The Secretary of State was asked—
1. What recent discussions he has had with his counterparts in other Commonwealth countries on the future of trade and investment between the UK and those countries. (900255)
Ministerial colleagues and I regularly engage with business stakeholders and policy makers in Commonwealth partner countries. In March, my noble Friend Lord Price and I met over 20 visiting Trade Ministers at the inaugural Commonwealth Trade Ministers meeting in London, and we discussed strengthening collaboration and deepening intra-Commonwealth trade and investment. We are now preparing for the Commonwealth summit in 2018.
I thank the Secretary of State for that answer. The Commonwealth is particularly up for doing trade with the UK, especially in Africa. The Secretary of State referred to intra-Africa trade. Can we be even bolder and encourage a continental—intra-Africa—free trade deal not only with our Commonwealth friends but going beyond our Commonwealth friends?
We are sympathetic to the concept of an African continental free trade area, and we are in favour of a range of initiatives to help foster wider and greater intra-Commonwealth trade. There is a great deal to be gained for all Commonwealth partners from closer co-operation. The Government’s aim—including through the development agenda championed by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development—is to create sustainable prosperity, and helping developing countries to enable them to trade their way out of poverty is an essential and key element of that strategy.
Britain and the Commonwealth nations share a great history, and over the years have formed many great links across academia, sport, culture and numerous other areas. What steps has my right hon. Friend taken to expand this co-operation with Commonwealth countries to include a free trade agreement, so that we can add business and commerce to the long list of Commonwealth co-operative endeavours?
As my hon. Friend knows, the Commonwealth is not a trading bloc, and it actually contains a number of very disparate economies. We are liaising with several Commonwealth partners about bilateral agreements in the future, and my Department is working with stakeholders to develop initiatives that will stimulate UK and intra-Commonwealth trade and investment in the lead up to and beyond that vital Commonwealth summit next year.
Members on the Conservative Back Benches are desperate for the Secretary of State to give us more confidence that we will massively increase trade with the Commonwealth, but I think he is wise not to do so. India, Australia and Canada collectively account for less than 5% of our exports, and research shows that the most enduring statistic is that trade halves whenever the distance between nations doubles. Is it not foolhardy for us to be turning away from our closest trading partners and relying on increasing trade with countries so very far away?
I am sorry to hear such a lack of understanding of how the modern economy works. Particularly for countries that have a large proportion of their trade in services, services trade does not depend on distance. In fact, what we need is increasingly close co-operation with countries that are similar to us in their economic status, not necessarily geographically proximate, although I entirely understand that for goods the geographical distance does have a greater bearing.
One country with which negotiations on trade have been very advanced is Canada, with the EU discussions on the Canadian trade deal. Obviously, the Secretary of State will want to seek to replicate that fairly quickly after our exit from the EU, but that has been subject to a huge amount of disinformation regarding the costs and benefits of the deal. When are the Government actually going to take on this issue and set the record straight?
What we do not know at present is what the state of the EU-Canada agreement will be at the point at which we exit the European Union. It may well be that all countries have ratified it, but as the right hon. Gentleman is well aware, as a result of the Singapore judgment every single Parliament and some regional parliaments will have to ratify the deal. If the deal is not ratified at the point at which we leave the European Union and has only provisional application, it will have no basis in UK law, in which case we will have to have the fall-back position of using that as the basis for a future UK-Canada agreement.
I think that the potential for trade with Commonwealth countries is very exciting—they are growing and strong economies—but every time I open a newspaper or listen to the radio or TV, the story is presented very negatively, as though it will be almost impossible for us to do these trade deals. Does the Secretary of State feel that that is wrong, and that it undermines the work he is doing?
Our agri-food producers see the Commonwealth as an exciting, wonderful and expansive new market for their powdered milk products, red meats, pig and poultry. Will the Secretary of State assure us that he is in discussions with the Commonwealth countries about increasing the opportunities for trade in our agri-food products to give encouragement to our producers at home?
I entirely agree. To underpin the confidence in the agricultural sector, it needs to know that there are increasing markets out there. One of the key roles of the Government is to help our agricultural sector to have the confidence that it requires for investment by showing that we can help it into markets. It is worth pointing out that according to the European Commission’s own website, 90% of global growth in the next 10 years will be outside the European Union. Those are the markets we have to help British business get into.
The Department for International Trade provides market access, support and advice to UK business 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 digital platform.
It is a great tribute to my hon. Friend’s Department that in the first year of its operation, the Office for National Statistics reports that exports went up by a huge 7% to £548 billion. Does he agree that with the increase in demand for British exports, UK Export Finance, with its widened role, has an important part to play?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise that matter. I thank him for the work he does on the all-party parliamentary group for international trade and investment. He is absolutely right that the Department for International Trade needs to provide a suite of services, and that includes UK Export Finance. Some 7,000 businesses have been helped by UK Export Finance, the appetite for risk has been doubled and we have increased the number of currencies we can use from 10 to 40, from the Australian dollar to the Zambian kwacha. That is part of a very wide range of things and we have been successful so far.
This Front-Bench team must know that a silly attack on the BBC cannot be used as an excuse for policy. This is a Secretary of State who has refused to meet the all-party parliamentary manufacturing group. The manufacturers I know have no confidence in this Secretary of State. They think he is living in cloud cuckoo land and is not competent, and they want his resignation.
The Department for International Trade is embarking on a series of talks with the World Trade Organisation and individual countries to, in the first instance, secure continuity of business with those countries with which we already have agreements. I speak as a remainer from the campaign, but this is a fantastic opportunity to forge new trade deals and take advantage of the opportunities that Brexit presents.
To grow their international trade, many businesses need to be able to call on the best possible members of staff. What will the Minister do to ensure that freedom of movement is retained for those businesses, and that the investment they get through initiatives such as Horizon 2020 is still available to them?
It has always been the case that the Government have had not an open policy, but a mature policy for people who come from outside the European Union. Britain will certainly be open to the best and the brightest people in the world, who will want to come and work in what is, frankly, one of the best places to enlarge those skills.
Brazil is the UK’s largest export market in Latin America and represents significant opportunities for the UK. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State attended the UK-Brazil joint economic and trade committee last December. As I saw for myself in March in Rio, São Paulo and Belo Horizonte, both Governments are committed to deepening UK-Brazil trade and investment. UK and Brazilian officials continue to work together on proposals for reducing trade barriers, for discussion at the next joint committee.
I thank the Minister for his response and congratulate him on that work. I was in Brazil last November and have had many meetings with His Excellency the Brazilian ambassador to London, and while Brazil has not been able to achieve a trade deal with the European Union, it very much looks forward to one with the UK. So can the Minister expedite such arrangements as quickly as possible?
I congratulate my hon. Friend on his work with the all-party group on Brazil in the last Parliament, and he makes the good point that we do not need to have a free trade agreement to have free trade. Indeed, as I am sure he knows, the EU has no free trade agreement with the world’s largest markets such as the US, China, India and, indeed, Brazil. So there are many trade barriers that we can address without having a formal free trade agreement. This is very much our approach in Brazil, as seen by our joint committee talks and my own visit in March.
The Minister will be aware that the barriers to trade are not simply those that would be covered in an orthodox trade deal; there is also the unfamiliarity with local customs and so on. If we are to encourage our small and medium-sized enterprises to export, what practical facilities can be given to open up markets like Brazil, potentially enormous but at present very difficult for SMEs to access?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question and welcome him back to his place; I have fond memories of working closely with him in previous Departments on trade and other issues.
There are two things to say in response to the hon. Gentleman’s question. He is right that the removal of non-tariff barriers—the grit in the system—is a key aspect of our Department’s work, and he is right to emphasise that this is about not just free trade agreements in the future, but also removing those practical barriers, which is why my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State had those talks back in December. In terms of supporting SMEs, the GREAT.gov.uk portal is very good; there is good access to Brazilian deals that are coming up, and I urge all SMEs to go to that portal, in order to access that.
Of course, the Minister could have pointed out that a trade agreement can only take place with Mercosur, because Brazil is part of that bloc, and should an EU trade agreement be put in place with Mercosur prior to our leaving the EU, it would become one of the agreements the EU currently has with some 50 countries. How does the Secretary of State propose to carry out his manifesto commitment to replicate all of those existing agreements after Brexit, and specifically, what legislative instruments does he propose to introduce to that end in the trade Bill?
A lot of these matters will form part of the trade Bill which will be introduced in this Session. What is most important is that, as we seek a smooth and orderly exit from the European Union, we seek to replicate all of those existing EU free trade agreements, to provide certainty and stability for our businesses as we go forward to enable them to access both existing and future markets.
Food and Drink Sector
12. What estimate he has made of the value of the contribution of the food and drink sector to UK exports. (900267)
With your permission, Mr Speaker, I will answer questions 4, 9 and 10 together. The food and drink sector makes an important contribution to exports. In 2016, UK food and drink exports reached £20.1 billion, an increase of 9% from the previous year. This represented 6.6% of our total goods exports. For the first quarter of this year, food and drink exports reached £4.9 billion, up 8.3% on 2016, representing the highest first quarter exports value on record.
I gently say to the Minister that the grouping is with Nos. 10 and 12. [Interruption.] No, a question was withdrawn, and it might well be the case that the briefing had not kept up with the evolution of events, I say to the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman). That should satisfy him; he does not seem easily satisfied this morning, but that will have to do.
The answer to my hon. Friend’s question exemplifies the type of tailored help the Department for International Trade can give. Working with our officials in the south-west and local producers and businesses, we have created the Great British Food programme, which is designed specifically to allow south-west food and drink businesses to interact directly with overseas buyers. We have already seen them working with the EU, Turkey and China, and since April 2016 we have won over £19 million-worth of business across more than 30 export markets.
As the Minister knows, food and drink manufacturing is an enormous market, particularly in my constituency. Issues over regulations, sampling and tariffs are among the concerns of global leaders such as Muntons, as well as some of my smaller exporters. Will he agree to meet me and them to discuss these issues further?
My hon. Friend had a number of such meetings when she brought her local chamber of commerce down to London, and I believe that Muntons was part of that. She is absolutely right, however, to say that regulations, sampling and tariffs are an important part of doing trade deals, and it is important that we maintain those standards ourselves as well. It is absolutely the job of the Department for International Trade to interact with those people who need help at any level, and I would be very happy to visit my hon. Friend’s constituency and meet not only Muntons but others as well.
The Department for International Trade spans the whole of the country, and when it comes to specific areas, we look at specific needs. For example, in October, the Department and the midlands engine trade mission will be going to Anuga trade fair in Cologne, which is the leading international trade fair for food and beverages. I hope that we will be taking firms from my hon. Friend’s constituency to promote their goods and opportunities there.
9. York has a food manufacturing sector, and it has real concerns over the increases in import and production costs and over labour; we are all, of course, concerned about the environment. Can the Minister tell the food manufacturing sector what new trade opportunities he has secured for it, and what their value will be to the economy? (900264)
The value to the economy of the food exporting sector is absolutely enormous. I think it is the biggest manufacturing sector in the world. We have already seen a number of opportunities for going out and exporting it, and trade figures are up by some 7%. We can give a breakdown of the actual data, and I would be happy to write to the hon. Lady about that later. Without a shadow of a doubt, the Department for International Trade is successful in what it does. We have seen exports increase across all sectors and, as I pointed out earlier, we have seen record numbers in food and drink exports.
Why have the Government done nothing to stop Nestlé moving production from the United Kingdom to Poland, with the loss of 300 jobs? The Government confirmed this week in a written answer that Ministers met Nestlé in April. Nestlé has said that it would take an investment of £1 million to keep production in the UK. The Government found £1 billion to save one job in Downing Street, but they cannot find £1 million to save 300 jobs at Nestlé. Unbelievable!
The hon. Gentleman raises a number of issues. The hon. Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell) has been working hard on behalf of her constituents to try to help with the redundancies at Nestlé, as indeed has the Department for Work and Pensions, which is standing ready to put in place its rapid response service. We are happy to meet representatives of Nestlé, and I would be very happy to meet them again. [Interruption.] Fantastic. Thank you.
Scottish food and drink exports have doubled since the Scottish National party Government came to power in 2007. This has been key to the development of the Scottish economy. What does the Minister think about Michel Barnier’s comment that frictionless trade in goods is “not possible” outside the single market and the customs union? Given the concerns of the Scottish Food and Drink Federation and the Scotch Whisky Association, and the huge reliance of the Scottish economy on this sector, will the Minister consider a transitional arrangement?
The total value of Scottish exports is some £62 billion a year, of which £50 billion is exported to the rest of the United Kingdom. That is as good a statement as any as to why Scotland should remain in the Union of the United Kingdom, rather than in the European Union.
More than 80% of the fish caught around the south-west coast and 30% of our lamb is exported straight to the rest of the EU, yet under World Trade Organisation rules, that produce would face very high tariffs. What guarantees can the Minister give that our fishermen and our agricultural industry will not face tariffs or any other barriers if we leave the European Union?
This is all part of our negotiations with the European Union. It is an ongoing process, which will hopefully reach its end by March 2019. The United Kingdom Government are very keen to secure a deal with the European Union that sees no change whatever for businesses. We want as smooth a transition as possible into independence from the European Union, and the interests of fishermen down in the south-west are as important as those of everyone else.
More than £30 million-worth of fish was sold through Brixham fish market last year, the most valuable catch in England. Will the Minister meet me and industry representatives to discuss opportunities for expanding markets after we leave the European Union, as well as frictionless trade and smooth transfer across the border?
The Secretary of State is a Member of Parliament for the south-west, and he is happy to come and have that meeting, as am I as the departmental lead on the food and drink sector. Between the two of us, my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Dr Wollaston) may get twice as many meetings as she anticipates. We look forward to coming to help.
The Department for International Trade has three main tasks: promoting British goods and services overseas, supporting inward and outward direct investment and creating a trade policy that benefits our businesses and citizens across the whole UK. To that end, I am delighted to welcome Antonia Romeo as our new permanent secretary and Crawford Falconer as our new chief trade negotiation adviser. Both bring excellence and expertise to the Department at this crucial time.
Fisheries and agriculture, the environment and transport are all key competencies of the National Assembly that could be affected by any future trade deal. Does the Minister concede that the National Assembly must have the power to endorse or reject any trade deal that would so profoundly affect its basic duties?
We have made it clear all along that we intend to have maximum consultation and collaboration in that area and, to emphasise the point, in our manifesto we set out a plan to create a new board of trade, which will ensure that trade and investment is equally spread, as far as we can, across all parts of the United Kingdom—the devolved Administrations, as well as the English regions.
We have made it clear that, post Brexit, we will continue with duty-free access for the least-developed countries, but we need to see whether we can go further and reduce some of the burdens, particularly as we leave the customs union and are outside the common external tariff, by stopping the distortions on value added, which diminish the chance of investment in some of those developing countries.
In his recent talks in the United States, did the Secretary of State discuss President Trump’s initiation of a section 232 investigation into the effect of steel imports on US national security? What concerns does the Secretary of State have about the impact such a protectionist ruling might have on the UK’s steel sector and on jobs in our steel industry due to lost exports and trade deflection of dumped goods on our market?
We are all concerned about the overproduction of steel, largely coming from China, and what we have seen as possibly unacceptable subsidies into that sector, but it needs to be addressed in a way that is compliant with the WTO rules-based system. I raised with Secretary Ross and the trade representative, Mr Lighthizer, the impact that could have on the United Kingdom, and it is fair to say that our views landed. We now await the publication of the report, on which the President has up to 90 days to act.
T4. Brecon and Radnorshire is full of excellent small business owners who are looking to trade with the rest of the world, but many are concerned that the trade deals the UK is looking to make with the rest of the world will focus on big, rather than small, businesses. What assurance can my right hon. Friend give to small business owners that their voice will not be lost in negotiations? (900288)
My hon. Friend makes an extremely strong point. Over 99% of businesses in this country’s non-financial business economy are small and medium-sized enterprises. Last year we helped over 1,200 Welsh companies, most of which were SMEs, and we ensure that we have regular SME-focused roundtables. We meet SME representative groups and, of course, SMEs can always access our portal, GREAT.gov.uk, which gives important indicators on how to improve their exports.
T2. The Secretary of State wants to leave the EU because he felt it was undemocratic and unaccountable, so why is he happy for the UK to trade under World Trade Organisation rules, given that the WTO is more undemocratic and more unaccountable? (900286)
T5. My constituency has one of the largest export clusters in the south-west, and it is focused on the rest of the world as much as it is on the EU. What assurance can my right hon. Friend give that we will focus on doing global trade deals and not just on the EU? (900289)
My hon. Friend makes a very valid point, and of course it is not just about exports; it is also about inward investment. Therefore, let me bring the House up to date by saying that at 9.30 this morning we published figures showing that a record-breaking number of foreign direct investment projects came into the UK in 2016-17—2,265—safeguarding nearly 108,000 jobs or creating new jobs in the UK. No doubt, the usual suspects will describe this by saying, “despite Brexit”.
T7. I thank the Ministers for the written answers they have given me this week on the EU-Japan free trade agreement. They were at pains to reassure me that existing animal welfare and environmental standards would be maintained, but can they give me further reassurance that we will use this as an opportunity to address with Japan the illegal timber trade and commercial whaling? (900292)
We engage on these issues on an ongoing basis with Japan. I know this is very important to the hon. Lady, so may I reassure her that the Government share a lot of her concerns on protecting animal welfare in free trade agreements? The UK has one of the best scores on the world animal protection index, where we are in the top four. It is important that we maintain animal welfare standards in this country in future agreements, and I have every confidence that we will.
T6. Ten and a half thousand UK businesses export to Canada, a quarter of a million jobs in the UK rely on trade with Canada and we are likely to be one of the biggest winners from the EU-Canada trade treaty. However, CETA—the EU-Canada comprehensive economic and trade agreement—is imperfect, so what are we going to do post-Brexit to ensure that we do even better in our trading relationship with Canada? (900291)
That is a very appropriate question, in this the week of the 150th anniversary of the Canadian confederation. My hon. Friend will know only too well that the UK exported more than £7 billion-worth of goods and services to Canada in 2015. We have five offices throughout Canada. We remain strongly supportive of CETA, but of course we will look to have a future agreement with Canada at an appropriate time.
Secretary of State, you will be aware that there are not only particular opportunities, but some challenges for each of the devolved regions across the UK in the next few years. Can you outline what plans and intentions you have to fully integrate the interests of the devolved regions within your strategy? Will you commit to an early meeting with delegations from the devolved regions to outline your engagement moving forward?
Order. It is a great pleasure to welcome the hon. Lady to the Chamber again. She is already a prodigious and assiduous contributor, but may I politely say to her that she must not inherit the bad trait of her hon. Friend the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) of referring to the Minister as “you”? The word “you” in this Chamber refers to the Chair, and I have no plans to adopt any policies on these matters. She should refer to the Minister. I am still trying to train the hon. Member for Strangford, but I think his apprenticeship has some distance to travel.
The words “tricks” and “old dogs” definitely come to mind on that one. The hon. Lady makes a good point: there are not only challenges, but great opportunities. It is essential that we look at our trade and investment programmes across the whole of the UK. As I said in answer to an earlier question, that is why we are bringing in the new Board of Trade to help ensure that we have that balance, but I can tell her that in the figures that we announced today Northern Ireland secured 34 new projects, totalling 1,622 new jobs. That is a big gain and this is exactly the sort of programme that we want to encourage to ensure that investment goes to all parts of the UK, ensuring that we create an economy that works for everyone.
Women and Equalities
The Minister was asked—
Equality and Women’s Rights: DUP Discussions
The UK has a proud record of promoting equality, and we have some of the strongest laws in the world to prevent and tackle discrimination. The Government will continue to champion equal rights.
We have seen the recent tangle on abortion policy that the Government got into with the DUP. Women with pre-existing medical conditions, such as uncontrolled epilepsy, who seek abortions need to receive treatment in hospital settings to access back-up medical care if it is required. Will the Minister commit to ensuring that women from Northern Ireland with complex medical needs who cannot be treated in a stand-alone clinic will be able to access funded care in NHS hospitals?
First, I recognise that this whole subject area is incredibly sensitive, and we need to approach it with some care and, indeed, some respect. I had a helpful first meeting with a number of the organisations, including charities, that are involved in this area. We talked about not only the core issues that were discussed in the House last week but some of the more challenging issues that women face when seeking abortion services. I assure the hon. Gentleman that we will consider all those issues very carefully.
Equality and tolerance are important British values that we should all be proud of, so will the Minister work to overturn the ongoing ban on equal marriage in Northern Ireland? Does she believe that £1 billion is a fair price to pay for selling off such fundamental values?
I am proud to have been part of a Government who introduced same-sex marriage, and we should all be proud that we are in a Parliament that passed that Bill. The London Pride celebrations are taking place this weekend, and that will be a chance to celebrate the progress that has been made. We have to fundamentally win the argument on moving forward on LGBT rights. This is something that needs to take place throughout the country, including in Northern Ireland, where there is a democratic Northern Ireland Assembly. It is a debate we all need to engage in, but we have seen progress over many years and we can be proud of that. Nevertheless, as the hon. Lady sets out, there is still a lot of progress to be made.
In response to a 2005 Northern Ireland Department of Justice consultation, the Royal College of Midwives, the Royal College of Nursing and the Northern Ireland committee of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists all backed changes to give more women in Northern Ireland access to terminations. In the absence of a Northern Ireland Assembly, how will the Government deal with this issue?
What we can do is make sure that Northern Ireland women who are presenting here in the UK have the same rights as a woman from England would already have. To my mind, we need to ensure that whether someone’s address is Belfast or Birmingham, if they are here in England seeking abortion services, they have comparable service and comparable rights, and that is what we will seek to do. As my right hon. Friend sets out, though, there is also a debate to be had in the Northern Ireland Assembly. It is of interest that Ireland’s new leader has talked about bringing forward a referendum on abortion in Ireland next year.
It is good to see the Rainbow flag flying over the Foreign Office in Pride week. Will my right hon. Friend assure me that she and the Government will remain fully committed to protecting LGBT rights, both at home and abroad, where there is work still to do?
I can absolutely give my right hon. Friend that assurance. There will be no backsliding on LGBT rights from this Government. We aim to continue the progress that has been made working throughout the House and across party lines. We will seek to do that not only in the UK but around the world. I will be part of the London Pride celebrations this weekend and I am proud that since the election we now have, I think, more openly LGBT MPs in this House than in any other Parliament in the world.
I have spoken about equality and the rights of women in our party to my party leader, who is a woman, to my close constituency colleague and a Member of the Legislative Assembly, who just happens to be a woman, and to my most senior member of staff, who is my close adviser and who, shockingly, is also a woman. They seem to be satisfied. I ask the Minister this question: what discussions have been held with Labour’s sister party, the Social Democratic and Labour Party, which has many of the same moral stances that we have, which is what I believe this question seeks to highlight?
The hon. Gentleman sets out the fact that there is a discussion and a debate to be had across political parties both here in this Parliament and in Northern Ireland. That is a debate and a discussion that I welcome, and I know that we can have it in a constructive way. As I said right at the beginning, it is important that we recognise that this is an important and sensitive issue and that the way in which we have that debate needs to be in accordance with how important it is to have a measured approach and an informed discussion about how we can continue to see women’s rights go forward.
I join hon. Members across the House in wishing a happy Pride to all those celebrating London Pride this weekend. Despite the fact that a number of promises were made during the election campaign on the need to strengthen and protect equality legislation, there was no such commitment in this year’s Queen’s Speech. People across this country have deep concerns that the Tory backroom deal with the DUP could undermine our equality here in the UK. What assurances will the Minister provide that progress on equality will not be sidelined for political expediency?
I think that I have given those assurances on a number of occasions. I will be very happy to come to this Dispatch Box and continue to give them, as they are important. I simply say to the hon. Lady that, as we have been so clear-cut that there will be no backsliding in this area, to continue to suggest that there will be is not a very helpful approach to achieving cross-party consensus to move forward on these issues.
DUP representatives have described homosexuality as repulsive, wrong, vile, immoral, offensive and obnoxious. Does the Minister agree that it is those hateful remarks themselves that are repulsive, wrong, vile, immoral, offensive and obnoxious and that they should have no place in our politics let alone in Government? The DUP once ran a campaign called, “Save Ulster from Sodomy”. Is it not time to save Ulster from bigotry?
The views that the hon. Lady sets out are absolutely not ones that I agree with or that are shared by this House. As I have said, it is important that we have this debate and progress continued improvements in LGBT rights, women’s rights and the rights of disabled people—and all sorts of people who face discrimination in our country—in a measured fashion and that, where we can, we find some consensus. It is in that fashion that we will steadily win the battle.
State Pension Age: Women Born in the 1950s
4. What discussions she has had with the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions on the disadvantage experienced by women born in the 1950s as a result of changes to the state pension age. (900274)
The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions has regular discussions with all Cabinet colleagues on a range of issues. The Government will not be revisiting the state pension age changes implemented by the Pension Acts 1995 and 2011. This Government are committed to supporting 1950s-born women and men who cannot work, and those who wish to continue working, retraining or returning to work.
Yesterday, in response to the Westminster Hall debate, the Minister made the well-intentioned but ill-judged suggestion that an adequate response to the pensions plight of the 1950s-born women was for them to access apprenticeships. That shows how far out of touch some people are on this issue. There is a clear consensus across this House to address this injustice. When will the Government bring forward legislation to address that injustice?
Many companies such as the Co-operative, Barclays, Aviva, Centrica and others have committed to older workers by recruiting and retraining them. The employment rate for those aged between 50 and 64 is up 48,000 this quarter, and 213,000 on the year. That includes 57,000 people who started apprenticeships aged between 45 and 59, and 3,560 who started apprenticeships over the age of 60.
Following the appalling announcement in yesterday’s Westminster Hall debate, which was probably the best-attended debate ever in that Chamber, many of us have heard through our postbags that the poverty caused by this Government’s decision on equalising the pension age is appalling. Is that not just another sign of this Government showing yet again how out of touch they are with the real world, as they have over the past three weeks?
With the greatest respect, 22 years ago, when neither the hon. Lady nor I was in the House, the Government introduced the Pensions Act 1995 to require equalisation. That was then overseen by various Governments, who provided extensive information in many different ways over the following years. The 2011 Act then accelerated the process by 18 months. Following that, 6 million letters were sent out to individual constituents. If the hon. Lady knows of any individual issues, I urge her to write to me and I will make sure that there is support for any specific constituent that she has.
Although the Minister’s offer to meet representatives from the all-party group was very welcome, as he has heard his promotion of apprenticeships for 64-year-olds was perhaps less wise. This is clearly a matter of injustice and inequality for a group of women who have been affected disproportionately, so may we please get everybody back around the table for genuine discussions about finding solutions that will not break the bank but will bring some justice and solutions to hard-pressed women who are suffering now?
I look forward to meeting the all-party group when it is reformed, but I make the point that revisiting the 1995 Act and the 2011 Act would cost well in excess of £30 billion, as my hon. Friend knows. However, I look forward to those meetings and discussions.
Notification is clearly a key concern. Will my hon. Friend confirm what steps have been taken to raise awareness of the changes in the state pension age?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for the question. As he will be aware, there have been multiple leaflets, letters, debates, advertising and discussion all the way through from 1995—for the past 22 years. He will no doubt be aware that there have been multiple debates in Parliament as well.
New Mothers (Redundancy Protection)
The Government proudly supported the Equality Act 2010, which makes it unlawful to discriminate on a number of grounds, including pregnancy and maternity. We know from talking to employers that four out of five say that they want to do the right thing and support pregnant women and women returning to work after pregnancy. There are still far too many cases of discrimination and unlawful treatment and both Minister Margot James and I are absolutely determined to come down like a ton of bricks on employers who break the law and to make sure that women are completely aware of the rights that they enjoy. I am aware of the consultation to extend the time by which somebody can report to a tribunal—
I see little evidence of the ton of bricks. As a former employer, I know first hand the value of protecting maternity rights, not just for the expectant mum or returning mother but for the employer as well. Does the Minister agree that it is vital that we encourage employers to meet their legal responsibilities to prevent the discrimination happening in the first place and that those who do not should be held to account?
I forgot to welcome the hon. Gentleman to his place. He is absolutely right. We are working with ACAS and the Equality and Human Rights Commission, because not only employers but women returning to work need to be aware of their rights. Having had three children, two in America, I can assure Members that the rights and responsibilities enjoyed here are far better than in other parts of the world, but they are still not good enough. Minister Margot James and I are absolutely determined to sort things out.
The fact that some women are still discriminated against during pregnancy or maternity leave is both unacceptable and unlawful. Will the Minister assure the House that the Government not only take the problem extremely seriously but are looking at how laws can be better enforced to give the protection she promises?
Given the Minister’s view about this, will she take up the issue of tribunal fees, which a previous Government, of which she was a one-time member, increased significantly? Does she not accept that charging a huge fee to take a case to tribunal is one of the biggest reasons why women who have been discriminated against cannot enforce their rights?
The hon. Lady will know that there has been an employment tribunal fees review and we have found no evidence that pregnancy and maternity discrimination is falling foul of the current fees system. She also knows that we are carefully considering responses to the consultation and will be responding.
The Justice Department is aware of the link between homelessness and reoffending, which is why we are making sure that we address female offenders’ housing and support needs as an absolute priority.
The Minister has correctly identified the importance of homelessness in reoffending, but will he give much more detail about what specific assistance is given to individuals who leave prison, who we do not want to see reoffending but who need assistance at a crucial time?
The community rehabilitation companies and indeed the national probation service are required to provide the services to which the hon. Gentleman refers. I guarantee that the female offenders strategy, which is due to be released by the end of the year, will concentrate primarily on improving that community offering.
Thirty-eight per cent of women released from prison have no accommodation arranged for them, and more than 46% of women in prison have experienced domestic violence. The Minister knows that many of the problems associated with women prisoners revolve around their mental health. With increasing evidence that autism is to be found among the female population, will the Minister take advantage of this new set of statistics to look at mental health provision for women leaving prison? That is most important.
I thank my right hon. Friend for the question. I am responsible not only for women’s justice but for offender health. In September, I will have two roundtable meetings to discuss the current mental health provision, both for men and for women. We are aware that the combination of mental health not being treated properly and addiction not being treated properly are significant contributors towards recidivism.
Many of the women who are imprisoned have mental health problems. Imprisonment and losing their home and possessions set back their chance of recovery. Will the Minister in his reports pay particular attention to the impact of women with mental health problems when they become homeless and lose all that they have managed to pull together?
Yes, we will. I am aware that a significant proportion of the female population in prison are victims of very difficult circumstances, be they homelessness, coercive relationships and the like. I confirm that the strategy, as I said previously, will concentrate on improving the community offering so that ultimately these women do not commit offences in the first place.
Will the Government confirm that they do not believe in giving prisoners who lose their home any more support than any other person who happens to be in the unfortunate positon of losing their home? Will the Minister confirm that the Government do not believe in giving female prisoners who lose their home more support than male prisoners who lose their home?
I am very glad to be continuing my brief—my hon. Friend always delivers the question that I expect. I assure him that, with regard to access to housing, I am not aware that ex-offenders will be given any more priority than people who have not committed an offence. With reference to whether we treat men and women who have committed offences equally, I am interested in reducing crime and I am convinced that a disproportionate number of women are committing crime because of the way in which they are treated, be it by their partners or indeed by their housing circumstances. I think he will agree that, if we can get this right, we will be reducing crime, which I think is the best outcome.
Vulnerable women on release are not given adequate support, either with housing or with community reintegration. Many return to abusive relationships, drug and alcohol abuse, and, at worst, crime. Does the Minister honestly believe that we are giving women’s life chances parity of esteem in their current treatment?
I agree that we are not getting the treatment of women offenders right. That is why I was eager to introduce a new strategy. The Manchester area provides an example of where the Department is investing in a whole system approach. I do not think Whitehall is the place to make decisions on a woman’s future before, during or after prison. I would prefer to localise decision making so that decisions are made by people who understand the women concerned, so that we can keep them in the community and away from prison.
Gender Pay Gap
The gender pay gap is now at its lowest ever, which is great news, but we need to go further. We are one of the first countries to introduce gender pay gap reporting, and I am delighted that mine is the first Government Department to have published its pay gap figures. What matters is not just transparency, but recognising where women face barriers and taking action.
Absolutely. Mandatory reporting is just the start. We have worked with business to publish guidance on how to pull together accurate information and set out case studies showing what businesses and trail-blazing employers are already doing. With the Government Equalities Office, we recently held events in places such as Leeds and Glasgow that gave employers an opportunity to showcase the business benefits of closing their gender pay gap.
I congratulate the Department for Education on being the first Government Department to publish its gender pay gap and its bonus pay gap. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the Department is leading by example in promoting gender equality in the workforce?
Globally, only about half of working-age women are employed, and they earn three-quarters as much as men even if they have the same level of education and are in the same occupation. Does my right hon. Friend agree that realising the economic potential of women benefits the whole of society, not just women?
Absolutely. This is not just the right thing to do; it is the smart thing to do. I have a role on the UN High-Level Panel on Women’s Economic Empowerment, whose work showed that gender equality and women’s economic empowerment is one of the most powerful global levers for growth that we can pull. Indeed, McKinsey did work that suggested that if we bridged the gender gap here in the UK, it could add £150 billion to our GDP by 2025.
In April, our groundbreaking legislation on the gender pay gap came into force. This weekend we are celebrating London Pride, where people come together to celebrate how far we have come and to keep up the pressure for progress in LGBT equality. I look forward to joining those celebrations. Fifty years ago this year, Parliament voted to decriminalise male homosexuality in England and Wales, and this year’s general election returned the most openly LGBT MPs Parliament has ever had. Finally, and importantly, I outlined last week how the Government will ensure that women from Northern Ireland seeking an abortion in England will no longer have to pay for NHS treatment.
I think that we can be proud of the work that this country is doing, not just here at home, but internationally, to beat the drum for women’s economic empowerment. In fact, alongside the work that we have been part of at the UN, this week the Prime Minister will attend the G20 summit in Germany, where women’s economic empowerment will be a priority, and we will keep on being a champion of that.
The Minister will be aware of the levels of persecution, intolerance and hate crime towards transgender people. Can she therefore confirm whether she has plans to develop a new transgender action plan, in line with the previous response to the Women and Equalities Committee? Also, do the Government plan to conduct a review of the Gender Recognition Act 2004?
The hon. Lady raises an important point. We responded very constructively and positively to the Select Committee’s important report, and we have been very clear that we will review the Gender Recognition Act. That sits alongside a lot of other work that we will be doing to ensure that we take action on this.
On 7 September this year we will have the 100th anniversary of the birth of Leonard Cheshire, the Victoria Cross-winning founder of this great disability charity, so I support this question and this great organisation. The Government remain strongly committed to helping people with disabilities and health conditions get back into work. Over the past three years more than 500,000 people have done so, and we have a Green Paper setting out the full details of the matter.
T2. The Minister for Women and Equalities has this morning heard the overwhelming view across the House on the WASPI issue, following yesterday’s Westminster Hall debate. Is she not embarrassed by the Government’s current policy, and what will she do to change it? (900248)
I know that there was an important debate yesterday in Westminster Hall. This is an important area, but it is also important that we have a steady transition, as the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend the hon. Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman), has set out. I am content that the way the Government are handling this, which follows on from previous Governments, is the right way. The hon. Gentleman should also reflect on the fact that we have invested £1.1 billion to ensure that there is support during the transition.
I recently had the pleasure of speaking at the Women’s Leadership Network conference, alongside the principal of Eastleigh College. Confidence is key in getting women back to work, particularly returners, or climbing up the ladder. What are the Government doing to encourage returneeships so that we can support what the Prime Minister has said?
As part of the Budget the Chancellor announced a £5 million fund for returneeships, which we know disproportionately help women returning to the workplace. Industry is already doing some groundbreaking and innovative work. We want to use the fund to help develop that work and hopefully mainstream it.
T3. A TUC survey of workplace representatives found that one in three respondents have reported management criticism of menopause-related sick leave. What discussions has the Minister had with the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions on reducing discrimination faced by women during the menopause? (900249)
Any discrimination of that nature is entirely unacceptable in 21st-century Britain, and I can assure the hon. Gentleman that, through my Department and the Government Equalities Office, we have discussions across Government to see what more can be done to strengthen the legal framework within which businesses operate, but the framework is already there and it is important that we ensure that it is enforced.
The question that I think my hon. Friend is getting to is whether there has been a change in access as a result of changes in fees. We considered this issue very carefully, because it was the case, particularly when we talked with small and medium-sized enterprises, that very many vexatious tribunal claims were being brought—[Interruption.] They were. An hon. Lady on the Opposition Benches says, “Rubbish.” She should get out and talk to some businesses sometime and hear what they think. A change was therefore made. We are now reviewing the help for fees scheme so that we can understand exactly what is going on. However, there is no evidence that maternity discrimination cases have been particularly affected by the fees.
Hate crime is entirely unacceptable. As the hon. Gentleman will know, we have developed and are now funding a hate crime action plan. Alongside that, it is important that we work upstream. The work that we are now doing on bullying in schools can play a massive role in the long term. I also draw the House’s attention to the recent social attitudes survey, which really showed that tolerance and inclusiveness of LGBT rights are now widely accepted across the country, but there are clearly still pockets of intolerance, which we absolutely have to combat.
There are record numbers of women in this Parliament, but women are still outnumbered by men two to one. Will the Government consider the recommendation in the report of the Women and Equalities Committee to bring into action section 106 of the Equality Act 2010 to ensure that each political party is transparent about the gender of the candidates they field?
We will be responding to the Committee’s report. These are incredibly important issues for our country. I am concerned to ensure that, although we have now broadly got up to a third of parliamentarians who are female, we do not now plateau. We all have a role in ensuring that we continue to see progress, and I assure my right hon. Friend that I am committed to ensuring that the Government play a leading role in that, and I am proud that we also have a female Prime Minister.
We have an evidence-based approach in relation to public sector pay. An independent group of people looks at the pressures on the public purse and at ensuring that our pay settlements are affordable. It also looks at the evidence in relation to recruitment, retention and the numbers of people we want in our public sector, particularly on the front line. That is a sensible approach. The hon. Lady will be aware that a number of pay review bodies will come out with their reports across the board, and we will consider them when they do.
As my right hon. Friend confirmed earlier, the gender pay gap is at its smallest ever, but more needs to be done. What work is being done to encourage girls and women to choose careers in high-paying sectors traditionally dominated by men, especially Pakistani and Bangladeshi women, who have the largest gender pay gap?
We heard a question about STEM subjects earlier. That is one of the most important areas where we can really start to level up girls and women in the workplace. More generally, it is important that all girls going through school understand that there is a career ahead of them that they can aim for. That is not just about the subjects they do; it is about ensuring that their attitudes and expectations are suitably high.
T7. Nottingham Women’s Centre recently launched its “Help through Crisis” report—Big Lottery-funded research that indicates that women often experience multiple disadvantage and have complex needs that are not currently being met. May I invite the Minister to visit Nottingham Women’s Centre, meet some of the women who took part in that research and discuss how she will ensure the provision of appropriate holistic services for women with multiple and complex needs? (900253)
I am grateful for that very kind offer. The Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Bracknell (Dr Lee), will also have heard that request for a visit. From my personal experience as a local MP, I know the amazing work that many such centres do, so I thank the hon. Lady for her invite and I will ensure that somebody responds. I would love to visit.
Following this election, the issue has never been higher on the political agenda. As somebody who did not have a particular life mission to become an MP, but wanted to play a constructive role in my community and represent it in this place, I think it is important that we get rid of this aggressive sort of political campaigning. It does our democracy no good and puts decent people off running for Parliament, and that is a bad thing.
The Scottish Government have committed to increase the number of women on public boards, and the Partnership for Change 50/50 campaign encourages the private, third and public sectors to achieve gender balance on boards by 2020. At the current rate of change, gender balance will take several decades, so when will the UK Government follow the Scottish Government’s lead?
Since 2010, the number of women on FTSE 350 boards has more than doubled, and we now have the highest percentage ever—over 24%. We have the lowest number of all-male boards in the FTSE 350, with only six remaining. It is not good enough, and we need to make more progress, but progress is being made. The work that the Government are doing through the Women’s Business Council to stimulate a culture change is very important. Diversity and women are good for business.
Order. As we come to the first of the two urgent questions that I have granted today, can I please remind colleagues of the importance of sticking to the time limits that have been declared and communicated repeatedly to colleagues? Obviously this is particularly relevant to the Front Benchers—the person who secured the UQ and who has the allocated two minutes, and the Minister answering it, who has the allocated three minutes. We really do need to stick to the limits, because otherwise it is very unfair on Back Benchers.