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Business and Trade

Volume 741: debated on Thursday 30 November 2023

The Secretary of State was asked—

CPTPP: Small and Medium-sized Enterprises

1. What assessment she has made of the potential impact of the comprehensive and progressive agreement for trans-Pacific partnership on small and medium-sized enterprises in the UK. (900367)

The CPTPP is one of the major benefits of Brexit. It has the potential to deliver billions of pounds to our economy and benefits small businesses across the UK. The deal delivers lower tariffs, reduced red tape, and cutting-edge digital provisions that directly support small businesses to trade more. It has an SME chapter committing all countries to make the agreement accessible for SMEs. I know that will be welcome news for my hon. Friend ahead of Small Business Saturday.

I thank the Secretary of State for her answer. It is great news that we are progressing membership of CPTPP and I welcome what she says about SMEs. Many SMEs will be new to exporting and need expert advice. Will she outline what particular plans there are to help small businesses?

We will ensure that our support offer for SMEs will help firms build their capability to import and export under our free trade agreements. We have started preparing for CPTPP entering into force. We will be producing written guidance on to ensure businesses are equipped with the knowledge they need to access those opportunities. Specifically, our export support service, network of international trade advisers, export academy, and in-market support services will also help businesses to access opportunities in CPTPP markets.

In my constituency of Strangford SMEs are an integral, core part of creating jobs, putting wages into pockets, and ensuring that people can progress and learn more trades. We want to be part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland pushing for the CPTPP. What can the Secretary of State do to help me and my businesses in Strangford to be a part of that and to move forward?

The hon. Gentleman will know that we had the Northern Ireland investment summit a few months ago. We met lots of businesses and investors who talked about how they want to take advantage of these markets. In fact, we have had one of the first big investors into a factory in Belfast. What I can do is help him with some of the materials we have around the export academy and the export support service, which he can hand out to businesses in his constituency who want to find out more.

For UK businesses to benefit from agreements like the CPTPP, we must have a clear plan to boost small business exports. Labour has a plan to remove export barriers, with clear information and support. That is in stark contrast to the Government’s approach, which has been a catalogue of failures, including the recent fiasco with the Government’s export website, which was so deficient that firms were forced to seek essential information from foreign Government websites. What immediate steps will the Department take to provide some stability and ensure UK businesses can excel in exporting?

I think the hon. Gentleman might be talking about something that happened three years ago, which we fixed. He talks about the export support service website. Businesses have actually been praising it. [Interruption.] Businesses have been praising it; they very much have been. We have an expert toolkit, which has been developed by business and trade officials. What is interesting is that all he says is that Labour has a plan to remove export barriers. We have actually been removing export barriers. Labour talks about a plan with no detail. No one is taking it seriously at all. The Conservative party is the party that represents business in the House of Commons.

Audit and Corporate Governance Reform

2. What recent progress her Department has made on bringing forward legislative proposals on reform of audit and corporate governance. (900368)

We remain committed to reform. Significant reforms have already been delivered to the Financial Reporting Council to strengthen its capabilities and drive up audit quality.

The Institute of Chartered Accountants of Scotland has branded the Government’s decision to leave the audit and governance reform Bill out of the King’s Speech as a lost opportunity and a huge blow to the interests of UK businesses and the public. The Government have been promising the Bill since 2021. Will they reconsider that backward step and make the UK’s corporate regulatory framework fit for purpose in the 21st century?

Time and again, Opposition parties seek to wrap businesses up in red tape, whereas Conservatives are keen to cut red tape. Consultation with businesses revealed concerns about imposing additional reporting requirements, while the Government are looking to simplify and streamline existing requirements.

This week, the Business and Trade Committee took evidence from Wilko. Business collapses such as that of Wilko, Carillion, Thomas Cook and Patisserie Valerie have been a consequence of failures in the audit process, costing people their jobs and hurting investors and suppliers. Audit reform was recommended by the then Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee in 2019, and the Government offered to bring forward a draft Bill. I know the Minister wants to reduce red tape, but does he agree that some form of action is now pretty urgent?

I was delighted to give the Select Committee evidence on Wilko. The administration report on Wilko is continuing and clearly we need to see the findings, but investigations so far have not shown that director misconduct played an instrumental part in Wilko’s failure, although I think it is clear to all concerned that there were failures in management that led to the company’s demise.

How strange the change from minor to major in that response. Financial transparency and accountability are essential components of economic stability. For three years now, the Government have been promising legislation and improved checks on company finances, but they have repeatedly failed to deliver. How can the Minister justify leaving the audit and governance Bill out of the King’s Speech, when it is supported by businesses, regulators and auditors alike?

We work very closely with the Financial Reporting Council. No one can deny that the FRC has changed its approach completely and is now a much more effective regulator. Sir Jon Thompson did a fantastic job when he was there, and the current chief executive, Richard Moriarty, and chair, Jan du Plessis, are following his work. We are confident that the FRC can make sure that the UK’s corporate regime works effectively, without tying businesses up in red tape.

Fire and Rehire

The Government consulted on a draft statutory code of practice on fire and rehire earlier this year. The Government response and the final version of the code will be published in spring next year. The code sets out employers’ responsibilities when seeking to change contractual terms and conditions of employment, and is designed to ensure that dismissal and re-engagement is used only as the last resort.

The very fact that only last week P&O Cruises felt able to say it would impose new contractual terms on workers through fire and rehire tactics shows that some employers still feel that they can use these tactics with impunity, in spite of the Government’s promise to clamp down on them. I thank the Minister for his answer, but is there any way he could bring in the legislation more urgently, so that we can protect our workers properly?

I agree with the sentiment behind the hon. Lady’s question in terms of bringing legislation forward as quickly as possible. Of course, we have to get this right. I have to say that P&O was not a fire and rehire situation; it was a fire-only situation, which was strongly condemned by this Government and by many other stakeholders, and a civil investigation is ongoing into the matters surrounding that case. But yes, the hon. Lady is right, and we are keen to get the new statutory code of practice in place as soon as possible. We expect that to be in spring next year, and once it is in force, the employment tribunal can increase employees’ compensation by up to 25% when an employer fails unreasonably to comply with the code.

Last week, concerns were raised that the Carnival group was making provision to fire and rehire hundreds of staff working on P&O Cruises and Cunard Line, reviving memories of last year, when P&O Ferries sacked over 800 of its employees and replaced them with agency labour, while the Government sat back and let it happen. Does the Minister agree that the only way to provide workers with the security they deserve is by legislating to outlaw fire and rehire tactics once and for all? If not, it is time the Government came clean with the British public and admitted that they will always side with bad bosses.

That is not the case at all. We take these matters very seriously, but we do not think that completely banning fire and rehire is the right thing to do because there are some situations in which companies need to restructure quickly. We think that employees’ proper consultation rights should be observed. Where they are not observed and where an employer does not follow the statutory code of practice, employment tribunals can impose a significant uplift on redundancy payments. We think that is the best way to deal with this, by striking a balance between companies and their workers.

Fire and rehire is rife in this country. Research published by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development found that, between March 2020 and July 2021, 43,000 employers changed their employees’ contracts through fire and rehire techniques. The Government promised in March 2022 that they would take action following the P&O scandal, and we now learn that it will be a full two years since that time before anything actually changes. Given the propensity for using fire and rehire tactics, can the Minister tell us how many employees he estimates will have had their contract changed through fire and rehire in that two-year period?

I do not have that number to hand. We want to strike a balance between employers and their workforces. We condemn what P&O did. We need to bring in new measures on fire and rehire, and we have committed to do that. A consultation is clearly needed to make sure those provisions are fair on both businesses and workers. That is what we are doing right now, and we intend to bring those provisions before the House next spring.

High Street Outlets

In addition to small business rate relief, under which businesses with a rateable value of less than £12,000 pay no business rates whatsoever, in his autumn statement the Chancellor announced a further business rate support package, worth £4.3 billion over the next five years, to support small businesses and the high street.

My constituents in Flitwick have been dismayed over the past few years as their high street has been gradually hollowed out, losing much-loved businesses and, recently, both their post office and banking facilities. Sadly, that is far too familiar for people in towns and villages across my constituency, where businesses are weighed down by high cost pressures and a business rate system that no longer seems fit for purpose or fair. When will the Government commit to bringing forward the comprehensive business rates reform that my businesses are crying out for, so that we can get back to revitalised, much-loved high streets?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question and welcome him to his place in the House.

Of course, we are very concerned about the high street. The pressures on the high street are largely caused by changing consumer habits, but the Government have stepped in to ease pressures, such as through the £20 billion energy bill support scheme and the £17 billion business rate package.

The hon. Gentleman talks about completely scrapping the current business rate system, which Labour has committed to do, but it is incumbent on Labour to set out how it will replace the £25 billion that business rates currently add to the Exchequer. What is the solution? It is not right for him or others simply to say they will scrap that £25 billion without setting out how they will replace it.

The vanishing of Debenhams, Wilko and Paperchase has left huge holes in our town centres— I have lost a Wilko in both Ealing and Acton. Analysis shows that the incentivisation of out-of-town retail is the culprit. Labour has a five-point plan to revive our high streets, putting communities first. What are the Government doing about all this?

I do not accept that, although out- of-town shopping can put pressure on the high street. Local authorities have to be very careful when they give planning consent for out-of-town shopping centres that could put pressure on the high street. That is clearly an important part of the planning process, but it is not the responsibility of central Government, of course. I would be interested to see that five-point plan, but if it includes the scrapping of business rates, which raise £25 billion, I ask the Labour Front Bench team once again—I have yet to receive an answer—where is that money coming from?

Labour-run Leeds City Council has decided that it wants to bring parking charges to my market town of Wetherby—it currently has no parking charges. Does my hon. Friend agree that the investments we are making are all very well, but if local authorities make it harder for shoppers by increasing their costs, that will choke off the high street rather than help it?

I thank my right hon. Friend for his question and he is absolutely right to say that some local authorities see parking charges as potential revenue raisers, but this is in effect a tax on business. Local authorities can, of course, make charges where appropriate, but they should only cover the cost of maintaining those car parks; they should not be a punitive tax on businesses.

There are streets in the west end of this city, important to our economy, that would certainly benefit from the ability of tourists to reclaim VAT, aren’t there?

My right hon. Friend raises an important point that this Department has looked at carefully. We are concerned about the impact of the withdrawal of that tax concession on businesses, not just for these businesses themselves, but for the other businesses that rely on foreign visitors—I am talking about hoteliers, restauranteurs and so on. We are keen to look at this matter. The Chancellor committed in his autumn statement to review the evidence to see what impact this was having. We will look at that with great interest and make our views known strongly to the Exchequer.

Exports: Small and Medium-sized Businesses

The Government’s export support for SMEs includes the export support service; the export academy; more than 400 export champions; our network of nearly 200 trade advisers; and support provided around the world through the international market service. Just last week, my noble Friend the Minister with responsibility for exports announced that UK Export Finance is introducing more flexible fast-track financing for SMEs, making it easier than ever for UK firms to sell into international markets.

Last week, I welcomed the Duke of Gloucester to my constituency to award local SME GaraDry the King’s award for enterprise for its innovation in international trade. How can such businesses have confidence in the Government’s support for SMEs when Britain’s export growth is among the worst of the G7 economies and is forecast to be falling?

I certainly welcome the royal visit that the hon. Lady had in her constituency; it is always fantastic to see that support, particularly for exporters. However, I think she is a bit off on the data. When we look at export data, we see that we had £877 billion-worth of exports in the 12 months to the end of September 2023. We are heading towards the £1 trillion export target, and that figure is up by almost £200 billion—or 29%—on the figure from five years ago, which was before Brexit.

In 2021, the Government launched a rebranded trade show programme pilot to great fanfare, but between November 2021 and March 2022 only two businesses in the UK were funded under the programme. We now hear that the scheme has been shelved. Will the Minister explain what has happened to that initiative, which has launched a number of household British fashion brands abroad and which served as a vital gateway under the last Labour Government for SMEs to access new markets?

The last Labour Government were, of course, in office rather a long time ago. It is not always incumbent on successive Governments more than a decade later to keep previous Labour Government schemes going. The scheme to which the hon. Gentleman refers was a pilot, which did not yield the successes that we might have hoped. However, I will take no criticism from him and the Labour party for the support we are giving to exporters. We are spending £200 million over this spending review period to support SMEs to grow and succeed internationally, and we have a record to be commended.

As the Prime Minister’s trade envoy to Kenya, may I welcome the fact that this week the Government held the successful global investment summit and are taking steps to help British businesses to export? I recently returned from Nairobi, where I visited some of the UK’s flagship investments, including in infrastructure and clean energy. Will the Minister provide an update on the Africa investment summit next year? I also ask that the UK continues to bang the drum for British businesses to export to Kenya, the gateway to east Africa.

First, let me commend my hon. Friend for winning “Speech of the Year” at last night’s The Spectator parliamentary awards. She has continued her fine form today. She does an amazing job for the country as the Prime Minister’s trade envoy to Kenya, and her recent visit in September was a big success, particularly on the infrastructure side of things. She has already referred to railways and other infrastructure. She mentioned the UK-Africa investment summit, which will take place in London next year and will further our engagement with Kenya and other African countries, fostering modern partnerships in trade and investment in areas such as resilient infrastructure, clean technologies and renewable energy.

I welcome my right hon. Friend back to his post. I pay tribute to him and to the Secretary of State for the international trade deals that they have struck during their period in office. The UK has strategic relationships with a number of Gulf nations. What progress is being made on a free trade agreement with the Gulf Cooperation Council? If it is more challenging to strike a deal across all nations, what bilateral trade agreements can we explore in order to exploit the opportunity for those nations to invest significantly in the UK?

I am excited by the prospect of the deal with the Gulf Cooperation Council, with which the Secretary of State is very much engaged, and I am looking forward to being re-engaged with it. It is a huge opportunity for us, as the latest figures show that total trade between the UK and the Gulf is worth more than £60 billion. We are looking forward to moving the negotiation forward and getting a very good deal for the UK.

I welcome the Minister back to the Department for Business and Trade, and I look forward to helping him hopefully to do better this time around. According to the International Monetary Fund, over the past decade British food and drink exports, including from SMEs, rose by just 3%, which was the lowest growth of any G7 country. The US, Canada, Italy and Japan all saw their exports grow by between 30% and 95%. Government Ministers will not negotiate a veterinary agreement with the EU, which would help, they have cut funding for trade missions, and now the Secretary of State has cut funding to go to trade shows too. Why will Ministers not share our ambitions for Britain to have the fastest export growth rate of any G7 country?

Of course, the hon. Gentleman and I have been around in these jobs for a while. He was possibly the last Trade Minister under the last Labour Government, so I will not be taking any lectures from him on how to improve UK exports. We have been financing dozens of global trade missions and we are spending £200 million over the spending review period on exports in general. On the export figures, he neglected to mention services exports, which totalled £463 billion in the 12 months to September 2023. That is a huge increase of 42% on our performance in 2018, before Brexit.

Retail Crime

6. What assessment she has made with Cabinet colleagues of the potential impact of retail crime on high street businesses. (900373)

The Government are clear that violent and abusive behaviour towards any public-facing worker is never acceptable, and we recognise the implications that such incidents can have on businesses as well as victims. On 23 October, the Government launched a retail crime action plan, which includes a commitment to prioritise police attendance at the scene where violence has been used towards shop staff, where an offender has been detained by store security or where evidence needs to be secured by police personnel. The Government also launched Project Pegasus, a unique private-public partnership that will radically improve the way retailers are able to share intelligence with the police.

In recent weeks, I, like many colleagues, have visited shops in my constituency as part of USDAW’s—the Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers—Freedom from Fear campaign. I have heard from staff about the daily levels of verbal and sometimes physical abuse they face, and the huge losses from theft. Will the Minister say more about what the Government are doing to stem that tide of lawlessness, particularly for independent retailers who may not be part of the Pegasus Project? Will she also say how much is being lost to theft, because that costs all of us as customers, as well as costing retailers?

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. This is not a victimless crime; it impacts shops, workers and customers. Credit is due to the hon. Gentleman for visiting the shops in his constituency. Overall crime is down by 54% since 2010, and down by 10% since last year. However, he is right that shoplifting is up, which is why the action plan is so important. The action plan works for our high streets because it is about ensuring that the police are determined to collect evidence and to go after repeat offenders and organised gangs.

Project Pegasus is key because it is a public-private partnership. We have created an extra offence, with a longer sentence, for those who are violent towards a shop worker. With those extra programmes of work and evidence collection, more people will be convicted, so those who are involved in crime against shops will spend some time in prison.

Regulators: Statutory Duties

8. If she will make a comparative assessment of the adequacy of the number of statutory duties of the Competition and Markets Authority and other regulators reporting to her Department. (900376)

The CMA has a primary statutory duty to promote competition both inside and outside the UK for the benefit of consumers, which provides the CMA with a clear, strong focus on delivering for consumers. In our recent steer to the CMA, we did point out how very important it is that it focuses also on economic growth.

Regulators such as the CMA have huge powers, so Parliament must give clear instructions about how those powers should and should not be used. Does the Minister agree that the CMA’s instruction is a model of the kind of clear and strong legal duty that leaves no doubt in regulators’ minds about the job that Parliament has asked them to do. Will he join me in pushing for equally clear and focused duties for other economic regulators where, sadly, the same cannot currently be said?

I thank my hon. Friend for his question and for his very important work in this area. I know that reducing the regulatory burden is a cause that is very close to his heart, and to the hearts of those in the Chamber today who supported his amendment in the recent Digital Markets, Competition and Consumers Bill. That view is also shared by myself and by the Secretary of State. We are very keen to make sure that, as well as ensuring that sectors are well regulated, our economic regulators focus on competition and economic growth.

I disagree. The Competition and Markets Authority is not only the dog that does not bark, but the dog that does not bite. We see multinational corporations and investment funds of such a size that they have more power than a sovereign Government. When will the Government give the CMA the powers and authority needed to tackle the corporate monopolies and cartels that have so much sway over our lives?

The hon. Member raises an important matter. That is why the Government are legislating in this space, through the Digital Markets, Competition and Consumers Bill, which gives the CMA huge new powers, particularly over some of our largest online platforms—platforms that have what we describe as strategic market status. This is world-leading legislation that will tackle many of the examples of detriment that he will be aware of and that he raises in his question today.

High Street Postal Services

The Government protect the post office branch network by setting access criteria and minimum service levels to be provided by branches across the country. More post offices have opened this year than have closed. The network is as large today as it has been for five years, with around 11,700 branches open, above the 11,500 target that we set for the Post Office.

The Minister mentioned that more post offices are opening. Actually, they are closing. The Clapham Common post office in my Vauxhall constituency has been earmarked for closure and there are no current plans to replace it. I am fighting this closure, along with my hon. Friend the Member for Streatham (Bell Ribeiro-Addy) and local ward councillors in the Communications Workers Union. This is a pattern that we are seeing across the country. It has been identified that 260 postal shopfronts have closed across the country in the past 10 years. With those closures, we are seeing elderly and vulnerable people—people who need their post offices on the high street—having to travel further. Will the Minister tell me what more he and the Government are doing to protect these vital services?

The hon. Member is absolutely right to raise this issue. The Post Office has launched a public consultation regarding the Clapham Common post office. The Post Office maintains that locals will continue to have good access to services. There is a post office within a mile of the Clapham Road branch, and three further branches within two miles. Nevertheless, the Government support the post office network with a significant amount of financial support—£2.5 billion over the past 10 years—so we do continue to support post offices. We know how important they are to constituents and other colleagues in this House. I am very happy to meet her to discuss this particular case.

CPTPP: Ratification

10. What her planned timetable is for the ratification of the comprehensive and progressive agreement for trans-Pacific partnership. (900378)

We are working at pace to ratify the CPTPP, which we hope to bring into force next year. We are the first European country to join the CPTPP, and I know how powerful it will be for British businesses and consumers, which is why this Government are progressing legislation as quickly as possible, with Second Reading of the Bill having taken place in the other place on 21 November. We are already playing our part as the second largest economy in the agreement. The Secretary of State met other CPTPP Ministers two weeks ago in San Francisco to discuss the blossoming future of the agreement.

Across the House, over a period of time, Members working with organisations such as the Trade Justice Movement have expressed concern about the inclusion of investor-state dispute settlement procedures within treaties, because they restrict our own country’s ability to regulate. I raised that issue in September and suggested that, as the Government have done with Australia and New Zealand, we agree in a separate letter that the settlement procedure will not be included in this treaty. I was then told—rather curtly—that it was too late. Actually, it is not too late. There is the potential to do a side letter, as we have with other countries, to exclude an investor-state dispute settlement procedure. In the light of the Government’s negotiating remit for the free trade agreement with Canada, the Government are specifically seeking to exclude that procedure. I wonder whether the Government might think again.

It is good to be sparring with the right hon. Gentleman again from the Dispatch Box—we have both had a few ups and downs since we last went head to head. CPTPP does not compromise the UK’s right to regulate at all; it expressly preserves the rights of states to regulate proportionately, fairly and in the public interest. It is worth reminding the House that the UK has never lost an ISDS case. Such procedures actually help to protect UK investments abroad. British investments in Canada totalled £40.6 billion in 2020-21, which will be covered for the first time by these protections. As I say, if we cannot trust Canada in international affairs, who can we trust? I assure the right hon. Gentleman that the deal cannot be ratified until the legislation has been approved by Parliament and the deal has completed the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act process.

Business Exports

The Government’s published export strategy focuses on addressing the challenges that UK businesses face when exporting. The Government continue to promote exporting, and to support companies through our network of international trade advisers, sector specialists, and the export support service. All our services can be accessed on

In my constituency I have companies such as EyeOL, Lindal Valve, Peli Biothermal, Friction Marketing, Signature Flatbreads and 198 smaller businesses, all of which export globally. The smaller businesses export through Amazon. That is fantastic, as there is evidence that businesses that export can pay their staff more, but what is the best way to get businesses that have not yet realised that the world is their marketplace exporting not just to Europe but around the whole world?

I commend my hon. Friend for being a long-standing champion of his constituency exporters. As the Prime Minister’s trade envoy to South Africa and Mauritius, he knows only too well the importance of exports. The Government’s export strategy is clear. We have a clear programme to assist small and medium-sized enterprises, particularly first-time exporters. All of our services can be accessed via, and we have a network of international trade advisers locally for Bedfordshire who are able to help as well.

Business in Essex: Exports

As a fellow Essex MP, I can assure my right hon. Friend that this matter is close to my heart. Businesses can access support through, including our self-serve digital offer, the export support service, international trade advisers and UK Export Finance. My Department is helping Essex companies such as Icon LifeSaver in Colchester to secure potential sales of over £10 million in the US, Colombia and Estonia. Kestrel Liner Agencies, which is headquartered in my constituency and last year received its third Queen’s Award for international trade, has also benefited. We are focused on priority trade barriers in particular, which could boost UK exports by around £20 billion over five years.

The Secretary of State will know inside out what the wonderful county of Essex has to offer when it comes to business exports. We have companies such as Wilkin & Sons and Wicks Manor, and many other producers who will sell the produce that households across the country will enjoy this Christmas, at home and abroad. Will the Secretary of State highlight how she is working across Government with other Departments to reduce the barriers to export that cover, for example, produce, manufacturing costs, energy costs, and even the processing of animals?

Removing barriers to trade is one of this Government’s top priorities. My right hon. Friend will know many of the things that the Government have been doing, including subsidising energy bills, because we recognise the difficulties that manufacturers and processing plants face. At the moment I am particularly focused on resolving trade barriers. We have resolved 178 trade barriers worth more than £6.5 billion to businesses, including those in Essex, over the next five years. Food producers in her constituency specifically will be pleased to know that just last month, when I was in Japan for the G7, we resolved a barrier restricting exports of cooked poultry from the UK to Japan, which I think will provide a festive boost to UK exporters worth an estimated £10 million over five years.

Arms Export Licences: Israel

13. Whether she has made an assessment of the potential merits of revoking arms export licences to Israel. (900381)

Since the barbaric terrorist acts by Hamas against Israel on 7 October and the subsequent conflict in the region, the Government have been monitoring the situation very closely. The UK supports Israel’s legitimate right to defend itself and take action against terrorism, provided that that is within the bounds of international humanitarian law. Export licences are kept under careful and continual review as standard, and we are able to amend licences or refuse new licence applications if they are inconsistent with the strategic export licensing criteria.

No one is suggesting that Israel does not have the right to defend itself—but, as the Secretary of State says and we agree, within the bounds of international law. The mass killing of civilians in Gaza should concern us all. Without resorting to platitudes about the relative toughness of the UK’s arms export controls, could she please identify which arms export licences are currently in force, including open licences for end use by the Israeli defence and security forces, and provide details of them to the House?

I do not believe that is something that I am able to do or should do. I can tell the hon. and learned Lady that last year we granted 114 standard individual export licences for military goods valued at £42 million to Israel. If there is a specific issue that she would like to highlight, we are prepared to look at it, but she will know that security and defence exports are not necessarily best discussed on the Floor of the House or in public, for obvious reasons.

A state that supplies military equipment that is used in the commission of violations of international humanitarian law is at risk of complicity in a humanitarian catastrophe. In continuing with those licences and supplying UK arms to Israel, what assessment does the Secretary of State make of the potential for UK Government complicity, if Israel is found to have committed war crimes in Gaza by the ongoing International Criminal Court investigation?

I am quite surprised that there is not a word of condemnation, and the implication that the UK is complicit is really not the sort of thing we would expect from a British Member of Parliament in this House. I completely disagree with the premise of the hon. Gentleman’s question. The Government take our defence export responsibilities extremely seriously and operate some of the most robust and transparent export controls in the world.

India Trade Deal

I am pleased to confirm that advanced talks with India are ongoing. We are in round 13, with discussions currently focused on goods, market access, services and investment. We remain clear that we will not sign until we have a free trade agreement that fully benefits the UK people and economy. We are focused on the deal, not the date.

Total trade in goods and services between the UK and India was £36.3 billion in the year to March 2023. An FTA with the fifth-largest economy in the world, and one of the fastest-growing, would be a massive boost to the UK economy and put UK businesses at the front of the queue to supply India’s growing middle class, which is expected to be a quarter of a billion consumers by 2050. This is an important exploitation of Brexit, so will the Minister do all he can to bring this deal over the line as soon as possible for Britain?

My right hon. Friend of course has a lot of experience in complex negotiations and I can say that we, like him, will not be satisfied until we have the right deal. He is right that a deal with India would be a big step forward in the UK’s post-Brexit strategy to refocus UK trade on the Indo-Pacific region, which represents one third of global GDP. My negotiators and I continue to work at pace and we will negotiate until we have secured the right deal. I warmly welcome his interest in doing more trade with India.

Steel Industry

The Government recognise the vital role of the steel sector, and are working with the sector to achieve a sustainable future. We have announced £500 million of support towards a joint £1.25 billion investment with Tata Steel to achieve the transformation of Port Talbot, and we are also in talks with British Steel. We have provided the steel sector with £730 million in energy costs relief since 2013, and announced the British industry supercharger—decisive measures to reduce energy costs for energy-intensive industries.

In communities across the country—particularly in Wales through Port Talbot—steel has created high-paying, productive jobs for generations, but we are the only G7 country with a steel industry in decline. Thousands of jobs are being lost. What we need is a long-term plan that supports steelworkers and their communities to maintain those good jobs into the future and transition to net zero, so why is the Minister making short-term decisions instead of delivering on the long-term industrial strategy that communities such as mine, and our steel industry and workers, desperately need?

That is just not correct, especially the comparisons to the G7. The decisions over Port Talbot have been hanging around for quite some time, and we were able to work with Tata Steel to ensure that jobs were confirmed long into the future. Tata Steel employs more than 8,000 people, and that was under serious threat until the investment was secured. Now consultation is taking place with the unions, and the reality is, as the media have noted, that the unions themselves are not sure how they want to take this forward. We were absolutely sure that we wanted steelmaking in that area and that jobs should be secured. That is why we offered the support that we did.

I have written again to the Secretary of State to seek specific confirmation of the Government’s position on a virgin steelmaking sovereign capability in this country. Will she ensure that that specific question is addressed when I receive a response?

My hon. Friend is first and foremost an advocate for the steelworks and steelworkers in her constituency. Obviously that letter will be on its way, and I thank her so much for raising it.

We are used to this Government flip-flopping all over the place. It would be funny if it were not so serious for business, exports and jobs. So when we heard the Treasury telling everyone who would listen that the Government’s response to the carbon border adjustment mechanism would be in the autumn statement, we were not surprised that it was not. The future of steel investment and growth relies on a clear and certain path from Government. We cannot have our business disadvantaged any more, so what is the decision on the CBAM? If this Government cannot decide, is it not time to make way for one who can?

Decisions have to be taken while responding to the consultations that take place. We have been absolutely determined to ensure that steelmaking will remain competitive in the UK, which is why we have been able to support the steel sector with high energy costs and put over £1 billion in place to deal with decarbonisation technology. When it comes to Tata, the support we have pledged involves an investment of over £1 billion to ensure that jobs remain secure in the future, and negotiations continue with British Steel as well. That is the support that we have provided and will continue to provide for steel in the UK.

Topical Questions

This week, I hosted more than 200 global CEOs and investors at the UK global investment summit, which was an extraordinary success. The Prime Minister set a £9.5 billion target to beat, and we tripled it, securing £29.5 billion of investment and more than 12,000 jobs. The success of the GIS is a vote of confidence in the UK. My Department’s work, supported by the £20 billion business tax cut in the autumn statement, is securing our country as a world-leading business and investment destination.

Many people are aware of the incredible story of the Redcar steelworks site being reborn as Teesworks, creating 20,000 jobs and unlocking £2 billion in private investment. Fewer people are aware that Stockton’s very own freeport business park is being built at the airport. Does my right hon. Friend agree that Teesside, as the home of the UK’s first and biggest freeport, offers a unique opportunity to those investing in the industries of the future?

I do agree, and my hon. Friend is quite right to praise the progress that has been made on delivering Teesside freeport. The freeport has already been successful in securing several landmark investments, including from SeAH Wind, which is investing £650 million in building an offshore wind manufacturing facility. That will create around 750 high-skilled jobs and builds on the measures announced in the autumn statement last week to further strengthen the offer of UK freeports. My Department will continue to work with freeports, in Teesside and elsewhere, on securing high-value investment.

This is the Department in charge of growth, investment and exports. In the latest figures, following the autumn statement, growth has been downgraded. Business investment is still forecast to be the lowest in the G7, and goods exports have declined, both to the EU and to non-EU countries. Given that there are so many amazing businesses and sectors in the UK, how do the Government account for their poor performance?

I will not allow the hon. Gentleman to spin his way out of what is actually a very good news story for the Government. The fact is that the UK has overtaken France to become the world’s eighth-largest manufacturing nation. We are the world’s fifth-largest exporter. We are growing faster than Germany and France, and have received more investment than them combined. We are the top investment destination, certainly for financial services. We are doing well. Perhaps this is the moment for me to tell him what businesses told me at the global investment summit: that they were unimpressed by the Labour shadow Ministers they had met; that their offer was unimaginative; and that they were repetitive, and had no vision for the future of business in the UK.

We follow the Secretary of State’s Twitter feed, and quite simply, we do not believe her.

I want to ask the Secretary of State about late payment. In the nine years that the Government have spent consulting on late payments, 450,000 businesses have gone under while waiting to be paid. Why do the Government’s new plans on late payment apply only to firms contracting with the Government? Why do they not rather follow our proposal to make sure that all public companies disclose their payment practices?

I have been working with the Federation of Small Businesses and others on late payments. The hon. Gentleman will have heard the measures announced in the autumn statement; this is an issue that the Government take very seriously. I disagree that we are implementing our plans in a partial way. We will resolve this issue, but I am afraid that I completely disagree with the Opposition: have done quite a lot on this, and many businesses have praised the measures that we announced in the autumn statement.

T4. On 14 November, the Government signed a memorandum of understanding with the US state of Florida. This is the seventh such agreement that the Government have signed with a state in the US, and I understand that there are ongoing discussions with other states. Obviously, that is welcome. Will the Secretary of State give us an assessment of the effect of this approach, and tell us what the next steps are to getting a more general trade agreement with the United States? (900394)

We are ready to have a free trade agreement with the US, but it is not undertaking free trade agreements with any country. That is, of course, disappointing, but it knows that we stand ready. That is why we have the state MOU programme. The latest figures show that UK-US trade has reached £310 billion. We are the biggest investor in Florida. I was pleased to meet Governor DeSantis earlier this month, and I also met the California Governor, Gavin Newsom, who wanted to be even faster in signing an MOU with the UK. They believe that this country has a lot of opportunity, and they want to do business with us.

Import tariffs on egg products allow us to recognise the higher cost of UK egg production because of safety, welfare and environmental considerations. Can the Secretary of State give an assurance that eggs and egg products will be afforded sensitive product status by the UK in future free trade agreement negotiations, and that import tariffs will remain in place on those products?

It is difficult to comment on tariffs in live negotiations, but I would say two things to the hon. Gentleman: first, this country imports very few eggs from abroad, and secondly, anything that happens with imported eggs would not change our standards on food imports, food safety and animal welfare in this country.

T7. In yesterday’s data Bill debate, Ministers gave clear and positive replies about the importance of interoperable data standards, and the need for an investable timetable of which sectors will get smart data and when. However, they were much less clear—one might even call it bashful—about giving a date for when that timetable will be published. Is my hon. Friend the Minister willing to be a little less coy this morning? (900400)

I am not known for my coyness. My hon. Friend has done very important work in this space, and we share his ambition: I chair the Smart Data Council, and we are planning to open up databases right across our economy to allow for more competition in the worlds of energy, telecoms, and buying and selling houses. He has been a great champion of all those measures. I am very keen to bring forward the roadmap that my hon. Friend has referred to, hopefully as early as January next year.

T2. At their busiest time of year, British cheese exporters are warning of damaging losses as the Government continue to fail to reach a deal that ensures access to the Canadian market. Every day that the Government fail, companies such as the Snowdonia Cheese Company in north Wales lose contracts, and they cannot make plans with the looming deadline of 31 December a matter of weeks away. Can the Minister update the House on the negotiations to extend the deadline for cheese tariff quotas between the UK and Canada? (900392)

We are aware of the situation, and are working on it—negotiations to resolve it are actively ongoing. UK cheese is in increasing demand in Canada, and exports of UK cheese benefit businesses on both sides of the Atlantic. The UK has made continued and repeated efforts to find a solution since negotiations began, including by seeking an extension to the current arrangements, and we are clear that the UK is rightly entitled to ongoing access to Canada’s World Trade Organisation cheese tariff quota under our rights and obligations at the WTO.

As the Prime Minister’s trade envoy to Brazil, I know that the best way of supporting exports from my Dudley businesses is to remove barriers to trade. That is why I was absolutely delighted when both our countries signed a double taxation agreement, in good faith and to the highest possible standards. There appear to be complications in Brazil at the moment with ratifying that agreement through Congress, as we have ratified it through our Parliament. What more can Ministers—the Chancellor of the Exchequer, perhaps—do to try to persuade Brazil that it is indeed a very good deal for itself as well?

First, I praise my hon. Friend for the amazing job he does as the Prime Minister’s trade envoy to Brazil. Partly due to his efforts, UK-Brazil trade has increased by 33% in the past year alone, so we are doing a very good job there. The UK-Brazil double taxation agreement was passed into UK law in June, and is estimated to be worth hundreds of millions of pounds to the UK. I hope that Brazil ratifies the agreement soon: it is very much in its own interests as well. As my hon. Friend knows, the Chancellor has made very strong representations to that effect, and we look forward to strengthening our trade relationship at the next UK-Brazil joint economic and trade committee next year.

T5. Under current laws, unions are required to use electronic means to communicate with their members about matters relating to work, yet are prevented from using the very same electronic methods when balloting their members for industrial action. Does the Minister accept that it should be possible to ballot trade union members on industrial action electronically? (900395)

The hon. Lady raises an important point. That is something we are looking at; we have been looking at it for some time, and are keen to bring forward the results of our deliberations very shortly.

May I ask the Trade Minister, whom I welcome back to his position, what efforts the Government are making to raise awareness of the developing countries trading scheme, particularly among African countries? What encouragement is he giving those countries to take advantage of that scheme, which would benefit them and us?

Again, we have almost a full turnout of the Prime Minister’s trade envoys in the House this morning, and I commend my hon. Friend for the work he does as the Prime Minister’s trade envoy not just to one country, but to three—Angola, Zambia and Ethiopia. He rightly takes a strong interest in the UK’s forward-leaning and exemplary developing countries trading scheme. The scheme was launched on 19 June by my predecessor, my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Worcestershire (Nigel Huddleston), who is now the Financial Secretary to the Treasury, and provides duty-free or nearly duty-free access to goods to 37 African countries. The scheme was launched to significant media attention in Ethiopia, and there was a series of events in more than 10 countries.

I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Tewkesbury (Mr Robertson): the onus is on all of us in this House to continue to extol the virtues and the benefits of the UK’s developing countries trade scheme. We have taken the EU scheme and gone significantly further, making it more generous for developing countries. We should all be united in extolling the virtues of the UK’s scheme, and of the brilliant job the UK is doing to promote goods access to developing countries.

T6.   Could I revisit my earlier question to the Secretary of State about arms export licences to Israel? I and many others do not agree with her secrecy approach, and I and many others believe that Members of Parliament are entitled to this information, so I will try another approach. Could she detail the classification and description of the goods, the stated end use and the licence type, including direct transfers and those via third countries, and could she place that information in the Library for Members of Parliament? (900396)

I believe there is a quarterly register that may contain some of the information the hon. and learned Member is asking for, but I am not able or going to list every single export decision that has been made by the export control joint unit. I will see what I can do to get her a fuller answer, but she will know that this is a very sensitive issue. I have a quasi-judicial role, and I must be seen to be impartial at all times. I will do what I can to provide the information she wants, but I do not have a list to provide her with this morning, and certainly not on the Floor of the House.

Almost all the G20 countries have operational blast furnaces, and a number of those are transitioning to electric arc furnaces as well. We know the importance of Scunthorpe, which is a key driver of economic growth. British Steel provides a third of all domestic production supplied to the construction and rail industries. We continue to be in negotiations to make sure that we secure the best deal, and one that is good value for taxpayers, when it comes to Scunthorpe.

On Tuesday, we finally had answers from Lisa Wilkinson about the mistakes that led to the collapse of that much-loved firm, but Ms Wilkinson was not able to answer why 70% of the profits in the last four years were paid out in dividends to family trusts while the deficit in the pension fund amounted to now £50 million. Will the Secretary of State ensure that regulators explore every option to claw back those dividends so that Wilko pensioners are not short-changed?

The right hon. Member raises a very important point. He has looked at this matter very carefully, including on the Business and Trade Committee, and I thank him for his work. I was pleased to give evidence to his Committee on Tuesday. Clearly, the Insolvency Service is looking at this. It is looking at the directors’ conduct report from PricewaterhouseCoopers, the administrator, which it needs to look at very carefully. It is clear from that report so far that there is no evidence of director misconduct, but further work is ongoing. The Insolvency Service is due to meet the administrator, PwC, in January, and we will look at the situation as it unfolds.

One of the most effective ways we could strengthen both the public sector and the private sector is the creation of an office of the whistleblower, as long championed by my hon. Friend the Member for Cheadle (Mary Robinson). That would strengthen corporate governance, empower those who see wrongdoing to come forward and protect them from intimidation, and strengthen the UK as a place to do business. Given that this week is Whistleblowing Awareness Week, could I encourage Ministers to bring forward proposals to support this important initiative?

I thank my hon. Friend for his question and his work in this area, in which he has great expertise. I met my hon. Friend the Member for Cheadle (Mary Robinson) yesterday to discuss this very matter. She has set out some key proposals in this area. We are currently undertaking a review of whistleblowing, and we hope to report to the House very shortly.