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Commons Chamber

Volume 742: debated on Monday 18 December 2023

House of Commons

Monday 18 December 2023

The House met at half-past Two o’clock


[Mr Speaker in the Chair]

Royal Assent

I have to notify the House, in accordance with the Royal Assent Act 1967, that His Majesty has signified his Royal Assent to the following Act:

National Insurance Contributions (Reduction in Rates) Act 2023.

Oral Answers to Questions

Work and Pensions

The Secretary of State was asked—

Job Vacancies: Stroud

I had the great pleasure of visiting my hon. Friend’s jobcentre in April. Since then, it has been closed temporarily, I believe, and moved to Gloucester. I am sure there is no connection. [Interruption.] I am really sure, I can reassure the hon. Member for Cambridge (Daniel Zeichner). Of course, it does a fantastic job in matching jobs through work coaches, jobs fairs, recruitment days and an extensive skills offering.

Work experience is often really hard to nail down—places go to those with friends and family in the sector, and employers are really busy. That is particularly so for small skilled manufacturing businesses in Stroud, so I am working with employability experts Finito to launch a campaign for low-fuss shadowing work experience across the board. We want to allow everybody, young and old, to find out more about weird and wonderful jobs, and to allow employers to assess candidates. Is that something my right hon. Friend is interested in, and will he meet me to discuss it?

I thank my hon. Friend for the question, and I would be delighted for either me or the relevant Minister to meet her. I know the terrific work she has done, particularly with organisations such as Finito, in getting young people ready for work. Indeed, I believe she set up the all-party parliamentary group on the future of employability. I am very happy to have a meeting.

Access to Work

Access to Work remains in high demand. We are increasing the number of staff processing Access to Work claims, and prioritising renewal applications for those with a job start within four weeks. We are improving the service through increased digitisation to improve the time from application through to decision.

I thank the Minister for her answer. Back in September, I asked the then Minister about the impact of long waiting times for Access to Work assessments on the neurodiverse, and I would like to press further on the impact of long waits for assessments in the NHS. What analysis has been done, and does the Minister appreciate the cost to the economy of not making the right adjustments to unlock such unused potential?

I thank the hon. Member for his point. I, too, pressed the previous Minister on this matter, and I shall be pressing myself going forward. In fact, we met and fed in work involving Thriiver in my constituency, and we have been working with stakeholders, partners and employer organisations to make sure this link is joined up. We are determined that Access to Work will continue to be fit for purpose, and that we will deliver a modern and efficient digital service. Our new online portal is part of that. I think it is key to hear the experiences and to link up with other Departments.

I welcome my hon. Friend to her new expanded role in the Department for Work and Pensions. The last time I raised Access to Work with her, it was about a particular blockage in my constituency, and I thank her for resolving that. She will know as well as I do that one of the biggest challenges for young disabled people is the transition into work. What reassurance can she give me that she is prioritising the applications of young people, so that when they move into their first job, that is not impeded by too slow a reaction from Access to Work?

I thank my right hon. Friend, and I hope I am the Minister for getting things done in this brief, as I have been in all my other briefs in my almost five years at the DWP. I will be leaning very much into those details. I will be very clear with the House that the focus on youth transitions is really important for the sector and for the individual people we are talking about. I agree with my right hon. Friend, and I will be looking into that in the new year.

It is a pleasure to welcome the new Minister to her post. After a week of no news, I was starting to worry that the Prime Minister was not going to appoint anyone. I think she is aware of the huge Access to Work backlog her predecessor failed to tackle. Over the last year, it has reduced by only 942, with a staggering 24,339 still waiting, so hardly a dent has been made. What will she do to speed this up and ensure that thousands of disabled people are not left waiting months to start work?

I thank the hon. Lady for her welcome to this post, and I hope that I have already spelled out my commitment to delivering in this brief. I think that prioritising the process of Access to Work claims, renewals and job starts within four weeks is key, as is making sure that those with mental health support needs get additional support and that those who are deaf or hard of hearing also get that focus and that reach. I assure the hon. Lady that we have increased the number of staff in this space. On my handover from the previous Minister, I would take issue with the hon. Lady about the focus he had on reforming Access to Work and making sure it was fit for purpose, but I am happy to engage with her further.

All we see from this Government are delays: delays processing Access to Work applications; delays publishing the disability action plan; and now delays in appointing the new Minister. When her new role was finally announced, it had been downgraded from Minister of State to Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State. What message does she think that sends to disabled people, and will she push to be made Minister of State like her predecessor?

I thank the hon. Lady for lobbying for my elevation and rank in this House. I am delighted to respond by making it clear to the lobby and to those we are talking about and looking after that that makes no material difference to their day-to-day life. There is no difference in my convening power or in the day-to-day work. Our next cross-Government ministerial disability champions meeting is in the new year. Let me be clear: this is not about rank. We are sent to this House to serve people and to engage and listen, and I will do that whatever the title or rank.

Long-term Unemployment

It is a pleasure to be back, Mr Speaker. We are delivering a suite of measures as part of the back to work plan, supporting customers on their journey to employment. That is focused on developing skills and building confidence through interventions such as the restart scheme. We are working across Government to support those with health conditions get back to work, with programmes such as our WorkWell service.

As a Conservative MP from a working-class background, I believe fundamentally in aspiration, hard work and fairness. Does my hon. Friend agree that the benefit system must be a safety net for those in genuine need, and that those people who can work should work?

I thank my hon. Friend because he speaks perfectly for those of us across the Conservative family. Work is positive, a force for good, and the system should be fair to the taxpayer and the claimant, with checks and balances. It is right that, on average, those in work are some £6,000 better off per year. Universal credit was introduced and further rolled out because it is a welfare system that makes work pay.

Skills are clearly key to supporting the long-term unemployed to find work. Buckinghamshire Council is launching a series of skills bootcamps, targeted at the long-term unemployed. For example, one bootcamp will provide construction skills, including a construction skills certification scheme card, plus support to reach self-employment and wraparound support on how to set up a company. Will my hon. Friend congratulate Buckinghamshire Council on that initiative, and say what more she can do to ensure that those who need to upgrade their skills base are able to do so?

I am delighted to congratulate not only Buckinghamshire Council but my hon. Friend on the fantastic work he does in his constituency. Upskilling jobseekers, particularly in areas such as construction where we need more domestic workers, is vital. The Department for Work and Pensions continues to support individuals into employment through back to work programmes such as the restart scheme, which provides tailored training programmes and sector-based work academy programmes similar to those mentioned by my hon. Friend. It offers training, work placements, and guaranteed job interviews, and I am committed to exploring what more can be done.

Earlier today I met Everyone’s Environment, and we talked about how we can ensure that people with disabilities benefit from some of the new green jobs and training that are coming on board. I know that the Minister’s predecessor as Minister for employment sat on the green jobs delivery group, so will she say what involvement she has had with that group to date?

I have already had a meeting of the inter-ministerial group on green jobs, and I have met many of those from across the disability sector. When I was a Minister in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, I sat on the inter-ministerial groups for green jobs and for disability access. It is vital that we use everybody’s talents, because work is a force for good. Someone’s disability should not stop their talent shining, and I will not let it do so.

Thank you very much, Mr Speaker. I thank the Minister for that response. Many of the long-term unemployed have disabilities. Some of them cannot work, but some wish to work, and they need flexible hours because they do not know the times and days that they will not be able to work and will be off. What can be done to help those who have disabilities get into work, so long as their health can dictate when?

We have a whole suite in the back to work plan and the investment of £2.5 billion so that we can work with individual people to tailor plans for them. It is vital that if, for example, someone’s health condition restricts when they can travel on public transport, we work with them to ensure that they can travel after rush hour. They might need a taxi or some other tailored support. That can be done, and it will be done.

Employment Rate: OBR Forecast

4. What assessment he has made of the potential implications for his policies of the employment rate forecast in the Office for Budget Responsibility’s economic and fiscal outlook published in November 2023. (900700)

17. What assessment he has made of the potential implications for his policies of the employment rate forecast in the Office for Budget Responsibility’s economic and fiscal outlook published in November 2023. (900716)

The Government are committed to increasing employment. Payroll employment is at a near record high of 30.2 million, which is up 1.2 million on the pre-pandemic level. The Office for Budget Responsibility forecasts that our back to work plan will see 30,000 more people in work over the forecast period.

The OBR revealed at the time of the autumn statement that after more than 13 years of this Conservative Government, 600,000 more people will be on health and disability benefits by 2028-29. Far from it being a back to work Budget, the Secretary of State knows that that is not anything like the truth and that the Tories are failing the employment market in this country.

I cannot agree with that. In fact, I point the hon. Gentleman to the figure of 371,000, which is the number of people fewer the OBR forecasts will be on those very long-term sickness and disability benefits because of the reforms that this Government are bringing in.

Last week, the Office for National Statistics published figures showing that 6.6% of people of working age in Bradford are claiming out-of-work benefits, which is the highest rate in the Leeds city region. Does the Secretary of State believe that the Government’s back to work plan is working for people in my constituency of Bradford South?

The back to work plan has billions of pounds-worth of investment behind it, including the £3.5 billion announced by the Chancellor in the spring Budget. Such things as extending restart, bringing forward mandatory placements after 18 months to ensure that people get into work and doubling universal support are important measures that will see increased numbers in work.

All we hear from the Secretary of State on employment is smoke and mirrors, but thankfully the OBR has published the numbers. We have just heard what he believes is happening with employment because of his policies, but when the OBR looked at his policies, did its forecast show the employment rate, compared with today, to be going up or down in 2024-25?

I have already shared the figures with the House, which are that payroll employment is at a near historic high and unemployment is at a near historic low. As the hon. Lady will know, we have never had a Labour Government leave office with unemployment lower at the end of their term than when they started. Youth unemployment went up 45% under the Labour party, whereas under this Conservative Government it has reduced by 45%.

You can always tell the Conservatives are struggling to answer the questions, Mr Speaker, because they go back to those same old things about what happened under the last Labour Government. After 13 years, they have nothing to be proud of. If what the Secretary of State said was true, we might expect that after a little time some of his policies would work, but is it not true that it is not just next year that the OBR forecasts the employment rate to be down, but the year after that, too?

We will continue to bear down on the level of unemployment. As the hon. Lady knows, economic inactivity has reduced, and we have 300,000 fewer people in economic inactivity than at the peak during the pandemic. We have a plan. Is it not the reality that the Opposition have no plan and no ideas as to how to get those numbers down? We do, and it is working.

Welfare Fraud and Error

5. What steps his Department is taking to reduce levels of fraud and error in the welfare system. (900701)

In 2022-23, fraud and error fell by 10%. We are investing £900 million in addition to that which we have already put forward to prevent £2.4 billion of fraud and error by 2024-25.

I thank the Secretary of State for his answer and welcome the measures the Government are taking. On the new powers to search through bank accounts to look for fraudulent transactions, can he confirm that the Government will seek to use them only where fraud is suspected and will not, as some people have suggested, search every state pensioner’s bank account to look for something that almost certainly will not be there?

I thank my hon. Friend for what is a very important question, because there has been a great deal of scaremongering about what exactly these powers are about. I can make it categorically clear from the Dispatch Box that these powers are there to make sure that, in instances where there is a clear signal of fraud or error, my Department is able to take action. In the absence of that, it will not.

The cost of living payments are a vital means of support during the cost of living crisis, but my constituent has lost out, through no fault of her own, because of the well-known issue whereby two of her work paydays fell within the assessment period used to assess eligibility. Will the Government review the eligibility process for the third cost of living payments to ensure that no one else misses out?

This is a long-standing issue that crops up every few years. It is not something on which the Government intend to take specific action. We trust people to manage their finances, such that they can cope with the occasional eventuality where there is an additional year within any one calendar year.

Insecure Employment and Poverty

This Government have made it clear that we believe that work is the best route out of poverty. It is important for different types of work to exist, as each individual worker’s circumstances are personal to them, and DWP has an in-work progression offer to support low-paid claimants to progress into better-paid and more secure employment.

Does the Minister agree that the difference between insecure or exploitative work and going plural with a portfolio of well-paid freelance or part-time roles depends on how valuable someone’s skills are? Ministers are rightly offering fresh opportunities for jobseekers to improve their skills, but in a post-pandemic world that is very different from what went before, what plans does she have to revisit and update the recommendations of the Taylor review to protect people whose skills have not yet been upgraded?

I thank my hon. Friend for making that point. As someone who was self-employed for not far off 15 years, I understand where he is coming from. Our work coaches at Jobcentre Plus offices engage with claimants to support access to skills provision. They get a comprehensive range of support, which includes apprenticeships, skills bootcamps, vocational and basic training skills, and careers advice, so that they can work in a way that suits them. Less than 1% of workers on zero-hours contracts want more hours—it is more about caring or other flexibilities—but I am happy to look at the points he has raised in the Chamber today.[Official Report, 19 December 2023, Vol. 742, c. 10MC.]

Last week, Uber came to Parliament to brief MPs on partnerships it has set up to support its drivers, including its recognition agreement with the GMB trade union. All Uber private hire drivers are now auto-enrolled into a pension, but legal uncertainty means that that is not the case for Uber’s competitors. Is it not high time for the Government to bring forward their employment Bill, which was promised after the Taylor review, to provide a level playing field for employers and to tackle these problems of insecurity in the gig economy?

I thank the Chair of the Select Committee for his question. In fact, I have an Uber T-shirt from my time as employment Minister, which the company gave me when it brought in the pension. I applaud the work that Uber has done to support its workforce. The right hon. Gentleman makes an important point, which is actually for another Department, but I will take those messages away.

Child Poverty

In 2023-24 we are spending around £124 billion through the welfare system on people of working age and children. Evidence shows the importance of work in reducing the risk of child poverty. With over 900,000 vacancies across the UK, our focus is on supporting parents into, and to progress within, work. Our recent autumn statement announcements, which included the back to work plan, increasing benefits and increasing the national living wage, are all part of our clear approach to ensuring that everybody gets the right support to progress and thrive.

I hear what the Minister says, but a recent report from UNICEF showed that of 39 OECD and EU countries, the UK came last in terms of improvements in child poverty between 2012 and 2021. As a result, one in five children in my constituency of Stretford and Urmston are growing up in poverty. What more can the Minister do to address this truly appalling situation?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising that report. I have looked at it, and it is important that we react to it. I point to our record of action. When it comes to further support for households with low incomes, we have heard in the Chamber—indeed, the Secretary of State mentioned this—about raising local housing allowance back to the 30th percentile, which will benefit 1.6 million low-income households by, on average, £800 a year in 2024-25. When that is added to the national living wage, the uprating of benefits and the availability of work, we are determined that those families will progress.

According to End Child Poverty, 30% of children in Lewisham East were in poverty in 2021-22, while Lewisham food banks have seen a 42% increase compared to 2022. That comes after 13 years of this Conservative Government. To make matters worse, the reported cut to the national household support fund means that more than £13 million for households across Lewisham have been taken away. Is the Minister really serious about showing the leadership needed to stop families in my constituency from falling into destitution?

I am really serious about supporting our young people. In fact, in Lewisham the household support fund, which is my domain, has allocated an additional £13.3 million to support the hon. Lady’s constituents. There are local hubs for debt management and engagement with the local authority, and warm welcome hubs. I say to anybody struggling in her constituency to look at the benefits calculators, and indeed help for households, on

Figures from the Trussell Trust show that in the six months between April and September, food banks in the north-east provided a record 26,000 emergency food parcels for children, with the need having doubled over the past five years. The majority of families who turn to food banks do so because their income, whether from social security or from wages, is too low to afford the basic essentials. Will the Minister explain why the current design of universal credit is failing these families?

As we have heard from the Secretary of State, 400,000 fewer children are in absolute poverty, and we thank our food banks for the work they do in supporting our communities. We do take this seriously. We have added food security questions to the family resources survey, and we will absolutely look at that. I would point to the hon. Member’s constituency having been allocated an additional £8 million in the last household support fund for exactly those families.

On Friday, pupils at Shaftesbury Junior School in my constituency gave me the lovely Christmas earrings that I am wearing, which they made themselves using computer-aided design. I am so proud of all their achievements, especially when more than a third of Leicester’s children are growing up in poverty, with all the challenges that brings. As my hon. Friends have said, figures from UNICEF show that under this Government the UK has had the biggest increase in child poverty out of the world’s 40 wealthiest countries. My question is simple: what is the Minister going to do about it?

The hon. Lady will have heard about our work on the LHA. I am extremely proud of the difference that it will make to families in her constituency and mine. With almost 1 million job vacancies across the UK, our firm believe is that supporting all families to progress and do well is the right thing to do. That comes with the full uprating that we have done this year on working-age benefits and supporting the LHA. The hon. Lady made the point that it has been a difficult time, and the household support fund and the cost of living payments, which start again on 6 February, will assist.

The Minister is completely out of touch with the reality facing families in Britain today: 3.8 million people face severe hardship this year, including 1 million children. Quite frankly, that is a shameful figure that has almost trebled since this Government abolished Labour’s Child Poverty Act 2010. Millions of parents are now worried about how they will feed, clothe or keep their children warm this Christmas, let along how they will buy them presents. When will the Minister change course, follow Labour’s lead and deliver a cross-Government child poverty strategy that gives every child the start in life that they deserve?

We will absolutely not follow Labour’s lead—let us look at their record. People might be worried ahead of Christmas. Cost of living payments, the household support fund, the benefits calculator and help for households are all out there. I want the people watching now to know that support is there. Progression will vary depending on circumstances; we have a tailored approach. We have 37 district progression leads to help exactly those families that the hon. Lady talks about.

The actions that we take to lift children out of poverty say an awful lot about our values. In Scotland, we have lifted 90,000 children out of poverty, with measures such as the game-changing Scottish child payment. Here in London, we have a Westminster Government, supported by the Labour party, wedded to a two-child policy that pushes 250,000 children into poverty. What does the Minister think it says about Westminster’s values on child poverty that they are wedded to a two-child policy with a rape clause?

Adults in workless households are seven times more likely to be in poverty than those in working households. That is why our focus is on work. The Scotland Act 2016 gave the Scottish Parliament the powers that have been invoked, including on the child payment, and that is very pleasing for us. The Act transferred those powers for carers and disability benefits, worth £3.3 billion. The hon. Gentleman and his Government can make the decisions that suit their communities. That is the right approach.

Cost of Living: Pensioners

More than 8 million pensioner households will receive a £300 payment this winter to top up their winter fuel allowance payment. The 1.4 million pensioners currently in receipt of pension credit may also receive cost of living payments totalling up to £900 in 2023-24.

In Southport we have a significant number of pensioners who, having lost their partners, now face the added challenge of managing increased living costs alone. Can the Minister kindly elaborate on what specific initiatives or support mechanisms are in place to assist people in those financially difficult circumstances, to ensure that they get the support they deserve?

Anyone who suffers a bereavement at any time will potentially be in severe financial difficulties. I direct my hon. Friend to the funeral expenses payment, which is part of the social fund. I would also point to the wider measures that we have taken, such as applying the triple lock—there will be an 8.5% increase in the state pension next year. We will also include cost of living payments in the winter fuel payment, of £500 or £600, depending on the age of the recipient.

Despite the welcome fall in inflation, my constituent Deborah Garrard speaks for herself and many pensioners who are concerned about a second winter of high fuel prices. Will my hon. Friend outline what further measures the Department is considering to help reduce pensioners’ financial burden?

I know that Mrs Garrard will not be the only older resident in the country concerned about energy prices this winter. I just mentioned the increased cost of living payment that we are adding to the winter fuel payment. In addition, we have increased the warm home discount to up to £150, and there is a whole suite of cold weather payments that can be made in the event of seven days of sustained cold weather. We have a wide range of measures to help support people when faced with cold weather and high energy costs.

Work Incentives

Universal credit is specifically designed to make work pay, with strong financial incentives such as the 55% earnings taper and work allowances. Working families can also get support with up to 85% of their childcare costs. The maximum amounts have been increased by 47%, up to £950 for one child and £1,630 for two or more children. Additionally, the rise in the national living wage from April means that some 2.7 million workers will be £1,800 better off, on average, as well as benefiting from national insurance cuts.

I thank the Minister for her answer and welcome her back to the Front Bench. Basildon jobcentre recently hosted two health and social care recruitment events, which resulted in the filling of 20 vacancies, helping to reduce local unemployment. Does the Minister agree that work is the best route out of poverty and that it is this Government who are helping more people into work and aligning vacancies with employees?

First, I would just like to take a minute to thank Basildon jobcentre, and indeed all jobcentres, for the work they do, from Chorley to the west country and back to the east. Targeted recruitment fairs are a great way to work with specific sectors that have shortages, including health and social care, construction, manufacturing, and hospitality. My hon. Friend is right that getting more people into work is a top priority for the Department and across Government. We know that it is good for wellbeing, both personally and financially, and those in work are on average £6,000 better off a year.

UNICEF Report on Child Poverty

12. Whether he has made an assessment of the potential implications for his policies of UNICEF’s report entitled “Child Poverty in the Midst of Wealth”. (900709)

The overall number of children in absolute poverty after housing costs remained stable between 2020-21 and 2021-22. The latest statistics show that in 2021-22 there were 400,000 fewer children in absolute poverty, after housing costs, than in 2009-10. The Government continue to provide comprehensive support to help people find, progress in and thrive in work, recognising that that has to be sustainable in tackling poverty.

A couple of weeks ago, when I asked the Prime Minister why 34% of children in Stockton North live in poverty, he claimed that child poverty was down. But even if we rely on his and his Government’s unique measuring tool, child poverty is still up, considerably, across every part of the north-east under his watch. According to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, 1 million British children have suffered destitution in the past year. When will the Prime Minister and his Ministers stop pretending that they care and make way for a Labour Government who will sort out the mess that shames the Tories?

The Government are determined to ensure that all children, wherever they come from, have the best start in life. We are committed to supporting families and helping them into work. The full uprating, this year and last, is the signal.


14. What steps his Department is taking to help reduce the number of people experiencing destitution. (900712)

The Government are, of course, fully committed to protecting the most vulnerable, which is why we rolled out £104 billion in cost of living payments across the period from 2022 to 2025. It is why, as the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Sussex (Mims Davies), has repeatedly stressed, we increased the rates for the LHA housing support, and why benefits increased by the full 6.7%.

It is absolutely heartbreaking that in the world’s sixth-richest country we now have 4 million people living in destitution. We know that disabled people are more likely to live in poverty, yet this winter disabled people will not be getting any additional help with the cost of living after the separate disability cost of living payment was quietly dropped. The cost of living for disabled people is still going up, so will the Secretary of State commit to reinstating the payment, and at a level that meets the extra living costs faced by disabled people?

I am not sure precisely which disability payment the hon. Gentleman is referring to, but certainly the cost of living disability payment has been paid this year, in addition to the increase in the national living wage, tax cuts and national insurance tax cuts, all of which help people, particularly those on low pay. That is why, under this Government, the level of absolutely poverty has fallen by 1.7 million since 2010, with 400,000 fewer children in poverty.

Flexible Working

15. Whether he has made an assessment of the role of flexible working arrangements in supporting people to take up employment. (900714)

Flexible working can play an important role in supporting people to start, stay in and succeed in work, and for businesses to grow. I have already seen at first hand examples of good employers offering tailored roles or changed hours to support workers, particularly parents, who have caring responsibilities. Flexibility has made a difference and drives success for all.

As the Minister mentioned, the hospital industry—especially in coastal constituencies such as mine—is suffering disproportionately from high vacancy levels exacerbated by covid and the shift in working patterns. What more can the Government do to encourage smarter working and job sharing? For example, students and younger people could work some of the later and weekend hours—the less social hours—sharing with parents with family responsibilities, who could work more regular hours during the daytime.

The UK hospitality industry does a fantastic job, particularly at this time of the year when it is helping us to enjoy the festive season. I am providing help and collaboration by delivering pilot schemes across the industry. In particular, we are developing a more standardised approach to training, which includes a proposal to award a hospitality skills passport. We need to do all we can with workers to build confidence and the right skills. I am interested by my hon. Friend’s idea of helping employers to refocus where the needs are, and I shall be happy to work with him, because hospitality offers a great career and transferable skills.

Defined-benefit Pension Schemes

16. Whether he has had recent discussions with the Pensions Regulator on the adequacy of the administration of defined-benefit pension schemes. (900715)

I am fortunate in having already been able to meet representatives of the Pensions Regulator twice since my appointment to discuss the full gamut of their responsibilities.

Members of the BP pension scheme, a defined-benefit scheme, have seen the value of their pensions fall by 11% in real terms as a consequence of their senior management’s refusal to upgrade them in line with the cost of living, although the pension fund itself has a £5 billion surplus. Does the Minister agree that if the rules allow companies such as BP to deal from the bottom of the deck when it comes to their own pensioners, these are rules that need to be changed?

That is certainly something I need to look into. When people raise the issue of specific pension schemes, I am always conscious of just how many thousands of scheme members are potentially watching, so I do not wish to speak off the cuff and raise hopes that I may not be able to fulfil. However, I shall be happy to meet the right hon. Gentleman to discuss the circumstances in greater detail and see what can be done.

Long-term Sickness and Disability

21. What steps his Department is taking to encourage people who are economically inactive owing to long-term sickness and disability to return to work. (900721)

The Government have a range of initiatives to help disabled people and people with health conditions to start, stay in and succeed in work. We built on that in the autumn statement by expanding universal support, launching WorkWell pilots, reforming the fit note and establishing an expert group on occupational health.

Does the Minister agree that the Disability Confident jobs fair that I am hosting in Holyhead with my brilliant Anglesey DWP team is an opportunity for excellent local businesses such as Hafan y Môr and Llechwedd Meats, and organisations such as Môn Communities Forward and the Menter Môn enterprise hub, to help people with disabilities back into work, and will she lobby the Secretary of State to visit Ynys Môn in February to open the disability jobs fair?

I do not want to commit the Secretary of State, but I have a feeling that he will be in Ynys Môn in February. I thank my hon. Friend for the huge amount of work that she does in respect of local jobcentres, and for her work with those employers. I met her just last week to discuss her focus on young people. Her Local Jobs for Local People campaign is a great example of her tireless work for the future of the community in Ynys Môn—so, iechyd da!

Topical Questions

May I begin by welcoming my new team to the Front Bench? Joining the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Sussex (Mims Davies), and Lord Younger in the other place are the new Minister for Employment, my hon. Friend the Member for Bury St Edmunds (Jo Churchill), and the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard). I know that they will make a great contribution to the Department. Let me also thank those who have departed, my right hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks (Laura Trott) and my hon. Friends the Members for Corby (Tom Pursglove) and for Hexham (Guy Opperman), who have important other duties in Government.

This has been a year of considerable achievement for my Department. We have already heard about the cost of living payments, the support for the most vulnerable, the 6.7% increase in working-age benefits, the 8.5% increase in respect of the triple lock for pensioners, welfare reform, near-record levels of payroll employment and almost historically low levels of unemployment, and rising real wages.

I welcome the Government’s decision to boost childcare payments for parents on universal credit by almost 50%, which the Work and Pensions Committee pushed for. I have asked the Department to review childcare rules for parents in training and education, but can my right hon. Friend outline the other ways in which the Government are supporting low-income families in Stroud?

My hon. Friend is being too modest in laying all the progress at the door of the Select Committee, because it was she in particular who pushed for those reforms to childcare within universal credit, and I believe that she was quite rightly name-checked by the Chancellor in his Budget statement. We of course have the back to work plan, the extension of restart, the doubling of universal support, the greatest-ever increase in the national living wage and the reductions in employee national insurance, all of which are there to drive further employment.

During the recent covid inquiry, the former Health Secretary, the right hon. Member for West Suffolk (Matt Hancock), said that statutory sick pay was “far too low” and that if he had a magic wand, he would fix it. Given that the Secretary of State has the magic wand, as the Minister responsible for this, when is he going to fix it?

I am certainly not going to start making policy up on the hoof at the Dispatch Box this afternoon or promising more money for statutory sickness pay. That would require discussions across Government, but I note the point that the hon. Gentleman has made.

T2. I welcome this Government’s back to work plan and the emphasis on work being the most effective way out of poverty. What support can be made available for people in high unemployment areas to travel or relocate to areas of low unemployment such as Banff and Buchan, which have high numbers of vacancies, particularly in the seafood processing sector? (900723)

I thank my hon. Friend and note his relentless support for the seafood industry more broadly and the processing industry in particular. I understand that the former Minister for Employment, my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman), visited Scotland earlier this year to look at that industry. Work coaches offer tailored employment support to all jobseekers and the flexible support fund is available at the discretion of jobcentres to purchase goods and services, including travel, to support claimants to move from one area to another in order to take up job opportunities. I know that my hon. Friend is working hard in his local area to find solutions, and I am always happy to discuss ideas with him.

T4. Many people took the decision to pay for pension top-ups in 2020 and 2021, but in numerous instances this has not led to any increase in their state pension; nor have they received any explanation or a refund. Has the Department made an assessment of the average delay in people receiving their pension top-ups? (900725)

The advice to anyone seeking to top up their pension or buy extra national insurance credits would be to ring the Future Pension Centre in advance of making any payments, to determine whether they would actually enhance their pension by making them. It is always best for people to check before they make those payments, to make sure that they will improve their pension.

T5. Ministers are rightly putting a great deal of money and focus behind back to work programmes across the country. What progress have they made towards transparently publishing the outcomes so that we can see which programmes perform better or worse in different parts of the country and why? (900726)

The DWP regularly publishes statistics on its employment programmes, and the latest statistical release of the restart programme was published on 7 December. The back to work plan announced further measures to tackle long-term unemployment, such as mandatory placements for those who complete restart without securing a job. The policy detail, including the reporting, is yet to be worked through.

T6. It is vital that local authorities such as Gateshead and voluntary community organisations know as soon as possible whether the household support fund will be extended beyond March. Can the Secretary of State confirm when they will finally get a definitive answer on this? (900727)

As the hon. Lady will know, these are matters for the Treasury, and specifically for the Chancellor of the Exchequer. He and I have conversations on these matters and others. Announcements will be made in due course, but of course the household support fund will be in place until the end of March.

T7. At this time of year, the Department gives benefit recipients a generous Christmas gift of £10, which has not been increased for, I think, 51 years. Will the Secretary of State look to make it at least £20 next year, to help people a bit more with the extra costs at Christmas? (900728)

As pensions Minister, my main focus is on making sure that we have a high-quality, sustainable pension system that, year on year, keeps the value of the overall state pension as high as possible and that meets our manifesto commitment to the triple lock. That is the best way of focusing on the value of the state pension.

Twenty months ago, the Equality and Human Rights Commission issued a section 23 agreement request to the Department, following concerns regarding breaches and potential discrimination against disabled people. Why has the Department still not reached an agreement?

As the hon. Lady will know, there are ongoing discussions on these matters. By virtue of the legislation that underpins those interactions, the discussions are necessarily held in private. I am informed that they have resulted in positive engagement, and that the Department and the EHRC will come forward with a response as soon as possible.

T8. The world’s biggest Lidl warehouse, in Houghton Regis, is not only half a kilometre long and can deliver 9,400 pallets a day; it is also creating 1,500 jobs. What specific help can Jobcentre Plus give to employers such as Lidl, which has a huge number of vacancies to fill in my constituency? (900730)

It is fantastic to hear of the job opportunities created by Lidl in South West Bedfordshire. I know my hon. Friend will be working hard with Lidl and his local jobcentre to make sure the vacancies are filled with local talent. Jobcentres can work closely with large employers, as I have recently seen at Morrisons, which has a specific neurodiversity pilot to bring people into the job market. The barriers that restrict neurodiverse people are often challenges around confidence and so on. Jobcentres are a brilliant force for good, and I recommend that everybody engages with them on bespoke schemes for neurodiversity or any other focus on tackling long-term unemployment.

In 2010 there were 117,000 16 to 24-year-olds on long-term sickness and health benefits. That figure now stands at a massive 235,000. Why is that, and what are the Government doing about those appalling figures?

The hon. Gentleman is right. There has been a marked increase in the prevalence of mental health conditions, particularly among those aged 16 to 24, which is why we are bringing in measures such as universal support and talking therapies within the national health service, for which 400,000 additional places were announced by the Chancellor at the autumn statement. We have introduced measures such as WorkWell, and others, to address exactly these issues.

I have patiently sat through questions, and I have not heard Disability Confident mentioned once. Disability Confident was, and I hope still is, a very successful scheme that I launched when I was a Minister—I went around the country with Simon Weston. Can I have confidence that the scheme is still in place?

My right hon. Friend will be delighted to know it is at the heart of the work that the Employment Minister spoke about today. It is at the heart of our disability action plan, which Members will hear more about in the new year. I advise all employers to focus on being disability confident and employing with confidence, rather than just writing about it on a website.

After the UK Government appallingly downgraded the dedicated role of disabilities Minister, Scope’s executive director, James Taylor, wrote to the Prime Minister saying that

“the UK’s 16 million disabled people deserve so much better than this treatment.”

It is a clear message that the UK Government do not view disabled people as a priority. Will this Government urgently reverse their decision and reinstate the role?

That is a complete misunderstanding; the hon. Lady refers to reinstating the role, but all the responsibilities of the previous disability Minister have been taken over by the current one, the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Sussex (Mims Davies), who happens to be the most experienced Minister in my Department. She is extraordinarily capable; she absolutely understands the issues and will do a fantastic job.

I warmly welcome the new disabilities Minister, as I know she shares my passion for closing the autism employment gap. Will she work with me, as we reach the closing stages of my independent review of autism and employment, to make sure that the publication of the report will be the beginning of a process whereby we can dramatically tackle the scandal of having fewer than three in 10 autistic adults in employment?

I thank my right hon. and learned Friend for the opportunity to build on that incredible work, which will be life-changing for many of our constituents. The people we are talking about today are not statistics; they are humans, and they need to have a real difference in their lives. For Opposition Members, and everyone else listening today, let me say that I am determined to make sure that those people have a voice across Government and that I use my experience to deliver.

Further to the point made by the hon. Member for Leeds East (Richard Burgon), a recent report by the National Institute of Economic and Social Research suggested that destitution in Northern Ireland is set to rise to 67%. That is a truly horrific and worrying figure. What discussions has the Minister had with partners back home in Northern Ireland on this matter?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising this point. Our focus is on tackling poverty and making sure that work supports everyone across the UK. I am delighted to be coming to Northern Ireland fairly soon, when I will pick up those discussions further.

The great working city of Gloucester has a high employment rate, but we still have some people who could help to fill vacancies in both city and county. So the Gloucester opportunities fair on 23 February provides a great opportunity not just for all my constituents, including to get free advice on debt, volunteering and benefits, but perhaps for the new Employment Minister, whom I welcome to her place, to come to join us in celebrating the availability in Gloucester and the support for those working there.

My constituents Susan and David Cfas have made representations to me about the situation facing them and many other pensioners who are having to access benefits and other Government support because they are stuck in an annuity trap, whereby at retirement they posted an annuity, which has remained fixed. Will my right hon. Friend meet me to discuss the plight of pensioners in that situation to see whether more can be done to encourage them to access different approaches to increase their income?

That is certainly one reason why we are trying to get people to engage in a more considered way with what they do at the point of the decumulation of their pension funds, but I am more than happy to meet my hon. Friend to discuss his specific concerns about annuities in due course.

The Trussell Trust has recently reported that in the past year there has been an 80% increase in the number of children in Stretford and Urmston being supported with food parcels. Can the Minister tell me why it believes that is the case?

The record speaks for itself: this Government have been behind £104 billion-worth of support for the most vulnerable over the period 2022 to 2025; poverty in absolute terms, after housing, has fallen by 1.7 million since 2009-10, when the hon. Gentleman’s party was last in office; we have 400,000 fewer children and 200,000 fewer pensioners in absolutely poverty—under the last Labour Government, we had the fourth highest level of pensioner poverty in Europe; and we have put the national living wage up by 9.8% and cut taxes as well.

May I add my warm welcome to my near neighbour, the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Sussex, as the new disabilities Minister? Does she acknowledge that one feature of covid has been a big increase in the incidence of mental health issues, particularly among younger people? What is her Department doing to tailor its programmes to get those non-working parts of the population who have not been working since covid and are suffering from mental health challenges back into the workforce?

I thank my hon. Friend for welcoming me to this brief. I will still be very much focused on young people and those key transitions in their lives. We have our reform relating to universal support, our fit note reform and our WorkWell partnerships, which launched on 16 November and will support 60,000 long-term sick and disabled people to start, stay and succeed in work. The youth hubs we have at the Department for Work and Pensions, which are focused on the under-25s, zero in on this issue in particular.

Trial of Jimmy Lai

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs what steps he is taking to support Jimmy Lai during his trial and if he will call for his immediate and unconditional release.

The Foreign Secretary has called on the Hong Kong authorities to end their prosecution of Jimmy Lai and release him. He also urged the Chinese authorities to repeal the national security law and end the prosecution of all individuals charged under it. The Foreign Secretary and I welcomed the opportunity to meet Mr Lai’s son, Sebastien, again last week and to listen to his concerns as the trial approached.

As the Foreign Secretary has made clear, Mr Lai’s prosecution is politically motivated. He has faced multiple charges to discredit and silence him. As an outspoken journalist and publisher, he has been targeted in a clear attempt to stop the peaceful exercise of his rights to freedom of expression and association. The Foreign Secretary raised Mr Lai’s prosecution with Foreign Minister Wang Yi on 5 December, as his predecessor did in Beijing on 30 August. We will continue to press for Mr Lai’s release with the Hong Kong and Chinese authorities.

Diplomats from our consulate general attended court today as a visible sign of the UK’s support, and they will continue to do so. We will continue to press for consular access to Mr Lai, which the Hong Kong prison authorities have repeatedly refused. China considers anyone of Chinese heritage born in China to be a Chinese national. It does not recognise other nationalities and therefore considers Mr Lai to be exclusively Chinese.

More broadly, we have made it clear that the national security law has damaged Hong Kong and its way of life. Rights and freedoms have been significantly eroded and arrests under the law have silenced opposition voices. It is a clear breach of the Sino-British joint declaration, the legally binding UN-registered treaty that China willingly entered into. Its continued existence and use is a demonstration of China breaking its international commitments. We will continue to stand up for the people of Hong Kong, to call out violations of their rights and freedoms, and to hold China to its international obligations.

I thank my right hon. Friend for her response.

Jimmy Lai is and has always been a full British citizen and he has never held a Chinese passport, and therefore he should have been publicly recognised by the Government some time ago. However, I welcome the change in rhetoric by the Foreign Secretary, who said today that

“Jimmy Lai is a British citizen”

and called on the Chinese Government to release him. I am pleased that there seems to have been a shift in policy. Notwithstanding that, I and hon. Friends have raised the issue of his citizenship with the Foreign Office to no avail, until now.

At the heart of the issue lies the Sino-British agreement. I recall that at the time of its signing, the ambassador in Beijing, Percy Cradock, said of China’s leaders that they may be “thuggish dictators” but that they were “men of their word” and could be

“trusted to do what they promise”.

How history always shows us wrong. We cannot trust thuggish dictators, and they have trashed the Sino-British agreement without so much as a by-your-leave. Instead, we now have political persecution, destruction of press freedoms, forced confessions and the targeting of foreign nationals as a matter of course. The national security law is the key, because it has been stripping away their rights, and particularly those of Jimmy Lai, who faces a lifetime in prison.

A new axis of totalitarian states has formed, including China, North Korea, Russia, Iran and Syria. We must be on our toes and realise that their target is democracy itself. Given that, will the Government reconsider their words in the integrated review and reinstate the idea that China is a systemic threat, not just to us but to the very values that we seek?

I must tell the Government that an individual already known to me and some others is being used in the persecution of Jimmy Lai. We know that he has been tortured to give evidence, so, clearly, his evidence cannot be relied on. In the light of that, will the Government give a commitment today that if and when UK or other citizens are targeted through the evidence at Jimmy Lai’s trial, concrete actions will be taken to protect them, and that we will do so by working with our allies, including the US, Japan, and others in Europe? This is a very serious issue and it may yet erupt.

Will the Government now sanction John Lee and others responsible for Hong Kong’s national security law? After all, the US has sanctioned 10 people and we have sanctioned none. Are the UK Government considering how to allow Hong Kong asylum applications to switch to British National (Overseas) applications to save all the heartache? As we approach Christmas, Mr Speaker, this brave and devoted Christian will—

Order. I am sorry, but the right hon. Gentleman is way, way over time. I am sure that other hon. Members will bring in the other points.

I think we all agree with my right hon. Friend that the breaching of the Sino-British joint declaration is a great tragedy. As the Foreign Secretary set out, the national security law, which we are calling on the Hong Kong authorities to repeal, is breaching so many of those values that we understood that China was willing to maintain with Hong Kong after 1997.

My right hon. Friend mentions the integrated review refresh, in which the Prime Minister set out very clearly our perspective, which is that we consider China to be an epoch-defining challenge. It then sets out in great detail a number of areas of concern around China and economic coercive activity. We continue to work closely with the G7 and other partners around the world to tackle that and to work together to try to persuade China to reverse some of those policies.

Importantly—I say this a lot at the Dispatch Box as the sanctions Minister—I listen very closely, as do all of us here and our officials in the Foreign Office, on all issues related to potential future sanctions. We continue to look at those under the global human rights sanctions regulations in this arena, but we do not speculate about future sanctions designations, because of course that could reduce their impact.

The ongoing detention of Jimmy Lai, a British citizen, is a stark symbol of the decline of Hong Kong’s freedoms and China’s flagrant disregard for the legally binding Sino-British agreement, which promised a high degree of autonomy for Hongkongers for 50 years. Jimmy Lai’s trial is a further chapter in the erosion of the liberties promised then to the people of Hong Kong.

My right hon. Friend the shadow Foreign Secretary and I have met Jimmy’s son, Sebastien, regularly and made unequivocally clear Labour’s position that Jimmy must be released immediately and that the national security law under which he is being charged is abhorrent. I welcome the intervention by the new Foreign Secretary as Mr Lai’s trial begins today, but there must be sustained interest by the Government, in a way that has been sorely lacking until now.

We cannot sit idly by while British citizens experience a politically motivated trial and the authorities attempt to stifle freedom of expression. I urge the Minister to give a firm commitment right here that the Foreign Secretary’s intervention will not be a one-off, and that the Government will follow Labour’s lead in sustained, consistent and full-throated support for Mr Lai and his legal counsel, and in putting the freedoms promised to the people of Hong Kong at the top of her agenda.

As the Minister both for the Indo-Pacific region—China and Hong Kong are in my purview—and for sanctions, the issues of Jimmy Lai and others held in this way are very much at the top of my agenda. They always have been and always will remain so.

I have met Sebastien Lai on a number of occasions this year, and have worked closely with him and his team to understand the situation and to look at the support that we can provide. The frustration is that we are not able to provide consular access, because we are not allowed to visit him in prison. The Foreign Secretary set out yesterday that he has called for Jimmy Lai’s release, and we will continue to sustain that throughout the trial. At the moment, we expect the trial to last some 80 days, so we expect to see it wrap up in the summer. We will be working very closely with like-minded partners—US, Canadian, Australian, New Zealand, European and Swiss representatives were also in court today—to make it clear that we all have one view, which is that this is a trial from which Jimmy Lai needs to be released.

I am interested in the question of Mr Lai’s nationality status. If he is a full British citizen, will my right hon. Friend confirm whether Hong Kong has unilaterally withdrawn consular rights for foreign missions to visit their citizens in prison, or is that specifically the case for those imprisoned under the national security law? Whichever it is, could she confirm that the Foreign Office has done everything possible to ensure that the Hong Kong Government realise that those rights of access for our citizens should not be violated lightly?

My hon. Friend is right that consular access should, in an ideal world, be provided to all those who find themselves in prison, whatever the country. The frustrating fact is that it is up to a country—not specifically China—whether it considers dual nationality acceptable. Obviously, we will consider such a dual national British; they will have a British passport. We have absolutely done everything, and we continue to ask for consular access for Jimmy Lai. I was able to help him get a new passport earlier in the year because his old one had run out; we worked with the Home Office to ensure that. We are very comfortable and certain that he is indeed a British citizen, but as I set out, the Hong Kong authorities consider a Hong Kong national born in mainland China to be a Chinese citizen—hence their view on dual nationality, and the impossibility of our authorities visiting him in prison at the moment.

I thank the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Sir Iain Duncan Smith) for securing this urgent question, and Lord Alton, Baroness Kennedy and the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) for their continuing and unwavering support for Jimmy Lai, who, as a UK national, is entitled to expect much more support from the Government than he has thus far received.

A 76-year-old pro-democracy campaigner in ailing health has been imprisoned for more than 1,000 days on trumped-up charges, yet it was only yesterday that his Government finally called for him to be released. I hope that I have misunderstood the Minister, but are we to believe that the UK’s influence is so diminished that we cannot get access to Mr Lai in prison? Will she detail what practical support is being given to him now that his show trial has started, and will she give a cast-iron guarantee that, in the event that Beijing gets the verdict that it is looking for, the Government will proactively come to this House to make a statement on what action they intend to take, rather than having it dragged out of them through another urgent question?

I will not reiterate my previous answer on the subject of consular access and the challenges that we face in being able to support Jimmy Lai in that way. I reiterate the hon. Member’s point that many colleagues across the House have been ardent champions and supporters of Jimmy Lai, and indeed of his family as they seek to ensure that his case is understood across the world. We will continue to call for Jimmy Lai’s release. The national security law needs to be repealed. Those are messages that we will continue to highlight with the authorities at every possible opportunity.

Can I thank you personally, Mr Speaker, for granting today’s urgent question? The pantomime trial of Jimmy Lai is just the tip of a huge iceberg of the Chinese Communist party’s industrial-scale abuse of human rights and indifference to the international rule of law. Today, Parliaments around the world are expressing their solidarity with Jimmy Lai and the oppressed, freedom-loving people of Hong Kong, but there must be consequences. It is no good just monitoring human rights sanctions across the globe; my right hon. Friend has had years to name some of the legal and other officials of the Chinese Government who are undermining and abusing human rights as we speak. When will we see action, and what is she doing to address the concerns about the continual erosion of the judicial process in Hong Kong, and the involvement there of British judges? We need action, not constant warm words.

We continue to use sanctions tools across the piece at every opportunity where the evidence comes to us and we can use it, bearing in mind that, as we always say—I am sorry that it is frustrating for colleagues—we will never discuss potential future sanctions designations, because it could reduce their impact. We will always listen to and look closely at the evidence brought to us, and indeed at the work that our teams across the world do, to try to bring to bear our sanctions regimes against the human rights violations that we are seeing.

Sadly, as we predicted, the people of Hong Kong have seen their freedoms systematically eroded since the national security law was introduced in 2020. Pro-democracy activists such as Jimmy Lai have been detained, public libraries have been emptied of books seen as promoting so-called bad ideologies and the recent “patriots only” local elections saw opposition candidates banned from standing. Can the Minister please explain how the UK Government plan to uphold their commitment to human rights and freedom for all Hongkongers?

The hon. Lady is right; it has been tragic to see the disintegration of all those freedoms, which, when both countries signed up to the Sino-British joint declaration, we considered that China would stand by. Of course, when we saw the national security law coming in, we responded very quickly and decisively, in particular with the new immigration path for British national overseas passport holders, so that we could provide that security for those who felt under most stress. We also suspended the extradition treaty with Hong Kong indefinitely to provide protection for those people and we have extended our arms embargo on mainland China to cover Hong Kong. This is a tragic situation, and we will continue to call for change and for the Hong Kong authorities to reverse the national security law and restore those freedoms that were part of Hong Kong’s extraordinary opportunity for economic success, as well as other things.

Given everything that is happening in China, including this pitiful show trial, is it not now time that the Government of this country developed a proper, coherent cross-Government strategy for dealing with China, since they are patently lacking one at the moment?

As we set out in the integrated review refresh published in March, China’s challenge to both economic and global security is one that we consider to be right at the heart of the challenges we face. We continue to work closely with officials and in concert with G7 and other partners around the world to tackle some of those challenges.

The Minister will be aware, I hope, that Timothy Owen KC, who is part of Jimmy Lai’s defence team, is currently in Hong Kong but, because of the failure to give him a visa to deal with Jimmy Lai’s case, is not able to appear for Jimmy Lai. Will she make representations to the local authorities as a matter of urgency saying that surely the right to appoint counsel of one’s own choosing is a fundamental in any fair legal system, and that we would expect that opportunity to be given to Mr Lai?

The interpretation by China’s Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress of the national security law at the end of last year stated that the Chief Executive would have to certify whether an act or issue involved national security, including the question of overseas lawyers’ participation; otherwise, its statement was that the Chief Executive-led National Security Committee should make the decision. So, attempts to challenge that have sadly failed and the High Court has noted that Hong Kong courts have no jurisdiction over it, but we have called on the Chief Executive to respect those rights and freedoms in Hong Kong and to uphold the rule of law as we all understand it.

How many times must a totalitarian communist state behave like a totalitarian communist state before the Government will recognise it as a totalitarian communist state?

I do not quite know how to follow such an articulately put question. My right hon. Friend highlights one of the many challenges for those of us who believe in, uphold and want to allow other countries around the world to uphold those values and freedoms—freedom of speech, freedom of choice and freedom of association—and we will continue to work with allies and partners to highlight and to sanction, where we can and where we have the tools to do so, those who continue to breach those freedoms.

I pay tribute to Jimmy Lai’s UK-based legal team. However, they have been subject to incredible levels of cyber harassment and other forms of harassment and interference while working on his legal case. What is the Minister doing with other Departments to ensure that lawyers and journalists involved in promoting and advocating for freedom and democracy around the world are protected from such unacceptable levels of transnational repression?

The hon. Lady is absolutely right: there have been shocking attempts to dissuade, make fearful and stop Jimmy Lai’s legal teams here in the UK getting on with their job of defending his case and raising the issues that we have set out today. We work closely with the Home Office, as do his lawyers, to support it and other parts of Government to provide those teams with the technical support that they need. We will continue to do that. It is perhaps a question to pick up and discuss in more detail with the Minister for Security, my right hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Tom Tugendhat). I can ask him whether he will discuss it with the hon. Lady, should she so wish.

Ten days ago, on 8 December, Jimmy had his 76th birthday—it is not rude to say that he is not a young man. This House could send a message to the rest of the world through an early-day motion. An early-day motion was tabled on 13 December by the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), and more Members need to sign it. I will not give the honour to people outside this Chamber who decry early-day motions—although, in fact, there are not that many of them. If we want to send a message, there is a methodology, although it is not the only one. I know that lots of colleagues do not like signing early-day motions, but on this occasion, perhaps they should.

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. The tools that we have at our disposal here in the mother of Parliaments, which allow for freedom of speech and expression, are incredibly important. As a Minister who spends a lot of her time on the other side of the world in countries large and small, I am very conscious that the messaging from this Parliament is heard loud and clear in every other country. We perhaps forget just how important our voice is in standing up for the values that we believe in.

Mr Lai’s detention is a shocking symbol of the erosion not just of human rights but of freedom of expression in Hong Kong. Given everything that we are seeing unfolding, what steps is the Minister taking to ensure that we are supportive of what remains of a free press in Hong Kong?

Jimmy Lai has been an extraordinary champion of free speech, which he chose to continue, despite the changing landscape in Hong Kong. We continue to support people across the piece, many of whom have come to the UK for sanctuary, to be able to be able to speak out and use our freedom of press to share their concerns and highlight the abuses they are seeing.

I join the calls for Jimmy Lai’s release. He is a devout Catholic, and his faith motivates his courageous campaigning for democracy in Hong Kong. After the sustained dismantling in Hong Kong of freedoms of expression, of association, of the press, of judicial independence and others, does the Minister share my concerns that the threats to freedom of religion or belief in Hong Kong are now very real? If she does not, will she please read “Sell Out My Soul: The Impending Threats to Freedom of Religion or Belief in Hong Kong”, the new report by Hong Kong Watch?

My hon. Friend continues in her role to be an extraordinary champion for freedom of religion or belief, and I absolutely agree with her. We continue, of course, to monitor freedom of religion or belief in Hong Kong through our regular six-monthly reports to Parliament and through interactions with local faith leaders. The latest report, published on 19 September, noted that:

“Religious practice is generally not restricted,”

with a variety of

“religious practices coexisting across the territory.”

She is absolutely right: the strength that Jimmy Lai seeks and finds through his faith is extraordinary and it will help him in this very difficult time.

I congratulate the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Sir Iain Duncan Smith) on securing the urgent question. Jimmy Lai has many supporters in the UK, including Brits and those from Hong Kong, but many of them have experienced intimidation and harassment here in the UK from the Chinese Communist party. Those from Hong Kong face certain persecution, arrest and detention if they are forced to return. Twelve activists have recently been told by the UK Government that they are not at risk and have had their asylum claims rejected. Can the Minister explain UK Government policy on whether Hong Kong campaigners should qualify for asylum in the UK?

As I set out earlier, we brought forward the British nationals overseas route for Hong Kong residents to come to the UK. So far, approximately 191,000 applications have been processed, and 184,700 have been granted. The point the hon. Gentleman mentions is one that I am aware the Home Office is looking into. There has been a change in relation to age in the processing, and there is an issue there that I know it is looking at now. I will ask the Home Office to update him once it has finished its review.

A regime such as this has to be judged not on its words, but on its deeds. In its systematic demolition of the rule of law and now of the independence of the legal profession itself, which was such a lively part of an economically successful and prosperous Hong Kong, China is demonstrating its real intentions. What more can the Government do not only to take direct action by way of sanction against the individuals concerned, but to make the strong point that the Basic Law is not an historical document, but a living instrument, and that we expect it to be adhered to?

My right hon. and learned Friend highlights an issue with which he is very familiar—he practises the law—and, indeed, he is absolutely right. The judiciary, the legal profession and those who are servants of it assure the safety and the right outcome of cases, and we will continue to challenge the Hong Kong authorities on the failures of the national security law and call for it to be repealed.

The rule of law and how it is upheld across the world are absolutely essential to our global security and peace, and Mr Lai’s case shows how fragile they are, so what more can the Government do to reassert the importance of our all abiding by the rule of law?

The hon. Lady is absolutely right, and much of the work that our diplomatic teams across the world do is in countries where the rule of law is not necessarily adhered to, but where there are abuses, human rights violations and so on. We continue to highlight and challenge those, working alongside international partners to persuade those leaderships to change their ways, and to understand both the merits of a well-delivered legal system and the value that adds to the credibility of the political leadership of their nations. It is something we do week in, week out. Sadly, there are many countries across the world where these challenges continue, but it is right at the heart of the diplomatic service’s work.

The use of international lawyers has been a long-standing practice in Hong Kong, and we have failed Mr Lai. Will the Minister advise exactly what steps will be taken, and when, to secure or attempt to secure international legal representation of the British citizen Mr Lai?

As I set out in answer to an earlier question, Jimmy Lai obviously wanted to have his own choice of legal representation. He has a fantastic team of lawyers here in the UK supporting him. The challenge for those representing him at the trial is one that we continue to highlight, as I set out earlier. The frustration in the way this system works means that he does not have the international lawyer of his choosing with him. However, we will continue to highlight those failings and, as so many colleagues have highlighted, what we consider the right use of the legal system and such independent representation should be.

Every reasonable democrat will be happy to support the plea of the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Sir Iain Duncan Smith) on behalf of Mr Lai. However, there is a whiff of hypocrisy in the air. In 2021, former ambassador Craig Murray was imprisoned on the fabricated conceit of jigsaw identification, and Julian Assange has been held in Belmarsh prison for 1,300 or more days. Will the Government lead by example and desist from harassing journalist Craig Murray and others, and free Julian Assange now?

While I am thankful that the Foreign Secretary publicly acknowledged the case of Jimmy Lai at the United Nations in February 2023, and reportedly raised the case with Chinese officials during his visit to Beijing, the fact is that a British citizen remains behind bars. May I gently remind right hon. and hon. Members of early-day motion 213, to which they might want to add their names, and ask that the Foreign Secretary, with the voice of the entire British Government, including our Prime Minister and this House, calls for the immediate and unconditional release of Jimmy Lai, who has spent 1,000 days behind bars? Will the Minister do that today, and follow it through tomorrow with the appropriate channels?

The hon. Gentleman is the most incredible champion for so many whose lives, and whose families’ lives, continue to be blighted by challenges to freedom of religion or belief. He is always willing to stand up for them. As a Minister, I do not think I am allowed to sign EDMs, but should you wish to change that rule, Mr Speaker, I would be extremely happy to sign this one. I think that all Members of the House who are able to sign it should do so.

I cannot sign EDMs either—even the girl guiding one—but I am sure that other Members will wish to do so. Let us move on.

Global Combat Air Programme Treaty

Thank you for that warm welcome, Mr Speaker. With permission I would like to share details of the treaty that I signed with my Japanese and Italian counterparts last Thursday.

A year ago, the Prime Ministers of the UK, Japan and Italy agreed to work together on a joint programme to develop a new generation of military combat aircraft. Supersonic and armed with an array of revolutionary new capabilities, our global combat air programme, or GCAP for short, will deliver vital military capability, strengthening and sustaining our combat air sectors, and setting the standard for future combat air. Above all, it will bolster our collective security. The fact is that we are living in a much more dangerous and contested world. Our skies and international airspace are increasingly contested, not least from threats posed by Russia and China. All three treaty countries are already making significant investments in combat air to pursue these lofty ambitions. During recent years, the Ministry of Defence alone has invested £2 billion in UK combat air technology, with a further £600 million from industry to shape the capabilities and develop the necessary skills pipeline to deliver this state-of-the-art aircraft for the future.

Today I am pleased to announce, as an early Christmas present to the House, a major milestone in that programme. On Thursday 14 December in Tokyo, alongside my Italian Defence Minister colleague Guido Crosetto and my Japanese colleague Minister Minoru Kihara, I signed the GCAP treaty. It establishes the legal basis for the formation of a new GCAP international governmental organisation. As everyone seems fond of acronyms, the GIGO—or, as Guido Crosetto told me, the “JIGO”—is now formed. It is with great pleasure that I now confirm that the headquarters of the GIGO will be in the UK.

The GIGO will be responsible for delivering vital military innovation, strengthening our trinational industrial capacity, and getting the most punch out of our pounds, euro and yen. While located in the UK, it will, however, be a partnership of equals, which is why the first chief executive of the new GCAP agency will be from Japan, and the first chief executive officer of the joint venture will be from Italy.

It is worth spending a brief moment reiterating why GCAP is so strategically important. It will immeasurably enhance our freedom of action, ensuring that the RAF has the global reach and cutting-edge capabilities it needs to conduct operations and exercises for decades to come. It will deepen our collaboration with partners in the Euro-Atlantic at a time of increasing instability, and it will also ensure that we remain a key player in the Indo-Pacific theatre, which will only grow in geopolitical influence and importance over decades to come. Indeed, our new treaty already builds upon our existing defence relationships with Japan, complementing the recently signed reciprocal access agreement, which facilitates mutually beneficial defence co-operation, and I was able to speak about that in Japan last week.

Like AUKUS, today’s treaty is a truly multi-decade endeavour with like-minded partners who share our view of the international environment. The agreement arrives two years after we deployed our magnificent Royal Navy carrier strike group in 2021, and it is two years away from a planned carrier strike group deployment in 2025, which will include Japan. Collectively the signal we are sending both to our allies and to our adversaries is clear: the UK is deeply committed to Indo-Pacific security and Euro-Atlantic security, as well as global security. In increasingly uncertain and deadly times, we will do everything in our power to preserve an open and stable international order.

We should never forget, however, that GCAP is more than just an engine of security; it is also an engine of prosperity. With key combat air hubs in the north-west and south-west of England and in Edinburgh, GCAP will help accelerate economic growth across the country. There are already around 3,000 people working on the future combat air programme in the UK, with almost 600 organisations on contracts across the country, including many SMEs and academic institutions. The GIGO headquarters alone will support hundreds of jobs here in the UK. It will attract substantial inward investment in research and development, providing opportunities for our next generation of highly skilled engineers and technicians, not to mention the prospect of thousands more high-value jobs right across the supply chains of our three nations.

More than that, it is a programme of such size and sophistication—it is a programme that will innovate on such an extraordinary scale, using artificial intelligence, digital twinning, open architecture and robotic engineering —that I believe it will inspire a whole new generation to get into engineering, aerospace and defence. Today, we are glimpsing the future, and it comes after months of intensive work to get this together with Japan and Italy, establishing the concept of a GCAP aircraft and the joint structures to launch the development phase in 2025.

One year on from the landmark deal that three Prime Ministers put together, our GCAP partnership is soaring to new heights. Getting here has been the product of immense effort and long sleepless nights from colleagues in all three countries. I pay tribute to their tireless effort, because today we fire up the thrusters to turbo-boost our nations towards a revolutionary air capability. That capability will one day surpass an earlier pantheon of legends in the sky, from the Spitfire to the Tornado and from the Typhoon to the F-35. It is a capability that will initiate a step-change in the industrial co-operation between our three nations and will usher in a new era of combat air power. Given all it will do for our country, I have no doubt that, when it comes to formally laying the treaty for ratification before this Parliament, it will meet with the approval of colleagues on both sides of the House. The treaty has been published on today, and I commend this statement to the House.

I thank the Defence Secretary for his statement this afternoon and for early sight of it.

We welcome the treaty that he signed on behalf of the UK last week with Japan and Italy, and we warmly welcome the decision to locate the GCAP government headquarters in London. The treaty is the latest in the planned steps for developing our tri-nation sixth-generation fighter and weaponry. Ukraine has shown us that some of our strongest allies are in east Asia and the Pacific, and we share with them concern about China’s growing military power and assertiveness in the region. We want to see peace, stability and deterrence strengthened in the Indo-Pacific. GCAP is, like AUKUS, a strategic UK commitment to contribute to that. I know it is welcomed in Washington and Canberra, just like AUKUS.

Most importantly, developing a sixth-generation fighter will ensure that we can continue to safeguard our UK skies and those of our NATO allies for decades to come. It will inspire innovation, strengthen UK industry and keep Britain at the cutting edge of defence technology. The Defence Secretary is right to report that to the House.

Defence industrial collaboration underpinned by treaty is unusual. It is a multi-decade undertaking for this nation. As the Secretary of State says, it should command support across the House, and Ministers should report on it openly and regularly. May I ask him what scope the treaty allows to work with other allies, both at a secondary level and as primary partners? Does article 50 ensure that the export problems with the Typhoon will not be encountered with GCAP? When will he lay the treaty before Parliament for ratification?

This month, the National Audit Office reported on the MOD’s equipment plan. It exposed a £17 billion black hole in Britain’s defence plans and showed that Ministers have lost control of the defence budget. In June, the defence Command Paper reaffirmed that the UK would spend £2 billion on this project “out to 2025”. Will the Secretary of State confirm what funding has been made available for GCAP in the defence budget for 2025 and 2026? In response to a written question, the then procurement Minister, the right hon. and learned Member for Cheltenham (Alex Chalk), told me back in March:

“We will determine the cost-sharing arrangements ahead of the next phase”.

Has that now been done, ahead of the treaty signing?

Meanwhile, the Infrastructure and Projects Authority this year downgraded the GCAP programme to red, which rates

“successful delivery…to be unachievable. There are major issues which at this stage do not appear to be manageable or resolvable.”

What are the major issues that led to the IPA downgrade? What action is the Secretary of State now taking to lift the red rating?

The Secretary of State said this afternoon that the joint development phase will launch in 2025. His press statement on the treaty signing said this combat aircraft is

“due to take to the skies in 2035”.

Keeping the programme on time, as well as in budget, will be critical, so by what date does he expect the design to be locked down, the national work shares to be settled, the manufacturing agreements to be in place, and the first flight trials to begin?

Signing the treaty is the easy part. Britain and its allies must now do the hard work to get this new-generation fighter aircraft in the air and on time.

May I start by warmly welcoming the right hon. Gentleman’s welcoming of this treaty signing and the overall programme? As I say, Members on both sides of the House agree that the defence of the realm comes first. In an ever more dangerous world, it is important to have the facilities that a sixth-generation fighter aircraft would bring.

The right hon. Gentleman mentioned that the HQ is coming to London, but I want to put it on record that it is coming to the UK. We have not decided a location for it yet. I think there are 20-plus potential locations, so I would not want to assume that it will be based in London. We are not as London-centric on everything as he may be.

The right hon. Gentleman asked about examples of working internationally previously. It is worth pointing out that the Typhoon was Italian, British, German and Spanish, and it has been a very successful programme. We are used to working with partners, including Italy, which is involved in this programme.

The right hon. Gentleman asked about article 50 export issues. I think his question is born out of a specific concern about German export licences, which we believe are resolvable. Time will tell. On a wider basis, we recognise that such an aircraft can only be truly successful if the market is greater than the UK, Italy and Japan.

The right hon. Gentleman asked about the broader equipment plans, and he mentioned the £16.9 billion programme. There are a number of caveats. Of course, we have seen huge inflation, but at the other end we have also seen a big expansion of the amount of money that is going into our 10-year equipment programme. That number, which was a snapshot in time, was taken before the refresh and takes into account programmes that will and will not happen, so it is not quite as black and white as he presented.

The right hon. Gentleman asked about cost sharing on the programme. That is part of what the process of discussions both on the treaty and on the new GIGO organisation will ascertain. That is because the industrial capacity and capability of each of the three countries is important, as is the intellectual property that will be brought forward. That is part of what that organisation is currently establishing. It cannot be prejudged simply because we are likely to have greater industrial capacity in certain areas relative to other countries. The amount of project ownership will therefore fall on these factors: how much money goes in, the intellectual property and the industrial capacity.

The right hon. Gentleman asked about RAG—red, amber, green—ratings. If I remember rightly—I will correct the record if I am wrong—one of the reasons for the red rating was about laying a treaty for the project. That is one of the reasons why we are laying the treaty for the project, and we will carry on systematically working through any other factors that could be slowing up the programme or causing the rating to be lower.

The right hon. Gentleman asked about the timing for the treaty. I am pleased that there seems to be strong cross-party consensus on this. As he will know, passing such treaties in this House is not a particularly complex matter—the treaty will be laid before the House, and it will be a question for the business managers. In other countries—in Italy and particularly in the Diet in Japan—there is a rather more complicated process, so the time limiter is likely to be more on their side than on ours. They will be looking to lay the treaty at their end in the spring, and that is more likely to be the issue.

The right hon. Gentleman asked about the timings overall. It is a compressed timetable, with a specific requirement for it to be in service for 2035, which comes from the Japanese side because of its aircraft replacement programme. Japan pressed the target, which we are fully signed up to, and there are a large number of milestones along the way, including a UK demonstrator aircraft, which will be very much sooner. I hope that that information is helpful. I am happy to write to him with any further detail and to take further questions.

In welcoming this project for a long-term future aircraft, may I ask the Secretary of State whether he agrees that the threat picture that will face it will in large measure depend on the outcome of the conflict between Ukraine and Russia? Can he say anything to the House about the efforts that he and fellow NATO members are making to ensure that Ukraine has some current aircraft with which to defend itself, so as to improve the prospects that will face us when this future aircraft comes into being?

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right to say that air facilities and combat capabilities are essential to Ukraine, as we have seen. That is not just aircraft but unmanned vehicles of all types. That is why this aircraft—it will be known to some in the House as the Tempest, which was the name when we originally set off—will have the facility to fly unmanned. We know that Ukraine has chosen the F-16. We do not fly F-16s, but to persuade the world to give Ukraine aircraft, we offered the first training. That seemed to create a situation where other countries pitched in. We do, of course, help Ukraine in many other ways on unmanned aerial vehicles, some of which perhaps we will not go into here.

I thank the Secretary of State for advance sight his statement. The SNP welcomes this defence co-operation between responsible allies that will be taken forward. The Secretary of State rather brushed away the question from the Labour shadow Secretary of State about the £17 billion black hole in the defence equipment budget. Since the Secretary of State mentioned expansion, will he expand on that? Will he guarantee that other areas in defence spending are not to be sacrificed and that they will get the support that is required? When will he come to the House to detail how that support will be delivered? I will come back to that in a moment.

The Secretary of State talked about the additional market for this equipment. What concerns are there about Saudi Arabia joining the programme and the potential use of future combat aircraft in Yemen? What assessment has been made of the possibility of the programme increasing tensions with China and worsening the situation in the Taiwan strait?

Finally, I want to come back to finance. Can the Secretary of State detail how the UK will adhere to its treaty commitments if the shortfall in the MOD budget increases to £29 billion, as projected?

I should point out again that it is not a shortfall in the budget but a snapshot of a forecast done before the refresh.

It is not, simply for the reason that the projects in there may or may not go ahead. The largest increase in that budget was to do with the nuclear enterprise, which we all know the hon. Gentleman does not approve of in the first place because he does not want us to have that ultimate security of constant nuclear defence at sea. We are totally committed to that, and will make sure that it always exists.

The hon. Gentleman asked a good question about Saudi or any other country’s engagement. A programme of this nature is of great interest to many other nations. We receive constant inquiries. The Saudis have been partners with us in air combat for many decades—since Margaret Thatcher’s time at this Dispatch Box. We will see how their interest develops. He mentioned Yemen in relation to Saudi Arabia. Surprisingly, he completely failed to mention that Houthis from Yemen have been attacking ships, including the British ship HMS Diamond, which fired down one of their unmanned aerial vehicles this weekend.

The reality, as ever, is that the hon. Gentleman misunderstands the global context. We will back our RAF to have sixth-generation aircraft capable of being the best in the world.

This is a really exciting announcement, and I congratulate the Defence Secretary. As we procure the sixth generation, we will become a leading nation in advancing air capability. Our world has turned a dark corner and has become more angry. It is right that we collaborate internationally—that is the way forward in upgrading our defence posture. He did not mention how many airframes he planned or hoped to build—perhaps that was deliberate. He did mention the F-35B. We originally wanted more than 130 of those, but we might be lucky to get half that. As has been said, the world will look very different in 2035, and we will need more F-35s. Can he confirm how many of those airframes will be procured? I do not apologise for saying this again and again: is it now time to increase our defence budget to 2.5%?

I thank my right hon. Friend for his points. He is right that having a sixth-generation aircraft in our fleet will ensure that we keep ahead. He will know that Typhoons are at four and a half, and the F-35B is a very capable fifth-generation aircraft. Our current plan is to have 48 by 2025, and another 27 after that. For 2035, it is not possible right now to provide an exact number of a sixth-generation aircraft that is yet to be designed and built. As my right hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East (Sir Julian Lewis) pointed out, we do not know quite what the shape of air war will be at the time, particularly with drones, swarms and many other developments. We do know that air combat will continue to be vital in future, and that we will have the best form of air combat available through GCAP.

I thank the Secretary of State for his statement, delivered in his usual “never knowingly undersold” style. I welcome the treaty, but does he agree that if GCAP is to be successful, he must ensure that we have a vibrant manufacturing base in the UK? I do not know if he is aware or whether his officials have briefed him, but following the completion of the Qatari order at BAE Systems at Warton, there is no more manufacturing taking place at that site. What will he do to fill the gap between delivering the development phase of GCAP and the final aircraft?

It is worth pointing out that the Tempest programme, the UK side of GCAP, already employs 3,000 people in this country—I mentioned that £2 billion has been spent so far—and the right hon. Gentleman will be interested to hear that 1,000 of those are apprentices. He asks about a factory run by what is essentially a private business, or rather not Government, in BAE—

It is factually true to say that it is a private business. I was going to answer the right hon. Gentleman’s question by saying that he will perhaps be aware that there is further interest in Typhoon around the world. I cannot go into specifics, but I very much hope that it is successful in winning that. As a Government, we will certainly be fully behind that.

I have the honour of being the Prime Minister’s trade envoy to Japan. The GCAP treaty is a powerful testament to the very close and like-minded relationship between our two countries. Does the Secretary of State agree with me that it would be helpful if Japan were to revise, carefully and sensibly, the three principles governing its defence technology exports, to allow GCAP to be most effective in today’s changed world?

Mr Speaker, they speak so highly of my right hon. Friend in Japan that I heard of little else while I was there last week. I am very grateful for his work in helping to ensure that the GCAP treaty came to the conclusion that it did last week. He asks about the three principles. They are not in Japanese law, but relate to its Cabinet, and they determine where and how things from the defence world can be exported. When I was in Japan last week, I made it very clear that, in no small part to help the programme to operate successfully, changes to the three principles were likely to be needed, in just the same way that, for AUKUS, Congress needs to make changes to allow exports to happen between the UK and Australia. It is a very similar situation in Tokyo and I did gently persuade my opposite number that that will need to be taken care of.

I welcome the statement and the treaty set out by the Secretary of State. One key problem with procuring new assets and equipment is that once it is specified, lots of changes come in further down the line and the costs shoot up. Given his discussions, has he set a date for when this asset will be specified? What safeguards has he put in place to ensure that it is not continually changed, therefore delaying the project further and adding extra costs?

The hon. Gentleman will be interested to hear that a huge amount of work has been done. On Thursday in Tokyo, we received yet another update from the industry consortium that has been working on the specifics of both the concept behind the joint venture and the different aspects of the aircraft’s performance. It is not yet known in detail exactly what those will be. The technology is so cutting edge that, as he knows, part of the programme is R&D. That will be an iterative programme.

The hon. Gentleman’s central point is absolutely right: the single greatest danger is mission creep that keeps adding on new facilities. One thing that we, as the UK, will be saying is, “Let’s get the aircraft flying and stable as a valuable asset, and then let it iterate or spiral over a period of time once it is in service.”

I congratulate the Secretary of State on the treaty and on forming a technological partnership with Italy and Japan to face some of the more difficult challenges in the world. The right hon. Member for Wentworth and Dearne (John Healey) said that it is all very well to sign the treaty, but it is about the hard work and the skilled work. May I gently remind my right hon. Friend that Lancashire has the heritage, the skills, the apprentices and the site? Does he agree that the best place to put a new site would be next to the National Cyber Force centre in Lancashire, because of the mixture of skills that would come together beautifully?

As I corrected the right hon. Member for Wentworth and Dearne (John Healey), London is not guaranteed as the headquarters, and I think the whole House heard my hon. Friend’s valuable pitch for Lancashire.

I thank the Secretary of State for his positive statement—it is good to hear positivity at any time of the year, but more so at Christmas. It is great to hear of the proactive nature of this programme, and I thank the Secretary of State and his team for the hard work that they have done so far. I note that the north-east of England and Scotland are seeing jobs and engagement. Will the Secretary of State outline how this will enhance skills and labour throughout the United Kingdom and particularly in Northern Ireland, which has a skilled business workforce and industrial trades just waiting to be used? We are here for the Secretary of State’s use, if he will only give us a chance.