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Commons Chamber

Volume 707: debated on Thursday 20 January 2022

House of Commons

Thursday 20 January 2022

The House met at half-past Nine o’clock


[Mr Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions

International Trade

The Secretary of State was asked—

SME Trade with EU

The refreshed export strategy, launched in November, focuses on the barriers to trade faced by small and medium-sized enterprises, using targeted interventions that help businesses at every stage of their exporting journey. Our newly unified Export Support Service provides a single point of contact for businesses trading with Europe, as one of the central elements of the strategy.

After finally getting to grips with last year’s contradictory guidance on trading with the European Union, one family-run business in Chesham has immediately come up against problems with the new rules introduced this month. They tell me that

“we would love to do it all absolutely correctly”,

but that nobody will tell them what correctly is. Will the Minister support the thousands of UK businesses struggling to trade with Europe by clarifying the Government’s new rules, and will he work with colleagues in the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy to reopen and expand the SME Brexit support fund?

The ESS is there to help traders who are struggling with elements of trading with Europe and it will continue to do so. It is available online and by telephone, but if the hon. Lady would like me to meet her constituents, I would be more than happy to do so.

Given the growing list of companies setting out the real and obvious difficulties they are facing in accessing markets in Europe, and given the many very practical suggestions that business groups have put forward to the Government in recent weeks, from negotiating a veterinary agreement and making progress on mutual recognition, to even just getting agreement on shared customs advice, when are Ministers going to try a bit harder to help businesses make Brexit work?

Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership

2. What progress her Department has made on securing UK membership of the comprehensive and progressive agreement for trans-Pacific partnership. (905101)

14. What progress her Department has made on securing UK membership of the comprehensive and progressive agreement for trans-Pacific partnership. (905119)

Is CPTPP not now one of the greatest opportunities we have to reshape the basis of international trade, to the benefit of not only the whole UK and the world, but great British businesses such as Oxford Instruments in Wycombe?

I thank my hon. Friend for the work he is doing to champion his local businesses. He is right: it is an £8.4 trillion market that we are opening up. However, this is about not only the economic benefits, but the benefits of those closer trading ties to enable people to work on problems that we are all facing around the world, in tech, the environment, healthcare and other sectors. That has got to be good for the progress of humanity as well.

Many people in Cheadle work in the tech sector, where jobs in digital, HealthTech and FinTech provide high-skilled, well-paid work. Given the high rate of northern unicorn start-ups, does my right hon. Friend agree that new trading partnerships can open up markets for future growth and for levelling up in the north?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right; the pay for people working in those sectors is about 50% higher than the UK average, so the more jobs we can create in those growth sectors, the better. I thank her for the work she is doing to champion her local businesses and expand those opportunities for her constituents.

For every £490 of Brexit damage, CPTPP should recover about £8 of it, but that is at risk if the UK patent attorneys’ membership of the European Patent Organisation is undermined or removed. At the moment, UK patent attorneys, who represent about a fifth of the patent attorneys in Europe, deal with a third of the patents of Europe. What assessment has been made by the Government of the damage that could be done to them through CPTPP and will that assessment be published so that they will know?

CPTPP is not doing damage and our accession to it is opening up markets. I work closely with all kinds of professional bodies, including those looking at patents, intellectual property and so forth. These are key sectors where we want to break down barriers to trade. As well as free trade agreements, we are looking, as the hon. Gentleman will know, at memorandums of understanding not only with countries across the world, but with states in the United States, to enable those non-tariff barriers to trade to be removed. We want to work with the EU. I know that the hon. Gentleman has not come to terms with the fact that we have left the EU and that we are looking to expand our trading opportunities. Some 99.9% of the businesses in his constituency that export will benefit from CPTPP, and I look forward to the day when he welcomes that.

The national food strategy published last year said that to allow lower environmental and welfare standards in future trade deals would represent

“an extraordinary failure of joined-up thinking”,

yet that seems to be exactly the Government’s approach. As we await the Government’s White Paper in response to the national food strategy, what discussions is the Minister having with colleagues in other Departments to make sure that in that White Paper we firmly pin down that we will not accept lower standards?

As I have alluded to, as well as the economic benefits that we hope trade agreements will bring, they are about highlighting the fantastic food safety, quality and welfare standards of our local produce and are an opportunity to champion that. For example, on my recent visit to the United States I met the agriculture commissioners of every state and talked about the practices and values that sit behind what we do here in the UK. The United States is interested in that and wants to reform some of its practices. I know that the hon. Lady is passionate about this agenda and hope she will support us in ours.

Free Trade Agreement: India

We have a slight problem. Will the Secretary of State answer the question? I will then go to the Opposition spokesperson.

I visited India last week to launch negotiations with my counterpart, Minister Goyal, for an ambitious free trade deal. India is one of the world’s biggest and fastest-growing economies and is home to more than a billion consumers, with a growing middle class eager to buy the goods and services that our country excels in. Securing a world-class FTA with India will deliver benefits for people across all four nations of the UK.

We know that India does not cede access to its markets easily and that one of its top demands in any trade deal will be generous visa concessions for Indian citizens to come to the UK. Recent press reports indicate that although the Secretary of State would consider such terms, the Home Secretary would oppose them. Will the Secretary of State clarify the Government’s negotiating position and what their red lines will be?

From services and digital to investment and intellectual property, we are aiming for a broad and ambitious deal with India that delivers for both businesses and consumers alike. The first round of negotiations started this week and we hope the second round of talks will be in March, at which point we will have the opportunity to shape and see the scope of the FTA that both countries want to work towards. We will confirm that at an appropriate time as the negotiations progress. We very much hope to reach a mutually beneficial agreement by the end of this year.

Scotch whisky exports to India, the world’s largest whisky market, have declined dramatically since 2019. A year on from Brexit, the Government can no longer deflect to the EU for their failure to deal with the eye-watering 150% tariffs that apply to Scotch whisky sales to India. Will the Secretary of State confirm today that her Government will finally make the removal of those tariffs a priority?

As the hon. Gentleman says, British products such as Scotch whisky and cars currently face substantial barriers to trade in the form of tariffs of well over 100% on their import into India. The reduction of tariff barriers would be a golden opportunity for UK exporters and, indeed, slash tens of millions of pounds off costs. We will put forward our position in a number of areas, including in respect of Scotch whisky, in the first round of negotiations in the next two weeks. We will make clear the issues that are important to us so that we can achieve a successful, mutually beneficial FTA for all sides.

The whisky industry is used to dealing with weights and measures, but it has been waiting for too long for measures from this Government. Will the Secretary of State confirm what target has been set for tariff reduction for Scotch whisky? Is it half, more than half or—what the industry needs—the complete removal of that 150% tariff? What is her measure of success?

The hon. Gentleman would be surprised if I were to disclose the details of my negotiations mandate at this point, but I think I have already been clear—I will say it again—that it is important that the trade deal is mutually beneficial, and the reduction of barriers to trade such as tariffs will be an important point of the UK’s negotiating mandate.

A free trade agreement with India would be a wonderful thing, but these agreements take a lot of negotiation and a lot of negotiators. When we were in the EU, we lost all our trade negotiators and we have had to build up the Department from scratch. How many free trade negotiators does my right hon. Friend have in her Department? Are there enough or do we need more?

We have a fantastic team of now extremely experienced negotiators. The team who are now focused on the India FTA not only bring with them a wealth of experience from Whitehall, but are experts drawn from a number of fields. We will be cracking on with these discussions, which will be virtual for the first two weeks, because of the restrictions in India, after which we hope to be able negotiate face to face. The teams—for instance those who worked on the Australia free trade deal—work 24/7, or whatever is required through virtual discussions. We will continue to do that, and we have a fantastic team leading the way.

Free Trade Agreement: US

We have had five productive rounds of negotiations to date and have agreed a significant proportion of the legal text across multiple chapters.

The 2018 Tory manifesto on which the Minister stood said that a trade agreement with the US would be completed by the end of 2022, but the agreement is shrouded in secrecy. As the Secretary of State said, she toured the US last month, playing up what she described as a “massive opportunity”. Can the Minister advise us at what stage the negotiations are now, and confirm that the promise to the electorate will be fulfilled and a deal put before this House by the end of the year?

I have just outlined where we are to date in terms of how much has been written and agreed to. I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman did not congratulate my right hon. Friend on having started discussions on section 232 and the announcement that was made yesterday by the Administration. He will know that we are concurrently negotiating memorandums of understanding with states. These things can only be done at state level; I am talking about regulated and regulator discussions, mutual recognition of qualifications and so forth, which will reduce massively the cost of doing business with the United States. We are making good progress on that twin-track approach. If he thinks that we should move a little faster, perhaps he might like to say that to the US Administration.

Trade with Australia

The UK signed its first “from scratch” free trade agreement with Australia on 16 December 2021. The deal is expected to increase trade with Australia by 53%. Both countries have committed to removing tariffs on a vast array of popular products, which can now be more easily traded, including eliminating tariffs on 100% of UK exports. This deal is tailored to British strengths, providing benefits for our world-class services industry, unprecedented new opportunities for UK professionals abroad, and for trading digitally.

The Australian high commissioner is hosting a gala dinner on Ynys Môn on 18 February to help raise much-needed funds for the Anglesey Agricultural Society. How is the Minister working to help my island farmers and businesses increase trade with Australia?

First, I would like to wish the Anglesey Agricultural Society good luck with the Anglesey show, which I understand is in August. I look forward to an invitation and an excuse to pay a visit.

The UK-Australia trade deal could boost Wales’s economy by around £60 million. Welsh farmers will benefit from the opportunities to sell their produce in Australia, and Welsh manufacturers could benefit from new procurement opportunities and enhanced business mobility provisions. Many small businesses will also enjoy greater access to Australia.

Will my right hon. Friend provide a specific description of the protections and safeguards that are in place for farmers, particularly in Scotland, and what recent engagement her Department has had with National Farmers Union Scotland and other Scottish food production trade bodies?

The UK has secured a range of measures to safeguard our farmers, including tariff-rate quotas for a number of sensitive agricultural products, product-specific safeguards for beef and sheep meat, and a general bilateral safeguard mechanism providing a temporary safety net if an industry faces serious injury from increased imports as a direct consequence of the agreement. The NFU, Salmon Scotland and the Scotch Whisky Association are trade advisory group members which were consulted throughout negotiations and regular meetings, and we will continue to engage with the NFU and other Scottish agricultural bodies to understand the impact on the industry.

Following on from that, the Government’s own impact assessment shows a £94 million hit to farming, forestry and fishing sectors, and a £225 million hit to the semi-processed food industry. The Government have also negotiated first-year tariff-free allowances of a 6,000% increase on Australian-imported beef to the UK. Can the Secretary of State outline what conversations that she has had with the NFU, specifically about the impact of that deal on British agriculture?

We have continual and regular discussions with the NFU and other agriculture bodies. As I have just said, they have been integrally involved in the discussions all the way through, and I know that the ministerial team will continue to meet them. I believe that my Minister responsible for exports will be having a meeting with them next week.

Unseemly haste in securing as many free trade deals as quickly as possible and at massive expense in pursuit of a press release and a picture with some TimTams is not the optimal trade policy that people deserve. Scotland’s farming and fishing sectors are paying the price for this public relations jamboree masquerading as trade policy. The UK Government’s own figures show domestic agriculture, forestry and fishing will suffer a £94 million hit just from the Australia deal. Scottish producers saw established routes to EU markets needlessly frustrated by this UK Government’s Brexit dogma. Will the Minister therefore apologise to Scotland’s economy?

I am disappointed that moving to having new free trade agreements with some of the great economies of the world is considered unseemly haste. We are working at pace and alongside all our UK businesses with a clear and mandated consultation process to ensure that we are pitching for the areas of business in which our businesses want to see growth. The EU market continues to be there under our fantastic markets. Part of the work that the Export Support Service is doing is to ensure that those who already export can do so more easily and indeed that, for those who have not yet considered exporting to the EU, the opportunities and the support services are there to assist them.

In 2019-20, trade in goods and services between Australia and the UK was valued at £20.1 billion. Currently, the trade in meat products between the two countries is very small. Specifically, I want to ask this: what steps has the Minister taken to ensure that there is more focus on the trade of meat produce from the UK to Australia, to the advantage of people and farmers in Northern Ireland?

One of the new tools in our armoury will be the trade and agriculture commissioners—experts who will be there to help UK businesses that want to take their products into new markets, including Australia. I have no doubt at all that, just as we enjoy Australian wine, we will have the opportunity to see Northern Ireland meat on the plates of the Australians.

Free trade agreements should be fair to both partners. The Australian FTA—dare I say it, like the Ashes cricket series—is a bit one-sided in favour of Australia. Will my right hon. Friend reassure the farmers in Cumbria and across the UK that the safeguard mechanisms in the agreement will have teeth? For instance, if the Australian meat market were to pivot away from Asia towards Europe, would the tariff rate quota mechanism be effective in turning down the supply of meat so that our fantastic British farmers are not undermined?

Yes, I am confident that the safeguards we have brought in, which I am happy to set out again, will support the most sensitive parts of the UK farming community. They include a general bilateral safeguard mechanism that provides a safety net for all those products, staged liberalisation, tariff rate quotas and specific safeguards for beef and sheep meat, which will be there to support fantastic British produce. Again, I encourage everyone to sing loudly about how fantastic our British produce is. It is eaten from plates across the UK and around the world. We will continue to see that finest produce enjoyed by all.

US Steel Tariffs

6. What recent discussions she has had with her US counterpart on the tariffs on UK steel exports to the US. (905106)

I was pleased to meet virtually with the US Secretary of Commerce, Gina Raimondo, yesterday to discuss the application of US section 232 tariffs. As set out in our joint statement, which was published last night, the US has agreed to commence negotiations with the UK. I welcome that positive development, and I will push for a deal that is right for the UK. I will continue to work closely with industry throughout the negotiations. The UK accounts for less than 1% of US steel and aluminium imports in volume terms, so UK imports do not affect the viability or the national security of the US steel or aluminium industries.

The International Trade Secretary will recall the Hallowe’en agreement from last year, when the US gave tariff-free access to the EU for steel and aluminium exports from the beginning of this year. That means that the EU will now have a 25% price advantage over UK steel and aluminium exports to the US. In fact, any UK steel, even if worked on in the EU, will still attract tariffs in the US. Is that what the Prime Minister meant when said he said Brexit was about taking back control?

As I said, it is a Government priority to secure a good deal and ensure that we find the right way forward to get out of the section 232 tariffs, which we are doing at pace. The US Secretary of State for Commerce and I will work to ensure that that imbalance is removed as quickly as possible.

At the start of last month, I wrote to the Secretary of State about those steel tariffs, which have been in place since 2018 and have already done great damage. In 2017, exports of steel and aluminium to the United States were more than 350,000 tonnes. In 2020, that had fallen to 200,000 tonnes. The situation is urgent, because as my hon. Friend the Member for Preston (Sir Mark Hendrick) set out, the EU gained a competitive advantage on new year’s day, with the US having lifted tariffs for EU member states but not the UK. I welcome the opening of those negotiations, but will the Secretary of State confirm that in advance of those talks the Prime Minister raised the issue personally with President Biden?

I assure the House that I have been extremely robust in moving the issue along since coming into post. I am pleased that we were able to launch these negotiations yesterday. It is important that we sort out and remove those unnecessary and burdensome tariffs on the UK. The UK steel and aluminium industries are not a threat to the US ones. We were working closely at every level to ensure that we find a solution as quickly as possible.

The lifting of the tariffs is vital for jobs and livelihoods across the country, yet the Secretary of State could not confirm that the Prime Minister has raised the issue with President Biden. The truth is that the Prime Minister has been more interested in saving his own job than in saving jobs in the steel sector. The longer the tariffs remain in place, the more damage the Government allow to happen to our steel sector, a foundational industry that is vital for our economy. If the Secretary of State cannot even confirm that the Prime Minister has picked up the phone to the US President about that, are people not right to conclude that the Prime Minister is focused on saving himself and does not care about steelworkers’ jobs?

I hope that the right hon. Member will assist us in the negotiations by speaking to their counterparts and indeed all those across the US who want the tariffs removed. I reiterate that at every level of the UK Government we have raised the issue with the US, and we are therefore at the point where we are now starting negotiations, which will move at pace. I look forward to his assisting us to ensure a successful outcome.

International Trade Opportunities

The Department continues to work hard to boost prosperity in every corner of our country, helping businesses export, securing investment, negotiating free trade agreements, bulldozing trade barriers and championing free trade. Just last week, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Trade said, we launched negotiations with India, an economy of 1.4 billion people worth £2 trillion. Our consultation on an FTA with the Gulf Co-operation Council closed last week, and I look forward to launching those negotiations soon. We continue to break through market access barriers. In 2020-21 alone, we resolved more than 200 barriers across 74 countries.

I thank the Minister for his answer. Will my hon. Friend expand on how businesses in Truro and Falmouth, as well as in wider Cornwall, can take advantage of free trade deals that the Government hope to secure in 2022, so that my constituents can reap the rewards and benefits that they will bring?

My hon. Friend is a great champion of businesses in Truro and Falmouth. The south-west is already benefiting from the Department’s work and will continue to do so. A deal with India would benefit the more than 600 west country businesses that exported more than £20 million of goods to India in 2020, and I am sure many more will do so in the future. Food and drink producers—even those that use imported ingredients—now qualify for nil tariffs in a deal with Australia, which is good news for fans of Cornish pasties down under.

Imports from Xinjiang, China

9. If she will take steps with Cabinet colleagues to ban the import of Chinese cotton and solar panels from Xinjiang. (905109)

We continue to keep our policy response under close review and are working with international partners to hold China to account for any violation of human rights.

China is the largest cotton producer in the world, with 84% of cotton coming from the Xinjiang region. The region also produces 45% of the world’s supply of the key component in solar panels, polysilicon, which means that the supply chains are tainted with forced Uyghur labour. In a response given in the other place, the Government outlined that they would

“continue to pursue a positive economic relationship with China and…increase trade with China.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 21 October 2021; Vol. 815, c. 252.]

In light of the genocide against the Uyghur Muslims, does the Minister think that is an acceptable approach, and will the Minister now follow in the footsteps of the US and ban imports from China’s Xinjiang region?

First, I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising the issue. The more we can talk about it, keep it on our agenda and raise the profile of such matters consistently, the more helpful it is. We are looking at what other nations are doing and we keep our policies under review. He is right: we need a mix of targeted responses against states and also companies that have those practices. We have a good track record on combating modern slavery and being a global leader in this field, but we also need the transparency and tools for consumers and customers of those businesses to find other suppliers if they have concerns. We will keep the matter under review, and I can tell the hon. Gentleman that we take those matters very seriously.

EU Veterinary Agreement

10. What assessment she has made of the implications of the Australia and New Zealand free trade agreements for concluding a veterinary agreement with the EU. (905112)

Nothing in the UK-Australia or UK-New Zealand agreements prevents the UK from reaching a veterinary agreement with the EU. Our agreements allow the UK to co-operate with both Australia and New Zealand and with the EU to avoid unnecessary sanitary and phytosanitary barriers to trade in agrifood, without constraining the UK’s right to regulate in those areas. We are open to discussions with the EU on additional steps to further reduce trade frictions.

The European Union will remain the UK’s largest export market for the foreseeable future, so the priority must be to remove all remaining non-tariff barriers, especially to help our UK agrifood exporters, and also to address some of the tensions around the Northern Ireland protocol. Does the Minister recognise that other free trade agreements risk restricting the nature of any EU veterinary agreement to one that is more limited and based around equivalence, rather than a more comprehensive one based on alignment? That will restrict our ability to trade with the EU to the maximum potential in the future.

We are clear that we want goods to be able to travel from Great Britain to Northern Ireland without unnecessary barriers, and the Government continue to be in intense discussions with the EU with the aim of delivering those significant changes to the protocol, so that there should be a green channel for goods in and out of Northern Ireland and no further checks or documentation for goods moving between GB and Northern Ireland. This is an important part of that wider process, and our trade agreements with the rest of the world will continue to champion Northern Ireland as part of the United Kingdom.

Export Protection: Leaving the EU

12. What steps she is taking to ensure that protections for exports to third countries negotiated while the UK was a member of the EU are maintained following the UK’s departure from the EU. (905116)

Since leaving the EU, the United Kingdom has secured trade agreements with 70 non-EU countries, in addition to the deal with the EU. Many of those deals were negotiated to secure continuity of trade, and they cover 99% of the trade under trade agreements we were subject to when we were also subject to the diktats of the EU, which I am sure is not what the Labour party is advocating today.

I listened to what Mr Speaker said—I mean the Minister—[Interruption.] Of course we always listen to everything Mr Speaker says. The Minister’s description does not tally with the experience of my constituent, Danny Hodgson, whose clothes retail business Rivet & Hide made the Financial Times exactly a year ago because of the crippling new additional duties he faces in importing from the EU. This time it is even worse, because he is finding that all the goods coming in from Japan are attracting a 12% levy. That is slapped on erroneously and routinely seven out of 10 times, I think, and it is a bureaucratic, red tape, bookkeeping nightmare for him. Will the Government look into the case? They are meant to be the party of small and medium-sized enterprises and low tax, and they have trashed their reputation for all that. Can the Government urgently help my constituent please?

I am delighted that the hon. Lady recognises that this party is the party of business. That is great news and I welcome her remarks. She references a business that trades with Japan, but I note that she did not vote for the deal with Japan nor the deals with Canada, Singapore or even the EU. Of course we will happily look at any business that she wishes to raise with me in writing, but I point out that this party is the party of business. We are the party that is securing the trade deals that will benefit businesses across our country.

Manufacturing: Government Support

13. What recent steps her Department has taken to support manufacturing businesses to (a) increase exports, (b) participate in the global market and (c) compete internationally. (905117)

In 2021, the DIT launched a new exports campaign: “Made in the UK, Sold to the World”. The campaign, in line with our refreshed export strategy, celebrates the quality of the UK manufacturing sector and its potential to export worldwide. We are reaching out to businesses across all UK regions and nations to create opportunities for our manufacturers.

I thank the Minister for his answer. I recently had the pleasure of visiting Gestamp on the industrial estate in Newton Aycliffe in my constituency. It supplies thousands of subframes every day to motor manufacturers worldwide, but it has outlined to me concerns that have been raised with it by European companies about the rules of origin and potential tariffs on goods supplied from the UK. Will the Minister reassure Gestamp that it is absolutely safe for European businesses to trade with British companies and that our trade deal with the EU will not result in future tariffs? I encourage him to find time in his diary to visit that fantastic business.

My hon. Friend fights hard for his constituency. I am pleased to reiterate that the trade and co-operation agreement ensures that businesses in every part of the UK can continue to sell to their customers in the EU. We successfully negotiated a zero tariff, zero quota trade deal, which means that goods traded between our markets can qualify for zero tariff trade as long as they meet the rules of origin requirements set out in the TCA. We have secured modern and appropriate product-specific rules of origin that are tailored to the needs of UK business, including innovative rules for the automotive sector. I am happy to join him in visiting the company.

Barriers to Global Trade

15. What steps her Department has taken to reduce barriers to global trade for British businesses. (905121)

In addition to negotiating FTAs, as I have said, we are cutting through red tape and opening markets for British business around the world. Last year, we resolved over 200 barriers across 74 countries, which was an increase of 20% on the previous year—[Interruption.] I am delighted that the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Angus Brendan MacNeil) is getting so excited about that success. We have secured British poultry market access in Japan, estimated by industry to be worth up to £13 million a year, and we have lifted the decades-long ban on British lamb exports to the United States, estimated by industry to be worth £37 million over the next five years.

Since being appointed the trade envoy to Pakistan, I have encountered a number of issues that hinder potential trade opportunities such as exporting meat and poultry to help our farmers and importing high quality granite and marble that is important to the UK burial industry, and difficulties for businesses gaining access to UK Export Finance. Will the Minister outline what he is doing to overcome those and other barriers so that trade can be open not just to Pakistan but across the globe?

I thank my hon. Friend for his great work as trade envoy to Pakistan. We are very aware of the challenges to exports in the farming sector posed by costly market access barriers around the world, which is why we are working closely with our counterparts in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and engaging trading partners to remove them where possible, as I have outlined, so that Great British meat and produce can be enjoyed all around the world.

My hon. Friend mentioned UKEF, which has a £1.5 billion risk appetite to support exports in Pakistan with a specialist team on hand to discuss options available to British businesses of all sizes. He will also know that we will soon launch our developing countries trading scheme, which will look to further simplify trading arrangements with developing countries, including Pakistan.

In the interests of peace and harmony, I shall refrain from dwelling on the Ashes cricket series.

Small businesses are simply less likely to be able to afford the consultants, lawyers, trade experts and advisers necessary to navigate the complexities of the hard Brexit customs checks that this Government insisted on. Despite that, the Government have now closed the SME Brexit support fund and not replaced it, although a Channel 4 investigation found that 26% of SMEs that trade with the EU are now considering moving some of their European operations outside the UK, while 16% said they had already done so. A Lords report published in December said it is absolutely vital that it is reopened with wider eligibility criteria, and the Federation of Small Businesses has also been calling for that for months. Will the Minister listen to the small business experts?

First, I am sure the hon. Member would want to direct all businesses to our export support service, which will help British businesses get the answers to the practical questions they may have about exporting to Europe, accessing cross-Government information and support all in one place. She will be pleased to know that the statistics actually show that monthly exports to the EU are now £13.6 billion, which is 12% higher than average exports in 2020. That shows that significant progress is being made in our exports from businesses of all sizes up and down our country.

UK Trade Levels

16. What recent assessment she has made of trends in the level of UK trade with the (a) EU and (b) rest of the world. (905122)

Official statistics up to end of November last year show that UK trade in goods with the EU has seen three consecutive monthly increases, with November showing an increase of nearly 3%. Goods trade with the EU is now above average levels for 2020, although still below 2019 levels. UK trade in goods with non-EU countries is at record monthly levels, with recent increases due to the high fuel prices we are seeing across the globe. UK trade in services with EU and non-EU countries continues to show small increases as covid restrictions on the movement of people ease, but trade remains below pre-covid levels.

Ireland has seen goods imports from Great Britain drop by more than a fifth since Brexit. Ireland has also, in that time, increased its goods exports to GB by more than 20%, and imports from Northern Ireland to the Republic jumped by more than 64%. Is it not the case that, by becoming independent, Scots will open the gate to 27 other markets and that Scotland can access that bridge to economic prosperity, as trade levels in the Republic and Northern Ireland are proving to us now?

On this side of the House, we continue to know that the Union is the strongest way that Scottish businesses can continue to export. Some 75% of exports are to the rest of the United Kingdom, and we want to make sure that, as well as trading with all of us, they have the opportunities our free trade agreements will make and find that selling their fantastic goods and services across the world becomes easier. However, we continue to say that the best way for Scottish businesses to do that is to stay within the UK.

Last week at Expo in Dubai, I was struck by the number of trade reps and investors from across the Gulf who told us just how much easier they have found doing business visits to London in recent months compared with other cities internationally. Does my right hon. Friend agree with me that such remarks underline just how important it was for us as a Government, from a trade and investment perspective, to get right those big decisions about the vaccine roll-out and relaxing the covid restrictions to give us a head start as the international trading community recovers from covid?

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. The Prime Minister has taken some incredibly tough decisions, and in doing so has made sure that our economy has stayed open and our population has remained safe. We have been world leading not only in vaccine production, but in distribution, so ensuring that the trade and enterprise so vital to our constituents and across the world supports healthy economies and, indeed, makes sure that everybody is in as good health as possible. It is lovely to hear those messages. What I hear as I travel around the world is that the UK is open for business, and we are seeing the benefits of that across the piece.

Purchasing managers index information shows that in December 2020 the United Kingdom was the only economy in the entire western world to see a fall in exports. Who is responsible for that?

To go back to my earlier point, as we see markets open up and opportunities for amazing UK businesses to discover not only the markets some are in already but new markets, the export support service and the team at the DIT stand ready to support all those who want to expand and share the UK’s amazing goods and services with the rest of the world. “Made in the UK, Sold to the World” is our campaign motto, and that is what we want to support everybody to share and get out there.

Topical Questions

The Department’s five-star year 2022 has begun at pace with the launch of our India free trade agreement negotiations, the signing of the sovereign investment partnership with Oman, discussions with Brazil towards an economic trade partnership, the launch of our new and improved trade show programme, and the virtual African investment summit taking place today. As I mentioned earlier, yesterday I met with US Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo to start negotiations with the US on the section 232 tariffs. These have cost the steel industry over £60 million per year; I am firmly pressing for their express removal and am confident we can now make fast progress towards this to ensure that trade works in the interests of all UK businesses and workers.

Further to my earlier question with regard to US steel tariffs and section 232, what are the chances of our getting those tariffs lifted, given that the Prime Minister is playing fast and loose with security policy on Northern Ireland, particularly through doing his best to trash the Northern Ireland protocol?

We will be pushing for a deal that is right for the UK steel industry and I am confident that the long-standing alliance between the UK and the US, built on a rich history of shared values and free and fair trade, will ensure that the negotiating outcomes are what we need for UK industry. The UK and the US work together across the piece in so many difficult areas at the moment and I hope that those in all parts of the House will continue to give support as we take on some of those challenging security issues.

T2. With over £2.6 billion-worth of exports, I am sure my right hon. Friend agrees that the Black Country is, and will remain, the beating industrial heart of the west midlands. As she goes out with ministerial colleagues to bat for the Black Country on the industrial stage, what is she doing to ensure that supply chain issues in particular are at the forefront of our trade negotiations, and that businesses such as KJV Furniture in Oldbury are able to import and export smoothly; and will she ensure that once again other areas of the world can see the fantastic wares that are made in the Black Country? (905126)

My hon. Friend raises an important point. A key challenge facing the UK and other major exporters is shipping container costs, and there is ongoing engagement across Government, including the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, the Competition and Markets Authority and the Department for Transport, to ensure that we understand the background causes of price rises and their impacts, such as by contacting the shipping lines and engaging with international partners where necessary to address the key issue of supply lines that my hon. Friend raised.

Given the Government’s underwhelming performance on trade to date, even the small gains from joining the comprehensive and progressive agreement for trans-Pacific partnership would be welcome, but one issue that the previous Secretary of State always ducked was China’s interest. Given President Xi’s reaffirmation on Monday of China’s desire to join the CPTPP, can the Secretary of State clarify whether Britain would have the right to veto China’s accession?

The hon. Gentleman raises an important point. These issues are very complex, but what I will say is that we are first in the queue to join CPTTP, and after that all things are up for review.

T5. The last couple of years have been extremely difficult for the shell fishermen in Cornwall, include those on the River Fal, which has one of the most historic and sustainable fisheries in the world. That said, fishing communities across the UK will benefit from the £75 million boost to the sector; can my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State assure me that the Department will work with the Cornish fishermen benefiting from this investment and help them further capitalise on it by ensuring that they are able to play their part in the Government’s “Race to a Trillion” strategy? (905129)

My hon. Friend raises an important point, particularly for her constituency, and I can give the assurance that the Government will continue to work closely with Seafish and the Shellfish Association of Great Britain to encourage their members to look at new markets and drive awareness of UK seafood in international markets. We have a network of trade advisers in the UK and overseas who can support the sector to trade successfully, and I am happy to put any of her businesses in contact with them.

In December, the Government snuck through a change to the UK’s arms export rules, and charities such as Oxfam have warned that these changes will lessen transparency over arms exports and could see UK arms being used against civilians such as those in Yemen. What steps is the Minister taking to ensure that UK arms exports are not used to commit breaches of international humanitarian law?

The Government have not “snuck through” such changes. We are very open and transparent about the policies that sit behind our very good arms export controls, which are also scrutinised by this House. The Department is due to meet a number of stakeholders; I can check whether Oxfam is part of that. We meet regularly to discuss these issues. We have one of the best arms export regimes in the world; it is flexible and changes as situations change. The hon. Lady will know that we recently made some new changes because of what is happening in parts of the world. She should be confident in what we are doing on that.

T6. The Government will be aware of the global shortage of semiconductor chips. The impact of that is being felt far more by SMEs than the largest companies, which can make large purchases years in advance. What steps are the Government taking to support those SMEs to import semiconductors so that they can keep operating? If I write to the Department, will they look at a specific constituency case of mine? (905130)

My hon. Friend raises what is a vital point in a global economy. The Government are carrying out a review of the UK’s international and domestic approach to semiconductor supply chains. The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport is leading that review, supported by the Department for International Trade. We also support growth in the UK semiconductor sector by driving investment—for example, by promoting the world-leading compound semiconductor cluster in south Wales, as part of our high potential opportunities programme. If my hon. Friend would care to write to the Department, we will of course take up the constituency issue.

T3. The European Union secured a comprehensive exemption from the section 232 steel tariffs way back on 30 October 2021. Here we are, almost three months later, and talks with the UK Government are only just starting. To ensure that the talks proceed smoothly and rapidly, we need to understand the cause of the delay. Does the Secretary of State agree that the probable cause is the Government’s shambolic handling of the Northern Ireland protocol? If she does not think that is the cause, perhaps she will enlighten the House about what she thinks the cause of the delay has been. (905127)

As I have outlined today, I am pleased that yesterday we were able to formally launch our negotiations with the US to find a solution to the section 232 tariffs, which have been unreasonably imposed on the UK for a number of years. The EU quantum of steel was of importance to the US, which wanted to start those negotiations because the impacts on both sides were great. We are very pleased that the UK is now able to progress on what will be a very important impact, and release some of the pressures on our excellent steel industry.

T9. As some of my colleagues have already pointed out, it would be wrong to say that there is not some nervousness in rural Scotland about what the deal with Australia will mean. Some of that is caused by the anti-trade scaremongering on the SNP Benches, but will the Minister expand on the opportunities for Scotland as a result of our deal with Australia? (905133)

The UK-Australia free trade agreement could boost Scotland’s economy by about £120 million. The deal will help boost Scottish exports by removing tariffs of up to 5% on Scotch whisky and through additional commitments to release goods from customs quickly. Scotland’s services firms will also benefit from access to billions of pounds’ worth of Australian Government contracts. Staff will be able to travel for work with easier access to temporary entry visas.

T4. Can the Secretary of State confirm whether she is still undertaking discussions with UK trade partners on inserting clauses on investor-state dispute settlement systems into future trade deals? There is evidence that they are opaque and could open the UK to law suits from multinational corporations. Will she confirm whether she is still pursuing them? (905128)

Every free trade agreement is negotiated in relation to the other country and we will continue to work with those as we build these, to look at how we best bring together free trade agreements that will be beneficial to UK businesses and consumers.

Last Friday, along with a number of local businesses, I took part in a meeting of the parliamentary export programme for my constituency businesses. What additional initiatives do Ministers have to encourage small and medium-sized enterprises, in particular, to look at and engage in the export market?

I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s support of the parliamentary export scheme. It is about to be refreshed and relaunched so that we can provide additional support to any of our parliamentary colleagues who wish to engage with companies in their constituency about exports. I ask him to hold fire while we relaunch it, and he will be one of the first I contact.

T7. May I bring the Secretary of State’s attention to the analysis published recently by the Scotch whisky industry, showing that even a phased reduction of the 150% tariffs on its products sold into industry could bring back a £1 billion increase in exports and something in the region of 1,300 UK jobs? As she continues with the dialogue with India about a trade deal, will she give us some commitment that the reduction and elimination of that tariff would be one of her biggest priorities in an early harvest agreement? [R] (905131)

As I said, the negotiations with our Indian counterparts have just begun. We will not discuss the details of the negotiations while they are going on, but I have been very clear with the Indians and through our consultation process that we will want to see movement on issues such as high tariffs on some of our iconic UK products.

My apologies for not being here earlier, Mr Speaker. Clearly, the start of the talks with our friends in India is extremely welcome news, particularly for Scotch whisky exporters, who could gain tremendously. Will my right hon. Friend update the House on the projected timetable, and will she publish some objectives in relation to what we are attempting to achieve with our friends in India?

Following our discussions last week, Minister Goyal and I were very clear that we want our negotiating teams to crack on and get a clear picture of the areas that we want to bring together in our free trade agreement with India. We have set our negotiators an initial target to see whether we can bring this to a conclusion at the end of this year or in early 2023.

British wine traders have expressed concern that the Chancellor’s reforms to alcohol duty might lead to higher prices and less choice in wine. What discussions has the Secretary of State had with her Cabinet colleagues about the impact of these reforms on industry’s ability to trade effectively?

The Chancellor brought in duty reforms that are focused on health: the higher the amount of alcohol, the higher the tariff. Interestingly, as I have been travelling the world, I have mentioned the policy to other countries, and they see it as a really intelligent way to ensure that they balance the opportunities from the healthy management of alcohol drinking and the opportunities that fantastic producers—such as all of ours in the UK—have to reach a wider audience while ensuring that people always drink carefully and wisely.

Our co-operation with Saudi Arabia on defence and security helps to maintain hundreds of jobs at BAE Warton on the Fylde coast. What steps are the Government taking to further develop that relationship and the opportunities for trade with Saudi Arabia?

We have just finished a consultation with British businesses, citizens and civil society on their aspirations for a free trade agreement with the Gulf Co-operation Council, of which Saudi Arabia is an important part. My hon. Friend knows that that will provide the opportunity to reduce tariffs and streamline market access barriers. He will also be aware, from the excellent report by BAE Systems, that there are well over 500—maybe even 600—jobs in Blackpool because of the presence of BAE Systems in that part of our country, which shows the importance of our strategic exports.

This Government, as we know, have blundered many times, and now a lobster or a leg of chicken cannot be sold to any country in the world without five, eight or 10 bits of paperwork. I am trying to prevent another blunder.

The Chartered Institute of Patent Attorneys supports the accession to CPTPP, but cautions that

“we believe that if the UK were to sign up the CPTPP IP chapter as currently drafted, this could have unintended consequences”

for our reputation as an international patent leader, for innovative small and medium-sized enterprises, for UK GDP and for the UK patent profession. It asks that

“the UK…should take a very firm position and insist on carve outs for the UK from these provisions of CPTPP.”

Will the Department take up that ask and insist that it happens?

The hon. Gentleman raises a good point. It is in my diary to meet him in the next few weeks; I suggest that he brings that paper with him and we can have a more fruitful discussion.

Can the Minister outline how much cotton and how many products to construct solar panels have been imported into the UK from Xinjiang in the past year?

I can certainly write to the hon. Gentleman with the information that our Department and others may hold on the matter. May I reassure him again that it is welcome that he has raised it today and that we are taking it very seriously?

Earlier, I mentioned a company in my patch called Gestamp. The motor trade is a worldwide business; Gestamp supplies to Jaguar Land Rover, Nissan, Volvo and all their factories throughout the world. What is being done to help its research and development efforts to make sure that it remains a world leader?

I think that a letter is winging its way towards my hon. Friend about various issues that he has raised with us, which will outline what we are doing to ensure that we are competitive and creating the right environment to get inward investment. He will know that we have a huge focus and push on science and technology, spearheaded in part by the Under-Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Norfolk (George Freeman), as Science Minister. The points that my hon. Friend the Member for Sedgefield (Paul Howell) has raised with my Department are being listened to and are well made.

Yesterday, the permanent secretary of the Department for International Trade told the Public Accounts Committee that 85% of post-Brexit trade deals have simply replicated the deals that we already had with the European Union. Does it really represent such a resounding success at knocking down trade barriers if 85% of the barriers that the Government are knocking down are barriers that they put up in the first place?

A lot of work needed to be done in all areas of Government, including trade, to roll over legislation to our statute book and move trade agreements to a new statutory footing. The opportunity has come for what we can do next. It is not just about the big economic benefits that we usually discuss in our meetings and sessions, but about what we can do to help developing nations. Many of the economic partnership agreements that have taken a long time to make, for example with countries in Africa, will not only provide economic benefits to the UK but lift millions of people out of poverty.

Talks on steel and aluminium tariffs have started, but Washington has still to confirm the apparent virtual plan. The British economy, instead of becoming global post Brexit, is not. My constituents at the Dalzell works in Motherwell want to see progress on the punitive tariffs so that they can sell to the Americans. The relationship between President Biden and the current Prime Minister is not particularly rosy, but can the Secretary of State confirm that whoever is Prime Minister in the upcoming time, she will ask them to intervene and get this sorted?

I am thrilled that we were able to launch the negotiations formally yesterday. I will make sure that I keep in touch with all across the UK steel industry as we move forward. The US Secretary of Commerce and I have been clear, through our teams, that we want to resolve the matter at pace, and that is what we will be doing.

British Council Staff: Afghanistan

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs if she will make a statement on British Council staff in Afghanistan.

During August 2021, through a shared effort right across Government and our armed forces, we delivered the largest, most complex evacuation in living memory. Between 15 and 19 August, the UK evacuated over 15,000 people from Afghanistan. That included over 8,000 British nationals, and close to 5,000 Afghans who loyally served the UK—including British Council employees—along with their dependants. The UK also evacuated around 500 special cases of particularly vulnerable Afghans, including some British Council contractors, journalists, human rights defenders, campaigners for women’s rights, judges and many others. All former British Council employees have arrived in the UK with their family members. In August, the Government agreed to resettle more than 50 of the most vulnerable British Council contractors, many of whom have already arrived in the UK with their families.

Travel in and out of Afghanistan remains difficult. The Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office is providing assistance and supporting families who are eligible for resettlement in the UK. The Government have also agreed to consider British Council contractors for resettlement based on risk. On 6 January, the Minister for Afghan Resettlement announced the opening of the Afghan citizens resettlement scheme. In its first year, the Government will honour our commitment to offer ACRS places to the most at-risk British Council contractors, as well as GardaWorld contractors and Chevening alumni. The Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office will be in touch with those eligible to support them through the next steps of the process.

The British Council performed an important role in Afghanistan; it worked to support the UK mission in Afghanistan and to promote our values. The Government will do the right thing by British Council employees and contractors, including by resettling those contractors who are most at risk.

Thank you for granting this urgent question, Mr Speaker. The fact is that months after the Taliban took control of Afghanistan, there are still many British Council staff and contractors stranded in that country and facing threats of violence every single day from the regime. Reports suggest that the vast majority of those staff are teachers who worked with the British Council teaching vital skills, such as English language skills, to many Afghans, including many women and girls, who are now largely barred from attending school owing to the Taliban’s warped ideology.

We owe those brave people so much for supporting the UK’s work in Afghanistan over the last two decades. Many of them are still trapped in the country, fearing for their life; the UK Government have badly let them down. Yesterday at Prime Minister’s Question Time, the Prime Minister said that

“the British Council…is a wonderful institution that we all love.”—[Official Report, 19 January 2022; Vol. 707, c. 321.]

If he valued it so much, would he not have ensured that every single one of these brave British Council teachers, staff and contractors was urgently evacuated to safety?

I ask the Minister: how many current and ex-British Council staff are stranded in Afghanistan? Are the Government considering using the Afghan citizens resettlement scheme to get them out? Does she accept that the Government’s catastrophic cuts to British Council funding have made this difficult situation far worse? What message does this inaction send to other British Council employees working in challenging environments all around the world? Is it that people whose association with the UK may put them in danger have seemingly been abandoned by the British Government?

The British Council is vital to the UK’s influence around the world. The Prime Minister’s now hollow pledge to “move heaven and earth” to get those who supported the UK out of Afghanistan has resulted in the abandoning of British Council staff to the whims of the Taliban. Not only is that morally wrong, but it will severely damage both that institution and the United Kingdom’s reputation on the international stage.

As I set out in my opening remarks, the British Council has performed an important role in Afghanistan working to support the UK mission and promote our values. It is therefore right that we are supporting those in need. In August the Government agreed to resettle more than 50 British Council contractors, and many of them have already arrived in the UK with their families.

As I also set out, it is difficult to travel both within and out of Afghanistan at the moment, but we are committed to working in step with the international community to do all we can to enable those who are eligible to relocate to the UK. It is worth noting that resettlement is just one element of the UK Government’s response to the situation in Afghanistan. In addition to our diplomacy and international aid in the region, we are working alongside like-minded states as part of the international community. The Government will resettle those British Council contractors who are most at risk.

My right hon. Friend clearly sets out the wonderful work done by our defence forces to relieve people who wanted to leave Afghanistan. All those who worked for the British Council in Afghanistan did tremendous work. Will they be evacuated and assisted by her Department to make sure they are free and can live their lives in liberty?

I share my hon. Friend’s view on what the armed forces did in incredibly difficult circumstances. It was tremendous.

All British Council employees have arrived in the UK with their families, and the Government agreed that we would resettle more than 50 of the most vulnerable British Council contractors. Many of those contractors have already arrived in the UK. It is important to note that we are trying to support those most in need and most at risk.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Leeds North East (Fabian Hamilton) on securing this vital urgent question.

Around 100 ex-British Council staff are still in Afghanistan, having so far been denied the right to come to the UK. These teachers taught English, and they were the face of the UK in Afghanistan. Now they feel stranded and abandoned by the country for which they worked. It goes back to what I previously said in this Chamber: this is no longer a global Britain but an insular Britain that is running away from its responsibilities.

British Council staff had thought they were eligible under the Afghan relocations and assistance policy, but that scheme’s eligibility criteria were narrowed on 14 December. These British Council teachers had been waiting months and months for a reply. Staff had been told that those most at risk could apply for the new Afghan citizens resettlement scheme, which was promised last summer but opened only days ago. On top of the fear of reprisals that British Council staff already face, these teachers have unnecessarily had to deal with a dysfunctional Conservative Government, the backwards and forwards, the to-ing and fro-ing and the narrowing of eligibility criteria. The irony is not lost on me that this is officially named Operation Warm Welcome.

After a long wait, the UK Government recently said that British Council staff most at risk can apply to the Afghan citizens resettlement scheme. Can the Minister provide a cast-iron guarantee today that applications from British Council staff will be considered as a matter of priority? Early reporting gave the impression that the Afghan citizens resettlement scheme will accommodate 25,000 people, but recent announcements no longer mention five years. Can she clarify whether that is because she has changed policy to make it narrower? Do these numbers cover only principal applicants, or do they cover their families?

As I set out in previous answers, the Government agreed in August to resettle more than 50 British Council contractors, many of whom have already arrived in the United Kingdom. We are looking to resettle those British Council contractors who are most at risk, and earlier in the month my ministerial colleague, the Minister for Afghan Resettlement, set out what the scheme will be doing. We are committed to supporting those at most risk.

I thank my right hon. Friend for her response to the urgent question. Can she confirm that since Operation Pitting we have continued to welcome at-risk Afghans, including women, girls and other minorities such as members of the LGBTQ community, some of whom have been generously offered homes in Darlington by Darlington Borough Council?

We are committed to supporting those who are most at risk, including women and girls and members of the LGBT community. Some tremendous work is already being done to resettle Afghans in the United Kingdom, and I am pleased to hear that my hon. Friend’s constituency and its borough council are welcoming those most at risk.

We all know that Afghans who work for the British Council are in fear of their lives. I have been told that in one case the Taliban went to a house and hit a seven-year-old girl to try to get her to reveal where her father was. She did not give him away, and he is currently in his ninth hiding place. It is no wonder that these staff are in fear of their lives.

What action are the Government taking to support those people today? What money is being provided to enable them to buy food as they hide, and what is the plan—the practical plan—to help them to get out of the country?

We as a Government are committed to working with the international community to do all that we can to help those who are eligible to be resettled in the United Kingdom. Resettlement itself is of course one part of that, but it is in addition to our diplomatic efforts and the provision of international aid in the region as we work alongside like-minded states as part of the international community. We are co-ordinating closely with international partners, and have doubled our aid to Afghanistan for this financial year to £286 million, which will be used to provide the vital humanitarian assistance that will save lives this winter.

Through Operation Pitting we delivered the largest and most complex evacuation in living memory. That was a truly amazing effort. Will my right hon. Friend join me in praising the heroic efforts of our brilliant armed forces, and can she confirm that we will continue to do everything we can to resettle the British Council workers who are most at risk?

My hon. Friend is right to praise the heroic efforts of our armed forces in Operation Pitting, and to draw attention to the scale of the challenges that we faced during that period. As he has said, this was the most complex evacuation in living memory. All the British Council employees who served the UK so loyally have been evacuated and have arrived here with their families, and the British Council contractors who are most at risk will be able to apply for resettlement.

In her answer to the urgent question, the Minister mentioned the £286 million of aid that we are giving to Afghanistan. The amount has been doubled after being halved the previous year, which is fine, but in her response to another urgent question last week, the Minister confirmed that only half that money—£145 million—had actually been disbursed.

We are reaching the end of the financial year. This aid will be life-saving. What is happening is the biggest humanitarian crisis in the world: there are children, pregnant mothers and other people who are about to die if the aid does not reach them. How can we get it to them in time, and if it is not spent, will it be ring-fenced by the Treasury so that it is not propping up next year’s budget?

International aid is really important in supporting those most at risk, and we are working closely with our international partners to ensure that we are getting that aid to those most in need. As I set out earlier, we have doubled our aid for Afghanistan for this financial year to £286 million, which will be essential to providing humanitarian assistance for those most in need.

A recent report by Human Rights Watch detailed how Taliban rule has had a devastating impact on Afghan women and girls, and the catastrophic cuts to funding for the British Council have made this difficult situation worse. What steps are the Government taking to deliver protection and services for the women and girls facing gender-based violence in Afghanistan?

The ACRS will prioritise those who have stood up for our values, such as a democracy and women’s rights in Afghanistan, as well as the most vulnerable groups, including ethnic and religious minorities. We are providing that support for women and girls. The Government have already evacuated thousands of women and girls—for instance, female judges, women’s rights activists and a girls’ football team. Women and girls have been immediately prioritised for resettlement through the resettlement scheme.

I declare an interest, in that I worked for the British Council for 12 years. It is a brilliant organisation that does a huge amount to promote the United Kingdom around the world, and it is deeply disappointing that the UK Government are taking such short-sighted action in cutting the funding to the British Council, leading to the closure of dozens of overseas offices. On the point of the urgent question today, given the huge sacrifices that British Council staff and contractors have made, what discussions has the Minister had with her colleagues in the Ministry of Defence and the Home Office around expanding the eligibility criteria for the ARAP scheme to include British Council staff and contractors?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to praise the work of the British Council. It has been instrumental in the work in Afghanistan to support the UK mission there. Ministers across Departments such as Defence and the Home Office are in constant contact, but as I have set out, employees have already been able to resettle to the United Kingdom. The contractors will be eligible based on their risk.

I, too, declare an interest in that I have also previously worked for the British Council. More than 20 million people are facing the prospect of starvation in Afghanistan and the situation could not be more urgent. In relation to the Minister’s earlier responses, could she tell the House how much of the £286 million of aid promised in this financial year has been disbursed so far?

As I have said, international aid to the region is absolutely essential and we are working with our international partners to ensure that we get that assistance to those on the ground. We are co-ordinating with our partners. We have doubled the aid for this financial year to £286 million, which will be used to ensure that we get that humanitarian assistance to those on the ground.

In addition to British Council staff, many of us have thousands of constituents—in my case, up to 150—who have relatives and friends who have worked for the British in Afghanistan and who are in terrible need of resettlement to this country. The ARAP scheme and the ACRS have done very little to bring many, if any, of my constituents’ relatives and friends away from the horror going on in Afghanistan. When will the Government really gear up these schemes to ensure that people can be rescued from the horror that is Afghanistan at the moment?

The ACRS announced earlier this month will provide those most at risk from recent events in Afghanistan with a route to safety. The scheme will prioritise those who have assisted the UK efforts in Afghanistan and those who have stood up for values such as democracy, women’s rights, freedom of speech and the rule of law, as well as vulnerable people, including women and girls who are at risk and members of minority groups who are at risk.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn) was absolutely right that it is critical to support those British Council staff and contractors who are in hiding. What steps are the British Government taking to enable some form of cash flow in Afghanistan so that international banks can bypass the Taliban, support those in fear of their lives and assist the delivery of aid to starving Afghan people without the fear that such financial institutions could face sanctions from our partner Governments?

We have doubled our aid for this financial year and we are working with our international partners to ensure that we reach those who are most at risk but, as I have said, the conditions in Afghanistan are currently very difficult, in respect of both travelling within and leaving Afghanistan.

Former guards for the UK embassy in Kabul are still awaiting evacuation, despite the Government’s promise months ago to evacuate them. All French embassy guards have been evacuated and Canada has even evacuated cleaners, while Germany and Australia still have evacuations under way. Will the Minister provide an urgent update on FCDO plans in this respect?

As I have said in previous answers, those British Council employees who sought resettlement have arrived in the UK, together with their dependants, and the resettlement of British Council contractors will be based on risk.

I thank the Minister for her response to the question. The impacts of the ongoing political situation in Afghanistan are truly devastating. This week, the 100 Afghans who were employed to spread British values and teach English in Helmand province—the same province where many of our brave UK and British troops were murdered and killed—are in hiding because they are terrified of the reprisals they may face. Will the Minister ensure that, through the Afghan citizens resettlement scheme, those people will be given priority to return to the UK, because many are not sure that they will be able to survive the current situation? As the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Leeds North East (Fabian Hamilton), said—and I agree with him—we must move heaven and earth to get them here.

We are committed to working in step with the international community to continue to do all we can to enable those who are eligible to relocate to the UK to do so. The scheme offers current and former locally employed staff who are under threat priority to relocate to the United Kingdom.

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I am grateful to you for taking a point of order at this stage. The hon. Member for Hazel Grove (Mr Wragg), to whom I gave notice of my intention to raise this point of order, has spoken today in the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee about the intimidation of and threatened removal of funding from projects in the constituencies of Members who have come out against the Prime Minister and called for him to resign. This is behaviour of a sort I have never heard. We all understand the need for Whips to maintain discipline, but this owes more to the tactics of the mafia than anything found in “Erskine May”.

What can you do, Mr Speaker, to protect Members who wish to express their opinions and have differences sincerely and strongly held without seeing their constituents disadvantaged in such ways and without their being intimidated into remaining silent when they really want to speak up?

Members may wish to write to me in private. I understand what the right hon. Gentleman said. There are allegations about the conduct of Whips and special advisers working for Ministers. Serious allegations have been made and, at this stage, without having had chance to study what has been said in detail, I can only offer general guidance; I have been in the Chair since this revelation came out, as I understand it, at 10 o’clock. Members and those who work for them are not above the criminal law. The investigation of alleged criminal conduct is a matter for the police and decisions about prosecution are for the Crown Prosecution Service. It would be wrong of me to interfere with such matters.

While the whipping system is long established, it is of course a contempt to obstruct Members in the discharge of their duty, or to attempt to intimidate a Member in their parliamentary conduct by threats. There is a clear process for raising privileged matters and referring them for investigation to determine whether the conduct in question is a contempt. In the first instance, Members raising such concerns should write to me. I hope these general observations will assist the House in going forward.

Business of the House

The business for the week commencing 24 January will include:

Monday 24 January—Opposition day (9th allotted day - 2nd part). There will be a debate on a motion in the name of the Scottish National Party, subject to be announced, followed by remaining stages of the Leasehold Reform (Ground Rent) Bill [Lords].

Tuesday 25 January—Remaining stages of the Judicial Review and Courts Bill followed by a motion to approve a money resolution relating to the Down Syndrome Bill.

Wednesday 26 January—Second Reading of the Product Security and Telecommunications Infrastructure Bill.

Thursday 27 January—General debate on Holocaust Memorial Day 2022. The subject for this debate was determined by the Backbench Business Committee.

Friday 28 January—Private Member’s Bills.

The provisional business for the week commencing 31 January will include:

Monday 31 January—Motion to approve a ways and means resolution relating to the Advanced Research and Invention Agency Bill, followed by consideration of Lords amendments to the Advanced Research and Invention Agency Bill, followed by remaining stages of the Dormant Assets Bill [Lords].

Tuesday 1 February—Opposition day (11th allotted day). Debate on a motion in the name of the official Opposition. Subject to be announced.

I thank the Leader of the House for the forthcoming business. First, I welcome the newest member of the parliamentary Labour party, my hon. Friend the Member for Bury South (Christian Wakeford). As the Leader of the Opposition said, my hon. Friend has rightly concluded that

“the Prime Minister and the Conservative party have shown themselves incapable of offering the leadership and Government this country deserves, whereas the Labour party stands ready to provide an alternative Government that the country can be proud of.”—[Official Report, 19 January 2022; Vol. 707, c. 321.]

The Leader of the House has demonstrated on several occasions his socialist tendencies, so I remind him that he is also more than welcome, any time he wishes, to come over to this side and join my hon. Friend.

At first, the Prime Minister said no rules were broken, then he said that he did not know about any parties, then he said he did not know whether he was there or not, then he remembered that he was there but did not know that it was a party. This week, the Prime Minister is testing out a new defence: that nobody warned him that the party was against the rules. So could the Leader of the House explain how the Prime Minister, who was literally the one setting and reading out the rules every night, did not understand the rules? It is a very odd defence.

The Office for National Statistics released figures yesterday showing inflation soaring to 5.4%, which is its highest rate in 30 years. Working families are already feeling the crunch, and the triple whammy of an imminent rise in the energy price cap, real wages falling and Tory tax rises make this crisis even worse. Labour would give people security, with fully-funded measures now to keep energy bills low, which would save households about £200 a year, with an extra £400 for families and pensioners who need it most. The Government could have supported that, but they did not. May we have a statement on why they are so out of touch with the reality faced by people across this country that instead of taking action to tackle the cost-of-living crisis, the Chancellor is just looking the other way, trapping us in a high-tax, low-growth economy?

I have asked the Leader of the House numerous times to locate which of the many sofas he perhaps possesses is hiding the Online Safety Bill, so I ask him that again. Last year, the Prime Minister said that it would have completed all stages by Christmas, then he said it would just be Second Reading—Members may be noticing a pattern here–and then there was just a vague commitment that it would happen at some point during the Session. The pre-legislative scrutiny Committee has reported, we have had a Backbench Business debate and still there is nothing. Meanwhile, social media and tech giants roam unregulated and many, including children and vulnerable people, are unsafe online. Please could the Leader of the House confirm when the timetable for this important Bill will be brought forward?

In another example of the Government’s trying to avoid scrutiny, Ministers have taken to trying to slip huge chunks of legislation into Bills through Lords amendments, in a desperate bid to circumvent elected representatives in this place having the chance to debate them, as they did this week in the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill. Will the Leader of the House explain why the Government are forced to sneak in these additional amendments in the other place, hoping that we in the Commons do not notice? It did not work, because the Labour peers voted down those last-minute Government amendments to that Bill. I have to say that, in a foreshadowing of what is happening in this place, it was striking how many Conservative peers also did not support the Government. Labour peers were the ones who voted for alternative plans that provided for strong action against dangerous protests; stronger action against protests on motorways that put lives at risk; an urgent review of drink spiking offences; giving councils powers to prevent anti-vax intimidation outside schools; and making misogyny a hate crime. Tackling violence against women and girls in that way and tackling anti-vax intimidation in that way is something that the Government could have voted for, but they failed to do so. It is the Home Office that is failing to keep us safe. Recorded violent crime has risen and prosecutions have fallen. Tackling crime and violence against women should have been the focus of that Bill, so will he tell us when it will be brought back to this place, so that democratically elected representatives on this side of the House can continue to argue for a better approach?

Finally, let me say that our country deserves so much better than this Government, who have completely lost grip. They are out of touch and out of control, they seem to be out of ideas and they are soon to be out of office.

I am grateful, as always, to the hon. Lady, particularly for her offer that I should join them on the other side of the House. My welcome would be even warmer than that given to the hon. Member for Bury South (Christian Wakeford), who has not received the warmest welcome from the young socialists, who are not so keen, or from the Corbynistas, who are not in raptures at somebody who used language about the socialists on online chat groups that is not of the type I would use ever. I fear I would make our friends the stenographers of Hansard blush if I were to repeat such language in this House. Mr Speaker, I think you would swoon if the words he used to refer to his now socialist friends were poured forth. One has to say, “With friends like that”—I will leave others to conclude the rest of the sentence.

We then come on to what the hon. Lady and other socialists have been saying about the Prime Minister. He has rightly apologised to the House for mistakes that have been made. He has apologised to the country for mistakes that have been made, and Sue Gray is carrying out an investigation, but the socialists never want due process to take place. They always want to make the decision before they have the facts. They do not want to do it properly. This Government are doing it properly, and while we were doing it properly, we set up, under this Prime Minister’s leadership, the furlough programme that saved 14 million jobs and that kept the economy going, which means that the economy is now back above its pre-pandemic levels and that youth unemployment is at a record low.

Every statistic on the economy is going in the right direction in terms of economic growth and employment. Getting back to pre-pandemic levels is a real achievement and something of which the Prime Minister can be proud. The Prime Minister got the vaccine roll-out right. Just think what howls we would have now—what they would be saying every week—if, in the end, the vaccine had not worked. It was that bold decision to buy billions of pounds-worth of vaccines early on that has meant that we are the first country to reopen. Have the socialists ever wanted us to reopen? No, of course not, because when the socialists take charge of our lives, they never want to give it up. They objected to our opening in the summer. They wanted a lockdown in the winter. They have grudgingly come round to the fact that we are now able to reopen earlier than other comparable countries. This is the success of the Prime Minister.

That does not mean that every problem is removed. Everyone accepts that inflation is a problem, but, of course, monetary policy is the independent responsibility of the Bank of England—an independent responsibility given to it by one Mr Gordon Brown, who I seem to remember was a socialist Chancellor of the Exchequer who therefore delegated the primary responsibility for inflation to the Bank of England.

On Bills, the Government are looking carefully at the recommendations of the Joint Committee on the draft Online Safety Bill, which were extremely helpful. I expect that that Bill will be brought forward at the appropriate time—when it is ready. We like to do things at the proper pace. As a general rule, we like to put carts behind horses rather than in front of them. That is better than having carts and horses misaligned.

Then we get to the socialists’ desire for superglue. Mr Speaker, did you know that they want sales of superglue to go up. They are the advertisers for superglue, or Araldite. They want people gluing themselves to motorways to block up our major arteries, because they got their socialist peers in their fine ermine-trimmed robes to vote to obstruct the highways. That is what you get from socialism, Mr Speaker: control; interference; bossiness; and failure. With Conservatives, you get a growing economy.

I am sure that my right hon. Friend would agree with me that we need a range of options to ensure that energy prices in the UK remain affordable. To that end, I recently met Eqtec, a company operating in my constituency in partnership with Southport Hybrid Energy Park, that will turn waste into power without the emission of toxic fumes and that aims to provide enough clean energy for 20% of the homes in Southport. Does he agree that a debate to discuss clean energy innovation companies such as Eqtec would be worthy of this House and worthy of the time of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for bringing this to the attention of the House. Companies such as Eqtec are exactly what we need to keep us on course for net zero by 2050 while maintaining a healthy, varied and affordable energy supply. Embracing a wide variety of energy sources is vital for keeping the lights on and our houses warm. As the recent difficulties have shown, we need to embrace a widespread energy supply, from nuclear power to power provided by companies such as the one that my hon. Friend mentions, and, of course, natural gas as a transition fuel on the journey to net zero in 2050.

Her Majesty’s Government are committed to decarbonising our electricity system by 2035, backed by investment in renewables, such as tidal stream energy and nuclear. I am sure that, above all, our voters care for cheap, plentiful energy in their homes, and we want to ensure that that is compatible with net zero. As for the debate, it is either one for Westminster Hall, or, perhaps, under your generous auspices, Mr Speaker, for an Adjournment debate.

Can we have a debate about big dogs and the operations to save them? Apparently, one big dog is feeling a bit more secure this morning, with a trip to the vet to put him out of his misery possibly having been averted for a few days or more—for the time being, anyway. Who knew that defection, intimidation and blackmail would have such a recuperating effect on his colleagues?

We in the SNP are absolutely gutted about the prospect of taking on the current Prime Minister in Scotland. We completely refute the assertion that he is the best recruiting sergeant we have ever had for independence. It is not just us, however. Members of one party in Scotland are so looking forward to the current Prime Minister fighting in Scotland—they are the lightweights and nobodies among the Scottish Conservatives. One can only imagine their enthusiasm to get out to the stump to encourage the Conservatives in Scotland to vote for a Prime Minister who do they not want and who they want gone. It will be absolutely hilarious.

We are all expecting the Prime Minister to honour his pledge to come to the House with a statement following the release of Sue Gray’s report. Does the Leader of the House not think, however, that the House deserves a full debate on a one-line motion, “That this House has full confidence in the Prime Minister”—an amendable motion? I am sure that that suggestion will have the support of the Government and the Whips in particular, because that would be an obvious opportunity for them to see all the recalcitrant Members and decide which will be denied funding and which will have all the leaks to the press about them.

Lastly, we need a debate about parties so that we can congratulate No. 10 staff on their sheer energy and hedonism. Those parties are the things of legend. I spent 20 years in rock and roll and even at the height of my excess, I could not even start to compete with those at No. 10. To those at No. 10 who are about to party, I say, “We salute you.”

One looks forward to the hon. Gentleman’s parties, which I am sure would be enormous fun. When he is there with his rock and roll band, I think the furious persona that is presented to us at business questions every week slides away, and suddenly the true Mr Wishart appears as the kindly, benevolent and jovial fellow that he is. I must say that the mask he wears so well in this House—in both senses—sometimes covers that up, but I am sure that, privately, his parties would be a joy to behold.

The hon. Gentleman asks me for a debate. Well, ask and it shall be given. As I have said, the Scottish National party has an Opposition day debate on Monday and he will be free to put down any orderly motion for that day. If the motion is the one that he wants, that will be the motion that we will debate. If he wishes to succeed in uniting the Conservative party even more on Monday, I look forward to the motion that he will put down.

As regards big dogs, they are absolutely splendid. I got a dog for my daughter a couple of years ago. I was quite keen on having an Irish wolfhound, because they are fine and impressive animals, but we ended up with a cocker spaniel, which is an absolute delight. I am sure that we could debate in this House on many occasions the varied virtues of all sorts of hounds—the bloodhounds that people admire and like so much. [Interruption.] Or Dalmatians, Yorkshire terriers or any of the range of dogs that could be considered and that bring joy to so many of sour constituents. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman is most concerned that pet theft be made illegal, with which I am confident the Government will deal in due course.

I declare my entry in the register as the chair of a safeguarding board. The Leader of the House and all hon. Members will remember the tragic cases of Arthur Labinjo-Hughes and Star Hobson, the six-year-old and 16-month-old children who were killed at the hands of their parents and carers before Christmas. We had a statement from the Secretary of State for Education on 6 December. Can we have Government time for a debate on the safeguarding of children, which we have not had in this House for some time, to coincide with the report from the national review that the Secretary of State ordered? We will shortly have the serious case review of the Star case and many constituents will be concerned to know what further measures we can take to protect such vulnerable children.

I am genuinely grateful to my hon. Friend for raising the issue of those tragic cases that have upset the nation at large and that require great work to be done to protect children in future. The cruelty, abuse and pain that those children suffered is unimaginable. It is important that policies are brought forward and adopted to protect children. Obviously, during lockdown, the supervision of children who were thought to be at risk was not what it ought to be and what it usually is when the country is fully at work. That is something that needs to be looked at. We need to be aware of what went wrong, so that we can ensure that those sorts of things do not go wrong in the future.

I cannot promise a specific debate in Government time on this matter, but I encourage my hon. Friend to keep on on the subject and to seek the guidance of the Backbench Business Committee, because it is a subject that many in this House would like to discuss.

As always, I am grateful, Mr Speaker. I thank the Leader of the House for announcing the business, in particular the fact that we have next Thursday to commemorate Holocaust Memorial Day, which is a vitally important day in the parliamentary calendar. I take the opportunity to remind Members across the House that, if they wish to apply for debates to commemorate particular anniversaries or notable calendar events, they should please look ahead in the diary and get their applications into the Backbench Business Committee as early as possible, so that it can help to secure the time and meet their wishes.

We all want to see the economy getting fully back to normal and to see the end of restrictions but, following yesterday’s announcement of the proposed relaxation of covid restrictions, I have been contacted by several constituents with concerns. So could we have a statement or advice for our constituents who are medically vulnerable, or have medically vulnerable family members, especially younger children with profound disabilities or chronic health issues, who are still extremely vulnerable to the covid pandemic but have not yet had access to vaccination? Those families need the Government to reassure them that they will not be forced into a form of self-imposed lockdown to protect their vulnerable family members.

The hon. Gentleman raises an important point about the delivery of vaccinations. The vaccination and booster programme has been a considerable success. It is striking that 90% of people in intensive care have not received the booster vaccination, so the importance of having one is great. I will certainly take up any specific cases he has in relation to individual constituents with the Department of Health and Social Care if he is not getting satisfactory answers. He raises an important issue, which is one of general concern, but getting back to normal is what we need to do. We need this country to get back to normal, we need people getting back into work and we need to learn to live with covid after the difficulties that we have had over the last two years and after the remarkable behaviour of this nation in getting through so difficult a circumstance and being the first country to be on the way to getting back to normality.

The Labour party’s tax on business, otherwise known as the Greater Manchester clean air zone, is a disaster for my constituents. It is impacting taxi drivers, small businesses and many others over an area of 493 square miles. I ask my right hon. Friend to make time for a debate so that this House can tell the Mayor of Greater Manchester and all the Labour politicians, including the Labour leader of Bury Council, that that plan is not acceptable, that the voice of Parliament must be heard and that my constituents must not be penalised in that manner.

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend, who serves his constituents so nobly. Labour’s plan is essentially a tax on jobs, a tax on working people and an attack on the motorist. The Labour party hates the motorist because the socialist does not like the independence that motoring brings to people. Again and again, Labour wants to attack the motorist. Labour’s plan, Mr Burnham’s plan, the socialist plan, the left-wing plan for a tax on working people in Greater Manchester is something that my hon. Friend is right to campaign against.

South Western Railway serves three stations in Battersea. Due to the pandemic, a reduced service has been in operation. Recently, however, it has introduced further cuts, including going from three trains an hour to just one and 200 fewer services every day. The changes will cause massive disruption to my constituents who rely on those services, including for their daily commute. It is worth pointing out that, in 2020, South Western Railway increased rail fares by 2.9%, which was the second highest among all rail operators. Can we have a debate in Government time on its service delivery, service cuts and reductions?

The hon. Lady’s point is serious and important. It is to be hoped that, as people come back into work, the railway companies will realise that more services are needed. The return to normality ought to see more people coming into central London, so one would expect—she referred to the three trains an hour going down to one —that the demand will be restored. As it is a very specific debate, I suggest the hon. Lady speaks to Mr Speaker for an Adjournment debate, but I know it is a concern that many of her constituents will share.

There have been media reports that 80% of residents in the United Kingdom are very concerned about a climate catastrophe. Can we have a statement from a Minister in the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy to give the results of the inquiry into net zero governance?

The Government share the public’s concern, which is why the UK was the first major economy to legislate for net zero emissions through the Climate Change Act 2008. Her Majesty’s Government have continued to deliver on that commitment through the Prime Minister’s 10-point plan for a green industrial revolution, making our energy system more diverse and secure, while creating hundreds of thousands of new jobs. It is also important that any new technology ensures that energy is affordable. Between 1990 and 2019, our economy grew by 78%, while emissions decreased by 44%. That is the fastest reduction in the G7. The fundamental point is that we need our economy to grow and we need to be richer, and that will allow us to afford to be greener at the same time.

In October, I was pleased to support my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris) when she brought forward her private Member’s Bill on the menopause. In response, the Government said they would look at combining the two hormone replacement therapy treatments into one prescription to make it more affordable. Can we please have a Government statement on when this important women’s health measure will be implemented?

Whenever the name of the hon. Member for Swansea East is mentioned in relation to a campaign, I always have a sneaking suspicion that it will be successful. I will take up what the hon. Gentleman has asked for. I know it is something that the Government are planning to do; it is merely a matter of timing. I hope we can find out a precise time for him and his hon. Friend.

This week, the Secretary of State for the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities announced that he was minded to send commissioners into Labour-led Sandwell Council. We know about the corruption and malfeasance at the heart of the Labour administration in Sandwell, but can my right hon. Friend confirm that we will have the opportunity to have a debate in Government time on Sandwell Council at long last? Will he also confirm, responding on behalf of the Government, that should these commissioners find anything—whether that be instances of real financial corruption by previous leaders, councillors or even the former chief executive—these matters will be referred to the police and the Crown Prosecution Service?

We may need to set aside days of debate to discover all the failings and corruptions in socialist councils. They seem to come up at business questions again and again. It is important that Members hold local authorities to account, and this is not the first time that my hon. Friend has raised suspicious dealings at Sandwell in this House at business questions. The Government have been able to send commissioners to improve the performance of serially failing local authorities—that is a vital tool—and it is right that they are held to account. Of course, if crimes have been committed, the police should be called and involved.

It is always fun to discuss dogs with the Leader of the House. I remember that his daughter’s family pet is called Daisy. From cuddly dogs to warm homes, it has been reported in the press that the energy company obligation, or ECO, may be cut by the Treasury in response to the gas crisis. ECO tackles fuel poverty and reduces CO2 emissions through energy efficiency and heating upgrades. Scrapping or not uplifting ECO will make it more difficult for those who are already struggling to pay their bills. Can we have a statement from the Treasury on what measures it is taking to ensure that energy efficiency is achieved, but in particular that struggling households can pay their bills and not be worried sick?

I can tell the hon. Lady that Daisy came from her constituency, travelling the long way from Bath to North East Somerset.

On her serious question, the Government are obviously very conscious of the pressure on families through rising energy bills, so the energy price cap is being maintained. There is a £500 million household support fund, so that local authorities can help those on the lowest incomes with their food and utility costs, and a £140 rebate on the energy bills of 2.2 million low-income householders this winter through the warm home discount. There are seasonal cold weather payments of an extra £25 a week for up to 4 million people during colder periods, and up to £300 in winter fuel payments for recipients of the state pension. A great deal is being done to help people with their energy costs, and that is the right thing to do.

May I offer my thanks to the leader of the Labour party, the right hon. and learned Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Keir Starmer), for uniting Conservative Back Benchers more effectively than anyone else could and for reminding us of our democratic mandate? May I ask the Leader of the House whether we can have a debate on that issue?

My hon. Friend raises a very important point about the democratic mandate and what mandate we have, because most of us know that we are elected because of the party that we support. All the studies have shown that the personal vote that Members of Parliament have is remarkably small. People are aware that however much independents may be brilliant individuals, they very rarely get elected to this House; it is the party ticket that gets people elected. I know that Bills have been introduced to this House, supported by hon. Members from across the House—particularly ones, I believe, from Bury—on having a by-election if people were to decide to change party. I think that is worth discussing and debating because the mandate goes with the party, but also, if I may say so, with the individual. Members of the Conservative party know that we were elected because of the leadership of our right hon. Friend the Prime Minister. He has the mandate; he has the commission from the Queen; he had the support of the British people in 2019. It is our responsibility to ensure that the Government he leads is a success.

The House will be aware from the Adjournment debate last Friday on the insecurity of the private rental sector that 4.4 million families are now in the privately rented sector and that half of all people in that sector who complain to their local authority about repairs not being done were given an eviction notice to quit within six months of that complaint. When will the Government introduce the urgent legislation that is desperately needed to tackle the issue and help the 4.4 million families who now call the privately rented sector their home, and probably will for many more years to come?

I am going to quibble with the hon. Lady, because many of the 4.4 million people living in private rented homes are extremely happy with them. Private rented home residency is a very important part of the housing market. That is not an excuse for bad landlords, but it is wrong to assume that all private renting is bad, because a great deal of it is beneficial. It provides mobility and allows people to use their capital in different ways, so we should support and burnish the private rental sector, but we should also do whatever we can to ensure that landlords behave properly.

Bus lanes are intended to provide a smooth path for buses to travel, particularly during peak hours. Personally, I have never understood why in London, we have so many all-hours, seven days a week, 24 hours a day bus lanes when no buses travel during the early hours of the morning. Recently, there was a case in a neighbouring constituency where we have the smallest bus lane in London—it is 39 feet long. However, over the past year, 7,800 motorists have been fined for going in that bus lane, which operates seven days a week, 24 hours a day, and Harrow Council has got £442,363 in fines. Not only is it is a small bus lane but it is adjacent to a lane that is required only during peak hours. May we have a debate in Government time on bus lanes and their signage, which seems to be a way of milking the motorist rather than allowing people to travel properly?

I am in entire agreement with my hon. Friend. It is noticeable that, under the covid provisions, an awful lot of bus lanes seem to have gone from being for set times to 24 hours a day, even when they are not being used for a large chunk of the day. What he says about 7,800 fines for 39 feet of bus lane raising more than £442,000 is a swindle. Once again, the poor, hard-pressed motorist is being abused by councils that dislike motoring. The Conservative party is the party of the motorist. Yes, bus lanes serve a role during peak hours, but opening them for 24 hours just to turn them into a milch cow seems quite wrong.

My constituent Garry McDermott has been trying to resolve issues with his war pension for a decade, having sent crucial documents to the Ministry of Defence 50 times, but they repeatedly go missing. I understand there are 1,500 pages missing from his evidence bundle. Garry is just one of thousands of veterans facing similar issues, which are driving many into poverty and increasing the risk of suicide. I know all hon. Members have huge respect for veterans, so does the Leader of the House share my anger that the current system for claiming war pensions and armed forces compensation payments is far too complex and non-transparent and is driving veterans to give up altogether? May we have a debate in Government time to consider fully the need for an independent inquiry into the failings of the current process?

It is not always right to draw conclusions about a whole system from one case. The hon. Gentleman raises the case of Garry McDermott, who has sent in his papers 50 times over 10 years, with 1,500 pages going missing. I will certainly take up the case with the Ministry of Defence if he sends me more information, as it is important that systems work well not just in theory but in practice for individual constituents. I view it as very much the role of the Leader of the House to try to facilitate redress of grievance, where that is possible.

In 1825, Locomotion No. 1 pulled the first passenger train over Skerne bridge in Darlington, marking the birth of the modern railway. Ever since, Darlington has had a unique connection to the railways that made Britain great. Does my right hon. Friend agree that we should celebrate the ingenuity of our Victorian ancestors by establishing the headquarters of Great British Railways in Darlington? Due to the extent of interest from hon. Members on both sides of the House in their constituencies hosting it, may we please have a debate in Government time?

Talking about early railway journeys always makes me nervous because we all remember that Huskisson, who was President of the Board of Trade at the time, unfortunately stepped the wrong way on the track and was run down by an early railway experiment.

However, my hon. Friend is right to ask me of all people to celebrate our Victorian forebears. I share a birthday with Her Majesty Queen Victoria, 24 May, which used to be a public holiday as Empire Day. Talking of birthdays, I have not yet wished the Chief Whip a happy birthday. Mr Speaker, did you know it is the anniversary of that distinguished gentleman’s birth?

We wish the Chief Whip many happy returns.

The spirit of Barry, Brunel and Bazalgette should be the guiding inspiration behind the Prime Minister’s levelling-up agenda. The Government are embarking on the biggest investment in our railway infrastructure, with £96 billion of taxpayers’ money being spent through the integrated rail plan. There will be £105 million spent on Darlington station thanks, at least in part, to the excellent campaigning work of my hon. Friend the Member for Darlington (Peter Gibson).

The Great British Railways transition team is running a competition to identify where the national headquarters will be. Unfortunately I am not allowed to have favourites, otherwise I might suggest it goes to Midsomer Norton, which is mentioned in Flanders and Swann’s song “On the Slow Train.” As I am not allowed to be partial, may I wish Darlington and my hon. Friend every success?

The Leader of the House will be aware that on Tuesday afternoon there was an urgent question on football governance, but it was very narrowly drawn in that it really just addressed one club, Derby County, important though that is. May we have a general debate on football governance, because that is a matter of deep concern across the House and from all points of the country, with particular reference to the shambles that is the finances of football, which is not entirely but partly driven by the rampant untrammelled greed of the owners of premier league clubs?

I know that this is a matter of concern across the House, and there was indeed the urgent question earlier this week. I think that many Members have strong views about the management of football in this country, and I am sure there is demand for a debate. I notice that the Chairman of the Backbench Business Committee is still here, and I think it would meet with widespread support.

Voters in constituencies such as Blackpool South, and indeed Bury South, voted Conservative in large part because of the Prime Minister and his positive vision of levelling up and getting Brexit done. They voted Conservative and for this Prime Minister, not for a socialist representative. MPs should not be able freely to play a game of musical chairs around the Chamber of the House. Does the Leader of the House agree that Members should respect the democratic mandate afforded to them by voters, and will he make time for further debate on the recall of MPs legislation?

My hon. Friend raises a very important point. Is it respectful to voters, when the campaign has been carried out on one basis, to change the terms of engagement without the other side of the contract having any say in the matter? I have always thought that we as Members of Parliament should not be afraid of recall as an issue. I think that our constituents are sensible and wise, and they would never use recall frivolously, but would use it sensibly for cases where they felt something had gone very wrong. Of course, Members also have the opportunity to decide these things for themselves, and I recall the behaviour of Douglas Carswell, the former hon. Friend of many of us.

It is now over three years since the Prime Minister promised to ban the abhorrent practice of gay conversion therapy, so when will the Government act decisively and bring forward legislation to ban the practice and ensure that the legislation, like that recently passed in France and Canada, makes it crystal clear that there are no loopholes for so-called consent?

A consultation has been taking place recently, so the hon. Lady can be reassured that the issue is at the forefront of the Government’s mind and, indeed, of the Government’s plans. Legislation is always subject to time and other events within the programme.

The Leader of the House mentioned the rising inflation rate earlier and also referred to the rising costs of fuel for people. Can we have an urgent debate in Government time on fuel poverty, because the measures he discussed earlier are not enough to support people going through that crisis? As MoneySavingExpert’s Martin Lewis has pointed out, that affects families across all the nations of the UK, but it is especially hard hitting for families in constituencies such as Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey, where we have a colder climate and higher costs because of off-grid considerations. Does the Leader of the House understand how critical and pressing the issue is for families dealing with the current crisis in their costs of living?

I think everyone across the House understands how pressing the issue is. The rise in fuel prices on world markets has been extraordinarily rapid and sharp, and that is having an effect on family budgets. I reiterate what I said about the support that is available, with the £140 rebate for 2.2 million low-income households this winter. Other supports are available, and organisations such as local councils and citizens advice bureaux can also provide support to people.

I would also point to the other side of the balan