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House of Commons Hansard
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Oral Answers to Questions
11 July 2019
Volume 663

International Trade

The Secretary of State was asked—

Free Trade and WTO Reform

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1. What steps he is taking to promote free trade and WTO reform. [911893]

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2. What steps he is taking to promote free trade and WTO reform. [911896]

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This weekend, it will be three years since my Department was formed, and in that time the UK has worked with partners to ensure that the World Trade Organisation is equipped with the tools needed to tackle present challenges and address 21st century trade issues at a time of significant global headwinds. I emphasised the urgent need for WTO reform in discussions with my counterparts at the G20 trade and digital economy ministerial meeting in Japan a few weeks ago.

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Can the Secretary of State please explain why some nations, such as Canada, are refusing to roll over their existing EU free trade agreements, while many others, such as Switzerland, have happily done so?

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Continuity of existing trade terms is in everybody’s interests. I have to say that when the House of Commons gives mixed signals about the possibility of a no-deal exit, quit understandably some of our trading partners wonder whether it is worth investing in getting those continuity agreements. What I would say to those trading partners is that a no-deal exit is not entirely within the control of the United Kingdom; we might end up with a no-deal exit from the European Union. It is in everybody’s interests to have those safety nets in place.

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Free trade has the ability to spread the blessings of prosperity and to bring nations closer together. What is my right hon. Friend doing to spread free trade, particularly with our friends in the Commonwealth and the Anglophone countries?

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I would go further than my hon. Friend and say that free trade is beneficial for prosperity, stability and security, in the United Kingdom and beyond. The creation of Her Majesty’s trade commissioners is one of the most important elements of the Department for International Trade, and I am passionate about increasing the size of the DIT’s overseas network, including in the Commonwealth. Therefore, this morning I am proud to announce the creation of a new HM trade commissioner for Australasia. The post will be a senior civil service 2 director role and will be externally advertised later this year, to attract the best and brightest talent.

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To return to the subjective continuity agreements, a number have been put in place but they do not apply to some of our biggest trading partners. Does the Secretary of State really think that by the end of October we will have a significant number of agreements in place with those countries with which we do the most trade?

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Well, 10.7% of our trade is done under EU trade agreements with third countries. In fact, the largest of those, with Switzerland, and some of the other largest—for example, with the European economic area and South Korea—have already been concluded or signed, and I expect further agreements to be reached.

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I do not know whether the Secretary of State saw the alarming report in yesterday’s Financial Times on the impact on the Amazonian rainforest of the EU-Mercosur trade deal. Of course free trade is a good thing, but not if the cost is climate change. Does he agree?

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This Government have been very consistent in our approach to this matter. In fact, next week I will be setting out, at a slightly lesser level, moves that the Department for International Trade intends to take to mitigate our own international travel. We all have a responsibility, at international, national and personal level, to take climate change absolutely seriously. In international agreements, the environmental impacts are very much looked at. Of course, that agreement has not yet been finally concluded.

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I congratulate the Secretary of State and his Department on the latest export figures, which have reached another new high, but there is clearly potential for further growth, particularly post Brexit. What plans does he have to ensure that we have sufficient staff and personnel in high commissions and embassies throughout the world looking for those opportunities and feeding them back to British firms?

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For Britain to be able to sell abroad, we need to be able to do two things simultaneously: understand what Britain has to sell abroad and understand the markets we are selling into. That is why my Department is bringing in a major change to rotate our staff from our international posts through our sectors in the UK, so that they can understand what the UK can do in terms of services and goods in a real-time way as well as understand the markets. It is not just about how many people we have in the market, but about how well they understand what is happening in the UK. I hope that this innovation will lead to an increased capability for the UK and improve our competitiveness vis-à-vis other exporting countries.

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We recognise the need to reform the WTO, not least in the area of speeding up dispute resolution. We also recognise the benefits of regional trade agreements and bilateral agreements that can be WTO-compliant. However, it remains essential that we have a fully functioning WTO implementing globally agreed trade rules, so may I ask the Secretary of State to take on board and to agree with me that in these negotiations on reform he should reject some of the approach of the United States, which is to suggest that it will walk away from the WTO if it does not get its own way?

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I absolutely agree that we need an international rules-based system based on the WTO. It does require reform, but the fact that it needs reform is not an excuse to leave—it is an excuse to be more engaged in those reforms. It is worth pointing out that the United States has done very well, winning around 90% of the cases it has taken to dispute at the WTO. I hope that we all understand that the alternative to a rules-based system is a deals-based system, and the biggest casualties of that will be developing countries.

Renewable Energy Exports

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3. What plans he has to increase exports by the renewable energy sector. [911897]

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Promoting renewables is, of course, one more function of a dedicated trade Department, and we have export campaigns targeting renewable energy opportunities across Europe, Latin America and south-east Asia, along with support programmes. For example, the offshore wind sector deal commits the Department for International Trade and industry to increase offshore wind exports fivefold to £2.6 billion by 2030 and puts in place support mechanisms to help UK suppliers grow.

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I thank the Minister for his answer. In Wales, the low- carbon and renewable energy economy employs nearly 10,000 people. However, as he has already said, this could be hugely expanded if there were more opportunities to explore and to export renewable energy, so what steps are the UK Government taking to boost the economy and export more to provide more jobs across Wales and the wider UK?

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I congratulate the hon. Gentleman for championing those employers and, more importantly, employees in his constituency across the world. We are absolutely dedicated to doing that. As I said, the offshore wind sector deal puts a lot of that in place. UK Export Finance now has a dedicated team to support renewables. Colleagues from across the Department worked with Taiwan, and I was there last year at the signing of a memorandum of understanding that opens up its offshore wind opportunities for local companies.

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The Society of Maritime Industries says that export finance support in the UK lags behind what is available in other countries. It is calling for a much-needed follow-up detailing the specifics of the export strategy. If the Government are serious about the UK being a zero-carbon economy, where is the detail, the coherent plan and the investment into exports of our world-leading renewables sector? Labour believes in the industry; when will the Government start to?

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I shall try to give a straight answer to a not entirely straight question. As I said, we have the sector deal. We have the export strategy and we are putting enormous effort into that. I am pleased to say, Mr Speaker, that in this 100th centenary year of UK Export Finance, it has, under this dedicated trade Department, been rated the best export credit agency in the world.

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It is good to know that a centenary year marks 100 years and that 100 years would be considered to constitute a centenary. I wonder whether a 100th centenary year might be in danger of being a tautology.

Leaving the EU: UK Trade Policy

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5. What plans he has to use the Board of Trade to ensure that the constituent parts of the UK benefit from UK trade policy after the UK leaves the EU. [911899]

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Establishing the Board of Trade has been one of this Department’s major achievements over the past three years, and it will continue to meet in all UK nations and regions. Included as advisers to the board are the Secretaries of State for Northern Ireland, for Scotland and for Wales, and it has representation from business advisers from across the UK. We will make sure that all parts of the UK benefit from the jobs and investment that come with an independent UK-wide trade policy.

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My right hon. Friend will know that Copeland is home to a thriving agriculture sector. Will he tell us more about what is being done in his Department to open up new markets?

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There are a number of ways in which we can do that. The traditional trade agreements are one of them, but market access is another. For example, countries such as China are huge markets for Northern Ireland dairy products and Scottish beef, and the Department is focusing increasingly on identifying regulations that, if removed, will automatically increase market access for UK exporters.

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When the Foreign Affairs Committee met businesses in Hirwaun, south Wales, they were very critical of the Board of Trade. They said that it simply did not listen to Welsh concerns and did not project Wales on the international market. Is there not a danger that the Welsh Assembly might take it into its head that it wants to do that work instead of—and, I would argue, less effectively than—the United Kingdom?

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The hon. Gentleman may be slightly confusing the Board of Trade with the Department for International Trade. They have slightly different functions. When the Board of Trade met in Wales recently, we presented a number of awards to Welsh exporters, but the Board of Trade is an augmentation of the DIT in that it is able to take its own trade missions abroad. The advantage of the DIT to Wales is that it provides access to a much bigger network than could ever be achieved by the Welsh Government, and thus gives Welsh business a far greater capability than it would otherwise have.

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9. I was delighted to welcome my right hon. Friend to Stirling last year for the first ever meeting of the Board of Trade in Scotland. He has mentioned Scotch beef. The National Farmers Union of Scotland has launched a social media campaign, #BackScotchBeef. Will my right hon. Friend be beefing up his Department in Scotland, to provide more presence and resources to support the export of Scotch beef? [911903]

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I am delighted to say that the outcomes of the Department’s efforts have already been pretty beefy. The important point is, however, that because Scotland is part of the United Kingdom and therefore has access to a Department of State with a very large international footprint, we are better able to tackle issues such as market access to Scottish beef than Scotland would ever be if it were an independent state.

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The north-east is the one region that consistently exports more than it imports, but its voice in international trade policy and its representation on trade missions do not reflect that. What is the Board of Trade doing to support the voice of the north-east, rather than providing a platform for the Secretary of State so that he can tour the regions without delivering change?

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The point of the Board of Trade’s visits to the regions is gathering information that the Department can use for the purpose of export policy and recognising the excellence of those who have already succeeded in exporting. I should have thought that the hon. Lady considered it a worthwhile exercise for the Government to recognise the excellent exporters in her own region.

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Will the Secretary of State hold a meeting of the Board of Trade in Kettering, so that we can meet the Northamptonshire chamber of commerce to discuss export opportunities?

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I am astonished that we have got this far with only one bid for a meeting place for the Board of Trade. As with all my hon. Friend’s suggestions, I will take it seriously.

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If trade is to work for all parts of the UK, all parts of the UK—including Kettering—must be heard before, during and after trade negotiations. The Government have announced the creation of a ministerial forum for international trade, but they have provided no information about its membership, how often it will meet, or what its exact terms of reference will be. Will the Secretary of State now give us some much-needed detail on how both the nations and the regions of the UK will be included in the entire trade negotiation process?

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As I have said, the Board of Trade’s advisers—which is what they are technically called—are the Secretaries of State for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. We have visited all the English regions, and I intend in future to be constantly moving around the regions and nations of the UK, to thank the businesses that have contributed to Britain’s export performance, to consult those businesses and to create a network of business people who will act as champions and mentors for companies that want to export.

Export Strategy

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6. What recent progress the Government has made on implementing its Export Strategy. [911900]

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8. What recent progress the Government has made on implementing its Export Strategy. [911902]

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This summer marks three years since the DIT was established and one year since the publication of the Department’s export strategy, which sets out how the Government will encourage, inform, connect and finance UK businesses to take advantage of the international demand for British goods and services. Last month, we announced a new package of financial support from UK Export Finance to help businesses, and small and medium-sized enterprises in particular, to do just that.

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Does the Department’s export strategy make provision for promoting the expertise of British business in the emerging markets of offshore wind and the late-life decarbonising management and decommissioning of oil and gas fields?

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Yes, the offshore wind sector deal announced earlier this year will support UK companies to seize the export opportunities generated by the rapidly expanding market. The DIT is working with markets such as Taiwan, with which I recently hosted an offshore wind roundtable last month, to support their engagement with the UK supply chain. On oil and gas production, the DIT is engaging with the industry and stakeholders on export opportunities across the full industrial lifecycle.

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We have already heard that our trade agreements with the EU amount to about 11% of our trade, which is significant. Will my hon. Friend update the House on where he expects to have got with rolling over all the existing trade agreements by the time we are able to make our own independent trade policy?

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Since the Department’s formation three years ago, the DIT has grown its trade negotiating capability from a standing start to a fully trained core of specialists. That has allowed us to negotiate the transition of EU free trade agreements, representing almost two thirds of trade covered by these agreements, and we continue to work intensively on the balance.

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What is the Secretary of State doing in relation to manufacturing in the west midlands, which has the Jaguar Land Rover and black cab companies, to increase their exports given the market has had a slight downturn as a result of Trump’s sanctions on China?

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Of course, Jaguar Land Rover remains an extraordinarily important company to the UK. It has faced some challenges recently, but the announcement of the new electrification programme in the west midlands is extremely welcome. As the hon. Gentleman might expect, the DIT has been very heavily involved in that process.

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But what has the DIT been doing through its export strategy about the automotive sector in Wales and in particular in Bridgend, with the announcement that Ford will close the engine plant? What can the Department do to try to persuade Ford to change its mind about this and to ensure that we have a thriving export sector?

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The hon. Gentleman will know that the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy has been very heavily involved with Ford at Bridgend; in the end this is a matter for the company itself, but I have no doubt that BEIS has had productive conversations with it. The DIT is, along with BEIS, investing very large amounts of money across government in electrification and the automotive market of the future. That involves huge amounts put into research and development at universities, and we believe that will put the UK car industry in a very good position for the future.

UK-US Trade and Investment

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7. What recent discussions he has had with his counterpart in the US Administration on trade and investment between the UK and the US; and if he will make a statement. [911901]

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Over the past three years, the DIT has laid the groundwork for an ambitious free trade agreement with the US once we have left the EU, including through the UK-US trade and investment working group, which met for the sixth time in London yesterday. This week, I have been in Washington to discuss the progress of these preparations with my American counterparts and make sure we are ready to grasp this golden opportunity once we have left the EU.

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Is it not the case that, notwithstanding the little local difficulty—or even large local difficulty—in Washington DC at the moment, the underlying facts remain that the United Kingdom is the biggest investor in the United States and vice versa, that military and intelligence integration between the United Kingdom and the United States is bigger than any other in the rest of the world and that our strength remains with the United States?

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My hon. Friend is correct. The UK and the US have a deep long-standing relationship with a strong and enduring bond. We have a shared heritage, legal system and language, and we co-operate extensively in security, prosperity and defence, and at many levels of our society, culture and economy, our co-operation is closer than that of any other two countries—something that my hon. Friend contributed to in his time as shadow Trade Minister.

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Has the Secretary of State woken up to the fact that when we trade with America, and with other countries, we have to take manufacturing very seriously indeed? This also involves our universities. I have a good memory and I remember that, on his first outing, he refused to meet the all-party parliamentary group on manufacturing. He has still not met it. Why does he not take manufacturing seriously? It matters for our trade relationship with America, which is very close.

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When it comes to the manufacturing element, we take it very seriously. Our goods exports have actually exceeded the growth in our service exports in recent times, which is testament to the way in which the manufacturing sector has been encouraged and grown under this Government, in stark contrast to what happened under the previous Labour Government, when it shrank substantially.

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The Secretary of State is obviously aware of the unprecedented way in which our ambassador in Washington was removed from his post yesterday by the former Foreign Secretary and the President of the United States. Does he think that that will harm or hinder our trade investment with the United States?

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I deeply regret the resignation of Sir Kim Darroch, whom I was with actually in the time before his resignation. He was a great, dedicated and professional public servant. I hugely decry the leak that led to that resignation. The leak was unprofessional, unethical and unpatriotic, and I hope that, if we are able to discover the culprit, we will throw the book at them.

Arms Sales: Saudi Arabia

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10. What recent assessment he has made of the implications for his policies of the Court of Appeal’s ruling on the process of granting licences for the sale of arms to Saudi Arabia. [911904]

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We disagree with the judgment and are seeking permission to appeal. Alongside this we are considering the implications of the judgment for decision making. While we do this, we will not issue any new licences for exports to Saudi Arabia or its coalition partners which might be used in Yemen.

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Given the evidence from organisations such as the Red Cross, and given what we know about the humanitarian violations in Yemen, does the Secretary of State not think it is time, once and for all and regardless of any review, to look at the international evidence, and stop selling arms to Saudi Arabia to break international law?

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We take a rigorous and robust view in this country, as the court said, and we are very aware of any potential breaches of international humanitarian law. I think the hon. Lady will find that the United Kingdom has one of the most stringent sets of rules around arms exporting anywhere in the world.

Topical Questions

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T1. If he will make a statement on his departmental responsibilities. [911910]

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My Department is responsible for foreign and outward direct investment, establishing independent trade policy and export promotion. I am proud to announce that, on 17 July, my Department will be launching the MP Exporting toolkit. This will highlight the role that all MPs can play in helping to promote local businesses in their own constituencies. It says “Become a Trade Minister for your constituency”, and 650 Trade Ministers would be even more effective than the Department for International Trade.

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My right hon. Friend is a brave man to let us all loose like that. He will be aware that the Royal Navy has done incredible work in the past couple of days to protect our British shipping as it moves through the Strait of Hormuz. Does he agree that, given that 95% of our goods travel by sea, it is imperative that our armed forces have the resources they need to keep all those exports and imports safe?

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Contrary to international law, three Iranian vessels attempted to impede the passage of a commercial vessel, British Heritage, through the Strait of Hormuz. HMS Montrose was forced to position herself between the Iranian vessels and British Heritage and to issue verbal warnings, which caused the vessels to turn away. Our thanks go to the crew of HMS Montrose and to all those who protect the safety of vital international maritime traffic. It is our duty as a Parliament to ensure that all those forces are adequately resourced.

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Last month, the Department released the worst foreign direct investment statistics in five years. New projects were down 14%, new jobs were down 24%, and investment to safeguard existing jobs was down 54%. I know that the Secretary of State will want to explain the reasons for this to the House, but will he also tell us whether he still thinks he was right to announce that, in the event of a no deal, he would unilaterally drop more than 80% of our tariffs to zero for a period? I ask this because Canada has said that it will not now conclude a roll-over agreement conceding preferences to the UK because the Secretary of State is offering market access for free. In June, he boasted to the Select Committee that the roll-over was 99% there. Now, it is 100% not there. Was he right, or is Canada?

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As ever, it is nice to know that the hon. Gentleman is consistently wrong. He talks about our investment figures, but investment into the United Kingdom was the third highest of any country in the world, and it was the highest in Europe. At a time when global foreign direct investment fell, it continued to rise in the UK. When it comes to tariffs, one reason the Government introduced the temporary tariff scheme was to stop a price shock in the UK, and one of the reasons for that is that those on lower incomes spend more on goods than services. Introducing liberalisation will help to protect consumers on lower incomes, and I would have thought even today’s Labour party might have supported that.

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T2. Can market access agreements be even more important than free trade agreements? [911911]

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My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. There are some huge opportunities in market access. Indeed, we have identified one potential change in China that, if negotiated, might be worth £10 billion of turnover over a considerable period through one regulation alone. Resources at the Department at the moment are necessarily skewed towards FTAs, because of the trade agreement continuity process, but they will in due course shift towards market access, which is terribly important.

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T3. Can the Secretary of State explain what his Department is doing to encourage the EU and US to resolve the Airbus and Boeing subsidies dispute without resorting to tariff retaliation in unrelated sectors, including UK agri-food products? [911912]

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I had a number of discussions in the United States about that issue this week, as the hon. Gentleman may have guessed. It is likely that tariffs will be applied following the WTO determination of the level of tariffs that the US is allowed by law to set following the judgment on Airbus. Of course, the judgment on Boeing, to which he alluded, is also coming. At some point, we must ensure that both European countries and the United States are able to give appropriate support to their aircraft industries, because the alternative will be market access for China, which will be in the interests of neither.

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T4. As South Korea is the third largest export market for ceramics, does the Secretary of State agree that the recently signed outline free trade agreement with South Korea is a huge boost for the ceramics industry? [911913]

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The transition agreement will replicate the effects of the preferential market access in the existing EU-South Korea FTA, providing certainty for businesses and allowing them to continue trading on preferential terms. It will provide a firm basis for the further strengthening of our ambitious trade and investment relationship as we work together in future.

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T6. The Secretary of State promised this House that all bilateral trade deals between the EU and other countries would be rolled over by 29 March, including a bilateral trade deal with the EU itself. How many will be done by 31 October? [911915]

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I could just ask the hon. Gentleman to look up the answer that I gave a few moments ago. We have signed roughly two thirds of the deals already and we expect there to be more. As for the number, it is well over 50%, and a large number of the countries in there are agglomerated into blocs, but we are confident in terms of trade that we will have two thirds or thereabouts.

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T5. The Secretary of State rightly said that we will need an agreement with the EU to allow a GATT 24 basic deal to apply, but does he not accept that GATT 24 and a temporary FTA would save the EU £13 billion in tariffs and the UK just £5 billion, so the EU has every incentive to back it? [911914]

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My hon. Friend makes an important point, but an article 24 agreement would cover tariffs and quantitative restrictions; it would not cover services, standards and regulations. An agreement covering those latter elements would have to be negotiated separately and would probably take longer to strike. In the meantime, the UK would be subject to the full array of existing third-country checks and controls carried out as standard by the EU. In other words, even if we both did agree an article 24 continuation, it would not cover access to the single market—it would not be trading as usual.

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Further to the question from the hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson), is it not time that the Department for International Trade undertook a thorough review of all 29 or 30 countries identified as countries of concern for human rights by the Government’s own Foreign Office?

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We do, and we act in line with the consolidated criteria of the EU. We look at all those elements. In fact, the Court of Appeal was clear that the Government were rigorous and robust in doing so.

Women and Equalities

The Minister for Women and Equalities was asked—

Pension Inequality

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1. What steps the Government are taking to support women facing pension inequality. [911870]

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Before I respond, may I say, on behalf of our Front-Bench team and, I hope, of the whole House, how proud we are of the Lionesses for their exceptionally inspirational performance in the women’s World cup?

Recent state pension reforms have meant that by 2030 more than 3 million women will be £550 a year better off on average. Automatic enrolment has helped to equalise workplace pension participation, and the Government’s gender inequality road map sets out our proposals to tackle financial instability in later life.

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Equalising the pension age has been very painful. We understand the reasons for it, but it is very painful for many of my constituents—females born in the 1950s. What has the Minister’s Department done to mitigate against that? What more can be done to avoid hardship for that age group?

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My hon. Friend is a strong advocate for his constituents. This Government have already introduced transitional arrangements costing £1.1 billion; this concession reduced the proposed increase in state pension age for more than 450,000 men and women, and means that no woman will see her pension age change by more than 18 months, relative to the original Pensions Act 1995 timetable. For those experiencing hardship, the welfare system continues to provide a safety net, with a range of benefits tailored to individual circumstances.

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The Minister must recognise that, particularly for working-class women in the north-east who started work earlier, sometimes at the age of 14 or 15, and are in manual trades, which take a huge toll on the body, this pension inequality is really affecting lives. What is he doing to meet the just claims of the WASPI—Women Against State Pension Inequality Campaign—women and provide support for those women so disproportionately affected?

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As I say, the Government have already introduced transitional arrangements costing £1.1 billion. We have considered the alternative options and found that there are substantial practical, financial and legal problems with all alternative options offered by stakeholders so far to mitigate the impact on those affected.

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In addition to the Lionesses, will the Minister also congratulate the Scottish women’s football team on their efforts and wish the Scottish Thistles netball team all the best in the netball world cup, which is coming up this week?

The WASPI women have already been cheated out of their pensions by this and previous Governments, but a further issue is emerging, with the Association of British Insurers talking of £20 billion of unclaimed pensions, in 1.6 million pension pots. That will disproportionately affect women, as they are more likely to have changed jobs multiple times during their careers. What is the Minister going to do to make sure that those women do not also lose out on pensions to which they should be entitled, in unclaimed pension pots?

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I will certainly echo the comments made by the hon. Lady about those sporting teams in Scotland. Her question is better related to the Pensions Minister, so I will ensure that he responds fully to the points she raises. However, I would say, on WASPI women, that any amendment to the current legislation that creates a new inequality between men and women would be unquestionably highly dubious as a matter of law, and the Government’s position on the changes to the state pension age remains clear and consistent.

British Sign Language Courses

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2. What recent assessment she has made of the adequacy of the availability of British Sign Language courses. [911871]

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A range of qualifications in BSL are available, but of course it is for schools and colleges to decide whether to offer these qualifications or other courses in BSL. The Department for Education is working to develop draft subject content for a potential GCSE in BSL.

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Cheshire College South and West, in my constituency, has had to cancel the BSL courses altogether, due to cuts in the adult education budget. That pattern is being repeated all over the country, so may I urge the Minister to look carefully at the impact of the cuts his Government are implementing?

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I am happy to meet the hon. Gentleman to discuss the particular issue regarding that college. He will be aware that the exam board Signature has a number of BSL qualifications at different levels. He will also know that the DFE funds the I-Sign project, which has developed a family sign language programme course, which is available online, and post-16 funding is of course a priority in the upcoming spending review.

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I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous), as nobody in the Portcullis House atrium yesterday can have failed to have been moved by the signing choir, who performed to great acclaim. Will the Minister join me, the hon. Member for Waveney and the choir in calling for a GCSE in sign language?

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I did enjoy meeting Daniel Jillings’s mother, Ann, and I am only sorry that I could not go to the performance of the Lowestoft Signing Choir last night. The hon. Lady will know that in February the Department announced that it would begin the process of developing draft subject content for a GCSE in BSL, which will need to be considered against the requirements that apply to all GCSEs.

Equalities Hub

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3. What steps she is taking to tackle inequalities through the new Equalities Hub. [911873]

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The new Equalities Hub includes the Government Equalities Office, the race disparity unit and the new disability unit. Not only does it bring together the parts of Government that lead on gender, race, disability and sexual orientation, but it will use the convening power of the Cabinet Office better to leverage work across Whitehall.

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I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply and for putting together for the first time ever an Equalities Hub. How will she make sure that Government Departments still see it as their responsibility to work together to deliver better equalities policies in future? In our inquiries, the Women and Equalities Committee often highlights that as a real problem.

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The hub will hold those Departments to account. It will have some new tools to do that: better data and the ability to look at the multiple disadvantages that individuals face. There are also single departmental plans and other methods that the Cabinet Office has. We will make further announcements this week that will provide other means by which we can hold everyone across Government to account.

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I welcome the Equalities Hub, but I urge the Government to make hubs available throughout the country. Will the Minister pay particular attention to a group that lobbied me only last week? They were women who have been in prison, come out of prison, and had to return to the atmosphere of bullying and oppression in the home they were in before they served their prison sentence. These women need the full service in the Equalities Hub. They are a very special case, so will the Minister help them?

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The hon. Gentleman raises a very good point. My hon. and learned Friend the Minister of State, Ministry of Justice recently visited some women’s prisons and spoke to people there about further things we need to do. Part of the work of the Government Equalities Office is to create better networks across the whole of the UK in all these policy areas.

Gender Bias: Employment

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4. Which employment sectors are most gender-biased against (a) women and (b) men; and if she will take steps to tackle those biases. [911874]

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My hon. Friend has asked a deviously difficult question, in that there are many ways to interpret it. I have taken it to reflect the gender split in sectors. The worst sectors in terms of the gender split for women are construction; mining and quarrying; and water supply, sewerage and waste management. All those sectors have workforces that are more than 80% men. The worst sectors in terms of the gender split for men are education, human health and social work. We are working with all those sectors to drive action plans to address the specific problems that men and women face, whether in recruitment, retention, or progression to senior leadership roles, in those sectors.

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Brilliant though the Minister is, she cannot be expected, any more than any of us can, to know the inner workings of the sophisticated mind of the hon. Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone).

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There is a highly disproportionately low number of male primary school teachers. What can the Government do to address this?

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My hon. Friend asks a good question. There is interesting research on what and how gender stereotypes form at early ages. By the age of seven, girls tend to think that they should be in what we call very loosely the caring industries, and boys tend to think about the mechanical and engineering-type industries. So it starts at the very beginning. We have to work on, and we are working on, ensuring that the gender stereotypes for boys and girls are not allowed to continue. That is precisely why the gender equality road map that we published last week will help with those limiting and limited stereotypes. We must very much encourage boys to grow, and to be great teachers in our schools and colleges.

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I am sure the Minister would agree that in the care sector—where my mother has worked for the past 30 years—the focus tends to be purely on women working in that sector, often because it is part-time and low-paid work. What more will the Minister do to make sure that the care sector is seen as a real profession, with good qualifications and a decent salary.

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The care sector is such an important sector in our economy—all the more so as we age and live for longer—so through the gender equality road map we are very much looking into how we can help to ensure that the part-time roles are paid properly, and also that there are career opportunities. A tiny step is, of course, the gender pay gap regulation reporting, which helps to set out the disparities between pay, not only within industries and sectors but across the economy. It is through that that we will start to get much better quality.

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Only 1% of the tradespeople who work in building maintenance in housing associations are female, so will my hon. Friend endorse the work of the Guinness Partnership and its ambassador tradeswomen who are trying to drive up that figure by going into schools and colleges, encouraging women to pursue a career in construction?

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I endorse not only the work of the Guinness Partnership, but the work of my hon. Friend, who is a powerhouse himself for trying to ensure that women and girls see construction as a really good industry and a really good employment opportunity for them.

Prison Officer Training: Women’s Mental Health

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5. What recent discussions she has had with Cabinet colleagues on trends in the level of training for prison officers working with women with mental health needs. [911875]

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From April of this year, a new specialist training package known as Positive Outcomes for Women: Empowerment and Rehabilitation has been devised to support prison officers working with women in custody and the community. That will help staff to have the necessary skills and knowledge to deal with those with specific needs.

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Given that women in prison account for a disproportionate amount of self-harm incidents, it is increasingly important that they are given support in prison. When will the Minister commit to enhancing support for vulnerable women with a mental health need in prison?

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The hon. Lady will have heard what I just said about the new training programme, but it is part of a wider policy framework. In particular, there is work on the Lord Farmer review to improve family ties for female offenders and a further investment of £5 million for community provision. My experience last week at Her Majesty’s Prison Eastwood Park taught me a lot about how women can help each other and support each other through the process, which can often be a very traumatic time for them.

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This year’s inspection of HMP Foston Hall identified that 74% of women had mental health problems, but only two thirds were receiving any help. At the same prison, only half of officers had received any mental health awareness training despite a general feeling that they would like more. What more can be done to improve mental health training across the estate to reduce self-harm and suicide and to improve on the current position?

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I am grateful to the hon. Lady for raising that important point. As I have said, the roll out of the new POWER scheme is going to be very important in terms of giving prison officers the tools they need to help support women with mental health needs. I do think that our overall strategy is now translating into real change, with the key worker scheme allowing prison officers to work with individual prisoners to identify their needs, so there is progress, but I accept that much more needs to be done.

Windrush: Home Office Investigation

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6. Whether her Department is supporting the Home Office internal investigation into the causes of the Windrush scandal; and if she will make a statement. [911876]

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The Home Secretary commissioned a lessons-learned review to consider the key policy and operational decisions that led to members of the Windrush generation becoming entangled in measures designed for illegal immigrants and appointed Wendy Williams as its independent adviser. We understand that Wendy Williams has been considering a great deal of material during the course of the review and has spoken with a wide range of people. We will publish her report following its receipt.

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The Government seem obsessed with pushing through a damaging no-deal Brexit, and Windrush victims feel ignored, as they have to make do with an apology, or perhaps another review, then a report, and then a consultation on the report and the review. Words are cheap; actions count. Can the Minister please explain how the process of compensating Windrush victims is progressing?

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I am glad that the hon. Lady has asked this question, because it gives me the opportunity to inform her that more than 6,400 people have been granted some form of documentation by the Windrush taskforce and more than 4,200 people have successfully applied to become British nationals through the Windrush scheme. We have announced that the Windrush compensation scheme is open for claimants. The forms, rules and claimant guidance were published in April and the free phone helpline is available for those wishing to receive printed copies of the forms or for any other queries.

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The Government said that it would take two weeks to resolve the Windrush cases; it has been over 64 weeks thus far. I have a live petition, which garnered more than 800 signatures a day, which I plan to present to the Prime Minister next week. Will the Minister join me in fighting for justice and fairness for the Windrush generation, and support the call to get all cases resolved before we break for recess?

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I thank the hon. Lady for her question. As she knows from the work she has done, every case is complex. We want to ensure that they are being thoroughly considered. We will continue to update the Select Committee with work and progress on this, but I reference her back to the fact that more than 6,400 people have been given some form of documentation and more than 4,200 people have successfully applied to become British nationals through the scheme.

Abortion Clinic Buffer Zones

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7. When the Government plan to announce a decision on their review of proposals to introduce buffer zones around abortion clinics. [911877]

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It is a pleasure to answer this question from the hon. Lady. In September 2018, having considered the evidence of the review, the Home Secretary reached the conclusion that introducing national buffer zones would not be a proportionate response given the experience of the vast majority of hospitals and clinics, and considering that the majority of activities are passive in nature; but we of course watch with great interest the incidents that are happening in her constituency.

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Ealing’s buffer zone is pioneering, but it is a local byelaw and its renewal process will have to start next year, notwithstanding its High Court challenge next week. Women up and down the country—clinic users and staff—need the certainties of protection from harassment by national, lasting legislation, and the evidence of the Minister’s review does not bear out what all the pressure groups are saying. So when will the Government have the guts to act?

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It is not a question of having the guts or otherwise. We looked at this very carefully. We looked at the range of hospitals and clinics across the country that offer these services, and the overwhelming majority did not report the sorts of activities that the hon. Lady has described taking place outside the clinic in her constituency. However, we of course keep the matter under review, and I am always happy to discuss this with the hon. Lady, because I know she takes such an interest in it.

Workplace Gender Equality

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8. What steps the Government are taking to enable employers to increase gender equality in the workplace. [911879]

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The cross-Government gender equality road map sets out our plans to address the persistent gender barriers that people face at every stage of their life. It addresses the cumulative impact faced disproportionately by women as a result of gender barriers at every stage of their life.

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Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating the Ogden Trust, participating businesses, higher and further education providers and John Best for their sterling work in promoting the coastal energy internship programme, which in three years has grown from providing five to 50 internships, and which is ensuring that female interns have every opportunity to work in an industry that has long been male-dominated?

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I would be delighted to join my hon. Friend in highlighting that fantastic example and congratulating all involved on its success. In order to improve gender representation in STEM—science, technology, engineering and maths—industries, we are raising awareness of the opportunities that these career paths present, through the Government careers strategy.

Sexual Violence Support Services

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9. What recent discussions she has had with the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care on the provision of support services for people who have experienced sexual violence. [911880]

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The Minister for victims, my hon. Friend the Member for Charnwood (Edward Argar), and the Minister for mental health, my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Jackie Doyle-Price), meet quarterly, and in their most recent meeting they discussed mental health support for victims of serious violence and sexual assault, as part of the Government’s continued work to implement an integrated system of care for victims.

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A recent public petition brought by campaigner Fern Champion on the issue of funding for rape crisis centres has attracted more than 150,000 signatures. Fern’s experience, echoed by many, is that rape crisis centres are so oversubscribed that survivors are being turned away or are told to wait for up to two years before they can receive support. Will the Minister commit to meet me—preferably before the summer recess—to discuss how we ensure that all survivors of sexual violence can access support?

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I am happy to commit the victims Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Charnwood (Edward Argar), to that meeting; I am sure he will be very pleased with me. This is an important and serious issue, because rape crisis centres form an invaluable part of the service. I am glad to say that from April this year my Department has increased funding for specialised rape and sexual abuse support services by 10%—up by £8 million a year—and that, for the first time, we will have centrally funded services in all 42 police and crime commissioner areas. That is a sign of our deep commitment, but we will work further with the hon. Lady.

Flexible Working

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10. What steps she is taking to ensure that businesses offer employees their legal right to request flexible working. [911881]

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All employees with 26 weeks’ continuous service have the right to request flexible working—that is over 90% of employees. Employers can only refuse a request for flexible working if they have sound business reasons, which are set out in statute. We have also established the flexible working taskforce to promote wider understanding of implementation of flexible working practices. Earlier this year, we launched a flexible working website specifically aimed at helping working mothers to find flexible jobs.

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Women who work at Asda in Bishop Auckland and Spennymoor, and indeed across the whole country, are currently facing dismissal if they do not accept a new contract that would end the flexibility they currently have. In view of the helpful answer that the Minister has given, will she join me and the GMB union in calling on Asda to think again and have a proper negotiation?

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I thank the hon. Lady for raising the concerns among her constituents with regard to the change of contract. As she well knows, that is a debate and a negotiation between the employer and the employees and their representatives. I am sure that the unions involved will be making their feelings clear. I advise those of her constituents who have any concerns about the practices that are happening within Asda to ring ACAS, which will be able to give them good, sound advice.

Maternity Discrimination

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11. What steps the Government are taking to help ensure that women are protected from maternity discrimination. [911883]

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12. What steps the Government are taking to tackle maternity discrimination. [911884]

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The law is absolutely clear: pregnancy and maternity discrimination against women in the workplace is unlawful. The Government recognise the importance of tackling pregnancy and maternity discrimination more widely, and have consulted on extending redundancy protections. We have received over 600 responses, which we are currently reviewing, and we will set out the next steps very soon.

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Flexible working enables women to stay in work and develop their careers after they have children, and helps to prevent maternity discrimination. It could also help to close the gender pay gap. It has made a huge difference to a member of staff in my constituency office with regard to getting back into work after having a child. What steps can my hon. Friend outline to ensure that flexible working is offered in employment contracts, and is also a priority when advertising the job so that people understand that it is a possibility?

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My hon. Friend is quite right. This Government recognise that we need to do as much as we can for working families, and particularly for women who may suffer from discrimination. She is right to talk about flexibility. She will know that the Government have committed to consult on a duty on employers to consider whether a job can be done flexibly and to make that very clear in the advertisement for the job.

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Following the long overdue consultation on the rights of pregnant women and new mothers, does the Minister expect the Government to support the recommendation made by the Women and Equalities Committee that the German model offers the best solution for protecting women from the worst employers?

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The hon. Lady is right: we have had the consultation, on which we will hopefully make further announcements soon. It is absolutely right that we have consulted on the extension of the pregnancy and maternity protections for up to six months. The Government have looked at the German approach to enforcement, which uses a state body to grant permissions to make new mothers redundant. This would diverge from the UK system of enforcement of individuals’ employment rights through employment tribunals.

Topical Questions

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T1. If she will make a statement on her departmental responsibilities. [911885]

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All workers should be safe and able to thrive at work. Workplace harassment reflects an unacceptable sense of power, entitlement and disrespect towards others. Today I have launched a consultation on sexual harassment in the workplace. I am seeking views on whether the law is fit for purpose and how we can ensure that we have the right processes in place to keep people safe at work. We want to hear from people affected by this issue and design solutions that work for them. I urge everyone with an interest to go on to gov.uk and help us in this exercise by filling out the consultation questionnaire.

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According to the Home Office, only 15 police forces have had training in relation to domestic abuse and violence. What discussions has the Minister had with the Home Office to ensure that all police forces receive that training?

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I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. There is work going on to build further capacity in police forces across the four nations. The UK is also making a major contribution to deliver that capacity in the police forces of other nations. I will get my hon. Friend the Minister for Women to write to him with the specifics.

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T3. Angus is proud to be home to one of only three guide dog training centres across the country. I want to do more to support those with sight loss. One measure is to introduce audio passenger information on buses, which would allow those with sight loss to travel independently. There was a consultation on the Bus Services Act 2017, which finished in September last year. Could my right hon. Friend update the House on when those recommendations will be made public? [911887]

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The consultation has finished, and some funding is ring-fenced as part of the inclusive transport strategy for ensuring that audio-visual equipment is installed on buses. The Department for Transport is in the process of bringing forward regulations and publishing guidance. That will be later this year. In the meantime, we are encouraging operators’ efforts to ensure that there is accessible information on their services.

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The Prime Minister cites the race disparity audit and the gender pay gap regulations as some of her proudest achievements, seemingly not realising that they are symbolic of her failures. The report highlighted the systematic institutional racism of her Government’s policies, and we now have the real possibility of a casual racist and misogynist entering No.10—[Interruption.] I am afraid it is true. I hope the Minister will give assurances that the women and equalities agenda—[Interruption.]

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Order. Let me be absolutely clear: nothing disorderly has occurred. People have free speech within the rules of the House. I will adjudicate the enforcement of those rules. Nothing disorderly has taken place, and I certainly do not require any assistance from occupants of the Treasury Bench.

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Thank you, Mr Speaker. I could go through the list of things that have been said, but we do not have time. I hope the Minister will give assurances that the women and equalities agenda will not go backwards under the new Prime Minister. To adapt Stormzy lyrics:

“We have to be honest

Rule number two, don’t make the promise

If you can’t make the deal, just be honest

Equalities will never die, it’s like Chuck Norris

Rather, chuck this Government and chuck Boris.”

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Although I am sure that there will be a lot of column inches and debate about the Prime Minister’s legacy, one of the things she can be proud of is setting up the Race Disparity Unit and the work she did to shine a spotlight on practices in particular parts of Government and public services. She has also supported me in setting up the equalities hub, which brings together that disparity team with disability, women and equalities and LGBT issues at the heart of Government. She should be very proud of that.

I gently point out to those on the Opposition Front Bench and all Members of the Labour party that they really should have come to the House today with a bit of humility, following the shocking and, quite frankly, chilling things we saw last night. There are Members of the Labour party—a once great political party—who are standing up for the Jewish community, and long may they continue to do that, but those on the Front Bench have to understand the graveness of what we saw. It is one thing to be incompetent and fail to grip a situation. It is quite another to be complicit in it.

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T5. What steps is the Minister taking to protect people from sexual harassment at work, particularly in the charity sector? [911890]

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I thank my hon. Friend, particularly for the work she has done in focusing both domestically and internationally on this issue. As I said in my opening statement, we are today issuing a consultation, which will apply across every sector, to protect workers against harassment, particularly sexual harassment. Of course, the Department for International Development has done a tremendous amount in the wake of the Oxfam scandal, ensuring that the victims’ voices can be heard, but also that we are building the systems we need globally to protect people from predatory individuals.

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T2. A constituent of mine was involved in several car accidents, leaving them disabled. After going through the difficult process of claiming disability benefits, they are now being denied legal aid in relation to these accidents. This constituent is a veteran. Is the Minister not ashamed that my constituent, after serving our country, does not have his years of service impacting on his wellbeing, but this Government’s hostile environment towards disabled people, who, as confirmed by the UN, are disproportionately denied justice? [911886]

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If the hon. Lady would give me the details of that case, I will be very happy to look at it.

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T6. As we have heard from the hon. Member for Bristol West (Thangam Debbonaire), the Lowestoft Signing Choir produced a moving and superb performance in Portcullis House last night. Its members Ann and Daniel Jillings have been passionately campaigning for a GCSE in British sign language. While preparatory work is under way, will my right hon. Friend the Minister for Women and Equalities work with the Department for Education and with the Minister for School Standards, who has been very supportive—he is in his place—to ensure that this exam, which will transform so many people’s lives, is put in the curriculum as soon as practically possible? [911892]

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I am delighted to confirm that we are committed to the development of a BSL GCSE. Daniel Jillings and his mother Ann have been formidable campaigners on this issue. Daniel in particular, despite his young age, has been very influential indeed with his campaign. We are pushing this work forward as soon as we can, while also ensuring that it can be completed to the highest standard. My hon. Friend will be aware that the development of a new GCSE is a complex and lengthy process, but, as I say, we are committed to it as a new GCSE.

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T4. In case it is her last Question Time, may I thank the Minister for Women and Equalities for the leadership she has shown on LGBT equality during her time in post to date, which I know will continue? However, may I press her and the Government on sex and relationships education guidance to schools? The message from headteachers is overwhelming: they desperately need clearer, simpler, straightforward guidance that they can hold up to parents, governors and everyone else to make sure that no child in this country goes without inclusive relationships education. [911888]

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First, I thank the hon. Gentleman for his kind words. It will not be my last Women and Equalities questions; I just may be sitting in a different place. I agree, absolutely, that guidance is incredibly important. The work that the Department for Education has been doing has been making good progress on that. I think we need to have absolute clarity on these issues, and I am confident that the Department for Education is doing that.