House of Commons
Thursday 19 November 2020
The House met at half-past Nine o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
The House entered into hybrid scrutiny proceedings (Order, 4 June).
[NB: [V] denotes a Member participating virtually.]
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
Trade Agreements: Food and Farming Standards
The Government are firmly committed to our manifesto pledges to uphold our high environmental, food safety, and animal welfare standards. Under the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018, our current standards are taken into UK law, and the Secretary of State has now placed the Trade and Agriculture Commission on a statutory footing.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Placing the Trade and Agriculture Commission on a statutory footing will ensure that public and industry interests are advanced and protected in Britain’s agriculture and trade policy. As the National Farmers’ Union said:
“This significant commitment to primary legislation on food standards, both in the Agriculture Bill and the Trade Bill, is exactly what we have been calling for.”
The farmers of South Cambridgeshire are some of the most efficient and environmentally friendly in the country, but they have concerns that they might be undermined in any trade deal by imports that are produced to lower animal welfare or environmental standards. They strongly welcome the Government’s decision to put the Trade and Agriculture Commission on a statutory footing—a move also welcomed by farming and environmental groups across the country. Will my right hon. Friend tell the House what role the commission will play during trade negotiations, to ensure that standards are maintained?
I thank my hon. Friend for that question. He is a reliable supporter of farmers in his constituency. The Agri-food trade and agriculture group will feed in during the negotiations. He also asked about the TAC, and I wish to use this occasion to praise its chairman, Tim Smith, for the excellent work that he has done so far, and in very good time.
Colleagues across the House welcome the news about the Trade and Agriculture Commission’s statutory footing. It will be a strong voice for our farmers, and it will also provide expert independent advice for this House as we consider the impact of each trade deal on agriculture. When does the Minister expect those amendments to be tabled, and for the Trade Bill to resume its progress?
I represent a rural constituency, North Norfolk, where farming is the lifeblood for so many. My farmers are delighted about the Trade and Agriculture Commission’s statutory footing, and that move has also been applauded by the National Farmers Union. Will the Minister reassure my constituents that the commission will protect animal welfare and farming standards, and help to allow the farming sector to assess the deals that come forward for that important sector?
I know from my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State how important farming is in Norfolk, in both her constituency and that of my hon. Friend. Farming has a strong voice on the Trade and Agriculture Commission, and the NFU, NFU Scotland, NFU Cymru, the Farmers Union of Wales, and the Ulster Farmers Union are on it. It puts UK farming at the heart of our trade agenda, and allows the sector to help advise on our future trade deals.
I thank the Minister for his answer. The extension of the Trade and Agriculture Commission has been incredibly welcomed by farmers across Ynys Môn, and it shows this Government’s commitment to upholding our high food standards. What feedback has the Minister received from Welsh farmers regarding that move?
My hon. Friend is a strong and passionate voice for Ynys Môn farmers, and the feedback has been extremely positive. Putting the Trade and Agriculture Commission on a statutory footing has been welcomed by NFU Cymru. Indeed, its president, John Davies, said that this
“is a milestone moment and one that should be welcomed by all those who care about our food, environment and high standards of production.”
Latest figures show that the UK’s agrifood sector is now worth £122 billion to the UK’s economy, and there is plenty of room for growth. As we set out into the world as an independent global trading nation, will my right hon. Friend confirm that, even though we have the weight of the Trade and Agriculture Commission in place, UK agriculture will be at the forefront of his mind as we go forward in future trade negotiations?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and—crucially—we would never want UK agriculture to be sidelined from our trade agenda. We need and have UK agriculture fully on board, to take advantage of selling our fantastic British food and drink produce to foreign markets. Already, for the first time in many years, we are selling beef to the US, pork to Taiwan, and we have secured better agrifood protection in our recent UK-Japan trade deal.
According to blind tasting, French champagne has nothing on sparkling wine from the south downs. Hambledon, Wickham, and Exton Park are vineyards that produce brilliant wine in the Meon Valley, and we have some of the best produce in the UK. Will our free trade agreement support that burgeoning industry?
I look forward to tasting some of this Meon Valley wine, although I have to say that 9.39 in the morning might feel a little early. Our commitment to promoting British wines is very strong. Among the potential 70 geographical indicators in the UK-Japan comprehensive economic partnership agreement deal are: English wine, English regional wine, Welsh wine and Welsh regional wine. We are in regular contact with WineGB and the Wine and Spirit Trade Association to help to promote this vital industry.
After listening to these Whips’ questions, I think I would like some English wine as well, Mr Speaker.
I had a long and detailed discussion with NFU Scotland on Monday. In its words, it is “really worried” about future trade deals. Fundamentally, the UK is a high cost, high food standard regime. It argues that it simply cannot compete with low-cost competition with lower food standards elsewhere. Is it not now time for the Government to change tack, and include chapters on food, animal welfare and standards in trade agreements?
I studied very carefully the hon. Gentleman’s amendment during the passage of the Trade Bill. In many ways, he had an even more extreme amendment than the Labour party in terms of trying to dictate our trade partners’ domestic production standards. That would have killed off a huge amount of our trade with the developing world. He mentions NFU Scotland. I thought I would go directly to the source. I am reading here from The Scottish Farmer, which I recommend he reads. NFU Scotland president, Andrew McCornick, said in The Scottish Farmer only last week, on putting the TAC on a statutory footing:
“This is a huge step forward.”
Putting an organisation on a statutory footing is one thing, but protecting food standards is something different. I think the Minister’s answer is what Americans call doubling down on a previous mistake. Let me give an example. UK egg producers simply cannot compete with imported eggs produced where the density of laying hens may be twice that permitted in the United Kingdom. The only way they could do that would be to massively lower food production and animal welfare standards, something we know from the recent Which? survey the public are implacably opposed to. Is it really the Government’s intention to be on the wrong side of food standards, the wrong side of animal welfare, the wrong side of the farming industry and the wrong side of public opinion?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that question. He mentions the Which? survey. I was delighted to be the guest speaker at the launch of the Which? survey, “The National Trade Conversation”, where we discussed many of these aspects. To be absolutely clear to him again, our commitment that there will be no lowering of standards on animal welfare, food safety and the environment is absolute. I urge him again to get with the trade agenda and listen to NFU Scotland, which says it will
“strive to ensure that the best interests of farming, food and the drink and the public continue to be front and centre of any trade deals.”
That is exactly the right approach being taken by NFU Scotland. I urge him and the SNP to get on board with that positive approach for the first time, please.
The Government say that they want to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, but some of its members allow growth hormones, genetically modified food in animal foodstuffs and insanitary conditions for animals. The CPTPP is already in operation, of course, and trade is permitted between its members on the basis of lower animal welfare and food production standards. How does the Minister plan to renegotiate the CPTPP to exclude the lower animal welfare and food production standards it contains, given that existing members of CPTPP say that they will not allow new members to change the agreement?
The Secretary of State and I have told the hon. Gentleman time and again at the Dispatch Box that nothing in any trade agreement prevents this country from carrying out its own domestic regulation. We have been absolutely clear that a lot of the production methods and food standards he describes will remain illegal in this country after 1 January. He mentions CPTPP. I urge him to get on board with a positive agenda. Joining CPTPP, a trading group of 11 countries, including Canada, Singapore and Japan, will be a fantastic opportunity. I am not expecting him to support it, because of course he never supported trade deals with those countries in the first place, but I might hope he could reconsider now.
A very good morning to you, Mr Speaker, on the day you have been waiting for: the day of the first report on the UK-Japan comprehensive economic partnership agreement from my Committee. I am sure that you are looking forward to reading it. Indeed, we are hoping to have a debate in your Chamber, Sir, before the end of the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act process—just to let you know.
On food and farm standards, yesterday we heard from Tony Abbott, the former Australian Prime Minister and now adviser to the Board of Trade, who said that when he had an important deal to do with China, he took the state premiers of Australia with him. I wonder whether the Ministers at the Department for International Trade will consider doing the same for important trade agreements, taking the Welsh Minister, Jeremy Miles, the Northern Irish Minister, Diane Dodds, and the high-flying Scottish Minister, Ivan McKee, who might indeed be leader of the Scottish National party and First Minister one day. We need that to happen given that the UK Government are ready to burn particular sheep farming in Wales and Scotland by being outside the 45% tariffs. It is not just our standards, but the standards of our neighbours that are really going to matter for farming.
I thank the Chairman of the Select Committee for that, and I look forward to reading his report. When it comes to the devolved Administrations, we all need to respect the devolution settlement, which is that trade policy is a reserved matter and the UK Government carry out their negotiations on behalf of the whole United Kingdom. It is also right, however, that we consult the devolved Administrations, which is why, since May, when I took over the role of interaction with the devolved Administrations in this Department, I have had six meetings with Minister Ivan McKee. We have the quarterly ministerial forum for trade. I have already described how NFU Scotland, two farming unions of Wales and the Ulster Farmers Union are on the Trade and Agriculture Commission. We also make sure that our trade advisory groups include representatives from the devolved Administrations. Our commitment is clear to negotiating the best possible deals for the whole United Kingdom, while making sure that voices from Scotland and the other devolved Administrations are very much included.
UK-Japan Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement
Our deal with Japan secures opportunities for businesses in the north-west, which currently export goods worth £380 million to Japan. We have agreed an SME chapter that will make it easier for SMEs to cut the red tape on customs and ensure they have access to a dedicated website of opportunities.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right that the aerospace and automotive industry is incredibly important for Burnley. That is why it was important that we saw all the tariff benefits that were previously negotiated retained in the new deal, as well as additional benefits, such as a new data and digital chapter that goes far beyond what the EU has agreed and really helps to support our advanced manufacturing sector.
The Secretary of State has repeatedly claimed that the deal that she signed with Japan goes far beyond the original EU-Japan deal, so I return to the question that I asked her two months ago: will she tell us, in billions of pounds and percentages of growth, what the forecast benefits are for UK exports in GDP from her deal, compared with the forecast benefits of retaining the existing EU-Japan deal?
It is interesting that the right hon. Lady is interested in the difference, because the Labour party did not support the original deal with Japan. If it was down to Labour, we would not even have this deal in the first place. We have been very clear about the additional benefits that we have secured: better provisions on digital and data, better provisions on business mobility, a better position on intellectual property, better protection of British geographical indicators—[Interruption.] The hon. Member for Sefton Central (Bill Esterson) is shouting, “How much is it worth?” from a sedentary position? Why, when we have left the EU, do Labour Members constantly seek to compare us with the existing EU provisions? It is almost like the Labour party never wanted us to leave in the first place.
What is going on? The Secretary of State claims that the UK-Japan deal goes far beyond the EU-Japan deal but will not quantify the difference. Why not? If she will not publish the exact figures at this point, will she at least do one basic thing and simply state on the parliamentary record whether the growth in our exports and GDP is forecast to be higher as a result of the UK-Japan deal than it was under the EU-Japan deal?
I think it is extraordinary that the right hon. Lady is asking me to carry out economic analysis on behalf of the EU. She has not asked me about the Australia-Japan deal and whether that is better or about the deal that China has with Japan or any other deals. Why is she me asking me about the EU? We have left the EU, and it is no longer our responsibility to do economic calculations for it. I have been clear, however, that this deal goes further and faster and brings in additional economic benefits.
Free Trade Agreement: Canada
We are determined to reach a deal with Canada before the end of the year. It is a fellow G7 member and one of the top 10 economies in the world. It will help our trade, from cars to beef, fish and whisky, in a trading relationship already worth £20 billion.
What we are negotiating at the moment is the vital continuity agreement, but I do hope that, in the future, as Canada is a member of the trans-Pacific partnership that has advanced chapters in areas such as data and digital, we will be able to go much further and build a much deeper relationship.
With just days to go, and with not just this continuity agreement still to be completed, British exporters such as our car manufacturers simply do not know whether they will face tariffs potentially as high as 20% in markets as diverse as Mexico and Vietnam and beyond. Is it not the truth that the Secretary of State has focused too much of her time chasing new deals with the Trump Administration and others and taken her eye off protecting the free trade that we already have?
The Government have completed trade deals with 52 different countries covering £146 billion-worth of trade. That is a massive achievement. Unlike the Labour party, we are not prepared to agree to any deal put on the table; we will work hard to get a deal that is in Britain’s interests. There are deals ready to go with the countries the hon. Gentleman has mentioned, but I am not prepared to do a bad deal to push things forward. We are pushing all those deals forward, and we are making good progress.
Inward Investment: UK and other European Countries
Latest Office for National Statistics figures report that the UK’s inward foreign direct investment stock reached £1.5 trillion in 2018—a new record. According to the United Nations conference on trade and development, the UK held the highest FDI stock in Europe in 2019. The Financial Times FDI report highlights that last year the UK had more greenfield FDI projects than any other country in Europe at 1,271; by comparison, Germany had 702 and Spain 658. We are looking to go even further to improve our high value investment offer, which is why the Prime Minister launched the Office for Investment just last week.
I congratulate the Minister on the impressive inward investment results so far. What is he doing to boost investment and broader trading relationships between the UK and the Asia-Pacific region and, in particular, those with Pakistan, which is of interest to a number of businesses in my constituency?
There can be no greater or more persistent champion of UK-Pakistan relations than my hon. Friend. The Government remain committed to increasing trade and investment with the Asia-Pacific region. We have signed a free trade agreement with Japan, are negotiating FTAs with Australia and New Zealand and hope to be able to apply for formal accession to the comprehensive and progressive agreement for trans-Pacific partnership, as already discussed. At the end of the transition period, the UK will put in place its own generalised scheme of preferences, and my hon. Friend will be delighted to learn that Pakistan will continue to receive the same market access to the UK next year. The scheme will help British and Pakistani businesses to continue trading seamlessly after we end the transition period.
UK Trade Policy: US Presidential Election
We have made good progress on our US deal, agreeing the majority of text and the majority of chapters. We are working with both sides of the House in the US for a deal that benefits both our two nations.
But if the Secretary of State’s global Britain is to mean anything, we must not put all our eggs in one basket. I think it fair to say that, in recent times, the Secretary of State has bet everything on securing a trade deal with the Trump Administration. She might want to conclude a deal with Canada, but the Prime Minister there said that the Secretary of State had lacked the “bandwidth” to focus on getting a deal with his country. Does she intend to ignore that criticism and continue making a deal with the US her dominant priority? If so, what confidence does she have that the Biden Administration will feel the same way in terms of their own priorities for trade?
We have now secured trade deals with 52 countries. We have secured a deal with Japan that goes beyond and above the EU’s agreements, we are working on accession to the trans-Pacific partnership and we are negotiating with Australia and New Zealand, so we are by no means entirely focused on the US, but it is our largest single country trading partner. I am always struck by the anti-Americanism among Opposition Members. They simply do not understand that these deals are incredibly important for British business. As for the comments from overseas Governments on our trade negotiations, it is interesting that Labour Members simply like to repeat their “lines to take”. Maybe they need to think of some of their own ideas.
We are all aware, sadly, that the Prime Minister has a litany of racist, sexist and homophobic remarks, but to the detriment of our national interest, it seems that some of his foul-mouthedness has now caught up with him. In particular, his derogatory remarks on President—
Order. I am sorry, this has to be linked to the trade question. This is completely off beam. I am sorry, but we have got to stick to the question. As important as this matter is, and the hon. Gentleman quite rightly wishes to get it in, this is not the question to do so—
One of many sources of hope at the US election result is that after four years of climate change denial, President-elect Biden is talking about the global climate crisis and the action we must take to address it. Will the Secretary of State support him in those endeavours by guaranteeing to put climate change co-operation and green technology at the heart of any US-UK trade deal?
I am absolutely delighted to hear somebody on the Labour Benches being in favour of a trade deal. That is a real step forward. Of course we will have strong environmental provisions at the heart of our trade deal with the United States. I remember that Labour Members did not support a trade deal with President Obama, and they do not support a trade deal with the current Administration, but I am delighted to hear that they are supporting a trade deal with the new Administration. I look forward to working with them to ensure that the climate change provisions are excellent.
A new US President and Congress will not ratify a trade deal if we scupper the Good Friday agreement; our banning of Huawei infrastructure has angered China, and now this Government are prepared to break international law in the way we leave the European Union. How many major global trading partners are this Government prepared to upset before they do more harm to our economy than covid-19 has done already?
As one of the MPs for the Humber energy estuary, where we are doing pioneering work in areas such as carbon capture, it is heartwarming to hear American President-elect Biden talking about the global climate crisis and the action needed to address it, and seeing this as a way of generating the jobs of the future. Will the Secretary of State expand a little on what she thinks can be put into any trade deals in terms of this country’s green technology and making sure this creates the jobs needed on both this side of the Atlantic and the other?
In the new UK global tariff we have reduced the tariffs on 100 green goods, and we want to encourage more other countries to support that. Of course we are committed to working with the US, and next year we will have the presidency of the G7. That is a really good opportunity for us to pursue that agenda of tackling climate change, alongside our COP26 commitments, and of course we will be looking at putting these in all our trade deals.
Although we would all want a successful outcome to any trade negotiations with the US, will the Secretary of State confirm that, according to the Government’s own best-case scenario, any US deal with the UK will account for growth of only 0.16% over 15 years? Will she confirm what this will translate into if we do not get a deal with the EU? What loss in growth will we sustain?
Our assessment suggests that a £15 billion increase in trade will result from a US deal and also that we will see tariffs of half a billion pounds taken off fantastic British companies, be they in ceramics or the car industry, which will help to boost that growth. But the EU deal and the US deal are not in contradiction to each other; we should be aiming to do both. The problem is that the Labour party seems willing to agree any deal with the EU and willing to agree no deal with the US. What Conservative Members want is a good deal for Britain.
President-elect Biden has spoken powerfully about the need to end support for the war in Yemen and to stop selling arms that Saudi uses, in his words, for “murdering children”. Will the Secretary of State revisit her policy on arms sales in the light of the new President’s statement or will she choose to remain in lockstep with the blood prince bin Salman instead?
Business Exports: Administrative Burden
I talk regularly with businesses, business representatives, and ministerial colleagues about how we can make exporting easier for businesses across the country. That is why I was delighted to announce our new Scottish trade hub in September, which is staffed by expert trade advisers and dedicated to helping Scottish firms to grow internationally. I am pleased to say that our work to reduce barriers to trade and increase exports is paying off; the UK overtook France in 2019 to become the world’s fifth-largest exporting nation. All nine of the other 10 largest exporting nations in the world saw their exports fall last year, according to UNCTAD, the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development—the exception was the UK.
Around 250,000 businesses export to the EU and not to the rest of the world. Many of them are small, not VAT-registered and difficult to reach, and to continue to trade they will need to go through a long and tedious process to acquire an economic operator registration and identification number. As the party that wants to reduce red tape, what action are the Government taking to reduce the administrative burden to ensure that SMEs can continue, or start, to export into Europe but do not suffer disproportionately from a madcap Brexit?
We are working to engage with businesses, and I recommend that all businesses that have not done so go to gov.uk/transition and look at the practical steps they need to take to prepare for the end of the transition period. From my engagements with Scottish businesses, though, it is clear to me that it is the relentless pursuit of Scottish independence, rather than the support for Scottish business, that they find the concern. I want to ensure, by using the power of the Union and our global reach, that we can boost Scottish business; otherwise, if follow the path of independence, we know that would lead to a shrinking of Scottish business and a loss of opportunity for Scottish people.
Rod McKenzie, the Road Haulage Association’s policy director, gave evidence to the Scottish Parliament in which he highlighted a no-deal Brexit scenario in which lorry drivers would be forced to rely on European Conference of Ministers of Transport permits, of which the UK has been allocated around 4,000, despite more than 40,000 being required. In effect, that would stop the best part of 90% of companies trading with Europe. What assurances can the Minister give today that traders and hauliers will experience minimal disruption?
As the hon. Gentleman knows, we have been working flat out to engage with businesses, to provide easements on the customs regime up to July next year and to make sure that we minimise the challenges as we end the transition period. Of course, the issue that Scottish businesses raise with me is that the biggest threat to their trade is not any friction as we move to the new settlement on the EU border, but the fact that 60% of all Scottish exports go to England, Wales and Northern Ireland—more than to the rest of the world combined. It is that, and the threat that the hon. Gentleman poses to Scottish business in that way, that really worries them for the long term.
Trade Policy: Consultation with Unions
We are committed to making sure that our ambitious global trade policy works for every corner of our United Kingdom. Trade unions and civil society are crucial to that, so I am delighted to have expanded our engagement to include a dedicated trade union advisory group and a series of civil society and think-tank roundtables from across the political spectrum, which I will chair.
I recently had a meeting with Jonty Cliffe and Claudia Bayley, the chairs of the Cheshire Young Farmers Club, and they were concerned to make sure that the views and priorities of all young people who work in agriculture and affiliated industries were fully integrated and taken into account by the work of the Trade and Agriculture Commission. I have raised this issue with the commission’s chair, Tim Smith, but will my hon. Friend also discuss it with the commission to make sure that those views and priorities are taken into account, because those young people are the future of British farming?
That is a great and typically thoughtful question. The TAC includes representative bodies from the length and breadth of Britain, so I encourage young farmers and others to continue to share their views with those bodies, which work proactively to provide insight to us and the TAC. Indeed, as my hon. Friend says, many young farmers—such as Jonty and Claudia in the Cheshire Young Farmers Club in my hon. Friend’s county and Tom Janaway in the National Farmers Union in mine—are already actively involved in sharing their views.
Japan Trade Agreement: Climate Change Commitments
The UK-Japan agreement locks in the benefits of the EU-Japan deal, including provisions on climate change such as those that reaffirm our respective commitments to the UN framework convention on climate change and the Paris agreement; those that promote trade in low-carbon goods and services; and those that support co-operation on trade and climate.
Although I am disappointed with some aspects of the Japan trade agreement, such as the provisions on data, I am heartened that there is no investor-state dispute settlement clause in the new UK-Japan FTA, as ISDS has been used by large corporations to sue Governments over environmental regulations on issues such as water pollution, deforestation and fracking. Will the Minister confirm that, to protect our natural environment, the UK will not seek such an arrangement with either Japan or any other new trading partners after Brexit?
I thank the hon. Lady for that question. I ought to add first of all that we really welcomed the announcement that Japan made on Monday, in advance of COP26, that it will be seeking to become carbon neutral by 2050. On her question about ISDS, I will be frank. This country is already party to ISDS with dozens of agreements, but let us recognise that the UK has never lost a case brought against it in ISDS. It is something that is there as much to protect British businesses trading abroad as it is for foreign investors in this country, so her alarmism about ISDS is misplaced.
UK-Japan Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement
The UK-Japan CEPA will benefit farmers and food producers in Wales through lower tariffs than would have been the case without an agreement. It also allows more UK goods to access preferential tariffs than under the EU-Japan agreement, thanks to new rules of origin. New protections for more iconic Welsh food products may also be possible, including for Welsh lamb and coracle-caught sewin.
Twelve Welsh geographic indicator products have been protected in the UK-Japan deal on which I warmly congratulate the Department. I am particularly pleased to hear the Minister mention Welsh lamb. Can he reassure me that those products will be respected and protected in future trade deals, particularly with the US and Australia?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. There is the potential inclusion of around 70 geographic indicators, 12 of which are from Wales—she is quite right—including Welsh beef, Welsh lamb, Welsh wine, cider, perry, Caerphilly cheese, Carmarthen ham and others. One of our key objectives is to be able to sell Welsh lamb into the United States—British lamb overall is not currently allowed into the United States—but we will be fighting to get an improvement in Welsh lamb exports around the globe.
EU Trade Agreements: Rollover with non-EU Countries
We have made good progress. In under two years, we have agreed trade deals with 52 countries, covering £146 billion of trade, accounting for 74% of the value of total trade with non-EU countries that we set out to secure agreements with.
We learn from The Telegraph that the Minister has rejected the Ghana deal because it was a “a substantial departure” from the EU deal, but she says that the Japan deal goes far beyond the EU deal. What is it? Are the Government exercising new British sovereignty to produce far-reaching new deals, or are they just rolling over and accepting the same deals that we already had?
The answer to the hon. Gentleman is that we are seeking to roll over the Ghana deal, as we are other deals, but with Japan, we have gone through the process of producing a scoping assessments. [Interruption.] No, we were very clear that Japan was a deal that would go further and faster than the EU deal, alongside the new deals that we are negotiating with the US, Australia and New Zealand. There is a deal on the table for Ghana to agree to. It has already agreed to the same deal with the EU. There should be no block on Ghana being able to get tariff-free, quota-free access to the UK, and we are very happy to talk to its representatives at any time of the day or night.
Trade Deals: Human Rights Provisions
This Government have a strong history of promoting our values globally, including human rights. While our approach to agreements will vary between partners, our strong economic relationships allow us to have open discussions on a range of issues, including on human rights. We will not compromise our high standards in trade agreements.
In September, the UN said that the Saudi airstrikes in Yemen had led to
“a consistent pattern of harms to civilians”
unlike our own Government who said in July that there was no such pattern and therefore it was lawful to resume arms exports. Can the Minister tell me how his Government have looked at the same evidence as the UN and arrived at such vastly different conclusions?
May I remind the hon. Lady, as the Secretary of State said earlier in response to a question from the right hon. Member for Islington South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry), that the UK has one of the most rigorous arms control regimes in the world? We follow the consolidated criteria at all times. On trade agreements, I ask her to judge us on our deeds and not always on our words. In terms of the trade agreements that we have rolled over, there has been no diminution of human rights clauses in any of those agreements.
Exporting and Transporting UK Goods
The Department for International Trade is working closely with Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs and others to ensure that businesses are prepared for 1 January. We have delivered specialist webinars and support tools to ensure that industry understands the changes required to keep trading effectively with the EU as well as to start trading under preferential conditions, such as those with Japan. Looking forward, we are aiming to produce the world’s most effective border by 2025, simplifying and digitising border processes so that exporters across the country will be able to sell their products around the world more easily once our free trade agreements are agreed and in place.
A report published this month by the National Audit Office estimates that the number of HM Revenue and Customs declarations that will need to be processed from 1 January will increase from the current annual volume of 55 million to 270 million. That is a huge increase. What discussions is the Department having with other Departments to ensure that this huge increase in the administrative burden does not discourage exports to Europe and the world?
The hon. and learned Lady is quite right; there are a lot of challenges. That is why, across Government, we have been making such an effort to work with other Departments to make sure that we do everything possible to inform business and to facilitate the border, including investing hundreds of millions of pounds in improving customs processes and others.
Last week, we announced that the UK will be continuing our trade preferences scheme for developing countries in 2021. It is important that developing countries continue to receive the same market access under our unilateral trade preferences as they do at the moment. We remain firmly committed to the principle that trade helps to lift the poorest out of poverty, and early next year we will be launching a consultation on how we can improve the preference scheme and help to use trade as a tool for development. We will aim to have the new scheme finalised by the end of 2021.
With all our minds on both the health and economic recovery from the covid pandemic, may I ask my right hon. Friend what discussions she has had with her Israeli counterpart to further trade co-operation beyond the continuity deal, not least given the incredible and ground-breaking Israeli innovations to combat covid-19, such as through remote monitoring of patients and thermal scanning?
My hon. Friend is right. It is vital that we use trade as a way of motoring growth post this terrible covid crisis. We are working on negotiating a cat’s cradle of trade deals around the world to support British business. Of course, Israel is one of those priorities. It is very advanced in areas such as data and digital. There is strong scope for a world-leading agreement, and we are in discussions about that.
From 1 January, the Secretary of State will be responsible for our trading relationship with other European countries. With or without a deal, the services sector is concerned that its interests have been marginalised throughout the negotiations with the EU. This does not just affect financial and legal services, but engineers, technicians and others. Will the Secretary of State commit to securing—as a start—mutual recognition of qualifications to enable all these crucial sectors to work across Europe?
I am committed to having a positive relationship with the European Union. I speak to my counterpart, Valdis Dombrovskis, about issues concerning global trade. Of course, we want with every part of the world good trade deals that uphold our standards and facilitate increased trade in areas such as services, data and digital, but the important principle is that we cannot do that at the expense of the UK’s sovereignty. Those are the negotiations that are currently being conducted by Lord Frost.
What an excellent question. It is the reach, power and financial heft of this United Kingdom that has allowed us to be the only top 10 global exporter to increase exports last year and allowed us to attract more foreign direct investment than any other country in Europe. Shorn of the UK’s assets, businesses—and, more importantly, workers—in places like Scotland would be impoverished as a result. We seek to ensure that we use every part of the power of this United Kingdom to support jobs and investment in Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom.
I can tell the hon. Gentleman that there is no change in the effect of the existing EU trade deals when it comes to human rights and the role there of the UK agreements. I would urge him to look at those agreements and study the reports that have been produced comparing the agreements with the original.
I thank my hon. Friend for that question. In fact, I am meeting the overseas territories on this very subject next week. You in particular, Mr Speaker, will be impressed by the Secretary of State meeting Fabian Picardo, the Chief Minister of Gibraltar, only last month on this. Getting our overseas territories participating in the UK independent trade agenda is very important. We recognise fully the constitutional responsibilities we have for the OTs and we work closely with them to ensure that their interests are represented.
We are working very hard to secure a good deal with the European Union and negotiations are ongoing. However, it is important that our farmers have as many markets as possible. That is why we have worked hard to get the lamb market open in Japan in 2019, we are working hard to get lamb into the US, which is the second-largest importer of lamb in the world, and we are working hard to get more lamb into the middle east too.
My hon. Friend is correct. That is why we want to join trade areas such as the trans-Pacific partnership with very strong provisions reducing the level of bureaucracy required, and liberal rules of origin that help our manufacturers. That is also what we are looking to negotiate with the United States. It is important that we get the advanced digital and data chapters that the EU was not prepared to sign up to but which provide so much value for advanced manufacturers in being able to sell their products around the world.
We follow RCEP quite closely, but we are looking forward to making our application to join the comprehensive and progressive agreement for trans-Pacific partnership, or TPP-11, trading group in the new year. This is an excellent trading group. Its 11 countries are a mix of like-minded western trading nations such as Japan, Australia, New Zealand and Canada, as well as more developing nations such as Vietnam and Peru. There are great opportunities for all of us, including my hon. Friend’s Morley and Outwood businesses.
I thank the hon. Lady for that question, which is important, because we must apply anti-dumping measures in a clear and accurate way. The Department has assessed which of the existing anti-dumping trade remedies should be transitioned, and evidence has been provided by British producers of bicycles, which thus far has indicated that there are not sufficient British sales to transition the measure, but we will review any further information. That information would need to demonstrate that the British market share of British-based producers of the product in question was above 1%.
I thank my hon. Friend for his invitation to the Board of Trade. It is likely that our next meeting will be held in Northern Ireland, but I will certainly be looking to Workington for a future meeting to see the fantastic work being done in advanced manufacturing.
Given that the Scottish National party voted for even fewer trade deals than the Labour party, and are even more anti-trade than the Labour party, I am delighted to hear that there seems to be some kind of turnaround and that under a Biden Administration, the hon. Gentleman will back a US trade deal.
East Midlands airport is the UK’s biggest pure cargo airport. It has lots of potential for growth. It has become a hub of investment for freight and logistics in recent years, and must surely be at the heart of our plans to make the most of our global trade. Does my right hon. Friend agree that it would be a brilliant site for an inland freeport? Will she put a word in with the Chancellor?
I thank my hon. Friend for his assiduous bidding on behalf of the east midlands. The bidding for freeports opened on Tuesday, and bids need to be submitted by 5 February 2021. I point out to him that these trade deals we are negotiating will just mean more and more trade coming into the freight hub, with or without freeport status, but I will of course mention what he said to the Chancellor.
DHSC Answers to Written Questions
Parliamentary questions are a key element of Parliament’s ability to scrutinise Government on behalf of the people of the United Kingdom. As the House would expect, we take them very seriously, and as you, Mr Speaker, and hon. Members will know, I take seriously all aspects of my and the Government’s accountability to this House. Prior to the pandemic, my Department had an exemplary record of providing accurate and timely answers. In the last full parliamentary Session, despite receiving more PQs than any other Department, we had the highest response rate in Whitehall. However, as hon. Members will be aware, DHSC, its Ministers and officials have been at the forefront of responding to this pandemic, with the attendant additional workload that has brought.
As such, it is a matter of regret that we have been unable to sustain previous PQ performance, for which I rightly apologise to you and the House. However, it is explicable in the face of a trio of concurrent challenges. The first is volume: between March and October this year, we received over 8,000 written parliamentary questions across both Houses. This compares with 4,000 for the equivalent period last year. The second challenge is timeliness: we have met a rapidly, almost daily, changing situation, and answers drafted by officials are sometimes out of date shortly after they are drafted. We have been prioritising accuracy of response to Members over speed, but this can mean that responses have to be redrafted, with attendant delays.
The third challenge is policy input: despite increasing the administrative resources to respond to parliamentary questions, it remains the same policy officials who are responding to the pandemic operationally and drafting regulations and are the only people with the requisite policy expertise to input into parliamentary questions and responses.
That said, Mr Speaker, although we continue to field exceptional volumes of parliamentary questions, I want to reassure you and the House that we are not making excuses in providing these explanations, and are taking every possible step to recover our performance. We have instituted a parliamentary questions performance recovery plan and are delivering against it by increasing resource where we can and clearing the backlog, focusing on the oldest parliamentary questions first.
More broadly, throughout this challenging time the Secretary of State and Ministers have sought to make themselves regularly available in the House to be questioned and held to account. Between March and October, the Secretary of State made 18 statements and answered seven urgent questions. We have also seen seven general debates on covid since March, and that is not including junior Ministers’ appearances in the Chamber. This is not an alternative to written parliamentary questions, but it is an important reflection of our accountability to this House.
To conclude, written parliamentary questions will continue to be a top priority on which I am briefed weekly. I thank you, Mr Speaker, and hon. Members for your and their patience and recognition of the exceptional circumstances of recent months. In the weeks and months ahead, we will work hard to restore our leading performance, which hon. Members have a right to expect.
Thank you, Mr Speaker, for granting this urgent question, which was born of extreme exasperation. I thank my hon. Friend for his response, his contrition and his apology, and for his offer to do better in the future.
If other Departments can answer 90% of named day questions on time, why cannot the Minister’s? Will he set a date for the clearance of the backlog to which he referred and guarantee future compliance with the rules and the spirit of the rules? This is not just about timeliness; it is about the quality of the answers. Since this is the week of resets, will the Minister now tell his ministerial colleagues and officials to abandon their tactic of, basically, dumb insolence towards those of us who ask challenging questions?
Does my hon. Friend accept that these questions and answers increase public trust in our democracy, and should be a catalyst for improving public policy? If his Department is in the lead in suppressing liberty in this country, is it surprising that there are more questions to his Department than to others? Because issues of liberty are at stake, surely it is all the more important that these questions are answered quickly.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. As he will be aware, other Departments, while they have heavy workloads, are not leading the response to the pandemic. In response to his final point, he will not be surprised that I do not characterise it in that way. Instead, I would characterise it as the Department of Health being in the lead in saving lives and protecting the NHS in this country.
My hon. Friend asked two other substantive questions. I think his language was a little intemperate in respect of the serious efforts that officials undertake every day to try to provide accurate and timely answers. There is no suggestion that they seek to stonewall or to avoid responding. They do their best, but it is difficult and the situation changes day by day. Where answers are deemed to be inadequate, hon. Members often revert to me directly or table their questions again, and we endeavour to fulfil our obligation to provide accurate answers.
On my hon. Friend’s question about recovery, we have set a trajectory for each month in order to recover performance over the coming months. Of course, that depends to a degree on the workload of officials in responding to the pandemic, as well as in providing answers, but I do not see it as an either/or; we intend to recover performance in parallel with tackling the pandemic.
I thank the Minister for his response and for the hard work he and his Department put in. However, as he acknowledges, the performance here, like in so many other areas, is just not good enough. We know it is tough, but there comes a point when it begins to look like departmental scrutiny is being used as a cover for evading giving answers.
This morning, I looked at the Department’s response times to my own written questions over the past six months. I have had to wait over one month for an answer 29 times, over two months 11 times and over three months four times. I was actually thinking of putting in a question asking for the average response times to questions, but then I thought I would just be waiting a long time for that answer as well. I have even had to wait five months for the answer to what I thought was a pretty simple question asking what tests for covid-19 had been used. One hundred and sixty-eight days later, I received the utterly unrevealing answer:
“A large number of different tests have been used throughout the programme.”
I was lucky; my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough (Gill Furniss) waited 18 weeks for an answer to a question on tests, only to be told:
“The information is not held in the format requested.”
Why did it take so long just to say that? Do Ministers even read the answers that they sign off?
This is not just about the time; the quality of the answers that we get back also needs improving. On dozens of occasions, I have been told that the Department does not hold the data, or no real attempt is made to answer the question that was asked. I accept that sometimes that information may not be easily acquired, but too often it looks as though the Department wants to keep us in the dark. I remind the House that the ministerial code requires Ministers to be
“as open as possible with Parliament”,
even when that may be inconvenient to them. In the spirit of openness, will the Minister also look at restarting NHS England and NHS Digital publications?
In conclusion, we all understand that the Department is dealing with many pressing issues, but scrutiny is important. Accountability matters, and if the pandemic is used too often as an excuse for standards to slip, that is how we go from questions not being answered to major policy changes being announced by media leaks, until we end up with the shameful spectacle of spivs and cronies pocketing millions from PPE contracts. Government must do better.
I was going to say that, as ever, I was grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his tone, right up to almost the end of his remarks. On his substantive points, when it comes to accountability to this House, he will know from our regular double acts at this Dispatch Box and in Committee that I and fellow Ministers do not shy away from our accountability to this House in all its forms.
On volume, as I have said, during the same period last year we received 4,000 written questions; this year, the figure has been 8,000. That cannot be addressed by increasing administrative resource alone, because the technical expertise of policy experts is required to provide accuracy in the answers that the hon. Gentleman and other hon. Members seek. The same policy officials are dealing, day to day, with all aspects of the response to the pandemic.
The hon. Gentleman talked about accuracy, and he is right about the importance of accurate and timely answers. Given that we have answered 8,000 parliamentary questions between March and, I believe, October, some may, sadly, not live up to his expectations. I know that he will hold me and other Ministers to account when that is the case.
In answer to another of the hon. Gentleman’s question, yes, I and other Ministers read not only the answers and the questions, but the background to those questions. If we do not, we will quite rightly end up at the Dispatch Box, being asked those questions again and being challenged on the Floor of the House. In view of that, and in view of our obligations to the public and under the ministerial code, it is absolutely right that we take the answering of written parliamentary questions very seriously.
On the hon. Gentleman’s final point about NHS Digital and the publication of data and so on, I am happy to take that away and look at it for him.
I thank my hon. Friend for his answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Sir Christopher Chope), who is a fellow member of the Procedure Committee. I was pleased to hear the Minister say that the Department takes the answering of questions seriously, because the answering and the monitoring of written questions and correspondence from MPs will help Ministers to identify problems in the implementation and roll-out of their policies.
The Procedure Committee, which I chair, has shown some leeway to the Department in recognition of the pressures that it faces, but I invite my hon. Friend to come to the Committee in the next few weeks to explain how he is going to address the backlog.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend. As a former member of the Procedure Committee, I recall when she kindly appeared before the Committee to answer questions on parliamentary questions at the Home Office. I look forward to the reversal of the position in the coming weeks.
I would say that she gave exemplary answers, which fully satisfied the Committee. I have received the letter that she recently sent to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. We are grateful for the pragmatic and reasonable approach that her Committee has adopted. She will, quite rightly, want to scrutinise performance, and I look forward to appearing before her Committee to answer detailed questions on the matter.
I am grateful for the Minister’s answer at the beginning of the debate. I initially thought that it was perhaps a tad unfair to single out his Department in the circumstances. In my experience, others have been worse—I hope his Treasury colleagues are listening. However, I will confine my remarks to his Department. My hon. Friend the Member for Central Ayrshire (Dr Whitford), the SNP health spokesperson, was delighted yesterday to receive an answer to a named day question that she tabled on 22 June. It referred her to a table of data that, unfortunately, was absent from the answer. Perhaps the Minister could ask his colleagues to get that table over to her, rather than her having to wait six months for a response.
I am again grateful for the tone that the hon. Gentleman adopts. We have adopted in our recovery plan an attempt to deal with the oldest questions first, to try to get as up to date as we can. If he or the hon. Member for Central Ayrshire (Dr Whitford) lets me know the detail of that question, I will be happy to look into what he raises and to get that table to her.
No one could underestimate the challenges that the Department of Health and Social Care faces at the moment. I thank my hon. Friend for the way in which he has engaged with me and other colleagues during this time. However, there are clearly operational challenges as a result of this pandemic. My hon. Friend talked about the review that the Department is undertaking. Will he ensure that he shares the lessons learned from that not only with Members but across Government? We will have to look at being diverse in our operational structures, particularly within Government, to ensure that we expediently answer Members’ questions.
I am happy to give my hon. Friend that assurance. Perhaps the best mechanism by which lessons learned can be shared will be through my written response—in due course—to and my appearance before the Procedure Committee, chaired by my right hon. Friend the Member for Staffordshire Moorlands (Karen Bradley). If appropriate, Mr Speaker, I will of course share that response with you and with the Leader and shadow Leader of the House.
On the plus side, because I have the Minister’s and the Secretary of State’s mobile numbers, when I really want an answer, I just text them. To be fair to them, they have been phenomenally helpful at key moments. I think many hon. Members feel that. At the same time, to be honest, the comms strategy this year has been a complete mess and a disaster. I urge the Minister to go back to the Department and say that Parliament should not be used only for accountability but to try to speak to the people of this country and to get across clear messages in a timely fashion. In that regard, will he tell us when he will publish the national cancer recovery plan, because lots of people have major anxiety at the moment about when their cancer will be treated?
I am always pleased to receive messages and inquiries from the hon. Gentleman. He raises two important points. The Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, my hon. Friend the Member for Bury St Edmunds (Jo Churchill) is working on the national cancer recovery plan at pace. I am happy to revert to the hon. Gentleman when I have had an opportunity to speak to her. On his broader point, he is right that it is important that we in this House recognise that, in our democracy, people consent and comply because they are persuaded. It is important that we use this House and all the mechanisms within it to persuade and bring the public with us.
We have all had enormous increases in constituency correspondence during the pandemic, so I can only imagine what it must be like at the Minister’s Department. However, in looking at how his Department responds to MPs’ questions, will my hon. Friend reassure the House that any changes will not come at the expense of his Department’s excellent parliamentary engagement and briefings for Members with Ministers and scientific experts that allow us to question advisers on detailed scientific and medical matters?
My hon. Friend highlights that the workload from constituents has increased for all Members. I recognise that. It is important that we do our bit in trying to answer questions in as timely a fashion as possible, to assist colleagues in the House with responses to constituents. In response to his second point, he is absolutely right. As I alluded to, it is not only through attending the House and through its mechanisms that Ministers have been accountable; as a Department, we have sought to use multiple channels—briefings to colleagues, WhatsApp and a whole range of newsletters and other mechanisms—to get messages out and to communicate with colleagues and answer their questions.
I thank the Minister for his departmental response to covid-19 and many issues. As one of the Department’s most prolific questioners, I am aware of the pressure on the Minister’s Department to respond to a vast array of complex medical and social issues. Perhaps to assist the Minister, his team could work closely with the health trusts to provide up-to-date data in a timely manner.
The hon. Gentleman is indeed a prolific questioner, but his questions are always welcome and to the point. He highlights an important aspect that affects the response of the Department, which is that a significant number of questions, and the information required to answer them, is not held within the Department but by various health trusts, NHS England or other external bodies, which can occasionally introduce additional slight delays in the system. We are working closely with them to minimise that and get answers as quickly as we can to hon. Members.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Sir Christopher Chope) for raising this matter and I recognise the importance of parliamentary questions for their role in parliamentary scrutiny, but it is only right that we recognise the substantial weight on the shoulders of the Department of Health and Social Care as it leads the charge against this pandemic. I personally have been blown away by the readiness and willingness of Ministers to engage through a whole range of communications, including Zoom, email and WhatsApp. I am grateful, in particular, for their engagement when it looked as though Bishop Auckland residents might have been teetering on the edge of tier 3 over the summer, which we thankfully avoided. Can my hon. Friend confirm that efforts are being made to clear the PQ backlog, but that other communication channels will remain open for MPs and their engagement?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend, and I pay tribute to the officials in the Department, who are working hard to clear the backlog and do take this very seriously. As I say, we are trying to clear the older PQs first, and then get back up to the performance we had before. She is absolutely right to highlight the other methods of communication. I may not be the most technological Minister in this House, but we have been seeking to use every means we can to try to answer colleagues’ questions and to give them the information they need.
In my time in this House, I have campaigned alongside women and families affected by sodium valproate. Many of the victims of this scandal have felt for decades that Governments have tried to push it under the carpet, so can the Minister understand the frustration and suspicion that these victims feel when written parliamentary questions about the Cumberlege review, which was published on 8 July, continue to take a long time to answer—and when those answers come, they are very poor—and their frustration that since July there has been no progress, beyond the apology in this House, in implementing that review? Can the Minister update the tens of thousands of victims of the Primodos, surgical mesh and sodium valproate scandals and assure them that their campaigns for justice remain high on his Department’s agenda?
Again, I am grateful to the hon. Lady for the tone she adopts on what is actually a very sensitive and very important issue. I can reassure her that that issue does remain very high on the Department’s agenda. At risk of tempting fate, if she wishes either to write to me or to table a question to me, I will endeavour to get it answered very quickly so she has something on the record on that.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. Can my hon. Friend also look at the quality and at the repeat questions that have to be asked to clarify the answers that are given to written parliamentary questions? In my case, I have had to submit often detailed letters to Ministers because WPQs basically do not supply the information required. Some that are now coming back after six months of waiting have been about, for example, offers to supply PPE to the national health service and people who have had tests but not actually got the results—and I could go further. The reality is that the quality of the answers to WPQs as well as the quantity have not been good enough, so will he look at those two aspects, please?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who landed his question very effectively. He is absolutely right to talk about the balance between speed and accuracy. In some cases where the issue is complex, a letter may be more appropriate for getting detailed information, rather than the short factual response to a parliamentary question. Sometimes the delay can be because Ministers—this goes to the point made by the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders)—on reading the question and the answer, and looking at it as a constituency MP as well, may realise that they want to send it back for redraft because it does not answer an hon. Member’s question. That can cause delays, but we endeavour to provide accurate answers as swiftly as we can.
I absolutely understand and appreciate the pressures on the Minister’s Department. However, it does grate that I regularly hear, in debates in this Chamber, Conservative Members saying how quickly and easily they can get direct responses from Ministers. He himself referred to a WhatsApp group a few moments ago, and I suspect that that is for Conservative Members. For those of us on the Opposition Benches, written questions and letters are often the only means to scrutinise, secure detailed information and hold the Government to account. Over a third of replies to my questions have been delayed for more than a month, and the longest delay was 190 days. I have had replies to letters outstanding for up to five months. Do my constituents have any less of a right to a response? Does the Minister have any advice for me as an Opposition spokesperson about how I can get more timely and detailed information?
I am a little bit surprised by the hon. Lady’s tone, because she and I regularly speak, and she has very easy access to me around the House, which she regularly uses, as do all Members. She has been on various briefing calls and other calls where we answer data questions and any question that Members wish to ask, and this House is for that purpose. Her constituents have exactly the same right to answers as anyone else, and they get exactly the same response as those of any other Member. Although this urgent question is about written parliamentary questions, I would flag that the Department has received more than 63,500 pieces of correspondence so far this year, compared with just 30,000 in the entirety of 2019. We have increased resourcing for that team, as we have for the PQ teams, and we are getting through the backlog as swiftly as possible.
I refer Members to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests in terms of support for my local party association. I have recently tabled written questions on suicide prevention on the railways; earlier in November, a person in my constituency sadly died after being hit by a train. Will my hon. Friend pay tribute to Land Sheriffs, a Harlow-based security company which, through its railway security programme, has intervened and prevented close to 300 suicides on the railways across England?
As my right hon. Friend mentioned, he has recently tabled a number of written questions on this issue, which I look forward to responding to in a timely fashion. I am happy to pay tribute to Land Sheriffs in his constituency for its impressive work in helping to tackle and prevent suicide on the railways. I know that the Minister for Patient Safety, Mental Health and Suicide Prevention will be very interested to hear about its work.
I thank the Minister for his answers today. I understand the pressure on his Department—I really do—but of the 28 questions that I have tabled to the Department of Health and Social Care, 86% were answered late, and if those due today are not answered, that figure will rise to 88%. I have to say that the quality of some of the responses is pretty poor too. Will he consider starting up the NHS England and NHS Digital statistical publications that were paused during the pandemic, so that we can get some of the information ourselves?
I think the hon. Gentleman has four parliamentary questions outstanding. By his timely intervention, he may find that when I get back to the Department this afternoon, I will ensure that the figure does not rise to 88% overdue. His substantive point is the same one made by the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston, which I said I will take away and look at.
I understand that since the start of the pandemic the Secretary of State has made 16 oral statements in the House on coronavirus and there have been seven urgent questions and five general debates on the topic. It is, of course, important that Members receive timely responses to inquiries, but does my hon. Friend agree that there have been significant opportunities for Members to raise concerns on the Floor of the House and to seek answers from Ministers?
I think it is fair to say that no one could accuse Ministers in the Department or the Secretary of State of not being willing to be accountable to Members in a multitude of ways. But of course, it is not an either/or, so we will endeavour to continue to perform well in attending this House and also to improve performance on written parliamentary questions.
Openness and transparency around the sharing of data is key to ensuring that the public and the business community buy into the draconian measures that we have introduced in the fight against covid. I genuinely thank the Minister for his and the Department’s efforts in ensuring that we get timely information, but on 21 October, I asked the Health Secretary for data relating to positive cases among those who had not been in the UK 72 hours before their test, and I still have had no answer. Will the Minister agree to provide that data, which will be key to informing the full reopening of our airports, getting our airlines flying again and kickstarting our aviation sector and its supply chain?
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her question. My understanding is that there are, I think, five outstanding written answers due to her, dating from November. She mentions one from October, so I will check whether that has been answered overnight. If not, I will go back to the Department and look into that particular written question.
May I thank you, Mr Speaker, for allowing so many urgent questions and statements, which allow so many Back Benchers to ask questions? I am very grateful for that.
All Departments have had a higher volume of questions, not least the Department of Health and Social Care, because of the health pandemic. What assessment has my hon. Friend made of the uptake of other forms of communications that have been made available?
My hon. Friend rightly raises the other methods of communication with right hon. and hon. Members and the other ways they can access information—not as an alternative to written questions and scrutiny in this Chamber— which appear to have been extremely popular with Members on both sides of the House. We intend to continue to make such briefings and access available to all right hon. and hon. Members.
Does the Minister accept that questions are sometimes tabled to Departments in response to issues raised by our constituents, and that by failing to engage with Members in this way—I understand all the reasons why it is taking longer—it is ultimately the public who suffer the consequences?
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her question. I refer her to the answer I gave to my hon. Friend the Member for Dudley South (Mike Wood). We recognise both the increased workload on hon. Members from their constituents and the importance of timely answers to written questions in helping them to discharge that obligation to them.
I thank the excellent Minister for his response, but may I suggest that the covid situation is allowing the Government to dodge issues they do not want to answer? On the Floor of the House, I asked the Secretary of State how many tests with false positives and false negatives there are. He dodged that question, so I tabled a named day question on 21 October, asking for his estimate of how many tests with false positives and false negatives there are. Yesterday, I received a response saying that they had no idea. They must have known they had no idea on 21 October, so it seems to me that that delay had more to do with not wanting to put that information out than any other reason. Can we have accurate and timely answers, not politically motivated delays?
It is always a pleasure to see my hon. Friend and to be questioned by him, both at this Dispatch Box and in other forums. I have to say to him that I do not think it is a fair reflection to suggest that the Government or others are dodging answers. We are at this Dispatch Box regularly. We do answer questions regularly. I will look into the particular question he raises, but often to answer we require information from external bodies or other NHS bodies, which can take time.
The Minister emphasises other means of engagement to written questions, delays to which I too have experienced far too often. In April, I wrote to the Minister for Care, the hon. Member for Faversham and Mid Kent (Helen Whately) with the concerns of a constituent of mine over personal protective equipment for care homes. I received a response in October. Will the Minister acknowledge that those kinds of delays undermine the confidence of my constituents in the Government’s public health measures? Will he commit, which I do not think he has done so far, to putting in place the capacity and resources to respond to constituents’ concerns in a timely manner, in whichever format they are expressed?
I hear what the hon. Lady says, but we have already put in place that capacity. We have doubled the capacity for parliamentary questions and I have significantly increased capacity for correspondence. The only thing I would say on correspondence, which she alluded to, is that at any normal time we have 850 pieces of correspondence open. Reflecting the volume that comes in at the moment, that is about 10,000. We have increased the capacity in the Department, but, of course, as long as volume remains high it will always be a challenge to keep up with that demand. We are doing our very best.
I thank the Minister, because he has been courteous in the way that he has dealt with this matter. He certainly has had the short straw.
In order to allow the safe exit of hon. Members participating in this item of business and the safe arrival of those participating in the next, I am suspending the House for a few minutes.
Business of the House
The business for the week commencing 23 November will include:
Monday 23 November—Motion to approve the draft Heavy Commercial Vehicles in Kent (No. 1) (Amendment) Order 2020 and the Heavy Commercial Vehicles in Kent (No. 2) (Amendment) Order 2020, followed by a motion to approve the draft Common Organisation of the Markets in Agricultural Products (Miscellaneous Amendments) (EU Exit) Regulations 2020 and the draft Common Organisation of the Markets in Agricultural Products (Miscellaneous Amendments) (EU Exit) (No. 2) Regulations 2020, followed by a motion to approve the draft European Union Withdrawal (Consequential Modifications) (EU Exit) Regulations 2020.
Tuesday 24 November—Consideration of Lords Amendments to the Private International Law (Implementation of Agreements) Bill, followed by a motion to approve the draft Prohibition on Quantitative Restrictions (EU Exit) Regulations 2020, followed by motion to approve a money resolution relating to the Prisons (Substance Testing) Bill, followed by a motion relating to the appointment of members to the independent expert panel, followed by a motion relating to the Committee on Standards 11th report of Session 2019-21.
Wednesday 25 November—The Chancellor of the Exchequer will deliver the 2020 spending review alongside the Office for Budget Responsibility’s latest economic and fiscal forecast, followed by a general debate on the UK-Japan comprehensive economic partnership agreement.
Thursday 26 November—Debate on a motion relating to the final report from the Climate Assembly UK on the path to net zero, followed by debate on a motion relating to the Work and Pensions Select Committee report on the DWP’s response to the coronavirus outbreak. The subjects for these debates were recommended by the Liaison Committee on behalf of the Backbench Business Committee.
Friday 27 November—The House will not be sitting.
I thank the Leader of the House for the business for next week and note that the motion on virtual participation was objected to last night following the urgent question that you granted, Mr Speaker. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will accept the amendment and, if he finds time for a debate in the House, that there will be a free vote—no proxies—and that all Members can take part equally.
That is just a small step, but what we need is the giant leap to return to where we were. Yesterday, Mr Speaker, the Prime Minister did exactly what you did not want—we had Prime Minister’s questions by Zoom. When the Leader of the Opposition had to isolate, we had the deputies taking part. Perhaps the First Secretary of State and the Prime Minister are scared of our deputy leader, but worryingly, Paul Waugh of The Huffington Post tweeted that the Prime Minister would be taking part in a debate virtually next week. I am not quite sure what the debate is. I am assuming it is the Climate Assembly UK debate, which is listed for Thursday—he definitely did that—so I am not quite sure whether the Prime Minister is designated as clinically extremely vulnerable, or maybe he is just politically extremely vulnerable.
Our colleagues have important issues to raise. We now have two classes of MPs and, as the Leader of the House said in response to the urgent question, we have privacy issues around that. The Chair of the Joint Committee on Human Rights, the right hon. and learned Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman), has received advice that the Leader of the House is in breach of article 10, on free speech, of the Human Rights Act 1998—article 14 gives effect to that. I know that the Government do not like the words “Human Rights Act” but if the Leader of the House looks very carefully, he can trace exactly all those human rights via the convention back to Magna Carta of 1215.
I wish the Leader of the House would look at the issue of interventions, because hon. Members have been to Westminster Hall to sit in on the debate, and they were told that they could not take part, or even sit there or intervene, because they were not on the call list. Please could he look at that? Will he look again at restoring a hybrid Parliament now that we are in the middle of a pandemic—with 52,000 deaths—complete with remote voting?
Could we have a statement on the EU negotiations? I understand that they are proceeding at a rapid pace. Will he look at establishing a new protocol on the press conferences that will come from No. 10? I am sure you will agree, Mr Speaker, that it is important that we hear from the Prime Minister here first on issues and matters arising in the House, rather than elsewhere, because we have to hold Ministers to account, as the Leader of the House has frequently said.
Accountability and transparency are so important. Exercise Cygnus took place in 2016. The report was only published on 18 October and, as Lord Sedwill said, some recommendations were implemented, but we do not know. Will the Leader of the House make time for a debate so that we can look at the recommendations and where we are? Many people throughout the country have made sacrifices, and we need to know whether we are implementing those important recommendations.
Last week, I asked about the procurement process, and the Leader of the House said that the Government will have turned out to have behaved impeccably. Has he read the National Audit Office report, “Investigation into government procurement during the COVID-19 pandemic”? It found that the Government were not transparent about suppliers of services when they awarded £18 billion-worth of contracts. It said there were two lanes, with a super-highway for those with special political contacts. Again, I reference “My Little Crony”, the excellent graphic by Sophie Hill. The NAO also said that decisions should be “properly documented” and made transparent if taxpayers’ money is being spent appropriately and fairly but that standards of transparency in documentation were not consistently met. May we have a debate in Government time on that report?
Twenty-one million pounds goes to a middle man, rather than to our frontline staff. The NAO report found that £350 million went to PestFix on false PPE, when our teachers and frontline staff were desperate for that PPE. Perhaps the Leader of the House can look at this ahead of the spending review. My constituent’s daughter, who is an A&E nurse, contracted covid on the second occasion she was working, saving our lives, and she says she has to stump up £300 a year to park—to pay to park to save our lives.
I want to ask about Nazanin, Anoosheh, Kylie and Luke Symons. We must keep their names alive and absolutely in the public domain. Iran is in the middle of a horrendous pandemic. More importantly, they need consular access, so will the Leader of the House please ensure that they get that? Will he also ensure that the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office makes a complaint on behalf of Nazanin? She was used in a game of name that spy. That is a horrendous thing to do when it is not true.
Finally, there is some good news. I congratulate Lewis Hamilton—Lewis Hamilton the seventh. I also congratulate Marcus Rashford on his new book club initiative with Macmillan Children’s Books. We also celebrate UNICEF’s World Children’s Day. Let us all work to make the world a better place for all our children.
Before I come to the right hon. Lady’s specific questions, I have been asked to make right hon. and hon. Members aware that the 18-month review of the independent complaints and grievance service is under way, and it is important that as many people as possible take the opportunity to give their views about the scheme. Alison Stanley recently launched an online survey, and I encourage every member of the parliamentary community to take part. The deadline for giving views is 4 December. Please do take part in the survey and send any contributions to Alison Stanley directly.
May I of course join the right hon. Lady in celebrating World Children’s Day? As I have six of them, I do my best to promote children as far as I possibly can. It is a cause that I think I can show the House I am fully in favour of. I am grateful for her once again raising the issue of people illegally detained and the difficulties in getting access to consular representation. Every week after business questions, I write to Ministers highlighting the issues that have been raised, which obviously includes that on a weekly basis. We are therefore ensuring that it is kept at the forefront of Ministers’ inboxes, and they are doing what they can, though it is not easy with regimes such as Iran.
I turn to the various questions that the hon. Lady raises about a range of issues. I would like to make it clear that during the pandemic funding is being provided for NHS staff to get free hospital parking. I understand that London’s King’s College Hospital said that it was going to have to increase charges, but it will not now implement that until after the pandemic. It is important that people are treated fairly, and the Government have provided the funding for that.
As regards procurement, the issue is that a great deal had to be done and procured extremely quickly. The Government would have been much more criticised had we not ensured that the equipment needed was provided. So 32 billion pieces of PPE have been provided since the beginning of the pandemic. It is important to recognise that the normal time for a tender is three months, and often it runs to six months. Had these normal procedures been followed, we would not have been getting any additional equipment until October. So are right hon. and hon. Members who are complaining about procurement saying that the Nightingale hospitals should not have been opened until October? It is a ridiculous proposition. Speed was of the essence and speed is what was provided. [Interruption.] The speed that was provided was what was necessary, and it is worth pointing out that the vast majority of contracts of more than £120,000 in value have been published. This is important because transparency will ensure and will show that things are handled properly.
The right hon. Lady raises questions once again about virtual participation. She said that there should be a vote with no proxies. That would make it very difficult for Members. The reason for having so many proxies is to ensure that the Division Lobbies are not overcrowded and that the estate remains as covid-secure as possible. That has been the fundamental principle of what we have been doing. The House has gone to great efforts, Mr Speaker, particularly under your leadership, to be a covid-secure workplace, not just for Members but crucially for those employed directly by the House and for members of staff at the point when they were coming in.
Virtual participation is allowed in a number of areas such as Select Committees and interrogative proceedings, but it is not allowed in other areas, except—we hope, if certain people do not object to it—in debates, for people who are extremely clinically vulnerable. The question we have to face is whether we should be treated in the same way as our constituents. The Government advice is that those who are extremely clinically vulnerable should not go to work, but that if people need to go to work, they should. We are in that position. We need to come into work to do our job fully. People have to ask themselves whether they feel they do their job fully when they are entirely remote. I think that they will feel that they do not. They cannot attend Public Bill Committees; they cannot attend Delegated Legislation Committees—
That is not true. There are not the resources to do it across all these various forums. The resources are limited, and it is a question of how they are shared out. We are ensuring that the bits that need to be done physically are, and that MPs are here to meet other MPs, to see Ministers, to go to Westminster Hall, to do the great variety of things that amount to the fullness of the role of the Member of Parliament. Fundamentally, we should be in the same boat as our constituents. MPs do themselves and their reputation harm when they argue that they should have special treatment, as if we were some priestly caste.
With regard to the right hon. Lady’s point about human rights and freedom of speech, pull the other one it’s got bells on. We have freedom of speech in this Chamber. It is protected by the Bill of Rights. It is fundamental, and that is one of the reasons for coming together in this Chamber.
Pharmacists have remained open during this pandemic, not only in Carshalton and Wallington but across the country. Pharmacists tell me that they are ready to do so much more than they can currently provide, including covid vaccinations. May we have a debate about expanding the role of community pharmacies and ensuring that they have the funding model that reflects the work they do?
My hon. Friend raises an important point. Pharmacies have shown themselves a bedrock of local communities this year. Their doors have remained open and the pharmacists within welcoming and wise. They have been a model of public service, and I commend community pharmacies for the essential work that they have done throughout the pandemic. The drive to vaccinate the nation will require a great national effort, and my hon. Friend makes an important point about the role of pharmacists in distributing and administering the vaccine. He is right to raise it, and I will pass his suggestion on to the Secretary of State.
The Leader of the House confuses matters with references to MPs as key workers. Of course our democracy cannot be compromised by covid. Members must represent their constituents and hold the Government to account, but we do not need to be in this place to do that. His continual references to “coming to work” show that he does not understand the distinction between work and place of work. It seems that he is unable to grasp that many Members are working remotely. We should help them to do that. Indeed, that is precisely what we are exhorting every other employer in the land to do. A majority of Members want to participate in debates without putting themselves and the public at risk, and they should not have to divulge confidential medical information to do so. When will he listen to his own Back Benchers, the Procedure Committee and the Liaison Committee and switch the virtual technology back on?
Let me turn to another matter. Does the Leader of the House agree with the Prime Minister that devolution north of the border has been a disaster, and that it was Tony Blair’s biggest mistake? Does he understand the insult that this is to the Scottish public? The Prime Minister may claim that he is referring to the SNP Government, but that Government only exist because the people of Scotland have voted for them—not once, not twice, but three times. The truth is that the Prime Minister is attacking the democratic decision of the people. Donald Trump would indeed be proud. The exposure of this level of disrespect from a British Prime Minister presents us with a grave constitutional problem. We need to have an urgent debate on devolution, not just, as I have argued for the past six months, to review its efficacy in the light of covid, but to clarify whether the British Government respect their own constitution. In May, the Scottish electorate will vote again. Now that the Prime Minister’s contempt for devolution is clear, a great many people will realise that the only way to protect the limited powers we have is to grasp the political power and capacity that comes with independence.
As I have set out before, I and the whole House have the greatest sympathy for people who are extremely clinically vulnerable and are advised not to come into work and for making provisions for them to participate. I have sympathy with people who are in difficult circumstances that do not fall into that category, even if the guidelines do not actually provide them with the security that they may be asking for. I have much less sympathy for members of the Scottish National party who do not actually like coming to Parliament in the first place.
As regards what the Prime Minister said about devolution, let us look at the SNP Government’s record, because it is a tragic record of failure. Schools were once the pride of Scotland, but schooling in Scotland has gone down under the SNP’s reign. Scotland has fallen to 15th in reading, from sixth in 2000. For maths, it is 31st—nine places lower than England—and down from 17th in 2006 and fifth in 2000. They have therefore failed in terms of schools. They have also failed in terms of the economy; before the pandemic, Scotland’s economy was forecast to trail the UK for the foreseeable future. They have failed in terms of policing; crime is on the rise, and most areas of Scotland have fewer police officers on the frontline since the SNP forced the police merger through.
Before the crisis, the SNP was causing the NHS to suffer. The £850 million waiting times improvement plan was a failure; Scotland’s public sector watchdog said that the NHS was under increasing pressure in 2019; and the SNP has failed to tackle Scotland’s chronic shortage of GPs. After years and years of SNP grandstanding on welfare, the party is failing to deliver on its own welfare promises, and SNP Ministers even had to hand back responsibility for one benefit to the Department for Work and Pensions.
The failure of devolution is the failure of the Scottish National party, and—just to add to the fun of it—its members are also mired in some discussion about who can remember who sent texts to whom, but it might be ungracious of me to delve into the inner workings of the relationship between very fishy Scottish figures.
As was referenced earlier, lifting our spirits from the gloom of lockdown, on Sunday, Lewis Hamilton secured his seventh Formula 1 world championship, having smashed through all the other records, with 94 race wins—seven of which were here at home, at Silverstone—and 97 pole positions. He is without doubt the most successful British sportsman. As he won the Turkish Grand Prix, he said:
“That’s for all the kids out there that dream the impossible. You can do it too”.
With that in mind, will my right hon. Friend join me in sending the congratulations of this House to Lewis Hamilton for all that he has achieved, agree that it is high time that he was honoured with a knighthood and schedule a debate on ensuring that children are encouraged to take up science, technology, engineering and maths subjects to become the engineers of the future and take up motorsport in Lewis Hamilton’s tyre tracks?
One of my children thinks that Mr Ben Stokes ought to have a knighthood, too, and I point out to him that this is also not a matter for me.
The right hon. Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz) also wanted to congratulate Lewis Hamilton. What a fantastic performer he has proved to be, and what a model for the nation. He is, statistically, the most successful Formula 1 driver in history and it puts him among the greatest sportsmen that this nation has ever had. I must confess: is there not a little bit of all of us, when we are driving, who rather wish that we were Lewis Hamilton? When we are stuck at a red traffic light and the M4 stretches out for miles in front of us, we think, “If only we could put our foot down a little and go a bit faster.” So I admire him, I congratulate him and I am even a little bit jealous of him.
I am not sure where the Leader of the House would put his six children in a Formula One car.
Next Thursday, we have two debates suggested by the Liaison Committee, and the Leader of the House has been kind enough to tell us what they are. I will just explain to the House that this is a time swap for estimates day debates, which are chosen by the Backbench Business Committee on behalf of the Liaison Committee. Although we are slowly but surely getting through the backlog of applications since the reopening of Westminster Hall, we still have a queue of about 20 as yet unallocated debates, so we hope that the recent flow of time for Backbench Business continues for the remainder of this Session.
Before coming to this House, I was for 27 years a member of Gateshead Council. I care deeply about the welfare of Gateshead Council, its staff and all the people that it serves. We keep hearing from Ministers about how much money has been allocated to local authorities in response to the pandemic. In Gateshead we have received, I understand, something like £22 million, but the expenditure on managing the pandemic is something like £70 million, a shortfall of £50 million or so. Can we do something about redressing this imbalance of expenditure over income as a result of the pandemic for local authorities around the country?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for reminding the House about the swap for estimates days with the Liaison Committee.
On council funding, I just remind the hon. Gentleman that, so far, £7.2 billion has been provided to local councils in additional expenditure, plus £24 billion for local businesses, and another £3 billion included in that sum was announced recently, so there is a very large flow of funds going through to councils to support them in this very difficult period, which means that councils are getting the money that they need.
In addition to previous generous support, the Government have recently granted Crawley Borough Council a further £5.6 million in funding for the latest period of covid-19 restrictions, yet this local authority, which unfortunately has a record of financial mismanagement and reserves of well over £20 million, is complaining that it is not enough. Can we have a statement from the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government about ensuring that such irresponsible councils are audited?
My hon. Friend raises a really important point. I have just set out the very large amounts of money that are being made available, but some incompetent councils are not spending that money well. It is noticeable that they are often socialist-run councils that are not doing things properly, and he is right to ensure that they are held to account. Last year, the Government commissioned Sir Tony Redmond to undertake a comprehensive review into the quality of external audit, and the Government are considering its findings and will respond in due course.
The Leader of the House, being a father to six children himself, will hopefully be aware that on Tuesday we marked World Prematurity Day. He may not, though, be aware of the specific struggles that thousands of families up and down the country who have incredibly poorly babies in neonatal care are currently going through. I can truly say from my own experience that those days, weeks and months spent worrying about your neonate are truly some of the most agonising you will ever go through as a parent. Parents with children in neonatal care should clearly be able to take specific leave from their jobs and should not be financially out of pocket because of doing so. Will the Leader of the House therefore please commit to a debate in Government time to address this issue and ultimately give hope to parents in their time of absolute desperation?
I have the greatest sympathy for what the hon. Lady has set out, and I have some direct knowledge of the issue—not with my own children but from children who are closely connected to me. It is a very difficult and troubling time for parents and they deserve support. In the first place, I urge the hon. Lady to seek an Adjournment debate, but I think the sympathy of the whole House is with the argument she has made.
The Guardian newspaper has applied for the release to the media of character references that were provided to a judge solely to assist in sentencing during a criminal trial. If allowed, this would be a fundamental change of practice, with far-reaching consequences for the criminal justice system. Will my right hon. Friend allow time for an urgent debate on this vital matter?
It would obviously be wrong for me to comment on a specific case, but my hon. Friend raises a concerning point. If people have, in a generality, given evidence to a trial on the understanding that is confidential, it risks people not being willing to give such evidence in future if what is believed to be confidential turns out not to be. A just system requires certainty, whatever degree of certainty that is. In individual cases, I understand that it is a matter for the trial judge, under rule 5 of the criminal procedure rules, but I will of course refer this matter to my right hon. and learned Friends the Lord Chancellor and the Attorney General.