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Commons Chamber

Volume 737: debated on Thursday 14 September 2023

House of Commons

Thursday 14 September 2023

The House met at half-past Nine o’clock


[Mr Speaker in the Chair]

I wish to inform the House that I have received a letter from the right hon. Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood) informing me of his resignation as Chair of the Defence Committee. I therefore declare the Chair vacant. I will announce the arrangements for the election of a new Chair in due course.

Oral Answers to Questions

Business and Trade

The Secretary of State was asked—

Levelling Up

1. What assessment she has made of the adequacy of her Department’s implementation of policies supporting levelling up. (906364)

I warmly welcome the new shadow ministerial team—it is a slimmed-down team from what we have been used to, but I welcome them all. My Department is focused on growing the economy by attracting global investment, promoting exports and creating the right regulatory business environment. Over the past five years we have supported more than 6,000 foreign direct investment projects, creating more than 280,000 new jobs across the UK. Just last week, the Department for Business and Trade supported Stellantis’s £100 million investment in an electric vehicle production plant in Ellesmere Port, showing the direct role we play in helping to level up across the regions and nations of the UK.

Like many hon. Members, during the recess I visited various sites in my constituency, including Langthwaite business park, which is an immensely successful business park with more than 50 businesses now employing almost 2,000 people. It is adjacent to two former pit villages, South Elmsall and South Kirkby, where deprivation is still deeply rooted. The people who live in those villages are not able to take advantage of the jobs created by Wakefield Council, Mohan De Silva and Karen Harrison. What Government programmes has the Secretary of State put in place, or can she put in place, to ensure there is a linkage between areas of deprivation and new jobs?

There is a lot that we are doing, and I am sorry to hear that the hon. Gentleman feels that villages in his constituency still are not able to access much of what we have given. The West Yorkshire devolution deal provided about £1.14 billion of investment and we also had a shared prosperity fund across West Yorkshire. I urge him to speak to his local council, because that is the vehicle through which many of these opportunities will be provided, but if he has a specific business issue that he thinks is affecting those companies and those villages, we are happy to look at it in more detail.

My home city of Manchester was built on export and trade, but, as a result of the Tories’ mismanagement of the economy, apathy towards the export industries and neglect of everywhere outside the M25, the value of exports from London is more than three times that of the north-west. Does the Secretary of State honestly believe that she and her colleagues are committed to levelling up the whole of the UK, or will she admit that the Tories do not care about the benefits of trade reaching everyone in the United Kingdom?

I fundamentally disagree with the hon. Gentleman. He mentions Manchester; since October 2022 we have invested £2.6 billion into projects across England and agreed landmark devolution deals for Greater Manchester. He should be speaking to the Mayor of Greater Manchester to find out exactly why all that we are doing is not reaching the people in his constituency.

Steel Industry

I am in constant conversations with specific companies to do with steel, including British Steel in my hon. Friend’s constituency, but of course those conversations are often commercially sensitive. I was delighted to speak at the event she hosted in Parliament to celebrate the launch of the Government’s updated steel procurement policy note, which will help to make opportunities more visible and maintain a level playing field for UK steel producers. In the financial year 2021-22, relevant public procurers bought around £365 million-worth of UK produced steel. Furthermore, the Government have provided around £730 million in energy costs relief to the sector since 2013.

Can my hon. Friend set out specifically what is being done to ensure the continued production of virgin steel in the UK?

Steel is vital to the UK, but we know that the industry needs to decarbonise for a sustainable future. The Paris agreement made it clear that the sector had to reduce its global emissions by 93% by 2050. The Government are actively engaging with the sector on how best to achieve that, but decarbonisation pathways for specific sites will be commercial decisions for individual companies. Industrial sectors, including steel companies, can bid into Government funds worth hundreds of millions of pounds to help them go green. As I mentioned, we have done a huge amount to support energy intensive industries.

The UK is the only major steel-producing nation where production is falling, but the Minister and her colleagues have been telling us for months that they cannot guarantee the use of UK-made steel in Government contracts, especially in the military. The thing is that the steel producers say that they can make whatever their customer asks by changing the production line. Will the Minister confirm that the reason we have a problem with steel in this country is the Government’s refusal to view it as a strategically important industry? The Conservatives’ sticking-plaster politics have failed steelworkers, as we have seen at Port Talbot.

I fundamentally disagree with the question—well, it was more of a statement. I made it clear when I took on this role that we would assess the level of steel in procurement contracts, and we have put together the steel procurement policy note, which will address how much steel is being procured in our contracts in the UK. We are doing a huge amount to ensure that the different types of steel that are needed are produced. We know how valuable the sector is, which is why we provided support with high energy costs and why we have a decarbonisation budget that the industry can link into. I fundamentally disagree with the hon. Gentleman’s proposition.

In Wales, it is reported that this Government will spend half a billion pounds to make thousands of Port Talbot steelworkers redundant. Head north to Derby to a train assembly plant, where thousands more jobs are under threat because this Government bungled High Speed 2. Head around the UK coastline and the Government have managed to misjudge industry so much that they secured zero offshore wind contracts. That is a UK tour of almighty Conservative incompetence. Labour will harness this country’s talent. Will the Minister explain how many jobs the Government are losing us at Tata Steel, how many jobs they are losing us in Derby, how many jobs they are losing us in offshore wind, and why they are so intent on levelling down our great British industries?

I welcome the hon. Member to her post, but I suggest that leading on stories in the paper is not a good way forward. That is all speculation; we do not comment on commercial decisions. The reality is that there is £730 million in support with energy costs and more than £1 billion of support with decarbonisation. She talks about plans. Well, I am not sure if the Labour party’s plan stands for anything because it flip-flops so often. It is not just me who says that; let us reflect on a statement made by a union leader. They said that Labour was not only just an ’80s tribute act, but that it tends to sit on a “wobbly fence”. Who knows what Labour will say tomorrow after a statement made today?


My hon. Friend asks a timely question, because this is London International Shipping Week, and I have engaged with the UK Chamber of Shipping and Maritime UK. This week, I was at the International Maritime Organisation, which was hosting an exhibition called “Rewriting women into maritime history”, sponsored by the Lloyd’s Register Foundation—I mention in particular Nicola Good and Erne Janine, who made me this scarf reflecting on women in maritime. We are doing a huge amount, including launching the shipbuilding credit guarantee scheme to support our shipyards here in the UK.

I am most grateful to my hon. Friend for that answer. The disappointing outcome of last week’s contracts for difference auction in respect of offshore wind was a wake-up call that clear strategies are required if we are to retain our position as a global leader in that industry. That includes support for the supply chain, of which service operation vessels are a vital component. Can she confirm that the national shipbuilding strategy will be reviewed to fully take into account this great opportunity?

We are proud of the UK’s reputation as a leader in the offshore wind sector. Together with industry, we have delivered the four largest operational wind farms in the world. The National Shipbuilding Office has done a huge amount of work in that area and will do even more with the new shipbuilding guarantee scheme. I think my hon. Friend’s other question relates to the Department for Energy Security and Net Zero. This is London International Shipping Week, and our offshore wind farms and all our vessels are being promoted heavily.

May I draw the Minister’s attention to the fact that the three fleet solid support vessels for the Royal Navy are massive—equivalent to two aircraft carriers? Has she discussed with the Ministry of Defence why they will be built mostly in Spanish shipyards, rather than in British shipyards by British workers to sustain our shipbuilding industry? Does she know of any other shipbuilding country that behaves like this?

I have indeed discussed it with the Ministry of Defence and the National Shipbuilding Office. We want to make sure not only that the contracts for the work are managed here in the UK, but that we are using UK steel.

International Investment in Northern Ireland

4. What steps she is taking with Cabinet colleagues to help increase international investment in Northern Ireland. (906368)

Just yesterday I was in Belfast, where my Department delivered the Northern Ireland investment summit in partnership with the Northern Ireland Office and Invest Northern Ireland. I would like to take the opportunity to thank the Secretaries of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities and for Northern Ireland for their support in making it a success. Five hundred delegates, including investors from 24 countries around the world, attended to see at first hand the unique opportunities for inward investment in Northern Ireland across a range of sectors, including life sciences and advanced manufacturing.

What consideration has my right hon. Friend given to creating an investment zone that covers the whole of Northern Ireland to bring much needed investment to that much loved part of the United Kingdom?

It is a very interesting idea. Investment zone policy is owned by the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, so I will raise it with the Secretary of State there and the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. Officials from the UK Government and the Northern Ireland civil service continue to work closely to explore developing investment zone policy in the country. The lack of a functioning Executive there has, of course, limited the scope and nature of engagement on investment zones. If the Executive is restored, we will work together to progress an investment zone at pace, and if it is not formed, we will set out different plans in due course.

First, I thank the Secretary of State and the Government for the investment conference they held in Belfast over the last two days. It clearly shows a commitment to Northern Ireland, and I am very pleased to see that. When it comes to international investment, we are happy to see in Northern Ireland that Harland & Wolff, which has specialised in ship repair and shipbuilding for some years, has recruited almost 1,000 people in the last few months. What discussions has the Secretary of State had with the relevant Department back home to ensure that Northern Ireland can play its part in the UK shipbuilding industry and therefore benefit from that investment?

The hon. Gentleman is quite right: this is an area where Northern Ireland has a comparative advantage. As we hosted the summit, we all looked out on the docks, and we could see that shipbuilding is integral to the country. UK Export Finance is supporting many of the companies that build ships and want to export this magnificent UK product all across the world. My hon. Friend the Minister for Industry and Economic Security spoke about the UK shipbuilding guarantee. We have been talking about this all week. Maritime investment is key, and if the hon. Gentleman would like further details on what we are doing that has an impact on his constituency, we can provide him with that information.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. Business investment is lower in the UK than in any other G7 country and we rank 27th out of 30 OECD countries, ahead of only Poland, Luxembourg and Greece. More than half a trillion pounds-worth of under-investment by Government and business has left our economy trapped in a growth doom loop. What is the Secretary of State doing to undo this damage?

What the hon. Lady did not say is that business investment is increasing at a faster rate than in other countries. She is right that investment has been lower here, but that is why the Chancellor brought in policies such as full expensing to tackle this issue. She also did not mention the fact that we are the top destination for investment across financial services and many other areas. The UK is actually doing very well when it comes to inward investment, and we will continue to create policies that ensure we stay at the top of the pack.

Regulatory Reform

My Department is making it easier to do business every single day. Our smarter regulation programme—which includes implementation of the reforms recommended in the report by the taskforce on innovation, growth and regulatory reform, co-authored by my right hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet (Theresa Villiers)—is reducing regulatory burdens for business and reducing costs for consumers. We have announced reforms to employment law, wine regulation and product safety regulations, and further reforms will be announced soon.

I thank the Minister for his answer, but can we have more urgency across Departments on regulatory reform? Using our Brexit freedoms to modernise our regulation is a key way to grow the economy and raise living standards, so can we see more progress on reforming regulation in areas such as personal data, clinical trials, agri-tech and satellites?

My right hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet is absolutely right to push us on this issue. We are working across Government to implement reforms. So far, we have delivered 10 of the 69 recommendations identified in the TIGRR report, in areas such as offshore wind and reforms to the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency. Delivery of a further 49 is ongoing, in high-profile areas such as artificial intelligence reform, easing clinical trials, pensions, the ability to invest in venture capital, the General Data Protection Regulation and the seed enterprise investment scheme, all of which is saving businesses billions of pounds. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will shortly write to my right hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet to confirm all those points.

Business Exports

Businesses are at the heart of the Government’s export strategy, “Made in the UK, Sold to the World”, and of our shared ambition to reach £1 trillion in annual exports by 2030. In the past year, the UK has become the fifth largest exporter of goods and services in the world. Just last week, I personally led a delegation of 20 businesses to the Three Seas summit in Romania, connecting with over 1,500 representatives to help secure contracts, work and export opportunities in the region’s 13 member states.

In my constituency, companies such as EyeOL, Lindal Valve, Peli BioThermal, Friction and Signature Flatbreads all export globally, along with 198 smaller businesses that export through Amazon, yet apparently only 10% of companies export. What more can we do to get businesses to export, not just to Europe but globally? Apparently, businesses that export pay higher wages, so this is part of levelling up, too.

My hon. Friend is a great champion for his businesses and helping them to export. He is absolutely right that free trade agreements and memorandums of understanding are opening up new markets for us, but of course we want to make sure that everyone makes the most of those opportunities. That is why we are ensuring that UK exporters have the skills they need through our innovative export academy; the information they need to capitalise on new deals through the FTA utilisation strategy; the advice they need through the export support service; and the financial backing they need through UK Export Finance. My hon. Friend also made the very powerful point that companies that export pay higher wages.

Anglesey’s freeport is a fantastic opportunity to boost the economic prosperity of my constituency of Ynys Môn. Working with the Institute of Export and International Trade, Bangor University and Grŵp Llandrillo Menai, our Anglesey freeport is set to create the first Welsh trade centre of excellence. Does the Minister agree that that trade centre is central to local people having the skills to take advantage of the high-skill, high-wage employment opportunities that the freeport will deliver, and that it will be the start of Anglesey’s economic renaissance?

I think we can all agree that my hon. Friend has campaigned powerfully to secure that freeport and the opportunities it will create for many of her constituents. Good news is already coming in, with Westinghouse saying that it will headquarter there, creating jobs and opportunities. Of course, we are looking forward to getting more details and ensuring that the trade centre for excellence is located there too, which will provide another win for my hon. Friend.

I ran export programmes in my business career before coming to this place, and I always talk to the companies I meet about whether they are exporting and what more can be done.

Steady—I haven’t asked my question yet! The message from that experience is that perceived barriers can deter activity—perhaps perceived risk or complexity. What more can be done to link potential exporters with mentors who can share their experience, overcome those perceptions and get more companies exporting?

My hon. Friend has a huge amount of experience in this area, and I am very grateful for all the advice he provides. He makes a very good point. That is why our campaign, “Made in the UK, Sold to the World”, uses localised marketing for small businesses across the country to help them make the best of their abilities. To my hon. Friend’s point, we have a growing cohort of over 360 successful champions across the UK —entrepreneurs and business leaders who can share their experience and inspire new firms to become exporters.

New analysis from the House of Commons Library that I am publishing today shows that since 2010 our trade with dictatorships has grown by over £135 billion and that it is growing twice as fast as our trade with the free world. Trade dependence on dictatorships is a risk, so when will the Minister set out a plan to define and de-risk our critical supply chains and begin growing our trade with nations that are free?

I am responsible for supply chains and critical minerals too; several months ago, I refreshed our critical minerals strategy. We are looking at how we ensure that we are building resilience and ensuring that our supply chains are stable.

I am also working with a number of industry representatives to put in place an import supply chain strategy as well. We know that there are kinks in supply chains and that there are issues of economic coercion around the world. We want to ensure that we have stable supply chains to protect our advanced manufacturing sector. [Interruption.] From a sedentary position, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State points out that I am also the sanctions Minister. We are ensuring that that work is now co-ordinated, not only across Whitehall but internationally.

Those of us on the Business and Trade Committee are very much aware of the sterling work done by officials in furtherance of the trade deal with India. However, in the revelation at the G20 summit of the Partnership for Global Infrastructure Investment—the counter to China’s belt and road project through a US-backed trade corridor to speed up links between Europe, the middle east and India—there was no mention of the UK. Did our Government decline to be involved or were we not invited?

I was in front of the Select Committee; that session would have been afterwards. I have just been informed that the Prime Minister is very much focused on securing a trade deal and on the other details that the hon. Gentleman raised. Because it is a Select Committee issue, I will make sure that he gets all the details in writing.

During the recess, I visited Heathcoat Fabrics, an innovative export business in Tiverton; its achievements include selling to NASA a device that helped land the Mars rover on the surface of Mars. Earlier this year, HMRC rejected Heathcoat’s research and development claim without so much as a meeting. Will the Minister talk with colleagues at the Treasury to establish why Heathcoat Fabrics and other innovative export businesses are having R&D claims rejected this year?

According to the International Monetary Fund, British exports to France and Germany since 2019 are down—by 14% to France and 17% to Germany. US exports to both are up by 20%; Canada’s are up by 23% and Italy’s are up by 29%. Ministers will not back an industrial strategy, have cut funding to get businesses to trade shows and will not negotiate a veterinary agreement. Why does this Minister think that everyone else has got so much better recently at selling things to our nearest neighbours?

Members choose which numbers they want to throw out, but those do not necessarily reflect reality. I thought it was fantastic that we are now the eighth largest manufacturer in the world; I believe that we leap-frogged France—leap-frogging the French is always good to get on the record.

Actually, exports are most definitely up. In the 12 months to June 2023, UK exports rose by £139 billion, an increase of 8% once adjusted for inflation. In the same period, goods exports reached £428 billion, an 11% increase when adjusted for inflation. Perhaps we should reflect on the opportunities for all the businesses in our constituencies.

Trade Negotiations: Human Rights

7. What recent discussions she has had with (a) NGOs and (b) charities on the inclusion of human rights considerations in trade negotiations. (906373)

The Government are committed to universal human rights, the rule of law, free speech and fairness. Those values guide all aspects of our international policy, including our approach to trade.

As trade talks continue with many countries that have deplorable human rights records and as discussions continue with India, will the Minister ensure that we receive binding commitments on human rights—particularly in relation to labour practices—rather than simply warm words, and that discussions continue with NGOs, which are well placed, and often better placed than the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, on what is going on?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. The UK will continue to show global leadership in encouraging all states to uphold international human rights obligations and to hold those who violate or abuse human rights to account. The UK has successfully included labour, environment and gender provisions in the free trade agreements that we have signed—with Australia and New Zealand, for example. Those both contained dedicated chapters on trade, gender equality, labour and the environment. They uphold human rights but, crucially, also level the playing field for our UK businesses.

Trade Policies: Cost of Food

Food prices are driven by many pressures, including the global economic climate. We recognise the important role that trade can play in improving food security through diversification of supply chains. Our programme of free trade agreements is securing access to global supply chains, removing barriers and lowering costs for traders. Furthermore, in 2022, 84% of agricultural and food imports entered the UK tariff-free. By delivering trade deals and working with international partners, we are ensuring that British consumers have access to good-quality and good-value food.

Will the Minister explain how the Government’s plans for a £43 inspection fee on each consignment of food imported from the European Union represent barrier-free trade? Can she tell small food retailers, restaurants and their customers in Glasgow North when or whether they will have to pay this Brexit tax and the higher prices it will lead to? Can she also remind the House whether higher food prices as a result of Brexit were part of the Leave campaign prospectus?

I know the hon. Member wants to put all these anxieties on Brexit and forget about all the opportunities we are securing with trade agreements around the world. The issue he raises fundamentally sits at the doorstep of the Cabinet Office and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, and we are working very closely with them to resolve it.

As if the future stoking of inflation through extra Brexit red tape was not bad enough, businesses are already having to cope with uncertainty, the lack of a level playing field and the threat to our own food safety and security through the failure to introduce checks of our own. Given that Ministers were saying as recently as April that those checks will begin on 31 March, can the Minister explain how businesses are expected to get to grips with all this turmoil in Government policy given their tendency to keep kicking the can down the road over border checks?

Food inflation is a global issue: it is not a problem just here in the UK. Many factors influence food prices globally, notably energy costs. Global wholesale food prices have been falling since March and sometimes that can take time to reach consumers. In July, UK food inflation was just over 14%, down from 17%. The hon. Gentleman did not specify which issue he was touching on, but if it was to do with sanitary and phytosanitary controls for goods from the EU, that will be introduced and in place by 31 January 2024.

The Government could stop making existing global problems even worse when they apply to the UK—I was following up on the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady) about the cost of checks on imported food—but the only thing worse than bad border checks is no border checks at all. We are no longer imposing SPS checks on food coming in from the EU. Is the Minister proud that, under the guise of taking back control, she is part of a Government who have given away control instead?

I referenced in my previous response the SPS controls; they were not in place when we were in the EU so I am not sure exactly what the hon. Gentleman’s anxiety is.

Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership

10. What plans she has for accession to the comprehensive and progressive agreement for trans-Pacific partnership. (906377)

I signed the UK’s accession protocol to the CPTPP in New Zealand in July. We are now taking the necessary steps to ratify our accession agreement at the earliest opportunity. We expect it to enter into force in the second half of next year.

I thank the Secretary of State for her response. The CPTPP contains investor-state dispute settlement provisions which allow corporations, as she knows, to sue national Governments through a largely secretive parallel legal system if they consider that Government policies threaten their future profits. Of the new agreement member states, Canadian countries have used the ISDS particularly aggressively, bringing 65 cases, the majority of which have been brought by mining and fossil fuel firms against the energy and environmental policies of various Governments. Will the Government consider negotiating a side letter with Canada, as they already have with New Zealand and Australia, to disapply the ISDS provisions in order to ensure the UK Government’s right to regulate is not constrained by powerful investors and corporations?

We have passed the stage where we will be making any changes; we are now trying to ratify the protocol. But the right hon. Gentleman should be reassured: the Government have always been clear that when we negotiate investment protection we do so in a way that does not hinder our right to regulate in the public interest. The UK already has investment agreements containing ISDS provisions with seven of the 11 CPTPP countries and we have never received a successful claim from any investors of CPTPP countries, or in fact investors of any other country with which we have ISDS commitments.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on the progress made with CPTPP. Can she outline what plans the Department has to make UK companies aware of the opportunities that the agreement opens up for them?

My hon. Friend raises an important point, because most of the time, people ask me what CPTPP stands for, let alone what it is and how they can use it—[Interruption.] Well, not my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant). We would like to make sure that people are aware of it, so they can utilise this free trade agreement as soon as it is on our statute book and ratified across the 11 countries. That is something that our export commission and support service in the Department for Business and Trade will be carrying out, and we will also be supporting MPs in their constituencies during International Trade Week to highlight opportunities that come from all our free trade agreements.

Business Exports: US

[Interruption.] Pardon me for one second; there is a technical failure. The US is our largest trading partner, with trade reaching more than £290 billion. We have already succeeded in agreeing a solution to the section 232 tariffs on UK steel and aluminium and removed the long-standing US ban on UK lamb. In fact, just yesterday, I was speaking to President Biden’s special envoy Joe Kennedy about how we can increase trade and investment in Northern Ireland. We also have an SME dialogue next month between our two countries, supporting UK and US businesses to find export opportunities in each other’s markets.

That is really good news, actually. In other good news, I learned this morning that Britain has overtaken France as a manufacturing country. In order to take full advantage of that, how can we use the nine trade representatives in the United States at our embassy and our consulates even more to encourage bilateral trade?

My hon. Friend is right. We have trade ambassadors and trade envoys working to ensure that we are fully utilising the opportunities that exist across our relationship with the US. In fact, our envoy to the US has been helping and supporting with a memorandum of understanding with Florida, which we are hoping to conclude shortly. If there are specific things he thinks we can do to assist, I would be happy to meet him and organise even more engagement that will help facilitate UK-US trade.

Trade: Europe

Europe remains a vital destination for British exports. UK businesses exported more than £416 billion in the year to March 2023, up 24% in current prices on the previous year. We are engaging extensively with key European partners. This weekend, my right hon. Friend the Trade Secretary will attend the annual UK-Italy bilateral conference to advance the landmark ministerial dialogue on export and investment promotion launched in February, the first agreed between the UK and any EU country.

Here is an issue that could be discussed at that meeting: the youth group travel sector is worth £28 billion to the UK economy, but that two-way trade has collapsed since Brexit. The Prime Minister made a vague commitment in March that there would be an agreement for French school groups to visit the UK. We have heard no more details, and anyway we need a wider agreement to include other countries. When will the Government sort out this problem?

I think this matter sits not just with our Department, but with the Department for Education. If the hon. Gentleman will allow, I will write to him formally and make sure he gets an update on this issue.

Hospitality Sector: Scotland

14. Whether she has had recent discussions with (a) Cabinet colleagues and (b) the Scottish Government on support for Scotland’s hospitality sector. (906384)

As the hon. Member will be aware, hospitality support is devolved. We continue to provide energy support via the energy bills discount scheme, benefiting hospitality businesses across the UK. I would be happy to meet her and any of her colleagues to see how we can help hospitality businesses across the whole UK.

That is excellent to hear, because the hospitality sector plays a crucial role in Scotland’s economy, but it has consistently been let down by the UK Government, who repeatedly fail to support the industry with the unique challenges it faces. Businesses across Scotland are grappling with inflationary pressures, labour and skill shortages and the ever-increasing complexity of trading rules with 27 countries we once traded with freely. Why will the Minister not accept that Brexit lies at the heart of these problems?

If the hon. Lady looks again, she will find that the Scottish Government lie at the heart of these problems. In England, all eligible businesses can get 75% relief on their rates, subject to a cap of £110,000, while in Scotland, rates relief is available only to small businesses and could be as low as between 25% and 0% for individual properties with rateable values from £15,000. There is far more support available for English businesses than for Scottish businesses. I think she should go back and look again at the facts.

Courier Services: Rural Areas

I appreciate the hon. Member’s interest in ensuring a fair deal for his constituents. The Government’s universal service obligation on Royal Mail guarantees delivery of parcels at uniform rates throughout the UK, without any geographical restrictions. Where other courier businesses decide to serve should be a commercial decision for them.

A constituent who visited my surgery recently complained that one courier service in particular would not deliver to his isolated rural property. The choice of courier is, of course, currently a matter for retailers. Do the Government agree, though, that there is a case for saying that large retailers could offer the consumer the choice of which courier service should be used? That would empower consumers and hopefully improve performance via competition.

The hon. Member raises a very important point. Competition plays a role in this, of course. It is absolutely right that retail business should look at this and try to get the lowest cost for their customers in terms of courier charges. It is, as he acknowledges, a commercial decision for individual retailers, but I absolutely applaud the points he raises. These businesses should be aware of those costs, because they can add significantly to the costs of the products they are selling.

Topical Questions

The Windows update is now complete at the Dispatch Box, Mr Speaker!

As Secretary of State for Business and Trade, my priority is to support inward investment into all regions and nations of the UK. This week the Department for Business and Trade, in partnership with the Northern Ireland Office and Invest Northern Ireland, delivered the investment summit, which I referred to earlier. This momentous event showcased to more than 200 international investors the wealth of opportunities and talent that exist across the breadth of Northern Ireland. A young and talented workforce, competitive operating costs and unparalleled access to global economies make it an exceptional place to grow a successful business. I met representatives from US-owned aerospace manufacturer Spirit and several financial services companies that have established a base there. From Derry/Londonderry-based tech firms to Belfast budding creative companies, we boast a thriving ecosystem of world-class businesses across numerous sectors.

This weekend, like most weekends, I will visit Wilko in Newcastle city centre. Should I explain to the fantastic staff there and their appreciative customers that mass redundancies and empty shopfronts is what the Conservatives mean by levelling up?

We are all very sad that a well-known business such as Wilko, with a strong presence on many high streets across our constituencies, has had to enter administration, and my thoughts are with employees who have been made redundant. Our Department has been not just supporting the business but discussing the best way forward with unions. We have been supporting by helping to find bidders. The fact is that sometimes these things do happen. It is not a reflection of the Government. In fact, making sure that people have somewhere to go to is how this Government are providing support.

T2. Do Ministers agree that delegates to the Parliamentary Partnership Assembly, which was set up under the trade and co-operation agreement with the EU, should be there to promote Britain’s interests overseas, and that those who do not want to do so and who simply want to be apologists for Brexit and to act against the UK’s interests should leave the PPA? (906389)

My right hon. Friend raises an important point. The Parliamentary Partnership Assembly created under the trade and co-operation agreement is a parliamentary body independent of Government. The Government value its work and its role supporting a mature and constructive relationship with the EU, rooted in shared values and delivering on shared interests. She is right that we should look forward, not backwards.

The loss of Wilko is a significant blow to the nation’s high streets. However, more concerning is that no rescue has proved possible because several bidders have said that town centre retail is no longer a viable business model. In the light of that, do the Government really believe that their current policy environment is sufficient for British high streets to thrive?

We are very concerned for the families affected by Wilko’s demise. The world of retail is a very competitive marketplace. I do not accept the hon. Gentleman’s premise that the high street is dead—not at all. It is reshaping itself, and while it does so we will help it, such as with the £13.6 billion of rates relief over the next five years.

Ministers’ answers do not match the scale of the problem; 12,500 Wilko workers alone are at risk of redundancy. Labour’s plans for the high street are about reforming business rates, tackling late payment, cracking down on antisocial behaviour and stopping premises being left empty, with councils having more powers. The problem demands a response from Ministers. Based on their answers today, this Government have simply given up on the British high street.

That is complete nonsense. This week, I met Helen Dickenson from the Retail Sector Council to discuss this matter closely. There are certain situations in certain companies of course. I guard the hon. Gentleman against political opportunism on the back of those 12,500 jobs, many of which have been picked up by other retailers such as Poundland in rescues of stores. On his point about business rates, which I hear time and again, all the Labour party has done is say that it will cancel £22 billion of business rates, without saying how it will replace those taxation receipts. Where is the money coming from?

T4. The Secretary of State and the Prime Minister have both been in India recently and had the opportunity to negotiate further on the wonderful trade deal that we wish to do. Her predecessor but one or two promised a trade deal with India by Diwali. Of course, they did not mention which year. Diwali this year is later than normal; what confidence does she have that we will have it in place by Diwali this year? (906391)

My hon. Friend is keen for a deal by Diwali, but as the Prime Minister and I have been at pains to say, it is about the deal, not the day. We are working as much as we can to get a deal, but we will not do so by sacrificing British interests. The deal has to work for both the UK and India. I met the Indian Commerce and Finance Ministers to ensure that we create a mutually beneficial deal.

T3. Recent figures show that small businesses in the UK are owed more than £32 billion in late payments. When coupled with a 40% rise in energy costs and other inflationary pressures that I mentioned before, that is making running small businesses in my constituency impossible. On Tuesday, the EU set out its SME relief package, which will help to tackle the problem. What is the Minister doing to combat late payments for SMEs? (906390)

The hon. Lady raises an important point. That is why we launched a payment and cash flow review earlier this year, which is due to report very shortly. We are ambitious to make sure that small businesses get paid more quickly through putting more pressure on larger companies, the results of which will be announced very shortly.

In August, I was lucky to be invited to the 70th anniversary of Caterpillar being founded in my constituency. It was the first place outside the US it set up a base in, and it now employs 1,300 people, making things such as the electric backhoe loader. Will my hon. Friend congratulate Caterpillar on its investment here, from where it exports across the world? Would she like to come and see exactly what it does in Bosworth?

I join my hon. Friend, a great champion of Bosworth, in congratulating Caterpillar on 70 years and 1,300 employees. That is fantastic. I look forward to going along and having a go on the electric diggers.

T5. The loss of Wilko is devastating, in particular for the thousands of workers who will lose their livelihoods. Will the Secretary of State confirm that she will seek answers from Wilko management about why clear warnings were ignored and the business was driven into the ground, at the same time that shareholders collected hundreds of millions in dividends? Will she meet me and the GMB trade union to assure us that those basic failures will not be repeated? (906392)

The hon. Member raises an important point. There is certainly, as part of the administration process, an obligation on the administrators to look at the circumstances that led to the demise of that company and report to the Insolvency Service. I am sure that she, like I, will be very interested in the outcome of that investigation.

As chair of the all-party parliamentary group for events, can I highlight the huge benefits the sector brings us in promoting trade, exports and inward investment? Will the Department do more to promote the UK worldwide as a great place to bring international events, business meetings and conferences?

My right hon. Friend raises a good point. The events industry is often overlooked, yet it is a great export opportunity. Those are some of the things I am going to raise with the Board of Trade, which is meeting next week. It is about promoting the best of British internationally. Events is one of the areas we can take a closer look at.

T6. Airdrie and Shotts is home to some fantastic local businesses. Recently, I had the pleasure of visiting Christie’s bakery and sampling some of its delicious domino cake. I also met Angela from Gin Blossoms, a florist on Alexander Street. Small businesses across Scotland play a vital role in the local economy, yet many are feeling the brunt of the rise in prices of raw materials caused by increasing import-export costs. To be frank, this is another direct impact of Brexit that Scotland did not vote for. Can the Minister outline how the UK Government will compensate businesses for the damaging losses that Brexit continues to cause? (906393)

The hon. Member raises an important point about the cost of living impact on businesses. These are global issues, not domestic issues, and she should be clear on that with her businesses. As I said in response to the question from her hon. Friend, the hon. Member for Edinburgh North and Leith (Deidre Brock), the Scottish Government might look at increasing the generosity of the business rates relief scheme, as the rest of the UK has.

In the period leading up to 2021, sector deals were a very effective means of boosting productivity, innovation and skills in such sectors as aerospace, AI and offshore wind. What plans are there to review, revitalise and extend those effective public-private sector partnerships?

My hon. Friend raises a good point. Those sectors are critical for the UK economy. While we did have plans around sector deals, I would focus on the Chancellor’s five sectors that he thinks will drive growth in the UK. I am happy to write to my hon. Friend specifically about what impact those sectors will have in his constituency.

T7. We know that phoenixing, unpaid-for services rendered, puts a burden on legitimate SMEs, but it also puts a burden on the taxpayer through unpaid taxes. That is acutely felt by all hard-pressed local authorities which have significant unrecoverable debt owed. Given that the Minister did not accept my amendment to the Economic Crime and Transparency Bill, can he explain what the Government are actually doing to prevent this practice? (906395)

I am happy to engage with the hon. Member. I missed the earliest part of his question, but we are providing an awful lot of support for small businesses in various ways. I cannot remember his amendment to the Bill, but I am happy to engage with him to see what we can do to help.

The Treasury published a consultation in March on a range of measures to mitigate carbon leakage. Potential policies include a carbon adjustment mechanism on managing product standards. I am sure it will report shortly.

T8. Yesterday, I joined my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan) on the all-party parliamentary group on music for the launch of UK Music’s impressive “Manifesto for Music”. The opportunities and risks of AI are a key issue for the industry. Will the Government commit to musicians having a voice and a place at the table for the AI summit in November? (906396)

That is certainly something we can look to do. There are many concerns about what will happen to copyright and intellectual property once AI continues to advance in this area. The hon. Member raises an important point. If he writes to me specifically, I will make sure that the Secretary of State for Science, Innovation and Technology gets to see that so we can incorporate it.

I notice, by the way, that the Americans refer to it as the trans-Pacific partnership, which I think is actually a lot shorter and better than what we call it. Have there been any discussions at all with the United States Administration to ask whether they might eventually rejoin the partnership?

My hon. Friend is right. It used to be called the TPP, and it was the Canadians who added the “comprehensive and progressive” to make it quite a mouthful. The question of what the US wants to do on trade deals comes up time and again. The US has said that it will not sign any free trade agreements even though it was initially considering the TPP. That is why the announcement of the Atlantic declaration by the Prime Minister and President Biden is key. That is our new vehicle to form a trade partnership, and my Department is working actively across Government and with our counterparts in the US to make sure that that delivers for the UK.

Many small businesses, particularly in the retail and hospitality sectors, still rely on high street banking. Earlier this month, the last bank in Denton town centre—the Halifax —closed. It was not just the last one in Denton but the last one in the Denton and Reddish parliamentary constituency, leaving small businesses without access to high street banking. It is not good enough, is it?

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point, and we urge banks to listen to their customers about keeping their doors open. Of course, we have the banking framework relationship with the post office network, which provides deposit and cash facilities for small businesses on high streets in Denton and other parts of the country. We are determined to make that relationship more generous to the Post Office to ensure the sustainability of the post office network.

Over the recess, I had the pleasure of visiting the historic Harland & Wolff shipyard in north Devon, where we talked about the potential for UK shipbuilding jobs linked to the offshore renewables sector. Given last week’s disappointing auction round, to put it mildly, what can the Minister say to convince the shipbuilding industry that there is a future for it in making those service vessels?

I was with Harland & Wolff just last night for London International Shipping Week, and the firm is really excited about the shipbuilding credit guarantee scheme, which provides Government-backed loans of up to £500 million to ensure that shipbuilding continues to thrive in the UK. That is a product for which the industry has been asking for many years, and we have been able to deliver it this year.

Ministers have spent the past hour or so telling us, in the face of overwhelmingly contrary evidence, that Brexit is just the most wonderfullest thing ever to have happened in the history of the entire universe. Will the Secretary of State level up with us for a minute and tell us whether there is anything at all about Brexit that she finds regrettable, disappointing or frustrating?

The hon. Gentleman is right—there is one thing that I find regrettable, and it is the fact that he continues to bang on and on about this even after the rest of the world has moved on post the referendum. The fact is that we have left the EU and we are not going back into it—certainly not under the terms that would require us to do so. He should be focusing on the benefits of Brexit, such as having more control over our laws, our borders and our money, as well as being able to deregulate, including through our smarter regulation programme. If he looked at that, there might be opportunities he could deliver for the people of Scotland.

As the UK automotive industry wrestles with the looming increase in the rules of origin thresholds, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen has just announced a probe into the flood of cheaper Chinese electric cars coming into the market. Although there has undoubtedly been much for the UK to welcome, with announcements from Jaguar Land Rover and BMW, what additional measures are the Government taking to ameliorate the impact of cheaper and heavily subsidised Chinese imports?

That is an excellent question, because it raises something fundamental. The transition to net zero will change the nature of the UK supply chain and, as I said earlier this week, China poses a systemic challenge here. The path to net zero creates a risk of even greater reliance on China, especially when it comes to the battery manufacturing needed for zero emission vehicles. We cannot be naive about that. That is why I am working hard to ensure not only that business competitiveness is at the heart of our transition, but that British national interests come first. We cannot depend on a single country. We must protect our national security, so we are working with like-minded allies. My hon. Friend the Minister for Industry and Economic Security has spoken about our critical minerals strategy and we are working to diversify and build those supply chains. That is what the Atlantic declaration, which I mentioned earlier, is also about. We are very aware of this point, but I think it is important to reinforce it.

I thank the Secretary of State very much for the encouraging positivity of her answers—[Interruption.] At least, most of us are encouraged.

Great Britain is Northern Ireland’s main export market for agricultural goods, accounting for some 64.1% of all exports. What discussions has the Secretary of State had with the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs back in Northern Ireland to ensure consistent, free-flowing agri-trade, given the complications caused by the Northern Ireland protocol?

The hon. Gentleman is right. The first thing we want to see is the restoration of the Executive. When I was in Belfast this week, I spoke to Members of the Legislative Assembly from across the parties, and this is something they repeatedly raise. Businesses are telling us that the Windsor framework is helping, and we are working closely with the ones that still have issues. Such discussions facilitate business conversations and encourage the restoration of the Executive, which would help to drive the changes the hon. Gentleman wants to see.

Libya Floods

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs if he will make a statement on the floods in Libya.

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for raising this issue, which I know is a source of concern across the House. It is important that we discuss it today.

The situation is very concerning, and I send sincere condolences on behalf of the Government to the people of Libya. I am sure that is true for everyone in the House. On Wednesday, eastern Administration officials reported that the death toll had risen to at least 5,300, and newspaper reports this morning suggest the number could reach 20,000.

Storm Daniel hit Libya on Sunday 10 September after causing floods and chaos in Bulgaria, Greece and Turkey, and then, early on Monday morning, two dams burst, which we know caused major flooding that submerged parts of the city and wiped out entire neighbourhoods. The attempt to recover the situation has been made worse by a lack of road access and by communication channels being down. We stand ready to help as best we can.

The UK has committed to supporting Libya following these devastating floods, and yesterday the Foreign Secretary announced an initial package worth up to £1 million to provide life-saving assistance to meet the immediate needs of those most affected by the floods. The UN central emergency response fund, to which the UK is the third largest donor, has announced that it will deliver $10 million of support to Libya. We are also working with trusted partners on the ground to identify the most urgent basic needs, including shelter, healthcare and sanitation. We stand ready to provide further support.

The UK remains in close contact with authorities across Libya to help respond to this tragic crisis, and Lord Ahmad, the Minister for the middle east and north Africa, has reiterated the UK’s commitment to Libya in a call with the chair of Libya’s Presidential Council. UN officials have said that the western and eastern Governments are working together and communicating on this, which will be important, and we stand ready to help the people of Libya in these very challenging times.

The horror of the catastrophic floods in Libya is hard to imagine: loved ones swept away within arm’s reach, drowning in mud and crushed under rubble. The city of Derna has been utterly devastated and, as the Minister said, estimates now range above 20,000 lives lost. The grief and worry of those with no knowledge of their loved ones’ fate must be simply unbearable. Our thoughts are with them and with all the people of Libya.

As the Minister said, assistance has struggled to reach the city, and the scale of urgency of need is immense. Many areas have reportedly received no help, and there is no hope of rescue for anyone left alive trapped under mud and rubble. There is obviously a terrible threat from disease, with authorities lacking enough body bags to cope with the scale of death.

In the Minister’s estimation, how many people are now lacking shelter, clean water and medical care? I know the Government are supporting the United Nations central emergency response fund, but is the Minister confident that that will support co-ordinated efforts and reach those who are truly in dire need?

Surely the scale of this disaster is linked to Libya’s many years of conflict and chaos, political paralysis, diplomatic failure and neglect. We know that climate heating is making extreme weather, such as Storm Daniel, more intense. We must help to prevent these horrors where we can, build resilience to a changing climate and support Libya on the path to stability and peace. That will take strategic action on diplomacy, security and development, and we must make sure the humanitarian response, which is desperately needed right now, is delivered.

As usual, the hon. Lady has made important points, with her characteristic compassion and passion. I reiterate that we share those sentiments and we are working hard to address the situation. Let me update the House by saying that the UN is currently finalising its needs assessment and we hope to see that this afternoon. The Foreign Secretary has already set out that we are ready to provide support, and we have put some initial support on the table. I reiterate to the hon. Lady and the House that we will continue to keep in close contact with the UN and we are reiterating our support to it. We will continue to monitor the situation on the ground and we stand ready to offer further assistance. The point she makes is crucial: this support needs to reach the people affected. Too often, in various countries, there have been blockages in getting support to the frontline. I understand that the two groups in Libya are working together or at least talking, which is encouraging. That is going to be crucial in making sure that there is a flow of funds and, more importantly, that support is provided on the ground. She also talks about future support. Clearly, we need to focus on the humanitarian issues right now, but, given the challenges of climate change, there will be urgent needs associated with infrastructure to address. However, that is for another day and I am sure we will continue that conversation.

This is an awful situation, and both Front Benchers have got it absolutely right. One issue is that Libya is a country that has such an appalling history. When we give money, as a nation and as Government, we will have to be careful that the corrupting influences in that country do not siphon it off, as it is meant for the people who have suffered so badly. Will the Minister please assure the House that every effort will be made by his Department and the Government to ensure that that money goes to the people who need it now and that we help to alleviate their suffering?

My hon. Friend make important points, which I hope are listened to by those involved in the situation in Libya. The support absolutely needs to get to the frontline. If nothing else, we hope that this moment of severe crisis in that country will bring sometimes warring factions and groups who have different opinions together in common cause—that is vital. There comes a point where human interest and humanitarian concern is the most important factor, as is the case right now.

Of course, we join both Front Benchers in sending our deepest condolences to the families of those who have lost loved ones in these devastating floods. The scale of the destruction is utterly unimaginable, and Libya needs international solidarity as it moves from the search and rescue phase to the recovery phase. As climate change bites harder and we see more fierce natural disasters, it will so often be the case that those least able to cope with the effects of climate change are impacted to the greatest extent. So will the UK Government invest much more in international loss and damage funding, as the Scottish Government have championed worldwide? Of course, we will support the Government in any support they offer Libya. However, given the drastic cut of 30% in the international aid budget and the catastrophic impact it has had on our ability to be a global player and react to the needs of countries hit by climate change disasters such as we see in Libya right now, what more support can the Libyans expect from the Government?

I thank the hon. Member for his support. The action that is being taken in the short term is the top priority right now. He makes important points about how we are working to affect those who are climate-vulnerable. We will continue to do that, but I reassure him that in this moment in time we have found support, we will continue to monitor the situation and we will provide whatever other support we need to provide. Our funding through the UN is pivotal at this time.

I thank my hon. Friend for the update. Clearly, the most important thing right now is humanitarian aid, but there will be a requirement for long-term rebuilding of the structures that have been destroyed. The British people will want to be generous but, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater and West Somerset (Mr Liddell-Grainger) mentioned, there is a risk that funds will be diverted to improper uses. When a fund is set up to which the British people can contribute, will my hon. Friend make sure that the British people know how to contribute to it and that it goes to the people who need it?

My hon. Friend makes a good point, which has been reiterated by other Members: the money needs to get to the frontline. We will do everything we can, certainly with those funds provided by the UK Government and through the UN; that will be a key focus. The fact that so many colleagues are raising the issue helps us to make that point with conviction.

On his wider point, the primary focus right now is humanitarian need, but going forward, Libya needs to move down a pathway to free and fair elections. That will help the country in the longer term, but humanitarian aid and support is our key focus right now.

I join colleagues in offering my condolences to all those who have lost loved ones in the devastation in Libya. In my constituency and in many other parts of the country there are strong Libyan diaspora communities watching on in despair, unsure about the whereabouts of their loved ones. Will the Minister confirm what support is available to Libyan communities and others in the UK to gain information about friends and family in Libya?

Our embassy staff are working closely with people on the ground, keeping in touch with what is going on, and our consular support team is keeping in touch with dual nationals in Libya, providing the support they need. They will continue to do that. Our condolences go not only to the people of Libya but to the wider diaspora as well. We will continue to do everything we can, as hon. Members on all sides of the House have urged—that message has been well received today.

I fully support the fact that the UK Government have provided international assistance to the people of Libya, but what are we doing specifically to ensure humanitarian assistance is urgently getting to people on the ground today?

As I say, we have made our initial offer of support. We continue to have an active dialogue with the Libyan authorities and the UN. As I said to the Opposition spokesperson, the hon. Member for West Ham (Ms Brown), the key thing today is that we are waiting for the UN needs assessment, so we can then give our best assessment of what sort of support we need to help to provide.

The tragic scenes we are witnessing in Libya are utterly horrifying; my thoughts and prayers are with all those affected. During the earthquakes in Syria and Turkey, my noble Friend Lord Purvis asked

“why the Government’s humanitarian crisis reserve, which recently stood at £500 million, has now been depleted to only £30 million, which means that the UK’s response to any other emergencies or disasters will be greatly reduced.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 6 March 2023; Vol. 828, c. 642.]

Has that significant reduction in a crisis reserve for humanitarian assistance affected our ability to help those in Libya?

I think hon. Members will agree that we responded fast to the situation in Morocco. It is very sad that this tragedy follows so quickly afterwards, and we want to respond to it quickly too. Part of the challenge has been understanding the situation on the ground. We know the macro picture, but the exact detail that the Government and hon. Members want to see is difficult to ascertain because of problems with communication links and transportation, but we will get a better assessment this afternoon.

What has happened in Libya is an absolute catastrophe and it is awful for all those people who have been killed or affected. As well as lives lost, infrastructure has been damaged as well as heritage and culture. That part of Libya is home to a wealth of heritage and history, including the UNESCO site of Cyrene. Satellite images show that roads to Cyrene have been badly damaged and washed away. What assessment have the Government made and what conversations have they had with UNESCO about those world heritage sites, and what are the Government doing to protect and restore the world heritage sites that have been damaged?

I know that my hon. Friend has a real interest in the history and heritage of north Africa. Clearly, any damage to a UNESCO world heritage site would be a cause of great concern. Right now, as Members on both sides of the House have said, our focus has to be on what we can do to help preserve life and also to protect British nationals. None the less, we will work with partners through UNESCO on the matters that he has raised.

This is a devastating tragedy, and it has unquestionably been exacerbated by Libya’s poor warning and evacuation systems, and by its substandard planning and design standards. I welcome the financial support that the Minister has outlined, but can he assure me that we will also look to provide whatever technical expertise is necessary to bring about improvements in these areas for the rebuilding of Libya both now and into the future?

The hon. Member makes a really important point about the medium term, and we will certainly examine what technical support we can provide. That will be important given the infrastructure issues. I also gently urge all parties in Libya to recognise that this is about prioritisation. If they can move away from conflict and think about how they can work in the interests of their own populations, that would also help the situation. We stand ready to help, but once we get through this immediate humanitarian crisis, other parties will need to work out how they can help move the country forward.

I appreciate what the Minister is saying: the humanitarian response to what have been described as apocalyptic scenes has to be the priority. I went to Kashmir in my first term as an MP, following the devastating earthquake there, and saw how the way that school buildings had been constructed lent itself to roofs collapsing on children and other horrific scenes. We talked about how the UK could lend its expertise in that area to make sure that, following the reconstruction effort, Kashmir would be more resilient to future shocks. Are we still involved in such programmes? Can we use that expertise to ensure that, when it comes to rebuilding Libya and other affected countries, they are far more resilient?

I recognise the hon. Member’s interest and expertise in this area from her previous visits and through her work in Parliament. She makes an important point, similar to that made by the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Andrew Western). We do need to look at what technical expertise we can provide. I will take that away and work on it with Lord Ahmad. It is a good point.

The scenes coming out of Libya are just horrific. My thoughts and prayers are added to those from across the House to all the families affected. The Minister, in response to my hon. Friend on the Front Bench, said that communications had been taken out and that that is hampering efforts to get humanitarian aid to where it is needed. What can the UK Government do to help get those communications back up and running?

That is a really important point. Hopefully, our expertise can help there. We need to see what the UN wants us to do in a co-ordinated way. We will play our part, and the calls from Members in this House will spur us on and help us in our negotiations to get urgent access to do what we can to help. I wish to thank all Members for their contributions today. It has been an important conversation and call to action.

I thank the Minister for his deep and sincere interest and for his commitment, which is what all of us in this House wish to see. Our Government and our Ministers have never been found wanting when it comes to helping, and we appreciate that. He has outlined the devastation and loss of life from Storm Daniel. Like others, my thoughts and prayers are with those families who have lost loved ones. Charities such as Christian Aid, alongside church groups in my constituency of Strangford and across Northern Ireland, are already setting up a page. It is clear that there is a desire to help. How can the Minister and the Government work alongside the charities and the churches to get aid to the right place as soon as humanly possible?

The response from UK charities, including those that the hon. Member has mentioned, is always greatly valued, as is their expertise and capability to deliver. We need to get the impact assessment from the UN today. Let us then co-ordinate our efforts with partners, not just across Governments but with non-governmental organisations, to get the best possible outcome. The call to action is clear and we need to move fast.

Voter Identification Scheme

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities to make a statement on the voter identification scheme.

We were pleased and encouraged by the first roll-out of voter identification at the local elections in England in May. The data gathered in polling stations showed that the vast majority of electors—99.75%—were able to cast their vote successfully and adapted well to the roll-out of the changes. We are grateful to local authorities and other partners for their work to deliver the change in requirements.

The Government committed in legislation to conduct an evaluation of the implementation of voter identification at the local elections in May and at the next two UK parliamentary general elections. Our intention is that the first of those reports, evaluating the implementation at May’s local elections, will be published in November 2023. Yesterday the Government published two documents that demonstrate that we are making clear progress with the evaluation, and that provide more detail on the evidence upon which it will be based. We are determined to ensure that we fully understand how the policy has operated in practice, what has gone well, and any ideas for improvement.

There are few tasks more important in public life than maintaining the integrity of our democratic processes and the British public’s trust in them. We are not just committed to doing so; we are acting to achieve that. The Government have taken seriously the important recommendations made by the independent Electoral Commission, by international electoral observers and by Sir Eric Pickles—now Lord Pickles—in his report into electoral fraud, and we have been committed in the years since to addressing what has been a staggering vulnerability in our electoral system. It was previously far too easy to commit the crime of electoral fraud in the polling station and almost impossible to detect it. I am immensely proud that we have now delivered this new process and fulfilled our manifesto commitment.

I suspect that the Minister and I were reading different reports, because the first report cards on the roll-out of voter identification in England are out, and they are not good. The Electoral Commission’s report—the result of extensive work monitoring and analysing the recent elections—warned that disabled people and the unemployed found it harder to show accepted voter ID, as well as younger people and people from ethnic minorities. It also reported that on average more deprived areas had a higher proportion turned away compared with less deprived areas. The Local Government Information Unit reported that approximately 14,000 voters were not given a ballot paper because they could not show an accepted form of ID and significantly more were deterred from voting because of the ID requirement.

This is not just about England, because the next election is UK wide—it will affect my constituents in North East Fife. Hundreds of thousands of people risk being turned away at the next election, at a cost to the taxpayer of £120 million over the next decade, and all of that to combat levels of voter fraud that, at the last election, stood at six cases—talk about using a sledgehammer to crack a nut. A general election is perhaps no more than a year away, but it is clear from reading the reports that we are teetering on the cliff edge of a democratic travesty, not just because the roll-out of voter ID has been botched—many of us believe that it should never have been implemented in the first place—but because of the Government’s apparent refusal to listen to the concerns of members of the public and Members of this House. That was what they did in the run-up to the local elections, when take-up of voter authority certificates was pitiful and local authorities were warning that they were unprepared, and that is what the Government are doing now.

I was hugely disheartened that in both the Minister’s response and the written statement published yesterday the Government seem to be taking a stance of blindly ignoring the warning signs. So far, I see no evidence to suggest that that stance will change in the Government’s evaluation report in November. I hope that the Minister will use the opportunity to start setting things right. Will the Government ensure that the evaluation report in November is truly independent? What measures are under consideration to ensure that voters will not be turned away at the general election, as the LGIU report warns? How do the Government intend to expand the roll-out of voter authority certificates ahead of the general election, and will they expand the list of acceptable forms of identification?

I thank the hon. Lady for her comments, but I remind all Members in this Chamber that we have already passed the Elections Act 2022; it passed the scrutiny of both Houses and is now law. If she refers to the debates in Hansard, she has treated us to a compilation of the Liberal Democrats’ greatest hits—and that is no surprise because, as always, they do one thing and say another. If she is so opposed to the principle of electoral identification and photographic identification, why did her party support its introduction in Northern Ireland? At that time, the Liberal Democrat Front-Bench spokes- person told Parliament that

“we accept the need for a Bill… The Liberal Democrats…welcome the Government’s intention to introduce an electoral identity card”—[Official Report, 10 July 2001; Vol. 371, c. 705-707.]

That legislation passed Second Reading without a vote. If we separate the points of substance and process from re-running the battles of the past, of course we take the recommendations of the independent Electoral Commission extremely seriously, as we set out in detail in the report and as I set out in my remarks earlier.

The Minister has rightly distinguished the political from the practical. The Electoral Commission itself recommended photographic ID, and it has now come forward with other comments.

We must recognise that the biggest deficit is the inadequacies in the completeness of the electoral roll, and the fact that one third of people do not vote in general elections and up to two thirds do not vote in local elections. We ought to spend as much time on that issue as we do on this.

We ought to consider the suggestion of attestation, where someone in a household who does not have voter ID can have their identity attested by a person in the same household who does. Perhaps neighbours ought to be able to do that, and other people with some kind of standing in society might be able to do the same thing for people who find they cannot vote on the day. It seems to me that we can improve what we have without throwing out the whole system of photographic ID, which, as the Minister has said, was supported by all parties when it was first brought in for Northern Ireland.

I thank my hon. Friend the Father of the House for those very sensible and proportionate comments. He is right that, as political parties, we all have a responsibility to ensure that our constituents and those voters take part in our democratic process. That is what this process is about. I am afraid that the kind of scaremongering comments that we have just heard from the Liberal Democrats, and that no doubt we will hear from all the other Opposition parties, are damaging the important cause that we all stand behind: ensuring the safety of our precious democracy, which now more than at any other time could potentially be at risk. I am proud to be part of a Government who are taking sensible steps to protect our democracy from the kind of interference that we all fear could happen in this day and age.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. I echo the concerns raised by the hon. Member for North East Fife (Wendy Chamberlain) in her urgent question and by the Father of the House in his sensible remarks. The Minister should be promoting confidence in our electoral system and concentrating on getting the millions of people who are not registered to vote on to the register. Instead, she has tried to pull the wool over our eyes this morning by presenting the Electoral Commission’s report as a ringing endorsement of her Government’s dangerous policies.

The reality is far from that. This extremely concerning report brings into sharp focus the consequences of the Tories’ failed photo ID regulations. By introducing such strict regulations, against the advice of experts and equality groups, the Conservatives have snatched away the ability of legitimate voters to have their say on services and society. One former Minister, the right hon. Member for North East Somerset (Sir Jacob Rees-Mogg), admitted that this partisan scheme was designed to rig the rules and lock voters out of democracy. The Minister claims that she is concerned with protecting our democracy, so will she agree to the entirely reasonable Electoral Commission reforms and the widening of the list of ID that people can use to vote, or will she commit to introducing a vouching rule for those without voter ID?

Given that the Electoral Commission said that the rules risk widespread disenfranchisement at the general election, will the Minister commit now to publishing the evidence to prove the commission wrong? That should not be a problem if she has nothing to hide.

Is the Minister concerned by the watchdog’s findings that the laws could have a disproportionate impact on people from minority ethnic backgrounds? When the independent review concludes, will she commit to making a statement to the House?

May I take this opportunity to warmly welcome the hon. Lady to her place and to thank her for her comments? On the substantive, non-political points that she made, I have been extremely clear, and am happy to repeat the assurance, that we are working carefully with the independent Electoral Commission, which itself recommended the introduction of photographic ID to safeguard our precious democracy. We are looking at all its recommendations. We will, of course, naturally come forward for scrutiny when the findings are published, as we do as a matter of course.

On the substantive point, is the hon. Lady really saying that the Labour party will repeal the Elections Act should it come into government? What exactly has the Labour party done to raise confidence among Labour voters? Or is this just a case of Labour Members standing on the sidelines making shrill, scaremongering claims? Time and again, Labour has made such claims ahead of the sensible and proportionate pilot schemes that we have rolled out, but none of the things that Labour Members have warned about has happened—[Interruption.] Perhaps she would like to listen to my remarks.

The new shadow Secretary of State for Levelling Up, the right hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Angela Rayner), warned of shortages of electoral staff, lack of venues and funding uncertainty ahead of the local elections in May 2021. The Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, warned that elderly people and ethnic minorities would not visit polling stations. None of those things has happened. The Electoral Commission—[Interruption.] Opposition Members are chuntering from sedentary positions, but perhaps they should listen to the words of the independent Electoral Commission—not my words—which found that

“the polls were delivered safely and successfully”,

and that changes put in place by the UK Government, the commission and electoral administrators helped to “support and reassure voters” and campaigners.

I think it important to make this final point. The hon. Lady talks about ethnic minorities being disenfranchised and discriminated against, but we know from the type of heinous behaviour that we saw in Tower Hamlets and Birmingham that ethnic minority voters are most disenfranchised and disadvantaged by not having security in our elections.

The crime of personation has been notoriously difficult to prove. We have functioned on the basis of trust that people who go to the polling station are who they say they are. The sad reality is that when I was elected in 2010, we found after the election that scores, perhaps hundreds, of people who had voted in my constituency were actually abroad at the time. The police refused to do anything about it. People impersonated those voters. I do not how they voted, but clearly those votes were stolen from people. Voter ID ensures that that sort of activity cannot happen. Will my hon. Friend also take up the issue of postal and proxy voting to ensure that their proper policing is integral to our system?

My hon. Friend is totally right. The suggestion from the Opposition parties is that we should just wait and see whether something bad happens, and then take action. That is the wrong way to go about safeguarding our democracy, which we should all be proud of. He makes the extremely valid point that it is impossible to detect impersonation. When it has been detected, such as in Tower Hamlets and Birmingham—the Opposition do not like me mentioning it—people have been taken to court and found guilty of these offences. He is also right to raise the issue of postal and proxy voting, and he will know that we are commencing provisions to safeguard some of those processes, which is the right thing to do.

The incredibly hard-working team at the Electoral Commission are far too polite to say, “We told you so,” but that would be a pretty easy way to sum up most of what is in this report. Practically every concern about the introduction of photo ID that was raised during the passage of the Elections Bill has been borne out in the by-elections and local elections that have taken place since it became law.

The Government say that they want to increase democratic participation and not suppress turnout among minority and disadvantaged communities, but the evidence suggests that that is exactly what is happening—fewer votes from sections of society that it just so happens are less likely to vote Tory. What steps will the Government take in advance of the general election to remove barriers to voting established by the Elections Act 2022? Will they expand the list of acceptable ID? Will they make sure that, as the Father of the House suggests, people can vote on polling day through attestation? Will they make sure that the Electoral Commission and local authorities are properly resourced to fulfil their functions? They already have to deal with boundary changes and polling district redraws, and now they have to deal with the Elections Act. Will the Government look to Scotland as well, where with votes for 16 and 17-year-olds, refugees and EU citizens, we are seeking to expand, not restrict, the franchise?

I am not sure that the hon. Gentleman listened to the response that I have given multiple times, but I am happy to repeat it, in case he was reading his brief at the time. We are working with the Electoral Commission on all the recommendations it has made. It made several recommendations, and we are looking closely at them. I hope that we all share the same objective of making sure that this change is rolled out successfully.

If the hon. Gentleman does not like our proposals— I am sure he does not, because he wants to break up the United Kingdom—could he explain why they are working so well in Northern Ireland? The incredibly hard-working people, as he puts it, from the Electoral Commission have observed there:

“Since the introduction of photo ID in Northern Ireland there have been no reported cases of personation. Voters’ confidence that elections are well-run in Northern Ireland is consistently higher than in Great Britain, and there are virtually no allegations of electoral fraud at polling stations.”

Why is it perfectly acceptable for us to listen to the Electoral Commission in Northern Ireland, England and Wales but not in Scotland?

One of the problems was that people took ID that had run out, such as driving licences and passports. Does the Minister agree that if a document has recently run out, as long as it has a photograph of the person, it is admissible? Furthermore, could the amount of ID that can be shown be broadened slightly, so that people have a bit more choice in what they can use?

I thank my hon. Friend for his suggestions. It is right that we look at all the practical barriers that have been encountered at polling stations. That is why we are working closely with the sector to listen to its feedback and to representations from civil society, disability charities and others. We know that where voter identification was trialled in pilots, the proportion of people who agreed that electoral fraud was not a problem increased from 13% to 32%. We know that most people were able to vote successfully in both the pilot and the last local elections, but it is right to look at all the details, and we will be doing so, in line with the Electoral Commission’s recommendations.

If we are to have voter ID at the next general election, which we will, will the Minister seriously look at extending the amount of ID that is acceptable? It is unfathomable that a concessionary bus pass is acceptable, but an 18-year-old’s bus pass is not.

I would like the hon. Gentleman to look carefully at the eligibility for 18-year-old Oyster cards and 60-plus Oyster cards, because they are different. Eligibility for the 60-plus card involves significantly more requirements, including a passport or driving licence. Of course, when we try to expand the forms of identification that can be used, we are going to say yes in some instances and no in others if the eligibility is different.

Despite what we are hearing from Opposition Members, my experience at the local elections in May was that when people were turned away, they did indeed return. They are used to providing identification when dealing with so many other services, and they found it quite acceptable. We need to recognise that the public at large are very supportive of the policy, but echoing other comments, could the Minister give an assurance that the postal vote system will be thoroughly examined? There are genuine causes for concern about that system.

My hon. Friend makes an accurate observation, and he is right that the vast majority of the general public support the policy. I remind Opposition Members that we were elected on a manifesto commitment to introduce these measures. They have been thoroughly debated in both Houses and have received very serious parliamentary scrutiny. Opposition Members are asking the same questions that they have asked time and time again, and I remind them that prior to the introduction of this policy, it was harder to take out a library book or collect a parcel from a post office than it was to vote in someone else’s name. This Government do not agree that that is an acceptable state of affairs in Great Britain today, and I find it quite astounding that members of Opposition parties do.

If we as a country truly value democracy, it should be in the interests of the state that as many people as possible vote, rather than deliberately turning them away as this Conservative Government have done. Since the Minister has chosen to attack the Liberal Democrats’ legitimate concerns rather than answer questions, I will start again and ask her to answer a specific question: what measures are under consideration to ensure that voters will not be turned away at the next general election?

For the hon. Lady’s benefit, I will repeat the specific answers I have already given. We know that the vast majority of people were able to vote successfully, so I have nothing to do other than remind her that the Liberal Democrats, of which she is a member, supported the introduction of photographic identification in Northern Ireland. It is quite astonishing to me that the Liberal Democrats continue to oppose introducing sensible measures in England that they supported and voted for in Northern Ireland, which is part of our United Kingdom.

On the day of the local elections, I remember knocking on the door of a constituent who told me that she usually votes, but was not going to because she realised that she did not have the necessary voter ID. That broke my heart: her democratic rights, which she has exercised time and time again, were taken away, and of course she will not appear in that figure of 14,000 people who were turned away.

The Electoral Commission says that ethnic minorities and unemployed voters were more likely to be turned away at the polling station. When we show our constituents around this House, we talk about the struggle for the universal franchise. Let us remember that the establishment that the Conservative party represents did not want women or the working class to have the vote. Will the Minister reflect on our journey towards increasing participation in democracy, and on how this rotten arrangement is robbing people of their hard-won democratic rights?

I will respond to that by asking the hon. Gentleman to reflect on his comments. Is he seriously suggesting that the introduction of photographic identification is not suitable? Does he seriously think that it should be harder to take out a library book than to vote in his constituency today? If he is seriously suggesting that, that—more than anything else—gives us evidence that the Labour party is in no way ready for government. It is not a serious party: it does not take seriously the threat to our democracy from international actors, and would do nothing to tackle the very real issues experienced by ethnic minorities in Tower Hamlets and Birmingham, who are being systematically disenfranchised by the corrupt practices of certain people in their local areas.

I might be a lone voice on the Opposition side of the Chamber, but I reinforce what the Minister has said. The electoral voter ID system for Northern Ireland has been a tremendous success, as is proved at every election. It shows that the system can work.

A short time ago, along with my chief of staff, I visited the Electoral Office for Northern Ireland to be constructive and suggest how we could perhaps do some things better. The Electoral Commission is agreeing to set up hubs across Northern Ireland constituencies, giving people the opportunity to get their voter IDs in person. That has not always been possible in areas of my constituency, so I welcome that commitment, which will be announced, I understand, in early October. Will the Minister consider something similar for the United Kingdom so that everyone can have the advantage of getting their voter ID in person in their own constituency?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for sharing his really practical and useful wisdom from the policy that has been rolled out in Northern Ireland—a valued part of our United Kingdom—where it has been working very well for many years. I note that a much smaller list of documents is used in Northern Ireland and that that has worked effectively. In the Electoral Commission’s recent 2021 public opinion tracker survey, not a single respondent from Northern Ireland reported that they did not have ID and had found themselves unable to vote.

Of course, we must always look at the sensible and practical recommendations from the Electoral Commission. We will continue to do that. Before this roll-out, we put a significant amount of investment into working with civil society and charities. We have made funding available for communications campaigns. It is just a shame that the Labour party and Liberal Democrats did not take the opportunity to amplify our messages among their own constituents. We all have a shared responsibility in this place to amplify messages and communicate effectively, particularly to ethnic minority and disabled voters. I know that is what I did ahead of local elections; I wonder what they did.

Has my hon. Friend the Minister received representations from any colleagues in the House, particularly from Opposition parties, about the arrangements for voter ID in Northern Ireland? After all, those were introduced by the Labour Government of the time and the arrangement is used by Labour at its own internal elections.

My hon. Friend is absolutely spot on, as always. If Labour Members now think that voter identification is so wrong, why are they not campaigning to repeal their own laws? Why should electoral fraud be tolerated in Great Britain but not in Northern Ireland? Do they really believe that most European countries, which require voter ID, engage in so-called voter suppression? They seem to want to take us back into the European Union across all areas of policy; perhaps this is their latest ploy to take us back into the EU.

For all the bluster that the Minister is deploying, I am not sure that we are any clearer about what she actually thinks. A minute ago, she referred to “international actors”. Which international actors are pretending to be Mrs McGlumpher from the high street, trying to vote? She is deploying a ridiculous argument. The reality is that the Electoral Commission’s research has shown that younger people, ethnic minorities and unemployed people were all disproportionately disenfranchised by voter ID. Those are, of course, all demographic groups less likely than others to vote Tory. Does the Minister understand that those of us looking at the issue with a perspective different from hers think that rather than safeguarding democracy, as she would suggest, it looks very much like voter suppression—“If you can’t persuade them, don’t let them vote”?

No, I do not understand a single thing that the hon. Lady said, which is hardly surprising from the nationalists across there. She thinks this is voter suppression; her party is so keen to break up the United Kingdom and rejoin the European Union, but this is standard practice across the European Union in all manner of elections. The fact that the hon. Lady cannot take seriously the threats to our democracy shows the lack of seriousness that the Scottish National party—[Interruption.] She does not like what I am saying and is chuntering from a sedentary position, but perhaps she ought to listen to a serious Government about the serious actions we are taking.

The Government have committed to an independent review of their voter ID changes. Can the Minister tell us who will conduct that review and what its terms of reference will be? If she is not in a position to do that today, can she confirm when she will be able to share that information?

We will make further statements on that process in due course, and we will be subject to the usual parliamentary scrutiny.

Following on from the question of my hon. Friend the Member for East Renfrewshire (Kirsten Oswald), the Minister’s answers have taken sophistry to new levels. She said that 99.7% of voters were able to vote, but that is only of those who turned up to vote, and many will not have bothered to try and vote. The Government knew that young people, ethnic minorities and the unemployed would be disproportionately affected but they did it anyway. Incidentally, having tried to apply myself, I can attest to the fact that the Scottish young person’s concessionary travel card requires a lot more proof of ID than the London Oyster card for young people. Will she just admit that this Government’s version of voter ID is blatant antidemocratic gerry- mandering?

It is right that I put on record once again that everybody can vote across the UK. The methods that have been introduced are free methods available to everybody. On the hon. Gentleman’s other points, I actually take his comments as a compliment and refer him to my previous remarks.

Business of the House

The business for the week commencing 18 September will be as follows:

Monday 18 September—General debate on the UK automotive industry, followed by general debate on UK export performance.

Tuesday 19 September—General debate on matters to be raised before the forthcoming Adjournment. The subject for this debate was determined by the Backbench Business Committee.

The House will rise for the conference recess at the conclusion of business on Tuesday 19 September and return on Monday 16 October.

The business for the week commencing 16 October includes:

Monday 16 October—General debate on support for childcare and the early years, followed by general debate on knife crime. The subjects for these debates were determined by the Backbench Business Committee.

Tuesday 17 October—Consideration of Lords amendments to the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill.

Wednesday 18 October—Consideration of Lords amendments to the Energy Bill [Lords], followed by debate on a motion to approve the draft Airports Slot Allocation (Alleviation of Usage Requirements) (No. 2) Regulations 2023.

Thursday 19 October—Debate on a motion on birth trauma, followed by general debate on Baby Loss Awareness Week. The subject for these debates were determined by the Backbench Business Committee.

Friday 20 October—Subject to the agreement of the House, private Members’ Bills.

Is that it—a general debate, Backbench Business, and rising again on a Tuesday? I wonder why that is: inaction man yet again swerving the parliamentary action. We have more general debates and statutory instruments on the Floor of the House when we return, and then we will be off again. We hear on the parliamentary grapevine that the Leader of the House wants a two-week Prorogation. It beggars belief. We have already clocked up 234 non-sitting days this Session—way more than in previous Sessions. Is this really the legacy the Leader of the House wants? Can she confirm today whether we will have such a long Prorogation? She said her role in Government would be to make this Parliament the most effective in the world; instead she has turned it into a zombie Parliament.

A part-time Government, devoid of any ambition for this country, want to avoid parliamentary scrutiny on the long list of things going wrong: crumbling schools, growing waiting lists, polluted rivers and coastlines, the rising cost of living, and illegal immigration out of control. People need answers and the country needs a plan.

We have also heard this morning that the Prime Minister has been found to have inadvertently broken parliamentary rules—again. Can we have a debate on the Prime Minister’s interests? We all know what he is not interested in: accepting that he is to blame for the problems the country is facing. Talking of avoiding answers and accountability, next week marks the first anniversary of the Government’s disastrous mini-Budget. Will Parliament get an update on the impact that is still having on the economy? Interest rates are up 3%, with mortgage holders paying thousands more. We have soaring inflation, with the weekly shop up well over 10%, and business investment is crippled by a so-called plan for growth. We need answers, and we need accountability.

The Leader of the House backed the former Prime Minister. She sat at the Cabinet table, and she approved those decisions. I give her the chance again today—one that she dodged last week—to apologise for her role in those decisions. Will she ensure that there is accountability and consequence? Government Members might not like it, but these are their decisions. Or is it just more honours for cronies, book tours and consequences only for the many, while the few show no contrition?

The Leader of the House is not the only one avoiding accountability. The new Secretary of State for Energy Security and Net Zero failed to show up after the utter failure of the offshore wind auction. We did not have a statement; the Minister for Energy Security and Net Zero had to be dragged to Parliament with an urgent question, which I thank Mr Speaker for granting. The Minister seemed to have no clue why it was such a historic disaster. Offshore wind auctions might feel like a technical issue, but the Government’s failure to attract any bids will lock us into more expensive and volatile fossil fuels for years to come. No new projects can get under way next year.

There were warnings about this auction for months, and that is why the Irish Government adjusted their price. If our Government had done the same, new offshore wind could have saved £2 billion for families and increased our energy security. Why were those warnings ignored? The Government want to sweep this under the carpet, but families will feel the bite when their energy bills hit the mat. Offshore wind is supposed to be the UK’s leading light. Some 80% of the jobs are outside London. What does the Government’s failure say to those communities? All around the world, Governments are getting ahead in the race for green jobs; meanwhile, this Government have presided over inaction that is costing us jobs. We have a plan—our green prosperity plan. Perhaps the Government should take a look at it. It would slash energy bills for good, create well-paid green jobs, strengthen our energy security and make the UK energy independent.

This all speaks to a bigger truth: the Government are so out of ideas that they have nothing to keep the lights on in Parliament for, nor will they take accountability for their failures or decisions. Is the Leader of the House not as tired as the rest of us are, having to come here week after week with no real business to announce and more things going wrong? I know she will tell us how great everything is and how the problems are everybody else’s fault but theirs, but quite honestly, that is getting boring too. I do not blame the 54% of people who say they would never even consider voting Conservative at the next election. What would they even be voting for?

First, I am sure I speak for the whole House in putting it on the record that our thoughts are with the people of Morocco and Libya in the wake of the recent tragic events? May I also wish shanah tovah —a very happy, healthy and sweet new year—to the Jewish community celebrating Rosh Hashanah?

I am a Conservative, and I am always happy to take personal responsibility, so let me respond to the points the hon. Lady raises. First, in regard to the Committee on Standards report, she will know that it did not recommend that any action be taken against the Prime Minister. I am happy to get that on record.

I remind the hon. Lady that the work rate of this Government and this Parliament has been to put through 16 Bills—13 of which have received Royal Assent—since the Prime Minister’s tenure started, as well as a record number of private Members’ Bills. In every area of Government, we are delivering. She mentions energy. We have decarbonised faster than any other nation and led the charge on that.

We have been extremely busy, particularly focused on the Prime Minister’s five priorities, chief among them stopping the small boats. The hon. Lady is new to the post, but I remind her that her party voted more than 70 times against our measures to strengthen borders. We have been working very hard, and the Labour party has been frustrating us. Labour has consistently stood against any measures to combat small boats. Those measures are delivering. Crossings are down by 20%, and those from Albania are down by 90%.

The leader of the hon. Lady’s party is today showing himself again to be Mr Open Borders. He wanted the Home Office to stop all deportation flights, he wanted free movement, he is mooting taking 100,000 illegal immigrants from the safety of the EU and bringing them here to the UK, and he is planning on reversing our ban on people claiming asylum if they have come here illegally. We are working very hard. We are putting Bills through, but the Labour party would unpick that legislation. Time and again, Labour is showing that it is not taking the tough decisions to stand up for the people of this country.

We have seen that in other areas as well. The hon. Lady invited me to look at her energy plan, but it would make this nation less energy secure. We have also seen it today with Labour’s so-called new deal for working people, which I call the trade unions’ charter. Labour says that it will ban unpaid internships, yet its MPs advertise them. Labour says that it will fight for equality, yet in Birmingham, where it is in power, it did not pay women a fair wage. Labour says that it wants homes for all, yet it blocks plans to build them. Labour is the party of ULEZ, the fuel duty escalator, the 20 mph default speed limit and soaring council tax, and every health board it oversees is in special measures. It is no longer the party of working people—we are.

The hon. Lady wants to examine our work rate and record. We are the party of free childcare, of 11 million workplace pensions, of 1 million new businesses, of doubling the personal allowance, of fair fuel and, at times of crisis, of furlough and loans to preserve the livelihoods and businesses of this country. We consistently take action to stand up for the interests of the people of this country.

The hon. Lady echoes the hilarious gag that the Leader of the Opposition made yesterday in his attempt to insult the PM by comparing him to a popular children’s figurine. I am happy to focus on that. I do not think that that line will survive contact with the Prime Minister’s work rate, but let me rise to the bait and return the serve. I think that the Labour leader is beach Ken. Beach Ken stands for nothing, on shifting sands, in his flip flops staring out to sea, doing nothing constructive to stop small boats or to grow the economy. When we examine the Labour leader’s weak record on union demands, border control, protecting the public and stopping small boats, we discover that, like beach Ken, he has zero balls. Further business will be announced in the usual way.

Will my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House arrange for the right person in government to contact me about the Afghan for whom I have been trying to work for the last nearly two years? I have approached the Foreign Office, the Home Office and the Ministry of Defence, but have received nothing useful or helpful back, so could the right person approach me?

I have received the following endorsement from a former colonel in the International Security Assistance Force:

“Because of his service in support of the NATO Armed Forces in the Afghan Theater of Combat Operations,”

this person, whose name I will not give out in public,

“has suffered and continues suffering threats to the life and property of himself. To the best of my knowledge,”

he does not present a

“threat to the safety or national security of any Country of the NATO Alliance.”

The person himself wrote to me today, saying,

“I am sorry bothering you”—

he always apologises for bothering me—and explaining again that his grandfather was killed for not disclosing his location. He writes:

“The Taliban trying everyday to kill me. I feel death every moment. My economy is very weak I can’t longer continue to feed myself. I am hidden day and night…Please help me urgently. Please save my life urgently.”

Could the right person please approach me to say how he and his wife can be extricated, exfiltrated or allowed to leave Afghanistan?

I thank my hon. Friend for raising again that case, which he has raised previously. I have written to the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, the Home Office and the Ministry of Defence, but I will happily do so again and I will ask that an official from one of those Department meet him. I know that the Veterans Minister is very aware of those who remain in-country or in third countries, and is focused on those cases.

It is always revealing to hear the Leader of the House express her increasingly outlandish views of Scotland every Thursday morning. I expect today will be no different. Her efforts last week had the feel of a fever dream, as she treated us to her thoughts on Mary Queen of Scots, the highland clearances and the hundred years war, all in some sort of answer to my comments about Scotland’s remarkable progress on child poverty. Goodness knows what we will get this week, although once again I gently remind her that business questions is for Members of this House to ask about her Government and their policies. We all understand the difficulties of defending this tired, hollowed-out bunch on their last legs, but that is her job—for the moment, anyway.

I wonder, given her claim to have a keen interest in events north of the border, if she has had a chance to look at the report by the think-tank Institute for Public Policy Research on the state of the Union. It suggests that the kind of belligerent, muscular Unionism we see on display from her Tory Benches is now utterly counter- productive, and not just on Thursday mornings but day in, day out. The report highlights the brittle and contemptuous approach of Westminster to Scotland and its people. Professor Richard Wyn Jones of Cardiff University’s governance centre, and co-author of the report, said:

“attempts…to champion a single version of Britishness, to buttress what some have termed ‘the precious Union’, are not only doomed to failure but are likely to be self-defeating.”

Doomed to failure—a phrase that could be applied to so many of this Government’s endeavours: Brexit, High Speed 2 and numerous defence projects such as the Ajax tanks debacle. I could go on. They never listen. They never learn. It might also help the Leader of the House to read an article by respected BBC financial journalist Paul Lewis of the “Money Box” programme, who recently wrote:

“I once coined the acronym Tabis – Things Are Better in Scotland – as a shorthand for the forward-looking social policies of that country. And it gets truer all the time.”

Once again, is it not time for a debate, even in the dog days of this Government, to look at Scotland and learn how, as Paul Lewis said, to do things better?

I have always advertised the differences across the nations of the United Kingdom and regional differences in England as one of the strengths of the Union, as well as the things that we have in common. The hon. Lady accuses me of talking Scotland down and not celebrating it. Au contraire, if she looks back at my speeches from the Dispatch Box, she will know that is not the case. I am not talking Scotland down but about the SNP running Scotland down.

I am happy to compare our record of stewardship of public services against that of the SNP. Not a week goes by without the SNP messing up some particular sector or service. This week, highlights include the SNP pressing ahead with short-term lets licensing, which on 1 October will see thousands of businesses potentially close in Scotland and put some people in jeopardy of losing their homes, clobbering Scotland’s tourist sector, too. It has also emerged this week that complaints about SNP-administered benefits have increased by 350%, and while the economy recovers and people still have to tighten their belts, the SNP Government think it is a brilliant idea to introduce a congestion charge.

Scotland deserves better than socialist separatist parties. Yet again, the hon. Lady has demonstrated that the SNP is yesterday’s people talking about yesterday’s grievances. It is yesterday’s party.