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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 656: debated on Thursday 14 March 2019

International Trade

The Secretary of State was asked—

Trade and Investment: Switzerland

How are you, Mr Speaker? It has been so long.

I met with Federal Councillor Guy Parmelin during my visit to Switzerland in February. Together we signed the UK-Switzerland trade agreement. This was an important moment, ensuring continuity of a trading relationship worth over £32 billion in 2017.

I thank the Secretary of State for that answer. Recently we had the brilliant ambassador for Switzerland, Ambassador Fasel, visit my constituency looking at the potential for greater trade opportunities between our great countries. Can the Secretary of State clarify this point? He talks about continuity and I welcome the agreement he has signed but, on post-Brexit trading opportunities, the United Kingdom has identified the United States, Australia, New Zealand and trans-Pacific as key priorities. Can he confirm that Switzerland—our bilateral trade totals over £34 billion—will always be a key priority, certainly in looking forward to enhancing sectors such as finance and IT?

The countries my hon. Friend mentions are for new free trade agreements, whereas of course the agreement with Switzerland was a continuity agreement. In fact, it was an unusual agreement because, rather than being a single agreement to roll over, there were some 58 different ones. It was to the tremendous credit of the Swiss Government that they were able to carry out that work as expeditiously as they did and we owe them a great deal of gratitude.

Does not the Secretary of State realise that the Swiss deal is a tiny deal—nothing wrong with it, but it is tiny? Could we have a list of all the trade deals he has secured across the piece because, as I have been tracking them, they are very small indeed? May I also tell the Secretary of State that it was not his finest hour last night when he did not have the courage to take an intervention from the Father of the House?

Sometimes one wonders how small people can actually become in this House of Commons. The Swiss deal is not small, it is not insignificant; it is worth over £32 billion a year. Switzerland is Britain’s seventh biggest trading partner globally. The hon. Gentleman should know that.

I do not want to invest levity into these important proceedings, but equally one must not lose one’s sense of humour. That £32 billion volume of trade with Switzerland is very important, but I always say the best thing about Switzerland is not its watches, its financial services or its chocolate; the best thing about Switzerland is Roger Federer.

I must say that I am tempted to answer questions this morning due to the constitutional innovation of Ministers no longer having to resign when they disagree with Government policy, but I will ask this one. Trade with Switzerland represents about 21% of all the trade of all the countries that have the continuity agreement. Does my right hon. Friend agree that it shows the growing success of this programme and the importance of ensuring that we have those trade agreements in place in the event of a Brexit without a deal later this month?

I half-expected to see my right hon. Friend on the Front Bench with us this morning given the turn of events, but he is absolutely right that this is an important agreement. Over 20% of all the trade done under EU trade agreements is represented by Switzerland.

Mr Speaker, it is unlike me to disagree with you, but I do wonder whether on the morning after Roger Federer has defeated Kyle Edmund it is not a touch unpatriotic to be quite so pro-Swiss.

The Secretary of State may have heard an exchange a couple of days ago in which my right hon. Friend the leader of the Liberal Democrats highlighted the fact that, in the existing EU-Swiss trade deal, 19 technical standards have been brought in in common, whereas under the current UK-Swiss trade deal, only five technical standards have been brought in in common. What assessment has the Secretary of State made of the impact of that on UK business?

There are a number of technical interactions and some small technical issues that we shall continue to talk to the Swiss Government about. Of course the trade agreement itself is, we hope, a precursor to a further bespoke agreement as we leave the EU.

My understanding is that, of the 40 potential continuity agreements, five represent 76% of the total trade, of which Switzerland is one. Is not that a good omen for the remaining big four?

Of course a number of those who are engaged in trade continuity discussions with the UK are waiting to see what we will do in terms of Britain’s approach to the EU. They will be much more likely to sign up to those agreements when this House of Commons is clear about what it is going to do.

Leaving the EU: Agricultural Sector and Overseas Goods

2. What assurances the Government have provided to the agricultural sector that UK markets will not be opened to goods produced overseas to lower environmental, sanitary and phytosanitary or animal welfare standards after the UK leaves the EU. (909799)

I am grateful for the whip on Ministers having been imposed for as long as it was, otherwise I should not be standing here, but credit of course goes to my right hon. Friend the Member for Chelsea and Fulham (Greg Hands).

When we leave the EU, we will maintain our current domestic standards. We will keep our existing UK legislation, and the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018 will convert EU law into UK law as it applies at the moment of exit. This includes the regulatory regimes for environmental, food safety and animal welfare standards. Without exception, of course, imports must continue to meet all relevant UK product rules and regulations, as they do today.

What assessment has the Department made of the impact of the tariff barriers introduced yesterday on the farming sector?

The tariff package announced yesterday is a balanced package. It is a temporary package. It is a response to the potential effects of leaving the EU without a deal. There are sectors that are vulnerable to competition from imports, are not as nimble as others and cannot change as quickly—farming is one of those. We believe that the balanced package we have put together will sufficiently protect farming interests in the UK.

If regulatory alignment with the EU is maintained in these goods, to what extent will that constrain our ambitions for wider trade deals?

I thank my right hon. Friend for his question. Of course, if the Prime Minister’s deal is passed through this House in its third iteration, it will provide for regulatory alignment not to continue and therefore we would be able to pursue trade deals internationally. Of course we can do so in any event, as not all trade deals are to do with goods.

During the BSE crisis of the 1990s, the foot and mouth outbreak of 2001 and the scare of 2007, even some members of the European Union took advantage of these crises to ban British meat imports, even long after any risk had expired. If we leave with a bad deal, such as the one Parliament has now rejected twice, countries will not need an excuse to act with opportunistic protectionism in that way. So how will we make sure that our farmers are protected in the deals we strike in future?

Of course, the hon. Gentleman has a real constituency concern and interest in this. The simple fact is that the UK intends to operate within the World Trade Organisation and subscribe to the world’s rules-based order on trade, and that gives us a great deal of protection. We are always able to bring disputes if we feel that WTO rules are being flouted inappropriately.

In the United States, pork is produced using ractopamine, which causes heart disease, and it is not treated for trichinosis, which can lead to stomach upset. The US National Pork Producers Council wants its standards included in the US-UK trade deal, and it has the support of its Government in that demand. This threat to food safety is completely unacceptable, so will the Minister rule out any reduction in food standards in international trade agreements?

I repeat what we have said from this Dispatch Box and this Department many, many times: we absolutely agree with the hon. Gentleman that our food standards should be maintained. As for the requirements the US has laid out in its provisional negotiating strategy for its agreement with the UK, if he looks carefully at previous such agreements and previous such outline mandates from the US, he will find that they are almost exactly the same in every respect. That does not mean to say that they are delivered in that form.

Leaving the EU: Health Services and Legal Action

3. What steps the Government are taking to prevent potential legal action by companies overseas in relation to the provision of health services in any future trade deals after the UK leaves the EU. (909801)

The Government are considering their future approach to investor state dispute settlement. Where included in a trade agreement, ISDS will not oblige the Government to open the NHS to further competition, and overseas companies will not be able to take legal action to force us to do so.

The Secretary of State did not rule out the use of legal action against other companies in this country, so what message would he give to all those idealistic people who voted to leave the EU because they thought that the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership would open us up to hostile lawsuits from US companies? Does he think that now that the truth is out they ought to have a chance for another vote?

I am not sure what the connection was between some of those points. Let me be clear that, through ISDS, investment claims can be made only in respect of established investments; the mechanism cannot be used in relation to an alleged failure to open up public services to a potential investor. It could not be much clearer that what was being put about was a complete myth.

What guarantees can the Secretary of State give us that pharmaceutical companies will not relocate to the EU, meaning that in effect more and more of our drugs would be imported? Will he give a guarantee that that will not happen?

It would be absolutely ridiculous of any Minister to try to tell businesses what they can and cannot do. I can tell the hon. Gentleman, though, that last year foreign direct investment into the United Kingdom rose by 20%; in continental Europe, it fell by 73%. The hon. Gentleman should draw his own conclusions.

In the recent debate on international trade, I cited two examples of the Canadian Government’s having to withdraw public health measures after legal challenges by businesses under the terms of the North American free trade agreement. When the Secretary of State is considering health protections in future UK FTAs, will he ensure that they go wider than direct NHS provision and encompass wider public health policy?

We will look to replicate the success we have already had in bilateral investment treaties. UK investors have successfully brought around 70 cases against other Governments. No private company has ever brought a successful case against the United Kingdom in respect of our bilateral investment treaties.

The British public are clear that they do not want our national health service to be bargained away as part of trade negotiations, and they do not want foreign companies to have the right to sue our Government for decisions taken in the interests of public health, yet that is exactly what could happen if we accept ISDS and the negative-list approaches in the future agreements that the Government are proposing. Will the Secretary of State now rule out agreeing to a single clause of a single trade deal that could threaten our NHS?

There are days when I genuinely have to thank God that the Labour party is the Opposition and not the Government of this country. We have £1.3 trillion of outward stock invested, including things like pension funds that British people will depend on for their prosperity. Were we to abandon the concept of investor-state dispute resolutions, what would happen to the protections for our investment overseas? The Labour party needs to start to think about the wider interests of this country.

Future Trade Deals: NHS and Other Public Services

4. What steps his Department is taking to ensure that the delivery of (a) NHS and (b) other public services are excluded from future trade deals. (909802)

7. What steps the Government are taking to ensure that contracts for the delivery of (a) NHS and (b) other public services will be excluded from future trade deals. (909805)

9. What steps the Government are taking to ensure that contracts for the delivery of (a) NHS and (b) other public services will be excluded from future trade deals. (909810)

Existing EU trade agreements, such as the EU-Canada comprehensive economic and trade agreement and the EU-Japan economic partnership agreement, contain provisions that ensure that it remains for the United Kingdom to decide how our public services are run. As we leave the EU, the Government will ensure that all future trade agreements continue to protect the UK’s right to regulate public services.

Technically, there is little that MPs and the public can do to prevent the Government from signing trade deals that could negatively impact on the NHS. Will the Secretary of State assure the House that he will expand the transparency and scrutiny mechanisms that pertain to any future trade deals?

I recommend the Government’s Command Paper on this issue, which we published last week. It sets out the scrutiny plans that will provide greater scrutiny in this country than most of our fellow countries in the European Union have.

Conservative Ministers chose to include the NHS in their approach to the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, which could have made it impossible to bring privatised NHS services back in-house. The Secretary of State will know that privatisation is proceeding apace in the NHS—it certainly is in my constituency, in our cancer-scanning services—so will he give us a cast-iron legal guarantee? That is what we will need to show that his Government are committed to excluding the NHS from future trade deals.

Where do I start? First, this Government did not negotiate TTIP; the European Union negotiated it on behalf of this country, so it was not for the United Kingdom to determine the mandate. None the less, the hon. Lady should look at the agreements that are already out there. For example, article 9.2 of CETA talks about the exclusion of

“services supplied in the exercise of governmental authority”.

It is quite clear from what the Government included in the CETA ratification that we intend to make provision to ensure that Governments have the right to regulate public services. I think that is a good idea, so I cannot understand why the Labour party voted against it.

The Secretary of State has publicly stated that he supports CETA as a model for future trade agreements—an agreement that prevents future Governments from tackling the failed privatisation agenda in both our health and transport services. Does he agree that trade agreements cannot be allowed to constrain future policy decisions?

I do not know where that briefing came from, but the hon. Lady should ask for her money back. There is nothing in CETA that stops the Government regulating their own public services; that is specifically what the exclusion is for. It is in the interests of the country that we get Government regulation of our own public services so that we can have proper scrutiny, including through this House, and that is what is included in the agreement.

Last year I saw at first hand how the New Zealand Parliament handles the scrutiny of trade agreements to ensure that they deliver for the country’s economy and protect key public services. What learnings and reassurances is my right hon. Friend taking from the experience of the New Zealand Parliament in scrutinising trade deals and ensuring that they deliver their promised benefits?

We have looked widely at what other countries are doing, particularly when they have similar legislatures and legal systems, but what we have set out in the Command Paper is a bespoke arrangement for the United Kingdom. For example, our consultation period is longer than the European Union’s because we thought that it was right to have increased scrutiny in the UK. It is a UK policy, made for the UK.

Leaving the EU: Interim Trade Tariffs

The Government announced details of the temporary tariff yesterday in a written statement to the House. This is a balanced tariff policy that aims to minimise costs to businesses and mitigate price impacts on consumers, while also supporting UK producers as far as possible.

Now that the details have been published at last, I noticed that slippers are going to be charged at 17% less under these tariffs. Given the disorientation of some ministerial colleagues last night, perhaps a few might like to invest in a pair and retire early. On a more important point, can we get away from the obscene nonsense whereby, in the past, we have given international aid money to countries such as Ethiopia to encourage cocoa farmers to produce agricultural products—quite rightly—only for the EU obscenely to charge them tariffs of 30% when they try to sell the products of their hard labour back to us?

My hon. Friend is right. The temporary arrangements that we are putting in place recognise that there are developing countries that we have long supported and have agreements with, and which require tariff-free access to our markets to ensure that they can sustain themselves through trade. Sections within the proposal keep tariffs on certain lines to allow those countries preferential access to the UK market to their advantage.

The National Farmers Union is profoundly concerned that it has only two weeks to prepare for the new tariff regime, particularly in view of the fact that cereals and egg producers will have no protection whatever. What discussions has the Minister had with the appropriate Ministers in other Departments to ensure support and compensation for those farmers?

Of course, the farming community is protected by a commitment to the payments they were expecting through to 2020. As the hon. Gentleman will know and would expect, we consulted widely with colleagues across Government, so this is a collectively agreed decision. We have placed tariffs on quite a large number of vulnerable agricultural products, and we hope that the mix is the right decision not just for producers, but for consumers.

I remind the House that, for people in the bottom 10 percentage points of income in this country, food is a very real cost every single day; some 20% of their weekly income is spent on food. If we allowed inflation to roar away on products of this sort, people at that end of the income scale would find it very hard to feed themselves, and we believe that we have to mitigate that situation for them, as well as for farmers’ incomes.

Hundreds of my constituents work in the fish processing industry in the Grimsby-Cleethorpes area, and the supply of fish from Iceland is essential to them. Can the Minister give an assurance that no decisions on tariffs will be detrimental to those supplies?

There are two points on this. First, we have transitioned the free trade agreements the EU has with the Faroes—something that Opposition Members have derided us for as to the scale of the deal. To certain communities, particularly in my hon. Friend’s part of the world, these fish products are extremely important to keep people in work and keep people in the country. Secondly, we are having extensive discussions with the European Free Trade Association countries and European economic area countries about transitioning the free trade deal, and we would hope to be able to get some news on this to the House in due course.

Only yesterday, trade arrangements were announced between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, and they give us some concessions. However, the Ulster Farmers Union has indicated that it has some concerns over the arrangements that have been made. What discussions has the Minister had with the Ulster Farmers Union in Northern Ireland to discuss this?

The hon. Gentleman identifies an extremely important issue. I am not going to sidestep the question—I will give him an answer—but of course in the end this is a matter for the Department for Exiting the European Union and, indeed, for the Government more widely. There is no doubt that the choices that have been made for the position on the border in Northern Ireland were made against an extraordinarily difficult backdrop. There were no easy decisions. The decision we have made is temporary. We believe that it is World Trade Organisation-compliant. We recognise that there are real difficulties. I spoke to representatives of the agricultural community in Northern Ireland only yesterday and explained this. While very disturbed by what was going to happen, they understood why the decision had been taken.

Topical Questions

My Department is responsible for foreign and outward direct investment, establishing an independent trade policy, and export promotion. Following this session, I will be signing the trade continuity agreement between the UK and the Pacific Islands in the event of no deal. This is part of our commitment to reducing poverty through trade, and it will ensure continued supply of key consumer products.

There is a lot of scaremongering on this issue that is concerning a number of my constituents, so will the Secretary of State set out what steps the Government are taking to ensure that contracts for the delivery of NHS services will be excluded from future trade deals?

As I have already said, the Government will ensure that all future trade agreements continue to protect the United Kingdom’s right to regulate public services. It could not be simpler. Any attempts to distort that basic message are political propaganda and they are untrue.

One of our most distinguished former diplomats, the noble Lord Kerr, spoke last week, during the passage of the Trade Bill in another place, of the value of having a mandate as a negotiator. He said:

“Having negotiated against Americans, I know that it greatly strengthens their hand to be able to say, ‘Here is the proof that I cannot give you what you want, because Congress would turn it down’.—[Official Report, House of Lords, 6 March 2019; Vol. 796, c. 671.]

Recently the US trade representative published the negotiating mandate for a US-UK trade deal—no concern about commercial confidentiality here, just openly and transparently setting out all the objectives they have for penetrating UK markets, with American healthcare and agribusiness to the fore. In the same week, the Secretary of State published his Command Paper. It is against mandates. Indeed, the Government tried unsuccessfully to defeat Lord Kerr and others who supported Lord Balmacara’s amendment. What does the Secretary of State know about negotiations that Lord Kerr does not, and will the Government try to reverse their lordships’ decision when the Bill returns to the Commons?

The Trade Bill was and is about trade continuity, including trade agreements and including the Trade Remedies Authority. It has been used, I am afraid, in the other place to hold debates on future trade agreements that will come in due course here. There is of course a difference between setting out negotiating objectives, which the United States did, and a mandate, which is how the negotiators actually go about it. It seems that the hon. Gentleman has not grasped that point yet.

T2. Does my hon. Friend agree that the enormous investment in Britain by the Norwegian sovereign wealth fund shows that, with or without a deal, this country is one of the best places in the world to do business? If he does agree, will he draw this to the attention of some of his colleagues in the Cabinet? (909814)

I thank my hon. Friend for his question. He is right; the world’s largest sovereign wealth fund has said that it will continue its investment here. The latest figures from the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development show that the UK strengthened its position last year as the No. 1 foreign direct investment destination in Europe. The hundreds of thousands of jobs and higher wages that result would be threatened by the Labour party if it got the chance to jack up corporation tax rates and put in place other business-unfriendly policies. That would reverse the investment that has brought so much good to this country since Labour left in 2010.

T3. UK food businesses such as Devro plc in my constituency benefit from free trade with the EU and its free trade agreements with third countries. Can the Secretary of State confirm how long it will take his Department to negotiate new agreements with these third countries, and will they be on the same terms as those we currently enjoy through our EU membership? (909815)

The Government’s policy is that we do not have to have these rollover agreements because we want to get an agreement through the House so that we can continue with the Prime Minister’s plan. If the hon. Gentleman wants to help the businesses that he mentions, he can vote for the Prime Minister’s agreement at the next opportunity.

T8. An area of international trade that is often overlooked is tourism, and of course, inbound tourism is export earnings. What discussions is the Department having with other Departments to boost our tourism industry, for example on visas? (909820)

My hon. Friend is right. Tourism is a great example—I use the word “great” advisedly. The GREAT brand is used across the whole of UK Government. It is that rarest of things—a joined-up government policy that actually works. It has added huge value to our tourism sector. In 2017 we saw record numbers of visitors to the UK, and a contribution to the UK economy of £24 billion.

T4. Given the inevitable downturn that will come from any kind of Brexit that we end up with, what consideration has the Minister given to the introduction of free ports to boost economic activity in areas of low economic performance just now? (909816)

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for the interest that he has shown in this issue. The experience of other countries in using the ability of free ports to increase economic activity is valuable and something that the Government are considering in an optimistic and positive way.

UK Export Finance does some excellent work, but some of its funding capacity goes unused. What can be done to change that to raise British exports?

We have signed a memorandum of understanding with the five biggest banks so that they can encourage businesses to utilise UK Export Finance. One of the main areas where it is under-utilised is small businesses, but the positive side is that last year more than 70% of the agreements signed by UKEF were with small businesses. That is a trend that we would like to see continue.

T5. More than 20,000 people, including many of my constituents, have signed the Fairtrade Fortnight petition calling on the Government to lead action on exploitative rates of pay in the hugely valuable international cocoa trade. Will the Government take up that challenge? (909817)

I take the opportunity to praise the work of the Fairtrade organisation, which is so well led and co-ordinated by my very good friend Lord Price. It is essential that we look at these issues because free trade is not a free-for-all. There need to be rules around it and there needs to be fair trade. The Government will look sympathetically at what the hon. Gentleman suggests.

Following the visit of the Taiwanese representative and the Philippines ambassador, does my right hon. Friend join me in welcoming the announcement that the Qatari ambassador, together with a trade delegation, will visit Southend on 25 March as we move towards city status, to explore the opportunities of trade and business investment as we leave the EU?

I welcome the announcement by Qatar’s ambassador to the UK, His Excellency Mr Yousef Al Khater, and his accompanying delegation of a visit to Southend. I am pleased to say that the UK is one of Qatar’s major investment destinations globally, with more than £35 billion already invested in the UK.

T6. If the United States lifts its suspension of title III of the Helms-Burton legislation, which gives US citizens the right to sue foreign companies for using Cuban nationalised properties, British businesses that trade with Cuba will suffer damaging consequences. What discussions has the Secretary of State had with our international partners to co-ordinate a response to the proposed changes in US extraterritorial policies that will have an impact on businesses trading with Cuba? (909818)

This is an issue that the Government take seriously because we want to ensure that British companies have the right to trade where we think it is appropriate and where the British Government’s foreign policy indicates that. I have had and will continue to have discussions with my American counterparts on that issue.

Given the announcement on tariffs, what progress is being made regarding the steel industry in relation to the trade defence instruments in place at European level being transferred across to UK level at the point of departure?

I am not sure whether the hon. Gentleman missed the statement we had in the House on this, but I made it very clear that those arrangements would be rolled over. It will not be the Government’s intention in any way, shape or form to leave our businesses less protected than they are today, which is why those trade remedies will continue.

Women and Equalities

The Minister for Women and Equalities was asked—

Shared Parental Leave Uptake

In 2018, we ran a successful £1.5 million campaign to promote awareness and take-up of shared parental leave. Last month, we launched a further campaign to maintain the high level of awareness achieved. We are currently evaluating the scheme, looking at take-up and the barriers to take-up, and we expect to publish the findings later this year.

I thank the Minister for that response. Since becoming an MP, I have taken a real interest in the close links between Scotland and the Nordic countries. At the Nordic Co-operation conference this week, the Swedish Government said that they wanted to re-emphasise their commitment to sharing care, saying that parental leave was good not just for women, but for the health and wellbeing of men. What discussions has the Minister had with the Scottish Government to support further progress on this approach?

I quite agree, and this Government are committed to delivering the take-up of shared parental leave. We know that it is good for employers, for the family and for employees. The scheme has been in place since 2015. We are evaluating it, and we will continue to consult with all partners on how we can increase take-up.

Will the Minister give a timescale for the extension of shared parental leave to the self-employed?

I would point out to the hon. Gentleman that, as I outlined in my last response, we are currently evaluating the scheme, which we are committed to delivering, as I have already said. However, in relation to self-employed people, I must point out that one of the benefits of implementing shared parental leave in the first place is that some people who are employed do not have the flexibility of the self-employed. Obviously, we are not ruling anything out, and we will continue to keep our policies under review. As I say, we will respond on the outcomes of our evaluation later on.

In the future, we will look back at the inequality of parental leave between fathers and mothers, and wonder how on earth we thought it was okay for it to be like that. Does my hon. Friend agree that we need to rebalance parental leave between men and women—fathers and mothers—so that parents get equal opportunities to spend time with their children and pursue their careers?

Absolutely. I agree with my hon. Friend that it is important that both parents are able to spend quality time with their children, particularly in their first year. I would like to highlight to my hon. Friend that Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs reported that, in 2017-18, 9,200 employees took up the scheme, of whom 80% were men.

No. We want to encourage further take-up. Currently, the take-up is between 2% and 8%, which is in line with our prediction. A figure of 80% is a good start, but I want to see more mothers and more fathers taking advantage of this shared parental leave policy.

With take-up of shared parental leave at 2%, it is clearly not working for families across the UK. If we are serious about closing the gender pay gap and tackling maternity discrimination, the Government must increase statutory paid leave for new fathers. Will the Minister confirm that as part of her ongoing review, she will consider extending statutory paid leave to four weeks, to incentivise fathers to take it up?

In reality, we are looking for a wider culture change. Other countries that implemented such schemes decades ago are still working to increase take-up of shared parental leave. We are committed to looking at what the barriers are, and at why people are not taking up such schemes. When we have that evidence base, we will tweak our policies to ensure that more people are able to take up those schemes.

It is very good of the hon. Member for Banbury to drop in on us, and we welcome her to the Chamber. I hope that she has fully recovered her breath, after what must have been an arduous excursion from wherever she was to the Chamber, and that she is now ready to deliver her question, which we await with bated breath.

I cannot thank you enough for calling me, Mr Speaker, because this is a very important issue. Will my hon. Friend update the House on the progress of the research programme announced in September 2018 on gender equality in the workplace, and particularly on parental responsibilities? I know it is an evidence-based research programme, and we are all awaiting its results.

The research programme into the workplace and gender equality will invest £1.1 million in academic research over two years. So far that programme has commissioned an evidence-based review of family-friendly policies and women’s progression, as well as considering how parents share caring for their children, and what motivates employers to improve their offer of shared parental leave. That programme will be based on evidence and advice from employers regarding how we can improve those family-friendly policies.

Highly Paid Professions: Girls and Women

2. If she will meet the Children’s Commissioner and the Ofsted Chief Inspector to discuss barriers to girls and women entering highly paid professions. (909784)

My colleagues in the Department for Education regularly meet Ofsted and the Children’s Commissioner, and I will ask them to raise that matter at their next meeting. It is critical to get more women into professions where they are under-represented, not least because that will help close the gender pay gap.

The Minister knows the information and data that those two organisations hold on the fact that so many bright girls are diverted early on away from science and maths, and away from other subjects that have a clear link with progression to high management. Surely that is criminal, and we should do something about it on an all-party basis.

I think the hon. Gentleman for the opportunity to discuss this issue again. He is right, and this is an issue on which Members across the House will agree. Progress has been made, including a clear increase in girls choosing those subjects, which shows that effort does pay off, but there are still too few such cases, and we must not let up in our work to encourage women to have such choices and to go forward in those professions.

Women who enter high-paid professions face blatant discrimination—40% experience sexual harassment, 50,000 women a year feel forced to leave their jobs because they are pregnant, and organisations such as the BBC feel that it is okay for them to break the law by paying men and women differently for the same job. Why is there no mention of enforcing antidiscrimination law in the Government’s “Good Work Plan”, which is their employment strategy? Surely that should be at the heart of what they are doing.

The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy is consulting on that matter. My right hon. Friend mentioned a list of issues, and it is important to track the impact that policies are having on women and their choices. We will produce measures and metrics to sit alongside the strategy that the Government Equalities Office will produce on women’s economic empowerment, so that we can all see how we are doing.

On 20 February I raised concerns with the Ofsted Chief Inspector that some schools are not following new safeguarding guidance on peer-on-peer sexual abuse, but at best, the Chief Inspector’s response required improvement. Will the Minister meet me to discuss how we can enforce safeguarding in schools?e

I thank the hon. Lady for raising this issue. It is a very serious matter indeed. I will certainly ask the relevant Minister at the Department for Education to meet her, and I will also follow up.

We should accentuate the positive. Last year, 68.8% of those accepted on law undergraduate courses were women. The future for law in this country is bright. Does the Minister agree?

Every human endeavour depends for its success on women’s involvement, so, yes, I am pleased about progress, but more needs to be done.

Further to the question asked by the Chair of the Women and Equalities Committee, the right hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller), one of the barriers to women holding highly paid positions is maternity discrimination. What further steps will the Government take to tackle this issue?

The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy is leading on a number of pieces of work. The women’s economic empowerment strategy is considering all these policies in the round to look at what more we can do to ensure that women are supported and treated fairly, and can have full careers. It will be published later this spring.

Differential Gender-based Pricing

3. If she will make an assessment of the potential merits of prohibiting the differential pricing of products and services that are (a) intended for and (b) marketed towards specific genders. (909785)

Although I share concerns on this issue, prices in the UK are set by competition, not by the Government. As intelligent questioning consumers, women should not be afraid to challenge retailers or manufacturers who are trying to rip us off and, where we are not satisfied, to vote with our purchasing decisions. The Government stand ready to back up any woman who wants to do that.

I thank the Minister for her comments. Research shows that women pay more than men for basic products 42% of the time. Manufacturers claim that this is competition or that more is involved in producing women’s products. Scientists tell us that that is nonsense: we all have the same hair and skin types. Given what she has said about women standing up, will the Minister back my Bill on the pink tax, which is currently going through Parliament, or help to encourage manufacturers and retailers to do away with what is a sexist and outdated practice?

I congratulate the hon. Lady on her private Member’s Bill. The Government will not be supporting it, but we welcome the focus she is bringing to this important issue. In the 21st century, things like social media will help to get the message out to manufacturers and businesses that they simply cannot rip women off. The work uncovered on Friday in the Rose review of access to finance, which female entrepreneurs are sadly not getting at the moment, is precisely why the Government are looking to help female entrepreneurs to set up businesses that will not rip women off.

I regret to say that I do not have that list to hand at the moment, not least because I was preparing answers on the pink charge on female products, but I will endeavour to write to my hon. Friend with a list. I know the work he has done on this vital topic. I am sure that, like me, he was delighted at the Chancellor’s announcement yesterday that we will be providing free sanitary products to secondary schools.

As the Minister’s reply to the hon. Member for Colchester (Will Quince) will be of wider interest, it might be of service to the House if the hon. Lady places a copy of her reply in the Library.

I am delighted to hear the Minister’s commitment to supporting women who wish to take the matter of the pink tax to task. As it happens, we are in the process of establishing an all-party group concerning the beauty industry. I would welcome the Minister joining the group, so she could, alongside me and colleagues, encourage companies to look at the pink tax. It seems an irony, given that women’s earning potential is less than men’s. We really should be looking at this issue far more closely.

I am extremely grateful, as always, to the hon. Lady for her kind invitation. Sadly, I am not sure that, as a Minister, I am allowed to join an all-party group, but I very much look forward to learning from its work. Of course, if it ever wished to invite me to a meeting, I would be happy to accept the invitation.

Period Poverty

I am convening a new taskforce of experts from all sectors to ensure that we end period poverty in the UK. The taskforce will build on good work already being done and recent announcements of funding for sanitary protection in schools and hospitals.

I applaud the Secretary of State for the great work that we are doing in this area in the UK, but we must remember that it is also really important to tackle period poverty abroad, where sometimes women have even more serious problems than we have here.

I absolutely agree. That is why we have also launched a new campaign to step up international action to end period poverty globally by 2030, in line with the global goals. This will be kick-started by £2 million of funding for small and medium-sized charities working in the Department for International Development’s priority countries. We are building on our existing international work, because obviously this is embedded in all our education work.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. Like me, does she look forward with ever-increasing excitement to the day when we finally leave the EU and can set our own VAT rates on all products, including tampons, and end this injustice forever?

I absolutely agree. The Government strongly believe that VAT should not apply to these products. That is why we took the initiative in 2016 to introduce legislation to enable a zero rate to take effect as soon as possible. In the meantime, we currently apply the lowest rate that we can—5%—to these products.

I welcome the announcement this week, but has the Minister considered the provision of sanitary products in the workplace, perhaps starting with her Ministry or here in Parliament?

Yes, we have. I am sure that all Members across the House will welcome the recent announcements on schools, hospitals and colleges, but we want to look at the issue in the round. That is the job of the taskforce, and it will be about Departments, the private sector and the third sector coming together to create ways to sort this for any woman or girl who may find herself in that situation. On other issues such as primary schools, workplace settings and so forth, the taskforce is looking at all those, but I am also interested in ideas that hon. Members have, because I know that there are many great schemes out there in their constituencies.

I thank Amika George, the Red Box Project, the British Medical Association, the Communication Workers Union, Girlguiding UK, Plan International, Bloody Good Period, Beauty Banks, On The Ball, Hey Girls, Bloody Big Brunch, my hon. Friends the Members for Dewsbury (Paula Sherriff) and for Midlothian (Danielle Rowley), and Monica Lennon, the Labour Member of the Scottish Parliament, who helped with the policy on period poverty. I thank the Secretary of State and the Chancellor for the announcement yesterday. I am really pleased to hear that there will be a taskforce, and I wonder whether the Secretary of State would like to work with me and Monica Lennon so that we can make sure that refugee and homeless shelters all have free menstruation products.

Absolutely. This is an issue that can unite the whole House, and we need such issues, especially at times like this. When I launched this, I also paid tribute to many organisations, including those that the hon. Lady mentions, for the fantastic work that they are doing. We do not want to reinvent the wheel. There is great, sustainable work out there, and we want to take those ideas, help them scale up and ensure that we can end this issue for good.

As always, I want to help colleagues with important questions, but we are up against it, so I will take the next question and possibly one after, but they have to be one-sentence questions, and nothing more—we do not have time.

Public Spending: Disabled People

6. What assessment the Government has made of the cumulative effect on disabled people of recent changes to public spending. (909788)

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Truro and Falmouth (Sarah Newton)—I am sorry that she is not in her place today and that the sector will be disappointed that it has lost a good Minister. We need to take into account the impact not just of our policies, but of the policies of other areas, such as local government.

Disabled people have been absolutely hammered by this Government, with cuts of £4.8 billion in social security alone, so why was there absolutely nothing in the spring statement yesterday for disabled people, who are at the end of their tether? And please do not say that it was not a fiscal event, because there were spending commitments made yesterday.

The Department for Work and Pensions has been continuing to do the work that was outlined in the health and work review 12 months or more ago and is making progress. The Department is considering how we can ensure not only that the welfare system works better in supporting disabled people, but that it dovetails with other schemes such as Access to Work. I shall make sure that the Department is aware of the specifics to which the hon. Lady refers.

What has happened to total spending on disability benefits since 2010, and what has happened to the employment and unemployment rates for disabled people?

Members will know the figures well. The amount currently spent on disabled people and those with health conditions is £50 billion. We are closing the disability employment gap, but there is still much more to do. One of the things that the Department has been doing well is looking at this in the round, along with other issues such as accessibility. We need to support disabled people in relation to every aspect of their lives and every ambition that they have.

Pension Age: Women Born in the 1950s

7. What recent assessment she has made of the effect of changes to the pension age on women born in the 1950s. (909789)

10. What recent assessment she has made of the effect of changes to the pension age on women born in the 1950s. (909793)

11. What recent assessment she has made of the effect of changes to the pension age on women born in the 1950s. (909794)

The state pension age reform is focused on maintaining the right balance between sustainability of the state pension and fairness between generations in the face of demographic change. Without equalisation, women would be expected to spend an average of more than 40% of their adult lives receiving the state pension.

I should declare an interest: I am a WASPI woman myself, having been born in the 1950s. Many of my friends, neighbours and constituents have been hit hard by changes in their pension arrangements that are forcing them to work for an additional five years beyond their planned retirement date. Does the Minister agree that women who have set aside careers to care for families, unpaid, for many years should not be treated in the same way as men who have been able to pursue their careers unencumbered? Equality is not always achieved by treating men and women in the same way.

I thank the hon. Lady for raising that issue. It has been well debated, and additional transitional arrangements have been introduced. One development that we should all welcome is that since 1994, the rate of pensioner poverty has fallen faster for females than for males.

There are many 1950s-born women in my constituency—I, too, should declare an interest, as a 1950s-born woman myself—who are facing real financial hardship because of the pension changes. What steps are the Government taking to relieve their difficulties?

That is exactly why we have continued to deliver the triple lock. We recently announced a £3 billion uprating, and 80% of women reaching state pension age before 2030 will be better off by an average of £550 a year under the new arrangements.

Do the Government accept that the DWP’s communication strategy was well below standard, and many women found out about changes in their pensions only a year—or even a few months—before those changes were made?

That, too, is an issue that has been debated extensively in a number of Parliaments, and it has been encountered by Governments of all political persuasions. On our watch, we redoubled efforts to ensure that there was the maximum amount of communication so that people could make informed decisions.

Topical Questions

This is LBT women’s health week. We know that lesbian, bisexual and transgender women are less likely to participate in services such as cancer screening, which means that they face a wide range of health inequalities. That must stop. As part of our LGBT action plan, we will shortly announce the appointment of a national LGBT health adviser to help to improve the delivery of healthcare services for LGBT people. We will also announce the membership of the new LGBT advisory panel before the first conference, which will take place next week.

Will the Minister support calls from my hon. Friend the Member for Central Ayrshire (Dr Whitford), other Scottish National party Members and women’s advocacy groups for the introduction of separate payments of universal credit to protect victims of domestic violence and financial coercion?

The hon. Gentleman raises important issues that are being considered by both my hon. Friend the Minister for Women and our colleagues at the Department for Work and Pensions, and the new Secretary of State is particularly attuned to them. I will ask Ministers to write to the hon. Gentleman to update him, and I will pass on his concerns today.

T4. In my constituency, the sex worker outreach project run by the admirable Nelson Trust is doing really good work to help women to come off the streets and lead very different lives. What support can the Government provide to help these kinds of community services? Does my right hon. Friend agree that reducing the number of women in prison on short sentences would help this kind of rehabilitation? (909824)

I recall the visit that I made with my hon. Friend to see how his local community was looking after vulnerable people in Gloucester. We believe that people who want to leave prostitution should be given every opportunity to find routes out, and this is why we are spending more than £2 million across the Government to support prostitutes and sex workers who are at risk of abuse and exploitation. Indeed, we have a piece of work at the moment involving ongoing research conducted by the University of Bristol into what prostitution in the 21st century looks like, precisely so that we can address the issues that that research identifies.

The primary victims of religiously motivated attacks are women, but how can the Government reassure Muslim women that they are serious about tackling Islamophobia when they choose to ignore and shut down the voices of the British Muslims in their own party who are calling for an independent inquiry into institutional Islamophobia? Speaking as a British Muslim, I believe that it is disgraceful and patronising that the Conservative party continues to refuse to act and tells British Muslims in the party that there is not a problem. Will the Minister at least accept that her party has a problem?

The Conservative party took immediate action to suspend 14 members who put issues in, so we are not going to take any lectures from a party that refuses to suspend people or throw them out of the party for antisemitism.

T6. Will my right hon. Friend set out the legislative timetable for removing caste as a protected characteristic from the Equality Act 2010? (909826)

We are proceeding with this as soon as a suitable legislative vehicle is available. However, I can update my hon. Friend and tell him that the guidance that we promised to publish alongside it has now been produced. It is there to help employers, service providers and individuals to understand the context of the Equality Act, and it is going out for consultation with stakeholders this week.

T2. Balance, the North East Alcohol Office, is doing excellent work in our region to raise awareness of the link between alcohol and breast cancer. What steps is the Minister taking to increase awareness of the health risks associated with alcohol that apply to women? (909822)

That is a really excellent question. The Government are investing an extra £16 billion in that sort of primary care and prevention to make sure that we have the public health investment that helps people to tackle alcoholism and ensures that women get the breast cancer support that they need. Today, we have released a written ministerial statement responding to the inquiry on breast cancer screening.

T7. The Alison Rose review of female entrepreneurship highlights the fact that £250 billion of untapped potential is lost to the sector because it is not taken seriously enough. Does my hon. Friend agree that businesses, especially banks, should be urged to take a much more inclusive approach to female entrepreneurs? (909827)

I am delighted that my hon. Friend has asked this question, as it gives me an opportunity to thank Alison Rose for her review, which tries to ensure that the business landscape is as fair for women as it is for men. It is a shocking fact that women’s average starting capital is 50% less than that of men. I was at a fantastic reception at No. 10 last week, where there was a room full of female entrepreneurs, some of whom were world-leading entrepreneurs. We have fantastically talented, capable and creative female entrepreneurs in this country, and we absolutely must support them. We must ensure that businesses, banks, venture capitalists and angel investors are all doing their bit to help these women.

T3. What steps are being taken to ensure that non-disclosure agreements are not used to cover up discrimination and harassment? (909823)

We have launched a consultation on the use of NDAs and have proposed to make it explicit that NDAs should not prevent individuals from reporting any kind of harassment, sexual or otherwise, to the police. I hope that that answers her question.

May I ask the Minister for Women and Equalities whether some MPs are more equal than others? Back Benchers—the poor bloody infantry—have to traipse through the Lobby for every three-line Whip, but Cabinet Ministers can sit brazenly on the Front Bench and then slope off in their limousines after betraying the people and the Prime Minister.

All the Ministers on the Front Bench this morning are here and ready for their duties, in particular the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend the Member for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson), who was ironing his shirt 20 minutes before this session started. We are in turbulent times, but we must trust our institutions and trust in democracy. I am also the Secretary of State for International Development, and I will take messy democracy over any other system in the world.

I am a tad taken aback that the hon. Member for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson) feels it necessary to disclose to his ministerial boss his personal habits in relation to such matters, but there we go.

T5. Yesterday, I was delighted to welcome to Parliament the Tea in the Pot women’s support service, and many of its staff are 1950s-born women. Will there be an equality impact assessment regarding the effect of recent pension credit changes on 1950s-born women? Will the impact on pensioner poverty also be measured? (909825)

There has been an impact assessment all the way through. If the hon. Gentleman highlights a good group, I am sure that the Minister with responsibility for pensions would be delighted to meet its representatives.

I urge the Government to work with NHS England to provide support to women GPs who have left the workforce but want to return after caring responsibilities. They should be supported to return to practice so that patients can get the benefits of their skills and experience.

My right hon. Friend is right. As well as having more GPs in training than ever before, we need to attract GPs who have left the workforce back into work. In March 2017, we launched a major “return to practice” campaign that aimed to attract 500 GPs. So far, 263 have completed the scheme, and a further 266 are in train.

T8. Hundreds of WASPI women from across the country were in Parliament yesterday to protest at the spring statement, and they would like to know why the Government have not considered a special compensation scheme for women who have suffered severe detriment following the state pension change because they were never told about it in the first place. (909828)

As has been extensively covered in several debates, we have allocated an additional £1.1 billion of transitional support. The recent uprating order included an additional £3 billion to support the uprating of the state pension, and we will continue to support pensioners of all genders.

What measures could be included in the draft Domestic Abuse Bill to ensure that parental responsibility does not override restraining orders, especially when partners have been convicted of coercive behaviour?

My hon. Friend raised a constituency case during the International Women’s Day debate last week, and we want the draft Domestic Abuse Bill to support both the victims of the many forms that such abuse can take and the children who live in abusive households. I urge my hon. Friend to write to the Joint Committee on Human Rights, which is scrutinising the Bill, to make her point.

As the Minister for Women and Equalities knows, the estimated 18% gender pay gap is likely to grow following Brexit as women in public services and retail are disproportionately affected. Does she accept that the women who voted to leave did not vote to leave themselves worse off and that they deserve a final-say referendum on the exit deal?

No. We do not want a second referendum, which would be disastrous. We are doing specific work in those sectors to close the gender pay gap. However, I caution that some companies that are doing the right thing will see their pay gaps widen because they may be recruiting many more young women, so we must look at the figures in detail to see that good progress is being made.

I know that Ministers on the Treasury Bench wish to examine in great detail the work of the Women and Equalities Committee when we issue our reports, but could the Secretary of State perhaps explain to me why it has taken five months for the Government to respond to our very important report on sexual harassment in public places? This issue needs urgent action, not more deliberation.

I am sorry that we have taken a long time over responding to the work of the Select Committee. I would rather publish a response that will actually take the right action than put out something swiftly that is not going to do the job. I hope that my right hon. Friend will understand that we want to be doing things that ensure we address the issues she has raised.

Mr Bradshaw, you are a curious fellow. You were standing up a moment ago. [Interruption.] Very well. We will take one more.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. Will the Minister for Women and Equalities join me in condemning the wording of letter ESA65B from the Department for Work and Pensions—the letter asks general practitioners to cease issuing fit notes to people with disabilities awaiting an appeal for employment and support allowance—and help ensure that such blatant discrimination against disabled people, which resulted in the death of my constituent who was forced back to work against his doctor’s advice, will cease immediately?

It is critical that welfare and healthcare work absolutely together if we are to support people. If the hon. Lady would like to share the details with me, I will certainly get a response from the Department for Work and Pensions.