House of Commons
Thursday 15 July 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
The Secretary of State was asked—
Steel Imports: Removal of Tariffs
The Trade Remedies Authority assesses the UK’s trade remedies and makes recommendations to the Secretary of State. This includes the recent review of the UK steel safeguards. The Government accepted the recommendation of the TRA to extend 10 of 19 steel safeguards. The Government also introduced legislation to allow us to extend the current steel safeguards measure for an initial period of 12 months to a further five categories.
The Trade Remedies Authority recommended revoking nine of 19 steel safeguards despite calls from the sector and the all-party parliamentary group on steel, which wanted all tariffs extended, but the UK Government will keep only about 15 of them. The UK steel sector is not on a level playing field with competitors because of higher energy costs and the lack of a corporate industrial strategy from this and successive Tory Governments. Is this not another broken Brexit promise to a domestic industry and its workers?
I remind the hon. Lady that we have invested £500 million in recent years to help with the cost of energy. I also remind her of the welcome from the sector for the Secretary of State’s decision on 30 June, when Gareth Stace, director general of UK Steel, said:
“Today the UK steel sector applauds the Prime Minister…and Trade Secretary…for standing up for steel”
“taking back control”.
Opportunities for UK exporters are significant. We are seeing exports rebounding this year and they are expected to grow by a further 8% next year, and further opportunities are being created all around the world as we have rolled over the existing EU deals, plus the EU itself, and started to negotiate other agreements. Of course, the first from-scratch agreement in principle was with Australia. I hope the hon. Gentleman would applaud and support this direction of travel.
That is all very well, but food production businesses in my constituency face a loss of trade, challenges with customs, and damage to their supply chains. They require to operate in today’s land, not some promised land that their business might never survive to be able to see. What is the Minister going to do to ensure that their difficulties are minimised and that support for them is maximised? They need butter today, not a promise of jam tomorrow.
It would very much help if the Scottish Government and the Scottish National party, of which the hon. Gentleman used to be a member, were to support the trade deals that we do to open markets around the world. He ought to know, as should his former colleagues, although I know they are pretty split even among themselves, that actually Scotland trades more with the rest of the world than it does with the EU. He will also note that EU volumes in May were back to the highest level since October 2019, so we are back to pre-pandemic levels with the EU. The teething problems are being dealt with, other problems are being minimised, and Government support is there. [Interruption.] It is about time that Scottish National party Members, who like to chunter from a sedentary position, got behind our exporters and stopped talking them down.
UK Exports to the EU
Latest monthly figures for UK goods exports to the EU show that in May 2021 exports were £14 billion, up by 8% on the previous month. This is the highest monthly figure, as mentioned by the Under-Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Beverley and Holderness (Graham Stuart), since October 2019, and it is £2 billion higher than the monthly average for 2020 and just £0.2 billion lower than the monthly average for 2019. Latest quarterly figures for UK services exports to the EU show exports for the first quarter up by 2% on the previous quarter of last year, but still 2% below the 2020 quarterly average and still some 20% below the 2019 quarterly average.
Well, there are lies, damned lies and statistics, and I do hesitate to criticise and rain on the Jackanory story we are hearing from those on the Government Benches, but let us look at some facts from the Office for National Statistics. Comparing quarter 1 of this year with 2019, UK-EU trade is down by 27%. Some of that is accounted for by covid; much of it is accounted for by Brexit. Make UK reports that 96% of its members are having problems with the new trading regime. These are facts. What is the Minister’s secret? How does he maintain his Panglossian optimism for the future while ignoring such pain and hurt in the here and now?
I was quite deliberate in the use of those statistics. We do need to take care with monthly statistics. None the less, the first quarter data is already two months out of date. The hon. Gentleman is right that there was a dip in January, but that was due to the closure of the border at that time due to the prevalence of the alpha variant in this country. Since then, there has been a very significant recovery. The latest data from May shows £14 billion of exports, up by 8% on the previous month, and only just lower than the monthly average from before the pandemic. He can quote the ONS, but perhaps he might want to look at the latest data, refresh his briefing, and ask his questions according to the latest available data.
Three weeks ago, Lord Frost rejected the EU’s offer of a veterinary agreement, saying:
“We are very ambitious about CPTPP membership… That is the problem.”
Since we cannot ask Lord Frost himself, can the Minister perhaps tell us why the UK’s accession to the comprehensive and progressive agreement for trans-Pacific partnership is incompatible with reaching an agreement with Europe on food standards? From which of our current food standards do the Government wish to diverge?
I think the hon. Gentleman is confusing a number of different things, but let me start by saying that the UK proposed an equivalence agreement on sanitary and phytosanitary rules in negotiations—that was proposed by Lord Frost—but the EU refused. The EU does have agreements with, for example, New Zealand and others that still respect regulatory autonomy. We are very happy to discuss with Brussels an agreement on SPS rules so long as it respects UK regulatory autonomy and we do not sign up to dynamic regulatory autonomy. That is the read-across to other trade agreements; it allows us to have an independent trade policy while maintaining the high-quality trade deal that we have with the European Union.
The Minister can defend his Government’s Brexit bourach all he likes, but EU-UK trade fell by 27% in quarter 1, with Scotland punished even further. He cannot blame covid, as the fall was over three times worse than the global comparison. Official statistics show that for every £245 that Brexit cost in lost trade, even if the Government were to agree multiple free trade agreements, it will bring in only around £18 in return. The UK is virtually alone in facing this kamikaze blow to its exports. Scotland voted against this trade catastrophe. When will the UK Government renegotiate this disaster—or do they intend to continue to be anti-trade?
I take that with a bucket of salt from the SNP about being anti-trade. As we have heard so often in this House, the SNP has failed to support any trade agreement negotiated either by Brussels or by us in Westminster. I do not think there is a single party in this House that is more anti-trade than the Scottish National party. I urge the hon. Gentleman to have a look at the latest data. Trade with the EU is recovering—it may not yet be fully recovered, but it is recovering—and the latest data, in May, shows a very significant 8% improvement on the previous quarter. I refer him to last Friday’s data.
Mr Speaker, you can see why we do not support any trade deals from this Government—because they always sell Scotland out. Let us hear what industry is saying. Fishing representative bodies continue to say that the Prime Minister has betrayed them and that they have been sold out. Individual losses of tens of thousands of pounds are commonplace due to export delays. A perfect storm of red tape, driver shortages and other Brexit issues are destroying businesses across the board, but especially in food and drink. According to the Road Haulage Association, almost a third of UK hauliers say they are having to avoid working with the food and drink industry due to increased checks and admin. Costs are up everywhere on materials, admin and transport—20% in distilleries. What compensation is planned for those affected—or, when the Prime Minister said “eff business”, was that an instruction?
There was a lot in that further supplementary. May I just remind the hon. Gentleman that most of the trade deals that he and his party have not supported are actually the EU’s trade deals? His party’s policy is to re-join the EU. The SNP was against the EU-Japan deal in the European Parliament and abstained here; it was against the Canada deal; it was against the Singapore deal; it abstained on South Africa, and it abstained on Korea.
When it comes to fisheries, I refer the hon. Gentleman back to what the ONS said, not this past Friday but in relation to February’s data—he is so out of date. This is what the ONS said in April:
“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 what it said in April, yet he is still not up to date. On hauliers, we are discussing all the time with the Department for Transport what extra action needs to be taken.
Finally, the hon. Gentleman asks for compensation. Perhaps he can come to this House and account for the £180 million given by this Government to the Scottish Government for dealing with the consequences and the impact of Brexit at the end of the transition period, because we are not at all sure where that money has gone.
The reality on the ground is quite different from what the Minister may be claiming. I recently met many manufacturers and businesses in Warwick and Leamington, such as Bravissimo, Vitsoe and young British designers, and they are desperate. Their concerns are underlined by surveys by the Federation of Small Businesses, the Institute of Directors and Make UK showing the serious and lasting damage being done to UK firms trying to maintain their trade with Europe in the face of the inadequacies of the Government’s Brexit deal. Can I ask the Minister of State whether he thinks Lord Frost has the bandwidth to fix those problems, on top of the Northern Ireland protocol, or do we need someone else in Government to get a grip?
The Government have full bandwidth on all these aspects. We are satisfied with the trade and co-operation agreement. It is an agreement that is working well. In terms of adding support to exporters, that is the role of this Department and other Departments. We have helplines in place. We have the Brexit business taskforce. We have the DIT internationalisation fund. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has a £23 million seafood disruption fund. We have recently opened trade hubs in Edinburgh and Darlington, and we will open hubs soon in Cardiff and Belfast. We have a refreshed export strategy coming later this year. The Government are fully engaged on assisting exporters to get their goods and services into the European Union.
New Free Trade Agreements
I wish the hon. Member for Harrow West (Gareth Thomas) a happy birthday. I hope he has had all the answers he was looking for today.
We now have trade deals with 68 countries around the world, plus the EU, covering trade worth £744 billion last year. Last week, I signed a trade deal with the European Economic Area-European Free Trade Association countries Norway, Iceland and Lichtenstein. It is one of the new generation of trade deals we are signing, which Britain has struck as an independent trading nation. It shows that Britain is a pioneering partner of choice when it comes to trade. They have gone further with us than with any other FTA partner, benefiting every corner of our country. From fish feed to cheese, sausages to strawberries, tariffs have been cut, backing jobs across Britain.
While I wholeheartedly congratulate the Government on the agreements negotiated so far, as the chairman of the all-party parliamentary group for the Maldives, I urge my hon. Friend, following our meeting, to negotiate something that is slightly different, an economic partnership agreement, with the Maldives Government, which would benefit not only our country but the core industry of sustainable tuna fishing in the Maldives in the light of COP26.
It was a pleasure to meet my hon. Friend recently to discuss trade policy regarding the Maldives. He will know that we have agreed trade deals covering 31 African, Caribbean and Pacific countries already, showing our belief in trade for development. I can confirm to him that I am keen to find a route to short circuit the process of agreeing more trade deals like these with Commonwealth friends around the world.
I concur with the previous speaker on the Maldives.
Some seafood companies in Scotland have seen their costs of selling to the continent treble from 32p a kilo to about £1 a kilo. Also, UK exports to Ireland have fallen by 47.6%. All that illustrates the current damage Brexit is doing. We know from Government figures that, for every £490 lost to GDP, trade deals are not bringing in very much, unfortunately: an Australian trade deal makes up only £2 of that; a New Zealand trade deal £1; an America deal, if it happens, £20; and the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership will bring in £3 to £8, depending on the way the cards fall. Has the DIT identified any other trade deal that might make up merely 0.1% of GDP, the odd £10 for every £490 of Brexit loss? Is there a figure for India yet? It has been a number of weeks since I asked the Minister this, but is there a GDP figure for a trade deal with India, if it happens?
The question has been asked and it has already been answered. I would have thought that the hon. Gentleman would welcome that, in the EEA-EFTA trade deal, we have secured great benefits for Scottish businesses exporting to Norway. According to the figures I have seen, Orkney Scottish Island cheddar could see its duty reduced by two thirds. There will also be an important new opportunity for fish feed exporters to export tariff-free to Norway—it will see previously high tariffs on fish feed slashed to nought—providing a potential boost to the aquaculture industry in Scotland.
Negotiations to Join the CPTPP
Her Majesty’s Government formally began negotiations on the UK’s accession to CPTPP on 22 June. Negotiating teams will be working hard over the coming months to ensure a good deal for businesses, producers and consumers across the UK. The UK’s accession would make CPTPP a truly global free trading area and strengthen the UK’s relationship with 11 dynamic economies across four continents.
Taiwan is one of the top 20 trading nations in the world, a vibrant democracy, a member of the WTO and an Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation member economy. Could the Minister confirm that the UK welcomes Taiwan’s intention to join CPTPP alongside our own application and update the House on efforts to deepen our bilateral trade ties with Taiwan?
Taiwan is a subject close to my heart, and we know that it is an important and growing trading partner for the UK. It is a highly valued member of the WTO as well. Future membership of CPTPP is a matter for the members at that time, but I note that Taiwan is looking to align itself to CPTPP’s high standards and is continuing its long-standing commitment to rules-based trade and the global trading system. We expect CPTPP to grow in size, and future members will be a matter for future consideration. I am looking forward to our next round of Joint Economic and Trade Committee talks with Taiwan, hopefully as soon as travel becomes possible again.
I very much support the Government’s efforts to become a member of CPTPP, which, as the Minister mentioned, offers great prospects. Indeed, my constituency is a major centre for renewable energy and has links with, for example, Taiwan. Does he anticipate that the renewable energy sector will gain great advantage from CPTPP membership and boost those industries in my constituency?
Yes. CPTPP will of course liberalise trade in goods and services in the fast-growing markets in the Pacific, and fast-growing markets have fast-growing needs for clean energy. In recent times, I have been in Vietnam, Korea and Taiwan, pushing UK expertise and exports, for example, in the offshore wind sector. I remind the House that the UK has the world’s largest offshore wind capacity. I am sure there will be opportunities for that and other renewable sectors in Yorkshire and the Humber, including in Cleethorpes.
The Government are relying on increased trade with Malaysia for three quarters of the forecast benefits from joining the CPTPP. That may explain why Ministers have turned a blind eye to the growing use of slave labour in Malaysian factories. If the Minister disputes what I have just said, perhaps he can tell us what proportion of the 760 million medical gloves bought by the Government from Malaysia during the pandemic were manufactured using slave labour?
We take our obligations and any allegations of the use of slave labour extremely seriously. I am happy to look into it if the hon. Member has specific allegations in relation to Malaysia. I might add that the Malaysian supply of latex gloves last year was extremely important for this country, but I am happy to look into it if he has specific evidence of the use of slave labour. Of course, Malaysia has not yet ratified CPTPP. We hope that it will and I remind him that CPTPP has a comprehensive chapter on labour and workers’ rights.
The Minister really was not in a position to answer that question because his Department failed to act on warnings last year from the high commissioner in Kuala Lumpur telling them that their slavery audit function for glove manufacturing was not up to the task. It simply cannot be allowed to continue, so if I write to the Minister with the Government’s current list of glove suppliers—I have a list of 19 companies so far—will he agree to conduct a proper audit of their factories? Bearing in mind what he just said about accession to CPTPP and Malaysia having yet to ratify it, will he also reconsider signing any trade agreement with Malaysia as long as its reliance on slave labour persists?
I repeat my offer to have a look at the specifics, of course. The UK Government take all such accusations, allegations or reports extremely seriously. When it comes to Malaysia joining CPTPP, they have signed and it is up to them to ratify. The UK is not currently a member of CPTPP so it is not up to us who joins it at the moment, but I remind the hon. Gentleman that CPTPP does include a comprehensive labour chapter that ensures that the parties protect and enforce labour rights, improve working conditions and strengthen co-operation on labour issues, all of which would be very helpful in the sort of cases that he is talking about.
G7 Advocacy for Free and Fair Trade
At the May Trade Ministers’ meeting, we committed to a global trading system with open markets that are not undermined by unfair trade. We agreed to work together to reform the global trading system to be free and fair for all.
My hon. Friend is right that we need to tackle unfair market practices, such as subsidies by state-owned enterprises in industries such as steel and aerospace. On Tuesday, I met my US counterpart, Katherine Tai, and we agreed to work together on this issue.
In the G7 Trade Ministers communiqué, issues around free and fair trade were balanced on transparency and supply chains being free of slave labour. Can the Secretary of State provide us with an update on the conversations that she has had with G7 leaders and, in particular, can she possibly let me know whether she will be congratulating the US Senate on passing a law last night that will ban all imports from Xinjiang because, of course, they are full of Uyghur slave labour?
I agree with my hon. Friend that forced labour is an abhorrent practice. We have already taken action in the UK to ensure that there is no forced labour in our supply chains and G7 Trade Ministers are committed to tackling this issue. We are working on best practice to prevent, identify and eliminate forced labour in global supply chains ahead of the G7 October trade ministerial.
I welcome the work that my right hon. Friend is doing with her G7 counterparts to reform global trading and encourage a rules-based multilateral trading system. Does she agree that a free and fair trading system will help countries, including the UK, to build back better from the covid-19 pandemic as part of a strong economic recovery?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. There has been a worrying rise in protectionism in recent years and I am proud that the UK is leading the way in liberalising trade, striking new free trade deals to bring more jobs and growth as we seek to build back better after covid. At the same time, we are defending UK industry against unfair practices.
I hope that the Secretary of State has had a productive visit to the United States. She will have seen the example set by the Biden Administration when it comes to taking concrete action against the use of slave labour and the abuse of workers’ rights in countries ranging from Malaysia to Mexico. By contrast, may I ask her to name a country—one will do—with which the UK has a trade deal where she has taken any action of any kind to enforce the rights of workers?
We are extremely committed to making sure not only that we stand up for high standards across the globe, that our workers here in the United Kingdom are protected and that we do not diminish our workers’ rights, but that we work together with other countries to do that. I point to the comprehensive and progressive agreement for trans-Pacific partnership, which has a very strong labour chapter, for example insisting on minimum wages and the recognition of trade union rights. I look forward to the right hon. Lady’s support for our accession to that agreement.
The shocking reality is that more than a third of our non-EU deals have been with countries where workers’ rights are systematically denied or violated, and in not a single case has the Secretary of State done anything about it. That is not good enough when slave labour is on the rise around the world and it is women, children, migrants and minorities who are too often the victims. Will she take a lesson from the Biden Administration, stop turning a blind eye to the abuse of workers’ rights by our own trade partners and start taking action against them instead?
I am very proud of the role that the United Kingdom has played in setting very high labour standards and looking for them in the trade agreements that we are working on. That is part of our discussions with the CPTPP countries. I have also been talking to leading figures in the US about how we can ensure strong labour rights in future US agreements.
China now produces 28% of carbon emissions—more than the US and the EU combined—with more than half the world’s coal-fired power stations and a third more planned. To stop carbon-intensive Chinese products such as steel displacing greener alternatives, will the Secretary of State ensure that with the G7, at COP26 and with Katherine Tai we pursue the carbon border tax being developed in the EU so that trade can help to save the planet, not destroy it?
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point about carbon leakage. We need to make sure that when we work to achieve our net zero target, we are not simply exporting carbon production elsewhere. That is why I am working with G7 partners on the issue of carbon leakage, but I think it is important that the solution is multilateral and embedded in the world trading system rather than unilateral from each individual country, so I am working with like-minded partners across the globe to make sure that we take account of carbon emissions.
Future Trade Deals: Workers’ Rights
While the detail of free trade agreements is necessarily sensitive, we have committed in our public mandates to protecting our world-leading labour standards. For example, in our agreement in principle with Australia, a commitment was made to a chapter on labour that will lock in high domestic protections for our workers.
Colombia remains the deadliest place in the world to be a trade unionist, with 22 union activists murdered in the past year alone, according to the latest global rights index. Does the Minister now regret the agreement of a trade deal with Colombia that is so utterly toothless when it comes to the protection and enforcement of workers’ rights?
The hon. Lady will know that that was originally a deal negotiated by the EU. We provided continuity to businesses in this country and in Colombia to make sure that on our exit from the European Union, businesses could continue to trade. The truth is that some of the most vulnerable people will be affected by some of the knee-jerk policies suggested by the Labour party. In all our trade deals, we will uphold Britain’s high standards for businesses, workers and consumers, and we will continue to meet our obligations under the International Labour Organisation.
The Minister has made perfectly clear the Government’s efforts to engage with Australia on the question of workers’ rights in the run-up to the trade agreement. Countries such as Australia and New Zealand already have decent workers’ rights. However, more than half—that is, 14 out of 24—of the countries where the Government are currently negotiating trade deals have very poor track records on labour rights, including Brazil, Malaysia and India. What pressure or influence will the Government bring to bear when negotiating a deal with those countries whose labour standards and rights are extremely poor, so that the trade can benefit UK workers and the workers of our trading partners too?
Again, the question seems to have been asked and answered already. The comprehensive and progressive agreement for trans-Pacific partnership has a comprehensive labour and workers’ rights chapter, and I would have thought that the people of Preston would welcome the fact that the CPTPP offers Britain access to two thirds of the world’s middle classes by 2030.
UK-Israel Trade Deal
We have a strong bilateral trade relationship with Israel worth £5 billion a year. On my recent visit to Israel, I discussed our ambitions for a new free trade agreement to create further opportunities for British business.
My right hon. Friend will know from her visit to Israel that it has the highest number of high-tech start-ups in the world. Moreover, the latest Intel chips in all our computers were designed in Israel by Intel. Does my right hon. Friend have any plans to enhance the trading relationship in high-tech products with the state of Israel?
My hon. Friend is completely right. The UK and Israel are both leaders in technology, from agri-tech to gaming to med-tech, and there are huge opportunities for us to work together. What we will be seeking in the new trade deal with Israel is an advanced digital data and technology chapter that looks to the industries of the future to give both countries more opportunities.
I welcome the Secretary of State’s commitment to sign an advanced free trade agreement with our close ally Israel, and I hope she enjoyed her first ever visit to the country this month. Israel is a growing export market for UK companies, so what steps is she taking to champion UK-made products being sold in Israel, and what more can be done to boost UK exports of things such as cars, machinery and clothing?
The current UK-Israel partnership is already worth £5 billion a year, but we want to turbo-charge that. We are providing practical assistance for UK firms through our trade adviser network, as well as strong support from UK Export Finance to help to finance those exports into Israel.
We all welcome the prospect of an enhanced trade deal with Israel, and I congratulate the Secretary of State on her efforts to secure it. Among the many improvements that we hope the new deal delivers, will she guarantee to remove the clause mistakenly included in the 2019 UK-Israel agreement that prohibits manufacturers in UK freeports from sharing in the benefits of that deal? Can she tell us when we can expect revised deals with the 20 other countries, including Switzerland and Singapore, where the same freeport blunder still applies?
The clauses that the right hon. Lady is referring to are absolutely standard in free trade agreements. Every agreement is the result of a negotiation with the relevant country, and of course we secure the best possible outcome in terms of tariff reductions and rules of origin, but I will be absolutely clear that firms locating in our freeports are free to take advantage of whichever is better for their company: a given free trade agreement or the additional reductions from being in that freeport.
UK-India Trade Agreement
I was delighted to devise the enhanced trade partnership concept last year, and after much work across Government, the Prime Minister agreed the ETP with his counterpart on 4 May. Trade with India has averaged around £20 billion over recent years, and with its population bigger than those of the EU and US combined, the scope for growth is great, so I am looking forward to discussing our future trade deal with my new counterpart very soon.
I warmly welcome the work the Minister is doing to secure a trade agreement with the world’s fastest growing economy. Does he agree that a trade deal with India will open the door for British goods—whisky from Scotland, fine wines from the vineyards of south Wales and handcrafted gin from Warrington, the best in the world?
I am in absolute agreement with my hon. Friend and I must make a visit to Warrington to sample some of this superb gin. India is projected to be the world’s second largest economy by 2037, so the opportunities for British businesses, from financial services to pharmaceuticals, form food and drink to film and music, are huge. This people’s Government are determined to make sure that every corner of our country benefits from international trade, securing growth and creating jobs.
Future Trade Deals: Human Rights
The United Kingdom has long promoted her values globally. Although our approach to agreements will vary between partners, our strong economic relationships not only allow us to have open discussions on a range of issues, including rights and responsibilities, but secure jobs across our country, including in Hampshire.
Successive UK Governments have believed in the principle that new trade treaties should contain essential human rights clauses. That makes the whole of the treaty conditional on the commitments relating to human rights. Will the Minister confirm whether that principle remains under his Government or whether it has disappeared, along with the commitment to a 0.7% international aid target?
We promote international objectives, including rights, through a mixture of approaches. On the point the hon. Gentleman made towards the end of his question, there has been much talk about global Britain this week and trade is the route to prosperity, for Britain and her friends around the world. Although others may be content with offering only handouts, we are determined to give our friends a hand up. So having taken back control of our trade policy, I can confirm that we will be looking to go further than the EU and we will be setting out our plans and launching a consultation on this very soon.[Official Report, 19 July 2021, Vol. 699, c. 4MC.]
UK-Australia Tariff-free Trade in Agricultural Goods
There will be more UK export opportunities for our food and drink industry with the removal of all Australia tariffs. We have considered the impact of additional market access for beef and lamb on UK farmers, which has been balanced by a lengthy 15-year staging period. An independently scrutinised impact assessment will be published prior to implementation.
Patrick Krause, chief executive of the Scottish Crofting Foundation, recently made the point that the real risk for Scottish crofters from the Australia deal comes from the fact that other countries with which we do trade deals will want the same good terms that we have given to Australia. As he said,
“Crofting is good for food, and also has very impressive environmental and climate-change mitigation credentials. And crofting is about the people—crofting has maintained communities in remote rural places.”
How much of that does the Minister think will be said of the products that will be imported to replace crofted lamb?
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his engagement and his interest. I have engaged extensively with Scottish farmers, crofters and Martin Kennedy of the National Farmers Union Scotland. I have done various roundtables with constituency MPs as well. On the impact of Australian beef and lamb imports, we think it is very unlikely that there will be a surge in imports into this country. Currently, there are strong incentives for Australia to sell into Asia. For example, the lamb quota is not currently fully used. Beef production prices in Asia are twice what they are in the UK. Australia exports 75% of its beef and 70% of its lamb to Asia, which is why I would expect that pattern to be continued. But this is also why we have built safeguards and a staging period of 15 years into the deal.
Future Trade Deals: Environmental Standards
We are seeking environmental provisions with all partners with which we are currently negotiating to ensure that future trade is sustainable and upholds the UK’s high environmental standards. The precise deals of any free trade agreement are a matter for formal negotiations.
Despite what the Minister says about calling for more control over trade, he has completely failed to advance the “polluter pays” principle through the carbon border tax, failed to advance the agenda at the G7, failed to put it into any of the trade agreements that he has drawn up and failed to put it into any of the negotiation frameworks that he is currently discussing. Can he tell me whether he will fail at the next stage when it comes to COP26? Is he already engaged in pre-negotiation talks with all the partners, and how will the principle fare on the COP26 agenda when the summits meets in November?
We take a strong interest in carbon leakage and in how trade deals with carbon. We are studying carefully, for example, EU proposals on the carbon border adjustment mechanism. At the World Trade Organisation in general, we are looking to advance our environmental agenda. The hon. Lady will know of the different measures taken by the UK Government; for example there is the UK global tariff, which reduced and eliminated tariffs on 104 environmental goods. We are also seeking good environmental chapters in all of our future free trade agreements.
Thank you for sneaking me in, Mr Speaker.
Today, we heard the devastating news that the Amazon is now a carbon source rather than a carbon sink. With deforestation at a 12-year high, it is emitting more CO2 than it absorbs. Is the Minister following the progress of the land-grabbing legislation, which has been dubbed the destruction package, that is going through the Brazilian Parliament at the moment? What discussions has he had with his counterparts, and what impact would that have on trade negotiations with Brazil? May I urge him to rule them out if this package goes through?
We are not currently negotiating a trade agreement with Brazil. We follow the position in Brazil very closely, and we engage strongly on a bilateral basis on all of these issues with the Brazilian Government. We have very good diplomatic representation not just in Brasilia but across different parts of Brazil, to make sure that the UK position and the importance of deforestation for the UK, particularly in this COP26 year, is upheld.
The United States is our largest single country trading partner and an important ally. We have already made progress in the Airbus-Boeing dispute, getting tariffs removed on great British products such as machinery and whisky. I am now working closely with my US counterparts to tackle global issues on steel, aerospace and technology to make sure that trade is fair as well as free.
We are six months into Brexit and the sea of opportunity that the seafood producers of my Argyll and Bute constituency were promised has turned out to be swamp of bureaucracy. Alongside a mountain of paperwork and red tape, they all report falling prices, loss of markets, labour shortages and major transport and logistical problems. Six months into Brexit, they are facing an existential crisis. How has the Secretary of State’s Department allowed that to happen?
We have seen trade with the EU bounce back after some initial issues. In particular, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has offered support to seafood producers to ensure that they have what they need to be able to deal with those issues.
My hon. Friend is correct. The Australia deal is a fundamentally liberalising agreement that removes tariffs and supports millions of jobs. It will strengthen the bonds of friendship—I speak as the parliamentary president of the Conservative Friends of Australia—for example by championing youth mobility, which he referred to. The deal also paves the way for joining the comprehensive and progressive agreement for trans-Pacific partnership and the growing middle-class markets of the Pacific rim. We are realising the vision of a global Britain that looks to one of the most dynamic trading areas in the world.
HSBC is an extremely important company and employer in this country. I do not have a problem with Ministers meeting HSBC, let us put that on the record. The hon. Gentleman will also be aware of the very strong action we have taken in relation to China and the measures announced by the Foreign Secretary in this House in January in relation to supply chains in Xinjiang and actions in Hong Kong, which had broad agreement across the House. We will continue to make vigorous representations in relation to China, and we are monitoring the situation very closely.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Services are 80% of the UK economy. We are the world’s second largest exporter of services, and a huge number of those are digitally enabled. The digital economy agreement between the UK and Singapore will be a model for global digital trade rules, and I met Singapore Minister Alvin Tan just yesterday to discuss it. Singapore is a global leader in this area. We are looking forward to signing an excellent agreement with Singapore.
We are following developments on the EU carbon border adjustment mechanism closely. The UK has ambitious carbon pricing through our emissions trading scheme and carbon price support mechanism, and we expect the EU CBAM to take account of that in its implementation. The COP President-designate, my right hon. Friend the Member for Reading West (Alok Sharma), has said that he does not anticipate carbon border adjustment mechanisms becoming an issue within the COP26 negotiations.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on her championing of her constituency and Cornwall’s farmers. We are opening markets, as we have discussed. We are activating farmers with our “Open Doors” campaign, and we are grateful for the support of the National Farmers Union and the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board. We have a mentoring scheme, which I was delighted to launch in the south-west, and we are leading trade missions such as “Spring into Japan”, to make sure that on a greater scale than ever before we are engaging more farmers’ produce with global markets, leading to jobs and prosperity in her constituency and beyond.
We have been absolutely categorical in our commitment on food standards and food safety standards. There will be no compromise on UK standards in relation to any trade agreement. That has been the case—[Interruption.] Our commitment is absolute. If the hon. Member were to take a look at all the trade agreements we have done with 67 countries—if she looked at the Australia trade deal agreement in principle and the Japan deal—she would see no diminution in our food safety and animal welfare standards so far.
I can absolutely give that commitment to the people of Delyn. The Government have been very clear that any trade deals must work for UK consumers and businesses, upholding our high regulatory standards. The Government, as I mentioned earlier, have manifesto commitments to no compromise on standards in animal welfare, food safety and the environment.
The Secretary of State had a successful visit to Israel herself in the last week of June, and she had productive discussions with her Israeli counterpart, focused on ambitions for upgrading our current trade relationship. As my hon. Friend suggests, I am very keen personally to strengthen our £5 billion trade relationship even further, and I look forward to taking these discussions forward to create further opportunities for British businesses in tech and beyond.
We will be responding in due course to the call for input on going further on a trade deal with Canada, and we are looking forward to that negotiation starting in the autumn. I would remind the hon. Member that there are no ISDS provisions in the UK-Australia deal, but I would also remind her that the UK has never lost an ISDS case. We do have ISDS provisions in quite a number of our existing agreements, and the UK has never lost any such case.
I thank my hon. Friend for his excellent question. I am tremendously proud of UK Export Finance and its staff for the innovative way in which they have responded to the pandemic, with the record level—more than £12 billion—given to UK businesses supporting more than 100,000 jobs up and down the country. Behind those 549 companies, of course, stand 10,000 or more supply chain companies. UKEF, at no cost to the taxpayer, makes an enormous difference to the prosperity and success of this country.
My Department continues to defend the interests of British industries in all parts of the United Kingdom. The Secretary of State is currently in the United States building on the historic arrangement that we secured in the Airbus-Boeing dispute, ensuring that the British aerospace sector can take off again after covid-19. Confidence in our fantastic aerospace manufacturing capability has never been at such heights. The United Airlines order of 70 A321neo aircraft last month will feature wonderful Welsh-made wings, and I look forward to further success in the future.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the Government’s ambitious strategy for growing exports needs to include more agricultural councils in our embassies, a UK export council to help co-ordinate that strategy, and better promotion and marketing of brand Britain abroad so that we can ensure that farming and food companies in Eddisbury and right across the country can embrace the undoubted benefits and opportunities that UK free trade deals can deliver?
Newport Wafer Fab Sale
(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy if he will make a statement on the sale of the Newport Wafer Fab semiconductors plant in Duffryn, Newport, to the Chinese-owned firm Nexperia.
Thank you very much for granting this urgent question, Mr Speaker. I thank the Minister also for being present to answer it. I understand that the Government cannot comment on security matters, but the purpose of the urgent question is to give Parliament an opportunity to make its views known about the strategic importance of the Chinese takeover of Wafer Fab, a semiconductor manufacturer based in Newport.
The Chinese firm Wingtech Technology has a controlling stake in the acquiring company Nexperia, which supplies Chinese companies that create smartphones, including Huawei. The Prime Minister stated at the Liaison Committee last week on 7 July:
“This Government is spending a huge quantity of taxpayers’ money to make sure that we get Huawei out of our telecommunications networks.”
Would it not therefore be completely inconsistent if Government policy allowed the takeover of a firm creating microchips of such importance to our national security? The Prime Minister also stated that we need to be more self-reliant, and that he was told that it costs £9 billion to build a semiconductor factory. Why would we allow such sophisticated national infrastructure to be sold?
Finally, while I agree with the Prime Minister that we do not want an
“anti-China spirit to lead to our trying to pitchfork away every investment from China into this country”,
in this particular case the security issues should be paramount. China considers this matter vital for its national security, as do other countries, including our ally the United States. Why are our Government not taking the same view?
Of course, Mr Speaker. The Government recognise Newport Wafer Fab’s value as a company, and its contribution to consortia based at the south Wales compound semiconductor cluster. The Government are committed to the semiconductor cluster and the vital role that it plays in the UK’s economy. The Welsh Government have previously provided financial support to the company, as economic development is devolved and the responsibility of the Welsh Government.
Under the Enterprise Act 2002, the Government have powers to intervene in mergers and takeovers that raise national security concerns. We have recently strengthened those powers in the National Security and Investment Act 2021, which is expected to come into force at the end of this year, but it is right that commercial transactions are primarily a matter for the parties involved. The Government have been in close contact with Newport Wafer Fab, but do not consider it appropriate to intervene in this case at the current time.
We will continue to monitor the situation closely, and, as part of that, the Prime Minister has asked the national security adviser to review this case. Separately, work is under way to review the wider semiconductor landscape in the United Kingdom. As I am sure the House will appreciate, I am unable to comment on the detail of commercial transactions, or of any national security assessment of a particular case.
I congratulate the hon. Member for The Cotswolds (Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown) on securing the urgent question.
Newport Wafer Fab is a symbol of British innovation and world-class employment—not just its 450 employees but the wider regional semiconductor cluster. It is also a testament to the long-term role of public investment in strategic economic planning by the Welsh Government, so the priority must be to secure a viable long-term future for what is the UK’s largest semiconductor manufacturer. With European automotives protesting over chips shortages and promising to ramp up domestic production, it is clear that Newport Wafer Fab is a strategic economic asset.
Labour welcomes investment in the business, as we welcome almost all inward investment in thriving British industries, but, given the importance of semiconductors to our country’s critical infrastructure, there is a clear case for examining this on national security grounds, and it is a pity that the Minister did not make it. Global competition to secure microchip development is accelerating. Our national security interests require a strong position in this contested market, so how will the Minister now ensure that this vital national economic and technology asset is protected? Will she use the powers in the National Security and Investment Act 2021 to urgently scrutinise this takeover? If the sale is blocked on national security grounds, will the Government work creatively and urgently to secure the financing that the business needs? All options must be kept on the table, including a role for potential public equity investment.
As Labour argued during the passage of the NSI Act, the Government have consistently outsourced British national security and economic interests, because Ministers have prioritised market zeal over British security, as in 2012 when they let the Centre for Integrated Photonics, a prize British research and development centre, be taken over by Huawei. That is why Labour is calling for the national security and public interest test regime to be strengthened. This is a critical test of whether the Government are willing to use these new powers or not, which goes to the heart of what kind of industrial strategy we have and what kind of country we want to be.
As laid out in the integrated review, China is a systemic competitor. The scale and reach of China’s economy, the size of its population, its technological advancement and increasing ambition to project its influence on the global stage, for example through the belt and road initiative, will have profound implications worldwide. Open, trading economies such as the UK will need to engage with China and remain open to Chinese trade and investment, but they must protect themselves against practices that have an adverse effect on prosperity and security. Co-operation with China is vital in tackling transnational-type challenges, particularly climate change and biodiversity loss.
The UK wants a mature, positive relationship with China, based on mutual respect and trust. There is considerable scope for constructive engagement and co-operation, but as we strive for that positive relationship, we will not sacrifice either our values or our security. It has always been the case that where we have concerns, we will raise them, and where we need to intervene, we will. The Government have a range of legislative and regulatory powers to protect infrastructure and critical services, including the new National Security and Investment Act 2021. The NSI Act is nation-agnostic: acquisitions should be considered on a case-by-case basis, which will help to ensure that the Act is not discriminatory and that we uphold our World Trade Organisation obligations.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for The Cotswolds (Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown) for the timing of his urgent question—which is clearly rather better than my timing. May I ask the Minister—who is very kindly in her place—about the National Security and Investment Act 2021? The Act set forth various conditions for securing various elements of British industry, but as set out, that was all to be done by central Government, not by devolved Administrations. Clearly this is one of those moments, because there is a global semiconductor chip shortage, delaying the production of white goods, cars and, indeed, military equipment.
I am told that Newport Wafer Fab is a key partner for the development of—I am afraid I will have to use the technical terms, because I am not qualified to translate them—RF MMIC high-frequency GaN designs for defence 5G radar systems. This is a £5.4 million project led by the Compound Semiconductor Applications Catapult and Cardiff University, with Newport Wafer Fab providing process development expertise and a route to scale up within a proposed expansion of Newport Wafer Fab 10.
If that does not put Newport Wafer Fab into the national security bracket, I do not know what does. The idea that this is a matter for the Assembly or the Government in Wales is, I am afraid, simply not the case. The Prime Minister seems to have pre-empted that, as he has asked the National Security Adviser, as he told the Liaison Committee the other day, to have a look into this. Will the Minister now commit, on behalf of her Department, to present the National Security Adviser’s report to Parliament, to allow us to hear the evaluation of Her Majesty’s Government and to debate it?
I acknowledge the work that my hon. Friend does, which is greatly appreciated. As he will know, the Act focuses on acquisitions of control over qualifying and entitled assets. That means that once the Act is commenced we will be able to scrutinise and, if necessary, intervene in takeover companies and in the purchase of individual assets, such as intellectual property. The Government are absolutely clear that where concerns are raised we will intervene. However, my hon. Friend and the House will appreciate that I cannot go into any detail or comment on commercial transactions or national security assessments.
Seventy-seven days have passed since the National Security and Investment Act received Royal Assent. In the previous months, I and colleagues across the Chamber sought to work constructively with the Government to ensure that that legislation was as robust as it possibly could be. Notwithstanding the fact that the Government rejected most of our suggestions, we all backed the Act because it was in our collective interest to do so, yet it appears to have been rendered almost useless at its first hurdle. I respectfully suggest that had it not been for the intervention of the Chair of the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs, it is doubtful that the Prime Minister would have sought national security advice on this matter. Why did it take an intervention from a senior Government Back Bencher for the Government to take this matter seriously? Is the National Security and Investment Act as it stands simply not up to the task? Is it not worth the paper it is written on?
The Government have looked closely at the transaction and do not consider it appropriate to intervene at the current time. However, as the Prime Minister made clear at the Liaison Committee last week, he has asked the National Security Adviser to review this.
The pandemic has shown us the importance of supply chains and of the ability to produce the materials we need here in the UK. We also know that semiconductors are a vital component of many of the day-to-day items that we use and take for granted. A disruption to the supply chain of semiconductors will have far-reaching consequences. Will my hon. Friend set out what steps the Government are taking to strengthen their powers in relation to the threat of hostile investment?
In 2020, the Government amended the Enterprise Act 2002 so that we could intervene in mergers and takeovers that threaten our ability to combat a public health emergency such as coronavirus. As the House will know, we have recently overhauled our investment screening system through the new National Security and Investment Act so that we can intervene in takeovers of companies or purchases of assets that pose a risk to national security. The NSI Act will allow the Government to scrutinise and intervene in acquisitions that may pose national security risks. It also provides businesses and investors with predictable, legally defined timelines and processes for decisions on acquisitions. The Act requires particularly sensitive acquisitions to be approved by Government before they are completed, but the vast majority of acquisitions will be unaffected by these powers.
I am grateful to the hon. Member for The Cotswolds (Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown) for this morning’s urgent question and for speaking to me about it last night. Newport Wafer Fab is in my constituency and I have in recent days had a number of meetings about the issue, and have spoken to many people across Newport West who are watching events very closely. Newport Wafer Fab is part of the unique semiconductor cluster in Newport West—the only one in the world, and I am so proud. It employs more than 450 people who are highly skilled, well paid and need job security. I fully understand the need for scrutiny of any deal involving potentially hostile foreign takeovers and national security is of course paramount, but my constituents and I want to see an open, transparent and fair deal. Will the Minister meet me at the earliest possible opportunity so that we can ensure that whatever happens next, those jobs, the impact on the people of Newport West and the strategic nature of this plant will be kept in mind every step of the way?
The hon. Lady makes an important point. The Government have looked closely at the transaction and do not consider it inappropriate, but as the Prime Minister has made clear, the National Security Adviser will review it. I am happy to meet the hon. Lady or at least facilitate a meeting with the appropriate Minister.
My hon. Friend talks about mutual respect between ourselves and the Chinese people, which I believe is correct, but the Chinese Government do not respect rules-based order, particularly in enterprise and commerce. This semiconductor plant is critical to our UK economy, particularly at a time of rising demand for semiconductors, and the 450 jobs at Duffryn are also very important. Does she agree that the protection of those jobs, that plant and the UK-owned intellectual property is critically important to her and to this Government?
Like my hon. Friend, I am of course totally committed to skills, as are the Government. In fact, the Government have invested £800 million in compound semiconductor research. In 2018, through UK Research and Innovation, we established a compound semiconductor applications catapult with £50 million of funding to collaborate with large companies and start-ups to develop and commercialise new applications utilising this technology. To date, the catapult has initiated projects worth more than £100 million. The UK has over 100 companies actively working with compound semiconductors. About 5,000 UK companies, 90% of which are small and medium-sized enterprises, are designing and making electronic components, devices, systems and products. The catapult is a national body dedicated to compound development across the United Kingdom. The UK Government, via UKRI and the Welsh Government, have additionally provided significant funds to help to establish south Wales university structures such as the Institute for Compound Semiconductors.
This is a very important question. A few years ago, I fought the takeover of Syngenta in my constituency—one of the top world leaders in plant protection, fertiliser and all that complicated research stuff. It was taken over quickly by the Chinese—not by the Chinese, but by the Chinese Communist Government. There is nothing on the stock exchange; it is owned by the Chinese Government. Most people in this country do not realise just how widespread this insidious Chinese takeover of so many strategic assets in our country is. Will the Minister ask her bosses to have an audit of how far this takeover of British companies has now gone? As most people know, the whole of the electricity transmission in London and the south, with 10 million customers, is owned by the Chinese—or, again, the Chinese Government. How far can this go before we wake up to what is really going on? It is insidious, it is dangerous, and it is a real threat to our national security.
The Government do have a wide range of legislative and regulatory powers to protect infrastructure and critical services, including the National Security and Investment Act 2021, which will allow the Government to scrutinise and intervene in acquisitions that may pose national security risks. It also provides businesses and investors with predictable, legally defined timelines and processes for decisions on acquisitions. The NSI Act requires particularly sensitive acquisitions to be approved by the Government before they are completed. However, the vast majority of acquisitions will be unaffected by these powers.
When it comes to issues of national security, there can be no compromise. I am one of those who believes in the free market and believes in companies being bought and sold where appropriate, but national security must trump that. In these circumstances, this is such a vital aspect of both our industry and our national security that the Government must intervene. I understand that my hon. Friend cannot comment on issues of national security to the House today, but will she undertake to return to the House when a final decision is made and inform the House so that we can scrutinise it both for value for money and on national security grounds?
As laid out in the integrated review, China is a systematic competitor. The scale and reach of China’s economy, the size of its population, its technological advancement and its increasing ambition to project its influence on the global stage through programmes such as the belt and road initiative will have profound implications worldwide. Open trade economies such as the United Kingdom will need to engage with China and remain open to Chinese trade and investments, but they must protect themselves against practices that have an adverse effect on prosperity and security. Co-operation with China will also be vital in tackling transnational challenges such as climate change and biodiversity loss, as I have mentioned.
The UK wants a mature, positive relationship with China based on mutual respect and trust. There is considerable scope for constructive engagement and co-operation, but, as we strive for that positive relationship, we will not sacrifice either our values or our security. It has always been the case that we raise concerns where we have them, and where we need to intervene, we will. The Government have a range of legislative and regulatory powers to protect infrastructure and critical services including the New National Security and Investment Act 2021, which is nationally agnostic. Finally, acquisitions should be considered on a case-by-case basis, and that helps to ensure that the Act is not discriminatory. We will uphold our World Trade Organisation obligations.
At a time when the Chinese regime is stepping up its human rights abuses against the Uyghurs in Xinjiang, Britain should be increasing its sanctions. Instead, we are giving the CCP a bigger stake in our economy. What plans does the Minister have to ensure that state pension funds are not investing in companies linked to abuse of the Uyghurs? What actions will she take to further censure the CCP?
I thank the hon. Lady for her question. The evidence of the scale and severity of human rights violations perpetrated in Xinjiang against Uyghur Muslims is far reaching and paints a truly harrowing picture. China must be held to account for its human rights violations. As the Foreign Secretary set out in his statement to the House on 22 March,
“the evidence points to a highly disturbing programme of repression”
in Xinjiang, and the world
“cannot simply look the other way.”—[Official Report, 22 March 2021; Vol. 691, c. 621.]
He announced the imposition of global human rights sanctions alongside the EU, US and Canada on the perpetrators of the gross human rights violations taking place against the Uyghurs and other minorities in China. He also, on 12 January, announced a series of measures to help ensure that UK businesses and the public sector are not complicit in human rights violations.
Is my hon. Friend aware of what the Chinese have promised as part of the deal? I recognise the need to make semiconductor producers more efficient and, if she looks at Taiwan, she will see a company that has had billions poured into it to make it more efficient. Have the Chinese promised that for Wales?
The Government have looked closely at the transaction and do not consider it appropriate to intervene at the current time. However, to reiterate, the Prime Minister made it clear at the Liaison Committee last week that he has asked the National Security Adviser to review that. Of course, the Government are reviewing their policy in the industrial sectors following the publication of “Build Back Better” and the introduction of the National Security and Investment Act. Significant support has been available through research and development funding. The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy is keen to support developments in supply chains and specific markets for UK growth.
I had the great pleasure of living in Newport for more than a decade. I listened carefully to the hon. Member for Newport West (Ruth Jones) and would not want to say anything that would deter investment in that great city, but I am also concerned about national security. The excellent Minister said that the Government have looked carefully at the sale. Have they done an impact assessment? If so, have they published it?
As I have said, the Government have looked closely at the transaction and do not consider it appropriate to intervene at the current time. The Prime Minister made it clear at the Liaison Committee that he would ask the National Security Adviser to do a review. I am afraid that I will have to get back to my hon. Friend on an impact assessment as I do not know that.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for The Cotswolds (Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown) on his question.
May I say to the Minister that I think the Government are in an unholy mess over this? It is no good their telling us that there is a very clear definition of what is strategic and what is not strategic. In the course of this failure to make a decision, did they look at what China thinks of semiconductors? China is the biggest exporter in the world and is busy buying up semiconductor technology everywhere it can find it. It has identified semiconductor technology as one of the key areas that it needs to dominate globally, and it is busy stealing technology, getting other people’s intellectual property rights and buying up companies. The idea that a semiconductor is not strategic! The technology will be used in almost everything we do—in everything we produce that is electronic.
My simple question is: are we now in a kind of Project Kowtow, where we just have to do business with the Chinese no matter what? That is outrageous. The Minister must take back to her Cabinet colleagues that it is not going to pass. We should have used the Act and blocked the deal.
I reiterate that the Government have looked closely at the transaction and do not consider it appropriate to intervene at the present time. The Prime Minister made it clear at the Liaison Committee last week that he has asked the National Security Adviser to review this. The Government are committed to the semiconductor sector and work is under way to review the wider semiconductor landscape in the United Kingdom.
I concur with the comments of the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Sir Iain Duncan Smith). I ask a question along the same lines: in relation to national security and jobs, is this beneficial for the UK?
The Chinese Government have been, and are, responsible for human rights abuses—including of Christians, Falun Gong and Uyghur Muslims—on a level that is unknown in the rest of the world, despite world opinion and despite our representations on the matter. However, they do listen to economic arguments. How can we use this opportunity to challenge them to ensure that they act? We do not want the hollow words that we always get from them; we want action. Before any deal goes through and before any sale happens, let us make sure that human rights abuses are reduced and that they are totally committed to that.
As I mentioned, the Government are completely committed to human rights and are mindful of everything we need to do on that. We have looked very closely at this transaction. I can give the hon. Gentleman my reassurance that the National Security and Investment Act will allow the Government to scrutinise and intervene on any acquisitions that may pose a national security risk. I reiterate that the Government want a mature, positive relationship with China based on mutual respect and trust. There is considerable scope for constructive engagement, but as we strive for a positive relationship, we must not sacrifice either our values or our security.
Business of the House
The business for the week commencing 19 July will include:
Monday 19 July—Second Reading of the Nationality and Borders Bill (day 1).
Tuesday 20 July—Conclusion of Second Reading of the Nationality and Borders Bill (day 2).
Wednesday 21 July—Second Reading of the Building Safety Bill.
Thursday 22 July—Debate on a motion relating to the fifth report of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, entitled “A Public Inquiry into the Government’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic”, followed by matters to be raised before the forthcoming Adjournment. The subjects for these debates were determined by the Backbench Business Committee and the Liaison Committee.
At the conclusion of business on Thursday 22 July, the House will rise for the summer recess and return on Monday 6 September.
The provisional business for the week commencing 6 September will include:
Monday 6 September—Remaining stages of the National Insurance Contributions Bill.
I thank the Leader of the House for the business. Visiting the covid wall of red hearts of remembrance across the Thames is a raw reminder of the pain and loss of the past year, and, of course, we all want to go back to the before times. Sadly, we cannot undo what has happened, but we want to look forward to better times and, to do that, we need our Government to learn lessons fast. I am afraid to say that the House business, as ever, tells its own tale: of a Government who seem to have learned nothing; a Government who decided to scrap all protections at once as if this is over, when they know it is not. If it is over, why is there nothing in the business statement about an announcement of a realtime, urgent public covid inquiry? If it is over, why are regional leaders, including Tory ones, deciding that it is essential to continue the compulsory wearing of masks on public transport? If it is over, why are we seeing a rise in infection rates? On Monday, clinically vulnerable people will experience not freedom, but fear.
Why have we still not got the Prime Minister’s plan for social care? Why are the Government imposing another top-down reorganisation with the Health and Care Bill on already exhausted NHS and care staff, rather than giving them the pay rise they so deserve? Where is the disability strategy promised in the Queen’s Speech in 2019, planned for 2020 and then delayed because of covid—which I understand—to early spring 2021? To spring—it is summer now. Is this strategy so poor that the Government intend to announce it with a whimper rather than a bang and without any debate?
Where is the plan for supporting schools and pupils to catch up on a lost year and to give them clarity about exam requirements for next year? I am afraid to say that the evidence seems to suggest that the Government are driven more by online trolls than socially conscientious British values, yet the Prime Minister said yesterday:
“I do not want to engage in a political culture war of any kind; I want to get on with delivering for the people of this country”.—[Official Report, 14 July 2021; Vol. 699, c. 364.]
I have already listed just some of the ways that the Government are failing to get on with delivering for the British people.
On the culture war, we have the Bill on free speech in universities, a classic example of a pointless skirmish in a pointless culture war. Why is the Prime Minister unable to read the mood of this country? Last week, a Tory MP said he boycotted the football because of the players taking the knee—not because he does not like football but because he does not like footballers opposing racism. Another Tory MP criticised Marcus Rashford for campaigning to feed hungry children, a problem that the Government have created and exacerbated. Do the Government not want footballers to be good role models? Marcus Rashford has helped to get the England team to the Euro finals while feeding hungry children. The Tory MPs cannot manage to do their job properly and I know who the British people see as the more worthy role models. Maybe some of them should visit Withington in Manchester, where ugly, racist vandalism on the mural of Marcus Rashford was rapidly restored this week with love and admiration from people far and wide coming to wipe out hate. That is who we are. Racists and their apologists are not living out British values. All the Prime Minister had yesterday was that there will be a ban on racists at football matches. Okay, that is good, but will it be for one match, two matches or for life, as the campaigners want?
The Leader of the House has committed to closing the current loophole in legislation so that constituents of known sexual harassers can decide whether or not they want them to continue as their MP, so I am naturally disappointed not to see any mention of this on the timetable for next week. Does he wish to table the Labour motion for debate next week? While we are on staff safety, can I please encourage all right hon. and hon. Members to continue to wear masks next week in the Chamber and with social distancing, especially given rising rates and that young people in particular are not double-vaccinated?
Finally, guidance has been issued only today on what businesses are supposed to do from Monday on the covid risk. No wonder businesses such as those in the Bristol Food Union are telling me that all this chaos with the rules is putting the hospitality sector under massive strain. With just two working days to go, where is the Business Secretary? And today, we find out that Ministers are going to have a get-out clause and will not have to isolate when they have been pinged. Well, how very convenient for them, when up and down the country, people trying to do the right thing—which is leading to staff shortages from the NHS to cafés, from the public sector to businesses struggling to get going again—find that, once again, it is one rule for them and another for the rest of us.
The hon. Lady made a number of points, so let me try to take them in turn. First, however, let me deal with the very serious issue of racism in football. It is disturbing to the whole country and it is something that unites the whole House. The racist tweets and abuse of a number of our footballers after the match last week were simply wrong, and people who have behaved in that way should be banned from attending football matches, as my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said yesterday. It is a determination of this Government to ensure that the legislative framework is correct, which is why my right hon. Friend the Culture Secretary has been in discussions with a number of footballers. The Online Safety Bill, which is going to have pre-legislative scrutiny soon, will be focusing on this. It will give Ofcom the power to fine social media firms up to 10% of their global turnover if they fail to ensure that their spaces, their social media outlets, are free from this type of improper, wicked racist abuse. It is important that the House tries to show a united stance on this, because I think the reality is that the whole House is united.
The admiration that the House feels for the English football team is very widespread. I am no expert in football, nor, I know, is the hon. Lady, but the team did its best and they jolly nearly won. This country does have a history of heroic defeats that lead to great victories. Dunkirk led to victory in the end, as did Corunna, and we can therefore look to great things from this team.
While we are discussing football, may I say how proud I am, as a Somerset man, of Tyrone Mings, who is only the second player from God’s own county to play football for England? My whole county rejoices in that about our fellow county man, and we wish him every success, regardless of any comments he may make about my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary.
Coming on to freedom day, 19 July, let me say that 87% of the population have had one vaccine and two thirds have had two vaccines. Having two doses of the Oxford vaccine reduces the chance of getting an infection by 80%. This is a fundamental change in the risk from the risk that existed prior to the vaccine being rolled out.
We know that the risk of infection among the young, who are the most likely not to have had the vaccine, is much lower than among the elderly, who, by and large, have had it. Therefore, it is right to allow people to make choices. The hon. Lady complains that guidance has not been issued early enough. That is not the point—people will make choices for themselves, because the risk has been lowered.
It is, of course, very easy when the Government say everybody should stop, everybody should go home and nobody is allowed to see anybody. Saying no, as the socialists always want to do, is easy. It is always very easy to say no and to tell people they are not allowed to do anything at all, or to tell them how their life should be run: when to have breakfast, when to get out of bed, when to have lunch and what to eat for lunch. The socialists want to run every detail of our lives—that is what underpins their philosophy. The Conservatives believe in individual responsibility. The risk is much lower because of the success of the vaccine, and this is fundamental.
In this Chamber next week, looking around now, I would say that it would be pretty safe not to be wearing masks; the Chamber is not very full. On the other hand, if we were to have a Budget day special, which I am not announcing as business, Mr Speaker, people might feel that the closeness, proximity, hugger-mugger nature of the House would make a mask sensible. But that is something we can decide for ourselves. After all, we, as legislators, are asked to make decisions for the country at large, so surely we have the mental capacity to work out whether or not it is suitable to wear a mask. On this broad issue, let me reassure the hon. Lady that the rules for Ministers are not different from those for other people. There have been tests, which are being considered, about how the pinging operates, but there are no different rules for Ministers, and nor should there be.
As regards education policies, £3 billion is being provided for catch-up. This is really important. It is crucial that children who have lost so much schooling should have the opportunity to get back some of the lost time. That is why there is an important programme to deal with that. It is fundamental that we help to rebuild the economy, having protected it with £407 billion of taxpayers’ money over the last year, and education will be a key part of that.
The hon. Lady referred to decisions by the Commission. She is aware of the motion that was approved by the Commission. There are discussions continuing. It is very important that the independent expert panel is fully informed as to what is going on. There has been correspondence between Mr Speaker and the chairman of the IEP. I will bring forward a motion as soon as it is reasonable to do so because I think what the position should be is agreed by the Commission, but I will be acting for the Commission and not—I emphasise—as Leader of the House.
On free speech in universities, we on the Conservative Benches believe in freedom. We on this side believe that defending freedom is crucial. As we rebuild from the pandemic, yes, we need money to help students, but the whole point of university is that ideas should be challenged. There should be a great clash of intellects as people discuss what is right and what is wrong and as they put arguments from one side to the other, as we do in this House. A political correctness has been waving over our universities to try to stop this type of debate. We need to ensure that there is genuine freedom of debate and freedom of speech, one of the lynchpins of our constitution, in our finest world-beating educational institutions. It may be sad that we need to do it and it may be a shame that the universities have not been defending free speech themselves, but it is an even greater shame that the Opposition actually wish to limit our freedom of speech and they should be ashamed of themselves.
I welcome the announcement of personal choice and independent health management being restored next week. I pay tribute to the young people who have been very negatively impacted throughout the pandemic. Jobs and opportunity are so important for their future. Does my right hon. Friend agree that opportunity for young people must be at the heart of our covid recovery strategy, and that apprenticeships and our kickstart programme are key to unlocking that growth for their future?
I do indeed agree. We have put young people at the heart of our economic recovery plan. They are absolutely at the centre of the circle. It is the right thing to do. I have the greatest sympathy for young people, who have made great sacrifices over the last year. The kickstart scheme has created over 230,000 jobs across the country and over the past month around 2,000 young people have started a kickstart job each week. This is just one part of the plan to build back better and help young people into good jobs after the pandemic. We are also providing a hire incentive payment of £3,000 for employers in England for each apprentice they hire, at all ages. We are increasing the number of traineeships, backed by £126 million of taxpayers’ money.
I just want to add how successful apprentices can be. I am much looking forward to meeting a former apprentice tomorrow, a gentleman called Steve Pickston, who is the vice-president for support and services at Airbus Helicopters. He started at McAlpine Helicopters as a helicopter airframe and engine apprentice in 1985, which only goes to show that becoming an apprentice can really help your career lift off.
I suppose it is a case of what could have been: if only that shot from Stephen O’Donnell had gone in when England were holding out for a draw, how different it could have been.
What should have been a look back at a successful tournament has descended into dealing with the multiple issues around the appalling racist abuse received by those fine young England players. Will the Leader of the House agree to an urgent debate next week so that can be properly addressed and to hold everybody to account, whether it is the anonymous thug on Twitter or the Prime Minister himself in The Daily Telegraph?
Monday brings the sense of freedom day—as I think we would call it now—as England opens up to allow covid in to do its worst. It also marks the end of our virtual proceedings. Monday could see the start of England heading towards 100,000 cases per day, with the prospect of a Johnson variant 2 emerging anytime from anywhere. Are we seriously going to do away with all these wonderful facilities when we have no clue where we will be when we come back in September? This has been a true parliamentary innovation. It has been led by the Leader of the House. Surely we want to retain some of these wonderful features, particularly if we do not know where this is going to go.
We in the SNP are still celebrating our stunning success in seeing off English votes for English laws on Tuesday evening, but now that we have beaten that anti-Scottish measure, there is still much work to do. Can we now deal with the anti-Scottish provisions in the United Kingdom Internal Market Act 2020, the ones that put constraints on our parliamentary democracy and allow the British Government to determine priorities in Scottish devolved areas? Getting rid of EVEL is a good start. Can we now work together to deal with all the other anti-Scottish stuff, and give our nations what they seem to want?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. It is always nice when he can be here, rather than sending one of his many very able deputies in his place. I reiterate what I said to the shadow Leader of the House: the whole House is united against racism, not just in football, but in the country at large. Racism is a scar upon society and, although it has much declined in recent years, the fact that it still exists remains a scar. That is why the powers that will be in the Online Safety Bill are important. In the most serious cases, Ofcom will have the authority to limit or prevent a company from operating in the United Kingdom. It has always seemed to me obvious that the online and social media companies, which can see what people have searched for and said, and ping them an advert directly linked to that, have the technological sophistication to work out when people are putting racist abuse online. It is important that they follow their responsibilities.
I disagree with the hon. Gentleman about opening up. He raises the level of infections, but that is not the point; it is hospitalisation and death rates, and that link, that chain, has been broken. There is now a much lower death rate and much lower entry into hospital. There is still an effect of infections, but there is not the direct link that there was prior to the vaccination programme.
Therefore, to allow freedoms to return is the right thing to do. That is the fundamental philosophical difference between the Conservatives and the parties of the left. All parties of the left are always determined that the collective should tell people how to live their lives, whereas we on the right think that mass decisions made by 60 million individuals across this country lead to better outcomes for the country than ordering people about.
As I said in the debate on EVEL, I was strongly against it in 2011, before it had been introduced. I only supported and voted for it, when it came in in 2015, on the basis that, as it was only a Standing Order, it could be abolished. So I was pleased to be the Leader of the House who did abolish it. I am delighted by the conversion of the hon. Gentleman. I think we are all coming to the conclusion that he does really like being here, and therefore he has shown great commitment to a Union Parliament. That is an enormous public service for the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
As we speak, the Prime Minister is delivering a crucial speech on levelling up, which for me has been a key motivator since I became an MP. Wherever people are from, be it Bishop Auckland, Bath or Birkenhead, they should have the same opportunities to get on in life. On that note, I am currently working on a key project to bring geothermal energy to Bishop Auckland, making the town cleaner and greener, but also creating good, sustainable jobs and incredible research opportunities to help our locals. Will my right hon. Friend encourage the Business Secretary to meet me in Bishop Auckland, to see the proposed site and talk about that incredible opportunity to truly level up?
I am slightly disappointed that my hon. Friend is extending invitations to Bishop Auckland to other Ministers but is not giving me the opportunity to visit her fantastic constituency. I notice that she mentioned Bath in her list, along with Bishop Auckland, which of course also has geothermal energy, with the most famous spa water, which was much enjoyed by the ancient Romans when the city was called Aquae Sulis—the waters of Sulis, who was the god they worshipped.
Geothermal projects can seek capital funding from the Heat Networks Investment Project from 2018 to 2022. In terms of future support, the Government are currently considering geothermal energy as a low-carbon technology to be within scope of our new £270 million Green Heat Network Fund from 2022 to 2025. The eligibility criteria for the fund were the subject of our consultation, which closed on 29 January, and the response will be published in due course.
So there are things going on. It is really important that we level up across the whole country and have a triangulation across the map of the United Kingdom to ensure that every part of the country benefits from the levelling-up process.
I thank the Leader of the House for announcing the business and for our cordial meeting yesterday. I look forward to the time for Backbench Business debates that will undoubtedly flow when we return from the summer recess.
As Chair of the Backbench Business Committee, may I express my concern at the proposals to cut by a third the number of staff working in the BBC Regional Political Unit, based at Millbank? The unit is the eyes and ears of the BBC English regions in Westminster, co-ordinating political news gathering for the BBC’s early evening regional TV news programmes, as well as the regional breakfast, lunchtime and late evening TV bulletins, the Sunday political programmes and all the local radio output. It is an important resource for our national and local democracy and should not be facing such a threat from BBC management.
The cuts will have a detrimental impact on Back-Bench MPs across the House, who get airtime on their regional BBC TV and radio outlets and regional coverage due to their activities in the House being covered by that unit. Will the Leader of the House and his Cabinet colleagues ask the BBC to rethink that proposal, which is detrimental to our democracy?
It would be wrong of me to tell the BBC how to run its commercial operations, but I will say this. In Somerset, we are lucky enough to have “Points West”, and I remember being told by it that its early evening programme is better watched, proportionally for the region, than “Eastenders”, which I understand is a popular soap opera that some people enjoy watching. It seems to me that if there is a really popular, well-watched programme, it is quite wise and commercially sensible to invest resources in it, but as I say, it is not for me to give the BBC advice on how to run itself.
May I join my right hon. Friend in congratulating Somerset’s son, from the finest county in Britain, on making it to the English football team and doing quite so well?
My right hon. Friend has been very helpful in chasing Ministers about an answer on the local government consultation in Somerset. Unfortunately, the Government still refuse to tell us how many people in their consultation supported One Somerset and how many backed the council plan. I really cannot understand why—it is not secret. We know that 5,000 people filled in the questionnaire, which is somewhat pathetic given that 111,000 took part in the referendum, but surely honesty is the best policy. I am reminded of the English writer Samuel Johnson, who said:
“Where secrecy or mystery begins, vice or roguery is not far off.”
Can we have a debate?
The great Dr Johnson said so many fantastic things. The pages of “The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations” are full of his bon mots. I am not allowed a prop, but I were to bring in to the Chamber my very well-thumbed copy of “The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations”, you would see, Mr Speaker, that the pages around Dr Johnson are particularly well thumbed.
I will always try to facilitate answers being given to Members, but I suggest that if my hon. Friend wants a detailed, specific answer, written questions are a very good way of getting one, because Ministers are obliged to give at least as much information in a written answer as would be given under a freedom of information request, and they are expected to do it faster.
I hope the Leader of the House is planning his holidays, and if next week’s free-for-all does not force him into self-isolation, can I suggest that he makes time this summer to visit the reopened Nottingham castle? If he comes by train, he will understand why his Government must get on with a rolling programme of rail electrification, starting with the midland main line, as they promised six years ago. When he walks past the beautifully restored heritage shopfronts on Carrington Street and confronts the half-demolished eyesore that was the Intu Broadmarsh centre, he will know why his Government need to approve our levelling-up fund bid to support its regeneration. But most importantly, he will understand why, as Labour’s Deputy Chief Whip, I am so very proud to represent the city of rebels.
I was actually in the Chamber when the hon. Lady made her maiden speech and said how proud she was of her constituency, and that has been a constant theme of her contributions in this House. I am very grateful to her for inviting me to her constituency—unlike my hon. Friend the Member for Bishop Auckland (Dehenna Davison), who invited somebody else to hers—to visit Nottingham castle. Had she invited me to Trent Bridge, I might have been even more tempted, but the offer is none the less a very tempting one.
My right hon. Friend is always welcome to Southend-on-Sea, which is hopefully soon to become a city. Will he find time for a debate on the links between human, animal and environmental health? As we look forward to the easing of lockdown restrictions next week, we cannot overlook the fact that 60% of the emerging infectious diseases are zoonotic. Given that it is likely that the coronavirus pandemic is linked to the trade of wild animals, it is more important than ever to improve our relationship with animals, to prevent a future global health, climate and biodiversity crisis.
As always, my hon. Friend not only gets in a plug for Southend’s request to become a city but raises an important point. We are of course concerned about the origins of coronavirus and links to the trade in wildlife. Mankind and the animal kingdom have had a long and close relationship since the very beginning of our creation, and it is incumbent upon us to ensure that we remain responsible stewards of the Earth. I remember as a child hoping to be given a parrot—Mr Speaker, I believe that you keep a parrot—but my father warned me that there was a danger of psittacosis. Then, I fear, it would have been Polly gone.
Nearly 2,000 people in Luton North, including students at Challney High School for Girls, have contacted me over the past few weeks about the worsening situation in Palestine, where international law has clearly been broken. We have had Westminster Hall debates and urgent questions on this, all of which have been so oversubscribed by MPs that I have been unlucky in the ballot every time. Will the Leader of the House be able to offer Government time so that MPs like myself can put on record the massive strength of feeling on this issue and call for action on the human rights issues facing the Palestinian people?
I know that this is a matter of concern to a large number of Members of Parliament, and indeed to our constituents, who correspond with us regularly about it. The Government have long been committed to a two-state solution and we encourage conversation, diplomacy and moderation in the activities of everyone involved. I am aware of the demand for debates, but I would point the hon. Lady in the direction of the Backbench Business Committee, which I know is aware of the demand and interest in this subject.
This week we debated and voted on the important issue of compulsory vaccination for care home staff. On 22 June, the draft statutory instrument was published, along with the words:
“A full impact assessment of the costs and benefits of this instrument is available from the Department of Health and Social Care, 39 Victoria Street”.
That would have been very useful because, as the Leader of the House will know, an impact assessment helps Members to decide on the merits or otherwise of the Government’s policy, but no such impact assessment was published. During the debate, the Minister for Care, my hon. Friend the Member for Faversham and Mid Kent (Helen Whately), said that
“the impact assessment is being worked on”.—[Official Report, 13 July 2021; Vol. 699, c. 271.]
It seems to me that either there was an impact assessment, as the Department said there was on 22 June, or there was not, as the Minister said in the debate. But a third option came along, which was that in fact there was a full impact assessment but it was deliberately withheld from this House. Whichever is the case, this seems to be a very disappointing episode for scrutiny. This is a genuine request: could we have a statement from the Health Minister next week to clear up the situation, please?
Yes, I can assure the House that it was a matter of considerable concern to me that, when an explanatory memorandum said that an impact assessment was being published alongside it, no such impact assessment was published. I did make inquiries and am assured that the impact assessment was, as the Minister said, and as far as I am aware, still not complete. I reiterate the apology to the House given by the Minister for Care, my hon. Friend the Member for Faversham and Mid Kent (Helen Whately), towards the end of the debate that inaccurate information was given to the House. That sort of mistake should not happen and is taken very seriously by the Government. I add only one caveat and that is a general caveat about impact assessments: they tend to try to predict with certainty the fundamentally unpredictable.
This morning, a contributor on Radio 4 said that it is only ever posh people who say that the less fortunate people in our communities do not want to be told by posh people what to do, but in fact they do, or, at least, they want some responsible guidance. The complete abdication of responsible guidance from this Government is shameful, and I for one, Mr Speaker, will continue to wear a face covering in this Chamber.
I do not need an excuse to talk about Bath’s two excellent universities. I offer my congratulations to the University of Bath, which has recently been named as one of the top 100 universities in the world at which to study maths. Last Friday marked the 80th anniversary of the cracking of the Enigma Code. Alan Turing’s great achievement continues to inspire the next generation of mathematicians, including those studying in Bath. Will the Leader of the House add his support to the Protect Pure Maths campaign and to renaming the Science and Technology Committee to the Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths Committee, so that the value of pure maths is better reflected in Parliament?
First of all, it is amazing how illiberal the Liberals nowadays are. They used to believe in freedom and Mill and all of that, who was closely associated with the Liberal party of old, but the modern version is very dour and controlling. I am happy though to be in absolute agreement with the hon. Lady, my neighbour, on the importance of mathematics. As she knows, Bath University is in her constituency and Bath Spa University is in mine, so we are fortunate to share in our area two very good universities. Mathematics will be at the forefront of how this country competes in future generations. I see that the Protect Pure Maths campaign places a great emphasis on the achievements and legacy of Alan Turing, as the hon. Lady mentioned, so it is good news that he is on the £50 note, which I am sure all of us wish to see more of in our daily lives for all sorts of good reasons. Unfortunately, it is not within my authority to decide the naming of the Committee; it is a matter for the House. I encourage the hon. Lady to have a word with my right hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark) and see whether he, as Chairman of the Committee, is open to such a suggestion. I am sure that, if he were, the House would facilitate such a move.
Is the Leader of the House aware that 2 million people rely on cash for every transaction that they make and that access to cash is a necessity for countless individuals and small businesses across the UK, particularly for many who are elderly, vulnerable or live in rural areas? Does he accept that people should need to travel only short distances to pay in or take out cash and that cash back without a purchase must be made widely available. On 1 July, the Government published a consultation on plans to protect access to cash. Does he agree that this initiative is not only welcome, but vital?
My right hon. Friend’s question follows perfectly from our previous discussion of £50 notes. The Government indeed recognise that access to cash remains important to millions across the UK, and we are committed to legislating to protect access to cash and ensuring the UK’s cash infrastructure is sustainable in the longer term. Already, as part of the Financial Services Act 2021, legislative changes have been made to support the widespread offering, by shops and other businesses, of cashback without a purchase. On 1 July, the Government published a consultation that sets out proposals for new laws to make sure people only need to travel a reasonable distance to pay in or take out cash. So I think Her Minister’s Government and my right hon. Friend are very much at one on this issue.
I would like to make the House aware that I am going to quote some offensive remarks, and that you, Mr Speaker, have been given advance sight of this question.
On social media, I have been told that I should not be involved in politics because I am not a Brit, but a “Paki”. That is of course wrong on both accounts: I am neither a Brit, nor a “Paki”; I am a proud Scot. On social media, I have also been told to “fuck off home”. That of course does not make sense—I was born in Edinburgh. Scotland is my home. I am not unique, however, in any sense, and we saw this with the horrific racial abuse that black England players have received on social media.
Every day, people are racially abused online because of a false narrative built on prejudice and assumptions—one that Ministers in this Government have encouraged, I am afraid to say. Yesterday, the Prime Minister admitted that there is a systemic issue of racism, particularly on social media. The House may be united against racism, but we need to see real action. What do the Government intend to do about this? I therefore ask: there was an urgent question yesterday, but will the Leader of the House make time for an urgent debate in this Chamber next week so that MPs of colour can also make their contributions?
May I begin by saying how appalling it is that the hon. Lady has been treated in that way? Anyone who has sent her a message of that kind should, to use the Prime Minister’s words,
“crawl back under the rock”
from which they came. They are people who should not behave in this way.
There is one fundamental thing that we should all know: in this country, there is a fundamental equality in every respect of every single British citizen—whether somebody who received a British passport a minute ago or somebody descended from the Picts. There is a fundamental equality, and this is so important. Every British citizen is equally honourable, justified and placed before the law in the same position as every other one. That must be fundamental to our understanding, and I think it is something the whole House agrees on.
I am sorry that the hon. Lady wishes to make this party political, because I really think it is not. I think the whole House is outraged by the way that she has been treated, and action is being taken. As the Prime Minister set out yesterday, he has had discussions with the social media companies to remind them of their responsibilities and of what will happen under the online safety Bill if they do not live up to their responsibilities. Regrettably, social media is a sewer and some of the most disgusting bits of life get washed through it, but it is a sewer that is in need of cleansing.
The volunteers at the Blackpool station of the Royal National Lifeboat Institution have been particularly busy during the pandemic and their bravery has saved a number of lives. The charity is an incredibly important part of many coastal communities, but it does of course rely on the generosity of the British people to survive. Will my right hon. Friend join me in thanking the incredible volunteers who put their own lives at risk to help others, and does he think it would be in order to have a debate in this place to recognise them and to discuss how their work can best be supported?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his question, and I join him in thanking all the RNLI volunteers across the country, who show great dedication and bravery in the work they do keeping our communities safe at sea. In April last year, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor put forward another £750 million of taxpayers’ money to support such charities through the pandemic.
It is one of the most wonderful things about our country; I went to speak once in Sutton Coldfield, which must be one of most landlocked constituencies in the country, and met a lady in her 90s who had been collecting money for the RNLI for almost her entire life. Over that long life, she had raised the best part of £1 million. The charitable work people do is so remarkable.
I note that there was a Westminster Hall debate entitled “RNLI and Independent Lifeboats: Covid-19” in October last year. If my hon. Friend thinks the time is right for another Adjournment debate, perhaps he will lobby Mr Speaker.
The Leader of the House may know that between 1952 and 1991, an estimated 22,000 men were involved in 45 nuclear weapons tests overseas. Many have reported rare cancers, sterility, miscarriages for their wives, or birth defects in their children. Sadly, the UK is one of the only nuclear powers on earth that has so far denied recognition of any sort to its nuclear test veterans. Will the Leader of the House request that the Prime Minister meets nuclear test veterans, as the Leader of the Opposition has, and subsequently arrange for the Defence Secretary to make a statement to the House outlining the steps he will take to ensure that these veterans and their families finally receive the recognition and support they deserve?
The nation owes a great debt to those who keep us safe, and we have been kept safe by our nuclear deterrent now for many decades; it is a fundamental part of our defence strategy. The 22,000 men involved between 1952 and 1991 are people who deserve the thanks of a grateful nation. I will of course pass on to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence what the hon. Lady has had to say about any proposals or anything that can be done for the people who were involved in these tests.
My right hon. Friend will know, because I have raised the matter with him in the House on a number of occasions, that residents living in Steinbeck Grange in Warrington believe they were mis-sold leasehold properties by David Wilson Homes more than 10 years ago. I welcome the work that the Competition and Markets Authority is undertaking to investigate these complaints, but my constituents and others around the country have an understandable need for the Government to take action to legislate to tackle historical problems.
May we have a debate in Government time on what actions the Government can take to support my constituents, particularly by looking at the use of incentivised solicitor arrangements, where discounts are offered for homebuyers to use friendly law firms that then disappear, leaving homebuyers with no opportunity to challenge their lawyers if they did not disclose the facts at the time of purchase?
The last point that my hon. Friend raised sounds almost like fraud. If somebody is proposing a solicitor who is not a real solicitors company and there is no comeback on the firm, that sounds like an extreme level of malpractice.
I can assure my hon. Friend that Her Majesty’s Government are committed to promoting fairness and transparency for homeowners and ensuring that consumers are protected from abuse and poor service. The Leasehold Reform (Ground Rent) Bill is currently making its way through the House of Lords and will end ground rents for new qualifying long residential leasehold properties in England and Wales, which is a major change to property law. It is encouraging that the Competition and Markets Authority is taking enforcement action to tackle certain instances of mis-selling, but I encourage my hon. Friend keep campaigning on this and particularly raising that very troubling issue of vanishing solicitors.
The tireless campaigners of the South East Northumberland Rail User Group say that the recent proposals for changes to the east coast main line timetables will make our national, regional and local journeys more difficult, and that the consultation supposes that the only place we want to travel is London. I can guarantee the Leader of the House that that is not the case. Morpeth station will lose 21 daily services, while Pegswood will add none to its total of three stops. The consultation is fragmented, disjointed and inaccessible. Will the Leader of the House agree to a debate in Government time on the detrimental impact of these proposals, and on how cutting links between northern towns and cities simply to shave 15 minutes off the travel time from Edinburgh to London helps level up our region?
Obviously the only place that people want to travel to is Somerset. The idea that everyone wants to travel to London is, I think, a mistaken one, so I am in agreement with the hon. Gentleman. I think he raises a really important point. These timetabling changes are very difficult, and he is also right that it is important that there are good connections within regions and not just to London, so I will take up his points with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport.
Recently I had the pleasure of visiting Culvers House Primary School in Hackbridge in my Carshalton and Wallington constituency, after pupils wrote to me to raise concerns about the levels of plastic pollution around the world. They told me more about why this issue is so important to them, so can we have a debate about plastic pollution so that we can discuss and hear more about the UK’s efforts to crack down on it?
I congratulate my hon. Friend on his assiduous work in his constituency, which I had the pleasure of visiting not that long ago. The Government have done many things, with some inconvenience to consumers. We have accepted the price to be paid in banning plastic straws, stirrers and cotton buds, and also in increasing the tax on plastic bags to 10p per bag. The 5p tax has cut usage by 95%, and there will be a new tax coming in from April 2022 for products that do not have at least 30% recycled content, so great steps are being made for unnecessary plastic, but I think he is right to suggest that the subject should be debated, because one should not forget how important it has been to have plastic for personal protective equipment during the course of the pandemic. It is about ensuring that plastic is used for good and essential purposes, and not ones where other materials are available, but I am afraid it will not be a debate in Government time; I think this is another request for the Backbench Business Committee.
Yesterday, this House debated for an hour the horrendous abuse suffered by three young black England players at the hands of, in the main, anonymous, faceless trolls. While I accept the intent—perhaps the good intent—of the Government to bring forward the online harms legislation later this year, does the Leader of the House agree that the main issue pertaining to online abuse is anonymity? Unfortunately, the Bill in its current form does not deal with those who want to hide behind the cloak of anonymity for purely abusive reasons. Does he agree that if this Government really want to get serious about tackling online abuse, the Bill must take anonymity into account?
The hon. Lady raises an important, but complex point. It is right to say that anonymity allows people to behave on social media in a way that they would not behave if they were named, and it is fascinating how many people, when something embarrassing has gone up, insist that their social media account was hacked to try to pretend that it was not them. As soon as people get found out, they immediately try and get away from responsibility for it, so I think anonymity is a problem, but there are occasions when anonymity could be important. It could be important for a whistleblower—somebody exposing corruption or other wrongdoing—so it is right that there should be pre-legislative scrutiny so that we can try to get this balance right and allow for anonymity where it will actually be beneficial. But if people want to say things on social media, they should have the courage of their convictions and put their name to it. As Members of this House, we all know that when we get anonymous letters, they are usually the rudest ones. They are usually the ones where people are ashamed really of what they are saying, which is why they do not dare put their name to it.
Since taking control of North East Lincolnshire Council two years ago, the Conservative administration had made great strides in delivering what was the first town deal and attracting new investments, particularly in the renewable energy sector. A vital part of the area’s levelling up agenda is to improve the education and training of our young people in practical skills and academic performance, and also to overcome losing the scores of pupils who travel a few miles down the road to the county council area, which has retained its grammar schools. With that in mind, the council would like to establish a school based on academic selection. Will the Leader of the House arrange for the Secretary of State for Education to make a statement explaining the Government’s policy and how it can assist the council in delivering on its ambitions?
May I first congratulate my hon. Friend, who is absolutely tireless? He is very modest in giving all the credit to the local council, because everyone in this House knows that everything that goes right in Cleethorpes is thanks to his campaigning efforts, energy, vim and vigour. He is right to say that existing grammar schools continue but that the law prevents the establishment of new selective schools. Wherever a local authority has identified a need for a new school, it must run a competition to establish a new free school. The local authority publishes a specification for a new school and invites bids from sponsors to run the school. However, he makes a very valuable point that I will of course take up with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education, although I encourage him to apply for an Adjournment debate to raise this specific issue, on behalf of his council, on the Floor of the House.
Will the Leader of the House ask Ministry of Justice Ministers to make a written statement about what is happening in the probate service? My constituent Mrs Dixon started probate in May 2020. Fourteen months on, she has yet to receive a satisfactory response from the probate service. This is not because of disputes within the family or because of issues with wills; it is because her paperwork has been lost by the probate service and has then been transferred between offices across the United Kingdom so that staff within the service were not able to confirm who was leading on her probate. This is clearly not acceptable in what can only be described as a truly distressing time under normal circumstances, never mind in a pandemic. I would be grateful if the Leader of the House could make some inquiries and ensure that this is not a wider problem within the probate service, which is under enormous pressure because of the scale of the number of loved ones lost over the past 18 months.
My deepest sympathies go to Mrs Dixon. It must be terribly difficult when dealing with a death in the family then to find that probate is not working efficiently and that she is being passed from pillar to post. On the assumption that the hon. Gentleman has already been in touch with the Lord Chancellor and his Department, I will take this up with the Department immediately after business questions to try to ensure that at least he gets an answer in relation to Mrs Dixon, although I cannot necessarily promise a statement on the wider issues concerning the probate service.
Thank you very much, Madam Deputy Speaker; it is a pleasure to be here in person.
We in Ealing North could not be more proud of our local hero Bukayo Saka. He grew up in Greenford, he went to Edward Betham Primary School and Greenford High School, and at the age of 19 he has now shown courage and bravery that is inspiring to us all. In the last few days, local people have rushed to thank him and honour him and to stand united against those who have subjected him and his teammates to online racist abuse. Will the Leader of the House ask the Prime Minister and the Home Secretary to come to the House of Commons so that they can finally apologise for not backing the England team when they took the knee to oppose racism?
First, I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on managing to achieve what Padre Pio used to do, which is bilocation. It is an indication of great sanctity; that he should be both virtual and physical at the same time is a miracle in this very House. To come to his issue, he takes the same pride in Mr Saka from his constituency as I do in Mr Mings being a Somerset man. I think across the country we take pride in the British football team, even those of us like me who normally do not know one bit of the shape of a football from the other. It has united the whole country in an interest in football even for those who have not previously had it. When he was here yesterday, the Prime Minister made absolutely clear not only his support for the team but his condemnation of racism in football, which is likewise something that unites the House.
Even after lockdown release, the events industry will take some time to properly get back on its feet. It was fantastic to see the Great Yorkshire Show taking place in Harrogate this week, but it is operating at 50% capacity. There are other important events and event organisations, such as Harrogate International Festivals, that have been severely impacted. I am aware that we have talked about this sector before, but events and circumstances are evolving, so could we have please a further debate on long-term support for the events industry? It adds so much to the quality of life in the United Kingdom and it may need extra help in the future.
I very much sympathise with my hon. Friend. Business events are vital for the UK economy, directly contributing over £31 billion each year prior to the pandemic. They also support a vast supply chain and stimulate valuable trade opportunities. The events research programme plays an important role in our work fully to reopen the sector, with another business event pilot set to take place at the Harrogate Convention Centre next week. The Government know how badly the sector has been hit by the pandemic and will continue to encourage and engage with people to monitor the situation and try to support a recovery plan. I accept that this will be a longer-term effort, but I think that beginning to get back to normal from Monday will begin to be helpful.
Can we take it from the Leader of the House’s comments in response to the shadow Leader of the House that if this Chamber is indeed a crowded place next Wednesday at Prime Minister’s questions, he will be following his own Government’s advice and wearing a mask?