House of Commons
Tuesday 15 December 2015
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
Business, Innovation and Skills
The Secretary of State was asked—
I am sure the whole House will want to join me in sending its best wishes to Major Tim Peake, who successfully blasted off towards space just 30 minutes ago. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”]
We are reforming technical education and establishing clear routes into higher-level skills and employment. We are spending £2.5 billion on apprenticeships—double the amount in 2010—and £1.5 billion on adult skills, growing degree and higher apprenticeships and establishing specialist colleges.
I join the whole House in sending the Secretary of State’s good wishes to our fellow countryman.
Under the Conservatives, Lincoln’s improved educational map offers the young people of Lincoln myriad—nay, a plethora of—opportunities. Does the Secretary of State agree that prioritising funding for young adults, the low-skilled and those actively looking for work is the right thing for a Conservative Government to do?
I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend, who I know cares passionately about skills for young adults. He will be pleased to know that we rightly prioritised spending on further education in the recent spending review, which will enable colleges, such as Lincoln college in his constituency, to offer more to young people.
Further education colleges are vital for apprenticeships in engineering and construction, in which there is an acute shortage of skills across the country. What assessment has the Secretary of State made of the cuts in funding to FE colleges in terms of delivering this much-needed agenda?
I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman is talking about cuts in FE spending. I know that is what Labour was scaremongering about just a few weeks ago, but we have actually protected the adult education budget in cash terms, we will double spending on apprenticeships by 2020 and we have extended the availability of advanced learner loans. Taken together, this will mean a 35% real increase in FE spending by 2020 compared with this year.[Official Report, 5 January 2016, Vol. 604, c. 1-2MC.]
22. I welcome the removal of the cap on university places, but what assessment has my right hon. Friend made of the effect on further education colleges, such as Wiltshire college in my constituency, given that they are fishing from the same pool in terms of vocationally based diplomas and apprenticeships?
But as ever, it is smoke and mirrors with this Secretary of State. He knows that the Chancellor has announced an extra £360 million of savings from the adult skills budget, so will he come clean and tell us where those cuts will be made?
The Department will shortly issue a skills funding letter answering some of the hon. Gentleman’s questions, but perhaps he missed the point that I just made: the adult education budget is protected in cash terms, we will double spending on apprenticeships by 2020 and the FE budget will be up by the end of the Parliament in real terms.
Met Office Funding
The Met Office plays a key role in our economy. A recent review of the public weather service assessed it as delivering up to £1.5 billion of annual value. As the shareholder for the Met Office, I and my officials regularly hold it to account and ensure it delivers value for money for the taxpayer.
The BBC, no less, reported in 2012 that in 11 out of the previous 12 years predictions about increases in temperature had been wrong and that there had been a warm bias. Does the Secretary of State, as the shareholder, agree that he should be asking some tough questions at the board meeting about why we should be imposing expensive climate change policies on businesses and householders, when so often the predictions behind them are proved to be inaccurate?
I always like to ask tough questions, but I note there was flooding in my hon. Friend’s constituency recently, and the Met Office played a key role in helping the emergency services and protecting lives and property. Today is an opportunity to commend the Met Office for some of the work it does.
I chair the exports implementation taskforce, which is driving cross-Whitehall support for exports. In November, my noble Friend Lord Maude launched the five-year Exporting is GREAT campaign, which promotes real-time global export opportunities to business.
In November, I hosted an event in my constituency with the China-Britain Business Council to which I invited small businesses to come and find out more about trading with China. The all-party parliamentary group on China is aiming to help 50 Members to organise similar events. Can my right hon. Friend tell me how his Department plans to make good use of our new trading relationship with China to help small businesses expand into these vital global markets?
Let me commend my hon. Friend on her efforts to encourage businesses in her constituency to export more to China. While exports to China have doubled in the last five years, there is a lot of potential and a lot more that we can do. The recent visit by the Chinese President helped to highlight that, and the effort that my hon. Friend is making with UK Trade & Investment, the China-Britain Business Council and others provides an example to us all.
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. The more we can export of higher-value steel products, the more we can help. We have been discussing this with UKTI and steel producers. We are coming up with a plan, and this will certainly feature in the trade meetings we have in due course.
Next month, I will be jointly hosting an event with UKTI to encourage more local Cannock Chase businesses to consider exporting. Will my right hon. Friend outline what the Government are doing to encourage new businesses to export?
I can talk about a number of initiatives, including the Exporting is GREAT website and the roadshow that will visit constituencies up and down the country. There is obviously also the work that UKTI is doing. Most recently, I helped to launch the midlands engine scheme, which I know my hon. Friend will welcome. We released more money to help that region with exports, including a midlands engine roadshow.
As part of the work of the export implementation group, will the Secretary of State explore with the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs all options to access new markets for all our farm produce in north America and south-east Asia?
Absolutely. The hon. Lady makes an important point. I know that the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has been taking this matter very seriously. One thing we have done recently is to move some of the UKTI resources into my right hon. Friend’s Department so that there is better co-ordination.
I recently talked to a senior Indian businessman and asked him how we could increase trade with India. He said that the one thing we could do was to leave the EU because of the restrictions. Will the Secretary of State, either as Secretary of State or personally, endorse his comment?
It is all very well, but it is not working, is it? The UK’s latest balance of trade deficit is widening. It was up to £2.4 billion in the last quarter. Exports of goods—[Interruption.] Perhaps the Minister for Small Business, Industry and Enterprise should have a little listen to this. Exports of goods from the UK actually fell last month by £700 million. It is a pity we cannot export spin, because the Government are very good at that. The “march of the makers” was very good, and now we have the “midlands engine”. What is the Secretary of State’s excuse for the Government’s dismal record on the trade deficit?
The hon. Gentleman should not do down our world-class exporters. They are doing a fantastic job. Let me give him a few examples of what they can export. They can export wine to France, chocolate to Belgium and even boomerangs to Australia, although I fear that it is sometimes the same boomerang that keeps coming back.
We have given employers control over apprenticeship standards and require all apprenticeships to last at least 12 months and involve substantial off-the-job training. We will be setting up an independent, employer-led institute for apprenticeships to approve standards and assure quality in future.
I thank the Minister for that response, and I welcome the fact that there have been nearly 1,100 apprenticeship starts in north Warwickshire and Bedworth over the last 12 months. However, I know that local businesses are concerned that the focus might be on quantity rather than quality. What assurances can the Minister give to my constituents, especially those in highly skilled engineering, that that will not be the case?
There is, in fact, no innate tension between quantity and quality. We want better quality, because that will mean more employers wanting to offer apprenticeships, such as BMW in my hon. Friend’s constituency. I strongly welcome the very high-quality apprenticeships that it is creating.
As the Minister will know, Ofsted has said that apprenticeships are not good enough at present, and many people in industry believe that the only way to hit the 3 million target is to water down quality further. What reassurance can the Minister provide?
I welcome that question, because while it is true that Ofsted has highlighted some bad practice, that bad practice has been familiar to us all for a long time, and has inspired the reforms that we are introducing. All apprenticeship frameworks will be replaced by standards developed by employers. Training must last for more than 12 months, and at least 20% of it must be off-the-job training. We will also ensure that quality improves at all levels. I disagree slightly with the chief inspector’s implication that a level 2 apprenticeship is somehow not of high quality. Apprenticeships should be of high quality at all levels, and the existing level 2 apprenticeships increase people’s incomes by an average of 11% three to five years later.
23. There were 970 new starts in my constituency last year, many of them in engineering and technology. That was an increase of 24% on the number of starts in the previous year. Will my hon. Friend join me in congratulating the new apprentices, and does he agree that those figures show that the Government are committed to high-quality apprenticeship places, such as those that are provided at Prospects college of advanced technology?
That was a stunning achievement in my hon. Friend’s constituency. I know that it was largely due to PROCAT, which is an excellent institution, and one of the first institutions to become a college for a long time. My visit to PROCAT was my first visit to a college in my current job, and if my hon. Friend invites me to return, I shall be happy to do so.
I commend the Minister for establishing an institute for apprenticeships which will put employers at its heart, but may I suggest that he should consult trade unions and find ways of harnessing their insight and experience in this valuable area?
As the hon. Gentleman knows, I greatly value the work that trade unions do in encouraging employees to take up training opportunities, which is why we continue to fund the important work of Unionlearn. I will certainly reflect on his suggestion, and will make some announcements shortly.
Snap-on is a major United States manufacturer, developer and marketer of tools, and its UK headquarters are in Kettering. Given that it is seeking to increase its investment in apprenticeships throughout the country, will my hon. Friend accept an invitation to open its new £2 million facility in Kettering on 15 February?
Business Support (Exports)
My Department is leading a cross-Whitehall work programme to support exports. For example, UK Trade & Investment connects UK businesses with export opportunities throughout the world. Over the next year, the UKTI export hub will travel around the country to give face-to-face assistance to first-time exporters.
Feedback from businesses in my constituency suggests that there needs to be more support for small and medium-sized enterprises that export less than half a million pounds’ worth of goods. It suggests that once they are in the bracket of Government support, that support is short-lived, and is complicated by red tape. How would the Secretary of State respond to those businesses?
I agree that we should always try to do more to help small and medium-sized enterprises, in particular, to export more. The hon. Gentleman may know that I recently led one of our first regional trade missions, the northern powerhouse trade mission, to the far east. It included not only the Greater Manchester chamber of commerce, but companies such as Televic Education, which is in his constituency.
Fairline has a long history of exporting luxury boats across the world, but last week we heard the devastating news of 380 redundancies. While I hope that the administrator can identify a buyer, many of those employees have been laid off for significant periods with reduced pay. Will the Secretary of State do all that he can to ensure that the redundancy payments are expedited, especially given that Christmas is just around the corner?
The hon. Gentleman will know that these discussions are still going on. By their very nature, they are complex, as two huge economic areas are involved, and so they will still take some time. Agri-products and all products of that nature need to be carefully looked at, so we have not reached a final point. It is worth remembering that once this deal is done, it can be worth up to £400 for every household in the UK each year.
In my former career, I exported broadcasting equipment to 48 countries worldwide—no thanks to the EU and its regulations. Is it not the case that people need the chutzpah to export, and although the Department can give as much help as it can, people have actually to get out there and do it, and be confident in doing so?
One thing we know is that my hon. Friend is not short of chutzpah, and I am glad he deployed it in his former career. He is absolutely right in what he says and he makes a key point: there is only so much the Government can do. We will do that and look for ways to provide even more support, but we want more and more companies to do everything they can, too.
The Government’s so-called support for exports has seen grants converted to loans, and the sudden closure of the business growth service. Businesses supported by that service grew four times faster than other businesses, and the scheme created 83,000 jobs and added more than £3.5 billion to the national economy. As one BGS mentor says,
“the service’s closure doesn’t make sense considering its huge success and may prove detrimental to Britain’s economic health.”
What message does the closure of the BGS send to businesses that want to grow? Given the outstanding record of success, does the closure of the service not show a complete lack of understanding by this Government of what works on support for exports?
I am glad the hon. Gentleman has raised the issue of the BGS, because although it was a good fee-earner for consultants, there is very little evidence to show that it helped businesses to grow. [Interruption.] There is little evidence that it was the best way to help those businesses. The best way to help businesses is to make sure that we continue to have a growing economy—our economy is growing faster than those of all our rivals—so one thing he can do is support our long-term economic plan. We are also providing funding to 39 local enterprise partnerships—all the LEPs—through growth hubs, which they can use for localised support, including export opportunities.
We do, of course, hope that the apprenticeship levy will provide the same opportunities for young people south of the border as the 25,000 who started a modern apprenticeship in Scotland this year have. Is the Minister aware of the Association of Employment and Learning Providers’ concerns that the number of small and medium-sized enterprises affected by the levy is likely to be much greater than originally thought? Will he give an undertaking to provide clear and early guidance to those, well in advance of implementation?
I am delighted that the hon. Gentleman is proud of the 25,000 modern apprenticeship starts in Scotland, just as we are proud of the half a million starts we have had in the past year in England. This would suggest to me that we can both take pride in our commitment to apprenticeships. I hope he will welcome the fact that the apprenticeship levy will be generating resources, some of which will pass to Scotland to enable it to fund what I hope will be a dramatic expansion in the number of its apprenticeships.
As the Minister will appreciate, the oil and gas industry faces distinct challenges at the moment. I know from my engagement with companies in the sector that there is significant concern that this levy may represent a second charge, with many oil and gas companies already paying levies to industry trading bodies. It also represents an additional cost to these companies at a time when controlling business costs is of paramount importance. Will he commit to meet me, along with my colleagues and a delegation from the industry, to hear their concerns and discuss how the apprenticeship levy scheme can be designed to take account of these circumstances?
Of course I would be delighted to meet the hon. Lady and that delegation, but I will be asking them what they thought of her party’s plans for Scotland’s economy, which rested on oil prices at $100 a barrel and would now see an independent Scotland entirely bankrupt and probably scuttling to the International Monetary Fund.
Adult Skills (Funding)
We are protecting funding for adult education at £1.5 billion per year in cash terms. We are extending advanced learner loans to more adult learners and increasing spending on adult apprenticeships to £1.5 billion by 2019-20. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State says, this means that total funding for adult skills training will be 36% higher in the last year of this Parliament than in the first.[Official Report, 5 January 2016, Vol. 604, c. 2MC.]
Salford city college was one of more than 100 further education colleges that wrote to the Prime Minister to protest at repeated year-on-year real-terms funding cuts to adult skills since 2010 amounting to 40%. Despite the promise not to cut adult skills funding for FE colleges, Treasury documents say that there will be £360 million of savings and efficiencies, as my hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Gwynne) mentioned. After years of savage cuts, how can that be achieved?
Like many other colleges, the hon. Lady’s college wrote to the Prime Minister before the spending review in response to the shroud waving by the Opposition, who predicted a 25% to 40% cut in the adult skills budget. If the hon. Lady had taken the trouble to attend my right hon. Friend the Chancellor’s spending review statement, she would have heard that he was protecting it in cash terms while increasing the funding for apprenticeships, which her college and others could bid for. If she spoke to her college, she would discover that, like all other colleges, it is pleasantly surprised by the funding settlement.
Any credible long-term economic plan would recognise the critical importance of adult reskilling, but the Government have systematically cut adult skills by 40% since 2010, including a 24% cut in February this year in non-apprenticeship funding. That is probably why the Chancellor ducked out of making any reference to the further cuts in his autumn statement, leaving it to his Blue Book to talk about £360 million of efficiencies. Will the Minister say precisely what the £1.5 billion of core funding that he talks of is made up of? Does it include loans to over 25-year-olds, 50% of which we know will not be taken up?
Further Education College (Sittingbourne)
8. What steps his Department is taking to establish a further education college in Sittingbourne. (902705)
The House is making me earn my salary today.
We have launched a process of locally-led area reviews to consider each area’s skills needs and plan how further education colleges and sixth form colleges can best organise themselves to meet them. The Kent review is due to start in November 2016.
I welcome the review. Sittingbourne is the largest town in Kent without its own FE college. However, we have a unique opportunity to change that. May I invite the Minister to visit the Swale skills centre in my constituency to learn about how, with the right help, it could easily and cheaply be extended into a small college?
I have had a message from the Whips saying that they would be only too delighted for me to do further visits to hon. Members’ constituencies, so I would be delighted to visit my hon. Friend’s constituency. We do not hear the Opposition celebrating when new institutions open, including the Swale skills centre, which was set up by a very successful academies trust that is already doing a great job of running three local schools.
I consulted on the proposal to freeze the student loan repayment threshold and received responses from a wide range of interested parties. I considered those responses, as well as a detailed impact analysis, before deciding to proceed with the freezing of the threshold.
Does the Secretary of State agree that if a commercial company had made a retrospective change to a contract in this way, costing students £6,000 in the process, there would likely be an investigation? Does he accept that, in doing so, he breached the trust of former, current and future students?
What I accept is that these were the right set of changes. I considered the responses to the consultation carefully. It is important that we strike the right balance between the interests of the students, making sure that all who have the ability have the opportunity to go to university, and the interests of the taxpayer, ensuring that we have an affordable, sustainable funding system. That is exactly what the changes bring about.
Despite the negative comments from the Opposition, can the Secretary of State confirm that this year record numbers of young people secured places at university, including record numbers of children from disadvantaged backgrounds?
My hon. Friend is right. That is true of England. We have seen a record increase to 382,000 people in the past year, and the number of students from disadvantaged backgrounds has gone up from 9.5% to 18.2% in the past five years. In Scotland we have seen a fall in the number of students because Scotland does not have a funding system that allows all who want to go to university to do so.
Given the report in The Independent on Sunday that Ministers in the Cabinet Office are desperately trying to find ways to increase the cap on tuition fees without proper debate and a vote in this House, can the Secretary of State confirm that any attempt to increase the cap on tuition fees will come back to this House for a full debate and vote? Can he also confirm that Government proposals in the autumn statement to extend tuition fees to nurses, midwives and students of allied health subjects will be subject to a proper debate and a vote in this House?
Does the Secretary of State agree that retrospectively changing the terms of a contract is, in effect, mis-selling? Will he guarantee that in this Parliament there will be no further changes to either thresholds or interest rates?
The changes in question are entirely lawful. That is the advice that I received and it is perfectly consistent with the aims. Hon. Members should remember that the loans that are provided are on significantly better terms than those that are available commercially, and they achieve the objective of allowing all those who wish to go to university and who have the ability to do so.
I was delighted that in the spending review the Government committed a further £900 million of funding for aerospace research and development, supported by the Aerospace Technology Institute. That means that this Government will invest almost £2 billion in aerospace research over 13 years to 2025-26, so our world-leading aerospace industry can stay at the forefront of development and capitalise on the estimated £3.6 trillion market for new aircraft that will be needed over the next 20 years.
I recently met Mark Porter and Jon Brough, the trade union representatives at Rolls-Royce’s two sites at Barnoldswick in my constituency. They welcome the continuation of Government support for the aerospace growth partnership in the comprehensive spending review. However, they remain concerned about the outsourcing of high-value engineering jobs to low-cost countries. What more can my right hon. Friend do to address this concern?
I am more than happy to meet my hon. Friend to discuss the concerns of all those he has met with. Rolls-Royce, along with the aerospace sector as a whole, is a major contributor to the United Kingdom economy, so we get how important it is. That is why we have protected and, indeed, extended the investment that we are making in research and development.
The recent announcement of the expansion of the Aerohub enterprise zone in Cornwall to include the Goonhilly earth station has been keenly welcomed in Cornwall. Does the Minister agree that this creates a great opportunity for Cornwall to be awarded the location of the UK spaceport, which would provide a huge bonus to the Cornish economy?
I am sure my hon. Friend will continue to make that case. I have to say that a number of other airports are in the running and we aim to launch the selection process next year. We have heard the great news about the launch today and Major Tim going up into space. Ground control can report that the UK space sector has almost doubled to £11.8 billion—[Interruption.] I know it is the festive season, but I think it is most unfortunate that Opposition Members are singing. It is not good. I hope they might cheer the fact that the sector has almost doubled to £11.8 billion in just seven years and employs 37,000 people.
Rolls-Royce is of strategic importance to our aerospace industry, not just in Derby but in Sheffield and Bristol. What are the Government prepared to do to safeguard that capacity, which is increasingly in the news at the moment, in order to ensure that we not just invest in but safeguard the future of the industry so that the UK stays at the forefront of aerospace manufacturing globally?
We should of course mention the importance of Rolls-Royce to a great city like Derby; I say that, obviously, as a Nottinghamshire MP. In all seriousness, we are monitoring the situation carefully. We recognise the huge importance of the role that Rolls-Royce plays in our economy. It is really important that we do not talk things down. [Interruption.] Forgive me, but there is too often a tendency among Labour Members, not necessarily the hon. Lady, to talk things down. It is really important that we do not do that and that we continue to support Rolls-Royce.
Because—I know the hon. Gentleman will have trouble in understanding this—this is 2015. We are not back in the ’60s and the dark days of the ’70s, and we have a long-term economic plan that delivers, unlike his plan, which would be an absolute disaster for our country.
As we have heard from my hon. Friends, we have been watching the recent developments in relation to Rolls-Royce very closely, not only because of the implications for national security but because it is the biggest single employer for Britain’s aerospace sector. As the Minister said, the global market for new aircraft is predicted to be worth £3.6 trillion in the next 20 years, so we welcome the investment in the Aerospace Technology Institute. However, is it not about time that Ministers considered developing an industrial strategy instead of continuing the current piecemeal approach?
I am not going to repeat all the things I have said about our continuing investment. With £900 million of taxpayers’ money going into aerospace, we absolutely understand and recognise its significance. It is very easy to put on labels, but it does not matter what label we put on—it is about delivery, and that is what this Government continue to do.
Energy Sector (Research and Development)
As my right hon. Friend the Chancellor demonstrated in the autumn statement, the Government put investment in R and D as the top priority in our long-term economic plan. I am delighted, as I am sure that Opposition Members will be, by the announcement on ring-fencing the science budget, with £6.9 billion on science capital and £4.7 billion on revenue. In addition, the Prime Minister recently announced a 50% increase in our funding of climate finance, with £400 million over this Parliament, and we have just announced £60 million going into the energy research accelerator.
Launching an investment coalition in Paris at the weekend, Bill Gates made the point that if we are to avoid global warming we have to move at full speed in developing new renewable energy technologies. To ensure that the UK plays its part, what progress have Ministers made in ensuring that the UK Green Investment Bank receives the full £3.8 billion of capitalisation and maintains its green mandate, irrespective of the future of the Government’s stake in the bank?
I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will welcome the Prime Minister’s announcement of £400 million extra funding. The Green Investment Bank has played the role that we envisaged in supporting the green economy, which is not an allotment economy—it now constitutes 96,000 businesses with 230,000 employees and a turnover of £45 billion for the British economy and £4.8 billion of exports. By giving the Green Investment Bank the freedom to raise money on the capital markets, we will generate more money for the green economy, which is growing under this Government like never before.
The North sea oil and gas sector faces significant challenges at the current time, with a need for a collegiate approach to research and development to fuel innovation and to drive down costs. To achieve this, will the Minister consider setting up a North sea oil and gas innovation centre similar to the very successful offshore wind catapult?
My hon. Friend makes a very interesting point. On the east coast in East Anglia, in the north and in Scotland, this country is leading in the field of offshore energy. We have just funded the offshore energy centre, but I would be happy to look at the specific idea that he recommends.
“Extremely disappointing”, “missed opportunity”, “damaging” and “disgrace” were some of the words and phrases used to describe this Government’s decision to withdraw £1 billion of funding from carbon capture and storage. Hundreds of jobs for the communities of the north-east of Scotland, and the opportunity to be at the forefront of low-carbon innovation, have now been lost. The Government will instead spend hundreds of millions of pounds on subsidising research into nuclear energy. In the light of that decision, would the Minister like to take this opportunity to explain to the people of Peterhead and the north-east specifically how he has supported them to be world leaders in innovation?
It is a pleasure to follow that speech. I will happily repeat the figure I just gave: the Prime Minister has just announced £400 million of extra funding for energy finance. We have just made announcements on onshore research. One of the lessons for Scotland is to reduce its dependence on public sector funding. The truth is that, under the renewables obligation for offshore wind, 28% of the funding went to Scotland—that is £560 million—when it represents only 10% of bill payers. We need to support the green economy in Scotland, just like we are doing in the rest of the country.
In the spending review, a major energy investment of £250 million was announced for small modular reactors. That was warmly welcomed in the north-west and it will make a big difference to our ability to meet our climate change targets. It is crucial that the UK owns the intellectual property rights that result from that technology. Will the Minister and his colleagues in the Department of Energy and Climate Change make sure that that is the case?
My hon. Friend is something of an expert on those matters and I will happily look into the very important point he makes. One of the benefits of our support for the green economy—which, as I have said, is now a £45 billion sector in this country—is that we are generating the leading technologies in 21st-century green energy. I will happily look into the specific points he makes.
Small Businesses (Late Payments)
The Enterprise Bill, which is going through the other place, will create a small business commissioner, and one of his or her most important roles will be to make sure, as much as possible, that the continuing problem with late payment is brought to an end. Of course, we have other measures in hand to make sure that there is reporting, but we are making good progress.
Cheltenham’s superb range of shops and small business rely for their success on people getting out from behind their computers and physically visiting local shops. Does my hon. Friend agree that local authorities should promote flexible and, above all, cheap parking wherever possible to support small businesses and shopping hubs such as Cheltenham?
I fear that, as ever, I am a bit off message. I take a radical approach to parking. As far as is ever possible, I take the view that there should be no parking charges in any towns. The car parks belong to the people—they absolutely do. There are times when a local authority wants to put in car-parking charges—a very good example being in Rushcliffe—to make sure that people do not abuse them, but, as far as possible, we should be supporting our great town centres and our great small businesses. We should not charge people for the luxury of parking in their own hometowns.
In the spirit of Christmas, may I invite the whole ministerial team to come to Huddersfield, where they can learn about spinning and weaving? I can also arrange for them to have a wonderful “Made in Huddersfield” worsted suit, just like the one I am wearing. They can also meet small businesses and the Textile Centre of Excellence and talk about all the pressures on small business and the problems they face because the Government want to take us out of Europe, which will stop us exporting to the rest of the world.
It was all going so well—I was going to be a little Christmas fairy. Of course, everybody knows my views, and, indeed, those of my Prime Minister, on the European Union: we want to stay in a reformed Union and make sure that we get those reforms. In the spirit of Christmas, I would be delighted to go to Huddersfield. I could talk about my family’s long-standing relationship with Huddersfield. We will do that on the basis that I will go to Huddersfield if the hon. Gentleman will come to Broxtowe, to Beeston in particular.
I am delighted to say that I talk about cyber-resilience a lot with the Minister for the Cabinet Office. Only the other day, we were saying how pleased we were to hear the Chancellor announce the doubling of the cyber-security budget to almost £2 billion.
I am delighted that the Minister has more than doubled the budget, but only 10% of it goes on consumers, the police force and small businesses. What is the Minister doing to encourage small businesses that are time-poor, meaning that they are not able to engage with this sort of administration? What is he going to do for business in Eltham, to ensure that they are safe online?
I did not double the budget; it was the Chancellor. It is important—particularly for one’s career—to give him credit when he does such things. I take the hon. Gentleman’s point very seriously. We have a fantastic scheme called the cyber essentials scheme, which allows small businesses and large businesses to get a certificate to show that they have been through a process to increase their cyber-security.
The Government are working hard to deliver the ambitious measures outlined in our productivity plan. We will drive productivity growth throughout the UK by encouraging long-term investment and promoting a dynamic economy.
Productivity has been the Achilles heel of this Government’s economic policy. Comparisons with G7 countries are poor, and the figures are even worse when compared with those for smaller to medium-sized and—dare I say?—independent countries. Is it not the case that the Government have been completely obsessed with austerity, and cuts and have completely neglected productivity, internationalisation and innovation, which is the fairer, more progressive way to raise tax receipts and reduce the deficit?
No, that is absolutely not the case. The hon. Gentleman is right that there has been a long-running productivity issue in our country under successive Governments. That is why we have published the ambitious productivity plan, dealing with issues such as skills, infrastructure and innovation. In the past year, we have seen a 1.3% year-on-year increase in output per hour, which is very encouraging.
Broadband Market (Competition)
It is nice to be back, Mr Speaker. We have a very competitive broadband market. I was thinking about that the other day when I went to York to see TalkTalk delivering fibre to premises. I met the chief executive of Virgin Media, which is investing billions in fibre. There has been an announcement from CityFibre about its acquiring some of KCom’s holdings. On Friday, I will go to see Gigaclear delivering broadband to homes in Epping Forest. We have a very competitive market.
Ofcom has confirmed to me that Hull is the only city in the country without competition for small businesses and households, and the only city among the worst 20 areas for superfast broadband access. This is really affecting small businesses in Hull. Will the Minister tell me how much of the £530 million that the Government have allocated for investment in superfast broadband will be allocated to Hull?
The hon. Lady knows full well that Hull has traditionally had one, in effect municipal, provider—Kingston Communications, which has been privatised—which is why Hull has white phone boxes, rather than red ones. I am pleased to say that KCom is investing in broadband for the whole of Hull without any need for a public subsidy.
The recent spending review delivered a strong settlement for many of the Department’s sectors, focusing support on areas that drive up productivity across the UK.
As we have heard, in the past hour Major Tim Peake has successfully blasted into orbit. This morning, the Government launched their space policy, which has achieved lift-off. Launched a short time ago in a museum that is not far, far away, the policy document shows that there are no limits to the UK’s ambitions in this area. To mix intergalactic metaphors, we want to boldly go to infinity and beyond, and our new policy will make it so.
As everyone knows, if we are to improve productivity, we need a good, strong education system. Will the Secretary of State give a categorical assurance that further education institutions, such as Blackburn College in my constituency, will not receive a real-terms funding cut as a result of the cash-terms freeze in adult and 16-to-19 funding?
I agree with the hon. Lady on the issue of productivity and the need to boost skills. There will be area reviews, so I cannot make a promise about any particular institution. However, as the Minister for Skills has said, there will be an increase in FE funding of more than 35% in real terms over the lifetime of the Parliament. In the hon. Lady’s constituency, there has been a 75% increase in apprenticeship starts during the past five years, which I am sure she welcomes.
T3. The Eden Project in my constituency has run a successful apprenticeship in horticulture for the past year. Horticulturalists will become more and more important in meeting our increasing demand for food. What support can the Minister provide to promote horticulture as a worthwhile career for young people? (902690)
My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. We are supporting the horticulture industry under the UK agritech strategy. Indeed, I recently opened a horticultural waste reduction facility. The horticulture sector is leading in the UK on low water, low plastic and low energy farming systems, and on novel uses of insects to avoid the use of pesticides and hydroponics. It is an innovative sector that is developing interesting careers and contributing to our growing agritech economy.
May I start by adding our best wishes and congratulations to Major Tim Peake, who will be the first British astronaut to visit the international space station, ahead of his Principia mission? May I also take this opportunity to pay tribute to Helen Sharman, who was the first Briton to go into space? Let us all pledge to do our bit to inspire the next generation of scientists, engineers, mathematicians and explorers, in the same way that the moon landings inspired my generation.
Most businesses understand that nearly half our exports and 3 million jobs are linked to our membership of the European Union, and most believe, like I do, that it is in the interests of the UK to remain a member. Yesterday, the right hon. Member for North Shropshire (Mr Paterson) described the Prime Minister’s negotiations as “froth and nonsense” and the Prime Minister’s approach to his endless renegotiations has been described today as a “shambles”. Does the Secretary of State agree with UK business or with the Eurosceptics on his side of the House?
I associate myself with the hon. Lady’s comments about Major Tim Peake’s mission. It is an inspiration for us all and will hopefully get more young people interested in science.
On the European Union, I agree with almost all the businesses I have met because they want to see reform. They want to see changes in our relationship with the EU. They want the EU to be more competitive, they want to be able to make easier, quicker and deeper trade deals, they want a deeper single market and they want less bureaucracy. I am sure that the hon. Lady agrees with that too. That is exactly what we are fighting for.
We all want the UK to remain in a reformed European Union, but the Secretary of State’s Eurosceptic interests are well known. It is not like him to be so shy and timid about them, so let ask him more directly: is he prepared to resign from the Cabinet to fight for Brexit in the forthcoming referendum? If he cannot answer that question, how can he claim to be representing the interests of British businesses, which overwhelmingly want to stay in?
When it comes to divisions and resignations, it is her party that the hon. Lady should be worried about. I am prepared to fight for the reforms that I just outlined. Those are the reforms that everyone wants to see. We will fight for them tooth and nail, and then we will put the question to the British people and let them decide.
T4. The Worcestershire growth fund will provide grants of up to £100,000 to businesses that are looking to expand and create jobs in Worcestershire. Will the Secretary of State join me in encouraging as many businesses as possible across Worcestershire to apply for the first round before the deadline this Friday? (902691)
In the short time that my hon. Friend has been a Member of Parliament, he has done a lot to champion small businesses in Worcestershire. I have seen that at first hand. The Worcestershire growth fund represents an excellent funding opportunity and I certainly join him in encouraging companies in his constituency and mine to apply.
T2. The illegal money lending team has commenced 330 prosecutions against illegal loan sharks and had £63 million written off for the most vulnerable in our communities. The decision to cut a third of its £3.6 million budget may not have crossed the Secretary of State’s desk at the time, but he has had plenty of time to review the decision and it will have a big impact, so why does he continue to dodge questions about this short-sighted cut? (902689)
We are not dodging any questions. If the hon. Gentleman had attended Prime Minister’s questions last week, he would have heard my right hon. Friend the Chancellor say that he was looking at the possibility of introducing a levy to continue to fund this action against loan sharks. That is the Treasury’s policy to take forward and the hon. Gentleman will have to ask the Treasury if he wants further details about it.
T5. A few days ago in North Devon, I met the new cohort from the Petroc College Care Academy, which has a unique programme providing part-time apprenticeships at the local healthcare trust. Will the Minister join me in congratulating them, and does he agree that it is an important programme for training the next generation of our healthcare professionals locally? (902692)
I absolutely join my hon. Friend, and I thank him for raising the matter. The Care Academy programme is doing great work, and Petroc College in his constituency is pioneering 18-week placement courses so that young people can discover the interesting range of careers in the health and care sector. It supports the local economy as well as our national skills base.
T6. Several organisations, including Electrical Safety First, welcomed the recent product safety review conducted by the Department and headed by Lynn Faulds Wood. We must work to prevent ineffective product safety recalls and improve traceability better to protect customers and business in the UK. When will the Department publish the review? (902693)
I have met Lynn Faulds Wood and I thank and commend her for her work. I will have a further meeting with her to see when we can publish the review and make the progress that we all want.
T7. Will the Secretary of State update the House on the objectives of his recent visit to India, and how best local businesses in my constituency can tap into that market? (902694)
Yes, I will. The recent visit was to build on the momentum generated by Prime Minister Modi’s recent visit. Along with the Minister for Universities and Science, I went to India to promote getting more Indian students to come to the UK and study. I took 30 vice chancellors, including two from Dorset. That is just the kind of export that we want.
T8. Last week, The British Chambers of Commerce downgraded its forecast for overall GDP growth, citing weaker than expected trade. On Thursday, the Office for National Statistics released data, which showed that the gap between imports and exports grew from £3.1 billion in September to £4.1 billion in October. Will the Secretary of State update the House on the measures that he is taking to support export growth, given that his current plans are clearly not working? (902695)
The hon. Lady knows that there has been export growth in the past five years, including to some of the fastest growing markets in the world such as India and China, which came up earlier. We obviously need to do more, and that is why we have several measures in place, some of which I have mentioned. Those kinds of changes, such as increases in exports, are leading to falls in unemployment throughout the country and generating jobs, including a 53% decline in jobseekers’ allowance claimants in her constituency.
T10. As Tim Peake blasts off today, we are reminded again of the exponential value of science funding well spent. For that reason, the Science and Technology Committee intends to continue our work of testing science spending plans. Will the Business Secretary reassure the House that the welcome increase in science funding will be ring-fenced? Will he accept our invitation to appear before the Committee in January to go over that in detail? (902697)
First, I accept the invitation—thank you very much. I also take the opportunity to commend my hon. Friend for her leadership of the Science and Technology Committee and the way in which has made the case so well for science. I can confirm that the ring fence is protected in real terms, not just cash terms. I also confirm our manifesto commitment to spend £6.9 billion on science infrastructure over the next six years. I am sure that she will agree that, this Christmas, batteries are included.
T9. I previously raised with the Secretary of State the Teesside Collective’s industrial carbon capture and storage ambitions, which will not only contribute massively to the climate change agenda, but secure existing industries and attract investment. In the light of the Paris agreement, will he meet me and industrialists leading that key initiative to explore how we might bring that important project to fruition? (902696)
I hope that I do not disappoint the hon. Gentleman, but I am more than happy to have a meeting with him. He knows the terms on which we always have our meetings: not to shout at me. [Interruption.] Only in the House. I hope that he will join me in congratulating the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change on her outstanding achievement on behalf of our nation in playing a full and important role in securing the excellent way forward to ensure that the planet that we leave for our children will be better than the one that we inherited. Yes, I will have the meeting.
As the Minister well knows, Carlisle and Cumbria have experienced devastating floods recently. As part of the recovery, it is vital that confidence is restored as quickly as possible, especially in the business community. Will the Minister confirm that she and the Department will do everything to support Cumbrian businesses, and wherever possible, ensure that people know that Carlisle and Cumbria are open for business?
Yes indeed, and I pay tribute to my hon. Friend and all Members of Parliament affected by this issue for their great work. I will go to that area on Tuesday, and I hope to visit Carlisle as well as Cockermouth, Kendal and Keswick if possible. I am delighted that we were able to secure £5 million funding for all businesses affected by the flooding, which will make a huge improvement. We have done that very quickly, and the money will be available quickly and—most importantly—in time for Christmas, so that all those businesses and shops can be open for businesses.
The Secretary of State mentioned simplifying and clarifying the business environment in this country, as well as paring back bureaucracy and identifying a further £10 billion reduction in red tape over this Parliament. Why did the autumn statement propose that small businesses should file tax returns four times a year, rather than annually? Will the Secretary of State outline how that helps small businesses to reduce their costs and burdens? To keep the “Star Wars” quotes going, “I’ve got a bad feeling about this.”
I have not heard that quote from “Star Wars”. [Interruption.] It is really important that we keep deregulating for small businesses, and that was achieved during the previous Parliament. As Chair of the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee, the hon. Gentleman knows that that measure is a net target, and because of the Enterprise Bill, and many other measures, I am confident that we will see huge net deregulation, running into the billions, for businesses over the lifetime of this Parliament.
The Business, Innovation and Skills Committee had a discussion this week about the phrase “industrial strategy”, which seems to mean all sorts of things to different people. I do not know what that phrase means, but I know that if I did, I would be against it. Will the Minister reassure the House that while he is Secretary of State, this Government will not go about picking winners?
I am sure that the space Minister will praise the foresight of the previous Labour Government who established the UK Space Agency. Given that Tim Peake’s incredible mission is launching today, will she say a little more about how she will spread inspiration from that mission to a budding generation of new space scientists, engineers and astronauts, including in Cardiff South and Penarth?
Tim Peake is going to the International Space Station, but I mentioned seven years because—as you know, Mr Speaker—I am not prone to partisanship, and I will always give credit where it is due. I wish that Labour Members would do the same.
We have made huge progress to help great industries such as the steel industry, including our announcement on energy intensive industries, but I notice—let me get this point in when I have the opportunity, Mr Speaker—that nobody has mentioned that or said how good it is. The hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for Wallasey (Ms Eagle) are right to say how important it is that we inspire the younger generation—boys and girls—about great future career opportunities, especially in engineering.
My hon. Friend makes an important point, and around the country—not just in Cambridge, Oxford, and London MedCity, but in the Northern Health Science Alliance and the Scottish belt—the UK life science industry is building clusters of excellence and growth for the benefit of our citizens. I am holding discussions with the Chancellor and the Department for Communities and Local Government about how the devolution package could drive and support greater development of those health clusters around the country.
The Minister referred earlier to moneys that have been set aside by the Government for research and development in the aerospace industry. In my constituency, 6,500 people are directly employed by Magellan and Bombardier, and double that number are subcontracted. What discussions has the Minister had with the Northern Ireland Assembly to ensure that we can be part of that research and development?
I have not had those discussions, but I am more than happy to hold them with the hon. Gentleman—he knows my door is always open, especially to him. I recognise the huge importance of Bombardier, and the role that it plays in his constituency and the whole of Northern Ireland.
Point of Order
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I wonder whether you can help me by telling me what can be done when the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority, which is in my view not actually independent but very partial, is obstructing an MP from doing their work? My situation involves complex travel arrangements and IPSA is obstructing my travel movements. Is there anyone who is genuinely independent who I can deal with to get beyond the kangaroo issues of IPSA? I am wasting a lot of time and effort, as are my staff, in dealing with IPSA and getting absolutely nowhere.
Order. I am very disturbed to hear that. The hon. Gentleman might be aware—if he was not, he now will be—of the existence of an informal grouping within Parliament, which includes the hon. Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh), to which he could usefully make representations about the particular situation that he faces. I hope that he will understand that this is not something of which I can treat here and now in the Chamber.
My understanding had always been that there was an opportunity for Members to make such informal representations. The Chair cannot deal with specific cases at all, and the Chair is in no position authoritatively to comment on particular circumstances from the Chair, especially when given no advance knowledge of them. If the hon. Gentleman wishes to pursue the matter further, he can usefully do so outside the Chamber.
Free School Meals (Automatic Registration of Eligible Children)
Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)
I beg to move,
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to provide local authorities with the duties and powers required to identify and automatically register all children eligible for free school meals; to provide for an opt-out where the family wishes; and for connected purposes.
I grew up, as you did, Mr Speaker, and as did everyone in the House, in a world in which the term “progress” did not need to speak its name. It was the assumption of all of us that things could only get better. That was true not only in this Chamber and in the country but in every western society. I view the world that I grew up in rather like a train journey. The train had different compartments that reflected our social classes, particularly in England. There was a first-class compartment, as well as second, third and fourth-class compartments. The crucial thing about the train journey, however, was that we were all on board and all heading towards a better tomorrow. In the past decade or so, the last carriage, the fourth-class carriage containing the poor, has become detached from the train journey that the rest of us are on. That is happening not only here but in every western country, and it is illustrated by the rise of food banks.
Last night, in each of our constituencies, a large number of children went to bed hungry and took that hunger to school with them today. To her credit, the Secretary of State for Education is concerned about this, and about the number of children who appear to be eligible for free school meals but are getting no hot meal at the beginning of the day. She has a taskforce that is trying to spread good practice, but we all know how long it can sometimes take for good practice to be spread.
Bernard Shaw, being Irish, did not have a great deal of time for us English, except that England gave him a good standard of living. He said that if the English were promoted from inferno to paradise, they would still gather round and talk about the good old days. There is something in our culture that resists the spread of good practice. The reasons why those children go to school hungry are moderately complicated to unravel. Clearly, at the bottom of our society, there is an increase in the number of low-paid jobs, and the wages from those low-paid jobs are uncertain. The all-party parliamentary group on hunger has identified problems with benefit delivery. There are also problems—let’s face it—of families who lead such chaotic lives that they let their children go to school hungry when they have the resources to do otherwise. Some families do not do that, but clearly some families do.
The Bill takes the campaign against hunger a stage further. It will compel local authorities to use their housing benefit data to counter hunger by identifying, first of all, the 160,000 children who are eligible for free school dinners but who, for some reason, do not claim. On average, that means that, in each of our constituencies, 250 children go hungry who probably do not need to do so.
The last Government linked the school premium to eligibility for free school meals. Equally importantly, therefore, the Bill will mean that £211 million follows those 160,000 children into our schools, so schools will be better able to cope with hunger and better able to integrate those children on school trips with other children.
Mr Speaker, your office tells me that, should the House grant me leave to introduce the Bill, Second Reading is not until 22 January, but already a record number of Members—126 Members from both sides of the House with all kinds of opinion—wish the Bill to proceed. Of course, it is in the power of the Secretary of State to beat the Bill and seek the powers herself. That move would not by itself bring a happy and more prosperous Christmas to those children, but it would form a basis so that, come the new year, there will be fewer hungry children in Britain than there are today.
Question put and agreed to.
That Frank Field, John Glen, Mr Philip Hollobone, Alison McGovern, Andrew Bridgen, Peter Kyle, Wes Streeting, Sir Nicholas Soames, Ms Karen Buck, Stella Creasy, Heidi Allen and Mr Christopher Chope present the Bill.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 22 January, and to be printed (Bill 109).
[13th Allotted Day]
Climate Change and Flooding
I beg to move,
That this House applauds the courage and tirelessness of the UK’s emergency services, Armed Forces and volunteers who are working day and night to protect people from the damaging floods; condemns the reckless cuts to flood defence funding made by the Government, which have left communities more vulnerable to extreme weather; notes that 600 people were evacuated from their homes in Hawick due to flooding, and hopes the Scottish Government will urgently invest additional funds to enhance flood protection schemes in Scotland; further notes the increasing frequency and intensity of storms in recent years and their consistency with the warnings of Britain’s leading climate scientists regarding the impact of climate change; supports the outcome of the UN COP21 conference in Paris, but recognises that international cooperation and ambition to reduce greenhouse gases and invest in clean energy technologies must be increased if global temperature rises are to be limited and the goal of climate safety kept within reach; expresses concern at the Government’s decisions to cut investment in carbon capture and storage technology, privatise the Green Investment Bank without protecting its green mandate, reduce funding for energy efficiency and solar energy and block the growth of wind energy, which all jeopardise the future of Britain’s important low-carbon industries; and calls on the Government to institute a thorough climate risk assessment that considers the implications of the Paris Summit for future flood risk.
Although the climate deal reached in Paris at the weekend gives cause for optimism that the world is facing up to the global threat of climate change, the recent floods have brought home to us the urgency of the situation here in the UK. Climate change is already happening here, and people need not just warm words from the Government, but action.
May I get into my stride a little bit, and then give way? That was a premature intervention.
For the people of Cumbria, these were the third major floods in a decade. In 2009, they were told that the rainfall was unprecedented and that it was a once-in-a-century event, and yet just six years later, rainfall records in the county were again broken, causing devastation and heartbreak in the run-up to Christmas.
Flooding is already rated as the greatest climate change risk to the UK, and the Select Committee on Energy and Climate Change has warned that the frequency and magnitude of severe flooding across the UK is only going to increase. Periods of intense rainfall are projected to increase in frequency by a factor of five in this century. Indeed, the most recent Met Office analysis suggests that global warming of 2°—bear in mind that Paris does not limit us to 2°—would increase the risks of extreme flood events in the UK by a factor of seven. It is not enough to respond to the flood risk simply by focusing on building more flood defences. We need to look at how we can reduce the risk through improved land and river management, and we need to minimise the future risk of floods and other extreme weather events by tackling climate change.
We welcome the Paris accord. Nearly every country around the globe has committed to: reducing carbon emissions, building a carbon-neutral global economy, trying to limit temperature rises to 1.5°, and to reviewing our ambitions every five years. Richer nations are recognising their responsibilities to developing countries with the climate finance provisions. That is all very welcome and will make a positive difference to climate safety, but it would be complacent to suggest that the Paris accord on its own is enough.
The hon. Lady is making a strong case. As she will have heard from Paris, from civil society and from the countries that are most vulnerable to climate impacts, about 80% of known fossil fuel reserves need to stay in the ground if we are to have a hope of avoiding dangerous climate change. We need a global transition to 100% renewables by 2050. I wonder if she could say whether she agrees with that.
It is very important that we make progress on that. As I will come on to later in my speech, the fact that the Government’s policies seem to be moving away from encouraging renewables—indeed, harming the renewables sector to a very high degree—makes it very difficult for us to make the transition from fossil fuels, which is something we very much want to see.
Does my hon. Friend agree that cuts to renewable energy threaten both our environment and the economy? In my constituency, Energy Gain UK is a successful local renewables business, which has grown from nothing in four years to having 10 staff and apprenticeships. The drastic cuts to feed-in tariffs mean it may be forced to close, which makes no sense either to the environment or to the economy.
I entirely agree. The renewables sector needs certainty and it has had the rug whisked away from underneath it. There is some incredibly innovative work being done. I visited Ecotricity in Stroud yesterday, to hear about Dale Vince’s proposals not just for building on his excellent work in the renewables sector but for going far beyond that. We must encourage the sector. This is where the high-tech, high-skilled, well-paid jobs of the future are and the Government ought to be doing more to encourage them.
We must acknowledge that the individual pledges made at Paris do not add up to a commitment to keep temperature rises below 2°. We must keep asking what more we can do by way of mitigation and consider what further adaptation to climate change is needed. Domestically, it is clear that the UK is not doing enough. Contributing to the global climate fund does not mean the UK can absolve itself of all responsibility, or pass the buck to developing nations.
While the international community is moving forward, the UK has gone backwards. The Government have axed the carbon capture and storage fund, worth billions of pounds. They have blocked new wind farms and cut energy efficiency programmes drastically by 80% and they propose cutting support for solar power by 90%. They are also selling off the UK Green Investment Bank without protecting its green mandate. They are increasing taxes on our more efficient cars and they are scrapping the zero-carbon standard for new homes. Their preoccupation with fossil fuels and fracking, as I mentioned, means they have threatened the future of our renewable energy industry and we have lost thousands of green jobs.
As the hon. Gentleman says, the UK has a proud record on tackling climate change, not least due to the leadership shown by my right hon. Friend the Member for Doncaster North (Edward Miliband) with the groundbreaking Climate Change Act 2008. However, we are now coasting on that historical record and we need to do much more. We are not on course to meet our targets, so we need to do more.
The chairman of the Committee on Climate Change had no alternative but to conclude last month that the Government’s existing energy policy was clearly failing, and the CBI has said that British businesses need clarity. Businesses need to know that the Government are serious about climate change and will not make superficial claims about being green, only to U-turn on key environmental policies.
On clarity of Government direction and jobs, I understand we have to work together on renewables, but we are setting such a good example with Hinkley Point, on the border with my constituency, which is a low-carbon energy commitment that will generate 25,000 jobs, which will be terrific for the economy and energy production.
Whatever the solutions, one of the key conclusions from COP 21 is that, in order to drive down from 3.5° to 2.7°, 2° or 1.5°, the UK will have to reset its rest—as it has been phrased. We need to do more faster and with greater urgency, and that is exactly what Lord Deben and the CCC have said. Does she agree that, whatever the solutions, one of the most important things is for the Government to accept the fifth carbon budget and narrow the gap with the fourth carbon budget?
I agree entirely with my hon. Friend. There is almost a consensus that the UK needs to do more, go faster and introduce stronger targets.
Business needs certainty, but people in Cumbria and other flood zones need it too. Last week, I visited Carlisle and Cockermouth with my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition. We are grateful to the councillors, business owners and residents who showed us around their communities and homes, and we left impressed by their resilience and determined that the Government must do all they can to rebuild their communities and reduce their future flood risk. They should never have to go through this again.
My hon. Friend, who is right about the need for certainty, will understand the concerns of many of the flood-affected communities that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs cannot provide any certainty over future spending on flooding. Was she as shocked as I was to learn that this year’s flooding budget was £115 million less than last year’s? Is that not short-sighted of the Government?
I agree with my hon. Friend, as I often do. I want to say a little more about what I saw in the constituencies, and then I will answer his point.
Anyone who has been to Carlisle and Cockermouth or seen the television coverage will have been dismayed at the horrific scenes. We have seen people out on the pavements with their entire belongings, people’s homes saturated, people in temporary accommodation. There is an issue with the availability of temporary accommodation in the area. Some have been lucky enough to move into holiday cottages, but there is not much in the way of private rented accommodation to move into. We spoke to people about their massive flood insurance bills, and the thing they raised with us time and again was the excess on their policies. Now that more floods have happened, their premiums are going to go up, or they might not be able to insure their homes at all.
I agree with my hon. Friend. Small businesses mentioned that to us. The Government’s logic was that businesses could shop around in the market, but those that were hit by flooding in 2005 and 2009 and have been again now will struggle to find insurers. It is enough to put them out of business or at least force them to close for renewal and refurbishment for several months at a time.
Does the hon. Lady agree that it would be incorrect to try to link these tragic instances of flooding to global warming because, as the Inter- governmental Panel on Climate Change says in its fourth assessment report 2007, it is impossible to link individual examples of bad weather with climate change?
I am not sure that was worth waiting for. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman needs to talk to the Environment Secretary, who acknowledged in last week’s statement that there was a risk. Obviously, individual episodes do not make a pattern, but a clear pattern is emerging of extreme weather events in the UK and abroad.
Between 1997 and 2010, flood defence spending increased by three quarters in real terms, but in the 2010 spending review, the coalition Government announced a 20% real-terms cut. Flood spending was slashed by £116 million in 2011-12 and again the next year, and it was lined up for further cuts in 2013-14, before floods in the Somerset levels forced on the Government the realisation that they had gone too far. After those floods, the Prime Minister assured us that
“there will always be lessons to learn and I’ll make sure they are learned.”
But he has not shown many signs of having learned those lessons. Last year, flood and coastal erosion risk management expenditure was above £800 million, but this year it has been cut to less than £700 million—a 14% real-terms cut of £115 million. How quickly those images of the Somerset levels faded from his mind.
My hon. Friend is making an excellent point. Does she share my regret that, although the Prime Minister said money was no object, as soon as the television images of the Great Western main line under water had faded from public consciousness, money actually was an object?
I entirely agree. It seemed that money was no object in the short-term clear-up exercise, although there were delays in people getting the money promised to them. The Government are trying to speed up that process this time, by giving the money to local authorities, but council leaders have raised concerns that they simply do not have the resources and staff for that administration. I hope the Environment Secretary will provide some clarity on that.
Last week, the Environment Secretary was still assuring the people of Cumbria that the Government would learn the lessons, and the Prime Minister, on a fleeting visit up north, told them:
“After every flood, the thing to do is sit down, look at the money you are spending, look at what you are building, look at what you are planning to build in the future and ask: ‘Is it enough?’”
I am not convinced that it is enough. In June, the Committee on Climate Change gave flood adaptation a double-red warning, and the Environmental Audit Committee gave the Government a red card for climate adaptation. The Prime Minister did not have to wait for the floods to ask, “Are we doing enough?” The experts had already provided the evidence that we were not.
On learning the lessons, is my hon. Friend as surprised as I am that about half of the Chancellor’s fast-track zones to build houses are on floodplains? It is estimated that 9,000 new houses built on these floodplains might not be insurable because of the risk of flooding.
That is certainly an issue. Cockermouth has had planning permission approved for new houses, yet we have seen from the recent floods that the defences, which people thought were safe enough to withstand what was described in 2009 as a once in a lifetime or a once in a century event, were not good enough. The Government need to reassure me, therefore, that any defences around new housing in those areas would be sufficient to protect people and deal with the issue of insurance.
The hon. Lady is making an eloquent case about Cumbria, but did she take any time to visit Lancashire, because we have had really bad floods as well? In the same year that Labour-run Lancashire County Council has voted to increase councillors’ allowances—they now cost the taxpayer more than £1.2 million a year—it has admitted that the timescale for regular inspections of storm drains has been increased from every 12 months to every 18 months, which undoubtedly contributed to the flooding. Do local councillors not need to get their priorities right?
I have not yet had the opportunity to visit Lancashire, although during the floods I spoke to my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Cat Smith) about the situation there. It is a bit cheap to bring in details of councillors’ allowances, when we are talking about people’s homes being under water and their perhaps being homeless for the next 12 months. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman needs to speak to his Front-Bench team about the massive cuts they are imposing on local government before he starts raising such details.
That is probably a question for the Environment Secretary to answer when she responds in a few moments.
The Government have announced and re-announced that they will invest £2.3 billion in flood defences over the next six years. As the EFRA Select Committee has today highlighted, that investment relies on £600 million-worth of external contributions, less than half of which have so far been secured. With the private sector providing just £61 million, DEFRA is looking to local authorities for the additional funding. Clearly, the Government do not get just how hard local councils have already been hit by the cuts. At the moment, just one of the 27 flood and infrastructure projects is currently in construction, and there has been no progress in the past year, while schemes in Cumbria have been delayed.
On maintenance, we have been told that the budget will only be protected, so I ask the Environment Secretary whether she believes that that budget is sufficient, especially given the years of neglect? The Government spent £171 million on maintenance last year. The Environment Agency has recommended that £417 million a year should be spent. It is no wonder that experts at Friends of the Earth are warning that there is a £2.5 billion hole in the Government’s flood defence plans.
I want to make some progress now so that Back Benchers who want to speak about what happened in their constituencies will be able to do so.
Last week, the Environment Secretary agreed with me about the extreme weather patterns and the link with climate change. The Government have conceded that the risks might have been underestimated, yet it has now emerged that they are not even using the most up-to-date information. I hope that the Environment Secretary will be able to tell us why the Environment Agency’s flood risk guidance, published in 2013, is based on forecasts from 2006—despite new research in 2011 indicating that river flows could be much greater due to climate change. Flood defence plans are modelled on the medium climate scenarios rather than the high climate change pathway.
Perhaps the Government want to ignore the high emission scenarios because that would mean spending £300 million more, but the costs associated with ignoring the evidence are potentially so much greater. The national security risk assessment cites flood risk to the UK as a tier 1 priority risk, alongside terrorism and cyberattacks. By focusing on the more optimistic projections, the Government are wilfully neglecting their responsibilities on climate change mitigation and adaptation.
As the rest of the work acknowledged this weekend, simply ignoring climate change will not make it go away, yet for two years the UK was hampered by having a climate change denier as Environment Secretary. It is even rumoured that he sought to replace the words “climate change” with the word “weather” in every single DEFRA document, and that he had to have it explained to him that they were not quite the same thing. What is certainly true is that under his stewardship spending on climate change adaptation halved, even after DEFRA’s climate change staffing had dropped from 38 to six people.
Thankfully, the current Environment Secretary is less hostile on this issue, although perhaps not very interested until now, and she will have our full support if her adaptation policies are guided by the scientific evidence and by expert advice. As such, we look forward to hearing more details on the national flood resilience review. I welcome the confirmation that the Cumbrian floods partnership will be looking at upstream options, and I hope these will be included in the resilience review.
A focus on the role of the natural environment in reducing flood risk is, unfortunately, long overdue. I see in his place the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart). His constituency was badly affected, and he did a huge amount of work on the ground in Cumbria over the past few weeks, so I am sure he has very much taken that point on board.
Talking of national resilience, does the hon. Lady think it was a failure of the last Labour Government not to have done exactly the same in 2005? In Carlisle, for example, we have a sub-station in a floodplain area that was flooded in 2005. Fortunately, due to the hard work of the emergency services, it was not flooded in 2015, but should it not have been looked at after 2005 with a view to possibly moving it?
We commissioned the Pitt review. The hon. Gentleman mentions the work of the emergency services, and I would like to take the opportunity to say that when I was in Cumbria I met the Fire Brigades Union and Mountain Rescue, which have done fantastic work. There are calls for the fire brigade’s response to flood risk to be put on a statutory footing, rather than just an add-on to its other duties. Mountain rescue teams do wonderful work based on the voluntary contributions and the work of volunteers. I hope that that will be looked at as part of the review.
On that point, does my hon. Friend agree that this is a timely opportunity to look again at the funding of fire services up and down the country? On Merseyside, we have certainly seen extreme cuts, and the whole model needs revisiting.
That issue was raised with me. I believe that five fire stations in Cumbria are due for closure. The control centre is in Warrington, but the point was made to me that local firefighters have the best local knowledge. People in Warrington were sending firefighters to places where people’s fire alarms had gone off because of rising water, but those firefighters knew that the towns and villages were already underwater and that the roads were impassable. A lot can be said for retaining local knowledge and for keeping the local fire stations open. I am sure that constituency MPs would have something to say about that.
Flooding has had a devastating impact on farmers and many in Cumbria have, as the National Farmers Union highlighted, been hit by a double whammy, after being informed that they will not receive their basic payments until February. Given the losses they suffer as a result of flooding and the positive contribution farmers can make to land management, I hope that DEFRA will work closely with farmers to involve them in a long-term strategic approach to flood risk, looking at surface run-off and soil management to maximise absorbency and how the Government can promote agroforestry. Studies have demonstrated, for instance, that reforesting 5% of land reduces flood peaks downstream by 29%. The Government could be looking at sediment management and river restoration, as well as woodland development more generally.
In urban and developed areas, sustainable drainage systems could make a positive difference, but progress has been slow and the scope for local authorities to make progress on flood risk management strategies seems limited, especially given the additional budget cuts. As the Climate Change Committee reported, many authorities are yet to finalise their strategies, despite its having been a legal requirement for the past five years. I hope that the Environment Secretary is co-ordinating cross-departmental work to manage the flood risk and ensure that it is factored into plans, including plans for new house building in areas of high flood risk, which my right hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley (Caroline Flint) mentioned.
In light of the agreements reached in Paris, I would urge the Environment Secretary to bring forward the climate change risk assessment and consider whether the national adaptation programme is fit for purpose. As the Committee on Climate Change has said, the next programme needs a “clearer sense of priorities” and “measurable objectives”. Even if commitments are met, the Paris agreement means that the Government must prepare for temperature rises of nearly 3°. Will the Secretary of State ensure that the announced national resilience review is only the first step in tackling the problem? It must lead to a realistic resilience plan—and, most importantly, action.
As yet, we do not know what DEFRA needs to adapt to, because we do not know what the Energy and Climate Change Secretary is proposing in order to implement the Paris agreement in the UK. In her statement on Paris yesterday, there was little sense that the Government had any strategy—let alone a coherent, fully-funded one—to meet the UK’s climate change commitments and help the global community to keep temperature rises below 2°.
The UN’s chief environment scientist has even had to intervene to challenge this Government’s policies on renewable energy. While the rest of the world is investing in renewables, she said:
“What’s disappointing is when we see countries such as the United Kingdom that have really been in the lead in terms of getting their renewable energy up and going”
withdrawing subsidies and enhancing the fossil fuel industry. We can only agree with her conclusion:
“It’s a very serious signal—a very perverse signal that we do not want to create.”
Under the last Labour Administration, the UK had a proud record on climate change—from Lord Prescott’s role with the Kyoto protocol and Gordon Brown’s work in establishing the Global Climate Fund to the role of my right hon. Friend the Member for Doncaster North (Edward Miliband), and indeed that of his brother before him, in the Climate Change Act 2008, which has now been emulated by about 100 other countries. It was ground-breaking at the time; we were the first.
That legacy is slipping away and future generations will pay the price. Given that the right hon. Lady failed to answer the questions of my hon. Friend the Member for Wigan (Lisa Nandy) yesterday, I hope the Energy and Climate Change Secretary will, when winding up the debate this afternoon, be able to confirm the Government will review the recently abandoned green policies and that the UK will continue to support raising European targets on reducing carbon pollution by 2030.
It is not just on energy where we need leadership. Will the right hon. Lady ensure that there is more co-ordination with the Department for Transport, that BIS prioritises green jobs and that our financial services do not keep promoting and investing in fossil fuels? And will she stop the Chancellor from making short-term cuts to energy efficiency and renewables, ignoring the longer-term environmental, financial and human costs?
Expert after expert is warning that the Government are failing on climate change, and failing to protect people from flooding. They are letting down communities who are dreading the next heavy rainfall, and they are letting down future generations who will bear the brunt of climate change. I hope that both Secretaries of State will agree that the Government have run out of excuses, and that now is the time to act.
The exceptional rainfall that we have seen over the past couple of weeks has led to some very distressing situations for families and businesses in the north of England, where serious flooding has occurred. It is right that we in the House use every opportunity we are offered to express our sympathy for those who are most deeply affected. It is also right that we pay tribute to the work of emergency responders—the Environment Agency, and volunteers from around the country—who have worked tirelessly to help to get people to safety, and to clean up quickly so that people can return to their homes as soon as possible.
The Government mobilised a full national emergency response. We deployed the military from day one to protect people’s lives. The Cobra civil contingencies committee has met daily to co-ordinate the best possible deployment of resources for affected communities, and the recovery effort continues.
Of course that is one of the options that we are considering, but it would take seven months for the money to arrive. What we have done, within a week of these terrible floods occurring, is make £51 million available to give immediate relief to households and businesses in Cumbria and across the north that have been affected. The Chancellor announced last week that we were supporting households and businesses in affected areas.
The hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) asked about accommodation. We are anxious to ensure that accommodation is available to those who have had to leave their homes, and we are working closely with local councils to ensure that they have every resource that they need for that purpose. Divers are assessing the bridges so that they can be opened as soon as possible, and diggers are clearing roads. We are doing all we can to ensure that Cumbria is up and running as soon as possible, and is open for business as soon as possible.
The Secretary of State has rightly pointed out that great efforts have been made to clear the roads. As she will know, the A591 connects the north and south lakes at Grasmere and Keswick, and its closure has effectively ruined the tourist industry on both sides of that divide. The Royal Engineers did a great job in clearing up the mess, but they left yesterday. Would the Secretary of State be able to invite them back to rebuild the road quickly?
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. The A591 is a critical artery for tourism and for local residents to get about. It is now passable in a 4x4 vehicle, but we are working on getting it fully up and running as soon as possible, and the Department for Transport is working closely with the Cobra team to ensure that that happens, because it is a priority. I am pleased to say that the west coast main line was up and running as quickly as possible. Nearly all the 169,000 households and businesses whose power was cut off have been reconnected, although a small group of fewer than 50 need extra work at flooded properties. The Environment Agency has been assessing what more can be done, and has been moving in heavy equipment to clear rivers.
Our priority must continue to be public safety. Although 84 flood warnings have been removed in the last day or so, further flooding could occur as a result of rain falling on saturated ground. I urge people to keep up to date with the latest situation through the Environment Agency’s website and other news sources.
I know that this is of no comfort to those who have suffered, but the flood defences in Carlisle and Kendal successfully defended more than 100,000 households and businesses and prevented them from losing their power supplies. It is important for us now to consider how we can further improve resilience in our country.
The Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change is working to ensure that we have long-term energy security, and that we tackle dangerous emissions. I think that she has shown massive leadership over the past week. Hers was an historic achievement in Paris, and I think that Opposition Members should applaud her for showing such leadership at an international level. I see that some of them are acknowledging her leadership; that acknowledgement is particularly welcome from the former Climate Change Secretary, the right hon. Member for Doncaster North (Edward Miliband).
I apologise to my right hon. Friend for returning to the subject of flooding when she has—rightly—just moved on to the subject of climate change, but does she agree that it is now time for a radical change in the way in which we fund our flood infrastructure and maintenance? The hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) pointed out that when floods occur, there is investment, there are promises, but the investment then fades. That happened under the Labour Government, and it tends to happen under all Governments. Should we not hand responsibility for a regulated standard to, for instance, the water companies?
We have already made a major change. Rather than allowing a stop-start in flood defence spending, we have, for the first time, laid out a fully funded six-year programme to give communities the certainty they need. I shall say more about that later, but I was in the middle of praising my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change. She has done a fantastic job, and I think that that needs to be acknowledged. She has achieved an international climate change deal that will bring about a level playing field—it is very important for countries across the world to contribute—but she is also making sure that we deal with customers’ bills at home. It is right for us to improve our economy, achieve economic growth and reduce carbon, and my right hon. Friend is showing how that can be done.
I have already given the hon. Gentleman an opportunity to contribute. I want to make a bit of progress now.
Under this Government, there is a long term-plan for economic and energy security, part of which involves improving our resilience and investing in flood defences. Extreme weather events are becoming more common. There have been devastating floods in Cumbria, Lancashire, Northumberland and elsewhere, and there has been record rainfall. Water levels in our rivers have been more than half a metre higher than they have ever been before. Yesterday, during my second visit to Cumbria in a week, I went to Appleby and Threlkeld, where I met residents, Army volunteers, and others whose work has been tremendous during this rescue effort. I saw the sheer power of the water, which had washed bridges downstream, but I also saw a huge amount of spirit and resilience among the Cumbrian people.
May I invite the Secretary of State to return to the question asked by the hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) about maintenance grants, and the amount that will be spent on maintaining existing flood defences? Does she accept that there is a shortfall of £2.5 billion between that amount and what the Environment Agency says is needed, and, if so, is she going to fill the gap?
I can confirm that, as the Chancellor said in the autumn statement, we will increase our current maintenance expenditure of £171 million a year in real terms. In a climate in which we are having to reduce Government budgets, we are increasing, in real terms, both flood capital spending and flood maintenance spending. That shows where our priority lies.
In his report following the devastating 2007 floods, Sir Michael Pitt said that flooding was the greatest risk that our country faced from climate change, and that flood defence spending needed to rise by more than inflation each and every year. Can the Secretary of State explain why, in real terms, we will be spending exactly the same in 2015-16 as we were spending in 2009-10?
The reality is that between 2005 and 2010 Labour spent £1.5 billion on flood capital, whereas between 2010 and 2015 we spent £1.7 billion, which is a real-terms increase and not a cut. In this Parliament, we are investing £2 billion, which is a real-terms increase and not a cut.