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House of Commons Hansard
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Commons Chamber
06 July 2017
Volume 626

House of Commons

Thursday 6 July 2017

The House met at half-past Nine o’clock

Prayers

[Mr Speaker in the Chair]

Business Before Questions

Account of the Contingencies Fund 2016-17

Resolved,

That there be laid before this House an Account of the Contingencies Fund, 2016-17, showing—

(1) A Statement of Financial Position;

(2) A Statement of Cash Flows; and

(3) Notes to the Accounts; together with the Certificate and Report of the Comptroller and Auditor General thereon.—(Mrs Wheeler.)

Oral Answers to Questions

International Trade

The Secretary of State was asked—

Commonwealth Countries

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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]

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7. 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. [900262]

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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?

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It does appear that some elements of our media would rather see Britain fail than see Brexit succeed. I cannot recall a single time recently when I have seen good economic news that the BBC has not described as being “despite Brexit”.

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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?

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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.

Businesses (Support)

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2. What steps he is taking to encourage businesses to take advantage of new opportunities for international trade. [900256]

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

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I will take note of the hon. Gentleman’s comments.

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Will the Minister explain what steps the Government are taking to ensure that, following our departure from the European Union, our export manufacturing businesses do not face high tariffs from other nations?

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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.

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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?

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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

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3. What recent discussions he has had with the Government of Brazil on a trade agreement with that country after the UK leaves the EU. [900257]

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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?

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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

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4. What estimate he has made of the value of the contribution of the food and drink sector to UK exports. [900258]

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10. What estimate he has made of the value of the contribution of the food and drink sector to UK exports. [900265]

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12. What estimate he has made of the value of the contribution of the food and drink sector to UK exports. [900267]

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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.

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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.

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I know that my hon. Friend the Minister understands the importance of the food and drink sector to the south-west of England, so may I ask what he is doing to promote growth and trade across the south-west?

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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.

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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?

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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.

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Lincolnshire has a proud tradition of producing food, and the food and drink industry is very important to my constituency. What is the Minister doing to help the food and drink manufacturers in Lincolnshire with their exports?

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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.

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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]

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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?

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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.

Topical Questions

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T1. If he will make a statement on his departmental responsibilities. [900285]

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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.

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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?

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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.

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T3. As well as an economic opportunity, there is a moral opportunity in trade with the developing world. Will the Secretary of State please tell the House what steps he is taking to support trade with developing countries? [900287]

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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]

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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.

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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]

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The two things are not analogous. We operate with the WTO because we believe there needs to be a rules-based system for global trade, and if the WTO did not exist, we would have to invent it today.

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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]

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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”.

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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]

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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.

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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]

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

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You will be delighted to learn, Mr Speaker, that British tie manufacturers’ exports are worth millions of pounds. Can the Secretary of State suggest how this House could help promote the wearing of ties, to increase exports?

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I did not check with my fellow Ministers before I came to answer these questions, but I suggest we can lead by example: my tie was made in England.

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I cannot claim that mine was; I am not sure. But I am sure that if they are so popular, it will not be necessary to compel people to wear them. We shall move on.

Women and Equalities

The Minister was asked—

Equality and Women’s Rights: DUP Discussions

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1. What discussions she has had with the Democratic Unionist Party on the Government’s commitment to equality and women’s rights. [900270]

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8. What discussions she has had with the Democratic Unionist Party on the Government’s commitment to equality and women’s rights. [900279]

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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?

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At least as importantly, the Rainbow flag will be flying over the House.

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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?

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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.

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I call Nic Dakin on question 2.

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rose—

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I apologise to the hon. Gentleman. The hon. Member for Dewsbury (Paula Sherriff) did not leap from her seat, but I think that she wishes to contribute.

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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?

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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

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2. 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. [900271]

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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]

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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?

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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.

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I am afraid that the Minister, as he knows, was on a hiding to nothing in the packed debate in Westminster Hall yesterday, and although his offer to meet—[Interruption.]

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Order. There is too much noise in the Chamber. Let us hear the hon. Gentleman.

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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?

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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.

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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?

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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)

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3. What steps she is taking to strengthen redundancy protection for new mothers returning from maternity leave. [900272]

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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—

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James Frith.

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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?

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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.

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Order. That Minister does not require her name to be advertised in the Chamber; we all know who the hon. Lady is. The Minister is experienced enough to know that one should not name names in the Chamber. I am sure she will do better next time.

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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?

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I am delighted to give those assurances.

My apologies, Mr Speaker—I shall continue to serve my apprenticeship.

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With considerable skill and charm, I am quite certain about that. I thank the Minister for what she has said.

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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?

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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.

Ex-prisoners (Support)

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5. What support the Government provide to women who lose homes and assets as a result of a prison sentence. [900275]

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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?

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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.

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We will probably be able to take only the Order Paper questions next, and that must be done briefly.

Gender Pay Gap

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6. What steps the Government are taking to reduce the gender pay gap. [900276]

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7. What steps the Government are taking to reduce the gender pay gap. [900277]

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10. What steps the Government are taking to reduce the gender pay gap. [900281]

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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.

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I welcome the progress that has been made, particularly under this Secretary of State. Does she agree that central to further progress on this issue is a genuine and continued partnership between business and Government?

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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.

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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?

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I hope that is correct. It is important work and we are strongly encouraging other civil service Departments and employers across the public sector to follow suit.

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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?

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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.

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rose

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I will call the hon. Lady if she has a single-sentence question.

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International women in engineering day was 22 June. The Minister knows how important career choices are for women and the gender gap. What is she doing about that?

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One of the main actions we can take is to make sure that girls study maths and science at A-level. We know that that is a powerful way to keep those career options open to them.

Topical Questions

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T1. If she will make a statement on her departmental responsibilities. [900247]

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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.

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Is my right hon. Friend satisfied with the Government’s efforts to empower women economically internationally?

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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.

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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?

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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.

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T4. The excellent Leonard Cheshire charity has estimated the disability employment gap to be 31.3%. What are the Government doing to close it? [900250]

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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.

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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]

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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]

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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.

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Following an earlier question, women must feel that they can bring forward cases of maternity discrimination. What steps are the Government taking to ensure that people from all backgrounds can access justice?

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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.

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T5. Following recent reports of arrests in relation to planned attacks at an LGBT event in Barrow, what discussions has the Minister had with the Home Office to further combat far-right extremism? [900251]

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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.

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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?

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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.

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T6. Two thirds of public sector workers are women, so they are disproportionately hit by the public sector pay cap. What is the Minister doing to argue the case for scrapping the cap? [900252]

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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]

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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.

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What assessment has my right hon. Friend made of the impact of vile online abuse on people, particularly women, coming forward to stand for public office?

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

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On a point of order, Mr Speaker.

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No, no—I am not taking points of order now. Points of order come after UQs and statements, but we will look forward to hearing the hon. Lady; we are saving her up for later on in the day.

Adult Social Care Funding

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Does the Minister share my deep concern about the state of social care highlighted—

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Order. What the hon. Lady needs to do is just ask the Minister for the statement on the matter, and then she follows with her substantive question when the Minister has given his response.

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(Urgent Question): To ask the Minister to respond to the Care Quality Commission report on the state of adult social care and on issues of funding social care.

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I call Minister Steve Brine.

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Thank you, Mr Speaker—take two.

There are few things more important to any of us than the way in which the oldest and most vulnerable are cared for in our society. First, let me pay tribute to the 1.4 million people who work in the country’s social care sector. They support many of the most vulnerable people in our communities, often in the most difficult of circumstances. I am proud that we have done more than any Government before to improve the quality of social care, introducing a tough system of CQC ratings, new qualifications for care workers, and new standards to ensure that everyone receives the highest-quality support. I am heartened that today’s CQC report shows that even in a time of acute fiscal pressure, 79% of adult social care services are now providing good or outstanding care.

However, it is impossible to ignore the pressure that our ageing population and advances in medicine are putting on the system. We have seen the number of over-65s increase by nearly 1.2 million, or about 14%, over the past five years. Today’s CQC report shows that in some areas, it is completely unacceptable that standards in some settings are below those rightly expected by care users and their families. This Government view social care as a priority, which is why in the spring Budget this year we announced an additional £2 billion over the next three years for councils in England to spend on adult social care services. That means that, in total, councils will have access to £9.25 billion more dedicated funding for social care over the next three years—enough to increase social care spending in real terms. We have also been clear that later this year we will be consulting widely on the future of social care in this country to put it on a stable footing.

My right hon. Friend the Health Secretary updated the House on Monday about action he is taking to address delayed discharges from hospital in advance of this winter. Last year there were 2.25 million delayed discharges, up by 24.5% from 1.81 million in the previous year. The Government are clear that no one should stay in a hospital bed longer than necessary—it removes people’s dignity, reduces their quality of life, leads to poorer health and care outcomes for people and is more expensive, ultimately, for the taxpayer. Since February, there have been significant improvements in the health and care system, with a record decrease in month-on-month delayed discharges in April of this year.

However, we must make much faster and more significant progress well in advance of next winter to help free up hospital beds for the sickest patients and reduce pressures on accident and emergency departments. That is why we have introduced a further package of measures to support the NHS and local government in reducing delays. That package includes guidance, a performance dashboard, plans for local government and the NHS to deliver an equal share of the expectation to free up 2,500 hospital beds, and of course CQC reviews. We have also been clear that we will consider a review in November of the 2018-19 allocations of the social care funding provided at spring Budget 2017 for poorly performing areas. We have been clear that the Budget funding will all remain with local government, to be used for adult social care.

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I thank the Minister for that response, but I really must ask him whether he shares my deep concern about the state of adult social care, as highlighted by today’s report by the Care Quality Commission. Some 3,200 care services were rated as “requires improvement”, with more than 340 rated as “inadequate”. That means that some 92,000 vulnerable people are receiving poor care and some 10,000 people are receiving inadequate care. The picture is even worse in nursing homes, with one in three receiving the poorest ratings.

Does the Minister share my concern about safety, with one in four care locations failing on protecting people from abuse or avoidable harm? That means thousands of vulnerable people not getting prescribed medicines, being ignored when they ask for help and not having enough time for their home care visits.

The Labour party has repeatedly raised the damaging impacts of budget cuts, with more than £5 billion having been cut from social care since 2010. Does the Minister now accept that that has caused the crisis in care staffing, which is at the heart of the poor care that is being reported? Poor staffing levels and staff training are key factors in those providers with the poorest ratings.

In his written ministerial statement earlier this week, the Secretary of State suggested that the £2 billion allocated in the spring Budget to local councils for social care, to which the Minister has just referred, will now be dependent on performance against targets for delayed transfer of care. That means that some councils could lose funding that they have already planned to spend. Does the Minister accept that threatening local councils with the loss of planned funding could lead to a worsening of the quality and safety issues highlighted today? With social care in crisis, this is not the time to be threatening joint working with local councils, so will he reverse that threat and match the Labour pledge of an extra £8 billion for social care, including an extra £1 billion this year?

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I thank the hon. Lady for that response. This subject was much discussed during the general election, and I think it will be greatly discussed during this Parliament.

Nobody is making any threats. The Government are very supportive of the best-performing systems, where local government and the NHS work together to tackle the challenge of delayed transfers of care. We have said that, depending on performance, we will consider a review in November of the 2018-19 allocations of social care funding provided in the spring Budget for areas that are poorly performing. As I have said, that funding will all remain with local government, to be used for social care.

Obviously, we recognise that there are real pressures in the system. That was why we responded—I think the hon. Lady’s party was pleased with this at the time—with an additional £2 billion for social care in this year’s Budget. We have also given councils the chance to raise the council tax precept. My authority, Hampshire, has done that, and I think that has been well received.

Turning to the actual report, it would be easy to duck all of this. Dare I say that I hope we can conduct this debate in a sensible spirit? People out there working in the system who want to pass the mum test, as was said this morning, want us to do that and are watching things closely. Of course, it would be easy to bury our heads in the sand, but let us remember that had we had the rigorous inspection regime that the Secretary of State put in place earlier, a lot of problems, including those in the hospital sector when the hon. Lady’s party was in government, would not have been heard of. We know about the current situation only because of the inspection regime that has been put in place.

The CQC report found a number of things, and obviously we will digest it over the days and weeks ahead. It found that the adult social care sector performed best in how caring its services are: 92% of services were rated good and 3% outstanding. We can kick this issue around all we like, but today’s report shows exactly why we introduced the inspection regime. It is uncovering the care that is good—the vast majority of it—and it is also uncovering the care that is not, which is where we want to help and support local authorities to make sure that improvements are made for the people we represent.

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It is concerning to note from the CQC’s state of adult care report that staff turnover rates have risen from 22.7% to 27.3% in the three years to 2015-16. Will the Minister meet me to discuss the important role that supporting skills and opportunities for career progression can play in reducing turnover, improving morale and, most importantly, improving the quality of care that people receive? Will he visit my constituency to see the excellent joint working that has been done by the trust and South Devon College towards just that?

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I thank my hon. Friend for that. I think she knows that I will be in the vicinity of her constituency at some point over the next few months, and I would like to take her up on her offer. I wish her well in her current campaign.

The workforce is critical. Adult social care is a rapidly growing sector, and there are about 165,000 more adult social care jobs than there were in 2010. It is imperative that we get the right people into the right jobs, to deliver the improved quality of care and services that we all want to see. We are working closely with our delivery partner Skills for Care to improve the level of skills in the adult social care workforce, and we are making the profession more attractive with the introduction of the national living wage, from which up to 1.5 million people in the social care sector are expected to benefit. I might point out that that policy has come in only as a result of this Prime Minister and this Government.

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I want to point out that the report rates 92% of services as good and 3% as outstanding on caring. That comes from the commitment of staff, who, sadly, have not been given a breaking of the 1% cap. The issue of safety has been raised, with one in four providers failing to provide safe care. That comes down to workforce and funding. Brexit threatens the workforce; as the hon. Member for Totnes (Dr Wollaston) said, there is a turnover of one in four. Funding has been reduced by 9%, and that has to be tackled.

Does the Minister recognise that one in five emergency admissions could be avoided if alternatives were provided? Although the measures are different in Scotland, delayed discharges are falling in Scotland while they are rising in England. Will he get rid of fragmentation and look at real integration of health and social care in the sustainability and transformation plan reorganisation?

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I said at the very start of my response, did I not, that we should salute the 1.4 million people who work in this country’s social care sector? We should also salute the families who support people who are in and out of care settings all the time. I did also say—I am grateful that the hon. Lady responded to this—that it does not surprise me that the caring side of the sector came out as one of the good bits in the report.

The hon. Lady spoke about keeping people out of the emergency setting, and that is absolutely what the STP process is about. We are one NHS, and there is one public sector. This is about the NHS getting delayed transfers of care right, but it is also about the work of local government. The STP process works at upper tier authority level as well as across the NHS—in my area of Hampshire, the NHS is working closely with Hampshire County Council—to deliver a one-system response. She is absolutely right, as usual, to point that out.

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It is absolutely vital that we improve adult services that are failing and falling behind, but let us not lose sight of the fact that most adult social services are of high quality and many are improving. Nearly four out of five of our adult services are good or outstanding. We all know that there is a looming crisis in social care, which is why the Chancellor announced further investment of £2 billion in this area. Is that investment starting to show some results?

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Yes, we believe it is. The CQC has completed its ratings, and the proportion of providers rated good or outstanding increased to 79% by July 2016; the previous figure was 72%. It is also worth noting the CQC’s statement that 81% of services rated inadequate improved their overall rating following re-inspection. Obviously, there is a challenging element to the report. As I have said, we do not hide from that or shirk it—nor should we—and that is why we set up the inspection regime. It would not be right or fair to people who work in or rely on the sector to say that everything is going to hell in a handcart, because I do not believe that it is.

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I hope the Minister will agree that these widespread failures of care are intolerable in a civilised society. Does he share my view that we will have to confront the need to increase taxes to ensure that we have an efficient, effective and compassionate system, and will he embrace a cross-party approach to come up with a long-term settlement?

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Of course I want to work—as will the current Care Minister, the Under-Secretary of State for Health, my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Jackie Doyle-Price)—with the respected former Care Minister, and with any other Members who have any sensible suggestions. Taxation is of course a matter for the Chancellor at financial events, and there will obviously be a Budget later in the year.

On the areas where there are care challenges, we have picked up 12 local areas for review, as the Secretary of State said earlier this week. We have published the details that are suitable for the review, which we have developed from the dashboard criteria. We will give those involved every possible support, as we do with the inspection regime for hospitals, for instance. Such inspections are to get hospitals out of special measures and get them to a better place, and we will do the same for those areas. I will be very happy to meet the right hon. Gentleman. In fact, if he had not asked me, I would have offered to meet him.

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If the Government’s plan is to reduce the pressures on adult social care, will my hon. Friend explain why the Dorset clinical commissioning group is proposing to close down the St Leonard’s community hospital, which provides really good services at the moment and is approved of by the community?

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No, I cannot go into the detail of why that is, as I suspect my right hon. Friend realises. There will be a one-NHS STP process in his area, and it will have to come up with proposals that meet the five criteria for any reconfiguration. As he will know, there were previously four criteria that had to be met, but there are now five; Simon Stevens, the chief executive of the NHS, has added a fifth on patient safety. My right hon. Friend mentioned St Leonard’s hospital, and any reconfiguration or change of service in relation to it will have to be considered in that context.

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The Minister has just elevated the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope) to the Privy Council, of which he is not currently a member. Whether that was inadvertent on the part of the Minister or a gentle hint to the powers that be remains to be seen. It would be only a very modest elevation for somebody of the hon. Gentleman’s experience.

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Does the Minister agree that it is time we considered bringing the social care sector back into public ownership to remove the profit-making aspect of looking after the most vulnerable in our society?

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Mr Speaker, I have no advance knowledge of the future career prospects of my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope), but I am sure it is only a matter of time before he becomes a Dorset knight.

I do not agree with the hon. Member for Colne Valley (Thelma Walker), whom I welcome to her place. I do not think that what the sector needs right now is nationalisation. I would gently say once again that public ownership is not the answer to every challenge in our public services.

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When visiting a constituent at home last week, I discovered that he has had dozens of carers. Many of them have delivered excellent care, but he was really concerned about the sheer number of different carers that he had had. What does my hon. Friend have to say about proposals or plans to ensure that people receive consistent care from as few carers as possible, which benefits both the patients and the carers?

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As ever, my hon. Friend is on the money. Across primary care, the named GP policy is a huge step forward, and that idea is absolutely something we should aim for in this sector. That may come out during the consultation later this year, and I feel certain that my hon. Friend will respond to that consultation.

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What an array of riches! I call Melanie Onn.

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One among many, Mr Speaker.

This Government have pushed a national crisis on to hard-pressed local councils and hard-up local residents, forcing council tax rises that will barely cover the minimum-wage salaries paid to carers. The Minister says that the precept has been welcomed, but I would ask: by whom?

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The precept is welcomed by local authorities that want to get extra money into their social care system.

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It’s not.

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I understand that the hon. Lady wants to play politics with this issue, but as I said in my response to the urgent question, I honestly think that we can do better than that.

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I have found the CQC’s inspections of struggling care homes in Amber Valley to be a very useful way of making sure that they improve care for local people. Is the Minister confident that the CQC is sufficiently resourced and skilled to carry out those inspections in a timely fashion and to a sufficient quality?

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Yes, I think that the CQC does a fantastic job. Andrea Sutcliffe, its chief inspector of adult social care, whom Members will have heard on the media this morning, was absolutely right when she talked about services needing to meet the mum test or the dad test. Ultimately, we are all affected—I have ageing parents, like many Members of this House. The mum test or the dad test is what we want, because when people go into adult social care settings we want to feel that they are as well looked after as we could manage ourselves.

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Loneliness can be extreme in housebound adults and the level of mental health issues such as depression is often high but unrecorded. Will the Government ensure that there is a holistic approach to social care that includes key indicators of mental health and wellbeing?

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Yes, the hon. Lady makes a very good point. Those are exactly the issues that will be discussed in the consultation later this year, in which she will, of course, be very welcome to take part.

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What is the status of the announced Government policy that the Dilnot cap will be implemented in the financial year 2021-22?

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Okay. The Prime Minister has been very clear about the importance of tackling this issue. As she said, we will look after 2 million more over-75s in the next 10 years and we have to find a sustainable way of caring for older people. As I have said, we will consult on detailed proposals, which will include a capital floor and an absolute limit on the amount people can be asked to pay. Our objective will be to get the widest possible consensus.

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Whether the right hon. Gentleman regards that as a satisfactory answer is for him to decide, but it is the answer that he is getting.

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It was.

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In fact, he has got it.

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Did the Minister see the recent “Dispatches” programme featuring Bupa’s Crawfords Walk care home in my constituency, which had shocking levels of care? If large, well-known providers such as Bupa are caught putting profits before patient care, what can the Minister do to ensure that smaller, less high-profile providers are not doing the same?

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I am sorry, but I did not see that programme. I shall look out for it on “watch again”. What we can do is put in place the toughest, most rigorous assessment and inspection regime, and that is what we have. That has come from this Secretary of State, not from the previous Government, who ducked the issue. What we can do is ensure that there is rigorous inspection to root out poorly performing services. That is the same in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency as it is in mine.

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With an increasingly ageing population, does the Minister agree that it is deeply cynical to pretend that there is some financial solution to this issue that does not involve very difficult decisions both within and across generations?

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Yes, I do. There were many disappointing things for me about the recent general election—[Laughter.] To be serious, one of the more disappointing things was that the debate around the future of adult social care was reduced to the use of the words “dementia tax”, which did the sector, our constituents, our public life and this Parliament an enormous disservice. We do need to have a grown-up debate in this country about this issue, and that is why we will bring forward proposals for consultation.

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This week marks the sixth anniversary of the Dilnot commission report on social care, yet the Government are no closer to finding a solution on funding social care. Will the Minister tell the House why his Government have wasted six years and failed to take any action to solve the social care crisis?

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Honestly, now I am being tempted into politics. The bottom line is that the Labour party had 13 years in government to sort out the social care system, and it never did. It was in the Labour manifesto in ’97, there was a royal commission in ’99, there was a Green Paper in 2005, there was the Wanless review in 2006, the Labour Government said it would be solved in the 2007 comprehensive spending review and then there was another Green Paper in 2009. I honestly think that lectures from Labour Members about wasting time on this subject are for the birds.

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The Minister has made an excellent point about the years of failed opportunities and failed promises under Labour. During that period, were not 40,000 people per year forced to sell their homes in their lifetimes to fund their care?

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Yes, and my hon. Friend is absolutely right that one of the most disappointing aspects of the discussion over the past few months is that the current situation is hardly perfect. If it was, we would not be debating it, and if it had been easy to solve we would have solved it years ago—and the last Labour Governments would have done so as well.

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Order. This is a hugely important subject and there is extensive interest. I would like to accommodate it all, but we do have another urgent question to follow, then business questions, and then a heavily subscribed debate. May I please now ask colleagues to be good enough to pose single sentence, pithy questions, and of course appeal to the Minister to provide comparably pithy replies?

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We have an appalling case of abuse in a small private care home in my constituency that resulted in prison sentences for the two people involved. What is the Minister going to do to raise standards in small private care homes?

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I cannot comment on that individual case, but if the hon. Lady writes to me about it I will be more than happy to look into it and meet her.

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I welcome the Care Quality Commission inspections of care homes in my constituency as it is helping to drive up standards and highlight problems, but many older residents tell me that they want to stay in their own homes for longer. What is the Minister doing to help make that happen?

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That is exactly why I said that this has to be a one-system solution. We need the NHS to work on delayed transfers of care, but we need local authorities to work with us as well, which is what the better care fund is all about. We know that it is better for people to be cared for in their own home, but that is not always possible, which is why we need a long-term solution to the funding of adult social care that deals with not only residential but domiciliary, care—and that is why we tried to introduce that debate during the election.

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Liverpool City Council spends more on adult social care than it is able to raise in council tax, yet still has more of a cut to make, and pays a very low level of fees as a consequence. Can the Minister give an assurance that councils such as Liverpool will not be further disadvantaged when he rolls out the extra funding he is promising to try to improve this situation?

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As I said, councils have access to a total of just over £9.25 billion more in dedicated funding for social care over the next three years as a result of measures introduced by this Government since 2015. That is enough to increase social care spending in real terms. And let me just put this on the record for the House: the UK spends more as a share of GDP on long-term care than other industrialised countries, including much-vaunted Germany, Canada and the United States.

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I gently say to the Minister that the only reason the Labour party was able to mention the “dementia tax” was that the Conservative party had put something stupid in its manifesto. This matter is far too important for party politics. Does the Minister agree that the social care system is broken and that we need a cross-party agreement on how to move forward?

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I do think we need a cross-party, cross-country solution to the long-term funding of adult social care, which is why we started a debate during the recent election campaign, and why we need a proper consultation, which will be coming online later this year. My hon. Friend is absolutely right: this is far too important for the knockabout of party politics.

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On the question of care homes requiring improvement, on inspection 38% still require improvement and 5% have deteriorated. What action is the Minister taking, beyond just inspections, to improve standards?

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That is an absolutely fair question. This is why I said in my statement that, through the dashboard, we have picked the 12 most challenged local areas for review. The reviews will cover providers and commissioners of services, looking at the interface between social care and general primary care and acute and community health services. It will include an assessment of the governance in place for the management of resources. I am sorry to have had to read that out, but I wanted to get it absolutely clear for the record. That is why those reviews are being put in place. We are not just pointing the finger and saying, “You’re bad.” We want to support those areas to deliver the care we are getting in the vast majority of other areas.

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Improvements in medicine have enabled people to live longer, but we also want them to live more healthily. We know that investment in reducing loneliness, in improving activity and in treating conditions such as macular degeneration, which causes blindness, will help to reduce the need for social care. What is the Minister doing in this regard?

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Although I am not specifically the Minister with responsibility for care, I am the public health Minister and the primary care Minister. We have brought those two subjects together because we want to see a healthy population across the board. I am pleased that my hon. Friend has mentioned the Commission on Loneliness. It was probably set up before she entered this House; it was started by the late Member Jo Cox, who did some really good work that is rightly being taken forward in this Parliament.

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Carers in Northern Ireland who provide for elderly and disabled loved ones save the NHS some £4.6 billion, and that figure rises to £132 billion across the whole of the United Kingdom. How does the Minister intend to ease the pressure on them by funding more respite places, to allow families to have the much-needed breaks that enable them to carry on caring in the long term?

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I will look into that. The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. I am sure that Members across the House take part in carers week events every year. I certainly do that in my constituency. It is at those events that we meet not only the staff who work in the system but the people who, day in and day out, do not have the life that they would like to have because they have caring responsibilities. We also meet young carers who do incredible work. The hon. Gentleman is right, and we should all say a clear thank you to those people for the work that they do.

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The extra money in the last Budget for social care is helping Kent County Council to provide more people with access to care, particularly at home, but the cost of social care is going to keep rising. Does my hon. Friend agree that we as a society need to have an honest conversation about how we fund those growing costs fairly across the generations?

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Yes. This is no different from the conversation that we are having about the funding of every other public service. It is very easy to take to the streets with placards saying “Spend more!” Indeed, I think the Leader of the Opposition spent the national debt several times over just in his response to the Queen’s Speech. This is why we need a proper debate and a consultation on long-term funding. Ultimately, it could come out of general taxation, but we have to have a debate as a country on how much we can afford to do while funding all the other public services. I have not noticed us being short of requests to increase funding in other areas as well. We have to have that honest debate as a country.

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If we are going to have that honest debate, the Minister, whom I welcome to his place, has to accept that the decisions of his Government have fuelled the social care crisis. My council, the third most deprived in the country, has had the 17th highest cuts to its budget, including having £40 million taken out of social care by 2020. The social care precept that the Minister has introduced does not raise the amount of money in my area that it could in wealthier areas. Will he please accept some political responsibility for the mess we are in?

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Of course Governments of all colours have delivered us to the place where we are at this very moment, but have this Government put more money into the social care system? Yes. Did we provide more money in the Budget this year? Yes. Are we allowing councils to raise more money? Yes. As I said earlier, we spend more on long-term care as a share of GDP than other industrialised countries, including Germany and Canada and the massive economy of the United States.

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As the Minister knows, about 2.8 million adults over the age of 65 are currently in receipt of formal or informal social care. Can he confirm that a recent Care Quality Commission report showed that, despite the pressures, the proportion of care services rated good or outstanding is actually increasing?

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Indeed I can. We introduced the new, tougher system of CQC inspections, for the reasons I set out. We introduced a care certificate for support workers and healthcare assistants, and we introduced the new quality standards to clarify what excellence actually looks like in care. We brought in new criminal offences of ill treatment and wilful neglect, and we introduced a fit and proper person test to hold directors to account for care. Those are all things that have happened under this Secretary of State that never happened before.

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The care sector is a significant employer in my Bristol South constituency, but people are being lost to other sectors. I listened carefully to the Minister’s response to the hon. Member for Totnes (Dr Wollaston), but I urge him to be much more ambitious in supporting the sector to recruit more people and build on career pathways between health and social care to encourage people who want to do those jobs.

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I thank the hon. Lady for her sensible question.

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Mine was sensible.

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They have not all been sensible, but yours was marginally more sensible.

As I said earlier, this is a rapidly growing sector and it is imperative that we get the right people into the right jobs. That is why it is so important to work with organisations such as Skills for Care to improve the level of skills, and people in this sector are expected to benefit from the national living wage.

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Worthing has the highest proportion of over 85-year-olds in the country. They tend to be not particularly well off, and their major asset is their property; so can the Minister ensure that, in welcoming the fact that we will have a grown-up debate at last, any sustainable solution recognises that people who have worked hard, paid their dues, looked after their family and done the right thing should be appreciated, not penalised, for having done so?

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I have said that we will consult on detailed proposals later this year, which will include a capital floor and an absolute limit on the amount that people can be asked to pay. Those two critical pillars must go together.

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More care homes may face closure if they cannot access migrant workforces. What steps will the Government take to ensure that migrant workers, who are happy to work in our care homes and who provide excellent standards of care, will still be able to come to the UK after Brexit?

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The Secretary of State has been absolutely clear, including at oral questions earlier this week, that we see the migrant workforce as critical to the NHS, by which we mean in-patient care as well as the social care system—we want to see those protected.

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Adult social care funding has been raised with me across Eastleigh. Delayed discharge is also being prioritised by the clinical commissioning group, but Eastleigh’s Lib Dems on Hampshire County Council chose back in February not to support a further £27 million for the county’s social care budget. Will the Minister highlight the fact that some parties talk about action but simply fail to make a difference locally?

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My hon. Friend is a doughty champion for her Eastleigh constituency, and I also represent part of the borough. What she says surprises me, but I am sure she will raise it in the national debate in the months leading up to next May’s borough council elections.

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In March, the Select Committee on Communities and Local Government agreed a report on adult social care. We called for significant extra funds in the short and medium term, but we said that, in the long term, a lasting solution will be found only through cross-party working. The Minister seems to agree in principle, but will he confirm: that he will engage with Opposition Front Benchers and other parties on the consultation’s terms of reference; that he will fully involve them in the consultation; that he will approach the consultation with an open mind, and not rule out any alternatives; and that the Select Committee will be involved in the consultation?

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I confirm that there will be the widest possible engagement across the House and across the sector, including with the Select Committee that the hon. Gentleman may or may not be in charge of in the next few weeks.

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I have visited many nursing and care homes in my constituency of Wealden and have met committed and caring care staff. Does the Minister agree it is the inspection system introduced by this Government that is finally shining a light on poor care and driving up standards?

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Yes, I do. As I said, this inspection regime is a good thing. It is important for families and for people in the system, but it is also important for the staff—they want to know that they are benchmarked as giving the best possible care. It is as important for the staff as it is for the punters, for want of a better word.

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rose

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rose—

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I call Paula Sherriff.

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You finally spotted me, Mr Speaker. Worryingly, Age UK recently described choosing a care home as “Russian roulette”. Does the Minister believe it is acceptable to force people to take these risks with their most loved ones?

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I did not quite catch the question, but I do not think the hon. Lady is easily overlooked in any forum. If she would like to write to me or speak to me afterwards, we will be able pick up that point.

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There is somebody after the hon. Lady and so she need not develop a complex about the matter. Somebody has to be last, and on this occasion, nevertheless with a cheery disposition, it is Mr Tom Pursglove.

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Thank you, Mr Speaker. Some local authority areas are undoubtedly better than others at joining up social care departments with the NHS. Does my hon. Friend therefore agree that we need to see a greater focus on sharing best practice where it exists?

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Yes, I agree with my cheery hon. Friend, and this is a good place to finish. There is so much good practice in the sector, and the report highlights that today. We should celebrate that, as we do, and learn from it, as we will, while ruthlessly picking out those areas that need support in order to improve the care they are giving.

Jobcentre Plus: Closures

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(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions to make a statement on his plans to close Jobcentre Plus offices, and the impact on local communities and Department for Work and Pensions jobs.

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Yesterday’s announcement confirmed the proposals that were published in January. These changes will mean that the DWP will be able to offer a more efficient service, while delivering good value for the taxpayer, saving more than £140 million a year for the next 10 years. Eight out of 10 claims for jobseeker’s allowance and 99% of applications for universal credit full service are now made online, which means that DWP buildings are used much less, with 20% of the estate currently underutilised. Our estate plans must reflect the way customers interact with DWP now and in the future, not how they behaved in the past. I can assure the House that these changes will not lead to a reduction in the number of frontline jobcentre staff; in fact, to continue improving the service provided to customers, jobcentres are actively recruiting in many areas.

These changes are being made in consultation with DWP employees and their trade unions, which will ensure that the important connections that jobcentre staff have with the local community are preserved and customer services can be maintained.

The DWP’s private finance initiative contract with Telereal Trillium expires next March, which gives us an opportunity to review how we deliver our services. We have sought to rationalise our estate in a way that delivers value for the taxpayer and makes best use of the space available, while continuing to deliver vital support to our claimants and enabling the delivery of our reform agenda.

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Members will recall that in December last year the Government announced that they were planning to close half the jobcentres in Glasgow. In January this year, they set out plans for further closures, amounting to the closure of more than one in 10 jobcentres across the UK. These closures have the potential for the loss of up to 750 jobs. Yesterday, the Department announced via a written ministerial statement that just six of the original 78 jobcentres earmarked for closure will remain open, and only 11 of the 80 planned to co-locate with local authorities have been given a reprieve. Two additional jobcentres that were to stay open have been added to the closure list.

The impact of the closures will undoubtedly be felt most by the poorest and most vulnerable in our society. By closing such a large proportion of the DWP estate, the Government would be forcing claimants to travel further to access the vital services that they need, thus having an impact on the lives of sick and disabled people, carers and parents with young children, so will the Minister commit now to publish the equality analysis on each site that is being closed? Currently these are secret, and they should be made public. Furthermore, the Government plan to subject an additional 1 million claimants to in-work conditionality, a process under universal credit by which people in work may be required to attend jobcentres. What assessment has the Minister made of the impact on demand for jobcentre services as a result of increased in-work conditionality?

The decision to close jobcentres on this scale at the same time as accelerating the roll-out of the universal credit full digital service makes no sense. It is simply not good enough to quote figures about online claims to justify closure plans. Universal credit will place other, new demands on staff, who will, for example, have to assess whether self-employed people claiming universal credit have a viable business plan. What assessment has the Minister made of the increased demand placed on jobcentre staff as a result of the roll-out of universal credit?

Finally, the closures will have an impact on jobs within the DWP. Will the Minister outline the number of jobs that will be lost as a result of these closures, among frontline jobcentre staff and in the corporate centre sites as a result of the new “hub strategy” for the corporate centre? The Government must immediately pause these closures to allow proper scrutiny of their plans.

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I shall begin with the hon. Lady’s first point about Jobcentre Plus staff. The reality is that in every nation and region there will be an increase in the number of jobcentre staff, from the beginning of the process to its end. Job numbers are going up, particularly as we roll out universal credit. She talks about 750 job losses, but only a small minority of them are likely to be redundancies among frontline jobcentre staff. She asked how many; we are probably looking at a range of 80 to 100 or so—I do not want to be too precise about that, but that is the maximum we are looking at, and we hope to be able to bring it down.

The fact is that the reforms take account of the changes in the welfare system resulting from the rolling out of the universal credit full service. It is absolutely right that we make use of the fact that it is the end of a contract and take the opportunity to find savings. We are talking about taxpayers’ money. We can find savings in the DWP’s estate and, at the same time, provide modern, up-to-date jobcentres that provide the service that is needed. That is the right thing to do. I am disappointed that the Labour party is going to stand against the careful and sensible use of public money, which is exactly what the Government are delivering.

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In these difficult times, will my right hon. Friend praise Harlow jobcentre, which does a huge amount not only to support my jobs fairs but to encourage apprenticeships? Will he ensure that jobcentres throughout the country do everything possible to employ apprentices and to encourage employers themselves to have apprenticeships?

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My right hon. Friend makes a good point, and he is a great champion of apprentices and apprenticeships. We do want to encourage them as much as possible, and the DWP and jobcentres are doing so throughout the country.

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Compassionate conservativism lasted fully two days. There should have been an oral statement and a vote in the House on this issue. Does the Secretary of State accept that there is a direct link between the index of multiple deprivation and those jobcentres earmarked for closure? Will he publish an equality impact assessment, particularly on the effects on those with disabilities and those with caring responsibilities? What engagement has there been with the devolved Administrations throughout the UK? What will be the effect of the roll- out of universal credit, given that some of the jobcentres earmarked for closure were included in the statement on the roll-out published by the Department?

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I make the point to the hon. Gentleman that when it comes to jobcentres—this was touched on by the hon. Member for Wirral West (Margaret Greenwood) in her remarks about Glasgow—after these reforms have been completed there will be a reduction in the number of jobcentres there, but Glasgow will still have more jobcentres per head of population than any other city in the United Kingdom. Also, a number of the Glasgow jobcentres were particularly under-utilised. It is sensible that we rationalise the estate and can deliver modern services. In some cases, we need much improved jobcentres, with improved facilities and greater capability to do more things. That is exactly what the strategy involves.

On the equality impact assessment, the Government have, as always, fulfilled their obligations in terms of the assessment they have made. I make the point again: I hope that the Scottish National party is not going to stand against the sensible use of Government estates to deliver public services in the most efficient and cost-effective way.

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Rationalising the use of the DWP’s property assets has to be a good thing, for the reasons that the Secretary of State has outlined. That is also true in city constituencies like mine where there is no danger of the JCP closing, but an opportunity perhaps to co-locate it alongside other services. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the more serious issue ahead is making sure that we have the right resources in the JCPs for the expanded roll-out of universal credit that is starting early next year?

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My hon. Friend hits the nail on the head. That is exactly right. It is very important that we have jobcentres that are able to deal with the new and important role of providing the support that claimants need. I am talking about having the work coaches and the facilities in place. In some cases, that requires new, improved estates, and we should not be stuck just on the footprint that we happened to have a few years ago, particularly as there is now an opportunity to make those changes, given that the contract is coming to an end.

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Annesley DWP office has 130 workers, three quarters of whom are women. The close proximity of the office to their home enables many of those women to have a career and be a parent. There are no nearby offices to relocate them to, so I ask the Minister to pause the closure and conduct and publish an equality impact assessment in this special case.

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It is the case that there are sites in Chesterfield and Mansfield, which are within half an hour by car from the site that the hon. Lady mentions. It is anticipated that at least 75% of the staff—probably more—can be redeployed to other sites and will not be in a position in which redundancy is relevant, and of course the DWP is seeking to ensure that that number can be maximised.

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Does the Secretary of State agree on the importance of getting jobcentre staff to work outside jobcentres, in places such as food banks, to ensure that we are getting the right welfare claims in the right way?

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There is an important outreach role that jobcentre staff can and will perform. It is simply not the case that all work is done within jobcentres themselves. Staff can provide outreach services in other sites as well, as indeed they will increasingly do.

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Sutton is a pilot for universal credit. I support the principle of universal credit, but the difficulty is that it is extremely complex and is leaving some people completely unable to plan their expenditure. When universal credit is rolled out more widely, how will the Minister ensure that those who cannot register their claims online, or, indeed, those who feel that they have to go to the jobcentre because they cannot rely on the post delivering certain items, are not severely disadvantaged?

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As I have said, 99% register for universal credit online. Also, those who are seeking work are expected to spend up to 35 hours a week searching for work, and that includes the time taken to get to jobcentres, for example. In very particular cases, if there are those who are not able to make it to jobcentres, other arrangements can be made.

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The Secretary of State is aware that I am unhappy about the closure of Shipley jobcentre. I have many questions for him that you would not allow me to go through now, Mr Speaker. Perhaps my right hon. Friend will meet me so that I can go through some of them with him. Just for now, will he confirm that some of that outreach work will continue to be delivered within the Shipley constituency, and will he also guarantee that the staff there can choose which other office to work at, which may be much closer to their home, so that they do not all have to move to Bradford?

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I can give my hon. Friend an assurance that outreach work will continue in Shipley. Not just in Shipley but more generally, DWP will look to work with staff as much as possible to accommodate their preferences. I know that my hon. Friend has already met the Minister for Employment to discuss this matter, but I dare say that he and I will have further conversations on this point in the near future. Given previous experience, we will probably have many such conversations.

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The Government seem obsessed with the spreadsheet economy to the detriment of our communities, which must suffer the consequences of austerity. The National Assembly for Wales does not have control over our own employment services, meaning that we too are quite vulnerable to the closure of jobcentres and the loss of hundreds of jobs. I urge the Secretary of State to reverse these planned closures, and ask him whether he would consider devolving Jobcentre Plus functions to Wales.

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Let us be clear about the employment record over the past seven years. We have nearly 3 million people in work, youth unemployment has fallen by 375,000, the employment rate is at a record high and unemployment is at the lowest level since 1975. Some of the credit has to go to what jobcentres are delivering and the policies that the Government have pursued—those things have assisted. It is right that we continue to seek good value for money for the taxpayer, and I do not foresee any move towards further devolution in this area.

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What arrangements are being made to help vulnerable claimants to access jobcentres? I am thinking particularly of those in rural areas, for example by offering help with travel.

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My hon. Friend raises an important point. There are steps that we take to assist more vulnerable claimants, such as being able to make visits, where necessary, in particular circumstances. That will continue, but it is absolutely right that we require those who are able to visit a jobcentre to do so.

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Is the Secretary of State aware that when we embarked on finding jobs when the pits shut in the Derbyshire and Bolsover area, we set up Markham Vale straight off the M1 and created several hundred jobs in the process? That has not yet finished with the local authorities concerned. The Bolsover jobcentre played a significant part in ensuring that those 700 jobs were available, and, as a result, needs to continue. We are enlarging the site to provide several hundred more jobs. Surely it is not appropriate to shut the Bolsover jobcentre that has played a magnificent part in providing work for the miners and families of miners who lost their jobs. Surely he should reverse this.

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I thank the hon. Gentleman for his recognition of the work that has been done to help those who were working miners. I think I am fairly confident in saying that employment numbers and unemployment numbers have moved in the right direction in his constituency over the past seven years, which may reflect the changing political nature of his constituency. The staff at the Bolsover site are moving to Staveley. Jobcentres do have a valuable role to play, as I have outlined, but it is right that we should have modern facilities and that is what these plans involve delivering.

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Obviously, we are having this debate in the context of record employment. On both sides of the House, we should be welcoming the fact that fewer people are unemployed now than ever before. That has brought with it enormous social benefits—[Interruption.] If the hon. Member for Garston and Halewood (Maria Eagle) is patient for a moment, she will hear the question. In Wirral West, for example—

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Order. I am sorry, but I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman needs to ask a question not in a moment or two but straight away, because many other colleagues are waiting to contribute. The hon. Gentleman is new, and he must get used to it. I want him to get to his question.

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I will, Mr Speaker. The important thing is that we ensure that people have the support they need, rather than be obsessed with bricks and mortar.

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I agree with my hon. Friend. That is the right point, and the support that people need can often be better provided in well-equipped, modern—sometimes larger—jobcentres than by using the estate that may have served us well 10 or 15 years ago but is now out of date.

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Sheffield’s Eastern Avenue jobcentre is rooted in the community that it serves. Its staff therefore understand local people and can do the job, better supporting them because of that. The Secretary of State talks about a much improved service, but does he not recognise that centralising the service, breaking that link with the local community, will damage the work that the jobcentre can do? Will he think again?

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On the hon. Gentleman’s point about Sheffield Eastern Avenue centre closing, let me reassure him that outreach will be put in place in the local community, so there will continue to be a service in his area. The number of jobcentres in Sheffield is being reduced from seven to six, but in the context of that city that is the right move so that we have got six properly functioning, fully utilised centres rather than more.

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May I say to my right hon. Friend that when the Labour Government closed down the Christchurch jobcentre the sky did not fall in. Would it not be sensible now, with fewer jobcentres, to ensure that they are open at weekends so that they are more accessible?

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My hon. Friend makes a good point. Other Governments have also changed the estate system for jobcentres, and I do not think that was by any means disastrous. His point about opening at weekends is interesting. We would have the facility to do that, and we will keep it under review, considering value for money and so on. If there was a good case for that, it is certainly something we could do.

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Having conducted a survey outside Batley jobcentre, I know that the majority of users walk there—often every day—to use the computers to look for jobs. With Batley’s closing, they will have to walk to Dewsbury, a journey of 20 minutes—if they are able-bodied. Will the Secretary of State confirm whether new sanctioning guidance will be provided for those who are late or miss appointments?

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We do not expect people to miss appointments. As I said earlier, people looking for jobs are expected to spend 35 hours a week doing so, which should enable them to travel from Batley to Dewsbury in the time available. We would expect people to make appointments, but we would look at the individual circumstances if somebody has missed an appointment, to take into account whether there might be any mitigating factors.

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Has my right hon. Friend made any assessment of the direct benefit that jobseekers will experience as a result of co-locating jobcentre services with other sources of support? Surely it is outcomes that matter here.

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My hon. Friend is right—it is outcomes that matter. In some circumstances co-location in itself may have benefits and in others having a jobcentre that is modern, properly designed and of sufficient scale to provide a range of services to claimants helps to improve outcomes. It is improved outcomes that we want.

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Evidence to the Scottish Affairs Committee from the Public and Commercial Services Union suggested that jobcentre closures were likely to lead to increased numbers of people being late for appointments and therefore being sanctioned, and the director of Poverty Alliance argued that the Government should therefore reconsider sanctions for lateness. Will the Minister now confirm that he is committed to doing so?

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Let us put this in context: 97% of JSA claimants are not sanctioned every month. Given the number of hours we expect people to spend looking for work, I think travelling to a jobcentre, just as people travel to work, is the way life operates for most people. If there are particular circumstances that result in someone being late for an assessment or meeting, they can be taken into account.

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Does the Minister not realise that jobcentres are always needed under a Labour Government, whereas under this Government, with unemployment falling and 2.9 million more people in work, we should be spending money on getting more people into work and not on empty office space?

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My hon. Friend makes a good point. One could be drawn into a comparison of the records on employment of Governments of different sorts. I am proud of this Government’s record. We have an important role in supporting people in getting into work, staying in work and improving their position. I would prefer to spend the resources we have on doing that as efficiently and effectively as possible, and we would not be doing that if we were wasting £140 million a year on an estate that is no longer fit for purpose.

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I appreciate that the DWP makes considerable savings from the closure of jobcentres, including the one in Pyle in my constituency, but it is passing on a huge cost to those who will have to fund out of their benefits the costs of travelling by bus to their new jobcentre. According to the Minister, it takes 39 minutes to get from Pyle to Porthcawl, but it is clear that he has never tried to make that journey on a bus. Will he undertake to ensure that no one travelling from Pyle to Porthcawl is sanctioned because of a bus service that is not regular?

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Those who have been out of work for 13 weeks or more have access to a jobcentre discount card, which reduces their travel costs by half. A lot of people in their daily lives have to travel distances and be somewhere on time. We expect people to spend 35 hours a week searching for work, and that can include allowing good time to travel from home to a jobcentre. I think that is perfectly reasonable, but I repeat that if there are particular circumstances that result in someone missing an appointment, there is discretion regarding sanctions.

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Does my right hon. Friend agree that

“the purpose of the estates review is to make sure that the estate is effective and reflects demands on the…service”?

Those are not my words but those of the Scottish National party Government Cabinet Secretary for Justice, Michael Matheson MSP, in relation to Police Scotland. They show that the SNP argue for rationalising the public services estate when it suits them.

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My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. Governments have to ensure that public money is spent sensibly, and one of the ways of doing that is by rationalising the estate. Keeping open under-utilised jobcentres is simply not a good use of taxpayers’ money, and it does not do claimants any good either.

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The Scottish Affairs Committee published a report at the end of the previous Parliament that was hugely critical of the Government’s approach to jobcentre closures, particularly in Glasgow, where some claimants are having to take three buses to reach other jobcentres, at huge expense. The Secretary of State has said three times this morning that he will not review the sanctions regime for people who are late for appointments. Will he look at that with the compassion that I know he has, he having been a good Minister in the previous Parliament, to see whether anything can be done to ensure that people are not put into significant deprivation as a result of these sanctions?

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I make the point to the hon. Gentleman that there are many more appointments for which claimants are late than there are sanctions. It is simply not the case that being late automatically means a sanction; a judgment is made. I think we also have to recognise that many people in work have to catch three buses to get to work and are expected to be there on time, so I do not think it is unreasonable to expect people to travel to a jobcentre if they are able to do so. Glasgow continues to be the most generously provided for, in terms of the number of jobcentres, of any city in the United Kingdom.

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Order. There is excessive noise coming from the Scottish National party Benches. They are in a very excitable state. I am not sure what it is they have for breakfast, but I will take care to avoid it.

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