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Commons Chamber

Volume 634: debated on Thursday 11 January 2018

House of Commons

Thursday 11 January 2018

The House met at half-past Nine o’clock

Prayers

[Mr Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions

International Trade

The Secretary of State was asked—

Trans-Pacific Partnership

First, I warmly welcome my hon. Friend the Member for Beverley and Holderness (Graham Stuart) to my ministerial team, where he will serve as the Minister for investment. I also pay tribute to the fantastic job that his predecessor, my hon. Friend the Member for Wyre Forest (Mark Garnier), did over the course of his time in the Department.

It is right that the Government prepare for all possible outcomes from leaving the EU, including preparing for no deal. We will consider a range of options as we establish our independent trade policy on a bilateral, plurilateral and multilateral basis. The Asia-Pacific region is a very important market and an engine for future global growth. We are closely following progress of the comprehensive and progressive agreement for the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

The UK’s trade with Trans-Pacific Partnership countries amounts to 7.2% of the UK’s total trade, whereas trade with the EU amounts to 48.6%. Will the Secretary of State confirm that his Department’s priority is to secure our close economic and trading ties with the world’s largest single market before embarking on negotiations with the other trade blocs?

These are not mutually exclusive. We want an open and comprehensive trading agreement with the European Union because it is an important part of our trade. However, TPP trade is already 14% of GDP—it would be 40% were the US to rejoin—and, as the International Monetary Fund has said, 90% of global growth in the next 10 to 15 years will occur outside Europe, where there will be important markets for the United Kingdom.

10. Two of the countries in the TPP are Australia and New Zealand. Will the Secretary of State look closely at their closer economic relationship agreement, which allows free trade of goods and services between those two countries, and will he prioritise an agreement between the United Kingdom and those two countries? (903221)

I have made it clear on a number of occasions, including in this House, that when it comes to future free trade agreements, Australia and New Zealand would be two of our top three priorities. If we are able, by another means, to achieve the sort of liberalisation in trade that we would all like to see, then that would be fine.

Surely the Secretary of State would agree that no Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal will make up for the loss of the European Union market. Has he seen this morning’s independent report, commissioned by the Mayor of London, that shows what a cataclysmic effect leaving the EU will have on our business and so many jobs?

As usual, I do not accept the premise of any part of the hon. Gentleman’s question. I do not believe that we will necessarily lose our share of the market. We want to maintain an open agreement with the European Union, and it will want to maintain an open agreement with us, because we are the fifth biggest economy in the world and a major trading partner for it. Of course, this morning’s report was anything but cataclysmic. In fact, its worst assessment was less than half the assessment that was given to us before the European referendum on what our loss of market share might be if there were no deal whatsoever.

I, too, welcome the new arrival to the Government Front Bench. I also welcome yesterday’s trade statistics. The Secretary of State and I may disagree over how much that owes to the depreciation of sterling, but we both agree that the narrowing of the trade deficit is a very good thing.

With regard to the TPP, the Secretary of State says, “These are not mutually exclusive”, but he must account for regulatory alignment, which is part of the impact that joining the TPP would have. Indeed, the former permanent secretary at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy declared that joining the TPP would be “cloud cuckoo land”. Does the Secretary of State consider that that regulatory alignment to a trade agreement negotiated in secret to suit the economies of the Pacific Rim, which constitute under 8% of our export market, is a viable proposition for our country?

I am in favour of trade liberalisation, whether it is bilateral, plurilateral or multilateral. If we can achieve openness in the global trading environment so that we can get global trading volumes up, that is of benefit not just to the United Kingdom but particularly to developing countries that should be able to trade their way out of poverty and not depend on aid.

Export Strategy

It is a pleasure to join a Government Front Bench full of fresh young talent—even if I am not among them. I pay tribute to my predecessor, my hon. Friend the Member for Wyre Forest (Mark Garnier), who showed tremendous commitment to investment promotion to the benefit both of his constituents and the nation as a whole.

Baroness Fairhead, the Minister of State for Trade and Export Promotion, is currently engaging closely with businesses to inform the creation of the new export strategy. Reporting in the spring, the strategy will ensure that the Government have the right financial, practical and promotional support in place to allow businesses to benefit from growth opportunities, generating wealth and wellbeing for the whole of the UK.

I congratulate the Minister on his promotion—I am sure he will do well—and I invite him to Mid Derbyshire at some point on his way back to his constituency. How will the Minister ensure that United Kingdom Export Finance is an integral part of the new export strategy?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her question, and I pay tribute to her for all her work promoting businesses in Derbyshire and beyond. UK Export Finance’s mission is to ensure that no viable UK export fails for lack of finance or insurance, and UKEF is at the heart of our export strategy. Today, I am pleased to announce an even more flexible local currency offering from UKEF to help UK exporters to compete for major overseas contracts. Finance is now available in 62 currencies for purchases from the UK, in addition to pounds sterling, which is an increase of 19 currencies, following the 30 added at the 2016 autumn statement.

The Secretary of State and his Department have made great play of promoting great British brands. Does the Minister agree that Colman’s of Norwich is best served by keeping production and the brand in Norwich, and will he join me in urging Unilever to do just that?

I do not want to get involved in internal battles in UK companies about the sites at which they base their operations, but I can tell the hon. Gentleman that growth in manufacturing exports is at a 10-year high and we need to continue to build on that, which would all be threatened if the Labour party were to come into office.

Exports are rising, but still only from a small proportion of British businesses. We need more exporters and a change of business culture, so may I urge the new Minister, with his colleagues, to challenge business representative bodies to ensure that exporting in Britain is the norm, not the exception?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. Few people in the House have done so much to promote exports, and he is one of the 28 trade envoys doing a fantastic job for the country. Alongside the envoys, my Department works with 43 business ambassadors, who are at the forefront of the change that he describes. On the business representative bodies, the Department will engage with them in the export strategy review to ensure that the Government and the private sector work to provide businesses with the right practical, promotional and financial information to enable them to export.

11. Membership of the European Union single market is vital for Scotland’s economy. According to the Fraser of Allander Institute, 134,000 jobs in Scotland are supported by trade with the EU, and Brexit threatens to cost our economy £11 billion a year by 2030. Will the Minister reassure businesses in Scotland that they will continue to be able to export tariff-free to the world’s biggest single market after Brexit? (903222)

The hon. Lady is quite right to highlight and champion exports from Scotland, and she will know that the greatest export market for Scottish businesses is the rest of the United Kingdom. I can tell her that this Government will stay committed to promoting trade within the United Kingdom, with our neighbours in Europe and with the rest of the world to boot.

I, too, welcome the Minister to his place. I enjoyed serving with him on the Education Committee, and I look forward to debating these important matters with him.

Evidence to the former Business, Innovation and Skills Committee showed a budget of £23.6 million for the trade access partnership in 2013-14, which fell to £11.05 million in 2014-15 and to just £8 million the following year. We are now in the final quarter of this financial year and, just as last year, the Government still have not said what the current budget is. When are they going to end the uncertainty for business, and tell us how much money they are giving to support exporters who want to go to trade shows to promote exports for business and the economy?

As usual, I am afraid, Opposition Front Benchers are confusing inputs with outputs and outcomes. We are focused on promoting exports. We are doing that successfully, building on the position in 2010, and that is why we are seeing a record level of the manufacturing and other exports on which the hon. Gentleman’s constituents depend.

Trade Deals: Non-EU Countries

As the Prime Minister set out in her Florence speech, the UK will seek a time-limited implementation period with the EU. We will prepare for our future independent trade policy by negotiating trade deals with third countries, which could come into force after the conclusion of the implementation period. To that end, we have already established a series of 14 working groups and high-level dialogues with key trade partners.

Will the Secretary of State confirm that he is still on track to deliver 40 trade deals with non-EU countries after we leave the European Union in March 2019, as he said he would be? Will he explain to the House what demands there have been from those countries for additional visas for their citizens to come to the United Kingdom, and how that impacts on the tens of thousands figure?

The Government are indeed committed to ensuring continuity of the 40 or so EU free trade agreements after we leave the European Union, and that is why we introduced the relevant legislation this week. I am, however, rather disappointed that the right hon. Gentleman and his party saw fit to vote against that legislation, and deny British business that confidence.

Our clear aim is to achieve continuity and stability. We want the agreements that we have already as part of the EU to be delivered safely and securely into UK law, and that is the point of the Trade Bill.

Concerns have been raised that the transitional arrangements may lead to significant changes to the detriment of the United Kingdom. Will the Secretary of State confirm that he is not intending to make any significant or substantive changes to any of the transitional arrangements?

That is absolutely correct; we aim to keep the transitional arrangements as close as possible to the condition they are in today, given that we have some minor changes to make, for example in the disaggregation of tariff-rate quotas.

From the preliminary dialogue that my right hon. Friend has had with the United States, what assessment has he made of the prospect of doing a trade deal with that country?

May I add my congratulations to my hon. Friend on his well-deserved recognition of the service that he has given to this House and his constituency? We have four working groups with the United States on continuity, short-term outcomes, the potential scoping of a future free-trade agreement, and working with the US at the World Trade Organisation. I am content that we are making progress on all fronts.

I also welcome the Under-Secretary of State for International Trade, the hon. Member for Beverley and Holderness (Graham Stuart). He is a wonderful man, but I warn the Secretary of State not to send him anywhere at very high altitude because he is not very good with that.

The Secretary of State is right to try to pursue lots of good trade deals with countries outside the European Union, but is one of the major problems the corruption in some of the biggest countries? Brazil, Russia, India and China all fall very low down on Transparency International’s corruption perceptions index, and especially in Russia it is difficult for British businesses to do big business because they have to pay bribes all the time.

The hon. Gentleman is right, and when I am having those discussions I often describe corruption as a supply-side constraint in many of those economies. If we are able to get trade agreements and good legal agreements, and if we make transparency a key element of that, we will be contributing to success on both sides.

SMEs: Exports

We have three main ways to support exports by SMEs. First, the great.gov.uk website offers digital tools, and has had more than 2.7 million visitors; secondly, international trade advisers based across England are supporting businesses; and thirdly, UK Export Finance has provided £3 billion in support. Last year it helped 221 UK companies, 79% of which were SMEs.

I am grateful for that answer. An additional hurdle faced by many SMEs in growing their exports is obtaining affordable political risk insurance. What steps can the Minister’s Department take to help in that matter?

My hon. Friend asks a good and pertinent question, and that is why UK Export Finance is working to ensure that SMEs can access the insurance that they need to export and invest overseas with confidence. Last year we launched an enhanced overseas investment insurance product to protect UK businesses against political risk when investing abroad, and I strongly recommend that product to companies in my hon. Friend’s Milton Keynes constituency.

There has been a significant revival of small and medium-sized manufacturing in the Black country over the past two or three years, so does the Minister agree that we need to do all we can to support those small and medium-sized manufacturing companies in the Black country to access markets around the world with development potential?

My hon. Friend makes a good, strong, pertinent point, which applies not just in the Black country but throughout the country. We have our export strategy, which will be reporting in the spring. I remind the House of our fantastic manufacturing figures—record growth in output, the highest in 10 years, growing 4% year on year according to new data just out. Confidence in manufacturing is at its highest in four years, according to the EEF.

There is a very close relationship between small and medium-sized manufacturers’ success in exporting and the viability of small and medium-sized road hauliers, many of whom are seriously concerned at the possibility of incurring substantial additional costs and facing additional bureaucracy if we cannot get an agreement that, for example, driving licences issued in the UK will be recognised in other countries when we leave the EU. What progress has been made in ensuring cast-iron guarantees that small road hauliers will not face any additional burdens in exporting to the EU after Brexit?

As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has pointed out, we are seeking a barrier-free, frictionless trading arrangement with the European Union as we leave. May I point out that the hon. Gentleman is seeking to put in place the potential for barriers between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom? Sixty-four per cent. of Scottish exports go to the rest of the UK, compared with just 15% to the rest of the Union.

Many SMEs have identified external and internal finances as well as a lack of awareness of the support available to them as barriers to entering the export market. Will the Minister ensure that those concerns are addressed in the Government’s review of the export strategy?

The hon. Gentleman makes a good point, and that is certainly very much part of the export strategy. I remind him and the whole House of some of the work we have been doing to ensure that finance is more accessible. We signed agreements in July 2016 and July 2017 with the leading UK banks to ensure that their SME customers can access finance more easily and that UK Export Finance assistance in particular is directly available.

Regulatory Alignment with the EU

5. What assessment he has made of the implications for his Department's policies of the joint declaration of 8 December 2017 on maintaining full regulatory alignment between the EU and the UK. (903216)

6. What assessment he has made of the implications for his Department's policies of the joint declaration of 8 December 2017 on maintaining full regulatory alignment between the EU and the UK. (903217)

9. What assessment he has made of the implications for his Department’s policies of the joint declaration of 8 December 2017 on maintaining full regulatory alignment between the EU and the UK. (903220)

As we leave the EU, the Government’s objective remains to maximise overall trading opportunities for the whole of the United Kingdom. As the Prime Minister has made clear—including at the time of the joint declaration of 8 December—we will be seeking a deep and special partnership with the EU, but at the same time looking to forge new and ambitious trade relationships with our partners around the world, as we develop our independent trade policy.

What discussions has the Secretary of State had with potential new trade agreement partners, including those that already have an agreement with the EU and those with whom the Government have established trade dialogue or working groups, about regulatory alignment?

We are intending to maintain consistency with the agreements that we already have. That is why we brought the trade legislation forward. We do not anticipate any change in that; we intend it to be the same as it is to date, to provide continuity for business.

Can the Secretary of State confirm whether maintaining full regulatory alignment with the EU will extend to farming standards in the United Kingdom, and that therefore chlorine-washed chicken will not be entering the UK in the event of a future agreement with the USA?

We have made it very clear on numerous occasions that we do not intend there to be any diminution of standards in food safety, environmental standards or workers’ rights as we negotiate new trade agreements.

Given how critical this issue is to maintaining an open border on the island of Ireland, what assessment has the Secretary of State made of practical supervision and management of maintaining full regulatory alignment with the European Union as per the joint agreement, and what institutions need to be established?

Alignment is about pursuing the same objectives; it is not the same as requiring regulatory harmonisation. We hope that our agreement with the Republic of Ireland is covered by a full and comprehensive agreement with the rest of the European Union.

The Irish Government have been clear that a deal that maintains regulatory alignment means free movement of people, goods and services across the border to Northern Ireland. Given that the United Kingdom Government have shown that they are willing to give a nation of the UK a differential deal, will they now bring to Brussels the Scottish Government’s proposals to keep Scotland in the single market and customs union, and if not, why not?

Why not? Because when we leave the European Union we leave the single market and the customs union—it is not that complicated.

Trade Deals: Developing Countries

7. What assessment he has made of the potential effect of trade deals between the UK and developing countries on the economies of those countries. (903218)

The UK is proudly spending 0.7% of gross national income on overseas development assistance—the first G7 country to honour its promise to do so. We are also committed to ensuring that developing countries can use trade as an engine of poverty reduction, and trade agreements play an important role in that. Our priority is to ensure that developing countries maintain their preferential access to the UK market as we leave the EU.

These texts are always delivered by Ministers in mellifluous tones, but they are often far too long. I know that there are people who scribble them for Ministers, but Ministers have a responsibility to recognise the virtues of the blue pencil.

But I also recognise the wisdom of the Minister’s answer, Mr Speaker, and I am grateful for it. I share his aspirations. Will he please remind the House what he will do to give those aspirations legislative effect?

The Taxation (Cross-border Trade) Bill, which had its Second Reading on Monday, provides exactly for the scheme of preferences to be taken across into UK law. I find it extraordinary that the Opposition parties voted against it. They voted against the UK having its own trade preferences scheme for developing countries. That is a disgrace. I very much hope that they will reconsider their position as the Bill passes through the House of Commons.

Topical Questions

Mr Speaker, you should see the length of the answers before we get to this stage.

My Department is responsible for UK exports, investment and trade policy. As we begin 2018, the House should note that in 2017 we achieved an all-time record for foreign direct investment. Our exports are up by 14% and employment is at a record level. Yesterday we saw that venture capital coming into tech firms was also at an all-time high, and that is before we consider the improvements in our manufacturing performance.

The Secretary of State does not want to trade under EU rules, under which we have considerable influence, but he is happy to trade under World Trade Organisation rules, under which we do not have very much influence. What does he find objectionable about EU trading rules that he does not find objectionable about the WTO?

That is rather to misunderstand the situation, because the EU itself has to trade under WTO rules and is not exempt from them. We look forward to having our independent seat on the WTO, of which we are a former member, so that we can have a greater say in global trading policy, because as a member of the European Union we have none.

T4. What practical steps is my right hon. Friend’s Department taking to increase capacity in developing countries to trade their way to sustainable growth? (903227)

Assisting trade capability in the developing world is one of the key parts of our official development assistance strategy, launched by the Department for International Development last year. In Buenos Aires last month the Secretary of State and I announced a big increase in funding for the WTO’s enhanced integrated framework, which does precisely that, making the UK the largest donor to that WTO fund.

The steel industry has repeatedly complained that the Government are not prepared to impose penalties on exports from countries with significant market distortions. America is clear, having imposed penalties on China under section 232, and the EU is clear, having recently voted to pass new anti-dumping rules, but the Secretary of State has constantly ducked the issue and refused to say what his Department will do after we leave the EU. When will he give the steel industry a straight answer?

What a cheek, in the very week that Labour voted against our ability to impose any penalties whatsoever in future. The steel industry and steelworkers in this country were betrayed this week by Labour Members, who would leave them as sitting ducks for dumping and subsidy, such is their love for their new hard-left, anti-trade ideology.

T3. The Secretary of State will be aware that Scotch whisky is one of the UK’s greatest exports, and much of it is produced in my Moray constituency. Around 10% of the industry’s £4 billion of annual exports are linked to EU free trade agreements. Will he update me on the steps he is taking to ensure that, when we leave the EU, the benefits of EU free trade agreements to the industry are maintained? (903226)

My hon. Friend makes an important point. The Government are committed to seeking continuity in our current trade and investment relationships, including those covered by EU trade preferences. Scotch whisky is a very important part of our exports and we want to maintain the vital bilateral dispute mechanisms, all of which are part of Scotch whisky’s contribution to our economy.

T2. In setting up the Trade Remedies Authority, the Government will need to include a full range of skills, knowledge and experience. Will that include representations from the devolved Governments and trade unions? (903225)

The Government are still looking at the potential membership. Of course before we can do so we have to have the legal basis for establishing the Trade Remedies Authority. The hon. Gentleman voted with his party against its establishment.

T5. Last year, I welcomed Nesta and Sage to Parliament when they launched their report on the state of small businesses. It said that just 18% of British small and medium-sized enterprises are exporting around the world, so what more can the Department do to help our innovative small businesses, especially in providing more information on the local rules and regulations those companies face in other markets? (903228)

I thank my hon. Friend for that question and for all she does to champion Chelmsford exporters, building on her great expertise in the European Parliament and elsewhere.

The Department does huge amounts to support small businesses to export and, as my right hon. Friend the Minister for Trade Policy explained earlier, we are seeing significant success in that regard. Baroness Fairhead recently announced a new great export readiness tool on great.gov.uk to help SMEs better to understand how export-ready they are and what they can do to start exporting or to expand their exporting activity.

T6. Given what we know Saudi Arabia to be doing in Yemen, is it appropriate that we should still be selling arms to it? (903229)

All arms exports are covered by the consolidated criteria and, as the recent judicial review showed, the Government pay very due attention not just to the letter, but to the spirit of the consolidated criteria.

T7. With particular reference to the Trade Remedies Authority, will my right hon. Friend expand further on the potential consequences had the House voted the Trade Bill down this week? (903230)

Were we not to establish our own Trade Remedies Authority, we would be unable to protect British business from dumping and subsidy in future. All those in this country who work in the chemicals, steel or ceramics industries will now know that the Conservative party is determined to have the legal protections they deserve, but the Labour party and its allies in this House voted against giving our businesses and those workers that protection.

T8. Scotland is known internationally for its high- quality food and drink such as whisky and seafood, but there is real concern about the loss of protected geographical indications that are backed by the EU. How will the Secretary of State consult all the devolved Governments to help them to protect their unique products? (903231)

The hon. Lady should judge the Government by their action. In the transitional adoption of the agreements that we already have as a member of the EU—in those 40 trade agreements—protection of GI is an essential part. I notice that the Scottish National party voted against that as well.

Exports from my constituency include agricultural products from firms such as Saltire Seed and exports from the Aiken Group, one of the world’s leading suppliers for engineering solutions. What would the impact on Aberdeen be of not being able to implement continuity trade agreements with countries with which the EU already has trade deals?

Clearly, there would be a major disruption in the local economy, which is why it is so important that we get that continuity. The reason the Government introduced the Trade Bill with the parameters it has is that we are looking to get stability and continuity on the agreements we already have. I reiterate what I said in the House a couple of days ago: it is not about new free trade agreements; it is about giving stability to the ones we already have, which is why I am amazed that anyone should vote against the Bill.

What analysis has the Department done of the cost to business of complying with possible new non-tariff barriers, and what help will the Government provide companies, particularly SMEs, to understand the impact of any possible changes in this area?

Of course we look at all possible scenarios, but I reiterate what I have said several times today: we want to see an open and comprehensive trading agreement with the European Union, because that is good not only for the United Kingdom but for the European Union. European member states are looking for their companies to have access to the UK market, just as we are doing the other direction.

Last month, I welcomed a delegation from Taiwan to my constituency, where we met representatives of the offshore renewables sector and the seafood sector. Will Ministers work with me and with local businesses to ensure that we maximise our exports to that growing market?

Last month, I chaired the second of our joint economic and trade committee talks with Taiwan, and I can tell my hon. Friend that renewable energy was right at the heart of those talks. The UK has the highest capacity market anywhere in the world for offshore wind, and that is of strong interest to the Taiwanese authorities. Those discussions are ongoing.

Women and Equalities

The Minister for Women and Equalities was asked—

Apprenticeships

1. What steps the Government are taking to ensure that women are able to access high-quality apprenticeships. (903232)

3. What steps the Government are taking to ensure that women are able to access high-quality apprenticeships. (903234)

12. What steps the Government are taking to ensure that women are able to access high-quality apprenticeships. (903245)

It is good news that women now account for over half of all apprentices. We continue to implement apprenticeship reforms to improve the quality of apprenticeships for all, and we are using the employer apprenticeship diversity champions network to champion gender representation in industries where greater participation by women is still needed.

I thank the Minister for her response. The National College for Nuclear opens in my neighbouring constituency on 9 February. This will add to an already fantastic asset of training facilities with world-class equipment. What steps are the Government taking to ensure that young people with disabilities are able to access these training courses and apprenticeships?

It is great news that the National College for Nuclear is opening shortly, enabling young people and others in the area to access the sort of education and skills that they need for the future. We want to ensure that apprenticeship opportunities are open to all people, and of course that includes people with disabilities. We provide additional funding to employers and training providers working with apprentices with disabilities, to support their learning and enable adjustments to the workplace. As well as engaging employers through the apprenticeship diversity champions network, we are working to ensure that Disability Confident badging is clear for vacancies on the Find an Apprenticeship website, including those for engineering roles.

The further education college and the university in Chichester offer a wide range of courses giving young people in my constituency access to high-quality apprenticeships. However, I am concerned that only 21% of places for degree-level apprenticeships in digital, tech and management are filled by women. That is the same as it was 30 years ago when I did that apprenticeship. What is my right hon. Friend doing to encourage more women and girls to take up apprenticeships as a pathway to a successful career?

My hon. Friend raises an important point. It is not enough that more than 50% of apprenticeships are being taken up by women. We want to ensure that there is greater diversity, particularly in areas where lower numbers of women are participating than we would like. Our careers strategy sets out a long-term plan to build a world-class careers system to help young people and adults to choose the career that is right for them, and promotes gender equality by increasing young people’s contact with employers, demonstrating different jobs and career paths to raise aspirations. In addition, a new legal requirement means that schools must give providers the chance to talk to pupils about technical qualifications and apprenticeships. In that way, we hope to raise awareness of the additional routes that are available to young people.

I am delighted that 580 people started apprenticeships in Southend last year. Will my right hon. Friend please advise me on what more she can do to incentivise local employers to offer even more apprenticeships to women in Southend?

I congratulate my hon. Friend on having a high level of apprenticeship starts in his constituency, but he also makes the point that we need to ensure that women are starting apprenticeships in a variety of areas, and particularly in science, technology, engineering and maths—STEM—subjects, where they are underrepresented at the moment, with only about 8% of participants being women. We are focusing additional efforts on working with employers through the apprenticeship diversity network to ensure that they show young people the opportunities available in other areas, particularly in the STEM area.

In July last year, the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, the hon. Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman), who is in his place, made insulting comments, following Government pension changes, about how women born in the 1950s should take up apprenticeships to try to address some of the financial burdens that they face. Will the new Minister set out how many women born in the 1950s and affected by the Government pension changes have taken up apprenticeships? It is frankly nothing more than an insult to all the women who worked for all those years and whose pensions have been delayed by six years.

I would like to correct the hon. Gentleman. This Government wholly respect women in their 50s—I have an interest to declare in that particular area—and we will always ensure that apprenticeships are available to people of all ages. Between August 2016 and April 2017, the number of apprenticeship starts was over 53,000 for people aged 45 to 59 and over 3,400 for people aged 60 and over. That represents an increase on the previous year, and we hope to continue that increase.

As in the rest of the United Kingdom, barriers to access are a problem for women in Northern Ireland. Will the Minister outline what engagement she and her officials have undertaken with Departments and agencies in Northern Ireland to identify best practice and to try to find workable solutions to eliminate such barriers?

We have regular meetings with Ministers from Northern Ireland, and we will always ensure that we share information and best practice where we can, so that women and other people who want to participate in apprenticeships, such as people with disabilities, can access the additional opportunities that we are determined to provide.

Is the Minister aware of the latest report from the Young Women’s Trust? It shows that two in five apprentices spend more money in completing their apprenticeship than they earn and that women face an 8% gender pay gap. Is the Minister prepared to act on the trust’s recommendations to increase the number of women accessing high-quality apprenticeships?

It is essential that we give women all the opportunities that we can to access the high-quality apprenticeships to which the hon. Gentleman refers. I have not seen that report, but I will certainly take a look and come back to him.

Women’s Refuges

The Government are fully committed to protecting victims of domestic abuse and to improving sustainability of funding for refuges. The Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government—formerly the Department for Communities and Local Government—has launched a £20 million domestic abuse accommodation fund, which is supporting 76 projects, creating 2,200 new bed spaces over the next two years and supporting more than 19,000 women. Some of that money is coming to Manchester.

A constituent described to me a loved one’s search for a refuge to protect her from domestic violence as hell on earth. Thankfully, they eventually found a space, but 60% of referrals to refuges were declined in 2016-17. The proposed new funding model risks creating a postcode lottery, so how will the Minister ensure that the refuge provision in her constituency is no different from in mine?

May I, with respect, correct the hon. Gentleman? It is precisely because we want to ensure that areas across the country share the same best practice that the Ministry of Housing is consulting on how to fund refuges sustainably. The point of the new housing model is to try to ensure that victims, who are in vulnerable situations when they go to refuges after fleeing violence, do not have to fill in housing benefit forms while in the middle of a crisis.

I declare an interest as my wife volunteers at a refuge. Will my hon. Friend assure the House that Ministers have met organisations such as Women’s Aid to ensure that their views on the new funding model are properly listened to and considered?

I thank my hon. Friend for his question and thank his wife and everyone who works in domestic abuse refuges. We are of course meeting Women’s Aid and other organisations. Along with other colleagues, I am determined to ensure that the future of refuges is funded sustainably, and I urge anyone with an interest in this area to respond to the consultation.

The proposed changes to housing benefit will leave refuges in a vulnerable position, and the already underfunded specialist refuges will be most affected. If the Government are serious about protecting women victims of female genital mutilation, domestic violence, forced marriage and trafficking, they have to put more money into specialist services. What commitment will they make to looking seriously at increasing funding for specialist refuges?

We have the £20 million domestic abuse fund, which the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government is overlooking. As the hon. Lady knows, we are also consulting on the draft domestic abuse Bill this year. I hope that consultation will start soon, and the Government would welcome responses from people who are interested. I make it clear that we are absolutely committed to funding refuges properly, and I am pleased that we have had a 10% rise in bed spaces since 2010.

Women in the Scottish Economy

4. What recent discussions she has had with the Secretary of State for Scotland on the Sawers report on Womenomics. (903235)

The Sawers report highlights many of the issues women face in the workplace. The gender pay gap in Scotland is at a near record low, but it must be eradicated completely. The Minister for Women and Equalities regularly meets Cabinet colleagues to discuss such important issues.

The Sawers report was intended to be the start of a road map for the engagement of women in Scotland’s economy and not just an end in itself. I suggest that the Minister would be well advised to meet Professor Sawers to discuss how her report can now be taken forward in government.

That is a very pleasant suggestion, and I look forward to meeting Professor Sawers in due course.

Year of Engineering

5. What steps the Government are taking to encourage more girls and women to get involved with the 2018 Year of Engineering. (903236)

The Year of Engineering is an opportunity to tackle historical gender stereotypes. Throughout 2018, the Year of Engineering campaign will highlight the variety and creativity of engineering to improve the understanding of what engineers do and of the enormous opportunities that a career in engineering offers both to young men and young women.

Engineering is a vital employment sector for residents of Mid Derbyshire, both in small and medium-sized enterprises and in larger companies like Rolls-Royce, Bombardier and Toyota. Will my right hon. Friend update the House on which external partners in Derby have signed up to the Year of Engineering campaign?

My hon. Friend has almost answered the question for me. She is right that Rolls-Royce, Bombardier Transportation and Toyota have all pledged to support the Year of Engineering campaign through activities in schools, both nationwide and in the Derby area.

One of the biggest barriers to women and girls entering careers in engineering and physics is the perceptions and expectations of parents. What work is the Minister doing during the Year of Engineering to encourage parents to look at the career options?

The hon. Lady is quite right. We have been successful since 2010 because, in England, GCSE entries by girls in physics have risen from 50,600 in 2010 to 66,700 this year, and the number of girls entering A-level physics has risen from 5,800 in 2010 to 6,947 in 2017. Overall, the number of girls taking STEM A-levels has increased by 20% since 2010.

As well as ensuring that careers advice encourages more women into engineering, will my right hon. Friend look at financial incentives and at how the apprenticeship levy is working to incentivise companies to employ more women in engineering?

My right hon. Friend is quite right. We introduced the apprenticeship levy to boost the importance of apprenticeships. We delivered more than 2 million apprenticeship starts in the last Parliament and are committed to 3 million apprenticeship starts in this Parliament, because this is a Government who are committed to high-quality skills in our economy. The apprenticeship programme is part and parcel of that ambition.

Budget Gender Impact Analysis

6. If the Government will commission an independent gender impact analysis of the autumn Budget 2017. (903237)

For all Budgets, Treasury Ministers very carefully assess the gender impact of the various measures under consideration. We do that as a statutory duty, but we also do it because it is our firm policy to do so. Of course, one of our centrepieces in the Budget was the 4.4% increase in the national living wage from this April, which will disproportionately benefit women.

Women still bear the brunt of the Government’s failed austerity agenda. What was the Minister’s assessment of the autumn Budget’s financial impact on women and those with protected characteristics?

As the hon. Gentleman will know, the Government constantly carry out assessments. There are various assessments of the impacts of all fiscal events, but I point him not only to the national living wage increase, which disproportionately benefits women, but to the personal allowance increase that takes many hundreds of thousands of women out of tax altogether. Of course, by 2019-20 we will spend some £6 billion a year on childcare, a record level of expenditure.

I finally received a letter from the Government Equalities Office in regards to an equality impact assessment. If, as the Minister has just stated, the impact assessment was carried out, it would have shown that 86% of the Government cuts would have fallen on women. Why then did the Government continue with these damaging policies?

As I have pointed out, the Government have taken many, many measures—I have just listed some of them in the recent Budget—that specifically assist women on issues such as childcare, the personal tax allowance increases and the national living wage increase that will come in from this April. We will continue to rigorously assess all measures, as we do around all fiscal events, to ensure that women are treated fairly and are an absolute priority for this Government.

Pregnancy and Maternity Discrimination Tribunals

7. If she will discuss with Cabinet colleagues the adequacy of the time limit for a woman to bring an employment tribunal claim for pregnancy and maternity discrimination. (903238)

Discrimination against pregnant women and new mothers is wholly unacceptable, but research the Government commissioned with the Equality and Human Rights Commission did not suggest the three-month time limit for bringing a claim to an employment tribunal was a particular barrier to pregnant women and new mothers. However, the rules permit an extension to that time limit if needed, and of course we will consider further guidance on this if that would be helpful.

What steps are this Government taking to prevent further job losses after reports exposed the fact that on average 54,000 new mothers lose their jobs each year because of maternity discrimination?

We have to make sure the message is clear to employers that this sort of discrimination is wholly unacceptable, and give new mothers and pregnant women the courage to put forward a claim if it is appropriate. But the message from the Government is clear: this is not acceptable.

In response to the Women and Equalities Committee report, the Government have already agreed to act on this issue. Will my hon. Friend update the House on whether the president of the employment tribunal will be issuing guidance in this area on the extension powers she has already mentioned? My hon. Friend the Member for Esher and Walton (Dominic Raab) has also agreed to start collecting data on applications for time extensions on maternity-related cases. Will the Minister undertake to update the House in future on the progress on that?

In late 2016, the Select Committee, which my right hon. Friend chairs, published a report on this. The recommendations were considered and the research we commissioned with the EHRC did not suggest that the three-month time limit for bringing a claim to the employment tribunal is a barrier. I will of course look into it and write to her.

I welcome the new Women and Equalities Minister to her place and pay tribute to the right hon. Member for Putney (Justine Greening) for her dedication to the role. In January last year, the Women and Equalities Committee joined the Justice Committee in calling for an extension of the deadline from three to six months. In response, the Government said that they would keep the time limit for claims to be submitted under review, and we have heard a continuation of that narrative today. Since the statement, the Supreme Court ruled that the UK must abolish tribunal fees and repay those who had made their claim. Is now therefore not the time to make a full review of that system of delivery, remove the further barriers and make a serious commitment today to increasing that time limit to six months?

As I say, the Government continue to keep this under review. Following the Supreme Court judgment on employment tribunal fees, we stopped charging fees immediately and arrangements are being put in place by the Ministry of Justice to refund the fees to those who have paid in the past. As I say, this point on discrimination against new mothers and pregnant women is very much being kept under review.

Suffrage Centenary Fund

8. What recent discussions she has had with her counterpart in the Scottish Government on plans for the suffrage centenary fund. (903239)

This year marks a milestone in our democracy; we will celebrate the achievements of outstanding women who have fought for gender equality. The Scottish Government are receiving centenary funding through the application of the Barnett formula. The Government Equalities Office has monthly meetings with the devolved Administrations, who are responsible for how they choose to mark the centenary in their respective nations.

I commend the Government on the establishment of the suffrage centenary fund to ensure that this important milestone is marked. Last year, I wrote to the Scottish Government Minister responsible, but I have received no response. Does the Minister share my belief that the devolved Administrations should spend the funds allocated to them to ensure that the centenary is properly celebrated in all parts of the United Kingdom?

Women throughout the UK went to the ballot boxes for the first time in 1918, and all four nations contributed to that landmark change. The Scottish Government are like the Welsh Government and the Northern Ireland Executive—they are all responsible for how they choose to mark the centenary in their respective nations. I understand that the Scottish Government will announce their plans shortly, but I cannot see why they would not want to mark such a great celebration in an important way.

Does the right hon. Lady agree that, as part of the celebrations, a fitting tribute to the great Winnie Ewing, who was elected 50 years ago last year, would be a portrait in the House of Commons?

Well, Mr Speaker, I am sure that you listened carefully to that question, as I understand that that is a matter for the Speaker’s Advisory Committee on Works of Art.

The Works of Art Committee is a very important Committee. I have a feeling that the hon. Member for Livingston (Hannah Bardell) is going to beetle her way towards it and pitch in person. I am sure that the Committee looks forward to that prospect with eager anticipation.

Parental Leave

9. What steps her Department is taking to promote the right to a balanced share of statutory pay for mothers and fathers taking parental leave. (903242)

Perhaps I should begin by declaring an interest: Mrs Griffiths and I are expecting our first child in April. As the Minister responsible, I will be taking my full paternity leave.

Shared parental leave and pay was developed by the coalition Government. It enables working couples to share childcare responsibility in the first year. It is a radical step forward in the challenging of cultural expectations about the roles of men and women and the idea that the mother is always the primary carer. The Government understand the pressures on working families. We are taking steps to improve the take-up of the scheme, about which I shall say more in due course.

I welcome the Minister’s comments and agree that the introduction of shared parental leave and pay was a radical step that is making a difference, but is he aware that fathers get only the mother’s basic maternity pay, which is not enhanced in any way, so uptake of the scheme has been less than 1%? Will he look into this matter, particularly in the light of the court ruling in Snell v. Network Rail, and ensure that dads get a better deal?

There would be significant costs to the taxpayer and business were we to increase the rates of parental pay. We are not ruling that out, but it is important that we understand the facts before we change any policy. I am sure that the hon. Lady will be pleased that the Government have done a huge amount to support fathers and mothers in relation to parental leave. We have cut income tax for more than 13 million women, introduced tax-free childcare and extended free childcare for three and four-year-olds to 30 hours a week, and we are funding people to return to work after a time out. We are a Government who understand the pressures on working families and we are working to help them in their time of need.

Domestic Abuse

10. What steps her Department is taking to support other Government Departments better to assist victims of domestic abuse. (903243)

The Home Office co-ordinates the cross-Government approach to tackling domestic abuse through our violence against women and girls strategy, which has committed increased funding of £100 million to support victims.

The Scottish Government are providing essential training to around 14,000 police officers to help them to spot coercive control. What discussions has the Minister had with herself, in her role as Home Secretary, about the Home Office providing similar training for the police in England and Wales?

I do not know whether the Minister is going to admit to talking to herself, but I think we are about to discover.

I shall draw a veil over that particular suggestion, but as the hon. Gentleman is aware we have introduced a new offence of coercive or controlling behaviour, which is an important part of our efforts to make sure that we support women and that we address additional forms of abuse that take place in that way. We have also rolled out domestic violence protection orders. Most importantly, this year we will introduce a domestic abuse Bill to do everything we can to protect victims and bring perpetrators to justice.

Topical Questions

This year marks the centenary of the first British women getting the vote. We should not forget what it took to achieve that. Hunger-striking suffragettes were brutally force-fed with tubes—a process so painful that it could cause lifelong injuries and even make the prison wardens cry in horror. Those who marched in favour of women’s rights were pelted with rotting vegetables, rocks, and even dead rats. Suffragette Emily Davison was trampled to death by the King’s horse when she walked on to the track to protest. It is only right that we honour the extraordinary efforts and sacrifices of those remarkable women, as well as the landmark change that they brought about. The Government will be making sure that we provide the necessary funds and support to do exactly that.

In the 21st century, surely women deserve total equality. Will the Minister tell us what steps the Government are taking to ensure that there is not a pay gap in the civil service in light of the fact that Carrie Gracie recently resigned as China editor at the BBC, citing pay issues there?

I thank my hon. Friend for raising such an important element. It is absolutely essential that we all ensure that the Equal Pay Act 1970 is enforced. As much as I admire the BBC and enjoy listening to and watching its programmes, it clearly has a very serious question to answer here, which I certainly hope that it will address. On the gender pay gap, we are committed to ensuring that we address that as well, and, of course, we have new disclosure arrangements.

I, too, welcome the additional burden put on the Minister in her new role, and thank the former Minister for her work. On 26 August 2016, the Prime Minister began her PR exercise on the race disparity audit. On 10 October 2017, the Government released the data. This week, as chair of the all-party parliamentary group for governance and inclusive leadership, I launched the Investing in Ethnicity and Race in the Workplace maturity matrix, a free resource for businesses. Will the Minister explain what steps the Government have taken to act on the findings of the race disparity audit?

I thank the hon. Lady for her welcome and I very much look forward to working with her in this House. I have not yet seen her report, but no doubt, after these questions, she will be kind enough to give me a copy of it. The publication of the race disparity audit shows how committed this Government are to ensuring that, where we find race disparity, we will address it. Each Department is looking at the specific recommendations and will come forward with how they will address them.

T4. As the Government rightly push forward legislation to deliver greater use of electric vehicles, Guide Dogs UK has expressed concerns from an equality perspective about possible safety implications for blind and partially sighted pedestrians of greater use of these very quiet vehicles. Will the Minister please raise that concern with the Secretary of State for Transport? (903252)

I thank my hon. Friend for raising that matter. I am aware that it is a concern among people who are disabled, particularly among blind people. I just point out that autonomous vehicles will not necessarily be so quiet: the autonomous nature of them means that they will not be driven by an individual, and the noise level will depend on whether they are petrol, diesel or electric, but certainly I have been having conversations with officials at the Department of Transport, and we will make sure that they are aware of that very serious concern.

T2. Harriet Shaw Weaver from Frodsham in my constituency was among the many suffragettes who helped women secure the right to vote a century ago. What steps are the Government taking to ensure that, in this centenary year, they address the lack of women’s representation in Parliament? (903249)

I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising this important issue. It is absolutely critical that we celebrate it in this centenary year. I hope that he will speak to the activists in his constituency and consider applying for some support to raise the profile of the historical suffragette in his area. We are absolutely committed as a Government to ensuring that we have high representation not only in Parliament, but in Government. I am delighted to say that women make up 30% of the people attending Cabinet.

First, let me congratulate the Home Secretary on her expanded role. I know that she will do a brilliant job. She will know that young people, parents and teachers think that it is vital in a modern internet world to see sex and relationships education updated. Can she confirm that the Government will push ahead with updating the guidance, which is now so out of date, and that she will meet me, my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller) and the hon. Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion) to make sure that we can have cross-party support for the work that is being undertaken?

I thank my right hon. Friend for the enormous good work that she did in this role. I will try my best to keep up the momentum that she provided. One of the fantastic things that she did was lead on making sure that sex and relationships education will be provided in all schools. I will be delighted to work with her to ensure that that is the case, and also across the House to ensure that the outcome that we get is one that the whole House can support, as I know that everybody believes in its importance.

T3. The requirement for all bus drivers to undertake disability equality training has been standard across the EU since 2013, and the UK’s five-year opt-out ends on 1 March. The Scottish Government have produced their accessible travel framework. Will the Minister tell us whether standardised training will be in place within the next six weeks across England so that the UK meets its obligation and disabled passengers can really access public transport? (903250)

I am delighted to answer the hon. Lady’s question. I will certainly ensure that the Minister for Disabled People and the Transport Secretary have an address for that particular point and will write to the hon. Lady.

There is a growing concern about the use of non-disclosure agreements in connection with employment. Will my right hon. Friend join me in condemning the use of non-disclosure agreements to conceal wrongdoing of any kind, and to encourage legal regulators to consider whether they are, in fact, ethical?

I look forward to working with my right hon. Friend and her important Committee. She has raised an important matter; transparency is such an important part of achieving equality, so I look forward to working with her on this to establish the right way forward.

T5. I welcome the Minister to her new role. The BBC claims that 14.5% of its staff are from black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds. But others, including Lenny Henry, have claimed that if we look at the staff who actually make the BBC’s programmes, that figure falls to just 1.5%. Is the Minister concerned that there is a major problem with BAME representation at the BBC, and what discussions has she had with the BBC about what it is doing about it? (903253)

I thank the hon. Lady for raising that point, as I had not seen those particular figures. They draw attention to the fact that the overall number suggesting that there is equality sometimes hides the fact that there is nowhere near equality in the specialist areas—often the higher paid areas. I take very seriously the point she has raised, about which there are additional questions for the BBC to answer.

Last year, the Government advertised for a disability rights commissioner. Lord Shinkwin applied for the post, was appointed to the post and was promptly told that the post had been abolished at the Equality and Human Rights Commission. Will the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions reverse the disgraceful decision to abolish the post of disability rights commissioner and restore Lord Shinkwin to his rightful position in that post?

The disability commissioner role was an operational matter for the EHRC itself. The Secretary of State has no powers to appoint or reinstate a disability commissioner.

T6. Over the weekend, I was sent a screenshot from a Facebook page directed at the female chief executive officer of Wigan Council that read,“horrible bitch should hang wish i held the rope”.Unfortunately, this was not deemed to violate Facebook’s standards. This is not an isolated case. There is a stream of incessant posts aimed at bullying and intimidating female representatives of the borough. What further action will the Government take to ensure that women in public office feel safe? (903254)

I thank the hon. Lady for raising this, as it is such an important issue and one that I think all of us in this House are having to deal with. The sheer nastiness of comments online is something that we all disparage. We are actively engaging with the communications service providers on what they can do to take such comments down. I respectfully point out that the recent publication by Lord Bew about conduct in public life showed that it is particularly Conservatives MPs who are on the receiving end. I urge Opposition Members to work with their party to ensure a reduction of nasty Momentum activists.

It is evident that some of the largest graduate employers in the country are paying men and women different rates when they start in the workplace, and we know that the gender pay gap only widens as women progress through the workplace and reach the exalted ages of myself and some others. What more can the Government do to tackle this insidious issue?

We are very serious about tackling the gender pay gap. From April this year, any employer with more than 250 employees will need to publish that pay gap. It is through transparency that we will get real change.

Will the Government carry out an economic impact assessment on the value of investing in a comprehensive childcare provision across the country, in particular looking at the impact on women and gender equality?

As I said earlier, we already carry out a wide variety of different impact assessments, including in the kind of area to which the hon. Lady alludes. If she would like to write to me with further details of the exact aspects she is interested in, I would be very happy to consider them.

Hamed bin Haydara

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs if he will make a statement on the death sentence verdict made against Hamed bin Haydara, a Yemeni Bahá’í, in Sana’a on 2 January this year.

We are very concerned that the Bahá’ís are being persecuted for their religious beliefs in Yemen, particularly in areas controlled by the Houthis and forces aligned to the late former President Saleh. We strongly condemn this mistreatment and continue to work closely with our partners, including the European Union, to raise the issue directly with the de facto authorities.

We are aware of Mr bin Haydara’s death sentence and have sought to raise the profile of his situation through public diplomacy. The immediate release of all Bahá’ís in Yemen imprisoned for their religious beliefs was a key demand in the September United Nations Human Rights Council resolution, which we supported. We will work closely with all partners to ensure its full implementation.

I thank my right hon. Friend for his answer and you, Mr Speaker, for granting this urgent question. Members right across the House have concerns about the denial of freedom of religion and belief for people of all faiths and none. The threat to execute Hamed bin Haydara constitutes a grave risk to the life of an innocent man—a father of three—and would accelerate the climate of persecution against the wider Bahá’í community in Yemen as a whole.

Mr bin Haydara was arrested in December 2013 and has been subjected to torture, beating and electrocution. He has been forced to sign confessions under duress. More than half of the nearly 40 court hearings on his case have been cancelled, raising serious questions about whether there has been any due process. He has been denied treatment for medical conditions that came about as a direct result of the torture inflicted on him. He was not even permitted to be present at the court hearing when he was sentenced to death.

I have a series of questions for my right hon. Friend to answer, if he can. Have the UK Government any further lines of communication for making representations to the Houthi authorities, who hold the power in Sana’a? I am advised that the Minister for the Middle East, my right hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt), is taking up the case and is in Geneva today. What pressure will he be able to apply at the UN on the Houthis and their backers to persuade them to release this innocent man? How much is known about the situation of other Bahá’ís imprisoned in Sana’a? They are reported to be Keyvan Ghaderi, Walid Ayyash, Mahmood Humaid, Wael al-Arieghie, Badiullah Sana’i and Akram Ayyash. They have all been detained recently and are under threat.

Will the Minister also say what measures can be taken in respect of reports that senior figures in the national security office and the prosecutor’s office are receiving instructions from Iran to persecute the Bahá’í community? The UN special rapporteur on freedom of religion and belief has observed

“the persistent pattern of persecution of the Bahá’í community”.

If the Minister can answer those questions, the whole House will be deeply grateful.

First, I express my gratitude to my hon. Friend for raising this subject. It is always proper for matters of individual justice of this sort to be raised in the House. Opposing the persecution of religious minorities is a very high priority for the Foreign Office and our diplomatic efforts as we enter this year.

The Bahá’í faith has been persecuted for the best part of one and a half centuries; the situation described by my hon. Friend is, sadly, a further example of that phenomenon. Although Mr bin Haydara is neither a British national nor an employee of any organisation related to Her Majesty’s Government, that does not in any way diminish our indignation at what is happening and our wish to try to defend his interests and see him released. To that end, we are, of course, also in close contact with the Bahá’í community in London about this case and the wider situation of Bahá’ís in Yemen.

My hon. Friend asked a number of questions that are very difficult to answer in the context of Yemen, which is essentially a failing state. Mr bin Haydara is held not by the official Government but by the Houthis, who are deemed to be the insurgent force in Yemen and are essential to any successful political outcome the likes of which we are trying to pursue. Getting further lines in to the Houthis on a particular case such as this is therefore extremely difficult—it is difficult, of course, to engage them even in the main thrust of the political solution we would like to see in Yemen. To that end, as my hon. Friend says, my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Middle East is in Geneva today helping to corral the collective effort that we hope can increase and optimise our influence in this case and on the future of Yemen itself.

We estimate that there are about 2,000 Bahá’ís in Yemen, and to identify the fate of any individual within that large number is very difficult. We do not have direct diplomatic representation in Sana’a or the sort of detailed engagement with the Houthis that would be necessary to address such issues. It is undeniable that Iranian influence has been drawn into Yemen more than was the case five years ago, when the Gulf Co-operation Council initiative sought a replacement for then President Ali Abdullah Saleh. The current President, President Hadi, has, I am afraid, very little influence over such cases. I very much hope, therefore, that the Iranians will use their efforts to go for justice rather than the persecution of people such as Mr bin Haydara.

Thank you, Mr Speaker, for granting this urgent question. I congratulate the hon. Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) on securing it. As he explained, the facts in this case are clear: Mr Haydara was arrested in southern Yemen in December 2013 and has suffered torture since; his family and lawyers have not been allowed to see him during that time; and he has been forced to sign a 19-page confession while wearing a blindfold, on the basis of which he was charged with spreading the Bahá’í faith in Yemen. All of these events took place under the Government of President Hadi, not the Houthi rebels who took power in early 2015, but it is the Houthis who have held Mr Haydara since then and it is their courts that have now sentenced him to death, so responsibility for this case clearly lies with the Houthis and their supporters in the Iranian regime—we all know the terrible history of Bahá’í persecution in Iran.

As well as Mr Haydara, five other Bahá’ís are in detention, awaiting trial for no crime other than their religion. We in this House all agree that they must be freed and that Mr Haydara’s death sentence must be quashed. Will the Minister use his influence with the Iranians, who are the ones with influence at the moment, in dealing with the Houthis? He needs to apply as much pressure as he can, because this sentence could be carried out very quickly, so a life is at stake. The Iranians are the key players here. Will he guarantee that he will raise these cases when it becomes possible to renew talks on a political settlement in Yemen? Finally, will he request assurances from the Saudi Government that if President Hadi is restored to power in Yemen, he will cease persecution of the Bahá’í faith?

The hon. Gentleman’s perfectly fair questions illustrate the deep complexities of Yemen at the moment. Unfortunately, we cannot just deal with the legitimate Government in the way we might expect to do with other countries. This is a failing state, with the legitimate President, President Hadi, wielding far less power than one would wish and the Houthis wielding far more power than one would wish. Relations on this sort of consular case—if I can describe it as such—are very difficult and our ability to have the influence we would like is far less than we would like.

The Houthis are Zaidis, not classic Iranian Shi’ites, so they have an affinity with Iran, but it is wrong to say that they take all their orders from it and are its straightforward puppets. The history of Yemen suggests that the position of the Houthis is rather more complex than that. There is an undoubted affinity, however, and one that has grown over the past two or three years. Because of that, we will of course use all our diplomatic efforts to put pressure on the Iranians to understand that there is deep concern in this House and more widely across the world about the way in which Mr Haydara and others are being treated.

I absolutely assure the House that my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary, in his dealings with the Iranians, which have increased over the past couple of months, will not fail to raise this issue and the broader issue of religious freedom on any occasion.

I thank the Minister for his comments and for speaking very gently and wisely about a matter that is actually very complex. I pay tribute to Her Majesty’s ambassador to Sana’a, Simon Shercliff, who of course is not in Sana’a. He has done an awful lot of work on the Yemen problem, yet through no fault of his own appears to be getting not very much further. I also pay tribute to the Minister for the Middle East, who likewise is doing a lot.

I associate myself with the words of the hon. Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr Mahmood) on the influence of Iran in the region. Does the Minister agree that the rise of religiosity among the Houthis is an extremely worrying sign and something that has arisen only in the last few years? Although there have been many tribal issues in Yemen, the rise of factionalism on religious grounds is a new thing in Yemeni history.

I totally agree with my hon. Friend. I know that as Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, he will investigate the matter deeply with his Committee. He is right that one of the distressing elements of what has unfolded in Yemen over the past five years is that what was really a tribal conflict has converted into more of a sectarian conflict. That contains the danger of further escalation into a deeper proxy conflict. That is exactly the kind of rising tension and complex structure that, through our diplomatic efforts, we want to reduce and de-escalate so that we get to the point where there can be proper and realistic political discussions in that complex, tribal country to bring stability and, crucially, to overcome the massive famine, disease and rising infant mortality that are probably the worst aspect—although a deeply hidden aspect—of what is going on in Yemen.

I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) for bringing this issue to the House and to the Bahá’í community in the UK for raising it with me this week. As has been mentioned, the Bahá’í community in Yemen is small, but has faced disproportionate persecution by the Houthis, backed by Iran, which has included mass arrests, arbitrary detention, harassment and apparently now shutting down all the Bahá’í centres across the portion of Yemen controlled by the Houthis.

The sentencing to death of 52-year-old Hamed bin Haydara is an extremely worrying development, as he has been in detention since 2013. I imagine that others who are in detention at the moment will be extremely distressed at their prospects, given this development.

Noting the context of the wider discussion of the dire situation in Yemen, will the Minister tell the House what discussions he has been able to have with his counterparts in Iran, who are alleged to be driving this religious persecution? The Bahá’í community allege that it follows a similar pattern to the persecution of Bahá’ís that has gone on in Iran.

In the wider context of countries that choose to continue using the death penalty, what is the Foreign and Commonwealth Office doing to update its strategy on the abolition of the death penalty? What communications could the Minister have with President Hadi, who is in exile but still has a position of influence?

I assure the hon. Lady that the abolition of the death penalty is embedded in all our diplomatic and Department for International Development policies. Wherever we go, in any country, that is our policy and we do our best to argue for it wherever possible.

I have been going to Yemen for over 30 years. I have met President Hadi on about 10 occasions and I met Saleh on about 20. This is a complex country with a vicious history full of conflict and tribal division. My right hon. Friend the Minister for the Middle East, who, as I said, is in Geneva, has been brilliant in trying to gather the maximum possible public international and diplomatic pressure not only on this specific case, but for a broader settlement in Yemen. I can tell from my conversations with my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary on this matter that he is personally very ambitious to do his utmost to use British influence. British influence in Yemen is perhaps greater than many of us in this House realise. The voice of the UK still does matter. We want, as a priority in the Foreign Office, and indeed in No. 10, to do everything we can to use that historical influence to try to bring an end to this disastrous period of Yemeni conflict, famine, and history.

I associate myself with the remarks of my hon. Friend, and indeed friend, the Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) in unreservedly condemning both this death sentence and the persecution of the Bahá’í. Will my right hon. Friend set out the role that he believes the Government of the Sultanate of Oman can play not only in successfully helping with this case but, more broadly, in successfully resolving the situation in Yemen?

I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for his question. I think he is fast establishing himself as one of the great experts in this House, particularly on Oman and Yemen, and indeed the middle east more widely. The Sultanate of Oman, a great ally of the UK, is of enormous importance in the dynamics of any negotiations that might come forward to resolve the Yemen problem. The country’s history with Yemen matters to it, of course, but it is also next door to Iran. Its enlightenment in trying to be an honest and constructive broker with the Houthis is much appreciated in this country. The Sultanate of Oman is a country to which we attribute enormous value and affection. We look forward to working with it further as an important element in trying to find a solution to this conflict.

The hon. Member for Charnwood (Edward Argar) is clearly a very wise man indeed. In fact, he would perhaps be called a greybeard if he had one.

I thank the Minister for his statement. The judgment on Hamed Bin Haydara has called for the confiscation of his goods and also direct action against the Bahá’í, motivated very clearly by a desire to repress a peaceful religious minority. I think that some of the information coming through from the oral reports from Yemeni officials would show that Iran has an influence there. Will the Minister share with the House what representations he has had on this case, apart from those this morning? What representations are the Government going to be able to make to urge the Houthi authorities to overturn this judgment? What help can he give to the prisoners in jail who need medical attention?

We have very little direct contact with the Houthis because of the complicated nature of the Yemeni conflict. However, through all available channels—public and UN pressure, the UN Human Rights Council, collective comments within the middle east through ambassadors, and other forums—we have made every conceivable representation. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that we will continue to do so—perhaps, after this urgent question, even more noisily and robustly than before.

We have been a full part of the UN process ever since the Arab Spring of 2011 and the GCC initiative that saw the replacement of President Saleh with President Hadi. In 2015 there was the important UN Security Council resolution 2216. As I said earlier, the Human Rights Council resolution of September last year is an important further part of the same UN process, in which we play our full part.

Will the Minister use this opportunity to restate the Government’s opposition to the use of torture in any circumstances? Are there any new, concrete initiatives that he expects to come from the international community to try to stop the conflict in Yemen, because that is what has enabled this atrocious decision to be taken?

It is very nice to have an opportunity to fully agree with the right hon. Gentleman. Certainly we are absolutely resolute in our opposition to torture and degrading treatment in all its forms.

As I said earlier, we really want to start this year doing everything we possibly can to get people talking. We have done so through gathering together the Saudis, the Emiratis, the Omanis and the UN. We will continue to work with them, crucially in trying to find direct contact with people in Yemen who can make a difference—something that the international community is trying to work out following the death of Ali Abdullah Saleh in December last year.

I thank the Minister for his response to the urgent question. What are the Government doing to address the humanitarian crisis in Yemen?

I am familiar with this from the days when I was an International Development Minister, and even then—without such a conflict—Yemen had dire needs. We are deeply concerned by what may be nearly 500,000 cases of cholera, by rising infant mortality and by the fact that almost all the food—certainly all the rice—is imported. To that end, therefore, it has been essential to open the port of Hodeidah, which I am pleased to say has happened since last month. DFID is spending over £200 million in this financial year, but the access to those in need and the delivery of humanitarian aid remains a very complex and difficult problem in such a lawless and disintegrating society.

May I thank you, Mr Speaker—as, indeed, I thank my right hon. Friend —for your dedication to religious freedom and human rights? Does my right hon. Friend agree that human rights and religious freedom are absolutely integral parts of our humanitarian and development aid work across the world?

Yes. If human rights and the rule of law are not upheld, the efficacy of development is severely reduced, so I totally agree with my hon. Friend. That is written in as a principle to all the ways in which DFID goes about its business.

In my experience, one could not find a more gentle and more engaging people than those of the Bahá’í faith, who bear their persecution with great forbearance. What communications has the Minister had with representatives of the Bahá’í faith in this country?

We are in contact with the Bahá’í community in the UK. As I said earlier, the Bahá’ís are a gentle sect, as it were, of Islam, who fully deserve to be defended whenever this inexplicable persecution takes place. It has been going on since they were founded in the mid-19th century, and I think that their being persecuted from the start and having it persistently thrust on them for more than a century and a half is a miserable aspect of our relatively recent history.

I welcome my right hon. Friend’s assurances of opposition to this terrible death penalty. What assessment have the Government made of the effects of the death of Ali Abdullah Saleh on the horrific crisis in Yemen and on the chances of a positive resolution?

I hope the House will accept that what I am going to say are just my own thoughts, as someone who has taken an interest in Yemen for so long, rather than the official assessment of Her Majesty’s Government, because this is a fairly recent phenomenon. Whereas Ali Abdullah Saleh was working with the Houthis, he turned against them and there was a rather serious battle between the two sides, in which he died. What will now happen to the influence he wielded through the General People’s Congress and his own forces is difficult to assess at this early stage, but I suppose one can say that, at its simplest, it has probably reinforced the power of the Houthis. I hope that, from that position of strength, the Houthis might now be prepared to negotiate directly with Saudi Arabia and other interested parties, so that we can reach a political solution and put an end to this conflict.

What role did my right hon. Friend and the Foreign Office play in the reopening of the port of Hodeidah? Its reopening is crucial for access for humanitarian aid and relief for some 7 million Yemenis who are on the brink of famine.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. While the ports remained closed, the entire country was essentially under siege and at risk of starvation. The UK Government played a very significant part in working with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to try to open the port of Hodeidah. An agreement was reached last month, and I hope that supplies are now flowing in, as they must, and that increasing supplies will flow in to bring much needed sustenance, medicine and help to a country that is in deep peril.

Business of the House

As eagle-eyed Members will have noticed, I am not the Leader of the House. My right hon. Friend is attending Sandringham for a meeting of the Privy Council. She sends her apologies, and I am standing in for her. I will do my best to aspire to meet her high standards.

The business for the week commencing 15 January 2018 will include:

Monday 15 January—Second Reading of the Space Industry Bill [Lords].

Tuesday 16 January—Remaining stages of the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill (day 1).

Wednesday 17 January—Conclusion of remaining stages of the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill.

Thursday 18 January—Debate on a motion on treatment of SMEs by RBS Global Restructuring Group, followed by a general debate on Holocaust Memorial Day 2018. The subjects for these debates were determined by the Backbench Business Committee.

Friday 19 January—Private Members’ Bills.

The provisional business for the week commencing 22 January 2018 will include:

Monday 22 January—Second Reading of the Financial Guidance and Claims Bill [Lords].

Tuesday 23 January—Remaining stages of the Nuclear Safeguards Bill, followed by consideration of Lords amendments to the Telecommunications Infrastructure (Relief from Non-Domestic Rates) Bill.

Wednesday 24 January—Opposition day (8th allotted day). There will be a debate on an Opposition motion. Subject to be announced.

Thursday 25 January—Debate on a motion on joint enterprise followed by a general debate on the proscription of Hezbollah. The subjects for these debates were determined by the Backbench Business Committee.

Friday 26 January—The House will not be sitting.

On behalf of the Leader of House I am sure I join all hon. Members in congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton North (Michael Ellis) on his promotion from Deputy Leader of the House to his new role at the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport. I am sure that his urbane approach will be well received and suit him well. I also welcome all Members back from what I hope was a restful and peaceful Christmas and new year break. I hope that they appreciated the efforts of the Leader of the House in restarting the bells of Big Ben for new year, which I am sure added to our collective enjoyment of that important feast. I hope that we all have an interesting and exciting 2018—but not too exciting, because we do not like too much excitement in politics, do we?

I am excited already, Mr Speaker.

I thank the Minister for turning up and taking Business questions, and for setting out Government business. I know that the Leader of the House has an important engagement. As the Minister said, the hon. Member for Northampton North (Michael Ellis) has done an admirable job. He has now been promoted—perhaps he is irreplaceable—and we thank him for all his work. Will the Minister please confirm whether there will be a new Deputy Leader of the House? Following your suggestion to those on the Treasury Bench yesterday, Mr Speaker, will the Minister ensure that the list of those with ministerial responsibilities is updated as soon as possible?

I am not sure whether Bananarama was on the Prime Minister’s playlist, but I wonder whether Members recall the song that goes:

“It ain’t what you do, it’s the way that you do it,

and that’s what gets results.”

The reshuffle was the same old, same old people—new titles, but all the responsibilities were already in their departmental portfolios. Will the Minister ensure that the change of titles does not lead to any further cost to the public purse? It seems that men can say no, and the PM goes, “all right then”, but when a woman says no, she is sacked. To paraphrase the Prime Minister, there really are boys’ jobs and girls’ jobs, and we wait to see what the fall out will be.

It seems that the Government are following what the Opposition are doing. The Opposition already have a Minister responsible for housing and a Minister responsible for social care at shadow Cabinet level, and that is now policy. The Government have announced no vote on fox hunting, and measures on wild animal in circuses. The Wild Animals in Circuses Bill was introduced by former DEFRA Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick). He put that through in September 2014 and the Government have done nothing. The Government now say they will introduce legislation, so could the Minister please confirm that it will not be another four years before we get legislation to ban wild animals in circuses? It seems that the Government have really gone from hunting animals to hugging animals.

The Secretary of State for Transport is missing—missing on the day that the rail fares were increased by 3.4%, the highest increase in five years, and missing the opportunity to explain to the House why, when the Passenger Focus survey found that 91% of people are satisfied with the east coast main line that returned £l billion to the Treasury, the Government sell it off, with no explanation of why the franchise is terminated and the taxpayer has to bail out the companies. May we have a statement from the Secretary of State for Transport—he was present for our Opposition day yesterday—not only on the projected profits if the service had remained in public hands, but on the full costs of the bailout? Yet again, the Government did not vote in favour of our Opposition day motion, or oppose it or even amend it.

There seems to be a fatal flaw in the Government’s arguments. They say they planned for the winter, so my hon. Friend the shadow Secretary of State for Health was right when he said that the crisis was preventable and predictable. The evidence in the NHS is clear: cancelled operations and people waiting on trolleys. My friend and constituent Tassidiq Khan was discharged from New Cross Hospital on 15 December and I spoke to him. By 2 January, he had had a huge heart attack and was dead. The Secretary of State has to take responsibility and be accountable. If there are no concerns on behalf of the Government, why has the Care Quality Commission decided to suspend routine inspections because, it says, of winter pressures? Did the Government plan for that? Could we have a statement on today’s announcement by NHS providers that they cannot deliver, as set out under the NHS constitution, safe, decent standards of patient care?

This is about accountability and responsibility. My hon. Friend the shadow deputy Leader of the House—as we have a deputy shadow Leader of the House—has written an excellent article in the Health Service Journal about accountability. Mr Speaker, you will recall that Nye Bevan said that if a bedpan dropped in Tredegar, it would be heard in Whitehall. We say it is the other way round: what happens in Whitehall should be heard at a local level. It is accountability that is the most important, yet it seems that if companies do not get contracts, they sue and are paid out of public money; and if they cannot fulfil the contracts, they are bailed out by public money. Either way, the public are paying.

Could the Minister please tell the House the Government’s position on the inquiry announced today by the Commissioner for Public Appointments into the Government’s failure to follow due diligence in appointments to the Office for Students? Why had the Minister concerned not done the appropriate checks?

Finally, as we celebrate 100 years of women being able to vote, I hope we can also celebrate that, wherever people work, they are paid equally, whether called Carrie or John. Like the Minister, I welcome everyone back to the House and wish them a very happy new year.

I hope that the hon. Lady retains her sense of excitement throughout the forthcoming exchanges. I am disappointed, though, that she wanted me to be replaced so quickly in the new role that I am required to perform today. None the less, I will do my best in the short time that I have available.

The hon. Lady rightly raises the importance of winter planning in the NHS, and I am sure she will have carefully read yesterday’s debate and listened carefully to the words of the Prime Minister, who has made it clear that she has apologised to all those whose operations have been cancelled. We spent £437 million on winter planning for A&E this ye