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Commons Chamber

Volume 670: debated on Thursday 23 January 2020

House of Commons

Thursday 23 January 2020

The House met at half-past Nine o’clock

Prayers

[Mr Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions

International Trade

The Secretary of State was asked—

Global Free Trade

As we leave the European Union, we have a huge opportunity to be a liberalising force for trade in the world. We aim to secure agreements with countries accounting for 80% of UK trade within three years of leaving the EU, and as we take up our independent seat at the World Trade Organisation we will be a champion of global free trade.

The farmers in my constituency of South Cambridgeshire are some of the most productive in the country and they are very keen to increase exports. They also want to make sure that they are not undermined in the marketplace by competing with farmers from countries that follow lower environmental standards or animal welfare standards. As my right hon. Friend starts the negotiations with other countries to increase trade, what is she doing to make sure that farmers from Britain can compete on a level playing field?

We remain absolutely committed to upholding our high environmental, food safety and animal welfare standards post Brexit. As my hon. Friend points out, there are huge opportunities for farmers for trade—for example, getting lamb into the US market. The US is the second biggest importer of lamb by value in the world. Currently, UK lamb cannot get into the US market, and that is a huge opportunity for our farmers.

I thank the Secretary of State for that answer. I am keen to know whether these steps will make a visible difference to the businesses in Wolverhampton that trade globally.

Lowering barriers will mean lower costs for businesses and more choice for consumers. In Wolverhampton and the west midlands overall, we send one in five of all exports to the United States. Getting a trade deal with the US would mean a removal of tariffs on products such as cars, textiles and steel, so there are huge opportunities there for those businesses to grow.

I am glad that the Secretary of State expects us to cut lots of free trade deals, but they do not happen by chance; they happen by detailed analysis and tough negotiations. How does she believe we can succeed in those negotiations when the number of expert trade negotiators she has is a fraction of the 600 the EU has? More importantly, is she not setting herself up for a fall by rather foolishly, in my opinion, embarking on parallel trade negotiations with such limited resources with both the European Union and the USA?

I am afraid I am not surprised to hear the SNP talking our country down. The fact is that we have scaled up our trade negotiation expertise. We now have approximately the same number as the US Trade Representative, which is one of the leading trade negotiators in the world. Our trade negotiators have already secured £110 billion of trade continuity deals, even though people such as the hon. Gentleman said it could not be done. Those negotiators have a wide experience in trade law from the private sector, and we have also recruited people from other Commonwealth nations with experience from the WTO. We have an excellent team at the Department for International Trade, and we have the staff in place ready to conduct the negotiations with the US, Australia, New Zealand and Japan.

The statement from the Trump Administration that we will be subject to retaliatory tariffs if we proceed with the digital services tax that is set to come in in April seems an early test of how we will fare in independent trade talks. Could the Secretary of State tell us if the Government intend to concede to American pressure?

Let me be clear: UK tax policy is a matter for the UK Chancellor—it is not a matter for the US; it is not a matter for the EU; it is not a matter for anybody else—and we will make the decisions that are right for Britain whether they are on our regulatory standards, our tax policy or anything else.

Graham Harvey is a constituent of mine who runs an excellent little composites business on the Isle of Wight. He has just won a big order to sell to Taiwan. That is exactly the sort of business that I know the Secretary of State will want to cheer on, but he is finding it extremely difficult to get export finance and banking finance. I have written to the Secretary of State. Does she share my concern that our small and medium-sized businesses are not being given the support that they need to export successfully?

I am very proud of the work that UK Export Finance does. It has just celebrated its 100th birthday of supplying export finance for British business. I am very keen, and I have laid this out to the team, that we do more to support small and medium-sized enterprises. I would be very happy to look at the case for my hon. Friend’s constituent, and make sure that he is getting the support that he needs. We do have additional available finance, and there is also an exporting toolkit for MPs to help them get in touch with export finance.

Industrial Strategy: Steel Industry

2. What discussions she has had with the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy on the effectiveness of the Government’s Industrial Strategy in attracting inward investment to the steel industry. (900347)

I thank the hon. Lady for her question and for her continued championing of the UK steel industry. We work closely with colleagues in the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy to promote steel. Since 2013, the Government have provided more than £600 million of support, including £300 million for energy cost relief, £250 million for innovation and £66 million for new technologies.

The Government claim to be supportive of British steel makers, yet only 50% of steel purchased by the Government comes from Britain. Is it not time that the Government actually backed our steel industry, bought British and introduced a sector deal for steel?

With our colleagues at UK Export Finance, we established a steel export taskforce and we are very keen to promote steel exports. The hon. Lady is right that we should do everything we can to ensure that British steel is used in the UK. I am happy to work, both here and abroad, to make sure we support the steel industry going forward.

Free Ports

3. What recent discussions she has had with Cabinet colleagues on the potential economic merits of free ports. (900348)

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is championing the merits of free ports across the Government, in conjunction with Treasury Ministers, including the Exchequer Secretary, who is the constituency neighbour of my right hon. Friend the Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Mr Goodwill).

On 12 December, a blue wave swept up the Yorkshire coast from the mouth of the Humber to the mouth of the Tees as coastal communities, some for the first time, put their trust in the Conservatives to deliver on their priorities. Does the Minister agree that the former SSI British Steel site on the south bank of the Tees would be an ideal site not only as a deep water terminal for the export of polyhalite fertiliser, but as Britain’s first free port?

My right hon. Friend is right. That blue wave was also a cleansing wave that is allowing new thinking. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State announced our free port policy in Teesport in August. We recognise that more free ports, not least in the Teesport area, can create jobs, rejuvenate communities and boost local economies. We will continue the job creation miracle that has gone on under this Government and, with my right hon. Friend’s help, free ports will be an important part of that.

Could we rise above party politics on this? [Laughter.] Mr Speaker, they don’t blame me, do they? I understand that free ports are fashionable at the moment. If the Minister can persuade me that there will be no disadvantage to businesses in Huddersfield and Yorkshire—I have a long history of co-chairing the Yorkshire group of MPs—we could be persuaded that free ports are a good thing. Will he give us a bit more detail?

A day when the hon. Gentleman rises above party politics is one when we know a significant shift has occurred in the body politic, but I will try to take the question in the spirit in which it was intended. We are consulting and engaging widely, including with devolved areas of the country, to ensure we come up with exactly the right package to be able to assure even the most sceptical, albeit now non-party political people like the hon. Member, that free ports really can galvanise further job development and prosperity.

It is important that this policy does not lead to market distortions and displacement of activity around ports. Does my hon. Friend agree that the key to making this a success is to build on the unique competencies and excellence of individual ports, such as the port of Milford Haven in my constituency, with its unique energy expertise?

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. It is about tailoring the policy to the particular, ensuring we have something that does not lead to distortion but does lead to additional inward investment. We have gained more foreign direct investment in this country than any other European nation. That is one of the fundamental reasons why we have more people in work as a percentage of the population than the US, Germany or France, and why we have the lowest youth unemployment in our history. I am determined that the free port policy will be well-tailored to the individual circumstances of each area, while ensuring there is no distortion.

As the Minister will know, free ports existed in this country until 2012, when they were abandoned under the coalition Government due to a lack of evidence for their economic benefits. Will the Minister guarantee that if new free ports are introduced, jobs and investment will not simply be displaced from elsewhere in the country, labour rights and standards will not be undermined, and the UK will still be able to meet the level playing field standards that may arise from any future trade deal with the EU?

It may come as news to Labour, or at least its Front Benchers, that we will not be a member of the customs union as we were in 2012. Leaving the EU provides the opportunity to do things differently. We are taking a new cross-Government approach to developing ambitious free ports to ensure that towns and cities across the UK can begin to benefit from the trade opportunities that Brexit brings. It is about time that Labour Front Benchers started to recognise the upside to Brexit instead of always talking this country down.

Most Favoured Nation Tariffs

4. What steps she is taking to ensure that most favoured nation tariffs support UK manufacturing industries after the UK leaves the EU. (900349)

We are developing our own most favoured nation tariff schedule, ensuring that it is right for the UK. We want costs kept low for consumers and to ensure UK manufacturers are not disadvantaged against their competitors.

I thank the Secretary of State for her answer and for visiting me and my colleagues in Stoke-on-Trent last Friday. For industries such as ceramics and businesses such as Ibstock Brick in my constituency, which has two sites—at Chesterton and Parkhouse—does she agree that it is essential that we put in a robust regime of tariffs when we have countries that do not respect the rules-based order and threaten to flood our market with dumped or subsidised products?

One of our aims in a US trade deal will be to bring down the tariffs on ceramics. When I was in Stoke-on-Trent, I heard that those producers face a tariff of 28% on their fantastic crockery. We want to bring that down so that we can have more jobs in Stoke-on-Trent. We will also establish the trade remedies authority, which will take a tough line on dumping from the anti-competitive activities of other nations.

These are changing times for all regions of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland as we get towards 31 January. Will the Secretary of State further outline what discussions have taken place with the newly restored Northern Ireland Assembly and Executive with regard to trade and tariffs within Northern Ireland, and on its behalf?

I am pleased to tell the hon. Gentleman that there will be a ministerial forum this afternoon to talk about that issue. We will make sure that Northern Ireland is completely involved in our agenda, because we want our independent trade policy, our tariff policy and our trade remedies policy to follow the priorities across the United Kingdom.

I join my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Aaron Bell) in thanking the Secretary of State for visiting Stoke-on-Trent last week. Does she agree that for industries such as ceramics, it is essential that we have a robust regime of tariffs to make sure that we guard against countries who want to undermine the rules-based system?

My hon. Friend is right: we cannot allow dumping practices to go undealt with, and the trade remedies authority will be there to take a tough line in areas such as ceramics. Because we are leaving the European Union, we have the opportunity to have a policy that reflects the needs of the UK and the priorities of UK consumers and UK manufacturers. I am determined to have that, but we must also seek to lower the tariffs on exports for our producers, because we want to see British ceramics, particularly from Stoke-on-Trent, on tables around the world.

EU Bilateral Trade

5. What assessment her Department has made of the effect of the end of freedom of movement in the UK on bilateral trade with the EU in goods and services. (900351)

12. What assessment her Department has made of the effect of the end of freedom of movement in the UK on bilateral trade with the EU in goods and services. (900359)

Leaving the European Union frees the United Kingdom to introduce a fairer immigration system. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said at the UK-Africa investment summit this week that

“our system is becoming fairer and more equal as between all our global friends and partners. Treating people the same regardless, wherever they come from and by putting people before passports, we will be able to attract the best talent from around the world, wherever they may be.”

We will also be able to reach out and strike new global trade agreements to the benefit of all our constituents and UK consumers.

I thank the Minister for that answer. The President of the EU Commission said:

“Without the free movement of people,”

the UK cannot expect to

“have the free movement of capital, goods and services”.

Is it not true that taking control of our borders comes with not only an unacceptable human cost, but a very serious economic one?

I am sorry, but not surprised, that the SNP cannot see that there is talent beyond the shores of the European Union. Freedom of movement was discussed at length during the referendum. We on the Government Benches believe in respecting the results of referendums, including the one in Scotland.

Scottish Financial Enterprise told the Scottish Affairs Committee that the success of Scotland’s financial industry was based on its ability to access and service all customers in the European Union. Does that not once again highlight the vital importance of freedom of movement to Scotland and show that the UK Government simply do not care about Scotland’s interests or, indeed, Scotland’s votes?

It shows the reverse. As the Government reach out to negotiate new comprehensive free trade agreements around the world, we will negotiate the best deals possible for every nation and every region of the United Kingdom. This Government will always have Scotland’s interests close to their heart.

Is my right hon. Friend as surprised as I am that so many Members of this House do not seem to have read and understood the political declaration on the future relationship? In particular, does he agree that we should expect that the various modes of supply in connection with services will go on around the world and that people will travel to deliver services?

My hon. Friend is right. It is sad that so many in this House, particularly on the Opposition side, including on the SNP Benches, appear stuck in June 2016. We on the Government Benches—[Interruption.] I say to the hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Margaret Ferrier) that we are not remotely touchy. While she is stuck in the past, we are focused on the future.

Trading Opportunities: North of England

6. What assessment she has made of the extent of international trading opportunities for counties in the north of England. (900352)

Northern counties exported over £165 billion-worth of goods and services last year, and we want to increase this. New free trade agreements will remove costs for manufacturers and producers and enable those businesses to grow.

I thank the Secretary of State for that answer. As we exit the European Union, it is vital that businesses in Bolsover and elsewhere are encouraged to export to new markets. Does the Department have any plans to strengthen regional teams across the midlands and the north to help businesses take advantage of new trading opportunities?

I am pleased to tell my hon. Friend that we have 130 international trade advisers and 186 export champions—businesses that already export and that encourage their peers to export—across the north of England. We have just sent out an exporting toolkit to MPs on both sides of the House so that they can get in touch with those local trade advisers and help their businesses export. We estimate that there are 600 businesses in every constituency with the potential to export that do not currently do so. MPs have a really important role in helping those businesses to get the information and support they need.

North Africa

North Africa is an important region for the United Kingdom. To advance trade in this area, I have in the last four months alone visited Morocco twice and Algeria once, and led trade discussions at the UK-Tunisia bilateral forum, and the Government have laid transition texts of the Morocco and Tunisian association agreements in Parliament. Taking advantage of the UK-Africa summit this week, I signed a memorandum of understanding to explore opportunities in more detail with Morocco and spoke to the Algeria British Business Council. My hon. Friend is right to see enormous opportunities in north Africa, and we will use the coming months to develop those.

I thank my right hon. Friend for his response. One of the countries he referred to was Tunisia. Will he join me in welcoming the new trade agreement between the United Kingdom and Tunisia, which was signed recently, and which will see 7,723 tonnes of Tunisian olive oil available to the British economy duty-free? Will he meet me and the respective UK and Tunisian ambassadors to explore further trading opportunities?

My hon. Friend is right to see the enormous opportunities. It was my pleasure to lead the trade discussions in the UK-Tunisia bilateral forum last September, and I would be absolutely delighted to meet the ambassadors with my hon. Friends to see what more trade we can do between our two countries.

In its decision issued in March 2019, the High Court of England and Wales confirmed that the territory of Western Sahara is separate from Morocco under international law. It ruled that the UK Government were acting unlawfully by failing to distinguish between the territory of Morocco and the occupied territory of Western Sahara. Yet the trade agreement between the UK and the Kingdom of Morocco purports to apply to the territory of Western Sahara, despite the total lack of consent from the Sahrawi people. Will the Secretary of State explain why that is the case? Given that the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010 process to ratify the agreement is now under way, is it her intention to hold a debate to discuss why the Government are proceeding to ratify a treaty that the High Court has ruled illegal?

We had discussions about this subject with representatives of the Moroccan Government, including the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation, when I visited Morocco two weeks ago, and indeed it was raised by my hon. Friend the Minister for Africa when he was with me there last October. The United Kingdom has taken the consistent position that the matter needs to be resolved diplomatically and sensitively with ongoing discussions.

Topical Questions

We are a few days away from leaving the European Union, and, for the first time in 46 years, establishing the UK’s independent trade policy. That gives us the opportunity to take up our independent seat at the World Trade Organisation, to champion free trade, and to secure free trade deals with partners around the world. There is a huge opportunity for the UK, and we want to make the 2020s the decade of trade.

There are many great British manufacturers, including Croft Architectural Hardware in my constituency. As well as making products for the Palace of Westminster, it exports them to the United States and China. What more can we do to support fine British manufacturing talent like that?

I congratulate Croft Architectural Hardware on its brilliant work. I understand that we have helped it to attend two trade fairs in the US through our trade show access programme. I also note that there is currently a 4% tariff on door knockers; I hope that in future trade agreements we shall be able to get that removed.

Can the Secretary of State point to any examples of intersecting customs unions anywhere else in the world? Will she confirm that under the EU customs code to be implemented in Northern Ireland, goods will have to be declared and products of animal origin will have to pass through a border inspection involving both documentary and physical checks, and does she accept that those will subsist completely irrespective of the tariff regime in any future free trade agreement with the EU?

As we have made very clear, we want to ensure that there is no hard border in Northern Ireland. That is a priority for the Government, and we have reached a new agreement with the EU that delivers on it. Of course, we need to work through the details of precisely how that arrangement will work.

The hon. Gentleman needs to recognise that the world is moving on: we are moving into an area in which trade is being digitised, and we are finding new ways of facilitating customs. Rather than being negative and a naysayer, why does he not contribute to the solution?

T3. Guildford is home to a growing computer gaming industry. What steps is my hon. Friend taking to encourage inward investment in that sector? (900363)

The Department’s high potential opportunities programme, which aims to identify and promote a range of foreign direct investment opportunities throughout the UK, is currently working with the Enterprise M3 local enterprise partnership and others in Guildford to highlight the commercial opportunities offered by the video game and 5G clusters in that region, which are world-leading.

T2. Given President Trump’s description of climate campaigners as prophets of doom, and given the revelations that he has banned all reference to a climate crisis in any US trade deal, what assurances can the Secretary of State give the House that any UK-US trade deal will support the UK’s own climate objectives, and, indeed, persuade the US to recommit itself to the Paris agreement? (900362)

I believe that the UK has a huge opportunity to promote clean energy and our climate change agenda—our carbon reduction agenda—across the world. Yesterday I met the New Zealand Trade Minister to discuss how we can work together in the future to incorporate those into forward-leaning trade agreements. We will seek to do that with the US, the EU, and all the other partners with which we work.

T5. In the light of the very welcome UK-Africa investment summit, what assessment has the Minister made of the commercial opportunities for British firms across the whole of that great continent? (900365)

I spent months working with colleagues across Government to deliver the UK-Africa investment summit, which took place on Monday. I am delighted with the result and proud of the work of so many officials in making it happen. We have announced 27 commercial deals worth more than £6.5 billion from across African markets, but as my hon. Friend has pointed out, there is enormous potential for more.

T4. Glenkinchie distillery in my constituency is threatened by the tariffs imposed on Scotch whisky by President Trump. Given the decision to leave the EU and seek a trade deal with the USA, and given threats about changes to the definition of Scotch whisky, what assurances can the Minister give that we will not be washing down chlorinated chicken with a glass of American rye? (900364)

I would gently say to the hon. Gentleman that if we are to de-escalate these tariff disputes, attacks on the US Administration and the President are unwise and unwelcome. We are working across Government to persuade the United States that these tariffs are damaging to the Scots whisky sector—[Interruption.] If Scottish National party Members would stop chuntering and get behind us, we might have more chance of removing these tariffs. We will seek to stand up for the Scots whisky sector and persuade the United States to remove these tariffs. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has been in touch with trade representative Lighthizer, and we will work for the Scots whisky industry. Get behind the Government!

Women and Equalities

The Minister for Women and Equalities was asked—

Employment: People with Disabilities

1. What recent discussions she has had with the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions on increasing the level of employment for people with disabilities. (900369)

This Government are committed to reducing the disability employment gap and seeing a million more disabled people in work by 2027. We help disabled people to start, stay in and return to work through programmes including the Work and Health programme, a new intensive personalised employment support programme, Access to Work and Disability Confident.

Inclusion Scotland recommends that the Access to Work fund should be increased and the cap lifted, and Leonard Cheshire recommends a cut in application waiting times so as not to jeopardise job offers. Will the Minister agree to put these proposals to the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions and meet me to further discuss what concrete steps can be taken to reduce the disability employment gap?

The Access to Work programme is a demand-led scheme that helps disabled people to get advice and a discretionary grant of up to £59,000 per annum. It is a flexible in-work support programme, and it will deliver reasonable adjustments, working with employers. I am sure that Ministers will be happy to hear from the hon. Lady.

EU Withdrawal Agreement

Britain has long been a world leader in ensuring that everybody has equal opportunities, from race relations legislation to the Equal Pay Act 1970. As we leave the European Union, we will continue to forge ahead in these areas.

Return to Work

3. What steps her Department is taking to support women returning to work after a career break. (900371)

Encouraging women to return to work after a career break is key to our prosperity and to levelling up opportunities for all. The Government funds 25 programmes to support people to return to work after a career break, including careers in health, policing and legal services, and I am delighted to announce today the launch of the return to social work programme to support previously certified social workers to return to this vital profession.

Mr Speaker, you may think I am young, but as someone who was elected to this place just a few months before my 50th birthday, may I say how fantastic it is to start a new career and be given a second chance? I often meet women in their 50s and 60s who have so much to offer but do not want to go back to the careers they had before. What more can we do to help those women get the skills and opportunities that they deserve?

My hon. Friend is an exemplar of the fantastic contribution that women in their 50s can make to a workplace. We know that there are 4.5 million women aged 50 to 64 in employment, and we are committed to supporting older workers to remain in the labour market through our work on the Fuller Working Lives strategy and through the appointment of a business champion for older workers to spearhead our work to support employers to retain, retrain and recruit older workers.

Can the Minister clarify whether the Government’s commitment to investing in infrastructure will include support to improve social infrastructure, such as childcare?

I am so glad that the hon. Lady has raised that subject. Childcare is, of course, a vital part of this Government’s programme to level up opportunities across the country. I suspect we shall be hearing a little bit more on childcare from relevant Ministers in questions in due course, but we are clear that we want the workplace to be welcoming to everyone. We want to harness their talents and unleash their potential, and helping parents with childcare is vital to that.

Evidence to the Women and Equalities Committee showed that some women experience unwanted career breaks, particularly when they are pregnant or they are new mums, and sometimes those are covered up by non-disclosure agreements. What action is my hon. Friend taking to ensure that non-disclosure agreements are not used to cover up unlawful behaviour, particularly pregnancy discrimination?

My right hon. Friend has been an incredibly ardent campaigner on that important issue and I thank her for all her work on it. As I hope she knows, the Government have consulted on the use of non-disclosure agreements and my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Sussex (Mims Davies), is committed to legislating in due course in that vital area.

State Pension Age Increase: Transitional Arrangements

4. What recent discussions she has had with the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions on transitional arrangements for women born in the 1950s affected by the increase in the state pension age. (900372)

8. What recent discussions she has had with Cabinet colleagues on the effect of the increase in the state pension age on women born in the 1950s. (900377)

State pension age entitlement is a matter that has been comprehensively debated on many occasions in Parliament over the decades. Meanwhile, there is a judicial review on the state pension age, which claimants have been given permission to appeal, meaning that there is still live litigation. We cannot comment on that litigation.

Not so long ago, the Prime Minister said he would look at this issue with

“fresh vigour and new eyes”,

but as far as I can see, nothing has been done. What will the Prime Minister and this Government actually do to help those women?

We are here for Women and Equalities questions. Women retiring today can expect to receive state pension for an average of over 21 years—two years longer than men—and if state pension age had not been equalised, women reaching the age of 60 would be expecting to spend over 40% of their adult life in receipt of state pension. I believe in equality and opportunity for older women. There are great opportunities out in the workplace now, and our local jobcentres can give women really good advice on that next stage of their working career.

As we have heard, the Prime Minister is on the record as saying that he is sympathetic to this cause. In fact, last summer he said:

“Let’s see what we can do”.

Very much in that spirit, and despite what the Minister just said, does she agree that if she really believes what she just said, at the very least she should commission an impact assessment on the effect of these changes for women, so that they can get the justice they need?

By 2030, 3 million women will stand to gain, on average, £550 more per year as a result of the recent reforms. The DWP has produced an estimate for keeping the state pension age at 60 for women and 65 for men, and that estimate assumes that state pension continues to be uprated at least at around average earnings going forward. The reality is that the Government’s reform has been focused on maintaining a balance between sustainability of the state pension and fairness between the generations, in view of the demographic challenges. My retirement age is 67. The Government have already introduced concessions costing £1.1 billion.

The appeal speaks for some of the groups of 1950s women, but certainly not all, and colleagues—both retreads and newbies—will by now have heard from women with different perspectives, all of whom will have a suggestion on how we resolve the issue. The appeal is silencing as many voices as it is speaking for, if not more. How can the silenced women be heard? They too are desperate, and they too need to be heard on this issue.

The Government’s position on the changes to the state pension age has been clear and consistent, and there are substantial problems with the various practical alternatives offered by different voices.

I understand what the hon. Lady is saying. We have an older workers champion, who is working with employers, in both the Department of Health and Social Care and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, and that links into the industrial strategy. As Employment Minister, I am keen to tackle the stigma around older workers and the feeling that it is better to be retired than on benefits or not working. For me, this is about equality and opportunity. As we heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford (Vicky Ford), people can have the best part of their career later in life.

Justice System: Causes of Racism

5. What recent discussions she has had with Cabinet colleagues on (a) tackling the causes of racism and racial disparities in the justice system and (b) promoting equality of opportunity. (900373)

6. What recent discussions she has had with Cabinet colleagues on (a) tackling the causes of racism and racial disparities in the justice system and (b) promoting equality of opportunity. (900374)

We are working across Government and with partners to tackle the over-representation of black and Asian people and those from other ethnic minorities in the criminal justice system, which we know has deep-rooted causes. That work includes taking forward the recommendations of the extensive, independent review by the right hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy) and developing a number of interventions, and it is all aimed at reducing disproportionality.

The Home Office’s proposals to strengthen police powers to tackle unauthorised encampments have rightly been condemned for discriminating against Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities, and for effectively criticising and criminalising their way of life. Those who have condemned the proposals include the Scottish Government Minister for Older People and Equalities; Friends, Families and Travellers; and Liberty. The Women and Equalities Committee has also looked at this issue. Given those concerns, will the Minister commit to conducting and publishing an equality impact assessment of the proposals?

The Home Secretary was recently quoted as saying:

“I’m not in that category…where I believe there’s racism at all. I think we live in a great country, a great society, full of opportunity, where people of any background can get on in life.”

Does the Minister agree with the Home Secretary’s statement that there is no racism at all? If she does not, will she condemn those who deny that racism and inequality of opportunity exist?

That is not my understanding of what the Home Secretary said, but let me be absolutely clear that this Government have regard to eliminating discrimination and advancing equality of opportunity in all our work. This approach informs regular engagement between Cabinet Ministers in relation to the justice system. This is something we take incredibly seriously.

I pay tribute to the work of my predecessor in this role and a good friend, my hon. Friend the Member for Lanark and Hamilton East (Angela Crawley).

It is not just the Home Secretary who is in denial about racism. The racism to which it is easiest for us all to turn a blind eye is the insidious type, where often even the perpetrator does not realise what lies behind it. Is the Minister open to working with people like me and, more particularly, with black, Asian and minority ethnic MPs to raise awareness of unconscious racial bias and the devastating impact it has on the day-to-day lives of many of our citizens?

I think it is deeply unfair to lecture the Home Secretary on discrimination. Let us be absolutely clear that this Government are committed to closing the opportunity gap in our society. We are determined to implement the policies needed for the UK to succeed as a nation. I work very closely with the right hon. Member for Tottenham, and the Ministry of Justice takes the issue of racial disparity very seriously.

LGBT Hate Crime

7. What recent discussions she has had with the Home Secretary on reducing hate crime directed at the LGBT+ community. (900375)

We are proud to be hosting our international conference on global LGBT rights in May, a key theme of which will be the safety of LGBT people around the world. Hate crime is completely unacceptable and has no place in British society. We are committed to tackling homophobic, biphobic and transphobic hate crime, and we are working with the Law Commission on a review of current hate crime legislation, which is due to report early next year.

The Minister will no doubt be aware of the serious rise in hate crimes against the LGBT+ community, and particularly the trans community. Hate crimes are up by 25% against the LGBT+ community and up by 37% against the trans community in the past year. Those are shocking rises, and it is not just due to the fivefold increase in reporting. They are shocking statistics. Does she agree that sex and relationships education in schools is crucial, as is responsible reporting, particularly on issues facing the trans community?

I do agree with the hon. Gentleman, and I am grateful to him for his question. Sadly, he is right about the increase in hate crime against LGBT people, and he is right that educating children at school so that we change the culture that may exist among some people is one of the many ways we can tackle this.

This is my first time at the Dispatch Box this year, so may I congratulate you on your re-election, Mr Speaker, and say happy new year to all the staff in the House?

I thank the Minister for her response. Now that the general election is over, there seems to be no need to prolong the decision making any further. She should have had plenty of time to study carefully the consultation on the Gender Recognition Act 2004 and consider the Government’s response. Will she take this opportunity to update the House?

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for that. She knows how complex this area is. We are working carefully and methodically through the results of the consultation. We are clear that we want to protect trans adults’ rights and protect single-sex spaces for women. We do not want to rush into this; we want to get it right.

Shared Parental Leave

9. What steps the Government Equalities Office is taking to help promote shared parental leave. (900378)

Since 2018, we have run annual communications campaigns to promote shared parental leave to parents and employers, to help employers who do not already have bespoke policies in place. We are developing models, policies and guidance to help employers understand how they might put shared parental leave into practice.

One big barrier to the take-up of shared parental leave is that businesses often do not offer enhanced pay to fathers who are taking it up. What steps is the Minister’s Department taking to encourage businesses to do this?

First, I would like to welcome my hon. Friend to this place—it is great to have another female elected in my county of Kent. We are exploring options to improve the tools and guidance that can support parents and employers to make greater use of shared parental leave, including model policies for employers. We are also evaluating the scheme, looking at how it can be used in practice and at what we can do to support take-up. We will be reporting on the evaluation later in the year.

Mr Speaker, if we are going to take this seriously, will we look at making this House an exemplar of shared parental leave? I understand that we can now have locums, but there are no funds to provide finance for them. Does the Minister think the House should be leading on this?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that question. I would welcome any organisation that has the right policies in place to encourage all eligible employers to take up that offer; it is probably a matter for the House, but I would very much welcome this.

Business Start-ups: Women

The number of self-employed women is at a record high of 1.7 million. We are cutting unnecessary red tape and reducing business rates, making it easier for more women to start their own businesses.

I am grateful for the Minister’s response. What grants are available for young women to start their own businesses, particularly in northern constituencies such as mine?

Starting a business is a fantastic opportunity. It provides people with power and control over their life, and it helps contribute to the economy and their family. We are expanding the start-up loan scheme, which has a particularly high take-up rate among female entrepreneurs. I strongly encourage my hon. Friend to talk to his constituents about this excellent scheme and make them aware of it.

Young women with disabilities face double the barriers to becoming entrepreneurs. Will the Department work with my all-party-group on disability to look closely at this issue? We will be holding a series of sessions on it to ensure that we have a truly inclusive economy.

I know that the employment Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Sussex (Mims Davies), has already agreed to meet the hon. Lady to talk about this issue. She is absolutely right that opportunities to start one’s own business are particularly good for people who need additional freedom and flexibility. I commend the scheme that the hon. Lady is running.

Domestic Violence

11. What steps the Government are taking to support women in (a) Bosworth constituency and (b) the UK who experience domestic violence. (900380)

There are more than 2 million adult victims of domestic abuse in England and Wales, and last year in Leicestershire—my hon. Friend’s county—there were 21,000 domestic abuse-related incidents and crimes. The Government are determined to bring forward the landmark domestic abuse Bill and to enact that legislation as quickly as possible to protect and support the victims of domestic abuse and bring perpetrators to justice.

As a GP, I find that domestic violence cases are one of the hardest types of cases: they are difficult both to identify and to deal with, and that is sad. What are the Minister and her Department doing to help to educate those who work in primary care not only on how to identify people who suffer with domestic violent but on how to signpost them to the correct services?

I thank my hon. Friend for that question and welcome all the experience and expertise that he brings to the House. All staff who work in the NHS must undertake at least level 1 safeguarding training, which includes domestic abuse. We have published an online resource for health professionals, to improve awareness of domestic violence and abuse. NHS England is developing a four-year action plan specifically on domestic abuse to raise awareness among NHS staff to ensure that they have the skills to identify and refer patients, where appropriate, and also, of course, to address the issue of NHS staff who are themselves victims.

County Lines: Women and Girls

12. What recent assessment she has made of the effect of county lines exploitation on (a) women and (b) girls. (900381)

County lines exploitation has a devasting impact on our communities, and we of course recognise the risks to girls and young women who are exploited by these ruthless gangs—including, often, for sexual exploitation. The National Crime Agency threat assessment published last year sets out the scale of the issue and the level of exploitation faced by women and girls, which is why we are investing £25 million to disrupt county lines gangs and put an end to this exploitation.

We think that at least one in 10 people involved in county lines are girls, and the number is probably a lot higher than that. Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary has just published a report on how the police and the NCA are dealing with county lines, and it has a number of really excellent recommendations, many of them about different agencies working together. One recommendation is that by the end of the year there should be a legal definition of child criminal exploitation, so that everybody understands what it is and what they should do about it. Does the Minister agree and will she be working to that goal?

As the chair of the all-party group on knife crime, the hon. Lady will know that the Government are working on a public health approach to tackling serious violence. We are very much looking at the workings of agencies, including the police. The hon. Lady will welcome the fact that the National County Lines Coordination Centre has conducted more than 2,500 arrests and safeguarded more than 3,000 people. Of course, that work continues. One of the many ways in which we support those who are exploited is to fund young people’s advocates in London, Manchester and the west midlands to work directly with gang-affected women and girls, particularly if they have been victims or are at risk of sexual violence.

Gender Pay Gap

I feel as though I am earning my salary this morning, Mr Speaker, which is why I am so pleased that I about to talk about the gender pay gap.

We have conducted analysis of where women face disadvantages in the workplace and are finalising sector-specific action plans. I can announce that Government Departments are leading the way by publishing their data and action plans today. We want employers to go beyond reporting data on the gender pay gap and create genuinely inclusive workplaces for everyone.

Samira Ahmed’s successful pay discrimination claim against the BBC will have far-reaching implications for other women working at the BBC who will now see their gender pay gap addressed. Samira Ahmed was only able to bring her claim because she knew what male colleagues were earning. What are the Government going to do to assist women employees of the 1.3 million small and medium-sized enterprises who are currently reliant on chance to discover whether they are subject to pay discrimination, because there is no gender pay reporting requirement?

I hope the hon. Member will understand that I cannot comment on individual cases, but I met BBC executives this week to discuss their overall approach to equal pay and the gender pay gap. I take the point about smaller businesses. We have been very clear that we need to gather data over several years to see how the approach is working—whether we are asking the right questions and whether there are other questions to be asked. We very much hope and expect that the approach to larger businesses will trickle down to smaller businesses, particularly with regard to action plans.

Topical Questions

As we leave the European Union, this great country has a huge opportunity to make the case for freedom and equal rights across the globe. We will be a driving force in the rights for women, including every girl having at least 12 years of education, and we will also push forward LGBT rights, including hosting a major international conference in May.

In Britain, we will continue to ensure that, regardless of gender, race, religion, sexual orientation or where you people in the country, they are able to live the lives they want.

Torness power station in my constituency is protected by the Civil Nuclear Constabulary. Female officers are now expected to work until 67. Does the Minister accept that, as well as the injustice of women losing their state pension entitlements, there is an injustice to women officers in the Civil Nuclear Constabulary who are expected, at an inappropriate age, to do a job that is physically arduous and demanding? Should the maxim not be dignity in retirement, rather than work until you drop?

On the subject of women working, one of the great things that this Government did early in the 2010 Session was to make sure that we do not have compulsory retirement and that we do take advantage of the skills of older people into their 60s and 70s. I am very happy to take up the specific issue with the relevant Department, but in general it is right that we have more flexibility and more opportunity for older people.

T2. Last year, the women and enterprise all-party group launched its first report, “Pathways to Progress”, which drew on the experiences of a large number of female business owners and gave recommendations to Government, financial institutions and businesses on how we can encourage more female entrepreneurs to start or skill a business. Will the Minister meet me to discuss how we can best unlock that opportunity, which has the potential to add an extra £250 billion to the UK economy? (900385)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right: there is a huge opportunity to get more people, particularly more women, starting their own businesses. I would be delighted to meet him and work with the all-party group to make it happen.

The Home Secretary’s response to a question on race relations was actually quite damaging. I am really pleased that the Minister is listening to Labour MPs, but can she clarify what is happening with the Government’s race and disparity unit, and outline steps that she is taking to address the fact that there are no women of colour in top civil service jobs?

The Home Secretary was absolutely reflecting the fact that Britain is a great country in which to live and that we have very low levels of discrimination compared with the rest of the world. Of course, there is always more that we can do, but that is what this Department is about: removing the barriers that are based on race, gender or disability and making sure that people can thrive. I am proud of the fact that our Home Secretary is from an ethnic minority and that our Chancellor is from an ethnic minority. We have also had two female Prime Ministers. How is that going for the Labour party?

T4. Constituents in Runnymede and Weybridge struggled last year to access Weybridge station because there was a broken lift. Thankfully this is now fixed, but can the Minister reassure my constituents that ensuring accessibility for all is a priority for this Government when franchises and contracts are awarded? (900387)

Far too often, I see people not able to get around on our rail network and make their connections because of exactly the issues that my new hon. Friend has raised. As employment Minister, that is a matter of real concern. I will take on that issue of access of opportunity, getting on in life and getting out and about. A broken lift that affects people is just plain wrong. I will take up that matter with transport Ministers on his behalf.

T3. Her Majesty’s Crown Prosecution Service inspectorate recently linked a steep and alarming decline in rape convictions with cuts to the criminal justice system, which have left it close to breaking point. What representations is the Minister making to the Ministry of Justice and the Treasury to ensure that rape victims are able to access justice? (900386)

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her question. She will know that the report was part of the Government’s review of rape and how the criminal justice system is dealing with it. The review is ongoing and we are looking at other aspects, including the conduct of the police in rape investigations and how the criminal justice system is treating victims, given the rates of attrition. Regarding discussions with the Ministry of Justice, the Lord Chancellor is as committed to the review as the Home Secretary and I are. We expect at the end of the review to come up with meaty proposals to ensure that victims of rape and sexual assault get the justice they deserve.

Business of the House

The business for next week will include:

Monday 27 January—Second Reading of the NHS Funding Bill.

Tuesday 28 January—Committee and remaining stages of the Direct Payments to Farmers (Legislative Continuity) Bill followed by, motion to approve a statutory instrument relating to the draft Release of Prisoners (Alteration of Relevant Proportion Of Sentence) Order 2019 followed by, motion to approve a statutory instrument relating to the draft Criminal Justice and Courts Act 2015 (Consequential Amendment) Regulations 2019.

Wednesday 29 January—Opposition day (1st allotted day). There will be a debate on home affairs followed by a debate on homelessness. Both debates will arise on a motion in the name of the official Opposition.

Thursday 30 January—General debate on global Britain.

Friday 31 January—The House will not be sitting.

The provisional business for the following week will include:

Monday 3 February—Second reading of the Agriculture Bill.

Tuesday 4 February—Committee and remaining stages of the NHS Funding Bill followed by, motion to approve a statutory instrument relating to the Local Government Finance Act 1988 (Non-Domestic Rating Multipliers) (England) Order 2019.

Wednesday 5 February—Opposition day (2nd allotted day). There will be a debate on a motion in the name of the official Opposition.

Thursday 6 February—Business to be determined by the Backbench Business Committee.

Friday 7 February—The House will not be sitting.

I thank the Leader of the House for giving the business for the coming two weeks and for the second Opposition day.

I do not know if the right hon. Gentleman was in the Chamber when the shadow Secretary of State for International Trade, my hon. Friend the Member for Brent North (Barry Gardiner), mentioned that the Government might be acting illegally by including Western Sahara in their agreement with Morocco. Under the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010, that agreement will be ratified automatically in 21 days’ time, giving a time limit of 11 February. Could the Leader of the House find Government time—not on an Opposition day—to debate the treaty?

Will the Leader of the House update the House on possible machinery of government changes? We have heard that some Departments may be merged with or immersed in others. I do not know whether it is just another missive from the self-defined “weirdos and misfits” at No. 10, but could he give us some clarity? I assume that Select Committees will continue to parallel Government Departments, but we need some clarity, especially regarding 31 January.

Just as the other place started to debate the European Union (Withdrawal Agreement) Bill, the Government threatened to send it to York—I think they might actually have meant Coventry, but that would have been too obvious—but the Opposition accepted the Lords amendments. The noble Lord Dubs of Battersea, who came here on a Kindertransport and who grew up and made an important contribution, wants to secure the same future for vulnerable children today. Like him, we know that children who have family here can make that contribution, so will the Leader of the House explain why, despite important Government initiatives that protect vulnerable children, such as those on human trafficking, they are leaving those children exposed to violence, overcrowding and danger in camps? The Government are facing two ways: laying a policy before Parliament is not the same as an automatic right. I ask the Government to think again. We are a compassionate country.

Yesterday the Prime Minister said that the Oakervee report will be published in due course. HS2 is about capacity, connectivity and therefore productivity. The Oakervee report has already been leaked, so when will the Government have a debate in their time? Could it be sooner rather than later? Hon. Members want to table amendments and express their views about which part of HS2 needs to be done first.

The Prime Minister banned everyone bar the Chancellor from going to Davos, but even the Chancellor is not clear about Government policy. He said that the Government’s first priority was to get a trade deal with the EU, despite already having started work on an agreement with the United States—so which is it? The Chancellor also said that

“Britain is better off in”,

and that the single market is a

“a great invention, one that even Lady Thatcher campaigned enthusiastically to create…with no barriers, no tariffs and no local legislation to worry about.”

Now he has said that there will be no alignment. The Food and Drink Federation has said that this sounds like the “death knell” for frictionless trade and that the industry’s margins are very tight, so which is it—frictionless or not?

The Government have signed up to the Paris agreement, so perhaps we could have a debate on how to negotiate with the Government of the United States, who have not signed up to it. Would the Leader of the House schedule a debate or a statement so that we can get some clarity on that?

We have heard that the Prime Minister will be meeting Richard Ratcliffe and other families. The Leader of the House will be aware that the British-Australian hostage Kylie Moore-Gilbert has been asked to be a spy by the Iranian Government in return for her release. She is in the same prison as Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and Anousheh Ashouri, among others. Will the Leader of the House confirm that the Prime Minister will be meeting those families, and that he will be leaving the negotiations to the diplomatic service? We want these innocent people released as soon as possible.

On a happier note, 20 January was the 755th anniversary of the de Montfort Parliament, where representatives of towns and shires got together here to discuss matters of national importance. We first sat in 1265, and hopefully will continue to sit and will not be abolished.

Sadly, we lost Terry Jones. For some of us, he provided the soundtrack to our lives in those wonderful “Monty Python’s Flying Circus” sketches, some of which I used to repeat in the playground. It was one of those great programmes that the BBC does so well, and we hope it will have the freedom to produce such programmes again. Terry Jones may have had a message for both sides of this House. For the Government, “He’s not the messiah. He’s a very naughty boy!” And for the Opposition, “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life”.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. I thank the right hon. Lady for that last point; I think we should all look on the bright side of life. It is a positive thing to do and good for British politics.

The right hon. Lady mentions having a debate under CRAG on the Western Sahara. The Government will always listen to representations in relation to CRAG. The question is whether it is a suitable use of time. If the Opposition want to make a more formal representation, it will be listened to. However, Opposition days are coming thick and fast, and any such issues could be brought forward under those circumstances.

On machinery of government changes, the tradition of this House is that Select Committees follow what ministries there are, and I imagine that the House would want to follow that precedent, but it is ultimately a matter for the House. The right hon. Lady also mentioned the stories about their lordships going to York and what fun that might be for them. It occurs to me that when Royal Ascot moved to York, their lordships found it great fun to go up to York. If they could do it for pleasure, I am sure they might have a jolly time going there for business as well.

More seriously, the right hon. Lady mentions the amendment of the noble Lord Dubs. Lord Dubs is one of the most respected figures in British politics, and the campaign that he has continued to wage for vulnerable children is admired across the House and the country. I would just point out that the reason for not accepting the amendment is that it is not the right place for it. Government policy to look after vulnerable children from overseas remains absolutely in place. Some 41,000 children have come into this country since 2010, and 18,000 Syrian refugees—not necessarily children—have already come here, of the 20,000 that the Government promised. The Government are committed to protecting vulnerable children. This is really important. There is no change in policy; it is simply that the Bill was not the right place for it.

The right hon. Lady asks for a debate on HS2. I think we have to wait for the report to come out. I know we are getting leaks and titbits and excitement in the newspapers, but the House of Commons needs to debate once the facts and the papers are brought together rather than doing so prematurely.

On Davos, I am not sure whether the right hon. Lady wished to be there rather than here, if it is still continuing, but the Chancellor was indeed there. British people voted to leave the European Union. My right hon Friend the Chancellor the Exchequer is a democrat; he recognises the result. To hold people to lines they used when supporting remaining in the European Union before the referendum fails to recognise that democratic politicians tend to accept the results of referendums—certainly on the Government Benches. Our relationship with the US is one of our most important relationships, and therefore what agreements the US has signed up to, or not, does not change the importance of that relationship.

I can confirm that there is a plan for the Prime Minister to meet Mr Ratcliffe. I reiterate that I am grateful to the right hon. Lady for raising this every week. The behaviour of the Iranian Government is unforgivable, and we need to keep on pressing them to release people who are improperly held.

I am absolutely delighted that the right hon. Lady referred to the anniversary of 1265. It was, of course, a continuation of, not the creation of, Parliament. Prior to those times, the representatives of the shires came—people like me representing their counties—and from 1265, in our generosity, we allowed people from the boroughs to come in too, and so borough Members came in and the towns received their proper representation.

While we continue to look on the bright side of life, I think that answers all the questions for the time being.

The Government are keen to move public sector jobs out of London and the south-east, and northern Lincolnshire is ideal. May I suggest that the public sector workers connected with, say, the renewable energy sector would be ideally located in the Humber region; and that since Grimsby has labelled itself as Europe’s food town for many years, perhaps the Food Standards Agency ought to pay a visit?

My hon. Friend, who represents Cleethorpes with such panache, is quite right to advocate for his part of the country. I am sure that what he says will have been heard and that the Food Standards Agency could probably think of nothing nicer than moving to Grimsby, but that will probably be a matter for it rather than for me.

Can I start by asking when Heather Anderson will be appointed to the European Parliament in order to fill the position left vacant by the election of my hon. Friend the Member for Stirling (Alyn Smith) to this House? We regard it as being of the utmost importance that our country is fully represented, albeit in its dying days of representation in the European Parliament, in order to oppose the direction that the Government have taken in that body. It would be wrong if either through administrative oversight or a lack of political enthusiasm we were not to be fully represented. Yesterday in the House, the Minister for the Cabinet Office gave a rather lacklustre response to my colleague on this matter. I hope that the Leader of the House can do better today.

Secondly, I note that the Labour Opposition are to have two full Opposition days two weeks in a row. Will the Leader of the House confirm when the third party will be given an Opposition day?

Finally, I want to return to the matter I raised last week—the claim of right for Scotland. Despite a rather awkward moment when the Leader of the House compared the constitutional aspirations of the nation of Scotland to those of the county of Somerset—a move I thought was rather foolish—he did acknowledge last week that the claim of Scotland is something he agrees with. He seemed to indicate that it was in some way discharged at the Scottish referendum in 2014. Will he confirm whether he believes that the claim of right existed on 19 September 2014 and every day thereafter, or is it the case that a right can be invalidated and extinguished by its exercise?

The hon. Gentleman forgot, absent-mindedly, to ask for a debate on the claim of right, but I am the servant of this House, because there is a claim of right debate on Monday 27 January in Westminster Hall. I am even able to deliver on that which has not been asked for, which is the type of superior service that those on the Government Benches like to offer. The best I can do is to quote his esteemed leader in this House, the right hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Ian Blackford), who said, “Scotland said no”. Scotland did indeed say no—it said no to separation in 2014. It decided in its claim of right to claim the right to be a part of the United Kingdom, and thank heavens for that.

With regard to an Opposition day debate, I am doing my best to ensure that some time will be made available to the SNP prior to the February recess. It is not an absolute promise, but that is what I hope we will be able to do. As regards the European Parliament, I cannot think why anyone would want to go there for eight days.

The Conservative party, I have absolutely no doubt, is the party of jobs, employment and opportunities. But it is the high street that provides hundreds of thousands of jobs, and it is under enormous challenge from the internet. I worked in business in North Norfolk. Will the Leader of the House grant time for a debate, so that we can level up the competitiveness of traditional bricks-and-mortar stores against this ongoing challenge? Those hundreds of thousands of jobs that are dependent on the high street’s success up and down the land are incredibly important to all of us.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on being a champion for the high streets of North Norfolk and ensuring that they are well represented in the House. The Government take that issue very seriously. The £3.6 billion towns fund will support towns to build prosperous futures. There will be a £280 million tax cut for small businesses, because our manifesto commits us to cut taxes for small retailers and ensure that business rates are manageable. The Government are doing everything they can, but the Government cannot stop the natural evolution of the economy, so it is a question of ensuring that there are advantages for high streets.

I noted with interest the Leader of the House’s announcement that there will, provisionally, be business determined by the Backbench Business Committee in a fortnight. As he knows, I am not the Chair of the Backbench Business Committee, as it does not exist at the moment, but I would be interested to know how the logistics of such a debate would be sorted out. The Chair will not be elected until next Wednesday, then we must wait for Committee membership nominations from the various parties, and that needs to be sorted out in time for a debate to be granted and for Members to prepare for it. I am wondering about the logistics of that.

Could we have a debate or statement in Government time about the conditions in which refugees and asylum seekers are meant to sustain themselves while waiting for determinations by the Home Office? I am afraid to say that my case load in Gateshead is very heavy, with a huge backlog of cases that are taking many months to sort out—well beyond the six-month and 10-month targets that the Home Office set itself, which have since been abandoned.

It is just possible that the logistics for the Backbench Business Committee may be 24 hours better than the hon. Gentleman suggests. It depends whether this hotly contested post is as hotly contested as it was last time. If it is unopposed, the announcement will be on Tuesday, as I understand it, rather than Wednesday, and then it is a matter for the parties to get their nominations in. I think it is manageable. I can assure him that we have discussed it. The point he makes about determinations from the Home Office for refugees and asylum seekers is one that the new Backbench Business Committee, under whoever’s leadership, may want to consider seriously.

There are 35 Members wishing to speak. I want to get everybody in, but some may miss out if we do not shorten the questions. Let’s help each other.

Rutland and Melton is home to not one, not two, but three geographically protected foods. Indeed, Somerset boasts its own Somerset cider brandy. Will my right hon. Friend be so kind as to agree to holding a debate in Government time on how the UK Government can best protect geographically protected foods post Brexit?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to mention anything from Somerset, because she knows that that wins me over to the side of the questioner straightaway. This important issue will be considered in negotiations with the European Union, and I am sure that it will come to the House at some time.

My constituent, Allan Russell, applied for a three-year renewal to his Access to Work support in October, but despite having chased it up several times himself, it took my office getting involved for his case to be allocated. He is still waiting without funding for transport to work and without Access to Work support. There are many other issues with Access to Work, so may we have a debate in Government time to allow Members to discuss them more widely?

This is a very important issue. Access to Work is there to help people. If the system is not providing speedy answers, the hon. Gentleman is right to raise it here and with Ministers. If he wishes me to ensure that any follow-up answers are received from Ministers, I will be more than happy to do what I can.

I am sure that my right hon. Friend values the work of local charities in his constituency, as I do in mine, but they often struggle to succeed, which is why I have organised a training session with the Charities Aid Foundation for those local charities next week. Can the Leader of the House find Government time for a debate on the role of local charities in all our constituencies?

I commend my right hon Friend for her work. This is absolutely the sort of thing that we need to do to help local charities to understand how other charities make a success of things. I cannot promise her Government time for a debate, but I think that the matter is ideally suited for a Backbench Business Committee debate, perhaps in Westminster Hall, after that Committee is re-established.

Later today, the Prime Minister will meet my constituent, Richard Ratcliffe. At the same time, representatives from the Iranian authorities are in London to observe the International Military Services Ltd court case in the Court of Appeal. That case relates to the £400 million that we as a country owe Iran, and anyone with a passing interest in my constituent’s case will know that the debt is linked to her imprisonment. The Leader of the House said that the behaviour of the Iranian Government is unforgivable. I agree, but the behaviour of our Government is also unforgivable because we have not paid the money that we owe. I make this plea: please may we have a debate in Government time to discuss how we pay this money back to Iran so that my constituent, Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, can be returned safely to West Hampstead, where she belongs, after four long years?

I thank the hon. Lady for standing up for her constituent, which she is obviously right to be doing. She has the support of both sides of the House in doing so. However, the issue that she raises is extraordinarily difficult. The British Government cannot and must not pay, or appear to pay, either in fact or in reality, money to allow people who have been illegally detained to be released. The risk that would cause to other Britons travelling abroad would be very considerable. The law must take its course in relation to the money that was deposited here, but it would be absolutely wrong to connect the two issues.

Following the reformation of the all-party group on Iran, and in the light of recent events in the middle east—and domestically, as we have just heard—will the Leader of the House find Government time for a debate on relations between the United Kingdom and the Islamic Republic of Iran?

This is obviously a matter of interest to many Members, as it is raised every week. The Government hear that, and I am sure the Backbench Business Committee hears it, too. As an immediate stopgap, I would point my hon. Friend to Foreign and Commonwealth Office questions on Tuesday 4 February.

P&O Ferries in Hull is continuing to exploit foreign seafarers, which is risking lives and costing British jobs. It proposes to replace all crews with Filipinos. A British rating works two weeks on, two weeks off and is paid fairly; a Filipino will be required to work six months on, doing 12-hour shifts and being paid £60 per day. May we have Government time to debate this really important issue? People might die.

I accept the importance of the issue and its importance for British seafarers employed by P&O. I actually think that the matter is more suitable for an Adjournment debate in the first instance, and I would encourage the hon. Gentleman to get in touch with your good offices, Mr Speaker, to see if one is available.

Will the Leader of the House kindly find time for a debate on the Wylfa Newydd nuclear project on Ynys Môn? The project is important for our balanced energy policy and approach to climate change, and for jobs, skilled employment and investment in Anglesey.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right about the importance of investing in technologies that will allow us to meet our obligations on reducing emissions, and I understand her and her constituents’ disappointment that the project is not going ahead at the moment. However, the Government cannot support something that is not right for UK consumers and taxpayers. There has to be a value for money consideration as well, and suspending the project was a commercial decision for Hitachi. I think that this issue is, again, suitable for an Adjournment debate, because it is very much a constituency-level issue that has broader implications. I commend my hon. Friend for what she is doing to champion her constituents.

In view of yesterday’s shocking news that Jaguar Land Rover is to shed 500 jobs at its Halewood manufacturing plant in my constituency, may we have an early debate in Government time about what the Government are doing to support the automotive sector in the north-west and what they will do to assist my constituents who are set to lose their jobs?

Many issues are facing the car industry. Demand issues—because of changes with decarbonisation, issues involving diesel and so on—are affecting the car industry globally. This is an issue of great importance, and I think the Backbench Business Committee, when reformed, would be the ideal place to apply for a debate.

The loss of a child, as you know, Mr Speaker, brings untold pain of a kind that inspired the work that I did, led by the hon. Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris), on the children’s funeral fund. Last week she raised the issue of stillborn children and their fate. Will the Leader of the House arrange for a Minister to make a statement so that we can know that the parents of stillborn babies will understand what happens to those babies once they have died?

I will end with this, if you will allow me, Mr Speaker. Speaking of death, C.S. Lewis said:

“No one told me that grief felt so like fear.”

Our job is to bring hope and love, for hope and love can trump fear.

May I commend both my right hon. Friend and the hon. Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris) for their campaign on children’s funerals, which received such widespread support across the House and was successful? The issue he raises, as I said last week, is one of importance, and historical issues need to be looked at. I will take it up with my ministerial colleagues and see whether there is any appetite or ability to provide a statement that would be helpful and bring people new information. If there is, I would encourage that to happen.

In the last Parliament, I approached the Backbench Business Committee to request a debate on the persecution of Christians to tie in with a date in November. Of course, that did not happen. May I ask the Leader of the House whether it is possible to have that debate brought forward? Some 260 million people across the world are suffering persecution, which is an important issue for many Members of the House.

I know that a couple of Members in the last Parliament were keen to ensure that the plight of persecuted Christians was raised at this slot every week, so that it was not simply forgotten about. I am well aware that the hon. Gentleman had secured a debate through the Backbench Business Committee in the last Parliament, and I encourage him to take that up with the new Backbench Business Committee, perhaps even prior to its reformation.

I congratulate the Government on an excellent start—it is great to see the Leader of the House and the Chief Whip. The reason I am trying to sound ingratiating is that I have a question of caution about 5G, and on Chinese hi-tech involvement in our critical national infrastructure and Huawei. Despite very considerable public debate outside the House, there has been almost no parliamentary debate in Government time on one of the most critical issues that will define the coming decades. How does the Leader of the House feel about this issue?

It is a matter, as my hon. Friend says, of the greatest importance to our national infrastructure and national security. The Government are deliberating extremely carefully. I suggest to my hon. Friend that next Thursday’s debate on global Britain would be an ideal time to raise the issue, as it clearly affects our place in the world. There should be some time to discuss it then.

When will the Government bring back the domestic abuse Bill? Further to questions raised in the previous Parliament by the then Member for Ashfield, will they make provision for banning people convicted of the attempted murder of their spouses from recovering any joint assets in probate and family court hearings?

The point about family assets and people who have been convicted of crimes in relation to them is very important. I hope that I can give a helpful answer on the domestic abuse Bill: I would be surprised if it were not brought back before Easter. That is not an absolute guarantee, as the hon. Lady will understand, but the Bill is very much at the forefront of the Government’s thinking and something to which they attach great importance.

May we have a debate on the role of the Council of Europe, a body that becomes much more important now that we are leaving the EU? My right hon. Friend’s predecessor as Leader of the House was very kind in saying that she would arrange a debate, but I have not yet seen one.

The Council of Europe is indeed important in its relationship to this country. May I again suggest that next week’s debate on global Britain would be a very good opportunity to raise issues relating to the Council of Europe?

One of my constituents is a childhood sexual abuse survivor. She suffers mental health problems, including agoraphobia. She was awarded the higher rate mobility component for PIP—personal independence payment—and a paper-based assessment due to the issues she has with face-to-face assessments. Her car is a lifeline that allows her to see a counsellor to help her. Since then, however, the Department for Work and Pensions tried to force a face-to-face assessment. She could not undergo that and so lost her award and her car. Can the Leader of the House advise what I can do to help her to get her a paper-based assessment and give her a wee bit of stability in life?

I think that all right hon. and hon. Members will feel that some of the issues relating to PIP that we hear about in our constituency surgeries are the hardest we have to deal with. I suggest that the hon. Gentleman—if he has not already—writes to DWP Ministers to get an answer and to see if there is any help and guidance that can come from there. If he finds that the answer is not forthcoming, I will do whatever I can to facilitate an answer. I commend him for the fight that he is putting up for his constituent, which is really the lifeblood of what all of us do as MPs.

When residents first moved into their homes in the newly built housing estate of Gamesley, they were told, “Yes, the transport links are poor, but don’t worry, a new train station will be built shortly so that you can easily get into Manchester.” Over 50 years later, Gamesley still does not have its train station. May we have a debate about improving transport links for new-build estates in rural communities so that we can finally get a train station for Gamesley?

Fifty years really is a long time, and the case that my hon. Friend brings forward should be seen as hopeless in terms of administrative efficiency. I congratulate him on leading this campaign and putting it at the forefront of what he is doing. I am not sure that, after 50 years, this will be a great comfort to him, but I understand that Transport for Greater Manchester is undertaking a further study of the feasibility of opening new stations in the Greater Manchester area. The Department for Transport is ready to discuss the business case with Transport for Greater Manchester, should it wish to seek Government funding for those projects. I have a nasty feeling that that answer was written by Sir Humphrey Appleby, so I encourage my hon. Friend to continue campaigning in the hope that in the next few years something will happen.

The Leader of the House will be more aware than most that the situation on the perimeter of the Estate becomes extremely threatening at times, with abuse and threats to Members, and particularly women Members in my experience. Has he given any thought to the reintroduction of Sessional Orders?

Thank you, Mr Speaker—it is such a pleasure to be heckled from the Chair. I thought that that had stopped with the last Parliament, but never mind.

I completely understand what the hon. Gentleman is saying. I happen to think that the situation is much, much better in this new Parliament than it was in the last. I have noticed that coming and going is much less shouty, which is a very good thing. I have an historic affection for Sessional Orders, but noises off are right that their legal enforceability is, regrettably, questionable. We have to think about whether that could be given a legislative basis, but possibly Government time does not allow for that.

Redditch stands ready to benefit from the 5G revolution, and Amazon is poised to bring highly skilled digital and tech jobs to our fantastic town. Unfortunately, the 5G roll-out seems to have hit an “administrative inefficiency”, as the Leader of the House said, so can we please have a debate about 5G roll-out so that it can benefit towns such as Redditch?

We have one piece of very good news: our current Prime Minister is a great cutter of Gordian knots, and where there is administrative inefficiency, the Alexander the Great of our time will be cutting these Gordian knots to ensure that 5G roll-out, which is a high priority of Government policy, will in fact happen. I hope that it will happen in Redditch within 50 years, unlike the railway station.

Can we have a debate on my early-day motion 87, which pays tribute to my late constituent, the author, artist and prophet, Alasdair Gray, who passed away on 29 December and who will be very sorely missed by the artistic community across Scotland and around the world?

[That this House is deeply saddened at the passing of Glasgow-born artist, author and creative genius, Alasdair Gray, who died on 29 December 2019 aged 85, and sends its condolences and best wishes to all knew him; notes that Alasdair studied at the Glasgow School of Art, and became famous for his murals across the city, including Arcadia Theme, the stairwell mural in the Ubiquitous Chip restaurant on Ashton Lane, the ceiling of the Oran Mor auditorium, considered to be the largest public work of art in Scotland, and his most recent, the 40 foot mural for the entrance hall of Hillhead subway station in the West End of Glasgow, which includes local landmarks and, in Alasdairs own words, a section devoted to all kinds of folk and folk of all kinds; further notes that his body of work included the novels Lanark, and 1982, Janine, plays including The Fall of Kelvin Walker, and many works of poetry, short stories and polemic including Why Scots Should Rule Scotland, first published in 1992; believes that Alasdairs works have influenced, engaged, inspired and entertained many generations of artists and society at large, and that these works will continue to do so, representing a fitting legacy for a cultural giant.]

Will the Government pay tribute to this genius of a man whose work enhanced so many public spaces in Glasgow and whose plea,

“Work as if you live in the early days of a better nation”

has inspired so many around the world?

Given the discussions on the whereabouts of the House of Lords, can we have a possible statement about moving the House of Lords to Harlow in Essex? We have strong transport links to the north; we are a sculpture town; we invented fibre optics; we have an enterprise zone; we have Public Health England moving to Harlow; and we have a new hospital being built soon, in case their lordships feel poorly.

What an excellent idea. Right hon. and hon. Members will know that Parliament does not have to be in Westminster and that in the middle ages, Parliament darted around all over the country—it met in Leicester and Shrewsbury, and the last Parliament to meet outside London met in Oxford. Therefore, if we were to become a peripatetic Parliament, we would be able to meet in Harlow and all sorts of exciting places. My hon. Friend’s pitch for Harlow has fallen on ripe soil and will be very well received, particularly in the other place—I think they could think of nothing finer.

Luton station in my constituency is falling apart, the roof has leaked for years and it is not fit for purpose. Many Members have raised their unhappiness with poor rail services, but I would like to ask the Leader of the House for a debate on the level of investment in railway stations in large towns such as Luton.

That is a very important point. I have noticed that many questions are raised on the general railway provision in this country. In relation to specific constituency issues, the Minister of State, Department for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Daventry (Chris Heaton-Harris), is holding meetings with all Members—any Members who want to go—and I suggest to the hon. Lady that it would be a good idea to seek one of those meetings to persuade him of the necessity of what she is recommending.

The House, and indeed the nation, was misled about the true cost of HS2, so perhaps the Leader of the House could tell us when the Government actually intend to publish the full costs, when there will be a debate on them, whether that debate will be in Government time, whether there will be a vote at the end of it and what the purpose of such a vote will be.

I think “misled” is a harsh word. The costs have risen, but I do not think there was any deliberate intention to hide the rise in the costs. Inevitably, these issues will come back to the House. A review is going on at the moment, and once that is completed, I am sure the Secretary of State for Transport will want to come to the House and explain what has happened.

With a majority Tory Government now in place, it seems highly likely that most over-75s will lose their free TV licences come June. Could we have a debate or a statement to highlight what discussions have been held with the BBC, what the current position is and whether there is any glimmer of hope that this popular policy might be protected?

It is indeed a popular policy, and the BBC should think carefully about whether it really wants to penalise some of its most loyal supporters and place this extra burden on them from later in the year. I seem to remember that the BBC agreed to take it on, and it has now decided that it is not going to continue with that. That is a great shame.

It has come to light in recent weeks that the new hon. Member for Bridgend (Dr Wallis) has a back story that is not necessarily fitting for an elected representative. Where checks and other measures in the Tory party have proven wilfully inadequate, especially in Wales, who is responsible? The chair of the UK Conservatives washed his hands of the matter on Sky last Sunday. Can we have a statement from the Government to clarify to the electorate where the buck stops? Is it with the chair of the Welsh Conservatives or the Prime Minister?

The Leader of the House will appreciate that our prison officers work in dangerous conditions, dealing with some of the most violent offenders in our society. However, prison officers are now expected to work until they are approaching the age of 70, despite the serious health and safety implications. Will the Leader of the House make time for a statement setting out why the Government believe that prison officers should not be afforded the same consideration as uniformed emergency workers such as police officers and firefighters, who can retire at 60?

The work of prison officers deserves particular commendation, in that it must be some of the hardest public service work to carry out. The question of retirement needs to be looked into carefully, depending on the work that people do, but with an increase in life expectancy, it has been completely reasonable to raise the retirement age generally.

Is the Leader of the House aware of just how many people around the world cannot fulfil their potential because they have no access to education? Could we have an early debate on women’s right to education worldwide, and could we, as legislators, use our parliamentary groups worldwide to work together to secure that right?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that question, because it is important. It is an important part of Government policy and, indeed, of the work being done by the Department for International Development to ensure that a basic standard of education is available for all girls, and taxpayers’ money is being used to promote that. His suggestion that all parties in this House get together to contribute energy to ensure that that happens is absolutely right. If there is anything I can do to facilitate that, I hope he will let me know.

Over here on the SNP Benches, we are oxter-deep in Burns season. Will the Leader of the House congratulate the Bridgeton Burns Club on its 150th anniversary and the work it does with young people, particularly in its schools competition, which inspires a love of Burns in children from the age of five right up to the end of secondary school, and can we have a debate on the contribution of Robert Burns to society?

Let me indeed congratulate the society on its 150th anniversary, and what a fantastic opportunity to celebrate it is. I wish all Scottish Members of the House, and other Members who participate, a very jolly Burns night—or a succession of jolly Burns nights, because it seems to be more than one particular night. I commend that vast quantities of haggis be eaten, because—you may be surprised to hear this, Mr Speaker—I have always thought it rather delicious.

I recently had occasion to try to navigate the procedures of the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority and the House’s Human Resources Department to establish what should be done when a member of staff in a constituency office is unwell. It was very difficult and very complicated. That was not the fault of any one individual, but systems do not talk to each other and this system does not work very well. Apparently, there is no HR function relating to staff who work in constituencies, and there is a huge gap where they are not getting the support that they need.

Will the Leader of the House do all that he can to ensure that a good HR system is set up for members of staff who work in constituencies? There are several thousand of them. Will he also do all that he can, when looking into the cost of IPSA and what we spend our money on, to ensure that we have enough resources to protect people who are unwell and need our support?

Let me make two points. First, will any Member who is experiencing such issues please get in touch with the House authorities to see whether we are able to help? Whether the relevant authority is my office, Mr Speaker’s office or the office of the Clerk of the House, everyone will try to help if there are disconnects between the vari