House of Commons
Thursday 7 February 2019
The House met at half-past Nine o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
New Trade Agreements: Human Rights
The United Kingdom has a strong and proud history of promoting our values globally, including on human rights. We are considering all options in the design of future trade agreements, including human rights provisions. We recognise the need to maximise the benefits of trade while being true to our values.
I am one of the 38 Co-operative MPs in this place. We are the third largest party in Parliament and we have a long-standing campaign against modern slavery. There is a particular need to emphasise any safeguards against modern slavery in our supply chains, which is an insidious aspect of international trade. Will the Secretary of State take cognisance of that urgency in ensuring that the scourge of modern slavery is outlawed in our legislation and trade agreements?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for reminding me that a party within a party is in fact normal practice in the Labour party—
The hon. Gentleman raises an extraordinarily important point. Modern slavery is far more widespread than is recognised. It is a pernicious, wicked practice and it is something that this Government have taken the lead on internationally. It will certainly be reflected in all the values of this Government, including our trade policy.
On the consultations that we have already had in public on Australia, New Zealand, the comprehensive and progressive agreement for trans-Pacific partnership —the CPTPP—and the United States, the Government have a commitment to hold such a debate in the House of Commons. Assuming the agreement of the business managers, I hope that we will have that debate in the House within the next two weeks.
What assessment has the Secretary of State’s Department made of the role of British businesses in tackling abuse and exploitation in global supply chains?
As I said in answer to a previous question, we take such abuses very seriously. This country operates its international trade policy with one of the highest levels of ethics of any country globally, and the Government are always keen to ensure that those ethics are upheld in every way.
Order. It is open to the hon. Member for Fylde (Mark Menzies) to seek to shoehorn Question 9 into the question with which we are dealing now. It is not obligatory, but his opportunity exists if he wants it, and it looks as though he does.
In terms of the continuity of our existing agreements, the best way to ensure full continuity is to have a deal. All those who talk about the pitfalls of no deal would do well to remember that in voting against the deal they make those pitfalls all the more likely. My hon. Friend is right to suggest that it is not only trade agreements that are important but trade itself, including trade promotion for our exports, and I congratulate him on the work he has done to promote this country’s interests abroad.
The persecution and mass incarceration of the Uyghur community in the Xinjiang province of China is facilitated by companies such as Hikvision, which manufactures and supplies much of the surveillance equipment that is used there. Hikvision has an expanding presence in this country. Can the Secretary of State assure me that the trade deals that we might have post Brexit will not encourage trade of that nature?
As I have said, any future trade agreements that we have beyond the European Union will be subject to public consultation, to debate in this House and, I hope, to rigorous processes that I may set out in due course about how we can increase scrutiny of those agreements. Members across the House will place different types of emphasis on different constituencies and different sectors of the economy, but I think that the whole House will share those concerns about ethics. I hope that the design of the scrutiny of those trade agreements that I will be able to bring to the House in greater detail soon will give the right hon. Gentleman the reassurance that he seeks.
Is not championing global free trade the best way of promoting human rights?
We all need to remember that the great success of free trade over the last generation has been the truly historic achievement of taking 1 billion people out of abject poverty. That has been the benefit of free trade, and in this era of protectionism we should realise that economic nationalism is a way of rolling back what has been an enormously beneficial human trend.
Two weeks ago, the Joint Committee on Human Rights heard how the Canadian Government had to make a substantial pay-out and issue a public apology to a chemicals company after they were sued for taking a public policy decision to ban a chemical additive to protect human health. The Committee was told that investor-state dispute settlement provisions in trade and investment agreements can
“impact very negatively on human rights.”
Does the Secretary of State recognise that danger? If so, will he rule out such ISDS clauses in future trade agreements? If not, what counter-evidence will he present to the Joint Committee on Human Rights?
I have made clear our concern about human rights, but the idea of banning such agreements is nonsensical. This country has £1.3 trillion of stock overseas. Our investors are important in providing development in a lot of these countries, yet they are not given sufficient legal protections, which they would normally get under systems such as the UK’s. That is why those provisions are put in—to protect our investors overseas.
British Businesses Investing Overseas
Supporting UK-based companies to invest and operate overseas is a key pillar of the Department’s work. In 2017, UK companies brought home £86 billion as a result of those investments. The Department provides market information and identifies investment opportunities and potential partners. We have developed a new suite of products to help UK businesses as a result of outward direct investment pilots in New York, China, Turkey, Brazil, South Africa and Ethiopia.
I thank the Minister for that answer, but people are quite rightly concerned that setting up overseas subsidiaries or acquiring foreign enterprises could lead to job losses or relocations. Will the Minister confirm the net number of jobs created in the UK as a result of his Department’s support for outward direct investment?
This Government’s job creation record speaks for itself. It is the protectionist instincts that run throughout the Labour party that so threaten the jobs miracles that my constituents and the hon. Lady’s have enjoyed over recent years.
I do not know whether the hon. Member for Gillingham and Rainham (Rehman Chishti) has observed that there is an opportunity for him now. He takes a grave risk if he waits for question 10, because we might not reach it.
The Secretary of State recently led more than 100 innovative tech companies to CES, the world’s biggest trade show. The US is of course our largest trading partner and our largest overseas investor. As my hon. Friend rightly points out, there are real opportunities, which is why one of the first priorities on free trade agreements is one with the US.
The Environmental Audit Committee has just started an inquiry into the role of UK Export Finance. We pledge to meet climate change targets at home, so why is it that nearly every penny of support for energy projects overseas goes on fossil fuels?
I do not think that that is accurate, but I do not have the exact numbers to hand. UK Export Finance is there to support UK business in meeting demands and needs as requested by overseas companies and, indeed, countries. I make no apology for saying that UKEF is there to try to promote that, and it has played a role in funding renewable technologies. Our record on that front is good worldwide.
With UK Export Finance reaching its centenary later this year, what difference has UKEF made to exports? How does my hon. Friend intend to mark the occasion?
UKEF is yet another example of how this country has led the way when it comes to exporting. It was the world’s first export credit agency, and we should all be proud of its work to support British exports over the last 100 years. We will celebrate the centenary throughout this year, notably at the UK trade and export finance forum in June, and we will continue to promote UKEF’s world-class support so that even more UK companies can succeed abroad.
UK Tech Sector Investment
We lead Europe in developing a sustainable tech ecosystem. Tech Nation’s latest release in 2018 shows that the UK attracted more venture capital investment than anywhere else in Europe, with $7.9 billion in funding from investors, ahead of Germany, France and Israel. We announced £1 billion for the artificial intelligence sector alone in last year’s sector deal, which will help to unlock further opportunities for AI investment in the UK.
The UK tech industry has been one of the great success stories of the British economy over the last decade. Does the Minister agree that, as we leave the European Union, it is vital that we continue to retain that combination of innovation, entrepreneurial spirit and investment flows, which have put the rocket boosters under the UK tech industry, so that we stay on the leading edge over the decades to come?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Tech is not only an enormously important industry in its own right, but it is vital to innovation and advances in so many other areas. The Government’s industrial strategy grand challenges seek to secure the country’s future in innovative technologies. FinTech, for instance, has raised nearly £12.2 billion in just the first half of 2018, with companies such as Revolut securing £190 million of investment. My Department will do everything it can to support innovators, including through the global entrepreneur programme.
As well as having immense strength in artificial intelligence, the UK is a world leader in medical research. Does my hon. Friend agree that the work being done to prepare for our post-Brexit future will deliver a superb collaboration with Israel that will help further strengthen the UK as a technological hub?
The industrial challenge’s grand challenge on ageing focuses on our world-leading pharmaceutical and health companies. We have a dedicated team in Tel Aviv actively promoting co-operation between UK and Israeli companies, and we have an established UK-Israel tech hub to enhance those partnerships between British companies and Israeli technology innovators.
The Minister missed an opportunity in his answer to the supplementary question of the hon. Member for Halesowen and Rowley Regis (James Morris), in which he was invited to talk about a rocket. He should have said that this is the answer to Donald Tusk: to get out of hell, we are going to fly on a rocket.
The hon. Gentleman, as a Member from a party so bereft of optimists, gives an example to the others. This country has a great future outside the European Union, and technology, in which we are the undisputed European leader, is fundamental to putting a rocket up not only our industry but many of the people with whom he shares the Opposition Benches.
It is hard to follow that question. None the less, Northern Ireland has many companies that lead their fields in the tech and medicare sectors. What discussions has the Minister had with the Department for Enterprise, Trade and Investment in Northern Ireland to partner and develop those Northern Ireland companies?
We work very closely with that Department. I would not say I am a natural industrial strategy sort of person, but the grand challenges have identified the big issues facing not only this country but humanity. By channelling our limited resources to those who make the most difference, we can support areas, not least agritech, in which Northern Ireland is a global leader.
Preferential Trade Agreement with India
India is an important part of our future trading arrangements. The UK-India joint trade review has enabled us better to understand the bilateral trade relationship by examining trade flows and barriers that could be jointly addressed. Collaboration is continuing to address barriers in the food and drink, life sciences and information and communications technology sectors. The appointment of Her Majesty’s trade commissioner in 2018 also provides a joined-up and co-ordinated Government effort to promote UK trade and prosperity in India.
I thank the Minister for his answer. He will be aware that the UK is the third biggest investor in India and India is the third biggest investor in the UK. What more can we do to ensure that we increase the trade as we leave the European Union and set out on our own free trade mission across the world?
I thank my hon. Friend for his question. Crispin Simon, the aforementioned HMTC, is leading the Department’s network to grow trade in key sectors. UK exports to India grew by 28%, to £7.9 billion, in the year ending quarter 2 2018, making that seven consecutive quarters of growth. Goods exports increased by 38% in the same period. Following the launch of the UK-India technology partnership by the Prime Minister and Indian Prime Minister Modi in April 2018, there have been many successes, including the healthcare AI catalyst programme. We have worked closely with many companies, such as BT, Rolex, Diageo, GlaxoSmithKline, Marks & Spencer and G4S.
The Minister might know that, in the Leeds city region, which includes Huddersfield, we have many brilliant businesspeople from an Indian background and they of course have very good partnerships with India. They are totally demoralised at the moment, partly because of this Secretary of State. I would not wish him to go into hell, but they have no confidence in him and they have no confidence in shrinking the potential market for India from 650 million to 65 million people.
All I can say is that the hon. Gentleman is entitled to his opinions, but I happen to disagree with him fundamentally. We have a close trading relationship with India, and we are working extremely hard to grow trade there. The figures I have already given him this morning demonstrate that there is potential in India, which we are exploiting and will continue to exploit if and when we leave the EU.
India of course is in the EU’s generalised scheme of preferences, whereas nearby countries such as Pakistan and Sri Lanka are in GSP+, with Bangladesh probably soon to join them. Does my hon. Friend agree that, if we were to adopt Labour’s customs union policy, we would have to accept EU trade preference policy without any say in its formulation? Does he also agree that that would lead to a big decline in UK foreign policy influence in south Asia and among diaspora communities in the UK?
One reason why the Prime Minister has put forward the deal that she has to the House is because it allows the flexibility for us to engage in the ways in which my right hon. Friend expects us to be able to do—actively with the south Asia region, and India in particular—and to prescribe our own preference schemes such that we can control our own rules.
Is it not the case that the priority for the Indian Government is a trade deal with the EU and that the best way for the British state to have a trade deal with the EU is to stay in the EU customs union?
The Indian Government’s priority is likely to be trade with anybody with whom it suits. The hon. Gentleman simply needs to listen to the answer I gave a little earlier: there has been a 28% increase in UK exports to India, to £7.9 billion, in the year to quarter 2 2018, and a 38% increase in goods exports. We can conclude from that there is plenty of attention in India on UK trade.
Future Trade Agreements: Intellectual Property Rights
The UK’s intellectual property regime is consistently rated as one of the best in the world. The Government are reviewing their future trade policy as we leave the EU. We will continue to consult widely with stakeholders on intellectual property provisions in future trade agreements to support inventors, creators, consumers, and food and drink producers.
Scotland is one of the fastest growing regions in the UK’s creative industries, which are world leading and currently worth £91.8 billion to the UK economy. Can the Minister therefore reassure the creative industries in Scotland, and indeed across the UK, that professional equipment such as musical instruments will not be subject to the disruption of additional documentation requirements and tariffs at the border after Brexit?
Plainly, if the Prime Minister’s deal is accepted in the House of Commons, including by being supported by the Labour party, that will not be an issue. If we leave the EU without a deal, the regimes will be what they are. What I can say is that we are working incredibly hard on copyright, patents and enforcement to make sure that the creative industries, which are vital to the prosperity of this country, will be protected in the event of the UK leaving the EU.
UK Service Exports: European Single Market
In 2017, 46.8% of UK services exports went to the European single market—including the European economic area and Switzerland—worth around £130.5 billion. That represents around 21% of total UK exports. Leaving the EU gives us the freedom to pursue an independent trade policy with countries around the world that reflects our unique strengths in services.
I thank the Secretary of State for his response, but last week the Office for National Statistics published the international trade and services statistics for 2017, which showed that financial services proved to be the largest service product exported globally by UK businesses and that the EU made up nearly half the UK’s service exports. A key part of business relationships with clients in the EU is the ability to travel freely, known as passporting rights. Has the Secretary of State made an assessment of what the end of freedom of movement, including for labour, will mean for services under the Prime Minister’s deal?
Actually, the share of our exports to the European Union accounted for by services is less than our average exported to the rest of the world. In fact, the future of our services will be dependent on global services arrangements, and outside the EU we will have a golden opportunity to shape the global services agenda in a way that suits the United Kingdom’s best interests. It is time that we in this House started to reflect the optimism and confidence of the British public who voted to leave the EU.
Leaving the EU: UK Steel Sector
We are working closely with the UK steel sector to provide as much continuity as possible in trading arrangements after we leave the EU. This includes establishing the Trade Remedies Authority to help to prevent unfair trading practices and identifying more than half a billion pounds’-worth of opportunities for UK steel producers.
When the all-party group on steel met key voices in the industry this week, it was made clear that there is a real lack of engagement from the Government on steel safeguard measures for the UK market in a no-deal scenario. Will the Minister commit to meet UK Steel urgently to discuss this critical detail for an industry that contributes £1.6 billion to the economy?
I do not recognise that description; the Government are indeed involved in talks with the industry about safeguards. The hon. Lady will know that the best way to avoid the problems she identifies is to support the Prime Minister’s deal. Those who keep talking about the pitfalls of no deal but keep voting against a deal are making those pitfalls more likely.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that our future trade policies must protect UK businesses, including in the steel sector, against unfair competition from abroad? It cannot be right for Parliament to expect our businesses to respect high standards on the environment, workplace or welfare and then compete freely with businesses abroad that do not.
That is exactly why, in the Trade Bill, the Government introduced the Trade Remedies Authority to ensure that we have protections against unfair global competition in future. It seems absolutely inexplicable that the Labour party keeps talking about protections but voted against the Trade Bill and the establishment of the Trade Remedies Authority.
Currently, 15% of steel export consignments are subject to tariffs; in the event of no deal, 97% of export consignments would be subject to tariffs. If one considers non-tariff barriers and domestic concerns—the shortage of warehousing was reported yesterday—is this not the time to support an extension of article 50 and to reach out and get a real compromise and an acceptable deal? Otherwise, the Conservatives risk being seen as the party prepared to sacrifice the steel industry on the altar of right-wing ideology.
What the time is right for is reaching an agreement with the European Union, as the Prime Minister has set out, that will give us that certainty. Those who consistently vote against that deal are the ones putting industries at risk.
The very fact that the Secretary of State is even considering zero import tariffs threatens the survival of our steel, ceramics and tyre industries. There will be no incentive for our partners to negotiate new trade deals, or to renegotiate existing ones, as the Secretary of State will have given away the shop before negotiations start. Thousands of workers whose jobs will have gone will no longer be the consumers he says will take advantage of cheap imports. When is he going to admit he is wrong?
The Government have made no decision on this. When we do so, we will communicate it to stakeholders, the public and Parliament. Of course, the best way to avoid any of this scenario is for us to have a deal with the European Union. Whipping up fear over people’s jobs is simply the humbug that has become the hon. Gentleman’s hallmark.
My departmental responsibilities are to have foreign and inward direct investment, to establish an independent trade policy and to promote the United Kingdom’s exports. I am pleased to announce to the House this morning that UK Export Finance will provide £49 million of support for Darlington-based firm Cleveland Bridge to construct 250 bridges for rural Sri Lankan communities.
International trade is a reserved power. What steps is my right hon. Friend taking to engage MPs in the devolved nations to ensure both that they are helping to form policy and that the DIT is properly resourcing devolved nations?
My hon. Friend is right that trade is a reserved power, but we work with parliamentarians across the House through our regular briefings with MPs, which MPs from all parties attend, our international events programme, online services and the Board of Trade, which I established, to ensure that the benefits of trade are equally felt across all the parts of the United Kingdom.
Many British companies are currently part of trade disputes put forward by the EU at the World Trade Organisation. After 29 March they will be able to continue those disputes, utilising the evidence already submitted, but only if the Government accept a regional approach of 27 plus one countries, which is specifically allowed for under WTO rules. That would avoid the time and cost for businesses and for the taxpayer of having to resubmit evidence in a separate case. Why have the Government refused to adopt that simple solution? Why will they not support British business and ensure that trade disputes do not drag on for longer and at far greater cost than absolutely necessary?
We will not want to see trade disputes drag on longer than necessary, and we will want to co-operate with our European partners in that regard. Of course, the best way to ensure that we have the highest level of co-operation on the disputes that are currently under way is to agree to the Prime Minister’s deal.
A number of issues were discussed with Trade Ministers in Davos, including those of continuity. They also included how complex global value chains will be dealt with in the future, because, as my right hon. Friend has said, when the WTO was created the global economy was not so dependent on them. We need to look at how we deal with the question of tariffs and multiple, repeated taxation in industries such as the car industry.
I call Lloyd Russell-Moyle. Not here—where is the fella? I hope that he is not indisposed; that would be most unfortunate. Well, who is here? Nic Dakin is here.
Thank you, Mr Speaker.
The steel industry is confronted with the possibility that the trade defence instruments currently in place at European level to prevent Chinese dumping will not come forward at UK level. We also face having to compete against quotas to sell steel into the EU when we are outside the EU. What is the Secretary of State doing to make sure that that does not happen?
I can say straightforwardly that the anti-subsidy and anti-dumping measures that are currently in place in the EU have been widely consulted on with British industry, and particularly with the steel sector, as the hon. Gentleman will appreciate. We will be transitioning the measures that are important to those industries. The same process has been gone through for safeguarding, and the same result will occur.
Will the ministerial team update us on progress in seeking continuity of some of the other EU trade agreements, particularly those in Canada and in Africa, many of which, of course, the Opposition opposed in the first place?
I simply say what I have said to the House on a number of occasions: we are making good progress on many of those agreements. I have already signed three of them very recently and deposited them with the House. We will continue to update the House as progress is made, and we will bring forward a report in the next week or two, which will help elucidate the matter further.
We set out in the trade agreement that this House supported on Canada non-regression clauses that said we would not water down labour rights or environmental standards, or give away Government control on public service regulation, in order to reach agreement. I supported that and my colleagues supported that in the House, but the Labour party voted against it; I do not understand why.
Will the Secretary of State update the House on what progress the Government have made on advancing food and drink exports, and particularly on getting some of our exporting countries to reduce their tariffs?
Food and drink is one of this country’s most successful export sectors, but a lot of areas of it, particularly those such as spirits—I had discussions with the Scotch Whisky Association just a couple of nights ago—face very high tariffs in countries such as India and Brazil. They are enormous markets for us, but we face disproportionate tariffs, and that is one of the key areas where we seek unilateral reform in such countries so that they can show that they are genuinely committed to free trade.
The Secretary of State has shared with business a progress report on trade deals. I have been trying to obtain that information from him for months; is he willing to share that information with Members of the House as well as with business?
I dealt with this extensively at the International Trade Committee yesterday; the right hon. Gentleman might have wanted to attend.
Can the Secretary of State update the House on the ongoing trade negotiations and discussions he is having with the United States Administration, not least because the US is our single largest export market?
Our working group with the United States on future trade has met a number of times. There is broad agreement that we should have a free trade agreement with the United States. That would open up huge possibilities for the United Kingdom. There has been a lot of talk in the news this week about the ceramics industry; it would benefit from a free trade agreement with the United States, not least by the removal of the 27% tariffs that it currently faces for UK exports.
May I congratulate the Secretary of State on signing a trade agreement with the Faroe Islands? Those must have been tough negotiations. Is he seeking an extension to article 50 to complete the negotiations on the 40 trade deals he promised us he would sign?
The hon. Gentleman mocks the agreement with the Faroe Islands; how typical that is of the Labour party when so many jobs in the fishing and fish processing industry are dependent upon it. He may want to know that when I go to Switzerland on Monday I will be signing the largest of the EU agreements of all. [Interruption.]
Order. Before we move on, as Humphrey Bogart said,
“I don’t mind if you don’t like my manners, I don’t like them myself”,
but just because the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman) is sporting a rather splendid and garish Bogart tie, that does not mean that he should descend to that level himself. [Interruption.] He is chuntering from a sedentary position with predictable regularity—
For my constituents against that man.
The hon. Gentleman says his constituents have a particular view about the Secretary of State; that is quite possible. The Secretary of State’s constituents might have a particular view about the hon. Gentleman, too—who knows?
Women and Equalities
The Minister for Women and Equalities was asked—
HPV Vaccination for Boys: Catch-up Programme
It is the view of Public Health England that a catch-up vaccination programme for boys is not necessary, as evidence suggests that they are already benefiting from the indirect protection known as herd protection, which has been built up from the 10 years of the girls’ programme.
I thank the Minister for her answer, but the boys who will be vaccinated in the first cohort are at the same risk of HPV infection and related diseases as older boys who will not be eligible for the vaccination, and the Government are therefore missing an opportunity to protect more boys. The herd immunity the Minister spoke of does not apply to boys who may go on to have sex with men or with women who have not been vaccinated. Will the Minister therefore urge her colleagues in the Department of Health and Social Care to reconsider this policy on equality grounds?
I thank the hon. Lady for raising this important question. There are additional programmes specifically for the groups that she mentioned. For example, a vaccination programme is being rolled out for men who have sex with men. Obviously the broad principle of the wider screening programme is to do the most good, and not to do any harm. That is the basis on which decisions are being made.
Will my right hon. Friend join me in welcoming the roll-out of the HPV screening test for women? Does she agree that it will increase the number of people who are detected early and reduce the risk of women having cervical cancer?
Yes, and the roll-out has already had a considerable impact. The Department of Health and Social Care will keep these policies under review, but the programme has been an immense success.
Further to the 2018 Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation recommendation for boys to be offered the vaccine, I have been in contact with the permanent secretary of the Department of Health in Northern Ireland. Has the Minister had any opportunity to discuss with him the push for the vaccine to be given throughout all of the United Kingdom, including Northern Ireland?
As the hon. Gentleman will know, the healthcare systems in all four nations are in close discussion about all these things. They are driven by evidence and want to see evidence of what is going on in other nations. So yes, those conversations do take place. I will ask the relevant Minister to write to him on the specific point he raised.
I thank the Minister for what she said about providing the HPV vaccine for gay men on equality grounds. May I encourage her to keep an open mind to extending it to boys, on the same principle?
As I said, these decisions are taken on a clinical basis by people who are looking closely at the evidence, and they keep the policies under review.
Non-disclosure Agreements: Regulation
The Government share the concern that non-disclosure agreements have been used to hide workplace harassment and discrimination, or to intimidate victims into silence. That is clearly unacceptable. We will be consulting on measures to improve the regulation of non-disclosure agreements, including how best to ensure that workers understand their rights when they have signed a non-disclosure agreement.
Thanks to changes brought in by this Government, local authorities are subject to very limited scrutiny. A scan of responses to freedom of information requests shows that the use of NDAs in local authorities is prolific and out of control. Given that the Prime Minister’s planned consultation has yet to materialise, will the Minister confirm that the Government have no idea at all how widespread the use of NDAs is anywhere?
Non-disclosure agreements have a legitimate place in the workplace and can cover matters other than harassment or discrimination. For example, they have a legitimate use in the protection of trade secrets and when a settlement has been reached. As I have outlined, we will be consulting on the issue, and we are determined to make matters easier for workers.
We should be very clear that employment NDAs are being used to cover up lawbreaking. Maternity discrimination and sexual harassment are against the laws that this place has put on our statute books. Therefore, as well as considering the future of NDAs, will my hon. Friend consider the future of the Equality and Human Rights Commission? It should be enforcing our laws, but it has failed to use its extensive enforcement powers.
I thank my right hon. Friend, the Chair of the Women and Equalities Committee, for highlighting the issue; she is quite right. It is true that there has been a tailored review into the effectiveness and work of the EHRC, and the Secretary of State has met the commission. We are looking at its delivery and effectiveness, but we will welcome any suggestions from my right hon. Friend and her Committee.
Domestic Abuse Legislation and Immigration Status
The Home Office operates an immigration policy that supports women and children with insecure immigration status. Victims of domestic abuse who entered the UK as the partner of a British citizen, settled person or person with refugee status are eligible to apply for settlement in their own right. Those who are destitute can also apply for crisis support under the destitute domestic violence concession. We are funding a project conducted by Southall Black Sisters to pilot support for women and children who are victims in these circumstances.
If the system is so effective, why does the Ubuntu women’s shelter in my constituency have to be the first charity in the UK to provide short-term accommodation for women with no recourse to public funds? Fleeing gender-based and domestic violence, they are denied access to homelessness, social security and housing support. These are non-EEA women with limited leave to remain. Women who have settled status or leave to remain face delays in processing their status. Any situation where women fleeing domestic violence, torture or persecution have no recourse to public funds is unacceptable. Does the Minister agree, and what is she going to do about it?
I would ask the hon. Gentleman to advise those working in the refuge to help the women he describes in seeking the destitute domestic violence concession. The point of that concession is to provide immediate crisis support to women and children who are victims of domestic abuse, giving them three months’ leave to remain so that they can find new homes and reflect on their situation, and also have access to public funds.
As the Home Affairs Committee, we have expressed concern that the police, having helped an individual who is a survivor of domestic abuse, are then sharing their details with the Home Office for the purposes of immigration control. This has a chilling effect on the likelihood of reporting abuse. Will the Minister give an assurance that when the domestic abuse Bill has made its way through this place, the only thing that will matter is a woman’s welfare, not their immigration status?
In those circumstances, the response of the state is always led by the needs of the victim. We must be careful to recognise that the immigration system operates in and of its own right. That is precisely why we have the destitute domestic violence concession to help women in these desperate circumstances by giving them a three-month break period to seek help and build a future for themselves and for their children, if appropriate.
What steps are the Government taking to ensure that police forces are not sharing information on victims of domestic abuse with the Home Office for immigration purposes?
This is where there is a tension between the immigration system and the needs of victims of domestic abuse. That is precisely why we have the destitute domestic violence concession to give those women three months’ leave to remain and recourse to public funds. But we must be clear that people who do not enjoy settled status in the UK must not have recourse to public funds in the same way that a British citizen would expect.
Support for domestic violence victims is devolved to different tiers of government right across the United Kingdom. What is my hon. Friend doing to support different levels of government to make sure that victims get consistent support across our United Kingdom?
My hon. Friend raises an important point that we are seeking to address through the domestic abuse Bill with the appointment of a domestic abuse commissioner. I am very grateful to my colleagues in the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government who are in the process of conducting a review of services nationally. The role of the commissioner will be to hold local and national Government, and stakeholders, to account as to the provision of services in areas across the country so that there is no possibility of a postcode lottery.
A constituent from Larkhall suffers psychological, emotional and financial abuse from her husband, with whom she ran a business for seven years in the UK. She held a spousal visa. Due to the length of time it took to be approved for indefinite leave to remain, she had a choice to remain in that marriage or to leave the UK. This was due to Home Office bureaucracy. Does the Minister accept that the Home Office needs to be sensitive to cases such as that?
I do; I hope the hon. Lady understands that I cannot comment on a particular case at the Dispatch Box, but that is why we have the destitute domestic violence concession—to give immediate crisis support to victims of domestic abuse whose residency status depends on the partner who may well be abusing them.
The Women’s Aid “No Woman Turned Away” project can only find refuge accommodation for fewer than one in 10 women who have no recourse to public funds. The Government’s proposed measures in the draft domestic abuse Bill are not good enough for migrant women. Can the Minister offer assurances that more will be done to ensure that migrant women can have full and equal access to specialist services?
I thank the hon. Lady for her question. Only last week, when I visited a domestic abuse refuge in the area around Preston in Lancashire, I heard for myself the particular needs of women in the area who have no recourse to public funds. The Bill’s purpose is to provide a statutory definition and so on, to help all victims of abuse, regardless of their immigration status, but of course this matter may well be scrutinised by the pre-legislative Joint Committee of both Houses. We very much welcome that.
Female Firefighters: Fire Station Facilities
We all enormously value the work of women and men employed by fire and rescue authorities who work to protect their communities. It is unacceptable that outdated practices exist such as shower facilities being unavailable to female firefighters. My hon. Friend the Minister for Policing and the Fire Service has been clear that we look to the National Fire Chiefs Council and local fire and rescue service leaders to address those concerns.
To quote former firefighter Lucy Masoud:
“I remember my first fire station. There was a tiny cramped dorm with three beds though it was meant for one. There was a massive dorm for the guys, yet we were stuffed in like sardines.”
At other stations, female firefighters had to sleep on the floor. A “solution” is proposed of having gender-neutral dorms, toilets and washing facilities, which is overwhelmingly opposed and could cause women to leave the service. Will the Minister agree to demand audits at fire stations across the country related to facilities for female firefighters?
The hon. Lady knows that 14 fire services were recently inspected by Her Majesty’s inspectorate, and that of the 14, two were found not to have adequate shower facilities for female firefighters—Hampshire and the Isle of Wight. I name them, and I very much expect that they will improve their services. We know that there are issues with sleeping accommodation, too.
I would, however, note that although the Fire Brigades Union does sterling work for its members, it is a very great shame that its executive council has not yet managed to appoint a woman to put forward the views of female firefighters in a national and consistent way. I hope that it will put pressure on fire chiefs and others to ensure that they do better by their female firefighters.
In addition to working with the Home Office to ensure that there are better facilities, what steps is the Minister taking to encourage more women to take up a career in firefighting?
I am so grateful to the hon. Lady for raising this subject, because women are just as capable as men at firefighting. I hope that we at some point see a revised version of Fireman Sam, because we know from social media campaigns that children grow up expecting firefighters to be male, which limits their expectations and perhaps cuts their career opportunities as they go through school and into training. The message from this Government is very clear: we absolutely welcome female firefighters, and we will work with Women in the Fire Service to ensure that we get more women helping to protect our communities.
As a former member of the national fire service management committee of the Local Government Association, it has been a pleasure for me to see how the culture in the fire service has changed over recent years, but there is still a need to tackle the perception that being a firefighter is a job for a man. Will the Minister therefore welcome the efforts being made by fire authorities such as Devon and Somerset and the West Midlands to promote the message strongly that it is a job that anyone can do?
Very much so—I welcome the work of the fire authorities that my hon. Friend mentioned. I note that we have five fire and rescue services headed by women, including, of course, here in London, where Dany Cotton has had to deal with extraordinary events in her tenure as chief. That, I hope, is another piece in the jigsaw of evidence that proves that women can be just as good at fighting fires as men.
I thank my hon. Friend for the answers she has given thus far. Clearly, in order to encourage young women to take up the opportunities of firefighting, there need to be role models. What action is she taking to encourage female firefighters employed right now to act as role models to encourage others to follow?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. As I say, the organisation Women in the Fire Service does great work at local level in encouraging women to join the fire service. Again, as role models, we have the five women we know are heading fire and rescue services currently—of course, of the 45 fire and rescue services in England and the three fire and rescue services in Wales, that is a tiny fraction, but they are very positive role models. I also hope that the Fire Brigades Union will manage to bring a woman on to its executive council in the future. It is through that sort of positive work that we will get women into these services.
Workplace Equality: Flexible Working
Flexible working is crucial to support women and men in balancing work and caring responsibilities. That is why the Government Equalities Office is working with the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and the flexible working taskforce in using our research programmes to develop evidence-based guidance for employers.
I thank the Minister for that answer, but the right to request flexible working is not the same as an entitlement to work flexibly. Given that so many of these requests are refused and that the Government have said that they want to encourage flexible working, will they consider placing a duty on employers to advertise jobs as flexible?
We have announced our intention to consult on these very matters, but I would also say that, as that will take a little while, employers should not wait for it. We know that by offering flexible working they are going to have a bigger pool of talent from which to pick their employees.
Shared parental leave is as much about cultural change as it is about legislation. What is my right hon. Friend doing to help parents better understand and access shared parental leave?
We are doing a huge amount of work to look at what additional obstacles there might be, such as the bureaucracy in accessing provision, and we are also looking at the experience of those who have taken up and made use of shared parental leave. It is incredibly important that we change the culture and it will take time, but there are still some further things we can do to encourage that, and we are looking at them.
The hon. Lady is absolutely right that there is some great work out there: 97% of businesses offer some form of flexible working—to tie this back to the original question—but only 68% of employees for whom that situation is available are taking up this option. I think this is changing, but there are further things we can do to encourage it. Sharing good practice is one of those things, and I think the charters have played a good role in that.
I thank the hon. Lady for raising another example of good practice out there. I absolutely would encourage that. It is only by sharing good practice that we are going to be able to encourage employers that are not doing that to raise their game.
Apprenticeships and Work: Fair Access
I agree with my right hon. Friend, and we are as one in thinking that apprenticeships can be a powerful force for social mobility. We want the advantages of apprenticeships to be available to all, and I am in regular contact with my ministerial colleagues. For the smallest employers we meet 100% of the costs of apprenticeship training for apprentices aged 16 to 18, 19 to 24-year-old care leavers, and 19 to 24-year-olds with an education health and care plan. As my right hon. Friend knows, and indeed welcomed, last year we introduced a £1,000 bursary for care leavers who are starting an apprenticeship, to support them as they transition into training.
Unless I am much mistaken the Minister has just elevated the hon. Gentleman to membership of the Privy Council, for which I am sure he will want to thank her. Who knows? It may be a straw in the wind.
Mr Speaker, I was very honoured to be made a member of the Privy Council after the 2015 election.
That is why I said “unless I am much mistaken”. I am sorry that I had not noticed the right hon. Gentleman’s status, and three years late, may I congratulate him?
Mr Speaker, you did call me right honourable yesterday during questions to the Prime Minister.
May I thank my right hon. Friend the Minister for coming to Harlow this afternoon to see Harlow College, which is one of the finest colleges in England? Will she consider using the apprenticeship levy to provide an apprentice premium and transport costs for disadvantaged young people, so that they can climb up the apprentice ladder of opportunity?
My right hon. Friend is frequently right, and most definitely honourable. Targeted financial support is available for young apprentices and those from disadvantaged backgrounds, including the care leaver bursary. The Department for Transport is introducing a railcard for 16 and 17-year-olds this year, and we continue to work together on further options. I am very much looking forward to visiting Harlow College later today.
Can the Minister explain how a young person under the age of 19 from a low-income family, who works 35 hours a week on the minimum wage earning £3.50 an hour on an apprenticeship scheme—less than £122.50 a week—and who is barely able to pay for their own meals, travel, and basic work garments, can be classed as being “employed” by this Government?
I point out to the hon. Lady that we take the advice of the Low Pay Commission on wages for apprentices, and that rate will be going up. I have spoken about the targeted support available, and whenever I meet apprentices I ask them about their wages and how they travel to work. We are very aware of some of the problems faced by those young people, and as I have said, the railcard for 16 and 17-year-olds is available, and colleges have discretionary bursaries to support them.[Official Report, 14 February 2019, Vol. 654, c. 9MC.]
I am pleased to announce that organisations supporting people who have been out of work due to caring responsibilities and have additional barriers to returning to work can apply for a new £500,000 fund from the Government Equalities Office. More widely, the GEO is liaising with the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government to support people with little or no work history in the five integration areas. That funding is in addition to the £1.5 million fund launched last year, which will help us to gather evidence of good practice, and reflects the GEO’s absolute commitment to ensuring that all women realise their full potential.
Will the Minister challenge businesses that exclude guide dogs?
Under the auspices of the Office for Disability Issues, and subsequently the assistance dog sector, all those fantastic organisations and charities have come together to harmonise their standards, so that the owner of a café or pub, or a taxi driver, can identify legitimate assistance dogs more easily. There is absolutely no excuse for excluding people who have assistance dogs. We are considering what further measures we can introduce to ensure that that can be enforced, and in particular whether the rules on licensing of venues and premises can help with that issue. The Home Office is setting out its plans for a formal consultation with disabled people’s organisations and other representative groups in due course.
This week I had a phone call with regard to a young man who tried to commit suicide and a mother who felt that she did not want to burden her children any more, all because of the Windrush scandal. They say that to educate a woman is to educate a nation; therefore, to humiliate a woman is to humiliate a nation. Will the Minister assure the House that the Government will provide urgent and necessary help, support and assistance to women and vulnerable people affected by the Windrush scandal?
May I again set out the Government’s apology to those who have suffered through this terrible incident and reflect on the fact that this was not just one Government who got it wrong, but many Governments of all political colours? I welcome the fact that colleagues across the House are bringing individual constituency cases to our attention. We can then feed them into the system that has been set up so that we can provide help and support. The hon. Lady must, of course, let us know of any cases she wishes to raise, but the Government must learn from mistakes, which was why we set up the review. We are pleased that more than 4,000 people have been helped through the scheme—not just Windrush victims, but people from other countries. It is very much a work in progress, but we welcome Members across the House continuing to raise these issues in the Chamber.
My answer will be similar to that which I gave to the hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson) on Question 1. Clinical decisions are taken with regard to age range, but whatever age is set, there will always be people who fall outside it—in this case those younger than 25. What is critical is that people know what is normal for them and what symptoms they should be worried about. The Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Jackie Doyle-Price), who has responsibility for women’s health issues and inequalities, is doing great work with her new taskforce on women’s health to identify what a safe period looks like and examine issues such as menopause so that women and girls everywhere really understand when they should be concerned about something and seek help.
I would first like to point out that our franchise programme with the Post Office is not a closure programme, but a sustainability programme. On the franchising with WHSmith for the 41 post offices that the hon. Gentleman refers to, accessibility is key to the delivery of our 11,500 network of post offices in the UK. I personally make sure that that is covered when any new post office branch is being worked on.
We will hear from the right hon. Gentleman again—I call Mr Robert Halfon.
Local authorities have a statutory duty to provide a comprehensive and effective library service. Libraries are clearly more than a repository for books. They can be community hubs through which services can be provided. I encourage my right hon. Friend to respond to the county council’s ongoing library consultation so that we can connect organisations in his community that could be able to ensure that services are not just maintained, but made better.
The hon. Gentleman will know that we have consulted on this and are acting on the basis of our legal advice and the enormous amount of responses to that consultation. We have confidence that those protections are there for individuals, but we also want to ensure that people understand those protections really well. We will therefore issue guidance and consult groups on its production.
I warmly welcome the publication of the draft Domestic Abuse Bill. Will the Minister provide assurance about what the domestic abuse commissioner will do to share best practice across the country?
I thank my hon. Friend, who has done so much work on this issue for his constituents. The Bill will introduce a domestic abuse commissioner, whose sole focus will be on tackling domestic abuse and holding local and national Government to account to ensure that services are provided well and consistently across the country, thereby helping all the 2 million people who we know are victims of these terrible crimes.
I thank the hon. Lady for her question and pay tribute to all the work that Sam has done. Many hon. Members will have met her; she has been into Parliament to raise the profile of this issue. The hub—based on the Olympic park—is looking at good design. It has set a challenge to demonstrate that we can build accessible homes for no more cost and with no greater footprint than other homes that are being built. We know that this is possible and we need to do much more to ensure that developers are following the good design guidelines and that we are making housing stock across the country more flexible.
Last week, we saw the first conviction in UK courts for female genital mutilation—a landmark, albeit an awful one, in the campaign to end this abhorrent practice. What steps is my right hon. Friend taking to end FGM in this country and around the world?
I thank my hon. Friend for her question. Indeed, yesterday, I was with the Vavengers, a community group that is doing a tremendous amount in the UK to raise awareness of this issue and tackle it. We are absolutely committed to ending this practice globally by 2030. Both my Departments—the Government Equalities Office and the Department for International Development—are doing a tremendous amount. The advice that our team in Ghana gave was critical to the conviction to which my hon. Friend refers. This is a cross-Government effort and our ability not just to assist the many thousands of girls who are at risk in the UK, but to support the Africa-led movement to end the practice, is a good thing.
I have frequent discussions with the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. We are doing further consultative work, but my message to business is, “Don’t wait for that.” An exemplar of flexible working is our civil service, which offers flexible working from day one. As a consequence, it has a wider pool of people to pick from. So do not wait for us, but we are going to do some further things.
Further to the earlier question about caste, can my right hon. Friend confirm that she still intends to introduce legislation to remove caste as a protected characteristic from the Equality Act 2010?
I thank my hon. Friend for his consistency on this issue. Yes, it is, and my timetable has not changed since the last time he asked the question. In addition, as I said earlier, we will also be issuing guidance.
On the gender pay gap, I have had discussions with the Equality and Human Rights Commission about how we can ensure that the requirement to report is enforced, but I hope the hon. Lady will welcome the shift we have seen in the GEO. As well as all the things we are known for—women on boards, looking at the FTSE 350—we need to look at women at the other end of the socioeconomic scale. In April, we will bring forward a new cross-Government economic empowerment strategy for women that will consider women who are trapped in low pay, often for decades, and what we can do together to raise their incomes.
One barrier to accessing skills, training and apprenticeships is sometimes just knowledge of them in the first place. What more does my right hon. Friend believe that we can do to help to spread the word so that more people across our country can access those opportunities?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. It is about understanding the possibilities. We are running two projects: the 5 Cities project is aimed at increasing the diversity of those seeking apprenticeships; and the other one works with young people in more disadvantaged areas to make sure that they have the opportunity to get into higher-paid professions that they would not normally consider. We therefore are doing more, and it must not be forgotten either that an apprenticeship is a paid job—it is a job primarily. We are encouraging employers to advertise vacancies and embedding apprenticeships in all the careers advice we give to young people.
Order. I apologise to disappointed remaining colleagues. This part of Question Time was scheduled to run for seven minutes, and I have run it for 15. I say as gently as possible to the Ministers that, although we appreciate their comprehensive replies, some of their answers were incredibly long, and as a result colleagues have lost out. I extend the envelope, but I cannot do so indefinitely, and we must now move on.
Leaving the EU: Mobile Roaming Charges
(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport if he will make a statement on mobile roaming charges abroad in the event of a no-deal Brexit.
Delivering a negotiated deal with the EU remains the Government’s priority, and that has not changed, but I am sure the House will agree that we must prepare for every eventuality, including a no-deal scenario.
For that reason, we have taken a number of steps as a Government, working with businesses, consumers and devolved Administrations, to make sure that we deliver the best possible outcome in the event of no deal. The Government intend to legislate to make sure that the requirements on mobile operators to apply a financial limit on mobile data usage while abroad is retained in UK law. The limit would be set at £45 for each monthly billing period, which is the same limit that is currently in place. We would also legislate to ensure that customers receive alerts at 80% and 100% of their data usage so that all users can carefully manage that data usage. These would mean ongoing clarity and certainty for consumers.
I know that there is also a concern on the island of Ireland about the issue of inadvertent roaming. This is when a mobile signal in a border region is stronger from the country across the border. The Government intend to retain through UK law the EU roaming regulation provisions that set out how operators must make information available to their customers on how to avoid inadvertent roaming.
The Government are working hard to make sure that everyone is prepared and ready for all outcomes, and I encourage all businesses to read our technical notice, which we published last summer, on mobile roaming in the event of leaving without a deal. We should be clear, however, that surcharge-free roaming for UK customers may continue across the EU as it does now, based on operators’ commercial arrangements.
Leaving without a deal would not prevent UK mobile operators from making and honouring commercial arrangements with mobile operators in and beyond the EU to deliver the services that their customers expect, including roaming arrangements. The availability and pricing of mobile roaming in the EU would be a commercial question for the operators, and many of them, including those that cover more than 85% of mobile subscribers, have already said that they have no current plans to change their approach to mobile roaming after the UK has left the EU.
I hope the steps that I have set out today will reassure the House that the Government are committed to a smooth and orderly transition as we leave the EU. In our telecoms sector, as in all sectors, we are making plans for all outcomes as we leave the EU. That is the role of a responsible Government, and that is what we will continue to do.
Yesterday, while my team was mapping out a potential cross-party approach to tackling the online harms caused by surveillance capitalism, what was the Secretary of State doing? He was trying to slip out a policy change of national significance that clearly warranted an oral statement to the House. We must thank the HuffPost website that the Government did not manage to sneak it out without scrutiny at the Dispatch Box, and we must also thank you, Mr Speaker, for granting the urgent question.
When mobile roaming charges were scrapped in 2017, it was a great day for consumers. Tens of millions of British holidaymakers travelling to EU countries were told that they were able to “Roam Like Home”. Before then, many had been burnt by huge and unexpected bills for trying to access their emails or sending pictures to their families back at home. As a nation, we were spending a third of a billion pounds just to use our mobiles on holiday. It was so bad that in 2016, the then Minister for the Digital Economy, the right hon. Member for Wantage (Mr Vaizey), said that
“by realising these changes, we’re going to save British consumers millions of pounds a year.”
Today’s announcement shows once again that this particular Secretary of State and this particular Government will cave in to the lobbying might of telecoms companies rather than listening to the voice of consumers who are set to lose out. He said that mobile phone operators had said that they had “no plans” to raise roaming charges, but he and I know—and, more important, voters know—what that phrase really means.
The reason the EU introduced free roaming in the first place was the fact that the telecoms companies could not be trusted to give consumers a fair deal, so let me ask the Secretary of State some questions. Why has he decided that the price of no-deal Brexit is better paid by consumers than telecoms companies? What binding commitments has he asked companies to give to ensure that consumers are not hit by high roaming charges in the event of a no deal? Can he guarantee that if, by luck or by skill, the Prime Minister gets her deal through, consumers will not pay roaming charges in future? When has he summoned the telecoms chief executives to talks at the Department, and if he has not done so, will he do so this weekend to ensure that consumers can receive their guarantees?
This is how holidaymakers have been hit by Brexit chaos. First, the value of the pound has plummeted, thus increasing the cost of family holidays. Secondly, we will have to pay for visas to travel to the EU. Thirdly, we will be hit by a Brexit bill to use our mobiles abroad. If the Secretary of State does not want to go down in history as the Minister for the Tory triple whammy tourist tax, I suggest that he adopts a different course.
The hon. Gentleman expressed a commendable interest in my diary for yesterday. Let me remind him that I was having meetings on the subject of online harms, which he and I had discussed on what I thought was a cross-party basis some time before he made his speech yesterday. I was also spending some time discussing problem gambling with the banks and with the all-party parliamentary group on gambling related harm, which is led by his hon. Friend the Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris).
I know that the hon. Gentleman cares about both those subjects and would wish me to spend time on them, but he need not worry, because I have also been spending some time on this subject. Having done so, I can tell him that it will be discussed by this House because this is an affirmative statutory instrument. The Government have set out their view that it should be an affirmative statutory instrument, which will give the House an opportunity to debate this subject, so the hon. Gentleman or one of his colleagues will be able to discuss the matter in some detail when that debate is reached.
The hon. Gentleman says that we are caving in to the mobile phone operators, but the reality is that when we leave the European Union—that is what is going to happen, because the Government and the Opposition, if I understand their current position correctly, intend to respect the outcome of the 2016 referendum—it will not be possible for the UK Government to force our rules and expectations upon EU mobile phone operating companies. So if those companies choose to charge British mobile network operating companies at a wholesale level, one of two things will happen: either that cost will be passed on to those who are using their mobile phone abroad, or it will be spread across all mobile phone users on that network. That is the choice.
The decision we have made is to ensure that consumers are given the best possible protection in the event of departing from the EU with no deal. I have made it quite clear that that is not the Government’s intention, however. We worked very hard to get a deal, and we would be grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s help on that, but it is important to recognise what we can do and what we are doing. We are making sure that those elements of the current EU regime that can be transferred into domestic law are transferred into domestic law. Making sure that consumers cannot spend more than the amount that is currently provided for in EU law without understanding that they are doing so is an important consumer protection, as is letting people know how much of their data they have already used. That is what we can do, and that is what we should do in the event of no deal.
If the hon. Gentleman is concerned, as I am sure that we all are, to avoid some of the unpleasant consequences of no deal, the good news is that he can help. He and his colleagues can vote for a deal. We are still waiting for the Opposition to take a responsible position on avoiding the no-deal consequences that they come to the House to complain about.
Is not a competitive market the best answer?
Of course, we have a competitive market, but that is perfectly compatible with providing consumer protections. Where there are sensible consumer protections in place under EU law and we can transfer them into domestic law, that is what we should do. In this case, that is what we are doing.
The other thing we could do to avoid these charges is not to have Brexit at all. What the Government’s 85% statistic tells us is that 15% of customers will definitely be charged extra while roaming in the EU. Last week, Money Saving Expert said that just two out of 12 major mobile firms have committed to keeping roaming free and that two thirds of people think it important to have no roaming charges when they go abroad. The Government’s impact assessment focuses on the cost for mobile operators rather than the cost for consumers. What assessment has the Secretary of State made of the additional cost to consumers as a result of this change?
The Government have not been upfront about this. They have not made a statement on the Floor of the House without being dragged here to answer the urgent question tabled by the hon. Member for West Bromwich East (Tom Watson). I am glad that he has asked this question, but the Government could have been more proactive in explaining to consumers what they expect to happen. The Secretary of State has said that this will be done by an affirmative statutory instrument that will require debate, so will he ask the Leader of the House to make time for such a debate on the Floor of the House, rather than it being debated in Committee? If this is such an important issue and if the Government are not trying to duck and dive, he should agree to it being debated on the Floor of the House.
Lastly, what is the Secretary of State’s understanding of the position of people who live in Northern Ireland and work in Ireland, or vice versa, in relation to roaming charges? It seems to me that there is almost no way for them to avoid roaming charges unless they choose to have two mobile phones. Have the Government considered those people when making this decision?
The hon. Lady accuses us of attempting to hide the matter, but, as I said, the Government intend to conduct a debate on the statutory instrument using the affirmative procedure. That does not represent hiding. The provision will appear in all the normal processes of the House, and the House will have the chance to discuss what should be done through that Delegated Legislation Committee.
As for whether 15% of mobile phone customers will inevitably pay roaming charges, that is not quite what I said. I said that mobile network operators that cover 85% of consumers have said that they have no plans to introduce roaming charges. It does not follow that the operators covering the other 15% have specifically said that they do. They may have said nothing at all.
Turning to Northern Ireland, I said that there is a legitimate concern about inadvertent roaming, and there are measures that can be taken. Those measures are already reflected in the EU regulation, the key parts of which that we can replicate we seek to replicate. We will ask operators to do all that they can to prevent inadvertent roaming, and there are several ways in which they might do so. Exactly how they do so will of course be a matter for them.
Finally, I suppose that I should give SNP Members some credit. At least they are clear about what they think of Brexit. They do not want it, and I understand that. Unfortunately for them, however, the people of the United Kingdom, voting as the United Kingdom, decided in the majority that they wanted to leave the European Union. This Government intend to honour their decision, as Parliament said that it would, but there are consequences to a no-deal exit from the European Union that the Government seek to mitigate, and this is one of the instruments by which we seek to do so.
Does the Secretary of State agree that consumer protection is behind his announcement today and that that has been the great strength of the way in which he has approached this issue?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who is right. The Government have a responsibility, where we can, to continue consumer protection measures that currently reside in European law but that we think are sensible and desirable and that we will transfer into our own law in the event of our departure. Of course, as he will know, if there is a deal that includes an implementation period, the position will continue exactly as it is now during that period, which is one reason why such an implementation period and such a deal are desirable and one reason why it would be good for the Opposition to take their responsibilities seriously in this regard.
The Secretary of State says that the Government intend to lay the provision as a statutory instrument and that it will therefore be debated in the normal way. However, he will surely know that an enormous backlog of statutory instruments must be passed by 29 March and that appropriate levels of scrutiny will be challenged. Knowing that we lack the time to scrutinise every single statutory instrument in time for Brexit, what words of comfort can he possibly have for consumers in my constituency?
I am unsure what the hon. Lady is suggesting. Is she suggesting that the Government should operate by fiat and pass the measure without consulting Parliament at all? I do not think that that would be the right way forward, even if it were feasible. This matter can be addressed by statutory instrument, and the Government intend to do so. We chose to use the affirmative procedure so that the House will have the opportunity to discuss the matter. It would seem that I am being criticised by the SNP for not allowing enough debate and by Labour for allowing too much.
There is a sense of groundhog day when Members on the Treasury Bench who voted for the deal face complaints from those who voted against it about the prospect of no deal. Will the Secretary of State update the House on what discussions the Government have actually had with mobile network operators about getting a resolution to this issue, rather than just playing politics?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend, because I forgot to say in response to the hon. Member for West Bromwich East, who was concerned that the Department had not had such conversations, that we have had discussions with network operators to ensure that we understand their intentions and to talk about what they will do next. Of course, what they decide to do will in the end be a matter for them because, as I have explained, it is not possible for the UK Government to restrict the activities of European mobile network operators. However, they have made their views clear, and the Government are doing what we can to smooth the path of a no-deal exit, but we would all agree that it is better to avoid one. The best way to do that is to vote for a deal, and that is what my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster) is doing. Let us have a bit of company from Opposition Members.
If there is no deal, it will be because the Government have made a conscious choice to go down that route.
Has the Secretary of State attempted to assess the cost implications if some of those companies that say they have no plans at present to introduce roaming charges do, indeed, do so? Has he assessed the associated costs of losing the European health insurance card, of difficulties in securing travel insurance and of the visa charges that have been mentioned? How much will that cost British consumers going on holiday?
The costs of health and travel insurance are a little beyond the ambit of this urgent question, but I repeat the point that what the Government can do is to ensure that any additional costs to consumers that occur as a result of a no-deal Brexit—we fervently hope to avoid that eventuality—are limited in any way that the Government can properly limit them. The best way we can do that is to make sure that consumers know when they have reached a certain point of spending so that they can make their own judgment on whether they wish to go beyond that point. The real concern that consumers generally express is that they do not know when they are running up these very large bills while using their data abroad, which is precisely what we seek to avoid. We have chosen exactly the same point at which to make that notification as already exists in the EU regulation.
My right hon. and learned Friend will be aware that, across the world, many comms companies are monopolies. Despite that, roaming charges have been abolished across the world—it is not limited to the European Union. Does he agree that, actually, this is an opportunity for consumers in the UK to get an even better deal as we leave the European Union?
My hon. Friend makes a fair point that by the operation of the market that exists in this country, even if it may not exist everywhere else, consumers will be able to make a choice. It may be that some mobile network operators will choose not to impose mobile roaming charges and others choose to do so, in which case the consumer can make a judgment about the importance of this matter.
Have the Government not already had an opportunity to put their deal to the Commons and failed dismally to get the support of even their own Back Benchers? Why do not the Government look seriously at the Leader of the Opposition’s proposal today to seek consensus and avoid no deal?
As the hon. Gentleman knows, the invitation to the Leader of the Opposition to engage in constructive discussions was offered some considerable time ago. Of course the Government will consider what the Leader of the Opposition says, but if we are to avoid no deal, the way to do it is to get a deal. We will continue to discuss how we might do that with the Leader of the Opposition, but in the end, every single Member on both sides of the House, if they dislike the consequences of no deal, has a responsibility to decide that they will personally take responsibility for doing what they can to prevent it.
I know my right hon. and learned Friend will not be tempted into offering legal advice on the Floor of the House, but what protection might be available to consumers and businesses who entered a contract on the basis of free calls, texts and data while roaming if operators are tempted to change the terms of those contracts mid-term?
My hon. Friend is right that I have a natural reluctance to offer legal advice not only on the hoof but for nothing. My understanding, and I will write to him after making sure my understanding is correct, is that changes in contractual terms during the term of a contract give the consumer the right to exit that contract.
The Secretary of State needs to remember that the Government’s deal was voted down across this House, by two thirds, so it is no good coming here to lecture the Opposition alone. He also needs to understand that the best way to protect consumers who use mobile phones abroad is to look at what is in the letter from the Leader of the Opposition today, because it offers the best way forward to come to a deal and protect consumers in the future.
I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman that we should all do what we can to avoid no deal, but I hope that he also accepts that it would not be responsible for the Government to make no preparations whatsoever for a no-deal eventuality. What we are discussing here, at the request of the hon. Member for West Bromwich East (Tom Watson), is a proposal the Government are making, through a statutory instrument, to make provision to ensure ongoing consumer protections in a no-deal scenario. It does not in any way suggest that that is the Government’s preferred option, but it does suggest that responsible Governments prepare for possible outcomes.
I commend the Secretary of State for his calm and rational approach to this issue. When I renew my mobile phone contract, I am bombarded with various offers about how cheaply I can use my mobile phone abroad, both in and outside the EU. When I arrive in a foreign country, I am bombarded with text messages from my provider about various packages to make things cheaper. Why would they possibly want to price their customers out of a lucrative market by not continuing these customer-friendly arrangements?
My hon. Friend is entirely right about that, and this is exactly why many of those mobile network operators have said that they have no intention of doing as he describes.
Given the disaster of no deal and the apparent inability of this Government to ensure that our holidaying constituents have the same benefits as they do at the moment, does the Secretary of State agree with Alex Neill, the director of home services at Which?, that companies must be “absolutely clear” about the extra costs they are going to pass on to the consumer? How much notice should they give, as we are only a few weeks away from the Easter holidays?
Again, the hon. Gentleman will get agreement from me that it is better to avoid the consequences of no deal. I cannot accept that it is not sensible to prepare for them in case they happen. If he wants to avoid them, there is a sure-fire way to do so. I grant that he is responsible only for his vote, just as I am responsible only for mine, but we should all take responsibility on an individual basis for making sure those consequences do not come about.
I know we are all worried about roaming overseas, but may I ask my right hon. and learned Friend to look at the signal at home, because too many people do not get a mobile phone signal in our country? Indeed, we cannot even get one in many places in the House of Commons. Will he examine access to roaming charges, as his predecessor, the current Home Secretary, did, and allow people who cannot get a signal to roam on to other domestic networks?
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that. He and I both stood for election on a manifesto that committed us to reach 95% of the UK landmass with a mobile phone signal. I am determined to ensure that we meet that target, and to do so, we will rule nothing out that may achieve our objective.
I have quite a lot of time for the Secretary of State, but if our Front-Bench team had not asked this urgent question, we would not know what was going on. He may not know this, but I am very popular with my Whips; I spend a lot of time in Committee Rooms upstairs dealing with statutory instruments relating to the withdrawal from the EU. These are little rooms, where measures are quickly pushed through; Ministers gabble through as fast as they can and the scrutiny is deplorable. Let me mention two issues we dealt with recently. The first was insurance for uninsured drivers, where the measure went through the other day and people will not be insured when they go to Europe. The second was air safety, and the Minister gabbled through without knowing the details. This is about parliamentary sovereignty. Today, the Secretary of State says the backdrop is that we all have a vote, so why is the rumour running round Westminster today that the Prime Minister has reneged on the vote next week?
First, let me say that the respect is entirely mutual, not least because the hon. Gentleman has a well-deserved reputation as a scrutineer of legislation in this House; as he says, he does it a lot. The point here is that there has been no attempt to hide this; we are talking about a statutory instrument presented to the House so that it can consider it in the usual way. When it gets to the point of considering the statutory instrument, the House will of course have to decide how long it wants to take over it, but the objective is not to hide it; the objective is to make use of the powers in the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018, which Parliament decided we should have, to correct deficiencies that arise as a consequence of our EU departure. We are doing it here to make provision for what would happen in a no-deal exit and to make sure that consumer protections we can roll over, we do roll over. I hope that will command the support of the House.
May I press the Secretary of State on no deal? What binding commitments has he demanded of telecoms companies so that our consumers are not ripped off this summer by higher charges?
Again, I should set out what I think the position is. Were we to say to mobile network operators in this country, “You may not impose roaming charges on your customers who travel to the European Union,” that could not prevent European mobile network operating companies from charging UK mobile network operating companies money, and that money would have to be paid by somebody. If we say to the mobile network operators in this country that they may not pass that charge on to their roaming customers, they will undoubtedly pass it on to all their other customers instead. The problem is that, when we are outside the European Union, as we will be, we are no longer beneficiaries of the European Union regulation. We are taking as many elements of the regulation as we can and transferring them into domestic law. That is sensible planning and I hope that the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues will support it.
The Secretary of State just said that we are no longer beneficiaries of EU regulation. It was not until the EU acted that the mobile companies got rid of the dreaded mobile roaming charges. How many mobile companies have come to the Secretary of State and said that they will voluntarily not put these charges on to consumers?
On the hon. Gentleman’s last point, I said that 85% of consumers are covered by mobile network operators that have said they have no intention of reintroducing charges. What he says is undoubtedly and self-evidently true: if a country is not a member of the European Union, it does not benefit from provisions that cover members of the European Union. The hon. Gentleman will recall that there was a debate in 2016 that took us some time, and these arguments were deployed on both sides. The UK electorate made a decision and we are enacting that decision. In the process, if there are consumer protections that we can and should continue, that is what we intend to do. That is what the measure is about.
Will there be an EU vote next week and an opportunity to discuss mobile roaming charges?
As far as I can tell, we are discussing an urgent question about whether mobile roaming charges will apply after our departure from the EU. I will repeat what I have said already: we should all want, when we have the opportunity, to exercise our democratic rights to prevent no deal and vote for a deal instead. If that does not happen for any reason and no deal occurs, the Government intend to be ready for it. We intend to give consumers the protection that we still can and look forward to the Opposition’s support in doing so.
The abolition of roaming charges was just one of the ways in which the European Union stood up to the tech giants in the interests of ordinary consumers. Given the Government’s absolute reluctance to do the same—they are only now looking to address online harm and are still completely ignoring algorithmic control and data exploitation—will the Secretary of State commit to matching evolving European Union tech regulation, or explain why not?
I am afraid I do not accept the hon. Lady’s premise. It is not true that the Government have only now started to talk about online harms: we produced a Green Paper on internet safety some considerable time ago and we have talked about it repeatedly. The hon. Member for West Bromwich East (Tom Watson) and I have discussed exactly the tone of the Government’s likely response and the hon. Lady will see a White Paper shortly. I am sure she would expect that we approach this subject in the proper way, so that when we produce the actions that we intend to take they stick, have effect, are robust and achieve what she and I both want to see.
Given that an affirmative statutory instrument can allow only a vote for or against it, will the Secretary of State give the Opposition early notice of what is in that SI to see how the Opposition can improve on what is being put forward?
As the hon. Gentleman knows, SIs are laid before the debate so that Members of the House can consider them. In this instance, he has had a fairly substantial sneak preview because much of what I have said will be the content of that statutory instrument, but he will certainly be able to see it before the debate occurs. I hope that that will give him the opportunity to see that it is sensibly based and demands his support.
Is it not the case that this Government are, yet again, trying to hold Parliament to ransom by threatening a no deal when it is in their gift to rule it out immediately, and they should do that, as it would be an act of criminal negligence on their part to proceed with a no-deal situation? That is the reality that we are facing. No one in this country—or certainly a majority in this country did not vote to roll back the European Union’s progress on abolishing roaming charges. This Government should immediately look to compromise with Parliament to reach an agreement that is practical, instead of prioritising the integrity of the Tory party over the national interest. Is that not exactly what this Government are doing?
First, let me thank the Minister for his answers. Norway and Liechtenstein have so-called free roaming agreements in place already, so it can happen. He referred to steps taken to address roaming charges for consumers in Northern Ireland and the close proximity of the Republic of Ireland. Will he confirm the steps that consumers in Northern Ireland must undertake, and are the Republic of Ireland and the EU open to finding an agreement?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his question. As he says, this is a real concern, but it is one that other places have also wrestled with and found practical solutions to. I believe that the same thing can be done on the Northern Ireland-Republic of Ireland border. It will be up to each of the mobile network operators to speak to their customers about exactly how this should be done. What we can do in government, and seek to do through this statutory instrument, is place on them the obligation to do so, so that people are not accidentally caught by what would be, again, an undesirable scenario in which this kind of accidental roaming might take place. If he will forgive me, I will not set out the details for each individual mobile network operator. We set the expectation and then each operator must speak to their customers about it.
Business of the House
Will the Leader of the House please give us the forthcoming business?
The business for next week is as follows:
Monday 11 February—Second Reading of the Financial Services (Implementation of Legislation) Bill [Lords].
Tuesday 12 February—Remaining stages of the Mental Capacity (Amendment) Bill [Lords].
Wednesday 13 February—Tributes to the Clerk of the House, followed by a motion relating to the Securitisation Regulations 2018, followed by a general debate on connecting communities by supporting charities and volunteers.
Thursday 14 February—Debate on a motion relating to the UK’s withdrawal from the EU.
Friday 15 February—The House will not be sitting.
As my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said to the House on 29 January, we will bring a revised deal back to this House for a second meaningful vote as soon as we possibly can. Should that not be possible by 13 February, the Government will table an amendable motion for debate on 14 February. Hon. and right hon. Members will know that the Prime Minister is currently negotiating a revised deal for the UK’s departure from the EU. She will provide an update to this House next week and I will make a further business statement if necessary as a consequence of her statement. I will make my usual business statement next Thursday confirming the business for the week commencing 18 February, which will include key Brexit-related statutory instruments.
February is LGBT History Month, during which more than 1,500 events will be taking place across the country—an opportunity to raise awareness and to promote equality and diversity. Finally, for those who follow closely the activities of regular pizza eaters, may I wish everyone a very enjoyable National Pizza Day for Saturday?
I am not sure who was eating pizza yesterday at 3.29 pm when the House rose, but I thank the Leader of the House for the business—as I keep saying every week, I think I should thank her, but I am not sure, because there is nothing for the week after, apart from Brexit SIs.
On Wednesday, there will be a general debate, so I am going to ask the Leader of the House if we can have an Opposition day; we certainly deserve one and we could have had one yesterday. But I also want to pay tribute because next Wednesday we are all going to pay tribute to Sir David Natzler, Clerk of the House, and thank him for his 43 years of public service. We welcome the news that our Gracious Sovereign has agreed to the appointment of Dr John Benger as the 51st Clerk of the House. I know that Dr Benger’s commitment and that of all the senior Clerks will continue the good work of Sir David in bringing Parliament into the 21st century.
I agree with the Leader of the House: on 29 January, the Prime Minister said:
“if we have not brought a revised deal back to this House by Wednesday 13 February, we will make a statement and, again, table an amendable motion for debate the next day.”—[Official Report, 29 January 2019; Vol. 653, c. 671.]
The Leader of the House has not quite confirmed this—she could have mentioned it in the business statement. Could she say whether the Prime Minister will be coming back on Wednesday to make a statement? Will this motion be amendable and voteable on?
I am not sure what happens when the Prime Minister is away because they get up to all sorts of Brexit chaos. On zero tariffs, we had the Secretary of State for International Trade saying first that he was going to lay an SI, then he didn’t, then he said he was going to discuss it with the Cabinet, then he decided he wasn’t going to lay the SI, then he suggested it was going to be added to the Trade Bill. This is the Trade Bill that gives powers to Ministers but there is no policy framework set out in that. The Business Secretary said he would not welcome zero tariffs for all industries, so the two Secretaries of State are saying two different things. Can we have clarity? Which Secretary of State is right? The shadow Secretary of State for International Trade said:
“the Secretary of State appears not to understand the basic logic of trade”
“If you have already reduced all your tariffs to zero you have nothing to negotiate with.”
Which Secretary of State is right? Could we have a statement from both, or either, on what exactly the Government policy is?
Mr Speaker, I was here earlier and listened to the urgent question you granted on the SI on mobile roaming. I think there is a change in policy because the SI has been laid and the Government impact assessment says that, unless there is a deal, the UK Government cannot unilaterally guarantee surcharge-free roaming for UK consumers travelling to the EU without exposing UK operators to the risk of being obliged to provide roaming services at a loss. So this Government are listening to the mobile phone operators, not to the consumers. I do not recall seeing that on the side of the bus. This is the important bit because there is a slight change of policy. Given that the SI comes into effect the day after exit day, or the day after it is made, can the Leader of the House ensure that the SI is debated on the Floor of the House, and can she guarantee that, if there is no deal, mobile phone operators cannot instigate charges immediately?
It is Time to Talk Day. Everyone should be able to have a conversation about mental health. A YouGov survey for the Prince’s Trust has found that the number of young people in the UK who say they do not believe that life is worth living has doubled in the last decade. In the first analysis of its kind, a study published in the journal Psychiatry Research found that young people were three to four times more likely to have depression at 18 if they had been exposed to dirtier air at the age of 12. For their sakes, we must act on air quality, which even in Walsall South is over the limit. And may I just ask if the Leader of the House could ask the ministerial cars not to keep their engines running—not to idle while they are waiting for Ministers? This is alarming as 75% of mental health problems begin in childhood or adolescence.
On Monday, we celebrate the International Day of Women and Girls in Science. Both Rosalind Franklin and Jocelyn Bell Burnell made important contributions to science and they were not awarded Nobel prizes, even though they did the work. It is LGBT History Month and those of us who were councillors in 1988 remember section 28 of the Local Government Act 1988, under which we could not publish material with the intention of promoting homosexuality. That was repealed in 2003. At the same time, members of Sinn Féin had to have their voices dubbed by actors when they were interviewed. We have moved on since then, which is why I agreed with the President of the European Council, Donald Tusk, when he said:
“The EU itself is first and foremost a peace project”,
and guaranteed the peace process and the Good Friday agreement. Over the last 21 years, a generation of young people have lived in peace in Ireland. There is a special place in heaven for those who want to promote peace—blessed are the peacemakers.
I do not know whether you know this, Mr Speaker, but there is a space on the Government Benches for the right hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Sir John Hayes). He is not in his place because he is at the palace, receiving his knighthood. It is a fantastic story because he started life on a council estate in Woolwich and will now become a knight of the realm. We wish him and his family a very happy day.
The right hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Sir John Hayes) is unfailingly courteous. He has, in fact, written to me to explain—movingly and manifestly with some regret—his absence from business questions today. He felt that he would have been able to provide the House with a question that was important in terms of substance and beautifully delivered—something that I would not for one moment contradict. We wish him well today, but we hope that he will be back with us next week. I am not sure that we can bear his absence much longer.
I think that everybody would concur; we cannot possibly miss my right hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Sir John Hayes) for a further week. I also pass to him our very best wishes and congratulations on becoming a knight of the realm. He is a very good fellow in this place, and a very loyal attendee at business questions.
The hon. Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz) asks about the general debate next week. She will have observed that I announced business on the Securitisation Regulations 2018 next Wednesday. That was a request from the Opposition, so I hope that she is pleased that I have been able to find Government time for that debate in the Chamber.
I also congratulate John Benger on his appointment. I was delighted, along with Mr Speaker and the hon. Lady, to be part of the selection panel. We all agree that he will do an excellent job.
The hon. Lady asks about the next steps on Brexit, particularly whether the motion next week will be amendable and voteable. I do want to help the House on this, so let me be absolutely clear: if a deal is brought back for a meaningful vote, yes, the vote to approve the deal with be a motion under section 13(1)(b) of the EU withdrawal Act, and it will be an amendable motion, as it was in January. If we are not able to bring back the revised deal for that second meaningful vote, the business for Thursday, as I announced earlier, will be a debate on a motion relating to the UK’s withdrawal from the EU. The Prime Minister will provide an update to the House next week. If necessary, I will then make a further business statement as a consequence of her statement. As the Prime Minister has said, the motion next week will not be brought back under section 13—there is not a legal requirement to do so—but it is a commitment that the Government have made outside the statutory framework of the EU withdrawal Act. The Government always take seriously the views of this House, and that remains the case on the motion next week, whether it passes with or without amendments. I hope it is clear that, as of now, we will be providing for the House to have a debate next Thursday, whether it is on a meaningful vote or on an amendable, neutral motion.
The hon. Lady asks about the issue of tariffs in a no-deal Brexit. We have just had International Trade questions. I am sure that she will have raised her questions there via Opposition colleagues and received a response. She also mentioned the urgent question on roaming that just took place and has put in a request for that statutory instrument to be debated on the Floor of the House. As always, if she wants to make her request through the usual channels, the Government have been very keen to provide time where there is a reasonable request.
The hon. Lady mentioned the appalling problem of mental health issues among the young, and she is absolutely right to do so, with issues ranging from clean air to excessive use of social media—we have seen only recently the appalling effect that that can have on young people. The Government are committed to doing everything possible to try to resolve the problem of spiralling mental health problems in young people. She specifically asked about ministerial cars’ engines running. Ministerial cars’ engines are not meant to be kept running, and if hon. Members find that they are, then they should challenge that.
The hon. Lady mentioned that the EU is committed to the Belfast/Good Friday agreement. I would say to her that the United Kingdom is absolutely committed to strengthening further the bonds between all of the four nations of the United Kingdom, and it is this Government who are determined to do everything possible to maintain the Belfast/Good Friday agreement.
Order. I thank the Leader of the House both for her opening statement and for her response to the shadow Leader of the House. I think the position is clear, but this is of course very important in relation to Brexit business, and the right hon. Lady has been, I think, most solicitous in trying to attend to the concerns of the House. Last night, I received notice of the draft business for next week, and I noted with dismay that the scheduled debate on an amendable motion had been removed and that we were in fact due to have a debate on Back-Bench business on Thursday the 14th. I confess that I was very alarmed by that. In so far as that has now been reversed, as in the statement that the Leader of the House has announced, and the debate on an amendable motion will take place, I am greatly heartened by that.
I just want to say to the House, because I think it is very important that there is clarity, that I hope the position reflects—I think it does—the commitments made in the Chamber. On 29 January, at column 671, the Prime Minister said:
“Furthermore, if we have not brought a revised deal back to this House by Wednesday 13 February, we will make a statement and, again, table an amendable motion for debate the next day.”—[Official Report, 29 January 2019; Vol. 653, c. 671.]
Two days later, at the business question, the Leader of the House—responding, I believe, to the hon. Member for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan)—reiterated the position by saying:
“We will, of course, have the opportunity to enjoy the Prime Minister coming back for a second meaningful vote as soon as possible. Just to be clear, if we have not brought a revised deal back to this House by Wednesday 13 February, we will make a statement and again table an amendable motion for debate the next day.”—[Official Report, 31 January 2019; Vol. 653, c. 975.]
As recently as yesterday, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and Minister for the Cabinet Office, the right hon. Member for Aylesbury (Mr Lidington), deputising for the Prime Minister, said very specifically:
the Prime Minister—
“said that the meaningful vote itself would be brought back as soon as possible, and if it were not possible to bring it back by the 13th, next Wednesday, the Government would then make a statement and table a motion for debate the next day.”—[Official Report, 6 February 2019; Vol. 654, c. 322.]
So I think we have the commitment that had previously been made, and I believe that it is the full intention of the Government to honour that commitment. But the dependability of statements made and commitments given, whatever people’s views on the merits of the issues, is absolutely critical if we are to retain or, where lost, to restore trust, so there can of course be no resiling from the commitment which I think is explicit and which has been made: no dubiety, no backsliding, no doubt. I think that is clear.
It seems clear to me that we are simply not going to be able to get the primary and secondary legislation required through by 29 March. However, could we, as soon as time allows, have a debate on the operation of Home Office rules on TB certification and access to approved testing clinics? A young family in my constituency are facing imminently being torn apart because of entirely illogical and unreasonable application of these rules. Despite my constituent having had an X-ray and obtained a TB certificate, at her expense, at a UK hospital, she has been told that it will not count because it is not an approved centre, but the Home Office is telling her that there are no approved centres within the United Kingdom. To add further illogicality, if she returned to her home country of Canada to reapply, she would not need a TB certificate because it is more than six months since she was in a TB-prone country. I am very grateful to a Home Office team for agreeing to meet me to look at this case in detail. However, I do think that it raises a wider issue about applications and access to TB centres in the United Kingdom.
My hon. Friend raises a very concerning case on her constituent’s behalf, and I have great sympathy for her constituent in that situation. I understand that my hon. Friend has rightly written to my right hon. Friend the Minister for Immigration, asking her to look into the matter. I understand that my right hon. Friend is seeking an urgent clarification of the situation, and of course if I can be of any help, my hon. Friend can always write to me.
I thank the Leader of the House for announcing the business for next week. Unusually, there has been quite a bit of excitement about the contents of today’s business statement, with the expectation of an announcement of what happens next in this chaotic Brexit process. The Leader of the House has not disappointed; we will now have the motion on Thursday.
However, I share your concerns, Mr Speaker, because my expectation would be that there would be a statement on Wednesday leading to an amendable motion and a meaningful vote. It is almost certain that that will not be that case—that there will be a general debate, unless the Prime Minister returns with new commitments, as she said, from the European Union. There is as much chance of that happening as of a snowball in hell, so the expectation must surely be that there will be another one of those amendable motions where the Government will simply accept outcomes and decisions of this House that they like and ignore decisions and outcomes that they do not like.
The question therefore is, when will we have meaningful vote 2? When will we be deciding on this? We are out of the European Union in 50 days’ time, and we do not know on what basis and whether we are going to have a deal at all. So it is incumbent on the Leader of the House to be abundantly clear today: when is meaningful vote 2, and when will this House decide?
Such were the demands on the working arrangements of the House that yesterday we finished before half-past 3. The rest of next week’s business is a curious assortment of uncontentious legislation and general debates. The Leader of the House cancelled the February recess because of what she said were the demands of critical Brexit legislation. Where is the critical Brexit legislation? It is beginning to look more and more as though the cancelling of the February recess was nothing more than a stunt. Countless Tory MPs have been slipped to go on their mid-term holidays. So can the Leader of the House tell us what we will be considering in the week when we were supposed to have the recess?
Lastly, may we have a debate about hell—specifically, on what basis parts of it will be reserved for certain people? If a special place in hell is to be reserved for clueless Brexiteers, Satan is seriously going to have to get into the real estate business. Does this not all just show that the infinite patience demonstrated by the EU in the face of this cluelessness is running out, as the Prime Minister is certain to find out today? We are now 50 days from the departure date and we do not know on what basis we are leaving. No wonder Satan is sharpening those pitchforks.
I am very glad that the hon. Gentleman takes these things so seriously; obviously it is a very serious matter, and if he feels it is appropriate to be determining who is going to hell over it, obviously that is a matter for him. I personally do not find it incredibly amusing. I think it is vital that people treat each other personally with courtesy and respect. I have always said that; I continue to think that. It is just not a laughing matter; it is actually rather hateful.
The hon. Gentleman asked some very important questions, and I think I have just set out precisely what is the case, but I will do so again. I think it is unfortunate, Mr Speaker, that you somewhat muddied the waters by unresponding to the Business of the House statement. I had made it perfectly clear what was the case, and I am perfectly able to do that for myself. I will set it out again for the hon. Gentleman. The Prime Minister is currently—[Interruption.] If hon. Members wish to know, they might like to listen. On the other hand, if they want to just yell, that is also fine. The hon. Gentleman asked a question. The Prime Minister is currently negotiating a revised deal, and she will update the House next week—okay? Is that clear? Next week. If necessary, I will make a further business statement, but today’s statement is clear that we will meet our commitment—the Prime Minister’s commitment—to deliver a debate on an amendable motion next week. If the hon. Gentleman listened to the business statement, he will know that that will be on Thursday.
The hon. Gentleman also asked about this week’s business and said that we did not discuss anything. I would just like to point out to him that we had an excellent debate on Monday, when 39 individual Members talked about the importance of sport right across our country in relation to issues such as mental health, reducing obesity and general wellbeing, which are all important matters. On Tuesday, the House debated the police grant and local government finance reports. He may not consider that to be relevant business, but we voted on them and those extremely significant motions have an impact on people in England and right across the United Kingdom. We also discussed some vital subjects in relation to compensation payments for those suffering from mesothelioma and pneumoconiosis. The hon. Gentleman is simply not right to say that we did nothing this week.
The hon. Gentleman is also not right to say that we will be doing nothing during the recess week. He asked again what we will be doing during the period that would have been recess. As I have already said, the business includes some key statutory instruments that are to be debated in the Chamber. He will be aware that Brexit legislation is not a matter only of primary legislation; there are up to 600 pieces of secondary legislation. The House is dealing with those in good order. Over 400 have now been laid, and we remain confident of getting all the statutory instruments that need to be finalised by Brexit day done by then. He should take reassurance from that.
Colleagues—I address my remarks to colleagues—for the avoidance of doubt, I have not muddied any waters. What I have done is to quote the factual position. Very specifically, I have quoted statements from the Treasury Bench on 29 January, 31 January and 6 February. I know the Leader of the House will be interested in this, because she has just talked about the importance of treating colleagues with respect, which presumably applies to listening to them when they are speaking. The position is extremely clear. I do not try to tell the right hon. Lady how to do her job. I treat her with great courtesy, and I will continue to do so. Nobody is going to tell this Speaker how to stand up for and persistently champion the rights of Parliament. I have done it, I am doing it and I will go on doing it. I could not care less who tries to obstruct me. That is the fact, that is the reality and that is the mission and responsibility of the Speaker of the House of Commons.
Now for something completely different, Mr Speaker. [Laughter.]
Eastgate, Blackbrook and Holway are names that will not be known to the Leader of the House, but I can tell her that they have the most appalling crime statistics in Somerset, and they come within the county town of Taunton. We need to have a debate on this. There were 5,000 recorded crimes last year, of which very few were cleared up. Half of those crimes are violent and sexual crimes, and the other half involve antisocial behaviour. This affects my constituency enormously. Having had the police figures out this week, may we please have time to debate hotspots that are turning into crime-ridden ghettoes before it is too late?
My hon. Friend has raised an incredibly important issue. There is a debate this afternoon on antisocial behaviour, during which I certainly hope he will share his concerns directly with Ministers. He will be aware that there are very concerning rises in certain types of crime, while in other areas the police are doing an excellent job in reducing some of the traditional crimes. Nevertheless, what is important is that the police grant settlement for next year is a significant one, and I hope that he will welcome that news.
I hope I can crave your indulgence, Mr Speaker, because as you will be aware, Back-Bench business and the debates secured by Back Benchers are a highly delicious but very moveable feast. Given the constraints of time today, the second debate scheduled for today on beer taxation and pubs, sponsored by the hon. Member for Dudley South (Mike Wood), has unfortunately had to be withdrawn in order to create time for the first debate.
I would like to give the Leader of the House advance notice that a debate application has been submitted for the 20th anniversary of the publication of the Macpherson inquiry report on the murder of Stephen Lawrence, which is on 24 February. If the House is sitting, a debate on 21 February, if possible, would be very welcome. Additionally, may I remind the Leader of the House that 28 February is the day before St David’s Day? If possible, a debate on Welsh affairs on 28 February would be very welcome. Also, 7 March is the day before International Women’s Day, and we have a very heavily subscribed application for an International Women’s Day debate.
Mr Speaker, the Backbench Business Committee has been forced to press the pause button. This is not about article 50; this is about applications for debates on supplementary estimates. The supplementary estimates have not yet been published, and we can hardly invite people to apply for a debate on something that has not yet occurred. We anticipate that the supplementary estimates will be published on 11 February, and we are therefore extending the deadline for applications on supplementary estimates debates to 15 February.
May I crave the indulgence of the House, and the Leader of the House, again? I have a constituent with a complex variety of significant health issues. Her name is Ms Christine Carr of Dunston, Gateshead. On 14 January I wrote to a Minister at the Department for Work and Pensions about Ms Carr not having received any benefits since 9 January, and she is still not in receipt of those benefits, despite the DWP being subject to a court order ordering it not to bother her any more for at least a year after her previous employment and support allowance assessment. She has all those complex medical needs, and has been without money since 9 January. Please will the Leader of the House intervene with the Minister of State at the DWP on my behalf?
First, I congratulate the hon. Gentleman, because he always comes to the Chamber with a clear and marshalled list, which is incredibly helpful when trying to decide on the business. I am incredibly sympathetic to his request for a debate on the Macpherson report, and for debates on Welsh affairs and International Women’s Day, and I will certainly try to accommodate him.
The hon. Gentleman raises an incredibly important constituency issue. He will know that oral questions to the Department for Work and Pensions are next Monday, but if he wishes to write to me with the details of his constituency case, I will be happy to take it up with the Department.
The Leader of the House referred to a statement next week from the Prime Minister, followed by a supplementary business statement on an amendable motion. I guess that the Business of the House motion could not be moved until Wednesday afternoon, which gives very little time for amendments to be tabled for debate on Thursday. Will there be other arrangements so that amendments can be tabled in advance?
I always listen carefully to the views of right hon. and hon. Members, but as people will appreciate, we have set out that there will be an amendable motion, and we will bring that forward as soon as possible to enable amendments to be tabled.
Can the Leader of the House elaborate further on the good point raised by the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr Bone)? She will know that, to be frank, there have been trust issues with the Government on this issue, and opportunities for debate have been tabled and then pulled. Can she pin this down precisely? She is not saying that this will be a 90-minute motion in the standard form of a normal Government motion, so presumably the debate will be all day on 14 February. If so, will she confirm that the business of the House motion necessary to enable that will be tabled on Wednesday 13 February? If not on Wednesday, then when?
As I have tried to set out, if we are able to bring back a second meaningful vote, the vote to approve the deal will be on a motion under section 13(1)(b) of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018, and it will be an amendable motion, as it was in January. Any business motion that may be necessary will be tabled in the usual way, and will be debatable and amendable in accordance with the usual rules of the House. If there is no revised deal, the Prime Minister has set out that she will provide an update to the House next week, and if necessary I will provide a revised business statement. If there is not a meaningful vote, the debate next week will not be on a motion under section 13, but because of a commitment that the Government have made outside the statutory framework of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018. Any motion brought forward then will be tabled in good time for right hon. and hon. Members to amend it.
At the recent British Education Awards, a student from Harrow College in my constituency, Venelina Urlachka, was awarded one of the top prizes. She achieved an Access to Higher Education Diploma in Business with a distinction. She has now not only gone on to an internship but a job. May we have a debate in Government time on the importance of further education in encouraging and enabling young people, who possibly do not want to go to university, to further their careers and ensure that they get a decent education and good job opportunities in later life?
I congratulate my hon. Friend’s constituent. That sounds like an excellent achievement. He is absolutely right. The Government want to support those who wish to go on to university and those who prefer to go on to an apprenticeship or further education in an FE college. It is fantastic to see that not only are there record rates of 18-year-olds getting into university, but that we are committing millions of extra money to help teachers and leaders prepare to deliver T-levels, which will give young people the choice of a more academic or technical-based education.
Last night there was a very substantial explosion in Batley, resulting in the attendance of 10 fire engines and a tri-service response. Five people are currently in hospital receiving treatment. Is it possible to have a debate on developing further capacity for West Yorkshire fire and rescue when responding to large-scale emergencies, against an uncertain financial backdrop post 2020?
I am sure all hon. Members were very sorry to hear about that explosion. We should all pay tribute to those who go out and deal with the consequences, and send our very best wishes to those are still recovering from that explosion. The hon. Lady is absolutely right. We owe a great debt to our fire and rescue services. They do a fantastic job. She might like to seek an Adjournment debate so she can talk about the specific requirements in her fire and rescue area.
My constituency is just down the road from Birmingham. It has very strong links with the West Midlands Combined Authority, the wider region and the city of Birmingham. May we have a debate about the regeneration of the area under the Conservative Mayor, Andy Street? Can we include in that debate the role of the Commonwealth games? I am a newly elected vice-chair for the all-party group on the Commonwealth games, and we want to see how the games can advance this agenda.
First, I wish my hon. Friend every success with the new all-party group. I think there will be great interest in it. It is fantastic that in Birmingham company formations have risen by 10%. The city is thriving under the new Conservative Mayor, Andy Street. There is a new headquarters for HSBC. Birmingham is the test city for the 5G mobile network and, as my hon. Friend says, it will be the host of the 2022 Commonwealth games. I know she and I share the Government’s belief in extending growth and opportunity right across the United Kingdom.
May we have a debate on Facebook? This week we learned that the brilliant political comedian Matt Forde had his ads banned from Facebook because his show is called “Brexit through the gift shop”. Should Facebook not be more concerned with blocking the fake news and Russian bots that are undermining our democracy, rather than being a slave to an algorithm that cannot recognise a simple joke?
The hon. Gentleman raises a really important point. We are all so deeply concerned about the way that social media giants are pushing harmful content to those who really must not see it. They should be doing the exact opposite to that. Yet, at the same time, because of the technical way in which these things work, they are unable to tell the difference between a joke and a piece of serious content. The Government are clear that much more needs to be done to tackle online harms. We are committed to introducing legislation. He will be aware that we will be bringing forward a White Paper soon to look very closely at what more needs to be done. In the meantime, the social media giants are being told very firmly that they need to take more responsibility for what they allow.
Since 2010, the national ophthalmology database has analysed the outcomes of cataract surgery—the most commonly performed operation in the NHS. The NOD enables a cataract surgeon to compare performances and allows the patients to do the same, while driving continuous improvement. The funding for that, from the Healthcare Quality Improvement Partnership, will cease in August 2019. The NOD currently costs £400,000 per year and requires an additional £100,000 to include age-related macular degradation and glaucoma. Will a Minister come to the Dispatch Box to answer the request from the Royal College of Ophthalmologists for direct funding from NHS England to allow the NOD to deliver on the aim of the NHS’s big data, driving the transformation of healthcare in the United Kingdom?
My hon. Friend raises a very important subject. He will be aware that more than 300,000 cataract operations are carried out every year in England alone. He will appreciate that NHS England’s funding decisions are a matter for it, but I certainly welcome all action to improve outcomes for patients, including in the very important area of eye disease. I strongly recommend that he seeks an Adjournment debate so that he can raise this really important issue directly with Ministers.
Further to the question from the hon. Member for Bridgwater and West Somerset (Mr Liddell-Grainger), I and others were granted a Backbench business debate in Westminster Hall two weeks ago on knife crime, but the demand for time way outstripped supply. There were lots of speakers who could not be called or who could not attend the debate. Like the hon. Gentleman, I think that there should be a full debate in Government time specifically on violent crime and knife crime, but failing that, could we have a statement from the Home Secretary on this wave of violent crime, which has swept London and the rest of England?
The hon. Gentleman raises one of the most significant issues that is raised at Business questions every week, and he is absolutely right to do so. The appalling problem of knife crime is something that the Government are absolutely committed to tackling. He will have seen that the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Louth and Horncastle (Victoria Atkins)—the crime and vulnerabilities Minister—has just taken her place and has heard what he had to say. I know that she has undertaken to update the House on a regular basis.
The hon. Gentleman will be aware that the Government have published the serious violence strategy and established a serious violence taskforce, and that the Offensive Weapons Bill is passing through Parliament in order that we can do much more to try to keep young people away from a life of gang and knife crime, which leads to such appalling outcomes for them and their families.
I understand that the Government will shortly be publishing their proposed schedule of tariffs in the event of no deal. Does my right hon. Friend anticipate that that would be accompanied, if not at least by an oral statement, by a general debate? Whatever one thinks of the desirability of that outcome, I am sure that she agrees that for our business, farmers and consumers, it raises incredibly complex logistical questions to which we would all like answers.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right that this is an incredibly important area. He will be aware that we have just had Department for International Trade questions at which the subject was raised. There will be a further opportunity next Thursday, when we have the debate on withdrawal from the European Union, and I encourage him to raise it again then.
I understand that the Leader of the House’s job is to look after Government business and represent the Government’s view in the House of Commons, so will she guide me? I want an early debate where I can vote on the future existence of the Bank of England, because I have tried in two Question Times to get the Chancellor and the Secretary of State for International Trade and President of the Board of Trade even to mention the fact that the Bank of England has done a really thorough report stating that every region—every town and city in this country—will be dramatically poorer outside Europe. I want a debate on that so that we can grassroot the penalties of leaving Europe and have that clear, and have a Minister who would talk about the Bank of England. If it is not good enough to write independent reports, we should get rid of it.
First, I think the Bank of England is an incredibly valuable and valued institution. Its role, of course, is to prepare for all eventualities, as indeed is the job of Government—to be prepared for all eventualities. What the Bank of England does in its forecast is look at different outcomes in order that it can take measures as necessary to protect the UK economy and UK jobs and prosperity, and it is right that it does that. The hon. Gentleman will, of course, have the opportunity to raise the question of Bank of England forecasts in the debate next Thursday.
A couple of years ago, Bolton Council’s Labour leadership handed over £300,000 of taxpayers’ money to now bankrupt Asons Solicitors. For the second year running, Labour has chosen to dodge auditing that handover of cash and a vast swathe of other moneys. Can we have a debate on the council’s lack of openness over how it handles taxpayers’ money?
My hon. Friend is right to highlight the need for local authority finances to be properly interrogated and for councils to take swift action to address any issues raised by auditors, but, as he will be aware, internal audit arrangements are a matter for each council to consider as part of its own governance arrangements. I am sure he will agree, however, that elected councillors must be transparent about financial arrangements, which are integral to local accountability, and I encourage him to seek an Adjournment debate or to raise his concerns directly with Ministers in the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government.
The Government’s negative resolution statutory instrument on human medicines contains a serious shortage protocol to allow pharmacists to dispense a completely different drug in times of shortage but—critically—without consulting the prescriber, as is the rule now. It is clearly to prepare for drug shortages after Brexit. Does the Leader of the House not agree that such a radical change of medical responsibility requires debate and scrutiny?
The hon. Lady raises an important point, and I am aware of this long-standing protocol. She might be aware that the official Opposition have prayed against the human medicines regulations 2019 and that therefore there will almost certainly be the opportunity to debate them. She could also raise the matter at Health and Social Care questions on Tuesday 19 February.
Last week, the Harlow Star newspaper closed its doors for the last time, meaning that for the first time since 1953 our town does not have a local newspaper. Can we have an urgent statement on the support for and revival of local newspapers? Thousands of elderly people will now be disfranchised from local news, despite there being an excellent online newspaper called Your Harlow.
My right hon. Friend raises an important matter on behalf of his constituents, and I am sure many hon. Members will have a lot of sympathy. High-quality journalism is vital to our democracy, and I am very sorry to hear about the closure of the Harlow Star. He might be aware that the Government have commissioned Dame Frances Cairncross, supported by an expert advisory panel, to conduct an independent review into press sustainability, and we expect the report to be published soon. Once it has been published, the Government will respond in due course.
When we finish early, as we did yesterday, it raises the question of whether the Government are using the time available effectively. Can we have a statement on how the cancelling of the recess has affected staff and impacted on their caring responsibilities and other reasonable plans? What support and mitigation are the authorities putting in place to support the staff who do so much to support us?
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to raise that question. I am assured that the House staff—those who provide us with a range of support in this place, from Clerk advice and digital support to support in the Tea Rooms, cleaning and so on—are almost all unaffected. If they have holidays booked or childcare or other arrangements they need to make, they will be able to continue to fulfil their responsibilities, so I am reassured by the House authorities that it will not impact significantly on the day-to-day work of those who support us.
At the recent Council of Europe meeting, we heard details of how sharia law courts are being used in the UK to dispense alternative dispute resolutions, which particularly disadvantage women. Can we have a debate on that to determine how to deal with it without driving them underground?
That sounds very concerning. I encourage my hon. Friend to seek an Adjournment debate so that he can raise the issue directly with Ministers.
On Tuesday evening, a 19-year-old was fatally stabbed on the Surrey Lane estate in Battersea. That was another life lost, and another tragic example of how our young people are being failed. Figures published today by the Office for National Statistics show that the level of fatal knife crime is at its highest since records began. We cannot escape the fact that cuts in police, youth services and education budgets are feeding this rise in knife crime. In Wandsworth, the Tory council has cut youth services by just under £2 million. These cuts have consequences. May we have an urgent statement from the Home Secretary on the record rise in violent crime?
First, let me say how sorry I am to hear about yet another tragic knife-related death. The hon. Lady is absolutely right to raise it here, and she will know that the Government are doing everything possible to try to tackle the increase in knife crime. She will be aware of, for example, the recently announced £200 million youth endowment fund to support children and young people at risk, and the significant new early intervention youth fund to encourage young people away from a life of knife crime and gang membership. However, she also raised the issue of police funding. She must ask herself why she did not support the additional funds—up to £970 million—for police budgets. If she feels that this is such a significant issue, she and her party must support increased resources for policing.
Given the pressures on today’s Order Paper to which the hon. Member for Gateshead (Ian Mearns) referred, might the Leader of the House find an opportunity—the earliest opportunity—for a general debate on beer taxation and pubs?
I believe that my hon. Friend chairs the all-party parliamentary beer group, so I well understand his disappointment at the decision to postpone that debate. I assure him that I will seek another opportunity for a debate on the subject.
Delays in pension reforms will mean that low-paid workers, typically women with multiple part-time jobs, will be worse off in retirement by tens of thousands of pounds. In 2017, the Government promised to boost the pensions of low-paid earners by scrapping the lower earnings limit, but they have given no concrete date for the change. May we have a debate in Government time on bringing forward that change?
The hon. Lady will be aware that the Government have sought to improve the incomes of pensioners and those on fixed lower incomes. She will also be aware that questions to the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions will take place on Monday 11 February, and I suggest that she raises her point then.
Yesterday, the Under-Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, the hon. Member for Daventry (Chris Heaton-Harris), was unable to tell the Procedure Committee whether we would scrutinise 50 or 100 affirmative procedure statutory instruments. The front page of the Financial Times says that businesses are up in arms because the Government have failed to get the trade treaties through. And where is the Agriculture Bill? Its Committee stage ended before Christmas, and massive uncertainty is being created for farmers.
As I explained to the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart), we have laid more than 400 of the up to 600 statutory instruments that need to be delivered by 29 March, and we are confident that all of them will be completed by Brexit day.
The hon. Lady also asked about Brexit primary legislation. All the Bills that need Royal Assent by the date of our leaving the EU will achieve it, and the Bills that do not will achieve it within the timescales that are required for them. All those Bills continue their passage through both Houses, and I remain confident that we shall have passed all the necessary legislation by the date of leaving the EU.
There have been several major and, indeed, tragic fires in recent days. Has the Leader of the House had any indication from Ministers at the Home Office, which is responsible for fire policy, or at the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, which is responsible for building regulations, that they may wish to make a statement or, better still, find time for a debate on the value and advantages of fire sprinkler systems?
As the hon. Gentleman will know, we have had a number of debates in which the merits of fire sprinkler systems have been discussed, and there is no clear picture. In some cases they are incredibly helpful; in others they are not. I encourage the hon. Gentleman to seek an Adjournment debate so that Ministers can update him on exactly what the thinking is now.
Last month I secured a Westminster Hall debate on social mobility to which the Under-Secretary of State for Education, the hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Nadhim Zahawi), responded. During that debate, it became increasingly clear that if we are to transform the life chances of people in my town and others, there must be a whole-system, whole-Government approach. Social mobility is not just about schools; it is relevant to the remits of the Department for Transport, the Department of Health and Social Care, the Department for Work and Pensions, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, and the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government. May we have a debate in Government time on the cross-departmental organisation of social mobility to help areas to develop their local action plans?
The hon. Lady has raised the incredibly important—if not the most important—issue of how we can tackle and improve levels of social mobility. I am currently chairing an interministerial cross-Whitehall group that is considering the early years—the period between conception and the age of two—which is often held to be one of the most critical periods in which subsequent social mobility can be determined. The hon. Lady raises a valuable issue, and I encourage her to seek a Westminster Hall or Back-Bench debate so that all Members can present their own proposals.
As the House will know, I have never shied away from dealing with issues that some people might consider taboo, and today I want to talk about incontinence. Last Friday, along with my hon. Friend the Member for Batley and Spen (Tracy Brabin), I met Martin Kilgallon, who represents The Whole Autism Family. He told us that some parents face severe hardship because if their children need to use incontinence pads, they are allowed a maximum of four per day. There are limits to the number of pads that people can receive, largely owing to funding constraints. May we have a debate in Government time on that issue, and on maintaining the dignity of people who need incontinence aids?
The hon. Lady raises an issue that is critical for those who suffer from incontinence—it is the most awful thing to experience. She is absolutely right to say that we need to do everything we can to support those people. As she will know, Health and Social Care questions will take place on 19 February. I urge her to raise the issue directly with Ministers then, or perhaps to seek an Adjournment debate.
I often refer to matters of worldwide importance in the House, sometimes during business questions. It seems that every week we bring to the House something new and, unfortunately, something very tragic.
On Monday morning, Amnesty International reported that Boko Haram had killed at least 60 people in a “devastating” attack on the north-eastern Nigerian town of Rann. Fighters on motorcycles drove through the town setting houses on fire, randomly shooting and killing people who had been left behind. Amnesty described the attack as one of the deadliest assaults by the extremist group in its almost decade-long insurgency. Given the importance of the matter, may we have a debate or a statement?
The hon. Gentleman has raised a horrifying problem. He often refers to the abuse of people across the world for their racial or religious beliefs, and he is absolutely right to do so. I pay tribute to Amnesty for its work in highlighting such problems, and I encourage the hon. Gentleman to seek an Adjournment debate so that he can raise this awful situation directly with Ministers.
The Leader of the House will know that I have been pressing her on missing legislation. My hon. Friend the Member for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman) has already mentioned the missing Agriculture Bill, and the Fisheries Bill is also missing, but what about those statutory instruments? The right hon. Lady says that she is confident of getting through 200 of them before Brexit day, but even with my simple mathematical skills, I can work out that that would involve getting through about seven per sitting day. The SIs are overwhelmingly concentrated in four Departments, and as Opposition Whip for one of those Departments, I can tell her that I have several box files of SIs that have yet to be scheduled. Why is she so confident that we are going to manage to do this, with proper scrutiny, in time for 29 March?
I say again that we have up to 600 Brexit SIs. In this Session we have introduced a whole new system of monitoring, specifically to ensure that we are in control of the order and flow of SIs, that we get the job done in time, that the quality of impact assessments and explanatory memorandums is absolutely right, and that the SIs get the required scrutiny of this House. I can only reiterate that we are confident that we will be able to get the necessary legislation through by 29 March.
It is worrying but necessary that all horse-racing in Britain has been cancelled today after vaccinated horses were found to have equine influenza. Will the Leader of the House join me in commending the British Horseracing Authority for its swift action, and can she assure me that Ministers at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport are treating this as a priority and will come to the House to make a statement if necessary?
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to pay tribute to the British Horseracing Authority. It has taken swift action following this concerning development, and it was right to cancel all horse-racing today. I can tell him that DEFRA is of course monitoring the situation carefully, and I will certainly pass on his view that a Minister might need to make a statement to the House, should there be any further developments.
An increasing number of my constituents are contacting me to express their concern about the potential disruption to essential medical supplies post Brexit. The Leader of the House will be aware that there are now only 50 days until our exit date, so will she make a statement on what contingency plans are in place if supply chains should fail, and on what steps are being taken to ensure that pharmaceutical companies are adequately prepared?
The hon. Lady is quite right to raise this issue. She will be aware that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health has made it clear on a number of occasions that measures are in place to deal with all outcomes, including a no-deal Brexit on 29 March. We have Health questions on Tuesday 19 February, and I encourage her to seek to have her question answered directly by the Minister again then.
Can the Leader of the House confirm that the only reason for the light business and the extremely early rising of the House yesterday was that she and other Ministers had somewhere else to be—namely, going cap in hand to the dodgy Russian oligarchs and City hedge fund billionaires who are now the main source of finance for the Conservative party?
The hon. Gentleman is denigrating this House. Yesterday, we were talking about compensation payments for people who have suffered from asbestosis and other appalling conditions. The Government seek to provide adequate time for such debates, but we do not then take people by the scruff of the neck and insist that they speak in them. If individual Members choose not to contribute to those debates, that is not the fault of the Government. The Government provided time for some very important statutory instruments to be debated yesterday. I also think that it is extremely offensive of the hon. Gentleman to make the assertions that he does. I can tell him that I was in a meeting until 7 o’clock last night.
Is the Leader of the House aware that 150 job losses at Babcock in Rosyth have been announced today following the Queen Elizabeth contracts coming to an end? Would she consider granting a debate in Government time on why the national shipbuilding strategy is not working for the industry, for my constituents or for the country?
I am very sorry to hear about the job losses in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency. I know that the Jobcentre Plus rapid support teams will certainly be available to help those who