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Commons Chamber

Volume 638: debated on Thursday 29 March 2018

House of Commons

Thursday 29 March 2018

The House met at half-past Nine o’clock

Prayers

[Mr Speaker in the Chair]

On today’s Order Paper it is noted that, on 5 April 1918, Lieutenant-Colonel Percy Archer Clive, Grenadier Guards, Member for the Ross division of Herefordshire, was killed in action, while attached to the 1/5th Lancashire Fusiliers, at Bucquoy, France. We remember him today.

Oral Answers to Questions

International Trade

The Secretary of State was asked—

Brexit (Food and Drink Exports)

1. What assessment he has made of the effect of the UK leaving the EU on food and drink exports. (904655)

In 2017 the UK exported more than £22 billion-worth of food and drink products to the world, an increase of almost 10% on the previous year. When we leave the European Union, as we will exactly one year today, we will free UK farmers from the constraints of the common agricultural policy and provide huge opportunities for Scottish businesses in emerging markets, where demand for quality produce is high.

Despite the brave words of the Secretary of State, he knows as well as we all do that the Scottish fresh food industry is in crisis because there is nobody to pick the fruit—his Government’s policies are deterring people from coming to Scotland to work. Can he give us just one example of a country anywhere in the world that has given a guarantee that, after we leave the European Union, Scottish food exports will be treated in exactly the same way as they are in the European Union’s market of half a billion people? Just one example, please.

For produce such as salmon, our exports are almost exactly 50% European Union and 50% non-European Union. Salmon exports to Japan, Taiwan and Vietnam are up 63% in the past year.

Weetabix, the great British breakfast cereal made in Burton Latimer near Kettering, gets all its wheat from farmers within a 50-mile radius. It was a famous British brand even before we joined the EU, and it will remain a famous British brand after we leave the EU. Will not the prospects for exporting more Weetabix be enhanced once we leave?

Our exports are largely determined by the growth of markets, and the International Monetary Fund says that 90% of global growth in the next 10 to 15 years will be outside the European continent. That is where the big possibilities for UK exporters are, including in food and drink.

The Minister’s colleagues are fond of talking about pork markets in China, but I urge him to pay attention to the potential pulses market there. The British Edible Pulses Association is keen to export faba beans to China, but the Department for International Trade is not talking to the BEPA at the moment. The Chinese want these beans, but there are some technical obstacles. I urge the Minister to respond to the correspondence and let us get this pulses market moving.

I am keen to ensure that that market is fully exploited. If the hon. Lady wants the representatives to speak directly to one of our Ministers, we would be happy to speak to them to see whether there are any technical impediments that can be swept away.

To get more people around the world to understand that high-quality British produce is a world beater.

Brexit (Creative Industries)

2. If he will hold discussions with the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport and representatives of the creative industries on trade in that sector with EU countries after the UK leaves the EU. [R] (904656)

Yesterday the Government announced the creative industries sector deal. With a strategy and new money committed to boost our creative industries, trade and investment is a key part of that deal. Exports are booming in the sector, with £9.6 billion in services and £2.7 billion in goods in 2015, making this country a global leader.

I refer the House to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.

I thank the Minister for his answer, but the clock is ticking. Representatives of the live performance part of the creative industries tell me of their worries, based on current experience of touring theatre, dance and music outside the EU. Will he, like the DCMS Minister, the hon. Member for Stourbridge (Margot James), agree to meet representatives of the creative industries to discuss those significant challenges so that this massive growth sector of our economy can continue post-Brexit?

My colleagues and I are always happy to meet representatives of the sector. The sector’s export growth, and its activity both in the European Union and beyond, is actually growing. Only 34% of the sector’s total global exports are to the EU. A huge amount is already being done outside the EU and, when it comes to things like music, DIT has committed to make about £3 million of grant support available to help music small and medium-sized enterprises to be able to export up to 2020.

One of the biggest growth markets is in the film and creative industries: one of the biggest areas now, apart from Hollywood, is Bollywood in India. What relations has my right hon. Friend established to build that market up so that we can exploit opportunities with our good friends from India?

My hon. Friend, who has impeccable trade connections with India, makes a strong point. Film, TV and broadcasting as a sector in the UK grew by 6.6% last year, and a large part of that is in co-operation with India. Total spend in the UK on film production reached a 20-year high, and global UK-qualifying films enjoyed 21% of global box office success, including a lot of success in India.

British audiovisual exports are worth £7.4 billion a year, with more than £3 billion of that coming from trade with the EU. The industry has raised major concerns that its ability to export into the European market will be undermined, unless there is frictionless access for broadcasters and creative industries. Will the Minister reassure the sector and the House that this will be the case—or is this yet another area where the Government are failing to listen to British businesses?

I will take no lectures from the hon. Lady on listening to British businesses, on which this Government have an impeccable record. We are seeking frictionless trade—as frictionless as possible—with the EU. We are seeking a free trade agreement of much greater scope than any before, and it will cover services—including creative industries, which are such a key part of our export offer.

SMEs (Exports)

3. What steps his Department is taking to support small and medium-sized businesses to export. (904658)

Helping SMEs to export is a high priority for the Department, and we are working through our overseas network, through online services on great.gov.uk, which has had more than 3 million visitors, through our international trade advisers and through export finance. Last year, 79% of companies supported by UK Export Finance were SMEs. Mr Speaker, if, like Roger Federer, I can press on—albeit without the same grace—I would say that exports from the west midlands increased in value by more than 80% between 2010 and 2016.

It is great news about the west midlands, but a constituent of mine who has a small business providing services around the world came to tell me about the challenges he faces in getting appropriate banking facilities and about the need to minimise losses on currency transfers. What steps is the Department taking to make sure that UK banks provide the facilities, support and advice that SMEs need in order to export?

As my hon. Friend will know from running a business, and as I do from my experience, this is a challenge and a work in progress. But we have established strategic relationships with the five leading UK banks. UK Export Finance launched a partnership with those banks in October 2017 to help not only exporters, but those who supply exporters, to easily access Government-backed financial support.

The Minister wants to talk about his experience; I recall that when he worked for a living he certainly did not work in the manufacturing sector, and nor did the Secretary of State, who worked in the health sector. I worked in the manufacturing sector, and I can tell the Minister that up and down the country SMEs are struggling to export, given that they are going to be blocked off from a 600 million market and left with a 60 million one.

This is a truly grim and sad time for those who want to see our departure from the EU lead to a collapse in investment and exports, as instead we have seen the exact opposite. We had record levels of foreign direct investment in this country. We have an improving climate for that and we have record numbers of exports from the hon. Gentleman’s area—from Yorkshire. It is about time he put the gloom away, because the facts keep defying him.

Actually, it is £500 million less in the automotive sector. On supporting SMEs, will the Minister explain what the Government are going to do to help those businesses export to China and India? He will be aware that Germany, within the EU, exports twice as much to India as we do and four times as much within the EU as we do.

I am afraid the right hon. Gentleman is a member of the same club. I hate to share this with the House, but exports to China were up by 30% last year.

Order. There is something of an internal Scottish National party competition. I do not know whether one of them is thought to have greater seniority, but not in my mind. I call Kirsty Blackman.

Many of our small and medium-sized enterprises are involved in premium manufacturing and other forms of high-value production. Will the Minister ensure that, in discussions with the EU, those things are taken into account when negotiators are discussing origin and the calculation of origin?

All such issues are taken into account. Of course, the Department for Exiting the European Union leads on the negotiations on our exit from the EU.

Future Trade Agreements

The Government believe strongly that Parliament has a vital role to play in the scrutiny of future free trade agreements, as it always has in the past. The Government are currently in the process of designing our future trade agreement policy. No decisions have yet been taken, as stakeholder consultations are ongoing.

When there is a new EU trade treaty, the European Scrutiny Committee can review it and the European Parliament can veto it; when there is a new UK treaty, all this House can do is delay its ratification by 21 days. Far from taking back control, does the Minister agree with the Commons Library that post-Brexit Britain

“may be seen as diminishing democratic accountability in relation to trade treaties”?

Will he fix that by supporting the inclusion of new clause 3 in the Trade Bill?

I will take no lessons from the Liberal Democrats in this regard. The hon. Lady voted against the Second Reading of the Trade Bill, which will allow this country to transition its 40 or more existing EU trade agreements into UK law. Those agreements have already been scrutinised in Parliament. As I say, future trade agreements will be a matter for future proposals.

Is it not the case that, under current plans, the British Government will be able to sign off UK-wide trade deals without the consent of the devolved Parliaments, meaning that the Belgian region of Wallonia will have more power over EU trade deals than Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland will have over UK trade deals?

I think the hon. Gentleman is confused. Existing trade deals have been scrutinised in this Parliament, with input from the Welsh Government in the usual way—more than 40 EU trade deals have already been scrutinised in this Parliament. He has confused those with future trade deals. We will, of course, work closely with Parliament and the devolved Administrations to make sure that their voice is heard on those future trade deals.

It is important that the Minister tries to clarify this issue. Brexit is supposed to be about regaining sovereignty and taking back control, so what is actually going to happen? Are this House and the devolved Assemblies simply going to be consulted, or are they going to have to consent to new trade deals?

Again, I think the hon. Gentleman is confusing existing trade deals, which are what the Trade Bill is all about, with the prospects for future trade deals. We have been absolutely clear on future trade deals. Trade policy is of course a reserved matter, but Ministers have engaged with the Scottish and Welsh Governments frequently, including at official level, and we recently did a deep dive with the devolved Administrations on what future trade policy might look like.

Education Exports

The latest statistics, released earlier this year, estimate total UK education exports and transnational education activity to have been £19.3 billion in 2015. That is an increase of 3% on the previous year and of 22% since 2010, in current prices. The Government continue to support education providers in this vital sector.

Many small businesses in and around my constituency either need help to begin to export or are already exporting in education and other goods and services. For example, a constituent of mine, Mr John Bowers, owns the company Bowers & Freeman, an SME that specialises in groundbreaking and innovative fasteners for the aerospace industry. What is the Department doing to ensure that SMEs such as Bowers & Freeman get the help that they need, whether in education or other goods and services sectors?

UK Export Finance offers competitive finance and insurance to SMEs of all sorts that want to export. My hon. Friend mentions one company in his constituency; I am pleased to say that UKEF recently provided bond support to another, Ram Universal, to help it to export its high-quality valves to India. The Government’s export strategy will look at SMEs’ need and design information and services appropriate to them.

Torbay’s language schools provide a valuable source of educational exports by encouraging students from across the world to learn here. What work is the Minister’s Department doing to assist them in securing trade from growing economies in Asia, as the Devon School of English recently did in Taiwan?

The Department for International Trade’s dedicated education teams are focused on developing a pipeline of overseas opportunities that are then matched with UK providers. That is enhanced by the DIT-led English language working group, which brings representatives together from across the sector. I look forward to seeking further export opportunities in Taiwan when I visit there in a couple of weeks.

Further to the reports that education exports are worth some £19 billion annually, does the Minister have an indication of how that figure will grow as we attempt to move our eyes away from only Europe towards a greater global vision?

I am delighted to say, as has been discussed so often today, that exports are up—not least in the education area. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has said, 90% of global growth is expected to be outside the EU. We will have a close and extremely important partnership with the EU, but the opportunities are out there, which is why he and other colleagues in this Department are so dedicated to building economic international opportunities for the country in the future.

Tech Sector Exports

Technology is at the heart of the Government’s industrial strategy, placing the UK at the forefront of the artificial intelligence and data revolutions. Exports of telecommunication, computer and information services increased from £17.8 billion in 2015 to £19 billion in 2016. Digital goods and services overall contributed £116.5 billion to the UK’s economy in 2016.

“Total War” is the phenomenally successful computer game produced by Creative Assembly in my Horsham constituency and exported to 98% of all the countries on earth. Creative Assembly is brilliant at nurturing domestic talent, but it also employs workers from 34 different countries. What reassurance can the Minister give that it will continue to be able to recruit the brightest and the best?

Like my hon. Friend, I am enthusiastic about the development of mathematics and digital and technical education. Some £406 million extra was announced in the industrial strategy to help address a shortage in science, technology, engineering and maths skills. The creative industries sector deal was published on Tuesday, and that highlighted the Government’s determination to ensure that we have the right digital skills for the future.

Section 232 Tariffs

7. What assurances he has received from his counterparts in the US Administration that the section 232 tariffs imposed by that country on steel and aluminium imports will not apply to UK exports. (904662)

Although we welcome the United States granting an EU-wide exemption from the tariffs applied under section 232 for a limited time period, we continue to argue that this is not an appropriate mechanism to deal with justifiable concerns in relation to the overcapacity of steel worldwide.

Some 15% of UK steel goes to America, and, quite frankly, a pause on the imposition of tariffs is simply not good enough. What steps is the Secretary of State taking to make sure that that pause becomes permanent?

We are working with the European Union to ensure a permanent exemption, and I spoke to Commissioner Malmström yesterday. On the specific case of the United Kingdom, the UK is responsible for only 1% of American steel imports. Much of that is high quality steel, which the United States does not manufacture itself. Some of our steel goes to American defence projects, which means that it would be quite absurd to exclude the United Kingdom, or to apply tariffs to the United Kingdom, on the basis of national security.

13. I welcome the assurance that section 232 tariffs will not apply to UK exports, but, ultimately, any tariffs will have a significant impact on prices here and could have a knock-on effect on those working in the steel industry, including in Tata Steel at Port Talbot, which neighbours my constituency. If those tariffs are implemented, what additional support will the Government provide for the industry to help deal with the damaging tariffs imposed on workers? (904669)

The hon. Gentleman is right: there will be a knock-on price effect and there is also likely to be a displacement effect in the global steel market, for which we may have to look at imposing safeguard measures; along with the European Union, we would do so. He is also right that there would be a knock-on price effect in the United States, too. It does not make any sense to protect 140,000 steel jobs in the United States and see prices rise for the 6.5 million US workers who are dependent on steel.

I thank the Secretary of State for meeting steel MPs this week. Will he say a bit more about the safeguards that he will try to ensure are in place against diversionary dumping as a result of this action by the United States?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his comments. As he knows, our aim, along with our European Union partners, is for the tariffs not to be applied in the first place. We argue that section 232 is not an appropriate means of doing so. If we want to deal with the over- production of steel—particularly Chinese overproduction —the best way to do so is through the G7 steel forum, where there are 28 outstanding recommendations to which we are still awaiting a Chinese response.

UK steel faces a very real threat from dumping as a result of these US tariffs, but the Conservatives in the European Parliament led the group of MEPs that consistently blocked EU action against dumping. As the Manufacturing Trade Remedies Alliance says, in the Trade Bill—which has mysteriously disappeared—the Secretary of State is proposing the weakest trade remedies system in the world. It is simply not good enough. When is he going to stand up for the UK steel industry and for UK steel jobs?

It is hard to know where to start when there are so many wrong facts in a single question. Let us leave aside the European Parliament. It was the Labour party in this Parliament that voted against the customs Bill and the Trade Bill, stopping us creating a trade remedies authority in the first place. The Trade Bill itself only sets up the trade remedies authority; it does not set up the regime.

Order. We are running late, but I am not having Cleethorpes and Redditch missing out. I call Martin Vickers.

Brexit (Trade Agreements)

8. What assessment he has made of the potential economic benefits to UK businesses and consumers of securing trade agreements with non-EU countries after the UK has left the EU. (904663)

12. What assessment he has made of the potential economic benefits to UK businesses and consumers of securing trade agreements with non-EU countries after the UK has left the EU. (904668)

As part of its preparations for future trade negotiations, the Department for International Trade has established 14 trade working groups and high-level dialogues with key trade partners beyond the EU to explore the best ways of progressing our trade and investment relationships.

Many businesses in my constituency, particularly in the seafood sector, are reliant on the free flow of supplies. Does the Minister share my confidence that new arrangements can be made to ensure that, particularly in the seafood sector, supplies are maintained without any undue delay?

My hon. Friend is a passionate advocate for the fish and seafood sector in his constituency. Those sectors already contribute £1.3 billion to the UK economy. I am concerned about reports of problems at Five Star Fish in Grimsby, next door to his constituency, but I can tell him that leaving the common fisheries policy presents the opportunities to boost exports, expertise and fish-related services.

Last week I visited the innovative company, Mission Resources, in Abbots Morton. It has invented the home energy resources unit, which generates energy from household waste to reduce fuel consumption, furthering climate change reduction and the Government’s clean growth strategy. Given that the company is looking to expand to powerhouses such as China and India, what assurances can the Secretary of State give to my constituent about the opportunities for trade with non-EU countries?

Over the last seven years, this Government have made significant resource investments into clean energy and renewable technologies. We have put in a huge amount of effort to ensure that those capabilities are now exportable. The UK has the world’s largest offshore wind sector and quite a significant sector in resources such as solar. We need to take advantage of export opportunities, and that is where the Department for International Trade plays its role.

Topical Questions

My Department is responsible for foreign and outward direct investment, establishing an independent trade policy on export promotion. Yesterday I chaired the 10th UK-Brazil Joint Economic and Trade Committee, where we signed memorandums of understanding on infrastructure, innovation and trade facilitation.

The Chinese Government recently turned the tap on exports of waste plastic to China. That has made a fantastic and very disturbing difference in the chemical market in Britain. If the Chinese Government did the same in higher education, what would be the impact? Has the Secretary of State done any analysis of that?

I had discussions in China only last week about exporting UK educational expertise. There is a huge appetite for that around the world, because there is an increasing acceptance that it is the gold standard. In fact, UK exports of education last year outstripped the City of London’s insurance business and continue to grow with Government support.

T2. Will the Secretary of State reassure my constituent, Simon Bainbridge, who is one of the finest producers of Northumbrian lamb, that lamb sales will not be forgotten in the new free trade agreements? (904672)

Far from being forgotten, advocating further exports of high-quality UK produce is at the top of the Government’s agenda. I can tell my hon. Friend the good news that the latest international market to open up to British lamb is Saudi Arabia, with enormous potential.

GKN has total sales of £10.4 billion, £9 billion of which are outside the UK. Profits from its operations in 30 countries around the world are repatriated to the UK. It will not be much of a global Britain if the Secretary of State’s approach is to stand idly by while a business like GKN that is so vital to our international trade is allowed to be subject to a hostile takeover that can lead only to its break-up and sale. Why has he stayed so silent on such a crucial issue for our trading prospects?

The allegation that anybody has stood idly by is utter rot. On Monday—perhaps the hon. Gentleman has not been following the news—my right hon. Friend the Business Secretary issued an open letter to Melrose, the company that is doing the bidding, to request certain safeguards for employees, and so on, if the bid was successful. Melrose has responded, agreeing to give those very assurances. We took action on this days ago. He needs to keep up with the news.

T4. SMEs are the backbone of our economy. As a Minister, I tried to help SMEs in the security sector to export. Food and farming businesses in Lincolnshire would like to do the same, but they need encouragement, advice and support. Will the Secretary of State meet me and a small group of others to see how we can help to feed the world and make it safe too? (904674)

I am grateful for my right hon. Friend’s question. I would of course be delighted to meet him and colleagues to discuss food and drink, which is so important both to his constituency and mine. I am delighted to say that last year food and drink exports went up by £2 billion to £22 billion, and that, for the first time ever, we have a Department of State whose only role is to focus on the international economic interests of this nation. I will be delighted to meet him to discuss how we can do more.

T3. The dumping of steel from states including China has had a detrimental impact on the steel industry in the UK. Ahead of the further dumping that is anticipated when the US tariffs come into force, Canada has announced that it will be offering extra powers for border security checks to crack down on cheap steel. What assessment has the Secretary of State made of this policy? (904673)

I rather feel that I answered this question earlier. The EU will look to see whether we need to introduce safeguarding measures as a consequence of any diversion. We are working closely with our European partners to assess what the potential may be and what the joint EU response would need to be consequently.

T6. The Secretary of State has recently returned from Hong Kong and mainland China. Now that we are leaving the EU customs union and single market, what more trade can we do with these countries to ensure that our businesses are not left worse off? (904676)

I am happy to tell my hon. Friend that at the festival of innovation last week we had 284 UK businesses and seven universities with us, all of which were able to discuss future partnerships and sponsorships. There was a very warm welcome, and we actually began the initial discussions with the Government of Hong Kong about entering into a future trade agreement on services.

T5. Given the less than successful outcome of the recent negotiations on behalf of UK fishermen, what hope and reassurances can the Secretary of State provide for farmers such as those in my constituency that future negotiations will make them better off outside the EU? (904675)

The best hope for British farmers is to be set free from the constraints of the common agricultural policy and to start to produce for export markets. There is a huge demand out there for UK food produce. The high standards that we have in this country, which we will maintain, are in themselves a kitemark for British produce.

At a recent Public Accounts Committee hearing, the permanent secretary at the Department for International Trade confirmed that although there are eight regional offices for the Department in England, there are none in Scotland. Will my right hon. Friend meet me to discuss adequate resourcing for the DIT in Scotland?

I met our DIT staff in Glasgow relatively recently. The point is that the Department for International Trade is a UK Department. It is there to help the trading interests, export interests and inward investment interests of the whole of the United Kingdom. Trade is a reserved matter.

T7. The north-east is a net gainer from the EU, and 60% of our exports are to EU countries, but the region is set to be worst off after Brexit. How will the Department make sure we do not lose out as part of the Government’s global north vision? (904677)

As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State just said, we are working for all parts of the United Kingdom, by working with DExEU on our future trading relationships with the European Union and, as importantly, making sure that we open up trading possibilities beyond the EU. I mentioned earlier that we have 14 trade working groups working with major markets, and exports from the north-east will be right at the centre of that work.

The liquid gold that is Scotch whisky is a major export good for our economy, but so far in the EU negotiations we are still not getting clarity on geographical indications, which many other drinks benefit from as well. When will we get clarity on GI for Scotch whisky and other drinks that we enjoy?

It always comes round to whisky at some point in these discussions on a Thursday morning. As the hon. Gentleman will know, the Government accepted that we would roll over the EU treaties that exist at the present time, including those on GIs. It is a pity that he voted against that in the House of Commons.

The ceramics industry stands ready to play its part in helping to boost global exports from the UK, but the reciprocal arrangement we need for that is protection from Chinese dumping of tiles and tableware. Will the Secretary of State ask his Cabinet colleagues to look favourably on the amendments that I have tabled to the customs Bill, which would ensure that the protections we currently have in Europe were written into British law?

The hon. Gentleman is right about his amendments, but his party voted against setting up the trade remedies authority that would implement them. He cannot have it both ways.

The African continental free trade area agreement was recently signed. Will the Secretary of State assure me that economic development and fair trade will be at the heart of the free trade agreements he looks for?

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her question. It is very important that we tie together better than we have in the past our trade policy and our development policy. The Secretary of State for International Development and I will be making some announcements on exactly how we can do that, and we will be discussing at the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting with some of the relevant trade partners exactly how we can make that happen.

The EU has around 60 trade agreements with third countries. How many trade agreements with those countries does the Secretary of State estimate will have been agreed by December 2020?

We hope all of them, but that means we have to transition them into UK law, which of course the hon. Lady voted against.

Women and Equalities

The Minister for Women and Equalities was asked—

STEM Degrees

1. What recent assessment she has made of trends in the number of women choosing STEM degree courses. (904678)

I am delighted to say that the latest data from the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service shows that there has been a 25% increase in the number of women accepted on to full-time undergraduate science, technology, engineering and maths courses since 2010, which is significantly more than the 14% increase among men. That is good progress, but there is more to do.

That is superb news, and I thank my right hon. Friend for her answer. Does she agree that the best way to encourage more women to study STEM subjects is via activities at school that bring them to life, such as the weekly STEM club at Torquay Girls’ Grammar School?

I congratulate Torquay Girls’ Grammar School on having those weekly meetings, which I am sure act as an inspiration for young women to take up STEM subjects. I am pleased that since 2010, we have seen an 18% increase in the number of girls taking STEM subjects at A-level.

In order to choose STEM subjects at university, girls need to have seen what fantastic careers STEM and engineering can offer. I know that many engineering companies want to go into schools and show that, but there is no co-ordination and no signposting of how they can do that. Will the Minister commit to ensuring that there is a central point where companies and schools can come together to get engineering into girls’ lives?

I agree with the hon. Lady that young women need to see the benefits of studying STEM subjects, because then they can see the huge range of options opening up to them in the modern world. In fact, we have an ambassadors programme, to which 30,000 ambassadors are signed up, who go into schools and provide just the sort of inspiration that is needed.

We know that gender stereotypes are established extremely early in a child’s life, so what support is the Department giving to campaigns to promote gender-neutral toys?

I would say that there is sufficient peer pressure to make sure that producers and manufacturers of gender-specific toys are increasingly being encouraged to think again about that, so that we can encourage young women to make sure they take seriously their career options.

Universal Credit

2. What discussions she has had with the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions on the effect of universal credit on women. (904679)

It is essential that women have opportunities to enter employment and to progress in work, and universal credit is designed to give them the assistance and tools to do so. Colleagues across the Government regularly discuss the impact of policies on women, and indeed on all groups.

We know from the Women’s Budget Group that the cuts baked into universal credit—the two-child cap, the cuts to the work allowance and the benefits freeze—are having an even more detrimental impact on women than on men, so when will we see an urgent review of the gendered impact of the social security changes?

The hon. Gentleman is mistaken in seeing welfare reform work in isolation from all the other assistance that has been offered to the low-paid, and in particular to women. Other measures, such as shared parental leave, the right to request flexible working, the 30 hours of free childcare and indeed the 85% of childcare funded through universal credit—or 600 hours of free childcare in Scotland—alongside the national living wage, which has given the lowest-paid their highest pay rise for 20 years, and the fact that we are taking millions out of tax by raising the personal allowance, offering training and assistance, and reducing the gender pay gap all point towards and have created the highest employment levels for women, at 70.9%, that this great and glorious country has ever seen.

My right hon. Friend often emerges from the forest to ask difficult and challenging questions, as he has now done to me for the second time this week. I am not aware that there is such evidence, but I am happy to go away and research it, and I will write to him if there is any.

I ask the Minister to place a copy of his reply in the Library, because we will all be greatly interested in it.

The Government claim that their universal credit alternative payment regime allows partners to apply for split payments in exceptional circumstances. However, few women are aware of this option, and 85% of domestic abuse survivors who contacted Women’s Aid have said that applying for split payments would anger their partners. Does the Minister agree with me that this should be mandatory, with payments split from day one?

We are obviously very sensitive to the issue of domestic abuse, which is completely unacceptable in any circumstances. Work coaches in jobcentres are specifically trained to identify situations in which domestic abuse may be occurring and to offer options and assistance to people subjected to it, including alternative payments. We do not currently see the need for default split payments, because the current benefits system does not operate in that way, and a number of benefits are paid into joint accounts. However, we are aware that the SNP Government are working on an alternative, and we are happy to work with them on that in Scotland and to see how it goes.

I will, if I may, push the Minister slightly more on that. We know that many women are prevented from accessing money because they are in abusive and controlling relationships. Given that, did the Government not give any consideration to the consequences for these women when they made the decision to put universal credit into a single bank account?

We very obviously did consider that, which is why we created the alternative payment method. The current benefits system does not operate on a split payment basis, and we have not yet seen any evidence, in areas where universal credit has been rolled out, that the current system is exacerbating the situation. We firmly believe in our policy on domestic violence and abuse—the Government have made a significant commitment to that—and legislation on a comprehensive plan will come out later this year. We are not convinced that the benefits system is the way to solve domestic abuse, albeit we need to identify, in particular, women who are subjected to it and signpost them to the right kind of assistance, accommodating them in the system if we can. We do not think that doing this on a default basis is the correct approach at the moment.

BBC: Gender Pay Equality

The Minister for Digital and the Creative Industries and I will discuss pay equality with the BBC. We are clear that the BBC, as a public service broadcaster that is funded by the licence fee, has a responsibility to set an example on pay and other equality measures in the workplace. Getting that right is important for licence fee payers, as well as for all the talented women who work at the BBC.

Even more disgraceful than its continued pro-remain Brexit coverage is the way in which the BBC discriminates against female employees. Will my hon. Friend invite the director-general into her office for an interview without coffee to make it quite clear that this continued maltreatment of female employees must stop immediately?

We are in the process of arranging exactly such a meeting, but I must confess that I have not yet put my mind to our precise hospitality arrangements.

Words are clearly not enough, so what steps are being taken to enforce gender pay equality in the BBC, as it seems that previous discussions on the issue have been supremely unsuccessful?

We are clear that it is against the law to pay women differently when they do the same work as men, and that has been the law for some 40 years. The deadline for the gender pay gap data is next Wednesday, and large employers such as the BBC must have published their data by then. This is precisely about drawing open those areas where women are not being treated as fairly by their employers as men.

Taylor Review: Pregnancy and Maternity Discrimination

4. What steps the Government are taking to implement the recommendations of the Taylor review of modern working practices on strengthening legislation on pregnancy and maternity discrimination. (904681)

As we said in the Government’s response to the Matthew Taylor review, we will update and consolidate pregnancy and maternity discrimination guidance on gov.uk this summer. We will also review statutory redundancy protection for pregnant women and new mothers, and consider whether it is sufficient.

The Government have twice, and perhaps now three times, committed to review legislative protection against unfair redundancy for pregnant women and new mothers. When will that review be published, and do the Government still intend to consider the legislative options recommended in the report by the Women and Equalities Committee?

We have stated that the review of the legislation on redundancy protection will consider that issue and report within a year. I recognise that this is a serious matter and I am trying to turbocharge the process to ensure that we report sooner. I reassure the hon. Lady that we take the recommendations of the Committee very seriously, and all options are open.

The Minister knows that pregnant women deserve better—I know he is about to become a dad, so this is a very personal issue for him. It is estimated that about 54,000 women a year are dismissed or made redundant, or feel that they have no choice but to leave their jobs, and that is not good enough. Much of this is cloaked in secrecy because of the use of non-disclosure agreements to withhold information about potentially unlawful acts of dismissing women when they are pregnant. I hope that the Minister will put NDAs on his list of things to consider when he reviews the legislation, as he has generously promised to do.

My right hon. Friend is right: the Griffiths household is waiting with bated breath—it is days before the next Griffiths generation appears on the planet.

I thank my right hon. Friend for the advice that the Committee has given me since I have had ministerial responsibility for this issue. Discriminating against women in the workplace because they are pregnant or new mothers is unlawful, and the Government are determined to stamp it out. She raises the issue of NDAs, and that topical and serious matter is at the top of my agenda.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. I wish the Minister well with his impending arrival. In addition to my obvious interest in this question, I remind the House of my former role as chair of the charity Maternity Action.

It is now two years since the Government published research by the Equality and Human Rights Commission that I commissioned as a Minister back in 2013. That research showed that one in 25 pregnant women felt forced to leave their jobs because health and safety risks are not addressed. It is more than time for concrete action to tackle that, so will the Minister bring forward legislation to give pregnant women a clear right to paid leave if their employer cannot, or will not, provide a safe working environment?

I thank the hon. Lady for her work in this area and wish her the best of luck with her impending arrival. Health and Safety Executive guidance helps employers to meet their health and safety obligations towards pregnant women and new mothers. Working with the Equality and Human Rights Commission, we have delivered several presentations to partnerships to share good practice, but she is absolutely right that we need to do more. I understand her point, and while I cannot commit to the request she makes today, we are certainly considering all options in this area.

Gender Pay Gap: Action Plans

5. What steps the Government are taking to ensure companies produce action plans to reduce their gender pay gap. (904682)

9. What steps the Government are taking to ensure companies produce action plans to reduce their gender pay gap. (904686)

11. What steps the Government are taking to ensure companies produce action plans to reduce their gender pay gap. (904689)

Last year we introduced groundbreaking regulations requiring employers to publish gender pay gap data. Reporting is an important first step, but what matters now is that employers actually take action. While this is not mandatory, we strongly encourage employers to publish a plan alongside their figures.

It is clear from the most recent figures that the requirement on companies to publish pay data is not making a material difference to women’s pay. With the gender pay gap at 18.4% and a quarter of a million women paid less than the national minimum wage, does the Minister agree that the Government are all talk and no action on pay equality, and that to achieve pay parity we need much tougher measures?

The gender pay gap, although completely unwelcome, is at the lowest level that we have ever seen. It is actually 9%, and the gender pay gap reporting that we have now mandated will help to drive that down. We are already seeing it very much as part of people’s conversations and I think we will see a material difference.

The response to the Government’s gender pay audit has been slow, and global banks have revealed gender pay gaps as high as 60%. Does the Minister agree that, as Labour has proposed, companies should prove that they are taking timely action to close their pay gaps—apparently it takes a year to turbocharge something—or face a substantial Government fine?

I share the hon. Lady’s outrage at some of the sizes of the gender pay gaps, but I feel that that just gives even more weight to the fact that it was absolutely right to bring forward last year’s legislation. Revealing pay gaps is exactly how we will start to get proper action.

What assessment has the Minister made of recent gender pay gap analysis showing that multi-academy trusts have some of the worst gender pay gaps in the UK?

The hon. Lady will be aware that multi-academy trusts are also covered by this requirement. We will see their reporting, which is taking place right now, and we will then assess what the consequences are, and whether additional action or influence is needed to ensure that improvements are made.

What sanctions are available if companies fail to meet their legal obligations to help to close the gender pay gap?

What is the law is that gender pay gap reporting takes place. The EHRC has the ability to take measures that can end up with fines and further sanctions. In terms of proposals for companies to actually close the gap themselves, we encourage them to put forward their own plans.

Two weeks ago, I met senior managers at the BBC and discussed the gender pay gap. It is right that the BBC continues to attract talent, but has the Minister determined whether the gender pay gap at the BBC is due to men being overpaid or women being underpaid?

The BBC certainly has a case to answer. We are aware, because it has disclosed this, that some senior male members of the BBC have addressed that by taking pay cuts. What really matters to us here, however, is that we get pay equality.

I congratulate the Government on commencing the Labour party’s legislation—section 78 of the Equality Act 2010—that requires companies to report on the gender pay gap. Does the Minister agree with Labour Members that reporting is not enough if we want to close the gender pay gap? We need mandatory action plans for companies and sanctions.

I thank the hon. Lady for congratulating the Government on doing something that Labour failed to do for 13 years. I am pleased that she welcomes the good responses that we are getting from companies in both the public and private sectors, but there is obviously more to do. I want to make sure that companies actually take action as a result. When we discuss this with them, they say that they will do that.

Diets During Pregnancy

6. If the Government will take steps to adopt a cross-departmental approach to improving women’s diets during pregnancy. (904683)

The Government are very keen to work collaboratively to help everyone to improve their diet, including women during pregnancy. Dietary guidance for women before, during and after pregnancy is available on NHS Choices and Start4Life, and via health professionals.

Even with my large number of children and grandchildren, I am sure that the hon. Lady knows more about this than I do, but it is essential that pregnant women have a healthy and sensible diet. The approach on the ground is not joined up. Local authorities’ health education budgets have been under-resourced, and there is no join-up between health education and the other players.

The hon. Gentleman is, of course, a father and a grandfather to many, so he knows an enormous amount about this. He is absolutely right that co-ordination across the piece is absolutely vital. It is also vital that we help to protect the less advantaged to make sure that everyone is able to have the healthy diet that they need during their pregnancies. That is why we have the Healthy Start programme, which helps hundreds of thousands of pregnant women, families and children under four who live in low-income households to sustain a healthy diet.

Caste (Equality Act)

7. When the Government plan to respond to the consultation on caste as a protected characteristic in the Equality Act 2010. (904684)

The Government’s consultation on how best to ensure that there is appropriate and proportionate legal protection against caste discrimination received more than 16,000 responses. This demonstrates how important the matter is to some groups and communities. We are analysing the responses and will respond in due course.

I thank my hon. Friend for her answer, but she failed to report that the consultation ended last September, meaning that the Government have had nearly six months to consider the huge weight of responses. I urge her to get on with the work, given the level of response, and to deal with this through the statute book once and for all, as is demanded by thousands of Hindu citizens across the country.

I thank my hon. Friend for his question. He has been an ardent campaigner on this point, not least, I suspect, because so many of his constituents are Hindus. We are rightly proud of our domestic anti-discrimination legislation, which provides one of the strongest legal frameworks in the world, and I have very much taken his comments about timing on board.

IVF

8. If she will discuss with the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care steps to ensure the welfare of women receiving IVF treatment. (904685)

Women’s welfare during IVF treatment is extremely important. The regulatory framework established by the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 1990 means that IVF can be provided only by clinics licensed by the UK regulator, which must ensure that all IVF services are safe and of high quality.

This year we celebrate 40 years of IVF, and more than a quarter of a million children have been successfully conceived in the UK. However, a staggering 3% to 8% of women undergoing IVF suffer from moderate to severe occurrences of the completely avoidable ovarian hyperstimulation syndrome, with a shocking three deaths every 100,000 cycles. Does the Minister agree that the outdated Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act should be amended to make essential provision for the welfare of women?

The hon. Lady is absolutely right to talk about this. IVF has made a massive difference to families up and down this country. I know that she has worked long and hard on this particular issue, for which I thank her. Health professionals always have a duty to act in the best interests of the patients whom they care for, and fertility treatment is no exception. The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority is leading work to better understand OHSS, and it will be supporting clinics to ensure that care is of the highest standard.

Shared Parental Leave

The Government want more families to take advantage of the opportunities offered by shared parental leave. That was why the Government launched a £1.5 million communication campaign in February to raise awareness of the shared parental leave and pay schemes. This is ongoing, and is supported by improved advertising and guidance for parents and their employers.

I welcome the Minister’s answer, but may I ask what discussions the Government have had about implementing the recommendation in the Fawcett Society’s sex discrimination law review that shared parental pay and paternity pay should be the right of all employees from their first day of employment?

It is an obvious point. Many people say that one of the barriers to their taking shared parental leave is the difference in pay in relation to fathers rather than mothers. The shared parental leave scheme was only introduced in 2015; we are currently evaluating it to see how it is working, and we will report in the spring of 2019. However, the hon. Gentleman’s points are very relevant, and we are keeping abreast of the issue.

Upskirting

12. If the Government will support legislative proposals to include upskirting as a crime under the Sexual Offences Act 2003. (904690)

I pay tribute to the hon. Lady for the work that she has done on this important issue. Upskirting is a disgusting and horrifying offence. There is a great deal more that we can do to educate the police and prosecuting authorities about their current ability to prosecute offenders under the outraging public decency offence, but we are also looking very actively at the private Member’s Bill tabled by the hon. Lady.

I thank the Minister for agreeing to meet me in May to discuss the issue, but may I ask why he believes that the law is currently adequate? A 10-year-old girl was a victim of this crime not far from my constituency, but nothing could be done under the current law.

The formal answer to that question is that, as the hon. Lady knows, the decision was made independently by the Crown Prosecution Service, but there are a number of laws under which we can currently secure successful criminal convictions. There is the outraging public decency legislation of 2015, and, in the case of a child, indecent images legislation. However, we clearly need think more about digital images in the current age, and we are happy to sit down and continue to discuss the hon. Lady’s Bill.

Women’s Refuges

13. What assessment she has made of the effect on women’s refuges of proposed reforms to supported housing. (904692)

The reforms will mean that the same amount of money that would have been available through housing benefit in 2020-21 will be made available as a grant to fund bed spaces directly. However, we are listening to the views of everyone involved in the domestic abuse sector, and we are carrying out a comprehensive audit of how domestic abuse services are delivered locally and how we can implement the best way to deliver those services.

The Minister has said that she is aware of the huge concern in Women’s Aid and other domestic violence charities about the ending of housing benefit for those in refuges, but there have already been cuts amounting to more than £6.5 million over the past eight years. Will she undertake to work with her colleagues in the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government to develop proposals to address those concerns and ensure that places in refuges are available to those who need them?

Refuges are a vital part of helping women and children to deal with the awful crime of domestic abuse and build better lives for themselves. We know that the number of bed spaces has increased by 10% since 2010, but we do not for a moment approach this issue complacently. I have said repeatedly, as has my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, that no options are off the table. We hope very much that the hon. Lady and others will contribute to our domestic abuse consultation to ensure that the law that we hope to introduce by the end of the Session is the best possible law to help the victims.

Will the Minister reassure the House that any changes that the Government make will not reduce the number of women’s refuges? In particular, will she guarantee that they will not affect victims of human trafficking, whom the Government look after very well at the moment?

My hon. Friend has led a long campaign on modern slavery and human trafficking. We are very happy to give the reassurance for which he asks. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary and, indeed, the Prime Minister have made that commitment, because, as my hon. Friend knows, it is a personal priority for both of them.

Topical Questions

If I may, I will briefly return to the issue of gender pay gap reporting. Tomorrow is the deadline for employers in the public sector to report their gender pay gaps, and all other employers with more than 250 staff must report by next Wednesday. I have this morning’s figures from the update of gender pay gap reporting, and I can inform the House that we have 98% registration and 81% reporting from the public sector and 82% registration and 45% reporting from the private and voluntary sectors. I hope that employers will take this opportunity to accelerate their reporting, because it is unacceptable in 2018 that there are still differences in the amounts that men and women are paid in industries from finance to beauty, and we intend to take action.

As the local elections approach, will the Minister tell the House what steps the Government are taking to tackle online abuse of women in public office?

This is such an important question. We all know how terrible the growth of online abuse has been, particularly towards women, and when we want to encourage more women to participate in public life, it is shameful that it takes place. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has ordered a Law Commission review to ensure that what is illegal offline is illegal online and the appropriate action is being taken to follow that up.

Many women will have slept a little more soundly last night after the decision by the Parole Board not to release the rapist John Worboys. The Government argued that a challenge was highly unlikely to succeed, but the brave survivors and the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, proved the Government wrong. Will the Minister explain why, given the clear evidence that Worboys was a danger to women, the Government refused to take action?

I thank the hon. Lady for raising this issue, which is so important. I know that everybody feels enormous sympathy and concern for the victims of this terrible atrocity. I welcome yesterday’s result. We need victims to be supported and to feel that the law works for them. My right hon. Friend the Lord Chancellor has said that he will look at making sure that in future there are changes to the Parole Board to ensure that there is much more transparency in such incidents.

T3. What is being done to ensure fair access to apprenticeships and work in all sectors for marginalised groups in society? (904695)

I thank my hon. Friend for that question, and there are few in this House who have done more to champion apprenticeships and the benefits that they can bring, particularly to young people. We want all young people and everybody in work to benefit from the apprenticeship scheme, which is why we are committed to having 3 million apprenticeships by 2020. So far, we have achieved 1.2 million. It is also why we are spending some £2.45 billion in cash terms, double the amount we spent in 2010.

T2. Have the Government made any assessment of whether local councils are meeting their duties under the Equality Act 2010, by keeping pavements clear of obstructions and safe for disabled people to walk? (904694)

It is essential that disabled people can go about their daily lives. Particularly as we move towards the local elections, it is important that they can get out, so that we can ensure that everybody participates in voting. On the hon. Gentleman’s specific question, I will find out from the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government whether it has made any such assessment.

On equality in politics for women, does the Minister for Women and Equalities agree with some senior Members in this House that the next leader of the Labour party, for instance, should be a woman and that perhaps that implies that the next leader of the Conservative party must be a man?

Those are not matters for the Minister for Women and Equalities. Who knows, she might have a personal interest in these matters—I do not know? Let us hear from her anyway, because it is very interesting.

I step forward gingerly following that introduction, Mr Speaker. My hon. Friend will know that on the Government Benches we believe that merit should be the decider for high office, while believing that women should be equally represented. We feel that our selection process and our promotion process allow both things to take place, and we are proud of the party that has had two women leaders and two women Prime Ministers.

T4. As one of the MPs who was happy to support the Guide Dogs Talking Buses campaign, I was pleased that the Government agreed to introduce legislation. The key question is: when will the regulations come forward that make audiovisual information mandatory on buses? (904696)

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that question. I will have to look into it and get back to him.

T5. This is National Autism Week, and I should like to ask the Minister whether she is aware that girls are often picked up as being on the autism spectrum much later than boys. Will she urge her colleagues to ensure that, like Sweden, we have a good, early and specific test for autism in every primary school? (904698)

I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising the fact that this is National Autism Week. We are all wearing our badges with pride, and I hope that he will take part in the Back-Bench debate on this subject later today. He is right to say that girls get diagnosed later and less frequently than boys, and this is something that we are looking at very carefully as we renew our work on the autism strategy.

T6. Sir Robert Devereux, the former permanent secretary at the Department for Work and Pensions who oversaw the increase in the state pension age for women born in the 1950s, retired in January. My constituent, Paulette, a former NHS worker, wants to know why, having made national insurance contributions for 45 years, she will have to work until she is 66 to get a pension of £159 a week, while Sir Robert has retired with a taxpayer-funded pension of £85,000 a year at the age of 61. (904699)

As the hon. Gentleman will know, this issue has been debated widely and extensively in this House. I would ask him to contemplate what inequalities would be produced for men, and indeed for women born in the 1960s, if changes were made to the pension arrangements, which have effectively been advertised since 1995, for women born in the 1950s.

The appalling abuse of Alice Terry on social media overnight demonstrates the totally unacceptable direction of travel of political debate in this country. Does my right hon. Friend agree that no party should have any problem whatever with signing the respect pledge?

I thank my hon. Friend for his question. I was shown the sort of abuse that Alice Terry received overnight, and it was particularly horrific and persistent. A lot of my colleagues on the Government Benches have stated their support for her, and I would urge some—not all—Opposition Members to take more action to speak out against such abuse because, as Lord Bew’s independent review of this issue has shown, a lot of it comes from the hard left, also known as Momentum.

T7. The 113 MPs, including me, who wrote to the Home Secretary last year enjoyed some momentum and made progress when she agreed to undertake a review of the feasibility of exclusion zones around abortion clinics, but it is all gone a bit quiet since the evidence deadline passed. When can we expect the conclusions, and will there be good news for the vulnerable women who simply want to have their NHS treatment in anonymity and for the regular pavement users— (904700)

Order. I am sorry. I do try to help the House by extending the envelope for topical questions, but it is not fair if Members then ask very long questions—[Interruption.] Forgive me; I do try to help Members, but Members must help one another.

The hon. Lady will know, because we have spoken about this, how much I care about it. I thank her for bringing the matter forward. The consultation has concluded, and we are now looking at it. I will make sure that she is one of the first to know when we decide how to bring it forward.

Gender pay gap reporting has made me angry, not just because companies need to do more but because we all need to do more. Does the Secretary of State agree that we should all check whether we have gendered expectations, particularly of children, and that those of us with influence should be very careful about how we treat young people?

The hon. Lady is absolutely right. One of the benefits of gender pay gap reporting is that it reveals what has been hidden before. In a lot of issues to do with gender, this is about making certain elements much more transparent than they were before. The hon. Lady might be angry, but I take the view that we need to take action. Taking action will do more than being angry.

Infected Blood Inquiry

(Urgent Question): To ask the Minister for the Cabinet Office to reconsider the decision to deny funding for legal assistance and advice to those affected by the contaminated blood scandal during the consultation on the terms of reference for the infected blood inquiry.

The infected blood inquiry is a priority for this Government. The infected blood tragedy of the ’70s and ’80s should never have happened, and the victims, who have endured so much pain and hardship, deserve answers. The Government will ensure that the inquiry has the resources it needs to complete its work as quickly as a thorough examination of the facts allows. We are committed to making sure that all those who have suffered so terribly can have the answers they have spent decades waiting for and that lessons can be learned so that a tragedy of this scale can never happen again.

We want to make sure that all those who need to contribute to the inquiry can do so. The Inquiries Act 2005 allows for the chair to make awards for legal representation for the inquiry itself once it is formally established—in other words, after the terms of reference have been set. We know that the inquiry chair intends to make early provision for core participant designation and legal expenses awards after the inquiry is formally set up. So the Government are not denying funds for legal representation at the inquiry. These funds will be available as soon as possible after the inquiry is up and running.

In addition, I can confirm that Ministers have decided that reasonable expenses properly incurred in respect of legal representation for the purpose of responding to the consultation by the infected blood inquiry on the terms of reference prior to the setting-up date will be awarded. Any claims will be handled by the solicitor to the inquiry, and it will be for the solicitor to determine these expenses. I hope that that is good news to the House.

I know that the chair of the inquiry, Sir Brian Langstaff, is keen to ensure that all those affected by this tragedy have a chance to make their voices heard. I know that last night he held a meeting with interested groups and that he is continuing to engage with those who are affected and the bereaved families. Sir Brian wants to ensure that the consultation process is as user-friendly and inclusive as possible, and such that legal advice is not a necessity for being able to respond to the consultation on the terms of reference. He wants to ensure that everyone has the chance to share their views, which will inform the terms of reference.

We believe that this is an exceptional circumstance. Thousands of people have been fighting for years to get answers to why this terrible tragedy happened, and they want to be part of ensuring that such a tragedy can never happen again. I know that the whole House welcomes the fact that the Government have established this judge-led public inquiry to provide the answers that victims and families have had to wait for. I and others here today, I am sure, will continue to play our parts passionately for our constituents.

I thank the Minister for her response. I just wish that the decision had been made earlier. As she outlined, this is a group of people who have battled for many, many years for a public inquiry, and we now want to make sure that the terms of reference are so drafted as to incorporate all the concerns of those affected. As she will know, many of those implicated in the inquiry will have access now to legal advice and expertise in their submissions on what the terms of reference should be.

I must add that the letter of 23 March, drafted by the Minister’s civil servants, which tried to draw a contrast with the families affected by Grenfell—who have been granted exceptional funding for legal assistance—saying that those families were more deserving than this group of people, has caused enormous hurt in the community. Of course we want to make sure that the Grenfell families find out what happened, and 71 lives were lost in that case, but in this case, 2,400 people have already died, and since the announcement of the public inquiry last year, another 70 have died. Many are living with HIV and hepatitis C, and many are co-infected, so they are in poor health. I am really pleased, therefore, that the Minister and the Government have accepted the argument that, while the organisations are well funded to put their cases, individuals should also have access to legal advice and guidance.

I want to say finally that I have met with Mr Justice Langstaff, and I believe that he will do his best to get justice for this group of people. He met with some of the campaigning groups last night, and I know that those meetings went well, but I hope that the Minister will pay particular attention, between now and when the inquiry is set up and Mr Justice Langstaff takes over, to making sure that no more decisions are made that put these individuals, who have been so damaged by the state, in a position where they feel hurt and lack confidence in what I think the Government are trying to do, which is to have a public inquiry that instils the confidence and good will of everybody.

As I have said from the Dispatch Box before, I pay tribute to the hon. Lady for her work, her campaigning and her compassionate tenacity on this issue. I have worked with her over the years, as have many other Members, and I am pleased that she welcomes the news that I have been able to bring to the House this morning. I reiterate that Ministers share her concerns and are keen to be able to get on with the inquiry as quickly as possible. It will be ably led by Sir Brian Langstaff, so that the constituents whom we all serve can get the answers that they deserve.

In response to her questions, it may be useful for the House if I say that, under the Inquiries Act 2005, it is for Ministers to make decisions, on an exceptional basis, on whether funds might be made available during this preliminary stage. That is what we have done today, because we believe that the circumstances are exceptional.

My constituent Lesley Hughes was infected with hepatitis C back in 1970, and that timescale suggests that thousands of documents must be held by the relevant Department. Will the Minister assure us that full disclosure of all such relevant documents will be made?

Technically, it is for the inquiry chair to give that assurance, but Ministers, officials and the machinery of Government will be fully co-operating with the inquiry and will give evidence if asked. All the relevant papers will be submitted, and the inquiry can also request evidence under oath.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Diana Johnson) for continuing to champion this important issue. I echo the concerns that she and other colleagues have raised.

The victims of this appalling tragedy have been waiting decades for answers and for justice. Sadly, they continue to wait for the justice they so desperately deserve. I note the Minister’s personal commitment to the victims of the scandal, and I welcome the movement that she has made today towards correcting a perceived wrong that we heard about in the House yesterday. I am sure that the Minister appreciates that it was deeply concerning for many of the victims to be informed by the Cabinet Office that they had been denied legal aid funding for advice during the crucial consultation period on the terms of reference, but we welcome the movement today.

The letter from the Cabinet Office caused understandable upset among contaminated blood victims and their families, particularly the comments relating to Grenfell. While the contaminated blood scandal and the Grenfell fire are obviously different, there are two key similarities—both have had a devastating impact on the lives of those involved, and both should not have happened. The contaminated blood tragedy has killed over 2,400 people, and 70 people have died since the inquiry was announced last year. I hope that the Minister appreciates why the letter of 23 March has caused offence; will she apologise for it on behalf of the Government? The active participation of Grenfell victims led to the terms of reference in that inquiry being wider than those initially suggested by the chair. It is therefore welcome news that victims of the contaminated blood scandal will now be afforded the same opportunity to influence the terms of reference for this inquiry.

I thank the Opposition Front-Bench team for their support for what I have been able to announce today. I share the keenness of the hon. Lady and all colleagues to see the inquiry done and done well. I have reflected on the letter that was sent by my officials, and I am sorry for any concern that has been caused by it. By way of explanation, I return to the fact that Cabinet Office officials were expressing the normal position under the Inquiries Act, which is that, as I explained to the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Diana Johnson), Ministers may decide to provide funding for the preliminary stage of any inquiry on an exceptional basis. I have already explained that we certainly see this tragedy as exceptional and Ministers have therefore made the decision that I have conveyed to the House today. I hope that it is clear that the normal position under the Inquiries Act is that there would not be such funding, but we have decided that there ought to be.

The people who know most about a tragedy are often the victims and their families, so will my hon. Friend do all she can to listen to them, especially with regard to the terms of reference, and to deliver for those affected by the contaminated blood scandal?