Skip to main content

Commons Chamber

Volume 666: debated on Tuesday 22 October 2019

House of Commons

Tuesday 22 October 2019

The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock


[Mr Speaker in the Chair]

Speaker's Statement

I am sure that colleagues across the House will want to join me in welcoming, formally and with enthusiasm, our newly appointed Serjeant at Arms, Ugbana Oyet, who started in the service of the House in this role yesterday. He has been with us for some time and he has an exceptional track record. He is incredibly popular across the House and he is going to be a fantastic success as our Serjeant.

I have a short statement to make. I would like to draw Members’ attention to the fact that the book for entering the private Members’ Bill ballot is now open for Members to sign in the No Lobby. It will be open until the House rises today and when the House is sitting on Wednesday 23 October. The ballot itself will be drawn at 9 am on Thursday 24 October in Committee Room 10. An announcement setting out these and other arrangements, and the dates when ten-minute rule motions can be made and presentation Bills introduced, is published in the Order Paper.

Oral Answers to Questions

Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy

The Secretary of State was asked—

Apprenticeship Levy

1. What guidance her Department has issued to businesses to help them make more effective use of the apprenticeship levy. (900035)

3. What steps her Department is taking to help businesses realise the potential benefits to their organisation of the apprenticeship levy. (900037)

6. What guidance her Department has issued to businesses to help them make more effective use of the apprenticeship levy. (900040)

I strongly believe that apprenticeships are a superb option for people to earn and learn. In my Department, we have 154 apprentices, 149 of whom are levy funded. I have taken on a new school leaver apprentice in my office every year since becoming an MP, which has been an excellent experience for them and for my team. Since the introduction of the apprenticeship levy, we have made changes to ensure that businesses can spend up to 25% of it in their supply chain, and I am delighted that the number of people starting higher-level apprenticeships has increased by over 40% since the 2016-17 academic year.

Is the 80:20 rule an overhead that is unwelcome to employers who have to provide cover for employees who are learning?

My right hon. Friend makes a really important point, but he will appreciate that off-the-job training is vital for apprentices to develop the knowledge, skills and behaviours they need to succeed at work. The 20% off-the-job training rule is based on standards used by apprenticeship programmes regarded as world class, such as those in Switzerland and Germany, which we have made it our ambition to at least match.

Employers complain about the inflexibility of the apprenticeship levy. What steps is the Minister taking to ensure that it becomes more flexible, leading to greater dynamism in our local economy?

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that the apprenticeship levy is collected from Northern Ireland businesses, with Northern Ireland subsequently receiving a Barnett consequential of spending on apprenticeships in England, which is funded by the levy. Ensuring that apprenticeship policy in Northern Ireland is delivering for Northern Ireland businesses is just one of a number for reasons why it is so essential that devolved government in Northern Ireland is restored.

In Guildford, 97% of businesses are small businesses. What progress have the Government made on ensuring that they can use the 25% transfer from levy employers to build the skilled workforce that we desperately need in this country?

I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend for her superb work as Minister of State for Skills over the past few years. Under her watch, the importance of technical education has been raised substantially. She will be aware that sectors in all parts of the economy are now creating apprenticeship programmes, from cyber-security to offshore wind, and more than 61% of starts are now on high-quality industry design standards.

How does the Secretary of State explain the fact that the Government’s own skill index, which measures the value added from apprenticeships and vocational training, is now 25% below 2012 levels?

The right hon. Gentleman will be aware that in the 2018-19 academic year, despite an overall fall, nearly 60,000 people started higher-level apprenticeships, up nearly 43% on the year before the levy was introduced. It is important that the Government continue to talk to business about how to make use of this, but we are very pleased with progress.

A recent report by the Centre for Social Justice showed that in the UK, of those who start entry- level work, only 15%—15%—will ever progress beyond it in their whole life. That is an indictment of the UK under different Governments. Beyond apprenticeships, what plans does my right hon. Friend have to find ways to encourage businesses to do on-the-job training, so that those people can move on and increase their salaries?

My right hon. Friend is right to raise the much bigger challenge of how to get young people not only into an apprenticeship but past it, enabling their skills to develop. We are doing that in a number of different ways. The Government continue to speak with businesses and monitor the impact of the apprenticeship levy on the performance of young people. We are doing a lot to promote start-up businesses for young people through the British Business Bank, but we continue to need to seek ways to ensure that no young person is left behind.

People are living longer, which is a good thing, but they need care in old age. In Oldham, health and social care is a growing industry, but at the moment it attracts the lowest band of the apprenticeship levy. I saw this week that the Department of Health and Social Care was advertising jobs at just above the minimum wage. Will the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy work with the Department of Health and Social Care to raise the value of those jobs?

The hon. Gentleman raises a really important point. We want to see young people being attracted to apprenticeships right across the range, and he is right to raise the importance of getting good-quality people into the social care system. I would be delighted to speak with him and others who are interested in that area of future employment.

Executive Pay

Average FTSE 100 CEO pay more than quadrupled from £1 million in 1998 to £4.5 million in 2012. Since then, the median average has fallen by £1.04 million. We have recently implemented a number of reforms to make further improvements to executive pay transparency and accountability through vehicles such as the UK corporate governance code.

The Government’s Green Paper on corporate responsibility was published more than two years ago, and since that time we have seen corporate pay issues in Carillion and only last month in Thomas Cook. Last week, the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee questioned the chief executive of Thomas Cook about corporate responsibility issues on pay. What precisely have the Government done to act on corporate pay since that Green Paper two years ago?

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his question. As I mentioned, CEO pay has fallen. There were reforms at the beginning of the year, to ensure that shareholders’ voices are heard more in the boardroom. There is a binding vote every three years on remuneration policy, and there is now an advisory vote every year. If it is not successful, pay has to be put before the next AGM. As he will know, the Investment Association now keeps a record, at the Government’s request, to ensure that we are tracking pay where there is shareholder dissent.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the right way to control executive pay is to increase democratic control of capital, not by increasing the powers of the state but by dramatically improving the rights of shareholders?

My hon. Friend is right, and that is what the Government’s reforms have done. As I outlined, shareholders have a vote every three years and an advisory vote every year. Through the reforms, we have also enabled employee directors, non-exec directors or employee councils to have representation on the board. Companies now have to explain their wider pay policy and how it affects the whole company.

The chief executive of Thomas Cook was paid more than £8 million during his time as chief executive of a company that has now collapsed, costing 9,000 jobs in this country, with 150,000 customers having to be brought home at a cost to the taxpayer. When he gave evidence to our Select Committee last week, he said he would reflect on whether he will pay back any of his bonus. What will the Government do to ensure that bonuses can be and have to be clawed back after catastrophic failures of businesses like that?

I thank the hon. Lady for the work she is doing on the Select Committee. Thomas Cook did have clawback and malus arrangements in place for the recovery of directors’ bonus payments in specific circumstances, as required by the UK corporate governance code. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has asked the Insolvency Service to fast-track an investigation, and it will report back. As the hon. Lady outlined, the CEO did advise the Committee on 15 October that he would consider voluntarily surrendering some of his 2017 cash bonus, but it must be pointed out that no bonus was paid to the ex-CEO in 2018.

The hon. Member for Leeds West (Rachel Reeves) highlighted the point that the biggest concern is not simply how much is paid to executives, but their being paid for failure, not for success. The current arrangements in British company law allow chief executives and other executives to be paid on the basis of share price and allow them to buy back shares, propping up the share price. This is a formula for payment for failure. Is the Department looking at that?

I thank my right hon. Friend for raising this. Part of the reforms in January was to make organisations report back on the effect of share price growth on executive pay outcomes. We published some evidence before the summer from a review undertaken on share buy-backs, and there was no clear evidence to suggest that they did have a perverse outcome.

High Speed 2

4. What recent discussions she has had with the Secretary of State for Transport on the potential benefits of High Speed 2 to businesses in the north. (900038)

The independent Oakervee review will advise the Government on High Speed 2, including potential business benefits and how it should proceed. The hon. Lady will understand that I would not want to prejudice those findings.

I thank the Minister for that reply, but six regional heads of the CBI say that High Speed 2 should be built in full and the Northern Powerhouse Partnership recently published its excellent independent review saying the same, arguing that only HS2 can really rebalance our economy. Will the Secretary of State, as the business representative at the Cabinet table, advocate for business in the north?

The hon. Lady mentions the CBI. Both the Mayor of Greater Manchester, Andy Burnham, and the Mayor of Birmingham, Andy Street, who sits on the panel conducting the review, have said it is important that we kick the tyres on value for money, but it is also important to make such representations to ensure that the committee gets a full view of the business benefits of HS2.

May I urge the Minister to ignore the siren voice opposite? Most people in the north accept that HS2 is a catastrophic waste of money— a huge white elephant that is destroying the environment and the countryside and will chiefly benefit London, hence why it started out in London in the first place. May I therefore urge him to tell the Secretary of State for Transport to scrap HS2 and crack on with the thing that will really benefit the northern economy—Northern Powerhouse Rail or HS3—connecting the north, which is what we need to benefit the north’s economy.

I do not think there is any danger of that, Mr Speaker.

My hon. Friend raises an important point, which is why the Prime Minister has pledged to fund the Leeds to Manchester route and has accelerated those plans with a deal in the autumn of 2019, with billions of pounds going into Northern Powerhouse Rail, and has of course set up Transport for the North.

The Minister may know that I am a fierce opponent of the £100 billion that is going to be wasted on HS2. Has he looked at research in France, where we see that high-speed trains actually suck more power and wealth into the metropolitan area of Paris, rather than the renewal of provincial towns? Will he have a look at the £100 billion, because that is how much it is going to cost, and will he spend it instead on investing in the workforce of this country?

The hon. Gentleman makes a powerful point, although his colleague, the hon. Member for Manchester Central (Lucy Powell), was shaking her head, so there is clearly division on the benefits of HS2. That is why we have an independent review to tell us which way we should proceed.

One of the businesses in northern Lincolnshire that will be a crucial part of the supply chain for HS2 is British Steel in Scunthorpe. I urge the Minister, when he is in discussion with the Department for Transport, to consider the effect on the supply chain and the impact on local economies.

Hydraulic Fracturing

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend’s campaign on this fracking issue. We are all concerned about the impact of recent seismic events in Lancashire. My hon Friend knows that the Government have been clear that they will support the exploration of our shale gas resources only in a safe and sustainable way. The Oil and Gas Authority is undertaking an analysis of the data from Cuadrilla’s operations and we will set out our future approach as soon as we have considered that report.

I thank my right hon. Friend for his comments. Will he confirm that he will consider not just the OGA review, but feedback from constituencies such as mine that do not believe that fracking is the way forward?

My hon. Friend is right: this is one of the top issues that come across my desk. I feel the local concern about it, and we will take that into consideration when we reach a final decision.

The National Audit Office report confirms that the UK Government have not analysed the costs and benefits of fracking and do not know how much money they have actually spent supporting fracking. Governance and regulation risks remain, as well as decommissioning liabilities that need to be resolved. Is it not time that the UK Government followed the lead of the Scottish Government and decided not to support the development of unconventional oil and gas?

As I said to my hon. Friend the Member for North East Derbyshire (Lee Rowley), we will consider the Oil and Gas Authority’s report and we will look at the evidence before we reach a final decision on the issue.

Does my right hon. Friend think that it might be a good idea to leave those carbon-based fuels in the ground as a reserve for future generations in case of emergency?

My hon. Friend knows that we are committed to a net zero carbon target. We are doing very well on renewables, and our success in that is the best way to reach the target.

Definitely not, Mr Speaker. No offence to the hon. Gentleman.

The decisions that we take over the next year will be critical in preventing climate change from becoming irreversible. The Committee on Climate Change has said that fracking on a significant scale is not compatible with UK climate targets. It increases local air pollution, generates huge volumes of chemical waste water, causes earthquakes and is just not necessary for the UK’s energy security. Yet the Secretary of State recently reiterated her support for fracking. Given the climate emergency, will the Government reconsider and commit now to banning fracking?

As I have said on three occasions now, we will consider the OGA report, and we will look at the evidence. We are very mindful of what local communities are saying and we will set out our future direction shortly.

Workplace Access Rights

All workers in the UK have the right to join a union and to participate in union activities. That right is protected under trade union law, and 23% of UK employees are union members. That is higher than some European countries, including France and Germany, and it demonstrates that union rights to recruit and organise through individual members and officials are sufficient.

This week shocking reports have emerged about dire workplace conditions at Amazon. Those exploited workers desperately need a union, but workers at Amazon have had their shift patterns interrupted just to prevent them from talking to union officials on the way to work. When will the Government put an end to those draconian anti-union practices, and will the Secretary of State launch an investigation into reports of workers’ rights being violated at Amazon?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. It is the right of unions and employers to come to an agreement about representation in the workplace. The Central Arbitration Committee is available if that is refused. With regard to workers’ rights, the good work plan represents the biggest reform of workers’ rights in 20 years. We are determined to continue on that path, because workers’ rights are important to this Government.

25. I believe that my constituents’ workplace rights should keep step with those of citizens across the EU, but on reading the WAB, or European Union (Withdrawal Agreement) Bill, last night I see that my constituents will have to wait on Tory Ministers deciding to replicate progressive EU change. I believe that back in 2010 the Secretary of State said her vision was for small firms to give“no minimum wage, no maternity or paternity rights, no unfair dismissal rights, no pension rights”.—[Official Report, 10 May 2012; Vol. 545, c. 209.]Is it therefore not the case that so-called progressive MPs who support the withdrawal agreement Bill will never be forgiven for putting the rights of workers into the hands of Thatcherites? (900059)

It will come as no surprise that I completely disagree with the hon. and learned Lady. The Prime Minister has been clear: not only will we maintain workers’ rights, but we will enhance them. Even in my role as a Minister over the past 12 years, everything has been focused on ensuring we are ahead of the European Union. We are committed. We have never, ever, not once ever put forward a position where we have shown we will row back on workers’ rights.

Wow! What an answer. This is the situation for workers at Amazon: their bones are being broken; they are being knocked unconscious; and they are being taken away in ambulances. Where is the urgency to step in and stop what is happening to these workers? Are the Government going to demand an urgent inquiry, or do they wash their hands of these workers? At the heart of the issue at Amazon is a hostile environment for trade unions, which are often the only force that can resist exploitative practices. A Labour Government would legislate to enforce access rights for trade unions and a robust enforcement regime. Why are the Government sitting on their hands while the richest man in the world treats his workers so disgustingly on their watch?

The hon. Lady makes allegations about a particular organisation. She is welcome to write to me further about those allegations, but I remind her that sufficient workplace laws are in place. We have the Health and Safety Executive, for example. If she has evidence of certain employers breaking the law, I would expect it to be passed on to the relevant agencies. As I outlined, our Prime Minister is committed to ensuring that we keep step with the European Union and go further. I believe the actions the Government have taken over recent months prove that.

Businesses: Dartford

I am pleased to say that Dartford has been shortlisted for the future high streets fund to renew its town centre. This will build on £4.3 million support already allocated from the South East local enterprise partnership growth fund.

A number of businesses in my constituency face an uncertain future due to a nationally significant infrastructure project earmarked for the Swanscombe peninsula, where those businesses are located. Will the Minister commit to working with the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government to do all he can to support the businesses that find themselves in that situation?

I fully appreciate the concerns of local businesses with regard to the uncertainty over Swanscombe peninsula. My Department works very closely with the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government. I will gladly raise this with my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Northern Powerhouse and Local Growth, when I see him tomorrow.

Photovoltaic and Battery Storage Systems: VAT

9. What assessment her Department has made of the potential effect of changes to VAT for solar on the uptake of photovoltaic and battery storage systems. (900043)

The hon. Lady will understand that the UK was forced to make these changes to comply with EU legislation. Since the new rates only came into effect on 1 October this year, it is too early to see what effect they have had. Once we have left the EU, we will have opportunities to amend the VAT treatment of low- carbon technologies to ensure that we can set the rates that we consider most appropriate.

By raising the VAT threshold for solar installations, the Government are disincentivising the transition to green energy, and this is just one example of the Government’s failure to act with the urgency that the climate crisis demands. Will the Minister undertake today to consider adopting Labour’s plans to fit solar panels to 1.75 million low-income homes, which would combat climate change while creating jobs and reducing energy bills for people in Lincoln and across the UK?

I did suggest that the VAT increase was part of EU legislation, and that is something we can amend, if we wish to do so, after we have left the EU. Solar is a UK success story. I will not take any lessons from the Labour party about the success of solar: 99% of our solar-generating capacity and over 1 million installations have been deployed since 2010, since the Government took office. This is something that we are proud of, and it will obviously be part of our energy mix as we seek to hit the target of zero carbon emissions in 2050.

Even given the VAT situation, solar and wind, together with battery storage on commercial buildings, are pretty much viable without public subsidy. Is not now the right time for a widespread deployment on every public building, including every school, hospital and prison?

My hon. Friend makes an excellent observation. We are supporting innovation in this area. We have the Modern Energy Partners programme, which cuts energy costs and carbon emissions across the public sector.

Any VAT increase would be yet another hammer blow to solar. The Minister’s predecessors took solar power to the brink, blocked onshore wind, cut support for offshore wind and failed to capitalise on Scotland’s lead in marine and tidal power. Has he compared the detail in the Scottish Government’s new green deal with the lack of detail in the Queen’s Speech? When will his Government wake up to the climate emergency?

As I have said a number of times, the VAT increase was a consequence of EU membership, so on that basis I recommend that the hon. Gentleman support the European Union (Withdrawal Agreement) Bill this evening.

Last month’s energy auction revealed that offshore wind is a third cheaper than gas and half the price of the energy from Hinkley C nuclear plant, yet Tory dogma is holding climate change mitigation back. Does the Minister agree that VAT on solar is yet another barrier to much needed change, and will he ask the Chancellor to rule that out in the Budget?

I very much appreciate the hon. Gentleman’s prepared remarks, but he does not seem to be living in the real world. We have delivered on offshore wind, which he mentioned. The price has fallen by two thirds—that is a Government success and we are going to pursue that sort of success to meet the net zero carbon target.

Business Establishment: Women

We want to make the UK the best place to work and grow a business. We have set the target of an additional 600,000 female entrepreneurs by 2030, and the British Business Bank has delivered over £198 million to women in start-up loans. With my hon. Friend the Exchequer Secretary to the Treasury, we are implementing the initiatives of Alison Rose’s review, including focusing on female entrepreneurs’ access to finance, better enterprise education and launching the investing in women code.

I thank my right hon. Friend for her answer. In my Clacton constituency, I am fortunate to have a group of very powerful businesswomen, with whom I had a very pleasant business lunch recently. In 2018, the BBC reported that women were half as likely to set up a business as men. I am pleased that the Government are doing all that my right hon. Friend said, but that must be in part due to a bias in education, so what more can be done to address this great loss of potential?

My hon. Friend is quite right. We need to go further in addressing education, and that is why one initiative in the Rose review specifically addressed the roll-out of enterprise education in schools and colleges to help in particular with the skills women need for business success at an earlier age. BEIS has also launched the Longitude Explorer prize, which is aimed specifically at 11 to 16-year-olds, to encourage innovative problem solving in our young entrepreneurs.

Many of the women in business in my constituency are EU nationals, and they were extremely concerned at yesterday’s tabling of the draft Freedom of Establishment and Free Movement of Services (EU Exit) Regulations 2019, which would allow Ministers to remove their rights to own and manage companies or provide services. While we welcome the fact that the Committee was cancelled yesterday, what are the Government’s plans in this regard, because many EU nationals in business are very concerned?

I am sorry that the hon. Lady seeks to lean into the scaremongering. The statutory instrument has a very limited direct policy impact and will not impose additional restrictions on EU nationals or EU-based businesses or on the nationals and businesses of countries with associated agreements after we have left the EU. It is very important that we all take great care not to scaremonger and try to make people think that things are the case that are simply not the case.

Establishing a business is very difficult, particularly when business rates are so high and online businesses often do not pay their way. Is it not time, particularly for those establishing businesses, that we had a root-and-branch review of the business rates model, which affects so many businesses in St Albans?

I am very sympathetic to my hon. Friend’s point; I know she is a big champion of businesses in St Albans. In my Department, we are helping the British Business Bank to provide greater support to start-up businesses, providing huge support to the UK’s 1.2 million female-led SMEs, and doing everything we can to ensure that there are more incentives and opportunities for women to start businesses than ever before.

If we are to encourage more women into business, it is essential that we tackle the gender pay gap at executive level. What has been done to address that issue?

The hon. Gentleman will know that the gender pay gap is now the smallest it has ever been and that the Government have required reporting of the gender pay gap. Such transparency can partially solve the problem, but we are not resting there: we are doing as much as possible to get more women to become entrepreneurs and to help women to acquire the skills they need to lead some of our fantastic UK businesses.

Offshore Wind Industry

As a result of the Government’s support, the UK is a world leader in offshore wind and a leader in tackling climate change. The third contracts for difference auction in 2019 delivered 5.5 GW of new offshore wind capacity, and the price was £39 per megawatt-hour, which was two thirds less than just four years ago. Our sector deal also paves the way to increase exports fivefold to £2.6 billion a year by 2030.

In East Anglia, we want to be champions of clean growth and are very proud that off our coast we are generating 52% of this country’s offshore wind output, but we want to go much further. Can my right hon. Friend assure me that the national grid will be able to keep pace and that we will support technology such as battery storage that will enable us to make the most of our natural asset?

My hon. Friend can rest assured that the Government continue to upgrade and invest in the electricity system to ensure that it can deliver additional generation. Of course, battery storage technology and other forms of storage are at the centre of any strategy to reach the net zero carbon target.

The offshore wind sector has been one of the Government’s biggest success stories, with the delivery of the world’s largest capacity. When I was at the Department for International Trade, we also made it a priority to be able to export that capability. Could the Minister tell us a bit about the work that BEIS is doing with the DIT to continue that work so that we also deliver real economic benefits for our country’s exporters?

I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend, who spent two years in the Department for International Trade and was an excellent Minister. He has driven a great deal of progress in this area. As he will know, increasing competitiveness and the capability of our supply chain are key to increasing our exporting power, and, through the offshore wind sector deal, the sector will invest up to £250 million for that purpose. I continue to work with my right hon. Friend’s former Department to identify opportunities, and I regularly meet my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for International Trade, in his capacity as Minister for investment.

Ørsted recently opened an east coast hub in my constituency. It is committed to providing local employment opportunities as part of its business, but sadly the extension of the non-EEA visa waiver to the offshore wind workers means that some companies can exploit underpaid and overworked foreign labour rather than developing local opportunities. Will the Government commit themselves to ending the waiver next year?

The Government will absolutely commit themselves to supporting new jobs in the sector. Because of allocation round 3, the contracts for difference auction, we are envisaging 400,000 new jobs in the immediate future, in the next few years. This is something at which the Government are actually succeeding and on which we are working.

It was welcome that the Hebridean renewable project won 240 MW in the contracts for difference allocation round, but we need 370 MW to 400 MW for an interconnector. I know that the Scottish island group has enough CfDs to build an interconnector for clean green energy. Is it only the UK that could design a system under which we secure CfDs but Ofgem then says that that is not enough to build an interconnector? Will the Minister ensure that, in these days of climate change, the clean green energy of the Saudi Arabia of renewables—the Hebrides, Shetland and Orkney—is taken advantage of?

I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s enthusiasm and passion for this technology, but it is wrong to suggest that the CfD auction was a failure, or that it somehow constituted a defeat. In fact, it was extremely successful. As I have said, the price was £39 per megawatt-hour, two thirds lower than the 2015 price of £115. Obviously we are looking at interconnectors, which will be part of the solution to the issue of net zero carbon.

Anyone would think that the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Angus Brendan MacNeil) was conducting a symphony orchestra rather than chairing an august Select Committee of the House, but the eccentricity of the hon. Gentleman merely adds to his lovability.

There is huge potential for low-cost, low-carbon electricity generation from floating wind in the Celtic sea. Will my right hon. Friend accept an invitation to pay a visit on 19 November and find out about this exciting opportunity?

My desire and propensity to visit all these installations know no bounds, and I should be very happy—diary permitting, obviously—to take up my hon. Friend’s offer.

Does the Minister agree that hydrogen should be made from renewables via electrolysis in the medium and long term?

The hon. Lady is right to point to the advantages of hydrogen, but, as she will understand, the issue with electrolysis is that it is currently very expensive, so the green hydrogen to which she has referred is something that we are continuing to develop.

Hydroelectric Power Generation

A number of hydro projects are currently in receipt of support through the feed-in tariff and renewables obligation schemes. As my hon. Friend will know, from 2020 small-scale hydroelectric projects will also be eligible for the smart export guarantee, which allows people to resell excess capacity to the grid.

My right hon. Friend will be aware of the failure of Solarplicity during the summer. Many renewable energy companies, including Stockport Hydro in my constituency, are significantly out of pocket. Will my right hon. Friend meet me to discuss the problem, and will he urge Ofgem to step in and cover the debts that are owed to Solarplicity?

I should be delighted to meet my hon. Friend to discuss the issue. Obviously, I cannot commit Ofgem to bailing out companies or paying debts—that is not its function, as my hon. Friend should know—but I should be happy to meet him at any time that is convenient.

I welcome the support given to hydroelectricity generation at this time. Exciting new projects in marine energy need the same support. We would not have a successful offshore wind industry had not support been given to that for decades. Will the Minister follow the work of his predecessor on this and work with the Welsh Government to ensure that this happens around the UK coastline?

Absolutely. The hon. Gentleman raises an important point: the success with offshore wind did not come out of a clear blue sky. It evolved and depended on huge amounts of investment and development over many decades. So I am very happy to engage with the hon. Gentleman and the Welsh Government on this.

New Mothers: Workplace

The Government are wholly committed to women’s participation in the workforce, including by supporting new mothers to return to, and thrive in, work. That is why we recently consulted on a broad range of proposals to help families to balance their work and home commitments. We have also announced our intention to extend redundancy protection to new mothers returning to work.

I thank the Minister for that answer. What support are the Government giving to new mothers who, sadly, have experienced stillbirth?

First, I pay tribute to my hon. Friend and Members across the House who participated in Baby Loss Awareness Week and the emotional debate in the House. The Government have committed to introducing parental bereavement leave and pay, which will apply to parents who lose a child under the age of 18, including parents with stillbirth. We plan to lay the regulations to implement the policy in January, ready to come into force on 6 April. That will support new mothers facing these tragic and difficult circumstances.

Discrimination against new mothers and pregnant women is still widespread in our country. When are the Government going to take it seriously?

I point out that discrimination in the workplace is illegal; it is unlawful. I have just outlined that we have announced our intention to extend redundancy protection for those mothers who return to work.

Electric Vehicle Technology

14. What support her Department is providing for the development of electric vehicle technology. (900048)

We have just announced up to £l billion of new funding to advance the next generation of cutting-edge automotive technologies. I am sure the House would want to know how that funding is being used. Part of it is being used by the supply chain for large-scale production of electric vehicles so that we scale up the production in the UK, and of course part of it will be used for vehicle research and development.

I do not know whether you have had the opportunity to make a journey in one of the new electric London taxis, Mr Speaker, which are manufactured in my Rugby constituency by the London Electric Vehicle Company and which often provide people with their first experience of an electric vehicle. The company has just recorded its best ever sales month, with 352 taxis sold, and the fleet is improving the carbon footprint in our cities by preventing 6,800 tonnes of CO2 from entering the atmosphere. What further can we do to improve the switch to electric?

I am very pleased to hear that the London Electric Vehicle Company had record sales in September. I spoke to the CEO recently and was very impressed with their capability. I understand their sales have grown month on month since April. They have capacity to produce 20,000 vehicles a year and his message to this House when I spoke to him was, “Let’s get Brexit done.”

Some London boroughs have hundreds of electric vehicle charging points while whole towns in the north have none, but given the lack of public transport options in places such as St Helens, would it not be economically and environmentally better to invest in places such as mine to get people out of their cars?

The hon. Gentleman is right to raise this issue. Our grant scheme and the £400 million charging infrastructure investment fund will see thousands more electric vehicle charging points installed across the whole UK.

To accelerate take-up, first, we need to have more people having an electric vehicle in their consideration set, so alongside communications to consumers can the Minister look at the pivotal role played by dealers in getting more people to take a test drive?

My right hon. Friend raises an important point. Different touch points with consumers are important. For example, when people go for a replacement tax on their car, they should be immediately alerted to the fact that, instead of paying that tax, they could pay for a new electric vehicle.

Electric vehicles represent a fantastic opportunity to combat climate change and boost manufacturing jobs. That is why Labour is committed to investing £2.3 billion in three new battery gigafactories, £3 billion in support for manufacturing new car models, and £3.6 billion in our electricity grid and charging infrastructure, and we will also provide targeted interest-free loans for new electric cars for up to 500,000 people a year. We will do all that while retaining membership of the world’s largest customs union. Apart from a few ad hoc pots of money, the Government are proposing green licence plates. When it comes to climate change and manufacturing, is it not true that the Government are all hot air and no action?

The hon. Lady just reeled off a list, so I will reel off my own list of good news, starting with the fact that Government announced £1 billion to increase the capacity for electric car development. On 10 October, Nissan launched the new Juke model after investing £100 million in Sunderland. On 26 September, Jaguar Land Rover announced its latest investment in the Gaydon facility, close to my constituency. On 18 September, INEOS Automotive announced that its headquarters and assembly plant for its SUV will be based in Bridgend. BMW’s new MINI Electric launched in July. JLR has made a massive investment in electric engines at Castle Bromwich. On 20 March, Toyota announced a collaboration with Suzuki to make an electric version of its Corolla model. That is all real investment, not “hot air”. The Labour party would crash the economy, raise taxes and have nothing—nowt—to spend on the green economy.

Topical Questions

After two years as a sole trader at this Dispatch Box as Leader of the House, it is a huge pleasure to be here today with such a superb ministerial team. In addition to my Department’s vital work to help businesses to prepare for Brexit, we have set out three key priority areas for BEIS. First, we aim to lead the world in tackling climate change. From the Prime Minister chairing a new Cabinet Committee to our hosting of COP26 in Glasgow next year, our pathway to net zero is well under way. Secondly, we will seek to solve the grand challenges facing our society, from new support for our life sciences sector to developing fusion power to setting out how amazing UK innovations can solve the challenges of low productivity. Thirdly, we aim quite simply to make the UK the best place in the world to work and to grow a business.

Will the Secretary of State reassure me that her Department is fully assessing the potential of UK peatlands and peatland restoration in regions such as North Yorkshire, where my constituency lies, in getting us to net zero? Peatlands are a carbon sink that absorb more emissions than the world’s oceans each year.

My hon. Friend is right that peatlands have a vital role to play in delivering net zero. In addition to £10 million to help to restore more than 6,000 hectares of peatland over a three-year period, we are working with Natural England on a number of pilot projects, including one in North Yorkshire, to test our approach for moving all peatlands in England on to a path of recovery and restoration.

I welcome the Secretary of State to her place for our first BEIS orals together. I know that we will have many a productive exchange.

Nine thousand UK jobs lost and 150,000 holidaymakers repatriated at an estimated cost to the taxpayer £100 million, yet the former chairman of Thomas Cook confirmed that Government financial support would have allowed him to save the company. A report from Unite the Union and Syndex also showed that £188 million in bridging loans would have prevented Thomas Cook’s collapse. With reports that banks and investors were still willing, even on the day of the collapse, to support a deal provided that the Government stepped in, will the Business Secretary explain why she failed to meet with the company in the final days and clarify her rationale for not offering support?

First, I would like to reciprocate by saying that I am delighted to be working with the hon. Lady. I look forward to many exchanges across the Dispatch Box.

The hon. Lady will appreciate that my Department and I were very closely involved in the run-up to Thomas Cook’s insolvency. It is a Department for Transport lead and, as all hon. Members will appreciate, too many cooks can spoil the broth, so I liaised closely with the Secretary of State for Transport who took the lead on this, but BEIS officials were very closely involved.

At the weekend I wrote to the insolvency practitioner about clawback and malus, to ATOL about looking after the insurance for those who booked holidays, and to the banking associations about ensuring that proper restraint is shown to those who sadly lost their jobs in that run-up.

Why did we not bail out Thomas Cook? Simply because it was clear that the £200 million it was asking for was just a drop in the ocean. There was no way the company could realistically be restored, despite the Government seriously considering the prospects for doing so and for making it an ongoing concern.

It is interesting that the German Government saw fit to intervene. Not only did our Government refuse, they also failed to take the basic action needed to ensure good corporate behaviour. Today, reports demonstrate a clear conflict of interest for auditing firms that, while signing off on Thomas Cook’s finances, separately advised directors on securing bumper bonuses.

BHS, Carillion and the banks all had similar auditing conflicts. Sir John Kingman officially advised the Government nearly a year ago to create a more robust statutory regulator, but to no avail. Will the Secretary of State confirm if and when she will bring forward reforms to the Financial Reporting Council and the wider auditing sector, as proposed by the Kingman review, Professor Prem Sikka and the Competition and Markets Authority?

First, may I gently say to the hon. Lady that the situation in Germany was extremely different? It was a separate business in Germany. If there had been an opportunity to save Thomas Cook, we would have done so. We looked very carefully at the prospects—[Interruption.] The hon. Lady is just demonstrating a lack of understanding of how UK business works, and I am very sorry to hear that. She really needs to look at the facts here, and not just at trying to make a point. This was a very serious issue, and it was something the Government took very seriously.

We have done everything possible to protect those who sadly lost their jobs. I am delighted, but the hon. Lady did not even mention, that Hays Travel has taken over many Thomas Cook shops, which is fantastic news for many of those employees. She has also not paid any regard to the fact that the Government were able to establish a repatriation on the biggest scale ever in peacetime to bring more than 140,000 people back to the United Kingdom.

T9. Workers’ rights matter. Given that eight out of 10 mums consider work-family balance before thinking about any new job opportunity, can the Government confirm they remain committed to considering the proposal that employers should make all jobs flexible unless there is a good reason not to do so? (900068)

Good-quality flexible working is important to all employees and is central to good work. Workers’ rights matter. Over 97% of employers offer some form of flexible working, and our recent consultation looked at how further to increase the prevalence of flexible working by advertising jobs as flexible and by requiring large employers to publish their policy.

T2. British companies have been shown to be complicit in the fires and deforestation in the Amazon through their investments and supply chains. Will the Minister look at introducing mandatory due diligence to address this? (900061)

This subject has come up, and we need to look at how companies and exporters tackle serious carbon emissions. What they are doing in the Amazon is not acceptable. We need to engage with that and have a dialogue.

T10. I recently visited Orbex in Forres, which is heavily involved in the new spaceport at Sutherland and is seen as a sector leader with its new innovative launch vehicle. Will the Minister outline what support the UK Government can give to companies such as Orbex, which plans to bring 250 high-quality jobs to the region? (900069)

The Government support growing our national space capabilities, especially by establishing the new national space council, which will be chaired by the Prime Minister. We are supporting Orbex to develop an exciting new launch vehicle technology with a grant of £5.5 million as part of our industrial strategy. We are keen to work with it as part of the wider national space framework we are establishing.[Official Report, 31 October 2019, Vol. 667, c. 3MC.]

T3.   The town of Blaydon has been without a post office in its shopping centre for about five years, as no local retailer has been prepared to take this on. Leaving the availability of local post offices to the willingness of local retailers is just not working in Blaydon, so what steps will the Minister take to ensure that post office provision is retained where no local retailer can be found, as in Blaydon? (900062)

I thank the hon. Lady for her question and I am more than happy to meet her to discuss her constituency in further detail if she would require. There is no programme of closures and the Post Office is working extremely hard, where post offices do shut for any, sometimes unpredictable, reason, to find replacements. We do have outreach services that are available when there is a lack of service, but I am happy to speak with her further about that.

I welcome the Secretary of State to the Dispatch Box and hope that she will have distinguished tenure at this important time. She will know that the recommendations of the independent review of the Financial Reporting Council, conducted by Sir John Kingman, were widely endorsed and are urgently required. I was concerned that the statutory implementation of those recommendations was not included in the Queen’s Speech. Can she assure me that she is not going to miss a golden opportunity to make these reforms and give a big boost to our standing in the world?

First, let me pay tribute to my right hon. Friend, my predecessor, who did a fantastic job in this Department. I am delighted to stand by the position that he took as Secretary of State: it is the Government’s plan to legislate for a new regulator with stronger powers, replacing the FRC, as soon as parliamentary time allows. We are planning to progress this work in the first quarter of next year, once we have received Sir Donald Brydon’s review of the quality and effectiveness of audit.

T4. Next month will mark five years since the Government first announced they would undertake an independent review of the UK’s product recall system, and a failure to implement recalls has led to fire services responding to preventable fires due to product failures. Will the Minister today update the House on the review’s progress and whether the single recall register will be up and running this year? (900063)

I am not sure whether the hon. Lady is aware that we undertook one of the biggest recalls that has happened this year: the recall of Whirlpool tumble dryers. She will know that I have updated the House on the progress we have made on that. Since 12 June, when I announced the recall, we have had more than 90,000 contacts, with people getting in touch about recall. So we are continuing to improve and work on recall.

Heatric is a business in my constituency that is leading in clean energy, for example, carbon capture and storage, but it can do more. What more can the Department do to support businesses such as Heatric?

Carbon capture, usage and storage is essential to meet our mission for net zero by 2050. We have committed £25 million so far to supporting new companies to progress CCUS, with an additional £100 million as part of the £505 million energy innovation programme. I know that my hon. Friend has taken Heatric to the Department, and officials are keen to ensure that they can continue to work with the company.

T5. When we leave the European Union, we will also leave the auspices of the European Union Aviation Safety Agency, so what plans do Ministers have to provide regulatory certainty to the aerospace sector and for the thousands of jobs that it relates to in my constituency? (900064)

I think the hon. Gentleman would know that we already have agreements in place so that planes can continue flying. If he votes for the deal today, we will be in a much better place to leave in an orderly way.

More than half a dozen post offices in East Renfrewshire have closed over the past couple of years and not one has been able to be replaced, because it was not a viable business proposition for retailers. Does the Minister think that increased fees under the banking framework agreement will be enough to build the sustainability of the post office network?

I thank my hon. Friend for that question. I am happy to discuss particular issues in his constituency. I believe that the new banking framework and the increase in remuneration that postmasters will be receiving as part of that framework will make a significant impact for postmasters. But he is right to say that we must not stop there. I am working hard, with the Post Office and the National Federation of SubPostmasters, to make sure that we have a post office network that is fit, relevant and viable.

T6. Scotland has 35% of the total European carbon capture and storage capacity; it has much of the infrastructure already in place; and it has in my constituency the world-leading research group Scottish Carbon Capture & Storage. Will the Secretary of State press the Chancellor to seriously increase the amount of investment in the next Budget that goes into the industry, so that it can upscale and go into commercial production? (900065)

The hon. Gentleman is right: carbon capture, usage and storage is going to be crucial to our meeting our net zero carbon target. We are committed to supporting its deployment in the 2020s. The Government are already funding programmes in this policy area worth more than £500 million, and we will have a useful dialogue with colleagues in the Treasury to encourage the development of the technology.

Many businesses in my constituency depend on a constant flow of engineers entering the work- force. Will my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State tell the House how her Department is ensuring that enough young people take up engineering? What is she doing with other Departments to embed it in the curriculum?

May I start by thanking my hon. Friend for his work as the Government’s engineering envoy and for the work he has taken forward as part of our Engineering: Take a Closer Look legacy campaign? We have so far invested £406 million in maths, digital and technical education to help to focus on the shortage of science, technology, engineering and maths skills, but we must ensure that the “E” in STEM is equally vital, so we will be taking forward work to put engineering at the centre of our STEM strategy.

T7. Last week, Tata Jaguar Land Rover announced that it had created an electric drive unit, which the Government are helping to fund. In view of that, will the steel Minister work with Tata to ensure that the Orb steelworks in Newport stays open and is part of the supply chain? It would be a travesty to lose the capacity to make electrical steel in this country. (900066)

The hon. Lady and I are set to meet on 29 October, and I am meeting the all-party group on steel the day before. I will do everything I can to work with Tata to see whether we can find a future for the steelworks.

I draw the House’s attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. In my constituency, we have two EDF nuclear power stations. Part of the EDF group is RTE, which is currently working with the British company Aquind to deliver cross-EU-border energy infrastructure. The EU Commission has just removed UK companies from its list of projects of common interests, which affects their regulation. Will my right hon. Friend urge Ofgem to step up and protect British companies by granting regulation as soon as possible in accordance with British law?

Absolutely. We had an official present in the room at that PCI meeting on 4 October. This issue has been raised with me and is a matter of concern.

T8. As 90,000 postal delivery workers threaten to go on strike at Christmas over job security and employment rights that were promised but remain undelivered, I note that the chief executive of privatised Royal Mail earns nearly 35 times what our beloved posties earn. Given the creeping privatisation of our post offices that is devastating community assets, will the Minister consider renationalising all our postal services, as demanded by the good citizens of South Kensington, who have lost their post office, so that they will deliver to the nation, not to the pockets of the few? (900067)

I thank the hon. Lady for her question, but I have to disappoint her because my answer to it is no.

I was delighted to hear that Seagreen wind farm off the coast of Angus was successful in its bid in the UK Government contract for difference auction. It will be the most powerful wind farm throughout the United Kingdom and will have the ability to power up to 40% of Scottish homes. Would the Minister like to come to Angus and see the impact it is already having on our local economy? The local port has already secured the contract for the operations and maintenance base.

Sedgefield is home to the largest business park in the north-east of England, with 500 companies and 10,000 to 12,000 jobs. More than 50% of the jobs and businesses there rely in some way on trade with the EU. If the Secretary of State has her way and there is no more frictionless trade with the EU, no more customs union and no access to the single market as there is now, does she not have a responsibility to publish an economic assessment on the effects that will have on my constituents’ jobs?

I am delighted that Hitachi in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency is doing so well and that the high value manufacturing catapult that has an operation in his constituency is also doing well—both supported by the Government. We are seeking to get the withdrawal agreement Bill through this House, so that we can move forward with a good free trade deal that works for the United Kingdom, the EU and the many people in his constituency who are employed in manufacturing, which is something in which the UK excels.

British Children: Syria

To ask the Secretary of State if he will make a statement on the Government’s policy on 60 British children trapped in north-east Syria.

I thank my right hon. Friend for his question. This is, of course, a dreadful situation. Innocent minors trapped in north-east Syria are, without doubt, vulnerable. All these cases must be approached with care and compassion. We are aware that British nationals, including children, are living in displaced persons’ camps in Syria, but, owing to the circumstances on the ground, we are not in a position to make an accurate estimate of the number.

The safety and security of British nationals abroad is a priority for the Foreign Office, although UK travel advice has consistently advised against all travel to Syria since 2011. Although the UK has no consular presence in Syria from which to provide assistance, we will do all we can for unaccompanied minors and orphans.

The Foreign Secretary made it clear to the House last week that the Government will try to help any British unaccompanied minors and orphans in Syria. We work with all concerned in Syria and at home to facilitate the return of unaccompanied or orphan children where feasible. Each case is considered on an individual basis.

The situation in north-east Syria is fragile, but we will continue to work with international partners to secure stability in the region, to ensure that the considerable gains made against Daesh are not undermined, and to bring humanity and compassion to a deeply troubled and traumatised region.

I thank the Minister for his compassionate tone and for what he had to say. Last Tuesday, the Foreign Secretary made the commitment to look at whether orphans and unaccompanied minors in north-east Syria could be repatriated to Britain. I welcome that commitment, but I am afraid that it does not go far enough. Save the Children has now confirmed that, of the 60 children in the region, only three are orphans. The children who have not been orphaned still deserve the United Kingdom’s protection. These children are at the heart of an unfolding geopolitical disaster in Syria. Many of them under the age of five have been born of parents who made a grotesquely misguided and irresponsible decision to go to Syria. The children are there through absolutely no fault of their own. They should not be punished for their parents’ mistakes. They have lived through some of the most brutal and inhumane fighting in modern times. Some have witnessed beheadings and other appalling acts of brutality, and others are suffering from terrible physical and psychological damage.

Some of our international allies have already used the five-day ceasefire to fulfil their duties and repatriate their own children. If we do not do the same, British children would be left at the whim of a brutal dictator, of a terrorist organisation or of roving bands of militia. If we do nothing, we will be abandoning our moral obligations and risking those vulnerable children growing up in a war-torn area and perhaps turning into terrorists themselves. The time to act, Minister, is now.

I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on securing the urgent question and on making his case within time. He is in danger of being an exception.

I thank my right hon. Friend for his points. He is right to say that the UK Government’s approach to this is, I hope, informed by compassion and care for individual cases. Our priority clearly has to be unaccompanied children and orphans, and that is where our attention currently is.

My right hon. Friend has given me a figure—I have to say that I do not recognise that figure—although, of course, we are talking to all the agencies and to those with an influence on the ground, to better understand the situation, and, of course, we will do all we can. The situation is fast-moving, and getting access to camps and people is extremely difficult. The ceasefire that he has spoken of is due to expire tonight, but we hope that it will be sustained. Under those circumstances, of course, all things become possible.

I thank you, Mr Speaker, for granting this urgent question, and the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis) for securing it. His contribution was powerful and it was right. I entirely share his concerns about the dozens of innocent children—many just infants—who are legally British citizens and who find themselves, through no fault of their own, caught up in the latest upsurge in violence around the Daesh detention camps in northern Syria, triggered by the unilateral withdrawal of US troops and the subsequent invasion of the region by Turkey and its mercenary militias. The reckless and treacherous actions of the Trump Administration were always going to have human consequences, including the increased endangerment of the innocent British children living in the detention camps, nearly all of whom have already experienced—as the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden says—huge physical and psychological traumas in their lives because of what they have seen and the conditions in which they have grown up.

It is all very well for some to say that the sins of the father, and in many cases the mother, should be visited on the children, but that is not who we are as a country or a people. Instead, we have a moral and a civic duty to ensure that these British children are brought back to the UK to receive the shelter, care and counselling they need, even if that necessitates bringing back their mothers to face justice in our courts for the crimes they may have committed. If the Minister of State agrees with that, as I hope that he does, I must ask another difficult question, and one with which we need to wrestle.

If we were having this discussion two months ago, we would have been talking about negotiating the repatriation of these children with our Kurdish and American allies. Now, as a result of Donald Trump’s actions, that negotiation will need to involve Assad’s regime, Russia and what are now their Kurdish allies. So I ask the Minister of State, unpalatable as it may be, does the Foreign Office believe that to achieve the repatriation of these children, it will be necessary to restore formal diplomatic relations with the Assad regime, and will that be on a permanent or a temporary basis?

I completely distance myself from the phrase “sins of the father”. There is no question about this. These are innocent minors; they are vulnerable people and we must do what we can for them. It is entirely wrong to associate them with what their parents may have done. Indeed, we need to ensure—as my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis) made very clear in his question—that the cycle does not continue. That is fully understood.

The shadow Secretary of State touched on the legal position of minors who are living in camps with their parents. That brings us to a very difficult area indeed. I am sure that she would not want to trespass too far in that regard, nor would she want to remove children from their parents.

We have been clear about our attitude towards the Assad regime. As the right hon. Lady will be very well aware, the reality is that the Assad regime appears to have permeated most corners of the country now, and we have to think about what that means if we are to pursue our humanitarian goals. I think that most western countries—the telephone conversation I had with the global coalition against Daesh yesterday would certainly indicate this—are trying to work out what we now do when it comes to operating in the new reality, which sadly has been made a great deal worse by the events of the past few days.

May I just pin the Minister down on two key points? First, do the Government accept in principle that these children should be repatriated and are a British responsibility? Secondly, do they accept that, subject to not putting British officials in harm’s way, such repatriation could and should take place, possibly with the help of UNICEF?

I thank my right hon. Friend. Certainly we would want to work with agencies. If he will forgive me, I am not going to specify which agencies. He will know, as he has been Secretary of State in the relevant Department, why we do not want to specify which particular partners we are working with in this instance. On the protection of our own people, we are not going to put civil servants at risk in this. That would be unreasonable. We have a duty of care towards them.

In terms of repatriation in principle, I think my right hon. Friend is tempting me to make commitments in a piece that is fast-moving. I would refer to the point I made in response to the right hon. Member for Islington South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry) about the legality of this and the separation of family members. It would be wrong in principle to separate family members, but, as I said in my opening remarks, we consider each case on its merits. These are all individual cases, and it would be very wrong to give a blanket assessment of the position that the Government would take.

I thank the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis) for securing this incredibly important urgent question. I also pay tribute to the aid agencies working in some extraordinarily difficult circumstances.

One of the most chilling briefings I have ever received came in at the weekend, when I read that children—small children—have died on their way to and in the camps from hypothermia, pneumonia, dehydration or complications from malnutrition and illness. Winter and war are closing in on these children at the moment. The right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell) raised a very good point. Does the UK take responsibility for British children? Can the Minister answer that in terms of the principle?

What discussions has the Minister had with the states that have been able to evacuate children already, and why has the UK not done so? What lessons has he learned? When I raised this with the Foreign Secretary previously, he talked about security considerations. Will the Minister disregard security considerations around children who are about five or six years old, and will he set out the plans to bring these children home?

I thank the hon. Gentleman, who puts his points in his usual effective and forceful way. It is right to point out that the UK has been right at the forefront of applying international development funding to the dire situation in north-east Syria. We are right at the top of the league table, and it is important to say that. Particularly as winter approaches, it is of vital importance that the British public know that their money is being spent to alleviate as far as they possibly can this dire humanitarian situation.

I am not going to be drawn on other countries, because it is invidious to make comparisons. It is very easy just to pluck out a couple of countries from the air and say that we are not doing as well as X or Y. Let me be clear: we are doing what we can, given the difficult circumstances on the ground, and of course within the rule of law, for vulnerable children in north-east Syria. This is a piece that is rapidly developing and rapidly changing, and of course we keep all things under review. I hope that is helpful to the hon. Gentleman.

I declare my interest both as an expert witness in the defence of John Letts and Sally Lane in respect of the non-provision of consular services in the region—evidence that was unchallenged by the prosecution—and in respect of a visit to the region with three parliamentary colleagues with the all-party parliamentary group on Rojava five weeks ago. In al-Hawl camp, we were told that there were 16 British families there. I have to say to my right hon. Friend that every single day we delay in bringing these children home is an extra day of trauma that we are going to have to address at great expense in the United Kingdom. We must take up our responsibilities both to the children and to ourselves in order to protect our future security.

Yes, I pay tribute to my hon. Friend’s first-hand experience in Syria and the efforts he has made to better understand what is going on. The situation in north-east Syria is difficult and unpredictable. We have a ceasefire at the moment, and I hope it endures. If that ceasefire does hold tonight into tomorrow and into the future, the situation becomes much more permissive in terms of trying to deliver assistance where it is necessary and also in dealing with the cases that he has referred to, particularly the orphaned children—the unaccompanied minors—who are deeply vulnerable. I entirely agree with him that with every day that goes past means these children potentially getting even more deeply disadvantaged. I want this resolved. At the moment, we are working with agencies to do what we can. In the event that the ceasefire holds, I think that things will hopefully move a lot more rapidly and we will be able to do more.

But surely now, with a ceasefire and a lull in the fighting, is the perfect time to facilitate repatriation—to get them out. Will the Minister tell us what numbers he is talking about? We do not want the wool pulled over our eyes yet again. I understand that only three of the children are orphans out of the 60 who are from British families. What numbers are we talking about precisely? We do not want just three children taken out; we want all 60 taken out, and their mothers.

I thank the right hon. Lady, who has taken a very long-term interest in this. I would diverge from the pretext of her question, which is that we have not been doing anything; I can tell her, though I am not going to be drawn on the detail, that actually we have, over the past four days. The ceasefire finishes tonight. I hope that it endures, in which case things become a lot more permissive—a lot easier. We hope that that will be the case. I am sorry to disappoint her, but I am not going to be drawn on precise numbers. I do not recognise the figure that was given earlier on. I do respect the authority that has produced it, but I cannot confirm a number anywhere in that region. I also, I am afraid, do not want to be drawn in this forum on the three precise cases that she referred to. She will understand that we are actively trying to do what we can for them, and I do not want to say something at the Dispatch Box that might prejudice what we do in-country. However, I am perfectly happy to have a conversation with her in private.

I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis) for this urgent question. I very much sympathise with my right hon. Friend the Minister in dealing with it, because he, with the Foreign Secretary, has a responsibility in this House to work out the practicalities of the respective duties of care of those he would send to rescue those who are trapped in this situation abroad with their needs and everything else. However, sometimes the sheer practicality of difficulties can mask a failure in government to make the decisions they need to make. This is particularly about the mothers of the children. It has seemed to me over a period of time that we have to recognise an international responsibility to take back even those who have been indoctrinated and radicalised in order to protect the children, and that we should have the resources to be able to deal with them, as well as to protect the children, who are the only innocents, by and large, in this situation. Can he reassure me that there is in government now a clear decision being made with the Home Office to bring people back, as they should be cared for here?

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend. He will know that we are currently trying to better understand the situation in al-Hawl, in particular, to try to identify those who have British nationality, their position and their wishes, and, in particular, trying to enumerate those who might be considered to be vulnerable in this piece. As I said earlier, we are approaching this on a case-by-case basis. That is genuinely the case. It is not easy, because our access is obviously imperfect. I hope very much that the ceasefire holds, and then we will be able to do more than we had perhaps been able to do up to this point.

The Minister has alluded several times to the five-day window expiring tonight. Can he outline, even in general terms, what steps he expects to take this afternoon and this evening before that expiry?

As I said, we have been working over the past several days, and indeed for some considerable time, to better understand the situation in al-Hawl camp, in particular, to satisfy ourselves that we know who is there and who we might have responsibility for in some way or another, moral or legal, to work up a plan on how to deal with that. That is irrespective of the ceasefire, but the ceasefire is important because it makes things a lot easier when we are trying to get in place a plan to assist those we think we have a duty towards.

I understand very well the ethical, legal and practical difficulties of repatriating children, especially those who are not orphans. Many of the partners we work with would not want to take a child from their parents, even in these circumstances. Surely our hand would be strengthened in being able to do the right thing if taking a child to a war zone and all the horrors that accompany it were seen as a form of child abuse. Will the Minister please ask Government lawyers to look at this to see whether we can strengthen our hand in taking children back who are not orphans, and also that we have more in our arsenal to enable us to prosecute those who have taken children overseas?

My right hon. Friend is fully familiar with all this territory. Of course, some of the children will have been born in Syria, which I think illustrates the complexity that I referred to earlier and the reason that we need to take an individual approach to each and every case. In general, of course it is absolutely right that a child should not be separated from its mother in particular. That is a strong principle that we should adhere to, but as I say, this situation is rapidly evolving and we have to consider each case individually.

The Minister has acknowledged that there is absolutely no time to lose. The current ceasefire presents a window of opportunity to move on these repatriations, but does the Minister accept that access to the two camps where the majority of UK national children are living was possible, as was repatriation, before the ceasefire and is likely to be possible for a little while afterwards? I acknowledge that he is not prepared to be drawn on the performance of other countries, but all the indications are that a number of other countries are able to get their nationals out quicker than we are managing to do. Why is that?

I am not sure I would agree entirely with what I read in The Guardian newspaper, and I would certainly disagree with the characterisation that the hon. Gentleman has portrayed. I have no evidence to suggest that the UK is in any way being dilatory in trying to return vulnerable children to the United Kingdom. That is absolutely not the case. We will continue to do what we can, and we have been very active up to this point in trying to work out the next steps. All I can do is to reassure him on that point.

While we should certainly care about the children, we should also continue to worry about some of the parents who still constitute an extreme threat to us here in the United Kingdom and from whom our armed forces have spent five years trying to protect us. Can my right hon. Friend say what work is being done in the coalition to ensure that some of those parents are not inadvertently released?

I regret that the Turkish incursion has really not helped this position, in that it is likely that some of the places in which the foreign fighters have been held will become a little more porous as a result. The early suggestion that this would mean that the doors were opened and that they would simply be released has probably been overdone—that is not our sense at the moment—but it certainly does pose a very real risk. My right hon. Friends the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary have been absolutely right in saying that public safety must be ensured, and we would want to see those who may have committed offences brought to justice. Our view is that such cases should be tried close to the alleged crimes, and that remains our position.

I congratulate the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis) on asking this urgent question and agree with every single word he has said. Can I ask the Minister what would happen in the event that we are able to repatriate these children? As has already been said, they have witnessed, seen and experienced things that no adult, never mind any child, should have to experience, and they are likely to be suffering from quite severe psychological and physical conditions. What package of support will be put in place for them in the event that we actually bring them home? They are going to need all the help they can get.

I am really pleased that the hon. Gentleman has raised that point. He is absolutely right to say that safeguarding will be vital when these children return to the UK. He is a constituency MP, as I am, and he will understand that local social services are principally responsible for the care of vulnerable children. That will remain the case in this case. We would be working with the statutory agencies to ensure that children who are repatriated to this country and who may be traumatised in ways that most of us can barely imagine are given every care that they require. I suspect that the process will be ongoing and very lengthy.

Can the Minister clarify whether there is a legal distinction between children born in the so-called caliphate and those who have been taken there? For the avoidance of doubt, will he also clarify that the Government are talking solely about unaccompanied and orphaned children? If we are introducing an element where a parent is involved, that will open up a whole range of other possibilities and challenges.

My right hon. Friend is right to touch on the legality, which is complicated. We are clear that there are British nationals in camps in Syria who have the rights that he would expect any British national to have. If they are born to British parents, they would naturally be expected to have British nationality, just like any other child born in any other country. To deal with the distinction between unaccompanied children and others, which other Members have mentioned, our principal concern and priority must be unaccompanied and orphaned children. They are the most vulnerable, and that is where our attention chiefly is at this moment. However, I would say to my right hon. Friend, who has some experience in these matters, that this is a bigger piece of work that I hope will be made considerably easier in the event that we have a sustained ceasefire when the current ceasefire ends this evening.

Rather than dealing with children on a case-by-case basis and risking some of the parents being released and causing further mayhem, is not the solution to repatriate all UK citizens and, if any are guilty or suspected of committing offences, to put them on trial?

From my conversations with my international interlocutors yesterday, that does not appear to be the approach being taken by most countries. The Government clearly have a duty to protect the public—the hon. Gentleman’s constituents and mine—and that is at the forefront of our mind. In dealing with foreign terrorist fighters, our firm view is that any alleged crimes should be tried close to the scene of those alleged crimes. Justice is best served in that way, and that is what we are attempting to achieve. The hon. Gentleman has to accept that repatriating foreign terrorist fighters makes it more difficult to mount successful prosecutions and thus protect the public.

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right to say that these British children are vulnerable and innocent minors, but that is the case whether they are orphaned or not, so can he explain clearly what Department for International Development-funded partners are doing to ensure that we have identified all British children who are caught up in this appalling situation and confirm that it is the Government’s objective to ensure that they have identified them? We have an obligation to them all, and our duty to them really should be clear.

We want to assist all vulnerable children; I hope I have made that very clear. The reason I said that I did not recognise a figure of 50 or 60 was not that I was trying to obfuscate from the Dispatch Box; it was because we genuinely do not know. It is are difficult to determine who they are and how many there are. This piece of work is ongoing, and I hope that a more benign situation in north-east Syria will assist in that process so that we will indeed be able to provide something like an individual service to those who are in the camps, particularly those who are most vulnerable and their family members. That is what we will seek to achieve, but my right hon. Friend’s point is well made.

The Minister has made a great deal of his hope that the ceasefire will hold, but of course it may not. How does the Foreign Office plan to respond to the end of the ceasefire in its processes for repatriating British children?

That process is not dependent on the end of the ceasefire. My point was that it is made a great deal easier in the event that the security situation on the ground is more benign and more permissive, but our work on repatriating the priority cases in particular, who have to be orphans and unaccompanied minors, will continue nevertheless.

The Minister has set out a number of the practical challenges involved in acting in this area. Can he confirm the reports that many of us have heard that a number of other countries, including some of our allies, are already in the process of repatriating children from this area of Syria? Can he also confirm whether those countries are adopting an approach similar to the one that he seems to be adopting today, of drawing a distinction between unaccompanied children and orphans and the wider body of children who may be there?

I believe that that is the case. I do not discern a dramatic difference from the approach taken by countries with which we could reasonably be compared—that is to say, the countries that we have habitually speak to in this matter. I think there is a commonality of understanding that we need to ensure that those who are most vulnerable are prioritised. That is what we are doing. My right hon. Friend refers to a process being under way. I can assure him that the UK process is under way, and it seems to be in parallel with most countries.

I trust the Minister’s integrity and honesty, and while he has been vague about the actions that are being taken, I accept his assurance that action is being taken. But the House still requires an assurance not only that the orphans who have been identified will be repatriated, but that we will look at the children who are with their mothers, because they cannot fail to have been traumatised. I suggest that the Minister look at the work of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Mediterranean, which has been asked by the UN and Washington to put together a system for bringing foreign fighters to justice.

I am grateful for the hon. Lady’s comments. Her tone, as ever, is spot on. I agree with her; we need to apply compassion to all in this situation. We also, of course, need to bring justice to those who must be brought before the courts. I am interested in the work that she cited and will certainly take a close look at it.

I completely concur with my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis) and the Minister that these children are the innocent victims of their parents’ actions, and we owe them a duty of care. Since the law was changed in 2013, more than 150 children have been taken into the care system in the UK for fear of the risk of radicalisation by their parents. If the parents of these children were in the UK, those children would hopefully now be safely in the care of extended family members, expert foster carers or even adopted parents. Does the Minister agree that, if we can rescue these children safely, we should work to find them safe homes in the UK, whatever the status of their parents?

That is a reasonable analogy to draw, because we are dealing with UK law, and these children ultimately will be returned to the UK. In my view, we need to use the same standards, norms and principles with these children as we would apply in the UK. I note my hon. Friend’s point. He will understand that the piece of work under way is trying to identify precisely where these families are, who they are and what can be done. I do not think the numbers are vast. [Interruption.] He is right to say from a sedentary position that that does not matter. These are individual cases, but the press reporting 70,000 in al-Hol camp, for example, gives the impression that there are thousands and thousands of people in the frame for this. I can say without betraying any confidences that that would be a grave exaggeration. We are talking about a relatively small number of people. This should be a containable piece of work, and it is, I assure him, under way.

The Minister will be aware that there are different interpretations, particularly from those on the ground, of the Ankara-Washington ceasefire. Is that hampering the Government’s and agencies’ attempts to repatriate children? Does he agree that the UK Government need to increase the number of children being resettled here in the UK?

I think the hon. Gentleman raised a similar point before on the vulnerable persons resettlement scheme, which I am very proud of—20,000 people by 2020 is a big commitment, particularly when it is taken along with our financial commitment to tackling the dreadful humanitarian crisis in Syria. He mentions the ceasefire. I assure him that we have used every opportunity to do what we can in relation to vulnerable people in north-east Syria during this period and will continue to do so, assisted, I hope, by the continuation of the ceasefire, and we have to hope for the best this evening.

When we look at the bigger picture, we see that the position of these British children and our national security have been adversely impacted by the invasion of north-east Syria by a NATO country following the exit of north-east Syria by a NATO country. Does the Minister agree that it behoves all political generations to review how supranational organisations work, so that they continue to work in Britain’s national interest?

I think the hon. Gentleman alludes to Turkey’s behaviour as a member of NATO. All I can say is that I am very disappointed by Turkey’s behaviour, as a trusted NATO friend and ally. I very much hope that it will desist from further incursion into Syria and de-escalate. Otherwise, I think the consequences will be very serious indeed.

Children’s services in this country are overstretched at the moment. Will the Minister ensure that adequate resources are made available to deal with this situation? Is he waiting for a ruling from the courts in relation to British nationality? He has talked about unaccompanied children, but that ruling could mean that there are accompanied children. Does he have contingency plans for that?

Referring to the point I made earlier, I think that the scale of this is containable. It is the responsibility of local social services to deal with it, notwithstanding the specialist nature of some of the services that will have to be provided to the vulnerable people concerned. I think I can give the hon. Gentleman the assurances that he seeks in relation to vulnerable children returning to this country having the specialist services they need to ensure their welfare and rehabilitation.

My constituent Kate has written to me to share her concerns about the intensifying and dangerous situation facing these children stuck in camps. Can the Minister confirm beyond any doubt that the UK Government accept their duty of care for these children and will take responsibility for these British citizens?

We look at each case individually; I can give the hon. Lady that assurance. I do not want to get wrapped up in a strict legalistic interpretation of “duty of care”. I want to ensure that we apply our moral duty to do what we can for innocent British nationals; I can give her that assurance

I am left a little bit perplexed, particularly following the Minister’s last response. Can he confirm, with a yes or no answer, whether all these young British children are the legal responsibility of Britain and the UK Government?

The difficulty is that if they are not unaccompanied or orphaned, they are in the care of their parents. I think the hon. Gentleman is confusing two things. It is important to ensure that children in this country and anywhere else remain in the care of their parents wherever possible. As a parent, I can say that it is vital that children remain in a family setting. That is what we will seek to ensure. The state abrogating responsibility for children is an extreme measure, and we will seek to keep families together wherever we can.

I am most grateful to the Minister and to colleagues for taking part. [Interruption.] Yes, I will take points of order. The day would not be complete without them.

Points of Order

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I would like to ask your advice about what measures you think the House should be taking to deal with the possible security risk of the Government’s programme motion, which tomorrow sets us up so that all Members, staff and others will be leaving at the same time, when there is no public transport and the likelihood that there will not be enough taxis. Ministers may be able to go home in their ministerial cars, but for everyone else, including staff, this is surely a security risk. What advice can you give us about what precautions we can take?

I am very grateful to the hon. Lady for her point of order. I have not got immediate advice. I will consult the Parliamentary Security Director and report back to the House as expeditiously as I can. She has raised a serious point and it does warrant a serious response, and a serious response has to be a considered one, based on consultation. I hope that that is helpful to her for now.