House of Commons
Thursday 5 March 2020
The House met at half-past Nine o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
UK/US Free Trade Agreement
A free trade agreement with the US could deliver a £15 billion increase in bilateral trade, increase manufacturing output and benefit all parts of the UK economy, particularly the midlands, Scotland and the north-east.
I thank the Secretary of State for that answer, and for the scale of the Government’s ambitions for the trade deal. In Newcastle-under-Lyme we have a number of firms that have US subsidiaries or sister companies, or that themselves have US parent companies. Can she confirm that a comprehensive UK-US trade deal would benefit such firms by cutting red tape and increasing the trading ties between our two countries?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right; every morning more than 1 million people in Britain get up and go to work for American firms, and more than 1 million people in the US go to work for British firms. We want a closer economic relationship so that we can share ideas, products and goods, to the benefit of both nations.
The Secretary of State told us on Monday that ceramics factories in the UK could benefit from a US trade deal, but that is not the view of the British Ceramic Confederation, which has warned of the dangers that low-quality ceramics would have on UK industry. Does she not accept that the manufacturing industry is right to be concerned about the threat posed by the agreement she is proposing?
Laura Cohen, of the British Ceramic Confederation, has said:
“A USA trade agreement could help our sector. For example, there are high tariffs on ceramic catering-ware imports…and without this barrier our exports to the USA could grow.”
Of course we will take action through the Trade Remedies Authority to deal with the illegal dumping of ceramic products on the UK market, but it is simply wrong to say that the ceramics industry would not benefit from a US trade deal.
But Laura Cohen is not talking about the type of trade deal that the Government are proposing, is she? The BCC has warned of the dangers of the Government’s proposed mutual recognition clauses, which is where the flood of low-quality imports would come from. The Secretary of State’s own scoping assessment says nothing about the impact of cheap US imports on UK manufacturing either, so why will she not listen to the industry? Should the Government not rethink their approach to the US agreement and look after our own excellent manufacturing sector, rather than pursuing a policy of “America First”?
I find this pretty ludicrous. The hon. Gentleman will have seen in the scoping assessment that virtually every sector of the UK economy, including manufacturing and agriculture, will benefit from a US trade deal. Steelite International, a fantastic company that I visited recently in Stoke-on-Trent, has also welcomed the potential removal of tariffs on its products—up to 28% on dinnerware—which it says will help it expand its operations.
One of the points that we laid out in our negotiation objectives is that we want to achieve an advanced digital and data chapter. Currently, 79% of all our services are provided remotely. A digital and data chapter will give us the ability to underwrite those transactions and do more electronically, which will provide huge benefits to those high-tech industries in my hon. Friend’s constituency.
All this debate between the Secretary of State and Labour’s Front-Bench spokesperson shows how important it will be to scrutinise the small print of the deal, so will she allow this Parliament a vote on the deal, such as the kind that the US Congress will get, or does she think that America deserves more democratic scrutiny of the deal than the United Kingdom?
We have a parliamentary system in this country, so for these types of decisions the treaties are laid before Parliament through the CRAG—Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010—process. I point out to the hon. and learned Lady that we also have an extensive programme of engagement with business. We have 17 expert trade advisory groups, through which we will ask business for their specific feedback to ensure that we are not lowering standards, and to ensure that we have the right standards for our industry. That is the consultation process that we are undertaking.
UK goods exports were up 6.4% last year to a record £372 billion. Interestingly, the three fastest growing UK goods exports in 2019 were: one, unspecified goods; two, works of art; and three, jewellery.
UK/EU Trade Agreement
The United Kingdom has published its approach to negotiations with the European Union, and the first round of talks is already under way. The United Kingdom is looking for a free trade agreement with the European Union based on EU precedent. Whatever the outcome of the talks led by David Frost and “Taskforce Europe,” this year we will recover our political and economic independence in full.
The question was about whether the Government are seeking to agree what they call an Australia-style deal between the EU and the UK. Given that there is no deal between Australia and the EU, can the Government confirm whether they are happy to accept a no deal between the UK and the EU?
We already have a deal with the EU that the Prime Minister secured last year. The question now is whether we can secure a free trade agreement with the EU. We seek a Canada-style deal, but Australia trades perfectly effectively through a number of side deals with the EU. Whatever happens, we are going to deliver on the referendum result, fully leave the European Union and provide British business and the British people with the opportunities of global free trade.
Can the Minister confirm that, under what the Government euphemistically call this Australia-style trade agreement, all the bilateral investment agreements we have with EU states, which were suspended while we were a member of the EU, will come back into force? What assessment has he made of the likely dispute proceedings that investors from those countries could launch and of the impact that would have on UK trade?
The shadow Secretary of State may be moderately confused about our purpose here today, as this is questions to the Department for International Trade. As he is well aware, the European Union negotiations are handled by the Cabinet Office, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and David Frost, reporting to the Prime Minister.
This week we have published the proposals for the United States deal, and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Trade is ably leading on Australia, Canada, Japan and, potentially, the comprehensive and progressive agreement for trans-Pacific partnership. She will come to the House in due course, hopefully soon, to lay out full proposals for the terms of those negotiations[Official Report, 9 March 2020, Vol. 673, c. 2MC.].
As the Prime Minister’s trade envoy to Ghana and other parts of west Africa, I am delighted to be meeting a delegation this afternoon to talk about our expertise in science and technology and how we can help to support development in those countries. Does the Minister agree that, as we look out to the rest of the world post Brexit, it is trade with developing nations that will deliver the jobs, prosperity and mutual benefit we seek?
I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. He does an excellent job, for which I thank him, as trade envoy to Ghana. We see enormous potential for development and people’s life chances, particularly on the continent of Africa, in free trade between us and Africa, and around the world. Free trade is the route to prosperity, and it is the route to lift people out of poverty. This Government will always champion it for the most deprived people in the world.
The Minister has just mentioned the Department’s economic impact assessments on future trade deals with Australia, New Zealand, Japan and a CPTPP-type deal, but he will understand that a CETA-type deal—a Canada-style deal with Europe—will hit our economy by 6.2%. To what extent does he believe that the trade deals done with Japan, Australia, New Zealand and so on will compensate for that huge loss to our economy?
We do not see these things as mutually exclusive. We are now going to be an independent sovereign nation, seeking free trade agreements around the world, liberating British business, with the opportunity to tap in to some of the fastest-growing economies around the world. We want a good deal with the EU and with partners around the world, to the mutual benefit and prosperity of all our citizens.
Foreign Direct Investment
Winning further foreign direct investment is crucial to the delivery of rising living standards and the levelling up of left-behind communities up and down the land. Companies such as Ferrero, in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Amber Valley (Nigel Mills), which exports wonderful, quality chocolate all over the world, will potentially benefit, as will other UK chocolate producers, as a result of our UK-US free trade agreement.
I thank the Minister for that answer, and I join him in valuing the investment that Ferrero has brought to the old Thorntons factory. Most of the large employers in my constituency have had FDI at some point or other in their history, so what more can the Government do to ensure that that investment is spread out evenly across the country, and is not just focused in London and the south-east?
I thank my hon. Friend for that question, because FDI is so important to the UK. Foreign-owned firms represent only 1% of businesses, yet they contribute 22% of economic output and deliver 15% of employment. My Department uses our regional teams right around the country, and in 110 countries around the world, to make sure that we get that message out. Only yesterday, I hosted a meeting with regional leaders from right across the UK at No. 10 to show the importance we attach, as my hon. Friend does, to sharing these FDI benefits right across the country.
Does the Minister agree with me and with residents of Carshalton and Wallington that instead of talking down London, as the current Mayor does, we should be supporting Shaun Bailey’s idea to put in a deputy Mayor for trade to make sure that London remains a destination with one of the highest levels of FDI in the world, to attract businesses and entrepreneurs?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that. I think the people of London want a Mayor who makes things happen, who is a champion of business and who recognises that, for all the wealth in London, there are too many people left behind. We need a Mayor who gets on with the job—one who does not act like a commentator but who actually acts like a leader.
I thank my hon. Friend for his question, on which he is right. He is constantly championing the interests of his area, not least because of the need for regeneration. Free ports offer that opportunity. We are in constant talks with The Bristol Port Company, and I know that he is working closely with the West of England Mayor to make sure that that regeneration and the benefits of FDI are brought to his part of the country, with all the prosperity and employment benefits that that will bring.
The Minister will be aware of the concerns of businesses and, in particular, of producers supporting our regional economies about the impact of the proposed most favoured nation tariffs on their capacity to attract investment in new technology that is essential for our transition to net zero. What assessment has he made of the impact of the proposed measures on the UK’s attractiveness as a destination for investment, particularly in new green technology?
I thank the hon. Lady for her question. The consultation closes tonight and we are determined to get the right balance. We are clear that we are going to have a tariff regime that benefits UK consumers and business, and allows us to align ourselves most effectively to where 90% of global growth is expected by the International Monetary Fund to be in the next five years or so, which is outside Europe.
I thank the Minister for that answer, but he is not addressing the specific concern that the tariff schedule could hurt domestic producers by stifling FDI in precisely the places in the country that need it most. Are the Government really going to ignore industry concerns, potentially costing jobs?
I would have hoped that, after sufficient time in the House, the hon. Lady might have understood how a consultation worked. The consultation closes today, and I cannot comment on a consultation that has not yet closed. What I can tell her is that, as she will be delighted to hear, under this Government the UK has attracted more FDI than any other country in Europe. Indeed, we have attracted more FDI in aggregate than Germany and France combined. If she and her colleagues on the Labour Front Bench were to support business and enterprise in the way we do, instead of opposing them, we might see more jobs and prosperity.
As I said in an earlier answer, I was pleased to meet Northern Ireland representatives in No. 10 Downing Street yesterday. When I visited Belfast last year, I learnt more about the phenomenal tech, and in particular cyber, capability there is in Belfast. The Department is determined to make sure that the message of how investable and how strong Northern Ireland is, and what great capability it has, is understood through all our posts in countries around the world.
There has been a huge amount of foreign direct investment in the financial services sector, not only in London but throughout the regions and in Scotland. Can my hon. Friend assure me that, in all free trade negotiations, the interests of the financial services sector will be protected?
I thank my hon. Friend, who characteristically puts her finger on an important point. Services have too often not had sufficient focus in trade agreements. We are very much looking to put financial services, data and other elements at the heart of our trade policy, which will be great for the City of London. However, it is important to note that there are more people working in financial services in the northern powerhouse than there are in the whole of Frankfurt.
Renewable Energy: Exports
We are working with the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy to maximise the overall economic impact of our world-leading renewable energy sector, including that of exports. The Department undertakes a range of promotion activities, including running trade missions and dedicated workshops.
As the Minister is aware, the Grimsby and Cleethorpes constituencies are major centres for the renewables sector. Many of the smaller businesses are vital parts of the supply chain, and they would like to get more involved in exports. Will the Minister agree to meet me and a delegation from the local industry to explore the possibilities?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. He will be aware that the offshore wind sector deal, published in March 2019, sets an ambition of increasing exports fivefold to £2.6 billion by 2030. He and I, in our respective constituencies, have seen the transformation of the economics of offshore wind. We are now seeing UK Export Finance, for instance, financing major investments in Taiwan and other parts of the world, with UK exports and UK expertise, not least from my hon. Friend’s constituency, at the heart of that. I would be delighted to meet him.
The Government are investing £2.5 billion in clean growth innovation by 2021, as set out in the industrial strategy. The offshore wind sector deal commits the sector to investing up to £250 million, building a stronger UK supply chain. It is a transition—a transition away from fossil fuels to cleaner technologies—and we intend to drive that ever faster.
Foreign Direct Investment: Film and Television
Foreign investment in film and TV is booming. Just last month, I met representatives of the US’s Blackhall Studios, and they unveiled plans for a major investment in conjunction with Reading University, which should bring £500 million a year in inward investment to the UK. That studio alone is expected to employ 3,000 people and further strengthen the UK industry as a creative and economic triumph.
As everyone knows, Bolton is the new Hollywood. Having appeared in the Netflix show “The Stranger” and in “Top Gear”, which is filming in town today, Bolton has generated more than £200,000 in the past 12 months from being used as a film location. Will the Minister give an indication as to how a US-UK trade deal will benefit Bolton’s creative industries and cement our place as the newest leading media centre in the UK?
Smoothing access to the US through an FTA will help Bolton, and having such an excellent and film-ready advocate for Bolton as my hon. Friend, I look forward to him appearing, perhaps even with a speaking role, in future productions. It is notable that, in the past two years alone, we have seen the BBC, Netflix and Sky all using Bolton as locations for major productions, including “Peaky Blinders”, which I can certainly see him in; the “Last Tango in Halifax”, where he may be a younger love interest; “The Stranger”, although I know he never tries to be; and “Cobra”, which perhaps suggests his action credentials.
Mr Speaker, you should also know that the filming of the new Batman movie has been happening in my constituency in Glasgow.
Is it still the intention of the UK Government not to implement the EU copyright directive because of Brexit? If so, what analysis have they done on what impact that will have on foreign direct investment in film and the creative industries?
Now that we have departed the EU, we are determined to ensure that we remain the leading production hub globally, as we increasingly have been in film, not least thanks to the skill, expertise and beauty of the people and the places, including in the hon. Lady’s constituency.
Bilateral Trade Relations: Japan
Japan is the third largest economy in the world and a key partner of the UK. I visited Japan in September to promote UK trade and we are shortly likely to commence our free trade negotiations with it.
London 2012 offered an opportunity not only for Britain to showcase itself to the world, but for the competing nations to showcase themselves to the host nation. May I ask what steps the Department is taking to promote Great Britain at the forthcoming Olympic and Paralympic games in Tokyo?
I understand that Japan will be using a lot of British-made products in the Olympics, for example, the white water obstacles made by UK company RapidBlocs. During Tokyo 2020, we will be hosting a series of promotional events, and I look forward to Team GB celebrating its success with Scotch whisky and English sparkling wine.
Nissan is very important to the north-east and employs hundreds directly in my constituency and hundreds more via the supply chain. What further benefits will a new free trade agreement with Japan, which is currently being pursued by the Government, bring to manufacturers and suppliers in my constituency?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Nissan’s Sunderland plant is the most productive in Europe, and I can see every reason why the Japanese are likely to put even more investment there and make more cars there. There are opportunities through the Japan FTA and the US FTA where Nissan already exports from its UK factory.
Should not the Secretary of State be looking at the way in which we source things in this country—whether from Japan or China. We know that many of the drugs that we need to fight this virus are actually made in India, and it is not allowing us to have a full complement of imports. We also know that firms all over our country are closing down because China is the workshop of the world and it is exporting nothing. What is she going to do in the future to secure those supply chains?
First, we are participating in the efforts to tackle coronavirus through the cross-Government working group. The Prime Minister chaired a Cobra meeting on Monday to make sure that we are dealing with those supply chain issues. Furthermore, I expect the Trade Remedies Authority to play a strong role in making sure that we do not see the dumping of products on the UK market.
UK/US Trade Agreement: SMEs
Some 30,000 small and medium-sized enterprises already trade with the United States. In the new free trade agreement, we will be asking for a dedicated SME chapter that removes customs red tape, does more stuff online and makes it much easier for our fantastic small businesses to trade with the United States.
Many businesses in South Ribble stand to benefit hugely from a free trade agreement with the USA—not least Leyland Exports, a commercial vehicle and silicone hose specialist. Does the Secretary of State agree that we must push hard to secure a free trade deal that benefits businesses of all sizes in all regions, and supports supply chains?
My hon. Friend is right. I understand that Leyland Exports can face up to 25% tariffs on the export of goods vehicles to the United States, and 5% tariffs on its exports to Australia. In the free trade agreements we are looking for from the United States and Australia, one of our key asks will be to get rid of those tariffs, and to make it much easier for the car industry—by reducing testing and red tape—to ensure that we can get our fantastic exports into those markets.
UK Ports of Entry
We are using the transition period to ensure that the UK rises to the challenges of leaving the European Union while being ready to take advantage of all the benefits. Work on ports preparedness is being led by the Cabinet Office’s border delivery group. I remind the House and onlookers that tonight is the closure of our consultation on the new UK global tariff.
The hon. Member makes an extremely good point, and that is one of the points of the free port policy. We launched the consultation last month with the Command Paper, and it closes on 20 April. It would not be proper for me to make comments specifically about the location of future free ports, but the Tyne port in particular is very important to this country, as it is the second largest vehicle port in the nation. Free ports are designed to support jobs, trade and investment.
UK/US Trade Agreement: Thames Valley
An ambitious United States free trade agreement could boost the economy in the south-east, including the Thames valley, by £622 million in the long run, supporting the growth of key local industries such as professional business services, and automotive and digital businesses. The FTA presents a golden opportunity for the region, which has a thriving trade with America, with the equivalent of £14,000 of goods exported to the US every minute.
The Thames valley is home to many high- tech businesses, not least in the north of my constituency of Buckingham crossing into Northamptonshire at Silverstone Park. Can my right hon. Friend outline the steps he is taking to ensure that we are supporting high-tech businesses at places such as Silverstone Park to grow, prosper and bring global solutions in areas such as low-carbon transport, and that they are at the forefront of our negotiations for a free trade deal with the United States?
May I start by congratulating my hon. Friend yet again on being a brilliant new representative for the Buckingham constituency? The Silverstone technology cluster includes excellent tech and start-up companies such as Advanced Automotive Technologies, Altair Engineering, room44 e-bikes and many more. Those are exactly the kind of companies that we want to see exporting more to the USA and to benefit from fewer hurdles to trade. That is why both sides want an SME chapter in the trade deal.
The Government’s own figures show that a US trade deal could raise the north-east’s economy by a maximum of 0.4% a year and that a no-deal Brexit will cut the north-east’s economy by up to 10%. Is this the Government’s idea of levelling up—to destroy thousands of jobs in the north-east?
The hon. Member does not do this question justice. Our objective, of course, is to have both a very good free trade deal with the European Union and a new trade deal with the United States of America, which would have the potential to raise the gross value added of the north-eastern region by some £170 million. She should join us, work with us and ensure that the benefits of these deals can be heard by all her constituents across the region.
Global Exports: Tech Start-ups
We are a world leader in tech. Following our departure from the European Union, we have launched a new GREAT campaign that promotes everything from our agri-tech to our gaming capabilities. The Under-Secretary of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Beverley and Holderness (Graham Stuart), recently led a delegation to Las Vegas where he promoted UK tech at the Consumer Electronics Show.
To meet the challenges of our time, we must ensure that we create an environment where we encourage tech start-ups to set up, thrive and innovate. What are the Secretary of State and Ministers doing to ensure that tech start-ups in the west midlands are able to fulfil their potential?
Birmingham has the largest tech sector outside London. It has firms specialising in FinTech, games, health-tech and cyber-security. We will keep the UK at the top of the investment tree. Last year we saw investment in UK tech growing faster than in any other nation in the world. We need to keep at the forefront, and there are huge opportunities for our tech industry.
Will my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State join me in celebrating the fact that last year investment into the UK’s tech start-ups grew more than anywhere else in the world? Will she outline the steps she is taking to build on this fantastic achievement?
After we have left the European Union, we have a huge opportunity to strike new data and digital agreements with the rest of the world. We are looking for a data and digital chapter in the US FTA. We are looking for an advanced data and digital chapter with Japan. We have the opportunity to create a global powerhouse here in the UK.
As the Secretary of State said, the UK is a world leader in future technology, yet it is also assessed to be one of the sectors most at risk from Brexit. Therefore, new opportunities for tech sector start-ups are absolutely important. The Department was recently criticised by tech sector magazines for cutting funding for the tradeshow access programme, which is used by entrepreneurs in the tech sector to get to potential clients overseas. So will she set out what funding will be available, and with what long-term guarantees for those SMEs and start-ups, so that they can make the best of opportunities through the TAP?
I disagree with the premise of the hon. Lady’s question. Now that we have left the EU, we have the opportunity to set our own rules and regulations in tech, and really lead the world in areas like artificial intelligence and blockchain. That is exactly what we are seeking to do with these new free trade agreements. We are also seeking, at the World Trade Organisation, to lead in areas like the joint statement on e-commerce, and looking for new SME-friendly chapters in our trade deals to help exactly these types of tech start-ups to sell their goods around the world.
Trade Agreements: Non-EU Countries
As we said earlier, only this week we have launched our negotiating platform for a free trade agreement with the United States. Those for Australia, New Zealand and Japan will follow in due course, and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will set those out. My role within the Department is to support her in scoping out and assessing the potential for future free trade agreements around the rest of the world.
In reality, the roll-over deals struck to date amount to just 8% of our existing total trade, yet we were told that all this would be sorted by one minute past midnight on 31 March last year. Are the US negotiations being conducted in tandem with the EU ones, with fully trained teams aware of what each other is doing so that that can be factored into any future relationship? I am sure that other countries will be thinking the same, particularly as our objectives seem to be so divergent from the US’s “America first” aims?
I understand that the hon. Lady attended a briefing yesterday on the negotiations, led by our brilliant chief negotiator. She asks whether we are pursuing concurrent trade negotiations with the EU and the United States. The answer is yes we are, in exactly the same way that the EU is currently negotiating with the United States.
Further to that question and to the question asked by the hon. Member for Richmond Park (Sarah Olney), I want to be absolutely clear about one thing: there is no such thing as an Australian free trade deal with the EU. An Australia-terms Brexit is actually a no-deal Brexit, and no amount of spin or repackaging can hide that fact. Does the Minister think that no deal is an acceptable outcome, given the near apocalyptic conclusions of his own Government’s Yellowhammer report, which talked about two and a half day waits at ports for lorries? Is that acceptable?
A free trade agreement with the European Union is our ambition, and we hope that it shares that ambition. Our ambition is also to engage in free trade negotiations, which the Secretary of State is leading on, with the United States, Australia, New Zealand and Japan in the first instance. I can tell the hon. Gentleman and sceptics on the Opposition Benches that the interest in the opportunities for the United Kingdom to engage bilaterally around the world, now that we control our own independent trade policy for the first time in almost 50 years, is almost unquenchable—I think of the conversations we have had in the last six months with the Gulf Co-operation Council, Vietnam, Brazil, Chile, Morocco, Algeria and Commonwealth Trade Ministers. I just hope that the hon. Gentleman’s constituents will welcome the opportunities that we are giving them to trade with the world and enjoy ever increasing prosperity.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that question. The answer is unequivocally yes. We are determined that the entire United Kingdom—all nations and every region of it—will benefit, and I had the pleasure of returning home to Northern Ireland only a couple of weeks ago to talk about those ambitions with the Executive and businesses in Northern Ireland.
UK exports are at a record high, with the latest figures showing exports of £689 billion—up 5% on 2018. We are committed to doing even more, building on the measures in our export strategy. Just last month, we launched a new business support campaign, helping businesses of all sizes to fulfil their exporting potential.
Over the last few weeks, the good residents of Ilford South have been writing to me in greater and greater numbers because they are concerned about the sectarian violence we are seeing in some of our Commonwealth partners in certain regions of the world. Can the Minister reassure me and the residents of Ilford South by telling us what steps he will take to ensure that the Government’s trade strategy always promotes human rights abroad and does not embolden or reward regimes or Governments who oppress communities that are a minority in number?
The hon. Gentleman is quite right to highlight the issue of trade’s role in parts of the world where human rights are being breached. Right across the Department, we seek to ensure that all such considerations are taken into account, while recognising the need to engage with regimes that may have less than perfect Governments, for the benefit of the people there. It is a balance that we take very seriously, and I look forward to further discussion with him to get it right.
We could look at Japan, or we could look at Mercosur, which took 20 years of negotiation. Some say that the UK shorn of the heft of the EU will be less able to do deals. There are ways in which that would be true, but fundamentally, with agility, as many countries have shown, we can do more deals more quickly and, most importantly, bring greater prosperity, employment and opportunity to my right hon. Friend’s constituents and mine as a result of the UK having its own independent trade policy for the first time in 40-odd years.
Following our departure from the EU, the UK has established itself as an independent trading nation. On Tuesday, I was the first UK Trade Secretary in almost 50 years to make a speech at the World Trade Organisation representing the UK as an independent trading nation. We will use our position at the WTO to champion free trade, champion reform and make the case for liberalisation in digital and services. Mr Speaker, I can tell you that Britain is back.
The British Egg Industry Council recently commissioned a report on the impact that changes to import tariffs would have on UK egg producers. The report particularly highlighted concerns about cutting import tariffs on egg products when they come from countries with much lower welfare standards. How does my right hon. Friend plan to protect the good eggs, such as St Ewe Free Range Eggs in my constituency, which produces the finest free range eggs money can buy, against the bad eggs from countries with lower welfare standards?
The consultation on the UK global tariff, which will set the most favoured nation tariff rate for eggs, among other products, closes tonight, so I suggest that my hon. Friend gets the eggs-cellent company in his constituency to put in a submission to the consultation and make its views known.
The Secretary of State will be familiar with the Brexit voucher scheme that has been launched by the Irish Government to support small and medium-sized enterprises trading across borders and affected by Brexit. The Dutch have introduced a similar scheme paying grants of over €2,000 and loans of up to €1.5 million. What assessment has she made of those measures and whether they are compliant with state aid rules, and if they are, why has she not introduced any similar measures to support our own SMEs, which face unknown tariffs, increased checks and inspections, and substantial delays to their trade?
We are working very closely with the Cabinet Office to make sure that businesses have all the information they need to prepare for transition at the end of this year. This is also an opportunity, of course, to get more businesses trading with the rest of the world, and we will be saying more about this soon in our new export strategy.
I thank my hon. Friend for that question. When I was previously in this job, I visited the sector in Cambridgeshire. We know that the life sciences industry contributes £74 billion a year to the economy, creating 250,000 jobs and developing life-saving medicines for UK patients. Annually, the east of England exports £711 million of medical and pharmaceutical products to the US. Estimates show that a UK-US FTA could boost the whole region’s economy by £345 million in the long run.
That is properly a question for a different Question Time, because it is Taskforce Europe that is responsible for our future trading relations with the European Union. What I can say to the hon. Member is that the mutual recognition of professional qualifications is one of the key aspects we are looking at in free trade agreements with counterparties across the world.
I am glad that that is being looked at because, right now, if an agreement is not reached between the UK and the European Union, UK legal practitioners—lawyers—will no longer be protected by legal or professional privilege inside the European Union. May we have a specific focus on that to ensure that jeopardy is removed, but also, more importantly, to ensure that the associated disincentive to trade in legal services is removed?
Again, this is really a matter for Taskforce Europe, but I will pass on the hon. Member’s question to it to give him a more detailed response. What I can say is that the DIT team promote trade in legal services, particularly the mutual recognition of qualifications, in all our talks. I have done that personally in this role, and the Secretary of State is committed to doing so. We make sure that this is promoted, particularly regulator to regulator, including for legal services, accountancy, architecture and all our professional services.
My hon. Friend has been lobbying extremely hard for Holyhead to be considered as a free port, and we are very grateful for all her input to the free port consultation. She is right, of course, that a US free trade deal will benefit every single part of the United Kingdom, including Wales. There are particular opportunities for the export of Welsh lamb into the United States, where it is currently not allowed. I also agree that we need to ensure—I know the Transport Secretary is working hard on this—that we continue to keep routes open and that new companies can operate those flight routes, which are so vital for our connectivity.
I was very clear in the statement I made to the House that there had been problems with our process. I subsequently issued a written ministerial statement, followed by an internal review conducted by another Government Department.
We have now fixed that problem. The information is now being provided in real time, and that fulfils the requirements of the court order.
We strongly value our trading relationship with the state of Israel and are working closely with the Israeli Government to implement the UK-Israel trade and partnership agreement, but my hon. Friend is absolutely correct to identify the opportunities for us to do so much more. In my constituency, the town of Bournemouth is twinned with Netanya in Israel, and I have seen first-hand the opportunities in the innovation and tech sectors. We are working with Israeli counterparts to host a UK-Israel trade and investment conference in London, whose primary focus will be scoping out and identifying new opportunities for collaboration between Israel and the United Kingdom.
The hon. Lady can see that laid out in black and white in our objectives: we simply will not do a deal that undermines our food safety standards, and we will also retain our very high animal welfare standards. That is very clear and, ultimately, if the US is not prepared to agree to that, we will walk away.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend the Member for Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale (David Mundell), who sets an example—not least to the party over there, the SNP—in championing the interests of Scottish workers and Scottish business, regardless of politics. [Laughter.] The hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh South West (Joanna Cherry) laughs, but all too often she sits there and says—as she did just now, chuntering from a sedentary position—“We don’t want it”: she does not want more resource from the UK Government to support Scottish business. If ever we had an example of how the separatist SNP put that single agenda ahead of the interests of the Scottish people, that was it. Thank the Lord that we have Members like my right hon. Friend to stand up for us.
We are leaving the EU so that we can make our own regulatory decisions, including about how we manage our agriculture and horticulture. Of course we want to get the best possible free trade deal with the EU, but that does not mean continuously harmonising with its regulations.
The top source market of foreign direct investment projects coming into the UK continues to be the United States, by a considerable margin. Does that not underline the importance of Heathrow and of the transatlantic aviation route as an enabler of those deals? Will the Minister confirm that the Government are still committed to growth in that important market?
My right hon. Friend is correct to highlight the importance of Heathrow and transatlantic links with the US and beyond—not only for exports, but for foreign direct investment. I am sure that he and the rest of the House will be kept informed as Government policy develops.
We are making extensive preparations at our ports to cater for all possible scenarios of outcome from the current talks with the European Union; we are very much following the philosophy of preparing for the worst but working for the best. We are making sure that, across Government, all the resources will be in place to deal with a whole range of eventualities as they may arise at the border.
Last weekend, worrying comments were reported in the Mail on Sunday questioning the need for UK farming and agriculture for our economy. This is at a time when farmers’ fields are saturated and they are lambing in really difficult conditions—they did not need that over their cornflakes on Sunday. Will my right hon. Friend give Stroud farmers and farmers across the UK confidence that the Government will stand up for them in all trade negotiations, and will she reconfirm their importance to our economy?
My hon. Friend is right: British farming is vital, for its food production, for its custodianship of the environment and for the enjoyment it provides in all our lives through its fantastic products. She will notice from the US negotiating objectives and scoping statement that agriculture will benefit, because there will be more opportunities to export our fantastic lamb and beef and we can cut tariffs on dairy products. There are lots of opportunities, and I want British farmers to take them up.
Unlike that Government aide, in the north-east we know that we do need farmers—not least because they protect our glorious Northumberland and County Durham countryside. Can the Secretary of State give a commitment to protecting the small-scale farmers and their high-welfare and farming standards in any trade deal?
As the hon. Lady will be aware, we are developing new farming support policies to supersede the common agricultural policy. Those will be much more suited to British farmers, making sure that we are supporting farmers to protect the environment and produce great products. In our trade agreements I have been very clear that there will be no diminution in our standards.
I hosted a meeting in London last year with the Commonwealth Trade Ministers. There is a huge amount of enthusiasm to work more closely together. One of our first priority trade deals will be with Australia and New Zealand. We are also creating a Commonwealth caucus at the World Trade Organisation. Commonwealth countries represent 33% of delegates to the WTO. We can be a real force in making the case for free trade and for small countries not to be overwhelmed by big trading blocs.
Business of the House
The business for the week commencing 9 March will include:
Monday 9 March—Second Reading of the Birmingham Commonwealth Games Bill [Lords], followed by a general debate on the Commonwealth in 2020.
Tuesday 10 March—Remaining stages of the Telecommunications Infrastructure (Leasehold Property) Bill, followed by a general debate on LGBT+ health inequality and LBT women’s health week. The subject for this debate was determined by the Backbench Business Committee.
Wednesday 11 March—My right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer will deliver his Budget statement.
Thursday 12 March—Continuation of the Budget debate.
Friday 13 March—Private Members’ Bills.
The provisional business for the week commencing 16 March will include:
Monday 16 March—Continuation of the Budget debate.
Tuesday 17 March—Conclusion of the Budget debate.
Wednesday 18 March—Opposition day (6th allotted day). There will be a debate on a motion in the name of the official Opposition.
Thursday 19 March—Debate on a motion on Government response to the Morse review of the loan charge 2019, followed by a general debate on the Horizon settlement and future governance of Post Office Ltd. The subjects for these debates was determined by the Backbench Business Committee.
Friday 20 March—The House will not be sitting.
I thank the Leader of the House for the business. Is there any update on the list of ministerial responsibilities? He has given the business for the week of 16 March, but no departmental questions have been allocated. Will he say why that has not been forthcoming?
When will the Windrush lessons learned review and the report on Russian interference in UK democracy be published? The Leader of the House frequently says that the Prime Minister has seen it, but we are in a democracy—the last time I looked—and we would all like to have a look at that.
There is a debate in Westminster Hall today on Horizon. While this is an important topic, it will also be the subject of a Backbench Business Committee debate. I wonder whether there could be more co-ordination so that Members can contribute in the appropriate way.
We are all thinking about those who are suffering from the virus, covid-19. Can I ask for clarification through the Leader of the House from the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care? Last week, he said that people must self-isolate on medical advice and that they will be entitled to sick pay. This week, he said that people have to self-certify for seven days, yet the incubation period is 14 days. I know that the Prime Minister said that everyone who is entitled to sick pay can get it from day one, but what is the position of those who we, as a country, are asking to self-isolate—those on zero-hours contracts and those, for example, who are not entitled to statutory sick pay? We know that the virus does not distinguish between who is on what sort of contract, so will the Leader of the House ensure that there is an urgent statement that whoever self-certifies in relation to the disease can get statutory sick pay from day one? Universal credit is not payable for five weeks.
Will the Leader of the House confirm that covid-19 is now a notifiable disease? I know that many small businesses have been affected by this and we need to know that that is also retrospective. The Secretary of State for Health has said that there is no additional funding and that there is no ring-fenced funding for local authorities. Tory-controlled councils such as Walsall council are using £10 million for consultants to try to show councillors how to build resilient communities. Is that a proper use of public money, where councillors are asked to build these communities with Lego? That is all the more reason why the money for this disease should be ring-fenced. The way to build a resilient community is, of course, to restore Pleck library, which cost only £800,000, to restore Palfrey Sure Start, to ensure that youth centres are open and, of course, to fund social care, which is a very important part of keeping people safe. So could we have a reassurance from the Chancellor that the money is emergency money to mitigate covid-19?
The Leader of the House will know that the Civil Contingencies Act 2004 contains all the powers that a Government need for emergency regulations, including under section 27, which allows parliamentary scrutiny of those regulations. The Secretary of State for Health and Social Care and the shadow Secretary of State have worked very closely together. Are there any plans for further emergency legislation? Will he ensure that the Opposition parties are consulted? After all, we want to do things in the best interests of our country.
Twenty-three Members of Parliament in Iran have got covid-19. The Leader of the House will know that the UK Government, France and Germany have shown good faith and given money through the UN to Iran to help support its health system. Our British citizens Nazanin, Anousheh and Kylie need to come back so that we can look after our own citizens. Will the Leader of the House reassure us that that is put to the Iranian Government, given that we have supported their health system?
I am sure, Mr Speaker, that the House will not mind if I pay tribute to my predecessor, the right hon. Bruce George, who sadly passed away last week. Bruce was born in 1942 in Mountain Ash, Glamorgan. He had a 36-year career here, and he made an important contribution to life in Walsall and this place. He was chair of the Defence Select Committee and played an important part in securing money from the previous Labour Government to rebuild the Manor Hospital. In recognition of his dedication to Walsall South, Bruce was made an honorary freeman of the borough. He was a keen football fan. Bruce was the founder, captain and goalkeeper of the parliamentary football team, the Westminster Wobblers. Bruce’s wife, Lisa, showed him tremendous support throughout the time that he was here and beyond, and I hope that the House will join me in sending our condolences to Lisa at this very difficult time. Bruce’s funeral will be on 20 March at Saint Matthew’s church at 1 o’clock. May he rest in peace.
We are celebrating International Women’s Day. We know that unpaid work that women do is worth £140 billion to the economy; the financial sector is worth £132 billion. Let us lead the way in unlocking women’s potential. Equal pay for equal work is just one area that we need to look at. Those high-profile cases are easy to see, but those other women down below also need to be encouraged. We need to support any claims for equal pay for equal work.
Finally, I wish everyone a happy World Book Day. We know that every child will get a £1 book token, but £1 books are available for adults as well. I pay tribute to our Library for the fantastic service that they provide us.
I join the right hon. Lady in sending our condolences to Lisa George. It is always a sadness when a former Member of this House dies, but obviously the greatest sadness is for the family and, as the hon. Lady says, may he rest in peace.
I agree with the hon. Lady on paying tribute to the Library. We are enormously well served by the Library, and I hope everybody will use World Book Day as an opportunity to spend more time reading. They might want to read a book on the Victorians, which is still available in all good bookshops, probably at a highly discounted price by now.
I want to answer the important question on Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe. Foreign Office officials in Tehran continue to lobby for the release of all dual national detainees, and I understand that the Iranian ambassador to the UK confirmed on Tuesday that Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe was in good health and that she would be granted temporary release, so there is some slight good news at this stage. However, her family have understandably said that they wish to keep her symptoms under review and undertake any further testing as necessary. I reiterate my thanks to the right hon. Lady for raising this every week.
Inevitably, given that a reshuffle took place relatively recently, the list of ministerial responsibilities is being worked on, and will be released as soon as practicable. The list of oral questions is also being worked on because of changes in departmental responsibilities. It is important that we have the right questions to allow the Government to be held to account properly.
As far as I am aware, the Windrush report has not yet been delivered to the Home Office, but I am sure that the Home Office will review it in the normal way once it has been. The right hon. Lady also asked about the Russia report. The Committee has not yet been set up, but I have no doubt that when it has been, it will rush to publish the report. However, I remind her that the Prime Minister has said that it will probably be much less exciting than people think it will be. The joy of waiting for it is, perhaps, greater than the reality of what it will contain—not that I have seen it.
The right hon. Lady raised the issue of the Post Office and Horizon. I am glad to say that the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee is to conduct a parliamentary investigation into this very troubling matter, and I think that that is the right way to go about it. Parliamentary Select Committee inquiries can be very swift and effective.
The right hon. Lady asked a number of questions about the coronavirus. There are some very important points to make in relation to people outside the House, and also to people inside it. On sick pay, the right hon. Lady is right: people can self-certify for seven days, but the Government are asking businesses in these circumstances to use the discretion that they have not to require a doctor’s note for the second seven days. I think most businesses will understand that. I also think it is worth giving reassurance to people who may be eligible for sick pay about its availability. As for those on zero-hours contracts, Citizens Advice recommends that they discuss the matter with their employers, because some of them may well be eligible for sick pay. So steps are being taken. There are eligibilities, and other benefits are available to people who are not eligible. It is important that the welfare system will be able to take care of people who self-isolate or who are suffering.
I am not going to dwell on the right hon. Lady’s disagreements with her local council. MPs often disagree with their local councils. As hers is a Conservative council, I am sure that it is absolutely marvellous, but I understand why a socialist Member of Parliament does not take the same view. That is a fairly routine aspect of political life. [Interruption.] I am being heckled by the right hon. Lady.
Let me now turn to the issue of Parliament and the coronavirus. Many Members may have read a report in The Times today, and I want to reassure them that there are no plans to close the House down.
But it was one that represented many.
The public will expect Parliament to sit, and to get on with its job. Parliament has proved itself to be very resilient over the years. There is no medical reason, on current advice, to think that shutting Parliament would be necessary or helpful. I will repeat that: there is no medical reason, on current advice, to think that shutting Parliament would be necessary or helpful.
Our approach will be guided by the best scientific evidence and medical advice, and we will take all necessary measures to deal with this outbreak. I can assure the House that I am engaging with the parliamentary authorities to emphasise how important it is that any decisions are taken in line with the advice of the chief medical officer. A cross-parliamentary group of senior managers is meeting daily to plan the response to covid-19 and ensure business continuity, with input from Her Majesty’s Government. The Commission will consider an update at its meeting with the House of Lords Commission on Monday. I can reassure the House that we are taking this very seriously, and that we will act on professional medical advice.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for raising this point. It is extraordinary how effective the previous Mayor of London was in cutting crime; it is no surprise that he has gone on to even greater things—and it is no surprise that his socialist successor has failed to cut crime. I am glad to say that this Government will provide an extra 20,000 police officers, and are reinforcing stop-and-search powers to ensure that crime can be reduced across the country.
At a time when almost the entire country is focused on coronavirus and its implications, observers of our proceedings will find it strange that the matter does not appear on our agenda. Would it not be proper to have a discussion in the Chamber that gave the opportunity for more in-depth consideration than can be afforded by a series of 20-second questions to a Minister? I do not for one second suggest that we should try to second-guess the medical response to the virus—we should simply take the expert advice and make sure that the resources are available to implement it swiftly—but it is clear that there will be profound social and economic consequences from the virus that will require a public policy response from this Chamber. The sooner we start on that, the better.
I am thinking in particular of those companies that will be more affected by the virus than others. Obviously, there will be an effect on every company, but for some, particularly those producing public events, the difference will be between living and dying; the virus will potentially put them out of business. I am thinking of such events as the Edinburgh festival, which is important to not just the city but the entire Scottish and UK economy. Decisions on it are being taken now; the risks are being taken now. Those involved would take succour from Parliament deciding in principle, though perhaps not providing details, that support will be given to people engaged in these activities. I refer the House to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.
The Leader of the House will know that on Monday, the House ran out of time to discuss a proposition from the Committee of Selection on the composition of the Scottish Affairs Committee—the rather bizarre proposal that the Conservative party’s representation on that Committee be increased, even though its representation in the country of Scotland as a whole reduced by 50% in the recent election. When will the House have the opportunity to conclude that debate, and when can we put amendments before the House to ensure that the composition of the Committee reflects political opinion in Scotland?
To answer the second part of the question first, it is of course very sad that the SNP decided to talk out the motion establishing a Scottish Affairs Committee. It is surprising that a party that calls itself the national party of Scotland does not want to have a Committee looking into Scottish affairs. The Government will of course deliberate and consider when it is right to bring forward a motion on the subject, but it is ironic that those who wish for more Scottish debate are those who decided not to have a Scottish Affairs Committee. I know a little bit, dare I say, about the procedures of this House, and I know when somebody is trying to talk something out, and that is exactly what happened. One might think, if it were not disorderly to suggest it, that the SNP were filibustering—to stop themselves having the opportunity to discuss things. It was a filibuster with remarkably little point.
We are not playing “Just a Minute”; I am trying to answer serious questions.
The hon. Member for Edinburgh East (Tommy Sheppard) is absolutely right about discussions of coronavirus. The Health and Social Care Secretary is committed to updating the House regularly. I think that is important and the best way of proceeding, because we are trying to proceed on the basis of medical, expert advice, and giving Members the opportunity to ask questions, so that advice can be given to a broader audience and more widely understood, is the right approach to take, though I hear his request for a debate. Obviously, if or when there is a need for emergency legislation, there will be a full debate on it.
Further to the question from my right hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet (Theresa Villiers) on violent crime, last year, in the London Borough of Harrow, the number of notifiable offences rose to 17,329, up from 14,897 the year before. Meanwhile, our do-nothing Mayor spends his money, which he is given by the Government, on public relations and spin doctors. He has been given £5 billion to build 116,000 new homes across the capital, and has failed to do that, and yesterday a third of tube trains were running late because of faulty trains. Could we have a debate on the failures of this do-nothing Mayor?
When will the Secretary of State for Health next come to the House to update us? People will have seen reports on last night’s news that two patients at King’s College Hospital in my constituency have been diagnosed as positive with coronavirus. That has immediately raised questions in the minds of patients who are due for appointments this morning. Should they go in or not? Would visitors be turned away if they went to visit their friends and relatives? Should GPs be referring now? Until the point at which I came into the Chamber, there was nothing on the King’s website to say what the situation is. I understand that it is business as usual in King’s College hospital, and I want to thank all the staff for their work, particularly those in A&E, but we need to have more immediate real-time information as well as the important work that is being done in the national health service.
The right hon. and learned Lady raises the right points. The Health Secretary will be in the House on Tuesday for routine questions, but he has committed to making more frequent statements if that is necessary. May I add the important piece of advice that anybody who is worried about symptoms of coronavirus should ring 111, and not go into A&E. I reiterate her thanks to the people who are serving on the frontline in the NHS in dealing with this problem.
May we have a debate in Government time on the role of managing agents? Many of my residents are suffering from unscrupulous residential managing agents, including those who are charging fees for services they do not provide and those who are not enforcing the rebuilding of their property or even establishing a sinking fund. Many of my constituents feel that they are being ripped off, and I believe that the Government could take this opportunity to show that we are on the side of our constituents.
We will be having a renters reform Bill, as was announced in the Queen’s Speech, and powers will be coming forward within the legislative programme that look at leaseholds, so I am glad to reassure my hon. Friend that there will be opportunities during this Session of Parliament to look at these issues.
The Backbench Business Committee is back in business. As well as the business that has been announced by the Leader of the House in this business statement, we have determined that on Thursday 12 March in Westminster Hall there will be a debate on freedom of religion or belief, led by the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), and that on Tuesday 17 March in Westminster Hall there will be a general debate on tackling alcohol harm, led by the hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce).
May I also announce and tell my right hon. Friend the Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz), the shadow Leader of the House, that there is a debate scheduled on the Horizon settlement. I know that that appears to replicate something that is happening today, but it will not replicate it, because we were convinced by the application that there were many aspects of the Horizon settlement that were worthy of further debate in this Chamber. That is why we agreed to allot that time.
Finally, the Leader of the House has said that there are no plans to close Parliament and that Parliament has been very resilient over the years, and of course we should be about our business, but is anything being said about planning to restrict public access in any way?
Continuing with the issue of reducing crime, Warwickshire police, under the guidance of the Conservative police and crime commissioner, Philip Seccombe, has been successful in a bid to the Home Office to increase the proportion of officers equipped and trained in the use of Tasers from 20% to 28%. May we have a debate on how the use of such equipment can assist the police in keeping us safe?
Considerable resources are being devoted to allowing more police officers to carry Tasers. My hon. Friend is absolutely right to emphasise this point, because ensuring that the police have the equipment they need—I am glad to say that Conservative police and crime commissioners are doing this across the country—will help to keep the country safe.
In Blaenau Gwent 39% of ATMs charge people for accessing their own cash. The cashpoint network LINK says that without Government intervention, the system that allows free access to cash will collapse within two years. May we therefore have a statement on how the Government intend to protect free access to cash?
The issues surrounding bank closures and ATMs are raised regularly in the House. Banks have committed, since May 2017, to the access to banking standards, which commit them to working with customers and communities to minimise the impact of closures. The hon. Gentleman makes an important point, and it will be discussed within the Government. I suggest that an Adjournment debate is the most suitable debate for specific constituency matters.
On Saturday 22 February, Ipswich man Richard Day was sadly killed in the town centre. It is not the first time Ipswich has seen such a brutal incident. At about the same time there were two burglaries, when a hair salon and a café were broken into. We welcome the extra 54 police officers that Suffolk will be getting, but it does not go quite far enough. Suffolk currently receives £152 a year per head of population for policing, while the national average is £192. May we therefore have a debate on the future of the police funding formula, to level up police funding so that we can increase the police presence in Ipswich and ensure that such tragedies do not happen again?
My constituent John has been out of work since 2017, despite his best efforts, due to overwhelming mental health issues. He has been signed off by his GP for that period. He was awarded a personal independence payment and employment and support allowance in 2018, yet later that year he was deemed fit for work and lost his ESA, much to the shock of his family and his doctor. Latterly there have been monumental administrative blunders at the Department for Work and Pensions, but the overwhelming issue here is the disparity of esteem between mental and physical health. Will the Leader of the House facilitate a debate on this important issue?
There is broad support across the House for giving a higher priority to the treatment of mental health conditions, and there is extra spending, to record levels, going into mental health. The hon. Gentleman is right to raise the concerns about his constituent, and I assume that he is taking them up with the relevant Department. If at any point he needs my assistance in that, I would be delighted to meet him to discuss it.
I welcome my right hon. Friend’s announcement on the days for debating the Budget. Ahead of the Budget, and following the question from the hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent (Nick Smith) on access to cash, will my right hon. Friend use his good offices to convey to the Chancellor the message that the Budget is in fact an opportunity, as identified by the Association of Convenience Stores, the Federation of Small Businesses and others, to secure the long-term future of access to cash? A recent report identified that 8 million people across the United Kingdom could not cope at this time with a cashless society, and many of them live in large rural constituencies such as mine.
My right hon. Friend has made an eloquent plea to the Chancellor, and put it more finely than I possibly could, so I will ensure that his words are extracted from Hansard and sent to the Chancellor so that he may consider them while preparing his Budget.
I took the Leader of the House’s previous advice and wrote to the Secretary of State for Transport on 11 February, to request a meeting on the decrepit state of Luton’s train station. I still have not received a response and the train station is in urgent need of vital investment. Will the Leader of the House advise me on how I can prompt a response from the Transport Secretary?
It has been brought to my attention that the affairs of a business allegedly producing counterfeit antiques have been made the subject of a consent order, now known as a non-disclosure agreement, with large cash settlements being used to enable the perpetrator not only to escape justice but to threaten those who seek to bring these matters to light. Indeed, a journalist who wrote about the matter in a very small antiques journal was financially ruined and narrowly escaped a custodial sentence back in June 2018. Can we therefore please have a debate on the scope and use of non-disclosure agreements where there is evidence that they are being used to escape potential criminal prosecution?
Non-disclosure agreements cannot prevent any disclosure that is required or protected by law; nor can they preclude an individual from asserting their statutory rights under either the Employment Rights Act 1996—including, of most importance, whistleblowing—or the Equality Act 2010. There are often legitimate reasons for parties to seek to enter an NDA, such as preventing commercial information being shared inappropriately or protecting intellectual property, but they should not be used, and may not be used, to conceal criminality.
The infected blood inquiry reconvened last week to hear expert evidence from people in the fields of HIV and hepatitis. Sir Brian Langstaff, in his closing remarks at the end of the week, said that there is a clear need for psychological support services for those affected and infected. Can we have a statement from the Government on how they intend to respond to Sir Brian’s significant ask of them at this stage?
Once again, I commend the hon. Lady for her work and campaigning on the issue. Where the Government err, it is incumbent on them to put things right. She asks for a statement, and I will take it up with the two relevant Departments—the Cabinet Office and the Department of Health and Social Care—to see whether I can get her a fuller response.
I would not want to be seen as too much of a stickler on these things, but my right hon. Friend will no doubt be distressed to note that the Union Jack above Portcullis House has been flying upside down for some time. It could be a mistake, and I doubt the building has surrendered to anybody, but can we have a debate in Government time on whether it is the building that is in distress or the MPs within it?
It is a deeply troubling matter that the Union Jack should be flying upside down. [Hon. Members: “Union flag.”] Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear. The pedants are wrong. It is the Union Jack, and it has been referred to as such for many centuries. There is a pedantic but erroneous view that it should be called the Union flag, and it is held by people who are more pedantic than they are wise.
I am sorry that this has happened, and I am glad it has been brought to the attention of the House authorities. I imagine that, as we speak, somebody is going to correct this. [Interruption.] I see that the Clerk of the House of Commons is taking action immediately. Things sometimes happen swiftly, and I assure my hon. Friend that Members of Parliament are not in distress.
I am sure the whole House will join me in expressing our deepest condolences to the family and friends of Private Joseph Berry, a 21-year-old soldier who sadly lost his life while deployed on operations in Kabul serving with the second battalion of the Parachute Regiment. This tragedy coincides with the announcement that a peace deal has been reached by the US Government and the Taliban. There are many concerns about the agreement, not least the degree to which the Afghan Government have or have not been involved. Given the commitment our country has made to Afghanistan and the lives that have been lost, does the Leader of the House think we need a debate on the political situation in Afghanistan so that hon. and right hon. Members are afforded the opportunity to discuss these important matters?
I join the hon. Gentleman in sending condolences to the family of Private Joseph Berry. It is the greatest sacrifice that people in our armed forces make for us and for the safety not only of our nation but internationally.
My right hon Friend the Foreign Secretary has made a statement on the agreement between the US Government and the Taliban, and he said it is important that the Taliban and the Afghan Government are able to settle things in their way, rather than necessarily having things imposed upon them.
To celebrate World Book Day and the joy of reading, will the Leader of the House make a statement setting out his support for a zero VAT rate on digital and audio books in the forthcoming Budget, to bring them into line with print publications? Does he agree that VAT on e-publications is a barrier to childhood literacy and has a disproportionate impact on those with disabilities, inhibiting their capacity to read if they cannot handle print books?
It is an unwise Leader of the House who makes personal statements about the Budget a few days before it, so I am not going to fall into that trap. I would, however, urge the hon. Lady to raise these points on Wednesday or Thursday of next week, or Monday or Tuesday of the one after.
Almost £6 million of pension credit was unclaimed in my constituency—we are talking about more than 3,000 households—and the figure for Wales was more than £200 million. Given that fall in take-up rates, may we have a statement or a debate in the House to show what more the Government are doing to increase awareness and take-up of pension credit?
I am glad to say that we have Work and Pensions questions on Monday, which is the right opportunity to raise that matter. The Government are keen that people who are entitled to claim money do so, and significant amounts of additional money have been claimed following the roll-out of universal credit.
Over the weekend, the life of a young Coventrian was tragically taken by knife crime, and my thoughts are with his loved ones. That was the second death of a young person from knife crime in the city in a matter of weeks. On its own, having additional police is not enough to solve this, so will the Government give time to discuss the urgent need to take a public health approach to knife crime?
Last year, Huma Younus, a 14-year-old Pakistani Catholic girl, was one of an estimated 1,000 young girls, mainly from Christian and Hindi communities, who was kidnapped, forced to convert and made to marry an older man. Last month, the high court in Karachi told Huma’s distraught parents that because she had had her first menstrual cycle her marriage was, in its eyes, legal. So, on the eve of International Women’s Day, may I ask the Government to raise Huma’s case with the Pakistani authorities? May we also have a Government statement to reassure this House that those in receipt of UK aid money are protecting children such as Huma?
There was a debate in Government time on the issue of the persecution of Christians. We raise that issue regularly with foreign Governments in respect of the treatment of their nationals and the protection of women’s rights. The overseas aid budget is committed to doing that. These issues are well raised on the Floor of this House in order to remind the Government to raise them with the relevant Governments.
May we have a debate about banking? As the Leader of the House will know, the best part of £50,000 has now been raised by people in the Rhondda for those who have suffered as a result of the recent flooding. That is an amazing amount of money and it would be good to get that money to people, but HSBC, which has the money sitting in the bank account, has said that we cannot possibly transfer it out until next Tuesday because we have to go to see a business manager in Cardiff, some 15 miles away. That seems preposterous. If ordinary businesses regularly have to go through this business of having to make an appointment, days ahead, to see a business manager so as to be able to transfer funds, this must surely be madness.
The hon. Gentleman has raised this point in the House. It is a fundamental principle of banking that the owners of the money should be able to move their money; that is the basis on which people make deposits, and banks that try to frustrate that are not operating properly. He has made his point about the Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corporation, and it is now on the record.
One series of debates that I am not that keen on hearing is the one asked for by Conservative Members, which seems to be about playing the election campaigns of their candidate in the London elections. May I respectfully suggest that this is not the place for running those election campaign debates, given that the candidates are not in this place?
I want to raise the issue of Secretaries of State coming to this House to discuss coronavirus. We are grateful for the work that the Health Secretary has done in coming to this House to answer extensive questions, but many of the issues we are raising cover issues under the purview of other ministries. I did get an answer to a question I raised about the Home Office and immigration, but I have had an email from an under-fives nursery provider in my constituency who has told me that there is no insurance cover for her business in the event of any coronavirus-related closure. That applies to all under-fives nursery businesses and probably to many other businesses in this country, so may we ask that the Business Secretary comes to this place to answer questions for businesses?
I am not surprised that Opposition Members want to avoid debating Sadiq Khan—it should not surprise anyone that they want to brush his record under the carpet. However, to suggest that this House should not raise party political matters is the triumph of hope over experience.
In regard to matters that are not specifically the responsibility of the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care in relation to the coronavirus, I would advise that those are dealt with by correspondence with the relevant Ministry in the first instance. That may get faster answers than trying to raise everything on the Floor of the House.
Earlier this week, the chief executive of the Vauxhall Motors car plant in Ellesmere Port said that no investment decisions will be made there until at least the end of the year. I understand that that is because they want to see the shape of any free trade deal with the EU, but this uncertainty is causing huge anxiety in the constituency. It really is possible now for Government to say that they will make sure that, whatever the shape of future trading, there will be no impediments and no extra costs to the automotive sector. If the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy could make that statement now, it would be a huge relief for the whole constituency.
The Government are seeking a free trade agreement with the European Union on the basis of being sovereign equals. That is the policy—that has been announced—and a great deal of background paper has been issued in relation to it. Businesses will be able to understand that and to make their investment decisions on what is already known.
Last week saw two drugs summits in Glasgow, with the Scottish Government and Glasgow City Council hosting one on Wednesday and taking the recommendations, which included supervised drug consumption rooms, to the UK Government’s drug summit on Thursday. The Leader of the House will understand that I do not want to treat this issue as a political football, particularly when I have people dying in my constituency, and when constituents are opening their doors to find people injecting themselves in the groin and needles all over the place. However, without any movement from the UK Government, we face the prospect of people in Glasgow setting up drug consumption rooms illegally. I am sure that, to save lives, the Leader of the House would want to avoid people acting illegally, so could I ask him to help me facilitate a meeting with the Home Secretary and the Prime Minister to move this issue forward as a matter of urgency.
As the hon. Lady rightly says, there was a summit in Glasgow last week, which brought together healthcare professionals, drug recovery experts and senior police officers, as well as Ministers and officials from the UK Government and devolved Administrations, to discuss drug misuse in the UK and explore further action around these issues. At the moment, there is no change on the matter of consumption rooms from the point of view of Her Majesty’s Government. I am happy to pass on the message from the hon. Lady, but I think I would be giving a misleading impression if I suggested that there was an intention to change the policies.
Could I ask for a debate in Government time on the infrastructure required to manage the transition to electric vehicle adoption in the UK? The Leader of the House will be well aware that transport is the largest contributor to CO2 emissions in the country. We have had debates on HS2, but I would argue that EV infrastructure is more important than HS2. Can we have a debate on it?
Muhyiddin Yassin was sworn in as Malaysia’s eighth Prime Minister on Sunday morning, leading to political unrest. Rhetoric against non-Muslims has escalated following the change in Prime Minister, and radical Muslim groups are being emboldened to propose that the new Government pursue an agenda that will significantly limit the right to freedom of religion or belief in Malaysia. Will the Leader of the House agree to a statement on this urgent and pressing matter?
The UK recognises the right to manifest religious belief as one of fundamental importance, and the hon. Gentleman knows how much I share his concerns in this area. Freedom of religion and freedom of speech are vital and interconnected rights. Exercising those rights requires civility, restraint and judgment from everyone. The UK is committed to defending freedom of religion or belief and promoting respect between communities of different religions and those of no religion. Freedom of religion or belief is a universal human right, which intersects with many other human rights.
The Leader of the House is the person in charge of policies on bullying and harassment in this House, and under him and the new Speaker, we do seem to be making progress. I wondered whether he wanted to send a message today to all those who may wish to come forward to the inquiry into the current Home Secretary that they should do so without fear or favour, without any fear of their jobs, and without anything being predetermined by those on the Government Benches? They need to feel that they can trust in those on the Treasury Benches actually being able to hear them.
The Independent Complaints and Grievance Scheme within this House is of great importance, and I encourage all members of staff and hon. and right hon. Members to use it if they have complaints, because it can do things at a variety of levels. With regard to my right hon. Friend, she is one of the most brilliant Home Secretaries that this country could possibly have. She is a most determined, capable and forthright person. I should like to make it clear that she rejects the allegations that have been made against her. She is a dynamic and effective Minister. As a Back Bencher, I found that if you wanted something done, she was one of those people who simply got things done. She is a superb Minister and does a wonderful job. The Prime Minister has asked the Cabinet Office to establish the facts relating to allegations, but we in this country believe that people are innocent until there is any evidence of guilt. Although I have full support in my right hon. Friend who denies these allegations, an inquiry has been set up, and the Prime Minister has asked for the facts to be established.
With permission, Mr Speaker, I shall make a statement about the collapse of Flybe.
In the early hours of this morning, Flybe ceased trading. This was a commercial decision by the company and Flybe has filed for insolvency. UK airports handled 9.5 million Flybe passengers in 2008, 80% of whom were travelling within the UK. An estimated 15,000 passengers were due to fly today, so our immediate priority is to support passengers travelling home and employees who have lost their jobs.
Flybe has had a challenging year in terms of its financial performance, with a decline in bookings and increased competition. Levelling up connectivity across our regions and nations is a top priority for this Government. We are driving forward HS2 and Northern Powerhouse Rail, we have announced a £5 billion funding package for bus and cycle links, and we are investing £6.6 billion to improve the condition of local highway networks between 2015 and 2021. We are undertaking a review of regional connectivity to ensure that the UK has the domestic transport connections on which local communities can rely, including regional airports. The Treasury is also reviewing air passenger duty to ensure that regional connectivity is supported while meeting the UK’s climate change commitment to meet net zero by 2050.
These measures featured in conversations with Flybe back in January and, in turn, it agreed to continue operating. Since then, we have been working tirelessly to explore multiple options with Flybe shareholders to find a solution. Flybe outlined that problems with its business had been compounded by the outbreak of coronavirus, which, in the past few days, has had a significant impact on demand. The directors have therefore decided that it was not viable to keep Flybe operating. Unfortunately, in a competitive market, companies do fail, and it is not the role of Government to prop them up.
Given the time of year, the nature of Flybe’s business and fleet, and the routes that it flies, sufficient alternative transport arrangements should be available, either with other airlines or by road and rail.
The number of passengers abroad is small and it is further reduced as a result of coronavirus. For those passengers who are abroad, there is sufficient capacity on commercial airlines to return to the UK. The Civil Aviation Authority and the Secretary of State are encouraging these airlines to offer rescue fares, and that is already happening. I thank those airlines, including easyJet, which has today announced that it will offer Flybe passengers a dedicated rescue fare until the end of May. We are working with bus and rail operators to support Flybe passengers to get to their destinations, and I am extremely grateful that the Rail Delivery Group has this morning confirmed that all operators are offering free travel to Flybe staff and passengers for a week.
I ask passengers due to fly with Flybe in the next few days not to turn up at the airport. Instead, they should look at the website set up by the Civil Aviation Authority, and talk to their travel agents, travel insurance providers and credit card companies. For those who do arrive at UK airports today, we are making Government representatives available to offer support and provide information to affected passengers.
I express my sincere sympathy to those who have lost their jobs as a result of this failure, including crew, engineers, technicians, staff at Flybe headquarters in Exeter and others. We understand that this is a worrying time for workers and their families. The Department for Work and Pensions stands ready to support anyone affected by the closure with its rapid response service offer, which will be available to all those affected through local Jobcentre Plus outlets. Additionally, in the event of any redundancies, there are special arrangements for employees who are owed redundancy payments and other payments by their insolvent employer. The redundancy payments service in the Insolvency Service can pay certain amounts owed to former employees from the national insurance fund. I will work with my ministerial colleagues to ensure that any redundancy payments are paid to affected employees as soon as possible.
We recognise the impact that this situation will have on UK airports, particularly those which have large-scale Flybe operations. The Government stand ready to support the sector, and I have full confidence that it will respond as effectively as it always has. We are urgently working with the industry to identify opportunities to fill routes, and I have spoken to the airlines today to emphasise this. Aviation is facing challenges globally due to the impact of coronavirus. The Government are well prepared for this, and as the wider economic picture becomes clearer, the Chancellor has said that he stands ready to announce further support where needed. I will be chairing a roundtable with members of the aviation industry next week to discuss issues presented by coronavirus.
I thank passengers for their patience and appreciate the work undertaken by everyone who has again stepped up to ensure that passengers and local communities are supported. We will continue to work across Government to ensure that passengers and staff are able to access the information and services they require at this sad and challenging time.