House of Commons
Thursday 17 October 2019
The House met at half-past Nine o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
I am a big supporter of the WTO, but it does need reform. When the UK takes up its independent seat at the WTO for the first time in many years, we will strongly be backing the rules-based multilateral trading system and making the case for reform.
10 December—the date on which the WTO appellate body crisis will come to a head—is looming ever closer. Can the Secretary of State confirm that she will follow the European Union in working to restore an operational appellate body, and will she tell us what conversations she has had with her United States counterpart regarding that urgent need?
When I was at the WTO in Geneva last week, I met David Walker, who is currently leading work to resolve the appellate body crisis. I have given him my full support in that work. It will require movement on behalf of the EU and the US to find a solution to this crisis, but it is vital that we fix this in order to keep the WTO going.
As well as undermining the dispute settlement system, the US is threatening the principles that support developing economies and imposing tariffs for political ends. How does my right hon. Friend propose that the UK stands up for the rules-based order while trying to negotiate a trade deal with the US?
My hon. Friend is right that the rules- based order is very important. Last week we got the support of all the Trade Ministers of the Commonwealth, who represent a third of the world’s population, to make the case for an immediate resolution to the WTO appellate body crisis and for a rules-based order. As she says, it is particularly important for the smaller countries that do not have the muscle to make their way in trade negotiations to be able to rely on the WTO to resolve disputes.
The WTO needs to reform to reflect trade in the 21st century. It needs to become more transparent. We also need to deal with issues such as state-owned enterprises, forced technology transfer and intellectual property, ensuring that these matters are resolved within the WTO. But we also need an appellate body system that works for all WTO members, which is why I am supporting David Walker from New Zealand, who is conducting the review. I urge the US, the EU and all other parties to work together to resolve this situation.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Since the repeal of the corn laws, the UK has stood up for free trade. We were one of the founding members of the general agreement on tariffs and trade in 1947. There is a huge opportunity for us as we leave the EU to retake our independent seat, to make the case for free trade and to be prepared to stand up for the values that we believe in as a country.
Will the Secretary of State wake up? She sounds almost as if she is in a trance this morning. Instead of talking to significant people in the WTO, will she come to my constituency of Huddersfield to meet exporting companies and top managers there, who believe that she is sticking a dagger into the heart of this country’s exporting companies? We want to know what the future is for exporting businesses in Yorkshire when we leave the EU, if we have to leave the EU.
Well, I can tell the hon. Gentleman that I am going to be in Yorkshire next Friday, visiting and talking to exporting businesses such as Bettys of Harrogate and Burberry in Leeds. If he wants to extend an invitation to me to visit an exporting business in Huddersfield, he should get on with it.
Absolutely. One of the great benefits of trade is the prosperity it can bring to some of the poorest countries in the world. Part of our no-deal tariff schedule is about ensuring that those countries are supported, but we will have a huge opportunity to open up more trade once we leave the EU. At the Commonwealth Trade Ministers meeting, we talked about just that.
We all wish to see reform of the WTO and a functioning dispute resolution system, but given that the UK is responsible for 3.4% of global trade compared with the EU being responsible for 35%—a full third—of global trade, is it not the case that the UK’s influence inside the WTO is now massively diminished?
One of the groups we are working very closely with is our Commonwealth partners. We are developing a Commonwealth caucus at the WTO that represents a third of the world’s population and has a very strong stake in making sure that the WTO works for small states, in particular. Of course we will work with the EU and of course we will work with the US when it is in our mutual interests, but the fact is that the EU has pursued protectionist policies, and that has not necessarily helped some of the least-developed nations. I believe that the UK will have a unique voice, particularly in favour of free trade.
We know that the new Secretary of State can do the impossible, because recently she announced that for the past 45 years the UK had been a member of the WTO—which was only founded in 1995. So will she now inform the House of how she has resolved the challenge that 20 or so members of the WTO have lodged against the UK’s proposed new bound tariff and quota schedules, and of what provisional sum she has agreed with the Chancellor to pay any successful claims?
The UK was a founder member of GATT, which then became the WTO. As the hon. Gentleman knows, by his definition we would only have been in the EU since 1993, because previously we were in the European Community, as I am sure he has said.
Of course we will work through the issues on the goods schedules at the WTO, and we are doing precisely that at Geneva. Those schedules are all ready to go in the event of no deal. Of course, what we want is a deal, and the Prime Minister is currently in Brussels working very hard to get that. If that is what the hon. Gentleman wants, I suggest that he votes for it.
EU Trade Agreements: Roll-over
In preparation for our exit from the European Union, the Government have, to date, secured 16 continuity trade agreements with 46 countries. Trade with those countries represents 72% of the UK’s total trade. I am pleased to inform the House that only last week my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State signed another agreement with the Southern African Customs Union and Mozambique to roll over the existing EU trade agreements that we have with them.[Official Report, 31 October 2019, Vol. 667, c. 4MC.]
The Minister says there are 16 agreements, but given the Government’s clear broken promise to roll over at least 40 trade deals by one minute after midnight on 31 March, two Brexit extensions ago, have they carried out any assessment of the economic loss that will result if—I will say if, not when—we are unable to secure a trade deal with all the countries that the EU already has an existing arrangement with?
I am sorry that the hon. Lady has not welcomed the efforts that the Government and officials have made to make this incredibly successful transition. These deals account for over £100 billion-worth of our current trade, and they are warmly welcomed by the businesses that trade beyond the borders of the European Union. I will tell her what assessment we have made on the European Union: we have made an assessment that it would be deeply damaging for our democracy if we do not honour the referendum of 2016.
We remain absolutely committed to ensuring a level playing field. The United Kingdom has been one of the leading international advocates of a rules-based order. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said, we are committed to playing our full part in the WTO, and we are absolutely committed to having a trade resolution body up and running and formally underpinned by statute. This is the boring bit—the continuity bit. The exciting bit comes when we leave the European Union and we can strike out with new, comprehensive free trade agreements around the world.
Despite the existing architecture, despite not needing to reinvent the wheel, despite not starting from zero—we could just follow the work the European Union has done—and despite the promise to do this by one minute after midnight, the slow progress in these trade agreements surely does not bode well for any of the future trade agreements that the Government talk about ad nauseam. Meanwhile, the UK Government are endangering the trading potential of companies in the UK. When will the other 24 be done?
The Trade Bill was supposed to govern the roll-over of EU trade deals, but the Government abandoned it in the last Session because they knew that they would lose votes on important amendments, including on scrutiny and parliamentary approval. Can the Minister confirm that the Government will carry over those vital provisions into the new trade Bill, so that elected Members of this Parliament can properly scrutinise all trade agreements, to prevent our NHS, food standards and environmental protections from being traded away to President Trump?
As a distinguished parliamentarian, the hon. Lady knows how this House works. She will have ample opportunity to scrutinise the trade Bill during its passage through Parliament and, if she wishes, to make amendments to the Bill, which can then be considered by the House. I wish that the Opposition would stop peddling this lie, which is worrying people, about the NHS and the United States. The Prime Minister has made it repeatedly clear that the NHS is not on the table in any trade agreement. She should stop scaremongering.
Scotch Whisky Tariffs
We are extremely disappointed that the US has decided to levy tariffs, including on the Scotch whisky industry. I have urged my US counterpart to rethink this, and the Prime Minister has also raised the issue with President Trump.
In the days following this announcement, the Government were asleep at the wheel. We now have only 12 hours before this tariff is implemented. What action will the Secretary of State take in the next 12 hours to delay this? If she cannot delay it, what will she do to mitigate the impact, particularly on small and medium-sized distillers, which rely so heavily on the US market?
I have been raising this issue with my US counterpart since July, when I first met Bob Lighthizer. I have also raised it with Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross. I have made it clear to the Americans that it is not helpful in terms of our relationship with them to see these tariffs placed on such an iconic industry, among other industries in the UK.
I welcome my right hon. Friend’s efforts. In my recent urgent question I asked the Prime Minister to speak to the President, and he did, but I also asked that consideration be given to an announcement that the UK would not levy tariffs on bourbon when we left the EU. Can she tell us something about her consideration of that?
When we leave the EU, the UK will be responsible for its own tariff policy. At this point we are part of the EU and those overall discussions on tariffs, so we cannot make that type of statement. The point I have been making to the US is that this will not help our relationship. We are also being threatened with £1.2 billion of car tariffs, which could hit the UK on 14 November, and I have raised that with my US counterpart. If the US wants the British public to have a positive view of our trading relationship with it, it needs to reverse these decisions.
Scotch whisky producers will have difficulties with the tariffs that will fall on their whiskies, but the Republic of Ireland will have no tariffs whatsoever. Echlinville distillery in my constituency is an Irish whiskey producer. What is being done to help Bushmills and Echlinville distilleries, which are very important to jobs in my constituency and across Northern Ireland?
My understanding is that the Republic of Ireland has been hit with tariffs on other products. These retaliatory tariffs following the Airbus dispute have been levied on a number of European countries. The point I have been making to the Americans is that the UK has complied with the WTO ruling. We are not in breach of that ruling any more, and we have met all the compliance stats.
The Secretary of State is aware that my constituency is severely affected by a number of the tariffs applied by the US. What will she be doing in the next 12 hours to at least delay these tariffs being implemented? If they are, unfortunately, implemented, what can be done to get them removed as quickly as possible?
I am aware of the fantastic whisky distilleries—in fact, I visited Macallan with my hon. Friend very recently—and they are an incredibly important part of the Scottish economy, but also an iconic brand for the UK. I am hosting a roundtable with affected industries this afternoon, and the Chancellor is currently over in the US speaking to his counterpart as well. We are putting as much pressure as we can on the United States on this issue. We will also be looking at measures to help the industry here in the UK.
The best way to avoid potential tariff barriers is to support good free trade agreements with both the EU and the US. I hope the hon. Lady will support any deal the Government bring forward to make sure we can leave the EU with a deal.
I have spoken before about the impact of export tariffs on Welsh lamb and beef exports, which would be seriously damaging for the Welsh farmers I represent in Brecon and Radnorshire. We have heard the Government recently talk up Japan as a tariff-free export destination, but only £4,000 of lamb goes to that particular country. Can the Secretary of State provide a guarantee—yes or no—that the livelihood of Welsh farmers, such as those in Brecon and Radnorshire, will not suffer as a result of the imposition of these export tariffs?
I know that very high-quality lamb is produced in the hon. Lady’s constituency. In fact, I have visited the Rhayader sheep market and seen it for myself. I can assure her that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is working with the Treasury to make sure there is support for lamb farmers in the eventuality of potential issues. However, we also need to open up more markets for British lamb. I have particularly got my eye on the US market—it is the second largest importer of lamb by value in the world—and we need to make sure that Welsh lamb farmers have more places to which they can export.
Tariff Policies: US and China
The European Union has made very clear its opposition to tariff escalation and its support for the international rules-based trading system. As a vocal champion of that very system, the United Kingdom endorses the EU approach. Low tariffs and free trade are the underpinning guarantor of prosperity and jobs in the UK; tariff wars are in no one’s interest.
Does my right hon. Friend agree, given the growing disruption in the EU’s trade relationship with both the US and China, that now is not the time to have disruption in the EU-UK trade relationship? The UK will become, overnight, the EU’s second largest trade partner. Does that not show all of us the need to get a trade deal with Brussels that we can live with and move on?
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend. As a distinguished former occupant of the job I now have, he understands these matters incredibly well. He is absolutely correct: the United Kingdom is about to become the EU’s second largest trading partner, with £357 billion of goods and services exported to the UK last year. A good Brexit deal is in the interests of the EU and in the interests of the UK, and I am sure the whole House—at least, I wish the whole House—would wish my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister every success today in trying to get that agreement.
Recently, the Secretary of State said she would be
“unapologetic in fighting the forces of protectionism, in favour of genuinely free trade.”
Will she put this into action now for one of my constituents, a specialist publisher of historical aviation books, who from tomorrow will pay 25% tariffs on his materials, a large proportion of which are shipped to the US?
I absolutely give the hon. Gentleman the assurance that we will work tirelessly to promote trade, investment and the prosperity of the United Kingdom. On the hon. Gentleman’s particular point, I would be delighted to meet him to talk about his constituency business.
I am working closely, as are my colleagues across Government, to make sure that the freeport policy will be successful, and will help bring regeneration, jobs, opportunity and prosperity to every part of this United Kingdom.
Given Aberdeen’s new harbour expansion, which is supported in part by UK Government investment, and a growing cluster of subsea businesses near Aberdeen International airport, does my hon. Friend agree that freeport status for Aberdeen could help to turbocharge the engine room of the Scottish economy?
My hon. Friend is correct in his assertion that freeports have the potential to drive growth in towns and cities across the UK, enabling them to make the most of Brexit opportunities. We are working hard to design a model that delivers optimal benefit for the UK and specific locations. Where appropriate, we will work with the devolved Administrations on this matter, but it would be helpful if the SNP showed more enthusiasm for something that could make a big difference.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend—no one in the House works harder to promote their area than him. Freeports offer an opportunity to unleash enterprise. We want to set forth all the principles and wealth creation that the Labour party stands against, and to allow my hon. Friend’s constituents, and the communities he represents, to prosper and grow through free enterprise, and we will carry on doing that.
The hon. Lady makes a serious and important point. We are working hard and closely with our Treasury colleagues and others to ensure that we design the policy in the right way so that we minimise displacement and bring in additional activity and prosperity. We do not expect, and we will not design, a system that will damage those ports that do not become freeports.
I am delighted to have been appointed as Trade Secretary at this vital time in our nation’s history. For the first time in 46 years, we will have an independent trade policy and be able to set our rules and regulations, which means that we will be able to strike deals with likeminded countries such as the United States, Japan, Australia and New Zealand. We will also be able to take up our independent seat at the World Trade Organisation, leading the fight for free trade and participating in the battle against protectionism.
Ninety per cent. of the world’s illegal deforestation takes place in the Amazon rainforest—something that the Paris agreement explicitly sets out to tackle and reduce. Does the Secretary of State agree that if we are serious about tackling climate change, the ratification and implementation of the Paris agreement must be a precondition for any country that wishes to make a trade deal with the United Kingdom?
I am a great believer that free trade and free enterprise help us to achieve our environmental goals through better technology, more innovation and more ingenuity. The Minister of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth West (Conor Burns), recently visited Brazil and discussed those precise issues with its Trade Minister.
Sylatech is a precision engineering business in Kirkbymoorside in my constituency, but it is suffering a significant business impact due to control delays on its export licence applications. Will my hon. Friend update the House with a timescale to resolve that problem?
I congratulate my hon. Friend on working so hard to promote businesses in his area. I am delighted that our performance in dealing with licence applications is good, and I pay tribute to those who work in the Export Control Joint Unit. Some 80% of applications are concluded within 20 days, and 96% within 60 days. In some cases, complex issues have to be assessed, but we will do everything that we can to facilitate and accelerate the decision on the case raised by my hon. Friend.
The House recently passed a statutory instrument to extend EU protection against extraterritorial lawsuits under the US Helms-Burton Act. The Secretary of State will know that investors are already speaking with law firms to launch dispute proceedings against the UK under long dormant bilateral treaties. What estimates has she made of the quantum of such suits, and what protections will she introduce to safeguard the public purse and public policy?
It sounds like my hon. Friend is drawing up a very exciting programme of autumn travel. He is absolutely right that our departure from the European Union will offer huge opportunities for the United Kingdom in the vast and growing Asian market, which I saw at first hand only a couple of weeks ago in Vietnam.
I can assure the hon. Gentleman that an incredible amount of work has been going on across Government to make sure that we are fully prepared for all scenarios. The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster has been holding daily meetings—there have been 60 so far—and we are performing well, particularly on making sure that actions at the borders are in place.
Our biggest export sector is services, which are invisible, and particularly financial services. Our biggest export market is the US. What discussions has the Secretary of State had about opening up financial services exports to the US and removing some non-tariff barriers?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right—this is a fantastic opportunity for the UK. When I was out in the US, I met Bob Lighthizer, and I also met the Treasury Secretary to discuss those potential opportunities with him. The UK is not just going to roll over in a trade deal with the US. We will make sure that our industries are promoted. We want barriers removed in the US to our successful service industries.
I hope that the hon. Lady will be supporting the Prime Minister in his negotiations in Brussels, where he has already secured significant advances to where we were, in particular by ensuring that Britain is able to have its own independent trade policy once we leave the EU, and to control our own rules and regulations.
To avoid freeports just displacing activity, does the Minister agree that freeport activity should be based on the existing unique and distinctive capabilities of a port, such as Milford Haven, the UK’s leading energy port, which has an unrivalled skills base and infrastructure?
As a result of devastating African swine fever, 130 million pigs have recently been slaughtered in China, which is home to half the world’s pigs. Is this not a great opportunity for my right hon. Friend, who did so much to open this market to British pig farmers, to promote the merits of British products from our pigs, including, of course, the unrivalled Gloucester Old Spot?
My hon. Friend is right. I was very proud to open the market for pigs trotters into China when I was Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. Market access is very important. We have seen a massive increase in pork exports to China over the past five years. He is right that our high welfare standards and quality produce are valued across the world. There are lots of new opportunities, including for the Gloucester Old Spot.
Leaked documents from Operation Kingfisher showed that York would be the worst-hit place in the country in the event of no deal. What discussions is the Secretary of State having with my city to ensure that we will be able to trade after 31 October?
Returning to the issue of freeports, the Secretary of State visited Immingham in my constituency last year and saw for herself the great opportunities that exist to improve the local economy. Will she continue working with me to ensure that the Humber ports do indeed receive freeport status?
As I represent a constituency in the Humber area, I will continue, without giving any special status, to ensure that we liaise with my hon. Friend, but he is so right. Conservative Members are focused on trying to find policies that open up investment and bring in further jobs, but the Labour party’s manifesto sets out policies that would destroy inward investment and cost tens of thousands of jobs.
Does the Secretary of State accept the Food and Drink Federation’s analysis that, with a complex and confusing no-deal tariff schedule, investment made right across the supply chain in preparing for a no-deal Brexit means that food prices will likely increase?
I discussed that with Trade Ministers when I visited New Zealand, Japan and Australia. They are all very interested in the UK’s joining, and I want to progress that alongside the bilateral discussions that we are having with the countries. It will give us access to 11 fast-growing markets in Asia, so it is a massively exciting opportunity.
Will Ministers assure us that, in their desperation to sign any trade deal to justify their Brexit policy, they will not give a green light, or a nod and a wink, to President Bolsonaro to continue the destruction of the Amazon rain forest?
As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State alluded to some moments ago, I visited Brazil recently. In addition to conversations about trade, we discussed with the Brazilian Government how the United Kingdom can assist them in their move to a low-carbon, greener energy production model. We have spent over £150 million of climate finance in forest programmes across Brazil, and I was delighted, in the light of my recent visit, that the Prime Minister announced a further £10 million to help the Brazilian authorities in forestation and deforestation.
The National Audit Office said yesterday that if the UK leaves the EU without a deal, cross-border shipments could be reduced by more than 50% and would take 12 months to return to normal. Can we stop this charade? Is it not the case that no responsible Government would do that to our businesses, and that if there is no agreement with the EU by Saturday, the Prime Minister will send the letter requesting an extension, not least because if he fails to do so he will be in contempt of court, given the proceedings in the Court of Session?
As well as birthday congratulations to the hon. Gentleman, I have other good news: we are taking steps to support businesses in all scenarios and to ensure that, with or without a deal, we minimise any negative disruption. But as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State just said—this is an appeal to Members right across this House—we will have the opportunity to vote for a Saturday sitting, and we will have the opportunity, I hope, to see a deal put through that will mean that we can move forward. I hope that the hon. Gentleman, finally, will support and respect the decision of the British people in 2016.
Women and Equalities
The Minister for Women and Equalities was asked—
Gender Recognition Act 2004
The issue of the response to the consultation on the Act is very important. It needs time for consideration, and I will want to study it closely.
Last night, at the PinkNews awards, Baroness Williams of Trafford, the House of Lords Minister for Equalities, said, “bear with us” on gender recognition reforms. Quite frankly, Minister, that is not good enough for people who are already going through one of the most difficult experiences they will ever face—more difficult than we can possibly imagine. They face abuse, discrimination and even, sadly, violence, just because of who they are. So I ask the Minister again: when will we see the results of the consultation, and can she assure me, and the people who are waiting on those results, that the most right-wing Government in decades will follow through on the GRA?
I completely condemn bullying or violence towards trans people, but I do not think that that could be confused with the complex piece of work that is the reform to the Gender Recognition Act. In particular, I will not be rushed into it. I am very keen that we protect single-sex spaces and vulnerable women, and that we do not rush into reform before we have had full, proper discussion.
I welcome the Minister to her new position and look forward to working with her on all these issues. I am losing count, but I think she is the fifth Minister whom I have shadowed since I have occupied this position. However, we do not start from the beginning every time we change Ministers.
Reform of the Gender Recognition Act was promised in 2016. The Minister does not need to look at it carefully; the Minister just needs to expose what came out of the consultation and amend the Act as promised. The Minister needs to stop kicking the can down the road. There has been a 37% increase in hate crime against transgender people, and the Minister is exacerbating the pain and the hurt in the LGBT+ community. Please, Minister, just reform the Gender Recognition Act already.
As I have said, I completely condemn violence against trans people, and we and the Home Office are doing a lot of work to combat it, but I think it is completely wrong to conflate that with a complex piece of legislation that we need to get right. There are serious concerns about single-sex spaces and ensuring that vulnerable women are protected, and we should get the legislation right rather than rushing into things.
I am afraid that the hon. Lady is trying to make this into a political football. What I am interested in is making the right decisions for the people of Britain so that we have proper protection for transgender people and also ensure that we protect our single-sex spaces.
Gender Pay Gap
This is the third year of gender pay gap reporting. We are focusing on the three sectors that employ the most women, and also on those with large gender pay gaps, such as financial services. Work is already under way on, for instance, the independent review of the gender pay gap in medicine, the recommendations of which will be published shortly. I am delighted that experts on the Women’s Business Council are helping us with our work in the retail and financial sectors in particular.
The Scottish Government have lowered the threshold for listed public authorities to report their gender pay gaps and publish equal pay statements from more than 150 employees to more than 20. Will the UK Government consider lowering their threshold as well to increase equal-pay transparency?
I am delighted to hear what the Scottish Government are doing. We keep that and other measures under review. As I have said, this is the third year of reporting, and we are delighted that thus far there has been 100% compliance. We must look at the data carefully, but everything is open to review. What is brilliant about this legislation is that for the first time, 10,500 employers in the country are talking about how they treat their female workers.
Last year in Motherwell and Wishaw, women working full-time earned an average of 10% less than their male counterparts. For women who are already struggling with Tory austerity—for example, the capping of universal credit at two children—a 10% increase in pay would make a huge difference. What are the Government doing to help those women, and women across the country?
The hon. Lady will be delighted by the Chancellor’s announcement that we are increasing the national living wage. As she will know, 60% of people who are paid the living wage are women, so that increase will have a huge impact on many women. The hon. Lady and I can agree on at least this: we want women to be treated properly and fairly in the workplace, and I am sure that we all want to close that gap.
Flexible working gives many parents with young children an equal chance to work, and they would therefore support the narrowing of the gender pay gap. Does my hon. Friend agree that all job advertisements should specify whether the jobs are flexible, and that employees should have the right to request that flexibility?
Very much so. My hon. Friend is right to mention flexible working and childcare. The message for employers is that flexible working not only improves diversity in their business models, but helps the bottom line. It is good for business, it is good for our country, and I think that, in particular, it is good for women to have the ability to earn their own incomes and to have the independence that we all cherish in this place.
Does the Minister agree that the Conservatives have actually done more than any other Government to tackle the issue of pay inequality at work? What more is she doing to help women in the boardroom who do not earn as much as their male counterparts?
I am extremely grateful to my hon. Friend, who has done so much work on women and equalities and also on menopause. [Interruption.] I note that Opposition Members are laughing and guffawing, but these issues have a real impact on women who are the lowest paid. I am delighted if it means that the Labour party is supporting gender pay gap regulations, because it was a Conservative coalition Government who introduced the regulations and a Conservative Government who brought them into force two years ago. We need to ensure that employers are treating female employees correctly and properly, and that we are tackling that in the lowest paid sectors. That is why we have the three priority sectors of retail, healthcare and education that are working to bring action plans forward to ensure that we help the lowest paid.
May I take this opportunity, Mr Speaker, to congratulate you on your PinkNews award, and your inspirational and outstanding speech? Trans rights are human rights.
In the previous Queen’s Speech, the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May) pledged to make further progress to tackle the gender pay gap, but that was noticeably absent from this week’s Queen’s Speech. Does that mean that the current Prime Minister does not want to reduce the gender pay gap?
Mr Speaker, forgive me for not congratulating you on your award. My right hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth North (Penny Mordaunt) also received an award last night at the PinkNews celebrations.
On the question, that most certainly does not mean that this Prime Minister is in any way not committed to improving the gender pay gap. The fact that we have a strong ministerial team on the Front Bench today is a very clear indication of how seriously the Government take this issue. Having got the regulations in place, we are now working with industries to ensure that we are helping them achieve those action plans so that they can make the change. This has to be led with business; we have to bring business and employers with us to make this real cultural change.
That is a very good question, and I would expect no less from the hon. Lady. We are looking closely at ethnicity pay gaps. My hon. Friend the Member for Rochester and Strood (Kelly Tolhurst) from the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, who is present on the Front Bench, is leading on that work, and it is really important. We have been talking to industry leads and stakeholders in the third sector, and the hon. Lady will appreciate that quite how it is defined is not as easy as it is for the gender pay gap, but there is a great deal of work going on in Government to look at it.
Gender Equality in Boardrooms
Women represent half of the population, and I believe that we are missing out on a huge amount of talent because we do not have enough women in senior positions. I commend the work of Helena Morrissey who has achieved fantastic results with the 30% Club.
I do a lot of work with science and technology companies and there is still a struggle in many of them to get women into senior positions or get women in at all. We have been using the carrot for decades now to try to get more women into the boardroom; when are we going to start using the stick?
The hon. Lady talks about science and technology, and one of the big issues is the gap that we have in school education, with fewer girls going on to study maths and science later in their school careers and girls losing confidence earlier on in their school careers. The way for us to tackle that it is to improve our education system, which is why we introduced things such as the English baccalaureate and tougher maths GCSEs, and why we are working more on maths education. I am passionate about this, and I am very keen to drive it forward as Minister for Women and Equalities.
I completely agree: as well as Bob the builder, we need Brenda the builder. I congratulate my hon. Friend’s constituent on her fantastic achievement. In every walk of life, it should not matter whether someone is a woman or a man; it should matter how good they are and how much effort they put into the job. That is what we champion on this side of the House. We believe that it is about someone’s qualities as an individual, not what group they belong to.
I have to say that my focus in this job is not on bank holidays; it is on getting more women into work and getting them up the career ladder once they are in jobs. However, if the hon. Gentleman is offering to take on some work while women have a day off, I am sure that we would be very interested in that.
The Bank of England Monetary Policy Committee has nine members, eight of whom are women. Will the Minister encourage the Bank to employ more women in senior roles, and the Chancellor to appoint more women when he gets the chance?
The hon. Lady is right. I describe finance as the final frontier for feminism. We have never had a female Chancellor, and we have never had a female Governor of the Bank of England. The Governor’s job is coming up very shortly, so I am sure that the Chancellor will hear what the hon. Lady has to say.
Sexual Harassment and Bullying at Work
In the summer, we ran a consultation to understand people’s experiences of workplace sexual harassment and to assess whether the law in this space needs changing. Our consultation also included wider harassment protections, which cover many bullying behaviours. We are now considering the responses that we received, and we will publish proposals in due course.
Last week, a partner at Freshfields solicitors was ordered by a professional tribunal to pay more than a quarter of a million pounds for sexual misconduct with a junior colleague. Should not every regulator treat actions of sexual misconduct as a breach of professional standards? If the regulators do not act, will the Government?
I thank my right hon. Friend, who as Chair of the Women and Equalities Committee has done so much work on ensuring that employers’ and regulators’ responsibilities in the area are met. I welcome—indeed, I encourage—strong action from regulators to stamp out sexual harassment. We are working with relevant enforcement bodies and inviting them to join our public sector equality duty network to share and promote best practice. We are particularly focusing on regulators of specific relevance, to explore how they can support compliance with equality law.
The #MeToo movement was inspired—if that is the right word—by the activities of Harvey Weinstein in the film industry. Despite all their celebrity, many of the women affected did not feel able to turn to anyone when they encountered bullying and harassment in the workplace. That is all the more true for women today, particularly in small businesses. What is the Minister doing to ensure that women have legal and present support? Does she agree that the fact that Harvey Weinstein remains honoured by the British state with a CBE is a terrible indictment of our honours system?
Of course, the #MeToo movement met with a great deal of attention and support across the world. In terms of sexual harassment, the consultation that closed on 2 October looked at all sorts of workplaces across the United Kingdom, and we are looking at responses to it very, very carefully. The hon. Lady will appreciate that it is only just over two weeks since the consultation closed and I do not want to pre-empt anything. In terms of Mr Weinstein, I cannot comment on individual cases; his case will be dealt with in the US.
Pensions: 1950s-born Women
The claimants applied for permission to appeal on 16 October 2019, which was of course yesterday. Hon. Members will therefore understand that I cannot comment on live litigation.
Thousands of women across my constituency and millions nationally continue to face real hardship from this inequality. What steps is the Minister taking, in conjunction with the Department for Work and Pensions, to address their real concerns and distress and to provide equality?
I thank the hon. Lady for this opportunity to comment on the wider picture. As the Minister for employment with responsibility for jobcentres, I would tell anybody experiencing hardship at any point in their life to go to the jobcentre and to speak to their local citizens advice bureau—[Interruption.] The jobcentres do so much more than help people into work. They are a place of safety if you are suffering domestic violence, if you are looking to get support on benefits or if you are looking for housing support. It is a severe frustration for me as the Minister that people simply do not understand that jobcentres do much more than help people into work.
Yesterday, along with many other colleagues in this House, I met a group of 1950s women who have been affected by the changes to the state pension age. Having been silenced while other groups took legal action, they are frustrated that they are still no further forward. What concrete actions will the Minister now take to help those women and give them the justice they deserve?
I appreciate that this will look and feel frustrating to many women because of the legal action and the live litigation, but I absolutely believe that we are trying to find a balance in our Department in supporting people of all ages at all points in their lives when they need support and ensuring that we are balancing an ageing demographic and a secure retirement.
I am grateful to the Minister for those replies, but notwithstanding the High Court decision and the appeal, there are thousands of women in my constituency who were born in the 1950s and who are affected. They find the support and advice measures that have been put in place inadequate, and I ask the Minister to liaise with the Prime Minister and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions to look again at this issue.
I thank my hon. Friend for his comments. I absolutely understand that this is about a sense of balance. I reiterate my point that we have a wide range of benefits and support in the jobcentres—[Interruption.] Well, if the hon. Member for Brent Central (Dawn Butler) disagrees, I would be happy to meet her to say more. It is absolutely right that if the support is not there, people should come to the jobcentres, speak to me and get involved with the DWP. We will support these women. This is ultimately about equality. We now have no defined retirement age for anyone: anyone who can work can continue to do so, and for anyone who wants to have a secure retirement, we will support them.
As a WASPI woman, may I say on behalf of the many women who have come to me about this matter that we have been caught in a sandwich generation? We had our children young and brought them up, then acted as carers looking after our mums. This is causing big problems for women caught up in this dilemma. They are now finding themselves in the job market, having had very disrupted careers. That is what is so difficult for those women, when they are suddenly being asked to retrain in their 60s. It is really causing big problems.
I thank my hon. Friend for raising that point. The women issue and the work journey are absolutely a priority for me in this role. Universal credit is not a gender-specific fund. It focuses on individual needs and support, and that can be different for men and women. I am absolutely determined, in this role, along with the new Secretary of State, to ensure that we better reflect the women’s work journey, including returning to work.
Women Leaving Prison
We remain committed to delivering on the commitments laid out in the female offender strategy, which sets out our vision to see fewer women coming into the criminal justice system, a greater proportion being managed successfully in the community and better conditions for those in custody. Currently, women leaving prison are supported under the enhanced Through the Gate service specification implemented in April 2019. This new specification includes defined minimum support requirements such as accommodation, employment, training and education, finance, benefits and debt, and health and social care.
I thank the Minister for her answer, but we are seeing an increased number of people affected by homelessness and addiction problems across the streets of my city of Hull, many of whom have left prison. In addition to the things that she has already mentioned, what more can be done to support women leaving prison to prevent them from ending up homeless, and what more can be done while they are in prison to deal with their addiction problems?
I know that the hon. Lady takes an interest in this topic and has a prison in her constituency. Alongside the enhanced Through the Gate service specification, resettlement planning is led by the probation officer in the community where the offender is to be released, making it easier to connect into local services such as women’s centres. We also want greater involvement from voluntary organisations with the expertise to support offenders leaving prison.
Ministers will be aware of the campaigning work done by Bishop Rachel Treweek of Gloucester and others to encourage non-custodial sentences for women, and the Minister for Women, my hon. Friend the Member for Louth and Horncastle (Victoria Atkins), visited the Nelson Trust in my constituency, which does so much to help ex-prisoners. However, the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Wendy Morton), will know that many women who leave prison do not have a suitable home to go. What more can we do to provide suitable accommodation for such women?
As I have set out, we have the enhanced Through the Gate service specification, but I am more than happy to discuss the matter further with my hon. Friend. I would be interested to know a little bit more about the particular project to which he referred.
Today, Mr Speaker, with my voice, I am going to be Bonnie Tyler. [Laughter.]
One in six women leaves prison with no home to go to. A combination of homelessness, a lack of job opportunities, and the stigma of being an ex-offender is setting up these women to fail and is undoubtedly responsible for the disproportionate number of recalls. The Government have to do more to help these women, who have to be able to escape the vicious circle. What are the Government going to do for these women?
In addition to the Through the Gate service, I am sure that the hon. Lady is aware of the social impact bond. In June of last year, we published our strategy for female offenders, setting out our vision and a plan to improve outcomes for women in custody and in the community. Like her, I am keen to do all that we can to help women who are leaving custody.
My vision as Minister for Women and Equalities is to ensure that everyone has the freedom to be whoever they want to be and to shape their own future, regardless of their gender, sexuality, ethnicity or disability. I was proud to open the Asia chapter of the Global Equality Caucus during my recent visit to Japan, and I look forward to building on the excellent work of this Government: from ensuring 12 years of quality education for every girl internationally to removing the barriers that stop women getting on at work and bringing LGBT leaders from across the world together in May next year. Together we can make Britain the best place in the world to be a woman and to be LGBT.
The Child Maintenance Service is failing receiving claimants, most of whom are women. Will the Minister introduce tighter monitoring of direct pay compliance, stop collect and pay charges for receiving parents, and finally introduce a service that ensures effective enforcement of late payments?
I am happy to hear details of where the Child Maintenance Service is a concern. The Minister for Welfare Delivery is working directly to support families in this area. As I said, I am happy to hear the details, so please write to us and we will come back to the hon. Gentleman.
Again, I thank my right hon. Friend, who has brought a laser-like focus on bullying and harassment in all places of work. The Government and I strongly support this convention, which seeks to ensure that women and men around the world are properly protected at work. Our law makes it clear that violence and harassment at work are unacceptable and unlawful, and our next steps will be to consider how we will ratify this and bring this new treaty to the attention of Parliament.
My hon. Friend is right about this, particularly in respect of funding. Female-led businesses are getting less funding from venture capital than male-led businesses. We want to address these barriers and open up entrepreneurship to women across the country. We are lagging behind places such as Canada and Australia, and we need to do better.
I thank the hon. Lady and all Members of this House who contributed so positively and, on occasion, movingly to the Second Reading debate on this important piece of legislation. She knows that the Government are conducting a review of the treatment of migrant women, because we have very much borne in mind the findings of the Joint Committee, chaired so ably by my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller). That review is ongoing and as soon as I have more news I promise that the hon. Lady will be among the parliamentarians I speak to.
In Cheadle, Northern Rail has responded positively to my campaign for lift accessibility for people with disabilities by giving 24-hour access, but not every disability is visible—some are invisible. Does the Minister agree that we should support people and help to promote the need for accessible toilet signage?
Absolutely, and I congratulate my hon. Friend on campaigning so hard on behalf of her constituents and working with Northern Rail. She is right about this. The inclusive transport strategy covers not only visible disabilities, but those that are invisible, and we are about to undertake a huge communications campaign to make people with all disabilities comfortable and confident to use our public transport system.
This is a key piece of our work in the inclusive transport strategy, especially as buses are the form of transport used most often by people with disabilities. We are crunching the data we have and we are hoping to make this available soon, but the inclusive transport strategy abides by the United Nations’ aims to make sure that all of our transport is accessible by 2030.
My hon. Friend raises a point that concerns many in the House and outside. I am currently doing a piece of work on online offences and look forward to the development of the online harms White Paper, because I suspect that many of the answers we all seek will be in that documentation.
On the particular issue of endometriosis, I will have to write back to the hon. Lady, but being wrongly diagnosed as having a mental health condition is incredibly serious, and we are looking into rolling out training to GPs to help them better to diagnose mental health conditions. I will use this opportunity to say again that we are investing £2.3 billion a year in mental health services in the community, and hopefully that will go into GP practices and GPs will know not to make those kinds of diagnoses in future. I will get back to the hon. Lady on that particular condition.
When she was Minister for Women and Equalities, my right hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth North (Penny Mordaunt) committed to the House to introduce legislation to remove caste as a protected characteristic from the Equality Act 2010. When will the current Minister for Women and Equalities and her team bring forward legislation so that we can end this bizarre and divisive situation?
I thank the hon. Lady for raising this issue again. Obviously, with the litigation ongoing it is difficult for me to comment more broadly, but I understand that that comment was made by the Prime Minister. If people are suffering and need any support, they should go to their jobcentre, talk to their local citizens advice bureau and make sure that they ask for help. We have many different benefits, both in retirement and after retirement, to support people to have a good, secure retirement. This issue should not affect anyone—women or men.
Online Pornography: Age Verification
I thank my hon. Friend for her question and for the work that she did as my predecessor at the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport.
It will always be the priority of this Government, and probably of any Government, to protect citizens in general and children in particular. We will do that online just as much as we would seek to do offline. It is because of that approach that we are changing the approach to age verification on the internet. As my hon. Friend knows, the Secretary of State tabled a written ministerial statement on this issue yesterday. I hope to provide some more detail on that.
Adult content is too easily accessed online and more needs to be done to protect children from harm. We want to deliver the most coherent approach possible. I believe we can protect children better and more comprehensively through the online harms agenda that my hon. Friend championed so effectively than we can through the measures in the Digital Economy Act 2017. I shall be straightforward: it will take slightly longer to do it through this mechanism, but we will go as fast as we can and deliver on the agenda in a more comprehensive way.
As my predecessor in the Department, my hon. Friend was of course responsible for the publication of the “Online Harms” White Paper, which proposed the establishment of a duty of care on companies to improve online safety, overseen by an independent regulator with strong enforcement powers to deal with non-compliance. That vehicle goes further than the age verification proposals originally tabled, and since the White Paper’s publication, the Government’s proposals have continued to develop at pace. This week, the Government announced as part of the Queen’s Speech that they would publish draft legislation for pre-legislative scrutiny next year. It is important that our policy aims and our overall policy on protecting children from online harms be developed coherently. In view of these developments, we will bring forward the most comprehensive approach possible to protecting children.
The Government have concluded that this objective of coherence and comprehensiveness will be best achieved through the wider online harms proposals that my hon. Friend championed and that have support across much of the House. That is why we do not propose to commence part 3 of the Digital Economy Act 2017. As currently drafted, the Act does not cover social media platforms, for instance, which is something that she and I both know was of concern to this House. It will give us a further opportunity to revisit the definition of pornographic material, which was also a concern of some Members.
As I say, we want to deliver the most comprehensive approach to keeping children safe online. I fervently believe that we can do that better through the online harms agenda. We are committed to the UK becoming a world leader in the development of online safety technology as a whole. This is a part of that, and it includes age verification tools, which will continue to be a key part of it. Everyone across the House agrees on the need to protect children online and offline. Pre-legislative scrutiny for the online harms Bill will be a vital part of that process. I hope that Members across the House, particularly my hon. Friend, will continue to engage with the Government so that we can bring forward something for which there is a cross-party consensus and that delivers an agenda that we can all share.
I thank my hon. Friend for his reply. The statement yesterday came as a shock to children’s charities, the age verification industry, the regulator and the online pornography industry itself, all of which were ready for, and expecting, the age verification regulations to be brought into law by the end of this year.
The Government postponed the introduction of the controls in July after an administration error in which the EU was not informed about the proposals as it should have been in line with single market rules. At that time, firm assurances were given to the public, children’s charities and the industry that the EU issue would be resolved swiftly and that legislation would be brought in by the end of the year or early next year at the latest. There was a debate in the Statutory Instrument Committee earlier this year about the exemption of Twitter and other social media platforms from the AV regulations, and it was agreed that we would review the effectiveness of the regulations 12 months on from their introduction. Such a timetable would still be much sooner than the indefinite postponement effectively announced by the Secretary of State yesterday.
No one is arguing that AV provides a panacea for the prevention of children accessing adult content—we know that there are ways to circumvent AV—but children’s charities have provided evidence that too many children stumble across adult material accidentally and that this can have a damaging effect on them at a vulnerable age. It is likely that the regulations would raise the age at which young people are first exposed to pornography. The Secretary of State should not make the perfect the enemy of the good when it comes to child protection, especially after the Government have given so many assurances that once the privacy issues have been dealt with—they now have been—the regulations will be brought into law. For the Government to renege on their commitments in this important area is a very retrograde step, and I urge my hon. Friend and the Secretary of State to think again.
I share a huge number of the hon. Lady’s concerns. This is not an indefinite postponement of the measures that we are seeking to introduce; it is an extension of what they will achieve. I honestly believe that we can do even better than some of the original proposals. For instance, she is right that raising the age at which children are exposed to deeply inappropriate content is important. Nobody is pretending that the proposals, either in the online harms agenda or in the original legislation, are perfect, but we should do all we can to make them as good as possible. I honestly believe that we will achieve more for child protection through this slower but more comprehensive approach than we would be taking the faster approach, which, as she has said, would end up being reviewed relatively quickly and, I suspect, wrapped into the online harms agenda. We are not delaying this unnecessarily; we are seeking to bring forward this aspect of the online harms agenda as quickly as possible.
Every time the Government get in a mess, they used to say, “Uncork the Gauke.” But now, with Morgan missing, the cry goes out, “Where’s Warman?” And here is the Minister again, to clean up yet another Government mess.
Just four months ago, the previous Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport came to the House to announce another delay in the introduction of age verification. He stood at the Dispatch Box and told us
“let me make it clear that my statement is an apology for delay, not a change of policy… Age verification…needs to happen… it is in the clear interests of our children that it must.”—[Official Report, 20 June 2019; Vol. 662, c. 368.]
Well, it is not going to happen. It is obvious today that the Government’s much-vaunted age verification policy is dead.
The Government tried to bury the bad news once again, but I am glad that the hon. Member for Stourbridge (Margot James) had the courage to force the Minister to the House, to clean up the Government’s mess and explain the policy to the nation. Ever since its inception, the policy has been beset by mistakes, mishaps and month after month of delays.
The Opposition raised serious concerns at the outset that the policy was not well thought through, posed serious privacy concerns and would prove nearly impossible to implement. The Government used every excuse in the book to explain the delays, but today we know the truth: the policy, as conceived by the Government, was unworkable, and the Minister has finally ditched it. Will he now confirm that the policy has been abandoned? If he will not, will he admit that it was at least severely downgraded in the Queen’s Speech?
My colleague, my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Louise Haigh), in the process of scrutinising the legislation in Committee, warned that the British Board of Film Classification should never have been tasked with this job in the first place, even though it said yesterday that it had a system ready to implement. Can the Minister explain whether the Government had confidence that the BBFC was ready to implement age verification and whether it will have any future involvement in the project? Can he tell us how much public money has been spent on this failed policy? If he cannot do so today, will he commit to providing that information in writing in the near future?
The bigger danger in all this is that it is a sign of what is to come: that the online harms legislation that we so badly need will also be delayed, disrupted and finally abandoned in the “too difficult to implement” box. We must not let that happen. Every day our children are viewing hateful and harmful material online—material so sickening that it drives some young people to suicide and others to extremist violence and murder. These are the frontier challenges of internet regulation.
We need to keep our kids safe. Any Government taking on the tech giants will need determination and meticulous attention to detail. That has been utterly lacking thus far. The Government must not fail again.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his kind words at the beginning of his question, if not much else. He is absolutely right in his closing point that online harms is a difficult agenda and we must not get it wrong. I look forward to working across the House to ensure that we do this right because there should be no party political division on this agenda.
Age verification will be a key part of the online harms agenda. It will be a key tool in the box, but the toolbox will, through the online harms agenda, be bigger. I say honestly that the inclusion of the online harms Bill in the Queen’s Speech is testament to the Government’s commitment to delivering it, and we will be bringing it forward for pre-legislative scrutiny so that we can get it right. I hope that the BBFC will be a key part of the future of this process, because its expertise is in the classification of content. I am going to see its chief executive shortly; my officials have already been in touch. We look forward to working together with the BBFC.
The hon. Gentleman asked how much money has been spent. I think that approximately £2.2 million has been spent on this part of the agenda, but it is of course also a key part of the online harms agenda, so it would be silly to suggest that that is money wasted. It is money invested in protecting our children, and we will continue to do that.
There is nothing that I have heard from the Minister today or that I saw in the written ministerial statement yesterday that gives any good reason why this decision has been made. There is no reason why these provisions could not have been commenced and then the online harms process added. This decision has delayed the provisions for at least a year, if not longer, as the Minister well knows. Will he explain why the previous Secretary of State came to the House in June and said that this measure would be commenced as soon as possible and that there was no change in policy, but now there has been? What has happened between the summer and now for this decision to have been made?
Of course the Secretary of State appeared before my hon. Friend’s Select Committee yesterday, after the publication of the written ministerial statement. The Secretary of State and I sincerely believe that we can deliver this agenda better and with an overall more comprehensive net impact by doing it through this mechanism rather than through the Digital Economy Act. Some people will say that a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush, but I think we can go further overall and do better with this approach. This agenda is so important that it is worth us taking our time to get it right.
This disastrous handling seems to be a metaphor for this shambolic Tory Government—not least as they forgot to inform the EU of their plans. The first duty of any Government is to protect their citizens. The widespread availability of pornographic material to children and young people, and the increase in violent content and revenge porn, is having a profound impact on society, relationships and body image. This delay will create more harm to young people and citizens across the UK.
The Government have suggested that this issue will be addressed through the proposed online harms Bill. How do they plan to do that? Will the proposed online regulator be tasked with the responsibility for pornographic verification, or will that be conducted by a separate regulatory body? The charities I met have concerns about the BBFC, despite the assurances that it has given. What is the cost to the taxpayer and to businesses, which are ready for this change and will now be severely out of pocket?
The approach of introducing a duty of care on all relevant companies through the online harms Bill is what will allow us to go further. The hon. Lady—as I did at the beginning of my response to the urgent question—talks about the duty of care that a Government have to their citizens, and that is what is driving us to take this new and broader approach. She asked about the money—as did the shadow Secretary of State, the hon. Member for West Bromwich East (Tom Watson)—and I refer her to my answer to him. My officials met the affected companies yesterday, and I will continue to engage with them. In what was a constructive meeting, they said that they would seek to continue to be part of the online harms agenda because, as the hon. Lady says, it is an issue that is far broader than simply age verification.
This is more than disappointing; it is critically urgent. Over half a million pornographic images are posted daily on social media platforms, and there cannot be a parent in the land who is not worried sick about this. The Government need to treat this with much more urgency and respect than they have done. How are the Government—how is the Minister—going to demonstrate urgency in protecting our children from accessing pornographic websites? There are over 50 streaming this material daily, many not from the UK.
My hon. Friend is of course completely right. It is a critically urgent issue, but it is also critically urgent that we get it right, and I do think that we can make that progress by doing it in a way that is comprehensive, in line with the online harms agenda. However, I am not seeking to make age verification line up with that timescale. We will do this aspect of the policy as quickly as we possibly can, and I honestly look forward to working with her on that.
I am very shocked at this U-turn by the Government. The framework that had been created to support section 3 of the Digital Economy Act 2017 was robust: it was a platform to start protecting children from online harm. Why can it not continue in parallel with the online harms legislation being developed? The two are not incompatible. The Government have a choice—they start protecting children now from online pornography or they leave them exposed.
The hon. Lady is right that the framework was potentially a start, but I think that we can do better. We have a duty to present a coherent set of regulations rather than introduce something that would have been, as she puts it, a start, but would not have gone as far as we can and that would overall, I think, be seen as something that we would have had to fundamentally reform and review once we had put it in the context of the online harms agenda. I understand where she is coming from—I really do—but I honestly believe that by doing this more slowly we will make a better impact overall.
The Government’s approach seems to be, “Give us more time and we can produce a better system”, so, as parents, when can we be satisfied that there will be a system in place that will protect our children from the corrosive effects of online pornography?
My hon. Friend characterises our response absolutely correctly. It is time that will allow us to produce the best possible solution for protecting children. We will be responding to the online harms consultation by the end of the year and bringing forward legislation for pre-legislative scrutiny in the new year.
I hesitate to pre-empt what will ultimately be in the draft Bill, but it is obvious that we would want any regulator to have extremely strong sanctions in extreme circumstances. However, we would also want there to be a tariff, as it were, of what they could do in less severe circumstances to make sure that users were protected from a whole host of both illegal and legal but harmful experiences online.
Age verification is important, but please, as a result of this debate today, let us not see it as a silver bullet. The real solution is to educate all young people on the harm caused by pornography. Does my hon. Friend share my concern that those who protest against mandatory relationship education for primary school age children—measures this Government have already put in place—are failing to see the importance of teaching all children what a good relationship looks like, which is not pornography?
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. While pornography is one extreme example of some of the corrosive effects of the internet, we have to look far more broadly than online behaviour in order to try to fix some of the effects that have come into the real world as well.
Further to that point, when the Children’s Commissioner worked with DCMS and had workshops with children asking them what they wanted from this, they reported that their e-safety lessons at school were generally boring and not very useful. Does this not highlight how important it is to have relationship and sex education across the whole of our education system, but also, critically, to give teachers high-quality training to deliver fun, useful lessons that children find will actually help them?
The hon. Lady highlights the importance of a comprehensive approach that goes far beyond online. The nature of the lessons that she talks about is not within my Department’s scope, but I think we would all agree that we want children to be engaged in lessons that are particularly important.
This legislation is well overdue, and many are concerned that the delay may come at a significant cost. If we genuinely get better legislation that can better protect children, it may be worth while, but this delay has come as a surprise. What is the Minister doing to restore or build trust with key stakeholders that this delay will lead to better legislation to protect children?
I thank my hon. Friend for her question. She is right that it is important for us to retain the confidence of stakeholders. For instance, the response of the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children is one that I share. It has said:
“This delay is disappointing, but it is also imperative that the vehicle used to achieve protection for children from pornography is robust and effective.”
That is what we seek to deliver, and we will work with the NSPCC and a whole host of other stakeholders to deliver it.
We have been debating this in the House for nine years. The Minister simply cannot say that this is an urgent problem that has popped up. His decision today means that children will be exposed to this vile pornography for another two or three years. Can he take back his suggestion that it is the children’s responsibility to learn how to avoid it? It is his responsibility, surely, to protect them.
If what I said was open to misinterpretation, I apologise. I am not suggesting for a second that it is a child’s responsibility to protect themselves online. That is why the Government are bringing forward the online harms agenda. I am not suggesting either that we are addressing a problem that has suddenly popped up. It is something that Governments of various colours have sought to address over a number of years, and we will continue to do that. We are seeking in the “Online Harms” White Paper to go further, in a thoughtful and sensible way, than any other country in the world has managed to do, and I hope we can do that with cross-party consensus.
The internet has been a fantastic resource for children in their education, but all too often, pornographic images are available to children when they are not specifically looking for them, particularly on social media sites. What will the Government do during this brief delay to ensure that social media is encompassed within their reforms?
My hon. Friend highlights one of the crucial differences between our new policy approach and the old one, which is that we are now able, via the “Online Harms” White Paper, to consider what the duty of care might mean for social media companies in a way that would not have been in the scope of the original proposal. That is just one example that demonstrates how much further we are able to go with this new approach, and it is a reason why this is the right thing to do, even though it is a tough decision.
I am really struggling to understand the logic here. Some 95% of 14-year-olds have seen porn, and the harm that it causes to future relationships is well documented. Why, when the age verification regulator was ready to install this measure by Christmas, can it not go ahead? When, under the Minister’s new proposals, will we see protections in place for children?
I sympathise with what the hon. Lady seeks to achieve, but we can do more by going slightly slower. As I have said, we will respond to the consultation by Christmas and bring forward legislation for prelegislative scrutiny in the new year. I hope that she will work with us on that. We will, of course, seek to bring forward this part of that agenda much more rapidly than the whole package, because, as she says, this is hugely important. Getting it right is important, but getting it enacted quickly is also important.
Does the Minister recall the nerve required to reach for Health and Efficiency and the looks at the counter as it was put in a paper bag? What is out there now makes H&E look like a nursery rhyme. His approach really is going to be comprehensive, is it not?
I am afraid I am too young to recall precisely the experience to which my right hon. Friend refers—and I am sure he was speaking on behalf of others, rather than himself. However, he is absolutely right that what is out there on the internet now pales into insignificance compared with everything that was printed for newsagents. That is precisely why we have to go so much further.
For the Minister to say that he will wrap up childhood protection in the online harms legislation is not even a fig leaf to hide the fact that his Government are absolutely naked when it comes to a robust legal framework that deals with privacy, data, age verification and identity. We need measures that put in place protection for children online, not that kick in after they have already been exposed. What is he doing to ensure that children have the same rights online as they do in the real world?
Keeping our children safe must always be a priority, and I too am deeply concerned by this delay. Age verification is achievable. The company Yoti in my constituency is already providing highly accurate digital ID in 170 different countries. Will the Minister work with companies such as Yoti to make sure that the very best technology is used to keep our children safe?
I am glad my hon. Friend raises this point. In many ways, this is a technology problem that requires a technology solution. She mentions Yoti, and I have already met SuperAwesome, which is another company working in a similar space. People have talked about whether facial recognition could be used to verify age, so long as there is an appropriate concern for privacy. All of these are things I hope we will be able to wrap up in the new approach, because they will deliver better results for consumers—child or adult alike.