House of Commons
Thursday 19 October 2017
The House met at half-past Nine o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
Taxi and Private Hire Vehicle Industries
Another opportunity to inform, another chance to perform—what is better than that, Mr Speaker? As my hon. Friend the Member for Hornchurch and Upminster (Julia Lopez) may know, the Law Commission provided a report on reforming taxi and private hire vehicle legislation, since which the sector has undergone profound and rapid change. With characteristic assiduity and determination, I will lead the response to such change, so protecting passenger wellbeing.
As I glanced at the Order Paper, as you must also have done, Mr Speaker, I noticed my hon. Friend’s change of name due to the happy event of her marriage, on which the whole House will want to congratulate her. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”] She has become our own J.Lo.
My discussions with the Mayor are regular. The Government are determined to find a way forward on taxi regulation. This is not just about the capital; we need to consider the whole issue of taxi licensing. As I have said, our absolute determination is for public safety and wellbeing, but we have to balance that with consumer choice.
I met Leeds City Council just yesterday to discuss such issues. Licensing poses real challenges, which is why I set up a working party to consider the whole matter following a Westminster Hall debate on this subject. That working party will consider the very issues that the hon. Gentleman and many others have raised and then report back to me, and it would be reasonable for us to publish its findings early in the new year.
I declare an interest as a member of Kettering Borough Council. The taxi drivers and private hire drivers of Kettering do a fantastic job ferrying local people around, but all these things need regulation and the council does its best. Which council does the Minister think is the best at regulating the taxi trade in small towns? How might that best practice be rolled out across the country?
I would not want to pick from among all my favourite towns. However, there are concerns about the inconsistent application of regulation and guidance, which is one of the things that the working party is considering. The key thing is that there has been a lot of change, partly as a result of modern communications and how people access information and book taxis and private hire vehicles. As Disraeli said:
“Change is inevitable. Change is constant.”
But a benevolent and diligent Government must constrain change while maintaining choice.
When the Communities and Local Government Committee considered child sexual exploitation in Rotherham, one issue was the involvement of some taxi drivers. The Government’s commissioners brought in higher standards, including the provision of CCTV cameras in all taxis. However, those rules can be undermined by taxis coming in from places outside Rotherham where the same standards do not apply. Indeed, taxis that fail the test in Rotherham can go elsewhere, get a licence and drive back into Rotherham. That is the real problem. The problem is national, but does the Minister recognise that it is particularly acute in Rotherham? When will he act?
As I said, this is not just about London; it is about places across the country. There is a case for new statutory guidance, and while I do not want to second guess the working party and its recommendations, I think we will issue some new statutory guidance early next year.
Following the high-profile cases of child sexual abuse in Rotherham and Oxford, taxi licensing was strengthened in those council areas. However, despite repeated calls for legislation reform, including from the Law Commission, the Government have refused to close the loopholes that allowed drivers to be licensed elsewhere and effectively game the system. Will the Minister commit to introducing national standards to ensure safety across the industry?
I welcome the hon. Lady’s question. She is right that the system is being gamed. Where a local authority tightens the system—Leeds City Council described this to me yesterday—neighbouring authorities sometimes adopt a more permissive regime. That cannot be right, which is why I want to introduce new guidance and greater consistency in how licences are issued. At the end of the day, this has to be about public safety, security and wellbeing. The whole House would want that, and we really do have to take action.
Leaving the EU: Civil Aviation
We want our future relationship with the European Union to be mutually beneficial. It is in the interests of both sides to maintain closely integrated aviation markets. However, it is the Government’s responsibility to prepare for all potential outcomes. The Government continue to work closely with the aviation sector to ensure the industry continues to be a major success story for the British economy.
My right hon. Friend makes a good point. Those with any concerns about 2019 just have to answer the question: how many hotels in Spain would be empty if the Spanish Government choose not to continue our aviation arrangements? That is why we will continue to make good progress towards satisfactory arrangements for the future.
I can give the hon. Lady that assurance. We believe it would benefit all the nations of Europe to continue the freedom of the aviation sector that we have seen over the past decade and more. That freedom particularly benefits regional economies and regional airports across the European Union, in this country and elsewhere. It would be foolish for anyone to try to stop that freedom.
The nine freedoms of the air guaranteed under the European common aviation area have enabled the growth of low-cost air travel, with average leisure fares to Europe falling by a third since 1993. We have already seen easyJet hedge against a no-deal scenario, but what assessment has the Secretary of State made of the implications of the UK falling back on the Chicago convention? What would that mean for the future of UK airlines, UK airports and affordable flights for UK consumers?
The hon. Lady needs to remember that aviation regulation operates at a global level, at a pan-European level—in which there is an “open skies” agreement—and at a national bilateral level. I have worked carefully with the airlines and all those involved, and I am certain that not only will aviation continue post-2019 but that everyone wants aviation to continue post-2019.
The individual case of easyJet relates to the question of cabotage within the European Union, which is clearly a matter for debate. It will be a negotiation for the whole sector because, although we have successful airlines such as easyJet operating flights within the rest of the European Union, we also have a large number of continental hauliers doing business within the United Kingdom. It is to everyone’s benefit that such liberalisation continues.
Of course, the big question is about the expansion of slots at Heathrow airport in particular, which will be a matter for the Government both to negotiate and agree. Right at the top of our priority list in allocating slots—and we have committed to this in what we have said about the proposed expansion of Heathrow airport—is that we reserve slots for regional connectivity. One of the key benefits of Heathrow airport expansion is the global connections it will provide to cities across the whole United Kingdom. Whatever approach we take, we need protection for those regional links.
The Secretary of State may be in denial, but the Chancellor has finally fessed up to the fact that, if there is no Brexit deal, it is conceivable that flights between the UK and the EU might be grounded. Is it not time for the Government to get their finger out and give the reassurances that the aviation sector so badly needs?
I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman, an experienced lawyer, did not read everything the Chancellor said. The Chancellor said that that was not going to happen and that, therefore, he will not spend a lot of money preparing for it. The actual reality is that we are doing a lot of preparatory work for all eventualities but, of course, the reason the Chancellor said what he said is that, as he says, that is not going to happen.
As I said a few moments ago, Ministers and officials from my Department regularly meet the Mayor and his representatives to discuss transport in London. These meetings cover a wide range of issues, including upgrades to the London underground.
My right hon. Friend is right to be disappointed; the Mayor has decided to pause the purchase of new trains for these lines, as she describes. As she knows, transport in London is a matter for the Mayor and it is for him to agree the investment programme for transport, but it is a disappointment and he must do much better.
Whether we are talking about the 1974 Piccadilly line trains, which are almost as old as me, or the even less reliable 1992 Central line ones, autumnal leaf fall at the moment is causing havoc for the above-ground sections of the tube in suburban locations. Does the Minister know when these old workhorses that are now past their sell-by date are going to be sent to the knacker’s yard?
Shipley Eastern Bypass
As my hon. Friend will be aware, the Government have allocated significant resources to West Yorkshire for local transport schemes through the local growth fund, including £781 million over 30 years from local growth funding and “gain share”. In addition, I am pleased to be able to inform him this morning that £2.3 million is being allocated to Bradford Council for improved traffic management systems as part of the £244 million NPIF—national productivity investment fund—funding being announced today. Later this year, we will start consultation on the major route network, which may provide the routes to securing the Shipley eastern bypass that he is concerned about.
I am very grateful to the Secretary of State for that answer and I very much welcome the new bypass fund that he is setting up, appreciating the difficulties that many motorists have in getting around. Does the new fund mean the long wait that local businesses, local residents and I have suffered waiting for a Shipley bypass may soon be at an end?
As I indicated, it is very much my hope that a number of schemes around the country will start to be brought forward for development under this fund. I would be rather surprised if the Shipley eastern bypass is not one of those brought forward as a proposal to the Government early on. As he knows, I will be joining him to see the issues around the Shipley eastern bypass and to see the possible routes shortly, and I have no doubt that he and his colleagues in his constituency will be making strong representations when I visit.
No one begrudges the money for a Shipley bypass—certainly no one in Huddersfield does. What we are angry about in Yorkshire is the fact that this Minister has taken away the money and the promise for a trans-Pennine railway electrification. That is what we will not forgive him for. He must get his act together and invest in the north.
It is worth putting on the record that I have not announced any changes to that programme. There is money for the trans-Pennine modernisation. I am expecting the detailed proposals from Network Rail later this year. However, it is worth saying that we are spending more money on more projects across the north of England than any Government have for decades and decades, including during the 13 years when Labour was in government. It is also worth saying that we have electrified four times as many miles of railway in the north of England alone than Labour did in 13 years in government. So I am not going to take any lessons from Labour Members about commitments to the modernisation of the transport system—in the north or elsewhere.
Many of my constituents would like to visit Shipley on many occasions, but in order to do so that they would have to travel along concrete sections of the A180, which causes great disturbance to residents in Stallingborough and other villages in my constituency. Will the Secretary of State urge Highways England to look favourably on funding improvements to that section of the A180?
I know that Highways England listens carefully to the comments made at Transport questions. My hon. Friend highlights something that is an issue in his area and throughout the country. I am clear that we need to do everything we can to ensure that the technology for future road surfaces delivers both durability and quietness.
That is very kind of you, Mr Speaker; I hope you will indulge me. Just like Shipley, Kendal is a beautiful northern town with severe congestion problems. It is beautiful and thriving despite the fact that it has a prehistoric road network. Is the Secretary of State aware that there is a long-stalled plan for a northern access route that would solve congestion in the town and open up the industrial estates to the north-east of the town? Will he meet me and business leaders to see whether we can move things forward and make that plan happen?
I am always happy to meet the hon. Gentleman. I am not aware of the specific scheme he asked about, but it is precisely for the reasons he outlined that I have set aside money to create the bypass fund for the years ahead. I recognise that in a number of important regional towns too many areas are congested as a result of through traffic. That is particularly true in the Lake district and the major route through Kendal to get to places such as Windermere. I will happily talk to the hon. Gentleman about that.
Wellingborough is very similar to Shipley—one might even argue that the two MPs are rather alike in their views—but one problem that my constituents find in getting to Shipley is that they cannot get through Isham because a bypass has not been built. Is the Secretary of State able to offer some encouragement about the Isham bypass, which would enable my constituents to get to Shipley more easily?
May I first wish my hon. Friend a happy birthday? I am slightly surprised to see him wearing a more muted tie today. Although I cannot give assurances on every individual scheme, it is very much my intention that the bypass fund is there to fill in holes in what was once the strategic network. The network was de-trucked many years ago, leaving congestion problems in many regional towns and on many important regional routes, without an obvious and clear route to secure funding to ease that congestion. In the coming months I will consult colleagues from across the House as to how best we manage the process of getting that fund and those projects going.
As a Yorkshire MP, it is always good to see promises of investment in places such as Shipley. Nevertheless, this summer the Secretary of State said to The Yorkshire Post:
“The success of Northern transport depends on the North”.
Will he explain how, with London getting 10 times as much money for transport investment as Yorkshire and the Humber gets, that is going to happen?
I am afraid some of the figures bandied around by think-tanks in the north are simply inaccurate. We are putting more investment into transport in the north of England than there has been for decades and decades—into the road system and the rail system. We are replacing every single train in the north with either a brand new train or one that has been refurbished as new. It is a long-overdue programme. It did not happen in 13 years under a Labour Government, when there was money aplenty. Even in tighter financial times, we see it as a priority to develop transport in the north, and that is what we are doing.
Leaving the EU: Aviation Agreements
I meet my right hon. Friends the Secretaries of State for Exiting the European Union and for International Trade regularly—indeed, I did so yesterday—to discuss the UK’s exit from the EU. Seeking new aviation arrangements—both with the EU and with those states where we currently rely on EU-negotiated arrangements for market access—is a high priority for my Department. We aim to have the new arrangements in place well before the day of exit.
The Secretary of State obviously agrees with the absolute need for aviation agreements, through either bilateral means or an EU-wide arrangement. Will he tell us how many DFT staff have expertise in negotiating aviation deals and how many are working on deals as we speak?
I have a big team that is experienced in dealing with such things, because, across the world, we have bilateral arrangements with countries in all continents. I have experienced teams that are working on that right now. We are pursuing the necessary successor arrangements that we will need for flights to countries around the world, and there is nothing but good will and constructive discussion between us and those countries in ensuring that there is no interruption in flying.
Not only is the aviation timetable agreement important, but so is the securing of routes. Will the Minister tell us what has been done to secure routes for Belfast City and Belfast International airports to make sure that Dublin does not receive, to our detriment, the routes that we should be getting instead?
Of course, the choice of routes is ultimately down to the airlines themselves, but the hon. Gentleman will know that we provide significant support for important links from Northern Ireland, and we will continue to do so. The biggest difference for Northern Ireland will come with the expansion of Heathrow airport towards which we are working at the moment, and a guarantee of slots to provide excellent connectivity for Northern Ireland, Scotland, England and Wales into countries around the world.
The Scottish Government have not been able to cut air passenger duty because the UK Government have not properly implemented an exemption for Inverness airport. Given the importance of low-cost carriers to Scotland’s regional airports, it is important that the Scottish Government are also involved in any discussions. However, to allow sufficient time for EU ratification, the aviation agreements need to be concluded by October 2018. How many staff does the Secretary of State have working on these matters, and what guarantees can he provide that travel will continue uninterrupted?
The hon. Gentleman makes his comment about air passenger duty in Scotland, but we did what the Scottish Government asked: we devolved air passenger duty and they have not cut it. I am afraid that they are discovering the realities of government. It is all very well making demands from the Opposition Benches, but when they actually have to take tough decisions, they discover that it is not all that easy. We are seeing that they are failing to deliver for the people of Scotland. When it comes to planning for aviation after Brexit, things are different, because we are planning for that and we will deliver. We will see, post 2019, that aviation continues to be the success story that it is today.
Road Transport Emissions
The Government’s plan for tackling nitrogen dioxide concentrations, which was published in July, sets out a number of steps backed with £3 billion of investment in air quality and cleaner transport. These include the tough new real-world emissions tests for new models of diesel and petrol cars.
As the hon. Gentleman knows, we have published the clean air plan and we are working very closely with local authorities regarding clean air zones. There is also a wider duty on local authorities that are not specifically part of the zones themselves to bear air quality in mind, and we also support them through the Department.
Encouraging the use of public transport is key to tackling air pollution. Does the Minister accept that the increase in rail fares at twice the rate of wages since 2010, and the decreased use of buses while the Conservatives have been in office, have made air quality worse?
The hon. Gentleman is correct about the importance of buses. Only yesterday, I met the chief executive of Go-Ahead buses, which is very active around the country, and we specifically discussed that matter. I have held such discussions with other operators and will continue to do so in the coming months. We also considered retrofitting and improving passenger numbers.
Does the Minister agree that one of the ways to reduce emissions is to encourage rail travel, but that one of the barriers to that is poor service. Travellers from West Yorkshire using Virgin are experiencing increasingly poor service due to staff shortages, and there is a suspicion that Virgin is cutting back so that it can increase profits. What are the Government doing to hold train operating companies to account?
I can only admire the hon. Lady’s ingenuity in crowbarring a point about Virgin rail into a question about road transport emissions. Obviously the rail Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard), is better placed to answer that, but let me draw her attention to the work that we are doing through the cycling and walking investment strategy on improving the links between rail and cycling.9
Railways: Smart Ticketing
We are investing some £80 million through our smart ticketing on national rail programme, so that all passengers have a paperless option for their journey by the end of 2018. We are also working to facilitate a rail industry pilot of smartcards on mobile phones, as well as rolling out pay-as-you-go ticketing across the hon. Gentleman’s franchise.
I welcome Southern railway’s plans to introduce smart ticketing across its network. I have also put in a request for the Oyster system to extend south of Gatwick airport to Three Bridges and Crawley stations. However, will my hon. Friend please speak urgently with GTR, the parent company of Southern, as their new ticket machines at many stations, including Three Bridges, have been malfunctioning, causing passengers significant disruption and queues? That situation needs to be resolved.
I am grateful for that comment. Ticket vending machines, which are meant to be among the most straightforward of equipment on our railways, seem to cause more problems than any other type of equipment. I understand that Govia Thameslink Railway is due to visit every ticket machine over the coming fortnight to make sure that the software is updated and that the machine functions properly, although I share my hon. Friend’s concern and will be meeting the supply chain in due course to emphasise the importance of getting this right.
I welcome progress on smart ticketing, and also plans for new ticket machines on the station platforms in my constituency, but the Northern Rail service through my constituency has been absolutely abysmal in recent weeks. May I echo the question that my hon. Friend the Member for Dewsbury (Paula Sherriff) asked? What is being done to hold train operating companies to account when trains are overcrowded and short of carriages, and when there are cancellations and delays and people cannot even get to work on time?
I share the concern. We have continuous contact with the train operating companies at an official and a ministerial level—I frequently meet them. Where there are sustained examples of poor performance, they are escalated to what is called the national taskforce, where the train operating company must present to the wider industry what measures it is taking to reverse poor performance, and I will then meet that train operating company. I recognise the concerns around Northern. My primary concern at this stage is to ensure that new infrastructure is opened around the Greater Manchester area so that Northern can operate new rolling stock to replace the appalling Pacers, and introduce the new services that the Ordsall Chord, in particular, will enable.
Can the Minister require train operators to allow passengers who start their journey at a station that has no ticket facilities to use a print-at-home ticket, so that passengers at Langley Mill station in my constituency can actually use the cheaper advance tickets that they currently cannot?
I think that is a perfectly fair observation. We are seeking to ensure that when technology enables new forms of ticketing to be introduced, we move on that as far as possible. That includes paperless ticketing. It also includes work on barcode ticketing, which can be displayed on mobile phones. We have to do much better at ensuring that people may choose the ticket mode that works best for them.
I welcome what the Minister says about smart ticketing, but in advance of that, might he have a word with the rail authorities about how many tickets they send out? When someone pre-books, they get between eight and 10 tickets. Surely it is not beyond the wit and wisdom of the rail companies to put that information on one ticket. I hate to think how many forests we cut down for one rail journey.
I think that the rail authorities have already heard what the hon. Gentleman has said. I have noticed that I now get my seat reservation and my ticket on the same piece of paper, instead of on five. As we move towards more forms of paperless ticketing, we should have no pieces of paper at all unless we want them.
We were told £45 million, but the cost was £96 million. We were told 11 train operators co-ordinated, but it was just five working separately. We were told all passengers, but it was just season ticket holders, and full season ticket holders at that. Only 8% of those now eligible are using the system, with its scope cut, and it being overspent and massively overtime—and then the Government handed the problem back to the train operators. From this example in the south-east, can we really have confidence that the Government can deliver smart ticketing?
There is quite a straightforward reason why we can have confidence about the future, and it is largely because the south-east flexible ticketing programme did not just deliver smart ticketing across the south-east, which many passengers are now using, but put in place the architecture and computer systems that will enable smart ticketing on national rail to be a success.
Well, it was a pretty damning report from the National Audit Office. Yet again we have a Government unable to deliver on the railways and on something as simple as smart ticketing. Labour will be at the cutting edge of rail tech, while this Government still expect people to book separate tickets from separate operators—one national chaos under the Tories, one national public service with Labour. How much longer will the Government champion fragmented ticketing on a fragmented railway?
I always get rather frustrated when people have had an answer but paid no attention to what I said—but there we go. The report from the National Audit Office was important. It contained a number of lessons, which we took on board when setting out the national smart ticketing programme. Technology is changing rapidly. We have to make sure that the schemes we put in place now meet what technology can do in a year’s time, or two or three years’ time. We will be moving fast with tickets, and tickets will be unbelievably advanced by the time the Labour party ever gets back into power.
Strategic Road Network: Congestion
Tackling congestion, as you will know, Mr Speaker, is at the forefront of the Government’s plans to provide a modern strategic road network that supports our growing economy. The Government are investing in the largest programme of improvements on our national roads that we have seen for many decades, as the Secretary of State said—£15 billion between 2015 and 2021 alone. In addition to providing extra capacity on the busiest motorways by making them smart motorways, the Government will improve specific parts of the network where investment can tackle congestion, improve journeys and support economic growth.
I thank the Minister for that answer, and I welcome the Government’s investment in a feasibility study into finally building junction 18A on the M4. However, one of the options under consideration is to build that new junction at Pucklechurch, which would devastate the local green belt and divide two extremely historic communities. With the decision expected early next year, residents are being left under a cloud of uncertainty, so will the Minister speak to Highways England to ensure that this undeliverable and unsupportable proposal is ruled out as early as possible?
I thank my hon. Friend for highlighting Highways England’s work to develop proposals that would improve access to the M4. The scheme will be vital to unlocking the potential for housing developments in that area. As he will know, the Secretary of State has seen the site for himself, and he and I are taking the issue very seriously. I will be discussing it, among other things, with Highways England when I see its chief executive next week.
Is not the real answer to cutting road congestion, and for that matter roadside emissions, to invest in expanding rail freight capacity? For example, Peel at the port of Liverpool is investing £750 million, including in rail freight. Why are the Government not stepping up and playing their part?
As has been said, reducing congestion on our roads requires serious investment in our rail infrastructure, so when will the Government give the north our fair share of rail investment and, in particular, agree to a Crossrail of the north that is fully integrated with HS2 at Piccadilly station?
Crossrail 2: Safeguarding Directions
A thorough analysis of the Crossrail 2 business case is being carried out by the Department to ensure it is a robust scheme, as is undertaken for all transport scheme proposals. Once this analysis has been completed, the Secretary of State will be in a position to outline the next steps on Crossrail 2, which will include any discussions and decisions on future plans for updating the current safeguarding directions.
I listened carefully to the Minister’s answer. However, the delay to Crossrail 2 is causing real anxiety to constituents in Wimbledon and across south London and causing investment decisions to be delayed. Will he urge the Mayor to get on with the funding proposals so that the Department can make a decision one way or the other?
As Members have heard this morning, we have regular meetings with the Mayor. I assure my hon. Friend that one of the most common topics for discussion is how to ensure that Crossrail 2 is both affordable and fair to the taxpayer. It is really important that we do not unduly raise public expectations or, indeed, provoke undue concerns in relation to Crossrail 2 ahead of developing a fair, sustainable and deliverable funding plan.
Tyne and Wear Metro
The Department accepts the need to replace the Nexus fleet and is actively discussing the most appropriate method of funding this vital work with Nexus and the Treasury.
The metro system’s rail stock is more than 40 years old, and I am afraid to say that it is failing on a daily basis, causing delays for its 40 million users each year. On 17 July, nine of my right hon. and hon. Friends representing the Tyne and Wear area and I wrote to the Secretary of State about this issue. We again wrote to him on 12 September asking for at least an acknowledgement of our concerns. It may surprise you, Mr Speaker, to hear that we have not yet had an acknowledgment, never mind a reply. My patience is wearing a little thin on this. The people of Tyne and Wear deserve much better from this Government, even though they have no MPs in the area.
I am always disappointed when I hear that we do not achieve what we should in our correspondence. I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman has not had an acknowledgement; we will draft one immediately today. I assure him that I personally understand the importance of the metro system to the people of the north-east. We understand the need to replace these ageing carriages, and we are keen to ensure that we make a decision as soon as possible.
Transport spend in the north-east is only £220 per head, compared with £2,000 per head in London, and the effect of that can be felt every single day on the Tyne and Wear metro. Will the Minister commit that the investment will be publicly funded, not coming from some financially engineered private finance initiative scheme, so that the public benefits of a decent transport system can be publicly controlled?
We continue to work closely with the Treasury to make sure that we get the right funding package to deliver these carriages, which I know the network needs. In response to the hon. Lady’s concern about levels of investment in her region, I point out that we are finally completing the motorway to the north-east that Labour never built in 13 years.
It is Government policy that those who benefit from the significant improvements that estuarial crossings bring should help to pay for them. Successive Governments have taken the view that tolls are justified when private finance enables key road infrastructure such as significant river crossings to proceed and to be maintained.
I am sure that the Minister will be aware that residents in my constituency are paying in excess of £1,000 a year in toll charges for the new Mersey Gateway bridge, although the previous Runcorn bridge was toll-free and tolls are being scrapped across the whole United Kingdom. Will he honour the commitment made in 2015 by the former Chancellor, George Osborne, that Warrington residents would be exempt from these tolls? Although the Minister has previously rejected this offer, will he now agree to meet me and my constituents?
I am not aware of having rejected any previous invitation. I would be delighted to meet the hon. Gentleman and his constituents. The Government’s position is very clear. We intend that the tolls will go when the bridge has been paid for. Unfortunately, when crossings are being tolled, there has to be equality, because otherwise the untolled bridge ends up being loaded up to the point where the original purpose is defeated. The good news is that this is a major piece of new infrastructure, and that is all to the good.
The Government want to make cycling and walking the natural choices for short journeys and parts of longer journeys. In April this year, as the hon. Gentleman knows, we published the first ever statutory cycling and walking investment strategy for England. The strategy sets out our plans for increasing cycling and walking, and it identifies £1.2 billion of funding for the period up to 2021.
I am due to go for a bike ride with the Greater Manchester cycling commissioner, Chris Boardman, in a few weeks’ time. As he is a former Olympic champion and maillot jaune holder, I am not looking forward to it and I am spending a lot of time in the gym. Chris is about to publish his strategy for Greater Manchester. What resources will the Minister put at Chris’s disposal, so that he can implement it?
I wish the hon. Gentleman very good luck in his ride with Chris Boardman, and I hope that Chris knows what he is letting himself in for. I have met both the Mayor of Manchester and Chris directly to discuss this strategy, and Chris has been kind enough to share it with me and my officials. Of course, from a central Government standpoint, we will do what we can to support it.
Regional Transport Infrastructure Investment
The most recently published statistics on the distribution of regional transport infrastructure investment appear in Her Majesty’s Treasury’s “Country and Regional Analysis November 2016”.
In response to a question from my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Diana Johnson), the Secretary of State seemed to cast doubt on the existence of inequalities in regional infrastructure spend. He should know that Yorkshire and the Humber has the lowest per capita regional infrastructure investment in the country at just £190 per head, compared with £1,900 per head in London. What are the Government going to do to address that basic unfairness?
I always try to be helpful in the Chamber, and I know that the hon. Gentleman is doing his best, but a lot of what has been published about this is, quite frankly, just wrong. He may be drawing on the Institute for Public Policy Research North figures, which do not take account of the whole picture. They consider only 40% of the national infrastructure pipeline, exclude schemes that cross regions and ignore the majority of smaller transport schemes. He is a diligent constituency MP, so he will know that they do not include—perhaps he has not factored this in either—the work that is being done on local roads at junction 36 of the M62. I hope that when he stands up to speak again in this Chamber, he will welcome the Government’s commitment to his area of the north of England.
This week, the OECD argued that addressing the regional productivity divide between high-productivity areas, such as London, and lower productivity regions can be a key channel for fostering long-term growth and sharing prosperity. Does the Minister not accept that the Government’s cuts to rail upgrades will entrench regional transport inequalities and damage business by embedding the regional productivity divide?
Let us try to find common cause, shall we? It is absolutely right that we look at regional investment inequalities, and it is absolutely right, too, that we do not regard all investment in the south of England as good, while ignoring the rest. The Government are not doing that; that is the point. The Government are rebalancing investment across the whole kingdom, for we recognise that. I could be tiresome—[Interruption.] I know that that is hard to believe, but I could be, if I were to list the series of investments we are making in rail and road across the north. Rather than tiring you, Mr Speaker, or the House, we will set them out in a note, which we will distribute afterwards. Perhaps, then, the hon. Gentleman will also try to find common cause. To start with, he might want to look at the transport investment strategy that we have published, which is a starting point for learners in this field.
The Secretary of State has claimed that cancelling upgrades means affected areas will be spared disruption and that electrification is no longer necessary because the same benefits will be achieved with bi-mode trains reliant on diesel. Is his policy to provide regions across our country with second-rate railways, and is not the reality that his claims about the wonders of polluting diesel are, like digging for victory, a load of tripe?
Again, I simply say, let us look at the facts. We are investing in rail in the north. After all, this Government are investing in Transport for the North to do exactly what he describes. It is true that we need to look at a range of technologies to achieve what we want, but the answer to the hon. Gentleman’s question is: new trains, faster routes, more rail, more road investment—what is there not to like about that?
Transport Infrastructure: Scotland
I am up again—and up for it, by the way.
As my hon. Friend knows, transport powers are devolved in Scotland. Nevertheless, investments are being made by the UK Government in rail and road on both sides of the border help to bind our kingdom together—united forever.
For such a specific question, a specific answer is required. Investments in the east coast and west coast franchises will bring great benefits to the people of Scotland. An additional £2.7 billion has been given to the intercity express programme, providing 500 new carriages, increasing the number of seats by 20% and reducing journey times between many of the great cities of our united kingdom.
The port of Grangemouth in my constituency handles 80% of Scotland’s container traffic. Will the Minister advise us what discussions he has had with his Scottish counterpart regarding any post-Brexit delays at borders and traffic chaos or road jams in the Grangemouth area?
I was in discussion with my Scottish counterpart just this week—not on that subject, but we do communicate regularly. The next time I have the opportunity to speak to that gentleman, I will certainly raise the matter that the hon. Gentleman has raised in the Chamber today.
All the Christmases are coming together, Mr Speaker.
My hon. Friend will be pleased that we announced in July that we were awarding Cornwall County Council £5 million in addition to its normal funding towards a project that will target carriageway treatments to improve the quality and longevity of 53 sites on Cornwall’s rural roads. All works will be completed by April 2018.
I thank the Minister for that answer, but in rural areas such as Cornwall it is important to maintain not just the condition of the road surface but the verges and overhanging trees in particular. I recently visited a local bus company, Roselyn Coaches, which is spending many thousands of pounds a year repairing its buses because of damage caused by overhanging trees. Does the Minister agree that local authorities such as Cornwall County Council must use their powers to cut back trees and keep our buses running?
As I said in my first answer, we are doing our bit. My hon. Friend is assiduous in keeping Cornwall County Council on its toes. It is its responsibility to ensure that carriageways are properly cared for in the way he described, and it is not easy to keep such a flat-footed Lib Dem council on its toes.
Before I respond to any topical questions, may I take this opportunity to express my thanks, and I hope those of the whole House, to all those involved in the repatriation of passengers affected by the collapse of Monarch Airlines? It was a huge effort across government, but particularly by the Civil Aviation Authority, and we all have good reason to be thankful to the team involved.
Boston is a growing port and a growing town. New housing developments have preserved a route for a Boston distributor road, with which I know my right hon. Friend is familiar, but what will he do to help us to deliver the expensive but vital bridge in the middle of the distributor road, which we cannot of course ask housing developers to fund entirely?
Indeed, as my hon. Friend knows from my past visits to Boston, I am well aware of the importance of the Boston bypass project. The town is situated on an A road with a congestion problem and is one of those for which I would expect to see proposals come forward for the bypass fund. We will look very carefully at the bridge issue, and I am very happy to talk to him about that.
You may not be aware of this, Mr Speaker, but just last week there was another great train robbery: £600 million was removed from Scotland’s rail budget because the Tories ripped up a long-standing funding formula. For the sake of Scottish rail users, will the Secretary of State get together with the Treasury and give Scotland the correct funding?
This is an historic moment: the Scottish National party is opposing a funding allocation that uses the Barnett formula. I was under the impression that it regarded the Barnett formula as sacrosanct. However, when the UK Government use the Barnett formula, it complains. The SNP cannot have its cake and eat it.
I was more than happy to meet a cross-party delegation of Northamptonshire and Bedfordshire MPs this week to discuss this very issue. We have located the information that my hon. Friend desires, and I will place it in the Library and write to him.
There is a two-stage programme of modernisation for rail in the north, despite the nonsense that the shadow Secretary of State was talking earlier. Initially, we are replacing every single train in the north. We have modernised the Calder Valley line and are about to launch the modernisation of the main trans-Pennine route between Leeds and Manchester.
Of course we have done other things, such as electrifying the railway line from Liverpool to Manchester and creating the first ever link between Manchester Victoria and Manchester Piccadilly. A whole range of things is happening. What we said at our conference and will be confirmed at the Budget is that we will set aside funding to create the links between HS2 and Northern Powerhouse Rail. I am now waiting for the detailed Transport for the North proposals for Northern Powerhouse Rail. In the short term, we modernise the trans-Pennine route, and in due course we will build Northern Powerhouse Rail to ensure that we have those better links for the future.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for the question. As she says, the Government made available £2.3 billion precisely for such schemes, as part of the national infrastructure fund. I would be delighted to have a good look at the scheme with officials and ministerial colleagues at the Department for Communities and Local Government. I direct her attention to the £12 billion that has been committed over the period 2015 to 2021 through the local growth fund, through local enterprise partnerships, to support local strategic projects.
To answer on my right hon. Friend’s behalf, I should say that the answer is in so far as the situation allows us to. As the hon. Gentleman will know, we have not ruled out legal action of our own. We are waiting for the German legal authorities—under European law, given the origin of these technologies—to make their decisions. Once they have done that, we will take a final view. But we have been extremely clear about our view in general about how the company has behaved.
I have two things to say. First, we very strongly support community transport operators in general. Secondly, we have been under some pressure to clarify the rules regarding local transport operators who are tacitly operating commercially. I am sure that that is not the case in Oxfordshire, but it is in other parts of the country. If my hon. Friend’s transport authority has a difficulty, he is welcome to get it to talk to my officials and/or the Community Transport Association.
The Shipping Minister will be aware of huge concerns regarding a time lag of almost an hour on a number of occasions between distress at sea and the tasking and launching of an RNLI boat. What can the Minister do to ensure shorter response times in that golden hour, particularly at Maritime and Coastguard Agency level? After all, RNLI men I know have told me that they would prefer 10 false alarms than to be late at the scene of a real distress call.
This a very serious matter, and the hon. Gentleman and I have met to discuss these issues. I take a very clear view that we must be rigorous in the way that we deal with them. There have been disasters, such as the Louisa disaster in his constituency. The first thing to do is to offer commiserations to all those involved. As he knows, I have spoken to the chief inspector of the marine accident investigation branch. I have asked for his view, as quickly as possible, on the very issues the hon. Gentleman raises. I will keep in close touch with him and other Members when I hear that view.
Further to the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington South (Faisal Rashid), who was right to point out the impact of the new charges on the Mersey Gateway will have on his constituents, as well as the charges that are being introduced on the existing Silver Jubilee bridge, will the Minister tell us how many existing crossings, which were previously free, have had charges introduced on them in the past 10 years?
I would be happy to write to the hon. Gentleman with that information, but one concern is what the cost to local authorities would be. When we ran the numbers, as part of the wider decision, it became clear that the five local authorities involved would have to pay an extra £350 million to £400 million. That is an important further consideration.
We welcome open-access applications. They have made a real difference to many towns and cities around the country. It is clear that open access should happen where there is capacity for it to take place, so that it fills in gaps and puts in competition. The Office of Rail and Road is very careful in judging when it can permit open access and when it cannot. It looks very carefully at every proposal, and we welcome them.
Further to the question from the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Angus Brendan MacNeil) about the potential late tasking of lifeboats, will the Minister meet me, parliamentary colleagues and the coastguard to ensure that the launch protocols the coastguard uses are not adding undue delay in the tasking of lifeboats in emergencies?
I am very conscious of the sinking of the Solstice off the hon. Gentleman’s constituency. I have met him, too, and I know how much he cares about this issue. I care about it, too, so yes of course I will do that. Furthermore, let me be absolutely clear to him, the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar and the whole House. In respect of looking at these matters with assiduity, we will leave no stone unturned. If there can be improvements, there will be improvements.
I certainly can. I was pleased to meet both my right hon. Friend and the mid-Cheshire rail line promotion group in her constituency back in August. Since then, we have been liaising with Transport for the North. She will be aware that one of its key strategic corridors is the Wales and the west stretch in the north-west. It is looking at how the mid-Cheshire rail line scheme fits into its strategic proposals, and I hope to hear more in due course.
To return to community transport operators, many are concerned, including North Norfolk community transport, that the new ruling will push it under, with the loss of absolutely vital rural community transport links. What is the Minister doing to ensure that that does not happen? What is the timescale for the consultation? When will it actually come in, because the uncertainty is very dangerous?
I fully recognise the concern. As the right hon. Gentleman will know, the Department is being very careful. There will be no rapid over-enforcement. We will give people as much chance as possible to show that their activities are not commercial in the required sense. We will launch the consultation later this autumn and then take it from there.
In the same vein, I recently met Basildon community transport, which expressed grave concerns and is already pointing at a neighbouring community transport operator closing because of the uncertainty. Will my hon. Friend agree to meet me, Basildon community transport and the Community Transport Association to clarify the situation?
Domestic air travel is surely an integral part of the UK’s transport infrastructure. In their planning for Heathrow expansion, how much have the Government budgeted to increase the number of domestic routes to London from Scotland, Northern Ireland, the north and the south-west?
I hope that this is not a question of our budgeting, because I hope that the links will provide strong commercial opportunities. Governments seldom fund airline routes except in specific cases, such as our recent decisions over the air link from Northern Ireland to Stansted. I hope, however, that the opportunities created by the expansion of Heathrow airport for the regions around the country will mean a thriving trade and attract airlines to take those slots.
I know that the Rail Minister will share my excitement at the prospect of the first new station in the bay since world war two at Edginswell. Will he agree to meet me and the local council to see how we can take this forward and what the prospects might be for new stations funding?
I am aware that it was one of the unsuccessful bidders in the most recent round of the new stations fund. We make a point of giving positive feedback whenever we can to help make sure that future bids have the maximum chance of success, so I am more than happy to meet my hon. Friend and his council to discuss how we can maximise the opportunities.
The service on the Treherbert line is shockingly bad. Trains are regularly cancelled. When there should be four carriages, there are often two. Obviously, there is to be a new franchise, let by the Welsh Government, but we need more investment in the rail network, and that is down to the Westminster Government. We have 6% of the railways in this country in Wales. Why do we only get 1% of the investment?
In Wales right now, we have the biggest electrification programme in the country coming soon; we have new trains coming to Cardiff, Swansea and Pembroke Dock; we have a big investment programme funded by central Government in the valley lines; and I am now looking at what changes we can make to the north Wales line, where there is a real need for improvement.
It is now just over four months since the tragedy of Grenfell Tower. Since then, the Government, the local council and the wider public sector have been working hard to ensure that everyone affected by the fire gets the support they need and that all tall residential buildings across the country are safe.
Since I last updated the House on 5 September, the number of households seeking rehousing has risen to 202. As before, this increase has been caused by members of larger households choosing to be rehoused separately. The local council has now secured more than 200 suitable local permanent properties. Negotiations are under way on others, and by Christmas it expects to have more than 300 available. As of this week, 112 households have accepted an offer of either temporary or permanent accommodation. Of these, 58 have moved in, 44 into temporary accommodation and 14 into permanent accommodation.
The Government are determined that everyone who needs support gets it regardless of their immigration status. We have previously established a process to grant foreign nationals who were resident in Grenfell Tower or Grenfell Walk 12 months’ leave to remain in the country with full access to the relevant support and assistance. Last week, the Immigration Minister announced a dedicated route to permanent residency for the survivors. This policy will allow them to apply for free for two further periods of two years’ limited leave. After this time, they will be able to apply for permanent residence.
Meanwhile, our work to ensure the safety of other tall buildings continues. A total of 169 high-rise social housing buildings in England feature some of the aluminium composite material cladding, and our programme of testing has identified 161 that are unlikely to meet current fire safety standards. The particular focus of current efforts is now on supporting remedial work on those 161 buildings. We are also improving our understanding of the situation for the privately owned high-rise residential buildings with ACM cladding, so that all such buildings can be as safe as possible.
We have made clear to councils and housing associations that we expect them to fund measures that they consider essential to making buildings safe. However, if councils have concerns, they should get in touch with us. We will consider the removal of financial restrictions if they stand in the way of essential work. To date, 32 local councils have expressed concern to us in principle. We have liaised more closely with seven of those, and one of them has now submitted supporting evidence for consideration by my Department.
The terrible tragedy of Grenfell Tower was a national disaster. At such times, people look to the Government to lead and to act. The survivors, and the relatives of at least 80 people who lost their lives, deserve no less. I do not doubt the Secretary of State’s good intentions, and I pay tribute to the work of the frontline staff, volunteers and local groups who helped immediately after the fire and are still helping to support the survivors; but, more than four months after the fire, the facts are these.
Only 14 of more than 200 Grenfell families have new homes. Fewer than one in 10 of the country’s 4,000 other high-rise tower blocks has been tested by the Government. The Secretary of State has refused any Government funds for essential fire safety work on other high-rise blocks. Can he confirm that 152 Grenfell households are still in hotels, although the Prime Minister said on 17 July:
“I have fixed a deadline of three weeks for everybody affected to be found a home”?
The Prime Minister told the House on 22 June:
“We can test more than 100 buildings a day”.—[Official Report, 22 June 2017; Vol. 626, c. 169.]
Can the Secretary of State confirm that, in fact, the Government have tested the cladding on fewer than 300 high-rise blocks? On 20 July, he told the House that the Government would
“make sure that they have the support that they need.”—[Official Report, 20 July 2017; Vol. 627, c. 1025.]
Can he confirm that he told the Communities and Local Government Committee last week that there would be no Government funding for councils or housing associations for essential retrofit fire safety work?
Grenfell survivors have a deep mistrust of those in power who failed to respect social housing residents for so long. When Ministers make pledges but fail to act, or fail to ensure that others act, that fuels a wider lack of trust and confidence. The buck stops at the top. Will the Secretary of State now, four months on, secure the extra homes that are needed for all the Grenfell families, provide the Government funds that are needed for urgent remedial work and to retrofit sprinklers, and set a date to come to the House to tell us that every other tower block in the country is safe—not “as safe as possible”, as the Secretary of State said earlier—for the people who live in it?
Many of the Government’s decisions, reviews and inquiries are good, but they will not be good enough until the Government get a grip, and get these fundamental problems sorted out.
I know that the right hon. Gentleman cares as deeply about helping the survivors of this terrible tragedy as I do, and as the entire Government do, and it is a real shame that he should try to treat it as some kind of political points-scoring opportunity. He knows exactly what the situation is, not least because I updated the Select Committee—whose members included his colleagues—just last week. The Committee had an opportunity to go into many of the issues in detail, as a Select Committee should, and I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman followed all that. This is not what the victims of the tragedy want to see, and it not what the country wants to see. They want to see all of us working together to do whatever we can.
The right hon. Gentleman asked me about housing. I have talked about that before, but I am happy to say again that the victims of what was easily one of the most terrible tragedies ever to have taken place in our country are people, not statistics. We must work with them and listen to what their needs are. For example, there were 151 households at the start, with Grenfell Tower and Grenfell Walk—the two buildings—taken together, but we are now working with 202 households. That has happened because some of the survivors have asked to split where there are larger families or for other reasons, and we have listened to that. We have listened to every single case, and not one request has been turned down. That, of course, means we have to find even more permanent and temporary accommodation, but that is not our consideration; our consideration is the needs of the victims themselves.
It is right that every family should be properly assessed for their housing need, and should be listened to. Every single family has been offered an assessment by professional housing officers. Some of them have met a number of times, because if they change their mind we need to listen to them. Literally only a handful have not yet had that meeting, but that is at their request, because they are not ready; they will typically be a bereaved family who are not ready to engage. They would rather not go through that process now, and we have listened to them, too.
After the assessments, we have tried to determine—obviously the council was leading the work—whether the survivors wanted to be back in an apartment block again, or if they want a house, and whether there are any other needs. Some families say they do not want to live in the borough, but would prefer to move closer to family elsewhere. All of that is being listened to; we are trying to action all of that and listen to it.
There can be a time lag when families have identified a property—as I have said, 112 families have accepted offers of temporary or permanent accommodation. That lag occurs between acceptances and moving in, because every family has been offered a moving-in package so they can choose the décor, the furniture and any other things that will make their life comfortable. That has been listened to, and of course that will take time.
That is how we are treating these people: as real people and survivors, not as statistics. I know the right hon. Gentleman is not saying that they are statistics, but sometimes it does come across like that. I urge him to work with us, and to listen to what work is actually going on.
The right hon. Gentleman also asked me about the building test. I have given the House an update on the numbers, and a fuller update was given last week at the Select Committee. He asked particularly about the speed of the tests. The Prime Minister rightly said previously that the testing facilities can test up to 100 samples a day. They were specifically testing the samples of ACM—aluminium composite material—cladding that were sent in, and they were done at the speed that they were sent in; the testing facilities can only operate at the speed at which the samples are sent in.
Those tests have subsequently been superseded by the more comprehensive systems tests, which test the whole ACM cladding system. As the right hon. Gentleman knows, that was tested during the summer and it gave a fuller result. I have just shared the numbers of social buildings and private buildings tested so far, and following on from those results, both the interim and remedial action plans that have been put in place.
Finally, the right hon. Gentleman asked about council funding. He rightly said that I have stated before that I will make sure that all councils have the support they need. That is exactly what I and this Government are doing. Councils are rightly expected to carry out all essential works, and they will determine, as the legal owners of the properties, what is genuinely essential work; and if they cannot afford it, that should not be a reason not to do the work. Whether they are interim measures or the final remedial measures, the work must happen, and if the councils need support through financial flexibilities, we will provide that. Again, I gave a fuller account to the Select Committee, so perhaps the right hon. Gentleman will take another look at that.
I commend my right hon. Friend on keeping the House updated and the comprehensive nature of the updates he has given to the Communities and Local Government Committee.
Given the terrible traumatic circumstances that the victims of Grenfell Tower have been through, is it not much more important that they have a home they can call their own, and that we take the time to achieve that, than that we rush to push people into homes they do not want?
I thank my hon. Friend for his comments. He is right: we must take the time that survivors ask of us. We cannot rush any survivor into making a decision with which they may eventually be uncomfortable. Even in circumstances, which have arisen, whereby survivors have accepted a property offer, moved in and then changed their minds and said, “Actually this is not what I wanted”, we should listen to them. We should work at their pace—that is the right thing to do.
Reacting to incidents such as Grenfell is always challenging. After the Prime Minister’s comments yesterday, there are more questions about the Government’s handling of the fire and its aftermath. In Scotland, a working group is reviewing evidence on fire suppression measures, including sprinklers to ensure the safety of residents in high-rise buildings. Sprinklers are only one of a range of risk-reduction measures, but we are reviewing them. The Government dismiss them, telling one council:
“The fire safety measures you outline are additional rather than essential.”
Why do the Government seem to deem any risk-reduction measure as additional, not essential?
Ninety-two households have yet to be found new homes, despite rehousing being a priority. After four months, hundreds of people are still living out of suitcases and hotels and it is simply not good enough. It is time to stop the words—people need action. Will the Secretary of State guarantee that permanent homes will be found for everyone before Christmas?
I remind the hon. Gentleman that a full, independent review of building regulations and fire safety rules and regulations has been set up. That is one way in which we can make changes and learn lessons from the terrible tragedy.
The hon. Gentleman talked about what is essential and non-essential for fire safety. As I said a moment ago, we expect councils and housing associations to take expert advice, certainly from their local fire and rescue service, but it is then for the council, not the Government, to determine what is essential.
I, too, thank the Secretary of State for coming to the Select Committee meeting and answering questions so thoroughly last week. I want to return to the point about the essential fire safety work that other councils have got to do on their tower blocks. The Secretary of State has talked about extra flexibilities, probably extra borrowing, for those councils, but he has ruled out any money from the Government to help fund the work. Does he realise that many councils may have to defer or cancel other essential maintenance work on properties, putting the lives and health and safety of other residents at risk? Will he reconsider and recognise that this is a national problem, and that the Government should at least share responsibility with local councils to deal with it?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his work through the Select Committee and the scrutiny that he and his colleagues provide. Last week was a welcome opportunity to meet the Committee and discuss this and other issues.
The hon. Gentleman asked specifically about funding and whether the funding requirement could delay other work. Given that each council’s situation is different, I cannot give a general answer for all councils. I said to the Select Committee, and it is worth repeating to the House, that I have set out a process for a full, top-to-bottom review of social housing, not just of the rights of tenants and how they are treated—the redress systems—but of our approach as a country to social housing, which has not been looked at for a generation. We will set out our thoughts in a Green Paper and discuss them with the Select Committee and any other colleagues who want to talk about them. That is an appropriate way in which to consider the wider issues, including renovation, around social housing.
I thank my right hon. Friend for coming to the House again today. He obviously recognises that the fire at Grenfell has implications for the wider area. What are the Government doing to listen to residents’ concerns and how are they addressing their needs?
I am pleased that my hon. Friend has raised that point. He will know that in London in the wake of the tragedy we have asked councils to check the quality of buildings, not just the fire safety, but other matters. For example, cracks so big that you could put your hand into them were discovered in the walls of the Ledbury estate tower blocks in Southwark. All those issues, including structural matters, need to be looked at.
My hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Planning has had a series of meetings and will travel across the country to meet and listen to social housing residents. There is also the Green Paper and the review that we are carrying out.
Following the fatal fires at Shirley Towers in Southampton and Lakanal House in Camberwell, coroners recommended retrofitting sprinklers in high-rise residential buildings to prevent deaths. Will the Secretary of State therefore explain why the Housing Minister recently wrote to Nottingham City Council to say that the sprinkler system that it requested was additional rather than essential? The Government should be doing everything in their power to prevent such tragedies, so should they not launch a separate formal review into the wider neglect of social housing? The failure to use the Grenfell inquiry to examine wider neglect is an act of neglect in itself.
The hon. Gentleman refers to the coroners’ reports following the two previous tragedies, and he is right that in both cases the coroner asked social housing providers to consider the provision of sprinklers. It was recommended that the then Secretary of State write to housing associations and councils to pass on that recommendation, which is exactly what the Secretary of State did at the time.
As for the wider funding issues, I have already answered that question.
The whole House will agree that it is important that those who have been directly affected by the fire have their voices heard, so will the Secretary of State update us on what meetings the Government have had with the victims?
My Department, which has been leading the Government effort, has been heavily involved right from day one of this tragedy, as have several councils—not just the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea. London boroughs came together quickly under what is a called a gold command, and all councils have been involved in working with and listening to the victims. Over the summer, a majority of the victims came together to set up Grenfell United under their own initiative, and there have been regular meetings with the group’s committee. I met the group at a meeting to which every survivor was invited, and the victims Minister and the Prime Minister have also met the group.
I was troubled to hear the Secretary of State tell the Communities and Local Government Committee that councils would be expected to reprioritise in order to complete essential fire safety works post-Grenfell. Will he confirm whether it is my constituents living in temporary accommodation and desperately waiting for a new home or those waiting for much-needed major works who should be reprioritised? Can he not see that, unless the Government provide grant funding for essential fire safety works, the long-term impact of the tragedy across the country will be a deepening of the housing crisis? We owe it to the victims and survivors to do better than that.
As we discussed at the Select Committee, councils are expected to do whatever work is necessary to keep people safe, including interim measures and final remedial measures. They will get support from the Government in the form of flexibilities that will allow them to do that work. The hon. Lady referred to other work, and I believe that I have answered the question about how that should be considered in a fuller review, because that issue is bigger than the essential work. We need to look beyond the essential work to see what else needs to be done by the Government to improve social housing more generally. I am sure she would welcome the steps that the Government have taken towards that, such as the commitment to put an additional £2 billion into social housing that was announced just a couple of weeks ago.
I was pleased to hear the Secretary of State’s comments about social housing and to hear that, as recommended by Sir Martin Moore-Bick, the Government are looking more closely at social housing issues. Will the Secretary of State update us on the first steps that are being taken to put something in place?
My hon. Friend refers to the Green Paper on social housing that we are already working on. One of the key ways in which we will develop that paper is by listening to people who already live in social housing—not just those in one area. London is important, but we want to listen to people from across the country about the issues they face in terms of the quality and type of social housing. We want to hear about redress and how to ensure that we can have a better system, so that we can listen and take action when residents come up with issues.
Can the Secretary of State imagine a situation in which so many thousands of people were in potential danger that would not be treated as a national issue for the Government? We have a Secretary of State who is trying to wash his hands of responsibility. The commissioner of the London fire brigade says that retrofitting sprinklers in tower blocks
“can’t be optional, it can’t be a nice-to-have”.
Does the Secretary of State agree with the commissioner, and will he work with local authorities to retrofit sprinklers in tower blocks?
With respect, I do not think the hon. Gentleman has been listening to my responses. As I have said, and I repeat it again for his benefit, it is for property owners—local councils and, in some cases, housing associations—to determine what is essential, after taking the advice of their local fire and rescue service, the local experts. Once they take that advice, we will listen to their determination.
I welcome the work my right hon. Friend has set out. He mentions the social housing review; should not that focus on our need for dramatically more social housing? Will he lobby the Treasury for tax incentives for housing associations, and will he liberalise planning rules so that we can build social housing for the 21st century?
I am pleased that my right hon. Friend raises that point. He highlights the importance of social housing, which is a significant part of the total housing delivery in this country. That is why we want to provide more support for housing associations and ambitious councils that want to build more homes—one reason we recently announced the additional £2 billion. We listened to the sector when it said it wanted more certainty on rents from 2020 onwards, and we have provided that.
The Secretary of State has talked about financial support through financial flexibilities, but I would be grateful if he specifically confirmed, or even agreed, that what he is referring to is a loan and that financial provision needs to increase because budgets have been cut.
Charities have raised more than £24 million for the survivors of this horrific tragedy. How do they access that money, and how much of it has already been accessed?
First, on flexibilities, in some cases it may well be a loan. If a council’s housing revenue account borrowing limit is increased, that will be an additional loan, but in some cases councils have approached us to ask for a one-off authority to make a transfer from their general fund reserve—in that case, it will not be a loan.
I am glad that the hon. Lady highlights the charities. Charities raised more than £20 million of funding immediately after the tragedy, and they continue to raise money. I commend their work, which will really help the victims of this tragedy. More than half the money has been distributed so far. Of course, distribution is not a Government job—it is up to the charities—but the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport has tried to co-ordinate for the charities so that they can work together to ensure that they help victims in the best way.[Official Report, 1 November 2017, Vol. 630, c. 1MC-2MC.]
I commend my right hon. Friend and the Department for their granular approach to this tragedy—that seems the right approach. Finding the truth and identifying justice is crucial. Will he update the House on the progress on the inquiry?
My hon. Friend raises one of the most important issues following this tragedy: the need to seek the truth and justice for the survivors, their families and their friends. Of course, he will know that that work is rightly being led through an independent public inquiry—a judge-led inquiry—and that work has begun. It is not for me to comment on how it is progressing or on the final timing of it, but it is right that this has been set up. The judge will get the co-operation of everyone he needs it from, be it Government, my Department or others. The police work and the police inquiry are going on separately, and I expect the police to continue to give public updates on that.
An Erdington tower block tenant asked me, “Will the Government pay to keep us safe?” The west midlands fire service has advised £41 million of works, including the retrofitting of sprinklers, but the city is reeling from £700 million of cuts to its budget. Will the Government pay to keep the tenants of Birmingham safe?
First, if the city had managed its public finances better, it might be in a better position. But when it comes to essential work, of course there should be no shortcuts. Any support that it needs will be provided. I have talked about how that support can be provided and the type of works it needs to do. As I have said, and am happy to repeat, it is essential that the city take the advice of its local fire and rescue service, which it has done—that is important and it is good to see. We will look at that, but it is the legal owner of that building with a legal responsibility to keep it safe. Whatever it comes to us with and determines as essential, that is what we will listen to, and this is how we will work with it to help provide the flexibilities it needs.
Does the Secretary of State not recognise that escaping from a 20-floor tower block is exactly the same in Birmingham, Manchester and London, so leaving this to local decisions is not good enough? Local authorities will face having to replace panels and trying to retrofit sprinklers in a short period. I do not see that that is manageable out of a normal essential works budget.
The hon. Lady raises an important point about how this is about not just the funding, which I have talked about at the Dispatch Box a number of times, but capacity—the capacity to commission the work, and to make sure the replacement cladding, the scaffolding and all the essential bits and pieces are available. That is why one of the first things we did, working with the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, was to set up an industry response group, with representatives of industry across the UK, to make sure we are co-ordinating the availability of essential materials and capacity, including the specialist labour that will be necessary. As well as the funding, that is also a necessary part of this and we are very much involved in it.
I am chairman of the all-party group on local government, and along with other members of the group I have been following closely the responses of individual local authorities. I recognise that much hard work has been done to monitor the situation in social housing, but to reassure people up and down the country, will the Secretary of State confirm that his Department is monitoring the response of councils, particularly those facing financial problems and those perhaps with a lack of expertise within them?
Yes, I am happy to give my hon. Friend that reassurance. From day one, when we put the building safety programme in place, the number of people in my Department—the specialists—dealing with this has increased dramatically. One reason that has been necessary is that every building that has been identified—where, first, there had to be testing, and this was followed by the results of the testing, the interim measures and the remedial measures—has been allocated to an individual in my Department. So an individual has been following how the local authority, housing association or private sector operator has handled the testing and their response to the results of that testing. That has been necessary to make sure that all the necessary work takes place, and we will continue to do it for as long as is necessary.
I welcome the announcement of the social housing review, but will the Secretary of State please reconsider, as part of that review, my request of some weeks ago for an audit of all social housing? That would enable us to understand things such as the extent of concrete cancer and the percentage of homes with sprinklers, and therefore to best understand the scale of the problem and the investment that is needed, to which the hon. Member for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers) perhaps alluded. That would be most welcome.
We must never forget the incredible work of the firefighters on that day. The fire and rescue service faced 30% cuts up to 2015, and local government settlements suggest there will be cuts of a further 20% before 2020. Meanwhile, firefighter pay has been capped at 1%. Is the Secretary of State at least having conversations with the Chancellor about a moratorium on fire and rescue cuts and about increasing firefighters’ pay?