House of Commons
Thursday 7 February 2019
The House met at half-past Nine o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
New Trade Agreements: Human Rights
The United Kingdom has a strong and proud history of promoting our values globally, including on human rights. We are considering all options in the design of future trade agreements, including human rights provisions. We recognise the need to maximise the benefits of trade while being true to our values.
I am one of the 38 Co-operative MPs in this place. We are the third largest party in Parliament and we have a long-standing campaign against modern slavery. There is a particular need to emphasise any safeguards against modern slavery in our supply chains, which is an insidious aspect of international trade. Will the Secretary of State take cognisance of that urgency in ensuring that the scourge of modern slavery is outlawed in our legislation and trade agreements?
The hon. Gentleman raises an extraordinarily important point. Modern slavery is far more widespread than is recognised. It is a pernicious, wicked practice and it is something that this Government have taken the lead on internationally. It will certainly be reflected in all the values of this Government, including our trade policy.
On the consultations that we have already had in public on Australia, New Zealand, the comprehensive and progressive agreement for trans-Pacific partnership —the CPTPP—and the United States, the Government have a commitment to hold such a debate in the House of Commons. Assuming the agreement of the business managers, I hope that we will have that debate in the House within the next two weeks.
As I said in answer to a previous question, we take such abuses very seriously. This country operates its international trade policy with one of the highest levels of ethics of any country globally, and the Government are always keen to ensure that those ethics are upheld in every way.
In terms of the continuity of our existing agreements, the best way to ensure full continuity is to have a deal. All those who talk about the pitfalls of no deal would do well to remember that in voting against the deal they make those pitfalls all the more likely. My hon. Friend is right to suggest that it is not only trade agreements that are important but trade itself, including trade promotion for our exports, and I congratulate him on the work he has done to promote this country’s interests abroad.
The persecution and mass incarceration of the Uyghur community in the Xinjiang province of China is facilitated by companies such as Hikvision, which manufactures and supplies much of the surveillance equipment that is used there. Hikvision has an expanding presence in this country. Can the Secretary of State assure me that the trade deals that we might have post Brexit will not encourage trade of that nature?
As I have said, any future trade agreements that we have beyond the European Union will be subject to public consultation, to debate in this House and, I hope, to rigorous processes that I may set out in due course about how we can increase scrutiny of those agreements. Members across the House will place different types of emphasis on different constituencies and different sectors of the economy, but I think that the whole House will share those concerns about ethics. I hope that the design of the scrutiny of those trade agreements that I will be able to bring to the House in greater detail soon will give the right hon. Gentleman the reassurance that he seeks.
We all need to remember that the great success of free trade over the last generation has been the truly historic achievement of taking 1 billion people out of abject poverty. That has been the benefit of free trade, and in this era of protectionism we should realise that economic nationalism is a way of rolling back what has been an enormously beneficial human trend.
Two weeks ago, the Joint Committee on Human Rights heard how the Canadian Government had to make a substantial pay-out and issue a public apology to a chemicals company after they were sued for taking a public policy decision to ban a chemical additive to protect human health. The Committee was told that investor-state dispute settlement provisions in trade and investment agreements can
“impact very negatively on human rights.”
Does the Secretary of State recognise that danger? If so, will he rule out such ISDS clauses in future trade agreements? If not, what counter-evidence will he present to the Joint Committee on Human Rights?
I have made clear our concern about human rights, but the idea of banning such agreements is nonsensical. This country has £1.3 trillion of stock overseas. Our investors are important in providing development in a lot of these countries, yet they are not given sufficient legal protections, which they would normally get under systems such as the UK’s. That is why those provisions are put in—to protect our investors overseas.
British Businesses Investing Overseas
Supporting UK-based companies to invest and operate overseas is a key pillar of the Department’s work. In 2017, UK companies brought home £86 billion as a result of those investments. The Department provides market information and identifies investment opportunities and potential partners. We have developed a new suite of products to help UK businesses as a result of outward direct investment pilots in New York, China, Turkey, Brazil, South Africa and Ethiopia.
I thank the Minister for that answer, but people are quite rightly concerned that setting up overseas subsidiaries or acquiring foreign enterprises could lead to job losses or relocations. Will the Minister confirm the net number of jobs created in the UK as a result of his Department’s support for outward direct investment?
The Secretary of State recently led more than 100 innovative tech companies to CES, the world’s biggest trade show. The US is of course our largest trading partner and our largest overseas investor. As my hon. Friend rightly points out, there are real opportunities, which is why one of the first priorities on free trade agreements is one with the US.
The Environmental Audit Committee has just started an inquiry into the role of UK Export Finance. We pledge to meet climate change targets at home, so why is it that nearly every penny of support for energy projects overseas goes on fossil fuels?
I do not think that that is accurate, but I do not have the exact numbers to hand. UK Export Finance is there to support UK business in meeting demands and needs as requested by overseas companies and, indeed, countries. I make no apology for saying that UKEF is there to try to promote that, and it has played a role in funding renewable technologies. Our record on that front is good worldwide.
UKEF is yet another example of how this country has led the way when it comes to exporting. It was the world’s first export credit agency, and we should all be proud of its work to support British exports over the last 100 years. We will celebrate the centenary throughout this year, notably at the UK trade and export finance forum in June, and we will continue to promote UKEF’s world-class support so that even more UK companies can succeed abroad.
UK Tech Sector Investment
We lead Europe in developing a sustainable tech ecosystem. Tech Nation’s latest release in 2018 shows that the UK attracted more venture capital investment than anywhere else in Europe, with $7.9 billion in funding from investors, ahead of Germany, France and Israel. We announced £1 billion for the artificial intelligence sector alone in last year’s sector deal, which will help to unlock further opportunities for AI investment in the UK.
The UK tech industry has been one of the great success stories of the British economy over the last decade. Does the Minister agree that, as we leave the European Union, it is vital that we continue to retain that combination of innovation, entrepreneurial spirit and investment flows, which have put the rocket boosters under the UK tech industry, so that we stay on the leading edge over the decades to come?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Tech is not only an enormously important industry in its own right, but it is vital to innovation and advances in so many other areas. The Government’s industrial strategy grand challenges seek to secure the country’s future in innovative technologies. FinTech, for instance, has raised nearly £12.2 billion in just the first half of 2018, with companies such as Revolut securing £190 million of investment. My Department will do everything it can to support innovators, including through the global entrepreneur programme.
As well as having immense strength in artificial intelligence, the UK is a world leader in medical research. Does my hon. Friend agree that the work being done to prepare for our post-Brexit future will deliver a superb collaboration with Israel that will help further strengthen the UK as a technological hub?
The industrial challenge’s grand challenge on ageing focuses on our world-leading pharmaceutical and health companies. We have a dedicated team in Tel Aviv actively promoting co-operation between UK and Israeli companies, and we have an established UK-Israel tech hub to enhance those partnerships between British companies and Israeli technology innovators.
The Minister missed an opportunity in his answer to the supplementary question of the hon. Member for Halesowen and Rowley Regis (James Morris), in which he was invited to talk about a rocket. He should have said that this is the answer to Donald Tusk: to get out of hell, we are going to fly on a rocket.
The hon. Gentleman, as a Member from a party so bereft of optimists, gives an example to the others. This country has a great future outside the European Union, and technology, in which we are the undisputed European leader, is fundamental to putting a rocket up not only our industry but many of the people with whom he shares the Opposition Benches.
It is hard to follow that question. None the less, Northern Ireland has many companies that lead their fields in the tech and medicare sectors, so what discussions has the Minister had with the Department for Enterprise, Trade and Investment in Northern Ireland to partner and develop those Northern Ireland companies?
We work very closely with that Department. I would not say I am a natural industrial strategy sort of person, but the grand challenges have identified the big issues facing not only this country but humanity. By channelling our limited resources to those who make the most difference, we can support areas, not least agritech, in which Northern Ireland is a global leader.
Preferential Trade Agreement with India
India is an important part of our future trading arrangements. The UK-India joint trade review has enabled us better to understand the bilateral trade relationship by examining trade flows and barriers that could be jointly addressed. Collaboration is continuing to address barriers in the food and drink, life sciences and information and communications technology sectors. The appointment of Her Majesty’s trade commissioner in 2018 also provides a joined-up and co-ordinated Government effort to promote UK trade and prosperity in India.
I thank the Minister for his answer. He will be aware that the UK is the third biggest investor in India and India is the third biggest investor in the UK. What more can we do to ensure that we increase the trade as we leave the European Union and set out on our own free trade mission across the world?
I thank my hon. Friend for his question. Crispin Simon, the aforementioned HMTC, is leading the Department’s network to grow trade in key sectors. UK exports to India grew by 28%, to £7.9 billion, in the year ending quarter 2 2018, making that seven consecutive quarters of growth. Goods exports increased by 38% in the same period. Following the launch of the UK-India technology partnership by the Prime Minister and Indian Prime Minister Modi in April 2018, there have been many successes, including the healthcare AI catalyst programme. We have worked closely with many companies, such as BT, Rolex, Diageo, GlaxoSmithKline, Marks & Spencer and G4S.
The Minister might know that, in the Leeds city region, which includes Huddersfield, we have many brilliant businesspeople from an Indian background and they of course have very good partnerships with India. They are totally demoralised at the moment, partly because of this Secretary of State. I would not wish him to go into hell, but they have no confidence in him and they have no confidence in shrinking the potential market for India from 650 million to 65 million people.
All I can say is that the hon. Gentleman is entitled to his opinions, but I happen to disagree with him fundamentally. We have a close trading relationship with India, and we are working extremely hard to grow trade there. The figures I have already given him this morning demonstrate that there is potential in India, which we are exploiting and will continue to exploit if and when we leave the EU.
India of course is in the EU’s generalised scheme of preferences, whereas nearby countries such as Pakistan and Sri Lanka are in GSP+, with Bangladesh probably soon to join them. Does my hon. Friend agree that, if we were to adopt Labour’s customs union policy, we would have to accept EU trade preference policy without any say in its formulation? Does he also agree that that would lead to a big decline in UK foreign policy influence in south Asia and among diaspora communities in the UK?
One reason why the Prime Minister has put forward the deal that she has to the House is that it allows the flexibility for us to engage in the ways in which my right hon. Friend expects us to be able to —actively with the south Asia region, and India in particular—and to prescribe our own preference schemes such that we can control our own rules.
Is it not the case that the priority for the Indian Government is a trade deal with the EU and that the best way for the British state to have a trade deal with the EU is to stay in the EU customs union?
The Indian Government’s priority is likely to be trade with anybody with whom it suits. The hon. Gentleman simply needed to listen to the answer I gave a little earlier: there has been a 28% increase in UK exports to India, to £7.9 billion, in the year to quarter 2 2018, and a 38% increase in goods exports. We can conclude from that there is plenty of attention in India on UK trade.
Future Trade Agreements: Intellectual Property Rights
The UK’s intellectual property regime is consistently rated as one of the best in the world. The Government are reviewing their future trade policy as we leave the EU. We will continue to consult widely with stakeholders on intellectual property provisions in future trade agreements to support inventors, creators, consumers, and food and drink producers.
Scotland is one of the fastest growing regions in the UK’s creative industries, which are world leading and currently worth £91.8 billion to the UK economy. Can the Minister therefore reassure the creative industries in Scotland, and indeed across the UK, that professional equipment such as musical instruments will not be subject to the disruption of additional documentation requirements and tariffs at the border after Brexit?
Plainly, if the Prime Minister’s deal is accepted in the House of Commons, including by being supported by the Labour party, that will not be an issue. If we leave the EU without a deal, the regimes will be what they are. What I can say is that we are working incredibly hard on copyright, patents and enforcement to make sure that the creative industries, which are vital to the prosperity of this country, will be protected in the event of the UK leaving the EU.
UK Service Exports: European Single Market
In 2017, 46.8% of UK services exports went to the European single market—including the European economic area and Switzerland—worth around £130.5 billion. That represents around 21% of total UK exports. Leaving the EU gives us the freedom to pursue an independent trade policy with countries around the world that reflects our unique strengths in services.
I thank the Secretary of State for his response, but last week the Office for National Statistics published the international trade and services statistics for 2017, which showed that financial services proved to be the largest service product exported globally by UK businesses and that the EU made up nearly half the UK’s service exports. A key part of business relationships with clients in the EU is the ability to travel freely, known as passporting rights. Has the Secretary of State made an assessment of what the end of freedom of movement, including for labour, will mean for services under the Prime Minister’s deal?
Actually, the share of our exports to the European Union accounted for by services is less than our average exported to the rest of the world. In fact, the future of our services will be dependent on global services arrangements, and outside the EU we will have a golden opportunity to shape the global services agenda in a way that suits the United Kingdom’s best interests. It is time that we in this House started to reflect the optimism and confidence of the British public who voted to leave the EU.
Leaving the EU: UK Steel Sector
We are working closely with the UK steel sector to provide as much continuity as possible in trading arrangements after we leave the EU. This includes establishing the Trade Remedies Authority to help to prevent unfair trading practices and identifying more than half a billion pounds’-worth of opportunities for UK steel producers.
When the all-party group on steel met key voices in the industry this week, it was made clear that there is a real lack of engagement from the Government on steel safeguard measures for the UK market in a no-deal scenario. Will the Minister commit to meet UK Steel urgently to discuss this critical detail for an industry that contributes £1.6 billion to the economy?
I do not recognise that description; the Government are indeed involved in talks with the industry about safeguards. The hon. Lady will know that the best way to avoid the problems she identifies is to support the Prime Minister’s deal. Those who keep talking about the pitfalls of no deal but keep voting against a deal are making those pitfalls more likely.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that our future trade policies must protect UK businesses, including in the steel sector, against unfair competition from abroad? It cannot be right for Parliament to expect our businesses to respect high standards on the environment, workplace or welfare and then compete freely with businesses abroad that do not.
That is exactly why, in the Trade Bill, the Government introduced the Trade Remedies Authority to ensure that we have protections against unfair global competition in future. It seems absolutely inexplicable that the Labour party keeps talking about protections but voted against the Trade Bill and the establishment of the Trade Remedies Authority.
Currently, 15% of steel export consignments are subject to tariffs; in the event of no deal, 97% of export consignments would be subject to tariffs. If one considers non-tariff barriers and domestic concerns—the shortage of warehousing was reported yesterday—is this not the time to support an extension of article 50 and to reach out and get a real compromise and an acceptable deal? Otherwise, the Conservatives risk being seen as the party prepared to sacrifice the steel industry on the altar of right-wing ideology.
The very fact that the Secretary of State is even considering zero import tariffs threatens the survival of our steel, ceramics and tyre industries. There will be no incentive for our partners to negotiate new trade deals, or to renegotiate existing ones, as the Secretary of State will have given away the shop before negotiations start. Thousands of workers whose jobs will have gone will no longer be the consumers he says will take advantage of cheap imports. When is he going to admit he is wrong?
The Government have made no decision on this. When we do so, we will communicate it to stakeholders, the public and Parliament. Of course, the best way to avoid any of this scenario is for us to have a deal with the European Union. Whipping up fear over people’s jobs is simply the humbug that has become the hon. Gentleman’s hallmark.
My departmental responsibilities are to have foreign and inward direct investment, to establish an independent trade policy and to promote the United Kingdom’s exports. I am pleased to announce to the House this morning that UK Export Finance will provide £49 million of support for Darlington-based firm Cleveland Bridge to construct 250 bridges for rural Sri Lankan communities.
My hon. Friend is right that trade is a reserved power, but we work with parliamentarians across the House through our regular briefings with MPs, which MPs from all parties attend, our international events programme, online services and the Board of Trade, which I established, to ensure that the benefits of trade are equally felt across all the parts of the United Kingdom.
Many British companies are currently part of trade disputes put forward by the EU at the World Trade Organisation. After 29 March they will be able to continue those disputes, utilising the evidence already submitted, but only if the Government accept a regional approach of 27 plus one countries, which is specifically allowed for under WTO rules. That would avoid the time and cost for businesses and for the taxpayer of having to resubmit evidence in a separate case. Why have the Government refused to adopt that simple solution? Why will they not support British business and ensure that trade disputes do not drag on for longer and at far greater cost than absolutely necessary?
We will not want to see trade disputes drag on longer than necessary, and we will want to co-operate with our European partners in that regard. Of course, the best way to ensure that we have the highest level of co-operation on the disputes that are currently under way is to agree to the Prime Minister’s deal.
A number of issues were discussed with Trade Ministers in Davos, including those of continuity. They also included how complex global value chains will be dealt with in the future, because, as my right hon. Friend has said, when the WTO was created the global economy was not so dependent on them. We need to look at how we deal with the question of tariffs and multiple, repeated taxation in industries such as the car industry.
Thank you, Mr Speaker.
The steel industry is confronted with the possibility that the trade defence instruments currently in place at European level to prevent Chinese dumping will not come forward at UK level. We also face having to compete against quotas to sell steel into the EU when we are outside the EU. What is the Secretary of State doing to make sure that that does not happen?
I can say straightforwardly that the anti-subsidy and anti-dumping measures that are currently in place in the EU have been widely consulted on with British industry, and particularly with the steel sector, as the hon. Gentleman will appreciate. We will be transitioning the measures that are important to those industries. The same process has been gone through for safeguarding, and the same result will occur.
I simply say what I have said to the House on a number of occasions: we are making good progress on many of those agreements. I have already signed three of them very recently and deposited them with the House. We will continue to update the House as progress is made, and we will bring forward a report in the next week or two, which will help elucidate the matter further.
We set out in the trade agreement that this House supported on Canada the non-regression clauses that said we would not water down labour rights or environmental standards, or give away Government control on public service regulation, in order to reach agreement. I supported that and my colleagues supported that in the House, but the Labour party voted against it; I do not understand why.
Food and drink is one of this country’s most successful export sectors, but a lot of areas of it, particularly those such as spirits—I had discussions with the Scotch Whisky Association just a couple of nights ago—face very high tariffs in countries such as India and Brazil. They are enormous markets for us, but we face disproportionate tariffs, and that is one of the key areas where we seek unilateral reform in such countries so that they can show that they are genuinely committed to free trade.
The Secretary of State has shared with business a progress report on trade deals. I have been trying to obtain that information from him for months; is he willing to share that information with Members of the House as well as with business?
Our working group with the United States on future trade has met a number of times. There is broad agreement that we should have a free trade agreement with the United States. That would open up huge possibilities for the United Kingdom. There has been a lot of talk in the news this week about the ceramics industry; it would benefit from a free trade agreement with the United States, not least by the removal of the 27% tariffs that it currently faces for UK exports.
May I congratulate the Secretary of State on signing a trade agreement with the Faroe Islands? Those must have been tough negotiations. Is he seeking an extension to article 50 to complete the negotiations on the 40 trade deals he promised us he would sign?
The hon. Gentleman mocks the agreement with the Faroe Islands; how typical that is of the Labour party when so many jobs in the fishing and fish processing industry are dependent upon it. He may want to know that when I go to Switzerland on Monday I will be signing the largest of the EU agreements of all. [Interruption.]
Order. Before we move on, as Humphrey Bogart said,
“I don’t mind if you don’t like my manners, I don’t like them myself”,
but just because the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman) is sporting a rather splendid and garish Bogart tie, that does not mean that he should descend to that level himself. [Interruption.] He is chuntering from a sedentary position with predictable regularity—
Women and Equalities
The Minister for Women and Equalities was asked—
HPV Vaccination for Boys: Catch-up Programme
It is the view of Public Health England that a catch-up vaccination programme for boys is not necessary, as evidence suggests that they are already benefiting from the indirect protection known as herd protection, which has been built up from the 10 years of the girls’ programme.
I thank the Minister for her answer, but the boys who will be vaccinated in the first cohort are at the same risk of HPV infection and related diseases as older boys who will not be eligible for the vaccination, and the Government are therefore missing an opportunity to protect more boys. The herd immunity the Minister spoke of does not apply to boys who may go on to have sex with men or with women who have not been vaccinated. Will the Minister therefore urge her colleagues in the Department of Health and Social Care to reconsider this policy on equality grounds?
I thank the hon. Lady for raising this important question. There are additional programmes specifically for the groups that she mentioned. For example, a vaccination programme is being rolled out for men who have sex with men. Obviously the broad principle of the wider screening programme is to do the most good, and not to do any harm. That is the basis on which decisions are being made.
Will my right hon. Friend join me in welcoming the roll-out of the HPV screening test for women? Does she agree that it will increase the number of people who are detected early and reduce the risk of women having cervical cancer?
Further to the 2018 Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation recommendation for boys to be offered the vaccine, I have been in contact with the permanent secretary of the Department of Health in Northern Ireland. Has the Minister had any opportunity to discuss with him the push for the vaccine to be given throughout all of the United Kingdom, including Northern Ireland?
As the hon. Gentleman will know, the healthcare systems in all four nations are in close discussion about all these things. They are driven by evidence and want to see evidence of what is going on in other nations. So yes, those conversations do take place. I will ask the relevant Minister to write to him on the specific point he raised.
Non-disclosure Agreements: Regulation
The Government share the concern that non-disclosure agreements have been used to hide workplace harassment and discrimination, or to intimidate victims into silence. That is clearly unacceptable. We will be consulting on measures to improve the regulation of non-disclosure agreements, including how best to ensure that workers understand their rights when they have signed a non-disclosure agreement.
Thanks to changes brought in by this Government, local authorities are subject to very limited scrutiny. A scan of responses to freedom of information requests shows that the use of NDAs in local authorities is prolific and out of control. Given that the Prime Minister’s planned consultation has yet to materialise, will the Minister confirm that the Government have no idea at all how widespread the use of NDAs is anywhere?
Non-disclosure agreements have a legitimate place in the workplace and can cover matters other than harassment or discrimination. For example, they have a legitimate use in the protection of trade secrets and when a settlement has been reached. As I have outlined, we will be consulting on the issue, and we are determined to make matters easier for workers.
We should be very clear that employment NDAs are being used to cover up lawbreaking. Maternity discrimination and sexual harassment are against the laws that this place has put on our statute books. Therefore, as well as considering the future of NDAs, will my hon. Friend consider the future of the Equality and Human Rights Commission? It should be enforcing our laws, but it has failed to use its extensive enforcement powers.
I thank my right hon. Friend, the Chair of the Women and Equalities Committee, for highlighting the issue; she is quite right. It is true that there has been a tailored review of the effectiveness and work of the EHRC, and the Secretary of State has met the commission. We are looking at its delivery and effectiveness, but we will welcome any suggestions from my right hon. Friend and her Committee.
Domestic Abuse Legislation and Immigration Status
The Home Office operates an immigration policy that supports women and children with insecure immigration status. Victims of domestic abuse who entered the UK as the partner of a British citizen, settled person or person with refugee status are eligible to apply for settlement in their own right. Those who are destitute can also apply for crisis support under the destitute domestic violence concession. We are funding a project conducted by Southall Black Sisters to pilot support for women and children who are victims in these circumstances.
If the system is so effective, why does the Ubuntu women’s shelter in my constituency have to be the first charity in the UK to provide short-term accommodation for women with no recourse to public funds? Fleeing gender-based and domestic violence, they are denied access to homelessness, social security and housing support. These are non-EEA women with limited leave to remain. Women who have settled status or leave to remain face delays in processing their status. Any situation where women fleeing domestic violence, torture or persecution have no recourse to public funds is unacceptable. Does the Minister agree, and what is she going to do about it?
I would ask the hon. Gentleman to advise those working in the refuge to help the women he describes in seeking the destitute domestic violence concession. The point of that concession is to provide immediate crisis support to women and children who are victims of domestic abuse, giving them three months’ leave to remain so that they can find new homes and reflect on their situation, and also have access to public funds.
As the Home Affairs Committee, we have expressed concern that the police, having helped an individual who is a survivor of domestic abuse, are then sharing their details with the Home Office for the purposes of immigration control. This has a chilling effect on the likelihood of reporting abuse. Will the Minister give an assurance that when the domestic abuse Bill has made its way through this place, the only thing that will matter is a woman’s welfare, not their immigration status?
In those circumstances, the response of the state is always led by the needs of the victim. We must be careful to recognise that the immigration system operates in and of its own right. That is precisely why we have the destitute domestic violence concession to help women in these desperate circumstances by giving them a three-month break period to seek help and build a future for themselves and for their children, if appropriate.
This is where there is a tension between the immigration system and the needs of victims of domestic abuse. That is precisely why we have the destitute domestic violence concession to give those women three months’ leave to remain and recourse to public funds. But we must be clear that people who do not enjoy settled status in the UK must not have recourse to public funds in the same way that a British citizen would expect.
Support for domestic violence victims is devolved to different tiers of government right across the United Kingdom. What is my hon. Friend doing to support different levels of government to make sure that victims get consistent support across our United Kingdom?
My hon. Friend raises an important point that we are seeking to address through the domestic abuse Bill with the appointment of a domestic abuse commissioner. I am very grateful to my colleagues in the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government who are in the process of conducting a review of services nationally. The role of the commissioner will be to hold local and national Government, and stakeholders, to account as to the provision of services in areas across the country so that there is no possibility of a postcode lottery.
A constituent from Larkhall suffers psychological, emotional and financial abuse from her husband, with whom she ran a business for seven years in the UK. She held a spousal visa. Due to the length of time it took to be approved for indefinite leave to remain, she had a choice to remain in that marriage or to leave the UK. This was due to Home Office bureaucracy. Does the Minister accept that the Home Office needs to be sensitive to cases such as that?
I do; I hope the hon. Lady understands that I cannot comment on a particular case at the Dispatch Box, but that is why we have the destitute domestic violence concession—to give immediate crisis support to victims of domestic abuse whose residency status depends on the partner who may well be abusing them.
The Women’s Aid “No Woman Turned Away” project can only find refuge accommodation for fewer than one in 10 women who have no recourse to public funds. The Government’s proposed measures in the draft domestic abuse Bill are not good enough for migrant women. Can the Minister offer assurances that more will be done to ensure that migrant women can have full and equal access to specialist services?
I thank the hon. Lady for her question. Only last week, when I visited a domestic abuse refuge in the area around Preston in Lancashire, I heard for myself the particular needs of women in the area who have no recourse to public funds. The Bill’s purpose is to provide a statutory definition and so on, to help all victims of abuse, regardless of their immigration status, but of course this matter may well be scrutinised by the pre-legislative Joint Committee of both Houses. We very much welcome that.
Female Firefighters: Fire Station Facilities
We all enormously value the work of women and men employed by fire and rescue authorities who work to protect their communities. It is unacceptable that outdated practices exist such as shower facilities being unavailable to female firefighters. My hon. Friend the Minister for Policing and the Fire Service has been clear that we look to the National Fire Chiefs Council and local fire and rescue service leaders to address those concerns.
To quote former firefighter Lucy Masoud:
“I remember my first fire station. There was a tiny cramped dorm with three beds though it was meant for one. There was a massive dorm for the guys, yet we were stuffed in like sardines.”
At other stations, female firefighters had to sleep on the floor. A “solution” is proposed of having gender-neutral dorms, toilets and washing facilities, which is overwhelmingly opposed and could cause women to leave the service. Will the Minister agree to demand audits at fire stations across the country related to facilities for female firefighters?
The hon. Lady knows that 14 fire services were recently inspected by Her Majesty’s inspectorate, and that of the 14, two were found not to have adequate shower facilities for female firefighters—Hampshire and the Isle of Wight. I name them, and I very much expect that they will improve their services. We know that there are issues with sleeping accommodation, too.
I would, however, note that although the Fire Brigades Union does sterling work for its members, it is a very great shame that its executive council has not yet managed to appoint a woman to put forward the views of female firefighters in a national and consistent way. I hope that it will put pressure on fire chiefs and others to ensure that they do better by their female firefighters.
I am so grateful to the hon. Lady for raising this subject, because women are just as capable as men at firefighting. I hope that we at some point see a revised version of Fireman Sam, because we know from social media campaigns that children grow up expecting firefighters to be male, which limits their expectations and perhaps cuts their career opportunities as they go through school and into training. The message from this Government is very clear: we absolutely welcome female firefighters, and we will work with Women in the Fire Service to ensure that we get more women helping to protect our communities.
As a former member of the national fire service management committee of the Local Government Association, it has been a pleasure for me to see how the culture in the fire service has changed over recent years, but there is still a need to tackle the perception that being a firefighter is a job for a man. Will the Minister therefore welcome the efforts being made by fire authorities such as Devon and Somerset and the West Midlands to promote the message strongly that it is a job that anyone can do?
Very much so—I welcome the work of the fire authorities that my hon. Friend mentioned. I note that we have five fire and rescue services headed by women, including, of course, here in London, where Dany Cotton has had to deal with extraordinary events in her tenure as chief. That, I hope, is another piece in the jigsaw of evidence that proves that women can be just as good at fighting fires as men.
I thank my hon. Friend for the answers she has given thus far. Clearly, in order to encourage young women to take up the opportunities of firefighting, there need to be role models. What action is she taking to encourage female firefighters employed right now to act as role models to encourage others to follow?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. As I say, the organisation Women in the Fire Service does great work at local level in encouraging women to join the fire service. Again, as role models, we have the five women we know are heading fire and rescue services currently—of course, of the 45 fire and rescue services in England and the three fire and rescue services in Wales, that is a tiny fraction, but they are very positive role models. I also hope that the Fire Brigades Union will manage to bring a woman on to its executive council in the future. It is through that sort of positive work that we will get women into these services.
Workplace Equality: Flexible Working
Flexible working is crucial to support women and men in balancing work and caring responsibilities. That is why the Government Equalities Office is working with the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and the flexible working taskforce in using our research programmes to develop evidence-based guidance for employers.
I thank the Minister for that answer, but the right to request flexible working is not the same as an entitlement to work flexibly. Given that so many of these requests are refused and that the Government have said that they want to encourage flexible working, will they consider placing a duty on employers to advertise jobs as flexible?
We have announced our intention to consult on these very matters, but I would also say that, as that will take a little while, employers should not wait for it. We know that by offering flexible working they are going to have a bigger pool of talent from which to pick their employees.
We are doing a huge amount of work to look at what additional obstacles there might be, such as the bureaucracy in accessing provision, and we are also looking at the experience of those who have taken up and made use of shared parental leave. It is incredibly important that we change the culture and it will take time, but there are still some further things we can do to encourage that, and we are looking at them.
The hon. Lady is absolutely right that there is some great work out there: 97% of businesses offer some form of flexible working—to tie this back to the original question—but only 68% of employees for whom that situation is available are taking up this option. I think this is changing, but there are further things we can do to encourage it. Sharing good practice is one of those things, and I think the charters have played a good role in that.
Apprenticeships and Work: Fair Access
I agree with my right hon. Friend, and we are at one in thinking that apprenticeships can be a powerful force for social mobility. We want the advantages of apprenticeships to be available to all, and I am in regular contact with my ministerial colleagues. For the smallest employers we meet 100% of the costs of apprenticeship training for apprentices aged 16 to 18, 19 to 24-year-old care leavers, and 19 to 24-year-olds with an education, health and care plan. As my right hon. Friend knows, and indeed welcomed, last year we introduced a £1,000 bursary for care leavers who are starting an apprenticeship, to support them as they transition into training.
Mr Speaker, you did call me right honourable yesterday during questions to the Prime Minister.
May I thank my right hon. Friend the Minister for coming to Harlow this afternoon to see Harlow College, which is one of the finest colleges in England? Will she consider using the apprenticeship levy to provide an apprentice premium and transport costs for disadvantaged young people, so that they can climb up the apprentice ladder of opportunity?
My right hon. Friend is frequently right, and most definitely honourable. Targeted financial support is available for young apprentices and those from disadvantaged backgrounds, including the care leaver bursary. The Department for Transport is introducing a railcard for 16 and 17-year-olds this year, and we continue to work together on further options. I am very much looking forward to visiting Harlow College later today.
Can the Minister explain how a young person under the age of 19 from a low-income family, who works 35 hours a week on the minimum wage earning £3.50 an hour on an apprenticeship scheme—less than £122.50 a week—and who is barely able to pay for their own meals, travel, and basic work garments, can be classed as being “employed” by this Government?
I point out to the hon. Lady that we take the advice of the Low Pay Commission on wages for apprentices, and that rate will be going up. I have spoken about the targeted support available, and whenever I meet apprentices I ask them about their wages and how they travel to work. We are very aware of some of the problems faced by those young people, and as I have said, the railcard for 16 and 17-year-olds is available, and colleges have discretionary bursaries to support them.[Official Report, 14 February 2019, Vol. 654, c. 9MC.]
I am pleased to announce that organisations supporting people who have been out of work due to caring responsibilities and have additional barriers to returning to work can apply for a new £500,000 fund from the Government Equalities Office. More widely, the GEO is liaising with the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government to support people with little or no work history in the five integration areas. That funding is in addition to the £1.5 million fund launched last year, which will help us to gather evidence of good practice, and reflects the GEO’s absolute commitment to ensuring that all women realise their full potential.
Under the auspices of the Office for Disability Issues, and subsequently the assistance dog sector, all those fantastic organisations and charities have come together to harmonise their standards, so that the owner of a café or pub, or a taxi driver, can identify legitimate assistance dogs more easily. There is absolutely no excuse for excluding people who have assistance dogs. We are considering what further measures we can introduce to ensure that that can be enforced, and in particular whether the rules on licensing of venues and premises can help with that issue. The Home Office is setting out its plans for a formal consultation with disabled people’s organisations and other representative groups in due course.
This week I had a phone call with regard to a young man who tried to commit suicide and a mother who felt that she did not want to burden her children any more, all because of the Windrush scandal. They say that to educate a woman is to educate a nation; therefore, to humiliate a woman is to humiliate a nation. Will the Minister assure the House that the Government will provide urgent and necessary help, support and assistance to women and vulnerable people affected by the Windrush scandal?
May I again set out the Government’s apology to those who have suffered through this terrible incident and reflect on the fact that this was not just one Government who got it wrong, but many Governments of all political colours? I welcome the fact that colleagues across the House are bringing individual constituency cases to our attention. We can then feed them into the system that has been set up so that we can provide help and support. The hon. Lady must, of course, let us know of any cases she wishes to raise, but the Government must learn from mistakes, which was why we set up the review. We are pleased that more than 4,000 people have been helped through the scheme—not just Windrush victims, but people from other countries. It is very much a work in progress, but we welcome Members across the House continuing to raise these issues in the Chamber.
My answer will be similar to that which I gave to the hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson) on Question 1. Clinical decisions are taken with regard to age range, but whatever age is set, there will always be people who fall outside it—in this case those younger than 25. What is critical is that people know what is normal for them and what symptoms they should be worried about. The Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Jackie Doyle-Price), who has responsibility for women’s health issues and inequalities, is doing great work with her new taskforce on women’s health to identify what a safe period looks like and examine issues such as menopause so that women and girls everywhere really understand when they should be concerned about something and seek help.
I would first like to point out that our franchise programme with the Post Office is not a closure programme, but a sustainability programme. On the franchising with WHSmith for the 41 post offices that the hon. Gentleman refers to, accessibility is key to the delivery of our 11,500 network of post offices in the UK. I personally make sure that that is covered when any new post office branch is being worked on.
Local authorities have a statutory duty to provide a comprehensive and effective library service. Libraries are clearly more than a repository for books. They can be community hubs through which services can be provided. I encourage my right hon. Friend to respond to the county council’s ongoing library consultation so that we can connect organisations in his community that could be able to ensure that services are not just maintained, but made better.
The hon. Gentleman will know that we have consulted on this and are acting on the basis of our legal advice and the enormous number of responses to that consultation. We have confidence that those protections are there for individuals, but we also want to ensure that people understand those protections really well. We will therefore issue guidance and consult groups on its production.
I thank my hon. Friend, who has done so much work on this issue for his constituents. The Bill will introduce a domestic abuse commissioner, whose sole focus will be on tackling domestic abuse and holding local and national Government to account to ensure that services are provided well and consistently across the country, thereby helping all the 2 million people who we know are victims of these terrible crimes.
I thank the hon. Lady for her question and pay tribute to all the work that Sam has done. Many hon. Members will have met her; she has been to Parliament to raise the profile of this issue. The hub—based on the Olympic park—is looking at good design. It has set a challenge to demonstrate that we can build accessible homes for no more cost and with no greater footprint than other homes that are being built. We know that this is possible and we need to do much more to ensure that developers are following the good design guidelines and that we are making housing stock across the country more flexible.
Last week, we saw the first conviction in UK courts for female genital mutilation—a landmark, albeit an awful one, in the campaign to end this abhorrent practice. What steps is my right hon. Friend taking to end FGM in this country and around the world?
I thank my hon. Friend for her question. Indeed, yesterday, I was with the Vavengers, a community group that is doing a tremendous amount in the UK to raise awareness of this issue and tackle it. We are absolutely committed to ending this practice globally by 2030. Both my Departments—the Government Equalities Office and the Department for International Development—are doing a tremendous amount. The advice that our team in Ghana gave was critical to the conviction to which my hon. Friend refers. This is a cross-Government effort and our ability not just to assist the many thousands of girls who are at risk in the UK, but to support the Africa-led movement to end the practice, is a good thing.
I have frequent discussions with the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. We are doing further consultative work, but my message to business is, “Don’t wait for that.” An exemplar of flexible working is our civil service, which offers flexible working from day one. As a consequence, it has a wider pool of people to pick from. So do not wait for us, but we are going to do some further things.
On the gender pay gap, I have had discussions with the Equality and Human Rights Commission about how we can ensure that the requirement to report is enforced, but I hope the hon. Lady will welcome the shift we have seen in the GEO. As well as all the things we are known for—women on boards, looking at the FTSE 350—we need to look at women at the other end of the socioeconomic scale. In April, we will bring forward a new cross-Government economic empowerment strategy for women that will consider women who are trapped in low pay, often for decades, and what we can do together to raise their incomes.
One barrier to accessing skills, training and apprenticeships is sometimes just knowledge of them in the first place. What more does my right hon. Friend believe that we can do to help to spread the word so that more people across our country can access those opportunities?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. It is about understanding the possibilities. We are running two projects: the 5 Cities project is aimed at increasing the diversity of those seeking apprenticeships; and the other one works with young people in more disadvantaged areas to make sure that they have the opportunity to get into higher-paid professions that they would not normally consider. We therefore are doing more, and it must not be forgotten either that an apprenticeship is a paid job—it is a job primarily. We are encouraging employers to advertise vacancies and embedding apprenticeships in all the careers advice we give to young people.
Order. I apologise to disappointed remaining colleagues. This part of Question Time was scheduled to run for seven minutes, and I have run it for 15. I say as gently as possible to the Ministers that, although we appreciate their comprehensive replies, some of their answers were incredibly long, and as a result colleagues have lost out. I extend the envelope, but I cannot do so indefinitely, and we must now move on.
Leaving the EU: Mobile Roaming Charges
Delivering a negotiated deal with the EU remains the Government’s priority, and that has not changed, but I am sure the House will agree that we must prepare for every eventuality, including a no-deal scenario.
For that reason, we have taken a number of steps as a Government, working with businesses, consumers and devolved Administrations, to make sure that we deliver the best possible outcome in the event of no deal. The Government intend to legislate to make sure that the requirements on mobile operators to apply a financial limit on mobile data usage while abroad is retained in UK law. The limit would be set at £45 for each monthly billing period, which is the same limit that is currently in place. We would also legislate to ensure that customers receive alerts at 80% and 100% of their data usage so that all users can carefully manage that data usage. These would mean ongoing clarity and certainty for consumers.
I know that there is also a concern on the island of Ireland about the issue of inadvertent roaming. This is when a mobile signal in a border region is stronger from the country across the border. The Government intend to retain through UK law the EU roaming regulation provisions that set out how operators must make information available to their customers on how to avoid inadvertent roaming.
The Government are working hard to make sure that everyone is prepared and ready for all outcomes, and I encourage all businesses to read our technical notice, which we published last summer, on mobile roaming in the event of leaving without a deal. We should be clear, however, that surcharge-free roaming for UK customers may continue across the EU as it does now, based on operators’ commercial arrangements.
Leaving without a deal would not prevent UK mobile operators from making and honouring commercial arrangements with mobile operators in and beyond the EU to deliver the services that their customers expect, including roaming arrangements. The availability and pricing of mobile roaming in the EU would be a commercial question for the operators, and many of them, including those that cover more than 85% of mobile subscribers, have already said that they have no current plans to change their approach to mobile roaming after the UK has left the EU.
I hope the steps that I have set out today will reassure the House that the Government are committed to a smooth and orderly transition as we leave the EU. In our telecoms sector, as in all sectors, we are making plans for all outcomes as we leave the EU. That is the role of a responsible Government, and that is what we will continue to do.
Yesterday, while my team was mapping out a potential cross-party approach to tackling the online harms caused by surveillance capitalism, what was the Secretary of State doing? He was trying to slip out a policy change of national significance that clearly warranted an oral statement to the House. We must thank the HuffPost website that the Government did not manage to sneak it out without scrutiny at the Dispatch Box, and we must also thank you, Mr Speaker, for granting the urgent question.
When mobile roaming charges were scrapped in 2017, it was a great day for consumers. Tens of millions of British holidaymakers travelling to EU countries were told that they were able to “Roam Like Home”. Before then, many had been burnt by huge and unexpected bills for trying to access their emails or sending pictures to their families back at home. As a nation, we were spending a third of a billion pounds just to use our mobiles on holiday. It was so bad that in 2016, the then Minister for the Digital Economy, the right hon. Member for Wantage (Mr Vaizey), said that
“by realising these changes, we’re going to save British consumers millions of pounds a year.”
Today’s announcement shows once again that this particular Secretary of State and this particular Government will cave in to the lobbying might of telecoms companies rather than listening to the voice of consumers who are set to lose out. He said that mobile phone operators had said that they had “no plans” to raise roaming charges, but he and I know—and, more important, voters know—what that phrase really means.
The reason the EU introduced free roaming in the first place was the fact that the telecoms companies could not be trusted to give consumers a fair deal, so let me ask the Secretary of State some questions. Why has he decided that the price of no-deal Brexit is better paid by consumers than telecoms companies? What binding commitments has he asked companies to give to ensure that consumers are not hit by high roaming charges in the event of a no deal? Can he guarantee that if, by luck or by skill, the Prime Minister gets her deal through, consumers will not pay roaming charges in future? When has he summoned the telecoms chief executives to talks at the Department, and if he has not done so, will he do so this weekend to ensure that consumers can receive their guarantees?
This is how holidaymakers have been hit by Brexit chaos. First, the value of the pound has plummeted, thus increasing the cost of family holidays. Secondly, we will have to pay for visas to travel to the EU. Thirdly, we will be hit by a Brexit bill to use our mobiles abroad. If the Secretary of State does not want to go down in history as the Minister for the Tory triple whammy tourist tax, I suggest that he adopts a different course.
The hon. Gentleman expressed a commendable interest in my diary for yesterday. Let me remind him that I was having meetings on the subject of online harms, which he and I had discussed on what I thought was a cross-party basis some time before he made his speech yesterday. I was also spending some time discussing problem gambling with the banks and with the all-party parliamentary group on gambling related harm, which is led by his hon. Friend the Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris).
I know that the hon. Gentleman cares about both those subjects and would wish me to spend time on them, but he need not worry, because I have also been spending some time on this subject. Having done so, I can tell him that it will be discussed by this House because this is an affirmative statutory instrument. The Government have set out their view that it should be an affirmative statutory instrument, which will give the House an opportunity to debate this subject, so the hon. Gentleman or one of his colleagues will be able to discuss the matter in some detail when that debate is reached.
The hon. Gentleman says that we are caving in to the mobile phone operators, but the reality is that when we leave the European Union—that is what is going to happen, because the Government and the Opposition, if I understand their current position correctly, intend to respect the outcome of the 2016 referendum—it will not be possible for the UK Government to force our rules and expectations upon EU mobile phone operating companies. So if those companies choose to charge British mobile network operating companies at a wholesale level, one of two things will happen: either that cost will be passed on to those who are using their mobile phone abroad, or it will be spread across all mobile phone users on that network. That is the choice.
The decision we have made is to ensure that consumers are given the best possible protection in the event of leaving the EU with no deal. I have made it quite clear that that is not the Government’s intention, however. We worked very hard to get a deal, and we would be grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s help on that, but it is important to recognise what we can do and what we are doing. We are making sure that those elements of the current EU regime that can be transferred into domestic law are transferred into domestic law. Making sure that consumers cannot spend more than the amount that is currently provided for in EU law without understanding that they are doing so is an important consumer protection, as is letting people know how much of their data they have already used. That is what we can do, and that is what we should do in the event of no deal.
If the hon. Gentleman is concerned, as I am sure that we all are, to avoid some of the unpleasant consequences of no deal, the good news is that he can help. He and his colleagues can vote for a deal. We are still waiting for the Opposition to take a responsible position on avoiding the no-deal consequences that they come to the House to complain about.
Of course, we have a competitive market, but that is perfectly compatible with providing consumer protections. Where there are sensible consumer protections in place under EU law and we can transfer them into domestic law, that is what we should do. In this case, that is what we are doing.
The other thing we could do to avoid these charges is not to have Brexit at all. What the Government’s 85% statistic tells us is that 15% of customers will definitely be charged extra while roaming in the EU. Last week, Money Saving Expert said that just two out of 12 major mobile firms have committed to keeping roaming free and that two thirds of people think it important to have no roaming charges when they go abroad. The Government’s impact assessment focuses on the cost for mobile operators rather than the cost for consumers. What assessment has the Secretary of State made of the additional cost to consumers as a result of this change?
The Government have not been upfront about this. They have not made a statement on the Floor of the House without being dragged here to answer the urgent question tabled by the hon. Member for West Bromwich East (Tom Watson). I am glad that he has asked this question, but the Government could have been more proactive in explaining to consumers what they expect to happen. The Secretary of State has said that this will be done by an affirmative statutory instrument that will require debate, so will he ask the Leader of the House to make time for such a debate on the Floor of the House, rather than it being debated in Committee? If this is such an important issue and if the Government are not trying to duck and dive, he should agree to it being debated on the Floor of the House.
Lastly, what is the Secretary of State’s understanding of the position of people who live in Northern Ireland and work in Ireland, or vice versa, in relation to roaming charges? It seems to me that there is almost no way for them to avoid roaming charges unless they choose to have two mobile phones. Have the Government considered those people when making this decision?
The hon. Lady accuses us of attempting to hide the matter, but, as I said, the Government intend to conduct a debate on the statutory instrument using the affirmative procedure. That does not represent hiding. The provision will appear in all the normal processes of the House, and the House will have the chance to discuss what should be done through that Delegated Legislation Committee.
As for whether 15% of mobile phone customers will inevitably pay roaming charges, that is not quite what I said. I said that mobile network operators that cover 85% of consumers have said that they have no plans to introduce roaming charges. It does not follow that the operators covering the other 15% have specifically said that they do. They may have said nothing at all.
Turning to Northern Ireland, I said that there is a legitimate concern about inadvertent roaming, and there are measures that can be taken. Those measures are already reflected in the EU regulation, the key parts of which that we can replicate we seek to replicate. We will ask operators to do all that they can to prevent inadvertent roaming, and there are several ways in which they might do so. Exactly how they do so will of course be a matter for them.
Finally, I suppose that I should give SNP Members some credit. At least they are clear about what they think of Brexit. They do not want it, and I understand that. Unfortunately for them, however, the people of the United Kingdom, voting as the United Kingdom, decided in the majority that they wanted to leave the European Union. This Government intend to honour their decision, as Parliament said that it would, but there are consequences to a no-deal exit from the European Union that the Government seek to mitigate, and this is one of the instruments by which we seek to do so.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who is right. The Government have a responsibility, where we can, to continue consumer protection measures that currently reside in European law but that we think are sensible and desirable and that we will transfer into our own law in the event of our departure. Of course, as he will know, if there is a deal that includes an implementation period, the position will continue exactly as it is now during that period, which is one reason why such an implementation period and such a deal are desirable and one reason why it would be good for the Opposition to take their responsibilities seriously in this regard.
The Secretary of State says that the Government intend to lay the provision as a statutory instrument and that it will therefore be debated in the normal way. However, he will surely know that an enormous backlog of statutory instruments must be passed by 29 March and that appropriate levels of scrutiny will be challenged. Knowing that we lack the time to scrutinise every single statutory instrument in time for Brexit, what words of comfort can he possibly have for consumers in my constituency?
I am unsure what the hon. Lady is suggesting. Is she suggesting that the Government should operate by fiat and pass the measure without consulting Parliament at all? I do not think that that would be the right way forward, even if it were feasible. This matter can be addressed by statutory instrument, and the Government intend to do so. We chose to use the affirmative procedure so that the House will have the opportunity to discuss the matter. It would seem that I am being criticised by the SNP for not allowing enough debate and by Labour for allowing too much.
There is a sense of groundhog day when Members on the Treasury Bench who voted for the deal face complaints from those who voted against it about the prospect of no deal. Will the Secretary of State update the House on what discussions the Government have actually had with mobile network operators about getting a resolution to this issue, rather than just playing politics?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend, because I forgot to say in response to the hon. Member for West Bromwich East, who was concerned that the Department had not had such conversations, that we have had discussions with network operators to ensure that we understand their intentions and to talk about what they will do next. Of course, what they decide to do will in the end be a matter for them because, as I have explained, it is not possible for the UK Government to restrict the activities of European mobile network operators. However, they have made their views clear, and the Government are doing what we can to smooth the path of a no-deal exit, but we would all agree that it is better to avoid one. The best way to do that is to vote for a deal, and that is what my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster) is doing. Let us have a bit of company from Opposition Members.
If there is no deal, it will be because the Government have made a conscious choice to go down that route.
Has the Secretary of State attempted to assess the cost implications if some of those companies that say they have no plans at present to introduce roaming charges do, indeed, do so? Has he assessed the associated costs of losing the European health insurance card, of difficulties in securing travel insurance and of the visa charges that have been mentioned? How much will that cost British consumers going on holiday?
The costs of health and travel insurance are a little beyond the ambit of this urgent question, but I repeat the point that what the Government can do is to ensure that any additional costs to consumers that occur as a result of a no-deal Brexit—we fervently hope to avoid that eventuality—are limited in any way that the Government can properly limit them. The best way we can do that is to make sure that consumers know when they have reached a certain point of spending so that they can make their own judgment on whether they wish to go beyond that point. The real concern that consumers generally express is that they do not know when they are running up these very large bills while using their data abroad, which is precisely what we seek to avoid. We have chosen exactly the same point at which to make that notification as already exists in the EU regulation.
My right hon. and learned Friend will be aware that, across the world, many comms companies are monopolies. Despite that, roaming charges have been abolished across the world—it is not limited to the European Union. Does he agree that, actually, this is an opportunity for consumers in the UK to get an even better deal as we leave the European Union?
My hon. Friend makes the fair point that by the operation of the market that exists in this country, even if it may not exist everywhere else, consumers will be able to make a choice. It may be that some mobile network operators will choose not to impose mobile roaming charges and others choose to do so, in which case the consumer can make a judgment about the importance of this matter.
Have the Government not already had an opportunity to put their deal to the Commons and failed dismally to get the support of even their own Back Benchers? Why do not the Government look seriously at the Leader of the Opposition’s proposal today to seek consensus and avoid no deal?
As the hon. Gentleman knows, the invitation to the Leader of the Opposition to engage in constructive discussions was offered some considerable time ago. Of course the Government will consider what the Leader of the Opposition says, but if we are to avoid no deal, the way to do it is to get a deal. We will continue to discuss how we might do that with the Leader of the Opposition, but in the end, every single Member on both sides of the House, if they dislike the consequences of no deal, has a responsibility to decide that they will personally take responsibility for doing what they can to prevent it.
I know my right hon. and learned Friend will not be tempted into offering legal advice on the Floor of the House, but what protection might be available to consumers and businesses who entered a contract on the basis of free calls, texts and data while roaming if operators are tempted to change the terms of those contracts mid-term?
My hon. Friend is right that I have a natural reluctance to offer legal advice not only on the hoof but for nothing. My understanding, and I will write to him after making sure my understanding is correct, is that changes in contractual terms during the term of a contract give the consumer the right to exit that contract.
The Secretary of State needs to remember that the Government’s deal was voted down across this House, by two thirds, so it is no good coming here to lecture the Opposition alone. He also needs to understand that the best way to protect consumers who use mobile phones abroad is to look at what is in the letter from the Leader of the Opposition today, because it offers the best way forward to come to a deal and protect consumers in the future.
I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman that we should all do what we can to avoid no deal, but I hope that he also accepts that it would not be responsible for the Government to make no preparations whatsoever for a no-deal eventuality. What we are discussing here, at the request of the hon. Member for West Bromwich East, is a proposal the Government are making, through a statutory instrument, to make provision to ensure ongoing consumer protections in a no-deal scenario. It does not in any way suggest that that is the Government’s preferred option, but it does suggest that responsible Governments prepare for possible outcomes.
I commend the Secretary of State for his calm and rational approach to this issue. When I renew my mobile phone contract, I am bombarded with various offers about how cheaply I can use my mobile phone abroad, both in and outside the EU. When I arrive in a foreign country, I am bombarded with text messages from my provider about various packages to make things cheaper. Why would they possibly want to price their customers out of a lucrative market by not continuing these customer-friendly arrangements?