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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 670: debated on Thursday 23 January 2020

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 whether 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 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 countries 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 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 them.

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 there with me 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 discuss further 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 fund 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 am 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 able to bring her claim only 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 people live 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.