Elephants are one of the world’s most iconic and treasured species and their ivory should never be seen as a commodity for financial gain or a status symbol.
I am therefore glad that Ivory Act 2018 will introduce one of the world's toughest bans on ivory sales. This includes a ban on the purchase or hire of items containing elephant ivory and applies to UK exports and imports. The ban will cover items of all ages and the maximum available penalty for contravention will be an unlimited fine or up to five years in prison. The ban will also include certain narrowly defined exemptions for items that do not contribute to poaching, where a ban would be unwarranted.
Ministers will soon be taking the next steps to implement the relevant secondary legislation, in line with the Government's recent consultation response. I understand that progress on implementation was delayed by a legal challenge which the Government successfully defended. I welcome that the Government plans to implement the Ivory Act this winter, with the ban coming into force in spring 2022.
Further, ministers have also consulted separately on extending the Ivory Act to afford greater protections to a range of ivory-bearing species, including hippopotamuses and walruses, and I look forward to reading the Government's official response to this once this has been published.
I am also encouraged that since 2015, Defra has provided over £4.2 million in funding for Asian elephants living in the wild through the Darwin Initiative and the Illegal Wildlife Trade Challenge Fund. This includes funding towards a project seeking to reduce the illegal ivory trade in Cambodia, and a project supporting Nepal’s world-leading community anti-poaching efforts.
This ban will build on work to tackle poaching and the illegal ivory trade. I am pleased to have been elected on a manifesto which committed to banning the import of hunting trophies from endangered species and ministers intend to implement this, as well as end the advertising for sale in the UK of low welfare experiences abroad, through the upcoming Animals Abroad Bill.
Banning ivory sales will reaffirm the UK’s global leadership on this critical issue, demonstrating our belief that this abhorrent trade should become a thing of the past.
I warmly welcome the Prime Minister’s announcement that he, President Biden and Prime Minister Morrison have come to an agreement to create a new trilateral defence partnership and that Australia has taken the decision to acquire a fleet of nuclear-powered submarines.
Under the AUKUS alliance, the UK will enhance the development of joint capabilities and technology sharing, ensuring the UK’s people are kept safe from harm and reinforcing shared goals. It will foster deeper integration of security and defence-related science, technology, industrial bases, and supply chains, and represents a concrete articulation of the UK’s ambition made in the Government’s Integrated Review, namely, to strengthen defence, security, and foreign policy ties with like-minded allies across the globe and deepen ties in the Indo-Pacific.
As you might be aware, the first task of AUKUS will be to help Australia acquire a fleet of nuclear-powered submarines. Over the last 60 years, the UK has built and operated world-class nuclear-powered submarines and this project will draw on the expertise developed, creating hundreds of highly skilled jobs across the UK, including in Scotland, the north of England and the midlands, reinforcing our industrial base and our national scientific proficiency. It is important to emphasise that the submarines in question will be powered by nuclear reactors, not armed with nuclear weapons, and the UK’s work will be fully in line with the nuclear non-proliferation treaty.
One of the great prizes of this enterprise is that Australia, the UK, and the US will become inseparable partners in a project that will last for decades, creating opportunities for still greater defence and industrial co-operation.
Destroying Unsold Products
It is my understanding that my ministerial colleagues are aware of reports of Amazon destroying unsold products and are considering whether there needs to be a change in the law. The environment secretary, George Eustice MP, has said that the Government is also in talks with Amazon about these extraordinary findings.
Businesses that handle waste, including companies like Amazon, are obliged to follow the waste hierarchy, under the Waste Regulations 2011, which requires action to prevent waste as the priority option. Failure to meet the legal obligation to take all reasonable steps to apply these steps can lead to enforcement action from the Environment Agency in England.
It is imperative we end the throwaway culture and recycle more of our waste. I would like to assure constituents that I am committed to creating a more circular economy for our waste and resources, and by 2035 this Government aims to be recycling at least 65% of our municipal waste with a maximum of 10% going to landfill.
I understand that current regulations require the sellers of electrical equipment to offer a free take back service for waste electricals or join the Distributor Takeback Scheme to help fund local authority recycling services. Ministers are looking at the regulations to see how they can make sure all retailers take greater responsibility for electricals. This could include increased doorstep collections and strengthened takeback obligations placed on retailers and internet sellers.
More widely, through the 25 Year Environment Plan, this Government is committed to leaving the environment in a better state than they inherited it. Ministers will help do this by transforming the way we use our waste and resources, and by 2042 they want to have eliminated all avoidable plastic waste, with all avoidable waste being stopped by 2050.
Problem debt is often difficult to escape, and I know it can have a devastating impact on existing issues, including family problems and poor mental health. It is only right that people who fall into problem debt are helped to find a sustainable, long-lasting plan to solve their debt problems. I therefore welcome the action being taken to protect those who find themselves in problem debt through a new breathing space scheme.
This scheme will have two parts; a breathing space period and a statutory debt repayment plan. Together, these two aspects of the scheme will protect debtors from creditor action, help them get professional advice on their debt problems, and help them pay off their debts in a sustainable way. My colleagues in the Treasury have already started work on this scheme by investing an additional £12.5 million in throughout 2020-21, in order to implement breathing spaces as soon as possible.
I also welcome that, in March 2020, the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy secured an agreement with energy companies in order to support households impacted by the pandemic. The agreement saw that based on individual circumstances companies would reassess, reduce or pause debt repayments for those in financial distress. Companies also agreed to refer customers who were struggling to pay their bills to third party debt advisors.
Debt Relief Orders (DROs) are valuable tools which provide relief to those with low levels of unmanageable debt, limited assets and minimal surplus income. A DRO is designed to be an easily accessible means of managing debt, delivered in partnership with the professional debt advice sector to protect people from creditor action. After 12 months, all debt within the order is written off.
I welcome Government plans to increase the financial eligibility criteria for DROs to ensure that vulnerable people are helped in getting to grips with problem debt. I know my Ministerial colleagues are committed to ensuring that this help reaches as many people as possible, and I will continue to engage with them on this matter.
Budgeting is one of those things that we do not talk enough about. There are many agencies who can help, and in December 2020 I met with Ben Warrender from Christians Against Poverty who has been running some online courses on debt management. On a local level, I am currently working with the organisation to recruit volunteers in Ilfracombe.
I was also able to speak in the recent Westminster Hall debate on the "Effect of the Covid 19 outbreak on household debt", which you can find here: www.selainesaxby.org.uk/news/effect-covid-19-outbreak-household-debt
Parliamentary Scrutiny of Future Free Trade Agreements
I welcome the Secretary of State for International Trade’s announcement regarding the shape of arrangements for the scrutiny of international trade agreements.
Beginning with the UK-Japan Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement, the House of Commons’ International Trade Committee and House of Lords’ International Agreements Sub-Committee has received advanced copies of trade agreements. I also welcome the Government’s assurance that it will endeavour to ensure that these committees have at least 10 sitting days to examine the texts of trade deals.
The Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010 provides the legislative framework by which international agreements are scrutinised by Parliament. Under the Act, the Government must lay any agreement before Parliament for 21 sitting days and provide explanation of the treaty’s provisions and the reasons for seeking ratification. If Parliament is not willing to support a particular agreement, it can resolve against ratification and indefinitely delay any primary or secondary legislation which would implement an agreement.
I am glad that the Trade and Agriculture Commission is on a statutory footing and that the body will produce a report, to be laid in Parliament at the start of each 21 day scrutiny period, on the impact on animal welfare and agriculture arising from each new free trade deal.
As the UK continues to redevelop its trade policy capacity following our exit from the European Union, I am very pleased to see increased engagement between the Government, Parliament and other interested parties to develop and strengthen means of scrutinising future trade agreements.
Australia Trade Deal
Australia is one of the UK’s closest allies. We share a head of state, the same language and the same values. Our people also enjoy deep and historic links of kinship and friendship, arguably unlike any other two nations.
I believe a trade deal with Australia is an enormous opportunity for the UK. We are Australia’s second largest trading partner outside the Asia-Pacific and trade between our two countries was worth £18.8 billion in 2019.
I appreciate that there are some concerns about the impact of a trade deal with Australia and its effect on food standards in particular. I can assure you that our food standards will never be lowered in pursuit of a trade deal and our farmers will not be undercut by this deal. Our world-leading animal welfare standards will be upheld throughout our trade negotiations and the Trade and Agriculture Commission will provide independent scrutiny of animal welfare in trade deals.
Analysis suggests that UK exports to Australia could increase by up to £900 million if a trade deal is agreed. A deal would remove tariffs on all UK exports to Australia and create new provisions on digital, mobility, services, investment and procurement, bringing new opportunities for the whole country. I can also assure you that Parliament will scrutinise any deal in the usual way.
Global demand for meat is increasing rapidly. Meat consumption is projected to rise by nearly 73% by 2050 and free trade agreements create huge new export opportunities for farmers. Demand is growing in the Asia-Pacific. The deal with Australia is also a gateway to joining CPTPP, a group of high-standards Pacific nations.
Any changes for sensitive goods such as beef and lamb can be staged with a transition of 10 to 15 years the norm for trade deals with Australia. This means 10 to 15 years before we have the same zero tariff and zero quota arrangement with Australia that we currently have with the EU, a market which is only 31 miles from the Great Britain while Australia is nearly 9,500 miles away.
Maintaining high food standards is a red line in the UK’s trade negotiations. Australia has one of the highest animal welfare standards in the world, similar to our own, and scoring five out of five by the World Organisation of Animal Health (OIE). The practices of castration of chickens and production of foie gras, for example, are banned in Australia on welfare grounds but continue to be permitted in the EU.
On hormone-fed beef specifically, it is banned in the UK and will not be allowed to enter the UK market. This will not change under any FTA. Compromising on the high food standards we enjoy in the UK is red line in our trade negotiations, and the UK will never allow it.
The UK-EU Trade Deal and Import Duty
The Government was always clear that the UK would be leaving the single market and the customs union, and I support this position as it was a Conservative Party manifesto commitment. The UK and the EU are now in different customs territories and there are, inevitably, changes to procedures at the border.
In order to help smaller businesses adjust to new customs rules, such as VAT and rules of origin, a £20 million SME Brexit Support Fund has been announced. Businesses will be able to apply for a grant of up to £2,000 to pay for practical support and professional advice on trading with the EU. Customs procedures are also being introduced in three stages from January in order to provide time for traders to adapt to new customs arrangements.
The 'zero tariff' nature of the UK-EU Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA) refers to the absence of charges on classes of imports and exports rather than excise duties charged to consumers for specific commodities. These duties operate independently of the TCA’s provisions for trade liberalisation on tariffs and quotas.
Regarding concerns relating to the registration and the collection of VAT on behalf of HMRC, I understand that HMRC published clear guidance on how EU based businesses could be ready to trade with the UK this year, and that this guidance is still available at https://www.gov.uk/eubusiness.
It is correct that if a business is based outside the UK, it must pay import VAT on parcels sold to UK buyers if the goods are worth £135 or less to UK buyers. If selling goods sent in parcels worth over £135, the import VAT, Customs Duty, and Excise Duty where applicable, should be paid by the UK buyer and collected by the parcel operator. This ensures that goods from EU and non-EU countries are treated in the same way and that UK businesses are not disadvantaged by competition from VAT free imports.
When bringing goods into Great Britain from outside the UK, a personal allowance enables a certain amount of these goods to be brought in without incurring duties, so long as they are self-transported and either for personal use or to be given as a gift.
Regulation of Online Market Places
I am familiar with Electrical Safety First's campaign for better regulation of online marketplaces. The UK has a strong product safety system to ensure products are safe before they can enter the market, and this includes products sold online.
I understand the concerns regarding this issue, and I take the problem of counterfeit electrical goods seriously. It is therefore welcome that the Government is working across the industry and with law enforcement colleagues on a number of initiatives to tackle this issue. You may also welcome the fact that officials in government are working with representatives from online platforms to discuss the availability of counterfeits on their platforms. Action is also underway to ensure a co-ordinated law enforcement response against the sellers of these counterfeits.
In addition to this action, the Office for Product Safety and Standards (OPSS) is reviewing product safety legislation to make sure the existing legislative framework is adequate. This is due to changes in traditional supply and distribution chains as a result of e-commerce.
I will continue to follow the developments in this area and, in particular, the OPSS review into the current product safety legislative framework. This is an important issue, and the Coronavirus pandemic has highlighted how more and more consumers are relying on e-commerce.
Northern Ireland Protocol
There has been evidence of disruption to Northern Ireland since the Northern Ireland Protocol became operational on 1 January. These issues are having a direct and disproportionate impact on the lives of people in Northern Ireland.
The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, Michael Gove, wrote to the European Commission Vice-President, Maros Sefcovic, on 2 February outlining his concerns. Michael Gove also set out the need to extend the current grace period on controls for supermarkets and their suppliers, as well as for parcel deliveries, in addition to other solutions. Although the Government pressed for an agreement to be reached that week, the EU has been unable to agree to solutions which I believe would ease the burden on the lives of people in Northern Ireland.
With the current grace period on controls due to end this month (March), the UK has decided to extend the grace period after notifying the EU of its intentions at official-level. The extension is a temporary and technical step designed to allow time for discussions between the UK and the EU to continue, while minimising the consequences for Northern Ireland. I believe a failure to extend the grace period combined with the introduction of new controls would have an unacceptable impact on the people of Northern Ireland.
I am disappointed by the European Commission and European Parliament’s reaction to the extension. The Commission itself sought, in February, to unilaterally override the Protocol and introduce controls at the border between Northern Ireland and Republic of Ireland. It is clear to me that there are pressing issues to be resolved if the Belfast Agreement is to be protected and the Protocol to last.
Support for Hospitality
With regard to the Westminster Hall debate that took place on Monday 11 January, I am pleased that the Minister recognised the importance of the hospitality sector, as hospitality businesses are often at the heart of communities. They provide jobs and places to enjoy companionship, leading to support of mental health and wellbeing, social cohesion and cultural integration.
I know that many hospitality businesses here in North Devon are experiencing serious challenges as a result of the Covid-19 outbreak, and I welcome the publication of the Prime Minister's roadmap to recovery which gives hospitality businesses the clarity they need to prepare for reopening in the months ahead. This is a huge step forward from the existing restrictions.
To help support hospitality businesses through this difficult time, I welcome that decisive action has been taken and businesses have benefited from a combination of grants, funds, Government-backed loans and a business rates holiday. The Chancellor has confirmed that the business rates relief that enabled businesses to pay no business rates for the 2020-1 financial year was extended in the 2021 Budget. As such, the Government will continue to provide eligible retail, hospitality and leisure properties in England with 100% business rates relief from 1 April 2021 to 30 June 2021. This will be followed by 66% business rates relief for the period from 1 July 2021 to 31 March 2022, capped at £2 million per business for properties that were required to be closed on 5 January 2021, or £105,000 per business for other eligible properties.
Eligible closed hospitality businesses may receive grants of up to £3,000 per month. Furthermore, in light of the England-wide restrictions, the Chancellor has announced additional grants for closed businesses in the retail, hospitality and leisure sector of up to £9,000. In the 2021 Budget, this went further and eligible businesses in the hospitality sector will receive a one off Restart Grant of up to £18,000 to give these businesses the cash certainty they need to plan ahead and safely relaunch trading over the coming months.
In addition, the Chancellor listened to the calls from the hospitality sector to keep the temporary reduction in VAT (5% from 20%) for hospitality and tourism businesses, which had previously been extended until 31 March 2021, in place until 30 September 2021 when it will change to 12.5% for the remaining six months until 31 March 2022.
I know that the Chancellor is keeping the situation under close review to ensure that the most effective support can be made available when necessary.
Access To Cash
I have spoken with my colleagues at the Treasury who assure me that in these difficult times, they have by no means forgotten that cash remains extremely important, and in many cases a necessity, in the daily lives of millions of people around the country. The Treasury is committed to protecting access to cash for those who need it and I welcome that Government published a Call for Evidence on 15 October 2020 seeking views on protecting cash access, including deposit and withdrawal facilities, cash acceptance, and regulatory oversight of the cash system. The Call for Evidence closed on the 25 November 2020 and I look forward to seeing the Government’s response in due course.
In terms of the future, although schemes such as Community Access to Cash have been very successful, I welcomed the news announced in March that legislation will be brought forward to protect access to cash, and more recently that the Government intends to make cashback widely available at shops without consumers having to make a purchase. This legislation will be drawn up with the engagement of not only the Payment Systems Regulator, Financial Conduct Authority and Bank of England, but also stakeholders across industry. I hope that this engagement and the call for evidence will ensure the needs of cash users are understood and continue to be met by industry, including large and small retailers.
I continue to work closely with the Association of Convenience Stores who are also committed to ensuring cash remains available to our rural communities and beyond.
Military Exports: Saudi Arabia
In accordance with the Court of Appeal's judgement in June 2019, the Secretary of State for International Trade has now retaken licensing decisions regarding military exports to Saudi Arabia for possible use in the conflict in Yemen on the correct legal basis.
New licence applications will be assessed against a revised methodology, which evaluates whether there is a clear risk that the equipment might be used in the commission of a serious violation of International Humanitarian Law. On this basis, I understand ministers are now in a position to begin the process of addressing licence applications for Saudi Arabia and its coalition partners again. I have been assured that each application will be carefully assessed against the Consolidated EU and National Arms Export Licensing Criteria and that a licence will not be granted if to do so would be a breach of the criteria.
Food Standards and International Trade
Our manifesto is clear that in all of our trade negotiations, we will not compromise on our high environmental protection, animal welfare and food standards.
We remain firmly committed to upholding our high environmental protection, food safety and animal welfare standards outside the EU and the EU Withdrawal Act will transfer existing EU food safety provisions, including existing import requirements, onto the UK statute book.
These import standards include a ban on using artificial growth hormones in domestic and imported products and set out that no products, other than potable water, are approved to decontaminate poultry carcasses. Any changes to existing food safety legislation would require new legislation to be brought before this Parliament.
The UK’s food standards, for both domestic production and imports, are overseen by the Food Standards Agency and Food Standards Scotland. These are independent agencies and provide advice to the UK and Scottish Governments. They will continue to do so in order to ensure that all food imports comply with the UK’s high safety standards. Decisions on these standards are a matter for the UK and will be made separately from any trade agreement.
We consult the food and farming industry when we are putting tariff and market access offers together. This is done via our new agri-food Trade Advisory Group – comprised of senior figures from across the industry. The group receives highly sensitive details at regular stages of each negotiation and provides expert advice to help negotiators strike the best deals for consumers and farmers. This helps ensure that nothing we agree undermines standards.
As an independent trading nation, we will be taking a fiercely values-driven approach to trade policy, which includes defending, championing and promoting high standards around the world in areas like food, animal welfare, the environment and human rights.
We are bringing together a coalition of like-minded nations to advance high standards worldwide, from food and animal welfare to the environment and data.
As part of its work, the Trade and Agriculture Commission will be advising the government on how it can build a coalition of countries to advance higher animal welfare standards.
We want trade deals that open new opportunities for farmers to sell their brilliant products – including to some of the world’s biggest consumer markets in the Americas and the Pacific – while protecting British consumers as well as British agriculture and its high standards. If we don’t think a deal achieves that, we will walk away.
Parliament plays a vital role in scrutinising our trade policy. We have robust and transparent scrutiny arrangements that allow Parliament to hold the government to account and understand whether it has kept its promises on issues like standards.
We provide extensive information to Parliament on our negotiations, including publishing our objectives and economic scoping assessments prior to the start of talks.
Once a deal is agreed, we share the text of each deal with the relevant Lords and Commons committees in advance it being laid before Parliament. They also receive a full, independently verified impact assessment and have the option to produce independent reports on each agreement.
Parliament will also receive an explanatory memorandum and a final impact assessment.
The final text is then laid before Parliament under the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act (CRaG), where MPs have three weeks to scrutinise the detail and have the option to hold a debate.
Under CRaG, Parliament can indefinitely delay the ratification of the deal, in effect providing a veto (because it becomes clear to the government and other countries that the deal can’t be implemented).
Our scrutiny arrangements go at least as far as other Parliamentary democracies with a comparable constitutional set-up (Japan, Canada, Australia), and in many cases go considerably further.
To improve the scrutiny of trade deals, we are extending the Trade and Agriculture Commission (TAC) and putting it on a statutory footing, giving farmers a stronger voice in UK trade policy.
It will be put on a statutory footing in the Trade Bill, reviewed every three years.
It will produce a report on the impact on animal welfare and agriculture of each free trade deal the government signs after 1 January 2021. This report will be laid in Parliament before the start of the 21-day scrutiny period under the terms of the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act.
We also introduced a section to the Agriculture Act to bolster parliamentary scrutiny of free trade agreements, by introducing a new duty for the Secretary of State to report to Parliament on whether, or to what extent, commitments in new Free Trade Agreements (FTAs), relating to agricultural goods, are consistent with maintaining UK levels of statutory protection in relation to environmental protection, animal welfare and food standards. These reports will need to be laid before new FTAs may be laid in Parliament for ratification. This was approved by both Houses of Parliament and forms part of the Agriculture Act 2020.
The Commission, set up in July, will continue with the report it is currently producing.
That report will advise on:
- Trade policies the Government should adopt to secure opportunities for UK farmers, to ensure that animal welfare, food production and environmental standards are not undermined and to identify new export opportunities.
- Advancing and protecting British consumer interests and those of developing countries.
- How the UK engages the World Trade Organization to build a coalition that helps advance higher animal welfare standards across the world.
- Developing trade policy that identifies and opens up new export opportunities for the UK agricultural industry – in particular for small and medium sized enterprises – and that benefits the UK economy as a whole.
The Commission published an interim progress report on 5 November 2020, and the full report will be published in February 2021 and presented to Parliament.
Pub Take Outs
I share your concern about the future of pubs and the hardship caused by the coronavirus outbreak. It is clear the economic effects of fighting Covid-19 last longer for businesses than the duration of any given restrictions, and we need to go further with our support.
The new one-off grants which you refer to come in addition to billions of pounds of existing business support, including grants worth up to £3,000 for closed businesses, and up to £2,100 per month for impacted businesses once they reopen.
While it remains the case that hospitality venues must close, it is my understanding that they may still provide a takeaway service for food and non-alcoholic drinks until 11pm. If pubs choose to offer a delivery service, they may provide alcohol. While the sale of takeaway alcohol has been permitted under previous restrictions, I understand that the Government is concerned about the impact that this could have on facilitating the unlawful gathering of individuals outside of pubs, even if the drink containers were closed at the point of sale.
I understand that in the previous lockdowns we did not see unlawful gatherings due to pubs selling takeaway alcohol here in North Devon, however having spoken with fellow Devon MPs it is clear that this was an issue in other parts of the county, especially in Plymouth, and at this time there needs to be nationwide restrictions to curb the spread of the virus.
Trade Bill Amendments
I agree that Parliament should be able to scrutinise trade policy and free trade agreements. It has an important role in debating and scrutinising the Government’s domestic and foreign policies.
That is why I am glad that the Government has made a number of important steps in enhancing Parliamentary scrutiny of trade policy. This includes sharing extensive and comprehensive information with Parliament ahead of negotiations with the United States, Australia, New Zealand and Japan.
Public consultations have and will continue to be held prior to negotiations to inform the Government's approach. Ministers have also published their negotiating objectives prior to the start of trade talks and held open briefings for MPs and Peers.
Regular updates are provided to Parliament on the progress of negotiations and I know that my Ministerial colleagues at the Department for International Trade will also be engaging closely with the International Trade Committee and the Lords International Agreements Committee as negotiations progress.
There is also some concern, however, that the amendment made in the House of Lords could place restrictions on the Government’s ability to enter into treaty negotiations and to ratify treaties. Ministers have said that giving Parliament a veto over negotiating objectives would curtail the royal prerogative and would limit the flexibility to negotiate in the best interests of the UK.
The Government has told MPs that it is committed to a transparent trade policy with comprehensive engagement with Parliament. While I cannot support the amendment for the reasons mentioned above, please rest assured that I will press Ministers to ensure that Parliamentarians have the opportunity to scrutinise new trade policy in detail in the future.
Cut Fuel Duty
As you may be aware, a continuation of the freeze of fuel duty was promised during the election campaign. I welcome the fact that the decision to freeze fuel duty for ten consecutive years has saved the average driver over £1,000. I am confident that we can build on this legacy, so that ordinary hardworking people can keep more of their money. However, it is worth noting that the fuel duty freeze comes at significant costs to the Exchequer, and that £67bn has been spent on freezing fuel duty and another £46bn will be spent by the end of 2025.
I have conveyed your comments on fuel duty to my colleagues at the Treasury, who assure me that all elements of taxation, including the various reliefs associated with any given tax, are kept under constant review. Any changes to fuel duty would be considered as part of the normal process leading up to the next Budget, and it has been announced that there will be no Budget this autumn.
My colleagues at the Treasury have also emphasised that any future fuel duty rates will be considered alongside measures that are needed to help meet the UK’s net zero commitment.
Beer Duty and Pubs
As a member of the All Party Parliamentary Group for Beer, I agree that this is an important issue and I am continuing to engage regularly with industry stakeholders. I am working with colleagues across all parties to secure the future of our local pubs.
I welcome the new measures put in place to help businesses across the country, particularly pubs. It is reassuring that no pub or other business in the hospitality sector will be required to pay business rates this year. Local authorities will apply the rates relief automatically and no action is required by pub rate payers.
I also welcome the temporary cut to VAT from 20 per cent to 5 per cent for all food and non-alcoholic drinks, which initially applied from 15 July 2020 to 12 January 2021, but has been extended to 31 March 2021. This will continue to support restaurants, pubs, bars, cafés and similar premises across the UK. The Eat Out to Help Out scheme has supported thousands of businesses and help protect the jobs of over a million employees. Pubs, restaurants and others that participated will be fully reimbursed for the discount by the Government.
In 2013, the Government took the decision to end the beer duty escalator, and beer duty has been frozen or cut several times since then. Duty on spirits has been frozen over the past two years. As a result of these changes, a typical pint is cheaper than it would have been had these measures not been introduced. I share your concern about the future of pubs and the hardship caused by the coronavirus outbreak. The steps taken by HMRC to make it easier to claim back the duty on any beer thrown away as a result of pub closures were a timely and sensible intervention.
I welcomed the announcement that for only the second time in 20 years every alcohol duty has been frozen, meaning that this freeze covers duty on spirits, beer, wine, and cider.
I want to see the Government continue to support pubs and keep costs down for consumers. Any decision to modify alcohol duty in the future is a matter for the Treasury. I have ensured my colleagues are aware of the points you raise and reminded them of the importance of local pubs in our communities. There is a broad recognition of the need to reform the current duty system to support the alcoholic drinks and pubs sector in the longer term, and a call for evidence is due to be published before the end of 2020.
I am also excited about the launch of my Parliamentary Pub of the Year Award which looks to recognise some of the amazing pubs we have in North Devon. To learn more about the awards please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Internal Market Bill
First, I want to explain why I believe this legislation is necessary. The European Union has raised the prospect of the UK not being included on its list of ‘third countries’ who are able to export food to the European Union. Given the special position that Northern Ireland will inhabit as a consequence of the Withdrawal Agreement, this could mean preventing food exports from Great Britain to Northern Ireland. No self-respecting sovereign state could ever accept that.
Given the UK’s existing food standards being amongst the best in the world, it is ludicrous that the EU would even raise the prospect of excluding the UK from a list of ‘third countries’. This is what has fuelled the Government’s concern that the EU might not be negotiating in good faith as it is required to do under the terms of the Withdrawal Agreement. That would constitute a breach of international law.
Consequently, the Government have sought to take action to protect Northern Ireland should the EU follow through on their threat. It is true, but only if enacted, the provisions of the Bill pertinent to Northern Ireland would breach the Withdrawal Agreement and therefore international law. However, those provisions would only ever be triggered in response to the EU itself breaching international law through a breach of the good faith articles of the Agreement.
At Second Reading, a number of colleagues, including myself, expressed their reservations about the Bill. The Government has therefore decided to table an amendment to the Bill which would require the House of Commons to approve the triggering of the provisions which would break international law. The Government have also given further assurances that they will pursue the formal disputes process outlined in the Withdrawal Agreement if they have to ask the House of Commons to approve the use of the provisions above. This underlines the fact that these powers are to be kept in reserve in the event that the EU prevents, or unnecessarily impedes, exports to Northern Ireland. It is a last resort and the Government is continuing to negotiate with the EU about the terms of a future trade agreement.
The conditions under which the Government would consider triggering the provisions of the Bill have been published here: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/government-statement-on-notwithstanding-clauses/government-statement-on-notwithstanding-clauses.
Some constituents have asked why I voted for the Withdrawal Agreement in the first place if I am willing to support the potential breaking of that agreement. The Withdrawal Agreement places legal obligations on both the EU and the UK; this legislation is there to protect the Union if the EU breaches its good faith obligations. I do not think it was foreseeable that the EU might consider breaching their legal obligations, but we must now be prepared for that eventuality.
Second, many constituents have said that we should never contemplate breaking international law. In the vast majority of cases, I agree. However, in this context, the UK’s breach of international law would be in direct response to the EU doing the same. On a moral and reputational level, I think that a ‘retaliatory’ breach of international law, whilst regrettable and a last resort, is justifiable.
Third, some have pointed to the view of other MPs who said they could not support this legislation. I have consulted a wide range of colleagues with legal backgrounds and there is a broad spectrum of opinion. I am glad that following the Government’s assurances, many colleagues are now supporting the Bill who previously declined to support the Bill at Second Reading.
This is why I believe we need the Internal Market Bill and why I will continue to support it. I appreciate that some constituents will still not agree with me and that is inevitable. However, I am happy to respond to any further concerns you may have.
VAT on Sunscreen
I completely agree with you that people need to afford to be able to protect themselves. Using a good quality sun cream with both a high sun protection factor (SPF) and at least a four star UVA protection is an essential part of protecting ourselves from the sun.
However, not all sunscreen products are recognised as having a health benefit and the factor level necessary for adequate protection is a matter of contention. Exempting all sunscreen from VAT would not necessarily lead to people being better protected. However, VAT rules do allow drugs and medications dispensed by registered pharmacists against a prescription issued by a qualified health professional to be zero rated for VAT. This means that high-factor sunscreen is on the NHS prescription list for certain conditions and provided VAT free when dispensed by a pharmacist to patients.
Saudi Arms Exports
The decision to resume arms sales to Saudi Arabia has been taken in line with the Consolidated EU and National Arms Export Licensing Criteria. This means that the Government believes that any goods exported to Saudi Arabia will not be used for internal repression or in the commission of a serious violation of international humanitarian law.
We have some of the strictest arms export criteria in the world, and I am satisfied that the Government have acted in line with that. I reviewed the contributions made during the recent Urgent Question on the resumption of exports, and I will continue to follow this issue.
I have received a large amount of correspondence from constituents concerned about the Trade Bill, and I was asked to support a number of amendments. I did not vote for any of the amendments to the Bill, and I will explain why below. Contrary to the claims made by some, this does not mean that I support lower food standards or NHS privatisation.
New Clause 4 (NC4). I voted against this for a number of reasons but primarily because I am satisfied with the existing powers available to me as an MP in scrutinising trade deals. These powers include the right to block a treaty from being ratified and the right to block any primary legislation required to implement a free trade agreement.
New Clause 7 (NC7). My position on the protection of standards, whether they are domestic production or import standards, is available on my website (https://www.selainesaxby.org.uk/environment-food-and-rural-affairs). However, our current import standards will prevent the importation of inferior food products such as chlorine-washed chicken and hormone-fed beef. Following multiple conversations with Ministers, I have been assured that this will not change.
New Clause 8 and New Clause 17 (NC8 and NC17). The NHS must remain publicly owned and free at the point of use. The Government has been very clear about these important principles. When we are negotiating trade deals, the NHS will not be on the table. The price the NHS pays for drugs will not be on the table. The services the NHS provides will not be on the table. The Trade Bill is designed to provide continuity for existing trade agreements, and it cannot be used to implement new free trade agreements, e.g. with the United States. It was absolutely not about the content of future trade deals and the future of the NHS, and it is misleading to claim otherwise, and this amendment was therefore unnecessary.
New Clause 11 (NC11). This amendment was similar to a previous amendment to the Agriculture Bill and I have provided an explanation of my position on my website (https://www.selainesaxby.org.uk/environment-food-and-rural-affairs). However, as with my explanation of my vote on NC7, I will not support lower standards. Further, this amendment would have likely led to serious disruption of our food supply chains, including for domestic manufacturers.
I hope that this makes my position clear, I always vote in what I believe to be the best interests of my constituents.
I do understand why people question why I would not vote for certain opposition amendments but they rarely, if ever, propose something that would make the Bill better. We are, after all, making law and not ‘virtue signalling’ for the benefit of social media. If an opposition amendment were thought to be beneficial to any Bill then it would be considered for adoption by the Government.
In general, opposition amendments are put forward so that Government MPs will vote against them, giving the opposition a stick with which to beat the Government and its MPs with. This is often the way with Punch and Judy politics which we are all guilty of at times.
I do hope however that a greater understanding of the context of the way these opposition amendments work may help curtail some of the anger and frustration that seems to constantly fuel online anxiety and sadly, on occasion, abuse against MPs of all parties across the country.
We are a nation of animal lovers, so it is only right that we have some of the highest welfare standards in the world. In addition to fur farming being banned in the UK, I am pleased to note that the import of fur products is tightly regulated. It is illegal to import furs derived from cats or dogs, or products made from them. In addition, the fur and skin of endangered animals or fish cannot be imported without a valid permit.
As well as this, it is prohibited to import furs or fur products from 13 wild animal species originating in countries where they are caught in the wild by leg-hold traps, or trapping methods that do not meet international standards of humane trapping. Strict rules are also in place to ensure that animals kept for fur production are kept, trapped and slaughtered humanely.
I appreciate that there is considerable support for banning all imports of fur products. The UK continues to support higher animal welfare standards worldwide as the best way of phasing out cruel and inhumane fur farming and trapping practices that are banned here. Now we have left the EU, the Government has retained all the current regulations banning imports of cat and dog fur and seal products from commercial hunts, as well as controls on products from endangered species and humane trapping. Until the end of the transition period it is not possible to introduce additional restrictions on the fur trade, but at the end of that period the UK will have a unique opportunity to ensure we have the highest standards in every area of animal welfare.
The UK will also be able to press for high standards through international forums such as the World Organisation for Animal Health, CITES and others. The UK will retake our seat on these bodies and be able more effectively to promote and support improved animal welfare standards internationally.
Investor-State Dispute Settlement (ISDS)
The inclusion of investment protection provisions and associated ISDS mechanisms in trade agreements helps protect UK investors, both large and small, from discriminatory or unfair treatment by a state.
These kind of provisions are already in place within over 90 bilateral investment treaties between the UK and other countries, helping safeguard the interests of UK businesses trading across the globe. Despite the UK’s participation in these agreements there has never been a successful ISDS claim made against the UK and nor has the threat of potential disputes affected the Government’s legislative programme.
The UK will continue to ensure that the NHS is protected in all trade agreements it is party to, whether transitioned from an EU context or as a result of new negotiations. I have been reassured that the UK's future approach to investment policy will continue to protect our right to regulate in the public interest, including in relation to healthcare, climate change and environmental objectives.
Coronavirus and Bailouts
These are incredibly difficult times for the country and while it is paramount to protect jobs and the economy, questions are also being asked about the way the country does business. I have raised the points you mention with colleagues in the Treasury, including about supporting a green recovery.
As we recover from Covid-19, the Government needs to deliver an economy which is stronger, greener, more sustainable and more resilient. No government could expect to have all the answers itself. I was therefore pleased that, in June, the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy launched five new ‘recovery roundtables’ bringing together businesses, business representative groups and leading academics, to unleash Britain’s growth potential and help the economy recover from the pandemic. The group will focus on: the future of industry; a green recovery; backing new businesses; increasing opportunity; and winning more high value investment in the UK.
I know questions have been raised about support for certain sectors. In the case of airlines, for example, firms can draw upon a range of financial support during this challenging time, including billions of pounds worth of loans and guarantees, tax deferrals and the furlough scheme for workers. The ministerial-led international aviation taskforce is looking at the best ways to support the industry, recognising the unique challenges they are facing. Rightly, any potential intervention would need to represent value for money for taxpayers.
In exceptional circumstances, where a viable company has exhausted all options and its failure would disproportionately harm the economy, the Government may consider support on a ‘last resort’ basis. As constituents would expect, sensible contingency planning has been put in place and any such support would be on terms that protect the taxpayer.