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House of Commons Hansard
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Oral Answers to Questions
17 May 2018
Volume 641

International Trade

The Secretary of State was asked—

US Tariffs: Steel and Aluminium

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1. What recent discussions he has had with his international counterparts on US tariffs on steel and aluminium. [905353]

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The Prime Minister and I continue to raise our concerns with President Trump and his Administration about the potentially damaging impact of tariffs on our steel and aluminium industries.  We are working closely with the US and our EU partners to secure a permanent EU exemption to these tariffs.

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Steel tariff exemptions are vital for Tata Steel. Many of my constituents work at Tata in Port Talbot in the next constituency along from mine. The exemption is welcome, but there are concerns about the US placing quotas on steel imports, which will have a major impact on the exports going not just from Britain but from Europe. How does the Secretary of State see himself protecting our export trade once we leave the European Union and do not have its negotiating power behind us?

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When it comes to protection post EU, we will have our own trade remedies measures. But of course the hon. Lady and her Labour colleagues voted against our being able to establish those when the legislation came to the House.

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What is the Secretary of State doing with our partners to ensure that we do not suffer from diversionary dumping of steel as a result of what the US is doing?

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We want to see a permanent exemption so that we do not get into that position in the first place, but we have made it clear that we would operate with our European partners to ensure that we took any measures necessary that were proportionate and within international trade law to ensure that the situation that the hon. Gentleman describes would not happen.

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The US President seems intent on undermining the World Trade Organisation’s multilateral rules-based system. He is delaying the settlement of disputes by vetoing the appointment of judges to the appellate body and is using national security as a cover, in this case, for naked protectionism against foreign steel and aluminium. Does the Secretary of State still think that Donald Trump is a man we can do business with?

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We do business with the United States Administration because the United States is our closest strategic partner. Where we disagree on issues such as steel, we make our voice very clear. We do not support the use of section 232 as a mechanism for dealing with the overproduction of steel. That actually hits the United States’ allies and not the designed target, which was China. Citing national security, particularly in Britain’s case, makes no sense at all given that some of the steel that we send to the United States goes into its military programmes.

Leaving the EU: Women’s Rights

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2. What steps he is taking to ensure that UK trade with developing countries promotes women’s rights after the UK leaves the EU. [905354]

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The UK is committed to promoting equality and women’s rights in trade in the UK and around the world.  We have taken decisive steps to recognise the role of trade in promoting gender equality by signing the WTO’s joint declaration on women’s economic empowerment.  We also launched at the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting last month the SheTrades Commonwealth programme, which will boost participation of women-owned businesses in trade.

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I very much welcome that answer because a well-designed trade policy can positively transform women’s social and economic rights in developing countries. If that is not the case, that can destroy livelihoods, undercut wages and damage vital public services. Will the Minister commit to publishing an assessment of the impact on women of every trade deal that he signs with developing countries?

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I agree with the thrust of the hon. Gentleman’s question. I commend the work of some key non-governmental organisations in this space, particularly ActionAid UK. The matter of impact assessments is one for future trade policy and future trade agreements. However, we are not waiting on that to make a difference on ensuring that women can participate fully in trade. I point him to a recent study by McKinsey that showed that, if women participated in the economy on an equal basis to men, there would be an increase of 26% in world GDP—the equivalent of an economy the size of the US and China put together.

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We drove this agenda in the EU. Is not the danger rather that, bereft of our influence, the EU will backslide?

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My right hon. Friend is quite right: the UK has been a key driver of that agenda. He is also right that the EU27 may well take a different approach. However, the UK approach remains strongly and resolutely in favour of promoting gender equality in trade and making sure that trade works particularly for women entrepreneurs, who make up a disproportionate part of the online entrepreneurial community.

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This will be my last outing as the Scottish National party trade spokesman; I will be moving to pastures new in Digital, Culture, Media and Sport. I want to put on the record my thanks to the Secretary of State and his team. While we do not always agree—in fact, rarely—our discussions and exchanges are always respectful and lively.

The 2013 Rana Plaza disaster is a prime example of how growth in export industries can have devastating results, particularly for women and girls. Jobs were created that were unsafe and had exploitative conditions for the largely female factory workers. Can the Minister assure the House and indeed everyone across the UK that any trade deals he does will not result in the exploitation of anyone, in particular women and girls?

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May I say to the hon. Lady that I hope in her new role the sky will be just as blue?

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May I first commend the hon. Lady for the constructive role she has taken? She and I have worked together particularly to try to benefit certain businesses in Livingston, her constituency, and in terms of her wider brief.

Yes, of course, we are absolutely committed that future trade agreements will pay heed to the importance of gender rights and a whole series of other rights in those agreements. What we can do, however, in the meantime is make sure that the trade agenda fully recognises gender equality, particularly, as I have mentioned, in relation to the Commonwealth and the WTO. We were one of the 120 WTO members at Buenos Aires in December that adopted the joint declaration on trade and women’s economic empowerment.

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The Minister often remarks that trade has pulled millions of women out of poverty, but in the Trade Bill Committee the Government voted against ensuring that future trade deals fully comply with the convention on the elimination of all forms of discrimination against women. Has he changed his mind on this and, if so, will he ensure that future trade deals contain effective mechanisms that protect women in the global supply chain from exploitation, poverty wages and the suppression of trade union rights?

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I gently remind the hon. Lady that she of course voted against the Trade Bill in its entirety on Second Reading, which I think is always worth remembering. Secondly, I would say that we will take no lessons from Labour in this space because the UK has been a leader, over the last eight years, in making sure that this agenda is taken up at the WTO, at the European Union and at CHOGM. When it comes to future trade agreements and future trade policies around those trade agreements, that will be a matter for future proposals, as she well knows.

Leaving the EU: Textile and Fashion Industry

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3. What plans he has to secure export markets and inward investment for the UK textile and fashion industry after the UK leaves the EU. [R] [905356]

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I am delighted to tell the hon. Lady that 2017 saw our fashion and textile exports up 6%, that a new creative industries trade and investment board is being created and that trade associations are being extensively consulted ahead of the launch of our new export strategy.

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I am chair of the textile and fashion all-party group, and this week we held a wonderful Commonwealth fashion event, with diversity, talent and young design on show. However, there are issues in terms of intellectual property rights and passporting, so would the Minister demonstrate his flair for fashion and attend the all-party group to discuss these issues?

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I pay tribute to the hon. Lady. This week, the meeting was on the Commonwealth; the last meeting, I believe, was on China. She is doing a great job with the APPG, focusing on the importance of fashion to the UK economy. It goes without saying that, however poorly dressed I am that day, I will be thrilled to go along and meet the much more fashionable members of that APPG.

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For more than 220 years, Johnstons of Elgin has been producing some of the finest-quality cashmere clothing, fabrics and accessories. Will the Minister continue to support this great industry, and will he explain what the UK Government are doing to ensure we have more export markets for the textile industry?

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I thank my hon. Friend for his question. He is right. Inward investment in Scotland has included Chanel buying Barrie in Hawick and we have trade working groups covering 21 countries. The very formation of this Department means that for the first time we have a Department of State only focused on our international economic competitiveness. For the fashion industry, for Scotland and for the whole of the UK, we will aim to work flat out to build our exports and improve the levels of investment into this country.

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rose—

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In a moment we will hear from the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman). He has been chuntering from a sedentary position about the suit worn by the right hon. Member for New Forest West (Sir Desmond Swayne), apparently expressing the hope that it was made in west Yorkshire. That is not a matter for the Chair—I have no idea. It seems to me a most admirable suit, but I have no idea where it was made.

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Unlike you, Mr Speaker, the Minister has never been to Huddersfield or visited the Textile Centre of Excellence. I keep inviting Ministers, but I think they are worried because Huddersfield, which is a great centre in the premier league for fashion, has many employers who are fearful about the future and the 90% drop in inward investment in our country. There is real worry about the penetration of European markets after Brexit.

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I am pleased to say that the fashion sense of the good people in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency is different from his—that is why they are so well dressed. Not only that, but they have a different, optimistic view about the future of the UK outside the European Union, and that is why, unlike the hon. Gentleman, they voted overwhelmingly to leave.

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On a point of order, Mr Speaker. My constituents voted to remain. The Minister is misleading the House.

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I am sure it was inadvertent. There was not going to be further discussion on this question, but the effect of raising a point of order in mid-question is to preclude any further supplementary questions on the matter. In this case, however, the crime is victimless.

Free Trade Promotion

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4. What steps his Department has taken to promote the merits of free trade to the public. [905357]

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11. What steps his Department has taken to promote the merits of free trade to the public. [905367]

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The UK champions the opportunities created by free trade. As I said in my lecture at Speaker’s House last month, free trade increases prosperity, stability and, in turn, security. My Department engages businesses and the public to set out the economic and moral case for free trade: better UK jobs, consumer access to high-quality, well-priced goods and services, and lifting people in the developing world out of poverty.

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I thank the Secretary of State for his reply. Forecasts suggest that 90% of economic growth in the coming years will be in countries outside the EU. Does he agree that that gives this country great opportunities to extend our trade with developing nations, which will be of great benefit to them?

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I agree with my hon. Friend that that provides enormous opportunities. Free trade has helped to lift more than 1 billion people out of poverty since 1990, and we will do all we can to continue to support the liberalisation of trade with developing countries. Indeed, we demonstrated that commitment by announcing £18 million to support the WTO’s enhanced integration framework in December at Buenos Aires.

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A slightly surprising grouping, Mr Speaker. Does the Secretary of State agree that the public might be even more strongly in favour of free trade if they are completely convinced that the right remedies are in place for goods that come from countries that are perhaps not quite as keen on free trade as we are? The ceramics industry, for example, has a big base in my constituency, so will he ensure that, when we import products from countries that have a state-distorted market, the right powers are in place in the Bill?

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I am grateful for the support that my hon. Friend gives to the ceramics industry. It is, of course, necessary to have an international rules-based system. Where we have problems with that, it is our duty to try to improve it, not to try to break or leave the system.

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What optimistic free trade message is the Secretary of State going to give to Welsh hill farmers or Suffolk sugar beet growers?

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The same message that I would give to everybody: free trade is of benefit to consumers and producers alike in the UK and to our trading partners. As I said, it has been one of the main tools through which we have alleviated global poverty.

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One thing that free trade depends on is investment. What steps is my right hon. Friend taking to promote outward direct investment by the UK to help those countries with which we would like to engage in greater free trade?

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The Government have recently completed a number of pilot projects on outward direct investment, and ODI can be a major adjunct to our development agenda. I recently visited a Jaguar Land Rover dealership in Johannesburg. It is not only promoting the sale of UK goods abroad, but providing apprenticeships in mechanics and salesmanship for some of the most deprived young people in Johannesburg. Trade and development can go hand in hand.

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Those who advocate protectionism often claim that free trade means a free-for-all. It is not. May I urge the Secretary of State to make it clear that free trade means trading within the rule of law, with clear remedies to the benefit of everyone?

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The WTO and the rules-based system is under attack, it has to be said, today. If the WTO did not exist we would have to invent it. There is a need for a rules-based system, otherwise we would have a free-for-all. The alternative to a rules-based system is a deals-based system, which might be fine for some of the biggest economies but would not help many of the smaller developing economies. It is our moral duty to ensure that there is fair play across trade.

Foreign Direct Investment

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5. What steps his Department is taking to increase the level of foreign direct investment into the UK. [905359]

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To ensure that we continue to be a global leader in attracting foreign direct investment, the Department for International Trade has launched a new FDI strategy that will deliver new ways to target support for those projects that create the most value for investors and national wealth. I am pleased to say that 2016-17 was a record year for FDI projects landing in the UK, showing that the fundamentals of the UK economy are strong.

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Will my right hon. Friend tell me why, in his assessment, investors choose to invest in the UK?

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We regularly ask our investors why they put money in the UK and the answers are very similar. They say that the British legal system provides certainty and predictability. We have a skilled workforce. We have a good, predictable regulatory system and a low-taxation economy. We speak English. We have some of the best universities and some of the best access to tech, and we are in a good time zone for global trading. None of those, incidentally, depends on our membership of the European Union.

Leaving the EU: Third-country Trade Deals

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6. What assessment he has made of the potential benefits to the UK arising from third-country trade deals after the UK leaves the EU. [905361]

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Leaving the EU means, for the first time in over 40 years, we will from next March be able to sign and ratify new trade deals. We are currently party to about 40 international trade agreements and are committed to securing continuity of those agreements. We have also established 14 trade working groups in major markets to explore the best ways of developing new trade and investment relationships post Brexit.

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I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. He will know, as I do, that international regulatory standards are what fuel international trade. For the continuation of those deals and opportunities, does he agree that regulatory alignment will be necessary to secure the best British deals post Brexit?

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As my hon. Friend will know, we have some good news for him about the implementation period. The UK will be party to those deals up to the end of December 2020. He is also right that there is a very important read-across between what is agreed with the EU on standards, rules of origin and so on. Our commitment remains absolute to have high standards and to encourage the use of broad international global standards of the highest quality.

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10. Ministers have said that trade with Commonwealth countries will be important after Brexit and the Minister will be aware that currently our trading arrangements with many African and Caribbean Commonwealth countries are by virtue of the Cotonou agreement, which is due to be renegotiated during the transition period. Will the Minister say what trade arrangements he expects we will have with those countries once the new agreement with the EU takes effect? [905366]

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As I say, up to the end of 2020, the UK will remain party to those agreements as they stand. We are also putting in significant efforts to make sure that the substance of those agreements rolls over beyond that. That is why we have signed memorandums of understanding with, for example, the South African Development Community—the South African customs area—CARIFORUM and the eastern and southern African economic partnership agreement group. That is work that is making good progress.

Leaving the EU: Preferential Market Access

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7. What steps he is taking to ensure that the UK maintains preferential market access to those countries with which it currently has such access as a member of the EU after leaving the EU. [905362]

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The Government are committed to securing continuity of existing EU trade agreements and other preferential arrangements as we leave the EU. The draft withdrawal agreement confirms EU international agreements continue to apply to the UK during the implementation period. We are working to ensure continuity of those arrangements after that.

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The REACH—registration, evaluation, authorisation and restriction of chemicals—regulations that govern production and other standards are critical to countless chemical companies in my Stockton North constituency and beyond for trade across the world. Will the Minister update the House on the progress to retain them when we leave the EU?

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I met the chemicals industry earlier this week—in line with other industries—in a very useful roundtable at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. That work to make sure that the UK benefits from the best possible rules as we go forward is ongoing.

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Does the Minister agree that one of the big opportunities from leaving the EU is that we can negotiate trade deals that best suit the UK, rather than being tied into the other 27 member states?

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My hon. Friend makes a very important point. That is why we have these 14 trade working groups with major markets around the world. We are in active discussions with those counterparts and we have the benefit, from March next year, of the ability to negotiate, sign and ratify trade agreements with them.

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First, the Government said that they were simply rolling over these agreements on precisely the same terms. Then they admitted that they would have to amend the agreements with Norway, Turkey and Switzerland to avoid rolling over such things as the customs union or the four freedoms that they would rather avoid, but the Minister has still not explained what process this sovereign Parliament will undertake to ensure that these important new agreements are subjected to proper democratic scrutiny. When will he?

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We had significant exchanges on this during the Trade Bill Committee and the scrutiny arrangements are enshrined in that Bill, which I note again that the hon. Gentleman voted against. He will also know that these agreements have already been scrutinised in this House under existing EU scrutiny procedures, and there are precise arrangements set out in the Bill for how we go forward from here.

Commonwealth Countries: Trade Agreements

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8. What progress he made on potential trade agreements with Commonwealth countries at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in April 2018. [905363]

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My Department continues to work with the 24 Commonwealth countries that are part of the EU’s economic partnership agreements or other preferential arrangements to ensure that there is no disruption to our existing trade. We also have regular discussions with Australia and New Zealand on our future bilateral trading relationships through our trade working groups. With Canada, we already have an agreement in place in CETA—the comprehensive economic and trade agreement—which will form the basis of a UK-Canada agreement once we have left the European Union.

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That is good news. Firms in my constituency such as GKN-Melrose, Vestas and BAE Systems export across the Commonwealth and the wider world. Is my right hon. Friend confident that post Brexit, we will be able to continue and grow that trade?

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Very confident. I pay tribute to the companies such as BAE and GKN that he mentions in his constituency, which are exemplary exporters. We intend to have an open and comprehensive trade agreement with the European Union. We intend to take advantage of the fact that the International Monetary Fund says that 90% of the global trade increase will be outside Europe in the next 10 to 15 years, and we have a new export strategy to support all exporters, including the ones that he mentions in his constituency.

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Ironically, a trade deal between India and the European Union is more likely to be agreed by the remaining EU27, as two of the main stumbling blocks are whisky and visas, which mainly involve the United Kingdom. Therefore, will the Secretary of State advise me, the House and my constituents at the Auchentoshan distillery and the Loch Lomond distillery how they will seek to overcome that when the Government will be all alone?

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One of the main problems with India, of course, is the tariff that it applies on whisky. We have been involved in a trade review with India for some months now, and part of the process is to look at the areas where we require liberalisation to bring our two economies close enough to be able to consider a free trade agreement. The high tariff applied on Scotch whisky by India is one of the impediments, and we continue to urge them to reduce that.

EU Free Trade Agreements

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9. If he will take steps to ensure that the UK has third-party membership of current EU free trade agreements to maintain compliance with rules of origin requirements after the UK leaves the EU. [905365]

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Since the draft withdrawal agreement confirms that international agreements continue to apply to the UK during the implementation period, common rules of origin will remain until the end of 2020.  We are keen, of course, to avoid disruption to supply chains, so we are working to secure continuity after this.

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I am sure the Minister has met motor manufacturers who have warned that they will simply not be able to meet the 60% local content requirement under rules of origin if EU components cannot be included. At present, the UK content is between about 40% and 44%. How will the Minister address that?

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I think the hon. Lady is referring to the EU’s current set of more than 40 agreements with more than 70 counterparts. That is a matter for active discussions. We are obviously trying to secure the best possible deal for UK motor manufacturers, not only those involved with the finished product but those who provide the components, as part of our talks with third parties.

Topical Questions

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T1. If he will make a statement on his departmental responsibilities. [905368]

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My Department is responsible for foreign and outward direct investment, for establishing an independent trade policy, and for export promotion. I am delighted to announce that my Department recently appointed John Mahon as our new director general for exports; he will oversee the delivery of the Government’s export strategy. Later today, my fellow Ministers and I will be in Stirling for the third meeting of the Board of Trade.

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In the light of the latest mass killing of Palestinian civilians by the Israel Defence Forces, will the Secretary of State review and apply the criteria for arms sales to states that violate international law?

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The UK has one of the most robust arms export systems, which we operate under the consolidated criteria in line with our EU partners.

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I welcome the Department’s focus on international trade. I am delighted to hear that the Redditch eastern gateway is included in a project and strategy that the Secretary of State will announce today. Will he update the House on what he will do to bring much-needed international investment into Redditch?

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Later today I shall outline a project to attract £30 billion of foreign direct investment to the United Kingdom. Many projects, such as the one mentioned by my hon. Friend, are not necessarily visible to global investors, but our new website will ensure that we can attract more investment in middle-sized opportunities, which will genuinely help to bring prosperity to constituencies such as my hon. Friend’s.

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T3. In 2017, Britain sold £216 million worth of military contracts and supplies to Israel and £571 million worth to Turkey. The disproportionate use of deadly force by those nations against Palestinian and Kurdish citizens has been rightly condemned. Does the Minister agree that the UK needs a transparent and human rights-oriented arms trade to ensure that this country does not enable brutal attacks to be made on civilians? [905370]

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All export licence applications are rigorously assessed, case by case, against the consolidated EU and national arms export licensing criteria. No licence will be granted if there is a clear risk that the equipment might be used for internal repression, or in a serious violation of international humanitarian law. However, we continue to monitor the situation in Israel and Gaza closely.

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T2. I hope that the Secretary of State enjoyed his recent visit to Aberdeen, which is probably the most productive part of Scotland, let alone the United Kingdom. Does he agree that the oil and gas industry is a deserving recipient of the export finance that is boosting that valuable sector? [905369]

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I did indeed enjoy my visit to Aberdeen, where I was able to chair a roundtable of companies from across the oil and gas industries as well as meeting senior figures from the Wood Group. Representatives of UK Export Finance were present at both meetings, and, as my hon. Friend will know, we are more than happy for UKEF facilities to be made available to the sector.

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T4. Given the uncertainty over the future customs arrangements between this country and the rest of Europe, what steps is the Department taking to ensure that training is provided for the additional customs officials who will be needed to deal with the probable extra workload? [905372]

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That is not, in fact, the duty of the Department. Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs is responsible for customs in the United Kingdom. None the less, HMRC has received extra funds from the Treasury to ensure that preparations are made for Brexit.

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The UK defence and aerospace industry plays a vital role in the country’s prosperity, and Farnborough, in my constituency, has a special place at the heart of it. What steps is the Department taking to support the industry, and will the Secretary of State kindly confirm that members of his team will attend the Farnborough international air show in July?

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I can certainly give that assurance to my hon. Friend. He will also know that in order to improve the functioning of our defence and security exports we are reorganising the Defence and Security Organisation so as to separate the defence from the security elements, because they require different levels and types of Government intervention and contact. I want to ensure that the appropriate skills are there to maximise our defence and security exports.

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T5. What is the Secretary of State doing to secure more trade with India? [905373]

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It was my pleasure to address the hon. Gentleman’s all-party group on India only last week, and we have a huge success story. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has talked about the trade audit—the trade review—that we have done with India. I can also report that bilateral trade has increased by 15% over the last year, and we remain the largest G20 investor in India, with British companies currently employing around 788,000 people in India.

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It was a pleasure to welcome the Secretary of State to my constituency last week where he could see that, from food and drink to oil and gas, Aberdeen is best placed to take on the opportunities of Brexit. I thank my right hon. Friend’s Department for promoting Aberdeen’s £150 million Queen’s Square project this afternoon. Will my right hon. Friend update the House on the benefits to Scotland of extending the high potential opportunity scheme, and does it not show that Scotland is better off in the United Kingdom?

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One of the benefits of having a UK-wide Department is that we are able to use economies of scale to lever international investment into the whole of the United Kingdom. My hon. Friend will be aware that a number of projects in Scotland are being highlighted today during our visit to Stirling, and it is much better to have a UK-wide Department able to bring investment to all parts of the United Kingdom than to have it broken up and fragmented.

Women and Equalities

The Minister for Women and Equalities was asked—

STEM Careers

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1. What steps the Government are taking to encourage more women to take up STEM careers. [905376]

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I call the Minister for Women and Equalities, on her debut at the Dispatch Box in this capacity I think: Penny Mordaunt.

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Thank you, Mr Speaker. I am delighted to be here in my new role as Minister for Women and Equalities on International Day against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia, and I hope all Members of this House will show their support to that cause today.

The Government have committed in our careers strategy to improving information and guidance on STEM careers. We are also raising awareness of the range of careers that STEM qualifications offer.

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I welcome the Minister to her new responsibilities and thank her for her commitment to women studying science and maths.

In Britain the percentage of women doing engineering is the worst in Europe: fewer than one in five of those studying physics A-level are female. I am going straight from here to the Institute of Physics. Will the Minister back up the Government’s words with action: break the deadlock and support prizes and grants for girls studying physics?

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I will certainly do that. My hon. Friend can take that message very strongly to the meeting she is about to attend, and I thank her for the work she is doing to promote these careers and qualifications to girls. We fund the Stimulating Physics Network, which provides schools with the means to improve progression to physics A-level. The network provides activities specifically to increase the proportion of girls taking physics A-level.

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Of all Ministers, this Minister will be the one who understands the opportunities for girls, particularly those following STEM subjects, in joining the armed forces. The RAF presentation team is coming to my constituency, and I have particularly focused on asking primary schools if they would like to see the opportunity that STEM subjects offer for careers in our armed forces: does she agree?

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I agree so much that I signed up myself. I pay tribute to the armed forces for the work they have done in recent years, in particular the RAF, some of whose initiatives have been pioneering. I would like to see more women serving in our armed forces; our armed forces will be operationally better if that is the case.

Protected Characteristics: Caste

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2. When the Government plan to respond to the consultation on caste as a protected characteristic in the Equality Act 2010. [905377]

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Our public consultation on how best to ensure that there is appropriate and proportionate legal protection against caste discrimination ran for six months last year. We received more than 16,000 responses, which demonstrates how important this matter is to some groups and communities, and we will respond in due course.

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I welcome my right hon. Friend to her post. She is the third Minister for Women and Equalities since the consultation closed, and I have no doubt that she is going to wade through those 16,000 responses, which will overwhelmingly be in favour of caste being removed as a protected characteristic. Will she agree to meet me so that I can brief her on the feelings of the community on this matter?

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I understand my hon. Friend’s frustration. He has really championed this issue for a long time. I have already agreed to meet him, and I am very happy to do so, but I can reassure him that previous holders of this post have already briefed me and that this matter is receiving my immediate attention.

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The Minister will be aware that the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Act 2013 requires the Government to amend the Equality Act 2010 to provide for caste as an aspect of race discrimination, and that case law will not be sufficient to do that. In addition to meeting those who advocate removing caste altogether from the legislation, will she also meet the all-party parliamentary group for Dalits, so that we can explain why the will of Parliament must be followed?

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I will be happy to do that, and I would like to do it swiftly. I want to ensure that we take absolutely the right decision. The responses to the consultation were heavily weighted towards one outcome, but I want to know the case law and all the arguments before we take any decision.

Gender Pay Gap: Action Plans

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3. What steps the Government are taking to ensure that companies publish action plans to reduce their gender pay gaps. [905378]

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I am delighted that 10,212 employers have now reported their gender pay gap, as of 9 o’clock this morning. That is 95% of eligible employers. Of course, reporting is just the first step, and it is important that employers now take action to close the gender pay gap in their businesses and organisations. Many have already published action plans, and we are working to support employers to take action to close those gaps.

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Of course, had the coalition implemented Labour’s ground-breaking 2010 Equality Act fully, we would be much further down the road towards gender pay equality today. It is all very well publishing the data, but when is the Minister going to show some grit and insist that companies produce action plans, so that we can make some real progress?

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The hon. Gentleman does the Government a disservice, if I may say so. This is world-leading legislation, and I have always been careful to ensure that we share the credit for it with the right hon. and learned Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman), who brought the Act into being. We are ambitious about this, but we want to bring business with us. This is about cultural change, and there are really good signs that businesses are now listening to the public’s will that women must be paid fairly and properly.

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The new Minister for Women and Equalities made an announcement that was welcomed by the Labour party when she said that sectors under the Government’s remit would lay out plans for organisations to publish their gender pay gap audits. It is good to see that that is one of her first actions, but does it go far enough? Can we be a little bit more ambitious? Will the Government commit to taking the next step, just as the Labour party is proposing, and introduce mandatory regulation so that next year all companies will have to report action plans alongside their gender pay gap figures or face fines and further auditing?

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I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her question. We are reviewing the evidence carefully. We know, for example, that more than 10,000 businesses have been having a conversation about their pay policy in a way that they simply were not doing a year ago. We will review the evidence carefully and see what more needs to be done to ensure that businesses are working in accordance with the public will to ensure that these gaps are closed.

Leaving the EU: Effect on Women

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4. What discussions she has had with Cabinet colleagues on the effect of the UK leaving the EU on women. [905379]

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I have regular meetings and discussions with ministerial colleagues about the UK’s exit from the European Union. As we leave the EU, we are committed to retaining the rights of workers and all the protections of the Equality Acts of 2006 and 2010, including those that particularly benefit women.

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Is the Minister aware of how much EU funding specifically focuses on women and addresses the causes of gender inequality? Will she give assurances to the women of Wales and the rest of the UK that they will not pay a higher price when, or should, Brexit spark a downturn in the economy?

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I can give them that assurance. Protections will still exist in our law, and we will have a dividend from leaving the EU, so we can choose what to spend that money on. It is wrong to scare people with the suggestion that equalities will somehow be watered down.

Freelance Workers: Shared Parental Leave

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5. If she will discuss with Cabinet colleagues the potential benefits for women of bringing forward legislative proposals to introduce shared parental leave for freelance workers. [905380]

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The hon. Gentleman has raised this issue with me in the House before with his usual tenacity and clarity. Family leave and pay entitlements focus on supporting employed parents, because they do not generally have as much flexibility or autonomy in taking time off. However, we are not ruling out further support for self-employed parents, but that must be considered carefully in the wider context of tax, benefits and rights over the long term.

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I want the Minister not just to rule it out; I want him to become a champion inside the Government along with his Women and Equalities colleagues. Shared parental leave for freelance workers would be one of the best ways to help women in the workforce to continue pursuing their careers. I ask the Minister to go away and think about that and to become a champion, rather than just someone who does not rule it out.

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I certainly understand the hon. Gentleman’s impatience, but progress is being made. He will know that a self-employed mother who wants to return to work without using her full maternity allowance entitlement can now convert that into 37 weeks of shared parental leave and pay for the employed father or partner. The hon. Gentleman can rest assured that we are considering the matter with great interest, and I will try to update him as soon as possible.

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Given my hon. Friend’s personal interest in this matter, will he join me in supporting the Government’s “Share the joy” campaign to encourage greater take-up of shared parental leave?

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I thank my hon. Friend. I assure him that Alice’s arrival into the world has certainly given me a greater understanding of the joy that comes from parenthood. The “Share the joy” campaign is a Government initiative to promote the benefits of shared parental leave, because we want more parents to enjoy that time with their newborn baby. My hon. Friend can rest assured that we will continue to promote shared parental leave to get more parents to enjoy it.

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I very much hope that the Minister will have today’s Official Report framed and hung up in Alice’s room.

Business: Representation of Women

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6. What steps the Government are taking to help ensure that women are better represented at the highest levels of business. [905381]

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Diversity is good for business. Organisations with the highest level of gender diversity in their leadership teams are 15% more likely to outperform their industry rivals. There are now no all-male boards in the FTSE 100, compared with 21 such boards in 2011, and the percentage of women on FTSE 350 boards has more than doubled since 2010. However, we know that there is more to do, which is why we commissioned the Hampton-Alexander review to improve female representation at the most senior levels in business.

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Clearly, progress is being made, but in thanking my hon. Friend for her answer, may I ask how the Government are engaging positively with our business community to help meet the important Hampton-Alexander goals?

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I thank my hon. Friend, who has taken a long interest in diversity matters. Indeed, he is meeting the Under-Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, my hon. Friend the Member for Burton (Andrew Griffiths), this afternoon to discuss this topic. The Government-backed Women’s Business Council’s recent toolkit, “Men As Change Agents”, calls on FTSE 350 chief executive officers to embrace three asks to deliver the required pace of progress, including sponsoring women from within their organisation with the potential to secure an executive role within three years. My hon. Friend is keen to be an agent of change, and I welcome his support and that of other male colleagues in driving the progress that we all want to see.

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I understand that 7% of FTSE 100 companies have women chief executive officers. By contrast, the figure for businesses in Latvia is something like 47%. What can we learn from Latvia?

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Of course we are always willing to look at what is happening internationally. The hon. Gentleman will know that the plans in the Hampton-Alexander review are ambitious. For example, they require businesses, before 2020, to recruit women for one in two senior roles that now exist if business is to meet that goal. If it does not, the Hampton-Alexander review panel will look at what more should be done to encourage business to do so.

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One way to encourage more women through to the highest levels of business is strong mentoring. What more can be done to help spread that and roll it out further?

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Mentoring is just one way, and there is a lot of evidence to suggest that sponsorship is very successful in driving women up the career ladder. That is precisely why the Hampton-Alexander review has given help through the Women’s Business Council and the toolkit. We have encouraged businesses to sponsor women within their organisation and to engage CEOs and other senior business leaders as change agents in championing the change required.

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The Scottish Government have delivered a returners programme to assist women to re-enter the workforce following a career break. Will the UK Government consider doing something similar to ensure that women in England and Wales continue their career progression towards the highest levels of business?

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Indeed. We have a scheme for exactly that. At the moment, we are looking at how best to spend that money, and I have a particular focus on teachers and social care workers to see if we can encourage them back into their professions. There is a much bigger challenge here for the private sector to make sure that women who have taken a break for caring reasons are encouraged back into the workforce, because we know that financial independence is a critical factor in making sure women have successful lives.

Domestic Abuse: Health Priorities

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7. What discussions she has had with Cabinet colleagues on treating domestic abuse as a health priority. [905383]

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This Government are firmly committed to tackling domestic abuse. On 8 March, alongside the announcement of the domestic abuse consultation, we announced an additional £2 million to improve the health response, offering further support to survivors of domestic abuse. The Home Secretary chairs an inter-ministerial group on violence against women and girls to ensure that all Departments, including the Department of Health and Social Care, work together to treat crimes such as domestic abuse as a priority.

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I thank the Minister for her answer. She may be aware that, according to the SafeLives report published last year, early intervention through hospitals can reach four out of five victims who would not have reported the abuse to the police. Will she therefore outline what plans her Government have to ensure that all hospitals, in their A&E and maternity units, have onsite domestic abuse support workers?

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The hon. Lady identifies a key touchstone for reaching women who perhaps have not been able to find the space or the courage to meet people who can give them help. There is a great deal of work going on, particularly with hospitals, as part of the £2 million package I announced earlier.

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11. Although the Government say that victims of domestic abuse can apply for split payment of universal credit, a survey by Women’s Aid shows that 85% of survivors say they would not dare apply as an exceptional measure, as it would attract further abuse. Is the Minister for Women and Equalities willing to meet me to discuss the importance of delivering split payments as the default to protect the financial independence of women? [905387]

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The hon. Lady and I have already met to discuss this, and I know that she is greatly concerned. I am discussing the issue with my colleagues in the Department for Work and Pensions, and of course the Minister for Women and Equalities will meet her to discuss it further. We are very clear that the DWP and those who work in jobcentres are a gateway to potentially offering support and help to women who present with those symptoms.

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Last week, I visited a refuge run by Hestia, the organiser behind next week’s “UK Says No More” campaign—I have spare badges. Hestia tells me that nearly 1 million children every year are affected by domestic abuse, yet there are no meaningful resources to help tackle the mental health issues experienced by those children. What more are the Government prepared to do to provide resources to address the mental health issues of the children affected?

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I thank the hon. Lady for that. I know that she is personally very committed to this subject. I was delighted to join Hestia this week at its launch event for a piece of technology that I believe will have a real effect on helping survivors and victims of domestic abuse. We are allocating £8 million specifically to help children who witness domestic abuse in their homes, because we all recognise the great harm this can cause children, both at the time of the abuse and in the longer term. That is precisely why children will be at the heart of the draft domestic abuse Bill, which will be presented to this House in due course.

Gender Recognition Act 2004

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8. When the Government plans to launch the consultation on reform of the Gender Recognition Act 2004. [905384]

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The Government Equalities Office will publish a consultation on the 2004 Act shortly. Our national LGBT survey received more than 100,000 responses and we are using the results to shape the questions in the consultation.

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I thank the Minister for that answer. On this International Day against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia, what message will her Department give to the Great British media that discrimination against trans people is unacceptable?

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I would be very happy to send that message from this Dispatch Box today. It is crucial that as we consult and discuss sensitive issues we do so in a climate of respect, empathy and understanding. Anything that runs counter to that must cease.

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I welcome the Minister to her place. May I take this opportunity to recognise the International Day against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia? As part of the consultation, will the Government make the necessary legislative changes to allow non-binary people to record their gender as X on passports and on other UK-wide records and identity documents?

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If this long-awaited consultation is to have impact and be of good use, it should consult on a wide range of issues, some of which should be the non-binary issues.

Gendered Online Abuse

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9. What discussions she has had with social media companies on tackling gendered online abuse on their platforms. [905385]

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The Government are committed to making the UK the safest place to be online. Ministers and officials at the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport have had meetings with a range of social media companies to discuss abuse, including misogynistic abuse, on online platforms as part of our consultation on internet safety, to which we will respond imminently.

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I thank the Minister for her answer. Half of all girls in the UK suffer online abuse and are bullied on social media. Girls are being told what to wear. They are being told to shut up about their opinions. They are being told about how they look. Is it not about time this Government take a serious look at this awful sexism and seek to regulate social media platforms?

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I very much share the hon. Lady’s strong opinions, which are based on the facts: girls are intimidated and bullied disproportionately online, for all the reasons she sets out. I urge her to wait a very short time for our response to the internet safety consultation, which I trust will be robust.

Domestic Abuse: Support for Women

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10. What steps the Government are taking to support women who are experiencing domestic abuse. [905386]

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12. What steps the Government are taking to support women who are experiencing domestic abuse. [905389]

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This Government have introduced a new offence of coercive and controlling behaviour, rolled out new tools such as domestic violence protection orders and committed £100 million to supporting victims of violence against women and girls. On 8 March, we launched the consultation on domestic abuse, which will include not just the draft Bill, but a package of non-legislative measures to take steps to further support victims and target perpetrators of this terrible crime.

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I am grateful to the Minister for that response. However, in 2016, the Ministry of Justice closed the courts in Halifax, and I hear from West Yorkshire police that it is now routinely taking up to 12 months for domestic abuse victims to have their cases heard in the neighbouring courts in Leeds, Bradford and Huddersfield. How have we allowed that to happen? Victims are withdrawing from that process. What are we doing to put this right?

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I am concerned to hear that. If I may, I will take that away and discuss it with my colleagues in the Ministry of Justice. In west London, the tri-borough scheme includes specific specialist domestic abuse courts. I am currently looking into that, because there may be more that we can do in that regard throughout the country.

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At Women and Equalities questions on 29 March, I asked the Minister about the concerns of Women’s Aid and other domestic violence charities about the changes to supported housing funding, and I asked her to liaise with her colleagues in the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government. Can she assure us that the concerns of Women’s Aid and other charities have been taken into consideration? What discussions has she had with that Ministry?

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Discussions are ongoing; I speak constantly to my colleagues across the Government about the support we offer to victims of domestic abuse. The hon. Lady will know that we committed £20 million to the domestic abuse accommodation fund, and, like me, she will have been pleased that we introduced the Secure Tenancies (Victims of Domestic Abuse) Act 2018 to help the victims of domestic abuse.

Topical Questions

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T1. If she will make a statement on her departmental responsibilities. [905391]

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Some 16% of the population is disabled, but their representation in our Parliaments, Assemblies and councils is far too low. It is primarily political parties’ responsibility to support their candidates properly, just as they must also support disabled employees. That is why I am announcing today that over the next 12 months my Department will, with others, undertake a programme of work to help political parties to best support their disabled candidates and to consider how independent candidates can be supported, too. While that work is under way, we will provide up to a quarter of a million pounds to support disabled candidates for elections in the forthcoming year. I shall keep the House updated.

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It was an honour and my privilege to have whipped the equal marriage Bill through this House. Will the Minister complete that work by abolishing civil partnerships?

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Although the demand for civil partnerships has tailed off since my right hon. Friend’s efforts were brought to bear on that Bill, they are extremely valued by some people, and others would also like the opportunity to have a civil partnership. We are looking into the issue and have commissioned some additional research into opinions on and attitudes towards civil partnerships, but whatever the outcome of that research, I assure my right hon. Friend that they will not be compulsory.

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I congratulate the Minister and welcome her to her new role. In the past 12 months, I have congratulated no fewer than three Ministers on their appointment to the role. [Interruption.] “Get used to it,” I hear from a sedentary position, and that is exactly the problem. Responsibility for women and equalities has been passed from the Home Office to the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, to the Department for Education, then back to the Home Office, and now it is with the Department for International Development. To add insult to injury, the Government Equalities Office will see its funding cut by almost half. All that does not really scream a commitment to women and equalities. Does the Minister agree that the Equalities Office needs a stable Department with proper funding?

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I thank the hon. Lady for her welcome. We do need to stabilise the work of the GEO and to increase what we are doing on the equalities agenda across the Government. We have done some tremendous things in recent years, and we need to build on that work if we are really to address inequalities, not only in the policy areas for which I am directly responsible but across the Government, including in disability, age discrimination and elsewhere. Since I have taken this post, I have given this a lot of thought, and I will make some announcements in the forthcoming weeks.

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T2. Equality of access to education and schooling opportunities for women and girls in the developing world is central to their life chances. What steps is my right hon. Friend taking to support initiatives to widen access to education and schooling for women and girls? [905393]

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I thank my hon. Friend for his question. There are some good tie-ups between the work of the Department for International Development and the Women and Equalities role. I hope that I will be able to help both Departments by being the joint Minister. We spend around £1 billion on education, half of which is specifically to help girls to access good-quality education. Most recently, we announced a further £212 million of funding through the girls’ education challenge, to ensure that almost a million more marginalised girls throughout the Commonwealth can receive good-quality education.

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Earlier in questions, the sharing of data and the working together of Departments in relation to domestic abuse and domestic violence was mentioned. Some time ago, I had a constituent whose data was shared, which meant that she had to come out of hiding, where she was being protected, and to move to another place because of that sharing of data by the Department for Work and Pensions. I know that that is something that the Minister is working on, but can she ensure that the highest possible resource and focus is given to this issue, because my constituent’s life was put in danger by the fact that her data was shared with her ex-partner?

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I am dismayed to hear that. Clearly, that is not the intention of the amendments to the Data Protection Bill. We have put a declaratory statement in the Bill to encourage and give confidence to all the agencies involved in safeguarding that, under the Bill, they do have the right to share information for the purposes of safeguarding. I am extremely concerned to hear of the hon. Lady’s case, and if she will write to me please, I will look into it.

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T3. What measures is the Minister taking to tackle the rise of anti-Semitism? [905395]

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I thank my hon. Friend for his question; it is an extremely important and pertinent one. The number of anti-Semitic incidents in the UK is both unacceptable and, frankly, frightening for anyone of a Jewish background or disposition. We should all do what we can to tackle it. Our relationship with the Jewish community has been built on the solid work of the cross-Government working group on tackling anti-Semitism, which ensures that any issues are brought forward quickly and are dealt with. The Government are providing more than £13.4 million to ensure the security of Jewish faith schools, synagogues and communal buildings, following the concerns raised by the Jewish community. I wish that we did not have to spend that money, but we do, and we are.

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Will the new Minister, whom I, too, congratulate, now publish the long-awaited inquiry of the previous Home Secretary, the right hon. Member for Hastings and Rye (Amber Rudd), into the safety of women accessing abortion clinics? Will she also take up the recommendation of 160 parliamentarians, including David Steel, author of the Abortion Act 1967, to introduce buffer zones?

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May I thank the hon. Lady, who has run such an effective campaign on this, and the colleagues across the House who have written about this matter to my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary? As she knows, the previous Home Secretary, in her capacity as both Home Secretary and Minister for Women and Equalities, took this subject extremely seriously, as does the new Home Secretary. We are drawing together the evidence and looking at it very carefully, and we will, of course, let the House know the results of that review as soon as we can.

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T4. I welcome the Government’s commitment to transparency through gender pay gap reporting. Will my hon. Friend update the House on how many employers have reported during the first year of this new scheme? [905397]

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That is a typically astute question by my hon. Friend. As of 9 o’clock this morning, 10,212 businesses and organisations had responded, and 95% of all businesses and organisations that should have replied had done so, and we are now chasing the other 5%

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The trans community suffers some of the most profound discrimination across the world. Will the Minister advise the House what discussions are being held with her colleagues in the United States of America, where we are seeing an incremental rolling back of the rights of trans American citizens that fundamentally undermines the principles of America’s liberal democracy?

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One thing that I have been conscious of is how the progress that we have made on these issues and on wider issues has been a catalyst for change in other countries all around the world. We in the UK have a very important role to play. Let me give Members one example. At the recent Commonwealth Heads of Government summit, our Prime Minister used the key part of her plenary session to champion the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. We will continue to do that in every nation on earth.

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Women used to lag well behind men in terms of workplace pensions. Will the Minister update the House on the current situation?

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It is true that women used to lag behind men in terms of workplace pensions, but at 73% their participation rates are now equal to those of men in the private sector. Thanks to auto-enrolment, 10,000 men and women in my hon. Friend’s constituency now have a private pension. Thanks are also due to the 1,670 employers assisting them.

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Particularly given her statement at the start of topical questions, will the Minister for Women and Equalities tell us what progress she has made in getting the position of disability commissioner reinstated at the Equality and Human Rights Commission?

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I have been aware of this issue for some time, from a previous brief, and I can tell my hon. Friend that the commission is currently going through a tailored review that will look at the structures it has in place to represent and hear the views of disabled people and enable commissioners to focus on their needs and rights.