says, this agreement will have the greatest benefit to some of the poorest countries in the world, which is why the United Kingdom, under Governments of both parties, has been so supportive of it.

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For well over a century the UK has not had security of food supply, but has instead always relied on imports. What will WTO tariffs of up to 40% do for the price of food for hard-working families already squeezed by the Tory Government’s policies?

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The hon. Gentleman perhaps unintentionally raises this important point: where we have genuinely free trade it benefits consumers, and where we can have an open global trading environment, it is likely to make the incomes of those on low incomes in particular go further. We should welcome an open trading environment, which I hope the Scottish National party does.

Overseas Trade

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5. What steps his Department is taking to help businesses build trading opportunities abroad. [909452]

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9. What steps his Department is taking to help businesses build trading opportunities abroad. [909456]

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The Department for International Trade provides market access, support and advice to UK businesses both in the UK and in 109 markets overseas. Through the GREAT campaign we build the global appetite for British goods and services, and give UK companies access to millions of pounds’ worth of potential business through the digital services offered on the great.gov.uk website.

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My hon. Friend the Minister leads the buy British goods campaign. Does he agree that taking companies that make British goods on trade delegations is an excellent way of ensuring that companies make the most of our opportunities as we leave the European Union?

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My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Trade delegations give an opportunity for small businesses to be put in front of buyers, and the Department for International Trade runs about 1,000 of them every year; I have been on a number, as have my colleagues, and they are extraordinarily successful in developing opportunities.

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What steps is my hon. Friend the Minister taking to help first-time entrepreneurs become first-time successful exporters?

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The great.gov.uk website is a tremendous opportunity, whereby entrepreneurs, many of whom are very tech savvy, can take advantage of the opportunities that we provide through our subsidised access to global e-marketplaces. They can also access the advice we provide through the website for exactly that type of business—they are supported as well.

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May I ask the Minister specifically what advice there is, and what the Government are doing, to help small businesses in that respect?

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The Department for International Trade has available a network of international trade advisers throughout the English regions who can be contacted through local chambers of commerce and are specifically there to hand-hold individual companies that need help.

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Is the Minister looking at the trade differences between the English regions? One of the reasons that lots of people in the English regions outside London voted to leave was that they did not feel they were getting the benefits of the European Union. What is he going to do to help those areas improve their trading links?

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We certainly look at foreign direct investment into the regions through trading links. That is why we see inward investment in areas such as Sunderland, which has benefited from Nissan. The right hon. Lady’s point about trade is absolutely right. The UK needs to trade more with the rest of the world—just 11% of businesses that could conduct such trade are actually doing so. One of the prime concerns and objectives of the Department for International Trade is promoting trade to the whole of the UK to ensure that we up our offer to the rest of the world.

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What steps is the Department taking to enhance trade between India and the UK?

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My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has certainly held meetings in India, and we are having ongoing talks to try to facilitate opportunities there. I will visit India in the next couple of weeks with my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer to explore more opportunities with financial services.

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May I associate myself and my colleagues with the Secretary of State’s remarks about yesterday’s terror attacks?

The Federation of Small Businesses reports its members’ concerns that there should not be a cliff edge when we leave the European Union. Smaller businesses want to continue with tariff-free access and to minimise non-tariff barriers. What is the Minister’s Department doing to support small businesses and allay their concerns?

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The Department for International Trade absolutely shares those desires for a disruption-free exit from the European Union. We are certainly representing those interests to the Department for Exiting the European Union, which is tasked specifically with the objectives described by the hon. Gentleman.

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11. The United States is the UK’s single biggest export market. What early discussions has the Minister had with his new US counterparts about trying to secure a timely new trade deal? [909458]

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My hon. Friend is absolutely right to identify the United States as our single biggest trading partner, with 23% of the UK’s exports going to the United States. We are waiting for confirmation of when we can start having conversations.

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May I associate myself and my party with the Secretary of State’s opening remarks? We will have an opportunity to pay our respects later, but we are grateful that we are here because of the bravery of others.

The rise in Scottish exports has been one of the major success stories in the Scottish economy over the past decade. What lessons does the Minister believe the rest of the UK can learn from this, given that we have seen exports double in the past 10 years?

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Like everybody else, I am delighted that exports from Scotland have done particularly well, but I stress that trying to promote exports is part of an ongoing process through the whole UK, not just one region. I celebrate the fact that Scotland has a number of tremendous exports, particularly Scottish whisky. Nearly £4 billion-worth of whisky is exported from Scotland, and the rest of the world sees a great deal of value in the brand.

WTO Rules

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6. What discussions he has had with businesses, trade bodies and industry representatives on the potential effects of World Trade Organisation rules in the event that the Government do not secure free trade agreements with other countries after the UK leaves the EU. [909453]

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10. What discussions he has had with businesses, trade bodies and industry representatives on the potential effects of WTO rules in the event that the Government do not secure free trade agreements with other countries after the UK leaves the EU. [909457]

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14. What discussions he has had with businesses, trade bodies and industry representatives on the potential effects of WTO rules in the event that the Government do not secure free trade agreements with other countries after the UK leaves the EU. [909462]

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International Trade Ministers and officials regularly meet British businesses to discuss trade policy matters. These discussions have included our position in the WTO, work under way to avoid the loss of trade preferences that UK firms currently access via EU trade arrangements, and future trade negotiation priorities. The Department for Exiting the EU is also engaged fully with British businesses.

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As an EU member state, we are party to free trade agreements with countries such as Mexico, South Korea and South Africa. Is it the responsibility of his Department or the Department for Exiting the European Union to negotiate the grandfathering or replacement of those agreements?

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I can absolutely confirm that DIT leads in every sense on the trade negotiations with the rest of the world. The Department for Exiting the European Union is restricted to the European Union.

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How does the Department intend to help businesses trading with non-EU countries overcome trade barriers such as tariffs and rules of origin requirements if the Government are unable to secure continuation of preferential trading terms?

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When we leave the European Union, it is the intention of the Department for International Trade to carry over the existing trade deals that we enjoy through our membership of the European Union. Countries such as Mexico, for example, have trade deals with the EU, and it is our intention to carry over such trade deals in the first instance in order to avoid any cliff edge.

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The Minister will be aware of statements made by the head of the PSA Group, following the takeover of Vauxhall-General Motors group, that when new models are awarded plants across Europe will be judged on their competitiveness. A 10% tariff on cars would have a huge impact on the competitiveness of the UK car industry, so what contingency plans do the Government have to ensure that the UK car industry remains competitive?

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The hon. Gentleman is right to raise this point; he speaks on behalf of his constituents in an area that manufactures these vehicles. It is the intention that the UK can achieve tariff-free, customs-free access to the single market. That benefits not only the UK car manufacturers that produce 1.9 million cars, but the European manufacturers that export to the UK.

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Many countries breach WTO rules by using a whole series of non-tariff barriers such as local content requirements. What discussions have the Government had to get the WTO to enforce those rules, and what can we do to ensure that those countries are persuaded against this practice?

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My hon. Friend is right. Non-tariff barriers are incredibly disruptive to free trade, and we take that very seriously. We will be looking at our own system of trade remedies, but at the moment everything has been done through the European Union. We need to start engaging in that. To a certain extent, we have had conversations with other countries through the joint economic and trade committees, where we can deal with that.

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The Government will know that WTO rules are not something that we fall back on, but the ultimate foundation of all international trade. Will the Minister bear in mind the advice of Economists for Free Trade, which has said that a UK free trade policy could add 4% to GDP in the long term and reduce consumer prices by 8%?

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Free trade is absolutely the key to giving prosperity to the world, including the UK—it is a huge benefit to developing nations, as well as developed nations. For consumers, there is the opportunity to have market choice, and therefore price choice, which can be incredibly helpful to the economy.

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Tech City UK published its excellent “Tech Nation” report yesterday, showing that investment in digital companies in the UK is 50% higher than in any other European country. I know that my hon. Friend and his fellow Ministers are supporting the tech industry strongly, but has he made an analysis of how WTO rules will affect it?

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The Department for International Trade is carrying out an analysis of how WTO rules will affect every sector of our economy. This is an ongoing process, but my right hon. Friend is absolutely right to highlight the technology sector as one in which this country is leading, and that is a fantastic opportunity.

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Mr Speaker, you and I have been in this House for 20 years, and after yesterday’s attack, I have never felt more proud or more grateful to be speaking in this Chamber.

What assessment has the Secretary of State made of the need to deploy WTO trade remedies? We know that the Government opposed anti-dumping measures in Europe that would have protected British industries. Earlier, he spoke of a balance of interests between UK producers and UK consumers. If there is to be a balance, how many specialist staff has he recruited to deploy successful anti-dumping measures and protect vital UK jobs in the steel and ceramics industries from dumping by China?

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We will bring forward our proposals on this to the House in due course, but at the moment we are looking to adopt a rules-based process to deal with it.

Topical Questions

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T1. If he will make a statement on his departmental responsibilities. [909440]

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The Department for International Trade has three tasks: promoting UK exports to support a growing economy that serves the whole country; maximising opportunities for wealth creation, including through overseas direct investment, to support the current account; and negotiating the best international trading framework for the UK outside the EU.

With your permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to acknowledge Sir Martin Donnelly, who leaves our Department after 36 years in the civil service. He is a great and distinguished civil servant who will be very much missed by my Department and more widely.

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Last weekend, we learned that the Secretary of State’s Department is secretly working on a 10-year transitional arrangement with the EU, based on the WTO general agreement on tariffs and trade. Will he confirm that the Scottish Government and all other devolved Administrations are being consulted so that the interests of all the nations of the UK are represented, should a trade deal not be reached in time?

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The Department is not working on a secret agreement with anybody, including the European Union. I think that the hon. Gentleman is referring to press reports about the possible use of WTO rules to ensure a smooth transition at the point when the United Kingdom leaves the European Union.

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T2. There has been considerable investment in the offshore wind sector off the East Anglian coast in recent years. With article 50 being triggered next Wednesday, will the Minister set out the Government’s plans to strengthen the UK’s position as a world leader in the sector, and to attract global investment in innovation and research, so that local businesses are well placed to win contracts at home and overseas? [909441]

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The Department for International Trade works with, and will continue to work with, key UK suppliers, potential and existing inward investors, foreign Governments and offshore wind developers. The UK is building a competitive and innovative supply chain that creates and sustains jobs, exports and economic benefits for the UK as we leave the European Union.

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Now that the Secretary of State has revealed to The Sun his plans for a trade Bill in the Queen’s Speech, will he do Parliament the courtesy of publishing a trade White Paper that sets out clearly what markets he wishes to liberalise and what measures he will take in future trade agreements to protect and enhance International Labour Organisation principles, sustainable development, human rights, environmental protection, intellectual property rights, food standards, future options on state-owned enterprises and the ability to nationalise particular sectors? If he develops an informed, consultative international trade policy, the Government may be able to restore confidence that they are holding trade dialogues that are backed by a clear and strategic plan.

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The hon. Gentleman raises an important point. Should the Government intend to introduce legislation on this issue in the Queen’s Speech, we would want a consultative process so that stakeholders could make their views known. It is important that we do that in a very collegiate way, because that is, as he said, the way to maintain and maximise confidence.

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T4. The aerospace sector is of great importance in Derbyshire. What steps are the Government taking to promote the UK’s excellence in this sector around the world? [909443]

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Our aim is absolutely to keep the UK as a leading aerospace—and, indeed, space—nation. We will continue to work with the industry through the aerospace growth partnership and to promote foreign investment, boost exports and grow high-value jobs here in the UK.

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T3. The UK video game sector is one of our great success stories. I was with Ninja Theory in Cambridge on Friday. The trade body UKIE has consulted its members, who have told it that maintaining data flows in Europe is essential. Can the Minister tell us what progress has been made on securing a data adequacy agreement with the European Union? [909442]

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The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to celebrate the activities of this creative industry sector. However, since we have not started the article 50 process, we have not entered into any specific talks.

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T5. What discussions has my right hon. Friend had with Commonwealth countries about trade and investment opportunities? [909444]

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Just over a week ago, we held our first conference with Commonwealth Trade Ministers. That gave us an opportunity to look at how we might maximise intra-Commonwealth trade and at the differences between our trading systems. That will help us to move towards greater consistency in the rules that we apply so that all in the Commonwealth can get even greater benefit from a system that is growing faster than the global economy and should be much more beneficial.

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T7. When will the Government notify other contracting parties to the European economic area agreement of their intention to withdraw from the EEA? [909446]

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As we withdraw from the European Union, we will be having continued discussions with our partners about how we intend the process to be notified.

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T6. What early consideration are Ministers giving to product standards? [909445]

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The subject of product standards is incredibly important. My hon. Friend will be aware that the great repeal Bill will bring across a great deal of what relates to the European Union, and that Bill will contain detail about product standards.

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What influence can my right hon. Friend bring to the showcasing of great British beer in embassies around the world?

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We give great priority to all great British exports, and let me give my hon. Friend a personal commitment that I will take an unusually strong personal interest in the request that he makes on the regular trips that I intend to take in the coming months.

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T8. My constituent Heather Burns works in the digital economy. She has only ever known a borderless, connected world of work. Can the Secretary of State reassure her that he understands the difficulties that Brexit is likely to cause for this very globally focused industry? What action is he going to take to prevent problems from occurring? [909447]

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One problem that we have faced in recent times is that although the European Commission has been relatively forward-leaning on digital issues, European Union members have prevented the Commission from taking forward some of the measures of liberalisation that would, in fact, help this country and others. As we leave the European Union, we will want to see what advantages there are for the United Kingdom in liberalising our economy, especially so that the digital economy and e-commerce can flourish.

Women and Equalities

The Minister for Women and Equalities was asked—

Exiting the EU: Disability Rights

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1. What assessment she has made of the potential effect on disability rights of the UK exiting the EU. [909425]

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14. What assessment she has made of the potential effect on disability rights of the UK exiting the EU. [909439]

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I would, of course, like to add my condolences to those already expressed by colleagues to the families of the victims of yesterday’s attack, and especially to the family of Keith Palmer.

I can assure the House that the Equality Act 2010 and the public sector equality duty, which incorporates a number of EU directives on equalities, will continue to apply once the UK has left the EU. Additionally, we continue to be signatories to the UN convention on the rights of persons with disabilities, which is binding in international law.

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I thank the Minister for her answer, but she will be aware that a lot of her Conservative colleagues are desperate to do away with many of the regulations. As we go forward post Brexit, will she guarantee that there will be no rush to deregulate and there will not be a reduction in the statutory protections available to disabled people?

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The hon. Gentleman mentions my colleagues, but I remind him that the Conservative party has a proud history of protecting disability rights. It was under a Conservative Government that we passed the Disability Discrimination Act 1995, which made it unlawful to discriminate against people in respect of their disabilities. The UK is a world leader in support for disabled people, and we are proud of the work that we do to support people with disabilities and health conditions, both in this country and abroad.

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There is already a lot of fear and anxiety as this Tory Government have substantially reduced disability support with the powers they already have. How then can we trust this Government’s word? Will the Minister set out exactly which of these rights will be safeguarded following Brexit?

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Our reforms to welfare are about making sure that we give more to those who need it most while encouraging those who can do so to get into work. That is why people with the most severe disabilities have had their payments increased and protected from the benefit cap and the benefits freeze.

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Over 160 Members have signed a prayer against the new personal independence payment regulations. The period for praying against those regulations comes to an end on 3 April. A debate has been arranged in the other place next week, but to date the Government have refused to arrange a debate and vote on the Floor of this House. There is a huge democratic deficit, as the regulations will come into force under the negative procedure. Why are the Government refusing to hold a debate on the new PIP regulations in this House?

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As the hon. Lady will know, the usual channels decide when debates will be held in this place. It is not for me to give such a date today.

Universal Credit

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2. Whether she has had discussions with the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions on the potential effect on levels of income of limiting entitlement for the child element in universal credit to two children; and if she will make a statement. [909426]

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The Welfare Reform and Work Act was scrutinised by both Houses and gained Royal Assent in March 2016. An impact assessment of the policy was published during the passage of the legislation. The policy strikes the right balance between protecting vulnerable people and encouraging families who receive benefits to make the same financial decisions as those who support themselves solely through work.

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The respected Women’s Budget Group calculates that these cuts will disproportionately affect Asian families, costing them £16,000 by the next general election compared with a cost of £13,000 for larger white families. Should not the Government have carried out a comprehensive equality assessment on this and other Budget measures, and taken action to end this disproportionate effect?

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As the right hon. Lady will have heard me say, the policy was available for scrutiny during the passage of the Bill. Since 2010, we have worked hard to make sure that families who are reliant on benefits make the same decisions as families in work. Our reforms are about encouraging more people into work.

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For the very reason that my hon. Friend has just given—those on welfare benefits should have to make the same choice as those in work—will she reassure me that there will be no U-turn on this policy?

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As I have said, the reforms are aimed at helping working parents and they are removing barriers to work for ordinary men and women across the country. Ordinary working families rely on the Government to provide economic stability and we are starting from a position of strength. I assure my hon. Friend that we have looked at the regulations carefully, and we have taken this decision to restore fairness in the benefits systems.

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May I, too, associate myself with the comments made by right hon. and hon. Members from across the House?

The Prime Minister wants to transform the way in which we think about domestic violence, and I am sure that the Minister supports her in those efforts, but does the Minister accept that that is completely undermined by introducing the rape clause without parliamentary scrutiny? Will she encourage her colleagues to scrap this pernicious tax?

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The hon. Lady will recall that there was a debate on this subject in Westminster Hall in October. I am aware that there have been repeated requests for further scrutiny and debate on this subject, and the usual channels have considered them.

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I associate myself with the Minister’s comments about PC Keith Palmer. We will always owe a debt of gratitude to him and our hearts bleed for his family.

From 6 April, new mothers will not be able to claim tax credit or universal credit for their third child. What communications has the Minister had with women who are pregnant now to tell them that they face an unexpected drop in income because of this Government’s choices?

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Of course, the hon. Lady will know that no existing family will be a cost loser as a result of this policy. We consulted widely on the exceptions and how to implement them, and we have worked hard with Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs to make sure that information is available to all staff who have to communicate the policy.

Women’s Voting Rights

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4. What steps the Government are taking to celebrate the centenary of the right to vote for women. [909428]

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First, I would like to set out my own condolences to PC Keith Palmer’s family and all those who were affected by the terrible incident yesterday. I would also like to say a big thank you to the emergency services and the House of Commons staff, who I felt were outstanding yesterday. The kind of people who perpetrate these sorts of attacks need to understand that they will never disrupt our democracy, because democracy is part of our country’s DNA. That is why oral questions are happening perfectly as normal today.

This is a fantastic time to be able to celebrate the centenary of women’s suffrage. We now have our second female Prime Minister, who I know is committed to encouraging women in politics, and the proportion of women MPs has finally reached 30%. However, there is much, much more to do. In the Budget, we announced a £5 million fund to support projects to educate young people about the important milestone that is coming up and to inspire women to get more involved in politics at all levels.

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As we mark 100 years since women were given the right to vote, will my right hon. Friend join me in celebrating the election of two female Prime Ministers, the first of whom made our country and the world better places in which to live, and the second of whom will make our leaving the European Union a great success?

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My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I am extremely proud that it is our party—the Conservative party—that has delivered not only the first two female leaders of the major political parties represented in Westminster but, critically, the first two female Prime Ministers of our country. One of them shaped the Britain we live in today; one of them will shape the Britain we live in tomorrow. It is long overdue that we celebrate the centenary that is coming up.

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Women won the right to vote—they fought for it, as they have had to fight for so many rights. I want to make that clear. What is the Minister doing, as we approach the year in which we celebrate that struggle, to ensure that all women in the country today are registered to vote, as many are finding individual registration difficult?

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The Government are committed to ensuring that everybody who is entitled to vote in our country, women included, is registered to vote. I very much hope over the coming months that we can all be role models and inspirations for a new generation of young girls growing up in our country, and encourage them to play their role in our democracy not just in this Parliament, but in councils and other community groups around the country.

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This House benefits hugely from the much broader representation that women and all those from different backgrounds bring to it. As chair of the all-party group for women in Parliament, may I ask the Minister to commit the Government to highlighting women’s suffrage, which was hard fought for and should be highly valued and used?

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I absolutely give my hon. Friend that commitment. We announced £5 million in the Budget to help community groups around the country to celebrate and highlight this important centenary. When I arrived here as a Conservative female MP just over 10 years ago, there were fewer than 20 others. We now have a huge number, but we need to do more. We all need to work together to say that politics is a place that should have more women in it. It is important that we see that happen.

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While it is welcome that next year we will celebrate 100 years of votes for women, those women were also campaigning for economic equality. How then, 99 years on, can the Government justify the fact that 86% of Treasury gains come from women?

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One of the Government’s important achievements is getting more people, particularly women, into work. Indeed, there have never been more women in work. However, women’s economic empowerment is vital—it is one of our biggest economic growth levers, not just in the UK, but around the world. I was on a United Nations high level panel that recently completed a second report to hand over to the Secretary General in New York. That will provide a platform for delivering global goal 5 of the sustainable development goals.

Child Tax Credit (Rape Victims)

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7. What steps the Government are taking to prepare for the implementation of the requirement for victims of rape to prove that abuse in order to receive child tax credit for their third child. [909431]

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The Government consulted on the exception in October 2016 and responded in January 2017, outlining the finalised policy. Since then, we have been developing guidance and working with stakeholders to plan for the delivery of this exception in the most sensitive and compassionate way possible.

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The rape clause exception in the two-child limit on tax credits is not just unworkable, but inhumane. It betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of sexual violence and domestic abuse. Will the Minister act urgently and seek to persuade her colleagues in the Department for Work and Pensions to reconsider the proposal in order to protect women’s rights?

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We know that this issue is difficult and sensitive. The exception will use a third-party model, whereby women can request the exception through engaging with a third party, who will be a recognised healthcare professional. We are setting up procedures that are mindful of the sensitivities involved. Neither DWP nor HMRC staff will question the claimant about the incident, other than to take the claim.

Food Security (East Africa)

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8. What discussions she has had with the Secretary of State for International Development on the Government’s support for women and girls affected by food insecurity in east Africa. [909433]

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The scale of the humanitarian crisis we are facing in 2017 is unprecedented. Once again, the impact falls disproportionately on women and children. I am proud that the UK is leading the way, stepping up DFID’s life-saving emergency assistance for those affected by food insecurity in east Africa, with women and girls at the heart of that response.

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The Minister is right that women and girls are disproportionately affected by the food insecurity crisis in east Africa, and I recognise her experience in dealing with such matters. What further discussions has she had with the Secretary of State for International Development about not just immediate, short-term aid, but long-term rebuilding, especially access to education for women and girls, which is the best route out of poverty?

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The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. He will know that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development announced £100 million to support South Sudan in particular. More broadly, we need to look long-term, and I am delighted that my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary is leading a big push to ensure that girls and women, wherever they are in our world, have education. It is vital if women are to take their proper place in our society.

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Millions of impoverished women and girls in developing countries spend much of their life fetching and carrying very heavy loads of water to and from their homes. Their lives would be vastly improved if DFID encouraged proper sanitation and water facilities.

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I agree with my hon. Friend and, indeed, substantial investment has gone into improving water and sanitation. It is a basic issue, but it makes a tremendous difference to being able to lift up women and girls.

STEM Careers

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9. What steps the Government are taking to encourage girls to take up STEM careers. [909434]

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We simply cannot afford to miss out on the talents of half the population. Increasing the number of women in STEM industries is vital for economic growth and to eliminate the gender pay gap. That is why we are improving the quality of STEM teaching, funding programmes such as the Stimulating Physics Network and the further maths support programme, and raising awareness of career opportunities through STEM ambassadors.

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I recently met Katie Goodwill, an apprentice from Rolls-Royce in Barnoldswick, who in November won the gold medal in CNC turning at a 2016 world skills show. Will the Minister join me in congratulating Katie as a role model for other women and girls, inspiring them to take up STEM careers?

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I am delighted to join my hon. Friend in congratulating his constituent, Katie Goodwill, on her fantastic achievement. Role models are so important—that is why more than 40% of our STEM ambassadors are women. They are helping to inspire the next generation, just as I am sure his constituent Katie will.

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It is important to encourage women and girls into non-traditional careers, but will the hon. Lady ask the Ministers responsible for expanding apprenticeships why there are no targets for increasing the number of girls on apprenticeships in traditionally male areas? There has been a lost opportunity to challenge that.

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I certainly will have conversations with my colleague in the Department for Education, but the right hon. Lady must remember that there are no such things as girls’ jobs and boys’ jobs, and we have to get that message across from the earliest stages of kids’ engagement with the education system. That is why we have chosen to focus on increasing the take-up of STEM subjects, which lead to the more technical apprenticeships and jobs.

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The engineering education scheme is a brilliant scheme for encouraging primary schoolchildren of both sexes to get interested in engineering. What can the Government do to support that scheme and promote it in schools across the country, including in my constituency?

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My hon. Friend is absolutely right to draw attention to that scheme and others that make such a difference up and down the country. She should also be aware that we are investing an additional half a billion pounds in developing technical skills for 16 to 19-year-olds via the new T-level certificate. We are encouraging girls to take advantage of that scheme to gain valuable industry skills and experience.

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All the evidence suggests that one of the best ways of getting girls and young women to go into STEM careers is to change STEM to STEAM—that is to ensure that every young person in this country, and particularly girls, has a really strong arts education in their school. What will the Government do to ensure that schools do not cut music teaching and drama education, and ensure that every youngster gets a good arts education?

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The Government have taken unprecedented steps to ensure that we continue to invest in those subjects, and that they continue to have massive focus in our schools. We are also publishing online guidance—“Your daughter’s future”—that helps parents to support their daughters in careers choices, so that they ensure that they include all those important subjects when making decisions about their future.

Domestic Violence Refuges

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10. What recent assessment the Government have made of the adequacy of the availability of domestic violence refuges for women. [909435]

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Refuges provide vital support for victims of domestic abuse. We are investing £40 million over this Parliament in services to support victims of domestic abuse, including refuges. We expect local areas to assess their need, and to provide services and support to meet that need.

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Domestic violence refuges are unique within the supported housing sector because many who need them have to flee a long distance to be safe. By relying solely on local authorities to commission refuge services, the Government are failing to maintain a strategic approach. We are now seeing patchy provision with, for example, the recent closure of the last remaining refuge in Cumbria. Is the Minister monitoring the number of specialist refuge services and specialist providers that have closed since 2010? If not, how can he be assured—

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Order. I am extremely grateful but we have got the thrust of it. We really do need to be briefer. That was far too long.

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Thank you, Mr Speaker.

We recognise the importance of refuges. That is why we are exempting refuges from the 1% social rent cap policy, and exempting them from the local housing allowance rate until 2019-20. We are working closely with organisations that provide refuges to ensure that we get the new system for supported housing right, so that we can continue to provide those refuges, which are so badly needed.

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I warmly welcome what the Government are doing in this crucial area, but what work is being done with local authorities and social housing providers on the next stage, which is ensuring that there are enough homes for women and their families to return to that provide a safer environment?

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I reassure my right hon. Friend that we are working closely with housing associations on that important issue, and particularly on getting the funding stream right for supported housing. We are also working on bringing badly needed new supply on stream.

Women in Work

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11. What assessment she has made of recent trends in the number of women in work. [909436]

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I am delighted that there are now more women in work than ever before, and that the female employment rate is nearly 70%, which is the highest on record. The female employment rate has increased by more since 2010 than it increased during the three previous Parliaments combined.

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Recent figures show that record-breaking numbers of women are in work under this Government. Does my hon. Friend agree that it is only by creating a stronger, fairer economy that works for everyone that we will continue to see records being broken?

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My hon. Friend is absolutely right to draw attention to that. We want to ensure that all women can fulfil their potential. That is why the Government have extended the right to flexible working and introduced shared parental leave. From September, we will double the 30 hours childcare offer.

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According to Maternity Action, 54,000 women are forced out of work each year due to maternity discrimination. What steps are the Government taking to address that unacceptable gender inequality?

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Maternity discrimination and pregnancy discrimination in any form is utterly illegal and must be tackled. Women must feel that they can bring cases forward, which is why we are committed to ensuring people from all backgrounds can access justice. The introduction of the early conciliation service through ACAS has meant that people have to avoid the stress of going through an employment tribunal hearing.

Personal Independence Payments

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12. What discussions she has had with the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions on the effect on disabled people of recent changes to the level of personal independence payments. [909437]

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Recent changes to the PIP regulations clarify the original criteria used to decide how much benefit claimants receive. This is not a policy change, nor is it intended to make new savings. It will not result in any claimants seeing a reduction in the amount of PIP previously awarded by the Department for Work and Pensions.

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The Minister, in response to the Labour Front Bench, batted away suggestions that we need a full debate and vote on the Floor of the House on this issue, but given that the Government’s own equality impact assessment says that 164,000 people with debilitating mental health conditions will be affected, does she not think it is her job to go to the DWP and tell them we want a proper vote?

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Supporting people with mental illness is a priority, which is why we are spending more on mental health than ever before, and an estimated £11.4 billion this year. PIP does ensure parity between mental and physical conditions, and it achieves this by looking at the impact of conditions on an individual, not which conditions they have. As I have previously said, it is of course up to the usual channels to decide whether there will be further debate on the subject.

Topical Questions

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T1. If she will make a statement on her departmental responsibilities. [909417]

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We celebrated International Women’s Day this year with a budget for potential and a budget for equality, including £20 million of funding to combat violence against women and girls, £5 million for internships and £5 million to mark the centenary of women getting the vote for the very first time. Next month, the gender pay gap reporting regulations will come into force. I want to thank Members from all parts of the House for their constructive support as we take forward amendments to the Children and Social Work Bill, enabling statutory, age-appropriate relationship education in primary schools and relationship and sex education in secondary schools.

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The European Social Investment Fund has supported a Cardiff-based charity, Chwarae Teg, to deliver a range of successful programmes to help women in Wales achieve pay equality and progress in Welsh workplaces. One example is the £8.6 million for the Agile Nation 2 project. Can the Minister provide a guarantee that post-Brexit the Government will provide equivalent replacement funding for Chwarae Teg?

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The Government are proud that we now have the lowest gender pay gap on record. We are absolutely committed to making sure that that continues post-Brexit.

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T6. The good news is that smoking rates among both men and women are falling, as is the incidence of lung cancer in men. The bad news is that the incidence of lung cancer in women is rising. What will the Government do to tackle that? [909424]

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I know that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health looks into these incredibly serious issues very carefully. I will raise my hon. Friend’s concerns with him.

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T2. The Minister said that the Budget was good for women, but actually mothers and couples will be losing 11%, or £2,400, of their individual income. In contrast, their husbands or partners will lose 5%, or £1,700, of their income. What does that tell us about her effectiveness as a Minister for Women? [909418]

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The bottom line is that the best route for all of us as women is to be able to have the chance to have a working life and a career. That is why we have more women in employment than ever before, something the House should welcome.

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The right hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Mrs Villiers) had a question on the Order Paper. She is here and it could be topical. She should be heard.

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T5. Will the Secretary of State make every effort to ensure that women are involved in the huge programme of rail infrastructure upgrades we are currently undertaking as a Government? [909423]

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Absolutely. The Department for Transport set out an ambition for women to represent at least 20% of new entrants to engineering and technical apprenticeships in the transport sector by 2020. My right hon. Friend the Minister for Apprenticeships and Skills visited the Crossrail Academy recently. The academy is exceeding the target: 27% of its apprentices are female.

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Some 54,000 women are forced out of work due to maternity discrimination. Will the Government look at reducing the extortionate fees for employment tribunals, and will the Minister specifically look at extending the time for application from three months to six months?

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We are consulting on proposals to extend the support that is available under the help with fees schemes. We propose that the gross monthly income threshold for a full fee remission should increase to £1,250, which is broadly the level of the national minimum wage.

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Is my right hon. Friend aware that only 36% of headteachers are women? In my constituency, the Affinity Teaching Alliance, led by local headteacher Sarah Watson, is working on an innovative programme to change that. Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating Sarah Watson on enabling many more women to take up senior teaching posts, and does she agree that that is the best way to get the most out of our workforce?

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I would indeed like to congratulate Sarah Watson. Improving flexible working in the teaching profession is one of the best things we could do to ensure that women can get to the top, and later this year the Department will host a summit with teachers to discuss how we can make more progress in that regard.

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T4. Eighty-six per cent of cuts and adjustments to tax and benefits have been inflicted on women. Will the Minister agree to meet me, along with women from my constituency who are affected by the changes in the state pension age, and will she tell us why the Government are persistently refusing to listen to the WASPI campaigners, who have fought so long and so hard for a fair deal? [909422]

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As the hon. Gentleman knows, there is a long-standing commitment to equalise the state pension ages of men and women, and we continue to look very closely at the state pension age in general. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman, like me, welcomes the increase in longevity. The Government have made big concessions with regard to cost—we have already committed more than £1.1 billion—and there will be no further concessions.