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House of Commons Hansard
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Commons Chamber
22 February 2018
Volume 636

House of Commons

Thursday 22 February 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—

Trade Envoy Programme

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1. What recent assessment he has made of the effectiveness of the trade envoy programme. [903859]

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The Prime Minister’s trade envoys do a great job engaging with countries where trade and investment opportunities have been identified. Last year, trade envoys helped contribute to export wins of more than £15.5 billion in their markets. Based on an outlay of just under £250,000 for the programme over the same period, each trade envoy, on average, supported £700 million in exports.

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Does my right hon. Friend plan to appoint any further trade envoys beyond those already appointed?

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That is the least disguised job application that I have heard in some time. There are 30 trade envoys covering 60 markets around the world. The programme is reviewed regularly in consultation with our overseas team and any new suggestions are put to the Prime Minister. I will let my hon. Friend know as soon as possible if any vacancies occur.

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Before these trade envoys do anything else, will the Secretary of State bring them all together and allow them to have the same briefing from the CBI that many Members from all parties had this week? That CBI briefing on the impact of leaving the EU says that it will be a disaster for working men and women, industry and manufacturing up and down the country.

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As I often point out to the hon. Gentleman, the working men and women of his constituency had a very different view about the reasons for leaving the European Union. I make sure that our trade envoys get a much wider range of briefings than simply one—a highly suspect one in that case.

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I call Mark Field—sorry, Mark Prisk. I beg your pardon.

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As the Prime Minister’s trade envoy to Brazil, I have been immensely impressed by the UK companies already operating there, but frankly there are not enough of them. May I urge the Secretary of State to challenge business membership organisations, including the CBI, to ensure that they put exporting at the heart of their work?

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There is more than one Field in the House, but there is only one Prisk.

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First, I pay tribute to the work that my hon. Friend has done. We have a growing and increasingly improving trade relationship with Brazil, but he is absolutely right that we require business to put exporting at its heart. The positive signs in recent times are that that is happening and we will export more than 30% of our GDP this year for the first time in a considerable while.

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What parliamentary scrutiny is there of this programme?

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There is cross-party ability to look at the programme. We have an International Trade Committee and questions in this House, and I have just reported to the House the value that we think the programme has.

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As trade envoy to Ethiopia, last week I had a meeting at the African Union about the continental free trade area agreement, which is incredibly important for the future of all countries in Africa and for the United Kingdom. Does my right hon. Friend see roles for the trade envoy programme in engaging with these free trade areas, which cover more than one country?

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I would hope that our trade envoys, along with our posts in those various African countries, would understand the value that increased intra-African trade can bring both to those countries and in increased opportunities for UK exporters.

Exiting the EU: Trade Agreements

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2. What estimate his Department has made of the number of new institutions required to replicate the terms of existing trade agreements with the EU after the UK leaves the EU. [903860]

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The Government are committed to seeking continuity in our trading arrangements to minimise disruption to businesses, consumers and our trading partners. We will ensure that the institutional provisions of existing agreements are met as the UK begins to operate its independent trade policy.

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What parliamentary shared goals do the Government have in mind for the new arrangements that will come into place?

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To be absolutely clear, if the hon. Lady is referring to the Trade Bill, what we are looking at is the transitioning of existing trading arrangements with the EU. All those agreements have already been through parliamentary scrutiny. If she is referring to future trade agreements, we will bring that subject back to this House in due course.

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One of the new institutions we shall need to set up as we leave the EU is a trade remedies authority. I recently travelled to Canada and the US with the International Trade Committee. They are two countries that have robust trade remedies authorities whose impartiality can be critical in reaching economically sound judgments. What assurances can the Minister offer the House that the UK Government are similarly committed to an independent TRA that will be free from undue political interference?

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I congratulate my hon. Friend and the other members of the Committee on their recent visit to the United States and Canada. Those are two of the countries whose trade remedy systems we have studied, along with Australia and, in fact, the European Union system itself. As my hon. Friend says, it is common, although not universal, for the investigation process to be independent of the Government, but there is still a political decision at the end of the process by a Minister who is accountable to Parliament. It is worth pointing out, by the way, that all the Opposition parties voted against the creation of the trade remedies authority in the first place.

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I do not know whether a bridge counts as an institution, but I wonder whether the policy of the Department for International Trade, like that of the Foreign Office, is that a new fixed link between Britain and France is required to continue to improve trade after Brexit.

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We have been absolutely clear throughout this process about the importance of maintaining our trading relations with the European Union. That is why we are seeking to ensure that trade is as frictionless as possible, and why we are seeking a comprehensive free trade agreement with the EU.

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The EU does not have comprehensive free trade agreements with some of the world’s major economies. Does the Minister believe that the United Kingdom is likely to strike such deals more quickly than the European Union?

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We remain supportive of the European Union’s negotiations with some of those trade partners while we are still a member of the EU, because we are strong believers in free trade. We have also set up 14 trade working groups with many of the leading economies, including China, India and the United States, and we look forward to making further progress with those arrangements in due course.

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Our current trading relationships with many partners ranging from Switzerland to Mexico are overseen by joint committees of the EU and those other states. Will the Minister tell us how many of the committees will be replaced by UK equivalents after Brexit, and what progress his Department has made in establishing those institutions? Will he also tell us where the staff and expertise will be sourced from, and at what cost to the taxpayer?

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Let me say first that the UK played a leading role in establishing the European Union arrangements with countries such as Mexico and Switzerland in the first place. As for the question of where we go from here, our priority is to maintain continuity in our trading relations, ensuring that all the 40-plus trading agreements we have with 70-plus countries become UK arrangements as we leave the European Union. The precise format of the further discussions that we will have with those partners will be a matter for future arrangements.

Exiting the EU: Trade Agreements

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3. Whether he plans to replicate the terms of EU free trade agreements in trade deals with Switzerland, Norway and Turkey after the UK has left the EU; and if he will make a statement. [903861]

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As we leave the EU, the Government intend as far as possible to maintain the effects of existing EU free trade agreements and other EU preferential arrangements. That includes agreements with Switzerland, Norway and Turkey.

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I am going to pursue the questions asked by my hon. Friends the Members for Hornsey and Wood Green (Catherine West) and for Bradford South (Judith Cummins), which the Minister for Trade Policy did not answer. In 2016, the Secretary of State told the International Trade Committee that he would prioritise securing an agreement with Switzerland. The current relationship between the EU and Switzerland is overseen by some 20 joint committees. Very specifically, how many of those committees will be replaced by UK-Swiss committees, and how far along in the process of setting up those institutions is his Department?

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I met Swiss Ministers in Geneva recently, and we discussed what the future arrangement would be. Clearly, how we oversee the arrangement depends on what the arrangement itself is, and that is currently under negotiation.

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We do not need trade agreements to trade, do we?

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The Secretary of State has told us that he plans to replicate all the provisions of the trade agreements that the UK has, as a member of the EU, with Norway, Switzerland and Turkey. Those provisions include free movement of people in the cases of Norway and Switzerland, and a customs union with Turkey. Will the Secretary of State confirm that it is the Government’s policy to replicate all of them?

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In our transitional arrangements, we have made very clear that the key element is continuity. Until we create bespoke arrangements with those countries, we will maintain the provisions that exist today.

UK Trading Relations: Pacific Countries

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4. What steps he is taking to strengthen UK trading relations with Australia, New Zealand and other Commonwealth countries in the Pacific. [903862]

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We have the opportunity to enhance our global trading relationships, including those with the countries with which we share bonds of history and friendship. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State travelled to Australia and New Zealand in November to promote free trade and deepen those trading relationships. The April Commonwealth summit here in London will provide an opportunity for us to continue that work with all member states.

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Has my right hon. Friend considered how UK agriculture will compete with our Commonwealth cousins when we agree a free trade deal after leaving the customs union?

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I praise my hon. Friend for his distinguished business career in the sector before coming to this House; it means he brings real expertise to the House. He will know that we have established trade working groups with both Australia and New Zealand to explore possibilities in trade and investment. They will include agriculture, but it is too early to be sure how it will be covered in those and other future trading arrangements. The New Zealanders are very interested in this—the New Zealand High Commission recently wrote to the International Trade Committee saying:

“Given the complementarity of our two economies and our deep bilateral ties,”

they want to do something with us, and we very much agree.

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On negotiations with New Zealand, the Minister will be aware that Wales has a large lamb industry—it is one of the great prides of the United Kingdom—so can he give an absolute assurance that in his negotiations with New Zealand he will not put any Welsh farms and the Welsh lamb industry at risk?

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I am keenly aware, as are my right hon. Friend the Secretaries of State for International Trade and for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, of the importance of British agriculture in all parts of the United Kingdom and of making sure we have the necessary protections in place on animal welfare standards and so on, and also of promoting the opportunity to export our excellent British goods. Food and drink is one of our fastest-growing export sectors, and we want people to take advantage of opportunities across the UK.

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What importance does the Minister attach to deepening and broadening our trade relationships with countries such as India, which has a widening middle class among its population of 1.25 billion?

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The Prime Minister’s first bilateral trade visit in November 2016 was to India, accompanied by the Secretary of State and myself. We have recently completed a trade audit with India that looks at all the barriers. India is at times a difficult market for British exporters to crack. We have a lot of advantages in doing business there, and the trade audit and the joint economic trade committee talks led by the Secretary of State last month are taking us in the right direction.

Exiting the EU: UK Trade

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5. What recent assessment he has made of the effect on UK trade of the UK leaving the EU single market and the customs union. [903863]

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By leaving the customs union and establishing a new ambitious arrangement with the EU, we will be seeking to maintain as frictionless as possible trade in goods between the UK and the EU, and the freedom to forge trade relations with partners around the world.

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The Norwegians have a saying: “Nothing is in as much of a hurry as a dead fish on the back of a lorry.” Like Norway, Scotland exports most of the fish it catches to the EU, which is why Norway has chosen to be a member of the single market, in particular to avoid non-tariff barriers so the fish can cross borders quickly. What assessment has the Secretary of State made of the impact of leaving the single market on the Scottish fishing industry?

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Of course, the majority of Scotland’s exports go to the rest of the UK, not the EU. The hon. and learned Lady talks about the value of the single market; it is just worth pointing out that, despite our membership of the single market, we have had a growing trade deficit with the EU at a time when we have had a growing trade surplus with the rest of the world. We want to establish the conditions for all our exports from all parts of the UK to be able to access the growing markets of the world, and, as the International Monetary Fund has pointed out, 90% of global growth in the next 10 to 15 years will be outside Europe.

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What is the Secretary of State’s preferred method of ensuring frictionless trade between the Republic and the north of Ireland?

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Our preferred option is to do that through a widespread and liberal agreement in trade with the European Union, as set out in the Government’s memorandum in December.

GREAT Festival of Innovation

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6. What progress he has made on arrangements for the GREAT Festival of Innovation in Hong Kong planned for March 2018. [903864]

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The GREAT festival will be held in Hong Kong from 21 to 24 March 2018. With more than 70 confirmed speakers, the festival will showcase the best of British innovation, the potential of the UK economy and the strength of our world-class service sector.

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Britain is becoming a world leader in artificial intelligence, big data and the fourth industrial revolution technologies that will power future export growth. Will my right hon. Friend ensure that those technologies will be widely promoted at next month’s festival?

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They will indeed be widely represented. For example, UtterBerry, an AI-based infrastructure monitoring technology that has been used in this country in projects such as the Thames tideway and Crossrail, will be showcased. The festival will be an opportunity for us to show off the best of British innovation in general.

Overseas Direct Investment

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7. What progress he has made on his Department’s overseas direct investment strategy. [903865]

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We are making great progress on supporting UK businesses to invest overseas, as this can have a substantial positive effect on the UK economy. The Department for International Trade has developed a suite of products and services that address market failures, to support British businesses.

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What update can the Minister provide on his Department’s overseas direct investment pilots? Will he also explain what opportunities ODI offers to British businesses?

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My Department’s ODI support pilots have successfully demonstrated the impact that the Government can have in supporting UK businesses to overcome barriers to market access and to expand overseas. By harnessing the private sector wherever possible and focusing Government interventions only on market failures, my Department has successfully supported overseas investment for a range of UK businesses in six global markets.

Trade Deficit: Goods and Services

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8. What recent estimate he has made of the UK’s trade deficit in goods and services. [903866]

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In 2016, the UK had a trade deficit with the EU of £70.97 billion, and a trade surplus of £39 billion with non-EU countries, up from £33.6 billion in 2015. The latest trade figures show that in 2017, the UK’s trade deficit in goods and services narrowed by £7 billion to £33.7 billion.

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Balance of trade figures were once regarded as pivotal. They were even thought to win or lose elections. Given that we are now going to escape from the constraining clutches of the European Union, will my right hon. Friend invest again in old friends and rejuvenate our relationships in the realm with allies such as Australia and New Zealand? What steps has he taken to ensure preferential arrangements with such old allies?

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My right hon. Friend asks a very good question. First, I should like to put on record my thanks to him for leading various Government trade delegations in recent years, including one to Colombia. I know that he takes a strong interest in this subject. As I said earlier, we have set up trade working groups with Canada, the United States, Australia and New Zealand, and, unlike Opposition Front Benchers, we also voted for the comprehensive economic and trade agreement, the EU’s free trade agreement with Canada. The Secretary of State has been in all four of those markets in the past year, leading efforts to break down trade barriers and to seek new trade agreements.

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I am sure that the right hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr Hayes) enjoyed going to Colombia. Quite what Colombia made of the right hon. Gentleman is not recorded.

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The creative sector in Bristol West—particularly the music industry—is important, and trade in that sector is a service industry. What steps are the Government taking to ensure that the creative industries, particularly the music industry, are supported as we leave the EU?

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The hon. Lady is quite right to point out the importance of services to our trade. Overall, services represent 80% of our economy and 79% of jobs. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and the whole team are working closely with the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport to ensure that we continue to grow exports from our creative sector and that investment from abroad continues to come into the sector. We often visit places such as Tech City UK and techUK, and we are working closely with them to ensure that we have a flourishing future for our creative industries.

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Last week, as co-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on Kosovo, I visited a British company in Pristina that has a £20 million investment there. What opportunities does the Minister foresee for widening our trade in goods and services with Kosovo and the neighbouring western Balkan countries?

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This is a very good opportunity. That is a part of the world that I know well, and I think that the company to which my hon. Friend refers is called Fox Marble—a highly appropriate name for this particular Question Time. It finds top-quality marble in Kosovo for export, and it should be congratulated. In regard to the wider region, we work closely with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to promote trading opportunities throughout the region.

Topical Questions

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T1. If he will make a statement on his departmental responsibilities. [903914]

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My Department has responsibility for export promotion, foreign and outward direct investment, and trade policy. I am delighted to inform the House that my Department has appointed the first three of our network of Her Majesty’s trade commissioners, and Richard Burn, Antony Phillipson and Crispin Simon will serve as trade commissioners for China, North America and south Asia respectively. They will develop and deliver strategies to ensure that we can take full advantage of leaving the European Union, the single market and the customs union.

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I thank the Secretary of State for that answer. What evidence is he seeing for growth in UK manufacturing exports to the wider world? I have just returned from a visit to Pakistan with leading British companies in my role as trade envoy to enhance trading between our two great countries; will the Secretary of State join me in paying tribute to Elin Burns and Matt Lister, our trade experts in Pakistan?

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I pay tribute to all those people. We are seeing a big rise in our manufacturing order books, not least on the back of our strong export performance. In recent times, we have seen the biggest growth in consistent monthly manufacturing numbers for some 30 years. The figures produced by the Office for National Statistics suggest that our exports now represent 30.3% of our exported GDP—the second highest figure on record.

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Given the Government Front-Bench team’s uncharacteristic failure to welcome my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford South (Judith Cummins) to the Opposition Front Bench, I know that you would want me to do so, Mr Speaker.

Is the Secretary of State aware that the Food Standards Agency recently detained large quantities of out-of-date meat in a company called Norish Cold Storage? The meat is believed to have come from Ireland and South America. Given that Norish is the parent company of Town View Foods, one of the directors of which, Plunkett Matthews, was also a director of Freeza Meats, a company implicated in the Irish horsemeat scandal in 2013 and found guilty of meat-labelling fraud, will the Secretary of State urgently liaise with Ministers in the Republic of Ireland, the FSA here and the Food Safety Authority of Ireland to ensure the supply chain for this illegal meat is identified, that our sanitary and phytosanitary regulations are properly enforced and that those behind the illegal trade—

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Order. I say to the hon. Gentleman that if the meat was previously hot, it would certainly be freezing cold by now.

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I was not aware of that particular allegation. This cross-Government issue is clearly not one entirely for my Department, but I will ensure that other Ministers are made aware of it.

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T3. There is immense potential for growth in bilateral trade and investment between the UK and Israel after we leave the EU. Does the Minister share my hope for yet greater levels of trade with the start-up nation, and will he update the House on the progress being made by the UK-Israel trade working group? [903916]

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Britain’s relationship with Israel is stronger than ever, with record levels of bilateral co-operation in trade, investment, science and technology. As my hon. Friend rightly says, the UK-Israel trade working group is making good progress in ensuring continuity in our trading relationships as we leave the EU.

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T2. Bearing in mind the upcoming Israel Apartheid Week in universities, of which a boycott of Israel and its products is a big component, will the Minister outline how he intends to enhance trade with Israel for our mutual benefit and offset that destructive campaign by the anti-Israel movement? [903915]

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We strongly welcome our ties with Israel, as does the hon. Gentleman. As has just been said, the Department has established a joint trade working group, and we continue to liaise closely with the Israeli Government to strengthen trade, investment and other ties between this country and Israel.

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T4. Next Friday, I will be attending the COMBEbusiness event, which showcases the brilliant small and medium-sized enterprises in north Devon. What is the Department doing to attract international investment to those businesses, which form the bedrock of the south-west’s economy? [903917]

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We work in collaboration with the Heart of the South West local enterprise partnership to attract foreign direct investment into Devon. More widely, the Department works with local enterprise partnerships and local authorities across the south-west to promote inward investment opportunities to foreign-owned companies. In 2016-17, DIT recorded 101 inward investment projects in the south-west, creating 3,402 new jobs.

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Although my party does not want to leave the single market or the customs union, a properly planned and managed transition period is always top of the agenda for businesses across Scotland, particularly in our thriving food and drink sector. Does the Secretary of State agree with his own Government that a sensible transition period is required, or is he sticking to his cliff-edge position, which will have a devastating impact for businesses across Scotland and the UK?

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We believe across Government that the simplest way to get to the position that we will be able to enjoy, of leaving the single market and the customs union, is via a transition period that is carefully planned and that gives predictability to business.

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Single-sentence inquiries are now required.

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T5. Last week, I visited the US as part of a cross-party delegation to discuss the future of financial services, and I was very encouraged by the positive response from a variety of stakeholders. What assessment has the Secretary of State made of the potential for a future UK trade deal with the US? [903918]

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We have four working groups with the United States at the present time, and at the last one we announced a UK-US small and medium-sized enterprise dialogue. My hon. Friend will be pleased to know that the first dialogue on SMEs will take place next month and will involve more than 100 businesses as part of a very constructive process.

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Remoteness of location in the UK is no constraint on the success of some of our malt whisky distilleries in Scotland. Can I tempt the Secretary of State or his Ministers to come and visit Old Pulteney in Wick or Glenmorangie in Tain? Will they do everything to secure the future prosperity of the distilleries in my constituency?

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I already have several invitations to visit distilleries, and I intend to take a very close personal interest in this particular sector.

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T6. Further to his earlier answer, does my right hon. Friend agree that the prospects for future trade with our close friend and economic partner India remain very bright? [903919]

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Yes, my hon. Friend is right. I mentioned the India trade audit that has just been published. The Secretary of State met his Indian counterpart, Minister Prabhu, during our Joint Economic and Trade Committee meetings in January, and they agreed that bilateral work will now explore addressing barriers in four recommended sectors: food and drink, life sciences, information technology and services.

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The UK remains a major transit hub for illegal wildlife trafficking, and we rely on Border Force to prevent that trade. Will the Minister tell his colleagues in the Home Office to ditch their dangerous plan to replace Border Force staff with volunteers?

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Actually, this Government have made enormous efforts to stop wildlife trafficking. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs made it a major part of his visit to south-east Asia last week, and he made particular reference to the pangolin, which at the moment is the world’s most trafficked animal. This Government are leading global efforts in combating this horrendous trade.

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T7. Does my right hon. Friend agree that free trade helps consumers by lowering prices and that free trade has been one of the biggest contributors to combating global poverty over the past 100 years? Will he embrace the opportunities created by Brexit to do free trade deals that will help consumers and British businesses? [903920]

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At the WTO this week, I again made the case for free trade, and the UK is a global champion of free trade. We tend to discuss our trade in terms of producers, but we must always remember that free trade is an enormous benefit to consumers in lowering prices, improving choice and increasing quality. Free trade has also been the route by which we have taken more than 1 billion people on this planet out of abject poverty in the past generation, which we should celebrate.

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With no prosecutions leading to convictions since 2011, with no register of arms brokers—as the USA, Canada, Germany and France have—and with the Government selling weapons and spy equipment to eight human rights abusers, how can the Government continue to claim that we have the strongest arms export regime in the world, or are they just not implementing the rules?

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I do not know whether colleagues are aware of it, but they rather ruin their questions when they try to pack too much in. Topical questions are supposed to be brief. I understand the temptation—I used to feel it myself—but it ends up being a worse and a lesser question than something shorter and more pithy. It is such an obvious point that the hon. Gentleman must be extraordinarily clever not to be able to grasp it.

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All export licence applications are considered on a case-by-case basis against the consolidated EU and national arms export licensing criteria, based on the most up-to-date information and analysis available. I would be happy to meet the hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Lloyd Russell-Moyle) to discuss these issues further.

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T8. How can the many excellent manufacturing businesses in the Black country benefit when we leave the customs union? [903921]

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My hon. Friend is a fine and upstanding voice for the Black country. He will know that manufacturing experienced a 2.8% growth rate over the past year. Leaving the customs union provides an opportunity to enhance that growth, particularly as manufacturing exports outside the EU are growing so fast.

Women and Equalities

The Minister for Women and Equalities was asked—

Women’s Vote Centenary Fund

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1. How much of the centenary fund to celebrate women having the right to vote has been spent; and how much of that funding has been distributed to women's organisations. [903874]

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2. How much of the centenary fund to celebrate women having the right to vote has been spent; and how much of that funding has been distributed to women’s organisations. [903875]

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The centenary fund has paid out about £2.5 million so far; £1.2 million was given to Bolton, Bristol, Leeds, Leicester, London, Manchester and Nottingham, which are working with women’s organisations to deliver their suffrage centenary programmes. We are also funding the first ever statue of a women in Parliament Square—it will be of Millicent Fawcett.

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I thank the Minister for her answer. She will know that the Sheffield Female Political Association, founded in February 1851, was the first women’s suffrage organisation in the UK. Will she therefore join me in supporting the bid prepared by women across the voluntary, arts and education sectors to the fund? Will she wish them well in their ambition to use the centenary to encourage opportunities for civic engagement by women who feel disengaged and disempowered?

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I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. I am delighted to congratulate him and to welcome the women of Sheffield in their bid to the centenary fund. I hope it will do exactly as he says: encourage more women to engage in political life in general.

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Will the Minister confirm what level of support the Government or their contracted company are providing to smaller women’s groups to encourage them to take up this funding?

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Yes, I am happy to tell the hon. Gentleman that we have a website that will set all that out. If he wants to go on it himself, it is womensvotecentenaryfund.co.uk . The bidding process is set out there. Two types of grants are available. The larger one is up to £125,000 and the smaller one starts at £2,000. I hope that will give him and his constituents the information they need to apply for the grants.

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Are we not in danger of rather missing the point that the best way to celebrate the centenary of women’s suffrage is to get more women to register and actually to vote when elections turn up?

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My hon. Friend is right, in that it is imperative that more women participate in political life, both by voting and by participating in this place. I think we can do both things: we can celebrate the centenary and, in our celebrations, make that point repeatedly so that we get more women involved.

Exiting the EU: Equalities Policy

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3. What assessment she has made of the effect on the Government’s policies on equality of the UK leaving the EU. [903876]

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The UK Government’s record on equalities is one of the best in the world, and leaving the EU will not change that. The equality Acts and equivalent legislation in Northern Ireland provide the cornerstone of equalities protections in the UK and in some places go much further than EU requirements, for example, in our world-leading approach to gender pay gap reporting. We do not need to be part of the EU to sustain our record in this area.

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A recent study published in Social Policy and Society has found that the UK’s voting record in the EU has historically placed business interests over women’s rights. What steps are this Government taking to ensure that post-Brexit Britain will not place business interests above ensuring equality?

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This Government have a proud record of protecting and enhancing women’s rights, and that record of action predates our membership of the EU, as seen, for example, in the Equal Pay Act 1970. The EU’s own gender equality index places us sixth out of 28, and our gender pay gap reporting requirements and our public sector equality duty are world-leading initiatives that go beyond EU law in many ways.

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As on employment rights, the UK has a been right at the forefront of advancing equality across the world. Will the Minister confirm that that simply is not going to change?

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Yes, we have a proud record, history and tradition in the UK of supporting workers, protecting civil liberties and championing human rights. Leaving the EU will in no way affect that historical tradition, of which we can all be proud.

Workplace Sexual Harassment

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4. If the Government will bring forward legislative proposals to amend section 40 of the Equality Act 2010 to protect employees from sexual harassment by third parties in the workplace. [903877]

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The Equality Act 2010 provides protection from harassment for employees, whether committed by their employer, co-workers or a third party. The coalition Government repealed the third party harassment provisions in section 40 of the Equality Act because they were unnecessary and overcomplicated. Employers have a legal obligation to protect their workers, and may be liable if they fail to take reasonable steps to prevent harassment of workers by third parties.

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I refer to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. Unite’s campaign “Not on the menu” in the hospitality sector, and its research with cabin crew showing that the majority experience sexual harassment, demonstrate emphatically why section 40 of the Equality Act 2010 is vital. Will the Minister commit to implementing it, but with intervention after one episode not three, and focus on a zero-tolerance approach to any form of sexual harassment in the workplace?

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I am most concerned to hear about those incidents of harassment, and the hon. Lady should be reassured that they are covered already by the Equality Act. The reason those provisions in section 40 were repealed was that, as she has identified, they required not one but three occasions of harassment, and we know that, in the three years those provisions were in place, they were used only once. We have tried to improve the law, and I would encourage her to encourage people to use it.

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It is really encouraging to hear my hon. Friend’s response, but does she not agree that it is not just about getting the law right? We have to get the remedies within the law right. We have to encourage anonymised reporting in the workplace. We must also make sure that the unethical use of non-disclosure agreements does not work to stop people bringing forward claims of sexual harassment in the first place.

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I thank my right hon. Friend for her question. With her expertise on the Women and Equalities Committee, she knows only too well the challenge we have in advertising the rights that people have in the workplace. I am particularly concerned with non-disclosure agreements. We know that they can be used for lawful reasons—for example, to protect client confidentiality—but they cannot be used to shield employers from claims of harassment or discrimination, and any work that her Committee can do to help the Government in advertising that, I would very much welcome.

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I know from my many battles in the coalition Government—some successful, some not—that the Conservatives’ obsession with deregulation often gets in the way of protecting vulnerable workers. It is that obsession, I say to the Minister, that is the real reason why the provisions in the Equality Act were repealed—I know because I was in the discussions at the time. Surely, in the light of the Presidents Club and all the other evidence that is now in the public domain, it is time to look again at the issue and, by all means, to improve on the original provisions, as suggested by the hon. Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell).

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I very much pay tribute to the hon. Lady for the work that she did as a Minister and that she continues to do now in the House. We of course keep this matter under review, but on the point I made about the section 40 amendments, general protection exists under the Act. However, we will continue to look at the evidence, and we are very, very clear: discrimination and harassment in the workplace is simply not on and is against the law.

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We have to be very clear about this. Because the Government repealed section 40 of the Equality Act 2010, there is now no statutory protection over third party harassment. If the Government are committed to protecting women and girls, will they show this by either reinstating section 40 or, at the very least, introducing stronger legislation to ensure protection against third party harassment?

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I hesitate to correct the hon. Lady, but that is simply not true: there is a general protection against harassment in the workplace; it is in the 2010 statue—it is a general protection against harassment. Of course, if there are any instances that Members on both sides of the House have of particular types of harassment or discrimination, I and the Home Secretary will always be willing to listen. However, the Equality Act protects workers, the general protection is there and, what is more, it is better than the section 40 protections, because it does not require three occasions of harassment; it requires just one.

Period Poverty

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5. What steps the Government are taking to tackle period poverty. [903878]

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No girl or woman should be held back because of her gender or her background. This is why the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport has identified period poverty as a priority for the tampon tax fund, which, in 2018 and 2019, totals £15 million. We have encouraged bids to address this issue.

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In Stockton South and across Teesside, residents led a “free period” campaign, which persuaded local authorities to provide free sanitary protection for women and girls living in poverty. Will the Minister meet me to work out how that might be replicated in other parts of the country?

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I am delighted to hear that Stockton-on-Tees Council has started that innovative project, and, in fairness to our Scottish colleagues, the same is happening in Aberdeen as well. I look forward very much to hearing the results of that pilot, and I would be happy to meet the hon. Gentleman to discuss them.

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12. I was pleased to hear that the student union in Lincoln sells sanitary products at cost before VAT. Will the Minister acknowledge that sanitary products are not a luxury, but a necessity? My question is: will she accelerate the timetable for removing the tampon tax—yes, or no? [903885]

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I am also glad that our county university is leading the way on this, but the hon. Lady knows that we are constrained by our membership of the European Union.

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indicated dissent.

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The hon. Lady shakes her head, but I am afraid that that is the law. We have lowered the rate to the lowest possible level—5%—and, what is more, we are using that money specifically for funds that help women and girls. We are waiting for the moment that we leave the European Union. I know that my Treasury colleagues are looking at exactly that issue.

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It is a stain on our society that there are young girls and women who are experiencing period poverty, and, frankly, it is tragic that our Government appear to have such ambivalence towards period poverty, although I welcome the latest announcement. Will the Minister agree to work with me on an innovative scheme, which is currently in its infancy, that I am running with a local supermarket to see how we can work towards the elimination of period poverty?

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I would be delighted to meet the hon. Lady to discuss this issue, because it is important. We know that we do not have a substantial basis of evidence on period poverty, but we are trying to gather that evidence, particularly with schools. We do want to address the issue of the VAT charged on tampons and other sanitary products, and the moment that we leave the European Union we can do so. In the meantime, we are using the money raised by that low rate of VAT to help women and girls, particularly using those funds that deal with violence against women and girls. We have a general programme with 12 sub-themes, including period poverty. I very much hope that that money will be of good use.

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Last week, the Minister asked us to remember the suffragettes chained to the grilles. I ask the Minister today to remember those women chained to the house because of period poverty, those women chained to poor housing because of universal credit, and those women chained to an abusive partner because of the closure of refuges. Will the Minister work with me to develop and implement policies to help tackle those issues?

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The Government are led, if I may say, by a female Prime Minister—I just mention that as a small detail because Labour members have never managed to entrust the leadership of their party to a woman. We are proud of our record of helping women, which is precisely why we are bringing forward a ground-breaking piece of legislation this year to tackle domestic abuse, which will help both the victims of domestic abuse and their children. It is one measure in a long programme that we are carrying out to try to help women—not just women who are victims of crime, but women in the economy. We have more women in the workplace than ever before, and we all know that financial independence is a key indicator when it comes to ensuring that women are not stuck in those terrible relationships that the hon. Lady has described.

Gender Pay Gap

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6. How many and what proportion of employers within the scope of the gender pay gap regulations have published gender pay gap data. [903879]

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7. How many and what proportion of employers within the scope of the gender pay gap regulations have published gender pay gap data. [903880]

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8. How many and what proportion of employers within the scope of the gender pay gap regulations have published gender pay gap data. [903881]

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13. How many and what proportion of employers within the scope of the gender pay gap regulations have published gender pay gap data. [903886]

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15. How many and what proportion of employers within the scope of the gender pay gap regulations have published gender pay gap data. [903888]

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So far, more than 7,500 employers have registered their intention to report, and around 1,000 have published their data. The most recent data published by employers are publicly available via the Government viewing service on the gov.uk website. There is still more than a month until the public and private sector deadlines, and we expect reporting activity to increase significantly in the run-up to those dates.

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One challenge that we face is that employers sometimes deliberately conflate fair pay with equal pay to avoid scrutiny of their conduct. A prime offender is the BBC. Seventy MPs wrote to the Secretary of State for Culture to ask him to use his power to ensure an equal opportunity for both men and women at the corporation to be heard on this subject. Given that he has refused to do so, will the right hon. Lady exercise her freedom of speech and have a word?

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I thank the hon. Lady for raising this important matter. It has been instructive to see how the BBC has responded. I am happy to confirm that I will take forward her advice and indeed have a word.

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What sanctions will be put in place for those companies that do not meet their obligations to publish their gender pay data by the deadline?

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The hon. Gentleman asks an important question. We have put in place ground-breaking legislation to ensure that we close the gender pay gap. The Equality and Human Rights Commission will oversee any sorts of sanctions that are necessary. I hope that it will be its intention, as it is ours, to use persuasion and demonstration of the law to get participation, but of course it can use the full force of the law if it finds that the legislation is not being complied with.

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What measures are the Government undertaking to work with private sector business, civil society and others to close the gender pay gap?

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It is incredibly important that we do address closing the gender pay gap. Transparency is one of the key ways that we will achieve that. Having this compulsion of reporting on gender pay is an important first step, but we will take it further. We will engage with businesses to see what measures they will be putting in place to address the gender pay gap. My experience, when I talk to businesses about this, is that when they realise that they have such a gender pay gap—to some, it is a revelation—they are moving to put in training and other measures to address it.

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Only three universities have so far reported on this. On a day when academics are bravely standing up to defend their pensions, will the Minister tell us when she expects that the gender pay gap will be eliminated in our universities?

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I urge all universities to address reporting their gender pay gap. It is the law; they need to do so. I will say a word on the other matter, if I may. It is important that this dispute between students, effectively, the universities and their staff is resolved, because people need to get their degrees. I would urge the striking lecturers to get back to work.

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So far, only 1,000 out of 9,000 companies that are obliged to publish gender pay gap data have done so. What are the Government going to do to up that figure and ensure that companies are meeting their obligations to publish this vital data, so that we have the full picture?

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It is vital data, and Conservative Members are proud of it because it has been introduced by a Conservative Government. We will be contacting private sector companies, and public sector organisations, to make sure that they do report. This is an important first step, with 1,000 so far and more to go until the deadline. I urge the hon. Gentleman not to make perfect the enemy of the good.

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When the Minister has a word with the BBC, will it be her contention that it is the men who are overpaid or the women who are underpaid?

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That is almost a philosophical question from my hon. Friend. My priority is equality: that is the point I will be making.

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Amongst other things, I have always thought of the hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) as a philosopher—[Interruption]—of some distinction.

Women Standing for Election

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9. What steps the Government are taking to encourage more women to stand for election to public office. [903882]

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I am proud to be part of the most diverse Parliament in history. My hon. Friend is of course making his own contribution by being the first British-Chinese Member of Parliament, for which I welcome him. We are commissioning evidence to identify strategies to overcome barriers to participation. Through our centenary fund, we are supporting projects to get more women involved in all levels of governance and ultimately to stand for elected office.

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I thank the Minister for her answer and for her kind words. Twelve women Conservative councillors currently serve on Havant Borough Council, giving over 100 years of collective service. Will my right hon. Friend continue to support women into elected office at local government level and congratulate my friends locally on their service?

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That is such a good question from my hon. Friend. It is so important that we also encourage women to participate more in local councils. Only 33% of local councillors are women, and I would like to see that number rise. I echo his thanks to his local councillors. I pay particular tribute to Councillor Gwen Blackett, who is soon to retire from Havant Borough Council following 45 years of service. I congratulate her on that, and congratulate the other women who have served as well.

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The first woman to be elected to this Parliament was, of course, Countess Markievicz, an Irish nationalist. Is the Home Secretary, like me, looking forward to the presentation of a portrait of the countess next week by the Irish Speaker in the Irish Parliament to Mr Speaker in this Parliament?

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Yes, I am looking forward to that, and I will make sure it is in my diary, so that I can join the hon. and learned Lady for the event.

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Splendid. I look forward to the presence of the Minister for Women and Equalities. That will confer some additional glitter on our proceedings.

Topical Questions

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T1. If she will make a statement on her departmental responsibilities. [903922]

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I would like to update the House on the work we are doing to support people back into paid work after time spent caring for others, of whom 90% are women. We know that too often, people with skills and experience struggle to get back into jobs after taking time out of the labour market to care for children or other family members, and that is a huge loss for the economy, employers and those individuals. That is why we committed £5 million to support people back into work in last year’s spring Budget.

In the summer, we also announced new public sector programmes for returners, and I am pleased to inform the House that programmes for people wanting to return to jobs in social work and the health professions and a programme for people wanting to join the civil service after a break are all up and running. Next month, we will be launching practical guidance to help private sector employers get more returners back at the right skill level. I will continue to expand opportunities for people who want to return to employment, and I look forward to giving the House further updates.

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Tomorrow in my constituency of Cardiff North, I am hosting a pensions inequality meeting for women born in the 1950s. When will this Government be prepared to support these women all over the country who are being shamelessly exploited and robbed of their pensions?

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This legislation was passed in 1995 to create an equality between men and women. Those who seek to change the legislation would be effectively creating an inequality between men and women on an ongoing basis that has a dubious nature in law and an inequality between 1950s-born women and 1960s-born women.

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T4. In this important centenary year, what steps are the Government taking to tackle the online abuse of women in public life? [903926]

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I thank my hon. Friend for that question. It is so important to protect women particularly, who get the largest share of abuse, from the type of attacks that can put them off participating in public life. That is why my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister announced a review that the Law Commission will do to ensure that what we say—what is illegal offline is illegal online—is actually the case and that the law is following that guidance. We will come back to the House with further updates.

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I welcome the draft Domestic Violence and Abuse Bill. As well as looking at new initiatives, I hope that it will consider the impact of Government policy on domestic violence. Will the Minister give a commitment that the child maintenance reform will include the abolition of the 4% tax on survivors of domestic violence? Will she ensure that that is included in the draft Bill?

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I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her question. I will refer to colleagues who are working on specific matters in relation to child maintenance, and we will make sure we write to her with a response on that important point within a week.

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Some 89% of those who take time out of work to fulfil caring responsibilities are women, and employers, as my right hon. Friend has identified, have a huge role to play in helping women to return to work when they wish to. Can she set out more detail about the plans to publish guidance on best practice for private sector employers?

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I completely agree with my hon. Friend that this is a priority. It is a priority for individuals, employers, families and the economy, which is why we allocated £5 million in the last spring Budget to make sure that we set up programmes for training, guidance and supporting businesses and employers in achieving exactly that. I will have further announcements on this and look forward to making them to the House.

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The Department for Education is currently reviewing relationships and sex education. Has the Minister taken the opportunity to emphasise to her Education colleagues how important it is to identify female genital mutilation and child, early and forced marriage as a priority area in the curriculum?

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I am incredibly proud that this Government have made that commitment, and we are going to consult on it to ensure that we get it right. It is important to distinguish between relationships education, which is going to be compulsory in primary schools, and sex and relationships education in secondary schools. The areas the hon. Lady highlights will of course be considered as part of that, but this Government have actually done a lot to address the scourge, unpleasantness and horror of forced marriage and FGM.

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Will the Minister update the House on what the Government are doing to improve female eligibility for auto-enrolment both nationally and in my constituency of Berwick-upon-Tweed?

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In 2012, the overall participation of female employees in workplace pensions was 58%, but this has now increased to 80%, which is above the figure for men. In my hon. Friend’s constituency of Berwick-upon-Tweed, 1,020 employers have enrolled 6,000 employees into an auto-enrolled pension, including a very large proportion of women. I will update the House with the number of auto-enrolled employees in every constituency very shortly.

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T2. What steps are the Government taking to ensure that women are not asked about their family plans or their childcare arrangements in job interviews? [903923]

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I think I can honestly say to the hon. Lady that I was as shocked as she no doubt was to hear about that. I will be discussing it with the Equality and Human Rights Commission and finding out what further communication to employers is needed to ensure that that does not take place, because it is clearly not allowed.

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Businesses have just two weeks to file their gender pay gap reports. It is clear from some excellent investigative journalism by the Financial Times that some businesses have filed incorrect data. If this is done deliberately, what will my right hon. Friend do?

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I thank my right hon. Friend for raising that issue. This is incredibly important to get right. The reporting on the gender pay gap will be a vital tool in ensuring that we close it. I will be discussing it with the EHRC, which is the group that will follow up with enforcement. It is sufficiently funded to do exactly that, and I will be turning to it to ensure that this is handled properly.

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T3. With reference to the BBC and the gender pay gap, I have been looking at the diversity and background of the senior management at the corporation. Unfortunately, they will not play ball and give me the information I need to judge how they are doing in terms of diversity and social mobility, so will the Minister have a word with them about this as well? [903924]

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It looks as though I will have a few things to take forward with the BBC, and I look forward to coming back to set out what those conversations have revealed.

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Following the consultation that ended last September, when will my hon. Friend bring forward proposals to remove caste as a protected characteristic from the Equality Act 2010?

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My hon. Friend has of course done so much work on this issue. We are very clear that discrimination on the basis of caste is not acceptable, which is why we consulted on it last year. We are considering the results of the consultation as we speak, and the Government will respond shortly.

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T5. What discussions have Ministers had with minority communities women’s groups, and how do the Government propose to address their specific concerns? [903928]

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I have had a number of conversations with minority communities women’s groups. When I go out to discuss issues to do with integration, I always make a special point of engaging with women’s groups and finding out what else we can do to help them. Their concerns are often those that the hon. Gentleman and I might have about our own families—access to jobs, language courses and general public services—and my right hon. Friend the Housing, Communities and Local Government Secretary will shortly bring forward an integration strategy that will address some of those concerns.

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May I urge the Home Secretary, when she has her excellent ongoing conversations with social media companies on the west coast, to don her ministerial hat as the Minister for Women and Equalities and look at what those companies can do proactively to ensure that women in particular are not put off from going into public life?

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My hon. Friend is absolutely right: the abuse of women online does put women off, and we need to make sure that less takes place in order to encourage them. The experience of my recent visit to the west coast to discuss high levels of crime online with the communications service providers—the internet companies—was productive. We have got them to agree to a number of additional measures that I think will persist.

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T6. Will the Minister consider criminalising upskirting to end that degrading and humiliating practice? [903929]

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Upskirting is a modern phenomenon, and it is fair to say that the law has not quite kept up with modern habits. It is an issue of which I am aware, not least because my police and crime commissioner campaigns on it thoroughly. The Government are considering the issue, and perhaps in due course I could meet the hon. Lady to discuss it with her.

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What ongoing work are the Government doing to tackle domestic violence?

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I reassure my hon. Friend that we take domestic violence very seriously. We will shortly bring forward a consultation ahead of a new domestic violence Bill that will address that heinous crime and, I believe, start to reduce the amount of domestic abuse and violence that exists in this country.

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There is strong anecdotal evidence to suggest that girls are missing days of school due to period poverty. During my Westminster Hall debate, the then Minister for Women said that she wanted to commission research, and in her answer earlier today, the Minister for Women, the hon. Member for Louth and Horncastle (Victoria Atkins) suggested that that has happened. May I ask what has been commissioned, what research is being considered, and when it will be published before the House?

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We have sought to establish whether there has been any rigorous national assessment of the prevalence of period poverty and its impact on attendance, but none appears to be available. Last summer, we asked for help from the Association of School and College Leaders forum, and we received a limited response. We are trying to produce an analysis of our absence data to look for evidence of period poverty, and we will publish the findings of that in due course.

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Further to the Minister’s earlier answer, if the state pension ages of men and women were to be different, would that infringe equality legislation?

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Potentially yes.

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Will the Minister explain what plans the Government will introduce to protect the 200 women and children who are turned away from refuges every single day?

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I am proud that the Government have more beds available to victims of domestic violence than there were in 2010, and we take very seriously the issue of refuge for those victims. I am not entirely sure that the statistics used by the hon. Gentleman are correct, because sometimes when a woman is not accepted at one refuge and goes on to apply to a second or third, each application counts as one person being turned away. However, I share his view that we want to live in a country where women are not turned away and always have a place to go when they need it.

Air Quality

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(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, what steps his Department will take to improve air quality after the High Court ruling on 21 February 2018.

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In July last year, we published the UK plan for tackling nitrogen dioxide concentrations. Yesterday, the High Court handed down its judgment following a challenge to that plan, and the judge dismissed two of the three complaints that were considered in relation to England. Specifically, he found that there is no error in the Government’s approach to tackling NO2 concentration exceedances in areas with some of the worst air quality problems, and that the national air quality modelling and monitoring that underpin the plan fulfil our legal requirements. On the five cities identified in 2015 as having particularly marked air quality challenges—Birmingham, Nottingham, Derby, Southampton and Leeds—the judge found that the Government’s approach to tackling their exceedances was “sensible, rational and lawful.”

The Court has asked us to go further in areas with less severe air quality problems. We previously considered that it was sufficient to take a pragmatic, less formal approach to such areas. I wrote to several councils in November, and that was followed up by officials who asked them to provide initial information on the action they were taking by 28 February. However, in view of the Court’s judgment, we are happy to take a more formal approach, and I have already written to the local authorities, asking them to attend a meeting on 28 February to discuss that information and their plans, and whether they can take any additional action to accelerate achieving compliance with legal limits of NO2 concentrations. We will follow that up in March by issuing legally binding directions that require those councils to undertake studies to identify any such measures. As required by the Court order, we will publish a supplement to the 2017 plan by 5 October, drawing on the outcome of the authorities’ feasibility studies and plans.

As we set out in the 2017 plan, the Government are absolutely committed to improving air quality. We have pledged to be the first generation to leave the environment in a better state than we inherited it. Later this year, we will be publishing a comprehensive clean air strategy, which will set out further steps to tackle air pollution more broadly.

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Minister, I believe that you are working very hard to improve air quality. This is not just about legislation; it is about practical actions to improve air quality. Are you, as Minister, getting enough co-operation from other Departments, including enough money from the Treasury, to address this serious issue? A Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs report found that particulate matter pollution costs some £16 billion a year and dramatically affects people’s lives. Does the Minister agree that preventive action would be far more cost-effective?

The High Court did find that the Secretary of State’s approach to the timetable is “sensible, lawful and rational” but not enough leadership is being provided in respect of all the local authorities with illegally high air pollution levels. Does the Minister agree that a new clean air Act will provide proper leadership, while allowing local authorities real autonomy to address the pollution levels they face at a targeted local level?

I welcome that the Government can be held to account through the courts and through Parliament, but does the Minister agree that the judgment is too focused on compliance when what we need is a much more detailed, wide-ranging and practical air quality plan? Clean air should be a right, not a privilege. I believe we need to hear much more from the Government now and we need to speed up the whole operation of cleaning our air.

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I thank my hon. Friend for that. It is important, as he points out, to remember what we have already achieved on air quality, as well as what we are doing with local authorities. To remind the House, air pollution has improved significantly since 2010: nitrogen oxide emissions are down 27%, sulphur dioxide emissions are down 60%, particulate matter emissions are down by about 11%, and volatile organic compounds emissions are down by 9%. That is why we are investing £3.5 billion to improve air quality and reduce harmful emissions. Some of that is £1 billion to support the uptake of ultra low emission vehicles. Specifically with regard to the air quality plan, we set aside nearly half a billion pounds to help local authorities to develop and implement their local air quality plans. About £90 million has been given through the Green Bus fund and we continue to try to reduce emissions in other ways.

I remind my hon. Friend that we intend to end the sale of all new conventional petrol and diesel cars and vans by 2040. He talked about a wide-ranging plan. I have been working on that for a while. He knows that we will be bringing forward a comprehensive clean air strategy. In particular, I am absolutely focused on particulate matter. That is why we issued a call for evidence on domestic burning with regard to smoky coal and wet wood. We are looking forward to receiving more responses to that. On money from the Treasury, we have been given substantial funds to try to work this through. I agree with him about prevention in relation to issues such as particulate matter.

With regard to powers in a clean air Act, we need clean air action. Councils and the Government already have a lot of powers. It is about being prepared to make very difficult decisions at times. That is why I urge the leaders of councils, including those I wrote to yesterday, to really grip this issue on behalf of the people they represent and we represent. It really matters that we take direct, effective local action to ensure the future health of our citizens.

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This matter warrants the urgent attention of the House, which is, of course, why I granted the application for the urgent question. However, I am keen that we make timely progress, as the Back-Bench debates are heavily subscribed. There is, therefore, a premium on observation of time limits from the Front Bench and on very pithy inquiries from the back. I know that that will be reflected in succinct replies from the Minister.

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I have heard the response from the Minister, but the reality is that yesterday the Government’s plan was ruled unlawful for the third time in three years. Here we find ourselves once again having to take the Government to court and having to summon them to the Dispatch Box for them to take any action on this serious issue of public health.

We know that air pollution is responsible for about 40,000 premature deaths each year, with cardiovascular disease accounting for an estimated 80% of all such premature deaths. Research by the British Heart Foundation found premature deaths and diseases attributable to air pollution in the UK result in over £20 billion in economic costs every year. The UK is currently routinely exceeding the legal pollution limits set out in the 2008 EU ambient air quality directive. That poses the serious question of whether this Conservative Government can be trusted with our environment and to deal with illegal air pollution after the UK leaves the EU, given the kind of ducking and diving we are witnessing now.

As the Select Committee on the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has stated, this situation has escalated into a public health emergency, yet the Government’s attitude and actions do not appear in any way to reflect the severity and urgency of the situation. A press statement released by the Government yesterday appeared to try to spin the Court ruling—we have heard it again today—as some sort of win for the Government and played down responsibility for this incredibly serious failure. It is typical of a Government who provide high talk on the environment but are not capable of demonstrating the leadership and action necessary to make changes on the ground when it really counts.

Given that the matter has effectively been taken out of the Government’s hands, through what is an unprecedented step, does the Minister recognise her Department’s chronic failure to grasp the nettle on this issue? Will she confirm whether the Government plan to appeal the latest Court ruling? I understand that leaders of the affected local authorities have been invited to a workshop on 28 February. Will the Minister outline the purpose of the workshop and, crucially, what support will be made available to support those cash-strapped local authorities in delivering the action we now need?

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As I have said before, I take this issue very seriously. I am not surprised that the hon. Lady failed to mention that the Welsh Labour Government were also a defendant in the judicial review. Welsh Ministers admitted that the Welsh element of the air quality plan last year did not satisfy the legal requirements, which is why they have undertaken to publish a supplemental plan. Frankly, therefore, the issue is not confined to the Minister at the Dispatch Box today.

Present problems with air quality in the UK are a direct result of the EU’s failed emissions testing regime, the actions of certain irresponsible car manufacturers and the rapid increase in the number of diesel cars on the roads since 2001. I should also point out that 21 other EU member states are also breaching legal air quality limits. I try not to take a partisan approach on this, but I am fed up with the Opposition simply not accepting their part of the responsibility. It was the last Labour Government who incentivised diesel cars. Between 2000 and 2010, the sale of diesel cars shot up from 15% to nearly half of all vehicles sold. I am not saying that previous Labour Ministers did not act in good faith, but as we have found out through a freedom of information request, Labour ignored advice that diesel fumes were toxic and pushed on, on the basis of lowering CO2 emissions.

We do not intend to appeal the ruling because, in essence, the judgment turned on a narrow issue: that areas with shorter-term exceedances ought to be mandated to take action. We had already asked local authorities to do that and are more than happy to say that we will now issue legally binding directions stating that they need to take action. We will work with them. We had already asked them to provide initial information and plans, and we are now asking them to come to London next week so that we can go through those in detail and talk through the kinds of resources they need to ensure better air quality for the citizens we all represent.

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Will my hon. Friend impress upon colleagues across the Government that this is not only an issue of fundamental social justice for many of our poorer citizens but about strengthening the UK economy, given that clean air is a business advantage? We do not want to fall behind Norway, the Netherlands and Scotland, which are looking to ban petrol and diesel cars by 2025, 2030 and 2032 respectively. Let us make sure that England is at the forefront, socially just and globally competitive on this issue.

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My hon. Friend will be aware that the Government are working together to try to improve air quality. He will recognise that air pollution has already improved significantly since 2010. That is why we are working with local authorities to devise local solutions to make this happen. He mentions Scotland. Yes, the Scottish Government are also working on the introduction of a low emissions zone, but I can assure him that the situation in Glasgow is very serious, and I am sure that the Scottish Government, with the support of SNP MPs, will work to ensure they have effective solutions for their citizens, too.

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With three High Court cases lost, how critical does this situation need to get before the Government act? I appreciate the Minister’s words, and she mentioned Scotland, where all local authorities with air quality management areas now have action plans. We have set more stringent air quality targets than the rest of the UK and are the first country in Europe to legislate for particulate matter 2.5—a pollutant of special concern for human health. Perhaps I can help her out and meet her, because she will know the work that I have been doing on the aviation noise authority and making sure that it is independent. I wonder whether she would consider ensuring that pollution is taken into consideration and is part of its remit. In my Livingston constituency, I have set up a local noise authority, which ensures that the community can engage meaningfully with airports, airlines and government. Will she commit to ensuring that the aviation noise authority is truly independent and that the monitoring and management of pollution is also within its remit?

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The hon. Lady now has the opportunity to breathe, and I am sure that she will find it a most welcome opportunity.

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We all have the opportunity to breathe clean air in here, thanks to the excellent work of the House. The hon. Lady talked about the aviation noise authority. I am not a Transport Minister, so I am not aware of the issues that she raised, but there is no doubt that we want to continue to want to reduce emissions from aviation. That is why we are already working with other countries; I have instigated some elements on that. With regard to what is happening in Scotland, she will be aware that, in the Glasgow area, compliance with the legal limits is not predicted until 2026, so yet again, the money that we are investing in England has consequences for the Barnett formula. That will help the Scottish Government to achieve some of the outcomes that she wants. I will have to ask her to contact Transport Ministers to discuss the other matters that she deliberated on.

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I welcome my hon. Friend’s proactive work on air quality, including in Dudley, and I urge her to work closely with local authorities to ensure that our air is clean and safe.

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I thank my hon. Friend for that. Dudley is one of the areas that has been named. I have already been in conversation with Andy Street, the Mayor for the west midlands. He is very ambitious on the plans to make these improvements and I look forward to meeting the leader of Dudley Council next week to discuss further specific issues.

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If the UK leaves the EU, the Commission and the European Court of Justice lose their role in monitoring and enforcing air pollution standards. Back in November, the Environment Secretary told my Committee—the Environmental Audit Committee —that he would consult on a new body to fill that governance gap very early in the new year. When will we see that consultation? Will that body be in place before exit day? Will it have higher environmental standards, which is what the Environment Secretary says he wants, lower standards, which is what the Brexit brigade wants, or full regulatory alignment with the EU, which is what the Prime Minister has promised her EU colleagues?

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The good news is that the House has put legislation in place—we brought this forward—on the targets for 2020 and 2030 on the key pollutants. This Government have already acted and laid the legislation. I am pleased that the House endorsed that approach.

The consultation will be forthcoming soon. I am conscious that people are eager to see it, but, in the meantime, we are not relying on the EU to help with air quality. The hon. Lady will be aware of many measures that we are undertaking, including the new bypass in her constituency, which I and my officials believe will be the solution to improving air quality for the people of Wakefield.

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The A6 corridor in my constituency is among the most congested and worst-polluted roads in the country. What conversations has my hon. Friend had with the Department for Transport on road building to alleviate congestion and therefore improve air quality?

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The Department for Transport has been active. The Government have one of the largest transport investment programmes that there has been for many decades. I am not particularly aware of the road to which my hon. Friend refers, but I am confident that my hon. Friends at the Department for Transport will be. One thing that we have done with the clean air fund is make sure that air quality is a key criterion in assessing particular grants in the future.

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In Greater Manchester, as in many other areas, the real issue with nitrogen oxides is from heavy goods vehicles and old buses. We have to begin to think about a bus scrappage scheme and incentives to get old lorries off the roads. How would the Minister respond to that?

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The good news is that we had already invested £89 million in helping authorities to convert their buses, and another £40 million was added. When I visited the councillors involved in Manchester some time ago, they indicated that they are likely to use the powers under the Bus Services Act 2017 to ensure that they can do more on scheduling and requiring buses to be Euro 6 compliant in future. That is why we have been funding local councils right around the country to make that transition.

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How much will air pollution be cut by the ban on the sale of petrol and diesel vehicles by 2040?

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The expectation from the targets that we have legislated for is that the impacts of air pollution will be halved by 2030. One reason for saying that we will end the sale of conventional petrol and diesel cars by 2040 is to give a strong message to the manufacturers. We have seen a response already in that a number of manufacturers are saying that they will stop the production of such cars by the end of this decade. That is good news for people not only in the United Kingdom, but across Europe and the wider world.

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For the last seven years, the UK has been in breach of EU limits on toxic pollutants linked to respiratory and cardiovascular conditions and stunted lung growth in young children. It is no use telling the parents of a seven-year-old that things will improve by 2030. Can we see greater urgency, more resources, more action now, and those responsible holding up their hands and admitting when they have got it wrong?

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I am sure the hon. Lady will be talking to Lesley Griffiths and the Welsh Labour Government, because it is a devolved issue. They contributed a part of the 2017 air quality plan. Just a few months later, they recognised that it was not good enough and said they were going to do more. That is why we have been working with the Welsh Government to make improvements, and why at a national level we are taking measures regarding fleet turnover and incentives to move to the cleanest diesel possible for those people who still want to use diesel cars in the interim. That is also why we are taking measures such as increasing company car taxation on diesel cars. We are taking measures, but it is not usual practice for the UK Government to order the Welsh Government to do something that is devolved. I am sure that the hon. Lady will work with her colleagues in Cardiff to ensure that her citizens are better represented in making the case for air quality with the Welsh Government.

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Older vehicles are the most polluting, and they tend to be owned by small and medium-sized enterprises or by people on low incomes. Will my hon. Friend look at the potential for a vehicle scrappage scheme for not only buses, but cars and lorries, so that we get the worst-polluting vehicles off the road more quickly?

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On the air quality plan, we issued a consultation on mitigation measures and a potential scrappage scheme as part of that. We are still considering the responses, and will report back to the House shortly.

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Yesterday I sat here listening to the Prime Minister’s response to my question, and I was very surprised at the gap between the briefing that she had been given by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs—albeit, I accept, at short notice—and what I was reading through the news feeds. Will the Minister apologise to me and to the House for the briefing given to the Prime Minister that implied that the judgment was more a win than a loss, given that, as we now know very clearly, the Government have been found to be acting unlawfully, and so badly that the court is taking over DEFRA’s role in implementing the legislation?

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I am afraid the hon. Lady is simply incorrect. The judge dismissed challenges about our approach to air quality. I wrote to councils last November asking them about how we can help to improve air quality in those 45 local authorities, and the judge said that urging and encouraging was not sufficient, but that we should issue legally binding directions. That was reflected in what the Prime Minister said to the House yesterday, and that is what we will do. I encourage the hon. Lady to work with the Mayor of London, who has already had a substantial amount of funding, which he is using to start deploying cleaner buses and other aspects of modal shift in London. Frankly, he needs to accelerate his programme, and I encourage her to work with him in doing that and building on the plans of my right hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip (Boris Johnson).

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I welcome the energy and resources that the Government are applying to this issue, particularly the clean bus funds, which will see a fleet of electric vehicles serving Harrogate and Knaresborough. Are all the local authorities that my hon. Friend is dealing with as committed and enthusiastic as she is about solving this issue? That has not been my experience so far.

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My hon. Friend was a Treasury Minister when we were working on the air quality plan, and I know that he is as committed as I am to these improvements. I fully recognise that some of the issues involved are politically difficult, which is why I have been meeting councillors from those authorities to tell them that time cannot wait for effective local solutions. My hon. Friend ensured that we had Government finances with which to tackle the issue, and those finances will be deployed.

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rose

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rose—

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Ah! A Liberal Democrat competition. I call Layla Moran.

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Thank you, Mr Speaker.

I am very grateful to the Minister for her letter and her offer to meet me to discuss the plan for Oxford, which I intend to take up. Will she confirm, however, that it is not just a meeting that she is having with the councils, and that there is also extra money? I know that they have already been trying.

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I did not mention this earlier, but yesterday I wrote to all Members affected by the impact of yesterday’s legal ruling, which binds the councils legally to co-operate with what we were already doing. I have engaged in correspondence with the leader of Oxford City Council, and look forward to meeting her next week. The council is looking at certain proposals, which include widening the pedestrianised area in the city centre, to tackle the challenges. I want to know what resources or powers it may need, but I think that it has powers already, and it may just be a case of working through the details of the plan.

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Will my hon. Friend give us more details about what the Government are doing to support renewable technology to secure the future of clean energy in the United Kingdom?

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In addition to the £3.5 billion that we are investing to tackle, in particular, air quality in the context of a modal shift, we are massively increasing the incentives for councils to help to deploy the infrastructure that is needed to support the growth in the use of electric vehicles. There is already a reasonably generous grant for people who wish to buy such vehicles—about £1 billion has been allocated—and, as my hon. Friend will know, legislation that is currently before Parliament will require fuel stations to provide the electric infrastructure that enables people to charge their cars, rather than just filling them with petrol and diesel.

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As chair of my party’s Back-Bench environment, food and rural affairs committee, may I say to the Minister that this is not good enough? We are talking about a national health emergency: according to recent estimates, a million people could probably die by 2040. The Minister must act now, with the manufacturers, with local authorities, and with everyone else.

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I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s support for the effort to get local authorities working on this. He will, I hope, be aware from the letter that I sent him yesterday that we have been in correspondence. We recently funded a significant number of buses—350, I think—in the West Yorkshire combined authority, and there is clearly an opportunity for those new buses to be deployed in the worst traffic hotspots, so that we can work on air pollution. I look forward to meeting the leader of Kirklees Council and other West Yorkshire authorities next week.

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I thank the Minister for meeting me a couple of weeks ago to discuss specific Bath issues. She was helpful and pragmatic. I agree that local leadership is needed.

The Minister mentioned the new legislation earlier. I do not think that it goes far enough. May I ask again whether she will consider introducing regulations requiring owners of public facilities such as supermarkets and public car parks to provide electric car charging points?

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I did have a very constructive meeting with the hon. Lady recently. I also visited Bath last year to see at first hand the challenges that it is facing. The hon. Lady will know of the grants that have already been provided to increase electric vehicle take-up. However, I take her point, and I will discuss it with the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Hereford and South Herefordshire (Jesse Norman).

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Oxford was excluded from the mandated list because only 3% of our monitoring sites were included. Do the Government now accept that that decision was wrong and that, as the first British city to commit itself to a zero-emission zone, we really need the powers and resources that she mentioned?

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Oxford City Council already has those powers. It could have done this years ago. The powers were granted some time ago in the Transport Act 2000. The judge yesterday upheld the fact that our modelling had fulfilled our legal requirements, although I am conscious that the local air monitoring does not comply with the legislation by which we are bound. I am pleased that Oxford is considering wider pedestrianisation in its city centre, and I look forward to discussing that in detail next week. However, it has those powers already. It can get on with this, and I encourage it to do so as quickly as possible.

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Although I am grateful to the Minister for the funding she has given to cash-strapped authorities such as Bristol for consultations on clean-air zones, I would like her to move a little further and think of the children who are at school in one of the worst-polluted areas in the centre of Bristol, St Michael on the Mount Without. Will she urgently consider a scrappage scheme for cars and other vehicles, such as taxis and buses?

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I have discussed air quality with the hon. Lady before. She will be aware that I have had direct discussions with Bristol City Council. She will also be aware of the funding that has already gone in to help the uptake of electric vehicles and the buses that are being provided from transport funds. Bristol is making good progress. It is one of the councils that we mandated last year to come forward with action; I believe that it is on track, mainly, with its process and I look forward to receiving its final considerations later this year.

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After eight years of court cases, I find the Minister’s minimalistic approach quite staggering. Why are her Government investing in a new generation of dirty diesel trains, which are a major issue in my constituency, as they idle outside residential areas?

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As my hon. Friend the Member for Orpington (Joseph Johnson), the Rail Minister, said, we are going to end the use of diesel-only trains by 2040. That has given a clear steer to the procurers and operators, on the basis that they tend to invest in 15-year cycles. Our rail electrification programme is considerably greater than that of the Labour Government, who, when in power for 13 years between 1997 and 2010, achieved 13 miles, so frankly, it is not for Labour Members to lecture us today about these issues. Since 2010, we have been investing to fix the problems that they left behind.

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Three years after the Volkswagen story broke, how are the Government holding the company to account for its emissions scandal?

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We have been holding Volkswagen to account. One of the challenges of how the EU operates in this regard is that it is for the German Government to be the regulator of Volkswagen, and we hold Volkswagen directly to account through the European Commission. I am pleased that Volkswagen has come forward with its wider group to do some of the retrofitting of vehicles in terms of software updates to correct what it did, and I am pleased that that is now being fixed, but frankly, the behaviour of Volkswagen and its chief executives was a disgrace. The way they used money to fund research into the effects of diesel fumes on primates and humans is frankly disgusting. They should hang their heads in shame, but we are now fixing the problems that they created.

Business of the House

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Will the Leader of the House give us the forthcoming business?

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The business for next week will include:

Monday 26 February—Estimates day (1st allotted day). Debate on Ministry of Defence estimates followed by a debate on the estimates of the Department for Exiting the European Union.

Tuesday 27 February—Estimates day (2nd allotted day). Debate on the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government estimates so far as they relate to homelessness, followed by a debate on the estimates of the Department for Transport.

At 7 pm the House will be asked to agree all outstanding estimates.

Wednesday 28 February—Proceedings on the Supply and Appropriation (Anticipation and Adjustments) Bill, followed by debate on a motion on the independent complaints and grievance policy. The Chairman of Ways and Means has named opposed private business for consideration.

Thursday 1 March—Debate on a Backbench Business Committee subject to be confirmed, followed by general debate on St David’s day. The subject of this debate was nominated by the Backbench Business Committee.

Friday 2 March—The House will not be sitting.

The business for the week commencing 5 March will include:

Monday 5 March—Second Reading of the Data Protection Bill [Lords].

Mr Speaker, colleagues will also wish to know that, subject to the progress of business, the House will rise for the summer recess at the end of business on Tuesday 24 July and return on Tuesday 4 September. For the conference recess, the House will rise at the close of business on Thursday 13 September and return on Tuesday 9 October. The House will also rise on Tuesday 6 November and return on Monday 12 November and finally, for the Christmas recess, the House will rise at the conclusion of business on Thursday 20 December and return on Monday 7 January 2019.

This week, the very best of British has truly been on display. A number of Sunday’s British Academy of Film and Television Arts awards went to Brits, including the awards for best cinematographer and for rising star, and of course Gary Oldman won an award for playing none other than Winston Churchill in “Darkest Hour”. We have all been glued to our televisions watching our best-ever winter Olympics performance. We won three medals in one day, with Lizzy Yarnold successfully defending her gold in the skeleton. Sports and the arts are not just of huge value to British culture; they are also of huge value to our economy, and they have been showcased superbly this week.

This has also been a week of important firsts for women. Congratulations to the first Lady Usher of the Black Rod as she takes up her role, and to Minette Batters, who has been selected as the first female president of the National Farmers Union. Finally, Her Majesty was still achieving firsts as she appeared on the front row at London fashion week and presented an inaugural award in her name.

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I thank the Leader of the House for giving us the business for next week. However, I must echo what Marin Alsop said: it is the 21st century, yet we are still celebrating firsts for women. That must change.

It is helpful to have next week’s business, and I am sure that Members and staff of the House will be pleased to have the recess dates. I note that the business stops on 5 March. Can the right hon. Lady tell us what is going to happen after that, or will the Government continue to announce just one week plus a Monday in advance? If they are looking for something to fill the time, perhaps the Leader of the House could provide us with another Opposition day. I think the last one that was allocated was on 24 January.

Obviously, there is time available as the Government do not have any business, so could we consider two statutory instruments that have been prayed against by my hon. Friend the Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Angela Rayner)? The first relates to early-day motion 936, on changing the eligibility of free school meals for those on universal credit.

[That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, praying that the Free School Lunches and Milk, and School and Early Years Finance (Amendments Relating to Universal Credit) (England) Regulations 2018 (S.I., 2018, No. 148), dated 6 February 2018, a copy of which was laid before this House on 7 February, be annulled.]

The second relates to early-day motion 937, which deals with regulations abolishing nursing bursaries for postgraduate nursing students.

[That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, praying that the Education (Student Support) (Amendment) Regulations 2018 (S.I., 2018, No. 136), dated 5 February 2018, a copy of which was laid before this House on 6 February, be annulled.]

Could the Leader of the House honour the convention and allow time to debate those matters on the Floor of the House, so that we can have a vote on them before the 40-day period expires?

Will the Leader of the House tell us what news she has of the Trade Bill and the Taxation (Cross-border Trade) Bill? I am sure that the Government will want to scotch rumours that they are being pushed away.

I thank the Leader of the House for her letter—which I received at eight minutes past 8 yesterday—responding to some of the queries that I had raised. It was a bit like the Morecambe and Wise joke in which Eric tells André Previn that he is playing all the right notes, but not necessarily in the right order. In her letter, she answered questions, but they were not necessarily the ones that I asked. On the east coast railway line, for example, I did not ask her to tell me how wonderful Virgin was. I asked her a question about the Secretary of State taking back the contract. I asked her to write to me to tell me what costs were associated with the privatisation in the first place and with taking the contract back. I also asked whether the Secretary of State had made the decision to privatise a commercially viable service against the advice that had been given to him.

The Leader of the House also did not answer my question about the inspector looking into Northamptonshire County Council. I asked her let me know how long the inspection would take and what the terms of reference were. We also know that Buckinghamshire might be setting an illegal budget—this will be of interest to you, Mr Speaker—and I think that that might be happening today. Over the past five years, its Government support has been reduced from £61 million to £8 million. The Leader of the House needs to respond to that. I ask her this as a matter of courtesy: I know that she has a very able civil service staff, because I meet them on occasions, and I wonder whether she could sign her letters off slightly earlier—perhaps on a Tuesday?

We know from the book by Tim Shipman how the Government used to make their policy, with the two advisers walking in St James’s Park batting policy ideas back and forth. Now that they have lost their jobs, however, it seems that the Government are raiding the Labour manifesto. They are now having a review of tuition fees. It is irrelevant that more young people are going to university—they have been told that if they go to university and get a degree, they will get a better job, but students do not want to start off in life with a debt of £56,000. However, they receive invoices yearly telling them that they have to pay back that amount.

The matter of high pay rises for vice-chancellors was raised during the Education Committee hearing on value for money in higher education, and MPs told a panel of vice-chancellors that the high rate of pay enjoyed by some university leaders is immoral given taxpayer subsidies and rising levels of debt. Will the Government therefore consider that issue in their review of post-18 education? If they will not—we do not know the full terms of reference—may we have a debate on the possibility of further regulation of vice-chancellors’ pay, or will that be parked for another year?

It is almost a year since article 50 was triggered, and at the end of the weekend we may know exactly what the Government’s position will be. I do not know whether you received a copy of the letter to the Prime Minister, Mr Speaker, but although it is marked private and confidential it seems that everyone has seen it. If you have not received it, I am quite happy to give it you. It is actually disrespectful to the Prime Minister. It begins, “Dear Prime Minister,” but it was sent to her at the House of Commons, not Downing Street—her place of work. I am not even going to go into the grammar or anything else, but I want to highlight one thing. It states that leaving the customs union and single market

“isn’t a question of ideology, but practicality”.

There is absolutely no mention of what is in the best interests of the citizens of this country or the interests of Northern Ireland. The right hon. Member for Loughborough (Nicky Morgan) was right to say that it reads like a ransom note. It might as well have had a bullet point at the end saying, “Don’t forget to do this,” or, “Do this, or else.” It was signed by 63 Members—well over that magic number of 40.

It is World Thinking Day, which is a day of international friendship. We want to stand by our international friends and with the young people in Florida who decided to remember the 17 people who were murdered last week by walking out of school and into their state capitol to demand change.

The Leader of the House and I could not be at the Brit awards yesterday—I was reading my letter from her at 8.8 pm—but I am sure that she will echo the Leader of the Opposition’s words about a young man who has changed the music industry. He encouraged everyone to vote, pray and speak out about mental health issues, and he won best album and best male artist. Stormzy, congratulations.

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I start by sharing in the hon. Lady’s tribute to those who were tragically murdered before even reaching their prime in the appalling killings in Florida. We were all beyond shocked, and we are all slightly in despair that such things happen time and again. We desperately hope that action will now be taken to fulfil the wishes of those young people, who should be able to grow up in peace and security.

I am always happy to pay tribute to people who speak out about the importance of resolving the nation’s mental health issues. On Tuesday evening, I had the great pleasure of speaking at an event run by MQ, a charity that looks at research into mental health. I met some fantastic people who are doing everything they can to promote good mental health, and I am proud of the Government’s achievements in that area.

I am sorry that the hon. Lady is grumpy about my letter to her. I do my absolute best to be nothing but courteous to the hon. Lady, whom I respect enormously and for whom I have the greatest regard. I share her tribute to my civil service team, but she will recognise that there are only a handful of them, and the questions that she asks sometimes require answers from Departments. With specific regard to her detailed questions on Department for Transport matters, she will know that Transport Question Time happens often in this Chamber, and she is also at liberty to ask detailed questions of the Secretary of State for Transport, instead of being slightly churlish towards my team, who are doing their best on her behalf. I thank my tiny Department for its excellent turnaround rate on letters.

The hon. Lady talked about some things that I did not include in my response, such as the inspection at Northamptonshire County Council. The inspector’s report is due by 16 March, and I am sorry if that was omitted from my letter. The hon. Member for Halifax (Holly Lynch), who is sitting next to the shadow Leader of the House, has gone on Twitter criticising things that I failed to say in my very courteous and timely response to her. Mr Speaker, perhaps you might like to give your thoughts on how appropriate it is, when one tries to be courteous to colleagues, that they simply go on Twitter accusing me of not saying things that they would have liked me to have said. It is a little discourteous.

The shadow Leader of the House talks about tuition fees and says that the Government are taking a leaf out of Labour’s manifesto. I do not think we ever said that we would scrap tuition fees and deal with all the outstanding debt, which even the Opposition agree would have an appalling impact on our economy. We are seeking to look very seriously at what is the best combination for delivering excellence in post-18 education at an affordable price.

Finally, the shadow Leader of the House raises the issue of a letter from a number of Conservative MPs, and all I can say, as the Prime Minister’s spokesman made very clear, is that all contributions from Members on both sides of the House to our position on Brexit are very welcome, and all are taken into account.

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Will my right hon. Friend find time for a debate on support for women with endometriosis? An inspirational constituent, Ms Carla Cressy, suffers from this crippling condition, and she is leading a local and national campaign to raise awareness, which I hope the House will support.

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My hon. Friend raises a serious matter, and I certainly congratulate his constituent on her campaign. Statistics suggest that endometriosis is the second most common gynaecological condition in the United Kingdom, affecting one in 10 women. I encourage him to apply for an Adjournment debate to raise awareness of this condition further.

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I thank the Leader of the House for announcing the business for next week. I am not sure whether she is going to the Brexit bonding/war session later this afternoon, but can we have a debate on what other dystopian nightmares Brexit will not be quite like? Maybe “Apocalypse Now”— apocalypse in a couple of years?—or “Children of Men”. My favourite would have to be “The Matrix”, as we have a bunch of clueless fantasists living in an alternative world and believing that they can impose their version of reality on everyone else—it could not be more apt than that.

On alternative realities, we had English votes for English laws in all its absurd glory yesterday. Bells go on, bells go off; Mace comes down, Mace goes up. Nothing ever happens. There is no debate and no consideration of all these weighty English-only issues; nothing goes on at all. It is now becoming profoundly embarrassing for this House. EVEL now seems to be designed only to get in the way of the workings and procedures of this House, and it is a psychological barrier to the unity of the membership of this House based on nationality and geography. For goodness’ sake, Leader of the House, get shot of this absurd system.

Lastly, I had the good fortune of being at the Brits last night to see the cream of British musical talent on show. Before you ask, Mr Speaker, MP4 were once again shamefully passed over for the parliamentary rock band of the year. It has taken our musicians to remind this Government to do the right thing, and the hon. Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz) is right to mention Stormzy and his tour-de-force performance last night in which he asked, “Where’s the money for Grenfell? You thought we were all going to forget about Grenfell? Well, we are not.” It is great that our actors, our young people and our musicians are reminding this Government to do the right thing.

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On Grenfell, the hon. Gentleman and all hon. Members on both sides of the House will know that resolving the appalling tragedy to enable people to carry on with their lives and to turn around the appalling physical and mental scars from that awful, awful night is an absolute priority for the Government, and it will remain so.

I am glad that the hon. Gentleman was able to enjoy the Brits—the best of British, which is important for someone such as himself—and I am sure MP4 will have their day.

The hon. Gentleman talks about EVEL. He will appreciate that under the devolution settlement it is important that those directly affected should be able to hold the majority on votes affecting only English or English and Welsh situations. Finally, he talks about our life outside the EU, which in my opinion is much less “Mad Max” and far more “Love Actually”.

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I am not even going to try to follow that one, Mr Speaker.

I have just received a report from Data Diligence, which my right hon. Friend will know about, because it pointed out the wrongdoings of Northamptonshire County Council. It has just sent me a report to prove that Taunton Deane Borough Council has been hiding money for years, in financial misprudence. May we please have a debate on this matter? It is important, as it shows that local government is sometimes not worthy of the trust we put in it.

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The hon. Gentleman has referred on this occasion to the council. May I just ask him whether he has notified the hon. Member for Taunton Deane (Rebecca Pow) of his intention to raise this matter today?

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I wrote to my hon. Friend, in line with your guidance in your letter. I thank you very much for your guidance, which I followed to the letter.

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This is becoming rather tiresome. I did try gently to exhort the hon. Gentleman to pursue other lines of inquiry. I have permitted this today, but my patience is not unlimited.

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My hon. Friend will be aware that business questions are about business of this House, and he would be advised to speak to the Department for Communities and Local Government directly about his concerns.

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Let me help the Leader of the House by saying that it has just been determined this morning that the other item of business on Thursday 1 March will be a debate on a motion on seasonal migrant workers. That has been settled this morning.

The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport is backing the great exhibition of the north, which is being hosted in Gateshead and Newcastle from 22 June until 9 September. May we have a debate in Government time to promote the great exhibition of the north? I know that the Leader of the House would normally exhort a Member making such a request to go to the Backbench Business Committee, but that would hardly seem appropriate in my circumstances.

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The hon. Gentleman could always go and chat to himself in the mirror, but that might appear a little odd to anyone watching. I pay tribute to that great exhibition of the north, which I hope will be a huge success. I am sure he will find, as he just has, great ways to promote it.

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May I tell the Chairman of the Backbench Business Committee that there is a famous scene in “Iolanthe” where the Lord Chancellor persuades himself of the merits of his own cause?

May we have a debate on the working practices and procedures of the Education and Skills Funding Agency? There is a particular issue in my constituency with Bullers Wood School for Boys. The Secretary of State for Education is very much on the case, but there is an underlying picture of an organisation whose procurement processes are top-heavy, slow, hierarchical and very process-driven. This body is sometimes resistant to advice from external partners, who can often bring greater local knowledge to bear on its procurement processes.

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Order. I must just say to the hon. Gentleman that I gather that he was spotted in a prominent place at the first night of the said performance. We hope he richly enjoyed himself.

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My hon. Friend is a big champion for his constituency and for education, and I encourage him to take this up directly with Ministers or through an Adjournment debate.

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TransPennine Express has recently downgraded the vital rail link from Hull to Leeds and Manchester to a stopping service, which means that trains now stop at an additional six places along the way. Although it is important to have a stopping service to link together smaller towns, it is really important to have an express service, too. Please may we therefore have a debate in Government time on rail connectivity for northern cities?

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The hon. Lady raises an important point. She will be aware that there will be Transport questions on Thursday 1 March, when she might well like to raise that issue directly with Ministers.

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The Leader of the House will be aware of the retail giant Tesco hungrily taking over the wholesaler Booker. She will also be aware of the concerns about that on the part of farmers, growers and food producers: it would create an extraordinary distortion of the food chain at the expense of all those important people. Will she encourage those in the Government responsible for agriculture and business to let this House know what their feelings are about such market distortion?

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My right hon. Friend will be aware that there are clear processes for looking at significant takeovers and at mergers and whether they are in the public interest, but he may well wish to raise that directly with Ministers or to seek an Adjournment debate, so that he can talk about the particular interests of his constituency, which has a heavy reliance on the agricultural sector.

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My constituents in Bridge of Weir have told me that universal credit claimants there are instructed to attend initial appointments in Greenock—nearly 12 miles away—despite the jobcentre in Johnstone being only 3 miles away. I have heard of claimants walking to and from Greenock, as the return bus fare of nearly £8 represents up to 14% of their benefit payment. Can we have a debate on how claimants from rural and semi-rural areas are affected by universal credit roll-out?

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The hon. Gentleman raises a very important point. He will be aware that the Government are fully committed to the roll-out of universal credit as a good way to help more people back into work and have the security of a job and a pay packet. With regard to the specific points he raises about access to jobcentres to sign up for universal credit, if he wants to write to me, I can take them up directly with the Department on his behalf.

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Please may we have a debate on the communication strategy and responsibilities of Highways England? Two weeks ago, Highways England announced the total closure of a key part of the A1 through my constituency for three weeks in March, but it entirely failed to consult, or indeed communicate at all, with vital local businesses such as Purdy Lodge services and with local residents who will be heavily affected by this necessary work. The confusion and the lack of communication have been a real crisis for the area.

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My hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise that. I think a number of hon. Members have had problems with lack of communication about significant road closures, so I am glad she has raised the issue in the Chamber. She may well want to take it up at Transport questions next Thursday, 1 March.

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When can we have an urgent debate in Government time to discuss the state of our roads and particularly the number of potholes not just on our local roads but on motorways? Anyone who drives on the motorways will see many potholes, which are very dangerous.

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The hon. Gentleman is right to raise the issue of potholes. It is a big frustration for all of us as individuals and in our constituency surgeries—there are lots of complaints about potholes. The Government have invested significant sums in dealing with potholes. There have been improvements in recent years, but the hon. Gentleman might like to talk to the Backbench Business Committee, so that Members can share their particular frustrations.

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My question follows that from my hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mrs Trevelyan) about the work of Highways England. The A180 into Grimsby and Cleethorpes is our major route, and it is vital to the local economy. It is undergoing unexpected roadworks at the moment, and there was very little consultation. I acknowledge that I could raise this at Transport questions, but in view of the concern among other Members, perhaps we could find time for a Government debate on the issue.

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I am glad that my hon. Friend is speaking up for his constituency, as always. Again, at least in the first instance, he might want to raise the issue at Transport questions next week.

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May I mention the sad death yesterday of the great American evangelist Billy Graham? He was a great influence on many of us in this House. He was very saddened by the killing of children in schools in America, but he would also have been appalled by the daily death toll of children in Syria caused by this ghastly Syrian Government, backed by the Russians, day after day. Can we have an early statement to the House next week on any progress towards a halt in that awful, awful tragedy?

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I certainly share the hon. Gentleman’s tribute to Billy Graham who really was quite a life-changing character for many people during his long life. I also share the hon. Gentleman’s grave concern about what is happening in Syria. The Government have condemned the appalling loss of life, and we will do everything that we can to ensure that there is a ceasefire and that we make progress in finding a resolution in Syria.

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Last week, in partnership with Disability Action Yorkshire, we brought together leaders from across my constituency —business leaders, service providers and transport providers—to discuss how to make Harrogate and Knaresborough even more friendly for disabled people. It was a very good session, with practical ideas put forward and helpful connections made. Can we have a debate, to build on the debate later today, to look at how we can make the UK more disability friendly?

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I congratulate my hon. Friend on his huge efforts in this area and commend him for the meeting that he called. He might be aware of the Backbench Business debate that takes place later today on the role of disabled people in economic growth. The Government spend more than £50 billion a year on benefits that support disabled people and people with health conditions. That is more than ever before—in fact, it is up £7 billion since 2010—with the result that there are now 3.5 million disabled people in work, which is an increase of nearly 600,000 in the past four years. He is right that there is still a lot more to do, and a lot more that can be done, but we are making some good progress.

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Last year, a 13-year-old boy with a dairy allergy died after allegedly having cheese forced on him at school. Next month, children at the cinema will watch the much-loved character Peter Rabbit forcing a child to undergo an anaphylactic reaction, which can be fatal. Sony has apologised but has refused to cut the scene, and the film certificate classifies the film as having mild threat and comic violence. Food allergy is no laughing matter; it can be life or death. Can we have a debate on the bullying of children with allergies, which is clearly not taken seriously enough?

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The hon. Lady raises an incredibly important point, and she is absolutely right to highlight the seriousness of food allergies. We should do everything that we can to raise the importance and the awareness of the potential life-threatening impact of food allergies. She may well want to seek an Adjournment debate, so that she can talk to Ministers directly on that point.

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With the lambing season now upon us and domestic dog attacks on livestock at an all-time high, can we have a debate on what more the Government can do to limit the devastating effect that irresponsible dog owners have on both our rural communities and our rural economy?

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My hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise that matter. We have all seen photographs of the appalling effect of a dog attack on a field of sheep. It is hugely distressing for the animals, obviously, as well as for the farmers who look after them, and it has serious financial implications. It is already a criminal offence for a dog to worry livestock; dog owners can be fined up to £1,000. Farmers are being encouraged to report any incidents, so that action can be taken. Furthermore, the dog welfare code highlights for owners the importance of keeping their dogs on leads when they are near livestock.

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University lecturers and staff are currently involved in a strike—the largest ever in higher education—owing to changes in their terms and conditions, particularly in their pensions. Can we have a statement, or an urgent debate, in this House about how we can resolve this impasse, so that the terms and conditions of our lecturers can be protected?

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I must declare an interest, as my eldest son is about to study for his finals and now has no lecturers. At a very personal level, I cannot say that I support innocent students, who have paid their fees and worked very hard, being punished for the resolution of this challenge. Talks are ongoing, and the Universities Minister is engaging with Universities UK and the University and College Union to make it clear to all parties that there is a need to find a solution that avoids disruption to students.

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Under this Government, the UK is leading international efforts to tackle tax avoidance. Can we have a debate on the impact that tax avoidance has on our vital public services and on what more can be done to make sure that everybody pays their fair share?

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My hon. Friend raises a really important point. He will be pleased, as I am, that the Government have a strong record on tackling tax avoidance, evasion and non-compliance. Since 2010, Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs has secured and protected over £175 billion in additional tax revenues through its compliance activities—more than the entire annual budget of the NHS. The UK’s tax gap is now down to 6%—its lowest level ever, and one of the lowest in the world.

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We still await the Government’s response to the independent review of S4C that was launched last year. In recent years, the channel’s budget has suffered successive real-terms cuts. What is more, the Wales-specific content broadcast in the English language on other channels has also decreased. May we have an urgent debate on the perilous position of broadcasting in Wales and the merits of devolving responsibility for it to the National Assembly for Wales?

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I certainly share the hon. Gentleman’s enthusiasm and support for the Welsh broadcasting service. He may well wish to seek an Adjournment debate, so that he can take up his specific concerns directly with Ministers.

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May we have a debate on local news sites? Next Wednesday, Stuart Crowther, the editor of InsideMoray, will be publishing his final stories before taking a well-earned retirement. Since that site started in June 2013, it has been a valuable resource for local people and those further afield, and it complements our local print media. Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating Stuart on his efforts over the years and share my hope that someone will take over this successful site to ensure that it can continue in future?

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My hon. Friend is a real champion for all things in Moray. I can assure him that the Government are committed to supporting an independent, vibrant and plural press industry. In particular, the local press is vital to this country’s democracy. I know that InsideMoray has published thousands of stories since 2013. I am happy to join him in congratulating Stuart on his amazing efforts and wishing him a very happy retirement.

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Year 6 pupils Ella and George from Thornhill Junior and Infant School in my constituency wrote to me regarding their concerns about our dependence on fossil fuels and the harm caused by litter and plastics to our environment. Will the Leader of the House consider, further to today’s urgent question, giving more time for a debate about building a green economy based on clean, renewable energy?

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I congratulate the hon. Lady’s constituents on the really worthwhile campaign that they have started to run. I am sure that she will be delighted to hear of the number of MPs who have taken up the “give up plastic for Lent” challenge. I am not sure whether she has done so herself, but it is surprisingly difficult to stop using plastic. The Government are taking great steps forward through the 5p charge for plastic bags. We are reducing the number of plastic bags in circulation by about 9 billion, or some extraordinary number. There is a huge amount more to do to reduce our use of fossil fuels. We have announced the intention to get coal off the system by 2025. There is a lot more to be done, so the efforts of her constituents are greatly appreciated.

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In the past two months alone, 25 civilians and at least seven service personnel have been murdered by terrorists in Jammu, Kashmir. In Kashmir, illegally occupied by Pakistan, 162 terrorist training bases have been identified. May we have a statement from the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs on what we can do in this country to help and support our great ally, India, in combating this terrorism?

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My hon. Friend raises an incredibly serious point. He will be aware that we work very closely with all our allies to try to stamp out terrorism and all terror attacks. He will, I am sure, want to raise this directly with Foreign Office Ministers, or perhaps through an Adjournment debate, so that he can get specific detail on what we are doing to address his point.

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One of my constituents, Ian Ackley, was the initial whistleblower on, and a victim of, the prolific serial child sex abuser and paedophile Barry Bennell. There has been no Government statement or debate about this historical child sexual abuse and what is being done to make sure that it never happens again. Will the Leader of the House make time available for this important issue to be debated?

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The hon. Gentleman raises a very harrowing issue. I think that everyone in this House would want to send their deepest condolences and thoughts to the many victims of that paedophile. Some of the things that have happened to them are appalling. The hon. Gentleman may want to take it up, in the first instance, at Home Office questions next Monday.

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According to Persecution Relief, an ecumenical focus group, attacks on Christians in India have doubled in the past year to 736. Worryingly, it has also recorded a growing trend of attackers filing police complaints that accuse Christians of crimes such as sedition or even inviting attacks by offending local people and their religious sentiments. Will the Leader of the House agree to a statement or a debate on that matter?

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The hon. Gentleman raises, as he often does, the issue of religious freedom. He will be pleased to know that there is a Backbench debate on 1 March on freedom of religion or belief, so he will have the opportunity—

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It’s my debate!

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Okay. I am delighted on the hon. Gentleman’s behalf, and I am sure it will be a great success.

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It is very heartening to know that the hon. Gentleman is aware of the fact that the debate is taking place and that it is his. That is a good start.

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I and a number of other Members have been raising with the Government the 1984 Cammell Laird strike. That campaign is currently undertaken by the GMB trade union. I refer Members to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests, as a GMB member and sponsored MP. We have been raising that for a year, including in the House at Justice questions last April and October. We have been waiting for meetings that have now been withdrawn. How on earth can we hold the Government to account when they refuse to answer questions in this place, offer meetings and then withdraw them and have us going round the houses for nearly a year?

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I am sorry that I am unaware of the problem that the hon. Gentleman is raising with the Justice Department, but if he emails me, I can certainly look into that on his behalf.

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Can we have an urgent debate on the future of the children’s centre network? That was one of the last Labour Government’s proudest achievements, but it has been cut back drastically on the basis that there would be streamlining of the service. In Gloucestershire, we are now facing the potential closure of the few remaining children’s centres. It is vital for the future of our children that we know what provision will be available.

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I am an enormous fan of children’s centres. They were a fantastic initiative and have certainly provided a huge amount of support for children. I am sure the hon. Gentleman will be aware that this Government have invested enormously in nurseries and childcare, enabling many more parents to benefit from up to £5,000 a year of tax-free childcare. More nursery care and qualified childcare is enabling more families to go back to work with the reassurance of knowing that their children are well cared for.

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The Leader of the House will be well aware of legislation passed last year to prevent the mass farming of tickets by ticket touts, but when we read that tickets for “Hamilton”, for example, are now being retailed at £6,000, which is absolutely outrageous and ridiculous, is it not time that we had more comprehensive legislation dealing with ticket touting? Can we have an early statement from the relevant Department on that?

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Having tried to get “Hamilton” tickets recently, I know that they are at a premium; I completely agree. The hon. Gentleman seems to offer me some tickets from his inside pocket. He is right that ticket touting is an enormous problem, and I certainly encourage him in the first instance to seek an Adjournment debate, so that he can raise his concerns.

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My constituent has faced 10 years of harassment and antisocial behaviour due to their neighbours using CCTV to track their movements in and out of their home. The constituent has raised with the police concerns about the surveillance camera code of practice. Will the Leader of the House ask the Home Secretary or a Home Office Minister to make a statement on the code and its success rate five years after it was published by the Government?

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The hon. Gentleman raises a very concerning issue. It must be horrible for his constituent to have to be harassed in that way. He will be aware that there are Home Office questions on Monday, and I encourage him to raise that directly with Ministers.

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NatWest bank is 73% publicly owned, and in my constituency, as in other communities across this country, it is closing many of its high street banking facilities. What responsibility do the Government accept for the damage caused to these local communities, and will they hold a debate on that issue and the justification for it?

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I certainly agree with the hon. Lady that access to banking is absolutely vital. She will be aware that banks’ decisions on whether to close are commercial decisions made by them. There is an agreement with the banking sector that they will consult widely and ensure that closures take place only where volumes and footfall justify such a closure. She will also be aware that the Government have invested heavily in the post office network, and that post offices now provide basic banking services for about 98% of all personal and business customers. Those customers can carry out basic banking transactions within the post office network.

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Last year, the Supreme Court ruled that employment tribunal fees were unlawful and that all claimants should receive back their fees as a refund. The latest figures show that only about 6% of people have actually received such refunds, and I am at a loss to understand why that figure is so low, given that the tribunals service has the details of every single person who has made a claim. May we have a statement from the relevant Minister on what the Government will do to make sure that people get back the money to which they are legally entitled?

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The hon. Gentleman raises an important point, which is clearly one for the Ministry of Justice. If he writes to me, I will take it up with the Department, but I encourage him to raise it directly with Ministers at the next Justice oral questions.

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May we have a statement on the role and responsibilities of the UK Government in supporting families of UK citizens missing abroad? Liam Colgan from Inverness went missing in Hamburg on 10 February. His family are worried that he is injured or suffering from memory loss, and they are very concerned about the level of help they are getting. They are desperate to find him, and they want to bring him home.

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I am really sorry to hear about that. It must be an incredibly worrying time for Liam Colgan’s family, and I am quite sure that they are desperate to hear news of him. I encourage the hon. Gentleman to contact Ministers directly, so that he can seek their support.

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