Skip to main content

Commons Chamber

Volume 692: debated on Thursday 15 April 2021

House of Commons

Thursday 15 April 2021

The House met at half-past Nine o’clock


[Mr Speaker in the Chair]

Virtual participation in proceedings commenced (Orders, 4 June and 30 December 2020).

[NB [V] denotes a Member participating virtually.]

Oral Answers to Questions

International Trade

The Secretary of State was asked—

Steel Import Tariffs

What recent assessment her Department has made of the effect of steel import tariffs on the UK steel industry. (914099)

First, may I associate myself with the tributes on Monday led by you, Mr Speaker, and the Prime Minister on the death of His Royal Highness The Prince Philip, and the Humble Address of the House of Commons to Her Majesty?

We are committed to defending British industry and jobs and will not hesitate to take firm action where necessary, which is why we have safeguard measures in place. We know there are concerns that Chinese steel is receiving state subsidies that distort trade, so, working with our allies, we will challenge China and other countries to play by the rules.

Motherwell in my constituency was once the heart of steel production in Scotland and the rest of the UK, but consecutive UK Governments have overseen the decline of steel jobs in Scotland from thousands to just over 100. Will the UK Government provide certainty for steelworkers today, support domestic production, protect those remaining jobs and retain the tariffs on steel imports?

When the Trade Remedies Authority is set up, it will conclude its investigation, which it would be wrong to pre-empt. We are of course working for every corner of our United Kingdom, backing British businesses and supporting Scottish jobs as much as we are supporting those in England, Wales and Northern Ireland—at a time when the Scottish National party wants to cut itself off from its largest market: the British internal market.

I am afraid the 5,000 workers at Liberty Steel will not have been reassured by the Minister’s answer. The collapse of Greensill Capital has created serious problems at Liberty Steel and is one of many reasons why the entire British steel industry now urgently needs leadership, stability and support from the Government. Can we get some clarity? Retaining the import tariffs is a political decision. Will the Minister play his part today by guaranteeing that the Government will retain the vital safeguard tariffs that Britain currently has in place against cheap steel imports for the full financial year ahead—no ifs, no buts and no maybes?

I do love the authenticity with which the hon. Gentleman asked his question; of course, if it were a political decision, he would be calling for it to be independent. It is an independent decision. The Trade Remedies Authority has teeth and will act accordingly. Just like this Government, our Trade Remedies Authority is going to defend the British national industry, back British jobs and support people throughout our United Kingdom.

UK Exports to the US: Tariffs

What recent discussions she has had with her US counterpart on not re-imposing tariffs on UK exports to the US. (914100)

I am delighted that the United States responded to our de-escalation of retaliatory tariffs in January and has removed the 25% tariff on Scotch whisky and other products. This is fantastic news for the 50,000 people whose jobs rely on the industry. I am working with Ambassador Tai to get a long-term resolution to the Airbus-Boeing dispute.

The Scotch whisky industry is of economic importance to a large number of the most economically fragile communities in the highlands and islands, so I genuinely wish the Secretary of State very well in her endeavours to get the removal of tariffs made permanent. Is the situation that the Prime Minister has created in Northern Ireland helping or hindering the engagement with the Biden Administration?

We are extremely committed to the Good Friday agreement and have had frequent discussions with the Biden Administration. I am having very positive discussions with my counterpart Katherine Tai about resolving the Airbus-Boeing dispute—which has been going on for 16 years—to the benefit of the Scotch whisky industry, other industries throughout the UK and industries such as aerospace, in which we need Airbus to be able to compete.

Madainn mhath, Mr Speaker.

The digital-service-tax threats from the USA show that the Biden Administration value their special relationship with big tech more than the one with the UK. The threat to the tax sovereignty of the UK and a number of other countries indicates that there is not really a relationship of equals. Is not the prospect of a trade deal with the USA pretty dead? In any case, the 0.2% of GDP that such a deal was going to recover was only a fraction of the damage done by Brexit. Has the Secretary of State accepted that fact yet?

We are urging the United States to desist from any more tit-for-tat tariffs disputes, including in respect of a digital services tax. We think that the best way to resolve the issue is through the process that the Chancellor is leading at the OECD. We are in further discussions with the United States not just to end the Airbus tariff dispute but to work with the United States at the G7 to challenge unfair practices in the global trading system by countries such as China.

UK Steel Producers: Level Trading Field

What steps she is taking with Cabinet colleagues to help ensure a level trading field for UK steel producers while the EU and US maintain import controls on steel goods. (914101)

What steps her Department is taking to help ensure a level trading field for UK steel producers while the EU and US maintain import controls on steel goods. (914146)

The Government back the British steel industry, as we have heard already this morning, and the unjustified US tariffs on steel, aluminium and derivatives imports from Britain are completely unfair and wholly unnecessary. Our rebalancing measures in response to the US section 232 on additional tariffs show that we will defend the British national interest and the rules-based system.

Our steelworkers make the best steel that money can buy but, thanks to the indifference of successive Conservative Governments since 2010, they are constantly being made to compete with one hand tied behind their back. They are already dealing with the highest industrial energy prices in Europe and a Government procurement policy that fails the patriotism test, and now they face the possibility that, in June, steel safeguards that guard against import surges will be removed. Does the Minister agree that, if the Government were to remove those safeguards, it would add insult to injury and again undermine the ability of our steel industry to compete on a level playing field?

As the hon. Member knows, the British steel industry has benefited from investment of more than £500 million in recent years to help with the costs of energy, and we have announced a £250 million fund to support the decarbonisation of the industry. So this Government are dedicated to supporting the future of the steel industry and we will continue that work.

Removing these measures would lead to the UK being one of the only steel markets without any protective measures for its steel industries. Does the Minister not agree that, while global overcapacity stands at over 500 million tonnes, it would be unwise to become a rare exposed market for steel when larger markets are still protected?

Mr Speaker, there are only so many times that I can say the same thing in a different way, but we have transitioned 19 of the EU’s measures and we have adopted systems in Britain for trade remedies based on international best practice to ensure that there is independence in this area. I say to the hon. Lady, as I have said already to her Scottish nationalist colleague, that the biggest market for Scotland is of course the British internal market, from which she is determined to tear Scotland.

Unfair Trading Practices

What steps she is taking to tackle the use of (a) trade-distorting subsidies and (b) other unfair trading practices. (914102)

It is completely wrong that other countries are applying unfair practices to undermine fantastic British products. I am working with the new director of the World Trade Organisation, Dr Ngozi, to ensure that other countries play by the global rules of free trade.

The wool trade started in Norfolk in medieval times, many, many years ago, and we have always been an outward-looking area to the world, but for trade to be free, it must also be fair. Can my right hon. Friend tell me what steps she is taking to protect vital industries to ensure that they are not undercut by those unscrupulous countries that engage in unfair trading practices?

We are establishing the new Trade Remedies Authority—which, of course, the Opposition voted against—in the Trade Bill, which will ensure that all countries follow the WTO rules. It will look at the evidence and be unafraid to recommend countervailing duties on exports when other countries do not play by the rules, so Chinese products, such as steel and ceramics, that receive unfair state subsidies that will distort trade and damage British business will be tackled.

Jobs in Yorkshire

What recent estimate she has made of the number of jobs in Yorkshire that are delivered by international trade. (914104)

New research published alongside the Board of Trade paper “Global Britain, local jobs” estimates that 418,000 jobs were supported by exports in 2016 in Yorkshire and Humber. [Interruption.] Of course, the shadow Secretary of State laughs at the mention of jobs. It is notable how, in session after session, one issue that the she does not focus on is jobs and the livelihoods on which people depend. Of those jobs—I thank her for stopping her chuntering from a sedentary position. Of those jobs—[Interruption.] Oh, she has not stopped. Of those jobs, 234,000 were supported directly by exporting businesses, while a further 184,000 form part of the UK supply chain of exporting businesses.

I recently hosted an online Department for International Trade roundtable with local businesses, giving advice and support on exporting. Will the Minister please thank his team for helping to host that session? Will he make sure that the Department continues to invest in regional exporting advisers to support businesses across Colne Valley and Yorkshire so that we can continue to take full advantage of the new, exciting opportunities that international trade is bringing?

I thank my hon. Friend: is it not fantastic and uplifting to have someone who is genuinely dedicated to supporting and promoting the jobs upon which so many families depend? I am delighted that he has joined DIT’s parliamentary export programme, as have colleagues from right across this House, supporting and encouraging businesses to grow internationally, including through unlocking the benefits of the free trade agreements. As he rightly highlights, DIT has 28 international trade advisers dedicated to the Yorkshire region who help small and medium-sized enterprises to fulfil their exporting potential and connect them to international business opportunities.

Trade and Investment in Wales

Last month, I announced our new trade and investment hub in Wales, which will support almost 200,000 exporters and channel investment into Wales. It will play a crucial role in the export-led, jobs-led recovery for Wales.

The UK Government’s plan for a trade and investment hub in Wales is welcome support for business here in Wales. It will support exporters and help to restore inward investment in Wales to the levels we enjoyed in the past. What benefits has the Secretary of State identified that the hub will bring to exporters here in Aberconwy and across north Wales?

The trade and investment hub will provide support to business across Wales. There are already 2,000 people in Aberconwy working in export-intensive industries. The trade hub will provide support, including for Welsh lamb exports, which have resumed after more than 20 years to countries such as Japan.

The Government’s “Global Britain, local jobs” analysis does not take into account Brexit or covid, it ignores Welsh farming and Welsh steel production, and it appears to think that there are still 1,500 people employed in car production in Bridgend, which sadly there are not. Does the Secretary of State therefore think that this outdated, incomplete analysis is a reliable foundation on which to base her trade policy for Wales?

The analysis that we produced as part of “Global Britain, local jobs” is the first time that we have produced data at a constituency level for export industries, and it always takes time for statistics to be processed. The new Trade Bill has enabled us to get access to more up-to-date data that we will of course continue to update our strategy with. I was hoping that the hon. Gentleman would welcome the new trade hub that we are establishing in Cardiff, which will bring more investment to Wales—so let us hear from him.

I think what the Secretary of State meant to say was that there is room for improvement, and that is certainly true. The stark reality is that Wales is getting a raw deal from the Trade Department. According to her own figures, the Department delivered 638 new inward investment projects for London but just 62 for Wales—a lower number of new investment projects than in any region in England, and for three years in a row. How can she justify those figures?

We are establishing a trade and investment hub in Cardiff this year that will employ up to 100 people precisely to bring more investment into Wales, more jobs into Wales, and more export opportunities into Wales.

Arms Exports: International Humanitarian Law

What steps she is taking with Cabinet colleagues to ensure that arms exported from the UK are not deployed in contravention of international humanitarian law. (914107)

All arms exports require an export licence. I can assure the House that we take our export control responsibilities very seriously. We rigorously assess every application on a case-by-case basis against the consolidated EU and national arms export licensing criteria, taking advice from the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office and the Ministry of Defence. We will not issue an export licence where to do so would be inconsistent with the consolidated criteria, including where there is a clear risk that the items might be used for a serious violation of international humanitarian law.

The Yemeni community in Liverpool would like to know how the Minister can possibly justify the decision of his Department to increase its sales of bombs and missiles for use in Yemen to new record highs, while his friends at the Foreign Office are simultaneously cutting the amount of humanitarian aid going to starving Yemeni children. Does he accept that this is not just wrong, but downright immoral?

Not only are Her Majesty’s Government one of the biggest donors of aid around the world, including to Yemen, but as was set out in the Secretary of State’s written statement, we have devised a clear and revised methodology to make sure we will only license such products if they are consistent with the consolidated criteria.

Trade Policies: Farmers

What recent assessment she has made of the potential effect of her Department’s trade policies on UK farmers. (914108)

We want to sell more British food around the world and help farmers make the most of our trade deals with 66 nations, plus the EU. We launched the Open Doors campaign, which will help our farmers to export to the world’s fastest growing markets.

It is well documented that the food produced by our farmers is world class and demand around the world is increasing. Can my right hon. Friend build on the success of her FTAs, especially with Japan, in opening up markets for Welsh lamb and beef, including the United States? There was success with the United States on beef, and hopefully there will be on lamb. Can she update us in particular on the United States and Japan?

Welsh farmers export £144 million of lamb and beef around the world, and the recent opening of the US market to beef and the Japanese market to lamb will boost the figures further. Last month, I visited Kepak, which is already shipping beef to the US from farms across Wales, including in my hon. Friend’s constituency.

I am sure that the Secretary of State will want to join me in thanking Tim Smith and all the members of the Trade and Agriculture Commission for their final report published last month. Can I start by asking her when the Government intend to publish the core set of standards that the commission has called for, setting out the UK’s minimum requirements for tariff reductions when it comes to food safety, the environment and animal welfare?

I completely agree with the right hon. Lady that Tim Smith and the team produced a fantastic report laying out the future for British agricultural trade, and I am also delighted that she welcomes the recommendations to promote the liberalisation of trade to influence innovation and productivity, and price and choice for consumers. We will be responding to the report in due course.

I thank the Secretary of State for the answer, but it is vital that when this House comes to examine the upcoming trade agreements with Australia and New Zealand, we are able to judge them against that core set of standards. Can I ask her to make it clear today that there will be no proposed reduction in tariffs as a result of those two agreements for any agricultural products that do not meet Britain’s core standards?

Part of the Trade Bill was the establishment of the statutory Trade and Agriculture Commission. For every free trade agreement, it will produce a report on precisely the issues that the right hon. Lady outlines. I am very pleased that our partners in Australia and New Zealand are two countries with very high standards in animal welfare.

Trade Sanctions on Exports from Xinjiang

What recent discussions she has had with her US counterpart on trade sanctions on exports from Xinjiang. (914110)

The Secretary of State spoke with the US trade representative, Katherine Tai, on 22 March. They discussed a number of issues, including how the United Kingdom and the United States will collaborate to address shared concerns on serious matters such as forced labour. The Secretary of State also discussed the issue of forced labour with Ambassador Tai and her G7 counterparts during the G7 Trade Ministers meeting that she chaired on 31 March.

The Magnitsky-style sanctions against China are only the first step. While we welcome them, trade relations cannot be left out. What steps are the Government taking to ensure that UK consumers are not buying goods made with forced labour, and will the UK follow the US in banning imports of cotton from China’s Xinjiang region?

We are adopting a targeted approach to this issue, to make sure that we address the violations of rights and responsibilities. We have designated individuals and entities that have been involved in such violations. This is a smart tool, carefully targeted to achieve its goals, while minimising potentially negative wider impacts. It is not designed with a view to imposing sanctions on sectors within countries, for example.

UK and Sweden: Trade and Business Relationships

Sweden is a close ally of the UK on trade policy and a close partner in our day-to-day trading relationship. I was the first UK Minister to visit Sweden after the EU referendum, and through our excellent DIT team in Stockholm, we work hard to promote trade and investment between the UK and Sweden.

I thank my right hon. Friend for his answer. According to a recent report by the Swedish chamber of commerce for the UK, almost 40% of Swedish businesses are optimistic about business growth in the UK and 70% continue to see the UK as an important step in international expansion. Does he agree that developing links with this greatest Scandinavian country, which shares our values and our growing economy, would be good for the UK, good for jobs and good for developing relations with our partners in the European Union?

I commend my hon. Friend for his work as the chairman of the British-Swedish all-party parliamentary group and his mention of the excellent Swedish chamber of commerce for the UK, which was on one of my recent webinars. In my recent call with Swedish Trade Minister Anna Hallberg, we agreed to co-host a bilateral trade and business forum later this year. We have excellent trade co-operation with Sweden in sectors such as technology, financial services, defence and clean energy, so I very much share my hon. Friend’s optimism.

Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership

What recent assessment she has made of the implications for her policies of the UK joining the comprehensive and progressive agreement for trans-Pacific partnership. (914112)

Joining the CPTPP is a massive opportunity for UK businesses, in particular those in areas such as financial services and digital, where the rules are world-leading. It will also cut tariffs for businesses in vital industries such as cars and whisky and help to drive our exports-led, jobs-led recovery from covid.

The very first of the 238 questions put to the Secretary of State in a letter from my right hon. Friend the Member for Islington South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry) on accession to the CPTPP asked her whether the UK will have the right to negotiate exemptions from those provisions of the agreement to which we do not wish to accede and amendments to those provisions to which we wish to make improvements, or whether it is her intention to join the CPTPP accepting all its current provisions in full. What is the Secretary of State’s answer?

The CPTPP is a very high-standards agreement, and the rules will have huge benefits for the UK. The reality is that UK products such as beef and lamb have been locked out of overseas markets for unfair reasons, so it is in our interests to sign up to a high-standards, good-rules agreement.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Eltham (Clive Efford) said, there are at least 238 questions that the Secretary of State has to address on the subject of this agreement, and I look forward to receiving her answers soon, but today I want to ask her one simple one: can she guarantee that this Parliament will have as much time to scrutinise the proposed terms of accession to CPTPP before a vote on whether or not to approve them as the Australia, Canada and New Zealand Parliaments had before their respective votes?

I thank the right hon. Lady for her question—she clearly comes from a profession where she was paid by the number of questions she asked. I will be delighted to answer all those questions and more when we publish the public bundle, which will include the scoping assessment and our negotiation objectives. We will publish that at the time of launching our negotiations, and we will also have full parliamentary scrutiny, including by the statutory Trade and Agriculture Commission, in line with parliamentary systems across the world.

UK Exports: Germany, Italy and Ireland

What recent estimate her Department has made of the value of UK exports to (a) Germany, (b) Italy and (c) Ireland in 2021. (914113)

The UK greatly values its trade with each of Germany, Italy and Ireland. All trade data is currently volatile, especially due to the pandemic, but data released earlier this week showed a monthly upwards bounce in UK goods exports to the EU to £11.6 billion in February from £7.9 billion in January, including increases to all three countries referred to in the question.

I appreciate that those on the Government Benches prefer breathless rhetoric to harsh reality, but the statistics to which the Minister refers are really quite clear for rural Scotland. Its meat exports remain down 52%, fish and shellfish are down 54%, dairy and eggs down 39%, beverages down 34%, cereals down 40%, and fruit and veg down 54%. Would the Minister like to apologise to the tens of thousands of people across rural Scotland who are in daily dread and fear of what their economic future holds?

I thank the hon. Member for that follow-up question, and I wonder if, to coin a phrase, he has perhaps taken his eye off the ball, because actually there was a bounce back in trade in February. I will give him an independent view from the Office for National Statistics, which on the trade data says:

“Exports of food and live animals to the EU increased…in February 2021, after being significantly impacted in January… Exports of fish and shellfish to the EU also saw an uptick in February 2021 as exporters adjust to new regulations following the end of the transition period. The disruptions to food exports in January 2021 appear to have largely been overcome and may have only had short-term impacts on trade.”

That is from the Office for National Statistics, which he may seek to consult.

I am delighted the Minister has quoted the ONS, because figures out this week show economic output remaining nearly 8% below the pre-pandemic peak and exports to Germany, Italy and Ireland down by as much as 50% to 75%. These are not teething problems; they are the bite of long Brexit. Does the Minister agree with Matt Griffith from the British Chambers of Commerce that his members are experiencing a

“permanent deterioration in their competitive position due to higher admin, paperwork and shipping costs”?

It is good to have an argument about statistics, but actually the UK exports to the EU in February of £11.6 billion were only just below the monthly average for the whole of 2020, which was obviously very impacted by the pandemic, of £12 billion. I would caution against using statistics in this way—we need to see the bigger picture—but I refer the hon. Member back to what the ONS said. On the help we are providing for exporters, we have various Government helplines, the Brexit business taskforce, Brexit SME support and various measures in place specifically to support the agricultural sector and the Scottish seafood sector.

Let us come away from statistics and back to what is happening. JP Morgan boss Jamie Dimon wrote to staff this month warning them that it will move all its EU-faced business out of London and into Europe. He says:

“Brexit was accomplished, but many issues still need to be negotiated. And in those negotiations, Europe has had, and will continue to have, the upper hand.”

The financial services sector is a huge employer in Scotland, and it is also facing this Westminster-inflicted disaster. Can the Minister now see why people in Scotland want to have their choice and their say over their own future?

The hon. Member will know that there is of course a financial services memorandum of understanding between the UK and the EU, and we are acutely aware of the importance of the financial services sector, not least to my constituency as well. Many, I have to say, were surprised when the SNP voted for no deal on 30 December, especially after Nicola Sturgeon called it “unthinkable”. However, I have to say that I was not as surprised, because over the years I have seen the SNP vote against every single UK or EU trade deal, so the idea that it was going to vote in favour of a trade deal between the two of them was, frankly, highly unlikely. The SNP is anti-business, anti-jobs and against Scotland’s best interests.

Trading Relationship with Tunisia

What recent assessment she has made of the potential merits of strengthening the UK’s trading relationship with Tunisia. [R] (914114)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his work as the Prime Minister’s trade envoy to Tunisia and Libya. There is great merit in strengthening the trading relationship with Tunisia. Our trade deal entered into force at the beginning of this year and it provides a platform to deepen trade and investment. As he knows, we are already supporting businesses such as Unilever, AstraZeneca and Vodafone, who already operate in Tunisia, and we look forward to backing British businesses to do even more.

Tunisia is a leading exporter of olive oil and wants to export more to the UK, but minimum quota requirements based on the last two years are making this difficult. Will my hon. Friend look into this so that trade is made easy with Tunisia, which is eager to build an even stronger trading partnership with the UK?

I am aware of this matter and am keen to make sure that businesses can make the most of our transition to trade agreements, so I will look into it. I look forward to working with my hon. Friend and my Tunisian counterpart to open up and promote opportunities for British and Tunisian businesses; more trade means more jobs.

Jobs in Teesside

What recent estimate she has made of the number of jobs in Teesside that are delivered by international trade. (914115)

My hon. Friend will be delighted that Teesside will benefit from one of eight new freeports, unlocking billions of pounds of private sector investment, and it will also help British businesses not just in his constituency but across the whole of the UK, including the 300,000 export-linked jobs in the north-east.

I thank the Secretary of State for her answer and for her support for Teesside exporters. From raw chemicals to plastics and steel, Teesside manufacturers rely on global trade, so I am grateful to her Department for the work it has done, alongside Tees Valley Mayor Ben Houchen, to bring more jobs, including in her Department, to the Tees valley. Can she outline when we might start to see these DIT jobs coming to Teesside, and what is her message to the people of the Tees valley ahead of the important elections next month?

My message is that Ben Houchen is doing a fantastic job, as is my hon. Friend. I am delighted that we are establishing a new trade hub in Darlington, which is only half an hour’s drive from my hon. Friend’s constituency. There are over 4,000 jobs in export-related industries in Redcar, including in the chemicals industry, and we will be doing even more to support them with the new Darlington trade hub.

Free Trade Agreements: Professional Business Services

The UK is a world leader in professional business services and the second biggest exporter of PBS globally, with a trade surplus of £33 billion in 2018. To support this important and diverse sector, we are seeking ambitious FTA commitments in cross-cutting areas like mobility and digital, as well as tackling specific behind-the-border regulatory barriers such as recognition and professional qualifications.

The Minister will forgive me for being a bit concerned about ongoing red tape in post-Brexit trade with the European Union. This is affecting businesses in Bracknell and beyond. Will he please outline what his Department is doing to support the Cabinet Office in resolving this?

DIT has very active participation in the current helplines for businesses facing issues in exporting to the EU. We participate, of course, in the Brexit business taskforce, we provide a DIT internationalisation fund for those looking to export, and we have 300 international trade advisers across the country and at posts right across the European Union. This is a whole-of-Government effort, and, as I said earlier, the data are starting to show encouraging signs of a recovery in our trade.

Many of my Kensington constituents work in professional services, whether financial services, law, consulting or accountancy. These industries account for a huge amount of gross value added to our economy. Can my right hon. Friend assure me that the professional services sector will be at the forefront of our minds in negotiating future trade deals?

My hon. Friend and neighbour puts it extremely well. Professional business services are vital for her constituency, for mine and for the whole country. Around 79% of gross value added and 80% of employment in this country is in services. As she knows, we secured special provisions for legal services in the EU agreement. I meet regularly with bodies such as TheCityUK, the City of London Corporation, UK Finance, the Royal Institute of British Architects, the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales, the Law Society, the Bar Council and others to ensure that professional business services are right at the heart of the UK’s trade agenda.

Trade Relationship with the Middle East

Britain has strong bilateral trading relationships with our friends in the middle east and a clear ambition to deepen them. As my right hon. Friend knows, we are undertaking a joint trade and investment review with the Gulf Co-operation Council, with which total trade stood at over £33 billion in the year to September 2020. The Government have also signed trade agreements with Jordan and Lebanon, and just last month we entered into an agreement with the sovereign wealth fund of Abu Dhabi to provide £1 billion of investment into British life sciences.

Today is Yom Ha’atzmaut—Israeli independence day—so I hope that my hon. Friend will wish Israel happy independence day. The normalisation of ties between Israel and the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain last year was a hugely positive step not only for regional peace but for commerce, tourism and cultural exchanges. Does my hon. Friend agree that the United Kingdom is well placed to support our ally Israel in developing ties in the region, and will he explore the opportunities that these new trade relationships could bring to our country?

Indeed I do join my right hon. Friend in wishing all Israelis a happy independence day. He is right to recognise the strong relationships that we have with the state of Israel. We welcome the normalisation of relations, which creates many opportunities for increased trade, tourism and cultural links as well. Britain is well placed to support Israel in this endeavour. Total trade between us was £4.9 billion in the year to September 2020, up from the previous year. We are building a framework for a new bilateral science partnership. In addition, the tech hub based in the British embassy in Tel Aviv continues to partner Israeli expertise with British companies, delivering significant benefits to the British economy.

Jobs in the North-west

What recent estimate she has made of the number of jobs in the north-west that are delivered by international trade. (914118)

Export activity helped support a further 472,000 jobs in the region through the consumption spending of export workers in the wider economy. In total, more than 1.1 million jobs—not a laughing matter, Mr Speaker—in the region are linked to exports in some way.

Napoleon said that Britain was a nation of shopkeepers; I want to say that Bolton is a town of exporters. I recently hosted the parliamentary export programme in Bolton North East, seeking to help Bolton businesses such as Ajax Equipment and Velden Engineering to take advantage of new trading relations. Across Greater Manchester, foreign direct investment and foreign capital investment are worth £37 billion to the local economy. What actions is the Minister taking to put Bolton North East at the forefront of the global stage when it comes to research and development?

It is as much my hon. Friend as me who is putting Bolton North East at the forefront. He has joined colleagues as a member of the parliamentary export programme, and I congratulate him on hosting a recent event. He will have seen that we are working hard to help Bolton North East companies take advantage of new global opportunities and promoting a strong north-west R&D offer to international investors through the high potential opportunities programme in frontier sectors such as molecular diagnostics, lightweighting and sustainable packaging.

Future Trade Deals: Human Rights Clauses

What recent discussions she has had with UK trade partners on inserting clauses on human rights into future trade deals. (914119)

What recent discussions she has had with UK trade partners on inserting clauses on human rights into future trade deals. (914129)

The UK has long supported the promotion of our values globally. We are clear that more trade does not have to come at the expense of human rights. Although our approach to agreements will vary between partners, our strong economic relationships allow us to have open discussions on a range of issues, including human rights and responsibilities.

In a leaked recording last month, the Foreign Secretary said he wants to do trade deals with countries that violate international standards on human rights, as not doing so would mean missing out on profit. Will the record now be set straight? Does the Minister recognise the remarks made by the Foreign Secretary as Government policy and is this the view shared by the Department for International Trade?

I think the hon. Lady has misquoted the Foreign Secretary in her account of what he said, but let me be absolutely clear that we will continue to encourage all states to uphold international human rights obligations. The UK has long supported the promotion of our values globally and remains absolutely committed to its international obligations. We are currently negotiating with Australia, New Zealand and the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership. They will all be important partners and they are all places that the UK will be engaging with when it comes to questions of maintenance and international support for global human rights.

I will make the Minister’s life a bit easier when answering the question. Last month, the Foreign Secretary explained that there were some countries whose behaviour on human rights put them “beyond the pale” when it comes to trade agreements, but that otherwise we should be open to deals with anyone. Can the Minister of State save us some time by listing those countries whose behaviour the Government regard as beyond the pale and those that they regard as acceptable?

Again, I will have to go back and see exactly what the Foreign Secretary said, but I think the hon. Gentleman’s interpretation of what he said is not quite right. Let us be absolutely clear. I ask him to have a look at the roll-over trade agreements we have already done with 66 countries and see if he can identify any diminution of human rights in the agreements we have already done.

Topical Questions

On 4 March, we struck a historic deal with the US Administration, heralding the end of the 16-year Airbus-Boeing dispute. The deal removes the 25% tariffs on some UK exports, such as Scotch whisky, cashmere and machinery. It paves the way for an even deeper trading relationship with one of our closest friends and allies. I continue to work with the US trade representative on the deal and on our broader trading relationship.

As co-chair of the all-party group for Fairtrade, may I please ask the Secretary of State what steps her Department is taking to make sure that our trade policies help and support Fairtrade farmers and growers across the world?

I congratulate my hon. Friend on his work on the all-party group. The UK is a long-standing supporter and champion of Fairtrade. We are opening up markets with developing countries such as Kenya and Ghana. We will shortly be launching our new general scheme of preferences, which will give more access to developing countries, helping them to grow through trade.

The New Zealand Government announced last month their policy towards countries such as the UK seeking to join the Trans-Pacific Partnership. They said: “New members…will need to comply with the existing…agreement. The text of the Agreement will not change. Current rules and obligations…will not change.” Is the Secretary of State concerned that that sounds very much like we will be rule-takers in the CPTPP, rather than rule-makers? (914265)

The UK is a country that follows the rules. We have very high standards in areas like the environment, animal welfare, food standards and intellectual property. It is in our interests to be in an agreement with high standards, so that we can ask the same of other countries and get access to their markets. That is the point of signing trade agreements.

As we follow the covid-19 road map and move from response to recovery, it is vital that we offer our small and medium-sized businesses the tools and support that they need to find new markets, grow their exports and spur on our economic growth. Will the Minister set out what steps the Department is taking to make sure that our SMEs are supported on the world stage? (914272)

My hon. Friend is quite right to highlight the importance of supporting SMEs precisely to get into that international business space. That is why we are developing a new export strategy. We have the developing Export Academy, with a range of toolkits and information to support small businesses. We have the internationalisation fund: £38 million of grants to help businesses to overcome any barriers to international trade. Last but not least, we have UK Export Finance, our award-winning credit agency, which has increasing numbers of staff not only across this United Kingdom, but across the world to make sure that SMEs, wherever they go, can be financed and supported to realise those opportunities, which are many.

Sixty per cent. of Wales’s exports have been to the EU and steel is of great importance. Given that the Government’s own Office for Budget Responsibility forecasts showed that the Brexit deal would lead to a 4% reduction in our GDP, and given that they are removing the safeguards on steel in June, does the Secretary of State accept that the overall amount and value of exports from Wales in the next five years will be less than it was in the previous five years due to the Government’s policies? (914266)

First, we are not removing the safeguards in June. When we were part of the EU, decisions about safeguards were made on an independent basis. Nobody on the Opposition side of the House complained about that then, but they seem to object to independent decisions being made when we are a sovereign nation, which I find utterly bizarre. And I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman’s pessimistic prognosis of the future of Welsh exports. We have massive opportunities for more beef exports, more lamb exports, more car exports and more aerospace exports, and that is what we are going to do through our new trade and investment hub in Cardiff. It is going to be driving those opportunities and I urge him to get behind it.

In Ipswich, we are fortunate to have an incredibly engaged local Indian community, many of whom run businesses sourcing goods coming from India. Also down the road, let us not forget, is Felixstowe, which takes in most of the goods that come in from India and then go around the rest of the country. Do the Government have any plans to closely engage with local communities, such as the Indian community in Ipswich, and possibly introduce cultural exchanges to bridge any cultural barriers there may be and therefore increase and boost trade between our country and our close friends, India? (914274)

I would be delighted to engage with the local Indian community in Ipswich and across the country, because I think we have huge opportunities to expand our trade with India. It is currently £24 billion, but it could be so much more. We are currently working on an enhanced trade partnership with the Indian Government and I look forward to engaging with my hon. Friend and the people of Ipswich to make it happen.

May I ask the Secretary of State if she understands the frustration of the Cheshire Cheese Company, whose co-founder, I understand, spoke to officials in her Department before Easter about the problems that they are facing exporting to the EU? Extraordinarily, instead of being given advice on how to fix the problem, they were advised to look for other emerging markets. Given the Secretary of State’s infamous passion for cheese, will she tell us whether her departmental officials could not have done better? (914267)

Since the announcement that Immingham and the Humber ports have been designated as a freeport and that their application scored high in every category, businesses from around my constituency have been contacting me to welcome the announcement. They see it as part of the Government’s global Britain policies. What plans does the Department have to ensure that they can benefit from the freeport and explore new markets? (914277)

Like my hon. Friend, I am celebrating the freeport, which will make a positive difference and from which businesses will be able to export all around the world. Our export academy, the new export strategy and other elements are all there to help them to make the most of it, as well as, of course, probably the most ambitious trade policy ever conducted by a major economy in history, which we are successfully prosecuting. If I may, Mr Speaker, I would also like to thank my hon. Friend for briefing me ahead of my visit to Serbia last week, prosecuting the case for British businesses, in his role as the Prime Minister’s trade envoy to the western Balkans.

It is now almost six weeks since the Government signed a trade agreement between the UK and Cameroon, which many of us want to read, to see how it will address the shocking human rights abuses taking place in that country. Will the Secretary of State explain why the agreement has not yet been laid before Parliament, and will she guarantee a debate when it is? (914269)

The text, and a parliamentary report and explanatory memorandum, will of course come before Parliament in due course. We wish to utilise the agreement to strengthen the trade ties between our two countries. I look forward to the Labour party supporting our agenda to create more jobs in every part of this country and in Cameroon.

I have been delighted to work with the excellent team at the Department of International Trade in setting up the parliamentary export programme in Wakefield, which several Wakefield businesses have joined. The programme has allowed them to learn the benefits of exporting under the free trade agreements that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and her excellent, dynamic team have signed thus far. With more free trade agreements to be ratified, including with blocs such as the CPTPP, can my right hon. Friend outline to the House what benefits these new agreements will bring to businesses in Wakefield and across West Yorkshire? (914280)

I thank my hon. Friend for promoting the trade agenda so effectively in Wakefield. He is quite right that free trade agreements have a crucial role to play in enabling the UK to seize international opportunities to support that economic vision. Joining CPTPP now will benefit businesses in a number of ways, including through ambitious rules supporting digital trade and reduced tariffs on UK exports, enabling us to build back better and building more opportunities for businesses, supporting jobs in constituencies such as Wakefield.

In its annual report on human rights around the world, Amnesty International says that the UK Government’s increasingly hostile attitude towards upholding and preserving human rights legislation raises “serious concerns”. Indeed, the report specifically cited the resumption of the sale of new licences for military exports to Saudi Arabia. Does the Minister agree with Amnesty International’s conclusion that this shameful move has contributed to the UK’s“headlong rush into abandoning...human rights”? (914275)

Not at all. We have always been clear that more trade need not come at the expense of our values, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State made clear earlier today. We have one of the most robust systems of arms export controls in the world and have always been clear that we will only permit exports on a case-by-case basis where the consolidated criteria are upheld.

Will my right hon. Friend set out what progress her Department is making on meeting the 2.3% public sector apprenticeship target and when it will meet it, and also say what she is doing to encourage all the businesses that she speaks to about international trade to employ apprentices? (914288)

I commend my right hon. Friend for his work to promote apprenticeships, first in the Government and then as Chair of the Education Committee. It is too early to have final figures for 2021, but we are confident of achieving the legislative target set, building on our previous performance. According to Cabinet Office statistics, DIT achieved 3.5% of its total workforce in England as apprenticeship starts in 2019-20, up from 1.1% the year before, easily clearing the target of 2.3%.

I am now suspending the House for three minutes to enable the necessary arrangements to be made for the next business.

Sitting suspended.

University Students: Compensation for Lost Teaching and Rent

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Education, if he will make a statement on the return date given to university students and his Department’s plans to provide financial compensation to university students for lost teaching and rent during the coronavirus pandemic.

This Government recognise just how difficult the past year has been for students. Since the arrival of new and highly transmissible variants, we have had to adopt a cautious approach, in line with the wider restrictions. In January, we enabled only students on critical key worker courses to return, and from 8 March we allowed practical and creative students to resume face-to-face teaching. This week, we have announced that the final tranche of students will be able to return on 17 May, subject to step 3 of the road map. This decision was made, as promised, following a review during the Easter holidays. I understand the frustrations of students and parents; the pandemic has disproportionately impacted our young. That is one of the key reasons why we have worked with universities to ensure that education carried on throughout and that students can graduate on time.

Many things are indeed opening up in step 2, but most are outside and social mixing remains focused outside, and they do not involve the formation of new households. We know that, inside, the risk of transmission increases with the number of people mixing and the length of time they are together, which is why we are being cautious until stage 3.

The Office for National Statistics estimates that 23% of students are yet to return to their termtime accommodation, which still leaves up to 500,000 students yet to travel. Throughout the pandemic, the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies has warned of the risk posed by the mass movement of students, especially given that they form new households.

At the heart of our decision was public health, but also student wellbeing. The last thing any of us wants is for students to have to repeatedly self-isolate, as some did last autumn. That would not only have been damaging to their mental health and wellbeing, but would have risked the ability to graduate of some students studying creative and practical subjects.

This decision was taken not in isolation, but as part of the Government’s overall road map to reopening. Every relaxation—even those with a low impact and low risk—will have an impact, so we have to judge the impact of these relaxations cumulatively to ensure that the road map is irreversible.

The Government do recognise the financial pressures the pandemic has placed on students in the financial sense, including accommodation costs. That is why, this week, we have announced an additional £15 million, on top of the £70 million since last December and the £256 million of taxpayer funding that we enabled universities to access for hardship.

It is important to clarify that the exemptions still apply to students who need to return to their term-time accommodation for mental health reasons or because of a lack of study space. We have asked universities to make their facilities available to all students who are back, to support their mental health and wellbeing.

I end by assuring the House that I will continue to work closely with universities so that, together, we can support students, and especially those who will graduate this year.

About 36 hours ago, around 1 million students who have still not returned to university since Christmas were told that they should not expect to do so until at least 17 May. Before that announcement, it seemed that the Government had forgotten them altogether, and now we have proof that they had, because for many students that date comes after their courses have actually finished.

This feels like a final, end-of-term insult to university students, who have had months of not being able to use libraries or labs, months without taking part in student societies or extracurricular activities, months of paying rent for accommodation that they could not use and months without being able to work, with some falling behind on rent and bills and needing to feed themselves from food banks. Is it any wonder that more than 50% of students say their mental health has got worse?

Students must be fairly compensated, both financially for rent and fees and with support to recover the learning time they have lost. The Government must more than double the funds for those facing hardship to £700 million, as suggested by the all-party parliamentary group for students.

Universities across the country have worked really hard. They have adapted to deliver courses online and invested considerable sums in doing so. However, the higher education sector is already facing huge financial uncertainty, so it is clear that universities alone cannot be expected to compensate students. The Government must step in. Will the Minister consider conducting a rapid review of the impact of the pandemic on university students and giving that review the powers to make recommendations on how students should be reimbursed by the Government in financial and learning terms? Will she consider calls to double the funds available to students facing financial hardship to £700 million? Finally, will she say sorry for the Government’s role in wrecking the last academic year for so many young people?

I will address the hon. Member’s first point regarding 17 May. She is correct to say that some students will have reached, or will be approaching, the end of their course. However, a great number will not, and it is important to give them the opportunity to get back, for the wider university experience as well.

In regard to monitoring the impact on students, we constantly do that, and have done so throughout the pandemic, and I will ensure that we continue to do so. On financial support, we have now given an additional £85 million, which is targeted at those most in need and getting the money into their pockets. On the impact of the pandemic, yes, we all know how challenging it has been and continues to be for students, and that is why students have had a disrupted year.

In 2018, just 12.3% of the most disadvantaged pupils in England were accepted into higher education institutions. The Minister’s passion and mine is to ensure that more people from disadvantaged backgrounds attend higher education, but does she agree that the proposal by Hull University to drop the requirement for students to demonstrate a high-level proficiency in written and spoken English is entirely the wrong way to go about that? It is patronising and counterproductive. Is it not better for universities to work with schools and colleges to ensure that all pupils reach the required standards of literacy to secure places on quality degree courses and degree apprenticeships?

I agree with my right hon. Friend; I am appalled by the decision of some universities to drop literacy standards in assessments—that is misguided and it is dumbing down standards. That will never help disadvantaged students. Instead, the answer is to lift up standards and provide high-quality education. I assure him that we will act on this, in line with our manifesto commitments on quality.

Last week, there was an exam-room silence from the Government on when universities would return, with students, their families and university staff learning from newspapers what was only announced to this House days later: that many students would not return to campus until 17 May. Why has this announcement come so late, and why was it briefed to the newspapers instead of being announced to those affected? Does the Minister not see that this is deeply disrespectful to the students and staff alike? For weeks, we have had students studying technical and creative subjects safely, thanks to the incredible work of universities and staff, and for many weeks students have been back in further education settings, so will the Minister explain why further and higher education settings have been treated so differently? Her written statement ignored the work of universities and the existing situation in colleges, and offered no evidence to support this approach. So will she tell us what the scientific basis was for this decision, and will she commit to publishing this advice today, so that she is at least forthcoming with students and the sector?

The Minister announced a further £15 million this year for hardship funding. Further support is clearly needed, but, once again, the Government are simply not working to the scale of the challenge. The funding offered to students in England is far smaller than that offered by the Labour Government in Wales. Will the Minister tell us why her Government believe that students in England need so much less than those elsewhere? At every stage of this pandemic, children, young people and students have been an afterthought for this Government, let down time and again. Will the Minister finally admit that these young people have been failed and tell the House what she will do to address it?

I agree with the hon. Gentleman that it has been an extremely challenging and disruptive year for students, and I assure him that students have never been and will never be an afterthought for this Government. In fact, this week we made a statement regarding the details of the plan for the remainder of students returning. We conducted a review over the Easter holidays, as we had publicly announced we would do, and we wanted to maximise the amount of time we had to review the data. The announcement made on 5 April was regarding the things that would open up in step 2.

On further education and schools, the difference is that these youngsters do not go and form new households, nor do they travel across the country. On the data we have reviewed, we have considered the latest epidemiology data, alongside public health, economic, educational and other implications of the return. A wealth of data, papers and evidence is and will continue to be published.

I thank my hon. Friend for the extensive time that I know she has personally devoted to ensuring that students from my constituency get a fair deal from their universities, on a case-by-case basis. But given that universities are autonomous and independent of Government, does she agree that the example set by the best universities, which have been very proactive in ensuring students are treated appropriately, should be seen as an example for the others to follow, so that we ensure that all students who have not received the services in education or accommodation they paid for are fairly dealt with by those institutions?

University staff have worked exceptionally hard over the past year to enable students to continue learning, and I want to take this opportunity to once again thank them for that. If students do have concerns, they should raise them with their university, which has a duty, under consumer rights, to have a transparent and timely complaints process. They can then escalate that to the Office of the Independent Adjudicator if they remain unsatisfied

I wonder whether the Universities Minister can help me respond to a query I have had this morning from a constituent, who asks me why his siblings can return to in-person teaching in school and college, he can get a haircut and he can return to his part-time job in non-essential retail, but he cannot return to his university to continue his studies in person until after this academic year of teaching has finished. Student debt after graduating from an undergraduate degree is, on average, £40,000. Peter asks me why he is paying £9,250 a year for in-person teaching that has not materialised this year.

I assure the hon. Member that we are confident that in-person teaching and learning can be delivered in covid-secure environments, but the area of concern has and always will be the movement of students and the formation of new households, which does not occur in schools and further education colleges. Many of the things that we are opening up in stage 2 focus on being outside. Social mixing remains focused on being outside. The key thing is that they do not involve the formation of a new household. Throughout the entire process, we have been clear that students should still expect the quality of education, the quantity of provision and for it to be accessible for all.

As university courses remain primarily online until the middle of next month to control the spread of coronavirus, will the Minister confirm that universities continue to be expected to deliver the same quality and quantity of online learning as they have throughout the year? Will she encourage universities to extend their teaching and reviews so that students may experience classroom learning before their exams?

The Government do indeed expect the quantity and quality of teaching to be maintained and to continue to be accessible for all, whether it is delivered in person or online. Quality is in fact an Office for Students registration condition, and students who have concerns may notify the OfS. I thank all higher education staff, who have worked tirelessly throughout, enabling students to continue their learning.

Laura Halliwell and Isaac Grinnell are two university students on student placement schemes in my office. They have both raised concerns about their peers’ experiences during this academic year about lost teaching, mental health pressures and accommodation rent payments. As many students have been unable to go to their universities this year, missing out on teaching and the many other opportunities such as student societies and mental health services, why does the Minister think it is okay to charge £9,250 for university tuition fees this year?

I would like to clarify that the Government do not charge £9,250 for tuition fees; universities do, as autonomous institutions. The Government set the maximum level at which universities may continue to charge. Every university has opted to do that and, in return, we have said that we expect the quantity and quality of provision to be maintained, and for that to be accessible for all. If students have concerns, they should take it to their university and, if they remain unsatisfied, go to the OIA, which can lead and has led to fee refunds. No one, however, is doubting how challenging and different the past year has been for students.

Professor Whitty has said that the risk to 19 to 22-year-olds is very low. Professor Valance has said that the return of universities in the previous wave was not associated with transmission into the towns in which they are located. We know that universities are some of the best settings in the country for rigorous testing. Ten million pupils at schools and colleges went back on 8 March without incident. So why are these precious weeks for university students being lost to them, despite the evidence that we now have? Will my hon. Friend think again about this date? Every week is precious in the limited periods that people have at university. There are questions about careers guidance for people about to graduate. Will she look again at the evidence and if, as I suspect it justifies doing so, bring forward the return date?

We have continued to review the evidence. We did a comprehensive review over Easter, taking advice from the likes of the Deputy Chief Medical Officer and the Chief Medical Officer and looking at the advice from SAGE, the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies. I agree with my right hon. Friend that it is disappointing that we cannot get students back earlier and it is a very difficult situation for the students involved, but we cannot move too fast, too soon. That would risk a resurgence in infections, hospitalisations and deaths. We are talking about the mass movement of, potentially, up to 500,000 students forming new households.

I thank the Minister for her reply to the urgent question. Are there plans to ensure that the help towards bills that students studying in Northern Ireland were able to access under the covid study disruption payment scheme rolled out by the Department for the Economy in Northern Ireland will be replicated in mainland UK for Northern Ireland students studying here, so that they have financial aid to offset their huge bills for minimal interaction and teaching?

The scheme in Northern Ireland has aimed to support those in financial hardship, as we have, but what we have done is slightly different. We have distributed £70 million and now an additional £15 million—a total of £85 million—of hardship money to universities to help those most in need, including international and postgraduate students. That is the process we have used to get money into the pockets of those most in need.

I have been contacted by some university students from Stoke-on-Trent North, Kidsgrove and Talke who have felt the closure of universities more acutely from the additional costs of alternative accommodation, loss of employment and the extra costs of accessing teaching online. Can my hon. Friend assure me that the £85 million in total support being made available will deliver tangible help to those left financially struggling?

I agree with my hon. Friend, and that is why we are focused on getting money into the pockets of the students who need it now. Universities have flexibility in how they distribute this funding in a way that will best prioritise those in need, but it must be spent on supporting students, including international students, postgraduate students and domestic undergraduate students. My message to any student listening is that if they need help, they should approach their university and ask for it. There is no stigma attached.

I have been inundated with messages from students and their families who are really worried about the impossible position they are in, having suffered huge restrictions to their education and social life and facing a mountain of student debt. Do the Government have a proper plan to address that? Can we put some energy into fighting for these young people?

I assure the hon. Member that I have put energy into fighting for these students. That is exactly why I prioritised ensuring that they can graduate on time, in creative and practical subjects, and that we can support them financially, particularly those who are in hardship. Again, I urge any student who is facing hardship to approach their university. These are really difficult times for students and their families, and as we navigate through the pandemic, we hope that there is light at the end of the tunnel and that next year will be much easier for students.

Bucks New University in Wycombe will want to be in a position to address the logical inconsistency that has come up several times in the House, which is that students cannot return to university but can go to non-essential retail, including to work in it. I have listened carefully to what my hon. Friend has said. Is the heart of the matter that students returning to university form new households? Is that what the Government are really worried about?

We had to make this decision on balance in relation to all the things that we were relaxing, because everything—even something with the slightest risk—could impact our pathway out of the pandemic. My hon. Friend is right: one of our key concerns was the mass movement of students—potentially up to 500,000 additional students—across England and the UK and the formation of new households.

Last month, I held an open meeting with students in my constituency. They raised issues including financial hardship—current funding is wholly inadequate—and mental wellbeing, lack of planning, tuition fees, rent, professional accreditation and digital exclusion. This is not a question of consumer rights, as the Minister suggests; it is a question of students’ futures after the pandemic. I have written to the Secretary of State, but what does the Minister say to students in Newcastle upon Tyne Central who feel wholly abandoned by this Government?

Once again, I reiterate that the Government appreciate how difficult and challenging this has been for students. It has not been the university experience that any of us would have wanted for them, and that is why we are working with universities to build back on the student experience as soon as they return. We are also working on a package of support for those who are graduating this year.

I have asked universities throughout the pandemic to prioritise mental health, setting up Student Space with the OfS, which is a £3 million additional platform, and setting up a working group and a Department for Education action group co-chaired by the Minister for Children and Families. We have now dedicated an additional £50 million to mental health via the OfS through the teaching grant next year. This is a priority for the Government, and we recognise the impact that the pandemic has had on the wellbeing and mental health of students.

Every MP will have heard from constituents that, compared with previous years, the quality and quantity of provision for students since March 2020 has not be maintained. That is certainly my experience. The Government have done a remarkable and world-leading job in supporting businesses, families and all sorts of people across the country through the pandemic. Surely they can find a way simply to write off the student loans borrowed in 2020-21. It will not solve the whole of the problem, but it is a significant step that will support students and remind them that we are on their side and that we have hope for their future.

I would like to remark on the resilience of students during this pandemic. University staff have worked tirelessly to ensure that students did not have to put their academic journeys or their lives on hold. We have seen some fantastic and innovative examples of this approach, but the Government have been clear throughout that we expect the quality, quantity and accessibility of tuition to be maintained. We have targeted our financial support to those in hardship and in getting cash into the pockets of those who need it. Any loan rebates would not achieve that.

We all understand the need for caution, but we have heard that the problem seems to be about the formation of new households and so on. May I urge the Minister to talk to universities, because not all universities are the same? The timings of terms and the patterns of accommodation are not all the same. Rather than have this fixed, hard “No, it can’t be done until 17 May”, can we not try to look for some solutions? Will she talk to Universities UK about what can be done to help?

I regularly engage with universities. Just yesterday, I spoke to Universities UK and also held a taskforce with university sector representatives. We need an approach that is fair across the board to students, and also that is workable and deliverable. The hon. Member is quite right, every university and higher education institution is slightly different, so it would be impossible to create a bespoke, detailed model. Our goal has always been to get all of the student population back as quickly as we possibly can.

Students across Arundel and South Downs have told me of their disappointment with this week’s announcement. Will the Minister confirm that those students with inadequate study space or mental health or wellbeing issues may return now to their term-time address and that universities have been asked to open facilities such as libraries, catering and gyms to support those who have returned?

My hon. Friend is correct. Universities should support the return of students for mental health reasons and those who have inadequate study spaces. Universities can now reopen a number of facilities, so we have asked them to allow access to all students who are back in term-time accommodation, to safeguard both student wellbeing and to prevent isolation.

The inquiry of the all-party parliamentary group for students in January received testimony from hundreds who felt that they had been overlooked: losing the income on which they depend from casual jobs that have disappeared and ineligible for the support available to other workers; paying rent for accommodation that they cannot use; and missing learning experiences despite the best efforts of universities and their staff. The Minister knows that the Government’s response in February and again on Tuesday fell far short of what was needed. Students in Northern Ireland have received support worth more than £500 each, in Wales £300, in Scotland £80, and in England just £43.70. Does she understand why students describe themselves as being forgotten?

The difference is that we have started from a position of unlocking £256 million so that universities can support hardship. That is on top of the new money of £85 million that we have now dedicated. We cannot look at it on a per-student basis. We are very open and honest that this is not a per-student calculation; this is a targeted fund to support those most in need. Universities UK has estimated, and its studies show, that, on average, hardship funding is about £1,000 for each student. I do not want any student in England to feel forgotten. This Government have certainly not forgotten them, and we wholeheartedly accept how difficult and challenging the past year has been for them.

North Devon is the first place in England to record no covid cases for a week this year, and our students are keen to return to campus. Will my hon. Friend detail what measures are in place to ensure that they can do so safely, as they will inevitably be travelling to an area with higher rates of infection?

Universities continue to make significant investments in student and staff safety—including updated risk assessments, assessments of adequate ventilation and covid-secure measures such as mandatory social distancing, hand washing and face coverings—and testing is available to all students, who should currently be tested twice a week at their university test centre. From 17 May, we will move to home testing, with students first asked to take three PCR tests at their university test centre.[Official Report, 20 April 2021, Vol. 692, c. 4MC.]

For my constituent Harry Wild, who faces finals in June, May is too late. Given that pubs, shops, barbers and gyms are now open, why is he still forking out £9,250, plus accommodation, for no direct staff contact? Doing a head of highlights requires far more close contact than distanced content delivery, which is happening in the Chamber as we speak. Is Harry being penalised for studying in England? In Labour Wales, hybrid blended learning is already happening on campus.

We are confident that in-person teaching and learning can be delivered in a covid-secure environment; the area of concern has been and always will be the mass movement of students and the formation of new households. As the hon. Member pointed out, many things are indeed opening up, but most of them are outside and involve social mixing outside, and the key thing is that they do not involve the formation of new households.

I thank the Minister for her work throughout the pandemic to support students from Redcar and Cleveland and those studying at Teesside University. Just like in all walks of life, regular testing will be vital to getting life at universities back to normal. Can she confirm that no student will have to pay for covid tests to return to their studies?

I can indeed. I agree with my hon. Friend that testing plays an important part in mitigating the risk of transmission and assure him that under no circumstances will any student have to incur financial costs as a result of participating in our testing programme.

I am very concerned about the mental health of students who are still not back at university. I am conscious that the university experience is about way more than lectures and tutorials—at least, it was for me. Will my hon. Friend please update the House on what we are doing to support the mental health of students who are not yet back at university?

My hon. Friend is right: the wider student experience has been extremely impacted over the last year, despite the hard work of universities and student unions. UUK is sharing best practice and ideas to support universities to prioritise and enrich the student experience on return, and we are working with UUK on that.

Throughout the pandemic, I have reiterated to universities the importance of prioritising mental health and wellbeing and worked with them to enable that, including by convening a mental health working group. We have also worked closely with the OfS and launched Student Space, a £3 million mental health platform through which students can access support during the pandemic.

Time spent away from in-person learning has had a particularly damaging impact on students from deprived and disadvantaged backgrounds. Goldsmiths, University of London has raised with me its concerns about the widening gap between students from wealthy backgrounds, who have networks to help them to find jobs beyond university, and those from low-income families, who do not. To ensure that the gap in social mobility does not hold students back in the job market, what steps will the Minister take to make sure that tailored careers support and advice are provided?

We are currently working with universities and sector representatives on a package of support for those who will graduate this year. It is important to note that we have already done a number of things, including putting an additional £32 million into the national careers service. The number of work coaches in this country is now up to 27,000, and we have the skills toolkit, which is a fantastic free resource that enables students or graduates to access courses that will add to their employability.

Has the Minister’s Department done any assessment of the impact on the levels of attainment and grades that might be achieved in finals this year? If it is less than normal, will some sort of gearing be put into the system to ensure that students are not penalised by the fact that they have had to do so much work away from the university, without the advantage of attending a library, for instance?

Universities are autonomous institutions and all run their own assessments, so every single one of them is different in this respect. However, the Government are advocating that they introduce policies that mitigate some of the impact of the pandemic and that they are fair in doing so. Some have chosen to introduce no-detriment policies, for instance. However, this will not work in all cases—for example, if a university does not have enough information to do a no-detriment policy, or if the regulatory body that accredits the course is against that. My understanding from my work with universities is that they are on the whole being extremely flexible and accommodating for students and appreciate the sheer scale of the challenges that students have faced over the last year. I will continue to monitor the situation and work with universities on this.

There is increasing concern from students who have not been able to take many of the part-time jobs that they would otherwise have been able to. They are not eligible for much of the Government support and they are having to continue to pay rent. Some universities have been good, of course, but the private sector has not been. Is it not now time for the Government to have serious plans to address this hardship, as we have seen in Wales, and not just the pittance that has been given, on a discretionary basis, to students, many of whom are not able to access it properly?

It is important to remember that we have unlocked £256 million of taxpayers’ money for universities to access to support those in hardship, and we have allocated an additional £85 million. It is right that we have targeted that to those who are most in need, rather than allocating it as a blanket payment, which would have diluted the support available to those who genuinely need it at the moment. Once again, I reiterate my message to any student who is facing hardship: please come forward to your university and access that help. That includes international students and postgraduate students.

I thank the Minister for literally being on call on evenings and weekends to answer any questions we have had on universities on a case-by-case basis. University should be some of the best days of your life. I know that the hon. Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Cat Smith) will join me in thinking the same, given our shared time in Lancaster. However, the past year has raised severe mental health issues for everyone, as we have heard. What conversations is the Minister having with education providers to support students’ health, mental health and wellbeing when they return?

My hon. Friend touches on a really important point. Throughout this pandemic I have reiterated to universities and sector bodies the importance of prioritising student wellbeing and mental health and moving that provision online in tandem with academic provision. I convened a working group to enable this. I have worked with the OfS to launch Student Space—a £3 million mental health project. We continue to evaluate the situation. We have also launched an action group with the Under-Secretary of State for Education, my hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford (Vicky Ford), looking at mental health across the spectrum of education, because these challenges are not going away and we need to continue to support students throughout this period.

I have two privately run student accommodation blocks in my constituency, which in normal times are home to hundreds of students from London’s top universities. Because of the travel restrictions and physical closure, they have had to live elsewhere for most of the year, but they still continue to pay the rent. These students have exhausted all means, including discussions with their accommodation provider, and they have been looking at trying to terminate their contracts or to be offered a rent reduction, but to no avail. They have been put into an impossible position, having faced huge restrictions on their education and their social life, but they are still paying rent. All they want is a fair deal from their accommodation provider. What plans do the Government have to address this?

We have urged accommodation providers to have students’ best interests at heart, to review their policies and to give refunds where they can, and a number have done so, including a plethora of universities and private providers such as Unite. The hardship money is there for those students who have faced a situation where they cannot access a refund. I again urge all students to access that, particularly if accommodation pressures are putting them in financial difficulties.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on the excellent work she has done in supporting students and universities across this very difficult period. Clearly, students are now consumers—consumers enabled to demand the best from their universities—and the key point here is getting value for money. I know that she is trying to do that. Can she also state the position in relation to international students? Many universities are wholly dependent now on the income from international students. What advice is being given to those students, who are equally consumers of our education?

The Government’s expectations are clear: universities should maintain the quality, quantity and accessibility of provision. If a student, whether international or domestic, is unhappy, they can utilise the OfS notifications procedure to pre-empt a review, or make a formal complaint to their university. If they are still unsatisfied, they can go to the OIA, which can lead to fee refunds and has done in the past.

The latest ONS statistics show that around three quarters of students are already back in their term-time accommodation. Does the Minister agree that the Government’s failure to provide any information or guidance whatsoever until so very late in the day meant that many students travelled unnecessarily in anticipation of starting back after Easter?

We have continued to give guidance and advice to students throughout. We wanted to give the maximum period possible to review the data because our objective has always been to get students back as soon as we possibly can. At every stage, we have written to students and communicated with them via universities, but I do get how challenging it is and how disappointing it will be for some students not to be able to resume face-to-face teaching until 17 May.

It is telling that the first step on the roadmap was education, so we know how seriously the Government take that subject. Will the Minister confirm that the highest rates of transmission among students are in university halls of residence and house sharing, so, regrettable as it is to have to delay the recommencement, it is simply a fact that we have to ensure the safety of this nation and that case rates continue to be suppressed?

The Government have committed to taking a cautious approach to easing restrictions, guided by the data instead of dates. Encouraging students on non-practical courses to return to in-person teaching will potentially lead to a significant number of students forming new households from across the country—up to 500,000—and enabling this to proceed too early may result in significant, higher numbers of infection and could increase the risk of students having to repeatedly self-isolate, which I am sure none of us would want.

I thank the Minister for responding to the urgent question; there were 29 questions in just over 40 minutes. We will now suspend for a short period.

11.12 am

Sitting suspended.

Business of the House

The business for the week commencing 19 April will include:

Monday 19 April —Consideration in Committee of the Finance Bill (Day 1).

Tuesday 20 April —Continuation of consideration in Committee of the Finance Bill (Day 2).

Wednesday 21 April—Motion to approve a statutory instrument relating to counter terrorism, followed by consideration of Lords amendments to the Overseas Operations (Service Personnel and Veterans) Bill, followed by a debate on the sixth report from the Committee on Standards relating to confidentiality in the House’s standards system and the seventh report from the Committee on Standards relating to sanctions in respect of the conduct of Members, followed by a motion relating to membership of the Parliamentary Works Sponsor Body.

Thursday 22 April—Debate on the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, eight report of Session 2019-21, on Government Transparency and Accountability During Covid 19: The Data Underpinning Decisions, followed by a debate on a motion on mass human rights abuses and crimes against humanity in the Xinjiang Uyghur autonomous region. The subjects for those debates were determined by the Backbench Business Committee.

Friday 23April—The House will not be sitting.

The provisional business for the week commencing 26 April will include:

Monday 26 April —If necessary, consideration of Lords amendments, followed by a motion to approve the Warm Home Discount (Miscellaneous Amendments) Regulations 2021; followed by a motion to approve the Money Laundering and Terrorist Financing (Amendment) (High-Risk Countries) Regulations 2020 (S.I., 2021, No.392); followed by a motion relating to the Health Protection (Coronavirus, International Travel) (England) (Amendment) (No.7) Regulations 2021 (S.I., 2021, No.150).

Follow that, as they say. I thank the Leader of the House for the business. I note that there is the possibility of proroguing on 29 April, and we only have the business up until the 26th, so we look forward to a further announcement.

I start by sending my condolences and those of Opposition Members who have not had the opportunity to send them to our Gracious Sovereign and her family on the sad passing of His Royal Highness the Duke of Edinburgh, Prince Philip. We must remember him not just as the Queen’s consort but as a husband of 73 years. I know that the country will want to remember his good works, his deeds and his wonderful personality as he is laid to rest on Saturday. May he rest in peace.

Yet again, we have to have the Prime Minister come back to clarify his remarks. Yesterday, he said at Primeand Ethnic Disparities, but it is a Government report. They set it up: it is out of No. 10 and out of the Cabinet Office. It is totally discredited, as at least 20 organisations and individuals listed as stakeholders have distanced themselves from the report.

It is not clear what this took into account because the 2017 McGregor-Smith report, commissioned by the then Business Secretary, the right hon. Member for Bromsgrove (Sajid Javid), on race in the workplace, said:

“In the UK today, there is a structural, historical bias that favours certain individuals.”

The racism at work survey published in 2019 said that over 70% of black, Asian and minority ethnic workers had been racially harassed at work in the last five years. Between October and December, 41% of black people aged 16 to 24 were out of work compared with 12.4% of their white counterparts. Forty years on from the Brixton riots, black unemployment for that quarter was at the same level as it was as in 1980s. I urge the Leader of the House: please could we have a debate in Government time on the report? There are too many unanswered questions.

Today marks 32 years since the Hillsborough disaster, and the families have worked tirelessly in campaigning for an inquiry, and that is why it is important to get the inquiry right on the Greensill debacle. I do not know whether the Government think the country is stupid, but we are absolutely incredulous at asking a person who serves as a non-executive in the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy to lead the inquiry. The Minister for the Constitution and Devolution said yesterday that she has had to suspend him as a non-exec. The legal profession is brimming full of talent in lawyers with absolutely no connection with the Government, BEIS or anything. Why do we not have one of them?

The Prime Minister said yesterday that it is a difficult line with the civil service and “boundaries” are blurred—that was his word—but, no, civil servants do not have two jobs. A secondment is a temporary assignment. Yes, they should get the experience of both places—the private sector and the civil service—but not at the same time. This is an abuse of power. The Government are only making appointments when it is “one of us”—one of them—just as they are doing with the board of Channel 4.

It matters because this is about public money, and public money cannot be found for NHS workers and their agreed 2.1%, but it can be found for Greensill. It matters because council tax payers have to stump up £100 now, yet Greensill is bailed out. It matters because, as the shadow Chancellor said, Greensill met Treasury officials 10 times, whereas those excluded—entrepreneurs, small businesses, the self-employed—have got nothing out of these schemes and met Treasury officials once. It matters because this is public money and it should be used in the public interest. It is like having Lex Luthor in the heart of Government, but I want to tell the Government that there is no kryptonite on the Opposition Benches, and we will fight for truth, justice and the British way of fairness.

I know that the Leader of the House talks about transparency and accountability all the time, and I know he tries very hard to do that. He has seen the way Simon Case has acted—immediately—on the civil servants, so why has Sir Alex Allan’s post not been filled and when will the statements covering relevant ministerial interests be published? We should have had two a year, but the last one was in December 2019. I think the Government will look sleazy if they do not publish them. Former Prime Ministers released quarterly lists of donors meetings. I think the Government will look sleazy if they do not publish that, so I ask the Leader of the House: when could we have those published?

To coin a phrase, can I ask the Leader of the House to push the team at the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office for an update on Nazanin and Anoosheh, who has had a 67th birthday in prison? They are all in Vienna discussing it, and we need an update.

We have lost some incredible people in the House, and I want to pay tribute to Dame Cheryl Gillan. I worked with her on the all-party parliamentary group on epilepsy. She brought to the House and put on the statute book the Autism Act 2009, which means we value people on the spectrum and know they have hidden talents. She did that through her tireless campaigning for 29 years as a Member of Parliament. We will not forget; it seems like only yesterday that she was berating the Leader of the House for changing the hybrid procedure.

Ian Gibson was a geneticist and a former MP for Norwich North from 1997 to 2009. He was Chair of the Science and Technology Select Committee and joint manager of the parliamentary football team. I met him through the Manufacturing, Science and Finance union. He was so kind to people starting off on their political journey.

James Winston was valued and respected across both Houses and by all parts of the Chamber. He worked with Members in pursuit of peace and reconciliation in Northern Ireland, and we mourn his loss, especially at this time.

Then there is Shirley Williams—Baroness Williams. Despite being the daughter of George Catlin and Vera Brittain, she managed to carve her own way. She was absolutely brilliant as an Education Secretary and as a parliamentarian in both Houses. I saw her when I was at university. She really was, as the magazine headline said, “Sweet Williams”. She was wonderful and would have made a great future Prime Minister, as her father once suggested. She screen-tested for the “National Velvet” film, and I want to say something positive at the end: Rachael Blackmore should be congratulated on being the first woman to win the Grand National.

Finally, we cannot process this year, but I hope the whole House will join me in wishing all the Sikh community a happy Vaisakhi.

I join the right hon. Lady in wishing the Sikh community a happy Vaisakhi. I also join her in commemorating so many people who have died. This is a particularly sad business questions, because there are so many people of the greatest distinction to commemorate.

The House paid its tribute to the Duke of Edinburgh, the longest serving consort and the longest serving member of the Privy Council in the Privy Council’s history. The tributes were extremely touching and represented the heartfelt sorrow of the nation at the passing of someone who supported our constitution and our way of life.

We are all saddened by the death of a Member, Dame Cheryl Gillan, who was just such a lovely person. She came to some of the meetings held in the run-up to the various Brexit debates. She was always advising goodwill, kindliness and respect for the views of others with steely principles underlying that. That degree of kindliness as well as sense of purpose is something that we respect in Members of Parliament, but also have great affection for, and I think that is important, too.

We also mourn Peter Ainsworth, who was one of the first people to come and campaign for me when I was selected as the candidate for North East Somerset. He was a committed supporter of the party. The right hon. Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz) also mentioned Ian Gibson, a distinguished former Member, and James Winston. There is also Robert Howarth and Paul Marland, who was a long-serving Member of Parliament. He was very much thought of as being a dutiful Member, who served his country in the traditional way that people like me perhaps have the greatest admiration for. Of course there is also Baroness Williams of Crosby, and I hope I will have an opportunity to say a little more about her later on in proceedings. On a happier note, I congratulate Rachael Blackmore on winning the Grand National, but it is mainly a sad day, and that is one bit of solace and happiness.

To come to the right hon. Lady’s detailed questions, she raises some very important points. The report of the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities is very important and makes an important contribution to the debate. It has made 24 recommendations, which the Government are considering. I think it is right that we look at the progress made in this country and recognise how different the experience in this country is from the United States, rather than assuming that everything here is the same as the many problems they have in other countries. We should recognise success as well as understanding that we always have further to go. The fundamental recognition that there is equality under the law for everybody in this country is something that we can welcome and ought to be positive about. I am sure that this matter will be discussed in this House on many occasions and raised in many different ways, because it is a subject of fundamental importance about the type of country we are.

The right hon. Lady raises serious questions about Greensill Capital and the relationships between it and Government. It is right that the review is taking place under Nigel Boardman to understand primarily, as a starting point, the use of supply chain finance. Until we understand where it started—why the Government were using supply chain finance, which prima facie is something that we would not think a Government would do—we cannot understand what has happened subsequently, so it is the right review to be taking place.

Mr Boardman is highly respected. He is a non-executive director of BEIS. He has stood aside from that during the period of this inquiry, but he is a very distinguished lawyer and I think that he will bring considerable expertise to the report. It is right that this matter is looked at fairly and properly, and it will also be looked at by a number of House of Commons Committees, which will do so with the full power and authority of the House of Commons and the ability to send for persons and papers.

The right hon. Lady is right to say that public money should be used wisely and properly. In that context, she is not right to say that Greensill was bailed out, because it was not. That is the whole point: the lobbying was done, but the lobbying did not succeed. I think that is something that should reassure us about the propriety of the way this Government are run. Who someone knows and how they are connected does not mean that they get what they want. That, ultimately, is the test of whether a Government are operating properly, and this Government are operating properly.

There are still pockets of my Congleton constituency, in both the rural areas and the towns, where constituents struggle to get access to fibre broadband, or indeed access to broadband or the internet at all. The pandemic has, of course, highlighted how crucial this is, not least for those in education or business, so may I press the Leader of the House to clarify what progress is being made towards fulfilling our manifesto commitment to ensure that everyone can have access to full-fibre broadband?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that question because I, like her, represent a rural constituency, and this is so important for our constituents. I am glad to report that over 96% of all premises in the United Kingdom can access superfast broadband, thanks to the success of the Government’s superfast broadband programme, meaning that the UK has one of the highest levels of rural superfast connectivity in Europe.

However, the Government are aware that we need to upgrade more of the network to gigabit-capable speeds as soon as possible, hence the expenditure of £5 billion of taxpayers’ money to support the roll-out of gigabit broadband in the hardest to reach, predominantly rural, areas of the country through our new UK gigabit programme. Progress is being made in connecting rural premises to gigabit speeds through our existing superfast broadband, but this is a big commitment of Her Majesty’s Government and one that I hope will help both my hon. Friend’s constituents and my own.

May I associate myself with the comments of the Leader of the House and the shadow Leader of the House, and send my condolences and those of the SNP to the royal family, at this difficult time for all of them, on the passing of the Prince Philip? I also pay tribute to Dame Cheryl Gillan, Peter Ainsworth, Ian Gibson, Robert Howarth, Paul Marland, James Winston and Baroness Williams. It has clearly been a very sad time for a lot of families, as it is for so many around the country through these challenging times.

Turning to other matters, I have raised previously issues around transparency, and we have seen again this week, with the investigation now under way into lobbying, the actions of David Cameron and the circumstances surrounding the appointment of Lex Greensill as an adviser, that there are clearly further challenges that still need to be addressed. Will the Leader of the House commit to doing everything in his power to see that everything possible is done to ensure that any reviews undertaken go far enough, that any questions about the effectiveness of existing legislation are taken full account of, and that we put in place any necessary measures to ensure that such instances cannot and do not happen in the future?

I am personally slightly disappointed that we have not yet seen a further return of private Members’ Bills, particularly my Ministerial Interests (Emergency Powers) Bill, which I suggest would go some way to addressing some of these issues around transparency in the awarding of contracts. In the short time that we have prior to the end of the Session, will the Leader of the House give consideration to how some of those Bills might be taken account of?

We are all very well aware of this Government’s lack of respect for our democracy in consistently refusing to acknowledge the sovereign will of the Scottish people to choose their own future, but it took a new turn this week, with the Government challenging through the courts the unanimous decision of the Scottish Parliament to pass the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (Incorporation) (Scotland) Bill and the European Charter of Local Self-Government (Incorporation) (Scotland) Bill. Will the Leader of the House allocate Government time to a debate on the democratic deficit that exists in these isles as a result of this Government’s determination to ignore all views but their own? Does he agree that there can be no doubt now that the only way for the people of Scotland to get their own Government, a Government that they vote for, is by exercising our democratic right to choose, starting by voting SNP in both votes on 6 May?

First of all, on the Greensill reviews, obviously Committees of this House can make what inquiries they wish and set their own terms of reference. However, I think it is a mistake to rush to judgment, particularly in relation to David Cameron, who was a very successful Prime Minister who succeeded in getting the nation’s finances back in order. Rushing to judgment is not a proper way for this House to operate. We need to have the reviews and consider them. That is what is happening, both within Government and this House, and that is the proper constitutional process.

As regards private Member’s Bills, I do not think there is sufficient time in this Session, but the hon. Gentleman should be aware that in the new Session there will be a new ballot, under the auspices of the Chairman of Ways of Means, and you never know, he may be lucky and be able to bring forward his Bill on a Friday later in the year. Who knows what excitements await us?

As regards the sovereign will of the Scottish people, that was expressed in 2014 in a referendum. Now would not be the right time to consider this issue, when there is the recovery from the pandemic to have. However, I am fascinated by the voting advice that the hon. Gentleman gives. It does not seem to match the voting advice given by Mr Salmond, who seems to be having a most interesting time in Scotland. I noticed from The Telegraph today that he could not even get the letters for his new party in the right order. I wonder whether the same will afflict the SNP—one never knows what set of initials they will come up with next. What the people of the whole of the United Kingdom want is good government for the whole of the United Kingdom and a balanced settlement that people accept.

In relation to the court case that the hon. Gentleman referred to, it is really important that we live within the boundaries that have been established and accepted, and that we operate within a system that is properly constitutional. It is not for one side or the other to arbitrarily change the devolution settlement.

There has been precious little good news relating to the covid pandemic, but one positive benefit has been the revival of community spirit, as residents have come together to support each other in these difficult times. One such excellent example can be found in William Street in Kettering, which has been nominated by readers of the Northamptonshire Evening Telegraph as one of the county’s best places to live. In William Street, which has 66 houses, a small block of flats, a converted shoe factory and a church, neighbours have come together not just to clap for carers but to organise socially distanced Sunday singalongs, an Easter egg celebration, street cleans, a wedding prom, a street carnival, and pumpkin and best-dressed window competitions. Will the Leader of the House join me in congratulating all the residents of William Street on their revival of the blitz spirit and in hoping that their example will be an inspiration to others?

William Street sounds a very happy street to live on, with singalongs and pumpkin prizes, so I absolutely congratulate William Street and the people living there, who I am sure will be pleased by the tribute paid to them by my hon. Friend. He is right that throughout such a difficult year for the country there have been many wonderful moments of kindness up and down the nation, which have done us proud. The outpouring of support for our care workers has been highlighted often, but there has also been an explosion of volunteering and fundraising. We should be very proud of how our nation has reacted in such difficult times.

I thank the Leader of the House for the business statement and for announcing the Backbench business for next Thursday, 22 April. I also associate myself with the comments about Dame Cheryl Gillan, who among many other things was a regular customer at the Backbench Business Committee and an excellent chair of the all-party parliamentary group on autism.

Will the Leader of the House do whatever he can to help to expedite the re-establishment of the Backbench Business Committee at the earliest possible opportunity following the Queen’s Speech, so that debates applied for, agreed by and timetabled by Back-Bench Members can be led in the Chamber in a timely way by Back-Bench Members?

The hon. Gentleman, a distinguished Chairman of the Backbench Business Committee, makes a very important point. The Government always like to see Committees set up in a timely fashion and will use their best offices, after the Queen’s Speech, to see what they can do to ensure that a Chairman, whoever that may be, is back in post as soon as is reasonably practicable.

Although many think of Burnley just as the town centre, we also have a number of picturesque green villages, including Worsthorne and Hapton. Unfortunately, in 2018, the Labour-controlled Burnley Borough Council adopted a local plan that allocates significant parts of these villages, and elsewhere, to housing developments and more, often directly against the wishes of local residents. This is just one of the planning issues we face. Will the Leader of the House find Government time for a debate on local plans and how we can find a way to make sure they command the support of local residents?

My hon. Friend raises a point that is raised by many right hon. and hon. Members from across the House, and planning is always a contentious local issue. The Government’s planning White Paper, published last summer, set out proposed reforms to increase community involvement in the preparation of local plans, including a simpler and digitalised plan-making process, with more opportunity for local people to influence the location and standard of new developments in their area. This is essential to planning for the homes the country needs, providing the clarity that communities and developers deserve about where new homes should be built and ensuring that development is planned, rather than the result of speculative applications. Plans should be produced in a way that respects crucial local assets, including open countryside and the green belt, but I should always remind hon. Members that new houses must be built. As they are built, we want to ensure that they are beautiful. If they are beautiful, local communities may be more inclined to accept them.

This week, many loyal British Gas staff were sacked for refusing to accept a new contract that made them work longer hours for less pay, in the latest iteration of the growing national scourge of fire and rehire. Companies such as British Gas trade off our country’s name but do not have our country’s interests at heart. The Government have repeatedly stated that they consider these practices to be unacceptable, but those words will mean little to those ex-British Gas workers today. So will the Leader of the House please outline when the Government will be bringing forward legislation to ban fire and rehire, once and for all?

The Government do take this issue extremely seriously, and the Under-Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam (Paul Scully) has condemned the practice in the strongest terms on many occasions. The situation at the moment is that BEIS officials engaged ACAS in November 2020 to gather evidence on the prevalence and use of fire and rehire in workplaces. ACAS spoke to business and employee representatives in confidence, and has now concluded its work and shared its findings with BEIS. Officials are considering that evidence and the Government will communicate their next steps in due course, but it is right that a proper process is undertaken to see how prevalent this practice is. We would reiterate to businesses—I would say to my capitalist friends—that capitalism works when capitalists behave well and treat their employees well, and get the best motivation and success from their company and from those who work for them.

On Monday, I was delighted to visit the newly opened one-stop shop in Daisy Hill. The volunteers Chris Hill, Rosie Bea and Beverly Hill, run the charity shop, and advice and digital services for the local community, and Anne Marie Broadley, who helped set it up, was delighted that so many people have stopped by to say hello. Will my right hon. Friend offer them congratulations on their achievements, and next time he is popping by or passing by, will he pop in?

My hon. Friend said that people were popping in to say hello. May I encourage them to pop in and actually spend some money, because in a one-stop shop that is really what you need? Like our hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone), who asked his question a moment ago, my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton West (Chris Green) offers a great tribute to the voluntary spirit of his constituency. I would be delighted to join him in congratulating Chris Hill, Rosie Bea, Beverly Hill and Anne Marie Broadley of the One Stop shop in Daisy Hill. These voluntary initiatives are how communities are made, how they come together and how they succeed, and, certainly, if I am in Bolton West, I shall stop in the One Stop shop.

Diolch, Mr Deputy Speaker. We all recognise that the pandemic has had a huge impact on young people, whose lives have been particularly disrupted, yet antisocial behaviour is on the rise and residents across Pontypridd and Taff-Ely are experiencing vandalism and disruption at an alarming rate. The simple truth is that the police and youth services do not have the resources to keep up. Will the Leader of the House therefore please commit to a debate in Government time to allow us to tackle antisocial behaviour at its root?

The key thing here is having police on the streets. It is remarkable how the presence of a police officer can stop antisocial behaviour early on and make people realise the problem caused by antisocial behaviour, which is sometimes just thoughtlessness, rather than criminality. It is important that there will be 20,000 extra police officers, of which 6,620 have so far been recruited, and that the police will have £15.8 billion of taxpayers’ money to help them to tackle this scourge. The hon. Lady is absolutely right that it is one of the most disagreeable aspects. It is the counter to what we were saying about community spirit. Antisocial behaviour causes disproportionate distress to people who are probably the most community-minded and it needs effective local policing to deal with it.

Global technology firms such as Google are not being held to account. A lack of regulation allows pension scammers to con millions of pounds out of people, and tech firms such as Google can also make millions of pounds from fake adverts that can ruin a business’s or an individual’s reputation. It is time to hold these multibillion-pound companies to account, so will my right hon. Friend agree to a debate in the House to tackle this very important subject, which could help to protect people’s money, livelihoods and their reputations?