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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 651: debated on Thursday 20 December 2018

International Trade

The Secretary of State was asked—

EU Trade Agreements

1. What estimate he has made of the number of trade agreements that the UK is party to as a result of its membership of the EU that would be rolled over on exit day in the event that the UK leaves the EU without a deal. (908317)

6. Which countries that the EU has a trade agreement with have notified his Department of restrictions on their ability to offer the same terms in a future trade agreement with the UK. (908324)

We will replicate existing EU free trade agreements and their preferential effects with partner countries as far as possible, while making the technical changes needed to ensure that agreements can operate in a bilateral context. We will inform Parliament and the public when agreements have been signed.

First, I wish you, Mr Speaker, other Members and staff a very merry Christmas.

I would like to do something that I do not often do: thank the Secretary of State, his Ministers and his staff for organising a very helpful series of all-party briefings to Members. They are very welcome and informative.

The Secretary of State will know that as a result of our EU membership, we have 35 free trade agreements in place, 48 partly in place, 22 pending, and 100 sectoral arrangements with the US that go beyond World Trade Organisation rules. I would like to hear the Secretary of State say precisely when he expects all those to be rolled over.

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his comments. It has been extremely useful to have been able to raise, across the House, the understanding of complex trade issues that have not always been within the UK Government’s remit in recent years.

As the right hon. Gentleman rightly says, there are a number of agreements. My Department is responsible for some of them, some are the responsibility of the Department for International Development, and some are the responsibility of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office—they cut right across the whole Government. We are making very good progress across a whole range of them. Of course, we have now initialled the first of those major trade agreements, with Switzerland, which is responsible for almost a fifth of the total trade within those agreements. Others will follow. The discussions are very often commercially quite sensitive, so we will inform the House when we have signed agreements, and not before.

Mr Speaker, like the right hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake), I wish you, the staff, Ministers and everybody else a merry Christmas and a happy new year. Have any countries indicated a preference for the UK delaying Brexit without a deal?

Not directly in the discussions that I have had with other countries, but there is clearly a desire to have an agreement, so that there is time during the transition of these agreements before they become a more bespoke relationship. The two-year implementation period set out in the Government’s proposals would enable that, so that is clearly preferable for both sides.

Can the Secretary of State confirm that if we leave with no deal, the sun will still rise on 30 March, Britain will remain a premier global trading nation and the current booms in exports and inward investment are set to continue?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his usual patriotic and optimistic tone. He is right that the country is in the middle of an export boom; our exports are at an all-time high. In the first six months of the year, according to the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, the United Kingdom was second only to China in inward investment. It is truly a very positive picture, and we will be able to build on that, whatever our relationship with the European Union.

On behalf of our Front Benchers, may I extend Christmas greetings, particularly to the Secretary of State and his team? Mr Speaker, in Prayers this morning, your chaplain referred to the perseverance of the wise men; I think we all need that.

What assessment has the Secretary of State made of potential trade partners being unwilling to conclude new roll-over agreements with the UK because of most favoured nation clauses in agreements that they have concluded with other countries, to which they are unwilling to give the same trade preferences as they do to the EU? I am thinking of countries such as Singapore, which might be unwilling to give other Trans-Pacific Partnership countries the same access to their telecoms market that the EU has enjoyed.

We discuss matters with other countries on a case-by-case basis. None of them has said to us that they do not want to continue to have an agreement with the United Kingdom; that is entirely understandable, as we are the world’s fifth biggest economy. Where we are able to translate elements into a bilateral context, we are doing so. We are working through those agreements. We are making good progress, and I will report to the House as and when each of them is signed.

WTO: Food Security and Agriculture

2. What recent discussions he has had with members of the WTO on global (a) food security and (b) agricultural trade. (908319)

I add my Christmas wishes to you, Mr Speaker.

Both issues have been covered recently in discussions with World Trade Organisation members. For example, agricultural global value chains were considered at the recent G20 trade and investment working group. As a supporter of the rules-based multilateral trading system, we believe that WTO members must continually look for ways of strengthening the system.

I understand that a number of important WTO member states have objected to the UK and EU splitting tariff rate quotas post Brexit. At the end of October, the Secretary of State announced that the UK would be entering into general agreement on tariffs and trade negotiations. Is that another illustration of the fact that we cannot unilaterally negotiate trading arrangements post Brexit with other countries, and that it requires agreement? It looks like it will be an incredibly lengthy and tortuous process that will not have quick results.

The hon. Lady will know that the vast majority of nations represented in the WTO accepted the deposit of our schedules. Some did not and we are entering article 28 negotiations with them, as is completely normal. We can trade on those schedules as deposited until then—the European Union has been trading on uncertified schedules since 1995, so it should not impede our trade. Yes, negotiations will continue to agree those tariff rate quotas.

You have had a bit of a week, Mr Speaker—we all have. May I take this opportunity to wish you a very restful Christmas and a happy new year?

Does the Department for International Trade accept that what one needs for international trade is willing buyers and sellers? Has the Department made any estimate of how much lower food prices will be to British consumers if we leave the European Union without the withdrawal agreement?

The situation after a hard Brexit— a no-deal Brexit—is a complex one and will rely on a large number of factors. Some Government policies have yet to be absolutely finalised. The pricing of goods in the UK market, particularly for food, is regarded as extremely sensitive, as indeed are the incomes and livelihoods of farmers throughout the UK who rely on selling those products.

Merry Christmas, Mr Speaker.

The memo published by the European Commission yesterday was clear that, if the UK leaves with no deal and ends up trading on WTO terms, customs declarations and other checks will be required on exports into the EU. Have the Government estimated how much that will cost UK business?

The Prime Minister has brought back a deal from Brussels. I believe it is the right deal for this country. If it is put in place, what the hon. Gentleman describes will plainly not be an issue.

Happy Christmas to you from Taunton Deane, Mr Speaker. [Interruption.] I thought I would get that in.

The EU is the largest trading partner for agriculture and food for this country and, under our relationship with the EU, agriculture has blossomed. Margins are very tight. Will the Minister give assurances that, in the worst-case scenario, agriculture will not suffer under WTO rules? In the best-case scenario, does he agree that accepting the deal is by far the best option for our farmers?

I apologise, Mr Speaker—I was not listening carefully to the question. I am told by my Front-Bench colleagues that the answer is yes and yes.

I think we appreciate the Minister’s candour. There was no dissembling there, and we thank him for that.

Merry Christmas to everybody.

Will the Minister confirm that any future trade agreements will not undermine current environmental and animal welfare standards?

On this occasion I was listening and have the question in my mind. I deeply apologise to my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton Deane (Rebecca Pow)—she is listed as having another question.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has repeatedly made it clear in the House that we will not lower our standards in pursuit of free trade agreements. To reassure the hon. Gentleman, apart from anything else it would be business madness to do so. A lot of our exporters rely on Britain’s reputation abroad for quality, and undermining it would simply not work. Further, large numbers of Labour Members did not vote for the comprehensive economic and trade agreement, which contained specific chapters—chapters 5, 23 and 24—that pursued exactly what he wants. Labour Front Benchers did not support it.

Free Trade Agreements

This year the Department for International Trade ran four public consultations on potential UK free trade agreement negotiations with the US, Australia and New Zealand, and on potential accession to the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership—otherwise known, snappily, as the CPTPP. The insights gained from our consultations will inform our overall approach and our stakeholder engagement plans during these potential free trade agreement negotiations.

I thank my right hon. Friend for his answer. The Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership represents one of the most exciting opportunities for the UK post Brexit. Can he confirm that he has consulted with the necessary stakeholders and partners to ensure that we can begin talks on our country’s accession the moment we leave the European Union?

Ministers have been engaging with all 11 CPTPP members. I have recently spoken to a number of Ministers, including from Singapore, Mexico, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Japan, and the positive response to our engagement has been demonstrated by the supportive comments from some of the leaders of those countries—including Prime Minister Abe of Japan and Prime Minister Morrison of Australia—all of whom are very keen, as Prime Minister Abe said, to welcome Britain with open arms as soon as possible.

But isn’t the problem for the Secretary of State that these potential new free trade agreements will not be concludable until we know what the UK’s trade relationship with the EU is? Does he not now have to admit that it is not possible, realistically, to sign or conclude free trade agreements with all those other countries, because it will be several years—maybe two, three or more—before we conclude our trade arrangement with the EU?

Of course, the best thing that any of us could do is ensure that we have an agreement as soon as possible with the European Union, which Members of this House will be able to contribute to. Of course, if the House decides that we are not to come to an agreement with the European Union, there will be adverse consequences.

It has been very difficult for the International Trade Committee to scrutinise progress in the roll-over of current trade agreements because of the sensitivity of the negotiations. Will my right hon. Friend look urgently into establishing a confidential Commons Committee that has access to restricted negotiating documents, to ensure proper scrutiny of any talks over new free trade agreements?

My hon. Friend raises an important issue, which she has also raised in the Committee. The Government are looking at ways in which we can improve scrutiny without undermining the confidential nature of the discussions that we have. I will want to discuss the issues with the Opposition as well to see whether we can have a robust system that is also secure. That would be to the benefit of the whole House.

A merry Christmas from Feltham and Heston to you, Mr Speaker and to everybody else.

This week, I attended an interesting seminar by Global Policy Insights on trade with the Commonwealth pre and post Brexit. The Commonwealth accounted for 8.9% of UK exports a couple of years ago—roughly the same as UK exports to Germany. Could the Secretary of State update the House on what discussions his Department is having with Commonwealth nations on the potential of free trade agreements and on what success he is having?

The hon. Lady raises an important point. Of course, we have a number of agreements already with a number of Commonwealth countries and groups of Commonwealth countries, and we are close to signing one, which we will announce to the House shortly. However, we are also concerned about the level of intra-Commonwealth trade and how we can use that very large population, often with common legal rules, to enhance it. At the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in London, we set out our plans for a trade audit tool to help improve it, and we have had very positive engagement on that. There is tremendous opportunity inside the Commonwealth to allow countries to trade their way out of poverty, and we intend to ensure that that is made possible.

It is vital to forbear from agreeing a price before negotiations begin and to maintain the ability to walk away, isn’t it?

Last year, the National Institute of Economic and Social Research told us that leaving the single market would result in a loss of trade of between 22% and 30%, depending on the nature of the Brexit. It also told us that concluding deals with the BRIC countries and the main English-speaking economies would result in an increase in trade of 2% and less than 3% respectively. So although I wish the Secretary of State well in his future negotiations, is it not time to concede that there is no number of new free trade agreements or trade deals he can strike that can possibly compensate for the loss of trade with the European Union?

First, it depends on our level of access to the European market. That is why the Government have put forward proposals to maximise our access to a European trade area. However, it also depends on growth in other markets and, as the International Monetary Fund has said, in the next five years 90% of global growth will be outside continental Europe. That is where the opportunities will be, and that is where Britain needs to be, too.

Leaving the EU: Exports

4. What proportion of his Department’s staff are supporting businesses that export to the EU in preparation for the UK leaving the EU. (908321)

Merry Christmas to you, Mr Speaker, the staff and all Members.

We have a dedicated overseas European network of 253 staff promoting exports and investment. At home, we have sector and regional teams equally dedicated to the promotion of the UK economic interest. Every one of the 3,920 people in DIT, whatever their specific function, acts to support exports from Scotland and the rest of this United Kingdom.

I am delighted to hear it. Regardless of whether the disastrous agreement that the Government have reached with the EU comes into force, it is indisputable that unless we stay in the single market and the customs union, the UK will become a third country in its EU trade relations. Has the Minister included in the export strategy a position on whether businesses will have to get economic operator registration and identification—EORI—numbers if they want to export to the EU, our largest marketplace by far?

Of course, it is important to remember that for Scotland, the rest of the United Kingdom is its largest marketplace by far. More than 60% of trade from Scotland goes to the rest of the United Kingdom, whereas just 17% goes to the entirety of the rest of the EU. I suggest that the hon. Gentleman lean on his Front Benchers and try to ensure that his party, as the other Opposition parties should do, joins the Government in getting a deal with the EU that makes sure that Scottish exporters and those in rest of the country can have the best deal possible.

Mr Speaker, I wish you a happy Christmas and a calmer recess.

I congratulate the three wise men on the Front Bench on the huge effort in exporting UK plc. However, it is my understanding that exports account for only about 30% of our GDP, compared with 47% in Germany. Where do they think the greatest opportunities are, within or outside Europe, to narrow that gap and export more to the rest of the world?

I thank my hon. Friend for that entirely useful question, which highlights the importance of increasing exports. As a percentage of GDP, our exports have been in the 20s seemingly for time immemorial. We have got the figure over 30% and we have set a target of reaching 35%. The whole country needs to engage in this more. We think that there are more companies that could export and do not than there are companies that can and do. That is why the Department has been set up and why are we are dedicated to trying to increase that percentage. We want to improve performance in all parts of the United Kingdom. For example, in Scotland, exports constitute just over 20% of GDP, whereas the figure is more than 30% in the United Kingdom overall.

Future Trade Agreements

5. What steps he plans to take to ensure that future trade agreements deliver economic benefits to all constituent nations and regions of the UK; and if he will he make a statement. (908322)

This Government are committed to working closely with all nations and regions to deliver a future trade policy that works for the whole of the UK, and we will continue to engage with the devolved Administrations. I visited Cardiff on 15 October, where I discussed this topic with Assembly Members. The Board of Trade will also ensure that the benefits of free trade are spread throughout the UK.

A very merry Christmas to you, Mr Speaker. I am grateful to the Minister for his answer. However, will he elaborate on his work with the Welsh Government to ensure that when trade agreements are made, regional investment happens across the south Wales valleys, north Wales and mid Wales and benefits the whole of Wales rather than focusing, for example, on cities, so that valley communities like mine can really benefit from the economic development that comes from trade agreements?

We are currently working on a concordat with the Welsh Government, through which they can contribute directly to the process for free trade agreements. I would expect them to make those points to us and tell us where the industries that matter to them are. We can therefore construct our free trade policies around that input.

Increased trade inevitably leads to more business for our major ports, such as Immingham in my constituency. Does the Minister agree that free trade zones and free ports are worthy of serious consideration post-Brexit?

All I can say at the moment is that anything that can be done to increase free trade in the future should be looked at. Indeed, free ports have been looked at and I know that my hon. Friend has been a great champion of the idea. We will continue those discussions.

Supporting our regional economies through trade agreements is about more than just growing exports and opening markets to our producers; trade agreements should also be used to unlock and encourage investment across the UK. A recent report by the Centre for Towns shows that in 2017 nearly 60% of foreign direct investment went to the UK’s biggest cities, that 70% of that went to London, and that towns and communities elsewhere have seen FDI decline or remain flat. When will the Government listen to Labour and take the action needed to rebalance the economy and attract FDI right across the country?

I thank the hon. Lady for her question and, indeed, the whole Labour Front-Bench team for our associations and discussions during the year, which have, on the whole, been friendly and constructive.

The hon. Lady will be glad to hear that the Government absolutely understand the issue. Our foreign direct investment programme has begun to look at pre-packaging offers out in the regions, particularly in smaller towns, which quite a lot of major potential investors will not know of—they will not know about the skillsets there or about the availability of land and so on. They have been pre-packed into larger blocks so that foreign direct investors can be presented with them as places where they can take their investment outside London and the major cities.

Topical Questions

My Department is responsible for foreign and outward direct investment, establishing an independent trade policy, and export promotion. I am pleased to announce that this morning UK Export Finance has provided a loan of £27.9 million, under its direct lending facility, to support UK water and waste specialists Bluewater Bio to upgrade water treatment in Bahrain. This announcement shows the continuing demand for British expertise across the globe.

Constituents have written to me to say that we should sit over Christmas to get a meaningful deal. That is not going to happen, so let me wish you a very good one, Mr Speaker.

Given the pictures of the Prime Minister with the Crown Prince of Saudi after Khashoggi was chopped into pieces, and our Government lavishing praise on Bangladesh, a country whose status has recently been downgraded from democracy to autocracy by several human rights non-governmental organisations—not to mention Trump stating that we drop what he calls “unjustified” food and agricultural standards before signing a UK-US trade deal—has not our desperation for bilateral post-Brexit trade blinded us to all ethical and moral considerations before the ink has dried on a single deal?

Absolutely not. This country takes very seriously its international human rights and ethical responsibilities. In fact, I would go so far as to say that, rather than being an apologist, the United Kingdom is a great supporter and champion of those very values globally.

T2. Mr Speaker, I am sure you will join me in condemning the mindless thug who threw a bottle at man of the match Dele Alli last night. I will indicate the 2:0 score so that you do not have to read my lips.With UK exports to Israel up 30%, what steps will my right hon. Friend take to ensure that we increase trade with Israel as we move forward outside the European Union? (908348)

Israel is a very important trade partner for the United Kingdom, and our bilateral co-operation has increased. When I met Prime Minister Netanyahu a few weeks ago, we agreed to have a bilateral trade and investment conference in 2019, to increase those relations as far as possible.

Merry Christmas to you, Mr Speaker, and to all staff and all Members.

Chambers of commerce across the country contribute to export success through the brilliant advice they deliver all year round. Their direct local knowledge and expertise is much better than the signposting on any website that the Secretary of State might care to mention. In the spirit of the festive season, will he take this opportunity to guarantee the renewal of the contract with the British Chambers of Commerce for the delivery of export advice?

We constantly review the mechanisms by which we can give that advice. One of the things that came across clearly from our consultation on the export strategy was that businesses were looking for peer information rather than information from higher sources. That is why the Government have taken on extra staff for our online community for businesses, so that they can get real-time information from similar businesses.

T4. People in Japan, Singapore and China are getting a taste of Somerset, because Sheppy’s cider from my constituency of Taunton Deane is increasingly being exported to those countries, which is really exciting. Can the Secretary of State give us some news about the work we are doing with China on potential trade and investment? (908353)

As part of the UK-China joint trade and investment review announced in January 2018, officials of both countries took part in the third series of technical discussions in Beijing in November. I am happy for my team to be promoting the benefits of Sheppy’s, but I want them to ensure that people also enjoy the wonderful taste of Thatchers, made in North Somerset.

T3. According to the north-east chamber of commerce, businesses in the north-east are concerned about the future of international trade deals, and especially about rules of origin, after March next year. What can the Minister say to reassure our north-east businesses? (908349)

That the House of Commons should vote for the Government’s proposal, which will deal with those very issues, to ensure that we get continuity of trade.

T5. I wish you, Mr Speaker, the staff of the House and all colleagues a very happy Christmas. What early assessment has my right hon. Friend made of UK exports in this festive period? (908354)

British business continues to export strongly. For example, we are working with companies such as Hawkins & Brimble to maximise global retail opportunities. I am pleased to say that, thanks to help from the Department, the business will be lining the shelves of 300 stores in Canada and the United States with its range of male grooming products—a subject that I know is close to my hon. Friend’s heart—after securing £500,000 of contracts

I am not aware of the exact statistic for cost, but I will happily admit to the House that our record on freedom of information requests in the past has not been good enough. However, a great deal of effort has been put into trying to ensure that we respond on time, and in the latest quarterly report from only yesterday we managed to reach 90%, which is what we were trying to achieve. If the hon. Gentleman wishes, I will happily write to him with an answer.

The UK Israel Tech Hub estimates that the tech partnerships that it has created have an economic impact on the UK of around £800 million. What can we do to continue to grow this mutually beneficial relationship?

The Tech Hub has been a huge success and a great example of the sort of model that we should be looking at, but we hope to be able to expand that relationship through the trade and investment conference that we will hold in 2019, which will be a celebration not only of our record of trade with Israel, but of the future of our trade with Israel.

Sheep farmers in my constituency export 92% of their produce to Europe and beyond, but have absolutely no idea what is going to happen to their product after 29 March next year. What comfort can the Secretary of State give those sheep farmers to allow them to enjoy a happy Christmas?

Were there to be no deal, that would be a problem for the export of sheepmeat to Europe, so there is one clear answer available to the right hon. Gentleman, which is to support the Government’s proposal, which will enable his constituents to get the market assuredness that they want.

May I finish by wishing you, Mr Speaker, the Members of the House and particularly the staff of the House of Commons a very happy Christmas? Earlier the shadow Secretary of State mentioned the words about the wise men that we heard in Prayers this morning. We would do well to remember that if the wise men had not been carrying cross-border commodities of gold, frankincense and myrrh, we might not be getting the same messages we get today.

Women and Equalities

The Minister for Women and Equalities was asked—

English Language Skills: Employability

1. What steps the Government are taking to support women with limited English language skills to improve their employability. (908332)

The Government Equalities Office is considering how best to deliver new funded programmes for people who face barriers to getting into work for the first time. We are also working with the Learning and Work Institute to develop best practice guidance on building effective local networks and partnerships.

During the Afghanistan war, many local people put their lives at risk by using their language skills to help our military, and some of those families were evacuated to Chelmsford. The English for Women project helped some of those women, and it now supports women of more than 30 nationalities to become involved in their communities, and to improve their employability. Will my right hon. Friend thank all those volunteers at the English for Women project in Chelmsford, and suggest ways to help them to network with likeminded organisations across the country?

I certainly join my hon. Friend in thanking all volunteers at English for Women, which is a remarkable project. Such Government-funded programmes have supported more than 73,000 isolated adults—most of whom are women—to improve their English language skills, and, as my hon. Friend says, such support is about building confidence, people’s ability to get into good jobs, and integration in local communities.

A merry Christmas to you, Mr Speaker, all the staff, and the police and security services who keep us safe.

Newcastle benefits from many volunteers and charitable organisations such as the Angelou Centre, the West End Women and Girls centre, and the West End Refugee Service, which support women to learn English and improve their employability. There is, however, a lack of central Government funding for adult and lifelong education. Will the Minister speak to the Education Secretary about the importance of investment in adult education, particularly for isolated and vulnerable women, and will she meet me and the all-party group for adult education, which I chair, to discuss how we can make progress in that vital area?

I am very happy to meet the hon. Lady at any time because, as she rightly says, this is a vital area. We are spending £1.5 billion on adult education, some of which has been devolved to combined authorities and also delegated to London. It will be interesting to see how those different areas best use that money in education—in a way, they are like pilot schemes. I have also seen extremely innovative projects that work with women with children, and help them to help their children with school tests and such things, as a way of improving their own English. Those are often women who would not otherwise have come forward.

What are the Government doing to support women in their communities who are isolated as a result of poor English language skills?

I have commented on the English language courses we are running, and the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government also has a big programme. Integration is uppermost in our minds at the moment, and the first step towards integrating people and helping them to gain confidence is for them to have good English language skills.

I offer best wishes for a merry Christmas to you, Mr Speaker, and to everyone in the House, from me as the Member of Parliament for Strangford, and from all my Strangford constituents who are very much involved in these issues.

Will the Minister outline whether funding is available for already trained teachers to be trained in either TESOL, the teaching of English to speakers of other languages, or CELTA, the certificate in teaching English to speakers of other languages, to teach English within communities and community centres?

I will have to get back to the hon. Gentleman to ensure that I give him a precise answer. We are undertaking a trial this year and fully funding adults who earn less than the pay threshold of the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission—just under £16,000. Encouraging women to get on English language courses and improve their skills is an important area to focus on. We are talking about women who are just in employment and on very low wages and who, of course, face significant difficulties if they lose their jobs—their progress will be limited by that.

Vulnerable Women: Return to Work

Last month, I announced the next phase of our returners programme—£500,000 targeted at those with additional barriers to participating in the labour market, including those who speak little English, people with disabilities, and those who are homeless or have been victims of domestic abuse.

Does the Minister think that the fund is resourced sufficiently to help with the huge roll-out of universal credit, which disproportionately impacts on women? That is especially so in my constituency of Glasgow North East, which will have the highest number of universal credit claimants in Scotland: more than 16,000. It is vital that we have a targeted programme to assist women, who will be disproportionately affected. Will the Minister lobby hard for extra resources to focus on the women worst affected by the roll-out of universal credit?

Our returners programme is not designed to do what the hon. Gentleman has asked; it is a distinct fund. We have also announced some additional money to support women facing the greatest barriers to getting into the labour market. We should absolutely be talking to every Government Department, including the Department for Work and Pensions, about universal credit and other policies, to ensure that they are supporting women.

The fund is just one piece of work that the Government are doing, but it is focused primarily on women. However, my hon. Friend raises an important point. If he is aware of my recent speech at Bright Blue, he will know that we are also very focused on addressing the barriers that prevent men from taking up the roles that they would wish to do—being prime carers for their children, for example. We are also looking at those issues, and my hon. Friend is right to raise them.

I recently met a group of Somali women in my constituency who are very concerned about the wellbeing and employment of Somali women in our community. They have faced all sorts of barriers, and those barriers appear to be getting worse; the women are now identifying a rise in depression. Will the Minister write to me explaining how the fund she is launching will be able to contribute to the support that the women in my constituency need, so that they can access some desperately needed resources?

Absolutely. I will happily write to the hon. Lady with further details about what we and others in the Government are doing. She is absolutely right to point to this issue. White women have an employment rate of 73.3%; that of women of Bangladeshi ethnicity, for example, is just 32.8%. Bringing my Department into the Cabinet Office, co-located with the race disparity unit, will help greatly in addressing the multiple disadvantages that people face.

I wish you, Mr Speaker, all hon. Members and everyone across my constituency a merry Christmas.

The Minister has stated that she hopes that the returners fund will help women trapped in zero-hours contracts and low paid and low skilled work. Will she speak to her colleagues at the Department for Work and Pensions to ask for a review of how universal credit, in-work conditionality and sanctions are damaging the prospects of low paid women?

It will come as no surprise to the hon. Lady that I am already speaking to the Department for Work and Pensions about a whole raft of issues. We need to focus much more on broadening the work of the Government Equalities Office towards addressing the issues of low paid women. Women with low pay will often still be in low paid work a decade later. We need to look at the barriers to their having the career progression and the training that they want, while enabling them to cope with all the other things that women do.

Disabled People: Elections

We are undertaking a programme of work with disability organisations to help political parties better support disabled candidates. In the meantime, to ensure that support is in place for the local elections next year, we have launched the £250,000 EnAble fund, which is an interim fund to support disabled candidates.

In May, my right hon. Friend made a commitment to work with political parties to help support disabled candidates. Can she give a further update on how that work is going?

We are making good progress. We have met a number of political parties and disability organisations, including Disability Rights UK and Mencap, and those meetings will continue into the new year. It is very important that political parties support all candidates; by sharing good practice and doing this work in a much more methodical way, I hope that all political parties will be able to do so in the coming years.

The Secretary of State is absolutely right that political parties must play their part in allowing more people with disabilities to run for office. During the Ask Her To Stand campaign, Members took it upon themselves to invite women into the House to be able to understand its functions. Does she think that it could be an option to consider inviting disabled constituents into this place, as well as council chambers and devolved Administrations, so that Parliament can become more open? People could then get a better understanding of this place and not think of it as some sort of isolated institution that they could never possibly serve in.

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely correct. We should be doing that, and I encourage all political parties to do so. People who support various political parties are looking at replicating organisations such as Women2Win, which we have in the Conservative party, and at what further support and schemes can be put in place to encourage people from a whole range of backgrounds and situations to be able to run for office. We need to make the Chamber a much more diverse place.

We do not just want disabled people to stand for election; we want them to be elected to this place, yet this workplace here takes so little account of disabled people’s needs. Would it not be better to have more predictable working hours and voting patterns, similar to practices in other Parliaments, to encourage more disabled people to stand for election and to help all Members with caring responsibilities?

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. I remember previous conversations I have had with you, Mr Speaker, in a former role I held. It is not just the practice here; it is actually the fabric of the building. With the refurbishments, we have an opportunity to ensure that anyone who has the talents to come and work here is able to do so. I know that hon. Members, including some who are sitting on the Government Front Bench today, have disabled people working in their constituency offices very successfully, but when they have tried to allow people to work in this building, it has proved impossible.

Merry Christmas to all, when it comes. I would particularly like to thank you, Mr Speaker, on behalf of the all-party group for disability, for expanding your internship programme to ensure that people with disabilities gain experience of working in this House and overcome barriers to politics. What more can be done to use this type of excellent leadership to promote internships for people with disabilities internationally?

I thank the hon. Lady for her question. She is right to pay tribute to Mr Speaker for the internship programme, which has been very successful and is very much appreciated. I hold the Women and Equalities brief alongside my role in the Department for International Development. That provides an opportunity, because there is huge synergy between what we in the UK are doing to meet our own global goals and meeting our responsibility to the developing world. The work initiated by the global disability summit is gathering huge pace and momentum around the world to enable other countries, whether through new legislation or sharing best practice and ideas, to make progress for their own disabled communities.

Breast Cancer Screening Programme

5. What recent discussions she has had with the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care on the adequacy of the breast cancer screening programme. (908338)

Our breast cancer screening programme provides a world-leading service, inviting more than 2.5 million women for a test each year, detecting cancer earlier and saving lives.

The independent breast screening review found that a lack of clarity over when women should receive their invitations had caused the error that resulted in 67,000 women not being invited to their final breast screening. Will the Government implement the review’s recommendations and introduce guidance to clarify the ages at which women should be invited for routine screening?

The hon. Gentleman is right. The review found that the breast screening incident that was made public in May had arisen because of a lack of alignment between the national service specification and the way in which the programme was being run in practice. As a result, NHS England has announced a comprehensive review of cancer screening programmes, to be undertaken by Professor Sir Mike Richards. We will take account of the findings of both that review and our own breast screening review to ensure that changes improve the whole system.

Shared Parental Leave

6. What steps the Government are taking to promote the take-up of shared parental leave to help tackle the gender pay gap. (908340)

Earlier this year, we ran a £1.5 million campaign to promote awareness and the take-up of shared parental leave and pay. We are currently evaluating the scheme, looking at take-up and the barriers to it and at how the scheme is being used in practice. We expect to publish our findings next summer.

I thank the Minister for the work that is already being done. Does she agree that it is important to recognise, as part of that work, that cultural change is required to increase the take-up of shared parental leave? That will include raising awareness, challenging stereotypes and ensuring that we, as community leaders, have a role and are engaged with it.

Given that 33% of people say that mothers of pre-school children should stay at home and only 7% say that they should be in full-time work, I have to agree with my hon. Friend. Cultural change will not happen overnight, but shared parental leave is an important step, and we are considering further activity to raise awareness, promote take-up and make the scheme easier for parents to access.

Although I welcome the Government’s efforts to reduce the gender pay gap, they pledged in 2017 to tackle racial pay disparities. In the same year, Baroness McGregor-Smith found that greater workplace diversity could boost Britain’s economy by £24 billion a year. When do the Government plan to act on their pledge? Our economy could certainly do with an extra £24 billion, given the Brexit shambles that they have created.

We backed the McGregor-Smith review of racial issues in the workplace. We wanted businesses to publish their data on ethnicity and pay voluntarily, but the Prime Minister announced in October that, rather than waiting for them to do so, we would take action. A consultation is in progress and will end on 11 January, and we will consider then how best to implement its recommendations.

Too often, women face discrimination at work when they are pregnant or on maternity leave, or when they return to work. Although that is illegal, it seems that the law is not working. What steps are the Government taking to end maternity discrimination?

My hon. Friend has raised a particularly important point. We want to do whatever we can to tackle such discrimination. We are currently reviewing the redundancy protections for pregnant women and new mothers, and we hope to take further steps early next year. On Monday, we launched the good work plan, under which employees will receive a written statement of their entitlements in the workplace on their first day at work and which will potentially reduce the incidence of discrimination. Transparency is what we are aiming for, and we will do as much as we can to ensure that those people are protected.

Domestic Abuse: Public Health Strategy

7. What recent discussions she has had with the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care on a long-term public health strategy to help prevent domestic abuse. (908342)

Merry Christmas to one and all! I say that because although Christmas is a time of festivity, it is also, sadly, a time when the number of incidents involving domestic violence increases exponentially. I hope to be able to inform the House of ways in which we can help to spread the message that if anyone is suffering domestic abuse over the festive period they can—and please, must—seek help.

The Home Secretary chairs an interministerial group on violence against women and girls, which aims to ensure that all Departments, including the Department of Health and Social Care, work together to make dealing with crimes such as domestic abuse a priority. We will publish our response, including our draft domestic abuse Bill, shortly.

I welcome last week’s debate on the public health approach to tackling youth violence. Domestic violence can be a key trigger of trauma in young people’s lives, and they need this strategy to be published and properly funded as soon as possible. May I urge the Minister, who is also part of the Home Office team, to do all she can to make sure this strategy is published as soon as possible?

I am extremely grateful to the hon. Lady, who has done so much work on the specific issue of youth violence, including her work on the commission. She knows, following last week’s very good debate, that the Government are absolutely committed to treating serious violence as a public health issue, but we are very much committed also to ensuring that domestic abuse within the serious violence sphere is tackled in hospitals and GP surgeries, because often the NHS is the touchstone that victims of domestic abuse can use to seek help when they find that they are in a place to be able to do so.

8. I am concerned about the long-term effect on children of domestic abuse in the family home. Is tackling this part of the Government strategy? (908343)

Very much so, and we know that domestic abuse has a devastating impact on children and young people. Home should be a place of safety; it should not be a place of fear and violence. We have launched an £8 million fund to support children affected by domestic abuse and services that can help in that. We have also provided money to roll out an amazing project called Operation Encompass, so that there is a person in every school whom the police can contact before the school day starts, to inform the school if a child has witnessed a domestic abuse incident the previous night so that child is treated in a gentle and comforting way during the school day, having witnessed some trauma at home.

Has the Secretary of State also had discussions with the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care on the benefits of sport for women in improving their wellbeing, because women traditionally take part in a lot less sport than men? On that note, will she also congratulate the women’s netball team for its fantastic achievement in being voted team of the year in the BBC sports personality awards, and does she agree that they are a great role model?

I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for promoting me momentarily. She is right: sport can have an enormously positive impact on people’s lives. Obviously in the context of domestic abuse and serious violence, we are very conscious that sport can be a great way to reach out to young people and help them to make positive life choices. I am grateful to my hon. Friend, and I understand, too, that there are plans for a parliamentary netball team, which I will not volunteer for—I am more of a hockey player—but I am sure that is something to look forward to in the new year.

10. Women in the asylum system are particularly vulnerable to domestic violence if they enter into marriages that they cannot escape. Is it part of the Government strategy to look at how can protect those women? (908345)

We are very conscious of the additional pressures women in the asylum system face, particularly if they are in the system through family visas, where, sadly, we know there are cases where the perpetrators of the violence are the people on whom they rely for their asylum status. UK Visas and Immigration has set up a safeguarding hub to look at whether urgent intervention is necessary in each asylum case, and that obviously includes domestic abuse. We are concentrating on this in the forthcoming package of domestic abuse measures.

Mr Speaker, may I take this opportunity to wish you, yours and everyone associated with the House Nadolig llawen? For the benefit of Hansard, that means merry Christmas.

Survivors of domestic abuse and their children need more protection. I have heard from too many victims whose children are forced through family court orders to spend time with an abusive and sometime dangerous parent. Rachel Williams and Sammy Woodhouse are two such victims. Their petitions have gathered half a million signatures. Rachel and Sammy are speaking out, so when will the Government listen and strengthen the law to support victims and their children?

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her question. I had the privilege of meeting Sammy some months ago to discuss the complexities of her case. We clearly do not want the family courts to be used as another forum in which abusers can continue their abuse. The hon. Lady will know that I and my colleagues in the Ministry of Justice are working together on the Bill, but also on educating those who work in the tribunal and court systems to be alert to that possibility.

Topical Questions

I want to ensure that people across the country have financial independence and resilience, as well as a real choice and influence over the economic decisions in their lives. That means doing more for low-paid and financially fragile women, who face multiple barriers and are currently reaping the fewest economic rewards. I will publish a strategy in late spring, outlining our vision and plans to promote gender equality and economic empowerment. It will outline how the Government Equalities Office, from its new Cabinet Office home, will work across Government and with business and civil society to tackle persistent gendered inequalities that limit economic empowerment at every stage of life.

Mr Speaker, may I take this opportunity to wish you and all Members and staff of the House a very merry Christmas?

The majority of people in insecure employment are women. The right to ask for more hours, which was announced on Monday, already exists, and it is no right at all because the employer can just say no. Will the Minister therefore tell the Business Secretary that if he is serious about making a difference to women in part-time work, he will have to do significantly better than this?

I take a different view and welcome the announcement to which the hon. Gentleman refers, and others that this Government have made on supporting women, whatever stage they are at in their lives and careers. However, I think that we need to do more. That is why I am broadening the remit of the Government Equalities Office and creating an equalities hub in the Cabinet Office, at the heart of Government. We are already working with the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, but we do that with every Government Department, because only when we do that will we be able to move at the speed necessary to meet the ambition of women in this country.

T3. This is the season of good will, and some minds will be turning to the new year’s honours list. Those who receive honours are rightly recognised for their outstanding public service, regardless of their gender, sexuality or beliefs, but the same is not true of the treatment of their spouses. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the honours system should treat all spouses with similar courtesy, whether they are men or women, gay or straight? (908358)

My right hon. Friend makes an incredibly important point. The Cabinet Office is doing great work to create more diversity in the honours list, but inequality is baked into the system, including in the use of courtesy titles. It is quite wrong that people are treated differently in this way, so I have written to my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister to ask that it is remedied.

May I take this opportunity to wish you, Mr Speaker, everyone who works here and all Members a very merry Christmas? On the Christmas theme,

There are five days to Christmas, so will the Minister promise me:

An action plan to close the pay gap;

To end period poverty;

Sustainable funding for refugees;

Section 106 of the Equality Act;

Paid leave for domestic survivors;

And no more austerity?

I wish those on the Opposition Front Bench a very merry Christmas. The hon. Lady is right to present us with a list. I too have a list—[Hon. Members: “Sing it!”] No, I would not inflict that on Members. She is right to raise those important issues. I certainly wish to ensure that the Government Equalities Office can deliver on those issues, but also on other areas. From April next year, when the GEO will be in its new home, we will be able to do that much more effectively. In the meantime, we will be producing additional work, including the strategy I just referred to in my topical statement, which I think will be of huge assistance to all Government Departments in delivering for women.

T6. What steps are being taken to improve accessibility to tax-free childcare for carers and other economically inactive women who are looking to take on part-time work? (908361)

I thank my hon. Friend for raising this issue. Carers do a huge amount and are often unsung heroes. Both they and other economically inactive women may be entitled to support of up to 85% of their eligible childcare costs, through universal credit. That is in addition to the Government’s 15 hours’ free childcare entitlement for three and four-year-olds and disadvantaged two-year-olds. Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs is currently running a campaign to raise awareness of tax-free childcare, including through a new marketing strategy launched in September this year.

T2. Will the Minister for Women and Equalities speak to the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions about how they can mitigate the difficulties and hardship that women who were born in the early 1950s are experiencing? (908356)

Fear not, Mr Speaker: I will not sing my answer and ruin the festive spirit.

The subject raised by the hon. Gentleman has been debated extensively and we have already put in place an additional £1.1 billion-worth of transitional arrangements. Despite the fact that a retired female would expect to get the state pension for 22 years, which is two years more than a retired male, thanks to our reforms more than 3 million more women will receive an average of £550 per year more by 2030.

I have taken on board your wise words on perseverance, Mr Speaker, so when will my right hon. Friend introduce proposals to repeal the Equality Act 2010, which makes specific provision for caste as a protected characteristic?

My hon. Friend is consistent and persistent, and he is right to be. We obviously need a suitable legislative vehicle and parliamentary time, but our request to proceed with drafting has been cleared by the Parliamentary Business and Legislation Committee. On the guidance that we want to provide, we are confident that we can publish it before summer.

T5. I have a very vulnerable constituent who was kidnapped and raped abroad and then had to stay in the country for the trial. She has now returned home to the UK, but has been refused benefits after failing the habitual residence test. Will the Minister speak to her ministerial colleagues in the Department for Work and Pensions and ask them to meet me urgently to discuss this horrific case? (908360)

I am very concerned to hear that. I note the work that is going on through all-party groups to help victims of crimes and their families overseas. I will of course take away what the hon. Lady has said, and if she would like to meet me to discuss the case, I would be happy to. I will also ensure that the Minister from the relevant Department meets her.

Merry Christmas, Mr Speaker, and commiserations on last night’s football result.

Will the Minister welcome the work of Cats Protection, which fosters cats to enable women to flee domestic violence safe in the knowledge that their family pet is well looked after until they find a secure home?

I must declare an interest, because I own the most beautiful cat in the world.

I am delighted to hear of that organisation and the work that it does. It is a fantastic charity, and I think I should visit it as a priority, as part of not only my Home Office role but my ministerial cat responsibilities.

T7. . Mr Speaker, may I, too, wish you, all the staff and Members of this House a very happy Christmas? However, over this Christmas season women survivors of domestic abuse in households receiving universal credit will find it harder to leave than they should if their universal credit payment is paid to their abuser. Only yesterday, the director of Women’s Aid said of the Government’s ongoing refusal to introduce automatic split payments for universal credit:“We know from our research into the impact of universal credit that it risks exacerbating financial abuse for survivors and poses an additional barrier to survivors’ ability to escape the abuse.”What representations is the Minister for Women and Equalities making to the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions to urge her to address this outrageous inequality now? (908362)

I have met Women’s Aid three times in the past month, as well as Refuge and ManKind, as we are looking to improve the support available through universal credit, based on the three key principles. The first is identifying people, whereby those organisations are helping directly to sort out training and guidance for all our frontline staff so that people can be identified as quickly as possible. Secondly, we are building on the principle of referring, so that all local and national partnerships are then made available. Finally, we are supporting people, to make sure they are fast-tracked to get a single status universal credit claim, advance payments and, where appropriate, split payments.

The Government’s new code of practice is a welcome step in tackling sexual harassment in the workplace, but will the Minister listen to the concerns of the Fawcett Society and provide a formal duty on employers to prevent harassment in the workplace, without which the code falls short and women will be left to deal with this problem on their own?

I very much understand the call for a formal duty and we listen to it carefully, as we do to the Women and Equalities Committee report. We have committed to consulting on that, because this is very complex and we need to make sure we understand not only the scale of the problem, but potential answers to it.

We are, as colleagues can see, running late, but there is no particular pressure on time today and I would like to accommodate remaining colleagues.

The Minister will know that recently I got involved in tackling this vile practice of sex for rent, and we all understand it is a complex problem. I am grateful for the review of the guidelines and that new guidelines are going to be issued to the Crown Prosecution Service in the new year, but will he consider a review that actually looks at the complex problems that lead to the fact that this vile practice continues to be widespread, although it is a criminal offence?

I pay tribute to the hon. Lady for the number of times she has raised this issue in the House. Both the Minister with responsibility for victims and the Minister with responsibility for courts are looking specifically at this issue. As the hon. Lady is aware, there are complexities relating to stigmatising the individual who is themselves a victim, but we will continue to work on that and we look forward to working more closely with her on this subject.

Following the earlier exchange with the Minister for Women and Equalities on disability access, does she agree that one way we can improve access to this place is by Members underlining in the restoration and renewal consultation process, when they are approached, that improving disability access to this place is a priority for all of us?

That is an incredibly good suggestion. I have had discussions with Mr Speaker about the opportunities that the refurbishment of this Palace presents us with. I hope that all Members, who I know care deeply about these issues, with many having signed up to be Disability Confident employers and wanting to help that agenda, will see that that is another way in which we as individuals help to provide support.

Royal Assent

I have to notify the House, in accordance with the Royal Assent Act 1967, that Her Majesty has signified her Royal Assent to the following Acts and Measures:

Civil Liability Act 2018

Ivory Act 2018

Health and Social Care (National Data Guardian) Act 2018

Prisons (Interference with Wireless Telegraphy) Act 2018

Courts and Tribunals (Judiciary and Functions of Staff) Act 2018

Homes (Fitness for Human Habitation) Act 2018

University of London Act 2018

Ecumenical Relations Measure 2018

Church of England (Miscellaneous Provisions) Measure 2018

Church Property Measure 2018

Church of England Pensions Measure 2018.