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Commons Chamber

Volume 749: debated on Thursday 2 May 2024

House of Commons

Thursday 2 May 2024

The House met at half-past Nine o’clock


[Mr Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions

Business and Trade

The Secretary of State was asked—

Forced Labour: Product Ban

1. If she will introduce legislative proposals to ban products from UK markets that are made with or transported using forced labour. (902612)

The Government recognise the importance of ensuring that UK businesses respect human rights throughout their operations. We continue to keep this area under review and will work with our international partners to understand the most effective ways of tackling forced labour in supply chains.

I thank my hon. Friend for his answer. However, companies with well-documented links to Uyghur slave labour are dumping their goods here in the UK. That is because the United States has introduced the Uyghur Forced Labour Prevention Act and the EU has acted similarly. Last month, I, along with 43 Members of this House and 32 human rights organisations, wrote a joint statement calling for import controls on solar panels. Will the Minister agree to meet me to discuss that and to finally bring forward measures to clean up our supply chains?

The Government are clear that British businesses and solar developers should not stand for receiving solar panels from companies linked to forced labour. We have already taken steps to address the issue through the Procurement Act 2023 and the Modern Slavery Act 2015. In addition, the forthcoming UK solar road map will outline a clear path to reaching our solar deployment ambitions, including on energy security. I reassure my hon. Friend that sustainable solar supply chains will form a central chapter of that road map, and I would be happy to either arrange or have a meeting with her.

Horizon: Northern Ireland Postmasters

2. What steps her Department is taking to support postmasters affected by errors in the Horizon IT system in Northern Ireland. (902613)

On Monday, the House agreed a Government amendment to the Horizon exoneration Bill—the Post Office (Horizon System) Offences Bill—to include convictions in Northern Ireland. The Northern Ireland Executive faced unique challenges in delivering their own legislation in a timely manner. Including Northern Ireland in the Bill ensures that postmasters there are not left behind, and receive exoneration and access to compensation on a UK-wide basis.

First, let me put on record my thanks to the Minister, who has been an industrious, assiduous and great champion for the postmasters and postmistresses across this United Kingdom. There is not a person in the House who does not have great respect for him.

Further to Monday’s business in the House regarding that Northern Ireland provision in the Horizon Bill, which was brought forward by my hon. Friend the Member for North Antrim (Ian Paisley) and my right hon. Friend the Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson), will the Minister outline a timeline so that postmasters and postmistresses across all of Northern Ireland can see an end to the reputational and financial damage, and the heartache caused by the disgraceful operation of the Horizon scheme?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his kinds words. It is always a pleasure to work with him and his colleagues. It is our intention that the legislation will clear both Houses by July, although obviously not all of these things are within our gift. Should that be the case, as we fully expect it to be, the convictions will be quashed in July and compensation redress will be paid from August.

Export Target

UK exports were £862 billion in the 12 months to February. UK services exports reached a record £472 billion in the same period, which is an increase of 10%—they went up by £42 billion. Businesses, including small and medium-sized enterprises, can access my Department’s wealth of export support at That support includes the UK Export Academy, which has had more than 18,000 registrations; our 160 international trade advisers, who help about 6,000 SMEs each year; and 388 export champions, across every part of the UK.

I am pleased to tell my right hon. Friend that we are. There are many, many more good statistics, which he will find in the publication my Department produced at the end of January; it contains further good news stories on UK exports. The UK is a global exporting superpower and the world’s second biggest services exporter. Services exports to the European Union are at a record high and have increased by 36% since 2018.

My right hon. Friend has just detailed very encouraging data, much of which results from the hard work of SMEs. Will she give a bit more information about what support is available specifically to SMEs to help them grow and export more of their products and services?

The Department has declared this year the year of the SME. People often hear news that sounds as though it is just about big business, but SMEs employ most of the people in the UK. We have a network of 160 international trade advisers and our export support services. We have also put in place schemes such as a Help to Grow management course, which 5,290 participants had completed by November. We also have a business support service, which provides support to about 30,000 people in England every year.

Further to those comments about SMEs, in the light of the termination of the trade show access programme, which supported SMEs in gaining international market exposure, what is the Government’s strategy to provide equivalent or enhanced support to ensure UK food products remain competitive within EU markets?

We know that a lot of people are disappointed that we closed the trade show programme, but it was a pilot programme and it did not yield the business successes that we had hoped. We are investing in those things that are providing success and demonstrating real benefits. The UK Export Academy is one of them, along with the export support service, as I mentioned, and the international trade advisers. Many of them will have expertise in food and drink. If the hon. Gentleman writes to us with a specific case, we will be happy to help.

Unfortunately for Government Members, and more importantly for the country, the Office for Budget Responsibility’s recent figures, which I know the Secretary of State struggles with, show that exports have dropped on her watch and are set to have declined again this year. If she has a moment to spare from her leadership campaign, she might read the landmark report published by Aston University last week on the significant boost for British exports that a veterinary agreement could deliver through British farmers and the agrifood industry. Why will she not pursue an agreement that is so obviously in Britain’s national interest?

The OBR puts out lots of figures and the Opposition cherry-pick the ones they think will be most helpful, thinking that we have not done our homework. I encourage the hon. Member to look at the OBR forecasts for growth for this country, which are very high, and I ask him which specific period he is referring to. He should look at what has happened to exports overall, not just periods including covid, which explain why we have had some drops in food exports.

I asked the Secretary of State about the veterinary agreement; I suspect no one on the Opposition Benches will be surprised that she has not shown any interest in a trade agreement that would help British farmers. According to the House of Commons Library, under the last Labour Government exports rose by 55%, but since then exports have risen by only 32%. Is the truth not that British exporters always do better under a Labour Government?

That is absolute rubbish. It is not true. The veterinary agreement that he is talking about would create dynamic alignment with the EU, which is not what this country voted for in 2016. We are delivering what the people voted for. Yes, there will be difficulties—we are sorting them out. It is time that the Opposition moved on and accepted the will of the people.

South Korea: FTA Negotiations

5. What recent progress her Department has made on negotiating a free trade agreement with South Korea. (902616)

I thank my right hon. Friend for the valuable work he is doing as the Prime Minister’s trade envoy to the Republic of Korea. I look forward to his upcoming visit there. He is famous for his timely interventions. Detailed round 2 discussions on an upgraded FTA took place in London from 18 to 22 March, which provided an opportunity to conclude the exploratory phase of negotiations. We now look forward to text-based negotiations in round 3, which is due to take place in Seoul from 24 June.

I thank my right hon. Friend for his answer ahead of my visit to Korea next week. Does he agree that the Indo-Pacific region offers huge opportunities for global growth, particularly as it will be home to something like half the world’s middle-class consumers over the coming decades, and therefore that upgrading this agreement is likely to bring huge benefits to the UK?

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. The Indo-Pacific is a vital part of the world for the UK and forms the centrepiece of our strategy going forward diplomatically and on trading ties. He is right that the Republic of Korea will play a vital role in that. The recently signed Downing Street accord with Korea outlines the breadth and depth of the ongoing relationship. We look forward to the comprehensive and progressive agreement for trans-Pacific partnership coming into effect later this year, and we look forward to seeing if the Republic of Korea will apply.

I am sure the right hon. Member for Maldon (Sir John Whittingdale) does a very effective job in South Korea. I visited myself with the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee a couple of years ago and saw those opportunities. However, there is some concern about transparency around the use of trade envoys. Will the Minister confirm to the House that under this Government no trade envoy has ever demanded and been given the use of a house for their exclusive use?

The hon. Gentleman has slightly jumped the gun, as the next question on the Order Paper relates to trade envoys. May I say how proud we are of the cross-party trade envoy programme, which I think he will hear about in a moment? We think they do an excellent, good value-for-money job for the United Kingdom in promoting trade in a number of key markets.

Parliamentary Trade Envoys

The Prime Minister’s trade envoys provide invaluable support in progressing the UK’s trade and investment agenda in 61 markets across the world. The travel costs incurred by the Prime Minister’s trade envoys were: £63,566 for the financial year 2021-22; £226,014 for 2022-23; and £232,325 for 2023-24. These costs were for flights, for accommodation when the official British residence was unavailable and for other sundry expenses.

There is a great deal of murkiness about the trade envoys. I note that, in answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan), the Minister point blank refused to deny that at least one trade envoy has explicitly asked for the exclusive use of a house while acting as a trade envoy. The Minister has point blank refused to publish the breakdown of all the trade envoys and their costs for absolutely spurious reasons. If a Select Committee visits South Korea, for instance, all the details of the costs are published, but not if a trade envoy goes. How can we possibly judge whether the £750,000 that has been spent so far in the past three years has been well spent? Is there any accountability whatsoever, or is this really just a means of providing sinecures for people who are liked in Government?

Well, there is a lot of bluster there and not a few accusations. The hon. Gentleman may wish to try to stack these things up a bit. It is a cross-party programme, not a Government-only programme. Many Labour MPs, Labour peers and others are members of the programme. Gifts and hospitality are already published in departmental registers. If I may say so, Mr Speaker, two qualifications for this cross-party role are diplomacy and discretion, which might explain why not everybody has been asked to do it.

Scottish Products: Overseas Promotion

7. What recent discussions she has had with the Scottish Government on the promotion of Scottish products in overseas markets. (902619)

My Department works closely with the Scottish Government and their agencies to promote Scottish products in overseas markets. We have recently delivered our Made in Scotland, Sold to the World exporter roadshow in Glasgow. On top of that, I am pleased to say that the PG Paper Company, a brilliant Scottish business, has just received an award in this year’s Made in the UK, Sold to the World awards.

The value of Scotland’s oil exports to the EU reached £9.4 billion in 2023, with total oil exports up 14.7%, so the value of oil as an export commodity cannot be overstated. Those billions of pounds in exports can be balanced against the modest £80 million investment that would increase Grangemouth’s profitability threefold, secure its long-term future and save Grangemouth from closure. Does the Secretary of State accept that it would be absurd for Scotland to be the only major oil-producing nation without a refinery capacity, and will she agree to meet me to discuss this matter further, given that the Scottish Government are otherwise occupied?

The hon. Gentleman is right to raise this issue. It is something that we are concerned about and the UK and Scottish Governments are working together to understand all the options for the future of the refinery, and working closely on the issue through forums such as the Grangemouth Future Industry Board. I am very happy to meet him—as are other Ministers—to discuss this matter further.

Does the Secretary of State agree that, while there has been great progress in promoting and increasing the export of traditional Scottish products, such as whisky, we also need to support new businesses, such as one in South Lanarkshire that is keen to expand electronic vehicle infrastructure into the United States?

Yes, my right hon. Friend is quite right: our exports need to be about the future, not just about the traditional industries, such as Scottish whisky, which are the pride of Scotland and of the UK. Electric vehicles are one way that we will hit our net zero target, and this is an area that the Department for Energy Security and Net Zero is focused on and that I support in Business and Trade. If there is anything specific that we can look into for his constituency, we would be very happy to help.

Steel Supply Chain Jobs

The UK Government’s £500 million grant will safeguard steelmaking in Port Talbot, 5,000 jobs in the company and thousands more in supply chains across the UK that would otherwise have been under serious threat. The transition board, with a further £100 million of funding—£80 million from the UK Government and £20 million from Tata—will also support those affected. That funding will help supply chain businesses to strengthen and diversify their customer base, creating sustainable jobs and business opportunities in Port Talbot and the wider region.

When it is finally introduced, the carbon border adjustment mechanism will provide a vital tool to ensure that British steelworkers have a level playing field so that they can compete against heavily polluting steel industries in other parts of the world, but recent media reports have indicated that India is lobbying No. 10 for an exemption from the UK CBAM. Does the Minister recognise that CBAMs work only if they are comprehensive across all countries and sectors, and if we start giving exemptions here or there the entire policy will unravel? That is particularly important given that Tata’s plan for Port Talbot is based on importing millions of tonnes of semi-finished product steel from India, a country that produces its steel with significantly higher carbon intensity. Will the Minister confirm that under no circumstances will India be given an exemption from the UK carbon border adjustment mechanism? A yes or no answer will suffice.

I was pleased to visit the hon. Gentleman’s constituency as part of my first round of visits in this new role. I look forward to meeting him again later this month. He is right that the Government are committed to ensuring that UK decarbonisation efforts lead to a true reduction in global emissions. The CBAM policy is still being designed. The consultation is ongoing, and I recommend that he contributes to it.

Residents in Scunthorpe are particularly concerned about steel supply chain jobs related to virgin steelmaking. My hon. Friend’s predecessor, my hon. Friend the Member for Wealden (Ms Ghani), was very clear from the Dispatch Box that we obviously need a place for virgin steelmaking in the UK, and that that place is Scunthorpe. Will he confirm that he agrees with her, and that nothing is off the table in his negotiations with British Steel?

I was pleased to visit my hon. Friend’s constituency to meet steelworkers and British Steel management during my visits last month. I know that she is a passionate and dedicated champion for her community and for steelworkers there. I look forward to meeting her again next week ahead of the visit of the Secretary of State to her constituency, and to discussing these matters and others.

No commitment to virgin steel from the Minister, then—what a shame. I welcome him to his place, and note that he visited Port Talbot steelworks last week, but he failed to meet any actual steelworkers of course. Instead of avoiding discussing the Government’s plans for £500 million of taxpayers’ money for the loss of nearly 3,000 jobs, will he please commit to meeting some Port Talbot steelworkers, and will he publish his economic assessment of the impact of the UK losing its capacity to make virgin steel—or is his actual plan to just keep his head down until the Prime Minister finally has the guts to call a general election and leave all these problems piling up for somebody else?

This Conservative Government have given more support to the steel sector than any Government before us. When I went to Port Talbot, I was pleased to meet steelworkers, and I will continue to do so. I also sit on the transition board. I will continue to support steel in south Wales and all the opportunities that the sector will bring.

Caribbean Community: Trade

My hon. Friend is a great champion of international trade, as the Prime Minister’s trade envoy for Mongolia. He will be pleased to know that annual trade between the UK and the Caribbean economic community, CARICOM, in 2023 was £5.1 billion—up 11% in current prices on the previous year. In December 2023, I represented the UK at the inaugural joint council of our economic partnership agreement, where I met representatives of CARICOM and the Dominican Republic, collectively known as CARIFORUM, underlining the importance of our trading relationship and exploring opportunities to further boost trade.

I speak as the chairman of the all-party parliamentary groups on St Kitts and Nevis, Guyana and the Caribbean. It is an extremely important region for the United Kingdom, one of the largest concentrations of British overseas territories and Commonwealth nations in the world, with historic links with the United Kingdom, but the copy-and-paste trade deals that we have with them, carried over from the European Union, are not sufficient. We need a more tailor-made, specific trade agreement between the United Kingdom and the Caribbean Community to ensure that some of those protectionist measures that the European Union imposed on our CARICOM friends can be rescinded. When will that happen?

I thank my hon. Friend for his engagement in the region, in St Kitts, the Caribbean as a whole and Guyana, which remains in all our minds at the moment given the situation on its borders. He is right to highlight the CARIFORUM trade deal; it is a deal that the UK values, and I mentioned that we have had the inaugural meeting of the body designed to ensure that the deal has good effects on our trade with the Caribbean. I might suggest arranging a meeting between my hon. Friend and the trade commissioner Jonathan Knott, who I am sure would be delighted to meet him to discuss Caribbean trade possibilities still further.

Small Businesses: Non-financial Reporting Requirements

10. What steps her Department is taking to reduce non-financial reporting requirements for small businesses. (902622)

I thank my hon. Friend for his question and for his work as one of our trade envoys to the Kingdom of Morocco—I know he is a true diplomat and the soul of discretion. We recently announced that we were raising the monetary thresholds that determine company size, reducing burdens on smaller businesses and removing low-value and overlapping reporting requirements. Around 13,000 medium-sized companies will be reclassified as small companies, and 100,000 small companies will be reclassified as micro-companies. This will save small and medium-sized companies around £145 million a year.

I visit many small businesses in my Aylesbury constituency, and I am always incredibly impressed by their spirit of entrepreneurship and the huge effort and hard work that they put in to succeed. They want to be able to devote as much of their skill and time as possible to finding new customers, selling more of their products and creating jobs, not to bureaucracy, admin and onerous regulation. As the true party of business, our Government have already made great progress supporting business, as the Minister has just outlined, but what more can his Department do to help the small and micro-firms that are the engine of our economy?

My hon. Friend is a real champion of small business, and we meet often talk about these matters. This Government’s policies have pushed the UK to third place in the OECD rankings for start-ups—third out of 39 countries—and we have a suite of programmes to help small businesses. Most importantly, we offer access to finance, with our Start-Up Loans Company, growth guarantee scheme and equity investment schemes, the seed enterprise investment scheme and the enterprise investment scheme. We offer supportive advice through our Help to Grow management suite, including our newly launched “Help to Grow: Management Essentials” course, which is two hours’ free online training for small businesses. We are also removing barriers through non-financial reporting. As well as the monetary size thresholds, we are consulting on increasing the employee size thresholds from 250 employees for a medium-sized company to 500, which will save medium-sized companies a further £150 million a year.

Alongside the despair and financial pressures faced by small businesses, the British Poultry Council recently reported that unreciprocated EU border checks have unfairly saddled UK exporters with £55 million a year in extra costs, while their EU counterparts pay absolutely nothing. Does the Minister agree that this Government’s failure to negotiate a fair sanitary and phytosanitary agreement with the EU has directly undermined British businesses and exposed our exporters to severe competitive disadvantages?

I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman’s question is put that way. We are trying to make sure that we have a fair and level playing field for UK exporters and EU exporters. Of course we need checks on the borders on that basis—it would not be fair to UK producers if that was not the case—but what he is pushing for in a sanitary and phytosanitary agreement is what his hon. Friend the hon. Member for Harrow West (Gareth Thomas) was pushing for: dynamic alignment with the EU, which would lock us into EU rules permanently. We do not believe in that. We believe we have a bright future outside the European Union. He would lock us back into the customs union and the single market.

Manufacturing Sector

11. What recent assessment she has made of the contribution of the manufacturing sector to the economy. (902623)

The UK is a global hub for advanced manufacturing, and according to the OECD, the UK’s manufacturing sector has had the fastest growth in the G7 since 2010. The importance of the sector was highlighted in the Manufacturing Technologies Association’s recent “The true impact of UK manufacturing” report. Manufacturing contributed £217 billion gross value added to the UK economy in 2023, and plays an outsized role in the key drivers of growth, including by accounting for over 40% of UK exports.

The UK leads the way in areas such as artificial intelligence, robotics and the internet of things, which are important for our future, especially in manufacturing. How is that strengthening British businesses and the British economy?

It is well known across the House that my hon. Friend is a strong champion for manufacturing and advanced technologies. The Government are also strongly committed to supporting research and development and innovation, because they contribute significantly to our economic growth. In particular, industrial technologies such as robotics and AI are supporting manufacturing businesses to be more productive and sustainable. That is why the Government have increased R&D investment to £20 billion a year, and are expanding Made Smarter, our highly successful industrial digitisation programme for small and medium-sized enterprises.

Mainly because of this House’s worship of the false idol of net zero, electricity costs to businesses in the UK are four and a half times higher than those in China and three times higher than those in India. Can the Minister explain how manufacturing businesses in the UK can compete with that on world markets?

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will join me in welcoming the introduction of the British industry supercharger, which reduces electricity costs for major energy-intensive industries. I hope that it will benefit businesses in his constituency and across the country.

A key sector of the manufacturing economy is the plastics industry, which employs 155,000 people and has an annual turnover of £28.7 billion. In July 2023, the UK Government began a consultation on the plastic packaging tax and the methodology behind it. In February, some 14 organisations signed a joint letter to the Government urging the swift publication of that consultation. When exactly do the Government expect to be able to respond to that long-overdue consultation?

The hon. Gentleman is right: the UK plastics industry is highly important and contributed £8.2 billion to the economy last year. I am aware of the consultation, which is led by the Treasury, and I will ensure that he gets a reply.

United States: Trade

Over the past two years, UK-US trade has grown 35% from £230 billion to £311 billion, while shared investment between our two nations now totals over £1.1 trillion. In March, following the excellent work of our trade envoy, my right hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth West (Sir Conor Burns), I signed a state-level arrangement with Texas. That means that UK businesses now have memorandums of understanding with eight US states with a combined GDP equivalent to a quarter of the whole US economy.

I am delighted to report that US motorsport giant Andretti has shown a massive vote of confidence in the UK by taking 40,000 square feet of facilities in Buckinghamshire, with another 70,000 square feet on order, and is already employing over 100 people locally in high-tech jobs. That clearly opens up huge opportunities for automotive and motorsport supply-chain businesses on both sides of the pond, including General Motors. Will my right hon. Friend join me in welcoming Andretti to the UK in its bid to get on to the Formula 1 grid, and what more can she do to ensure that automotive and motorsport supply chains can operate on both sides of the Atlantic?

I was delighted to see my hon. Friend visit the opening of Andretti Global’s new facility in Silverstone last month. I wish it luck as it continues its preparations to enter Formula 1. That investment is another vote of confidence in the world-leading innovation that the UK has to offer. Andretti Global will also specifically benefit from the MOU that we have signed with Indiana, which will enhance our trade relationship in key areas, including advanced manufacturing.

Wine: Pint Measures

14. Whether UK wine companies have sought advice from her Department on preparations for producing wine in pint measures under the Weights and Measures (Intoxicating Liquor) (Amendment) Regulations 2024. (902628)

The 568 ml pint quantity is one of several changes to pre-packed wine sizes that are expected to come into force on 19 September 2024, supporting the thriving UK wine sector by providing opportunities for innovation and greater choice. In light of those changes, Wine GB—which represents producers—said:

“We welcome the chance to be able to harmonise still and sparkling bottle sizes and we are happy to raise a glass to the greater choice that allows UK producers for domestic sales.”

That answer is nowhere near as definitive as the press release that the Minister’s Department put out on 27 December last year—which is still on the Government website—with the headline

“‘Pints’ of wine stocked on Britain’s shelves for the first time ever”.

That headline did not say “will be stocked”, “might be stocked” “could be stocked”, or “to be stocked”; it implied that pints of wine were, and are, available to buy right now in shops across the UK. Will the Government admit that the reality is that there has been little to no demand for, or interest in, that supposedly glorious Brexit benefit, and that in fact it is entirely possible that pints of wine will never be stocked on UK shelves?

It is never difficult to distinguish the hon. Gentleman from a ray of sunshine, is it? Our wine industry is thriving, with over 900 vineyards across Great Britain. The UK wine industry produced 12.2 million bottles of wine in 2022, and our new post-Brexit powers provide us with new options. Those include new legislation that aligns existing sizes across still and sparking pre-packed wine so that both can be sold in 200 ml and 500 ml quantities, for which we know there is good demand.

New Zealand FTA: Environment

16. Whether she has made an assessment of the potential impact of New Zealand’s proposed Fast-track Approvals Bill on its obligations under the UK-New Zealand free trade agreement environment chapter. (902634)

In March, the UK and New Zealand highlighted the importance of our environmental commitments at the first ever environment committee under our new free trade agreement. We continue to engage with New Zealand on implementing the environmental chapter, and will monitor the proposed Bill that the hon. Lady mentioned during its passage through New Zealand’s Parliament.

The New Zealand FTA entered into force on 31 May 2023. It contains a commitment in article 22 that each party will not

“waive or otherwise derogate from, or offer to waive or otherwise derogate from, its environmental laws in a manner that weakens or reduces the protection afforded in that law”.

Is there not a danger that the fast-track approvals will erode those protections? What steps will the Government take to ensure that New Zealand absolutely upholds its commitments under the FTA?

As I said, we will continue to monitor the passage of that proposed legislation, but the hon. Lady must recognise that the UK and New Zealand are incredibly like-minded in these areas—on climate, the environment and clean growth. The environment chapter in our free trade agreement is one of the most ambitious in any FTA anywhere in the world. It breaks new ground for both the UK and New Zealand in supporting our shared climate and environmental goals, clean growth, and the transition to a net zero economy.

Topical Questions

Post Office governance is a priority for the Government, and I have said many times that it is vital that we have the right people leading that organisation. I am therefore pleased to tell the House that, on Wednesday, I announced the appointment of Nigel Railton as its interim chair. Having previously been chief executive of Camelot, Nigel brings a wealth of experience of transforming organisations, and I am confident that he is the right person to lead the Post Office through this period. Nigel Railton will take up his post as soon as possible, and will be invited to give Ministers his views on the future direction of the Post Office in due course.

When will the Government admit that their Brexit dream of people quaffing pints of wine and invoking the spirit of Churchill was always a fantasy, and that the reality is, in fact, a Brexit nightmare of border checks, reduced consumer choice and business closures?

It is nonsense to say that this reduces consumer choice; it actually increases consumer choice. I cannot imagine why anyone would be complaining about the sale of pints of wine. If the hon. Gentleman does not like them, he does not have to buy them.

T4. I know that my right hon. and hon. Friends in the Department have been looking into the closure of Kelsale post office, an outreach service in my constituency. Very recently, we voted through more money to subsidise the Post Office, including £50 million for rural branches. Will my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State make sure that that money is allocated? I know that the Post Office is trying to cut costs, but that should not be at the expense of customers in Kelsale. (902643)

I thank my right hon. Friend for her work on this, and she raised this important matter with me at meetings last month. We allocate £50 million for the uncommercial part of the network, and part of that should help the services in her constituency. I know she is disappointed at the closure of the outreach service in Kelsale, but there is an alternative permanent post office branch in Saxmundham, 1.3 miles away. I am happy to continue the conversation between her and the post office to make sure that she gets the services she needs in her constituency.

Shoplifting cost UK retailers £1.8 billion in 2023, the highest figure on record. The Government’s £200 shoplifting threshold has effectively decriminalised this offence, which is costing businesses dear. What discussions has the Minister had with the Home Secretary about scrapping it, as Labour plans to do, so retailers and customers are protected and high street businesses can thrive?

It is not true to say that we have decriminalised thefts under £200. The hon. lady needs to speak to police officers and her local chief constable to make sure she understands how this works. I have worked very closely with the Home Office and the Policing Minister to make sure we have a retail crime action plan, which includes a vexatious offence with more severe sentences for people who assault shop workers. We have got an action plan together and it is working well with retailers, and I am very keen to see her support that plan.

Well, it is not working, and the Minister and the Secretary of State should take this seriously, because it is damaging our high streets and causing huge concern up and down the country. He and the Secretary of State should go and meet those businesses, and hear from them directly.

Turning to another issue, we have seen 14 years of Conservative under-investment in public infrastructure, a failure to provide certainty and a failure to get a grip on the economy. Business investment has also suffered. Had it matched the average investment levels of France, Germany and the US, our GDP would be nearly 4% higher today, and wages would have been boosted by £1,250 a year. Can the Secretary of State outline how she plans to fix this crippling investment gap, and what will she do to make sure businesses get the support they need so that we can get the economic growth this country desperately needs after 14 years of under-investment?

I remember a time when Labour Members were telling everyone that we should not invest in nuclear, and it is under this Conservative Government that we are investing in nuclear infrastructure. That has only happened under Conservative Governments. The hon. Lady asks about the plan. I would remind her about the global investment summit we had in November, which raised nearly £30 billion in one day. No one is better than our current Prime Minister at delivering inward investment for this country. Business investment is rising, and it is rising because of the policies that he and the Chancellor have put in place, such as capital expensing.

T5. Yesterday, I was pleased to meet a number of UK aerospace businesses demonstrating and showcasing extraordinary innovation right here in the United Kingdom, including Safran, which has a significant base in Pitstone in my constituency. Can I ask my hon. Friend what the Department has done to ensure that we can increase aerospace exports? (902644)

I thank my hon. Friend, who I know is a strong champion of aerospace exports in this House. Last year’s autumn statement extended the aerospace technology programme budget by a further five years, with an additional £975 million of new R&D funding from 2025 through to 2030. As part of this vote of confidence in the UK civil space sector, our trade missions and trade promotion activities by my Department and our embassies around the world continue to help companies with export contracts worth millions of pounds.

In 2017, Boris Johnson claimed the UK was “first in line” for a post-Brexit trade deal with the United States. While negotiations opened in May 2020, no progress has been made since October of that year. When does the Secretary of State expect to be able to deliver this alleged Brexit benefit, and what does she think will arrive first—a trade deal with the US or pints of champagne to toast it with?

As everyone on the Government Benches knows, even if we had a trade deal with the US, the hon. Member would be standing there telling us how he would be voting against it. The fact of the matter is that the US is not carrying out any free trade agreements with any country. There is nothing we can do about that, so instead we have been negotiating deals with states at an individual level, as I mentioned. For the last one, the governor of Texas came to the UK to sign a trade deal memorandum of understanding between Texas and the United Kingdom. Our relationship with the US is going well. I spoke about exports increasing, and our trade increasing to £311 billion. Trade with the US is going well. We will continue to pursue a free trade agreement, but trade requires two parties in order to deliver.

Are Ministers as concerned as I am about continued reports that Royal Mail is determined to move away from a six-day service? In a large rural constituency such as mine, with an older population, people continue to rely on the Royal Mail for important communications. Can the Minister make clear that that is not the direction of travel the Government want Royal Mail to go in?

We absolutely agree with that point, and we have been clear with Royal Mail and the regulator Ofcom that we want a continued six-day service. Royal Mail and hopefully Ofcom will have heard what my right hon. Friend and I are saying today: the six-day service must continue.

T2. Further to the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Upper Bann (Carla Lockhart) to the Prime Minister yesterday, with the Republic of Ireland now employing a form of border control, seemingly reinstating a hard border, what discussions have taken place regarding the ability for business vehicles to pass through the border, with delays due to onerous checks by Garda Síochána and Republic of Ireland and EU border staff? (902640)

Of course the Government as a whole are monitoring this situation very closely. We have very good relations with the Government of the Republic of Ireland, and I will pass on the hon. Member’s comments to the Cabinet Office and the Foreign Office.

My hon. Friend will know how committed this Government are to the steel industry, but at the moment it is going through a transition. We care about having primary steel-making capacity in this country—that is something we want to do and to keep, but as she knows, even now we still import ore. I know she is concerned about British Steel and its future. I will be visiting her constituency in Scunthorpe and we will be able to discuss those matters further.

T3. Yesterday, the BBC reported on expert analysis that has been submitted to the transition board, indicating that cutting 2,800 directly employed Tata Steel employees could lead to up to 9,500 additional job losses, due to the huge number of contractors and sub-contractors who are indirectly employed by Tata. When the Government handed £500 million of taxpayers’ money to Tata to do that deal, had they made a full assessment of the job losses: not just those directly employed by Tata who would lose their jobs, but the vast number of jobs that will be lost through the supply chains and contractors? (902642)

The hon. Gentleman and I both sit on the Tata transition board, which has a dedicated group to look at the welfare of contractors and supply chain partners. We will ensure that we support those people as much as the direct employees of Tata.

One of the many benefits of Brexit has been our ability to take back control of our trade negotiations. The comprehensive and progressive agreement for trans-Pacific partnership is one of the most exciting, so will the Minister provide an update on the status of our accession to CPTPP?

I am delighted to be able to do so, and delighted to have such an enthusiastic supporter of CPTPP, which is an enormous benefit to this country. The UK joining will take its share of global GDP from around 11% to just over 15%. The UK will be the first country ever to accede to CPTPP, which includes most of the fastest growing markets in the Asia-Pacific region: the UK joining shows that it goes beyond the region. On accession, we are delighted that Royal Assent has been given to our Trade (Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership) Act 2024, and we are looking forward to UK ratification in the coming weeks. Three of the 11 parties have ratified so far—Japan, Chile and Singapore—and we look forward to further parties ratifying it in the coming weeks, to make progress on this extraordinary opportunity for this country.

T6. Last year, the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee heard that the lack of a coherent agritrade policy, together with a complex set of import and export certification rules, is preventing rural businesses, particularly food producers, from trading outside the UK. How will the Department support UK producers to deal with complex trade red tape? (902646)

I gave evidence in front of the EFRA Committee just last week on this very issue with our Minister for Food, Farming and Fisheries, my right hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood (Sir Mark Spencer). We put in a huge amount of resources. We have a number of commissioners and trade support people around European Union countries and around the world promoting agrifood exports. I add that we also have a record level of services and exports to the EU, some of which will be in the agriculture sector. We have, contrary to the constant doom and gloom that the hon. Lady brings to this question time every five weeks, a very good story to tell about the successes of the United Kingdom when it comes to trade.

Scottish salmon is just one of the Scottish businesses that serve to prop up the failing UK economy, yet trade organisation Salmon Scotland revealed recently that the salmon industry in Scotland is losing £100 million a year in trade with the EU. Since 2019, that has amounted to a 17% drop in trade. What message does the Secretary of State have for this business in Scotland, where all businesses and two thirds of the electorate rejected this hard Tory Brexit?

We hear this from the Scottish National party all the time, opposing everything in terms of UK trade agreements. It is actually Scottish goods that benefit from so many of these trade agreements that we have negotiated, such as whisky when it comes to the Australian and New Zealand deals and the coming deal we hope to do with India. All these deals benefit Scottish goods in particular, yet the SNP has opposed or abstained on every single trade deal that has ever been done by either this country or by the European Union. [Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman knows it is true. The SNP has abstained on Japan and on Singapore; it is against Canada, against South Africa, against Korea, against Australia and against New Zealand; and its Members even failed to show up on the Ukraine agreement. It is a woeful record when it comes to supporting Scotland from the SNP.

The Government launched our critical imports and supply chain strategy earlier this year, and I chaired the Critical Imports Council last month. We are bringing together 23 organisations to make sure that our supply chains are robust, and I look forward to my hon. Friend’s input into that.

The village of Kirkliston in my community recently became the latest to lose its post office—there have been a whole series of closures. That community is not isolated, but it is not in the centre of Edinburgh, and there is no alternative. As I say, it is one of a series, so can the Minister tell us what the Government are going to try to do to halt this decline in post offices?

As I said in response to an earlier question, we put in £50 million to support the uncommercial parts of the network. I am sorry that the post office that the hon. Lady mentions has closed. I am happy to meet her to see what we can do to ensure that there is a local post office. There are network access requirements on the Post Office, and 99% of the population must be within 3 miles of a post office. If that is not the case in her area, I am happy to do what I can to ensure that that is rectified.

When the Minister for Trade Policy, the right hon. Member for Chelsea and Fulham (Greg Hands), bragged to my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Sir Chris Bryant) earlier that his trade envoys had to have a qualification of “diplomacy and discretion”, did he have in mind the former trade envoy to Colombia, the hon. Member for Fylde (Mark Menzies)?

If the Opposition want to make an accusation, they should go ahead and do so, rather than this playground game that they are playing, which is insulting to every trade envoy, on both sides of the House, who is delivering for this country.

Green Resource Engineering Ltd, a highly successful company in Willand, already exports £1 million of engineering business to South Korea every year and has done so for the last six years. The managing director, Richard Booth, let me know that exporting to Korea is already straightforward; by contrast, getting parts in from Europe has become a real headache. Rather than fretting about a free trade agreement with Korea, how are the Government monitoring additional red tape after having left the European single market?

We have the most comprehensive free trade agreement with the EU—more than with any other country in the world—so that should not be the reason for difficulties in bringing in components. If the hon. Member has something specific that we can look at, I will be happy to take a look, but we have been doing everything to ensure that trade—in auto in particular—continues to boom, and it is booming. We were able to stop the issue with rules of origin, which was going to have a deadline at the end of this year. In terms of specific components that are having trouble getting across the border, I will need a bit more detail to provide him with an answer, but that is not about leaving the EU.

India is the second largest market for Scottish whisky in the world, making it an extremely important market for the Scottish economy. Currently, whisky exported to India has a 150% import tariff placed on it. What steps is the Secretary of State taking to ensure that, in any trade deal signed with India, that tariff is reduced?

We are engaged in a live negotiation with India at the moment and the hon. Member would not expect me to comment on the progress of a live negotiation. India is obviously in a pre-election period as well. However, I can tell him that Scotch whisky tariffs are very much part of that negotiation; everybody knows that that is one of the key UK objectives. May I perhaps add that, if we do get a good deal on Scotch whisky, I will look forward to the SNP for the first time actually voting for a trade deal with India?

Does my right hon. Friend agree that it would be odd and inappropriate for the United Kingdom to impose any form of arms embargo against Israel when His Majesty’s armed forces are in the region and working with Israel to provide humanitarian support, and the UK would expect Israel to help in the protection of His Majesty’s forces?

My right hon. and learned Friend makes a good point. The Prime Minister addressed this issue yesterday. I know that there is a lot of interest in arms exports to Israel, and yesterday my entire Department was blockaded by protesters, meaning that civil servants who needed to get to work could not do so. The Government continue to monitor closely the situation in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories. All export licence applications are assessed on a case-by-case basis against the strategic export licensing criteria. The Government take their defence export responsibilities extremely seriously and operate some of the most robust export controls in the world.

Could the Secretary of State explain what she is doing to help businesses in my constituency that have difficulties because we do not have the skills to increase the business—they cannot expand because they lack some skills? Could she explain what she is doing to help with that skills shortage?

I thank my hon. Friend for championing businesses in her constituency. We are putting £3.8 billion into skills training for people who work for businesses, which is important. We are also improving skills for entrepreneurs and business owners through our help to grow management programme—it can be found on the help to grow webpage—a 12-week mini-MBA, which is 90% funded by the Government. We also have “Help to Grow: Management Essentials”, which offers two hours of totally free online training for aspirant new business owners.

Can the Secretary of State tell us about the UK’s supply of cyber-security professionals and whether a lot of that work is now being offshored?

I am afraid that I do not have the details to answer that question. On the face of it, given the information I have, it is not something I have heard before, but we can write back with more information. However, it does not sound like that is the case.

In my constituency we have the fantastic company Selwyn’s, whose seafood is first class. It exports a lot; what is the Government’s current assessment of the export of cockles and other seafood in the Welsh market?

I thank the hon. Lady for her question and her interest in this important sector. We regularly meet the UK seafood sector, which can often be subject to very high tariffs from foreign markets, but the UK’s quality shines through. It is a key part of many of our current trade negotiations. I urge her to watch this space. We are always happy to meet the company concerned, but I can reassure her that when it comes to seafood exports, the Department is constantly engaged both in trade policy and in the support we give our exporters.

Business of the House

The business for the week commencing 6 May will include:

Monday 6 May—The House will not be sitting.

Tuesday 7 May—General debate on defence.

Wednesday 8 May—Consideration in Committee of the Finance (No. 2) Bill.

Thursday 9 May—General debate on miners and mining communities, followed by a general debate on the BBC mid-term charter review. The subjects for these debates were determined by the Backbench Business Committee.

Friday 10 May—The House will not be sitting.

The provisional business for the week commencing 13 May includes:

Monday 13 May—Motion to approve the draft Procurement Regulations 2024, followed by a motion to approve the draft Agriculture (Delinked Payments) (Reductions) (England) Regulations 2024, followed by debate on a motion on the risk-based exclusion of Members of Parliament.

Tuesday 14 May—Motion to approve the draft Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992 (Amendment of Schedule A2) Order 2024, followed by a motion to approve the draft code of practice on fair and transparent distribution of tips.

Wednesday 15 May—Remaining stages of the Criminal Justice Bill (day 1).

Thursday 16 May—Business to be determined by the Backbench Business Committee.

Friday 17 May—Private Members’ Bills.

I thank the Leader the House for the forthcoming business.

I pay tribute to the former Member for Hazel Grove Lord Stunell, who sadly passed away this week. Our thoughts are with his family and friends.

I welcome to our Benches my hon. Friend the Member for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich (Dr Poulter). His words on how the Government have run down our NHS speak for millions. It is remarkable that the Conservative majority of 80 has been almost halved in four years.

This week, there has been a victory for the victims of the infected blood scandal regarding the deadline for compensation. I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Dame Diana Johnson) for her tireless work on this cause. Could the Leader of the House outline when the timetable for compensation will be set out?

Closer to home, people across south Wales are troubled by the job losses at Tata Steel in Port Talbot. Will the Government work with Tata to ensure that compulsory redundancies will be avoided? Time is of the essence, and there are worried steelworker families across south Wales.

The business for next week is light, with no votes until Wednesday. We can guess why the Prime Minister would want to keep his parliamentary colleagues off the estate. The internal politics of the Tory party have become so febrile that they are getting in the way of good governance. While our constituents face ever higher bills, the Government have simply run out of steam. Tomorrow, we will hear the verdict of the voters. In recent months we have begun to see the runners and riders for the next Tory leadership contest. The Leader of the House says that she has the Prime Minister’s back. Coincidentally, she has been supporting her colleagues up and down the country. Following on from schnapps with Shapps, can we look forward to gin with Jenrick or perhaps Pimm’s with Penny? I am a Scrabble fan, but there is a new game of political Cluedo coming along. Who could be the one to strike the fatal blow against the Prime Minister? Will it be cocktails with Kemi in the garden? My money is on the Leader of the House with the sharpened Telegraph column in the drawing room.

Another possible leadership contender is the Foreign Secretary, Lord Cameron. Has he recused himself from part of his role? That point was raised twice last week at Cabinet Office questions, with no clarity provided. Our parliamentary scrutiny is weakened when the Foreign Secretary is out of reach in the other place. Lord Cameron has unanswered questions from Members of this House. He is yet to reply to my letters asking about his time at scandal-hit Greensill Capital. One question was about his use of private planes and personal taxation. We learned this week that Lord Cameron still enjoys VIP air travel. Taxpayers had to foot the bill for his trip to central Asia in a luxurious private jet. How does the Leader of the House think that looks to struggling families across our country dealing with a cost of living crisis?

We wish the Leader of the House, the Foreign Secretary and fellow leadership rivals well. We may well see them touring the TV studios. The Prime Minister has hinted that he may call a general election this summer if his party performs well today, or he may cling on as the clock runs down. Mr Speaker, you can understand the Prime Minister’s hope that something will crop up, but after 14 years in charge it is clear that it is time for change. Each Thursday morning, the Leader of the House puts on a good turn. Some say it is a dress rehearsal for the following Wednesday lunchtime. Who knows? This time it may come to pass.

First of all, I would like to join the hon. Gentleman in paying tribute to Lord Stunell of Hazel Grove, who sadly passed away on Monday. He entered the House of Commons in 1997, leaving for the Lords in 2015. He was Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government in the coalition Government and I know Members on all sides of the House will mourn his loss. On our Benches, we are particularly grateful to him for being an effective and collaborative Minister in the coalition, working alongside colleagues to bring in the Localism Act 2011 and drawing up the national planning policy framework. I hope that the many tributes paid to him in the coming days will be a comfort to his loved ones.

I join with the many remarks made by colleagues regarding the tragic loss of Daniel Anjorin, and also the incident in Sheffield. My thoughts, and I am sure those of the whole House, are with all those affected, especially Daniel’s family. I also pay tribute to the police for their courage. They often get a hard time from us in this place, but we should never forget the risks they take and the service they do us. I know the House will also be glad to see His Majesty the King out and about with the public again. I wish all candidates in today’s elections good luck.

The hon. Gentleman tempts me, but I am going to resist, because there is nothing I could say that would be more detrimental to the hon. Member for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich (Dr Poulter)—to his character, his integrity, his standing in his community and his future prospects—than what he has done to himself. I think that is just about dawning on him.

I, too, welcome the progress on the infected blood issue. The hon. Gentleman knows that the Paymaster General has set out the timetable for the body to be established on 20 May. We now have a clear timetable that I hope will give confidence to all those infected and affected by this terrible scandal.

I will certainly make sure that the hon. Gentleman’s comments on Tata Steel are heard by the Secretary of State.

I have to break it to the hon. Gentleman that it is not going to be Pimm’s with Penny. I am more of a pints with Penny person. But yes, I too have read that I am to be installed, rather like a new boiler, into No. 10 next week. I have to say, Mr Speaker, that there is as much truth to those stories as there is to Labour’s assurances to its business community that it is not actually going to do the things that it has been saying it is going to do and has promised its union paymasters.

Let me say again that I support our Prime Minister, and I will continue to support him after this weekend and beyond, because his plan is working. I will do everything I can to ensure that Labour does not get a chance to wreck the nation again. The nation has chosen a new trajectory to protect its border, to enable growth, and to trade more with the world to strengthen its partnerships with allies. Our exports are 2% above 2018 levels, and we are the fourth largest exporter overall and the largest net exporter of financial and insurance services in the world. Trade barriers have led to a £15 billion uplift for UK businesses in the last five years, and since 2010 UK manufacturing growth has been higher than that of any other G7 nation. We are on the right path, and we have to stick to it. I do not want to give Labour the chance to unpick all that we have done, from Brexit to trade union reforms.

The hon. Gentleman asked about a general election, and whether something was going to crop up. I think that something is going to crop up. Whether it is pensions, the NHS, rail, tax or welfare, the Labour party claims that it is going to do one thing but is planning another, and I think that the public will see through that. It is the most audacious deception since the big bad wolf donned a winceyette nightie and asked Little Red Riding Hood to admire his upper dentures, but unlike red Riding Hood the British people have met this wolf before, and they remember that the story does not end well.

The British people remember how disastrously Labour ran our trains, and we have read this week that to improve efficiency, Labour plans to run fewer trains. They remember MRSA-infected hospitals, and they are now seeing the unforgivable state of the NHS in Wales as it struggles with a reduced budget. Labour is responsible for that, as it is Labour that cut the NHS budget. They remember Labour council tax hikes for pensioners and others on fixed incomes, which constituted the largest increase in their outgoings. In government Labour doubled council tax, and in Wales it has tripled it. The British public will look at the council league tables, out today, and notice that the worst services are provided by Labour councils, those charging the highest taxes are Labour local authorities, and the areas with the worst crime rates are Labour-controlled; and where do we see the lowest employment rate, the smallest pay packets and the worst NHS waiting lists in the whole UK? In Labour-run Wales.

Always, every single time Labour is in office, every single time the British people give Labour a chance, they find themselves worse off, poorer and less safe, badly served and with more unemployment, and they see that the nation is weaker. At least those in the Labour party are consistent. So I say to the British people, “Don’t give them the chance to do it again.”

Further business will be announced in the usual way.

The question of local council elections has been raised. Those who want some amusement can read Acts 5:41, quoted in today’s Times and provided by the Bible Society, although I am not suggesting that my right hon. Friend should read it now.

I walked here today through Victoria Tower Gardens, where it is still impossible to walk along the river because of the barricades around the Buxton memorial fountain, which are far too extensive. If people care about memorials in Victoria Tower Gardens, they ought to make sure that the gardens are properly accessible whenever that is possible.

The Select Committee on the Holocaust Memorial Bill reported recently in document HC121, and I have tabled early-day motion 711—I do not expect my right hon. Friend to respond to this today.

[That this House notes the First Special Report of the Holocaust Memorial Bill Select Committee, HC121, on the problems with the current proposal and the restrictions faced by the Committee considering the hybrid Bill; respects the conclusions and recommendations on page 20; agrees with the list of matters related to the current proposals for a Holocaust Memorial and believes these need updated attention on deliverability from the Infrastructure Commission, from the National Audit Office on likely capital costs and recurrent annual costs, from the Chancellor on future funding control, and from the police and security services on maintaining unfettered public access for use of Victoria Tower Gardens while protecting the Memorial; asks His Majesty's Government and the Holocaust Memorial Foundation agency to commission the views of the property consultants on a comparison of the current proposal by Sir David Adjaye in Victoria Tower Gardens with viable alternatives, to commission the full appraisal and to hold a public consultation on the selection of site; and further asks His Majesty's Government to commit to having this or an amended proposal considered first by the local planning authority before considering whether to call in the application, noting that an open-minded observer could doubt another minister in the Levelling Up department should be asked to make an independent decision on an application by the Secretary of State.]

As the Committee has clearly indicated, before the Government think of bringing the Bill back to the Chamber of the House of Commons they need to do a number of things. First, they must review security. We have seen the Holocaust memorial in Hyde Park covered up because of marches going on around London, and everyone knows that a memorial in Victoria Tower Gardens of the kind that is proposed would be a major target. The only way of providing security is to exclude the public from this park, which is the only park for local residents.

Secondly, the National Infrastructure Commission has said that this project is undeliverable. Will the Government please ask the members of the commission whether they have changed their minds? Last year the National Audit Office reported that the costs had risen in one year from £102 million to £137 million. Will the Government please ask its members whether that can be reviewed? How will the Chancellor agree to pay running costs of between £5 million and £10 million?

I think that the Government ought to delay, do what is suggested in my early-day motion, and then report back to the House.

I am sure that my hon. Friend knows how to apply for a debate and will listen to your encouragement, Mr Speaker. I will certainly ensure, as I do every week, that the Secretary of State has heard the issues that my hon. Friend raises—I will feed them in. On the matter of security, he will know that there is a working group, led by the Houses of Parliament and those in Government, to make sure that all these very important issues are looked at.

Just when we think the Government can stoop no lower, they release a sickening detention video, using real-life trauma to show their voters how tough they are. Who instructed the civil service to produce such a piece? Can we have an apology from the Home Office for its appalling misjudgment in electioneering with this footage, and a debate on whether the concept of electoral purdah still exists? If it does, who the heck regulates it?

Meanwhile, the disastrously handled Brexit border checks are causing further chaos, as predicted. The Leader of the House may have seen the reports from the Sevington inland border facility about lorries with perishable goods, the prospect of rotting food and flowers being binned, compromised biosecurity and, of course, crashed IT systems. We have confusion, delay and additional crippling costs—otherwise known as Brexit. I was in the House yesterday for the statement that the Business and Trade Secretary hurriedly brought out, and she seemed to brush aside these failures to prepare as mere supply chain issues, preferring to brag about Brexit. The thing is, her figures rely on a growth in service exports—City pals are doing very well.

Meanwhile, the British Chambers of Commerce, which knows a thing or two about the issue, describes the much-warned-of mess at Sevington as

“the straw that breaks the camel’s back”

for many UK businesses. This is terribly serious for our small and medium-sized enterprises, particularly our farmers and fishers. Do the Government care? For the third time, I ask the Leader of the House for an urgent debate specifically on the Tory trade tax so that someone can be held responsible to the House for this cack-handed mess. Will she take it up?

It seems that business questions have become nothing more than a venue for parading opinions. As Madam Deputy Speaker had to remind the Leader of the House and the shadow Leader of the House last week, business questions are about the business of this House, so can we leave the scripted opinions on Scotland and her Government to one side for once and have a debate, in Government time, on the unbelievable mess at Sevington and its impact on the wider supply chain? Or will she, too, just ignore this crisis of her own Government’s making, raise a laugh for her nervous Back Benchers and opine on Scotland instead—a country about which she knows little and cares less?

The first issue that the hon. Lady raises is a matter of taste about videos that I understand the Home Office has produced, which show, I assume for the reassurance of the British public, that those who do not have the right to remain in the UK will be deported. There are images of people being put into the back of police vehicles. Scotland has produced quite a few similar videos—although the people being put into the back of police cars have been members of the SNP. I will certainly ensure that the Home Secretary has heard the hon. Lady’s concerns, and that they are taken into account.

The hon. Lady asserts various things about the border operating model. Many of the things that she points to are not true. The system has not gone down, and she is incorrect about the other issues that her party has been reporting. Some customers are having issues, but they are being resolved. I really hope that the SNP will one day acknowledge the hard work of Scotland’s business community, including businesses that are providing services and exporting them around the world.

We are the largest net exporter of financial and insurance services, and many of those businesses are in the hon. Lady’s constituency and the surrounding area. Edinburgh is the second largest financial centre in Europe, behind only the City of London, which is something to be immensely proud of. The work that we are doing not just on trade deals, but on our memorandums of understanding—for example, with the United States at state level—means that it is easier for an accountant in her constituency to work on a project in the United States than it is for an accountant in the state next door. That is something to be celebrated, and has led to our being the fourth largest exporter overall. I hope that the hon. Lady might reflect on that and consider it in her exchange with me next week.

I am proud of the work that I and colleagues across the House did, along with our dear, departed friend Sir David Amess, to raise the issue of endometriosis, a terrible disease that affects millions of women across the country. It is only since we started to raise the issues around it that its profile has risen. I am surprised to learn how many young women do not know about the disease, which is not in the sex and health education curriculum in schools. Can we have a debate, through the Department for Education, on ensuring that gynaecological diseases are in the curriculum for both girls and boys, because if someone does not know a disease exists, how will they know they might have it?

I thank my right hon. Friend for all the work he is doing alongside the all-party parliamentary group on endometriosis to raise awareness of this condition and to ensure that there is improving care. He will know that we have invested £25 million to roll out women’s health hubs across the country, not just to tackle backlogs but to provide information and raise awareness. I will ensure that the Secretary of State for Education has heard what he has said today.

I apologise to the House for my absence over the last two weeks. I am glad to say that things are improving as we deal with a very difficult family situation.

The Leader of the House was kind enough to mention that the Backbench Business Committee has been allocated Thursday 16 May, and it will be our intention to put on a debate on the parliamentary ombudsman’s report on the state pension age for women.

All Chamber slots up to the Whitsun recess are now allocated, but we still have several Westminster Hall slots to allocate for the new, improved start time of 12.30 pm on Thursdays, which seems to be working quite well. We have three slots to allocate between now and the Whitsun recess, and we would welcome applications.

Mr Speaker, I am sure you will agree that there is no need for the hon. Gentleman to apologise. I hope he heard all our good wishes to him and his family while he was away.

I thank the hon. Gentleman again for advertising the forthcoming Backbench Business debates. The Women Against State Pension Inequality Campaign is a topic that many Members will welcome, and they will want to attend and take part.

I also thank the hon. Gentleman for being greatly responsible for the new Westminster Hall start time, which he has also advertised today.

Transport for the East Midlands has found that 60% of drivers feel unsafe driving on the A1, and over half report either being in an accident or knowing someone who has been in one. In 2022, there were 500 collisions on the A1, which is 26% more than on the A5 and 16% more than on the A2. Can we please have a debate in Government time on safety upgrades to the A1? This affects dozens of constituencies, as the A1 is the longest road in this country. Will my right hon. Friend also kindly advise on when we can expect to see the next review of upgrading A roads to motorways? This is the No. 1 issue for my constituents. I have sat in traffic on the A1 on many a school run after appalling accidents that take one or two days to clear.

I thank my hon. Friend for her work on this issue, which is of huge importance to her constituents, and for her diligence in consistently raising it with the Government. She will know that the next draft of the road investment strategy, covering 2025 to 2030, will be published shortly, and I will ensure that the Secretary of State for Transport has heard what she has said today. I also understand that the roads Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman), is happy to meet her to discuss these specific concerns.

First, I thank the Leader of the House for her kind words about Lord Stunell of Hazel Grove. We lost a wonderful friend and colleague, who, until the very end, campaigned for his community and called out injustices across the country. My sincere condolences go to his family at this time.

We Liberal Democrats have for many years called for tougher controls on UK exports of arms to ensure they are not used in human rights abuses. We have called for a presumption of denial to apply to countries whose Governments are listed in the Foreign Office’s annual “Human Rights and Democracy” report. A presumption of denial would mean that the default position of the UK Government is not to permit arms exports. For many years, the Foreign Office has listed human rights issues arising from action that the Israeli Government have carried out in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. In the light of a possibly imminent humanitarian catastrophe in Rafah, if the Israeli Government are carrying out their threat to attack, may we have an urgent debate in Government time about UK arms exports to the middle east?

I send our thoughts to all Liberal Democrats, who have lost a treasured member of their party. It is said of Andrew Stunell that he was the activists’ activist, and I know that he will be greatly missed.

On UK arms export control, the hon. Lady will know that we have stringent policies in this country and that the actions that are taken stemming from those policies are scrutinised by this House. We take this incredibly seriously. As for the specifics, I also point her to the fact that we have seen Israel have to defend itself against the most unwarranted and reckless attack from Iran. It is very important not only that we say that Israel has a right to defend itself, but, because it is one of our allies and partners, that we understand our obligations to enable it to do so. These are difficult matters and she will know that both the Government’s policy and the procedures in this House to scrutinise the actions that come from this policy are stringent indeed.

“The Long Call” by Ann Cleeves was written about my constituency and filmed there. Inspired by the Woodyard community centre in the novel, a number of third sector organisations are looking to support and bring together different third sector groups in a safe and accessible space for work, ideally breathing life back into one of the derelict buildings that North Devon has far too many of. Might my right hon. Friend lend her signature to a copy of the novel for the charities involved, in order to help raise much-needed funds? Will she also help us secure a debate in Government time on how we can ensure that small third sector organisations best work together to share administrative costs?'

I thank my hon. Friend for again attending business questions to shine a spotlight on some good work going on in her constituency. I would be very happy to do as she asks, and I thank her for bringing this interesting initiative and the work of third sector organisations in her constituency to the House’s attention.

Three members of the Williams family in Gowerton, in my constituency, have had their His Majesty’s Revenue and Customs contact address changed to the same unknown address without their knowledge, consent or authorisation. As well as raising clear general data protection regulation concerns, that is having huge implications for Department for Work and Pensions issues that they face, and impacting on their credit score. I have seen the HMRC response to the mother’s complaint—it gave no answers; I have seen all the correspondence. The family has had phone calls from bailiffs and they are scared. They are capable, competent people but they are unable to get a response. Does the Leader of the House share my concerns about this serious data breach? Will she alert and raise this issue with the relevant Ministers and Departments, and advise me on how to resolve it?

I am sorry to hear that the hon. Lady’s constituents are suffering in that way. The situation sounds completely bonkers and if she gives me further details after business questions, we will get it sorted this afternoon. Her constituents should not have to put up with that.

The hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent (Nick Smith) seems to be really pleased with the Opposition’s new recruit, but it will make not one jot of difference to their voting figures because the hon. Member for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich (Dr Poulter), who has moved sides, is rarely in the House.

I have spoken before about my Marriage and Civil Partnership (Minimum Age) Act 2022. It came into force in February last year, and makes it a criminal offence to exploit vulnerable children by arranging for them to be married. I have spoken to teachers and lecturers who know nothing about the Act. We must ensure that teachers, lecturers, faith leaders and the police know how to spot the signs of potential forced or arranged marriages. Will the Leader of the House speak to her colleagues across Government to ensure that we get these messages across much more effectively to communities throughout the country?

I thank my hon. Friend for all the work she has done on this subject. She has campaigned diligently on it, and made a huge difference to the lives of many people. The forced marriage unit, which is run jointly by the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office and the Home Office, is leading the Government’s work in this area. It is running outreach and undertaking casework, and operates both inside and outside the UK. I will ensure the relevant Minister and officials have heard her suggestions on how its work can be enhanced.

The situation in Gaza continues to be profoundly disturbing. We need a humanitarian ceasefire, all the hostages brought home, and no incursion by the Israel Defence Forces into Rafah; that would be catastrophic. The United Nations Relief and Works Agency is pivotal to avoiding famine in Gaza and for the future of Palestinians more generally. Could we have a debate in Government time on why Ministers will not yet restart funding to UNRWA, given the call by no less than the UN Secretary-General, António Guterres, for donors to restart that funding?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising those concerning matters. I will certainly make sure that the Foreign Secretary has heard the concerns he has raised. Aside from the immediate issues on which the hon. Gentleman is primarily focused, UNRWA has been financially fragile for a long time, with little long-term financial planning and security. There are many issues that the Foreign Secretary and his team will want to consider before taking a decision on whether to restart funding.

Hayfield Lane Primary School in Doncaster is a great school, with great teachers, a great head, Mrs Tempest, and wonderful children. Sadly, the Labour Mayor of Labour-controlled Doncaster Council has failed this great school. Her dither and delay is a disaster, and it is affecting our children. Despite many years of letters, phone calls, meetings and false promises, the school still has a leaky roof, soaked carpets, water in the electric system, mould in the classrooms and a smell of damp throughout. It is a disgrace that the Mayor is allowed to subject our most vulnerable—our children—to that. Can we have a debate on the need for elected Mayors to step up and do their job of maintaining schools, like Hayfield Lane Primary School, instead of constantly blaming the Government for their own shortcomings?

I thank my hon. Friend for standing up for, and campaigning on behalf of, parents and children in his constituency. His local authority has been allocated £900,000 for this financial year, to be prioritised across its schools, including the school he mentions. That is on top of the school rebuilding programme, which is transforming buildings across the country, including three in the Doncaster local authority area. I know that my hon. Friend has raised and campaigned on the matter considerably. He will know that where there are serious problems with school buildings and the responsible bodies that are supposed to be looking after them fail, the Department for Education will provide additional advice and support on a case-by-case basis. I will write to the Secretary of State for Education this afternoon and ask that her Department meets my hon. Friend to discuss this serious matter. Doncaster local authority is failing in its duty, and that needs to be addressed.

The Leader of the House has announced all kinds of worthy general debates, including on statutory instruments, leaving plenty of time for Dissolution and wash-up, if need be, but she has not announced any Opposition days. She will be in receipt of a letter from the Chair of the Procedure Committee, which says:

“If, however, the Government has specific proposals in relation to any changes it envisages to Standing Orders”

on Opposition days,

“the Committee would be willing to examine and consult on such proposals”.

It goes on:

“In the meantime, however, we expect that the Government will not ‘hold hostage’ the scheduling of any further Opposition Days to the completion of any such work, as to do so would be profoundly unfair on opposition parties.”

Will the Leader of the House confirm that she is not holding Opposition days hostage?

I can confirm that, and I hope to be able to schedule some more Opposition day debates soon, but we want some assurances about the processes that will govern them. I know that everyone agrees that it is incredibly important the rights of minority parties be protected in this place. That is the point of those debates, and we should have confidence in them in the future.

Can we have a debate on antisemitism at UK universities? There are reports in today’s press that some groups wish to replicate American-style protests, during which there has been rioting and criminal damage. At Columbia, students have chanted terrorist slogans. At Stanford, they have worn Hamas headbands. At Princeton, they have flown the Hezbollah flag. At Harvard, they have torn down the stars and stripes and raised a foreign one, and at George Washington, they called for the “final solution”, and posted signs saying that they would not disperse until Jews go back to their “real homes”. We do not want this type of terrorist-supporting delinquency at UK universities. Does the Leader of the House agree that the Government and Opposition parties must combine to do everything they can to stop such things happening here?

My right hon. and learned Friend is right to draw attention to the disgusting scenes that we have seen in some universities in the United States. Those activities are being met with the appropriate action, and some universities have taken a very strict stance on them. I think and hope that all UK universities will be in no doubt about their responsibilities to all who attend their campuses and facilities, but particularly those in communities who feel under attack. That is what we expect of them; we hope and expect that they will meet the notion of similar protests with an extremely strict response.

The London Standard, the Slough Observer and other media outlets have recently reported serious bribery allegations made against Slough borough councillors heading up the planning process. That is extremely concerning. Complaints and rumours have circulated around the town for months. Does the Leader of the House not agree that it is critical that the police delve deeply into the matter, and do a thorough investigation, in order to restore public trust and confidence in elected representatives? Not questioning under oath the credible businesses that have been brave enough to put their concerns in writing, as well as those accused of bribery, would be a huge disservice to democracy. Will she also ensure that the Home Secretary takes an active interest in this critical matter?

I am responsible for many things, but operational police matters is not one of them. I will certainly make sure that the Home Secretary has heard what the hon. Member has said.

The UK hedgehog population is in sharp decline. Next week is Hedgehog Awareness Week and an opportunity to promote the plight of this beloved, iconic species. It costs around £50 to look after a hedgehog admitted to rescue. Anglesey Hedgehog Rescue is run by brilliant volunteers Sue Timperley, Debbie Evans and Chris Mead, and to raise funds, they are running a name the hedgehog competition. Will the Leader of the House take part? What would her hedgehog name be?

May I first congratulate my hon. Friend on raising awareness of this much-loved critter? I also congratulate the volunteers at Anglesey Hedgehog Rescue, and I wish them well in their endeavours. Given that these little creatures are prickly, they move very slowly—definitely below 20 mph—and curl into a ball when challenged, I am tempted to say that Welsh Labour would be an appropriate name, but that would perhaps be doing the hoglet a disservice, so instead, given that both our constituencies are by the sea, how about “Urchin”?

Yesterday’s judgment from the president of the family division of the High Court concerning the practices of online, Singapore-registered GenderGP set out the following facts. Testosterone was prescribed to a 15-year-old girl with a co-morbid diagnosis of autism and anorexia, in a “negligent approach” that led to “dangerously high” serum levels, placing her at “risk of sudden death”. There was no physical examination, “extremely poor quality” psychological assessment, and no record of counselling or informed consent. An NHS paediatrician checked the girl’s serum levels against those of an adult male. I have asked this before, but these scandals keep happening, and I will continue to raise them in this place: can we have a full debate on how we extract gender ideology’s influence from our public bodies and Government policy, and protect young people from these online charlatans?

I am very sorry to hear about the case that the hon. Gentleman raises. It is right that we should have the same scrutiny in this area of medicine as we do in any other, whether in the NHS or in private practice. I will ensure that the Secretary of State has heard what he said about that case. He will know that she is working within her jurisdiction in the NHS to ensure that healthcare professionals and the bodies that scrutinise them know what their responsibilities are, particularly in this area.

I recently met the local constituency group Pumping Marvellous, a support group for people with heart failure. Members talked about how the NHS services that they use could be improved through integration—specifically through digitisation, which would enable better patient record access. In the Budget, the Chancellor announced £3.4 billion for increased NHS digital investment, which will unlock £35 billion of savings. Can we have a debate on NHS digitisation, so that we can explore the benefits for patients, doctors and nurses, and ensure that the voices of support groups and users are heard?

I thank my hon. Friend for raising that. We know that where good reforms have been brought in, patient outcomes are vastly improved. We will all have examples of that from our primary care practices, and particularly our hospitals. We want to ensure that that is sped up, and that artificial intelligence helps with tailoring treatments and interventions and further increases good patient outcomes. The opportunities are massive. It is a very good topic for a debate, and he will know how to apply for one.

Has the Leader of the House had a chance to read the report of the all-party parliamentary group on music, which I chair, on artificial intelligence in music? It came out this week. If she has not, would she like me to send her a copy, so that she can consider holding a debate on the subject in Government time? It is a key issue. This technology can bring great benefits, but we must not allow it to be our master; it should be the servant of human creativity, and the creative community should have the right to protect their creations in any scheme that is agreed between industry and tech firms. Will she look at the report and consider a debate?

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues on producing this timely and necessary report, which I am sure will be of interest to many Members of this House. I would be delighted to receive a copy, and I will ensure that the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport also has one. I will invite her to follow up with him.

The APPG on HIV, AIDS and sexual health, which I co-chair, welcomed the recent publication by the Department of Health of the pre-exposure prophylaxis road map; however, knowledge about PrEP remains very low among certain groups, particularly in the black, Asian and minority ethnic community, and among women, so there is much more to do to raise awareness of PrEP and its possibilities. Will my right hon. Friend facilitate a meeting between the APPG, HIV groups and the Minister for public health, my right hon. Friend the Member for South Northamptonshire (Dame Andrea Leadsom), to see what we can do to tackle inequalities in the use of PrEP?

I thank my right hon. Friend for raising this issue. We have made huge progress in enabling people to protect themselves through access to PrEP, but he is right that awareness of the opportunity that it provides is not universal. I will ensure that the Department of Health and Social Care has heard his concerns and encourage it to do as he asks.

This week we have seen the incredible bravery of Metropolitan police officers in Hainault, who literally ran towards a situation knowing that they were putting themselves in personal danger and at serious risk of injury or death. Two of those officers received very serious, life-changing injuries. We all owe a debt of gratitude to all police officers, who on a daily basis place themselves in such circumstances to keep us all safe.

That debt must also extend to obtaining justice for police officers who have lost their lives while on duty, and 17 April marked the 40th anniversary of the murder of WPC Yvonne Fletcher, who in 1984 was hit in the back by shots fired from inside the Libyan People’s Bureau. Despite the identity of one of the offenders being known, no one has ever been charged in connection with Yvonne’s murder. May we have a debate in Government time on the circumstances surrounding the murder of WPC Fletcher?

First, I thank the hon. Gentleman for his words about those Metropolitan police officers and the police in general. I am sure the whole House will want to send our good wishes to those officers. We have heard the update that the Met chief gave on their condition, and I hope all Members will join me in wishing them a speedy recovery. I hope they are out of hospital soon. I will ensure that both the Foreign Secretary and the Home Secretary have heard what the hon. Gentleman has said. He will know that Ministers work on the issue and, where they are able to have bilaterals with others who may be able to assist in this area, they do so—it is part of the script that they use when having those meetings—but I will ensure they have heard what he has said today.

Last week I went to the Aylesbury Vale young enterprise company of the year finals at Aylesbury Vale Academy. The winners were a team from Aylesbury Grammar School who produced and sold biodegradable greetings cards implanted with wildflower seeds that can be planted and grown. Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating them and all the other young enterprise finalists, and may we have a debate in Government time to underline the importance of teaching the value of the private sector and of the role of business in creating jobs, generating wealth and enabling the economic growth that pays for public services?

I thank my hon. Friend for allowing us all to send our congratulations to Aylesbury Grammar School and all those involved in that good initiative—perhaps the House of Commons gift shop would like to stock that fantastic product. I also thank him for allowing us all to reflect on the force for good in the world that enterprise and businesses represent in our local communities, not only through supporting the charity sector, but through the enormous revenues they raise to keep everything that matters to us going.

Following the Aberfan disaster in October 1966, donations from around the world were used to build the Aberfan and Merthyr Vale Community Centre. The centre has been managed by a leisure trust and is home to a library, gym and swimming pool. Until two days ago, it faced possible closure. Despite that, the trustees—none of them local—refused to engage with me, trade unions, their own staff or residents, and they only engaged with the local authority at the eleventh hour. May we please have a debate on how charity trustees who hold cherished local assets can be held to account?

I am sorry to hear about the situation in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency. Losing any facility is not good for a community, but losing one with such heritage and hopes for a legacy that it might deliver for its local community is very upsetting. He will know how to apply for a debate, and I encourage him to continue his work to bring together the trustees and the community. When that happens, solutions are found. The Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities has enabled asset transfers and other things to happen in order to allow such facilities to continue, and my office stands ready to assist him in any way we can to get the right advice.

The Government’s long-term plan for towns will ensure that local people can develop plans that deliver the priorities of their community and are given the tools to change their town’s long-term future. Better access to finance for microbusinesses and social enterprises is a critical element of such a plan, and the Government could facilitate it through changes to financial regulations. Will the Leader of the House allocate Government time for a debate on the future of community enterprise and community lending, including Bank of Dave-style initiatives that drive local growth?

My hon. Friend raises good points and ideas. She will know that the next questions to the Chancellor will be on 7 May, and I encourage her to raise those matters with him then. I will give him the heads-up today to ensure that he has heard her sensible suggestions.

As a founding member of the Scottish constitutional convention, and the only Member of the present Commons whose signature is on Scotland’s claim of right, I know one or two things about devolution. Indeed, it will very shortly be the 25th anniversary of the first sitting of the Scottish Parliament. I politely ask whether we might have a debate on how Scottish devolution came into being, the ideals that lay behind it, and how the present Scottish Government are undermining those first ideals.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that very good suggestion, and I am sure that such a debate would be well attended. Having headed up UK-wide organisations, particularly in healthcare, I know that one strength of having different systems of governance to reflect different parts of the UK is that they work together and learn from each other—how our four chief medical officers work together, for example. Devolution was envisaged as four nations working together for the common good of their citizens, but we know that is not the SNP’s interpretation of that opportunity. That would be a good debate and I encourage him to apply for it —and if he does, I will attend.

Outside of London, Aberdeen has the highest proportion of non-UK-born citizens anywhere on this island. Today the Home Office looks set to remove and detain someone who fled persecution in their home country and has begun to build a life in Aberdeen. Right now, the people of my city are out on the streets making it clear that refugees are welcome in Aberdeen. What can I do to ensure that if someone is detained and removed from Aberdeen, they are given basic human necessities such as water on the hours-long journey away from our city, and to ensure that the Home Office updates the MP and answers their questions in relation to that detention?

The hon. Lady will know that the Home Office will always talk to Members of this House about constituency cases of whatever nature, but it is clear that, given our finite resource, we can honour our obligations to those seeking asylum here only if our asylum system can deal with the volume of people coming in. We should use those finite resources in a way that helps people, but we can also choose which individuals we want to help and ensure that people who do not have leave to remain in this country do not remain here. That is what this democratic Parliament has decided to do, because the British people wish us to do it. She ought to reflect on that.

There are a number of bodies that the public rely on to be impartial and to protect the public interest, including the General Medical Council, the Solicitors Regulation Authority and the Civil Aviation Authority, to name but three. When independent regulators take moneys from the World Economic Forum or other vested interests, they lose their independence, so can we have a statement from the relevant Minister on how we are going to end regulatory capture, something we have seen at the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency with disastrous consequences? Can that Minister also explain why the guidance to so-called independent regulators says that it regards their regulation as a tool of government?

Regulators have very clear responsibilities —that is well understood. Members of this House will work with them on a whole raft of issues to raise concerns about the sector they cover and how they are operating in their local area. If the hon. Gentleman has any specific charges of a regulator not doing its job, as he knows, the Department for Business and Trade will shortly be bringing forward a White Paper about how we improve regulators in the UK. We are always interested in what can be improved, but he has made quite a serious allegation today, which he should follow up with the Secretary of State.

As millions of people across England and Wales go to vote in today’s council elections, will the Leader of the House join me in recognising the work of my constituent, the right honourable Lord Provost of Edinburgh, Robert Aldridge, who this week marks 40 years of continuous service as a councillor in Edinburgh? That longevity is the envy of many others in Scottish politics, and I am sure will be the ambition of many of those who are starting their career today.

However, like this place and many other parts of our democracy, councils do not always reflect the diversity of their area. In 2022, the Local Government Association found that 92% of councillors were white, 40% were retired, 46% had caring responsibilities and just 12% had a disability, so may we have a debate in Government time on how we could make local government roles more accessible and more representative of their communities?

I am sure that the whole House sends its congratulations to Councillor Robert Aldridge on this landmark anniversary, and thanks him for both his service and his stamina in the role. The hon. Lady raises a very important point: we want many people from many different backgrounds and with many different skills to come forward and run for office. It is an excellent topic for a debate—she will know how to apply for one—but of course we can all encourage people in our communities to come forward, step up and serve.

As a child of the 1970s, I am certain that the Leader of the House will value and remember fondly the performances of AC/DC. However, she may not know that AC/DC’s frontman, Bon Scott, is no less than a child of Angus—of Kirriemuir in particular. I am certain that she will wish to welcome this weekend’s Bonfest festival, wish it every success, and congratulate DD8 Music on the promotion of that tremendous international music festival. However, one thing that causes problems for music festivals across this island is the Brexit obstructions that prevent many musicians from coming from the EU to perform in Scotland, and Scottish and English musicians from performing in the EU. Does she agree that we should have a debate in Government time about how we can best reconcile that situation with the Brexit reality that we find ourselves in?

The hon. Gentleman will not be surprised that I disagree with his characterisation of the UK’s choice to leave the European Union as a highway to hell, but I will ensure that the relevant Minister has heard his concerns. Of course, I congratulate everyone involved in what sounds like a very jolly festival, and I hope a good time is had by all.

Today we read in the press that the oil and gas company Shell will take some of its bumper profits, creamed off the top of people’s soaring energy bills, and use it for share buy-backs. Shell plans to start a £2.8 billion share buy-back scheme to inflate its own share price, rather than to help tackle the climate emergency or boost our economy. A 4% tax on share buy-backs as proposed by the Liberal Democrats could raise about £2 billion per annum for our public services, so could we please have a debate on share buy-backs and the potential benefits of such a levy?

The hon. Gentleman will know that, on any such proposals that the Liberal Democrats wish to put forward, they can question the Chancellor next Tuesday when the House returns. He will also know that the Government have done a huge amount of work with both energy companies and their suppliers to assist in alleviating the cost-of-living issues that households and businesses are facing.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. These are the strongest legs in the Chamber, without a doubt.

I thank the Leader of the House for the opportunity to highlight the prevention of violations of freedom of religion or belief. It has been more than a year since the outbreak of the civil war in Sudan, and Sudanese civilians certainly bear the brunt of the atrocities committed due to the fighting, with thousands killed and millions internally displaced. While His Majesty’s Government are working with others to resolve the crisis, the vulnerability of Sudanese Christians has been overlooked. Christians and their churches are being targeted, and there have been reports of rape, kidnap and looting against Christians. Even when the war ends, religious minorities fear future persecution. Will the Leader of the House join me in condemning the atrocities against Christians in Sudan, and what can she do with the Foreign Secretary and the Government to combat these crimes as they work to find a solution to the conflict?

I again thank the hon. Gentleman for raising awareness of an issue that has affected enormous numbers of people, but does not necessarily get the airtime on the UK media that it warrants. He will know that the Foreign Secretary and the Minister covering this region are very focused on ensuring, and will do all they can to make sure, that civilians are protected and security issues are properly addressed. As part of that, he will know that the envoy for freedom of religion or belief and the team supporting that post will be very focused on this matter. As I always do, I will make sure that the Foreign Secretary has heard his concerns, and I thank him.

Backbench Business

Security in the Western Balkans

I beg to move,

That this House recognises the acute security situation in the Western Balkans; supports the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Kosovo and Bosnia and Herzegovina; condemns the attack by Serb nationalist militants in Banjska, Kosovo on 24 September 2023; further supports the authority of the Constitutional Court in Bosnia and Herzegovina; further condemns Russian interference in the Balkans; notes with concern pro-Russian and pro-Serbian irredentist political rhetoric in Montenegro; and urges the Government to increase its engagement with regional partners and international allies to improve the security landscape of the Western Balkans.

A pivotal moment for the western Balkans approaches —a moment that will decide whether the dream of a democratic, peaceful, Euro-Atlantic, integrated Balkans can be realised, or whether we will return to the nightmare of the 1990s. Without peace, there can be no progress, and with the threat of violence and the embrace of hatred, insecurity is bred. Today, I hope to set out some steps that the Government can take to protect peace and, as we all hope, to protect us from having to confront the dreadful alternative of conflict. I thank the Backbench Business Committee for agreeing to this debate, which is very much appreciated, and I welcome the ambassadors of Bosnia and Herzegovina and of Kosovo to the Chamber.

I want to start by discussing Bosnia and Herzegovina, which, with its multi-ethnic character and constitution, acts as a linchpin for the wider region. Next year, we mark the 30th anniversary of the Dayton agreement, which brought an end to the horrors of the Bosnian war. Before the war, 34% of people in Sarajevo were married to spouses of a different ethnicity, with children who studied and played together and neighbours who cooked together, but they suddenly found themselves separated by conflict, unable to understand why their world had fallen apart and why those they had called friends shunned and abandoned them.

The tragedy of the Bosnian war is embodied in the story of the 25-year-olds Boško Brkić and Admira Ismić, known as the Romeo and Juliet of Sarajevo. Boško was a Bosnian Serb who was deeply in love with his girlfriend Admira, a Bosniak. Both were trapped in the siege of Sarajevo by the Bosnian Serb army, and attempted to escape in 1993, hoping to continue their young lives, full of hope and away from the horrors of war. As they attempted to leave the city, Boško was shot by a sniper and killed instantly. Another shot injured Admira, who in her last moments crawled to Boško and embraced his body, eventually succumbing to her wounds while she hugged her beloved. Their final embrace, as Admira lay dying, signalled the unwavering strength of their bond and represented the rejection of hatred and of ethnic division. The hopes of the young Romeo and Juliet of Sarajevo continue to be held by many people across Bosnia and Herzegovina, and it is our duty to empower them to dream of that brighter future, and to do all we can to limit the return of violence and more cruelty on the streets.

I thank my hon. Friend for securing this debate at a crucial time. I do not think it an exaggeration to say that the current situation is a tinderbox and on knife edge, to mix metaphors. The story she has just relayed is important. Does she agree that it illustrates that the nationalistic leaderships who wanted to stir up hatred were in such a minority, because the vast majority of the population of Bosnia and Herzegovina were unaware of their ethnic backgrounds? They saw themselves as Bosnians, and that was exploited by those nationalist tendencies.

My right hon. Friend, unsurprisingly, is absolutely right. That is why it is so important at this time, when we see the risk of a return to the tinderbox, that we in this place attempt to safeguard the truth. We must never forget the horrors of the Bosnian war or the siege of Sarajevo, which is still the longest in modern history and where almost 12,000 civilians were killed. Neither should we forget the genocide of Srebrenica, where 8,000 men and boys were murdered, or the 100,000 people dead and the 2 million displaced.

Sadly, those who seek to break up Bosnia today use the past as a weapon, inverting it to retraumatise victims and glorify atrocities. Milorad Dodik, the so-called President of Republika Srpska, has consistently denied the Srebrenica genocide, despite a 2021 Bosnia-wide law banning genocide denial. As we know, denial is a continuation of genocide. A group of countries including Bosnia, Germany and Rwanda is bringing a resolution to the UN General Assembly formally to recognise 11 July as the international memorial day for the victims of the Srebrenica genocide. The resolution is supported by Balkan countries including Croatia, Montenegro, Albania, North Macedonia and Slovenia, yet Serbia opposes it.

Enshrining remembrance of the Srebrenica genocide and other victims of the Bosnian war in international law sends a strong message that the international community rejects historical revisionism and the weaponisation of the past. It also prevents the revictimisation of survivors, and sends a strong message to Milorad Dodik and all those who seek a return to the 1990s that we have not forgotten and we will not forget. I am grateful that the Foreign Secretary has made it clear that the UK will both vote for and promote the resolution. Some, however, are seeking to misrepresent that resolution. What it does not do is pass collective judgment against the people of Serbia. It is about individual responsibility and ending the denial of genocide to build a better future with a common language. Denial prevents communities from coming together and building new futures, and the memory of past traumas steels us in our mission to safeguard modern-day Bosnia and Herzegovina.

The Dayton agreement, to which the UK is a signatory, established the office of high representative and the constitutional court of Bosnia to ensure the state’s viability and development. Milorad Dodik has sought to violate the treaty, passing illegal laws in Republika Srpska to reject the authority of both those entities. He is now before a court on charges relating to those violations, and if found guilty will be banned from holding office and face up to five years in prison.

Predictably, rather than face up to the consequences of his actions, Dodik has threatened Bosnia and Herzegovina, stating that Republika Srpska will secede from Bosnia if he is convicted. Republika Srpska is not Dodik; Dodik is not Republika Srpska, and he is wrong when he endangers all those who live within its environs. That cowardly attempt to shield himself behind state institutions will have dire consequences for all Bosnians, and the UK must be unequivocal in our support for the constitutional court and its judgments.

Russia has a clear interest in fomenting conflict in the Balkans to distract from its renewed illegal invasion of Ukraine. Sadly, it holds a veto over the security framework of Bosnia and Herzegovina and the renewal of EUFOR. That consequently hands it a veto over the entire region, which is akin, some might say, to handing a match to an arsonist. Eventually you will be forced to put out the fire.

Just to illustrate where we are with Russia, Dodik gave the highest order of Republika Srpska to Putin.

Dodik absolutely did do that. Once again my right hon. Friend is absolutely right. Over the next few days, there will be a great Easter coming together of Dodik, Vučić and others around a Greater Serbia, which I will touch on briefly.

I ask the Government to work with our allies to consider an alternative peacekeeping framework to EUFOR, led by NATO. The Dayton agreement gives NATO explicit permission to legally establish a force in Bosnia for peacekeeping without time limit or UN approval. There is widespread support from the Bosnian Government, and its legality under the Dayton agreement means that neither Dodik nor Putin could block it, unlike the current arrangement with EUFOR. As a minimum, the UK should send a NATO peacekeeping force to the strategic Brčko district, which I am sure my right hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) will speak about shortly. Even one battalion of NATO troops in Brčko would make a secession militarily impossible and have a stabilising effect on all of Bosnia’s politics.

I entirely endorse that point. A British battalion positioned in Bosnia would give a very strong signal. Frankly, a British battalion is probably the best battalion to send into such a peacekeeping situation.

My right hon. and gallant Friend is absolutely right. To that point, I know that the Foreign Secretary, in answering questions from Members in the other place yesterday, said that he would prefer to emphasise and focus on Kosovo, but we saw that when British troops went into Kosovo last September, there was a resurgence in the delivery of the mandate. My right hon. and gallant Friend is right that British troops would make a fundamental difference. The fact that the Dayton agreement gives us explicit permission to create a new security force means that we should actively be debating it.

Finally, the UK should look at extending the sanctions levied against Dodik and other senior figures in his circle, which I was relieved to secure a few years ago. The joint sanctions with the UK and the US have begun to take serious effect, with Bosnian banks closing the accounts of those targeted. I urge the Government to consider sanctioning other figures from Republika Srpska who support laws designed to undermine the high representative and the constitutional court, promote genocide denial and glorification, and attempt to transfer Bosnian state assets to their personal control.

Bosnia, with its multi-ethnic character and constitution, is a barometer for the entirety of the western Balkans. When threatening the break-up of Bosnia, Dodik said:

“If anybody tries to stop us, we have friends who will defend us.”

I say, let us show him that Bosnia, too, has friends, and none more steadfast than the United Kingdom. Now is the time for deterrence, diplomacy and a rejuvenated NATO to take the initiative and ensure that Bosnia’s sovereignty and security are protected.

While the situation in Bosnia is tense, Kosovo is the only country in the western Balkans to have faced an attack on its soil since our last debate on the western Balkans. The Banjska attack carried out last September saw 30 heavily armed Serb militants murder a Kosovan police officer, Afrim Bunjaku, before engaging in a firefight from the Banjska monastery. The amount of weaponry seized from the militants was truly extraordinary. I have seen it myself, and I refer to my declaration in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.

I thank the hon. Member for securing today’s important debate on security in the western Balkans. On a recent visit to Serbia as part of a cross-party parliamentary delegation, I witnessed the immense potential as well as the stark challenges in the region. Does she agree that the UK Government must do their level best to help to defuse tensions between Serbia and Kosovo, to ensure that the rights of minorities on both sides of the border are protected and, crucially, to promote democracy by doing their level best to reduce Russian influence in the region and in Serbia?

Without question, everyone must help to defuse the situation and everyone must support ethnic minorities, and we should be clear that we in this place, as I will say later in my speech, want to be a friend to a democratic Serbia. That is what we all aspire to in the region.

To go back to the Banjska attack, the arsenal of those 30 militants included 41 anti-tank rocket launchers, 66 automatic rifles, two automatic grenade launchers, four mortars, two armoured vehicles and more than 50 kg of explosives. The weapon serial numbers lined up. Those were not miscellaneous items. Nor were they old or expired stock—some were just a couple of years old. I am sure the Minister will agree that such a level of weaponry is not typical for provincial militia. It therefore begs the question: who was supporting the Banjska attackers and why?

The answer may lie in some of the footage recovered from those who undertook the attack, which shows the militants training in a Serbian military base on 20 September, just four days before the attack. Likewise, some of those aforementioned serial numbers on the weaponry match up to the maintenance documents recording the same weapons as belonging to the Serbian military.

Countless times in the House—in writing and in private meetings—I have asked the Government to release an assessment of whether the Serbian state provided material and strategic support for the Banjska attack. The US has completed a report on who is responsible and their links to the Serbian Government. Our allies need to release that urgently because truth matters and accountability matters. Without that report, the truth is denied and there is no deterrence, because impunity breeds contempt for the rule of law and order.

Swift and equitable accountability for acts of aggression is crucial if we want to discourage future violence and dispel any notion of appeasement. So I ask again: who organised the Banjska attack, who provided the weaponry and what do we assess was their intent? I would be grateful if the Minister answered that when he responds.

What we do know beyond doubt is that the attack was led by Milan Radoičić, a former vice-president of the Srpska Lista party. The current wave of tension in northern Kosovo exploded when Srpska Lista orchestrated an electoral boycott of municipal elections last May. Without the participation of Kosovan Serbs, the election returned Albanian mayors. The installation of the mayors by the Kosovan Government sparked unrest. We have all spoken about how risky that was, including I directly to the Government. However, we then saw a violent attack on Kosovo Force—KFOR—by Serbian militias that injured 25 Italian and Hungarian troops, some of whom will never walk again. At the time, the UK, the US and the EU condemned Kosovo for installing the democratically elected mayors, but did not criticise Serbia for its support of the boycott and Srpska Lista.

I wrote a joint statement, signed by 74 parliamentarians from Europe—including almost every chair of a Foreign Affairs Committee in Europe—the US and Canada, asking for a fairer approach to the crisis and for Kosovo not to be singled out. The statement, and multiple votes and debates in the EU Parliament, have shown that the international community want to see a more even-handed approach to Kosovo and Serbia.

Kosovo has since, under international pressure, facilitated a referendum in the northern municipalities to allow elections for new mayors. Srpska Lista again orchestrated a boycott, frustrating the democratic process and inflaming intercommunal tensions even further. The US has been clear now, however, that Kosovo has fulfilled its democratic obligations and the northern mayors are legitimate. The EU, unfortunately, has been less clear in its messaging, insisting on a “both sidery” approach. Can the Minister confirm that the UK recognises that Kosovo has attempted to rectify the situation under its constitution and that, regardless of boycott by Srpska Lista, the current mayors are legitimate, regardless of their ethnicity? I also point out how disappointing it is that ethnicity continues to play such an important role in the Balkans.

Despite constant impediments by Russia and Serbia, Kosovo is on the verge of membership of the Council of Europe, with its application moving to the Committee of Ministers for approval this month. Membership would mark a vital milestone in Kosovo’s progress from the dark days of the 1990s. Kosovo’s journey is one in which we have played an important role, which we should all be proud of. However, some internationally have said that Kosovo should be admitted only if it creates an association of Serb-majority municipalities. The UK should reject that firmly. While I do not want another Republika Srpska in the western Balkans at all, an ASM will be created as part of the Belgrade-Pristina dialogue, but it cannot be rushed or extracted through external pressure. Can the Minister confirm that the Foreign Secretary will vote for Kosovo’s admission to the Council of Europe this month, regardless of progress on the ASM, and encourage all allies to do so?

More broadly, the UK, as a former member of the Quint, should assume a more active role in the peace talks. Our current passivity is untenable in the face of such a volatile situation. We are no longer constrained by EU consensus and non-recognisers, and we must be more inventive in diplomacy. We must find not just our voice but our backbone, stop standing on the sidelines and take action when we have a duty to support our allies.

Equally, the UK should be engaged with the five EU states that do not recognise Kosovo’s sovereignty to help boost Kosovo’s trajectory towards EU and NATO membership while solidifying the inviolability of its territorial integrity. The US and the EU should also adopt a resolute posture when addressing Serbia’s leadership for their role in stoking instability, aligning with Putin and increasing autocratic tendencies at home and abroad. The UK and Kosovo have a fantastic relationship, and I thank the Foreign Secretary for visiting Kosovo earlier this year to demonstrate that partnership. The bond was forged during NATO’s intervention in 1999, when British troops helped to avert further atrocities and put Kosovo on a path towards democracy, which it has fully embraced.

Our armed forces continue to play a role. After the Banjska attack, the Princess of Wales Royal Regiment quickly deployed to bolster KFOR, acting professionally to defuse the situation. Likewise, the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers deployed last year in a period of heightened tensions. The British Army is highly respected and appreciated, and I am sure the whole House will join me in thanking each and every soldier who served there with distinction. They made an enormous difference.

I urge the Government to work with NATO partners to ensure that KFOR is given the support and taskings it needs to maintain peace and stability across Kosovo. We should consider the establishment of a new security alliance between the US, the UK and other willing NATO member states with Kosovo to help to allay the immediate security concerns. Let me give an example of why that is needed. Last December, President Vučić said that Serbia should simply follow the example of Azerbaijan in Nagorno-Karabakh and wait for special geopolitical circumstances to allow it to reclaim Kosovo. That is a statement of intent and should not be ignored.

Such comments from a head of state are unacceptable. Indeed, Vučić threatened me last year for speaking out against the smuggling of weapons into Kosovo. My warnings were decried by many, yet what I predicted devastatingly came to pass in Banjska. I am grateful to the Speaker and to this House for the support I was given at that time.

There were also reports of electoral irregularities during the Serbian election and the bussing in of people, followed by the opposition MP Nikola Sandulović being kidnapped and brutally beaten by Serbian authoritarian terrorists. It is fitting that the Serbian opposition operates under the banner of “Serbia against violence”. We in this House want to be friends with a democratic Serbia. We want free and fair Serbian elections. There needs to be political reform, and that begins with free and fair elections. I fear that we are not seeing that, especially with Xi Jinping today in Serbia encouraging it to join BRICS.

During a recent cross-party parliamentary delegation visit to Albania, we witnessed for ourselves—thanks to fruitful meetings with the President, the Speaker, Ministers, MPs and others to help strengthen ties—that Albania is a close, trusted ally in defence and migration. The UK Government are helping to support a great deal of work to tackle modern slavery. We also witnessed the UK Government supporting youth initiatives in Kukës. There was also considerable concern in Albania, and during my recent meeting with the British Albanian diaspora, about the sovereignty of Kosovo. Does the hon. Lady agree that the British Government must work with Albania and other allies to ensure that we help to protect Kosovan sovereignty?

Yes, we must do that.

I had hoped to touch on Montenegro, but I will conclude. We can protect the truth in Bosnia by voting for a UN resolution to commemorate the Srebrenica genocide. We can end Dodik’s threats of secession by transitioning to a NATO-led peacekeeping mission under the provisions of the Dayton agreement. We can continue our successful programme of sanctions to shut down the accounts of those who threaten peace. In Kosovo, we can build on the UK’s proud legacy by voting to admit Kosovo to the Council of Europe, and we can redouble our commitment to KFOR and extend its mandate by taking a more proactive approach to countering militias and criminality. We can commit to a fairer and more even-handed approach to the Belgrade-Pristina dialogue, and in Serbia we can work with international partners to promote free and fair elections and a media environment.

We must be clear that we stand on the side of the people of Serbia, and that irredentist dreams care little about the people of the Balkans. It is within our power to support stability and security through deterrence and being resolute in our commitment to the region. Inaction is a choice that we cannot make. We must not step back and we must not look away.