Thursday 8 February 2024
Business and Trade
Trade Measures: Support for Ukraine
Following Russia’s unprovoked and illegal invasion of Ukraine, in May 2022 the UK led the world by being the first country to remove all remaining tariffs under our free trade agreement with Ukraine. This approach was followed by the EU and other partners around the world. The current tariff liberalisation runs until 31 March 2024.
Russia’s invasion has impaired Ukraine’s ability to export goods and disrupted their usual supply chains and transport routes. It was important that the UK acted when it did to liberalise remaining tariffs and provide much needed economic support to Ukraine. As was intended, Ukrainian businesses have benefited from the liberalisation, with goods such as cereal grains and poultry benefiting from tariff free trade.
Ukraine continues to defend itself against Russian aggression, while also rebuilding key infrastructure destroyed during the war. Tariff liberalisation forms an important part of UK Government’s overall support, with that support being put on an even longer-term footing. Therefore, the Government have agreed to extend tariff liberalisation for an additional five years until March 2029 on all goods, with the exception of eggs and poultry which will be extended for two years until March 2026. This new agreement means the UK continues to lead the world in our trade liberalisation support for Ukraine, but also takes a more cautious approach to poultry and eggs, following feedback from those sectors.
The Government will now take the necessary steps to extend the liberalisation measures in the UK’s domestic legislation by completing the parliamentary scrutiny process for the new agreement and laying the required statutory instrument to implement it. Both the UK and Ukraine will continue to review the operation of the agreement and monitor trade flows. The agreement extends to the whole of the United Kingdom and the Crown dependencies.
As the Prime Minister made clear in his most recent visit to Ukraine, the United Kingdom will continue to do everything in its power to support Ukraine’s fight against this brutal invasion, for as long as is needed.
Trade Negotiations: Republic of Korea
The first round of United Kingdom-Republic of Korea (RoK) free trade agreement negotiations took place during the week commencing 22 January. A delegation of officials undertook technical discussions in person in Seoul with some talks taking place virtually. This follows a successful state visit in November 2023, which saw negotiations launched by the Secretary of State and the Korean Minister for Trade, Industry and Energy Bang Moon Kyu, as part of a wider business forum event held at Mansion House.
This round was an opportunity to build on the scoping conversations we had held prior to launch and to explore a variety of further areas with the RoK. Overall, these conversations demonstrated our shared ambition to secure an enhanced deal to create new opportunities for business in the UK and the RoK. During the first round, there were discussions across 17 policy areas over 22 sessions.
Our existing agreement came into effect in 2021 and enabled trade continuity between the UK and the RoK following the UK’s withdrawal from the EU. It replicates the provisions outlined in the 2011 EU-RoK free trade agreement. Our trade relationship with the RoK has grown substantially since 2011, from £7.4 billion to £18.3 billion in 2022. With strong utilisation of the existing agreement, ongoing growth in bilateral trade, and an ever-strengthening broader strategic relationship, this negotiation represents an opportunity to ensure that a critical set of trading arrangements are secured and optimised for the next phase of UK-RoK relations; to allow more UK businesses to fully realise the opportunities of the RoK market; and to maximise the use of modern trading tools, while protecting businesses and consumers from current and future global pressures.
The second round of negotiations is due to take place in March 2024.
His Majesty’s Government remain clear that any deal will be in the best interests of the British people and the economy. We will not compromise on our high environmental and labour protections, public health, animal welfare and food standards, and we will maintain our right to regulate in the public interest. We are also clear that during these negotiations, the NHS and the services it provides are not on the table.
HM Government will keep Parliament updated as negotiations progress.
Infected Blood Inquiry
On 18 December 2023, I updated the House that the Government would appoint a group of clinical, legal and social care experts to advise the Cabinet Office on detailed technical considerations of responding to the infected blood inquiry’s recommendations on compensation.
Further to my December update, I am today pleased to announce the appointment of Professor Sir Jonathan Montgomery as chair of this expert group. Sir Jonathan will lead the expert group to provide me, the responsible Minister for the Government response to the infected blood inquiry, with technical advice on compensation.
Both my right hon. friend Earl Howe GBE and I have met separately with Sir Jonathan to discuss the technical advice the expert group will provide and are reassured that the group is working as quickly as possible to advise the Government in responding to the inquiry’s recommendations following the publication of the final report.
Sir Jonathan is an experienced healthcare law scholar who has played a leading role in UK public bioethics for many years, having previously chaired the Human Genetics Commission (2009-12), the Nuffield Council on Bioethics (2012-17) and the Health Research Authority (2012-19). Sir Jonathan is currently the chair of the Oxford University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust and professor of healthcare law at University College London. Sir Jonathan received a knighthood in 2019 for his services to bioethics and healthcare law.
Ensuring the victims of the infected blood scandal receive the justice and recognition they deserve remains my top priority and I look forward to working with Sir Jonathan and the expert advisory group to ensure that the Government have the relevant expertise to make informed choices in responding to the inquiry’s recommendations on compensation.
Home Responsibilities Protection: Corrective Exercise
The pensions Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard), and I can now announce that HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) has started to write to people whose national insurance records may be affected by some missing periods of home responsibilities protection, inviting them to apply to fill potential gaps and ensure that they receive the state pension entitlement they are due.
Home responsibilities protection was a scheme that ran between 6 April 1978 and 5 April 2010 which reduced the number of qualifying years of national insurance contributions a person with caring responsibilities needed to receive the full basic state pension.
The Government reported the findings of our investigations into some missing historical periods of home responsibilities protection in some individuals’ records, and the associated impact on state pension awards, in the Department for Work and Pensions annual report and accounts 2022-23 (HC 1455). The main cause of the issue was that NI numbers were not always recorded when customers claimed child benefit before 2000. The Government have estimated that around 210,000 individuals may have been affected by missing periods of home responsibilities protection.
HMRC and DWP are working together to correct cases as quickly as possible. HMRC started contacting potentially impacted customers from September 2023, prioritising those above state pension age. They aim to identify and contact the majority of individuals who may have been affected over the next 18 months so that those eligible receive any arrears payments as quickly as possible.
To correct this issue, potentially impacted customers will be invited to check their eligibility and make an application to HMRC for home responsibilities protection. To help individuals determine their eligibility, a self-identification tool is available on www.gov.uk. Where an application is successful, those with a state pension impact will have their award corrected and any arrears paid. HMRC and DWP will also trigger a wider communications campaign working with key stakeholders and representative bodies to ensure that all those who may be eligible are aware of this.
Before making an application, people can learn more about home responsibilities protection, check the eligibility criteria and find the application form online at www.gov.uk/home-responsibilities-protection-hrp/eligibility. Customers under state pension age can check their national insurance and state pension forecasts online at www.gov.uk/check-state-pension.
Schools and Colleges Condition Update
This update follows from my oral and written ministerial statements to the House in September, October and December 2023.
There are over 22,000 schools and colleges in England and the vast majority are unaffected by reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete. A final list of schools and colleges with confirmed cases of RAAC in England has been published today. There are 234 education settings, around 1%, with confirmed RAAC in some areas of their buildings.
Thanks to the hard work of school and college leaders, all schools and colleges with confirmed RAAC are providing full-time face-to-face education for all pupils.
The Government are funding the removal of RAAC present in schools and colleges either through grants, or through the school rebuilding programme. The longer-term requirements of each school or college will vary depending on the extent of the issue and nature and design of the buildings. Permanently removing RAAC may involve refurbishment of existing buildings or rebuilding affected buildings.
Today we have confirmed to schools and colleges how we will fund them to remove RAAC permanently. One hundred and nineteen schools are being included within the school rebuilding programme where works to remove RAAC are more extensive or complex. One hundred and ten schools and colleges will receive grant funding where works will typically be smaller in scale. Five schools and colleges have alternative arrangements in place, for example the building will not be part of the school or college estate over the longer term.
The Department for Education’s RAAC identification programme is complete, and the questionnaire has closed. All responsible bodies for schools and colleges with blocks built in the target era have submitted responses to the questionnaire.
Any school or college that advised us its suspects it might have RAAC has had a survey to confirm if RAAC is present. Other than the 234 education settings, the surveys found no evidence of RAAC. A small number of schools and colleges are carrying out additional checks for further assurance in some spaces. We are working with responsible bodies to support them to complete these additional checks as quickly as possible. As these final checks are completed, we expect the number of further cases to be very low. This has been the case over the last two months, when only three cases have been identified.
Our priority will always be to ensure the safety of pupils and staff, which is why we took a cautious approach for schools and colleges. Although the technical advice does not recommend removal in all cases where it is present, we have taken a precautionary approach for the education estate in England to remove RAAC.
Fire and Rescue Minimum Service Levels
The Government are today publishing our response to a recent public consultation on establishing minimum service levels on strike days for fire and rescue services. At the same time, the Government are laying regulations before Parliament setting out the services which should be provided on a strike day, together with the level of service to be provided.
The services that are provided by fire and rescue authorities are critical to the safety of the public, protection of property and the environment. It is therefore vital that these services are available to the public during strike action. We believe that the prescribed minimum service level balances the ability of workers to strike with the needs of the public to access these crucial services during strike periods.
Minimum service levels exist in a range of countries globally. The International Labour Organisation (an agency of the United Nations) recognises that this is justifiable for services where their interruption would endanger citizens’ lives, personal safety or health. Disruption to fire and rescue services puts lives at immediate risk.
The regulations address the uncertainty of relying on voluntary agreements with unions and arrangements for military or private contractors to provide firefighting capabilities by giving employers the power to issue work notices. This will increase public confidence in the service and better protect public safety during periods of industrial action.
All fire and rescue authorities (FRAs) in England will be subject to these regulations.
Under the regulations, the services included are control rooms, emergency incident response and fire safety. This will ensure that an FRA is able to answer all emergency calls and deploy suitable vehicles and equipment to respond to emergencies, and that serious fire safety issues can be managed while strikes are taking place. This may include deploying trained staff to crew national resilience assets, should they be required. This will ensure that the activities carried out on a strike day are those that are essential to public safety, and that they are prioritised as such.
On 20 July 2023, the Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Act 2023 received Royal Assent. The Act sets out the powers and processes required to deliver minimum service levels, beginning with a power for the Secretary of State to make regulations regarding which services should be in scope for minimum service levels, and the level of service which must be provided on a strike day. The Act also sets out that before any such regulations are made, the Secretary of State must consult with such persons as they consider appropriate. The Secretary of State for the Home Department held a public consultation for the fire and rescue sector between 9 February and 11 May 2023.
A copy of the consultation response, equality impact assessment and economic impact assessment will be placed in the Libraries of both Houses.
The consultation response has been published on www.gov.uk. The Government wish to thank everybody who took the time to provide feedback as part of the consultation process.