Thursday 20 January 2022
[Dr Rupa Huq in the Chair]
Biometrics Commissioner and Forensic Science Regulator
Before we begin, I remind Members that they are expected to wear face coverings when they are not speaking in the debate, in line with current Government guidance—although hasn’t that changed again overnight? Never mind—and that of the House of Commission. I am not, because I may be required to speak at any moment. I also remind Members that they are asked by the House to have a covid lateral flow test twice a week before coming on to the estate. They can do so downstairs: I did so the other day, and they gave me a pack of six for the future as well. Please also give each other and members of staff space when seated, and when entering and leaving the room.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the Nineteenth Report of the Science and Technology Committee, Session 2017-19, The work of the Biometrics Commissioner and the Forensic Science Regulator, HC 1970, and the Government Response, Session 2019-21, HC 1319.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dr Huq. I am grateful to the Liaison Committee for allocating time for this issue to be debated. I also acknowledge the role of the predecessor Science and Technology Committees—some Members who will speak in this debate served on those predecessor Committees, and I pay tribute to their assiduity and tenacity in keeping a focus on this subject—ably assisted by a succession of brilliant Clerks, who continue to this day in the shape of Mr Ben Shave, one of the Clerks who is advising the Committee on these matters.
The issues covered by my Committee and its predecessors are of considerable complexity, but also great importance. The global value of biometrics is expected to reach £21 billion this year, a 130% increase compared with 2016. The perceived vulnerability of passwords, the growing prevalence of mobile devices with biometric capabilities, and wider advances in computing technologies all point to biometrics and forensics playing a greater role in public and private life. In the UK, biometric data obtained via technologies that capture, measure, analyse and process digital representations of our physical or behavioural traits, such as DNA, fingerprints, voice and handwriting, are held by the police on no fewer than four separate databases, while criminal investigations have long relied on the services of private sector and in-house forensic science laboratories.
As I said, the Science and Technology Committee and its predecessors have published a number of reports on forensic science—specifically in 2011, 2013, 2016, 2018 and 2019—and on biometrics in 2015 and 2018. Our sister Committee in the House of Lords has also undertaken a detailed examination of the use of forensic science in the criminal justice system over the course of almost a year. In 2018, our immediate predecessor Committee called on the Government to give statutory powers to the Forensic Science Regulator, a recommendation that—thanks to a private Member’s Bill tabled by my fellow Select Committee Chair and a former member of the Committee, the hon. Member for Bristol North West (Darren Jones)—has now been implemented. We place on record our gratitude to him for his achievement in securing that legislation.
We also said that the Government should strengthen the auditing of standards of compliance; deliver a planned IT upgrade that would fully implement an automatic custody image deletion system for those not convicted of any crime; and ensure that any wider deployment of facial recognition technology is not considered an operational decision for the police but is a matter for Parliament to decide. We said that the treatment of how image databases should be managed and regulated should be subject to similar scrutiny.
Shortly after that 2018 report was published, the Government published their biometrics strategy, which committed to enabling
“more efficient review and automatic deletion of custody images by linking them to conviction status, more closely replicating the arrangements for fingerprints and DNA”.
However, it did not mention the important matter of the accreditation of police laboratories. In a follow-up report, published in 2019, our predecessor Committee concluded that concerns remained about the long-term viability of the market for forensic science services and highlighted the significant risk that that posed to the effective functioning of a criminal justice system. Other recurring concerns raised in that report included gaps in current forensics research, the absence of a mechanism to set clear national research priorities, insufficient oversight of biometric technology, and a lack of scientifically rigorous testing of new biometric technologies. That Committee also expressed worries about the effectiveness and potential bias of facial recognition technologies.
In the 20 months between the publication of that report and the Government response—it is worth noting that 20 months is an unconscionably long time for the Government to take to respond to a detailed and specific set of recommendations—the passage of the Forensic Science Regulator Act 2021 gave the regulator new, statutory powers, so our Committee invited the former regulator, the former biometrics commissioner and relevant Ministers, including my right hon. Friend the Minister for Crime and Policing, to seek their views on where things stood in June of last year.
Professor Gillian Tully, the former forensic science regulator, told us that at the time of her departure, in February 2021,
“neither toxicology nor digital forensics had sufficient capacity to meet the current needs of the service.”
That shortfall in capacity has real-world consequences. Professor Tully spoke of cases that rested on the accusation that an individual was, for example, driving while under the influence of drugs, and cases that she was familiar with had to be dropped. It may not have been a large number, and prioritisation on the part of individual police forces may have also been a factor, but her testimony is worrying nevertheless, at the time when advances in toxicology and forensic science more generally should be playing a greater role in securing convictions. Indeed, in a conversation with a person with current knowledge of the system, I was given to understand that we have only 30 qualified toxicologists operating in the United Kingdom. That is an extraordinary number, considering the weight of responsibility that rests on their shoulders.
In his appearance before our Committee, the Minister acknowledged that he, too, was concerned about capacity, and I know this from conversations separately. He committed to looking urgently at how to stimulate more forensic toxicologists to join the profession. Part of the purpose of today’s debate is to seek from the Minister an update on how that is going and whether the intention is being translated into practice. On digital forensics, we heard about mobile devices and computers sitting in very long queues for analysis, and that convictions that might have been made if there were greater integrity to the laboratory accreditation process have been lost.
Such concerns relate not only to forensics but to biometrics. Professor Paul Wiles, the former commissioner for the retention and use of biometric material—the biometrics commissioner—highlighted four concerns. First, the existing framework governing the use of biometrics by our police forces had not kept pace with developments in biometric technologies, and the Government had not responded to domestic and European Court of Human Rights judgments about the framework. Secondly, the police, the Home Office or some combination of the two had yet to create a proper evidence base for the use of new biometrics, which could complicate the decision-making process around future deployments. Thirdly, the Home Office has yet to update databases containing both biometric data and more general information relating to offenders, convictions and arrests. Finally, Professor Wiles argued that biometrics, together with artificial intelligence and large databases, are the technologies that, at least in part, will drive the future social world in which we live, and their use should therefore be considered a key strategic issue across Government. For a Government who have made a signal commitment to improving conviction rates and protecting society to fail to make use of stunning advances that can help to secure convictions and put into jail people from whom society should be protected is a serious omission.
Professor Wiles also specified several areas where he thought elected Members of Parliament should decide what was not in the public interest. Facial recognition technology is a case in point, as well as the fingerprints we use to log into our phones, and a plethora of applications including voice recognition and gait analysis.
I do not want to give the impression that we were told that the use of all these technologies falls on the negative side of the register—that the advances they comprise are not good for society. That would be the wrong impression. Professor Wiles highlighted the idea of frictionless airports and their potential for eliminating the onerous barrier checks that have come in in response to the terrorism threats of recent years. Advances in technology might allow some relief there, which would be very much in the public interest. However, the point that he and others have made is that the rules need to be clear, there needs to be a co-ordinated cross-Government approach when it comes to formulating those rules, and that we should not delay doing so.
That brings me to the response from the Government to our predecessor Committee’s 2019 report, and the work that has been undertaken since then. I am sure the hon. Member for Blackley and Broughton (Graham Stringer) will cover the report in his contribution, as will the hon. Member for Glasgow North West (Carol Monaghan). From my perspective, the key takeaway of our Committee session that questioned the Minister and his colleague Baroness Williams, the Minister for Countering Extremism, is that, although some progress has been made, it does not stand comparison with the progress that should have been made, and the opportunities to protect society from the advances in technology that are available. It was clear to me from the session that the outstanding issues need to be addressed and the pace of action needs to be accelerated.
Several areas require scrutiny in the weeks and months ahead. As of July 2021, 16 of the 43 police forces in England and Wales have joined the Forensic Capability Network, although the Government anticipate that the number will have risen by the time powers in the Forensic Science Regulator Act are fully taken up by the new regulator. Will the Minister update us on the current number of forces that have joined the network?
On a related point, we remain concerned that without the disclosure of data on accreditation and compliance, the Home Office will not be able to evaluate the success of the Forensic Capability Network, or the transforming forensics programme that was launched in 2017. Will the Minister update us on the Government’s plans for measuring the success of the new regime in driving accreditation and compliance? Has the case for a single system of accreditation for both police and private laboratories been considered?
The Government have encouraged some collective decision making through these two initiatives, but in our June 2021 session Professor Tully suggested that attempts to
“work through persuasion rather than any form of mandate”
have now run their course. She stated clearly that there are some areas on which there should be national decision making, even if that results in reversing some decisions that were been taken by previous Ministers and Administrations, whatever good faith and optimism was vested in those decisions at the time. However, the Government have confirmed that there are no plans to establish a new decision-making body specifically for forensic science, citing ongoing work taking place in the Home Office and UK Research and Innovation as a better avenue for determining future priorities and ensuring that capacity grows. I would be grateful for an update from the Minister on this work. What might persuade the Government to revisit the muscular approach the Home Office is taking to this important matter?
In short, the picture is mixed. Some progress is being made, but not nearly enough considering the clarity of what was set out as being needed and the available opportunities. The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, which is being considered in the House of Lords, and forthcoming College of Policing guidance on the use of facial recognition will provide opportunities to strengthen these matters. It will be helpful to hear from the Minister what assessment he has made of the contribution they will make. The Minister’s latest update to the Committee did not contain a publication date for the guidance; can he offer one today, so that we know where police forces stand on facial recognition technology?
There are several other areas I would like an update on. First, on biometrics governance and updates to the framework, the Committee was told in September 2021, following the Court of Appeal judgment in Bridges v. South Wales Police, that the Government were updating the surveillance camera code accordingly and consulting the relevant organisations set out in the governing legislation, including police, local authorities, the Information Commissioner’s Office and the biometrics and surveillance camera commissioner. A revised code of practice was promised towards the end of 2021. We have now passed that date. When can we expect that to be issued?
Secondly, on the timeline for the new automatic deletion system for custody images, the 2024 deadline is approaching. I hope the Minister can update us on the interim steps being taken by the Government. Thirdly, the custody image review has been absorbed into the wider piece of work to implement the Government’s manifesto commitment to empower the police to use new technologies such as biometrics and including facial images within a strict legal framework. Can the Minister confirm what progress is being made on delivering against that manifesto commitment?
I mentioned that the Science and Technology Committee first examined these complex questions in 2011. More than a decade on, our interest in them is undiminished. The developments in technology cause us to commit to taking a close interest in the responses of the Minister today and in the months and years ahead. I urge the Government to have the same sense of determination and purpose in order to achieve the breakthrough in police practice and regulation that the technologies allow.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Dr Huq. It is also a pleasure to serve on the Science and Technology Committee under the chairship of the right hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark). I associate myself with his questions and the general points that he made, with one exception. The history of the Science and Technology Committee looking at forensic science goes back even further than he set out. I have been on the Committee a long time, but the first report on the subject came out before I joined it. Called “Forensic science on trial”, the report was published on 29 March 2005. The right hon. Gentleman referred to issues that have been examined repeatedly by the Committee—these are not my speaking notes, Dr Huq—but not to all the reports and the responses of the Government that have been produced on this issue.
The “Forensic Science on Trial” report went through the even longer history of forensic science. The way in which the Home Office has responded over time to the changing science is interesting and relevant. Science and the ability to examine and get information from crime scenes have changed enormously over time. It was only in 1988 that DNA led to the conviction of the double murderer Colin Pitchfork. Since then, DNA has been used thousands of times for many different crime scenes.
What worried the Committee then was that there had been big changes. Back in the early 90s, police forces went along to the people who did forensic science and asked for analysis of things from a crime scene, and they got it with no cost. The then Home Secretary, the noble Lord Blunkett, thought that there should be a more commercial relationship between the Forensic Science Service and police forces, and that the Forensic Science Service should be moved into a public-private partnership body. The Science and Technology Committee looked at that proposal and said that things would be lost if the service was changed in that way. A lot of evidence was taken, and the Committee’s report, which I will summarise, having just read it again, said that the evidence was not there to justify doing that.
Nevertheless, after the 2010 general election, the new coalition Government looked at the funding of the Forensic Science Service. They said that it was losing £2 million a month and things would have to change. They said that there was a real possibility, given that the Forensic Science Service was world leading, that we could sell our services internationally and make money from them. The Committee looked at that and said that the case was not made, because the statistics claiming that the cost was £2 million a month were based on false information. The laboratory at Chorley had already been closed, and the people working in the Forensic Science Service on the other side of Lambeth bridge were very worried about their future. The Committee certainly was not convinced that the changes should be made.
I will say this now so that there is no mistake: the Labour Government made some of the original decisions to change the Forensic Science Service, the coalition Government made a number of changes and the Conservative Government have made further changes. I do not see this as a party political matter at all. Like the Minister and other hon. Members around this Chamber, I want the forensic science facilities, whether private or public sector—it is not about differences between private and public—to yield the best information that will lead to the conviction of criminals. That is the key issue. It is not an ideological issue. Having said that, there has been a failure of Government, right the way through the process, to properly consider how to keep our elite status in world forensic science—it looks as though we have lost it now—and how best to deliver forensic science for the criminal justice system.
One of the conclusions of the Committee’s forensic science report, which was published during the 2010 to 2012 Session, was that if and when the Forensic Science Service disappeared, which it did, one of the things that would be lost was the context of the crime. The private sector does a very good job when it comes to simple, repetitive operations, such as doing fingerprint or DNA analysis. What is missing from the service at present, however, is the ability for the police to go to a public sector body, or a private sector body for that matter, and ask, “What question should we be asking? We are not scientists.” Previously when I visited the Forensic Science Service, it was very strong on the point that it would be able to help the client—the police, the criminal justice system—ask the right questions, which it could then examine scientifically before giving the information back. That has not happened, and that is one of the losses to the service.
The other loss to the service, to which the Government have never really responded, is that when the Forensic Science Service went, the money going into forensic science research and forensic science was lost and has never been replaced. The different science funding bodies do not really recognise forensic science as part of their bailiwick or funding responsibilities. Not only are the right questions not necessarily being asked, but the money going into research and science has been lost, and I believe it should be replaced.
During one of the many inquiries we have had, we heard from Dr Tully, who worked for the Forensic Science Service, then became a regulator and has now gone into academic life. When she came before the Committee, I asked her three or four times whether murderers and rapists would get off because of the changes in the Forensic Science Service, and every time she answered positively—that that would be the case. The right questions would not be asked, so the right information would not be fed into the courts system and very bad people would not be brought to justice. Murder and rape are the worst crimes, but the problem goes right the way through the system. If we do not have a good forensic science service, we do not have a good criminal justice system, because the criminal justice system relies on the scientific interrogation of crime science.
When the original decision was taken to disband the Forensic Science Service and leave things up to the market, there was an internal Home Office problem that I think indicates a broader problem. Professor Silverman, who was then the scientific adviser to the Home Office, told the Committee he was not consulted, and nor was the then Forensic Science Regulator. That indicates that the decision was viewed entirely as a cost-saving issue and not as a way of ensuring that the criminal justice system worked as well as it could to bring criminals to justice.
The other side—which the Committee has written about in every report since, including the latest one—is that now that the Forensic Science Service has effectively been disbanded, we all rely on the market to work. At different times, as the Minister will know, because he has replied to this point, the market in forensic science has been close to collapse for a number of reasons—most recently, because of covid, not as much work was being commissioned. One of the good sides of covid was that there was less crime, so there was less need for forensic science.
Another driver, over a longer period, was that the police were taking a lot of forensic sciences in-house to save money. However, they were not only saving money but using non-ISO-accredited systems to do that. They lost the good Forensic Science Service and replaced it with something with no accreditation, which makes it more challengeable in court. That was another reason why the Committee did not support the disbandment of the Forensic Science Service—because the market was too volatile and not stable enough to ensure that the forensic science that the police and the courts needed would be there to be used.
I do not know why Governments of different political colours have not got this correct and have dragged their feet on the regular call for the Forensic Science Regulator to be put on a statutory footing. It is half on a statutory footing now because my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol North West (Darren Jones), with Government support, took a private Member’s Bill through. However, even that Bill does not deal with biometrics in terms of the statutory basis for the regulator, so that demand has only partially been met.
I do not know whether the Minister, who has been in office for a period, knows why the Home Office, under different political parties, has not given the service the political prioritisation that the public would want, because I think the case is overwhelming. The public have an enormous appetite for television shows about forensic science and for reading detective novels, in which cutting up cadavers is the main focus. Yet, at the same time, our forensic service has gone from being one of the best in the world to, quite frankly, being moth-eaten and not as good as it should be.
I have spoken for quite a long time, but I want to emphasise a point that the Chair of the Committee made about custody pictures. If you, Dr Huq, were arrested—I am sure you would not be found guilty of anything—and taken into a police station, your DNA, fingerprints and photograph would be taken. If you were arrested by mistake, your DNA and your fingerprints would be destroyed if you wanted them to be, and you would have no criminal record, but your facial record would remain in the computers. With all the connections those computers have, that is very worrying. Most people do not know that they can ask for those photographs to be deleted. The Chair of the Committee referred to the Government’s commitment that they would be automatically deleted after six years. That is too slow. I do not think police forces have any right to keep a picture of you or anybody else who is not guilty on record, where it can be misused and accessed improperly in many cases. The Government have not, over that period, given the resources to police forces to delete those pictures. However, I have spoken long enough and I will let other people speak.
It is good to see you back in the Chair, Dr Huq. As you have said, I follow two of my fellow Committee members. I am also speaking from the Front Bench for the SNP. I should state at the start that I prefer to see myself here as a Committee member because this area is devolved to Scotland, and I will make a couple of remarks about that. For me, the big issues are around funding and governance, and I will talk about both.
Forensic science services provide accountability in what is a rapidly changing landscape, with new developments in not only technology and science, as well as in the many techniques we can use to promote greater public confidence and safety. It is in that vein that we are having today’s debate, because all of us want to see moves made to get the Forensic Science Service back up and running in the way it once did.
As I have said, forensic science is devolved in Scotland, and the Scottish Police Authority has its own fully accredited lab. It delivers world-leading forensic services and has over 500 trained staff operating out of four different sites, with scene examination based throughout Scotland. In September 2021, the Scottish Government published their forensic service strategy, which aims to continue to grow that scientific excellence. In March last year, Scotland’s first biometrics commissioner, Dr Brian Plastow—a former police chief superintendent—was appointed, and it is hoped that he will bring great expertise and significant leadership to that role. It is encouraging for us in Scotland that the UK Government have recognised the lead shown by Scotland and intend to watch with interest the work that has been done by the biometrics commissioner and the power to enforce a code of practice for Police Scotland’s biometrics use.
When it comes to forensics, public trust is paramount. It is imperative that when the public are going through criminal justice procedures, or when they are impacted in any way, they can place their trust in the civil justice system as a whole. That needs proper governance and a proper statutory footing: without those things, it is very difficult to get what is required. In their response to our Committee’s 2019 report—I am afraid I have not been a member for quite as long as the hon. Member for Blackley and Broughton (Graham Stringer), and I do not go back to 2005, but I very much welcome the expertise of my fellow member—the Government stated that they were
“committed to maintaining and improving our world-class forensic services and supporting the forensic scientists who work in them.”
The Chair of the Select Committee, the right hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark), mentioned the evidence we took from Professor Gillian Tully, who described some of the concerns she had. She told the Committee that the closure of forensic science services had led to the loss of significant research funding. In her words,
“that money was lost. It was not then taken and given to anyone else to do research”—
something that the hon. Member for Blackley and Broughton has described in detail today. That money has been gone for a number of years, and with it, expertise is dwindling and diminishing. The Chair of the Select Committee has mentioned that we have only 30 toxicologists, a fact that should cause all of us some concerns.
The Government’s response to our questions on this issue has been disappointing and, at times, repetitive. They said:
“The Government fully agrees that funding for forensic research is vital, but that it must come with a full understanding of the research landscape.”
They talked about a guidance document that would be hosted by UK Research and Innovation and made publicly available, enabling the forensic science research community to identify suitable funding routes. As Professor Tully has said, that funding went, and was not replaced. The Government’s response should be more robust than simply, “We’ll provide the means by which people can apply for funding,” because expertise in forensic science does not just mean expertise in forensic science; what people are saying is that they also need to have expertise in writing funding applications. If that has been gone for a long time, it is very difficult to get it back.
We know from the work that we do with research institutions and private research bodies that they have people dedicated to writing these research applications and funding applications. Now, if this is a service that is on its knees and that has not had an injection of funding, we are asking the people working for that service to dedicate more of their energy and resources to apply for funding that quite frankly should be directed to them now, without further delay. It would be good to hear some words on that from the Minister this afternoon.
We know that science funding is important. The hon. Member for Blackley and Broughton talked about our no longer being a world leader. I would like to think that Scotland still retains some of that expertise, but his point is well made, because without the funding and without the ability not only to conduct research but to train up new people in the techniques that are currently being used, it becomes very difficult for people to operate in the circumstances in which they have been asked to operate.
I will briefly mention laboratory accreditation, which the hon. Gentleman, the Chair of the Select Committee, has mentioned already. He has said that 16 forces have already signed up to it, which I suppose is a good start, but we need more data on this issue. We need to know when other forces sign up to the Forensic Science Regulator’s code and, if forces are not signing up, why they are not doing so. Information on that would be helpful.
I suppose that one of the issues that causes the public most concern is the idea of how their biometrics and images are managed. There is a lot of work that the Government need to do in that regard. It is concerning that they are not moving to a system whereby custody images or other biometric information are deleted automatically and at the point where no charges are brought to bear.
The Government have reiterated their position that individuals can request to have that information deleted. That makes the assumption that members of the public know that they can make that request and know that their images have been captured and are still being held. There has been a lot of discussion about this issue. If you were so unfortunate, Dr Huq, as to be taken into custody and images are captured, you might know after this debate that you have a right to ask for them to be deleted. But do we know what other images are being kept?
In fact, a piece of evidence that we took for a report by a predecessor Committee referred to the number of images being held on databases that were not custody images; they were other images. I would like to know about them. My two daughters went on a climate action march during COP26, and I would like to know whether their images were captured and, if so, are they being held? I appreciate that I am talking about Scotland and a devolved issue, but if that march was taking place here in England what would happen with those images? The right to protest and demonstrate—the right to march—is fundamental to democracy. People should be able to do those things without their images being captured and retained.
Public confidence depends on clarity and full disclosure of how these images and other biometric information are used, which is why there is a really strong need for the regulator. The Bill introduced by the hon. Member for Bristol North West (Darren Jones) has, of course, put that into practice, which is really helpful, but we need to see action on this issue.
I will finish by saying that the Scottish Government have enshrined statutory powers for an independent regulator to judge the ethics of forensic science for quality and fairness, and to help criminal justice to go beyond the reasonable doubt threshold by using biometric data. It would be good to see what steps the UK Government, if they are truly watching with interest, are taking. I appreciate that Scotland is a much smaller entity, and probably easier to manage than what the Minister is dealing with. However, if there are lessons to be learned, I hope he can learn them and start putting into practice some of the recommendations of the Committee reports.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Dr Huq. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark) on securing the debate, and on his elegant critique of Government progress. He asked a comprehensive list of questions about missed deadlines and the like, which I look forward to hearing the Minister respond to. I join him in thanking the members and Clerks of the Science and Technology Committee for all the work that they have done—he listed the number of times that this issue has been looked at and the proper and serious work that has been undertaken.
I listened with interest to my hon. Friend the Member for Blackley and Broughton (Graham Stringer) talk about the history of how we got to where we are, and how none of us here will be looking at this through the eyes of ideology—what should be private or public—but through the eyes of what is most effective. As the hon. Member for Glasgow North West (Carol Monaghan) said about funding and governance, we should have the ambition to be world leaders in this space—that should be what we are all striving towards.
As Members have already made clear, forensic science is critical to the investigation of crime and the administration of justice. Without it, thousands of people would not have been brought to justice. It not only allows us to identify offenders and provide evidence to the courts, but is a vital safeguard against wrongful conviction and false allegations. When it comes to forensics, the stakes are high. The United Kingdom must have an efficient, working and credible model for forensic investigations.
I welcome the Forensic Science Regulator Act 2021, introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol North West (Darren Jones), to whom I pay tribute for his hard work and commitment in delivering his private Member’s Bill. However, it has not yet been fully implemented. He asked the Minister a written parliamentary question on 5 January, and the Minister’s answer was “as soon as possible”, so I would appreciate some kind of timescale to go with that. Considering that it took the Government nearly 20 months to respond to the Committee’s report, Members of the Opposition cannot be confident that the Government are committed or willing to prioritise these important matters.
One of the major issues affecting forensic science is the market and the availability of services. It is vital that the Government ensure there is sustainable capacity to meet the needs of the whole criminal justice system. The market does not work as it currently runs; private providers come in and out and some collapse, leading to delays and confusion as they pass on their work. New recruits are not trained properly, funding is unclear and unequal, and increased pressure leads to falling standards, errors and, potentially, miscarriages of justice. The police need costs to be as low as possible because their budgets have been cut, and everyone is having to make difficult decisions in a volatile and unsustainable market.
Such fragmentation of the sector does not just provide a regulatory headache; it has real-world impacts. This lack of certainty leads to criminal cases being put in jeopardy and emergency funding needing to be provided. Redundancies in the sector are also an issue. It is vital that the criminal justice system has the power to retain the very best scientists.
Forensic science is time sensitive. Courts rely on toxicology reports to determine whether an individual was driving under the influence of drugs and alcohol, but they cannot receive a report if the statutory time limit for the test has been passed. It cannot be right that charges are dropped because of a forensics problem. It is also the case that police forces are sometimes forced to ration and prioritise which cases they send to forensics. Forensics work must be done in a timely manner.
On digital forensics, we know that rape victims—really vulnerable people—might have their phones confiscated for months or even years, in the worst instances, while waiting for a forensics team to download and analyse their data. In the end-to-end rape review, the Government committed to leaving no victim without a phone for more than 24 hours in any circumstances. It would be good to understand a bit more about the progress towards that goal, particularly with the rape charge rate at a shocking 1.4%.
Similarly pressing are the issues of oversight and accreditation. Accreditation, as we have heard, provides an independent, impartial confirmation of technical competence. It surely forms an unavoidable plank in the plan to ensure public confidence in forensic science and the criminal justice system more widely. The importance of accreditation and compliance is indicated by the Randox case, which called into question the integrity of the laboratory’s toxicology results, and impacted 10,000 criminal cases. It was estimated that the re-testing of those samples might take between two and three years—even then, the degradation of samples would have rendered re-testing pointless. Randox did not have additional accreditation to the codes of practice and conduct for forensic science providers and practitioners in the criminal justice system.
The Forensic Science Regulator Act 2021 requires a regulator to prepare a code of practice for forensic activities, which each forensic unit will have to comply with. It also included deadlines for units to achieve accreditation. As long ago as 2011, the Committee called for statutory powers to enforce compliance, with proper standards. These are yet to be introduced. The Committee called for a prohibition on the police using non-accredited laboratories to be included in the 2021 Act, as well as the mandate that all in-house police labs should be accredited within a year. The Minister disagreed, suggesting that these clauses would
“detract from the independence of the Regulator.”
It seems to me, however, that such regulations are critical, and might speak to some of the most concerning areas within the forensics sphere.
Regulation would ensure compliance with standards and deal with the fragmentary market. It would help solve the serious delays in digital forensics, which the Minister himself says remain a concern. It is a field now more important than ever, given the increasingly online nature of crime. Computer misuse has increased by 85%, hacking is up 161%, and 90% of cases now have a digital aspect.
Recent evidence given by Professor Tully shows that deadlines on accreditation of police laboratories continue to be missed. It seems impossible that the proposed October 2022 deadline for all forces to achieve accreditation on all sites will be met. The current situation sees victims relying on a forensics system that is not properly regulated, and reliant on a regulator with no proper enforcement powers. Time and again, the story seems to be of a Government failing to listen to the advice of experts, including that of the Science and Technology Committee.
At a time when just 6.5% of all crimes lead to a prosecution, the charge rate has halved and 1.3 million victims walked away from an investigation last year, public confidence in the justice system is at rock bottom. There can be no excuses. The Government say that tackling crime is a priority. They must put their money where their mouth is and stop the delays.
The use of biometrics has become an increasingly important and contentious issue, and it is only growing more so. My hon. Friend the Member for Bristol North West attempted to include clauses related to biometrics in his private Member’s Bill, but the Government refused to support them, and they were removed. With new biometric systems being developed more rapidly than the police are able to keep up with, it is vital that the Government develop a proper evidence base for the use of these new technologies.
In his evidence to the Select Committee, Professor Wiles noted
“the continuing failure of the Home Office to update the crucial databases that hold both biometric data and general information about offenders, convictions, arrests and so on.”
The current legislation covering biometrics is a complicated patchwork quilt of Acts, difficult to grasp and to follow. We are clear that proper, fit-for-purpose regulation is needed. As in the forensics field, the stakes are high. It is crucial that the use of biometrics—undoubtedly powerful tools—does not infringe on civil liberties.
As we have heard, despite repeated assurances, the Government have still not delivered an automatic deletion system for custody images of unconvicted individuals whose data remains stored in a database. That is very worrying and, as the Biometrics Commissioner put it, unlawful. It cannot be right that an unconvicted individual would have to apply to have images of themselves deleted.
In the Conservative party manifesto for the last election, the Government said they would
“empower the police to safely use new technologies like biometrics and artificial intelligence”.
In evidence to the Committee, Baroness Williams noted that it was
“the legal framework that allows the police use”
of biometric technology that is both “necessary and proportionate” that is necessary in this sphere. There have so far been no legislative proposals from the Government on this front. I wonder when we might see a White Paper or similar setting out the Government’s plan to regulate this rapidly changing field.
The power of these new technologies is very great indeed. With regard to assets such as live facial recognition, voice recognition and gait analysis, Professor Wiles noted that the current framework
“has not kept up with the development of new biometrics; nor has the Government responded to judgments by both domestic courts and the European Court of Human Rights about the inadequacy of that current framework.”
Even companies such as Microsoft—truly one of the great tech giants—support regulation.
When will the Minister act and commission a proper, UK-wide, independent review of the use and retention of biometrics and biometric data not covered by the Protection of Freedoms Act 2012? Surely, with criminals utilising technology at a speed never seen before—I point to the sale of drugs online, which I have spoken about in this place before, as well as the criminal exploitation of children online—it is more important than ever that the Government get to grips with both forensics and biometrics, and absorb both into their plans to tackle crime.
The Minister believes that
“both of these biometrics and forensics are completely critical to the future success and…consent model of the police.”
We agree. There must be a clear, balanced and effective national decision-making structure for forensic science. This complex and complicated area deserves to be governed on a national basis, with policy decisions and implementation properly overseen. The Government must ensure that the 2021 Act is implemented, they must come up with a proper biometrics strategy, and they must deliver regulation, implementation and accreditation. That is crucial for the public and for victims.
It is a great pleasure to appear before you, Dr Huq. I am grateful to you, and I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark) and the hon. Member for Blackley and Broughton (Graham Stringer) for securing this debate and giving up the chance to commune with their constituents on a one-line-Whip Thursday to consider this important matter.
Before I start, I want to make it clear that, as far as I am concerned, forensics, biometrics and the use of technology in policing—and, indeed, the confluence of all three—has been for the last decade, and will be for the foreseeable future, the most important development in the prevention, detection and prosecution of crime, and represents the possibility of a great leap forward for policing generally, not just in this country but across the world. It is my determination that we should harness the capability that these three strands give us as much as we possibly can within a framework of public trust. All our work at the Home Office, and indeed at the Ministry of Justice, is focused on that key objective.
While there has been criticism during the debate of the system that we currently have—I think my right hon. Friend called it a mixed picture, which is fair—I do not think we should beat ourselves up too much. We see significant results in the courts and detection day in, day out from our ability to wield forensics and biometrics—my right hon. Friend has seen a result in his constituency just recently—and we have some of the best forensic scientists in law enforcement in the world operating in this country, in the private sector and elsewhere.
However, as hon. Members have said, forensic science in particular has faced challenges in recent years. Constrained resources, allied with a huge growth in the volume of sources of evidence, have put a strain on the system, particularly where digital material is concerned. We have taken steps to address that. As I hope Members will know, we are investing £25.5 million this year and a further £25.5 million next year to strengthen forensic services for policing, particularly digital forensics. We have set up the forensic capability network, which is bringing much-needed stability to the commercial market through co-ordination activity. I will get the updated numbers for my right hon. Friend after the debate.
When it comes to quality, Dr Tully did enormous amounts of work in this area previously, with partners, to make sure that there were standards of collection, analysis and presentation of evidence. However, hon. Members are quite right to push for more, and that is why we were so pleased to support the Bill to put the regulator on a statutory footing that recently went through at the second attempt. Although the hon. Member for Bristol North West (Darren Jones) was successful this time, my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton West (Chris Green) had a go in the previous Session, but unfortunately his Bill fell before the end of the Session. It has been a long-term objective of ours to get the regulator on to a statutory footing so that her or his standards are enforceable. We are working closely with the regulator to commence those new powers as quickly as possible. I do not have a date, but we will do it as fast as we can.
There is of course much more to do, which is why we are working closely with the regulator’s office, the Attorney General’s office and other partners to push out the forensic science reform programme, which, as I hope Members will know, is organised around four pillars. The first pillar is police capabilities. It is about ensuring that the police have all the skills they need through the Forensic Capability Network and the Transforming Forensics programme.
We want to ensure that there is proper regulation, hence the Forensic Science Regulator Act, which we think is a major landmark in levelling that playing field. Also, the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, currently going through the Lords, strengthens the law to ensure a consistent approach, for example for requesting information from phones and other electronic devices, and it will ensure that in all cases requests to victims and witnesses are necessary, proportionate and made only as a last resort. Guidance on that will appear quite soon.
Among other things, the code of practice will address how information may be obtained using other, less obtrusive means, and how to ensure that agreement is freely given and that the device user’s rights are understood. It is a good example of the way we have to address specific developments in forensics within an overall framework of regulation and public trust. One of our priorities is to ensure that law enforcement has access to all the evidence necessary for its investigations and to put behind bars those criminals who need to be put there, so we will also look at the legal framework for suspects to make sure it stands the test of time, and enables timely, thorough and fair investigations.
The third pillar of our strategy is criminal justice system capabilities. We have developed a model to measure the impact that forensic disciplines can have on the investigation and prosecution of crime throughout the criminal justice system, to make sure that evidence is fairly and properly presented in court and that it is robust and, crucially, presented properly to the court’s practitioners. That strand of work will also increase the transparency of expert witnesses’ credentials and ensure that defendants have equal access to those experts. The Crown Prosecution Service and the Judicial Office, again with other partners, are also helping to oversee and deliver that important strand of work. I would be happy to provide my right hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells with more information on that, as he requested.
The fourth pillar, of course, is research and development. We want to ensure that we are ahead of the game, particularly on development in forensics, making sure that we direct our research and capabilities towards those strands of work where we believe there will be most value for policing, and to make sure that we are not constantly playing catch-up with new technology, as we perhaps have been in the past. For example, we have work under way to enable crime scene investigators to capture fingerprints digitally at the scene and then transmit them instantly to where they are needed, as well as research into innovative ways to locate and recover microscopic body fluids, advancements in DNA techniques, and the role forensic intelligence plays in high-harm crimes such as county line gangs and drug violence.
In addition, Transforming Forensics and the FCN held a research and innovation festival week in 2021, with significant policing and industry engagement. Guidance for research and development stakeholders to access funding opportunities has been produced, and discussions with UKRI to identify options for future dedicated funding for forensic science needs are ongoing.
Taken with the legislation to give the Forensic Science Regulator those statutory powers, I hope that our reform programme represents a joined-up and concerted effort to address the issues facing forensic science in England and Wales. As I said earlier, we absolutely recognise the critical importance that forensics plays in the criminal justice system, and we will continue to work closely with the sector and other relevant partners to drive progress across these disciplines.
Police use of biometrics, such as DNA and fingerprints, plays a huge part in protecting the public. Last year, DNA linked more than 21,000 people to crimes, including 588 to murders and 491 to rapes. But biometrics are not without their challenges, and a number of hon. Members have referred to the challenge of facial recognition technology. We recognise that we have an overriding responsibility to keep the public safe and, where we can, we should equip the police with the techniques to do that.
We do believe that facial recognition will improve, or has the possibility of improving, public safety very significantly. Generations of police officers have used photographs of people to identify suspects, and more recently CCTV images have been a vital tool in investigations. There are many examples where suspect images have been matched to wanted known individuals, ensuring that they cannot evade justice when they cross force boundaries. What is changing is the ability to use computers to match images with increasing confidence and at speed, as well as to combine technologies such as surveillance cameras and facial recognition to greater effect.
As I hope Members know, live facial recognition trials have produced a significant number of arrests; we are up to 70 now, including for a double count of rape, robbery and violence, false imprisonment, breach of a non-molestation order, and assault on the police. My favourite story is that of the concert by a particular rock band in Cardiff that had been plagued by dippers—pickpockets and others stealing phones and wallets. Just advertising and notifying people that facial recognition was being used at that concert meant that the number of offences fell to zero. Indeed, South Wales police, which has been at the forefront of adopting this technology, produces about 100 identifications a month through retrospective facial recognition, reducing identification time from 14 days sometimes to hours, which is obviously critical when a dangerous criminal is at large.
I will come on to that in a moment. I just want to address the question of a legal framework. There is already a comprehensive legal framework around the operation of this technology. As Members will know, it has been tested through the courts. The police have broad common-law powers around the detection and investigation of crimes, including the use of technology, but there are other bits of interlocking legislation that need to be borne in mind.
Obviously, there is PACE—the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984—the Human Rights Act 1998, the Equality Act 2010 and, indeed, data protection legislation, all of which gives a framework in which the police must operate. They are also subject to regulation through the Information Commissioner’s Office on the retention and use of data, and through a range of oversight bodies—happily, some external and some internal. As Members will know, a number of forces have, for example, ethics panels that are looking at the use of this technology. I will point Members who are interested to my appearance last week in front of the House of Lords Justice and Home Affairs Committee, which is looking at exactly this issue—the ethics and regulatory regime around the use of biometrics in particular.
We helped the police to appoint a chief scientific adviser, and forces have access to further support from their own ethics committees, as I said, as well as the Police Digital Service, the College of Policing and others. We have been working with the police to clarify the circumstances in which they can use live facial recognition and the categories of people they can look for, and I am told that the College of Policing will be publishing national guidance soon. That is a word that I have come to love in this job—“soon”, “soonest”, “shortly”.
It is of course an important part of our democratic process that people can raise and debate, including here in Parliament, legitimate concerns about police use of new technologies, and that legal challenges can be made in the courts, as has been referred to. Bridges v. South Wales police is an example.
I know that Members will recognise the importance of the police holding a bank of custody images for the potential identification of suspects and, often, witnesses. However, it is important that the public understand their rights in relation to the biometric data of all kinds that is held on them, and in particular their images. Last year, the National Police Chiefs’ Council established a new working group to develop further guidance on the retention of custody images. Through that group, the Home Office has worked with the police to issue new guidance stressing that people have the right to request deletion of their custody images. The police will communicate that guidance through various means to complement the existing information that is already available online and elsewhere. However, it remains the Government’s ambition to deliver an automatic deletion system for these images. We hope to do that during this Parliament, and I would be happy to supply the Science and Technology Committee with more details when I have them in due course.
I do not disagree with anything the Minister is saying, but would it not be easier if, when people are taken into the custody suite after an arrest and have their photograph taken, there were a simple sign next to the camera saying, “If you are found not guilty, or you are not guilty or the charge is not sustained, you have the right to have these images deleted”?
I certainly think it would be a good idea to provide people with that information at as early an opportunity as we can. Whether they would read a notice on the wall at that moment of particular stress is something that I would have to think about, but it should be possible to provide them with that information as they exit the police station, having been released with no further action. That does not necessarily suppose that they are not going to be subject to further investigation at that point, but they can at least be informed of their right to request the deletion. Whether the police force complies will depend on other factors.
I told the Committee last June that we would make an announcement about further reforms to empower the police to use technologies while maintaining public trust. As I outlined earlier, we believe that a comprehensive legal framework and a range of regulatory and oversight bodies are in place, but we are always seeking improvements. We have already appointed one person to carry out the previously part-time roles of the Biometrics Commissioner and the Surveillance Camera Commissioner to reflect the increasing convergence of those technologies.
The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport consulted last year on further consolidating biometrics oversight arrangements, recognising that the current arrangements are complex and confusing for the police and public alike, and that they potentially inhibit confident adoption of new technologies. We have also consulted on a power to create a code of practice to set out the principles for police adoption of new technologies, such as biometrics, to ensure greater consistency while maintaining the flexibility to allow the law to keep up with rapidly developing technology. We will respond to that and to the DCMS consultation in the spring.
As I hope I have outlined, the Government recognise right hon. and hon. Members’ aspiration that this should be a critical stream of work for the Home Office, and for policing more generally. We also recognise that there is the possibility to undermine public trust in the use of technology if we do not get the framework of accountability, supervision and regulation correct. For these technologies to be successful, they need to be successful in court, which requires standardisation and quality. We recognise that there are capacity issues that need to be addressed, and we are working with partners to fill those gaps. I hope that my right hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells will take comfort, for example, from the fact that the Forensic Capability Network, the National Police Chiefs’ Council and the private sector are, as we speak, working together on a workforce strategy to plug exactly the capability and capacity holes that he identified.
Finally, as I said at the start of my remarks, we believe that the use of forensics, biometrics and technology together, as they converge, presents an enormous prospect for a great leap forwards in our collective safety in this country—not just in the prosecution of crime, but in its prevention. The critical thing to remember about fighting crime is that the greatest deterrent to any crime being committed is the perception by the person who would commit it of their likelihood of being caught. The better we get at catching those people and putting them behind bars, the less likely they are to offend.
Thank you, Dr Huq, for chairing this important debate. I hope that the contemplation by Members of your prospective arrest has not given you too much cause for alarm. God forbid that that should happen, but at least you know your rights when it comes to custody images as a result of the debate.
I thank the Minister for his response, and my colleagues for joining in the debate. Let me emphasise three points to the Minister. First, I was pleased that he recognised the importance of technology for the future. He is a serious individual with a long record—including as London’s Deputy Mayor for Policing—of making a difference in reducing crime and protecting victims. Of all the things that he can do in office, getting this right could have the greatest impact, not only in detecting crimes and securing convictions but in preventing crime in the first place, as he pointed out in his example from south Wales. I hope that he will give this matter the immediate priority that I think is necessary, without prejudice and without being hidebound by past decisions, as the hon. Member for Blackley and Broughton (Graham Stringer) said.
My second point is about funding, which the hon. Members for Blackley and Broughton and for Glasgow North West (Carol Monaghan) mentioned. The integrated review emphasised that our ambition is to be a world-leading figure in science and to deploy it to drive our national influence. Forensics, interest in which is exploding around the world, is an area in which we have had a leading position, but we cannot maintain that if we are losing money and putting up barriers to accessing research funding. I hope that the Minister will, with his new scientific adviser, look seriously at how we can correct that.
Thirdly, on the question of custody images, I am grateful for the Minister’s assurance that measures will be put in place by the end of this Parliament. In that and the other issues, my Committee will continue to take an interest—as I hope he will—and we look forward to making great progress, for the safety of all our citizens, during the remainder of this Parliament.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the Nineteenth Report of the Science and Technology Committee, Session 2017-19, The work of the Biometrics Commissioner and the Forensic Science Regulator, HC 1970, and the Government Response, Session 2019-21, HC 1319.
UK-Israel Trade Negotiations
[Ian Paisley in the Chair]
Before we begin, I remind Members that they are expected to wear a face covering when they are not speaking in the debate. This is in line with the current guidance that the House of Commons Commissioners would like to be enforced.
I also remind Members that they are asked by the House to take a covid lateral flow test before coming on to the estate. Please also give each other and members of staff space when seated, and when entering and leaving the room, where possible.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered UK and Israel trade negotiations.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Paisley, which I think is for the first time.
I declare my interest up front: I am the chairman of the all-party parliamentary group on Israel. In the last year, we released an excellent report, which I commend to my hon. Friend the Minister, on the health tech part of our industries. It is a very good read, which demonstrates the importance of Israel-UK negotiations and having them set up. Moreover, we are just about to release a report on research and innovation, which I also commend to him.
Israel and the UK’s partnership on the technology front extends to the fact, of course, that we have the Israel tech hub in the embassy in Tel Aviv. This morning, I was talking to the all-party parliamentary group on Romania, which wants to mirror that tech hub, demonstrating that the relationship between the UK and Israel is not only good for the UK and Israel but means that we can set up similar arrangements for like-minded countries across Europe and across the world. So I welcome the Government’s commitment to further strengthening the ties with Israel, which of course is a close friend and ally of the United Kingdom.
It is of course timely that we are having this debate, because I know that very shortly we will embark on new trade talks to enhance the UK’s trade relationship with Israel still further, which is extremely welcome.
I also thank the Backbench Business Committee, on which I sit, for granting this debate. I am not sure whether my sitting on the Committee had anything to do with it; I suspect that possibly it did. And I note that the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) is here in Westminster Hall today; he has a season ticket to the Backbench Business Committee, as well. [Laughter.]
Israel is not just the sole democracy in the middle east; it is also a true global high-tech start-up powerhouse, with huge prowess in the fields of high-tech energy, medical science, fintech and cyber-security, to name but a few areas. The UK is Israel’s largest trade partner in Europe and its third largest trade partner in the world. That gives us something to aim at; we want to be Israel’s largest trade partner in the world.
Given the strength of our relationship, it is perhaps little surprise that Israel was among the first countries with which the UK agreed a free trade agreement in principle, in January 2019, on our departure from the EU. After successive record-breaking years, UK-Israel trade has remained healthy, even during the pandemic, with an estimated value of £5 billion. Whether it involves pharmaceuticals, plastics, fintech or agri-tech, the UK-Israel trade relationship covers all our major industries and has a natural focus on the technology and services of the future. That is a key reason why there are boundless opportunities for improvements in the UK-Israel trade relationship. The signing of a strategic agreement with Israel last November was an important point in the process. In our ever-strengthening bilateral relationship, that is the next step towards negotiating the full post-Brexit trade deal with our friends in Israel that we want to see.
So we are natural trade partners. As progressive liberal democracies, our nations share the same values and the same commitment to the open and free market. Israel’s business community regards the UK as the gateway to Europe. The UK is an appealing market. We have a shared language, as an estimated 85% of Israelis speak English as their first language. We are also obviously in close proximity to Israel and have an enterprising business culture.
Israeli businesses hold the UK market in the highest regard. We have seen many of them achieve great success here. I will mention one or two of them shortly. Israel’s tech ecosystem does not just provide economic benefits to our two great nations. Every day, Israeli businesses will be enriching and improving the lives of British citizens and making them healthier. A cab driver or parent on the school run uses Israeli sat-nav app Waze to efficiently complete their journey. A water engineer will be alerted to a leak in the network by Takadu, a start-up based in Tel Aviv. The cherry tomatoes that a shopper buys in the local supermarket are an invention from Israel. I could go on. Many constituents of mine are issued generic prescription drugs from their local GP surgery. These drugs are manufactured by Israeli pharmaceutical giant Teva, which produces an extraordinary one in six prescription drugs used in the NHS. That fails to scratch even the surface of Israeli companies operating in the UK.
There are 500 Israeli companies operating in the UK, employing thousands of our constituents. A number of UK companies have major operations in Israel, including Barclays, Rolls-Royce, GlaxoSmithKline and Unilever. Rolls-Royce was responsible for the UK’s largest ever export deal to Israel back in 2016 when it signed a £1 billion agreement with Israeli airline El Al to provide Trent 1000 engines for El Al’s new fleet of Dreamliner aircraft. A British visitor to Israel could not fail to notice the ever-growing number of UK-manufactured cars in the Jewish state.
In terms of high tech, the rapid expansion of UK-Israel trade over the last decade has closely followed Israel’s emergence as one of the world’s leaders in high tech. Israel is now home to the highest density of start-ups anywhere in the world. That impressed me, because I thought India was. Clearly, Israel is more dense in that respect. It deservedly earns its title as the start-up nation. It is also home to the world’s major technology powerhouses, including Google, Microsoft, Intel and Motorola. I have had the privilege of visiting Israel on a number of occasions with the Conservative Friends of Israel, and the dynamism and forward-thinking nature of its high-tech sector and young entrepreneurs is palpable. I particularly remember visiting an early electrical vehicle pioneer back in 2011. Remember 2011? That was 11 years ago. As is often the case, the Israeli company was many years ahead of the market. The only thing holding it back was battery technology at the time.
Israel has achieved this success with intellectual power in the face of geographic and geo-political disadvantages, conflict and a lack of natural resources. Another reason behind Israel’s success story is that the country is an investor in research and development, spending as much as 4.9% of its GDP on R&D in 2018. That is more than double that of the UK—something else we should think about. It offers us very serious food for thought.
Increasing trade with Israel has been a long-standing UK objective. The UK-Israel tech hub, which was established at the British embassy in 2011, was the first of its kind to promote partnerships in technology and innovation between the UK and Israel. It has successfully generated hundreds of tech partnerships between the UK and Israel and is so far worth more than £85 million. It has led to the additional tech hubs in India, Indonesia, Kenya, South Africa, Nigeria, Brazil and soon Romania.
Brexit has presented us with an exciting opportunity to negotiate a bespoke UK-Israel free trade agreement. Our two nations are closer than ever and share the same values and outlook on international trade. There are endless possibilities for the UK and Israel to work together to become the world’s leading tech centres. I encourage my hon. Friend the Minister to be ambitious in the forthcoming negotiations. The trade continuity agreement, which was signed in February 2019, ensured the continuation of the trade terms covered by the EU-Israel association agreement. That should be the bare minimum we seek to negotiate in the new UK-Israel trade deal.
The International Trade Secretary said last month that her Department would be opening a public consultation on this important free trade agreement this January. We do not have long to go, so I am looking to the Minister, and I do not want to hear “soon” as an answer. Given the importance of the UK-Israel bilateral deal, I wonder whether the Minister can shed some light on the commencement date. I very much hope that the starting gun will be fired in the forthcoming days.
I know many colleagues in this place are looking forward to the UK hosting a joint innovation summit with Israel in March this year, but I wonder whether the Secretary of State has any plans to visit Israel in the near future to see for herself the many trade opportunities emerging from this tech powerhouse. I trust that she will visit and that that can kick off the negotiations properly.
My hon. Friend the Minister has spoken of the UK’s desire to expand opportunities in financial services, infrastructure and technology. Can he provide an update on the progress of these sector-specific ambitions?
The UK and Israel can boast the world’s two most successful covid-19 vaccination programmes, which is a source of great personal pride to both countries. Our beloved NHS has delivered a vaccination programme at a speed and scale that is truly the envy of the world. Israel’s digitalised healthcare system played an instrumental role in that success. The Department for International Trade has previously expressed the desire to seek a trade deal with a chapter focused on advanced digital data and technology, including med-tech. Can my hon. Friend the Minister assure me that that remains the plan? What discussions has he had with his counterpart in Israel on the subject?
Israel’s success in R&D is commendable. Will the Minister consider using free trade negotiations to explore a binational research and development programme to the mutual benefit of both countries? Israel has such a programme in place with the United States, known as BIRD—Israel-US Binational Industrial Research and Development—and cumulative sales of products co-developed by Israeli and American companies through BIRD have exceeded $10 billion. Given the immediate strategic challenge posed by disruptive actors on the international stage, it is more important than ever that we work with trusted allies to produce the technologies of the future.
As we move to deliver on our net zero commitments, I call on my hon. Friend the Minister to work closely with Israel. The country has been known as the superpower of sustainability. While we will not be able to recreate here the solar tower that harnesses Negev sunshine to generate electricity, we can certainly learn much from Israel’s world-leading water reuse programme to avoid future droughts. The UK and Israel boast sector-leading green-tech and agri-tech start-ups, and there are many opportunities to expand on that.
With this ambition in mind, I call on the Minister to seize the opportunity of the historic Abraham accords, which have ushered in a ground-breaking new chapter for peace in the middle east, between Israel and her neighbours in Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates. While the accords have been in effect for less than two years, they have already had a seismic effect on the region in terms of trade and investment, which has rapidly expanded.
The breakthrough water-for-energy deal between Jordan and Israel, brokered by the UAE, demonstrates that the peace is far-reaching and gives us, tentatively, an opportunity for proper peace in the middle east. I hope the UK will actively consider the ways in which we can support these new links, and use our own strong relationships in the region to further build on the Abraham accords.
There are challenges. The Government have prioritised the relationship with Israel and have put in place frameworks to stimulate collaboration, but there is much more we can do to ensure that Israeli companies make the UK their natural first stop internationally to trial and scale their products.
I had the pleasure of releasing “A shot in the arm: Israel and UK healthtech innovation”, a report from the all-party Britain-Israel parliamentary group and UK Israel Business. The report identified several impediments that face Israeli health-tech companies seeking to enter the UK market. Many of the proposals would also work across different sectors. For example, the report recommends creating new UK-based landing pads to assist Israeli companies touching down in the United Kingdom, which should include advice on how best to position their value proposition and achieve adoption at pace and scale in the UK.
Another challenge facing Israeli start-ups is the constraints imposed by short-term visas. We contend that as part of the Israel-UK landing pad, start-ups selected and incubated through the scheme should be automatically awarded a start-up visa as part of the scheme. A visa awarded to landing pad companies would be time-bound by the landing pad programme horizon—a scheme that already takes into account other critical factors such as capital requirements, pilot testing and scale horizons. Will the Minister take the time to read the report, consider its recommendations and, I hope, act upon them?
While there is much to celebrate in our burgeoning trade relationship with Israel, it would be remiss of me not to quickly touch on the so-called Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement—or BDS, as it is more commonly known. Simply put, BDS is a harmful, politically-motivated campaign that seeks to delegitimise Israel. BDS does nothing to advance the Palestinian cause; in actuality, it is anti-peace. I applaud the Government for their rejection of BDS and their clear commitment to ever-greater trade with Israel.
The fact that many of those targeting Israel with economic boycotts also actively seek to extend their harmful boycotts to those in the cultural and educational spheres says everything we need to know. It is unthinkable to me that anyone could seek to minimise collaboration between UK and Israeli scientists tackling some of the greatest health challenges facing our societies, such as Alzheimer’s, covid-19 and Parkinson’s disease.
It is deeply regrettable that Ben & Jerry’s—the ice cream makers owned by British company Unilever—has engaged in its own recent boycott of Israel; the controversial move rightly provoked strong condemnation. I call on Unilever to challenge such harmful measures.
The Government’s forthcoming legislation to stop public bodies across the UK discriminating on grounds of country and territory of origin must feature provisions to prevent procurement policy being used as a tool of foreign policy or an attempt to regulate international trade. Legislating on this important manifesto commitment will be warmly welcomed by many of my constituents, and I call on the Minister to work closely with colleagues in the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities to counter discriminatory policies that are harmful not only to community cohesion here in the UK but to the UK’s trade interests and foreign policy goals. I commend the UK Government’s response to BDS, which has been to seek ever-closer economic relations with Israel. Now is the time to go one step further and ensure that the principles of fairness and non-discrimination are enshrined at the heart of the UK’s public procurement regime.
Having experienced a decade of record-breaking growth in trade, the United Kingdom and Israel are natural partners across a wide range of innovative fields—from financial to agricultural technology, spanning government, the private sector and higher education. We therefore have before us an invaluable opportunity to reshape our trading relationship for the future. The UK-Israel trade deal is much anticipated for its many important economic benefits, but it also presents an opportunity for the UK to expand its ever-tightening relationship with a close ally. Given Israel’s status as a world-leading tech power, it is important for the UK to make the most of the many advantages of the trade deal by taking an ambitious approach to trade negotiations.
Done right, this deal could serve as a model for UK partnerships with other advanced, innovation-intensive states, including South Korea, Singapore and Taiwan. My colleagues and I stand ready to support work on an enhanced trade agreement. I hope that the Minister can assure me and my hon. Friends that the call for input is about to begin, and that we can look forward to an excellent free trade deal with our friends in Israel.
It is always a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Paisley, and to be in your company—I want to have that on the record. We are close friends and colleagues, having come into this House at the same time.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) on setting the scene. We missed him this morning at International Trade questions. I figured if he was not there, something must be seriously wrong, but he was there later on—he was alright. His question was still asked—I do not know how he did that. He is always very helpful to me when I go to the Backbench Business Committee to ask for a debate. I am not aware of any occasions—touch wood—when I have been refused a debate by the Backbench Business Committee, and the debates have always been on topical issues, so it is good to have them. Today’s issue is very close to my heart, and the hon. Gentleman outlined it incredibly well.
I see that the hon. Member for Hendon (Dr Offord) has a debate scheduled for Westminster Hall under a slightly different topic heading; we will probably repeat the points that we have addressed today. If God spares me until then, I will be here at 9.30 on Wednesday morning to support the hon. Gentleman in the debate, as will others.
The hon. Member for Harrow East often raises the importance of securing a trade deal with Israel, and I agree. In 2017, Israel was voted the fifth most innovative country in terms of technology and cyber-security. There is absolutely no doubt that we need to increase our co-operation, business and economic growth alongside Israel, so that both countries can benefit. It is imperative that we continue to improve trade relations with our friends and partners.
When I was at the Northern Ireland Assembly—I was there for 12 years—I was a member of the Northern Ireland Friends of Israel group. When I came here, I continued that relationship with the Friends of Israel. I am keen to see relations between the United Kingdom and Israel continuing and, indeed, increasing. The hon. Member for Harrow East said that, too. We should appreciate that that is for everyone’s benefit. Figures from the year 2017 show that UK exports to Israel were £2.3 billion, making it the UK’s 42nd largest export market—accounting for 0.4% of all UK exports. UK imports from Israel were £1.6 billion, making it the UK’s 47th largest import source, accounting for 0.3% of all UK imports. Most recent figures from 2020 also show that the UK had bilateral trade with Israel amounting to £5.1 billion. It is clear that we have a good relationship, but we always want to do better; that is the reason for this debate. It is what the hon. Member for Harrow East is looking for.
There is certainly evidence that there is a need for progressive trade relations with Israel in regards to security—that is an important factor for us all and a key one for me. The Foreign Secretary stated back in November, along with her Israeli Counterpart, that,
“there is a need for a new strategic plan for the next decade, spanning cyber, tech, trade and defence.”
The opportunities are enormous. It was also mentioned that the two countries would work night and day, 24/7, to prevent the Iranian regime from ever becoming a nuclear power. That would be to the benefit of everyone, and to the benefit of world peace, not just the UK and Israel. That is brilliant and we should all try and achieve that. Even the couple of Members here who do not have active participation with Israel should want to make sure the Iran does not achieve nuclear power.
It was former Secretary of State William Hague who labelled science and business ties
“one of the cornerstones of the relationship between Israel and the UK.”
The strategic agreement signed with Israel is the starting post for a series of activities that will deepen our trading relationship. I understand a public consultation on our enhanced bilateral free trade agreement will be opened this month, and there will be further trade strategies in March, as the hon. Member for Harrow East said. It is crucial that we do all we can now to progress this trading relationship. It is important to remember that our trade connections help to strengthen our relationships not only with Israel, but with the rest of the world. It is only right that trade connections benefit every one of us, and Israel is a key friend and trading relationship.
The Minister says that there will be a joint innovation strategy. With that in mind, will there be discussions with Education Ministers? There is the possibility that we can do things in that area, such as combining specialised research through our universities. We have been very good at that with other countries, so maybe the Minister could tell us what could be done in relation to that with Israel.
Israel has proven successful through some of the world’s leading companies, such as Teva Pharmaceuticals, which is worth over £57 million, and computer specialist Intel, which is worth over £27 million. Combined, both of those companies employ over 53,000 people. In addition, UK exports to Israel amounted to £2.6 billion in the four quarters to the end of 2021, which represents a slight decrease—I find that hard to comprehend, but it was probably due to the pandemic and other factors. Could the Minister give us an explanation of why there was a small decrease? Total UK imports from Israel amounted to £9.1 billion at the end of 2020, which was also a decrease of 10.8% from 2021. Again, was the pandemic the reason for that? If it was, then we know that those numbers can only go one way, which is upwards. We must do all we can to ensure that those figures do not decrease any further. I am sure the Minister will respond to that point.
Israel was the UK’s 40th largest trading partner at the end of 2020. I encourage the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office to do all it can to ensure that we continue to show interest through trade. I understand that trading figures may have decreased due to the covid-19 pandemic, but it is essential that we do not continue to let this become a problem. Our economy is essential to our success, for jobs and for the benefit of all of us in the UK, Israel and, of course, the world.
I understand that other Members want to speak, so I will conclude my remarks. It is crucial that we prioritise our trading links with other countries. More discussion must take place between the Minister and his counterparts to expand our products’ scope, and how we can build on what we have and perhaps even develop it more. When it comes to trade deals, our Government have been very successful so far, so we look to see where we are with Israel. We all welcome the prospect of an enhanced trade deal with Israel, as well as strong support from UK Export Finance to help finance exports into Israel. With that in mind, I very much support what the hon. Member for Harrow East has said, and look forward to the Minister’s response. It is good to see him in his place: he has been missing for a while, but wherever he has been, it is good to see him back.
As always, Mr Paisley, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) on securing this important and timely debate. The bilateral relationship between the UK and Israel runs deep, from intelligence sharing and security co-operation to our trade ties, which have flourished over many years. For example, the Britain-Israel research and academic exchange partnership has brought together scientists from both countries to tackle some of the world’s most challenging medical conditions and diseases, including cardiovascular and liver disease, diabetes and Parkinson’s. That cutting-edge research and co-operation benefits citizens in the UK, Israel, and further afield.
Israeli innovations benefit the British people, and our close partnership keeps us all safe. I will take this opportunity to reflect on those ties in my contribution today, and I urge the Minister to explore further areas for collaboration in our ongoing trade negotiations with Israel. To list a few examples, we have the Israeli pharmaceutical company Teva, which has been mentioned, and which is a leading provider of medicines to the NHS. With over 200 Teva tablets or capsules taken on average by patients in the UK every second, not only does Teva improve the health of millions of people in this country every day, but it employs hundreds of British workers at sites across our country. There is also the Israeli-designed PillCam, a capsule camera that patients swallow painlessly to get checked for cancer that is currently being trialled across the NHS, and the Israeli-developed phone app that reads the results of urine tests by using AI and colour metric analysis, sharing the results instantly with the individual’s GP practice. These home testing kits, which detect early stage chronic kidney disease, have already started shipping to half a million UK patients.
The brave men and women of our armed forces also benefit greatly from Israeli technology, which protects our soldiers on the battlefield. Israeli-developed virtual reality training scenarios have prepared British soldiers for a range of hostile battle situations, and Israeli intelligence-collecting drones help to keep our troops safe. The list goes on. However, there remain those who seek to dismantle our close ties with Israel and call for a trade embargo, as mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East. Boycott campaigns that seek to undermine this important cooperation, and to make peace harder to achieve, must be opposed. Boycotts of Israel harm the Israeli and Palestinian people, and they threaten our close collaboration in defence, science and medicine. I warmly welcome the Government’s commitment to stopping public bodies from imposing needless boycotts on foreign countries. All too often, these aggressive campaigns target the state of Israel and single out the world’s only Jewish state for criticism.
I am sure that the Minister will reiterate the importance of our close ties with Israel in his remarks. I urge him to do everything possible to oppose needless boycotts and sanctions against Israel, including introducing the legislation committed in the manifesto on which we were both elected, and I urge him to continue working to further strengthen the bilateral relationship between Israel and the United Kingdom.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Paisley. It is an equal pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Southport (Damien Moore), who delivered a powerful speech that I entirely endorse, particularly those parts towards the end of his remarks about the dangerous nature of those who seek to boycott Israel in trade, which has a knock-on impact on peace, people’s jobs and prosperity. I also congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) on securing the debate and on setting out the case so eloquently and powerfully at the start of it. The facts and case studies that he outlined speak for themselves.
Israel has cemented itself as a major economic partner of our United Kingdom and is on an upward trajectory, and a more extensive trade deal between two of the world’s most technologically advanced economies will reap enormous benefits for both nations as well as the wider world. We have heard how omnipresent Israeli-made technology is in our day-to-day lives in the United Kingdom, and I was interested to learn recently that many of the banking transactions made by customers online or via smartphones are protected by Israeli-made software running in the background. From digital printers to USB sticks—they might seem like old hat now—and car safety cameras, Israelis have played a huge role in the rapid advancement of our digital economy and digital society in recent decades. Tesco recently opened its first fully autonomous store in London after partnering with the Israeli company Trigo, which uses computer vision technology and advanced artificial intelligence algorithms to enable shoppers to choose their items and leave without having to stop at the tills, providing a seamless experience and saving time. I look forward to visiting Israel in the near future to see for myself more of the exciting technologies and the companies, scientists and innovators behind them.
Now that we are free of the European Union, the opportunity afforded to us to become a proud free-trading nation, with one of the world’s largest and most forward-thinking economies, must not be wasted. I join hon. Members of different parties who have spoken in the debate—I notice that the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) has left the room, but I endorse his speech as well—in urging the Government to make concerted efforts to secure the much-anticipated deal with Israel as early as time affords.
Tourism should be an important consideration for the trade talks ahead. Prior to the pandemic, Israel was establishing itself as a go-to destination for many Brits, and the UK remains ever popular with tourists from Israel. Travel between the countries has become so popular in recent years that we have seen the likes of Virgin Atlantic open a route, Wizz Air about to expand its number of flights to Israel, and Israel become one of easyJet’s busiest routes.
I join other speakers in welcoming the important work of the UK-Israel tech hub, which connects businesses in both countries, but there is so much more that can be done to support British companies seeking to increase their presence in Israel. As I conclude my remarks, I ask the Minister what action he is taking to explore those further ways to expand this market and to support British businesses in my constituency and beyond to partner with Israeli companies. I am extremely optimistic about this unique opportunity for our two countries to negotiate an ambitious and wider free trade agreement that looks to the future. I look forward to hearing from the Minister when he expects the consultation to begin.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Paisley. It is custom and practice in a Westminster Hall debate to pay tribute to the hon. Member who proposed the debate, so I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) for his promotion of his UK-Israel trade negotiations debate. However, as the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) pointed out, I too had a debate on UK trade with Israel, hence the word “negotiations” not being part of my title. I have to disappoint the hon. Member by saying that I have decided there is no need for my debate to go forward, and I can only wish that he is able to have a more leisurely breakfast next Wednesday. Indeed, other hon. Members may decide to go for an early morning run instead of coming to hear probably the same speech that I will give now.
On a serious note, I welcome the growing collaboration between our two countries, including the new UK-Israel bilateral road map, which will extend and deepen our relationship over the next decade. In recent years, the UK Government have worked to build on our existing ties with Israel, securing a multitude of agreements in cyber-security, academia and medicine, as well as Israeli investment bringing more jobs to the United Kingdom. Israelis see the United Kingdom as an ideal place to trade, as they are attracted by our culture, language and institutions.
I was pleased to see the former International Trade Secretary visit Israel last year for meetings to discuss the forthcoming trade agreement and to increase bilateral ties. Many people in the Chamber have visited Israel and I look forward to my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (Greg Smith) being able to visit the country. Colleagues who have travelled to Israel will no doubt agree that visiting the start-up nation is an eye-opening experience. I repeat the call of my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East for the current Secretary of State to visit Israel in the near future.
The relationship between the United Kingdom and Israel is one that dates back to Israel’s creation, but it has certainly accelerated at a remarkable rate in the last decade. I hope that, in some small way, I have played my part in that. In 2013, I asked David Cameron on the Floor of the House of Commons if he would be the first serving British Prime Minister to visit the country, and I was very pleased that the following year he did so, and I was able to accompany him on that visit. It was a great opportunity for him to not only see the workings of the country, its culture and its history, but his remarks in the Knesset were equally prescient. There was a small dispute going on between Members and he said, on this particular Wednesday afternoon, that it was quieter than he would usually experience in the House of Commons.
While others may reflect on the expansion of Israel’s tech scene, it is important to note that this Conservative Government and those of the last 11 years have made Israel a real strategic priority. The UK’s high regard for Israel was evidenced by the fact that it was one of the first countries to agree a free trade deal in principle following the referendum. The ever-strengthening trade relationship is to be welcomed, and it has clearly paid dividends, with over 500 Israeli companies operating in the United Kingdom. Thousands of people, including many in my own constituency of Hendon, are directly benefiting from that employment. Those companies are creating wealth and encouraging growth between our two countries.
Importantly, strong ties are also being forged between our two countries by non-governmental organisations in both the UK and Israel. Accordingly, I pay tribute to UK Israel Business and the Israel British Chamber of Commerce, which in 2017 was recognised with an award of excellence by the Council of British Chambers of Commerce in Europe. It is worth noting that that was the first time that an Israeli chamber of commerce has won such an award from a European organisation.
Given the scientific and engineering excellence of our two countries, I repeat the calls for the Minister to explore establishing bilateral centres and incubators to enable British and Israeli companies and scientists to come together and tackle the great challenges of the day. One of those issues may be covid, which we are now passing by, but there are many more that we can work on. A trade deal will enable us to work jointly to tackle climate change, strengthen cyber-security against some of the malign actors that have been mentioned—mainly Iran—and produce the next generation of med-tech, which my hon. Friend the Member for Southport (Damien Moore) mentioned, to keep us all healthier and improve our wellbeing. All that would come of a good trade deal.
There are several barriers to address, however, before we can take advantage of the opportunity before us. To better facilitate the important opportunities that I have outlined, I encourage the Minister to review visa and entry requirements to enable Israelis to work more easily in the UK. In my humble opinion, the Minister should also review the existing regulations, such as on opening a bank account, which can make it difficult for Israelis to start businesses in the UK. There is also an opportunity to consider tax tariffs on a range of goods, including food and beverages and medicines. I am sure the Minister also recognises the importance of reaching an agreeable position on data protection matters so that organisations are not unduly burdened—although I welcome the fact that the UK has deemed Israel one of the countries that provides adequate levels of data protection.
I will make two points further to those made by my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East. First, Israel spends about 5% of its gross domestic product on research and development, which is more than most developing countries around the world. However, there is large, untapped potential for UK investment in research and development in Israel. Does the Minister agree that there is more work to be done in that area? It would be a great opportunity for people in this country to benefit financially.
Secondly, boycotts do not work—I am sure the Minister can accept that. When the SodaStream factory in the west bank was forced to close following pressure from the BDS movement, more than 500 Palestinians lost their jobs. Those people were all in employment, with a wage and a standard of living higher than people in other employment in that part of Israel. All that does is force those Palestinian people into the arms of Hamas and Hezbollah. We all want peace and security in the middle east—we certainly want a two-state solution—but the divisive actions of the BDS movement will not allow that to happen. Will the Minister bring forward as soon as possible legislation to prevent such divisive activities in the UK?
Although it is not strictly the subject of this debate, I also think it is important that the Government restate their commitment to the religious practice of shechita, which is very important to my constituents and which contributes to the economy of both the UK and Israel.
My constituents and I are fully supportive of the Government in their ambition to secure a comprehensive trade deal with Israel, and we look forward to the formal process beginning in earnest in the coming days. I am sure that the Minister has listened closely to what colleagues have said and that he will take this opportunity to ramp up and lead the way on trade deals. Israel would certainly be a good place to start.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Paisley. I congratulate the hon. Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) on securing this debate. He brought a significant amount of knowledge to the House. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) spoke passionately, as he always does. The hon. Members for Southport (Damien Moore) and for Buckingham (Greg Smith) both gave interesting contributions, providing a lot of food for thought. It was a delight to hear from the hon. Member for Hendon (Dr Offord); I was due to speak in his debate next week, but I appreciated the opportunity to hear his contribution today.
The UK and Israel have only recently signed a strategic plan that is entirely devoid of human rights demands on Israel, and it is a real concern that this free trade deal will be similar. The UK Government will open a call for input on an enhanced bilateral free trade agreement with Israel this year, and the Scottish Government will provide a submission. However, there is no substitute for ongoing, meaningful engagement with Scottish Government officials on FTA negotiation matters—something that was not there in the talks with New Zealand and Australia.
We in the SNP are neither anti-trade nor anti-free trade. We recognise that there are many avenues for more trade co-operation, such as in the spaces of digital, data, science and technology.
Once we gain independence, the SNP will seek for Scotland to rejoin the EU. In doing so, it would rejoin the EU’s deal with Israel. That deal, of course, makes it categorically clear that trade with the Occupied Palestinian Territories should not be treated as if it were trade with Israel.
Until Scotland gains her independence, we in the SNP urge the UK Government in the strongest possible terms to use every opportunity—indeed, this rare opportunity of trade negotiations—to end the persecution of the Palestinian people. As with any negotiation, there are trade-offs, but turning a blind eye to persecution should not be one of them. It must remain a priority for the UK Government, and a red line throughout every single stage of the negotiations. If human rights demands are not met, a free trade deal must come off the table. A life free from persecution and, to quote Human Rights Watch, “apartheid conditions”, and a decent standard of living—something we all deserve as human beings—are worth much more than a few tariff reductions between two already incredibly rich countries.
There is no doubt that trade relationships can lead to wider relationships and can often be used as a way of influencing—for good and sometimes for ill—the actions of other countries and Governments. The safety of the Palestinian people and their freedom from an illegal occupation should be a condition for any UK-Israeli free trade deal. Human rights concerns must be consistently raised throughout every stage, including at the inaugural UK-Israel joint committee to be held in the UK this year and the joint UK-Israel innovation summit in March. If previous free trade deals are anything to go by, it is no surprise that the Department for International Trade has not yet published its objectives and scoping assessments for this set of negotiations. I would appreciate clarification from the Minister on when they will be available.
Israel accounts for much less than 1% of UK exports. Anything it does will not fix the huge absence of trade caused by Brexit, which, I remind the House, Scotland did not vote for. The UK’s total bilateral trade relationship with Israel stood at £5 billion in 2020. In comparison, UK exports to the EU were £251 billion, representing 42% of all UK exports. We could increase exports to Israel by a factor of 10 and it would still be only a relatively minor trading partner compared with the EU and others. This deal will not compensate for what we have lost because of Brexit.
In 2019, Scottish exports were growing consistently in all directions—to the rest of the UK, the EU and the rest of the world. We now have clear evidence that that is no longer the case, as Scottish goods exports fell by 25% in the year to June 2021, compared with the equivalent period in 2019-20.
An industry that has a significant number of farmers contributing to it, including in my constituency, is the food and drinks industry. House of Commons research found that Brexit is costing the industry £62 million a week. That is £62 million a week that farmers and producers cannot afford to lose, but I do not remember seeing that figure on the side of a bus.
We seek assurances that nothing will be done to land a deal with Israel that will make it easier for goods that have been produced in the illegally occupied territories to be marked, sold and exported as produce of Israel. These goods should be regarded as the proceeds of crime. We know that a free trade deal solely benefiting Israeli products and not products that have been produced in illegally occupied territories will reduce the competitiveness of Palestinian produce, put Palestinian producers at a disadvantage and potentially distort the comparative prices of similar goods from both sides of the wire fence for UK consumers.
I would therefore appreciate clarification from the Minister on two points. First, so that customers across the four nations can decide for themselves where to buy from, we seek assurances that the Department for International Trade will follow a policy of non-divergence from our European partners when it comes to labelling. The possible free trade deal must include clauses that mandate accurate labelling of Israeli goods and settlement goods, so as not to mislead the consumer.
Secondly, we urge the Department to engage in every effort to improve the competitiveness of Palestinian products and the trade links between the UK and the occupied territories. That should include redoubling diplomatic efforts to see the end of the blockade of the Gaza strip—an embargo that covers trade. It should also include looking at the merits of advising UK businesses against trading with illegal settlements, as a disincentive to Israeli settlement-building in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. It must be remembered that aid cuts by the Conservative Government have hit the occupied territories hard and badly impacted livelihoods, and they are hampering trade growth. Improving trade with Palestine is also a way out of poverty.
I will make a final point about the UK arms trade with Israel. Over the last three years, £76 million of arms sales have been exported to Israel. The Minister must categorically state today that offensive arms and small weapons—the weapons most commonly used against civilians—will be outside the free trade agreement negotiations.
Ultimately, what cannot happen is that these trade negotiations decouple Israel’s behaviour in the occupied territories—behaviour that is categorically illegal under international law.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Paisley. I congratulate the hon. Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) on securing this debate. I hope he will pass on our thanks to his fellow members of the Backbench Business Committee for allowing us to have this debate. I thank the hon. Member for Hendon (Dr Offord) for graciously saying that we do not all have to come back here again next Wednesday morning. Otherwise, I would be reusing, rather than recycling, my speech. I also thank the other speakers we have heard so far, and I will try to refer to them all during my speech. I refer Members to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests, as I have previously visited Jerusalem, the west bank and the Knesset as part of a parliamentary delegation.
Successive Israeli leaders, from Golda Meir to Yitzhak Rabin, were proud members of the Israeli Labour party and proud socialists. In the case of Yitzhak Rabin, he was murdered because of his historic work and commitment to peace through the Oslo accord. The British Labour party has strong and historic links with Israel through the Israeli Labour party.
It is in that spirit that we welcome and support increasing and improving the UK’s trade links with Israel. Of course, we welcome any trade deals that support jobs here in the UK and British businesses. That is why our Government should be taking advantage of trade with countries such as Israel—to ensure that UK exporters and businesses can do well and that British business can bounce back after the pandemic.
Speakers today have pointed out that the UK and Israel are two of the world’s most high-tech economies. That is surely a benefit, and a key issue, as speakers have said, in future negotiations with Israel.
The total trade in goods and services with Israel was worth £4.6 billion in the last available figures. I thought that Israel was the UK’s 40th largest partner, but the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), who has temporarily left the room, said it was 42nd. Either way, as the hon. Member for Airdrie and Shotts (Ms Qaisar), the SNP Front-Bench spokesperson, said, this is a proportionately small amount of the UK’s total trade. Let us get these things in proportion.
UK exports to Israel are, however, worth more than £2 billion and support about 37,000 jobs in the UK, including, as speakers have said, many in skilled manufacturing industries, such as the car industry, but also technology, health-tech, security, data and so on. According to Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, 6,600 VAT-registered businesses currently export goods to Israel. I would welcome the Minister’s providing further information about what targets the Government want to reach for the number of businesses exporting to Israel in the future. I am talking about both the level of jobs and the level of investment. Is that a target for any future trade negotiations? There are also a number of important areas where Israel provides crucial imports for consumers here in the UK. That is especially the case, as others have said, in relation to pharmaceuticals and companies such as Teva, whose largest customer is of course the NHS.
There are other business links. The hon. Member for Harrow East mentioned the tech hub run through the UK embassy and the importance of technology and data in the economy. The hon. Member for Southport (Damien Moore) told us about the trials of the very interesting camera that people swallow for cancer checks and about VR training. The hon. Member for Buckingham (Greg Smith) mentioned digital security, which I did not know about. It is very important for any of us—all of us—who have bank accounts and do our banking online and on our phones. He also mentioned tourism, which is of course an important source of business for Israel, and of course for Palestine, because in and around Jerusalem we have the holiest sites for the three largest monotheistic religions in the world. Also, the world centre for the Baha’i faith is in Haifa, I think.
Additionally, more than 300 Israeli high-tech companies have bases in the UK, with 100 of those having been established in the last decade. Those firms bring jobs and investment to the UK. I look forward to hearing from the Minister about what steps the Government are taking to support our tech industry and to build strong partnerships between UK and Israeli tech hubs.
The Government have recently signed a further deal with Israel, which builds off the continuity FTA signed in 2019. This “road map” commits to further action around issues ranging from cyber-security to improving business links through the UK-Israel innovation summit in March of this year. We welcome these steps and hope that our Government continue to work with the Israeli Government on these important bilateral issues. The memorandum of understanding says that the UK and Israel will work on the
“development of a new, higher ambition free trade agreement.”
I look forward to hearing more details from the Minister about this and the benefits it could bring to so many sectors of our economy in the UK. We want trade deals that support well-paid and skilled jobs here, and we will support those that do so, as an Israel trade deal would.
It is equally important, however, that the Government ensure that human rights issues are considered and addressed when any trade deal is being struck. Trade should not happen in a vacuum, and British values are important in our trade deals. Around the world there has been a worrying pattern of the Government seeming to adopt an “any deal will do” approach, with key issues being jettisoned and ignored. We have already seen evidence of this in the Government’s recent deal with Australia, with British farmers thrown under the bus. I am extremely concerned that in future negotiations, such as those with the Gulf Council, human rights and rule of law issues could be cast aside. The Minister for Trade Policy did not take the opportunity this morning to answer my question about the Gulf Council deal.
The SNP Front-Bench spokesperson, the hon. Member for Airdrie and Shotts, made a number of key points about human rights and illegal settlements. Illegal settlements are possibly the top human rights issue, and they are in breach of international law. We have seen their continued expansion at a rapidly increasing pace, especially since the start of the Trump Administration in the US. Our Government must object in the strongest possible terms in all relevant forums, not least in trade negotiations, to the expansion of illegal settlements.
We know that settlements in the occupied Palestinian territory are illegal in international law, and that includes settlements in East Jerusalem, as well as in the west bank. United Nations Security Council resolution 2334 states that
“the establishment…of settlements in the Palestinian territory occupied since 1967…has no legal validity and constitutes a flagrant violation under international law”.
These settlements entrench divisions, and I know from meeting Palestinians when I visited the west bank that these settlements make a just and lasting peace deal even harder to achieve. I was told that around five years ago, and I fear the prospects have only got worse since then.
The recent change of Government in Israel offers an opportunity for a change in approach, especially as the previous Government’s formal proposal in which they threatened to annex the west bank has been stopped after widespread and near universal opposition, including from parliamentarians across all parties here in Westminster. Although the formal annexation has been stopped, the expansion of illegal settlements continues, and Palestinian families in East Jerusalem and the west bank continue to experience eviction from their homes and even demolition of their homes and property.
Both the EU’s agreement and the subsequent continuity agreement between the UK and Israel mandated that goods from illegal settlements would be excluded from the preferential terms of any UK-Israeli trade agreements. On this issue, I have a few questions for the Minister. First, will he confirm that the UK Government still support the principle of non-preferential trade for goods from illegal settlements, and will the Government uphold that non-preferential treatment in any future FTA or deal with Israel? Secondly, are the Government aware of the current level of known UK trade with Israeli settlements? Additionally, will the Minister make it clear that British companies have an obligation to ensure that their products and services are not used in grave breaches of international law?
I know that some people have called for the UK to block all trade with Israel, but that is not an action that we support. Such an indiscriminate measure would hurt millions of ordinary Israelis and Palestinians, both in Israel and in the west bank and Jerusalem, and it is not a policy applied to other countries. We do not support a ban on goods from the state of Israel, nor do we support the policy of boycott, disinvestment and sanctions, which is often known as BDS. The hon. Member for Hendon explained how the boycott has affected Palestinian businesses. They already suffer from a lot of difficulties, and this boycott could make things even worse. I therefore share the concerns about BDS that were raised by the hon. Members for Harrow East, for Southport, for Buckingham and for Hendon and others in this debate.
In the wider context of our overall relations with Israel, the Labour party insists on a renewed focus on negotiating a two-state solution that ensures a viable and sovereign Palestinian state alongside a safe and secure Israel. We welcome the Government taking this step towards a new free trade agreement with Israel, which we hope will benefit UK businesses and consumers, but we also want to ensure that the Government address the key issues around human rights and specifically those relating to settlements. I look forward to the Minister’s response.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the first time, Mr Paisley, and I welcome the hon. Members for Brentford and Isleworth (Ruth Cadbury) and for Airdrie and Shotts (Ms Qaisar) to their places. I should also like to thank my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) for securing this important debate and all Members who have been present this Thursday afternoon and made important contributions.
The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) raised the question of why I had been away from the House in recent weeks. In his absence, but for the record, I should say that I have been away for a couple of weeks due to the birth of my son. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”] Thank you.
That explains why the hon. Gentleman has not seen me in the Palace, but I am delighted to be back and discussing this important topic, because Britain is strongly committed to her trade and investment relationship with Israel, one of the middle east’s most dynamic and innovative economies. Israel is a key ally and friend to the United Kingdom. We share the same values and are key strategic partners in the middle east. The bilateral trade relationship is very strong, and we want to continue to work with Israel to strengthen our relationship as we emerge as an independent trading nation for the first time in 50 years.
Let me be crystal clear at the outset: we are strongly opposed to boycotts. Open, honest conversations best support peace efforts. The United Kingdom is very clear about this—always has been and always will be. We have also made clear our commitment to supporting the Abraham accords and to working with Israeli and Arab partners to promote our shared prosperity and regional security.
The continuity agreement that we signed on 18 February 2019 was one of Britain’s first. It replicated the scope of the EU-Israel agreement, with key provisions covering tariff liberalisation, customs, regulation and public procurement. This trade and partnership agreement, which entered into force on 1 January last year, secured the future of our bilateral trade relationship. Anglo-Israeli trade was worth £4.6 billion in the four quarters to the end of Q2 2021, making Israel—I am pleased to say that I agree with my counterpart, the hon. Member for Brentford and Isleworth—the United Kingdom’s 40th largest trading partner globally. The United Kingdom is Israel’s second largest trading partner, behind only the United States.
While it is difficult to disaggregate trade figures, it is certainly true—to respond the comments by the hon. Member for Strangford—that covid has depressed trade around the world, but that makes trade with Israel all the more important. Co-operation between us in sectors such as science and technology—and particularly medical science, which we have heard a lot about this afternoon—is already very strong, with Israel’s status as a start-up nation and the United Kingdom’s as a science superpower going hand in hand.
We have heard some great examples from so many colleagues, including my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East. I was also particularly drawn to the examples given by my hon. Friend the Member for Southport (Damien Moore), which showed the huge scale of imports that we benefit from here in Britain, but we export to Israel too. We should not lose sight of that benefit to both countries. The London Electric Vehicle Company, for example, makes taxis in Warwickshire—I am sorry to say that to my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East, although I am sure Members from Warwickshire will be pleased with that news. LEVC vehicle exports totalled something like £1.46 million in 2021—a year when trade was depressed because of covid—and the company anticipates purchases of something like £730,000 a month this year. That is just one example but, to the point made by the hon. Member for Brentford and Isleworth (Ruth Cadbury), as far as I am concerned, the sky is the limit.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Dr Offord) said, around 500 Israeli firms operate in the United Kingdom. That investment from overseas is creating thousands of jobs in high-value sectors, and over 20 Israeli firms are listed on the London Stock Exchange or AIM—its alternative investment market—demonstrating the benefit and strength of capital markets in the City of London. Of course, we can always do more to assist the relationship, and I know that Ministers across Government will look carefully at the comments made by Members, including their suggestions on changes to the visa regime.
We can always do more to help businesses succeed, and the Department for International Trade is doing that right now. We have a dedicated team of trade advisers in Tel Aviv, and UK Export Finance has a risk appetite for Israel of at least £4 billion, which is helping firms operating from the United Kingdom to win contracts, insure their operations and obtain trade financing. The United Kingdom and Israel share a world-leading culture of entrepreneurial, tech-savvy and innovative businesses, which will be celebrated in an innovation summit later this year—a clear opportunity to highlight our ambitious trade, science and innovation relationship, and a chance to showcase the shared talents and skills of world-leading British and Israeli businesses. My hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East asked about what more we could do to enable binational approaches to research and development, and I am pleased to say that the UK Science and Innovation Network is already making great strides in that direction.
Outwardly, the stock of foreign direct investment from the United Kingdom to Israel was £1.4 billion as of 2019. We trade across a huge range of sectors, as I have said, but both our economies are also highly oriented towards services, which represent over 70% of GDP for each country. After the United States, we are Israel’s second-largest collaborator in pharmaceuticals and medical products, and the pandemic has catapulted the need for digital health solutions, with Israel already being the world’s leader in this area. It has therefore become even more important. Beyond that, we seek opportunities in business services, research and development, and professional and management consulting services—the biggest traded services between our countries, making up 12.5% of the overall trade relationship. Although our trading relationship continues to be predominantly goods-based, at around 65% of our trade, our economies are highly services-oriented, and I believe that huge scope for the future lies in our trade in services.
As two like-minded partners, with expertise in areas such as technology, innovation, data and digital, we are confident that the United Kingdom and Israel can agree an ambitious deal that will complement both our economies. On 29 November, the Prime Minister announced that we would begin talks with Israel this year on an enhanced free trade agreement. Given both the political and economic importance of our trading relationship with Israel, we expect the FTA to form a substantial part of our bilateral trading relationship. I should emphasise that Her Majesty’s Government are committed to scrutiny and openness in our FTA negotiations. We aim to be transparent, consultative and accountable throughout our trade agenda, and we believe we compare favourably with other parliamentary systems around the world.
On 2 December, the Secretary of State for International Trade announced that the United Kingdom would open our formal call for evidence very shortly. This call for input will allow the views of businesses, the British people, civil society and others—not only parliamentarians —to be fully heard during the mandate development process, helping us shape the negotiations for our comprehensive FTA. The specific coverage of the objectives for an FTA, as asked for by the hon. Member for Airdrie and Shotts, will be concluded following this call for input, to ensure that we have fully listened to the views of all British people, businesses and civil society. It simply would not be appropriate to speculate on the contents of such a call for input—and, indeed, on our objectives—before completing that work. However, I am pleased to be able to say that the Secretary of State plans to travel to Israel in early February.
We will publish our strategic approach, an initial scoping assessment and a Government response to the call for input before starting negotiations, giving the House the means to scrutinise our negotiation approach, its projected impact, what we have been told by British people and businesses and our response to their views. We will, of course, update the House in the usual manner after each negotiation round and when requested to appear before the relevant parliamentary Committees.
I must apologise for not being present when the Minister mentioned me. I have a private Member’s Bill tomorrow and the Minister responsible has been trying to catch me, so I had to speak to her. I just wanted to ask if, when those meetings are held with the Minister’s counterparts in Israel, we could have some indication of the input of Northern Ireland companies in that process? Obviously we want every part of the United Kingdom—all the regions—to benefit.
The hon. Gentleman can be absolutely assured that the views of every part of our United Kingdom will be fully taken into account. In fact, the Board of Trade recently visited Belfast to demonstrate our commitment to ensuring that the Department for International Trade works for every corner of our United Kingdom. The timings of the negotiations will very much depend on the readiness of both sides, which, of course, means agreement with the Israeli Government.
My hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East and the hon. Member for Strangford raised the potential opportunities that a future FTA might provide. While British businesses already benefit from our existing trade and partnership agreement and we would not, of course, want to prejudice the call for input, I believe the potential to take our trading relationship to the next level through an enhanced and improved FTA is very clear. There is the opportunity to remove or significantly lower tariffs for major British exports, such as in the food and drink sector. We see opportunities to give easier access for all British companies—whatever corner of the country they are from, and including small and medium-sized enterprises—to set up, do business and access the Israeli market.
There is significant scope to expand our trade in services, including digital services, which grew a remarkable 73%, albeit from a low base, between 2010—remember 2010?—and 2020. Co-operation in this area is, frankly, very limited in the existing trade and partnership agreement, and we see real opportunities for an enhanced FTA to supercharge the trade in services, which would complement our services-based economies, as we have discussed during the debate, and cement the United Kingdom as the international services hub.
My hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East and the hon. Member for Strangford asked how such an agreement would fit into the United Kingdom’s wider trade agenda. Of course, our potential FTA with Israel is just one component of our ambitious wider international trade strategy. As an independent trading nation, the United Kingdom has the freedom to forge new bonds of trade with partners, friends and like-minded souls worldwide, based on British interests and shaped by British priorities. We will continue to carefully plan and sequence our negotiation programme to ensure that it delivers the maximum benefits for the United Kingdom. No longer restricted by anti-competitive and protectionist one-size-fits-all regulation from the EU, the United Kingdom will pursue prosperity through free and fair trade with sovereign nations, based on our shared interests and underpinned by the agreements we are forging worldwide.
We have signed deals covering 70 countries, plus the EU, that account for more than three quarters of a trillion pounds-worth of trade, and we intend to continue that record of success in 2022. We have a clear and ambitious goal that will put global Britain in pole position to pursue new opportunities to connect British businesses to the most dynamic economies of the decades ahead.
The International Trade Secretary recently kicked off negotiations with India, one of the world’s largest and fastest-growing economies. We are looking to accede to the trans-Pacific partnership, one of the world’s largest free trade areas, and we have launched our consultation on a potential deal with the Gulf Co-operation Council. Of course, Members will already know that we have secured an agreement in principle with New Zealand and have finalised our agreement with Australia. Those deals are aimed at unlocking growth in every corner of our United Kingdom.
The hon. Members for Brentford and Isleworth and for Airdrie and Shotts raised the matter of the Occupied Palestinian Territories and their status in a potential FTA. The United Kingdom has an interim political, trade and partnership agreement with the Palestinian Authority, which entered into force on 1 January 2021, which we are committed to implementing. That will help protect our bilateral trade relationship, which was worth £24 million in the four quarters to the end of Q2 2021. We value our bilateral trade relationship with the Palestinian Authority and will continue to work closely together to build on our trade continuity agreement.
Is the Minister aware that the Palestinian Authority themselves do not agree with any kind of boycott? In December 2013, the Palestinian Authority President, Mahmoud Abbas, stated:
“We don’t ask anyone to boycott Israel itself. We have relations with Israel, we have mutual recognition of Israel.”
I am delighted to have that contribution on the record. Just as we stand clearly against boycotts and support the Abraham accords, the United Kingdom’s position on the settlements is clear. Settlements are illegal under international law, damaging to peace efforts, and call into question, I am sorry to say, Israel’s commitment to the two-state solution. We have urged Israel to halt its settlement expansion, which threatens the physical viability of a Palestinian state. Britain’s view is that the settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territories are illegal under international law, so they are not covered within the scope of our trade agreement. This means that goods imported from illegal settlements are not entitled to the benefits from trade preferences, and we remain committed to that approach. This shows that more trade need not come at the expense of our values.
The hon. Member for Airdrie and Shotts raised the matter of arms exports to Israel. Her Majesty’s Government take their arms export responsibilities very seriously. We do not want any British equipment to be misused, and we aim to operate one of the most robust arms export control regimes in the world, complying with all our international obligations. We consider all export licence applications thoroughly against a strict risk assessment framework, and keep all licences under careful and continual review as standard.
The Government will not grant an export licence if to do so would be inconsistent with the strategic export licensing criteria. Those criteria provide a thorough risk assessment framework for assessing export licence applications, and require us to think hard about the impact of providing equipment and its capabilities. These are not decisions we take lightly. We continue to monitor the situation in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories closely and keep relevant licences under review. If necessary, we will take action to suspend, refuse or revoke licences in line with the criteria, but only if circumstances require.
The economic relationship between Israel and the United Kingdom is strong, based on the trade and partnership agreement that allows British and Israeli businesses, exporters and consumers to buy and sell freely and with confidence. Israel is a friend and ally in the middle east, with an innovative and dynamic economy. Tech, science and innovation co-operation between businesses of both countries continues to grow, with real benefits for consumers across our United Kingdom. Through an ambitious, forward-looking and comprehensive free trade agreement, founded on the strength of the Israeli and British economies, we look forward to developing and improving that relationship even further in the future as an independent trading nation.
I will try not to abuse your offer, Mr Paisley. I thank colleagues across the Chamber for their contributions on this important debate. I thank the Minister for his replies to some of the questions. The one that he did not answer was when these trade negotiations would actually begin. We look forward to those beginning and bearing fruit as we come forward.
To update the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), I was stuck in a tremendous traffic jam on the way to the House. That is why I was not there for the beginning of International Trade questions, but I got there in the end. I put that on the record.
I thank my colleagues and friends who have made contributions. We have highlighted, in many aspects, the opportunities for trade. I say to the hon. Member for Airdrie and Shotts (Ms Qaisar) that one of the issues here is that we are not seeking to replace trade anywhere else, but to enhance trade. By expanding trade, everyone gains. The fact is that Israeli businesses and Palestinian businesses gain from trade agreements that we have with both Israel and the Palestinian Authority. Those individuals in Palestine who work for different companies—some work for Israeli companies—actually benefit directly as a result of free trade being created and enhanced.
I thank the hon. Member for Brentford and Isleworth (Ruth Cadbury) for her contribution. I noted, of course, that she referred to the historical ties between the British Labour party and the Israeli Labour party. Of course, the Israeli Labour party is now currently in the coalition Government, and has agreed to further settlements in the west bank, so I am not sure quite where that fits with the hon. Lady’s particular speech as we went along.
I thank everyone here for this debate, my colleagues on the Backbench Business Committee for allowing it to take place, and my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Dr Offord) for enabling everyone to have a morning off next Wednesday—in preparation, presumably for Prime Minister’s Question Time, so we can hone our skills. I look forward to the Secretary of State for International Trade, my right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Anne-Marie Trevelyan) visiting Israel and hopefully announcing on her visit the start of those trade talks, so that we can look forward to that free trade agreement being in place by the end of this calendar year.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered UK and Israel trade negotiations.