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.
What discussions has the Minister had with the Mayor of London to find a workable way forward on taxi legislation in the capital that balances healthy competition with the properly enforced regulations that safeguard passengers and keep our city moving?
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.
Sex offenders and others banned from driving taxis by local authorities are providing the same service simply by applying for a licence to drive a minibus. Will the Minister continue the work done by me and his predecessor on closing that loophole?
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.
What European destination would want to turn away planeloads of spending British tourists?
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.
In light of that answer, can the Secretary of State give an assurance that the Government will pursue an unchanged operating environment for the aviation sector in the Brexit negotiations with the EU?
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.
European competition law will no longer apply after Brexit, so how does the Secretary of State propose to allocate airport slots? By auction, or in some other way?
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.
The London underground upgrade was stalled for years under Labour but has made big progress under the Conservatives. So does the Minister share my regret that under the new Labour Mayor at city hall we are seeing vital upgrades shelved indefinitely?
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?
I can sense, as you probably can, Mr Speaker, a clamour coming from across the House. The rallying cry I have issued is that the Mayor must do more and better, and it seems that the hon. Lady joins my calls.
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.
The hon. Gentleman has gone way off the road, he really has.
I did mention Shipley.
He mentioned Shipley but it is not sufficient simply to animadvert on Shipley. The question ought to relate to the matter.[Interruption.] Which is a bypass, as somebody has observed, very originally and wittily from a sedentary position.
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.
Ah, another pertinent inquiry on the Shipley eastern bypass I feel sure.
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.
Ah, yes! I chaired the South Lakes Pupil Parliament in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency on Friday. The children there spoke of him with great warmth and affection.
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.
What progress is being made on setting up low-emission zones in various parts of the country? How are the Government ensuring that there is a workable national framework for those zones?
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
E10 fuel can reduce emissions from road transport. Can the Minister confirm the Government’s commitment to introducing E10 in the UK in 2018?
As the hon. Gentleman knows, we have been looking closely at this issue and will make an announcement in due course.
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?
I thoroughly dispute the idea that the Government are not playing their part, not least because we are heavily investing in HS2, which will run very close to that port and support it.
Is my hon. Friend aware that many Harlow motorists face significant problems from ever-increasing congestion and the ever-increasing number of terrible accidents on the M11? Will he investigate that to see what can be done?
We are absolutely aware of these issues and officials focus on them, as they do on issues on other strategic parts of the road network, but I would be delighted to meet my right hon. Friend to look at the issue further.
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?
As the hon. Lady will know, the Secretary of State made clear—[Interruption]—and reminds the House again that the north is seeing the biggest single investment in rail for many decades.
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.
I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman is closely familiar with junction 36, about which, I dare say, we shall hear more in due course.
May I urge my right hon. Friend to be very granular when making such sub-regional assessments, to ensure within a regional context that rural areas, not just urban areas, secure the funding that they need?
As my hon. Friend, who is such a great champion of his constituents, knows, I am a representative of Lincolnshire, so I could hardly fail to have rural interests deep in my heart.
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.
I thank my right hon. Friend, but what specific plans does he have to improve north-south rail connections other than High Speed 2, including the east coast main line, to ensure we truly are a connected kingdom?
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.
The right hon. Gentleman’s performances in the Chamber are always a source of great excitement—especially for the right hon. Gentleman.
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.
How is the Secretary of State holding Volkswagen to account for its emissions scandal?
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.
I expect to set out our further plans on the rail industry very shortly.
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?
Yes, of course. I have met the Community Transport Association to discuss this at length, as my officials have been doing for some time, and other community transport entities. I would be delighted to meet my hon. Friend and his constituents.
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.
(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State if he will update the House on Government action following the Grenfell Tower fire.
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.
What is the formal final total of fatalities? How many victims remain unidentified?
Obviously, the police conduct that work independently, but I can give my hon. Friend the latest number: 80 people are missing, presumed dead. That is the latest information that the police have, but they have committed to keeping people updated.
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.
Will my right hon. Friend please reassure me that the victims’ views will always be given paramountcy by the Government and that when making decisions about the recovery their views will be taken into account above all else?
I can absolutely assure my hon. Friend that victims’ views come first, second and third.
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.
I will reconsider it.
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?
The House cannot commend enough the work done by the fire service—not just what it did in response to this terrible tragedy, but its work in general up and down the country. With respect to the response to the tragedy, there is no evidence that there was a resource issue; however, it is correct that the ongoing independent inquiries are the ones properly to assess that, not us in this House. I direct the hon. Gentleman to the work that is being done through the independent review of not only building regulations, but fire safety rules and regulations. It is just the kind of thing that the review can look at.
The Secretary of State has confirmed that it is for local authorities to seek expert advice in determining what work is essential to keep tower block residents safe. As my hon. Friend the Member for Eltham (Clive Efford) said, fire chiefs’ advice is unambiguous: the retrofitting of sprinklers cannot be optional or a “nice-to-have”; it is something that must happen. Why, then, did the Minister for Housing and Planning tell Nottingham City Council that sprinklers were “additional rather than essential”? Is he wrong?
We have asked Nottingham City Council for further information. What I have said generally for every council, whether it is Nottingham or others, is that it is for the council to determine what is genuinely essential, and that must be based on expert advice.
Lewisham Council has done all the safety checks and is doing all the remediation works to ensure that our blocks are safe, and it doing that at great cost. The Government said that such work would be fully funded, yet no funding is forthcoming. Are the Government trying to bankrupt councils?
Lewisham Council is one of the number of councils I mentioned earlier that have contacted us. We are in more detailed discussions with a few of them, and we have asked for further information and are looking at it.
What is the Secretary of State doing to build public confidence among the people of Barton Hill, Kingsdown, Redcliffe, Hotwells and elsewhere in my constituency in the content, scrutiny and enforcement of fire and building safety regulations?
The hon. Lady will know about the work that has been going on with respect to publicly owned buildings, which include those owned by housing associations as well as by local councils; I have set that out previously and done so again today in detail. Like all other Members, she will have in her constituency private sector buildings, including the tall buildings above 18 metres, some of which we have tested if samples have come forward to us.
On 5 September, based on the expert advice that we had received, I wrote to the chief executive officer of every council to ask them to put in place a procedure to work out what other private buildings they have that would meet the criteria, to make sure that they are tested and to confirm for themselves that they are safe. I also took the opportunity to remind local council leaders and chief executives of the powers they already have under the Housing Act 2004 to take enforcement action, if they need to, on building regulations, if the work was recently done, as well as the powers that the fire and rescue services have under the fire safety order.
I remind the Secretary of State that the withdrawal of billions of pounds of revenue support grant from local authorities has been a unilateral decision of his Government since 2010. Therefore, placing that responsibility on local authorities in that light is beyond contempt. The residents of my 24 tower blocks in Gateshead really do express their deep sympathy for the occupants of Grenfell Tower, the bereaved and the traumatised, but they are also looking for peace of mind. Their buildings are not clad in the same way as Grenfell Tower, but they do live in blocks that have no sprinkler systems, and many of them in blocks with single stairwells. They have to live there whether they are elderly, infirm, disabled or vulnerable. They are looking for peace of mind from this Government and from this Secretary of State, and I am looking for it now.
In that case, the hon. Gentleman should be reassured that his council, like others, has received expert advice and has been asked to work with us in checking all buildings locally, whether they are in the public or the private sector. Where it needs further support and advice from us, those are available. It has also been reminded of the extensive enforcement powers.
Business of the House
Will the Leader of the House give us the business for next week?
The business for next week is as follows:
Monday 23 October—Second Reading of the Automated and Electric Vehicles Bill.
Tuesday 24 October—Second Reading of the Smart Meters Bill.
Wednesday 25 October—Opposition day (3rd allotted day). There will be a debate on social care followed by a debate on supported housing. Both debates will arise on a motion in the name of the official Opposition.
Thursday 26 October—General debate on the implementation of the Modern Slavery Act 2015 followed by general debate on global LGBT rights. The subjects for these debates were determined by the Backbench Business Committee.
Friday 27 October—The House will not be sitting.
I should also like to inform the House that the business in Westminster Hall for 23, 26 and 30 October will be:
Monday 23 October—Debate on an e-petition relating to eligibility for mortgages.
Thursday 26 October—Debate on International Freedom of Religion or Belief Day.
Monday 30 October—Debate on an e-petition relating to proportional representation.
I am sure that the whole House will join me in marking national adoption week. The love and support offered by so many in this country to otherwise vulnerable children is to be celebrated.
Finally, the festival of lights, one of the happiest holidays, also begins today, signifying the victory of good over evil, knowledge over ignorance and light over darkness. May I take this opportunity to wish everyone a very happy Diwali?
I thank the Leader of the House for the forthcoming business—again, it is just for one week, not two—and also join her in wishing everybody peace and prosperity for Diwali. I also thank her for providing an advance copy, which I got via email on Tuesday, and the Vote Office in Portcullis House for having hard copies of it for Members on Monday.
This week, the sky darkened, a hurricane hit our islands, and the Government continued with their game playing both here and in Europe. I want to reiterate what you said after the motion yesterday, Mr Speaker, which was that
“the Leader of the House has to be the House’s representative in the Government.”—[Official Report, 18 October 2017; Vol. 629, c. 956.]
I am sure that the Deputy Leader of the House, who was in his place yesterday, will have informed the Leader of the House about the outcome. There were seven points of order following the debate. Member after Member—and you, Mr Speaker—wanted to know what the position is when the House votes 299-0. As the shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions said in her point of order, if the Government have retreated on certain aspects of a policy, the Minister should come to the House and explain.
This is where we make the law. The hon. Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) was right to say that this is not a school debating chamber. You made it very clear, Mr Speaker, that the Government should come to the House, because a motion was passed to pause the roll-out of universal credit. It took a week for them to end the charges on the helpline for universal credit. This is a disorganised Government who are disrespectful to the House. What do we say to the democracies around the world; to the UK Youth Parliament, who are coming here on 10 November; to young people as they learn about democracy; or to those who voted to get their sovereignty back? No wonder the EU negotiating team think the Government are amateurs. That is why they want to speak to the Opposition.
Could the Leader of the House please tell us how the Government will honour the result, as the Official Report put it:
“Resolved, That this House calls on the Government to pause…Universal Credit”—[Official Report, 18 October 2017; Vol. 629, c. 955.]?
Is that really it for the business for next week: Monday, robot cars and Tuesday, smart meters? Are those the most pressing things for the House to debate? The shadow Secretary of State for Transport told me that the Government have accepted our amendments, so it is effectively our Bill.
The country is crying out for action—not calls for evidence—on housing, education, health, and the mounting debt caused by stagnant wages and increases in the cost of living, which we want to address in our Opposition days. But the Leader of the House must give the House a commitment today that non-urgent statements will not in future be used to disrupt Opposition days. I know the Government did not want to hear about people in rent arrears struggling to feed their families when they are in work, but that is the reality when Government policy is failing.
Mr Speaker, I want to draw your attention to another alarming situation. The Sanctions and Anti-Money Laundering Bill—a very serious Bill, to make provisions enabling sanctions to be imposed to comply with UN obligations “or other international obligations”: the EU cannot be mentioned at all on the face of the Bill—had its First Reading in the House of Lords yesterday, but the Bill will be printed today. That must be a first—where a Bill has passed its First Reading and no one has seen its contents until a day later. It should be one for the Foreign Secretary, but perhaps he cannot be trusted with the Bill. Worse still, the House of Commons cannot be trusted with the Bill. So will the Leader of the House please explain why that Bill started in the other place?
When will the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill come before the House for its Committee of the whole House stage? I read in an email yesterday that it will be after the November recess. Is that correct? Should we not be discussing it here? Will the Leader of the House please tell us what is happening?
May we have a statement on the growing scandal of the missing NHS files, as revealed in the Public Accounts Committee? There has been no response to the letter from my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton South (Dr Williams) on referrals for children with autism; 142 Members across the parties want to know why parents and children in a place like Stockton have waited nearly four years from the point of referral to specialist assessment. NICE guidelines say it takes three months. We are failing those children, some of whom are absolutely brilliant and see life in a different way from us.
Finally, it was great to attend the Women of the Year lunch last Monday with other hon. Members. The winners of the awards are truly deserving. The leadership award went to Dany Cotton, the first female commissioner of the London fire brigade, for her leadership in response to the Grenfell Tower fire. The international award went to the White Helmets, as a favoured charity of our dear colleague Jo Cox. It says:
“To save one life is to save all humanity”.
The main award went to the women of the emergency and medical services following the Manchester bombing—doctors, nurses, paramedics, the deputy chief constable and community police officers. I know the whole House will join me in acknowledging the work that those women have done in difficult times, as we all work towards a more equal society.
May I start by absolutely sharing in the hon. Lady’s praise for all those amazing women who won awards in the Women of the Year award ceremony this week? Our thanks and gratitude go to all those who contributed in the response to the appalling Grenfell Tower tragedy and those who rushed out to help after the Manchester bombing. I completely share her awe at what they have achieved.
The hon. Lady raises a number of issues. I will try to address them all but if she will forgive me; she spoke very fast—[Interruption.] I will try to get to all of them. She raised first the issue of the number of points of order last night in response to the Opposition day debate. She is aware that, as you said, Mr Speaker, the resolution of the House was passed, and that the Government are indeed not bound by that resolution, as you pointed out yourself. However, I assure all Members on both sides of the House that the Government are listening and have been listening. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions said yesterday, and as was reiterated by the Prime Minister in Prime Minister’s questions, the DWP, as a result of issues raised in the House, has looked again at charges for those using the DWP helpline and has agreed that those charges should be stopped. That is direct action as a result of concerns raised across the House.
It is important—again, the Department for Work and Pensions has been listening carefully—that more is done to ensure that those claiming universal credit are aware that they can get up to 50% of the first month’s payments in the form of an emergency payment within seven days or even earlier. It is also important that many different efforts are being made by the DWP to work with landlords to ensure that those on universal credit do not get into difficult rent arrears. As colleagues will know, it is possible for rent to be paid directly to landlords, and that is now the case for many universal credit recipients.
So I assure colleagues that the House is absolutely being listened to, and the concerns being raised are acted on. I can also assure colleagues that DWP Ministers will come back to the House, as they have several times, to update it on progress in addressing the concerns raised by Members across the House. [Hon. Members: “When?”] That will be as soon as there is more to tell the House about the achievements that have been put in place. It is very important that the Government show that we are listening and taking action. If hon. Members wished to be fair about it, they would accept that a great deal of progress has been made, and it is important that we continue with that.
The debate yesterday specifically called for a pause in the roll-out of universal credit. I can reassure hon. Members that the roll-out schedule already includes a number of pauses. There has recently been one; the next is scheduled for January. The roll-out of universal credit is being done over a lengthy period.
However, it is important that we go back to the origins of universal credit. Even the hon. Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams) on the Opposition Front Bench agrees that universal credit is a good move for those trying to get back into work. It consolidates six benefits into one. It provides more support for those trying to get into work. Three separate studies show that universal credit recipients get into work faster than jobseeker’s allowance recipients. Because of the simple taper rate, there are no hours rules and cliff edges, as there are with tax credits. And, of course, universal credit covers up to 85% of childcare costs, versus 70% with tax credits. All of those things are really important to support recipients to get into work, which is good for them and good for their families.
The hon. Member for Walsall South also raises the question of when the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill will come to the House for its next stage, which will be Committee of the whole House. I want to reassure hon. Members that, as has been widely reported and as is well known, 300 amendments and 54 new clauses have been put forward. It should be reassuring to the House to know that the Government are looking carefully at those amendments and new clauses to ensure that, when the Bill does come back to this Chamber for a response and for the debate—we have eight days of debate, with eight protected hours on each day—the responses will be well thought through.
However, I would like to point out to Members on both sides of the House, who may not be aware of this, that there is nothing odd at all about a pause between Second Reading and Committee of the whole House. Specifically, with a constitutional measure such as the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011, there were six sitting weeks between Second Reading and Committee of the whole House. With the Human Rights Act 1998, there were 10 sitting weeks between Second Reading and Committee of the whole House. With the Scottish Parliament (Constituencies) Act 2004, there were eight sitting weeks between Second Reading and Committee of the whole House. I hope that that reassures hon. Members that there is nothing odd or anything to fear from this slight pause. It is our clear, stated intent to show respect to the House by coming back to it with clear, considered responses to all the proposals made by hon. Members on both sides.
The hon. Lady asked why the Sanctions and Anti-Money Laundering Bill has started in the other place. She will be aware that through discussion among the parties it is important that we schedule legislation appropriately between starting in the Lords or in the Commons. There is nothing odd about a Bill starting in the other place. This Bill was considered suitable for their lordships to consider with the level of expertise that they have. She will be aware that this week we have had the Second Reading of a Brexit Bill on nuclear safeguards, and further Brexit Bills will be introduced in this House and in the other House, as is perfectly normal parliamentary procedure.
The hon. Lady raised the length of time that it has taken for referrals of children and young people with autism. I share her concern about that issue, and I am happy to raise it specifically with the Secretary of State for Health—I know that he is concerned about it himself. I urge Members to seek appropriate methods, either through Health questions or through a debate, to raise this very serious issue further.
May I put to my good friend the Leader of the House a Conservative long-term point of view about the events of last night? It may be that in future we have a minority Labour Government. They may produce a policy that we think is deeply contrary to our personal liberties. We may muster a majority in Parliament against it. What happens if that future Labour Government then say, “We’re sorry—you’ve set the precedent, this is only an expression of opinion, and we’re going to ignore Parliament”? Frankly, the road to tyranny is paved with Executives ignoring Parliament. I therefore urge my right hon. Friend to listen to Parliament. I believe that the Secretary of State should come and make a statement, and it should be a statement full of meat. Parliament does matter. If we, as Conservatives, live by the sword now, our Conservative values might die by the sword in future.
Can I assure my hon. Friend that there is no precedent being set here? The Government, like different parties and different Members, will look on a case-by-case basis at whether they will vote on specific motions or not. There is no precedent being set. I have just explained at some length that this Government are very clearly listening to Parliament and have very clearly taken action as a result of concerns raised in the House. I have also given an assurance that DWP Ministers will come back to this Chamber to update Members on progress with rolling out universal credit.
I thank the Leader of the House for announcing the business for next week.
Well, last night went well, didn’t it? What an anti-democratic shambles—an utter embarrassment for this House. Just when we thought this Government could not demonstrate more contempt for the democratic arrangements of the House, they have got into the lift and taken us down another couple of levels. I do not know what will be next. Maybe they will refuse to answer questions from the Dispatch Box. Maybe they will even try to abolish all these inconvenient voting Opposition parties. They might even do the country a favour and abolish themselves. The Leader of the House has to get a grip and the vacuous nonsense has to stop. She is the Leader of all of the House and she has to take that responsibility seriously. The first thing she needs to say is that she takes the view of the House seriously. We voted last night to pause the roll-out of universal credit, the Government have to accept it, and we have to hear that from a DWP Minister at the Dispatch Box.
What about the EU repeal Bill? The delay is not because of all the amendments the Leader of the House talks about—it is because the fractious Conservative party cannot agree a solid line on all this, and they are terrified of any possible defeat. That is why we are not seeing the repeal Bill. There is talk now that we might not even see it much before Christmas. We have to see it soon.
We are getting all this talk about a no-deal hard Brexit, and these guys are actually serious about putting forward this flavour of disaster. We need to have a debate to see how much it will cost. We know that Scotland and the north-east of England will be impacted the hardest by a no-deal hard Brexit, so can we have a debate on all this?
Lastly, can we have a statement on Catalonia, which is perhaps the biggest crisis we have seen in mainland Europe? There is talk today of suspending the national Parliament and of repression on the streets. When will we get a statement on that?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his contribution. I could repeat all the points I have already made: I absolutely take my responsibilities seriously; I am, absolutely, Parliament’s representative in Government as well as Government’s representative in Parliament; and I am listening very carefully. As I have assured hon. Members, the Department for Work and Pensions has taken action as a direct result of points raised in this House by Members from across parties, and it will come back to this House to provide further updates on progress made as a direct result of points raised in this House.
The hon. Gentleman talks again about the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill. I think I have made the point very clearly that out of respect for this House, the Government are doing justice to the very significant concerns that have been raised about procedures and policy in the EU (Withdrawal) Bill, and it will come back to the House just as soon as the Government are prepared to do justice to the new clauses and amendments that have been tabled by Members. In addition, it is absolutely normal practice in this House to have a pause between Second Reading and Committee of the whole House, particularly on large constitutional Bills, to make sure that we are able properly to consider all the points raised.
The hon. Gentleman also raises the significant and very concerning matter of the Catalonian situation. He is right to do so, and I say again that we have all been very concerned and dismayed to see the violence on the streets in Spain. However, Spain is a very key ally of the UK, and we do urge all parties to ensure that any actions taken are constitutional and legally justifiable.
On rare occasions, I have been in trouble with the Whips for not voting for Government policy. Yesterday would have been the first time that had I voted for Government policy, I would have been in trouble. We cannot ignore the will of the House. This is about not just Opposition days, but Back-Bench business days—and what if a motion put forward by the Government is lost, because the Government ignore it?
The fact is that we have to have a mechanism whereby the Government formally come back and explain what action they are going to take as a result of a vote in this House. May I suggest to the Leader of the House that she considers that proposal this week, and that she comes back next week and says that that is exactly what is going to happen? Will she tell us that within 12 weeks of a vote, a Minister—perhaps even the Leader of the House—will come back and explain what action has been taken? [Interruption.] I said within 12 weeks. [Interruption.] Oh, tsk—stop! That could perhaps be called the Leadsom convention.
My hon. Friend has raised that perfectly reasonable suggestion on a number of occasions. As I have made clear, it is the intention of DWP Ministers to come back to this place to update the House on progress frequently and, I am sure, certainly within the timeframe that he mentions. I think it is very important to be clear on this: this is not some new precedent. On the universal credit issue yesterday, the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions came to this House and responded very fully to points and concerns raised by this House. It is perfectly right that the House continues to raise issues and that Departments continue to respond to them.
I thank the Leader of the House for the business announcement for next week, and for confirming the two Back-Bench business debates on Thursday 26 October on the implementation of the Modern Slavery Act 2015 and on global LGBT rights. May I, however, entreat her once again to give us some notice of future Back-Bench time? We received eight applications from right hon. and hon. Members on Tuesday this week, but we were unable to confirm to them that we had any debating time in the Chamber to allocate to them. It may be difficult at the moment for the Government to know what they want to do in their own time, but surely they could let the Backbench Business Committee know in a timely way what time they intend to allocate to us.
I am very privileged to say that I was re-elected as chair of the all-party group on housing in the north last night, when we received representations from a number of chief executives of housing companies in the north of England. I am afraid to say that the message from them is that housing arrears are building in universal credit roll-out areas. In the discussion earlier, the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government told us that local authorities have a responsibility to retrofit sprinklers and undertake safety work, but if they have major problems with their housing revenue accounts and are at the borrowing cap, it is very difficult for them to do so. Some reality needs to kick in here.
I have one last point. I do not know if it is just me, but my mobile phone does not seem to be working as well in this building as it has done in the past. I am wondering whether the scaffolding now cladding many parts of the building is acting as a Faraday cage for mobile phone signals. If that is the case, we need to do something about it so that Members can communicate with one another and with their constituents.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his points. On Back-Bench days, as I said last week, we will always seek to give him as much notice as we possibly can. He will appreciate that there is a lot of new legislation—we are still in the early days of this new parliamentary term—and we need to get started with a number of competing priorities. He will appreciate that we will give him as much notice as we possibly can, and I was delighted that we were able to protect time last week for some of his important debates. We will continue always to listen and to seek to address any specific concerns he has.
On social landlords, as I mentioned earlier, it is possible to have direct payments to landlords from universal credit recipients: 34% of social sector tenants on universal credit now have such an arrangement. I encourage the hon. Gentleman to make sure that landlords are aware of that facility. I know that Ministers have taken away that point from yesterday’s debate and will look at it carefully again.
On the hon. Gentleman’s third point, I had not previously heard about mobile phone problems. I am pleased to say that my mobile phone still seems to be working, but I certainly understand that there may be some problems relating to the scaffolding and I will look into the matter.
Will my right hon. Friend find time for a debate on encouraging people with learning difficulties to get involved with the performing arts? On Sunday, at the London Palladium, the Countess of Wessex, the chairman of the Royal Mencap Society, Mr Derek Lewis, and many parliamentarians witnessed an absolutely inspiring performance by the Music Man Project.
I regret, in that case, that I was not invited. The Government aim to ensure that Britain is one of the world’s most creative and exciting places to live. As part of this, we are absolutely committed to ensuring access and equality within the performing arts, and of course to making sure that creative professions are accessible to talented individuals irrespective of their background. I thoroughly welcome my hon. Friend’s question, and I will look to find time for such a debate.
Has the Leader of the House seen the very worrying series of openDemocracy reports this week on the role of dark money in the EU referendum, including revelations of illegal donations to the Democratic Unionist party and new questions today over the real wealth of Arron Banks, the main financial backer of Leave.EU? Given the widespread public concern about foreign, particularly Russian, interference in western democracies, will she assure the House that the Government and the Electoral Commission will examine these reports very carefully, and reassure our country that all the resources spent during the referendum were from permissible sources?
The right hon. Gentleman raises an incredibly important point. Of course, any specific information should always be raised with the Electoral Commission to ensure that any wrongdoing is caught. I absolutely share his concern that we need to make sure that all donations are indeed permissible and legal.
Last week, I was delighted to host an event in Parliament to highlight the issues of familial hypercholesterolemia, or FH—a genetic disorder. I also ran the marathon this year in support of Cardiac Risk in the Young, which promotes heart screening. Some 1,300 young people in Eastleigh have been screened in memory of Claire Reed. Ensuring that those young people with risks are screened saves countless lives. Will the Leader of the House find time for a debate in this Chamber on heart screenings?
First, I congratulate my hon. Friend on that marathon; I remember her absolute exhaustion the following day, and we were all in awe of her achievement. She raises an incredibly important point about how screening, particularly for heart issues, can save lives. I encourage her to seek an Adjournment debate on that very important matter.
I am enormously grateful to the Leader of the House for her personal support for my private Member’s Bill, which we will be debating tomorrow. I wonder whether she could do something else to help. As things stand, if Second Reading goes through tomorrow, as I hope it will—many Members had their photograph taken yesterday in support of the Bill—and even if we get it through Committee in a couple of weeks, it will not reach remaining stages until the end of April. That is a long time. If the Government wanted to—if it had a gap in the legislative programme, perhaps—it could decide to adopt the Bill and give it Government time on the Floor of the House before Christmas, so that we could get it on the statute book.
As the hon. Gentleman is being so charming and persuasive, I absolutely assure him that the Government are behind his Bill. It is entirely right that we should protect emergency workers from abuse and violence and completely wrong that they should be attacked by people whom they seek to help. I assure him that we will make our best efforts to bring forward his Bill as soon as we can.
On yesterday’s debate and debates more generally, my observation is that there is often very little time for Ministers to respond to the many points raised by Members. Many Members spoke yesterday, but the Minister had only 10 minutes to respond. Will the Leader of the House consider making more time available for Ministers to respond?
I wanted to ask the Leader of the House for a debate on strategies for increasing participation rates in sport. There was an announcement yesterday by the sport that started in my constituency about Project Rugby, an initiative encouraging the disabled and those from the BAME community to play rugby. I was interested in the remarks made by my hon. Friend the Member for Southend West (Sir David Amess) about those with learning disabilities taking part in theatre. They can also play rugby. Can we encourage such initiatives?
I share my hon. Friend’s love of rugby—both the sport and the town; I am thinking in particular of my own home team, Northampton Saints. He is right to highlight Project Rugby, an excellent initiative to try to get more people with disabilities, and BAME people, to participate in the sport. It is a fantastic game and I encourage all Members to promote it as far as they are able.
I gently say to the Leader of the House that if she is worried about the number of amendments to the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill, she might consider giving it more time when it finally turns up in this House to be debated.
I wanted to ask the Leader of the House a specific question, Mr Speaker; I know that you recognise the important work done by the Intelligence and Security Committee. Given the serious terrorist incidents that we have seen this year and the fact that the Committee, as I understand it, has not met since April, will the right hon. Lady explain when she expects it to be established and when it will start its important work?
The hon. Gentleman is right to raise the issue. The Committee will be established just as soon as it can be. It requires that names be put forward from both sides of the House, and there are particular screening procedures and so on. I assure the hon. Gentleman that it will be re-established as soon as possible.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is vital for Members to able to raise their concerns, both local and national, about the ongoing defence review? Will she agree to hold a debate on the issue, which could have huge implications for my constituency if the future of RM Condor and 45 Commando is not clarified?
My hon. Friend raises a very important point not just for her constituency, but the country. I can tell her that in July the Government initiated a national security capability review—the NSCR—which will ensure that the UK’s investment in national security capabilities is joined up, effective and efficient. It is being led by the National Security Adviser. The Ministry of Defence, the Home Office and our security services will make a full contribution to that review. She may like to know that there is a Westminster Hall debate this afternoon. She may wish to take part in it.
Will the Leader of the House go back to Department for Work and Pensions Ministers and tell them it is no good them coming to the House at some point in the future? They should be here on Monday and they should be saying to people what they are going to do about the will of Parliament, as expressed in yesterday’s vote. We already have universal credit in my constituency. The latest figures from Gedling Homes show that 92% of its tenants on universal credit are in arrears. That is not an accident, but a direct consequence of Government policy. It is a new Poor Law and we need to do something about it now.
As I have said to a number of hon. Members, the Department for Work and Pensions has heard the concerns of this House. The Minister has specifically said that he will look more closely at the issue of rent arrears. A number of those rent arrears are rolled over from the previous system, and are not as a direct result of universal credit. Let us be clear: universal credit is designed to help people to get back into work. It consolidates six complex benefits into one. It provides more support, more encouragement, more ability for people to increase their hours and not lose their benefits, and more support for childcare. It is designed to help people into work and it is succeeding.
I just received a letter this morning from the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Hereford and South Herefordshire (Jesse Norman) stating that the A12 upgrade is to be delayed. This is an extremely significant piece of infrastructure in East Anglia. For my constituents, it is probably their most important road. I am obviously very concerned to hear this news, but I received the letter 17 minutes after Transport questions. Given that I did not have the chance to raise the issue then, will my right hon. Friend consider a debate on road infrastructure? I am sure that many other colleagues would like to consider the significance of such issues.
I am very sorry that my hon. Friend just missed Transport questions and I can quite understand his frustration. He will be aware that billions of pounds of new road programmes are being introduced, including £2.3 billion on a new housing infrastructure fund to ensure we can provide more roads that facilitate housing development. I would be very happy to take up his specific point with the Department for Transport. I am also sure that Transport Ministers will be keen to hear from him.
While I am sure the answer was given in good faith, the answer the Leader of the House gave to my right hon. Friend the Member for Exeter (Mr Bradshaw) is untrue. The Electoral Commission has confessed that it has no mechanisms to find out whether there has been interference by cyber-techniques from Russia, by botnets and by artificial intelligence. These methods of distorting and buying elections have come in since the rules for the Electoral Commission were laid down. We must look seriously at this issue. I recommend the Leader of the House reads the journalism of Carole Cadwalladr, who has named precisely the organisations that may well have rigged the result of the referendum, because we know it is in Russia’s interests to destabilise Europe.
Just to be very clear to the hon. Gentleman, I was not suggesting that the Electoral Commission should investigate; I was merely saying that information should be reported to the Electoral Commission, as indeed it has been in all areas of fraud, misuse of voting and so on. The Electoral Commission should then be in a position to bring in the legal and police services, should it decide there is a case to answer. It is very important that as much evidence as possible is brought forward and not just left as rumours and accusations. These things need to be investigated properly to make sure our electoral system remains as free and fair as we all hope it is today.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that although winter is coming, one freeze that millions of hard-working people want maintained is the fuel duty freeze? Is she aware of the campaign by FairFuelUK and many MPs not just to keep the freeze, but to stop taxes on diesel car owners? Will she make a statement on what the Government are doing to help hard-pressed motorists?
My hon. Friend has been a real champion for drivers and has been extremely successful in his bid, in that over seven long years this Government have rejected the fuel duty increases that the last Labour Government proposed should occur automatically each year. Car drivers are now significantly better off as a result of lower fuel taxes. I suggest, however, that he makes his submission to the Chancellor in time for the Budget.
As several Members have pointed out, there is rather a large gap in the Government’s legislative programme. I am sure that the Leader of the House would like to fill it, for instance with a debate on the £400 million needed for St Helier hospital or on the funding that Sutton’s schools lack. However, I would like to support the bid by the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart) for a debate on no deal and its impact. Such a debate would enable Brexit supporters on the Conservative Benches to talk in advance to the businesses that would be crippled by no deal, to the communities on the border in Northern Ireland that are worried about the security considerations, and to EU citizens in the UK and UK citizens in the EU for whom no deal would be a disaster. Who knows, perhaps some of those Brexit supporters might even change their minds by the end of the debate.
The right hon. Gentleman is well aware that the Government’s clear position is of seeking an all-encompassing agreement on free trade and other matters of co-operation with our EU friends and neighbours that will be to their benefit and certainly to the UK’s benefit. Unfortunately, his position is that we should seek to subvert the will of the people as expressed in last year’s referendum. As I understand it, the position of the official Opposition and the SNP is that we should accept whatever the EU offers, which clearly would not be to the advantage of the UK people. Britain’s interests are best served by sticking with the Government in their determination to seek a sound and comprehensive agreement with our EU friends and neighbours.
The Government have done much work on, and given great support to, our cities and city regions, but our provincial towns, and particularly coastal communities, do not get the benefit of a trickle down from the economies of a nearby city. Will the Government find time for a debate on the support that they can give to our provincial towns?
My hon. Friend is a great champion for his constituency. I have had the pleasure of visiting him there twice, including to open an offshore wind farm, which I know has brought growth to his area. He is absolutely right to raise the importance of focusing on specific issues facing coastal towns, and I am sure he will be keen to seek a Westminster Hall or Adjournment debate specifically to discuss the interests of his constituency.
May we have an urgent debate on the role of the voluntary sector? I received a report today of a lady in my constituency who has had to sell her child’s pushchair so that she can pay her electricity bill. Organisations such as the East Durham Trust in my constituency are a vital safety net for the most vulnerable, but they are running low on food bank donations. The trust is crowdfunding online through its website, www.eastdurhamtrust.org.uk, for a “people’s takeaway” so that children in my constituency do not go cold and hungry owing to the roll-out of universal credit. What will the Leader of the House do to support organisations such as the East Durham Trust that are struggling to meet the growing demand of services caused by the Government’s failures, such as the roll-out of universal credit?
The valuable work done by charities and the voluntary sector that the hon. Gentleman talks about is appreciated throughout the House—it is certainly appreciated by many of our constituents. He may well wish to seek an Adjournment debate. Let me point out, however, that under this Government the number of children living in workless families has dropped by almost 1 million households, which is absolutely vital. Progress is being made. Employment is the highest that it has ever been, and universal credit is designed to help people to get into work. It is incredibly important for us to continue to pursue policies that help people to enjoy the security of a pay packet that benefits them and their families.
Will the Prime Minister be making a statement to the House on Monday about this weekend’s EU summit, and what other Government statements will be made next week?
My hon. Friend will know that statements are announced on the day by the usual methods. It is a convention that the Prime Minister comes to the Chamber to make a statement on European Councils and I am sure that she plans to do so as normal.
I congratulate the Members who secured the Back-Bench debate on global LGBT rights that will take place next week. The Government have an appalling record on the detention and deportation of LGBT asylum seekers. Will the Leader of the House confirm that a Home Office Minister will respond to that debate?
I think that all Members recognise that the Government have done an enormous amount to promote LGBT rights, including by introducing same-sex marriage. The hon. and learned Lady may well wish to raise her specific point during Home Office questions, but I think we can all celebrate the huge achievements that have been made in this country in addressing discrimination against LGBT people, and doing as much as possible to ensure that they have equal access to every aspect of our daily life.
May I join my right hon. Friend in wishing Shubh Deepavali to Hindus, Sikhs, Jains and Buddhists not only in this country, but throughout the world? I apologise in advance to the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) as I will not be able to support his excellent Bill tomorrow. That is not because I do not agree with it—I do—but because I shall be visiting no fewer than nine temples in my constituency and others to celebrate the Hindu new year.
May I invite Members who were not able to attend the Diwali reception that we held on the Terrace yesterday to join us at our seminar on Monday night? It will provide an excellent opportunity for Members in all parts of the House to understand the true meaning of this great festival.
I join my hon. Friend in celebrating this wonderful festival. I agree that it is important for us all to understand its purpose and origin, and, again, I wish all Members a very happy Diwali.
Following this week’s announcement on sentencing for dangerous driving, will the Leader of the House consider providing time for a debate on enforcement? My constituency is experiencing serious problems with dangerous and erratic driving, and it is only a matter of time before that leads to serious injury or even death. The West Yorkshire police force has lost nearly 40% of its traffic officers in the last five years. What use are new laws if they cannot be enforced?
The hon. Lady raises an important issue that matters a great deal to Members on both sides of the House, which is why we have decided to address concerns about dangerous driving. Enforcement is, of course, absolutely key. I commend the amazing work of our police forces in enforcing all our laws, and this law will be no different in that respect.
Will the Leader of the House draw the attention of all relevant Ministers a very important ten-minute rule Bill that will be introduced on Wednesday week by my right hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon)? It proposes the introduction of a statute of limitations to prevent the persecution, through legal process and the courts, of veterans for events that occurred in Northern Ireland up to 40 years ago.
My right hon. Friend is very consistent in supporting the protection of those who were involved in events that happened long ago and are still under investigation today. I absolutely assure him that the Government are unstinting in our admiration for the role our armed forces played in ensuring that Northern Ireland’s future would only ever be decided by democracy and consent.
This week I attended a Government roundtable on ending gang violence and exploitation. The necessity that Government Departments develop a joined-up approach and share data to tackle the root causes was absolutely evident, so may we have a debate in Government time on how Departments can work together to tackle this important issue?
The hon. Lady raises an important matter, and I encourage her to find a way to ensure that a debate on it is held in this place, perhaps through the Backbench Business Committee. The Government take this matter incredibly seriously, and she will be aware that the Home Office is taking steps both on prevention and education, as well as on stamping out this kind of violence.
May we have a statement from the Leader of the House on modern democracy? Our constituents send us here to represent them and to hold the Government to account by voting in this place. What message does it send to our constituents when the Government feel that they can ignore the will of this House?
I say again that the Government are by no means doing as the hon. Lady suggests. We are listening. I have been absolutely clear since coming into this role that the Government are determined to listen to views from right across the House. That is evidenced by the work of the Department for Work and Pensions and yesterday’s statement, and, following yesterday’s debate, by our doing more to help those applying for universal credit, which Members across the House agree is there to help and support people, and which is succeeding in getting more people into work.
The Government guarantee the mineworkers pension scheme, but 50% of the surplus goes back into Government pockets. They have had a £3 billion windfall. Mineworkers and their families want a better deal for their years of toil at the coalface. May we have a Treasury statement so that my uncle Desi, my uncle Jackie and their comrades get their fair share?
We all agree that the work done by coalminers over so many years to keep the lights on did a huge service to this country. The hon. Gentleman might well wish to raise this issue at Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy questions, or through an Adjournment debate.
Earlier this month I had the honour of accompanying my local police force on a Friday evening shift. I was appalled by the lack of respect for our officers, so I applaud, as I am sure the whole House does, the efforts of my hon. Friends the Members for Halifax (Holly Lynch) and for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) in this area, and support the Bill that we will consider tomorrow. However, important though that is—it is truly vital—I was horrified to learn that a third fewer warranted officers are now on shift on Friday nights than was the case 10 years ago, so they are completely overstretched. May we have a debate in Government time about the number of warranted officers serving in our forces? We have lost 501 in the past eight years.
I reiterate that I share the hon. Lady’s support for the private Member’s Bill of the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant). I look forward to it receiving its Second Reading tomorrow.
I understand that the hon. Lady’s police force is achieving significant progress in the fight against crime. It is performing exceedingly well, for which I congratulate it. However, as she will no doubt be aware, the proportion of officers in frontline roles has increased to over 93% from an estimated 91% in 2010, and police budgets are being protected.
More than 900 of my constituents are being placed on universal credit from 1 November, so will the Leader of the House explain how I can reassure them, given that we have no date in the diary for the Department for Work and Pensions to come and talk to us, that they are not being used as guinea pigs?
I can absolutely give the hon. Lady an assurance. As I have said several times today, universal credit is designed to help those looking for work. According to three independent studies, it has resulted in many more people finding work than was the case under jobseeker’s allowance. It is improving opportunities to get jobs, it enables people to keep more of the benefit as they increase their hours, and it helps much more with childcare costs.
In accordance with the DWP’s statement to the House yesterday, the scheme is also being improved so that the costs of calls to the helpline will be waived, and more instruction will be given to jobcentre officials to ensure that people know that they can get up-front emergency payments. The Department has taken away a list to consider and Ministers have assured me that they will come back with further updates as soon as they have more to tell the House about progress on addressing those issues.
The House called for a pause and the Department has been clear that it has just had one to ensure that it can update and upgrade systems. It plans another in January. Members should therefore be reassured that the Government are listening carefully and acting on the points that Members raised.
I am gravely concerned about the chaos in Walton prison in my constituency. It had a snap inspection, and received one out of five, the worst possible score. The governor was removed last week and the NHS trust that provided healthcare at the site has today pulled out of its contract. The mayor of Liverpool and I have learned all that through the media, with no contact from Ministers or the Prison Service. I wrote to the Minister for Prisons and Probation on Monday and I am waiting for a reply. Will the Leader of the House advise me on the breakdown in communication between the Government, the Prison Service and local representatives? Can we at least have a debate or statement on health, safety and welfare across our prisons network? What more can I do to get answers about Walton prison?
That sounds like a very concerning issue and the hon. Gentleman is right to be worried about it. I understand that the Secretary of State for Justice will meet the chief inspector of prisons today to discuss the specific issue and I am certainly happy to raise the matter with the Secretary of State after business questions.
However, the hon. Gentleman will know that we are putting an extra £100 million a year into the frontline to recruit 2,500 more prison officers by the end of 2018 and investing £1.3 billion in a modern, fit-for-purpose prison estate, with up to 10,000 new modern prison places during this Parliament. The hon. Gentleman is right to raise the issue and I will happily take up the specifics with the Secretary of State.
It was not just Opposition Members voting against universal credit yesterday who defeated the Government, but the will of the people at the general election, which decreed that the Conservative party does not have an overall majority in the House. The Government have bunged some money to the Democratic Unionist party and they think that that gives them the right to behave as if they have an overall majority, but they do not. We need from the Leader of the House—our representative in the Cabinet—a statement about what she will do to ensure that the minority Government respect and act upon the House’s decisions.
The hon. Gentleman needs to ask himself why, if the Conservative party has no right to govern, we are sitting on this side of the House. The Conservatives won 56 seats more than the nearest party to us, and we are governing under well-established rules through a confidence and supply agreement.
The hon. Gentleman again raises the issue of money going to the Democratic Unionist party, but that is not the case. There is further investment for the restored Northern Ireland Executive, but to be clear, according to the latest figures, only £232 per person has been spent in recent years in Northern Ireland on transport, compared with £504 in Scotland. It is right to provide the money that goes to Northern Ireland for city deals and to promote health and infrastructure. The Government have provided many billions of pounds for city deals in other parts of the United Kingdom, so there is nothing strange about that.
As I have said time and again, the Government are determined to listen to colleagues from all parties. We continually revert to the fact that the Opposition are determined to talk about process rather than the serious policy challenges that face our country on which the Government are determined to make progress.
I thank you, Mr Speaker, for your wise words last night about the huge number of points of order that were made. Unfortunately they have fallen on deaf ears. The Government showed disrespect not only to Parliament but to my constituents, who continue to suffer day in, day out, under the ill-thought-out universal credit scheme. Instead of trying to answer the questions herself, will the Leader of the House get a Minister from the Department for Work and Pensions here on Monday so that the Department can be held accountable for its actions and show respect for Parliament’s vote yesterday?
I say again that the universal credit programme has received approval across the House because it is helping more people into work. It enables people to keep more of their benefits as they increase their hours and it helps with childcare costs. It is intended to help people. The Department has made it clear that it has listened to points from hon. Members of all parties about implementation, and it is taking action, such as getting rid of call charges to the universal credit helpline and ensuring that people know that they can get emergency payments up front. Evidence shows that the scheme helps people to get into work and gives them the security of a pay packet that benefits them and their families.
There is no pause in Scunthorpe, where universal credit is being rolled out this week. Local partners, whether Ongo, the social housing provider, private landlords or the citizens advice bureau are genuinely concerned that what my hon. Friend the Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker) described—an increase in rent arrears and evictions—will happen locally. What would the Leader of the House say to my constituents, who hear that the House has said so clearly that there should be a pause, when nothing then happens?
I would say to the hon. Gentleman’s constituents that the Department for Work and Pensions has listened to the House and acted straight away. There has just been a pause, and that is why the Department could take action quickly to improve the roll-out of universal credit. A further pause is planned for January, and DWP Ministers will come back to the House to provide further updates in due course. The hon. Gentleman’s constituents should therefore be reassured that this benefit, which is designed to help them get back into work, will be improved as much as possible.
It is not just universal credit that causes people untold misery. I have a constituent, Mr McMaster, who, when he transferred to a personal independence payment from a lifetime’s enhanced disability living allowance award, was given only four points and lost his benefits. The stress that that caused meant that his marriage suffered, he tried to commit suicide and he nearly lost his house and car. Out of sheer desperation, he reapplied for PIP, using the same evidence that had been presented previously. Luckily, the right decision was made and he was given an enhanced award in both categories. Will the Leader of the House make a statement outlining what the Government will do to review that iniquitous system, and will she apologise to my constituent?
The hon. Gentleman is right to raise that case. As constituency MPs, we all have examples of where we are not happy with interpretation or with the assessment of individuals, and it is right to raise such cases. I am pleased to hear that his constituent has had a good result, and I commend him for taking up that case. However, it is important from a policy point of view that proper systems are in place to assess those who receive disability benefits, that that is fair and is seen to be fair and that there is an appropriate appeal process, in addition to support from MPs, when we feel that the outcome is in doubt.
The trade unions from BAE Systems at Brough are visiting Parliament this week to talk to MPs about potential job losses, and 140 MPs from both sides of the House have signed a letter asking the Government to think again about the out-of-service date of the Red Arrows Hawks, many of which were built in the 1970s. Is it therefore not time for a statement about securing those jobs and, more importantly, our sovereign capability?
I share the hon. Lady’s enthusiasm for the Red Arrows, which are beloved in this country and do a fantastic job. To be clear, there is no requirement to replace the Red Arrows Hawk T1. We have a large fleet of around 75 aircraft from which the Red Arrows display team can draw. There has been no reduction in Red Arrows flying hours, and it is incorrect to suggest, as some have, that numbers have been reduced at displays. The Government have helped to secure orders for Hawk aircraft from Qatar, securing production for next year, and we are pressing hard for further export deals. There is no need for an early replacement for the Red Arrows as a decision is not needed until at least the end of this Parliament.
May we have a statement detailing the Government’s expectations for lifeboat provision? There is considerable concern in Ceredigion that proposals under the recent coastal review of Cardigan bay would leave the entire Ceredigion coastline without sufficient all-weather lifeboat provision.
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point, and I encourage him to go direct to the Department for Transport. If it is aware of the situation, it will be equally concerned. If he would like to write to me, I am happy to raise the matter on his behalf.
Over the past three months, I have attended the opening of four pensioner lunch clubs. The common theme coming from the groups, which are mainly run by volunteers, is that pensioners are lonely and are struggling to feed and cook for themselves. The clubs are trying to help to build community cohesion. Will the Leader of the House find space in Government time for a debate on loneliness and its impact? It would allow colleagues on both sides of the House to highlight the excellent work of the commission on loneliness set up in the name of our former colleague Jo Cox.
I commend the Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness for its excellent work. I have taken part in some of its presentations in the Speaker’s apartments, and I congratulate you on raising awareness, Mr Speaker. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that loneliness among the elderly is a serious concern, and I have initiatives in my constituency to try to bring people together more frequently so that communities can work together to try to alleviate loneliness. I am happy to support any proposal that he wants to make to highlight that issue further. I would add, however, that I am proud of this Government’s efforts to ensure that pensioners are now much better off than they were when we came into government in 2010 and to protect pensions and the pensioners’ uplift, which has been incredibly important for those on low fixed incomes.
My constituent Mrs Withers has been caring for her diabetic grandson since 13 August. She has thus far received no financial support due to non-co-operation from the child’s mother, who has been given until November to respond to requests to transfer benefits to the grandmother. May we have a debate in Government time about the financial support available for those who take on emergency childcare arrangements and about ensuring that guidelines and payments are consistent throughout the country?
I am sorry to hear about what is obviously a difficult situation, which the hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to raise. I encourage him to speak directly to the Department for Work and Pensions, which I urge to take up this specific issue.
The Leader of the House says that the Government are listening, but the only thing they did yesterday was scrap helpline charges. It frankly beggars belief that it takes an Opposition day debate for the Government to decide that 55p a minute is too much to charge cash-strapped people to call the very Department that is making them cash-strapped. The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions kept recommending yesterday that claimants visit their local jobcentre, but at the same time the Department is shutting nearly 70 jobcentres across the country. Sheffield’s Eastern Avenue jobcentre is due to close on 17 November, but the Department is yet to publish a cost-benefit analysis for the decision despite claiming that it is based solely on the need to make savings. I am yet to be convinced that the Department has even conducted such an analysis, so can we have a debate in Government time on that decision before the jobcentre is closed, causing misery for claimants in the area?
I gently say to the hon. Lady that she cannot have it both ways. She cannot complain that the Government are not listening to the House and then say that it is not right that the Government should act on the views of this House, rather than independently. That seems a little back to front. On universal credit, the key point is that the Department for Work and Pensions is responding both to its own pauses and its experiences of the roll-out of universal credit to date and to the representations of Members from right across the House. The Government are determined to make universal credit a huge success and to deal with implementation issues as they arise. I assure Members that that is the case.
As for jobcentre closures specifically, the hon. Lady will be aware that we still have a significant fiscal challenge as a result of the state of the economy that we were left with in 2010. We continue to try to take steps to live within our means. I know that Opposition Members do not understand this, but the reality is that every day we continue to spend more than we receive in taxes means another day of debt for which our children and grandchildren will be forced to pay, so we need to live within our means. The reduction in jobcentres is actually being offset by an increase in the number of work coaches, who will provide more support to people who need it. We are merging a number of smaller offices into bigger sites, so that we can save the taxpayer money, but we are not changing the service we offer. Wherever possible, we are improving that service for those who are looking for work.
On Tuesday, Muhammad Safdar made several discriminatory comments in the National Assembly of Pakistan against the Ahmadiyya Muslim community of Pakistan. He accused the faith group of being untrustworthy and a threat to Pakistan, arguing that it should be banned from the armed forces. Coming from the son-in-law of a former Prime Minister, such comments are dangerous and will surely fuel prejudice towards the already persecuted Ahmadiyya Muslim community. Will the Leader of the House agree to a statement on that pressing issue?
The hon. Gentleman raises a significant issue. I absolutely encourage him to raise it directly with the Foreign Office, which will no doubt have further information to share with him on the steps that the UK Government can take.
Linked to universal credit is the whole question of funding, including for women’s shelters, for example, and nursery provision. Can we have statement on that?