House of Commons
Monday 26 January 2015
The House met at half-past Two o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
Work and Pensions
The Secretary of State was asked—
Innovation Fund for Young People
I set up the £30 million innovation fund four years ago to test cutting-edge projects for helping disadvantaged young people: some of those most at risk of becoming NEET—not in education, employment or training—or falling in with gangs. Using social impact bonds, these projects are now proving they can deliver a return on the investment; 16,600 positive educational and employment outcomes have been achieved, each one an improvement in a young person’s prospects.
The interesting thing about this development, which I hope has support on both sides of the House, is that these social investment bonds have advanced dramatically in the past four years, making the UK now a world leader in this, with lots of different Governments coming to ask how to implement it. With the tax relief that we have granted to social investment bonds, the future funding in many of these projects will involve more and more decisions being able to be taken by local government; it will be able to set individual projects up and fund them, without recourse to government, but with a return. So we will be paying for things that happen rather than things that might happen—that is the key.
But ending the wage incentive part of the Youth Contract eight months early was a tacit admission of its failure. Only 10,000 young people completed the contract, whereas 160,000 were budgeted for. Can the Secretary of State tell us what went wrong?
What went wrong was the Youth Contract, full stop. The money used for the Youth Contract actually went to invest in people who had greatest disadvantage, and when we set up our other programmes, including the Work programme, we outperformed anything the Youth Contract had. Furthermore, work experience was not available to young people under the previous Government for any great length of time, whereas we have had more than 50% of people on those work experience programmes go back to work. More young people are in work now than when we came into office; they were left by the disaster of the previous Government.
Young people remain at a distinct disadvantage in the labour market. The statistics published last week show that for the third month in a row overall unemployment came down but youth unemployment rose. Does the Secretary of State have any new proposals to tackle this problem of currently rising youth unemployment?
I do not know whether the right hon. Gentleman has actually looked at the figures correctly. He will find that under this Government youth unemployment has fallen; there are now more young people in work; and youth unemployment is at a lower level than the previous Government left us in 2010, after they crashed the economy. I might also remind him that they used to put young people on short-term programmes. As soon as they did that, they took them off the register and started them as though they had begun looking for work then, rather than being six months in. The previous Government gerrymandered the figures and they still failed.
At the time of the general election the rate of youth unemployment was two and a half times the overall level of unemployment. Since then, the relative position of young people has steadily worsened, to the point where last week the youth unemployment rate was 2.9 times the overall rate of unemployment. Judging by his answer, the Secretary of State may not have noticed that youth unemployment is currently going up. Is it not now high time for a compulsory job guarantee, so that young people have the chance of a job at the start of what should be their working lives, instead of spending years on unemployment benefit?
The reality is quite different from that set out by the right hon. Gentleman. Youth unemployment is down 171,000 on the year—nearly a fifth; 7.1% of all young people are unemployed and not in full-time education; and the number of young people on jobseeker’s allowance has fallen every month for that past three years. The truth about this is quite the opposite to that he suggests. The previous Government left us with young people unable to get work experience and unable to get jobs, and a real stagnation problem, with young people not being able to get the skills necessary. Youth unemployment is now falling. Youth employment is rising—[Interruption.] No; since the last Parliament youth unemployment has fallen. Youth employment is rising. Once in a while it would be nice if the right hon. Gentleman got up and said, “You know what, the last Government got it wrong. Thank you for getting it right.”
Mental Health (Employment Opportunities)
The Government are committed to helping people with mental health problems into work. We are piloting a number of innovative approaches to employment support for those with mental health problems, and the Access to Work mental health support service can help people with a mental health condition who are absent from work or who are finding it difficult to get back into work.
I am pleased that my hon. Friend mentions the Disability Confident campaign. I have invited Members from both sides of the House to talk about Disability Confident at an event in the House on Wednesday. Specifically on mental health, I had the privilege last Thursday to visit the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham) and to meet with the work coaches in the jobcentre and with those who have been on some of our pilot programmes to hear about the success we have had in encouraging people with a mental health problem to get back into work, or to avoid having one in the first place.
Will the Minister join me in recognising the importance of the voluntary sector in helping those with mental health issues to get back into work? Organisations such as Relate in my constituency work tirelessly to improve mental health and provide vital counselling that allows people to get back into work and progress with their careers.
I am happy to pay tribute to organisations such as the one my hon. Friend has just mentioned. The important thing is to have a proper partnership with Jobcentre Plus, voluntary and third-sector organisations, the NHS and employers working together to ensure that we stop people from falling out of work if they develop a mental health problem, and that they can get back into work if they do so.
I cannot be the only person in the House today who finds it utterly heartbreaking when people come to their surgery unable to find work. Those people are often more than capable of working but, because of a fear of stigmatisation and an absence of support, they are unable to find that work. I praise the hon. Member for Fylde (Mark Menzies) for setting an example in this area. Following on from the good work of Waitrose and Tesco, can we not do more in this House to set an example, because we are after all a major employer?
The hon. Gentleman is right. One thing we are doing through our Disability Confident campaign is ensuring that employers are aware not only of those with physical disabilities but of those with mental health problems. There was, for a period, a statutory bar on Members of Parliament serving in this House in this respect. When I was in Opposition I challenged the then Justice Secretary on the matter, and this Government have now delivered change to ensure that we set a good example. We now say that if someone has a mental health problem, they are just as capable as anyone else to work both as a Member of Parliament and as staff in the House.
Voluntary sector organisations working with the most vulnerable claimants are expressing concerns that people with mental illness are still over represented among those being sanctioned. Does the Minister accept that there is still a problem here, and what more can he do about it?
Just before I answer the hon. Lady, let me say that I am happy to agree with you, Mr Speaker, that your conference showed great leadership, which we were happy to follow. I think that it is wise to acknowledge that from the Dispatch Box—[Laughter.] The Secretary of State says keep going. The hon. Lady makes a serious point about sanctioning. We have to make sure in the Department and Jobcentre Plus that if someone on employment and support allowance does not engage with the help they are given, we understand why they do not engage with it and then deliver proper support. Last week, when I was looking at the pilots, I was trying to see how we better engage with that mental health support to ensure that we give people the support both to stay in work, and to get back to work, if they have a mental health problem.
I was delighted to welcome the Minister to the Olive Tree café which provides opportunities for more than 30 people to rebuild their confidence and skills. That has been achieved through a successful social enterprise. How can we share that best practice?
My hon. Friend invited me to visit the Olive Tree café in his constituency on a day that I also spoke at a mindful employer event, which again focused on mental health, at the constituency of my hon. and learned Friend the Member for South Swindon (Mr Buckland). We can use our Disability Confident campaign to get those messages out there. My hon. Friend, by using the benefits of this House, has ensured that the message will be heard far and wide.
In the past year, a number of people have written to me who are finding it hard to stay in work because they are getting very poor support in the workplace, and sometimes they are having difficulty accessing mental health support. What discussions has the Minister had with employers and his colleagues in the Department of Health about how we can tackle that? If those people cannot stay in work and become unemployed, they may have difficulty getting back into work again.
The hon. Gentleman makes a good point, to which I would say two things in reply. First, people who are in work can be referred to the Access to Work mental health support service, to get support delivered to them to enable them to stay in work. Secondly, the NHS now recognises that it has an important part to play here, and for the first time we have set out access requirements for mental health services, which will start this April.
Why is no help available to get people with mental health problems back on to employment and support allowance, when they have voluntarily come off ESA and gone on to jobseeker’s allowance, wrongly believing that they were fit to work, only to be sanctioned for failing to comply with their jobseeker’s agreement because of their mental illness?
One of the things that our work coaches in the jobcentre are able to do is flex the claimant commitment people make according to the claimant’s health condition. What should happen in such cases is that, if the individual remains on JSA, their work coach can alter the conditions to deal with that. If the hon. Gentleman has specific examples where that has not happened, I would be delighted if he wrote to me so that we can look into those cases.
Just at the time that many young people leave full-time education, those battling mental health problems are also having to navigate their transition from adolescent to adult mental health services. Is it not essential that those services are there to support them at the very time we are looking to them to embark on their working lives?
My hon. Friend makes a good point, and we are doing several things in that respect. First, we are looking at properly joining up the education, health and care assessments people have at school and the disabled students’ allowance application made when they go to university. We are also working closely with the Department of Health to make sure that mental health services are properly integrated with the world of work.
Job Creation (Yorkshire)
I congratulate my right hon. Friend on those great statistics. Late last year, I organised a jobs fair in Shipley that had employers there with more than 300 current vacancies. She will be aware that many Conservative MPs in Yorkshire have also held jobs fairs in their constituencies. Will she ensure that jobcentres always support jobs fairs, to ensure that as many jobseekers as possible come to them?
I can absolutely give my hon. Friend that assurance. I congratulate him on holding a jobs fair. He is right to draw attention to the fact that Conservative MPs in Yorkshire have been putting the Labour MPs to shame for not holding as many job fairs. Because of those events and our welfare changes, and because of the success of our long-term economic plan, more jobs were created in Yorkshire last year than in the whole of France—something I am sure my hon. Friend is particularly pleased to hear.
I am an only child, Mr Speaker.
With regard to Shipley and Yorkshire, can the Minister say how many of the jobs she mentioned were part-time, on zero-hours contracts or on the minimum wage? If she is not sure of the figures, does she agree with me that a heck of a lot of jobs are in those categories?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for asking that question, because I frequently hear the myths put about by the Opposition. I can assure him that 80% are full-time jobs and 75% are managerial and professional jobs. These are very good jobs for excellent people who are trying to support their families in Shipley and across the UK.
Employment Opportunities (Northern Region)
As part of this Government’s long-term economic plan, we are committed to developing the northern powerhouse. We are investing heavily in infrastructure, science and technology, and culture to rebalance the economy by closing the long-term gap between the north and south—something the Opposition did not manage to do.
Some of us are a little wary of short-term gimmicks, especially short-term jobs fairs. In Huddersfield we have had an Enterprise Foundation promoting small business start-ups that last, and it continues to be very effective. Has the Minister seen the Centre for Cities report, which shows clearly that the investment and job growth seem to be largely, though not entirely, in London and the south-east? If she looks at the report, she will see that it is the great northern industrial cities that have suffered over a number of years. What is she doing about that?
Again, I am delighted to answer the question; again, the information was out of date. The information for that report closed in 2013 and covered the previous 10-year period, when the Government whom the hon. Gentleman supported were in office. The latest figures would show that 60% of jobs created are outside London and the south-east. I know that the hon. Gentleman, as the previous Chair of the Education Committee, takes a keen interest in opportunities for young people, so I hope he will welcome the latest announcement from Yorkshire Water that it will create 160 apprenticeships.
Will the Minister join me in thanking Huddersfield job centre, which supported my jobs fairs in Holmfirth and Marsden last year, giving local people access to real jobs and apprenticeships? Will she note the 4,130 apprenticeship starts in my constituency since 2010?
Indeed. I congratulate my hon. Friend’s local jobcentre and him on all the work he does. Those were over 4,000 apprenticeships in his constituency, but at the end of last year there were 2 million new apprenticeships for young people right across the country. That is why we have seen the biggest fall in youth unemployment since records began.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that the best way to improve job opportunities for people in the north of England is for Government to reduce tax and red tape on businesses to give them the opportunity to create new businesses, and to ensure that the Government always make it pay to be in work, not on benefits?
Once again, my hon. Friend speaks sound sense. That is exactly what this Government have been trying to do. We have been working with businesses, finding out what they need to expand and grow and to take on young people. As we have seen, growth is increasing. We are now growing faster than any other country in the G7. We know that not only are wages going up by 2%, but they are destined to go up by 3.4%, and inflation has fallen by 0.5%. If anybody had a long-term economic plan, it is this Government.
New Enterprise Allowance
The new enterprise allowance supports jobseekers who want to set up their own business through mentoring and a weekly allowance. Through the scheme over 60,000 businesses have been started nationally, including 640 within the Dudley metropolitan area.
The new enterprise allowance is one of the many ways that the Government are supporting people into self-employment and running their own businesses. Does my right hon. Friend agree that this support has been essential to the thriving business environment which has seen over 2,000 new businesses start up in my constituency, Stourbridge, since 2010?
My hon. Friend is right. When any new business sets up, it needs support, mentoring and access to finance, all of which we are providing. With her background, she knows exactly how to set up a business; she set up her own and won awards for it, and her dad set up his own business in the 1930s which went on to be an incredibly successful manufacturing company. That is what we need to do—support people, provide access to finance and mentoring, and ensure that they have a good business plan. I thank my hon. Friend for that question.
We have continued to drive improvements in providers’ results. Jobcentre Plus is integral to this, and we have implemented a closer working approach between jobcentres and providers. The evaluation indicates that the relationship between jobcentres and providers has strengthened over time—for instance, through the use of co-location and enhanced information sharing.
The serious concerns of jobcentre managers expressed in a report published in December should come as no surprise to the Minister given the latest dismal figures showing that barely 7% of people on employment and support allowance have moved into sustained employment. What is the Minister going to do to tackle the problems that jobcentre managers identify, such as the lack of work placement opportunities, infrequent contact with participants, and lack of explanation to participants about why sanctions have been requested?
First, I would like to remind everybody that the Work programme is the most successful scheme of its kind in getting people from long-term unemployment into work. Some 1.75 million people are now being helped and over 600,000 have got a job. In feedback, participants are saying that they are happy with the frequency of contact and think that that works with them and helps overcome the barriers to finding work. The number of people on ESA shows that it is actually performing well above what was expected. It was expected to apply to only one in 14 people and the figure is now one in 10. All the extra work that we have done on the communications between Jobcentre Plus and work providers is obviously showing results.
What more can the Minister do to get a better relationship between jobcentres and Work programme providers so that they can provide a warm handover when claimants move into the Work programme and when they return from the programme at the end of their two-year period?
My hon. Friend is right. This is all part of the Oakley review. It is about ensuring that communications are better, that that hand-holding is understood, that people get a copy of the claimant commitment, and that they can understand a good cause and work together. At the end of the day, we are trying to get some of the most vulnerable people, who have been unemployed for a long time, into work. What is needed is that communication and that support from Jobcentre Plus and prime contractors.
My constituent, John McArthur, was laid off at the end of a temporary job that paid the national minimum wage. The DWP later tried to force him to work for the same company, in the same job, for six months. He subsequently got accused and lost his benefit. How can that sanction possibly be justified?
This was a complicated case. I will obviously meet the hon. Gentleman to discuss it. His constituent had been laid off and then, as we were trying to support him back into work, he did work experience. It was in a different part of the business, and it was how we could best enable him to move from long-term unemployment into employment. If the hon. Gentleman would like to meet me, I am more than happy to do that, but I have already looked into this case.
My hon. Friend raises yet another good point. Under Labour, the number of people living in households where nobody had ever worked doubled. We therefore needed not only to do a lot of work to bring us back to the regular standards of what we had before Labour came into office, but to build on that to get more people into work. That is exactly right. We have helped hundreds of thousands of those people who were left unemployed for a long time.
Access to Benefits
Citizens of the European economic area who choose to come here without a job to start will not be able to access universal credit. We have introduced several restrictions to benefits to ensure that our welfare system focuses support on those who are contributing to the economy. These include strengthening the habitual residency test, banning access to housing benefit for new EEA jobseekers, and introducing a three-month residency requirement for income-based jobseeker’s allowance.
The universal credit programme is working well. It is now completing its roll-out to all the areas in the north-west, to all singles, couples and families. In the next month, it will start rolling out across the country, and that will bring universal credit to more jobcentres. By the time that process is completed, one in three jobcentres will be running universal credit. The key thing is to make sure that we get this vital reform, which helps people to get back into work faster, that we land it correctly and safely, and that we learn the lessons of the past when things like tax credits, brought in under the previous Government, were absolute disasters wasting billions of pounds in lost money and fraud.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is quite wrong for people who are working in this country on a temporary basis to be able to claim benefits for their dependants in their country of origin, when one considers the cost of those benefits in relation to the differences in the cost of living?
Yes; changing that situation is something that the coalition has set out to achieve. I remind my hon. Friend that when we came to power, the last Government had pretty much left an open door for access to benefits. People were able to claim jobseeker’s allowance pretty much on arrival. There was a habitual residence test, but it was very weak. We strengthened it and stopped people claiming for more than three months. People will not be able to claim housing benefit and they must have a right of residence. If they do claim, they must show that they have a minimum earnings likelihood. Anything below that will not count as a job. We are tightening up the system after the mess that we were left by the last Government.
I will take that as a peculiar compliment. We inherited a system in which people did not have to work for any time to claim jobseeker’s allowance. Within the existing rules, we will not pay for the first three months. If people are unemployed, they will be paid for three months. After that, they will be asked to leave. That is a much tighter position than the one we inherited. I, of course, would like to take it further. As the Prime Minister set out clearly in a recent speech, he believes that there should be years of contributions before someone is eligible to claim benefits, be they tax credits or jobseeker’s allowance. When the Conservative party gets back into power, we will implement that.
I, too, welcome the Prime Minister’s announcement in November that a future Conservative Government will have the toughest regime in Europe on limiting migrants’ access to our benefits system. Will the Secretary of State outline for the House the steps the Government have already taken to ensure that migrants come here to work and contribute, and what he has done to deter people from benefit tourism?
Exactly what I have mentioned. The mess that we were left by the last Government left little or no restrictions on anybody coming in, so the UK became a draw for people who wanted to claim benefits and be out of work, because it was a better option. We are tightening that up. We have stopped a number of things, such as housing benefit, and have shortened the time on jobseeker’s allowance. Tax credits are moving into line with that as well. As I said, when we are re-elected at the next election as a Conservative Government, we will tighten it up even more.
The UK has the fifth lowest unemployment rate in the European Union, and unemployment has fallen by more than in any other G7 economy in the past year. Thanks to welfare reform and our long-term economic plan, businesses are creating jobs and 1.75 million more people are in work than in 2010.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that the most recent EUROSTAT figures, which show that employment in the UK is rising at twice the rate of any other European nation, underline the importance of maintaining a benefits system in which people are always better off in work than not in work?
Yes, I agree with my right hon. Friend. The reality of what he raises is exemplified by the fact that the Opposition still cleave to the idea that they would copy the French way of doing things in respect of the economy. It is worth reminding them that in France—this is the system that they think is really good—the employment rate is down at 64%, the unemployment rate is 10.3% and the youth unemployment rate is up at 25.4%, which are all massively worse than here in the UK.
But it remains the case that youth unemployment here is much higher than in countries such as Germany, Austria and Norway. Does the Secretary of State agree that we will not tackle that until we tackle the scandal of the quality of technical and vocational education in our schools and colleges?
I agree with the hon. Gentleman about the need to ensure that much greater emphasis is placed on vocational education in schools, including to get people ready for apprenticeships. The Government have done a huge amount towards that. There are 1 million new apprenticeships. The report that came out when we first arrived said that there had to be a greater emphasis on that. None the less, our youth unemployment rate is remarkable when compared with the average in Europe and, apart from Germany and Holland, is significantly lower than anywhere else.
In May 2010, the claimant count in my constituency was 1,702. This month, it is 684. In a European context, will my right hon. Friend help me? Is that fall in unemployment in my constituency due to the increased vibrancy of a diversified rural economy such as mine, or the absence of a plan long terme économique elsewhere?
My right hon. Friend puts his finger on it. The reality is that the Government have implemented a long-term economic plan. In that long-term economic plan, welfare reform plays a critical part in ensuring that people are ready and available for work. Our labour market is far more deregulated than that of many other countries in Europe. It is noticeable that today, in the light of the elections in Greece, everyone is talking about austerity, but the big problem in Greece, as in other countries, is that the labour market is so rigid that very few companies want to invest, because there is no flexibility whatever. That is why they come to the UK—this Government have a plan that works to help them to get profitability.
Unemployment in the Kettering constituency has halved since May 2010. What does my right hon. Friend think would have happened to the rate of unemployment in Kettering had Her Majesty’s Government followed the economic policies of France, which apparently are a blueprint for Her Majesty’s Opposition?
That is the point. Opposition Members do not like it very much, but let us follow that theme for a minute. The Leader of the Opposition extolled the virtues of the alternative to the long-term economic plan—the French plan, which was no economic plan as far as I understand it. We have now seen French unemployment go through the roof, employment rates fall and economic activity stagnate. London is now something like the sixth or seventh-largest French city because so many French people are coming to the UK because—we welcome them—they like to look for jobs.
The latest published figures for August 2014 showed that the number of people affected by the removal of the spare room subsidy has fallen by 75,000. This follows a general downward trend, bringing the number of those affected down from 547,000 in May 2013 to 472,000.
In the Wigan borough, 3,386 people have had their housing benefit reduced due to the bedroom tax. Wigan & Leigh Housing estimates that it will take over seven years to re-house those who wish to downsize. Many of those affected have contacted me because, despite working, they are struggling to pay bills and feed their family. What is the Secretary of State’s estimate of the average income of those subject to the bedroom tax?
In previous speeches and today, the hon. Lady has talked about the fact that there are just not enough properties in her constituency to enable people to downsize. In fact, I understand that there are 2,700 people subject to the under-occupancy spare room subsidy, but something like 15,000 one and two-bedroom houses in the social sector properties in Wigan. There are many houses—many more than she might have laid out.
My point to the hon. Lady and the Opposition is that, in their opposition, they need to explain how they will afford it. The policy is saving some £500 million a year. It has already saved £830 million to date. They have no plans for substituting that, which means that their economic record is in tatters. After all, Labour, when in power, was the party that introduced that very policy for those in social sector private rented tenancies.
Once in every generation, there is a tax so bad that the next generation looks back and asks, “Why did they do it?” Such was the poll tax, now the bedroom tax. Will the Secretary of State tell us how many victims of domestic violence liable to the bedroom tax have had their sanctuary rooms deemed as spare rooms?
The hon. Gentleman knows that that is just another attempt to start scaremongering about the whole idea—[Interruption.] Yes, it is. What has been disgraceful about the Opposition is that they have spent their time scaremongering up and down the country about this issue. He knows very well that local authorities and the police work together, they have discretionary housing payments to deal with that matter at a local level and they can resolve it. More than £380 million has been granted to local authorities for discretionary payments.
I have looked at what the hon. Gentleman said previously about the number of houses available. He said that some 5,000 people are suffering due to the under-occupancy rules because they had nowhere to move, but I remind him that there are 63,500 one and two-bedroom properties in Birmingham. He yet again mis-states the reality, which is that this has to work. I remind him again that it was his Government who introduced this for the private-rented social sector.
The Secretary of State is too complacent. The fact is that when a family pays the bedroom tax, the whole family suffers. The actual number of people affected is much higher than the numbers he quoted, at 750,000. Making families move is unkind, especially when it disrupts children’s education. There are not enough smaller properties, as colleagues have said, and people cannot move. So why did not the Government vote with Labour before Christmas to abolish the bedroom tax?
The hon. Lady, like many on the Opposition Benches, is living in cloud cuckoo land. They invent a whole series of issues about this. First, we get these lines about the fact that evictions are up. In fact, evictions are a very small proportion and are down. They say that rent arrears are up, but they are stable and have not risen. They say that homelessness is up, but it is actually down. The reality is that every time the Opposition talk about this subject, they invent these issues. But never once in the whole of the time they were in government—or even now—did they bother to talk about the fact that their policies meant that house building fell to the lowest level since the 1920s and that many people live in overcrowded accommodation, thanks to Labour’s failure, its crashing of the economy and its shocking mismanagement of housing.
Young People (Employment or Training)
The youth claimant count is at its lowest level since the 1970s and this is due to the action that the Government have taken. Young persons entering a jobcentre will receive tailored support from their work coach and be directed to work experience, sector-based work academies or locally funded support.
I am delighted to say that the number of 18 to 24-year-olds in Warwick and Leamington claiming JSA has fallen by 79% since April 2010. However, I recognise that there is still more work to do. Does the Minister agree that schools and businesses can develop strong partnerships, not least in terms of providing work experience? What incentives can the Government provide to encourage those relationships and highlight the benefits that they can offer?
My hon. Friend is right—it is about building relationships between businesses and schools, and that is what we have done with some of the biggest businesses. We set up Movement to Work, which created 100,000 work experience schemes. Another scheme, Feeding Britain’s Future, provided another 15,000 work experience places and, in the west midlands alone, there are more than 16,000. Last week, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education created the new careers support scheme, which is also working with companies, schools and individuals.
23. It lifts my heart to see so many more people in employment across Windsor and the country. All hon. Members share the vision of a country in which the circumstances of our birth do not determine where we end up. I commend the Secretary of State on his work on welfare reform, and does the Minister agree that we must continue to push on with those changes so that social mobility in Britain is boosted once again? (907196)
My hon. Friend is right about social mobility. He is also the living embodiment of it, as he comes from a council estate in south London, son of a single mum with many mouths to feed. He then set up a multi-million pound business and won young entrepreneur of the year from Ernst and Young. The Government have provided support and encouragement, creating the sort of environment in which people like my hon. Friend can develop their businesses and employ other people.
Hunger and Food Poverty
The report is a serious contribution to an important debate, which recognises that the reasons behind the demand for emergency food assistance are complex and overlapping. I have already responded and will continue to review the recommendations and engage with the inquiry as it takes its proposals forward. That is an undertaking I gave at the last Question Time. My Department has already agreed to do more to raise awareness of short-term benefit advances, including advertising in jobcentres so that everyone can see it.
The report showed that about a quarter of a million people last year used food banks because of benefit sanctions. I have a constituent who showed me evidence that he applied for hundreds of jobs, but, because he applied for one by handing in a CV in person rather than through the website, he was sanctioned for three months without money. Does the Secretary of State agree that that is completely outrageous?
I am afraid I simply do not recognise the kind of case the hon. Lady raises. She knows that if she wants to raise a case directly with me or with the Minister for Employment, my right hon. Friend the Member for Wirral West (Esther McVey), she should do so, but there is no such rule in jobcentres or in respect of sanctions. [Interruption.] Yes, I am very happy to see the hon. Lady, but let me bring her to the wider issue, which is simply this: the report made it very clear that there are multiple issues. What the Opposition have tried to do non-stop, as they have with the spare room subsidy and other matters, is try to scare everybody up and down the country into believing that there is a magic wand. Let me remind her that under her Government the number of food banks doubled. The reality is that long before the coalition came to power, they were already delivering a failed economy and forcing people out of work and into difficulty beyond whatever we may have done.
One of the reasons for using food banks—a reason given by those who use them—is delays in benefit payments. Am I right in thinking, however, that the average time for sorting out benefit payment disputes has been reduced to under two weeks?
My right hon. Friend is correct. The reality is that delays in benefit payments have fallen under this Government. There are now fewer delays. The Opposition say that we need to speed up the payment of benefits. I remind them that under Labour benefits were not paid until two weeks after the claim, so unless they are now saying that benefits should be paid earlier than that, I really have no idea what the Opposition’s policy is on this. We pay benefits as quickly as possible. There is no determination to delay payment. Jobcentres and benefit offices do their level best to ensure that people get money when they need it, and hardship funds are available if anybody has any difficulty.
Employment and Support Allowance
I thank the Minister for that answer, but I think he is absolutely clear that the number of people on incapacity benefit who have been found unfit for work is far higher than the Department for Work and Pensions predicted. Is it not time that Ministers dropped the scrounger rhetoric and accepted that if people are to move back towards employment, they need real help and support?
I do not know whom the hon. Lady has heard using that rhetoric, but it is certainly not me or members of this Government. [Interruption.] It is no good her waving at us. It may be reported like that in newspapers, but Ministers do not use that sort of language. I have been very clear that people who are able to go to work with the right support will receive employment and support allowance. I am sure she was listening to the long exchange we had earlier on mental health support. Half the people on ESA have a mental health problem. She will have heard me set out the considerable range of things we are doing to help them to get back into work.
Ministers are spending £8 billion more than planned on incapacity benefit and ESA because they cannot assess people quickly enough, they cannot reassess them, and the failing Work programme cannot get them into sustained employment. Even the Minister for Employment, the right hon. Member for Wirral West (Esther McVey), admitted a few moments ago that it is achieving a 90% failure rate. Now the Tories say that they want to cut £12 billion from social security spending, and disabled people are worried that they will be paying for this catalogue of Tory welfare failure. What reassurance can the Minister offer them?
I listened carefully, but it is a bit rich for the hon. Lady to criticise the issues we had with the assessment process. There were issues with the assessment provider that her Government appointed, which is why we appointed a new contractor, Maximus, which will start work in March, and I am confident that that will improve the assessment process and get people back into work. Getting people back into work is how we will continue to reduce the benefits bill, which I remind her rose enormously when her party was in government.
Today I welcome the new cross-Government report on drug addiction which shows that, for the most complex cases, residential treatment delivers a rate of positive outcomes nearly three times better than community treatment. Instead of not prioritising full recovery, as used to be the case, we are now getting people off drugs, into work and on the path to a better future, rather than leaving them languishing on methadone.
In answer to my earlier question, the right hon. Gentleman talked about the number of food banks under the last Labour Government. In the last year of that Government, there were 41,000 food bank users, but the number is now nearly 1 million a year—a figure that just before Christmas he referred to as “tiny”. What do we have to do to get him to accept that food bank use and the scandal of food poverty in this country are his responsibility and that he needs to do more about them?
As we have always said, these are complex issues. We welcome the fact that voluntary sector organisations provide for and support people in their community, through food banks and often with clothing and various other things. Having had the allowance passed down to them, many local authorities now use it to engage with food banks and send people there and to other organisations providing food and so on. Instead of simply saying that everything is the fault purely of the Government, the hon. Lady should take stock of one thing: it was her Government who crashed the economy and made people worse off. [Interruption.] I know the Opposition do not like to hear it, but they should do the maths: destroying the economy leaves people worse off. By getting more people back into work, the Government are helping them get beyond the need for food banks and other support.
T3. Will the Minister ask officials to look compassionately on benefits arrangements for people with mental health difficulties? So often, when these people are called for assessment, it is not obvious that they really do have problems. (907215)
My hon. Friend raises a good point. Of course, assessors are trained in assessing mental health problems and are particularly mindful of the fact that people with mental health problems often have a fluctuating condition that might not be apparent at the time of the assessment. Of course, we tell claimants that they can bring someone with them to support them during the assessment, if that would be beneficial.
In 2011, the Secretary of State said that, by April 2014, 1 million people would be receiving universal credit. With delays and write-offs, that date has been and gone, so will he answer the question that my hon. Friend the Member for West Lancashire (Rosie Cooper) asked, but which was not answered, and give a guarantee to the House that he will meet his latest target of just 100,000 people receiving universal credit by May 2015?
I say to the hon. Lady that we intend to, and I repeat the answer I gave earlier. I know she wants to dance around on these things, but she has to say whether she genuinely supports universal credit or whether she plans to get rid of it, as that seems to be becoming Labour party policy.
We have been consistent: we support universal credit, but not throwing good money after bad, and we will go ahead with it only if the National Audit Office signs it off and says it will save more money than it costs, which is far from clear at the moment.
Last week’s figures show that the glacial pace continues, with still only 26,940 people receiving universal credit. At this rate of progress, it will take 1,571 years before it is fully rolled out. The Secretary of State protests that it would be riskier to go faster, but he has only himself to blame for the undeliverable targets he set and the unrealistic claims he made for this flagship policy. Is not the truth that, having failed to deliver the one policy that could have helped make work pay over this Parliament, all he is left with is a toxic legacy of rising child benefit and reliance on food banks and a ballooning benefits bill for people in work—a record of Tory welfare waste that, if I were him, I would rather run from than run on?
I bet that looked good on a piece of paper when she wrote it. Honestly, here we go again Let me just remind the hon. Lady what her party left behind. It left a welfare budget that had “ballooned”—her word—by 60%. On tax credits alone, in the six years before the election, her Government spent £175 billion. They ballooned their welfare spending; unemployment rose; the economy crashed; people found themselves out of work—and her Government were to blame for all that. We have reformed welfare, and let me remind the hon. Lady that, at the end of this Parliament, we will have saved £50 billion from the bills Labour left us; housing benefit has come down; the number of jobseeker’s allowance claimants has fallen; and before she writes a script again, she might like to test it for accuracy. They—the Labour party—have failed.
If somebody misses an appointment and has good cause for not being able to make it, they would never be sanctioned. I do not think that people quite follow the process of what happens. Should somebody not make an appointment or not take the steps to get work that they should have taken, they would have been told that it could be a sanctionable offence. That is what the adviser would say. It would then go to the decision maker, and if there is good cause, 50% will not be sanctioned. The vast majority will not be getting sanctioned because they will have good cause, but they need to be taking reasonable steps to get into work. In fact, monthly sanctions rates are at about 5% to 6% for JSA, and for ESA they are less than 1%. Those are the numbers.
T2. Following my request for a rescheduled meeting about the independent living fund, the Minister kindly wrote to me on 15 January, but why did he make no reference to my request for a meeting and why did he refer me to post-ILF provision under Newcastle city council when my constituency is North Tyneside? (907214)
My point was that the independent living fund has been meeting local authorities across the country to make sure that every local authority with somebody in it that has ILF is well aware of the support it is getting. My answer was saying that to make sure that the person was getting the support, a conversation with the local authority would be more productive than a question to me.
T6. The Government have rightly tackled the long-standing chaos in the Child Support Agency, but attracted controversy with their new 4% admin charge on struggling parents with care when the other parent is not stepping up to the plate. What assessment have the Government made of the big drop-off in the number of parents using the Child Maintenance Service? Are absent parents magically paying up to avoid their charge or are parents with care being scared off to avoid theirs? (907218)
I was beginning to feel unemployed until this moment. [Laughter.] The philosophy of the new Child Maintenance Service is that, wherever possible, we want to encourage people to sort things out for themselves if they can. The £20 charge is designed to encourage people to think before applying to the Child Maintenance Service. Where, however, there is an instance of domestic violence, for example, that £20 will be waived. We are undertaking research into the people who contact us and then do not use our services to ensure that effective maintenance arrangements are being put in place.
T4. The Secretary of State has said that local authorities are choosing to give funds to local food banks. I can assure him that Mayor Joe Anderson in Liverpool does not relish having to spend £138,000 to tackle food poverty locally in Liverpool. Will the Secretary of State sit down with representatives from the Trussell Trust to help him understand how more than 1 million people are being forced to go hungry by the actions of his Department? (907216)
The truth is that many local authorities are using some of the devolved social fund, which is a very good idea, and engaging with food banks to enable people to access them in the early part of their claim. That is happening up and down the country, and I think that is quite reasonable; it is what local authorities do to help people as best they can. Perhaps the hon. Lady is opposed to that because she thinks everything should be run centrally from the Government here. Well, they made a mess of it last time.
As my right hon. Friend will know, a crucial aspect of tackling youth unemployment is ensuring that people have the right skill set. Will she commend the work of City of Wolverhampton college, which is in my constituency and which—following a very difficult starting point—has turned around the lives of many young people by working with local businesses and creating opportunity and employment, and creating opportunities for the local university as well?
Local housing allowance levels in Cambridge are far too low, and have been for years. In 2008, Shelter could find only four properties that were affordable, and the position is essentially unchanged. The Minister helpfully gave us an above-inflation increase, but it still has not solved the problem. Will he investigate further to check that local housing allowances match the cost of renting, and undo the legacy of the broad rental market areas?
My hon. Friend, and, indeed, his predecessor have been doughty campaigners on behalf of the city of Cambridge. He will be aware that the rent levels are set across the whole Cambridge rental market area, not just in the city of Cambridge. As he said, in 2014-15 we allocated £45 million for targeted affordability funding. We will be allocating £95 million in 2015-16, and the rates will be announced at the end of this week.
We have taken significant measures to help young people who are long-term unemployed. We have established sector-based work academies, and have provided work experience and traineeships. Obviously the hon. Gentleman will be pleased to know that, according to figures from the International Labour Organisation, youth unemployment is down on the quarter, on the year and since the general election.
Not all employers appreciate the social importance and value to the work force that employing disabled people can bring. What more are the Government doing to try to encourage employers to take on disabled people, and to help them into work?
I think that our Disability Confident campaign has contributed to the fact that more than a quarter of a million extra disabled people have started work over the last year. I am also considering improvements that we can make to the Access to Work service, which plays an important role in helping people either to stay in work or to return to it.
The Independent Project Board, which was set up by the Office of Fair Trading, recently established that more than £8 billion-worth of private pension assets were subject to charges of between 2% and 3%. That makes it almost impossible for such schemes to grow. Will the Minister tell us what action he will take to deal with that?
Action is already being taken. Those statistics were a snapshot showing the position in April 2014. Measures that we have announced, such as the charge cap, mean that some of those schemes will be dealt with, and by the end of this week I shall have met six major pension providers to discuss how we can speed up the process of tackling the high legacy pension charges which the last Government did nothing to tackle.
T10. The Secretary of State will be aware that 1,250 young people in my constituency are long-term unemployed. As well as helping those people directly, will he link much more closely with the Department for Education so that we can pre-empt those problems through good careers guidance, helping the pre-NEETs and ensuring that young people are job-ready at the age of 16, 17 and 18? (907222)
May I first commend the hon. Gentleman for the work he has done? It has been a shining example both in his own area and nationally on early intervention and in setting up the Early Intervention Foundation. He has worked closely with Government and his own side. Yes, the answer is that of course we want to look at linking closely with the Department for Education, and I am very happy to discuss it with him further, but I also want to congratulate him on the hard work he does.
Points of Order
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. You will be aware that the Chair of the Environmental Audit Committee last week tabled an amendment to the Infrastructure Bill based on the Committee’s findings but ahead of their publication. Obviously we are all aware that it is a clear breach of Select Committee rules to leak a report in advance of publication, and I make no suggestion that that has been done here. However, I seek your guidance, Mr Speaker, as to whether amending a Bill in such a way as to reveal key parts of a report prior to its publication is in order, and whether you could remind the House of the duty of Select Committee Chairs to ensure that they do not give an impression that inquiries are being rushed through in order to make political points.
Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. It is important for the House to understand that the Select Committee was simply operating in such a way as to ensure that our report was helpful in terms of the legislation coming forward—the Infrastructure Bill that we shall be dealing with later today. What perhaps needs to happen, following on from your ruling on this, Mr Speaker, is consideration of what rules and guidance there can be in order that those of us on the Liaison Committee can make absolutely sure that we do not, as it were, miss the bus. There is no point in having important recommendations coming forward when legislation is being rushed through in this place, and it is then too late to have the informed debate that this House of Commons absolutely has to have.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady. Precisely because the hon. Member for Monmouth (David T. C. Davies) courteously gave me notice both of his intention to raise the point or order and its thrust, I have, unsurprisingly, a prepared response. The House can make its own assessment of this situation, but I confess that my own reading of it was analogous to that of the hon. Lady. I am genuinely grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising this matter, but let me just say this for the record. It is certainly unusual for a Select Committee to release information about the conclusions of its report prior to publication, and to do so would normally be considered a discourtesy to the House, though not a contempt given that the report had been formally reported to the House. However, in this case I understand that the Committee considered that it was helpful for the House to have notice of the relevance of its report, which was published this morning, to the amendment, which was required to be tabled last week. Therefore no harm has been done by it. I think the House will be grateful to both the Environmental Audit Committee and the Transport Committee for the work they have done on matters relevant to the Infrastructure Bill, although of course I note in passing, non-evaluatively, that it does not follow that all Members will necessarily agree entirely with their conclusions. We will leave it there for now.
Yes, directly, Mr Speaker. You made reference to two Select Committee reports, one from the Environmental Audit Committee and one from the Transport Committee, directly relevant to this Bill. May I also draw the House’s attention to the fact that my Energy and Climate Change Committee has reported twice in detail on the specific issue of shale gas and fracking?
I was not aware of that, though far be it from me to dispute the assiduity of the hon. Gentleman. It was of course open to him and his Committee to have put that on the Order Paper. For whatever reason, it did not, but the hon. Gentleman, in prime time and with some alacrity, has now sought to remedy that deficiency.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Early in this very important anniversary year of Magna Carta, in which we celebrate the work of this parliamentary democracy, we still have time to pay attention to the many children who will come here to learn about this place and its history. When I was chair of the then Education and Skills Committee, we found that our wonderful free museums in London were largely attended by people from London and people who were rather better off. Can we make sure that this year that less privileged children get the chance to come here, and that we have people from the north of England as well as London and the south?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that point of order, but the short answer is that we already have a scheme, which is effectively a grant scheme or subsidy mechanism, that makes it less burdensome for school groups from areas of the country either a considerable distance from London or characterised by disadvantage to come here. That is already in place, and should we continue with such a scheme and perhaps even redouble our efforts in 2015—I think we should—I am sure that the hon. Gentleman, who is always young at heart, will be enthusiastic about the scope of the education centre when it is opened in the late spring or early summer. That centre, which will be a state-of-the-art facility charting the journey to rights and representation, will allow us to double the number of young people coming through this place. There are people on both sides of the House who strongly supported this, and it is something we can all unite in welcoming.
I do not think we will circulate the subsidy, but we will circulate awareness of the fact of it. I hope that meets the needs of the case. I know what the hon. Gentleman is driving at, and I think the House appreciates his purpose.
On a separate matter, I hope, I call Helen Jones.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Last weekend it was revealed that the general secretary of a party that is represented in this House had compared the NHS to Nazi Germany. That remark not only plumbs unfathomable depths of ignorance but, at a time when we are commemorating the holocaust and celebrating the dedicated team that aided the recovery of Pauline Cafferkey, is also morally repugnant. Can you advise whether there is any way for this House to express its disapprobation of those comments and its support for our many dedicated NHS staff, who deserve better from people who seek to be public representatives?
The hon. Lady is a very experienced Member of this House and I think she has already served her cause; I suspect that what she said will be echoed by Members on both sides of the House. I am not sure it is a matter for the Chair. The only thing I would say is that Nazism is one of the most evil phenomena in our history, and the holocaust a despicable crime. People in whatever party should be very careful not to bandy about terms of abuse in contexts which most sensible people would think completely inappropriate. I think both sides of the House will agree on that. Perhaps we can now make some progress. I thank the hon. Lady for what she said.
Infrastructure Bill [Lords]
I beg to move,
That the Order of 8 December 2014 (Infrastructure Bill [Lords] (Programme)) be varied as follows:
(1) Paragraphs (4) and (5) of the Order shall be omitted.
(2) Proceedings on Consideration shall be taken in the order shown in the first column of the following Table.
(3) The proceedings shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion at the times specified in the second column of the Table.
Time for conclusion of proceedings
New Clauses, new Schedules, amendments to clauses and amendments to Schedules relating to Part 5
New Clauses, new Schedules, amendments to clauses and amendments to Schedules relating to Parts 3, 4 and 7
Remaining proceedings on Consideration
(4) Proceedings on Third Reading shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion at 10.00pm.
I will say a few words on the programme motion, if I might, Mr Speaker.
Mr Speaker, it is always a joy to perform in this Chamber under your benevolent stewardship, but a still greater joy to be able to move the programme motion on this important proposed legislation.
I will just say a word about the programme motion. It is important that we emphasise that, although we do not want to take up too much of the House’s time—this is a big subject—there is a range of subject matter contained in the Bill and the need to ensure effective and fair consideration of it is the basis of the programme motion. The House needs to be afforded sufficient time to debate all the Bill’s areas effectively. We considered the number of amendments and the strength of feeling among hon. Members to create a programme fit for the purpose of enabling the House to do so.
The programme motion accordingly provides until 5.30 pm to debate the new clauses and amendments relating to energy. Thereafter, it provides until 7.30 pm to debate the new clauses and amendments on environmental control of animal and plant species, and on planning, land and buildings. All other provisions, including those relating to strategic highways companies, will be considered until 9 pm.
In fairness, the Opposition raised the issue of needing more time on Report when the Government introduced new clauses and schedules in Committee. Given that the Government intend to remove the additional and, admittedly, late-in-the-day provisions on the electronic communications code, and that no amendments have been tabled against our new clauses on the Public Works Loan Commissioners, the reimbursement of persons who have met expenses in the electrical connections market and the mayoral development orders, I cannot see why they want time for further deliberation at this stage.
The Bill has so far been debated in the right spirit. Indeed, I would go further: the mature and measured consideration it was given on Second Reading and in Committee speaks well of the House and, if I may say so, of the Opposition. Their team scrutinised the Bill carefully and fully, but in a considered way, while not in any sense failing in their duty to test the Government’s arguments and to make good arguments of their own.
To that end and in that spirit, we have in turn listened carefully and taken on board some of the criticisms made of the Bill since its inception. In all the Bill does, it has evolved by a process of careful scrutiny, such as I have described. It has also moved forward because Governments need to think about the arguments made in this place and elsewhere when proposed legislation of such significance comes before the House.
It is in everyone’s interests to send a signal from this House that there is consensus on the Bill, and that we can deliver it on time. On that note, as a father might say to his young children, I say, “Don’t spoil it now.” Let us maintain that spirit and send out such a signal. Let us do right by the House, but right by the nation, too.
Mr Speaker, I completely endorse your point about the Minister being an extraordinary specimen of humanity, which we commented on in Committee on many occasions.
I will not detain the House long, but may I say a few words? I welcome what the Minister said about the Committee stage, which was conducted maturely. There are still differences that we will debate today—fairly sharp ones in many cases—but there was movement, and I welcome the Minister’s approach in Committee on such areas. However, he is right to say that we asked for two days on Report. That should not have been too much to ask for a Bill that was introduced in the other place, and to which whole new areas were added when it reached this place, to the extent that even the long title had to be changed in Committee. That is not a good way to approach legislation. Against that background, it should not have been too much to have two days for proper scrutiny on Report and Third Reading; sadly, we have been denied that opportunity.
The problem with debating programme motions is that there is always this dilemma for the House and for the Opposition: do we debate the fact that we have not got enough time to talk about the Bill, or do we get on with talking about it in the time available? I will not detain the House by dividing on the programme motion, but for the benefit of all Members I want it to be recorded that the Bill was introduced and pursued in a cack-handed way, and that it should receive greater scrutiny today than the time available allows.
I will be extremely brief, because I do not want to take time away from the debates on the Bill.
My concern is not so much about the time available for debate, because we have had enough heat and no light already, but about the number of votes that the House will be able to have. There are a number of new clauses and amendments, and I am particularly interested in a range of them, such as new clause 6, new clause 9 and amendment 50, which I hope will be debated. However, I wish to highlight amendment 51, because 360,000 members of the public have signed a petition in support of it. It would be right for the House to have the chance to have its say; otherwise we will be letting people down.
However lyrical, charming, elegant and extraordinary the Minister is, and however beautifully he has taken the Bill through all its stages thus far, it is a bit rich for him to enjoin us not to ruin it at the end, because unfortunately it was another Department that tried to ruin his Bill. His former Parliamentary Private Secretary, the new Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, over whom he no longer seems to have any control whatever, insisted that large amendments be added only a week ago on a whole new matter that had nothing whatever to do with the Bill—the electronic communications code. That was part of some magic deal that was being done with the mobile telephone operators before Christmas, which has now crumbled to dust. Those amendments were foisted on the Bill—it is not so much a Christmas tree Bill as the whole of Oxford Circus, it has so many baubles on it.
The truth is that the amendments that were suddenly added to the Bill were interlopers. The Minister says that the programme motion is fine, because he now wishes to withdraw the amendments that he insisted were added to the Bill only a week ago—the shortest-lived amendments in the 750-year history of this Parliament, no doubt. However, we now have to debate removing them, having never had an opportunity properly to debate putting them into the Bill in the first place.
Although I accept that the Minister is a wonderful chap—I see that he is now pointing to the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport and telling him off—I gently say to the Government that it would have been far better if we had gone through the process properly and had a two-day debate on the important matters in the Bill. Fracking is an important issue to many people, and we will no doubt debate it at considerable length today, but we should have had a two-day Report stage.
I am a little disappointed, because I wrote to the Public Bill Committee and asked whether it would consider an amendment, but I gather there was not time for it to do so. This is probably the only time I can raise the matter I want to mention today because, as the hon. Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden) said, the debates will be quite crowded. When there are huge pieces of infrastructure work such as the proposed 3.5 million square foot rail freight development in my constituency, there is no obligation on developers at least to consider green, environmental measures. It is a loss that we will not get to debate that today.
Yes, but I think that probably relates to amendments that it might have been in someone’s mind to table, but which have not yet been tabled and do not relate directly to the programme motion. However, the hon. Lady has opted for an elastic interpretation of the terms of the motion, and she has got her points on the record, so I hope she is content.
My hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) is right that the clause providing for the electronic communications code is the shortest-lived clause ever—it survived just a week. The Government introduced it, but it is now being withdrawn from the Bill. As I argued in Committee, it is right that the Government should withdraw it, so I congratulate them on doing so—the code needs sorting out. Having said that, a huge amount of time has been wasted on it, meaning that we will not have adequate time today to debate many important details of the Bill.
The Minister knows that I am on his side on fracking. In principle, I want to see it go ahead in the right regulatory environment. The trouble is that he is putting the House in a difficult position by asking us to approve hugely important measures with just a couple of hours of debate.
I do not want to detain the House long. I have great respect for the Minister and have worked closely with him in his different guises, but the emollient tone in which he introduced the programme motion was inappropriate in some ways. Many of my constituents, and constituents up and down this country, read that a major infrastructure Bill is going through and they would expect us to have the time to tackle issues such as shale gas with great scrutiny, and with a great depth of probing of exactly what was going on and what was intended. The Environmental Audit Committee was right in recommending the moratorium, although in the long-term this should always be based on good evidence. Many people up and down this country would see that an infrastructure Bill is before the House and that the biggest infrastructure programme at the moment, HS2, means we are possibly going to spend £80 billion on an iconic railway rather than investing in the national health service. Those people in this country deserve a voice and they will not get it on this Bill or in respect of these two days of debate.
Question put and agreed to.
Infrastructure Bill [Lords]
Consideration of Bill, as amended in the Public Bill Committee
[Relevant documents: Eighth Report from the Environmental Audit Committee, Session 2014-15, on Environmental risks of fracking, HC 856, and Sixth Report from the Environmental Audit Committee, Session 2014-15, on Action on air quality, HC 212.
Fifteenth Report from the Transport Committee, Session 2013-14, Better roads: Improving England’ Strategic Road Network, HC 850, and Fourth Special Report from the Transport Committee, Session 2014-15, Better roads: Improving England’s Strategic Road Network: Government Response to the Committee’s Fifteenth Report of Session 2013-14, HC 715.]
New Clause 15
Advice on likely impact of onshore petroleum on the carbon budget
“(1) The Secretary of State must from time to time request the Committee on Climate Change to provide advice (in accordance with section 38 of the CCA 2008) on the impact which combustion of, and fugitive emissions from, petroleum got through onshore activity is likely to have on the Secretary of State’s ability to meet the duties imposed by—
(a) section 1 of the CCA 2008 (net UK carbon account target for 2050), and
(b) section 4(1)(b) of the CCA 2008 (UK carbon account not to exceed carbon budget).
(2) As soon as practicable after each reporting period, the Secretary of State must produce a report setting out the conclusions that the Secretary of State has reached after considering the advice provided by the Committee on Climate Change during that reporting period in response to any request made under subsection (1).
(3) The Secretary of State must lay a copy of any such report before Parliament.
(4) In this section—
“CCA 2008” means the Climate Change Act 2008;
“petroleum got through onshore activity” means petroleum got from the strata in which it exists in its natural condition by activity carried out on land in England and Wales (excluding land covered by the sea or any tidal waters);
“petroleum” has the same meaning as in Part 1 of the Petroleum Act 1998 (see section 1 of that Act);
“reporting period” means—
(a) the period ending with 1 April 2016, and
(b) each subsequent period of 5 years.” —(Amber Rudd.)
This amendment requires the Secretary of State to seek advice from the Committee on Climate Change on the likely impact of petroleum (including natural gas) produced onshore in England and Wales, and to report periodically on the conclusions reached as result of the advice given.
Brought up, and read the First time.
I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.
With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:
New clause 1— Hydraulic fracturing—
‘(1) The Environmental Permitting (England and Wales) Regulations 2010, Schedule 1, Part 2, Chapter 1, is amended as follows:
(2) After Section 1.2 insert—
Hydraulic Fracturing Activities
(a) carrying out exploration or assessments prior to hydraulic fracturing;
(b) drilling wells for use in hydraulic fracturing;
(c) process of hydraulic fracturing;
(d) decommissioning and long-term maintenance of hydraulic fracturing wells.””
New clause 2—Shale gas extraction: devolution—
‘(1) The Scotland Act 1998 is amended as follows:
(2) In Schedule 5, Part II, section D2, after “gas other than through pipes,”, insert—
“( ) The licensing of onshore shale gas extraction underlying Scotland.
( ) Responsibility for mineral access rights for onshore extraction of shale gas in Scotland.””
New clause 4— Committee on Climate Change shale gas reports—
It shall be a duty of the Committee on Climate Change to produce Reports into the effects of exploitation of shale gas in the UK on net carbon emissions from the UK.”
New clause 6—Hydraulic Fracturing exclusion zones—
‘(1) The Petroleum Act 1998 is amended as follows.
(2) In Section 3, after subsection (4), insert—
“(5) No licences shall be granted to search and bore for petroleum in protected areas using the process of hydraulic fracturing.
(6) For the purposes of this section, “protected area” means—
(a) special areas of conservation under the Conservation (Natural Habitats, &c) Regulations 1994,
(b) special protection areas under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981,
(c) sites of special scientific interest under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981,
(d) national parks under the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949,
(e) The Broads under the Norfolk and Suffolk Broads Act 1988, and
(f) areas of outstanding natural beauty under the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000.”
New clause 7—Environmental Impact Assessment: publication—
“(1) Any Environmental Statement undertaken in respect of the possible exploitation of petroleum or deep geothermal energy, under the Town and Country Planning (Environmental Impact Assessment) Regulations 2011, must be publicised before a planning application is submitted to the local planning authority and/or the Secretary of State.
(2) The publication of an Environmental Statement under subsection (1) must be in accordance with the procedures set out in Article 13 of the Town and Country Planning (Development Management Procedure) (England) Order 2010.”
New clause 8— Impact on rural communities—
“The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs must, within one month of this Act receiving Royal Assent, lay before the House of Commons the full report on Shale Gas Rural Economy Impacts.”
New clause 9— Moratorium on onshore unconventional petroleum—
“(1) All use of land for development consisting of the exploitation of unconventional petroleum in Great Britain shall be discontinued during the relevant period.
(2) The Secretary of State must ensure that an independent assessment is undertaken of the exploitation of unconventional petroleum in Great Britain including the use of high volume hydraulic fracturing.
(3) The assessment must take account of the impacts of the exploitation of the unconventional petroleum on—
(a) climate change;
(b) the environment;
(c) health and safety; and
(d) the economy.
(4) The Secretary of State must—
(a) consult such persons as the Secretary of State thinks fit; and
(b) publish the assessment
within the relevant period.
(5) For the purposes of subsections (1) to (4)—
“relevant period” means a period of not less than 18 months and not more than 30 months commencing on the date two months after Royal Assent;
“unconventional petroleum” means petroleum which does not flow readily to the wellbore.
(6) In section 3 of the Petroleum Act 1998, at the end of subsection (4) add “and subsection (4A).
“(4A) Nothing in this section permits the grant of a licence to search and bore for and get unconventional petroleum in Great Britain during the relevant period.
(4B) For the purposes of subsection (4A) “relevant period” and “unconventional petroleum” have the meaning specified in section [Moratorium on onshore unconventional petroleum] of the Infrastructure Act 2015.”
New clause 10— The security of supply of gas—
(1) The Secretary of State shall, in accordance with section 4AA of the Gas Act 1986 and so far as it appears to him practicable from time to time, keep under review whether further measures may be appropriate in order to protect the interests of existing and future consumers in relation to the security of the supply of gas to them.
(2) For the purposes of subsection (1), the Secretary of State may direct the Gas and Electricity Markets Authority to conduct a Significant Code Review in relation to whether modifications to licences granted under Part 1 of the Gas Act 1986 or to the Uniform Network Code are appropriate in order to underpin the demand for and the security of supply of gas.
(3) For the purposes of this section—
“consumers”, for the avoidance of doubt, includes domestic and non-domestic consumers;
“Significant Code Review” has the meaning given in Standard Special Condition A11 (24) of licences granted under section 7 of the Gas Act 1986;
“Uniform Network Code” means the document of that title required to be prepared pursuant to Standard Special Condition A11 of licences granted under section 7 of the Gas Act 1986.
New clause 11— Annual report by Secretary of State on security of energy supplies—
“(1) Section 172 of the Energy Act 2004 (annual report on security of energy supplies) is amended as follows.
(2) In subsection (2), at the end insert—
“(e) the security of supply of gas to consumers in Great Britain, including available storage capacity, and any appropriate remedial measures.””
New clause 19— Hydraulic fracturing: necessary conditions—
Any hydraulic fracturing activity can not take place:
(a) unless an environmental impact assessment has been carried out;
(b) unless independent inspections are carried out of the integrity of wells used;
(c) unless monitoring has been undertaken on the site over the previous 12 month period;
(d) unless site-by-site measurement, monitoring and public disclosure of existing and future fugitive emissions is carried out;
(e) in land which is located within the boundary of a groundwater source protection zone;
(f) within or under protected areas;
(g) in deep-level land at depths of less than 1,000 metres;
(h) unless planning authorities have considered the cumulative impact of hydraulic fracturing activities in the local area;
(i) unless a provision is made for community benefit schemes to be provided by companies engaged in the extraction of gas and oil rock;
(j) unless residents in the affected area are notified on an individual basis;
(k) unless substances used are subject to approval by the Environment Agency
(l) unless land is left in a condition required by the planning authority, and
(m) unless water companies are consulted by the planning authority.”
The purpose of this new clause is to ensure that shale gas exploration and extraction can only proceed with appropriate regulation and comprehensive monitoring and to ensure that any activity is consistent with climate change obligations and local environmental considerations.
Amendment 50, page 39, line 12 leave out clause 37.
This deletes the Clause that puts into primary legislation a new duty to maximise the economic recovery of UK oil and gas.
Amendment 68, in clause 37, page 39, line 17, leave out
“the objective of maximising the economic recovery of UK petroleum, in particular through”
“not the objective of maximising the economic recovery of UK petroleum but ensuring that fossil fuel emissions are limited to the carbon budgets advised by the Committee on Climate Change and introducing a moratorium on the hydraulic fracturing of shale gas deposits in order to reduce the risk of carbon budgets being breached, in particular through—”.
This reflects the conclusions from an inquiry into the Environmental risks of fracking by the Environmental Audit Committee, whose report is published on 26 January (Eighth Report, HC 856).
Amendment 73, page 39, line 31, at end insert—
“(3A) A strategy must be compatible with the Climate Change Act 2008.”
This would require strategies drawn up under clause 37 on maximising the economic recovery of oil and gas to be compatible with the Climate Change Act 2008, thereby avoiding the risk that the Secretary of State could, as a result of clause 37, be required to fulfil conflicting duties.
Amendment 51, page 45, line 22 leave out clauses 39 to 44.
This deletes the Clauses that seek to change the trespass law and introduce a new right to use deep-level land, which would allow fracking companies to drill beneath people’s homes and land without their permission and to leave any substance or infrastructure in the land.
Amendment 44, in clause 39, page 45, line 25, leave out
“petroleum or deep geothermal energy”
“(a) petroleum; or
(b) deep geothermal energy.
“(1A) The right under (1)(a) only applies if the Committee on Climate Change’s most recent report under section (Committee on Climate Change Shale Gas Reports) concludes that shale gas exploitation leads to a net reduction of UK carbon emissions.
(1B) The carrying out of hydraulic fracturing in connection with the exploitation of unconventional petroleum is not allowed unless the Committee on Climate Change’s most recent report under section (Committee on Climate Change Shale Shale Gas Reports) concludes that shale gas exploitation leads to a net reduction of UK carbon emissions.”
Amendment 47, page 45, line 27, leave out from “if” to end of line 29 and insert—
“(a) it is deep-level land,
(b) it is within a landward area, and
(c) the well shaft is not within two kilometres of any village or town.”
Amendment 56, page 45, line 29, at end insert—
“(c) subject to the agreement of the owner of any land altered by the use.”
Amendment 83, page 45, line 29, at end insert—
(i) Special Areas of Conservation under the Conservation (Natural Habitats, &c.) Regulations 1994,
(ii) Special Protection Ares under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981,
(iii) Sites of Special Scientific Interest under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981,
(iv) National Parks under the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949,
(v) The Broads under the Norfolk and Suffolk Broads Act 1988, and
(vi) Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty under section 82 of the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000.”
Amendment 117, page 45, line 29, at end add—
“(c) subject to the prior collation of existing environmental data and that data is published in a form that enables it to be subject to scientific peer review.”
Amendment 57, page 45, line 32, at end insert—
(a) The right of use shall be subject to the precautionary principle being applied;
(b) The Environment Agency will determine whether the condition under paragraph (a) has been met; and
(c) In this section, “precautionary principle” shall mean that no land is used for the purposes of exploiting petroleum or deep geothermal energy unless it is proved that it is not harmful to the environment.”
Amendment 3, page 45, line 33, leave out “300 metres” and insert “1,000 metres”.
Amendment 65, page 45, line 33, leave out “300 metres” and insert “950 metres”.
Government amendment 86.
Amendment 2, page 45, line 36, at end insert—
“(6) The Secretary of State shall, before the award of licences in relation to the use of deep-level land for onshore oil and gas exploration, issue additional planning guidance introducing a presumption against such developments within or under protected areas.”
Amendment 48, page 45, line 36, at end insert—
“(6) The Secretary of State shall prevent the exploitation of shale oil or gas if either a water company or the Environment Agency credibly asserts that to do otherwise would—
(a) create substantial risks to public health due to potential contamination of groundwaters from the extraction process; or
(b) create substantial risks to nearby surface waters due to potential contamination from flowback and waste water arising from hydraulic fracturing activity; or
(c) create substantial risks to the nearby environment due to potential contamination from flowback and waste water arising from hydraulic fracturing activity.”
Amendment 49, page 45, line 36, at end insert—
“(5A) The use of hydraulic fracturing in connection with the exploitation of unconventional petroleum shall be prohibited.
(5B) For the purposes of subsection (5A), “unconventional petroleum” means petroleum which does not flow readily to the wellbore.
(5C) In section 3 of the Petroleum Act 1998, at the end of subsection (4) add “and subsection (4A).
“(4A) Nothing in this section permits the grant of a licence to search and bore for and get unconventional petroleum in Great Britain.
(4B) For the purposes of subsection (4A), “unconventional petroleum” has the meaning set out in section 38(5B) of the Infrastructure Act .””
This amendment would ban fracking (the use of high volume hydraulic fracturing to extract oil and gas) in the UK.
Amendment 66, page 45, line 36, at end insert—
“(6) This section shall not extend to Wales unless an order authorising it has been passed by the National Assembly for Wales.
(7) An order under subsection (6) may contain any conditions which the Assembly deems appropriate.”
Amendment 82, page 45, line 36, at end insert—
“(5A) The Secretary of State shall be required to commission and consider reports on—
(a) The cumulative impacts of water use in hydraulic fracking of exploratory and productive gas wells;
(b) The cumulative impacts of flowback and waste water arising from hydraulic fracking activity; and
(c) The cumulative impacts on communities of road and vehicle movements from hydraulic fracking activity
Before providing any permissions for exploitation of petroleum on deep level land where one or more exploitation facility exists within one mile of a proposed site.”
Amendment 60, in clause 40, page 46, line 6, at end insert—
“(f) any substance used for the purposes of paragraph (d) must be—
(i) approved by the Environment Agency; and
(ii) publicly declared by the operator.”
Amendment 1, page 46, line 17, at end insert—
“(3A) Before a well design is commenced or adopted in connection with the exploitation of petroleum, the right of use requires the Health and Safety Executive to inspect the well so as to satisfy itself that—
(a) so far as is reasonably practicable, there can be no unplanned escape of fluids from the well; and
(b) risks to the health and safety of persons from it or anything in it, or in strata to which it is connected, are as low as is reasonably practicable.
(3B) Where the Health and Safety Executive is satisfied that a condition in subsection (3A) is met, it shall give notice to the Secretary of State.
(3C) The Secretary of State shall publish the information received from the Health and Safety Executive in accordance with subsection (3A).”
Amendment 59, page 46, line 17, at end insert—
“(3A) The right of use shall be conditional on operators ensuring the—
(a) safe conveyance of wastewater from the site to a safe place of storage;
(b) effective treatment and disposal of wastewater from the site; and
(c) publication of the details of the treatment and disposal of wastewater under sub-paragraph (ii).”
Government amendment 87.
Amendment 78, in clause 41, page 46, line 41, leave out “may” and insert “shall”.
Amendment 79, page 46, line 44, leave out “may” and insert “shall”.
Amendment 61, page 47, line 2, at end insert—
“(c) to compulsorily purchase properties in the event of blight from the activities of the extraction and exploitation of petroleum and geothermal energy in deep-level land.”
Amendment 80, page 47, line 4, after “the”, insert “minimum”.
Amendment 81, page 47, line 5, after “payments”, insert
“which shall be calculated as a percentage of the gross value of the gas extracted”.
Amendment 62, in clause 42, page 47, line 19, leave out sub-paragraphs (i) and (ii) and insert
“to persons of specified descriptions”
Amendment 63, page 47, line 22, leave out “within the area” and insert
“on the Parish Council noticeboard”.
Amendment 64, page 47, line 24, at end insert—
“(2B) Failure to display or publish notice under the terms of subsection (2) will negate any right to exploit or extract petroleum or geothermal energy.”
Government amendments 88, 89, 90, 96, 97, 98, 99 and 103.
Amendment 69, title, line 10 leave out
“to make provision about maximising economic recovery of petroleum in the United Kingdom;”
This reflects the conclusions from an inquiry into the Environmental risks of fracking by the Environmental Audit Committee, whose report is published on 26 January (Eighth Report, HC 856).
I rise to speak to new clause 15 and amendments 98 and 103. Both shale gas and geothermal energy are exciting new energy resources for the UK, with the potential to provide greater energy security, growth and jobs, while also playing an important role in the transition to a low-carbon economy.
I will make some progress, but I will give way to the hon. Lady during my speech. The provisions in the Bill provide for a right to use deep-level land for the purposes of exploiting petroleum or deep geothermal energy. That will help us unlock exploration for shale gas and deep geothermal as we move towards a low-carbon economy.
Several hon. Members have brought forward new clause 4, which would place a statutory duty on the Committee on Climate Change to produce reports on the effect of shale on the UK’s net carbon emissions. Amendment 44 states that the right of use, and the carrying out of hydraulic fracturing, are conditional on the finding in the Committee’s reports
“that shale…exploitation leads to a net reduction of UK carbon emissions.”
The Government are committed to reducing carbon emissions by 80% by 2050. To meet our challenging climate targets we will need significant quantities of renewables, nuclear and gas in our energy mix, and we are committed to listening to the experts and their advice on how to reach those targets.
Will the Minister explain how public confidence in fracking is enhanced by the Government’s refusal to let the public see an unredacted copy of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs report on the impacts of fracking on the rural economy? Will she make a gesture today by saying that that report will be unredacted and put in the public domain?
Three times now the Minister has referred to moving to lower carbon emissions in the UK, but what good is that if it results in displaced coal being available for use in other parts of the developed world? Whether the emissions come from coal being burnt in Germany or in the UK, they still contribute to climate change.
That is why, as the hon. Gentleman is aware, the Government have been so keen to get targets into Europe that apply across the whole of Europe. He will be aware that we are leading on those, and we will continue to do so. It is very important to lead by example, and he is right to raise the issue relating to Germany, which is why we are pleased to have a cross-European agreement. However, that does not detract from the importance of making sure that we do the right thing in this country.
On that point about displaced coal, is it not a fact that it is displaced coal from north America that is contributing to a rise in the burning of coal in Europe? If we take matters into our own hands and develop more gas, we can reduce the amount of coal that is burned. It is coal that is the enemy of climate change and that is enemy No. 1. Gas is our ally in a green future.
My hon. Friend makes an excellent point based on his clear expertise in this area. The Committee on Climate Change has said that for flexible power supply, the UK will
“continue to use considerable, albeit declining, amounts of gas well into the 2030s”
which will leave
“a considerable gap between production of North Sea gas and our total demand.”
It argues that that demand
“can either be met through imports or UK production of shale gas.”
It concludes that
“if anything, using well regulated UK shale gas to fill this gap could lead to lower overall lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions than continuing to import LNG. It would also increase the proportion of energy produced within the UK, improving our energy sovereignty.”
The important thing that has come from these exchanges is that it is the use of carbon that causes the emissions. Therefore, it is crucial that we have a proper emissions trading scheme throughout Europe and that the source of the energy should be as low carbon as possible. Therefore, maximising the economic production from the North sea is an important first step.
The Minister rightly said that the displacement of coal by gas could make a massive impact on reducing our carbon emissions. But it is also right to say that that is no good if countries such as Germany go down the coal route. Does she think she can persuade those countries to follow us in going towards gas more quickly?
I will make a little more progress.
Professor David MacKay and Dr Timothy Stone have supported the findings of the Committee on Climate Change and in 2013, they published recommendations on how to reduce emissions from shale gas operations, which the Government have accepted. In addition, the Environment Agency has agreed to make green completions—techniques to minimise methane emissions —a requirement of environmental permits for shale gas production.
I will give way to the hon. Gentleman, but first I want to outline what the Government are doing on this matter.
I am pleased to say that we have tabled an amendment that will place a duty on the Secretary of State to seek advice from the Committee on Climate Change as to the impact of petroleum development in England and Wales, including shale gas operations, on our ability to meet the UK’s overall climate change objectives over time, and it is not limited to a specific carbon budget period. The Secretary of State must consider the advice of the Committee on Climate Change and report on his conclusions at least every five years. By introducing this amendment, we are making it absolutely clear that shale development will remain compatible with our goal to cut greenhouse gas emissions.
I thank the Minister for that amendment. It goes halfway towards my amendment, which called for that to happen and then said that we should not allow fracking if it increased emissions. She spoke about the report from Dave Mackay, one of my constituents. Does she accept that he also says that
“in the absence of strong climate policies…we believe it is credible that shale-gas use would increase both short-term and long-term emissions rates?”
If it turns out that we do see higher carbon emissions, will she agree that we should end fracking at that point at least?
The hon. Gentleman makes an interesting point. I am confident that our amendment addresses exactly that. The Committee on Climate Change will take a view on what it sees, now that there is an obligation on the Secretary of State to consult with it. I am encouraged by the fact that that obligation is now in place.
On the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington South (David Mowat), is the Minister aware that, historically, the German nation has been providing massive subsidies—up to £4 billion a year—to its coal industry? She could do something in the Council of Europe about solving the problem that she has been describing. Will she do that?
Is my hon. Friend aware that David MacKay, to whom the hon. Member for Cambridge (Dr Huppert) referred, also reported that carbon emissions from shale gas are lower than those from liquefied natural gas, and that because the most likely effect of developing our shale gas reserves will be to substitute for LNG imports, the direct and immediate effect of allowing shale gas to go ahead will be a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions?
In addition to all the advantages my hon. Friend has already mentioned, does she accept that we need to have a shale gas industry to go hand-in-hand with our wind industry, because wind-powered generators require gas generators to back them up?
My hon. Friend is right: having a successful shale gas industry is an important part of supporting our renewables industry.
New clause 2 proposes specific changes to the Scotland Act 1998. Although I understand the intention, the Bill is not the right vehicle to make those amendments. The new devolution settlement should be debated as a whole package in the next Parliament. Last Thursday, the Government published their Command Paper, “Scotland in the United Kingdom: An enduring settlement”, which sets out that draft clause 31 will devolve to Scottish Ministers the regime for licensing exploration and extraction of oil and gas, and transfer to the Scottish Parliament legislative competence for the licensing of onshore oil and gas exploration and extraction. Responsibility for mineral access rights for underground onshore extraction of oil and gas in Scotland will also be devolved to the Scottish Parliament.
I assure hon. Members that those matters will be fully addressed through the broader process of reviewing the devolution settlement, to which all three major parties are committed. Whoever forms the next Government will take forward the draft legislation for further Scottish devolution. I announced in Committee the Government’s intention to table an amendment to remove Scotland from the scope of the provisions concerning the right to use deep-level land. We have now tabled amendments that will achieve that.
I note what the Minister says, and obviously I am keen that the powers be transferred as soon as possible, but does she not acknowledge that, as I and the Scottish Government have said on numerous occasions, there is a gap? Scotland has planning and environmental powers, but will not, if the Government do as she is saying they will, get powers on licences for some time yet. Will the Government give a guarantee that no more licences will be granted in the meantime? What is the position of licences already granted? Would it not be more sensible to support new clause 9, so that there is a moratorium until the Scottish Parliament can make a full decision on these matters?
I feel that the Government new clause deals with the specific issues that are relevant to the Infrastructure Bill. I understand—we all do—that many other measures may need to be debated, but the time for that will be after the next Government are in place, when there will be a fuller debate on proper devolution.
The Minister said that onshore energy and fuels will be devolved, but when will offshore be devolved to the Scottish Government—Scotland’s oil?
The Minister is talking about new clause 2 and the devolution of licensing, which she says is promised and will be delivered as part of the Smith agreement. Given that the 14th round has been started but the licences not awarded, does it not make sense for those licences not to be awarded in Scotland until devolution has happened?
The Minister has outlined a road map for further powers for Scotland in regard to licensing powers. What consideration have the UK Government given to giving similar powers to the Welsh Government?
The Secretary of State for Wales has announced that a set of commitments agreed by the four main political parties in Wales on the way forward for Welsh devolution will be in place by 1 March. These commitments will form a baseline for devolution after the election. I understand that a strong case is being made for devolution of those powers.
That covers the hon. Gentleman’s amendment 66, which seeks to render the application of the clauses to the approval of the National Assembly for Wales. In addition, the current Government of Wales Act 2006 clearly sets out that oil and gas are excluded from the list of devolved subjects, and the exploitation of deep geothermal resources cannot be considered to have been conferred under any of the subjects in schedule 7. We see no grounds on which this measure would currently be within the legislative competence of the Welsh Assembly. That is the situation for now. Scotland and Wales will continue to have substantial control of onshore oil and gas, and geothermal activities through their own existing planning procedures and environmental regulation, as these are already devolved. I ask hon. Members not to press their amendments.
New clause 6 and amendments 2 and 83 suggest that the national planning policy framework leaves gaps in respect of protected land, but this is not the case. Strong protections already exist for these areas and further protections are not necessary. A blanket ban, as proposed, would be disproportionate.
Is the Minister saying—she should be very clear on this—that there is absolutely no prospect of any fracking happening on any of this list of properties, and that anybody reading this debate should be clear that the Government have no intention of allowing that? Is that what she is saying?
If the hon. Gentleman will let me comment on that aspect in my own words, I hope that will reassure him.
The existing legislative framework provides a robust framework of protection for those sensitive areas. The Conservation of Habitats and Species Regulations 2010 require a developer to undertake a habitats regulation assessment whenever a proposed project is likely to have a significant impact on a special conservation area or a special protection area. These protections derive from European law and set a very high bar. The regulations are supported by the national planning policy framework, which recognises areas that should be given a high level of protection, even if the development is outside the site boundary. These include special areas of conservation, special protection areas, sites of special scientific interest and Ramsar sites.
Planning guidance published last July set out the specific approach to planning for unconventional hydrocarbons in national parks, the broads, areas of outstanding natural beauty and world heritage sites. The guidance makes it clear that planning authorities should refuse planning applications for major development in these areas unless it can be demonstrated both that exceptional circumstances exist and that it is in the public interest.
Let me add to my earlier comments that we have agreed an outright ban on fracking in national parks, sites of special scientific interest and areas of outstanding natural beauty. I hope that will reassure the right hon. Gentleman about the liability potential for any of the areas that I know he is particularly keen to protect.
I know that my hon. Friend will shortly respond to some of the amendments tabled in my name, but will she complete the sentence? Is she saying that there will be an outright ban on any fracking in national parks? Have the Government removed the words “except in exceptional circumstances”?
Can the Minister clarify the situation in respect of ancient woodland? Will she also clarify the situation in respect of decisions by local planning authorities and whether, despite what she has just said, it will be possible for the Secretary of State to overturn those decisions?