The Secretary of State was asked—
Leaving the EU: New Trade Agreements
Before I begin, I would like to offer my sincerest condolences to the family and friends of Simon Speirs, who tragically lost his life while on board the Great Britain yacht during the Clipper round the world race last weekend. Our thoughts and prayers are with his family at this very sad time.
The Department for International Trade is building a world-class trade policy and negotiation capability for the long-term future of our country. Since July 2016, our trade policy group has grown significantly, from 45 to more than 400 today, and it is continuing to grow. We have also established a series of working groups and high-level dialogues with key trade partners to explore the best ways of progressing our trade and investment relationships. Those partners include the United States, Australia, Mexico and Japan.
I thank my right hon. Friend for his reply. The business community in my constituency is eagerly looking forward to the opportunities the new trade agreements will bring. Will he clarify which elements of the Trade Bill refer to the free trade agreements?
The Trade Bill is about maintaining the effects of our current trading arrangements to ensure continuity for businesses, workers and consumers as we leave the European Union. That means the powers in the Trade Bill will be used only to transition our existing trade agreements that the EU has already signed prior to exit. Work is ongoing to establish how we will deal with future free trade agreements, but I am afraid that to claim that the current Bill allows Ministers a free hand to write future FTAs is simply untrue.
Businesses and constituents in Newark believe it is essential that the existing EU FTAs are transferred and rolled over as expeditiously as possible, but we should not confuse that with signing new FTAs. Will the Secretary of State therefore confirm that there will be an entirely separate consultation with the public and with Parliament on how we handle those separate new FTAs?
Yes, there will be. The trade White Paper, which is of course very separate from the Trade Bill, asked for views on what a future engagement and scrutiny framework should look like on trade. We are considering the responses and we will engage in the coming months. Given the changes we see, with Pascal Lamy describing a move away from the protection of producers to consumer precaution, we will have to take the views of consumers far more into account in future trade agreements than we have in the past.
When I was a little boy, my grandmother used to say, “Shame the devil and tell the truth.” When will this Secretary of State tell the truth? He has been, with his colleagues, going around the world begging for a trade deal and everyone is telling him, “We want to trade with the European Union, a much bigger trading group.”
No further explanation is required. We are immensely interested in the hon. Gentleman’s grandmother, and his ruminations on that matter will doubtless be found in his memoirs, which will be deposited in the Library and we can consult in the long winter evenings that lie ahead.
We will want to see what the best deals we can get for the UK are, how we can get our trading volumes and value up, and what opportunities we can take as we leave the EU. Of course we are pleased to continue to go along with the British public’s view on the referendum, and the hon. Gentleman will no doubt want to do the same, as his constituency voted overwhelmingly to leave—that is no doubt a view he will endorse.
Will my right hon. Friend confirm the position on trade agreements when we leave the EU: after April 2019, we will be negotiating such trade deals and look forward to actually signing them when we break free from the shackles of the EU?
Again, to make it clear, before we leave the European Union we have to be able to transition the existing EU free trade agreements to give ourselves the legal basis to trade. Of course, up to that point and beyond, we will want to see what new opportunities are available. If, during an implementation period, we decide that we are not going to introduce and put into effect new trade agreements, we will still want to negotiate and sign them.
The Secretary of State is repeating what he told Politico recently: that his Department wants to copy and paste the trade deals because it does not yet have the capacity to negotiate new ones. As there cannot really be a better trading relationship with the European Union than membership of the single market, is that not actually the best idea? If taking back control simply means duplicating what we already have, why not take the easy and obvious path and stay in the single market?
I shall help the hon. Gentleman out of his confusion. As I have said on numerous occasions, it is not possible simply to copy and paste the existing agreements. For example, we must take into account the disaggregation of tariff-rate quotas, so it is not quite that simple.
Do the Secretary of State’s officials trudge into work, full of doom and gloom-laden, thinking it is all going to be too difficult, or do they bounce into his office, full of energy and enthusiasm, seeing Brexit as a wonderful opportunity for Britain to be at the forefront of leading the world into the bright sunlit uplands of freer trade?
Not all that many people bounce into my office, although they regularly bounce out of it. We are an incredibly optimistic Department and we look to the future with great confidence. Let me give some figures: the most recent time we advertised jobs in the Department, there were 1,698 applicants for the 92 jobs available. That suggests to me that there is a great deal of optimism, even in our civil service.
The Secretary of State is indeed an optimist, and it is good to hear him so upbeat about all the trade opportunities that he thinks await us in the post-Brexit world. Perhaps he can explain why, when the Red Book shows trade in the world economy increasing year-on-year by 4% over the next five years, it shows the UK’s export growth decline from 3.4% next year to 1.2% in 2019, and then plummet to just 0.1% in each of the following three years. Is the Secretary of State perhaps an optimist who can find no rational grounds for his optimism?
It is nice to see that “Project Fear” never dies. Rather than going on projections, let me tell the hon. Gentleman what our economy has actually done. He is right that global trade has been growing at around 3%, but UK exports have been up 13.1% in the past year—in goods they are up by more than 16%. That is the real performance of the UK economy. There is incredible slack in our ability to export further and we should be encouraging British exporters to do so.
I am glad my hon. Friend asks about our export promotion capability. In 2016, exports of goods from the region, which includes my own constituency, grew by 10.6% compared with 2015, with double-digit growth for markets such as Singapore and South Korea. DIT stands ready to support these businesses, including through the global growth pilot, which offers deeper export support, or through a targeted export programme alongside Torbay Development Agency.
I thank my right hon. Friend for his answer, not least because he is a fellow south-west MP. Gooch & Housego’s Torquay factory recently won national recognition for how its staff and management have worked together to grow their business. What support does my right hon. Friend intend to give to that and other companies in Torbay’s vital photonics sector so that they can grow further by increasing their exports?
Photonics is about the science of light generation and manipulation, Mr Speaker—of course, you and all other Members already knew that. DIT’s local international trade adviser engages with businesses in the photonics sector and with the Torbay Development Agency, and will soon address the Torbay manufacturing forum. DIT specialists will meet the Torbay Development Agency in January to review the marketing proposition for the sector, and a DIT sector specialist will visit Japan to promote UK photonics capability.
The south-west traditionally grows very fine livestock and has a buoyant export market. Will the Secretary of State give me and the farmers of Taunton Deane some assurance that if export certification demands increase as we leave the EU, the Government will give the right support to the agricultural industry, and will they look into the development of electronic systems to help the certification process?
Yes. The Government are committed to ensuring as smooth as possible an exit from the EU, including for all our business sectors, which obviously covers agriculture. Beyond that, the Department is particularly focused on finding new markets for our agricultural sector. There is substantial growth in demand for agricultural products in countries such as China and India. Given that the UK’s are the finest in the world, we should be at the forefront of those export markets.
Economic Partnership Agreements
We are guided by a desire to seek continuity first of all in our trading relationships with developing countries as we leave the European Union, and that includes economic partnership agreements. Our EPA partner countries have already welcomed that commitment. The UK is of course fully committed to promoting and delivering the sustainable development goals and is the first and only G7 country to spend 0.7% of national income on overseas development assistance.
Given that countries such as Nigeria and Uganda have refused to sign the economic partnership agreements because they do not believe that they are beneficial and in their long-term interest, how does the Secretary of State intend to address those issues, and is he considering GSP—the generalised scheme of preferences—or GSP plus?
We have already announced that we will be transitioning the full preference scheme of the European Union, including all the categories; that includes GSP and GSP plus. I am surprised if the hon. Gentleman is opposed to our transitioning the EPAs because, as you well know, Mr Speaker, UK imports worth around £290 million from the developing world were imported last year using the EPAs, and they would otherwise have had to pay a higher tariff to enter the UK.
Although the EPAs in Africa are working in the south, they are working less well in the east and west. Is the Minister working with his colleagues in the Department for International Development to look at inter-African trade, rather than trade with what is a declining market sector—Europe—compared with the rest of the world?
We have had very successful talks. The Secretary of State was in South Africa just a couple of months ago and in Ethiopia recently. We are engaging very closely with Africa and with DFID Ministers, including the Minister for Africa, my hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart). In a joint statement, we have agreed to seek to transition the Southern African Development Community’s EPA and, last week, we signed an agreement to seek to transition the Caribbean Forum’s EPA as well.
These are agreements that are being transitioned. The purpose here is to take an agreement that is already in place and to make sure that it continues to be in place after we leave the European Union. Of course we are in constant dialogue with our developing world partners, and we are open to improving those preferential arrangements in the future if that is deemed to be in the interests of the developing countries.
Under the leadership of my right hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham (Sir Vince Cable) and the noble Lord Hague, in 2013, the UK Government were the first to publish a national action plan on business and human rights. Will the Minister give a commitment that human rights impact assessments will be undertaken before any new trade deal is signed and that any new trade deal will also include provision for enforcement of human rights?
Of course the UK remains absolutely committed to universal human rights. We have a strong track record of supporting human rights across the world. Safeguarding, promoting and defending human rights is an integral part of government and human rights and prosperity of course are mutually supportive. As part of transitioning EU arrangements, we will be maintaining a similar approach to human rights commitments in UK trade policy.
The Department for International Trade has overall responsibility for both inward direct investment into the UK from abroad and outward direct investment from the UK to markets overseas. Officials in my Department and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy have numerous discussions on how we can support our businesses. DIT is currently undertaking an export strategy to better understand the needs of businesses seeking to export, as well as identifying those opportunities via the GREAT.gov.uk website.
Exporting manufacturing businesses in north Wales such as Magellan Aerospace and Airbus are world-beating organisations, but they desperately need infrastructure, investment and support from the Government to face the challenges ahead. Why are this Government so reluctant to invest in and support north Wales?
I believe that a north Wales growth deal was announced in the Budget. It is also important to remember that the industrial strategy will be announced next week. That will talk about exactly how we can improve the infrastructure to support the great businesses in north Wales that the hon. Gentleman represents very well.
I have noticed a phenomenon of what I will call inconsistent bobbing in the Chamber. A Member bobs once and thinks that that is sufficient signal of a desire to participate. Repeated bobbing has always been required, as the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman) can well testify. I encourage the hon. Member for East Renfrewshire (Paul Masterton) to increased athleticism.
Thank you, Mr Speaker, and apologies.
With whisky exports worth £4 billion a year, has the Minister discussed with the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy how we can capitalise on the export success story of Scottish whisky?
Scottish whisky is one of our greatest export success stories, and my hon. Friend is right to say that it is worth £4 billion a year. It is this Department that leads, in every sense, on promoting exports of food and drink across the world. With the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, we look, in terms of agricultural exports, at where we have market access and at standards. We have to agree that separately.
Ethiopia: Human Rights
The Foreign and Commonwealth Office is responsible for policy on human rights across the whole of Government. The UK has a strong history of protecting human rights and promoting our values globally. We will continue to encourage all states to uphold international human rights obligations, including when we meet them both in the UK and on overseas visits.
I thank the Secretary of State for that answer. I am going to put to the test the statement he made a few seconds ago—that the UK always promotes human rights in trade talks. Did he raise the case of Andy Tsege, and the prison visit that the UK Government have promised, with his Ethiopian counterparts? What progress is being made on releasing him?
In my official meeting with the Ethiopian Prime Minister, we discussed the need for long-term political and economic stability, as well as the political space. We did, indeed, raise the consular case mentioned by the right hon. Gentleman in private and with our ambassador. I hope that we will see the results of that interaction soon.
I declare an interest as the Prime Minister’s trade envoy to Ethiopia. Does the Secretary of State agree that the work of Her Majesty’s ambassador in Addis Ababa is really tremendous—she has arranged for visits and has personally visited Andy Tsege—but that the situation needs to come to an end? At the same time, will he acknowledge the work that the Ethiopian Government are doing with the Department for International Development to try to get more than 1 million refugees throughout the country into work in a jobs compact?
It is always the aim of our Government to get other Governments to replicate our values in a clear and practical way. I second my hon. Friend’s vote of thanks to our ambassador for the work that she and her staff are doing. He makes a valid point that we need to take into consideration some of the extreme pressures that some countries are under. Taking 1 million refugees is not an easy task for the most developed country, never mind a country such as Ethiopia that is moving forward in development.
Trade Remedies Authority
We are taking the necessary steps to operate our own trade remedies system. That will investigate and take action against unfair trading practices that injure UK industry. The new, independent trade remedies authority will operate the system and make recommendations to address injury found by its investigations. In doing so, it will consider the interests of all parties, such as user industries, producers and consumers, as well as regional and long-term impacts.
The Minister will be aware that his Conservative colleagues in the European Parliament have frustrated efforts to prevent the dumping of steel by the Chinese on the European market by pushing for the lesser duty rule, which has had a devastating impact on British steel production. Will the trade remedies authority apply a proper public interest test to protect the interest of workers and industry in this country?
The hon. Gentleman mentions the European Parliament. Perhaps he might have a word with his own colleagues, who have sought in the recent vote in the European Parliament to frustrate the process of us even talking about trade with the European Union to start with. The purpose of trade remedies measures is to address injury caused to domestic industry. The lesser duty rule provides adequate protection to achieve the same so that industry can operate on a fair playing field and without imposing unnecessary costs on downstream industry and consumers.
I should remind the Minister that it was this Government that argued against trade remedies in Europe and that failed to protect our steel and ceramics industries. That is why it is not surprising that manufacturers are concerned that the new trade remedies authority will focus on consumer interests at the expense of businesses and jobs. What assurances can the Minister give that it will not always seek to apply the lesser duty rule? Will he now commit to include social and environmental criteria in the remit of the trade remedies authority, so that the UK does not become the dumping ground for goods that can no longer be dumped in the EU?
We have taken robust action on steel in concert with the European Union, and we are playing an active role within that. The Government of course recognise that overcapacity is a significant global issue, which is why we have been working proactively through the EU and our G20 partners. The hon. Gentleman seeks to downplay the interests of consumers in all of this, but they will be absolutely vital and at the heart of our trade remedies process—exactly where they deserve to be.
UK Export Finance
We are putting export finance at the heart of trade promotion by enhancing the financial support available to exporters and smaller companies in their supply chains. This is a new guarantee to banks designed to increase liquidity in the supply chain, improving exporters’ access to capital and enabling their suppliers to fulfil new orders. As my right hon. Friend the Chancellor stated yesterday, UK Export Finance will launch a targeted campaign to promote the support they offer to exporters and overseas buyers, as part of the wider GREAT campaign.
In the few short months my hon. Friend has been a Member, he has proved a doughty campaigner for the whisky industry and the agricultural industry in his patch, and I would be delighted to come along and visit him. I would point out that the Board of Trade has been established across the whole country to promote the interests of regions. We have regional international trade advisers, and they work through the Scottish Government, fully supported by the Department for International Trade.
Berwick-upon-Tweed, Alnwick and Amble now have innovative high-tech software businesses designing unique products that have serious global market potential. Can the Minister confirm that these businesses will be able to access UK export finance to reach into new countries, boost British exports and bring new high-tech jobs into my constituency? He is, of course, welcome to stop off on his way to Scotland.
I would love to go to Berwick-upon-Tweed, and I cannot wait to go. It is absolutely right that UK Export Finance has introduced a number of measures, including passing delegated powers to the high street banks to offer up to £2 million of export credit. It is important that we recognise that this resource is vital to financing exports. My hon. Friend will know from the recent briefing session we held for Members of Parliament that we are keen to engage with all Members of Parliament to see how UK Export Finance can help their constituents.
Can the Minister give an indication of the expressions of interest thus far received from small and medium-sized enterprises, which are now able to access UK export finance through high street banks? Does he believe that that could be promoted to allow SMEs to safely expand?
I will have to get back to the hon. Gentleman on the exact figures, but he is absolutely right to highlight the fact that we need to do more to promote this opportunity for SMEs to get this high street financing through UK Export Finance. To that end, in the Budget, we have allocated an advertising budget in order to be able to promote UK Export Finance.
It is perfectly reasonable that the whole Government adhere to the objectives of all the agreements we have undertaken, so no Department would go against any of that. However, I would also point out that we are undertaking financing for offshore wind farms, so we are actually helping to build more carbon-neutral capacity.
My Department has three tasks: promoting UK exports of goods and services, investment both inwards and outwards, and trade policy. In furtherance of this, since we last met for departmental questions on 12 October, Ministers have undertaken visits to Europe, the Gulf, Asia and Africa. Today I shall be travelling to New Zealand and then Australia.
I would also like to formally welcome Baroness Rona Fairhead to the Department. She has joined as Minister responsible for trade and export promotion, and she will be making her maiden speech in the other place on Monday.
I know my hon. Friend takes a strong interest in this, and he makes a valuable point. As the host of the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting next April, the UK is committed to highlighting the value of, and increasing, intra-Commonwealth trade. Businesses will have an opportunity to meet in a three-day forum that will see a diverse range of sectors represented. This will help us promote our vision for global Britain and to celebrate and grow the vital intra-Commonwealth trade that he mentions.
America’s Trade Secretary Wilbur Ross told the CBI this month that the essential precondition of a trade deal with the USA was to move our regulation standards and environmental protections away from the EU and closer to those of the Americans. Last week, Michel Barnier said that the essential precondition of a good trade deal with the EU was to keep our regulation standards and environmental protections close to the European model. The Government say their top priority is securing barrier-free trade with the EU, so does the Secretary of State accept that he can have American cake or European gateau, but he cannot have both?
Sack the writer.
When it comes to standards, we have made it very clear that we will not see a reduction in the quality or safety of products—either goods or services—made available to UK consumers. We will determine in the United Kingdom what we think those should be, and then we will negotiate with any countries that are willing to negotiate on those terms. We will determine what we choose for Britain’s future. Unlike the Opposition, we will not be dictated to by Mr Barnier.
Outward direct investment is a new priority of the Government since the summer of 2016. We have launched a number of pilots looking at how best we might approach that, and there is funding available in the prosperity fund for it.
May I congratulate my hon. Friend on his role as the trade envoy to Pakistan? In September I visited a very successful example of outward direct investment, the huge GSK plant in Karachi, which produces more than 200 million packages of medicine for the Pakistan market and is a vital part of GSK’s overseas operation.
This is an excellent opportunity to correct the misinformation that was put in The Guardian on Monday, on which the Department put out a release afterwards to be absolutely clear that the basis of the meeting with the Brazilian Energy Minister, which I might add was public at the time—I even put it on Twitter, but it took The Guardian six months to pick up on it—was to secure a level playing field for British companies in that market. We make no apology for saying that Brazil’s tough environmental regulations should apply equally to all companies across the board.
As we leave the EU, we will be able to shape trade policy in our national interest and take advantage of things that are not available to us as a member of the EU. Free ports are one possible tool in that context, and we will want to look closely at the implications. Another thing that might help my hon. Friend, who has a large fish processing capability in his constituency employing some 5,000 people, is discussing with the Department what overseas direct investment might do for expanding that business’s potential.
I had discussions recently with all the different parts of the devolved Administrations. They will clearly be very important partners in putting together our future free trade agreements, and they should be treated with due respect in that. However, I would say that they are not the only voices in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. We will want to consult businesses, consumers, unions and the general public, and we will need to have a much wider consultation in future than we have had in the past.
Small Business Saturday is an increasingly important business day in the run-up to Christmas. How are the Secretary of State and his Department helping small businesses in my constituency to export more?
Small Business Saturday is in its fifth year. It is a celebration of our small businesses, and I imagine that all Members of the House will be taking part and celebrating businesses in their own constituencies. I shall be with the UK export hub, which some Members have had experience of, in Portishead in my constituency. I encourage as many as possible of the members of the public who may be paying attention to these proceedings to attend.
Clause 2 of the Trade Bill gives powers to Ministers, potentially for the whole of the next decade, to sort out the issue of the 60 or so trade agreements that we currently benefit from with third countries by virtue of our membership with the EU. Far from being resolved in the next 16 months, is it not the case that that issue—dividing up tariff quotas and so on, and defining a new UK-EU trading relationship—rather than the fiction of the Secretary of State’s fantasy trade deals elsewhere, will dominate the work of the Department over the next few years?
We already touched on this a little earlier in question time. Can we be absolutely clear that my predecessor, Lord Price, and I have met all the key trading partners that are subject to those deals? We have in-principle agreement from most of them, and we have had no problem from any of them about transitioning those key trade agreements, so we do not foresee that being a difficulty. It is a technical process. Of course, there are one or two things that need to be sorted out in talks with those partners, but we are in the right position and we look forward to transitioning those agreements as a key part of our trading future.
Women and Equalities
The Minister for Women and Equalities was asked—
All Departments carefully consider the equalities impact of individual policy decisions on those who share protected characteristics, including gender and race, in line with the Government’s strong commitment to equality issues. From April 2018, the national living wage will increase by 4.4%. Past increases have disproportionately benefited women and those from BAME backgrounds, as well as the disabled.
Does the Minister accept the figures contained in the “Intersecting Inequalities” report by the Women’s Budget Group and the Runnymede Trust, showing the disproportionate impact of tax and benefit changes on women from black and minority ethnic backgrounds, and will the Government issue an official response?
I am aware of that work. Part of the challenge is that we need to see much more clearly the broader picture in relation to how Budgets and Government decisions affect BAME women. The analysis that the hon. Gentleman mentions does not take into account the impact of the national living wage, the changes we have made to childcare—introducing 30 hours’ free care—the work that we are doing on reducing the gender pay gap, the introduction of shared parental leave or the introduction of increased flexible working. The Institute for Fiscal Studies has been very clear that
“what is possible falls a long way short of a full gender impact assessment”,
and that is the underlying weakness in the analysis.[Official Report, 18 December 2017, Vol. 633, c. 4MC.]
Does the Minister agree that the welcome announcement in the Budget yesterday of £600 per pupil towards the study of maths at higher than GCSE level will be of huge benefit for BAME women, and women across the board, because many studies show that women with higher science, technology, engineering and maths qualifications can earn up to 20% more?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and this has been a focus for the Government for the past seven years. The next steps were announced yesterday, with the £600 extra for young people enrolling on such A-levels, alongside a commitment to have more transparency on the STEM A-level subjects that girls are taking, so that we can really focus on gender disparities and seek to address them. It is probably worth pointing out that maths A-level has been the most popular A-level in our country since 2013, which shows that although we have a long way to go, this Government are already making a difference in successfully encouraging young people to take maths.
The Chancellor’s £1.5 billion package for universal credit will do very little to address the disproportionate impact of previous Budgets and policies on BAME women. According to the Women’s Budget Group, BAME women will be £1,400 a year worse off. Will the Minister make representations to the Chancellor on behalf of these women?
It is worth reflecting on the fact that two thirds of the people who will benefit from the national living wage increase—it is increasing by 4.4% from next April—will be women. Indeed, because of the tax changes we are making, with the increase in the personal allowance from 2015-16 to 2017-18, 800,000 women will be taken out of tax altogether, which is something we should all welcome.
We know that black and minority ethnic women face multiple disadvantages in society, and good information is crucial for sound policy making. I listened to the Minister’s concerns about publishing such information on the impact of the Budget, but may I offer a solution? If the Government were to publish their own analysis of the impact of the Budget on gender and race, everybody would be able to see what the impacts are, and indeed Ministers would be able to make good policy decisions for all groups who are protected.
As I have set out, it is difficult to do that, as the IFS has said. The underlying point, which I think everyone recognises, is that it is very difficult to do the analysis because it relies on assumptions about how income is shared within households. In relation to the outcomes for BAME women, and BAME people more broadly, 3.8 million ethnic minority people are now in work, which is a rise of 1.7 million since 2005. It is also worth telling the House that we are making a particular push on apprenticeships by ensuring that we see diversity among those who are taking them, and a growing number of BAME young people are doing so.
Supporting Women back into Work
The 2017 spring Budget made £5 million available for returners in both the public sector and the private sector. We have already announced a number of programmes to help people return to work, including ones for allied health professionals, civil servants and social workers.
The gender pay gap can be explained in part by professional and other women returning to the workplace in lesser roles than the ones they left to take time off to raise families or look after loved ones. Will my right hon. Friend highlight what the Government are doing to address that particular shortfall?
I thank my hon. Friend for raising what is actually a very important point. It should be remembered that 89% of people who take time off work for caring responsibilities are women. Closing the gender pay gap is extremely important. Analysis by the Institute for Fiscal Studies has shown that women earn 2% less on average for every year spent out of paid work, and the figure is even higher for highly paid women. We are talking to employers, evaluating all the programmes and gathering evidence of what works, and we hope to publish guidance on best practice for small and medium-sized employers next spring.
The £5 million available for returns programmes will also be aimed at employers. We must understand that a complex set of reasons put people off returning to work, and the evidence that will be gathered will be important in ensuring that the best practice guidance published in spring gives a clear direction to employers, to ensure that they can harness the skills of those who take time off work.
The hon. Lady makes an important point—I declare an interest as I consider myself an older worker. She is right to say that people choose to return to work at various times, and we must ensure that facilities and retraining schemes are available. We must also dig deeper to find out what the obstacles are. Confidence building with women is a significant issue when they have taken time off, and the longer that someone is out of the workplace, the more difficult that becomes.
According to the Government’s own data, 54,000 women are discriminated against and forced out of work when they are pregnant. The £5 million announced for return to work schemes is, of course, enormously welcome, but will the Minister set out in more detail how many women will benefit from the scheme? What specific projects—she mentioned the civil service—will be introduced to try to get more women back into work after having a child?
It is not just the civil service; we are looking at allied health professionals, civil servants and social workers. The social work programmes are in London, the west midlands, and the east of England. The hon. Gentleman makes an important point: encouraging women to get back into the workplace is critical, and employers should be aware that there are very clear laws about what they can and cannot do when their employees take time off work for maternity leave.
As the hon. Member for Ogmore (Chris Elmore) said, despite some of the best laws in the world, women in this country who are in work face more discrimination when they are pregnant than they did 10 years ago, and that can also stop them getting back into work. Will the Government consider making it clearer that employment tribunals have discretion in allowing individuals to bring discrimination cases in special circumstances outside the general three-month limit? Surely pregnancy must be a very special circumstance indeed.
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right—pregnancy is a very special circumstance, and women and employers are not always aware of their legal obligations. Some of the work that we are doing on gender pay gap reporting will be an important part of that, because it will highlight some of those issues and enable us to dig deeper into the reasons behind that pay gap. I have no doubt that some of it will be due to discrimination against women in the workplace.
Further to the response that the Minister gave to my hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore (Chris Elmore), will she say what concrete action the Government are taking to address the fact that 54,000 women are forced out of work in this country every year due to maternity discrimination? Women want action, not just warm words.
I point out to the hon. Lady that it is illegal and unlawful to discriminate in such a way, and employers are breaking the law in doing it. As constituency MPs, we can highlight to the women we meet or who come to our surgeries—[Interruption.] The hon. Lady says that she wants action from the Government, but action has been taken—it is against the law.
Refuges provide vital support for victims of domestic abuse. Since 2014 we have invested a total of £33.5 million in services to support victims of domestic abuse, including supporting our refuges.
The Minister will recognise that refuges are places of safety for women and children in flight from domestic violence and that in extreme cases they are literally life-saving, but does he understand the concern of organisations such as Women’s Aid that the changes to supported housing can have the effect of putting refuges under real pressure? Will he talk to his colleagues in the Department for Work and Pensions to make sure we get the answer right, so we have a national network of refuges?
The hon. Gentleman raises a very important point. Knowing his experience with the police force, he will understand that this is an extremely complicated area. The Government are absolutely determined to get this right, because it is of vital importance that we do so. There is no question but that refuges provide a life-saving role in our community and that is why we are currently consulting on the best way to ensure their future funding is right to make sure they are supported as permanent parts of our community.
I reassure the hon. Lady that those discussions are already taking place. Ministers in my Department have already met Women’s Aid. I know that it, and other organisations, will be playing an active part in the consultation on the future of funding for women’s refuges. That consultation closes on 23 January and I encourage all organisations, and Members, to take part.
Newark Women’s Aid is without question one of the most inspiring organisations I have visited in my constituency. Its finances, however, are fragile. When considering future financial settlements for women’s refuges, will the Minister ensure that the settlements are as long as possible—three or five years in length—to ensure the brave and brilliant people who run refuges have the security they need to continue?
My hon. Friend raises a very important point. I encourage him and Newark Women’s Aid to take part in the consultation. On the long-term funding of women’s refuges, it is fair to say that nothing is off the table. The Government have not ruled out a national funding scheme, if our consultation shows that that is correct.
The Government’s recently announced proposed reforms of supported housing suggest that entitlement to housing benefit when women enter a refuge will be paid directly to local authorities. This is effectively pulling the plug on secure funding and jeopardising the security of life-saving refuge organisations. Given the comments the Minister has made this morning, and the assurances that he will work with the refuges, will he meet me and refuge organisations to discuss their grave concerns about the sustainability of this model?
Representing the Department for Communities and Local Government, I find quite offensive the idea that giving funding direct to local authorities to support women in crisis in their community is in some way pulling the plug on them. We have been absolutely clear that we will continue to review the funding for care and support, and whether housing costs should be paid direct as grants to local authorities or not. We continue to explore all the options, including a national model for refuge provision.
Balancing Work with Childcare Responsibilities
Childcare is often the biggest challenge for working families. The Government are committed to supporting men and women to balance work and care obligations. That is why we have doubled the childcare entitlement for working parents of three and four-year-olds in England from 15 to 30 hours, and introduced tax-free childcare, which is available in Ulster. The right to request flexible working also enables parents to arrange care in a way that works for them.
Will the Minister outline how the Government intend to practically, and even financially, support small and medium-sized businesses, who incidentally are collectively the largest employers in Northern Ireland, to fulfil their obligation to consider and implement, where practical, flexible working times for parents?
Flexible working is good for the employer as well as the employee, helping morale, motivation and productivity. It is vital in these times that businesses retain and recruit key staff. Progressive companies understand this and how flexible working is an essential element in securing success. We are working with employer groups and others on how best to promote genuine two-way flexible working.
Fathers also have a critical role to play in childcare, but the Women and Equalities Committee heard recently from some fathers who suggested that the take-up of paternity leave was very low. What more can the Minister to do to encourage fathers to play an active role in early childcare?
Caste as a Protected Characteristic
The public consultation on how best to ensure that there is appropriate and proportionate legal protection against caste discrimination closed on 18 September. We received more than 13,000 responses, which are currently being analysed, and we will respond in due course.
Given the thousands of responses from British Hindus saying that having caste as a protected characteristic in equality law is unnecessary and divisive, will my right hon. Friend take action to remove that provision—which was introduced by the Labour party—from the legislative book?
We appreciate that caste is an extremely sensitive and emotive subject which is important to many people, but there is clearly no unanimous view among consultation respondents about how best to provide the necessary legal protection against caste discrimination. We are therefore considering the responses very carefully, and will be taking account of all the relevant points raised when deciding how to proceed.
Does the Minister recognise that leaving people to rely only on case law would not be sufficient, because they would be uncertain whether their cases would necessarily accord with decisions in previous cases, and does he agree that legislation is necessary for that reason?
The hon. Lady has expressed an opinion, and so has my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman). As I have said, we are looking at 13,000 opinions. We completely oppose any form of discrimination related to a person’s caste, but the way in which we ensure that that does not happen must be proportionate. We will respond to the consultation in due course.
People with Disabilities: Changing Facilities
The Government recognise that the provision of changing facilities is an important issue for people whose needs are not met by standard public lavatories. We have worked with Mencap and the Changing Places campaign to improve provision. In particular, we have provided funds for a searchable application to enable people to find their nearest Changing Places lavatories.
I thank Changing Places for the work that it has done to improve facilities throughout the country, and I thank local campaigners for approaching me. They are right to campaign for more suitable facilities in areas of leisure such as football stadiums where people can be changed with dignity and in safety. Will the Minister outline further Government support?
Owing to the campaigning of my hon. Friend and other organisations, since 2007 the number of Changing Places lavatories has increased from 140 to more than 1,000, but there are still not enough. I remind those in charge of all public buildings, and all buildings in which services are provided, that they have a duty under the Equality Act 2010 to make reasonable adjustments to ensure that changing places can be installed.
As chair of the all-party parliamentary group for disability, I hear repeated distressing stories about disabled children being changed on toilet floors owing to lack of provision. That is unacceptable, and also degrading, in today’s society. Will the Government consider putting Changing Places toilets on a statutory footing?
Under the Equality Act, there is already a requirement to make reasonable adjustments to ensure that changing places are provided. Other alterations would have to be made in building regulations. We are currently undertaking a building regulations review, and I do not wish to prejudge its conclusions, but let me highlight the extent of the problem. Only nine train stations out of a total of 2,500, only 12 motorway service stations out of nearly 100 and only 50 out of nearly 500 shopping centres have changing places. That is simply not good enough.
Over the past month, Mr Speaker, we were both, along with many colleagues from across the House, able to attend the event recognising the Patchwork Foundation’s excellent work engaging under-represented groups in politics. I was also lucky enough to be able to join the UK Youth Parliament in Parliament a few Fridays ago, when it debated important equalities issues such as LGBT rights and the need for a more diverse Parliament over the coming years.
Increasing diversity in Parliament is critical. The Government also remain committed to increasing equality in the workplace and it is good news that the new gender pay gap reporting released last month shows that the full-time gender pay gap is now the lowest it has ever been. Of course, this week marks the launch of our latest programme for returners in the public sector, for those wishing to rejoin the civil service. My Department is leading the way by offering returner places within the Government Equalities Office.
We have announced a £5 million fund that will do three things. First, it will help us fund the statue of Millicent Fawcett in Parliament Square. Secondly, there will be grassroots funding and we are alerting community organisations around the country so that they can do their own local projects. Thirdly, as we announced in the Budget yesterday, seven centenary cities and towns in England with a strong suffrage history will receive funding to make sure that the places where the push for women’s votes was strongest can play their role in helping us remember such an important milestone.
Yesterday’s Budget proved that austerity is a failed economic project and women have paid the price. Since 2010, 86% of net savings to the Treasury have come from women. Last year, the Treasury refused to send a Minister to the Women and Equalities Committee to answer questions about the impact of the Government’s budget plans and fiscal statements on women. The intersectionality of the cuts takes into account all the benefits to women, and they are still 10 or 12 times worse off. If the Minister disagrees, does she not think that it is about time for a comprehensive equality impact assessment to be conducted by the Government and for the Treasury to be held to account on the impact of their policies on women and diverse communities?
In the fact-free environment in which the Opposition live, it is easy to ignore what respected commentators such as the Institute for Fiscal Studies say about that analysis. It has said that
“what is possible falls a long way short of a full gender impact assessment.”
The IFS makes that point because the analysis of the Budget considers tax and welfare but does not and cannot take into account the impact of the national living wage, the childcare policies this Government have introduced, the work we have done on the gender pay gap, or the legal changes we have made on shared parental leave and flexible working. It gives a very narrow picture of how much the Government are doing to support women. The other point that has been missed is that there are now more women in work than ever before. If we are really interested in women’s economic empowerment, surely that is the main statistic we should focus on.
The survey received an unprecedented response, making it one of the largest LGBT surveys in the world. We will analyse those results closely and set out further steps to promote LGBT equality next year. My hon. Friend will be pleased to know that we are taking other action, including running a large anti-homophobic, biphobic and transphobic bullying programme in our schools.
Recent research by the Fawcett Society showed that it would take 100 years to close the gender pay gap at the current rate of change, and a report by the Women and Equalities Committee has suggested that we will achieve true economic equality only if we move to make all jobs flexible by default and introduce non-transferable paid paternity leave. What steps will the Government take to enact those recommendations?
This is an important topic. Paying men and women unequally for the same work has been unlawful for nearly 50 years, and I spoke directly with Frances O’Grady only yesterday about the need for us to work collectively to tackle this. The Department for Education also held a flexible working summit with the teaching profession last month. I agree that improving flexible working is part of how we can ensure that women are better able to get back into the workplace. In relation to equal pay, that is a legal requirement and gender pay gap transparency is part of how we can continue to shine a light on this range of issues.
The Equality Act 2010 allows organisations to provide single-sex services and we have no intention of changing the safeguards that are already in place to protect vulnerable women by providing those services. The consultation on the reform of the Gender Recognition Act 2004 will be a wide and open consultation, and we want to hear views from all stakeholders, including women’s groups and refuges.
The noble Lord, Lord Shinkwin, is a leading disability rights campaigner and was a superb nominee for the post of Disability Commissioner. After his nomination was made known to the Equality and Human Rights Commission, however, the post was abolished. Has the Government Equalities Office informed the Prime Minister’s office of this disgraceful development, and if so, when?
Parliament and the Leader of the House are tackling the difficult issue of sexual harassment in this place, and that is to be applauded, but 50% of women in the workplace in general suffer sexual harassment. What are the Government going to do to ensure that the strong laws set out in the Equality Act 2010 and beyond are actually abided by, by businesses in this country?
The debate that we have been having in this place is part of how we raise these issues of sexual harassment in the workplace. We need to be clear that it is illegal and unacceptable, and that it needs to be stamped out wherever we see it. There is legal protection, but we are increasingly understanding that attitudes fundamentally need to change. Also, the Department for Education can play a clear role in ensuring that young people at school get the kind of education that they need to understand that these attitudes are unacceptable, and that they get that from an early age.