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Topical Questions

Volume 749: debated on Thursday 2 May 2024

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.