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Commons Chamber

Volume 658: debated on Thursday 25 April 2019

House of Commons

Thursday 25 April 2019

The House met at half-past Nine o’clock


[Mr Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions

International Trade

The Secretary of State was asked—

Free Trade Agreements: NHS/Public Services

1. What steps he has taken to ensure that the NHS and other public services are excluded from future trade agreements. (910509)

7. If he will ensure that future free trade agreements do not (a) lower standards in and (b) lead to the privatisation of the NHS. (910516)

9. If he will ensure that future free trade agreements do not (a) lower standards in and (b) lead to the privatisation of the NHS. (910518)

As we leave the European Union, the Government will ensure that all future trade agreements continue to protect the UK’s right to regulate public services, including the NHS. I have been clear on a number of occasions that more trade should not come at the expense of the high levels of quality and protection enjoyed in the UK.

I am pleased that the Secretary of State has made those comments, and I am sure we can all agree that, whatever happens with Brexit, our country must not be held to ransom by multinational corporate interests over the future of the NHS and other public services, so can the Secretary of State give a watertight guarantee that we will not see any trade deals that would drive up the costs of medicines and allow foreign firms to sue the UK over improvements in public health and standards in healthcare generally?

As I have made clear in questions and in debate in this House, if we look at trade agreements that we have already entered into—for example, in chapter 9 of the EU-Canada comprehensive economic and trade agreement, the cross-border trade and services chapter, article 9.2 makes it very clear we see that the Government retain the right to regulate in public services. Any changes in the NHS should be a matter for domestic policy debate in the United Kingdom, and not anywhere else.

The UK is a world leader in healthcare provision, founded on the core values of the NHS. What steps is the Department taking to promote British expertise in this sector and sell those skills abroad?

There is not only enormous interest but enormous demand for UK expertise in healthcare, and we are committed to sharing that expertise and knowledge with the rest of the world. Research commissioned by Healthcare UK recently identified £3 billion to £7 billion of potential contracts for UK health organisations annually over the next 10 years. That is a lot of jobs.

Mr Philip Dunne—not here. Where is the fella? I hope he is not indisposed. We will have to proceed.

Free trade agreements are, of course, needed, and the EU has some very good ones, which is why the United Kingdom Government are copying them. But trading on World Trade Organisation terms is very expensive. What is the Secretary of State doing to dispel the notion that is abroad, particularly in his own party, that leaving the EU and trading on WTO terms is a good idea? If it was, every country would be walking out of their trade blocs and every country would be ripping up trade agreements. It is a very silly and very dangerous idea, and I hope he is doing his best to combat it.

I am not quite sure how that relates to the question on healthcare, but it is an important point that the WTO rules provide a baseline, and the way in which countries get preferential treatment beyond that baseline is very often through a free trade agreement. That is why we want to see free trade agreements beyond what we have today.

I welcome the assurances that the Secretary of State has given to the House here today, but can he confirm that the principal protections for public services related to the comprehensive economic and trade agreement are in fact to be found in the joint interpretative instrument, which does not have the same legal force as the treaty? Crucially, it cannot alter or override it. If we are to have confidence in the protections for our public services and the NHS in future trade agreements, these must be written into the text of the treaties. Does he agree?

However we get the assurances, that is what we need to do. In CETA, for example, they are contained in chapters 9 and 28, as well as annexe 2 and the additional national reservation in annexe 2. It is up to this House how we carry out public policy. For example, in the four years from 2006, Labour outsourced 0.5% of the NHS budget to the private sector each year, which of course fell to only half that level under the coalition Government. If Labour wants to increase to its previous levels of outsourcing, it should be able to do so under a policy protection given under the treaties.

Service Businesses: Overseas Markets

2. What steps he is taking to enable service businesses to access overseas markets; and if he will make a statement. (910510)

The Government support UK services businesses to access foreign markets in a number of ways, including through trade promotion and facilitation. For example, in March 2019, the DIT took a delegation of eight leading UK FinTech companies to exhibit at Money 20/20 in Singapore. The DIT also works with partners overseas to remove access barriers, opening up new opportunities for UK businesses.

My hon. Friend will know that in this rather complex world environment, there is a confusion at times under WTO rules between goods and services. Once we leave the EU, get a clean break and regain our place at the WTO table, will he make it a priority to make clearer definitions of what are goods and what are services?

I thank my hon. Friend for his question. He is right; there are a great many complexities at the WTO. In fact, the world is sliding inexorably towards a future of increased protectionism without changes being agreed at the WTO to address all problems and to cope with new forms of trade that simply did not exist even 10 years ago and that create the confusion he identifies. As a newly independent voice, the UK will be a champion for change, openness and co-operation, because believe me, Mr Speaker, a failure to deal with the problems the WTO faces is not an outcome that anybody should want to contemplate.

In congratulating the hon. Member for Huddersfield upon the magnificence of his tie, I call Mr Barry Sheerman.

Can all those on the Government Front Bench tell me what I should say to my service and manufacturing industries that export overseas? For years, they have been frustrated that the Chinese are stealing their patents and intellectual property, but now this Government are going to open not only the back door but the front door to the Chinese to take their secrets and undercut them.

In the past week, the Chinese have agreed a joint communiqué with the EU about the forced transfer of intellectual property, which gives us some comfort. We work extensively with the Chinese Government through joint trade reviews to examine various areas of the economy, particularly in services, where we can address this. I believe that progress is being made on this front, but I go back to the point I made to my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant): this is a complex area. WTO rules make this very difficult to address, and we need to change it.

Three quarters of our economy is in services, yet over 90% of service firms export nothing. What more can be done to change this underlying culture and systemic issue, so that the majority of service firms export?

As I mentioned in answer to the previous question, we are conducting a number of joint trade reviews with India, China and Brazil—some of the largest economies in the world—to ensure that we address some of these access barriers; to ensure that, for example, Chinese-language contracts are translated into an official English version; to ensure that service providers understand what the rules and regulations are; and to ensure that qualifications are matched across the piece. There is a great deal we can do and more that we will do.

I welcome what the Minister said about trying to open up overseas access to UK service companies. However, is it not hugely disappointing that the continuity agreements with Norway and Switzerland exclude trade in services? Is it not the case that if, post Brexit, we revert to WTO rules trade with the EU, we would see a massive 26% fall in global service trade, with just as bad a fall in the UK’s service trade even if we get that free trade agreement?

As we approach the negotiations with the EU on the future economic partnership, services will play a large part in that. We have signed mutual recognition agreements with Australia and New Zealand, and as for the Norway and Switzerland deals, we should never forget that 35% of pretty much all the goods contracts entered into by the UK is contained within services value. This is not just a matter of pure services, but of goods as well.

Service exporters depend on an international workforce, but arbitrary immigration targets limit their ability to recruit the staff they need. Growing our market share in services is essential to the future success of our economy, so if this Government truly have a global strategy, why are businesses that want to export being denied access to a global pool of talent?

On the whole, the services businesses that are exporting are doing so by establishing overseas, and therefore recruitment in the UK does not particularly concern them, as they are employing people in foreign countries. That said, we know there is an issue with provision of skilled labour in the UK. The immigration Bill, when it comes forward, will provide reassurance on the ability to recruit people with certain skill levels, and I look forward to seeing that.

Free Trade Agreements: Regions and Devolved Administrations

3. What steps he is taking to ensure that the (a) regions and (b) devolved Administrations of the UK contribute to the formulation of new free trade agreements. (910511)

We are committed to ensuring a meaningful role for the regions and devolved Administrations in the development of our trade policy. The DIT has been consulting widely on its approach to potential FTAs with regional representatives from local government and local enterprise partnerships. I can further confirm that we are putting in place a new ministerial forum with the devolved Administrations to cover international trade, as well as continuing to discuss wider future working arrangements on trade policy.

I thank the Minister for that answer. Businesses in Redditch such as Mettis Aerospace, Bee Lighting and Thorlux Lighting are at the heart of global manufacturing and are leading-edge businesses. Will the Minister confirm that he is working closely with representatives of west midlands manufacturing industry to ensure that their interests are represented and our local economy can benefit from future trade agreements?

As my hon. Friend will know, my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant) is very keen on our keeping up contact with the Mayor of the West Midlands combined authority. We of course do so, and create contacts with businesses that way. The strategic trade advisory group, which will be helping us with FTAs, includes representation from regional business. We will always be there to consult with local business, and I urge my hon. Friend the Member for Redditch (Rachel Maclean) to contact the local DIT business office in Birmingham in relation to any businesses in Redditch that need its help.

Does the Minister accept that the devolved Administrations must be fully involved in developing both the negotiation mandate and the negotiations themselves when the international trade negotiations have an impact on devolved competencies?

I have visited the devolved Administrations several times and I talk with the Ministers on a regular basis. I absolutely agree with the hon. Lady that the devolved Administrations have a key part to play as we go forward and negotiate our free trade agreements. We are currently in negotiation with the DAs on putting together what is known as a concordat on how they will be implemented. The progress on that, to be quite frank with the House, has been disappointingly slow. From our end, we have not reached an agreed policy position, but we will do so shortly, and I am keen that the devolved Administrations are properly involved.

If all these trade agreements are going to be so glorious, irresistible and beneficial to the economy, why not simply give the devolved Administrations the power to express their consent through legislation for each of them?

EU Customs Union

4. What assessment he has made of the implications for the responsibilities of his Department of including UK membership of the EU customs union in the EU-UK political declaration. (910512)

8. What assessment he has made of the implications for his policies of the UK’s continuing membership of the EU customs union. (910517)

The Government’s intention, as provided for in the political declaration, is to secure a tariff-free trading relationship with our European partners, alongside an ambitious independent trade policy with the rest of the world. A customs union would prevent the UK from varying its tariffs and could leave the UK subject, without representation, to the policy of an entity over which MPs had no democratic control.

If we were to be part of the EU customs union after Brexit, the United Kingdom, as the world’s fifth biggest economy, could kiss goodbye to any realistic chance of an independent trade policy. For this very good reason, being a member of the customs union was ruled out in the last Conservative party manifesto. Were this to become Government policy, would not the Secretary of State and his entire ministerial team be honour bound to resign?

It is very clear that we do not want to see a customs union being put in place for one of the reasons that my hon. Friend has already given, which is that, with us as a third country, the EU would be able to negotiate access to the UK market—the world’s fifth biggest market—without any due consideration of the impact on the United Kingdom. We would find ourselves in a totally new trading position in that access to our market would be traded for us.

One of the principal benefits of Brexit is of course the ability to set our own trade policies, and many businesses in my constituency—it includes Immingham, the largest port in the country—want to take advantage of the freedoms that will be forthcoming. What additional support will the Secretary of State’s Department offer those businesses?

I know that my hon. Friend has taken a very close interest in free ports. We are close to finalising a report on their potential benefits, and he will be one of the first with whom I will share that information.

Some 9,000 people work in the Welsh steel industry, so can I ask the Secretary of State to think again, and support a permanent customs union and commit to a common external tariff on steel imports to support steel jobs in south Wales?

No, I will not commit to that. I have set out the reasons why I believe the application of a common external tariff will be limiting on the UK’s ability to carry out an independent trade policy. What I would say is that we already have the Trade Remedies Authority up and running, and that is the best way to deal with any disputes over steel through WTO rules.[Official Report, 30 April 2019, Vol. 659, c. 2MC.]

Does the Secretary of State accept that even outside the European Union, some other countries will seek to restrict their trade? For instance, has not the United States said about its negotiating objectives that it will seek to restrict the trading ability of any country that seeks to trade with China?

The United States is perfectly entitled to set out trade objectives, as are we. We believe that trade is best operated through the rules-based international system based on the WTO. Countries can have their own opinions, but that is still the safest, best and most predictable way to carry out global trade.

We know the benefit of a permanent customs union, particularly for the integrated supply chains on which so much of our manufacturing success is based. What assessment has the Secretary of State made of the net economic benefit of an independent trade policy in the short, medium and long term?

We believe it is possible to get the benefits of a customs union—no tariffs, no quotas and no rules of origin checks—through the mechanism set out in the Government’s proposal on our future relationship with the European Union. The ability to access growing markets will depend on our ability to create trade agreements with those markets. A report by the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development suggested that by 2030 the Asian proportion of trade will be above 50% for the first time since the 19th century, and we must be in a position to take advantage of that.

Intellectual Property Rights

5. What steps the Government are taking to protect intellectual property rights in international trade agreements. (910514)

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 and ensuring that existing trade arrangements with global partners—including provisions on intellectual property—continue uninterrupted on the day the UK leaves the EU.

The Minister will no doubt be aware that tomorrow is World Intellectual Property Day, and this year the theme is sport and intellectual property. A number of United Kingdom-based companies have had their intellectual property stolen by beoutQ, a Saudi Arabian-based pirate broadcaster, including—I know this will interest you, Mr Speaker—last Monday’s Watford against Arsenal match. What steps are we taking to protect the intellectual property rights of UK businesses and sports interests, and will we use our trade policy to hold to account countries such as Saudi Arabia that are allowing the theft of our country’s intellectual property in that way?

I am not familiar with the case raised by the right hon. Gentleman, but if would like to drop me a line, I would be happy to look into it more carefully. We will continue to make representations to Saudi Arabia on that point. The UK intellectual property regime is respected around the world, and our local, European and international commitments produce one of the tightest and most respected regulatory regimes for IP worldwide. We believe that is the right system, and we will insist that it is honoured by others, particularly if we are to do trade deals with them.

The Minister is right to encourage small and medium-sized businesses to do more trade internationally, but those businesses are the most vulnerable to the risk of intellectual property theft. What assurances and support can the Minister give companies such as those in the digital games sector in my constituency, to encourage them to do more abroad?

I refer the hon. Gentleman to the answer I gave a moment ago. We have one of the most robust and respected regimes for IP protection internationally. A specialist group sits in the Department for International Trade and advises on IP matters, and that is very important to this country. We recognise the extent of exports that are driven by games, TV, sports and so on, and that is hugely important to us. SMEs should get in contact with local DIT offices. We can always help and would be delighted to do so.

GREAT Campaign

GREAT is the Government’s most ambitious ever international marketing campaign. [Interruption.] It encourages the world to visit, study and do business in the UK. While Labour Members never lose an opportunity to talk this country down—as the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) has just done there—we use GREAT to sell Britain abroad. If the chuntering from the potential future Speaker could stop for one second, I will say that GREAT works across 144 countries, and for trade and investment in 2019-20, its priorities are the USA, Germany, China, Japan, Australia, India, Canada, France, Italy and Spain.

Britain’s universities are among our greatest organisations. Some are household names across the world, but some, like Anglia Ruskin University, which is based in Chelmsford as well as Cambridge, are less well known. How is the GREAT campaign supporting our education sector?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that question. I was at the all-party university group yesterday, meeting vice-chancellors and others, to discuss this issue. Just last month, we launched our new international education strategy. As part of that, we are encouraging bids to the GREAT challenge fund to showcase to even more countries the fantastic education offer this country has.

Topical Questions

My Department is responsible for foreign and outward direct investment, establishing an independent trade policy and export promotion. I can announce to the House that UK Export Finance will support an Airbus Defence and Space UK contract worth nearly $500 million to manufacture and deliver two satellites and a ground station for Türksat, Turkey’s communications satellite operator.

May I also, with your indulgence Mr Speaker, thank two civil servants who are leaving my Department? My principal private secretary, Oliver Christian, has been an outstanding civil servant and I congratulate him on his promotion. I also thank Amy Tinley, my outgoing special adviser, who has been a force of nature in my Department and will be widely missed across the whole of the civil service.

I congratulate the civil servants on getting out of Dodge while they can.

Scottish Enterprise told the Scottish Affairs Committee that the success of Scotland’s financial industry was based on accessing and servicing all customers in the EU, which it does currently under the free trade non-tariff EU passport system. Does that not highlight once again the vital importance of freedom of movement to Scotland, and that the Secretary of State’s Government simply do not care about Scottish interests or Scotland’s vote to remain?

I will ignore the hon. Gentleman’s lack of grace in his first comment.

What that shows is the importance to Scotland of services and of access to the single market in the United Kingdom. Financial services are one of the country’s greatest and strongest exports, and Scotland benefits hugely from being part of the United Kingdom’s infrastructure.

T2. I congratulate the Government on the GREAT campaign but, in this week of St George’s Day, as we celebrate all things English, will the Secretary of State confirm that we are going to promote not only everything British but the component parts of the United Kingdom, including England, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales, and indeed our cherished Crown dependencies and overseas territories? (910525)

My hon. Friend, in his usual way, makes an excellent point. It is not just the fact that we have those very important constituent parts of the United Kingdom to celebrate—we also celebrate our commonality and our unity as expressed through the Union.

The world was shocked by the two crashes of Boeing 737 Max 8s that saw the tragic loss of 346 lives. That is, of course, a matter for the European Aviation Safety Agency to investigate, but it is for the Secretary of State to investigate whether the export capacity of Airbus was unfairly affected by Boeing’s failure to be transparent about the pitch instability of the aircraft, or to provide specific safety training on the MCAS system, which was supposed to counter that instability. He will know that in one 12-month period the concealment of those issues helped Boeing to increase its sales against the Airbus A320neo aircraft by 768 planes, while Airbus sales dropped by 748 in the same period. What support, if any, does his Department currently provide to Boeing? Does he consider that its ethical failure has had an adverse impact on Airbus’s sales? What discussions has he had about Boeing with the Directorate-General for Competition and the Directorate-General for Trade in the European Union to protect Airbus’s export capacity from unfair and potentially illegal practices by its competitors?

Let me associate myself immediately with the hon. Gentleman’s sentiments about the loss of lives as a result of the tragic crashes of the 737 Max aircraft. Safety issues are, of course, the responsibility of the Department for Transport but, in the context of international competition, as he is well aware, there have been two recent cases at the World Trade Organisation relating to Washington’s state subsidies for Boeing and European subsidies for Airbus. As far as I am concerned, the issues relating to Airbus have been solved. I think that we would all benefit from a clear set of international rules on aircraft subsidy so that we could be assured that there is a genuine international level playing field, not least because of the rise of the Chinese aircraft industry and its entry into the market.

T6. This afternoon the Confederation of Indian Industry will host a major conference to allow the regions of the United Kingdom to pitch to the states of India for future international trade. What action is my hon. Friend taking to encourage the regions to pitch for business in India? (910530)

According to an EY report, foreign direct investment has tended to move out of London into other parts of the United Kingdom, and there has been an increase in manufacturing activity. We are seeking to expand exports from all parts of the country, not least to India, and I am delighted to say that exports to India were up by nearly 20% in 2018. Only last night I attended the Grant Thornton tracker event with Mr Banerjee, the director general of the Confederation of Indian Industry, who is a great friend to this country and to our businesses up and down the land.

T3. Because of the shambles over Brexit, UK manufacturing currently has the highest-ever level of stockpiling in the G7. The latest survey conducted by the North East chamber of commerce shows low levels of cash and, as a consequence, a sharp downturn in export activity. Cash is king: it is the lifeblood of business. Will the Secretary of State speak to his colleagues in the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and the Treasury and, as a matter of urgency, provide financial support for UK manufacturers to deal with this Brexit chaos? (910527)

The entire premise of that question is wrong. There has not been a depression in export activity. In fact, in the first quarter of this year, exports rose by 3.1%, which was an acceleration of the trend in the fourth quarter of 2018.

T7. Britain is also great at green tech, and a leader in areas such as offshore wind technology. What opportunities are being exploited for us to export our expertise in clean technology to other parts of the world? (910531)

It is important that we take climate issues seriously. Whether or not individuals accept the current scientific consensus on the causes of climate change, it is sensible for everyone to use finite resources in a responsible way. The United Kingdom was the first country to establish legally binding emission targets, through the Climate Change Act 2008, and we have reduced emissions faster than any other G7 country. We are leaders in clean energy production, and it is estimated that $11.5 trillion is likely to be invested globally in clean energy between now and 2050. That represents an enormous opportunity and the potential for more jobs in the United Kingdom, which, as I have said, is already a global leader in terms of both practice and exports.

T4. May I ask the Secretary of State to welcome Anzac day, and our long-standing friendship with Australia and New Zealand? May I also ask whether he recognises what every major economy understands—that in order to export, firms need a strong domestic market, including public sector contracts? Rather than believing that we are the only ones in step and lecturing other countries about changing their ways, should we not face reality? Will the Secretary of State urge his Cabinet colleagues to put British firms and British workers first and, in public sector contracts, to put Britain first? (910528)

There is also the small matter of putting British taxpayers first, and ensuring that they are getting value for money from any contracts that we award. However, I entirely agree with what the right hon. Gentleman said about Anzac day. In fact, may I take the opportunity to invite colleagues to join me and others at the wreath-laying ceremony that will take place at the Cenotaph at 10.30 this morning, and the service at Westminster Abbey that will follow it?

I welcome my right hon. Friend’s comments earlier on trade agreements and the NHS. As a former clinician, can he confirm categorically that future trade agreements will not impact adversely on the values, standards or funding model of the NHS?

As I said, it is very important that NHS policy and management are decided by British political debate, not from outside. We have had considerable success in utilising the private sector to augment the NHS. As Andy Burnham said, the previous Labour Government worked with the private sector to bring down NHS waiting lists, and they came right down. I would hope that any future Labour Government would have exactly the same freedoms to use the same policies.

T5. Donald Trump is an “America first” US President, so does that mean that in any future trade deals with the US we will be “Britain second”, to our disadvantage? (910529)

Is there any opportunity to further promote UK steel exports through the GREAT campaign in the year ahead, not least because it is the best steel in the world?

We will take every opportunity to support UK steel exports, and of course exports in general, which is why we produced our export strategy last year. With the help of Members such as my hon. Friend, we will champion local businesses and ensure that that message goes right around the world.

The Canadian model offers a useful example of how the devolved Administrations should be involved in trade policy formulation. Does the Secretary of State agree that a substantive role in the strategic trade advisory group is essential for the meaningful involvement of the Welsh Government in UK trade policy?

The strategic trade advisory group is there to provide a broad societal view of what should be achieved in free trade agreements. We are of course talking in depth with the Welsh Government about their views on what we ought and ought not to be doing on trade policy, the industries we should be championing and how. I do not think that the strategic trade advisory group is the right place for that engagement, but there is of course a Welsh business represented on the group.

It is vital for us to encourage low-income countries to participate fairly in world trade, and for that they need inward investment. Will the Minister kindly advise us on what the UK is doing to promote investment into low-income countries so that they can participate fairly and reasonably in world trade, with world-class goods and services?

I thank my hon. Friend for championing lower-income countries around the world. We have made outward direct investment a priority. We are working with the Department for International Development to help developing countries to attract FDI. The Prime Minister has tasked us with making the UK Africa’s biggest G7 investor by 2022. Through our own investment promotion programme, DFID’s Invest Africa programme, and the Africa investment summit, which I am organising with DFID and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, we aim to drive mutual prosperity, in Africa and beyond.

Women and Equalities

The Minister for Women and Equalities was asked—

Universal Credit: Joint Claimants

1. What recent discussions she has had with the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions on the potential merits of splitting universal credit payments between partners in joint claimant households. (910532)

5. What recent discussions she has had with the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions on the potential merits of splitting universal credit payments between partners in joint claimant households. (910536)

9. What recent discussions she has had with the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions on the potential merits of splitting universal credit payments between partners in joint claimant households. (910540)

We believe that most couples can and want to manage their finances jointly, without state intervention. However, we recognise that there are circumstances in which split payments are appropriate and we will always put that in place when requested.

We understand that the UK Government are carrying out a formal impact assessment of the options put forward by the Scottish Government on delivering split payments, but has the Minister made representations to the Department for Work and Pensions outlining how split payments could help to protect victims of domestic violence?

We are working closely with the Scottish Government to establish the practicalities and nuts and bolts of their proposed pilot. We recognise that domestic abuse, including economic abuse, is a horrific crime that can affect anybody, and we are working across parties and across Government to ensure that it is addressed.

Does the Minister agree that the options put forward by the Scottish Government’s Cabinet Secretary for Social Security and Older People are sensible and deliverable, with the DWP’s assistance, and will he congratulate the Scottish Government on taking forward this fantastic work to make universal credit fairer?

That is not within my specific portfolio, so I cannot comment on the details, but I do know that policy officials in the Scottish Government and in DWP engage on an ongoing basis to determine how workable the Scottish Government’s proposals on split payments are, and that work will continue.

If two people in the same household work for the same employer, they do not receive one wage; they each receive a separate salary at the end of every month. If the point of universal credit is to mimic wages to help people to get back into work, why on earth do the Government insist on not taking forward the idea of split payments for households?

This Government believe, as have every preceding Government, that most couples can and want to manage their finances jointly without state intervention, and it is not this Government’s policy to make split payments by default. However, we are looking at the proposed Scottish pilot and, at the same time, by the end of the summer all jobcentres will have domestic abuse specialists to support work coaches and raise awareness.

Women and men have benefited equally from the improvements that universal credit has brought in. There is unquestionable improvement in the outlook for women on a long-term basis as a result of the introduction of universal credit.

Does my right hon. Friend welcome the decision to ensure that universal credit is paid to the main carer in the household, so that more women can make sure that their families are well supported?

My hon. Friend makes a good point. The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions has highlighted this and is bringing forward proposals to ensure that the main carer is the recipient. In particular, we are looking at the universal credit application form to ensure that the identification of the bank account can be done in an appropriate way.

I am sure that the Minister is aware of the difficulties that Women’s Aid and other domestic abuse charities have highlighted. Will he explain to the House how those difficulties will be addressed?

That is a very broad question, and I will ensure that the Minister writes to the hon. Gentleman specifically on the work that is being done with Women’s Aid on an ongoing basis. There is a wholehearted strategy on domestic abuse and support for women in this context that is being addressed on a multitude of levels.

The Minister has repeatedly said that split payments would be too difficult and that the Government would therefore be unwilling to consider that option at this time. However, the Scottish Government and the Social Security Minister have proved that it is possible to ensure that split payments are the default. Does he accept that, by not doing this, he is simply compounding financial insecurity and leaving women in potentially perilous situations?

Split payments are available on request. No information is needed to get a split payment. However, 60% of payments are already paid into a woman’s bank account. As I outlined to my hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford (Vicky Ford), main carer recipient work is being done to ensure that this is done on a practical basis.

Women’s Life Expectancy

2. What discussions she has had with Cabinet colleagues on the implications for Government policy of the most recent ONS statistics on women’s life expectancy in the poorest areas of England. (910533)

13. What discussions she has had with Cabinet colleagues on the implications for Government policy of the most recent ONS statistics on women’s life expectancy in the poorest areas of England. (910546)

Preventing health problems is the best way to improve life expectancy. We are taking action on childhood obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disease and action to reduce smoking rates. Later this year, my Department will produce a prevention Green Paper, which will set out cross-Government plans for prevention in greater detail.

In Newcastle, cervical cancer screening rates are significantly lower in more deprived areas of the city, and the recent Macmillan cancer inequalities report showed that more deprived areas had worse access to cancer treatment. This is because people on lower incomes are more likely to be on zero-hour contracts and juggling childcare and other caring responsibilities with work, and therefore less able to access fixed-time appointments in places outside their local community. What is the Minister doing to ensure that the healthcare system reflects the lives of those in the poorest areas and to raise incomes so that we have fewer cancer and health inequalities?

The hon. Lady raises an important point. We know that we need to make it easier to book appointments and more convenient for women to attend them. That is why Sir Mike Richards is undertaking a comprehensive review of screening programmes. It will look at how we can improve the uptake and set out clear recommendations on how we can make those screening programmes more accessible.

ONS figures published in March 2019 show that the life expectancy of women in the poorest UK regions fell by 98 days between 2012 and 2017. Given that this is the first time that that has happened in peacetime since the Victorian era, what conclusions does the Minister draw from the fact that it has happened only since 2010?

The conclusion I draw is to look at Public Health England’s recent review, which made it clear that it is not possible to attribute the slowdown in the improvement of life expectancy to any single cause. That is why we are not complacent, as I said in answer to the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central (Chi Onwurah). The Budget saw us fully fund the situation with a big cash boost, and there will be a prevention Green Paper and we have a prevention vision. All that will contribute towards ensuring that life expectancy, which has not been as good as one would have liked, improves.

Smoking rates among pregnant women, particularly in poorer regions, remain stubbornly high, so what action is my hon. Friend taking to reduce smoking rates in order to make pregnancy and childbirth easier for young people?

As I said in response to the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central (Chi Onwurah), the Government have already put in place prevention programmes to ensure a reduction in smoking rates. The prevention vision and the prevention Green Paper will set out the means by which smoking can be reduced further to support people, pregnant or otherwise.

Life expectancy has fallen for the poorest women over the past nine years. What is the Minister’s analysis of why that has happened?

I answered that question just a moment ago. As I said, Public Health England’s recent review made it clear that it is not possible to attribute the slowdown to any one cause. It is therefore important to tackle all the causes of the deterioration in life expectancy, which is why the Government will publish a prevention Green Paper later this year.

Domestic Abuse: Medical Training

3. What recent discussions she has had with the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care on improving training for frontline medical staff to help identify domestic abuse. (910534)

Tackling domestic abuse is a key priority for this Government. That is why we have put £2 million into expanding the pilot programme, which will create a model health response for survivors of domestic violence and abuse. Training for frontline medical staff to help identify domestic abuse is included in a wide range of training and education curriculums for health staff.

According to Women’s Aid’s “Survival and Beyond” report, 54% of women experiencing sexual and physical abuse meet the criteria for at least one common mental health disorder. I note what the Minister says about training, but what specific domestic abuse training is the Department considering to ensure that it actually happens?

I commend the hon. Lady’s work on the all-party parliamentary group on domestic violence and abuse. She will know that the Department produced a domestic abuse resource for health professionals that advises them on how best to support adults and young people over 16 who are experiencing domestic abuse, and that training is available now.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the publication of a definition of domestic abuse will help frontline staff to identify victims?

My hon. Friend is right. The definition, which also includes factors such as mental health and economic issues, will make things much clearer for frontline staff and help them to understand and look for incidents of domestic violence and abuse.

The most recent survey of women’s prisons shows that nearly 65% of prisoners have had a significant acquired brain injury, which often relates directly to their offending behaviour. The vast majority of the 65% have suffered domestic violence, so should we not be screening every woman as she arrives in prison to ensure that they get the neuro- rehabilitation support they need?

The hon. Gentleman raises an important point, and he will know that the Government have committed extra money to ensure women prisoners get the support they need for neuro problems when they enter prison.

Domestic violence can be extremely damaging for the children who witness it. What is the Minister doing to support those children?

My hon. Friend raises an important point, because domestic violence clearly impacts the whole of family life, and there is evidence that children are also affected. We need to ensure that there are no legal barriers to sharing data to protect children or vulnerable adults, and we need to ensure that the £8 million we are spending will help those children recover from domestic violence.

Health-based independent domestic violence advisers can identify victims of domestic violence that other services are unable to detect. SafeLives, the national domestic abuse charity, suggests that domestic violence often goes undetected among elderly and black, Asian and minority ethnic victims. Surely, by placing these professionals in an A&E environment, countless victims could be identified and helped. Will the Minister commit to placing independent domestic violence advisers in all A&E departments?

The hon. Lady raises an important point. We need to ensure that people are properly triaged for all sorts of diseases when they turn up at A&E, including domestic violence. I will reflect on her point and talk to NHS England about it.

Women Entrepreneurs

Since 2012, 62,949 start-up loans worth £489.5 million have been made to business owners, and 39% of those loans went to female entrepreneurs. In response to the Rose review, an industry-led taskforce will look at driving greater investment in female entrepreneurs by finance providers. The Government are also establishing a new investing in women code, through which financial institutions will take steps to improve the allocation of funding to female entrepreneurs.

It is worrying that the Rose review concluded that only one in three active entrepreneurs is a woman, so will the Minister take action to respond to the recommendations of the Rose review so that more women can turn their great business ideas into great businesses?

I thank my right hon. Friend for highlighting that particular finding. It is our ambition to increase the number of female entrepreneurs by half by 2030. The new investing in women code will drive more funding for women and encourage more women to start businesses. Alison Rose is already taking several recommendations forward with the backing of industry. My right hon. Friend the Minister for Women and Equalities is bringing forward the Government’s strategy to address persistent gender economic barriers facing women across the country at every level.

Is the Minister aware that an increasing number of women entrepreneurs are using digital blockchain tools to start and grow their businesses? Will she meet people who can introduce her to blockchain solutions, and will she say something to her colleagues in the Treasury and the Financial Conduct Authority to encourage such use?

I would be very happy to meet women who are using all manner of tools. I met eBay yesterday, and it talked about the work it is doing to encourage women to start their own businesses. It particularly talked about how it is working with retail businesses in Wolverhampton. I am always available to speak about anything that will encourage women in business—in fact, not just women but all people.

Workplace Harassment

6. What assessment she has made of the potential merits of introducing a duty on employers to prevent workplace harassment. (910537)

The Government strongly condemn sexual harassment in the workplace and are committed to seeing it end. Employers are already responsible for preventing sexual harassment in their workplace and can be held legally liable if they do not, but we are consulting this summer to gather evidence on whether reinforcing this with a proactive duty would lead to better prevention of this terrible practice in the workplace.

Women who work in the retail and hospitality sectors in the UK have little protection when they face workplace harassment, which is something that happens far too often. As last year’s Presidents Club scandal shows, employers have no duty to protect their staff. May I encourage the Minister, when she carries out that review, to give serious consideration to reinstating section 40 of the Equality Act 2010 to give women the protection at work they have every right to deserve?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising this, because it is important; every woman—indeed, every person—should be able to enjoy their place of work without the threat or risk of sexual harassment. I take issue gently with him on section 40. He may know that it was used only twice when it was in force and it had the three strikes approach, which we believe was one reason why it was not used as often as it should have been. We are very open-minded; we have this consultation, and I encourage everyone to participate in it, so that we can find solutions that suit not just employees, but responsible employers.

Has the Minister thought about looking at the system of protected conversations that was introduced by the coalition Government? Given the nature of such conversations, that system could give a licence to employers to engage in harassment in conversations that then, under statute, cannot be quoted at subsequent hearings.

I am happy to look at that. As I say, we will be consulting in the summer. We want also to understand the scale of sexual harassment in the workplace. By definition, it tends to be activity that is hidden and there is stigma to it. We want absolutely to make the point that it is not right for anyone, of any gender, of any sexuality, to suffer this sort of behaviour in the workplace.

Gender Pay Gap

7. What steps she is taking to ensure that businesses are held to account on reducing the gender pay gap. (910538)

Gender pay gap reporting provides transparency for everyone in holding employers to account, and many organisations already recognise that closing the gap makes good business sense. I am writing to public sectors employers who are within scope of the regulations to urge them to develop action plans, and meeting influential business leaders to press them to take action in their sectors to make the best of the potential that their female employees can provide to them.

I am grateful to the Minister for that answer. What early assessment has she made of successful business compliance performance compared with that of last year?

Before I answer that, I feel obliged to wish my hon. Friend good luck in the London marathon this weekend, as I do to all Members of this House who will be running those 26 miles—we hope it will be good weather.

I am sure the whole House joins me in being delighted that we have exceeded last year’s compliance levels, with 95% of all employers believed to be in scope in the regulations having reported their data by the deadlines. We are confident that 100% compliance will be achieved shortly, and we have already seen the reporting rates rise to 98%.

When across 45% of firms the discrepancy in pay increase is in favour of men this year, it is now clear that the Government’ s policy of asking companies simply to report on the gender pay gap is not enough. I welcome the Minister’s response to the question about encouraging people, but will she now heed our advice and make it mandatory for companies also to produce action plans on how they will defeat this inequality against women?

I thank the hon. Lady for her question, and I know she shares my enthusiasm and determination on this point. She will be pleased that already just under 50% of employers within scope are publishing their own action plans—they are doing that because they understand it makes good business sense. We believe that this is the best approach. Interestingly, 56% of employers have reported either reductions in their gender pay gaps or the fact that they are staying the same. There is a great deal of work to do, but we have to bring business with us; businesses have to realise that it makes good business sense to close their gap and to treat their female staff properly. We believe that by encouraging them we will bring about the best result.

I welcome the progress that has been made in closing the gender pay gap and increasing the representation of women on company boards, but what are the Government doing to support low-paid, low-skilled women, who often seem to be left out of the conversation?

My hon. Friend has distilled into his question the important point that the gender pay gap is not just about the heads of companies—directors and so on—important though that aspect is; it is also about helping women at the very lowest ends of the pay scales. We want to encourage them to seek better jobs and have better incomes. That is precisely why my right hon. Friend the Minister for Women and Equalities is setting out a strong strategy on economic empowerment for women, so that they are treated fairly in the workplace, no matter their pay level, and ensuring that employers realise that if they are going to get the best of their workforce, they need to pay their female staff properly.

Universal Credit: Effect on Women

8. What recent discussions she has had with the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions on the effect of the roll-out of universal credit on women. (910539)

Universal credit treats all genders equally, and female employment is at a record high. The changes to the tax threshold and the national living wage and the increases to the universal credit work allowance will specifically assist women more on an ongoing basis.

On behalf of the Go Girls, a group of young parents in Newport, may I raise with the Minister one of the unfairnesses of the universal credit system? Lone parents who are under 25 get paid a lower rate than they would have been paid under tax credits, causing great hardship to young parents and children. Will the Minister help me to lobby the Department for Work and Pensions on the issue?

I note the point, which I have discussed with the hon. Lady previously. I am happy for the Minister with responsibility for this specific matter to sit down with the hon. Lady and her particular constituents to ensure that it is addressed, but I should make the point that this April we brought in the £1,000 increase to the UC work allowance, which should make a difference in the interim, before such a conversation takes place.

Topical Questions

It is incredibly important to provide support and a route back to work for people who have taken time out to care for others, and we want to find out the most effective way of doing so. Today, I am announcing that, as part of our returners programme, we are awarding grants to the Greater Manchester Centre for Voluntary Organisation; to One Ark in Liverpool; to the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, for projects in Yorkshire and Humber; and to Carer Support Wiltshire. These grants will be used for a number of initiatives to make it easier for people to return to the labour market and to discover how best to keep people economically active.

The housing association Habinteg recently launched a new advisory group for disabled people. The group has highlighted the impact that not having an accessible home has on people’s employment, health and wellbeing. Will the Minister agree to meet representatives of the group to discuss their real concerns?

There is no excuse for new build homes especially not to be accessible. The Global Disability Innovation Hub set a challenge and has demonstrated that accessible homes can be built with no greater footprint and at no greater cost, so there is no excuse for local authorities not to do so. I would be happy to meet those representatives, and will suggest that to the Minister for Disabled People, too.

T2. The Government have embarked on a significant programme of improvements to the transport system. Will they use their position in the public procurement process to support efforts to get more women working in construction, engineering and the railways? (910548)

My right hon. Friend raises an important point, and the Government take these issues very seriously. For example, our apprenticeship diversity champions network is working in partnership with employers to help to overcome gender stereotypes in sectors such as science, technology, engineering and maths and industries such as construction. My right hon. Friend will be pleased to know that since 2010 there has been a 26% increase in the number of girls entering STEM A-levels in England, and that in the United Kingdom the number of women accepted on to full-time STEM undergraduate courses since 2010 has increased by 28%.

On 22 April, we marked the very first National Stephen Lawrence Day. It has been 26 years since his tragic racist murder. Sadly, as the Prime Minister acknowledged, racism and racial discrimination are still very prevalent in our society.

In 2018, the UN special rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance stated that any measure that directly or indirectly targets and undermines the rights of marginalised groups must be understood as breaking international human rights law. This Government have presided over an immigration enforcement system in which people are being unfairly racially profiled; refused to allow people to bring forward discrimination claims based on more than one aspect of their identity; introduced voter ID, which will disenfranchise marginalised communities; failed to act on the results of their own racial disparity audit; and introduced hostile-environment policies. Will the Minister inform the House whether, as well as breaking the UN’s human rights law, her Government are institutionally racist or just do not care?

The hon. Lady raises some very important issues. I am sorry about the tone of her question, because I do not recognise the attitude that she implies among my colleagues, including the Prime Minister, who has done some groundbreaking work in this area. What I would say to her and other hon. Members who rightly are concerned about these issues is that part of the motivation for moving the Government Equalities Office into the Cabinet Office, so that it can sit alongside the race disparity team, is to look at these things in the round. As well as the issues that she identified, individuals in this country face multiple discrimination. For example, an enormous number of people sleeping on the streets in London are young, gay, black men. Only by working together and looking at the disaggregated data will we really understand how we can improve lives for everyone in this country.

Being part of the LGBT community is not a lifestyle choice and learning about LGBT issues is not what makes someone gay, lesbian or trans. What is being done by the Government to ensure that those outdated views have no place in our future society?

I welcome my hon. Friend’s question. We have been clear in introducing relationships education and relationships and sex education that they are designed to foster respect for others and for difference, and to educate pupils about the different types of healthy relationships. Teaching about the diverse society that we live in can be delivered in a way that respects everyone’s views.

T3. Because of the huge regional variations in maternity pay, according to the Fire Brigades Union’s women’s committee, most firefighters would be better off breaking a leg than having a baby. Will the Government consider an increased and properly enforced flat rate of maternity pay to tackle the gender and regional inequalities present in our fire service? (910550)

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her FBU question. I would suggest that the FBU—[Interruption.] I have said this before, because it concerns me that there are no women on the FBU executive council. If the fire brigades workforce are to be looked after as we want them to be—Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary recently published a report looking at facilities for female firefighters across the country and was concerned to see, for example, two services with no designated shower facilities for female firefighters—then these changes must be made from the very top of our fire brigade community, making sure that women’s voices are heard, because they are absolutely essential as part of our firefighting workforce.

Department of Health guidance in Northern Ireland says that Northern Ireland doctors referring women to GEO-funded free abortions in England could be breaking the criminal law. Will the Minister publish her legal advice to enable the Department of Health to change that guidance, which surely is erroneous? Will she update the House on what she is doing to help women in Northern Ireland, such as Sarah Ewart and others, who are being required by law to continue pregnancies where doctors have already told them that their babies will die before they are born or shortly after?

May I start by thanking my right hon. Friend and the Women and Equalities Committee for an incredibly important piece of work? It not only looked at the legal and human rights issues, but got on record public opinion and the opinion of healthcare and legal professionals in Northern Ireland and showed the complete paucity of care being endured by women in Northern Ireland. With specific regard to the legal advice, I clarified in my evidence to her Committee via a letter that the legal advice that we received when the scheme was set up meant that it would not be a crime to refer to those services and that the issue that she raised in her question does not stand.

I have also met with the Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Jackie Doyle-Price), who looks at health inequalities. She believes that she already has the powers to provide guidance to ensure that no one is deterred from referring someone to a healthcare service that they need, and where their life may be in danger if they do not receive it, because of fear that doing so might be a crime. That is completely bogus, and she has undertaken to do that immediately. However, there is obviously more to do to put right this issue—with apologies for adding to my answer, Mr Speaker—so that every citizen of the United Kingdom can have the healthcare services that they need.

We are running very late. I can live with that because my intention is, as always, to accommodate Back-Bench Members, but they could help each other by now contenting themselves with single-sentence questions.

T4. What are the Government concretely doing to keep their promise to keep under review their rejection of lasting national legislation to protect women who enter abortion clinics? Ealing’s pioneering buffer zone is now a year old, but it is going to need renewal. Councils are cash strapped and the Government have said that not enough women are being harmed. How many would it take— (910551)

Order. I am sorry, but I clearly said that Members should be asking single-sentence questions. People have to be able to adjust. It is not difficult.

I am grateful to the hon. Lady, who has done a great deal of work on this issue in her constituency. We are keeping this matter under review. We are keen that local councils are able to use the powers that they have under the antisocial behaviour laws, if appropriate in their areas.

Recent research shows that the HPV vaccine has led to a dramatic decline in cervical cancer. Having a vaccination saves lives, so can we use this opportunity to urge mums and dads across the UK to ensure that their kids have the measles vaccine?

My hon. Friend is exactly right. The evidence is clear that the MMR vaccine is safe and effective. Mums and dads should ensure that their children are vaccinated.

T5. EVA Women’s Aid in my constituency, which deals with nearly 1,000 vulnerable women a year, has had its rape and sexual abuse support fund grant cut, forcing it to look to close services. Will the Minister join me in urging her colleagues at the Ministry of Justice, which funds the organisation, to reconsider these cuts before crucial services to vulnerable women in Redcar and Cleveland are lost? (910552)

As the hon. Lady will know, we are doing a great deal to support women, and men, who have suffered from domestic violence. The Domestic Abuse Bill is currently being looked at. The Government have pledged an additional £20 million over this Parliament to support victims and organisations combating domestic abuse. Women’s Aid does a fantastic job.

In light of recent objection to the Hereditary Titles (Female Succession) Bill of my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) that would address the discrimination against daughters when it comes to inheritance, when do the Government intend to end the practice of male primogeniture?

The Daughters’ Rights campaign was started after one new mum was told that her new arrival being a girl must have been a disappointment to her. This matter and the issue of courtesy titles are complex matters, but we do need to look at them in this modern age. My Department is working on that, and I welcome the Daughters’ Rights campaign.

T6. The Minister said that there was more to do in relation to abortion services in Northern Ireland. Will she set out how, with the absence of the Northern Ireland Executive, she will work across Government to ensure that there is a clear framework and timeline for stopping the breaches of women’s human rights in Northern Ireland and for when we will be compliant with the convention on the elimination of all forms of discrimination against women? (910553)

The Northern Ireland Office has the lead on this issue, and it is waiting on a potential declaration of incompatibility. There has never been a case of such a declaration being issued and the Government not taking action. I alluded earlier to the fact that I am focusing on what we can do with the powers that we have to ensure that, within the current restrictions, every woman who needs particular healthcare services has access to them.

Shared parental leave is a good option for families, but take-up remains low. Will my right hon. Friend join me in urging the Business Secretary to introduce a standalone period of parental leave just for partners, to give families more choices and help women to balance work and family?

I congratulate my hon. Friend on the work that she has been doing to campaign on this issue, along with a number of our Conservative colleagues. We are looking at this as part of the women’s economic empowerment strategy. We want parents to have the choice as to how they share caring responsibilities, and we know that there are practical, as well as cultural, barriers to them doing so.

T7. When will the Government consult on changes to the law to protect employees from being sexually harassed by customers or clients? It was announced last December. When will it take place? (910554)

The hon. Lady may have heard my answer to a previous question. We will consult in the summer on sexual harassment in the workplace and I would encourage her and all colleagues across the House to contribute to that consultation.

Against the background of the highest ever level of employment in our country’s history, which employment rate is growing faster—male or female?

Can the Minister detail what the terms of reference will be for the period poverty taskforce and confirm how many members will be chosen to ensure diverse representation?

I refer the hon. Lady to a written ministerial statement I tabled this week for an update. The first meeting of the taskforce will be in June, and we will be making announcements about who will be on it, but it will have three co-chairs: one from Government, one from the private sector and one from the charity and social sector.

In the response to the consultation on the Gender Recognition Act 2004, what consideration is being given to the approach of the International Association of Athletics Federations and its use of testosterone levels to determine whether a trans athlete competes in a women’s or a men’s race?

The hon. Lady raises an important issue, although it is slightly separate from the very narrow remit of the Gender Recognition Act. Every Department is facing all sorts of issues in relation to trans people, so we have brought together a team of Ministers and officials across Government to make sure that policy is where it needs to be. I have also had separate meetings with the Minister for Sport to discuss both elite and community sport. Many of these decisions, particularly at the elite level, are for sporting bodies to lead on, although there are safety issues as well. I can assure her that these will be ongoing meetings across all Departments and that we will make sure that every Department provides services and support and has the right policies in place for modern times.

Will the Minister confirm the Government’s position on whether the automatic parental right of men who have fathered children through rape should be removed?

I know that the hon. Lady is passionate about this, and I am pleased she has taken up this very important campaign. The Ministry of Justice is looking very closely at it. I have mentioned before that the civil procedure rule committee is looking at the issue she has raised in the past about applications to court. It will have a further meeting at the beginning of May, and I will be very happy to update her on that when the meeting has taken place.

Not now. We have three urgent questions and a business statement. There will be points of order in due course.

UK Telecoms: Huawei

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport to make a statement on the future role of Huawei in UK telecoms infrastructure.

The security and resilience of the United Kingdom’s telecoms networks is of paramount importance. The UK has one of the world’s largest and most dynamic economies, and we welcome open trade and inward investment in our digital sectors, but at the same time the UK’s economy can only prosper when we and our international partners are assured that our critical national infrastructure remains safe and secure.

As part of our plans to provide world-class digital connectivity, including 5G, my Department has been carrying out a cross-Whitehall evidence-based review of the supply chain to ensure a diverse and secure supply base. The review aims to ensure stronger cyber-security across the entire telecommunications sector, greater resilience in telecommunications networks and diversity across the entire 5G supply chain. It has considered the full UK market position, including economic prosperity, corporate and consumer effects and the quality, resilience and security of equipment.

Despite the inevitable focus on Huawei, the review is not solely about one company or even one country. We have to strike a difficult balance between security and prosperity, and recognise the reality of globalised networks and supply chains, although I will make it clear that our security interests are pre-eminent and that has been the focus of this review. That is the way to ensure that the UK fully realises the potential of 5G through its safe and secure deployment.

As would be expected given the importance of the subject, it is a thorough review of a complex area, which has made use of the best available expert advice and evidence, including from the National Cyber Security Centre. It will report with its conclusions once ministerial decisions have been taken. The review is an important step in strengthening the UK’s security framework for telecoms and ensuring the secure roll-out of 5G and full-fibre networks.

I am sure that the House will understand that National Security Council discussions should be confidential, and will understand why that must be the case. However, I know that Members on both side of the House feel strongly on this issue and I will make a statement to the House to communicate final decisions at the appropriate time.

Thank you for granting this urgent question today, Mr Speaker.

What a mess we are in. The only reason we know of the decision to green-light Huawei is from an apparent ministerial leak of a meeting of the National Security Council, which has served only to raise public concern while undermining the integrity of our security agencies. Let me be clear from this side of the House: if a Minister did leak this information, they are not fit to serve in the cabinet and are certainly not fit to be Prime Minister. Indeed, if the leak was for an advantage in a Tory leadership race, that would be truly shocking. Critical issues of national security should be handled with utmost care, not used as political ammunition in a Tory party civil war. A full leak inquiry should be undertaken, and if identified, the individual should immediately resign or be removed from their position.

Turning to the substance of the question, the decision to allow Huawei’s involvement in building our 5G network raises some extremely serious questions that must be answered if we are to provide the public with concrete assurances about the integrity and safety of the network. Huawei is a company known from multiple public reports from our security services to manufacture sub-optimal equipment, often at a lower than average cost. Can the Minister clarify if the equipment described just two weeks ago by the technical director of the NCSC as “very, very shoddy” will be the same equipment green-lit for deployment in our networks?

We heard last month in a report from the Huawei oversight board, chaired by the head of the NCSC, that it still has only limited assurance that the long-term security risks presented by Huawei can be managed, and it is still identifying significant issues. For the benefit of the House, can the Minister confirm that is still the opinion of the security services when the Prime Minister has decided to allow them access to our 5G networks for the decades to come?

We need not listen only to the security services: listen to Huawei itself. In a letter to the Chair of the Science and Technology Committee in February, it said that it will take three to five years to see tangible results from its reform programme. Just weeks after those warnings, why has the company been given the go-ahead to help to build our critical national infrastructure?

Why are we in this situation today? Ultimately, the chronic lack of investment by the Government has meant that we are without thriving digital or manufacturing industries capable of producing this equipment, leaving us reliant on foreign suppliers. To that end, the Government must be called out for their negligence. The only way we will keep Britain safe and secure in the 21st century is by investing in our industries, rebuilding Britain and always placing security ahead of cost. That is exactly what a Labour Government would do.

First, let me repeat what I said a moment or two ago. A final decision has not been made on this subject, so the hon. Lady is wrong to describe matters in the way that she has. However, I entirely agree with what she said about the leak of any discussions in the National Security Council. As she says, there is good reason for such discussions to be confidential, and I hope the House will understand that I do not intend to discuss here, or anywhere other than in the National Security Council, the matters that should be discussed there. The reason we do not is that officials, including the security and intelligence agents she has referred to in her remarks, which I will come back to, need to feel that they can give advice to Ministers that Ministers will treat seriously and keep private. If they do not feel that, they will not give us that advice, and government will be worse as a result. That is why this is serious, and that is why the Government intend to treat it seriously, as she and the whole House would expect.

I shall now respond to the other points that the hon. Lady raised. She made reference, quite properly, to the work of the oversight board. Of course the oversight board is evidence of the fact that we have arrangements in place for the management of Huawei technology that do not exist for the management of equipment supplied by others; there is reason for that. The oversight board’s concerns are, as she says, about the technical deficiencies of the equipment that Huawei is supplying. They are serious concerns; they need to be addressed. They are not, as she will recognise, concerns about the manipulation of that equipment by foreign powers, but they are none the less serious and they will be addressed. The objective of this review is to ensure that the security of the supply network, regardless of who the equipment supplier is, is improved. That is our objective, and it would be wrong to focus entirely on Huawei, or even, as I said, on Chinese equipment.

However, it is worth recognising that Chinese equipment —and, indeed, Huawei equipment—is prevalent across the world, not just in the United Kingdom. There is a good deal of Huawei equipment already in the UK networks, so we are not talking about beginning from a standing start, but it reinforces, in my view, the need to ensure that this review of the supply chain is broadly based—as it is—to ensure that we address the security of the network, regardless of where the equipment comes from.

Finally, on the issue of the security and intelligence agencies, as the hon. Lady would expect, we take full account of what the security and intelligence agencies have advised us on this subject, and she has my reassurance, as does the House, that we will continue to take seriously what they tell us, because it is a key component of the review that is being conducted—and that is being conducted, as I have indicated, with the full input of the National Cyber Security Centre.

My right hon. and learned Friend is quite right to make no comment at all on an apparent leak from an organisation like the National Security Council. But questions must be asked as to why a document such as this, of such huge national and international security importance, was being discussed openly at the National Security Council, and indeed the content of the document itself equally is worthy of much further inquiry across Whitehall and in this place. Would my right hon. and learned Friend perhaps welcome an inquiry by the Joint Committee on the National Security Strategy, on which I serve, into the document, the way it was handled by the National Security Council, and the way in which the leak occurred?

I think it is entirely appropriate for the Committee on which my hon. Friend serves to make inquiries as it thinks fit. It is not a matter for me or for the Government to indicate what it should or should not do. He will recognise, of course, that these are documents that should be discussed by the National Security Council—it is a way in which the National Security Council can make sensible and properly informed decisions—but as I said a moment or so ago, and as he knows full well from his own experience, that will become less and less likely to happen, and decisions will get less and less properly based, if we cannot trust people to keep private what should be kept private.

As I see it, there are two major considerations. In the UK we are lagging behind China, the USA and South Korea. The fact that we are even talking about this issue is a strong indication that there has been a lack of a realistic UK Government-backed strategy, and that has allowed us to fall behind, and we are now facing tough decisions, which could and should have been avoided. There is the threat of espionage, which is obviously denied by China. There have been persistent rumours since 2012 of an elite cyber-warfare unit using either Huawei’s software or flaws in it. Why it should go to such lengths when the NSC leaks like a sieve is beyond me, but if we do not know, how we can possibly take that risk?

I have two brief questions for the Secretary of State. Can he define the “core” and the “edge” of a 5G network and assure me that it cannot be compromised from either side? As EE is building 4G to carry emergency services, with its planned 5G piggybacking on that, will Huawei’s 5G plan disrupt that service?

First, there is no lack of UK strategy. We have a clear intent to make maximum use of 5G technology. That is important because, as the hon. Gentleman will recognise, in order for our economic development to be as successful as we all want it to be, this country will need to embrace this technology and make use of it in a variety of ways. The option of simply saying we will not engage in 5G technology is not available to us, nor should it be, and I know he does not argue for that.

If we need to provide for 5G networks, I repeat that it is important to be realistic and to recognise that Huawei is a significant player in this market. There are few others—and, by the way, the others that exist use Chinese equipment or assemble their components in China. The idea that any option available to us could completely exclude Chinese equipment or involvement of any kind is, I am afraid, not realistic.

It is also worth saying, for the reassurance of the hon. Gentleman and others, that we already take action to, for example, exclude Huawei from sensitive networks. There is no Huawei equipment in defence or intelligence networks. The division between core and access networks—which, as he says, is technically complex—is something we will need to address in the review, but I would much prefer that we discuss that review in the round when it has been properly developed, rather than attempt to do it piecemeal on the back of incomplete leaks.

The Secretary of State talks about coming to the House with a final decision. Is this not an opportunity to have a wide-ranging debate about this issue? There are many technical, political and security considerations. If the US and Australia can block Huawei without damaging their trading relationships with China, it raises the question of why the United Kingdom could not do the same.

I recognise my hon. Friend’s considerable interest and expertise in this field. I will say two things to him. First, he is entirely right that Australia has decided to exclude Huawei completely from these systems. The United States has not yet made such a decision. It does so from federal networks, but it has not yet decided what its approach will be in the areas we are considering.

As my hon. Friend knows, I always welcome wide-ranging debate and am happy to come to the House for it. The difficulty is that, in order to have such debate, we need to have access to material that is very hard to share with the House. That is why these discussions are had at the National Security Council and why decisions must, in the end, be reached there. It is then the responsibility of Ministers—I take this responsibility seriously—to come to the House and explain those decisions to the greatest extent possible, with those caveats. I always intended to do so and still intend to do so.

I do not answer for the Australian Government; the hon. Lady would have to ask them. We are all—this applies particularly to Five Eyes partners—wrestling with these complex questions, and we may reach differing conclusions. There is good sense in having those conversations as extensively and often as we can. In fact, the Government will be doing so shortly with security and intelligence partners, and I have no doubt that this subject will be high on the agenda.

Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that partners—in fact, our closest intelligence partners—have been very clear in their views on this decision? Indeed, the Australian Signals Directorate made a very clear statement only a number of months ago in which it said that there was no such division between core and non-core, because the nature of 5G includes the whole gamut of the technology in one, and therefore the distinction possible in 3G and 4G is no longer feasible.

Does my right hon. and learned Friend also agree that this is not simply a technical issue—arguing about whether we would be vulnerable to espionage in a broad sense or whether Huawei would be able to hoover up the digital exhaust that is in fact the gold mine for so many businesses today—but a diplomatic one, undermining the trust that has built the 70-year relationship we know as the Five Eyes community, which keeps threats away from our shores and ensures the security of our citizens around the world? Does he not therefore see that this is fundamentally a diplomatic and political question, just as much as a technical one, and that respecting our Five Eyes partners is an essential part of the decision?

On my hon. Friend’s last point, I entirely agree. It is important that we do not just discuss these matters with our partners, but have rather more complex and detailed technical discussions about the precise restrictions we may all seek to impose, and there is no lack of respect for what they say in this. Of course, many of our Five Eyes partners are operating under some difficulty, as Members of this House are, in that they do not know all of the decision making because some of it is not yet complete.

It is worth recognising that my hon. Friend is right that the concerns our partners have expressed are legitimate concerns. We listen very carefully to what they say, and we listen very carefully too to what our own security and intelligence agencies say. For reasons he will appreciate perhaps better than almost anyone else in this House, I do not intend to go into any detail about that, but I repeat my reassurance that we will act in full consideration of what they say, because it is an important and fundamental part of this review.

This leak is not only embarrassing, but, I am afraid, symptomatic of a wider breakdown of discipline and collective responsibility in the Government. This decision should be taking into account both our national security needs and our technological requirements for the future. Those should be the only two things under consideration by Ministers, not their own political share price or anything else. Can the Secretary of State assure the House that, in our altered post-Brexit geopolitical position, there is no question of future trade requirements or the urgency of a trade deal with China influencing national security judgments?

I agree with what the right hon. Gentleman has said about the importance of this decision and the considerations that legitimately play a part. This decision will be taken by the Government as a whole, but the recommendations of this review have been produced by my Department in collaboration with the intelligence agencies, particularly the National Cyber Security Centre, as I have said. We have done that with the country’s security considerations pre-eminent among the issues that are discussed and will be put forward at that review. That will remain the case for as long as I lead this Department and have anything to say about it.

We are only here today because there has been a leak. That is incredibly regrettable for the whole of the House—I have heard that opinion from both sides of the House—and national security could not be a more important topic for all of us to be discussing. I am a little concerned that the leak may be trivialised by saying that it is as a result of someone’s leadership campaign. I am more concerned that it may be as a result of whistleblowing, because the process is so concerning to someone that they have felt the need to break the bond of trust that has existed for so long.

I accept that the review is going on at the moment in great secrecy, but since this has now been brought out into the open, can my right hon. and learned Friend assure the House that absolutely every consideration will be given to all the concerns that have been raised by hon. Members here today about both our relationship with countries such as Australia and our cyber-security and national security? Importantly, will he make sure that some concept of future deals with China is not colouring what we must now have absolutely at the forefront of our mind—the safety of the British public?

Yes, I can give my hon. Friend that assurance. That will indeed be the focus of this review, as she has just heard me say. I do not think that the motivation for this leak matters in the slightest. This was unacceptable, and it is corrosive of the ability to deliver good government, which is something for which we must all take responsibility. In discussions of this kind, people are entitled to express whatever views they wish—and they do—but once the discussion has been held, collective responsibility requires that people do not repeat their views publicly, and they certainly should not discuss matters that have a security implication of this kind. I think that is clear, and the majority of Members of the House will agree. We will return to the substance of this issue when I have the opportunity to speak rather more freely than I can at the moment, and I will of course give the House as much detail as I can.

Protecting this country’s national security must be non-negotiable, but there have also been reports, including in The Daily Telegraph, that Chinese technology companies have been complicit in the internal repression of ethnic Muslims in western China. That involves the internment of hundreds of thousands of people in “re-education” camps, and the creation of a surveillance state, and it is possible that that includes Huawei. Is the Secretary of State aware of any allegations that specifically involve Huawei, and if so, should we be doing business with a company that engages in that sort of activity?

As the right hon. Gentleman says, our concerns about Huawei are at least in part due to the potential interlocking nature of what it does and what the Chinese state does. That lies at the heart of our concerns, hence the oversight mechanisms with which he is familiar. We will, of course, take full account not just of what he has said, but of all our other information when making our judgment. He will understand that the involvement of the intelligence and security agencies in that process is fundamental and integral, and it means that we can get a good sense of the sort of information he describes.

I am not encouraging my right hon. and learned Friend to comment on the substance of leak, but while that leak might become the subject of a criminal investigation, does he agree it is important that people both in and outside this House choose their words carefully when talking about what happened yesterday?

I agree with my hon. Friend, as she would expect, and she speaks with experience on this matter. We cannot exclude the possibility of a criminal investigation, and everybody will want to take that suggestion seriously. We are all entitled to say what many of us have already said about the undesirability of this kind of leak, and it is perfectly proper for the House to express its concern in such a way.