House of Commons
Thursday 1 March 2018
The House met at half-past Nine o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
We do not allocate transport funding on a per head of population basis; our decisions are based on a rigorous and fair appraisal process that ensures that spending goes where it is most needed and where it delivers the greatest value for money. Recent analysis by the Infrastructure and Projects Authority shows that planned central Government transport investment over the next four years is evenly balanced, with £1,039 per head of population in the north, compared with £1,029 in the south.
May I first take this opportunity to thank all those involved in keeping our transport systems going in this inclement weather? I am sure that fellow Yorkshire MPs will have shared my surprise at the Secretary of State’s recent article in The Yorkshire Post, in which he claimed that spending in the north was somehow greater than that in the south—if, through a rather imaginative calculation, we ignore London. Does he agree that simply spinning figures will not fix our archaic northern railway systems or get northern commuters to work on time?
I echo the hon. Lady’s comments about those who are working hard to keep the transport system open today; we are very grateful to them all. In a week when the Labour party has already had issues with its use of statistics, she should look up the official statistics from the independent Infrastructure and Projects Authority, which show that planned central Government spending is higher in the north than it is in the south.
I am sure that we could spend more Government money on transport in the east midlands, particularly in Northamptonshire, and especially in Kettering. The new franchise for the midland main line is currently being negotiated. Will the Secretary of State ensure that Kettering’s rail services are better after the franchise is awarded than they are now?
My hon. Friend, who is a strong champion of Kettering, will be delighted to know that the expansion in capacity to Corby means that there will be a much better commuter service in the mornings and evenings through Corby down to Kettering, and to Wellingborough and beyond. That is one of the benefits of the biggest investment in the midland main line since the 1870s.
Just to give the Secretary of State an example of unequal treatment, is it true that for the new east midlands rail franchise in 2020 the current HST—high-speed trains—carriages will be scrapped, because they are disability non-compliant, and the power cars will then be matched with second-hand, cast-off carriages from the east coast main line? Instead of the brand new, hybrid hydrogen trains that we were promised, we will be getting hybrid trains composed of 30-year-old power cars and 30-year-old discarded carriages from another line.
I do not know what stories the Labour party has been listening to. The midland main line will have brand new, bi-mode trains delivered as soon as possible—
In the early 2020s, which is years ahead of what would otherwise have been the case under the original scheme.
Within the context of equity of spending, I wonder whether, after this snow event is over, my right hon. Friend will ask some serious questions about, or even have a review of, why we still seem to be in no way prepared for such events. For example, I discovered yesterday that Heathrow is busy offloading flights because it cannot cope, whereas—[Interruption.]
Order. Is this about regional flights?
Yes, regional flights. What I am saying is that, given all of that, airports such as Gatwick and others are able to cope. Does my right hon. Friend not think that it is ridiculous that some airports are simply unable to cope while others across the UK can?
I know that a number of Members are here today because their flights to regional airports have not been able to take off. I hope and expect that we will be able to sort that out as quickly as possible today, although it is really important that the transport system is run safely. Of course, one of the benefits of the expansion of Heathrow is that the airport would become more resilient to such difficult situations, and connections to regional airports would be more reliable.
I, too, pay tribute to those transport workers who are keeping the system going at this difficult time. The Secretary of State said in his first answer that the allocation of funding is a rigorous and fair process, so can he explain why the Government have ignored the Office of Rail Regulation’s recommendations by underfunding Scotland by £600 million? Since then his Department has been able to cope with a £240 million loss of revenue as a result of the situation with Southern rail and found £245 million for High Speed 2. The Government have been ignoring the Scottish Government since last July, so will they now meet the Scottish Government, or are these just weasel words about equity of funding?
Once again, the Scottish National party is arguing against the use of the Barnett formula. SNP Members love the Barnett formula when they think it is advantageous to them, but when they do not like the Barnett formula, they want to get rid of it. I simply say to them that this Government have followed the principles of the Barnett formula, and actually the Treasury has given Scotland a bit more money above that. I wish the SNP would stop complaining. The reality is that Scotland is now better represented, with a group of Conservative MPs who are much more effective than the SNP ever was in getting this Government to do that bit extra for Scotland.
Reading-Basingstoke Line: Electrification
The Secretary of State’s acceptance of the Hendy review in 2016 recognised the necessity of changes to the scope of Great Western electrification. Following completion of a feasibility assessment of the line between Reading and Basingstoke, it has been identified that electrification of that section is not required to deliver improvements to passengers.
Given my hon. Friend’s commendable plan to scrap all diesel-only trains from our tracks by 2040, would he consider extending Crossrail from Reading to Basingstoke, as an alternative to Great Western, to improve capacity into London from north Hampshire?
The Department always welcomes suggestions from my hon. Friend. There are no current plans to extend the Crossrail route, and no assessment has yet been made of the amount or availability of any such scheme.
We have very ambitious plans to reduce transport emissions, including by ending the sale of new conventional petrol and diesel cars and vans, and by ending the use of diesel-only trains by 2040. Clean growth strategy actions will reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and the UK plan for reducing nitrogen dioxide concentrations sets out action to tackle hotspots of air pollution. We will shortly be launching our new zero-emissions transport paper, and the House can review that, too.
The Minister will know that 24% of all emissions are transport related. He will know there are hotspots across the country, including in my constituency, and thousands of people die prematurely as a result of poor air quality, including 61 people in my Gedling constituency. How does he intend to accelerate the progress and policy development he has outlined to us today?
We absolutely recognise the issues that the hon. Gentleman raises. He will know that we work very closely on this issue, through the joint air quality unit, with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. Our specific plans on transport emissions will be released in our report later this month.
Can the Minister assure the House that, as far as the Department for Transport is concerned, “emissions” refers both to carbon and to air quality emissions, such as nitrogen oxide and small particulate matter, and that they are fully addressed together within the Department?
Yes, I can give my hon. Friend that assurance. Of course, DEFRA is the lead agency within Government on emissions. Only on Monday we put the renewable transport fuel obligation on the statute book. The obligation specifically balances the two sides of that equation.
Oxford is proud to call itself a cycling city, yet last week it was identified in the High Court ruling on air pollution as one of the 45 cities that the Government need to do more to help. Will any more money be coming to Oxford to help us make that modal shift?
The hon. Lady will be aware that substantial amounts of money have already been put aside to help local authorities that have been affected by air quality problems, and it is up to Oxford to see if it can apply for that money when it becomes available.
I drive an electric car, but many people do not. Northern powerhouse rail will take many cars off the road. The all-party parliamentary group on the northern powerhouse is calling for the northern powerhouse rail project to be brought forward to coincide with the completion of High Speed 2 in 2032. Will the Minister support that proposal?
I am always grateful for invitations to support proposals. I think I will leave that proposal to the specific Ministers concerned, but my hon. Friend will be aware it is a manifesto commitment.
Virgin Trains East Coast
I am not sure I see any merit in the early termination of the Virgin Trains East Coast franchise. That is not something I would wish to happen, but we have to deal with the world as it is, rather than as how we would like it to be.
My priority is to ensure the continued smooth running of the east coast franchise for its passengers and employees, and to make sure that the trains run and deliver the service that people need. As I told the House on 5 February 2018, a new arrangement to operate the railway prior to the new east coast partnership in 2020 needs to be put in place. We are currently conducting a full appraisal of the options, and I will return to the House in due course.
I am afraid to say that service standards have deteriorated on the east coast line since Virgin-Stagecoach took the franchise—I am a regular customer on that line—despite the best efforts of the excellent staff on board trains and at stations. Those staff face having their sixth employer in a decade and a half. Will the Secretary of State meet me and some of those staff, so that they can express their concerns about the way in which the franchise has been conducted? Will he give the House an undertaking that there is a genuine public sector operator ready to take over should that be required—or has Directly Operated Railways been outsourced already?
On the last point, I can give an absolute guarantee that that is the case; we have been making preparations for different eventualities for some time and there is a genuine alternative, if that is deemed to be best for the passenger and best value for the taxpayer. My ministerial colleagues and I are happy to talk to staff, but I would correct the hon. Gentleman on one point: the reality is that the independent assessments have shown a higher level of passenger satisfaction on that route since the change of franchise, not a lower one.
I, too, wish to say a huge thank you to the staff who have been involved in keeping the trains running. As has been said, the current Virgin Trains east coast line franchise agreement will end three years early, making it the third franchise failure in about a decade. As someone who uses the line, I do not agree with the Secretary of State’s assessment of it. But will he recognise that there is a problem and see this as the perfect opportunity to bring the contracts back in house?
As I have said in this House before, I need to do what is best for passengers and for the taxpayer. The reality is that since the transition, regardless of the fact that Stagecoach clearly got its numbers wrong, passenger satisfaction has risen, more people are being employed by this railway and it is delivering more money to the taxpayer. [Interruption.] That is the reality. Labour Members can say it is not true, but it is; it is a fact that they just have to deal with.
I assure the Secretary of State that after three failed franchises and the experiences of a directly operated railway my constituents would much prefer a directly operated railway. Will he commit to providing a directly operated railway service, in the public interest?
As I have said, I am going to do what is best for the passenger and for the taxpayer. I am sorry that the Labour party does not seem to get this, but the reality is that passenger satisfaction levels are higher today than they were three years ago—that is what the independent research shows. Labour Members may not like it, but it is true.
Next year, Bradford would have seen a marked increase in the number of much-needed direct inter-city trains serving the city, but the chaos with the east coast line has put that in serious doubt. These extra trains are vital to improving Bradford’s connection to the rest of the country, so will the Minister commit to ensuring that, whatever happens to the east coast franchise, Bradford will see an increase in the number of direct trains?
This is an important point, so let us be clear: it is my intention that, whatever arrangements are put in place for the next few years, the service improvements that have been promised will be delivered. We face an issue on infrastructure and additional capacities on the northern part of the route, which will have to be resolved and may mean some amendments to the timetable for new services, but that will not stop us delivering those new services. In Bradford’s case, I am expecting to be able to fulfil the commitments that were made.
I agree with my right hon. Friend that there are no merits in the early termination of the franchise, but there are opportunities from the new partnership. My constituency has 10 railway stations, none of which have a direct rail service to London. Does he agree that this is an opportunity to look at providing services to those towns not currently served?
As I know, my hon. Friend has been a regular advocate for direct services, and I would like to see those happen. I am looking to see whether we can maximise the capacity on the east coast main line to make additional services possible. Of course the arrival of HS2 will allow many services that cannot be run now because of capacity constraints to happen, because of the additional capacity it will create on routes to the north and Scotland.
I am not entirely sure what the impact of the Virgin Trains East Coast franchise is on Horsham, but doubtless the hon. Gentleman is about to explain to us with the lucidity for which he is renowned in all parts of the House.
I am absolutely going to. In respect of the proposed alternatives to the current east coast franchise, has the Secretary of State seen President Macron’s recent remarks about the nationalised French railways, and has he any remarks to make on them?
Wisdom sometimes comes from our allies across the channel. I did see those remarks, and they are a timely reminder that a nationalised railway is not the panacea that some believe it is.
It was not the Horsham perspective, but the international perspective. Why would I expect anything less from someone so illustrious as a man who served as my constituency chairman for three years, for which he deserved a medal?
The Secretary of State says that Stagecoach got its sums wrong, but clearly his Department got its sums wrong, too, when it awarded the franchise to Stagecoach. Surely one merit of this situation should be that failing franchise holders should not be allowed to bid for future franchises. Does the Secretary of State agree that this gives us the opportunity to put the franchise into the public sector, allow further public sector involvement across all franchises, and review and improve the franchise tender process?
We certainly keep the franchise process under continual review to work to improve it but, as I said a moment ago, a public railway is not the panacea that everyone on the Opposition Benches claims it is. I intend to do two things: to take the right decisions for the taxpayer and the travelling public on that route, which is really important, and to act within the law, which is also important.
On Monday, the chief executive of Stagecoach said that he knew there was a problem with the east coast franchise’s finances just weeks after taking over the contract in March 2015, and that he had been talking to the Department about it for two years. Given that the Department was in dialogue with the operator about the difficulties, why did the Secretary of State not put together a contingency plan for the route? The Secretary of State has had two years to sort out this mess; is it not simply incredible that he still does not know what to do?
The shadow Secretary of State clearly cannot do his sums, because I have not been Secretary of State for two years. We have been planning—
From 2016 to 2018.
I have been Secretary of State for 18 months; the shadow Secretary of State cannot do his sums. Since I became aware that there was a problem on the east coast route, we have been doing careful contingency planning, so we have a long-term plan and short-term options for the route. We cannot put those short-term options into place until the appropriate moment arises at which they are necessary. We are prepared for when that moment arises and will deliver the alternatives.
Given that the taxpayer has already lost out on more than £2 billion of premium payments, can the Secretary of State advise the House as to whether the financial ramifications of the termination of the franchise are now completely known and concluded? If not, what sums of money are earmarked to settle any further system-gaming demands from Messrs Branson and Souter through litigation or arbitration?
Again, the Labour party cannot do its sums. We have no more written off £2 billion than Labour wrote off £1.4 billion when National Express collapsed. The reality is that the east coast is and always has been in recent times a profitable railway. Whatever happens, it will continue to generate a substantial return for the taxpayer. It is about time that Labour did its sums properly, rather than misrepresenting the reality.
I know that my hon. Friend is concerned about the impact of traffic in his constituency; indeed, we discussed it when he came to the Department just last week. HS2 Ltd is already working with Highways England and local highways authorities to mitigate the effects of construction traffic, and will continue to do so as the High Speed Rail (West Midlands - Crewe) Bill progresses. The planning regime established under the Bill includes powers for local planning authorities to approve final construction routes for large goods vehicles. We will work closely with local authorities to make sure that impacts on local communities and traffic are appropriate.
Will the Minister update the House on the measures that will be put in place to tackle and mitigate the impact of traffic, and particularly its effect on junction 15 of the M6, resulting from the construction of phase 2a?
Indeed, we recognise the need to keep traffic moving on local roads during construction, primarily for the benefit of residents and businesses. Under current plans, junction 15 of the M6 is an important access route for HS2 construction traffic. We recognise that it also provides an important access route to the Stoke-on-Trent area. HS2 Ltd is working closely with Highways England to minimise the impact on the M6 and consider any opportunities for co-ordinated delivery with a smart motorway.
The Bus Services Act 2017 presents local authorities with new powers to bring about change and unlock the potential for the bus service industry to increase passenger numbers. Since 1982, bus usage has fallen, but it is variable across the country. Passenger journeys on local bus services in England have decreased by 4% since 2009-10, to 4.44 billion in 2016-17.
Does the Minister believe that there is a link between her Government’s 33% cut to the bus budgets and bus patronage falling to a decade low? What action has the Secretary of State taken over the past 18 months to rectify that?
Bus patronage is actually increasing for people who go to work—3 million people choose to travel to work on a bus—and 60% of people who use public transport use the bus. Increasing bus patronage is at the forefront of the Government’s bus agenda. It is vital to combating congestion and reducing emissions. Government provide about £1 billion of funding for concessionary travel every year, and around £250 million will be paid this year to support bus services in England via the bus service operators’ grant.
Recent devolution deals have seen the power to re-regulate buses, via London-style franchising, devolved to areas such as my own that have a metro mayor. Can the Minister tell me how the Government plan to support those metro mayors who make the local democratic choice to franchise their bus networks so that local passengers can get the routes that they need?
Mayors have the freedom to do that. It is absolutely right that these decisions are taken locally, whether by the local authority or the mayor. We therefore encourage all local authorities and mayors to consider how they can use enhanced partnership and franchising powers to make improvements for passengers and to increase bus patronage.
As my right hon. Friend knows, I have asked Highways England to progress plans to promote a lorry holding area through the normal planning process as a potential permanent solution to Operation Stack. Highways England intends to undertake an initial public consultation on this in the spring, which will consider the scope, scale and function of the lorry area. As he knows, I am frustrated that we have not been able to do this sooner, but the commitment to it is strong.
The Secretary of State is, I know, aware of the extreme urgency of finding a solution to this matter. Even if we assume a full implementation period after Brexit, we could be less than two years away from new customs arrangements at Dover, and problems there could be disastrous not just for roads across Kent, but for the national road haulage industry. Can he assure us that, by the time of Brexit, sufficient off-road parking spaces will be available to avoid a recurrence of Operation Stack?
There are two points that I should make. First, on the border, it is absolutely the intent of this Government to maintain a free-flowing border; that is of paramount importance. The other point, be absolutely clear, is that we will have a solution in place for next March which keeps the M20 flowing in both directions and provides a solution if there is congestion at the ports; and that we intend to move beyond that and deliver a long-term solution, which will not only deal with the issue of trouble at the ports, but provide some respite to Kent residents, who I know are fed up with having lorries simply parking on their local roads.
Eighty per cent. of the road freight to and from the UK goes through Dover. There is surely no realistic chance of all those lorries being checked from March next year. Is not the reality that, if we leave the EU without a deal, utter chaos on the road network within miles of Dover is completely unavoidable?
No, I do not think that at all. It is for this country to decide how we manage our borders and what checks we put in place. The Government are absolutely committed to ensuring that there is a free-flowing border at Dover, and we will deliver that.
Is it the Department’s policy that a new fixed link across the channel would help to ease disruption?
We should have some big, bold visions for the future. That is the way that we plan properly in transport terms. Our big, bold visions for the country right now are HS2, the potential expansion of Heathrow airport, the lower Thames crossing, the trans-Pennine tunnel, the A303 dualling and the Stonehenge tunnel. This Government have and are delivering lots of big visions for Britain.
The chairman of Maritime UK has said that, if a deal is not reached on Brexit, lorry drivers could be stuck on the main roads to Dover for up to two days. Even if a deal is reached, with a hard border at vital ferry ports, the industry is warning that customs and port health checks will cause massive disruptions. What concrete assurances can the Secretary of State give us that that will not be the case?
As I have said before, I have regular dialogue with the haulage industry and the ports sector. I have been very clear to them, as I am being clear in this House today and as the Prime Minister has made clear, that we do not intend to impose a fixed border. We want a free-flowing border and that is what we will deliver.
All franchise operators are required to obtain a pre-qualification passport. The Department may suspend or withdraw a passport in the event that the passport holder triggers certain requirements within the passport application. This would place restrictions on or remove the passport holder from bidding for franchise competitions.
I take it from that answer that it is possible for the Secretary of State to deny an existing franchise holder the right to rebid in a new tendering process. Govia, which has had the south eastern franchise for a long time, has consistently been a poor performer, so can he remove Govia from the service? If it were to get the franchise, what guarantees can he give to my constituents that they will get the improved service that they deserve?
In the case of the south eastern franchise, we will accept the bid that is going to deliver the best possible outcome for the hon. Gentleman’s constituents, with longer trains and better services. This is a competitive process. I will not hesitate to remove a passport from a firm when that is required. I also have to operate within European procurement law—something that the Labour party is still very keen on—and that requires me to take a proportionate approach. I will always seek to do that and I will always seek to operate within the law.
Last year, no fewer than 67 million rail journeys were cancelled or severely curtailed. I raised this matter with the Prime Minister yesterday. Most of the compensation paid by Network Rail was trousered by the train operating companies. When they bid to renew their franchises, will the way in which they have treated their passengers with compensation be a key consideration, as it should be?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right that we need to ensure that passengers get the compensation payments to which they are entitled. Of course, the compensation structure is much more complex and there are far more issues than those that have been highlighted in the media in recent days. I am very clear that the move that we are going through this year to provide digital ticketing across the whole network will make it much more straightforward to give passengers the compensation that they deserve and need, and enable them to do so simply, without having to fill out long, complicated forms.
The estimates report was very revealing, showing how hundreds of millions of pounds have been spent on compensation, underwriting failure and bail-outs. In control period 4 alone, a staggering £339.4 million of public money—our constituents’ money—was handed over to private operators, while passengers were forced to pay over the odds to travel. How much more public money will the Secretary of State pass to these failed rail operators?
The Opposition keep talking about the huge amounts that are paid, but they fail to understand that less than £3 in every £100 that is spent on the railways remains with the companies. The rest is going into the biggest infrastructure investment programme, better services and newer trains—the kind of improvements that people could only dream of in 13 years of Labour Government, but which they are getting under a Conservative Government.
That is certainly no apology to our constituents. The Secretary of State’s lack of due diligence has caused chief exec David Brown, of embattled Southern rail fame, to announce that he has done a—expletive deleted—good job, and that he will bid again for the next franchise contracts. Virgin and Stagecoach will do the same. These companies are on a huge gravy train at the expense of taxpayers, so why is the Secretary of State being held to ransom and why he is even prepared to consider rewarding their failure?
The hon. Lady talks about a privatised gravy train. I would encourage her to look at the conversation that the French Prime Minister had about a state railway, where he said:
“The dilapidated network, delays, abysmal debt…The situation is alarming, not to say untenable. The French, whether they take the train or not, pay more and more for a public service that works less and less well”.
I would say to her constituents that I am delighted that over the next 12 to 18 months the people of York are going to see every single train, pretty much, that serves their station replaced as new, or brand new trains—trains that they have not seen for decades.
During the franchise process, business cases get a lot of focus. The hon. Member for Middlesbrough (Andy McDonald) mentioned the Virgin Trains east coast contract and the franchise holder criticising some of the figures he had been passed. As a member of the Public Accounts Committee who was present at that hearing, I can say that the franchise holder actually said that, although the figures were not what he was expecting, they were not an insurmountable barrier to the franchise working. He quoted the Scottish referendum and Brexit, and a declining trend in passenger figures, as the real reason why the franchise failed. When franchises across the companies are being bid for, will my right hon. Friend encourage those companies to have a broader range of dynamic scenario planning so that they get accurate figures?
My hon. Friend makes a very important point. We are now migrating the franchise system to being much more focused on quality. The quality of service is going to drive revenues as much as anything else. People will see a very different approach where we do not necessarily take the highest bid, we look for high quality in the bids, and we look to be prudent about the risk-sharing mechanisms so that hopefully this does not happen again.
Since becoming road safety Minister, I have met the hon. Gentleman several times, as well as a broad range of road safety organisations and others with an interest in road safety, to discuss many different issues. Those institutions include RoadPeace, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents, the RAC, the AA and many others.
I congratulate the Minister on his keen interest in this subject; I have been impressed by him so far. However, is it not the case that there are still 1,720 knocks on the door by a policeman or a policewoman who says that your daughter, your son, your mum, your dad, your grandmother or your grandfather are dead? That is the truth, so we cannot be complacent. Can we now look to having a national investigatory body to investigate every death on the road? Will the Minister also talk to his overseas development colleagues, given that 1.3 million people worldwide die in road accidents every year? Is it not time that we did something to help them?
As the hon. Gentleman will know, we are very closely involved in supporting nations around the world to raise road safety standards; he has been involved in that himself. With regard to a national body, we have looked at that. I am sure that he will take some comfort from the fact that only today we are laying regulations that allow driving instructors to undertake motorway driving with learners. That is part of a much wider pushback to improve driving quality and reduce fatalities.
The previous Transport Committee’s June 2016 inquiry into all-lane running concluded that 8% non-compliance with red X signals was unacceptable. In their response, the Government agreed, promising to tackle it through a combination of education and enforcement. In January this year, the chief executive of Highways England wrote to me with an update, stating that
“we have reduced levels of non- compliance with red-x signals to 8%”.
How can it be acceptable for the Government to be continuing to roll out all-lane running when it appears to have made zero progress on reducing these dangerous driving offences?
As the hon. Lady will be aware, a study has been done on all-lane running showing that, if anything, it may be safer than the previous arrangements, and that is to be welcomed. We will be making an announcement on red X signals fairly imminently.
Does the Minister not recognise the correlation between his Government’s decision to scrap road safety targets, introduced by Labour, and their failure to reduce the number of those seriously injured or killed on our roads?
I am a little reluctant to get into the statistics game with the hon. Gentleman. He will be aware, however, that for the year ending September 2017 road fatalities fell by 4% and overall road injuries fell by 5%, compared with the previous year. The picture is mixed and generally heading in the right direction.
In December 2015 the Department for Transport published the road safety statement “Working Together to Build a Safer Road System”, and we are making excellent progress in delivering its objectives. I am pleased to announce today that the Department has, at our third attempt, commissioned an objective scientific study to understand the relationship between tyre degradation, the passage of time and the effect on tyre safety. Two earlier attempts to commission that research were unavailing. The guidance given has been very effective in this area, but that marks a further move towards better road safety.
My constituents Julian and Gill Smith, who tragically lost their daughter Rhiannon nearly a year ago in a car collision, are now campaigning for better preventive action. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman) and ask that the Minister looks seriously at calls by campaign groups such as Brake to establish a UK road collision investigation branch, so that we can have more crash data and evidence to prevent deaths and injuries on our roads.
As the hon. Lady says, that is a tragic incident for the family concerned, and one’s heart goes out to them. As I said to the hon. Member for Huddersfield, we continue to look closely at the possibility of setting up such a national body.
In the last 15 years, there have been 340 casualties on the notorious A417 near the Air Balloon pub. There have been 148 accidents in the last five years alone. Will my hon. Friend join me in warmly welcoming the landmark of reaching the consultation stage on the shortlisted new roads scheme? Does he agree that, by backing that project, this Government are committed to saving lives on Gloucestershire’s roads?
Of course I welcome that. As my hon. Friend will be aware, it has been the product of a great deal of hard work by local campaigners and the Department over a considerable period.
Would the Minister consider reducing the drink-drive limit? The reduction in Northern Ireland and Scotland has led to fewer deaths and injuries on the road and less work for the police. It is surely the most obvious thing to do.
We continue to keep the situation under review. As the hon. Gentleman will be aware, there have been moves in that direction in Scotland. As that policy works its way through, we will continue to look closely at the issue.
The Department published its latest statistics on road conditions in England in January 2018, which show that local classified roads are improving, with fewer local roads to be considered for maintenance. There is still much to do, which is why the Government have committed record levels of investment, including more than £6 billion to highways maintenance up to 2020-21, as well as having an action fund to combat potholes totalling £296 million in this Parliament, which colleagues across the House will warmly welcome.
I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. He will be aware that Shropshire Council has submitted a very effective business case, supported by our local enterprise partnership, for the funding of the north-west relief road in Shrewsbury, which is the final bit of the circular around our town. What steps is he taking to ensure that the scheme is looked upon favourably?
I am absolutely aware of that. My hon. Friend has been a tireless campaigner for that road over the years. I reassure him that we recognise the concern that he indicates. The Department has received the funding bid for the Shrewsbury north-west relief road, and it is being actively and currently considered.
The Government are intending to close the driving test centre in Pontypridd and move it to Llantrisant, which will make it far more inconvenient for people in the Rhondda—one of the poorest constituencies in the land—and probably more difficult for people cost-effectively to learn how to drive safely. It will also put the driving test centre in a place that does not have suitable roads for people to do the test properly. Will the Minister look again at closing the Pontypridd driving test centre?
That is what is called the art of shoehorning in the tangential.
I did it nicely.
He did do it nicely. We congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his ingenuity.
One wonders if style is everything in these matters or whether content should have a place at some point. The answer to that question is that of course we will continue to look at it, but I doubt the answer will change.
In the 2016-17 financial year, the Department spent almost £3.5 million on supporting the community transport sector through the bus services operators’ grant, and since January 2013 it has devolved approximately £2.9 million of that grant to support local councils’ community transport services. As my hon. Friend will be aware, the Department is currently consulting on changes to the law and guidance on the use of section 19 and section 22 permits. The consultation closes on 4 May.
The Minister will know that the changes on which he is consulting pose a real threat to the future of some operators. What more can he do to protect the existing use of permits rather than require what are generally small local charities to move to the full commercial status of the operator licence?
As colleagues will know, I have spent a lot of time working with the bodies responsible for the sector and visiting local community transport organisations. I take my hat off to them for the astonishing work that they do, which is, in a way, a form of social care as much as a form of transport, if not more so. Our consultation document, which I am sure my hon. Friend will have read, lays out three potential exemptions: derogations from commercial operators in favour of community transport operators, showing that there is in fact no competition in specific cases; a potential distance exemption of 15 miles from a particular hub; and the separation of commercial and non-commercial activities. We expect them to receive a lot of comments. I am not aware of a direct threat to any operators in particular, but we very much seek their feedback.
Notwithstanding what the Minister said about the hat—he talked about taking his hat off—I would not have thought he would want to do so in the present weather, as a protective function.
Many community transport operators use diesel vehicles, so what representations have the UK Government made to the German Government to hold Volkswagen to account for its emissions scandal?
It is the Rhondda valley by proxy. We continue to press the German Government hard on the issue and regard the behaviour of Volkswagen as unacceptable. We are greatly improving the emissions regime, toughening up the testing regime and taking active steps to penalise the use of defeat devices.
Infrastructure: Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire
In the east midlands, almost £7 billion has been spent on transport since 2010, improving connectivity, shortening journey times, reducing congestion and transporting people, ideas and goods. In Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire, that has included £371 million from Government for extensions to the Nottingham tram system, and £4.5 million for the new station at Ilkeston.
Indeed, the Government have a proud record on transport infrastructure. More transport infrastructure has been planned in Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire over these 10 years than ever before. I welcome the proposals for the A38 and smart motorways, and for the Derby and Nottingham stations. May I suggest to my hon. Friend that we also consider smaller projects, which will make vast improvements, and may I put in a bid for the Ashbourne bypass?
My hon. Friend has been a great advocate of transport locally and is obviously an expert in the field, as a previous Minister in the Department. He is absolutely right that we are investing in the biggest upgrade of the midland main line since it was completed in 1870. It is, however, for Derbyshire County Council to assess the need for that particular project in Ashbourne, and to decide whether to work on plans to deliver it. If the council applies for appropriate Government funding, we would be pleased to consider its bid.
I know that the hon. Lady will accept that he was not merely a Minister in the Department but the Secretary of State and a right hon. Gentleman of notable industry and distinction.
The previous speaker said a lot of things about the possibility of getting extra money spent in Derbyshire. What he failed to do—this is very important—is say that when the electrification of the midland main line was put forward in this House, it was decided that it would go only as far as Kettering and Corby. Should not the question now be about the wholesale electrification of the midland main line, which would result in people in Derbyshire being better off?
I apologise to my right hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire Dales (Sir Patrick McLoughlin) for my earlier mistake.
Perhaps not right now, but I will consider it in future. I was expecting a question on High Speed 2.
I’m saving that.
The hon. Gentleman is saving it—that is wonderful. Perhaps he will even acknowledge the great jobs that will be coming along the line. On electrification, Labour’s 2007 rail strategy stated that
“it would not be prudent to commit now to ‘all-or-nothing’ projects, such as network-wide electrification…for which the longer-term benefits are currently uncertain and which could delay tackling the current strategic priorities such as capacity.”
The Government believe that it is vital to deliver for passengers and for the taxpayer.
Between 2016 and 2021 the east midlands will receive just 3.2% of all transport investment, and that is exacerbated by the cancellation of the electrification of the Midland main line. That electrification is wanted by business and communities, and it is better value, better for the environment, and has a brilliant business case. Why are Ministers in the Department for Transport the only ones who do not understand that?
We have not yet fully announced what we will be doing on electrification, and at times some of the information shared is not entirely accurate. The Government have supported the midlands with HS2, and by investing £1.8 billion in the region’s motorways and trunk roads, and £1.7 billion in the local growth fund. We are also investing £25 million to develop and progress a transformational strategy across the midlands with Midlands Connect.
Order. The hon. Members for Plymouth, Moor View (Johnny Mercer) and for Redditch (Rachel Maclean) who missed out on substantive questions can seek to catch my eye during topical questions.
Briefly, let me inform the House that the Space Bill has completed its passage through Parliament, and I extend my thanks to all Members involved in the debate. That debate was conducted in good humour by Members from across the House, and we all share the aspiration for this Bill to pave the way for a thriving commercial space sector in the United Kingdom.
Is the Secretary of State aware that Network Rail and Govia Thameslink have committed to ensuring that eight-carriage trains are introduced between Cambridge and King’s Lynn by the end of the year, which is vital to relieving unacceptable levels of congestion? Will he help to ensure that that commitment is honoured?
I will certainly do that, and I also recommit to the improvements needed in Ely, which are essential over the next control period to unlocking those capacity improvements that are needed for the growth and development of those parts of Cambridgeshire.
As the hon. Lady is aware, the matter is currently out to consultation, although it does not cover the certificate of professional competence, which will be handled separately. As I have indicated, there are many workarounds for this issue, and there is no reason for any community transport company to be adversely worried. There is a misalignment between EU law and UK law, and there may be some players who, unfortunately, are operating in a commercial way. That is how the matter rests, and we will do everything we can to protect community transport operators that are doing a good job.
Train seating is required to address the comfort of passengers and to conform to relevant design standards, including on fire safety and crashworthiness. We do not want passengers to feel that they need to bring in their own inflatable cushions, and my hon. Friend will take comfort in the fact that seats normally become more comfortable over time through use.
I am grateful for the question. We will be making an announcement later in spring.
Let me say very clearly and unequivocally that what took place last Sunday was unacceptable. On behalf of the Government, I apologise for it and the company has already done so. We have made our views known to the company in the strongest possible terms. It was unacceptable and lessons have to be learned. The company is putting in place arrangements to make sure people receive appropriate financial compensation. It must not happen again.
I would be happy to meet the hon. Lady to discuss this issue. It is really important that we make the most of all such opportunities for Network Rail to put scraps of land to good use, whether for housing, strips of walkway, or other pedestrian or cycling purposes. I am happy to meet her to discuss that.
The answer to that question is a great deal, with more to come. I was very pleased to be able to go to the meeting of the all-party group on air pollution, of which my hon. Friend is a member, with Chris Boardman. That is an excellent example of how an individual initiative in Manchester can be used to drive great change. The cycle safety review is coming up shortly and will look at a very wide range of issues relating to cycling, including recent information on some of the impacts on air quality. As he says, cycling is remarkably good for the body and soul of the people who do it.
Bus services, what journeys they take and how frequently they are run, are down to the local authority. I therefore urge the hon. Gentleman to discuss this matter with his local authority, which can take it forward with local bus service providers.
First, I want to put on the record again my commitment to making sure that Stoke is in receipt of an HS2 service when the route opens. The local authority’s plans for Stoke station are very exciting and I want to work on them with my hon. Friend and the local authority.
I know that these works have taken longer than intended. I have spoken to Highways England and we want to get this situation resolved as quickly as possible. It is certainly the case—I speak as somebody who travels from time to time to Old Trafford—that the area is surrounded by roadworks on the motorway and the work on the new extension to the Metrolink. I hope the hon. Gentleman will acknowledge, however, that this is a sign that the Government are making sure there is investment in, and resource provided to, Manchester, where transport investment on this scale has not happened for a long time.
My right hon. Friend will know from our many previous conversations that the people of Plymouth have waited too long to see improvements on their rail link, so I am grateful for his Department’s response yesterday, but when can they expect to see something delivered—some work completed—on Dawlish, which I know is his No. 1 responsibility?
Protecting the line at Dawlish is a national priority of utmost importance and we are determined to find a permanent solution for this vital connection. Some £15 million of funding has been provided to Network Rail to take this forward and planning and development work is well under way. There will be no unnecessary delay, and we will complete this work as soon as we can within the law.
It is very good to see the hon. Member for Hove back in his place. I call Mr Peter Kyle.
Thank you so much, Mr Speaker. There is one set of tracks and one franchise operator between London and Brighton, but there are three separate pricing structures. I urge the Secretary of State and the Rail Minister to think about implementing the Gibb recommendation to lower the pricing to the lowest possible one—the Thameslink one—for a two-year period. That could be done with no technical changes whatever, and it would have a transformative impact on passengers who have suffered so much in the last few years.
We are working our way through the recommendations of the Gibb report, and we are working our way through the automation of ticketing, which I think is a prerequisite of the broader fares reform that is necessary. The hon. Gentleman will be aware that the keyGo card has just launched across the Govia Thameslink Railway network, and that smart ticketing is progressing. That will provide the opportunity for fares reform in a way that has not been there previously.
During the recent appalling weather, Worcestershire County Council has been sharing information about where the nearest grit bin can be found, and getting the gritters out on the road. Will the Secretary of State join me in praising them for helping residents to prepare for the recent appalling conditions?
I absolutely praise them, and I am delighted that we have ample stocks on hand to deal with the current inconveniences. I put my hat squarely back on my head to deal with that on a personal level. Not least of the joys of this particular scheme and approach is that they open the way to Herefordshire, a place that I know the House will wish to visit on regular occasions.
The Secretary of State will be aware that no money was spent in control period 5 on supporting enhancements to the rail infrastructure in north Wales. Having seen the unanimity in north Wales and in north-west England on Monday this week, does he not accept that our time has come for cross-border rail investment?
As the hon. Gentleman knows, I went to that event and made a commitment. I praise my right hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd West (Mr Jones) for bringing the event together and thank all the Members from north Wales who attended. I gave a clear indication of the Government’s sympathy with the need for the Crewe hub. I talked about the re-signalling on parts of the route, which will improve performance on the line. The hon. Gentleman will be aware, as the Member of Parliament for Wrexham, that we are now carrying out the study on how we deliver a proper service on the Wrexham to Bidston line. Under this Government, the time has certainly come for transport improvements.
BACT—Beccles and Bungay area community transport—plays a key strategic role in north Suffolk in serving remote rural areas and many vulnerable people. Will the Minister assure me that in assessing the feedback from his current consultation, his No. 1 objective will be to put the future of organisations such as BACT on a sustainable, long-term financial footing?
I can absolutely assure him that the Department’s goal has always been to manage this process with as little impact as possible and ultimately to the benefit of the community transport sector, if we possibly can.
The Minister and his predecessor have been supportive of my trailer safety campaign and #towsafe4freddie, following Freddie Hussey’s tragic death in 2014. Does he agree with me that the Haulage Permits and Trailer Registration Bill, which is currently going through the Lords, offers a fantastic opportunity to further highlight the importance of trailer safety?
I absolutely recognise the campaign that the hon. Lady fought, and I think it is very worthwhile. I slightly doubt whether what she suggests is in fact the case, but attempts can of course be made within the rules. This is a very narrowly defined piece of legislation that focuses very specifically on permitting and on trailer registration, so there may not be scope to add other things, but I continue to be delighted to talk to her about the campaign that she is waging.
From the need for a final fix to the A40 to urgent upgrades to the Cotswold line, the need for a boost to west Oxfordshire’s transport is now acute. Will Ministers agree to work with me to make it happen?
The A40 is one of the roads that could benefit from the creation of the major roads network. It is precisely designed to deal with those second-tier roads that were detrunked by the last Labour Government and tend to fall through the cracks between decision making in local communities and the national work done on the strategic road network. My expectation is that my hon. Friend and his local authority will be beating a path to my door when that funding is first released. However, I would say that his railway line is getting new trains much sooner than that, which I hope will be a benefit to his constituents.
Ministers say that they want to reduce roadside emissions. The road leading from the port of Liverpool has some of the biggest air quality problems in the country. Will the Secretary of State listen to calls for investment in rail freight as an answer to the problem?
This is precisely why I am so pleased to have started feasibility work on the reopening of the Skipton to Colne railway line, a route that could provide an important link across the Pennines. It is no doubt a matter of real frustration that it takes eight to nine hours for a freight train to travel from the port of Liverpool to the power station at Drax, and it is clear to me that we need additional transpennine capacity. This is one route that could deliver it. I look forward to seeing the conclusions from that study at the end of the year, which I think is the likely timetable.
This week of all weeks, rail passengers want up-to-date information about delays and cancellations, but Southeastern’s website has failed to provide any live-time updates in any single rush hour this week, today included. Will Ministers bear that in mind when the franchise comes up for renewal?
My hon. Friend is a powerful champion of his constituents, and he is right to expect Southeastern to provide prompt, accurate and timely information so that passengers can have journeys of the quality that they deserve.
My constituent Jim Irvine, who was active all his life, now suffers from motor neurone disease, and, like many other people, relies on his mobility scooter for independence. Scooters are currently banned from the Tyne and Wear metro. What will the Secretary of State do to remedy the situation, and will he give assurances that our promised new rolling stock will include provision for mobility scooters?
As the hon. Lady says, it is time that we had new rolling stock on the Newcastle-upon-Tyne metro. I expect to see updated, modern rolling stock that can provide proper accessibility for people with disabilities. The decision about the configuration will of course be made locally, but I certainly expect the money that is available to be spent on disability-compliant rolling stock.
Will my right hon. Friend give us an update on the progress of the negotiations on air connections with the European Union after we leave in March next year?
The European Commission has published its negotiating position on aviation links. There have been a lot of scare stories around over the last few months, but the Commission has said that in all circumstances—whether or not we have a trade deal, and whether or not we have an implementation period—there must be an aviation agreement. There is a recognition on the Commission’s side that the flights need to continue, and there is an absolute commitment on our side. I met my Spanish counterpart yesterday, and we agreed that it was essential for flights to continue. We will all work to ensure that there is absolutely no interruption in services.
Does the Secretary of State understand the severe disappointment and anger in the far south-west about the sham of a south-west rail strategy that was published yesterday? Will he now do the right thing, and, instead of re-spinning the £50 million that has already been announced, match Labour’s £2.5 billion rail investment plan for the south-west?
I will take no lessons from the party that did nothing for transport in the south-west over a long period. This Government are doing things that Labour never did—dualling the A303, providing brand-new trains, and resignalling in Cornwall to increase the number of rail services. The hon. Gentleman should be embarrassed about his party’s record.
Order. We are very short of time. In fact, we have run out of time. We have had some very comprehensive answers, for which we are grateful, but I will take only two more questions, if the questions and answers are very short.
Will the Minister please look into the concerns that a flyover and tunnel at Stonehenge will damage the valuable archaeological site at Blick Mead?
My hon. Friend will be interested to know that I sent a message of welcome to the team from the International Council on Monuments and Sites that is currently considering the issue of Stonehenge. Of course we will look into my hon. Friend’s concerns, and he is welcome to write to me with further details.
When will the Government catch up with the rest of the world and take advantage of a quick, easy, cost-effective way of reducing transport emissions by introducing E10 fuel?
We are reviewing that option at the moment. As the hon. Gentleman will know, it would require legislation, but we are already giving considerable support to the ethanol industry, and we are continuing to look into it.
Order. I am sorry to disappoint remaining colleagues, but now we really must move on.
With permission, Mr Speaker, I wish to make a statement on the Leveson inquiry and its implementation, and the freedom of the press.
Over many centuries in Britain, our press has held the powerful to account and been free to report and investigate without fear or favour. These principles underpin our democracy and are integral to our freedom as a nation. Today, in a world of the internet and clickbait, our press face critical challenges that threaten their livelihood and sustainability, with declining circulations and a changing media landscape. It is in this context that we approach the Leveson inquiry, which was set up seven years ago in 2011 and reported six years ago in 2012 in response to events over a decade ago.
The Leveson inquiry was a diligent and thorough examination of the culture, practices and ethics of our press in response to illegal and improper press intrusion. There were far too many cases of terrible behaviour, and, having met some of the victims, I understand the impact this had.
From the start, I want to thank Sir Brian for his work. The inquiry lasted over a year and heard evidence from more than 300 people, including journalists, editors and victims. Three major police investigations examined a wide range of offences, and more than 40 people were convicted. The inquiry and investigations were comprehensive, and since it was set up the terms of reference for a part 2 of the inquiry have largely been met. There have also been extensive reforms to policing practices and significant changes to press self-regulation.
The Independent Press Standards Organisation has been established and now regulates 95% of national newspapers by circulation. It has taken significant steps to demonstrate its independence as a regulator, and in 2016 Sir Joseph Pilling concluded that IPSO had largely complied with Leveson’s recommendations. There have been further improvements since, and I hope there will be more to come. In November last year, for instance, IPSO introduced a new system of low-cost arbitration. It has processed more than 40,000 complaints in its first three years of operation, and it has ordered multiple front-page corrections or clarifications. Newspapers have also made improvements to their governance frameworks to improve internal controls, standards and compliance, and one regulator, IMPRESS, has been recognised under the royal charter. Extensive reforms to policing practices have been made, too: the College of Policing has published a code of ethics and developed national guidance for police officers on how to engage with the press, and we have legislated in the Policing and Crime Act 2017 to strengthen protections for police whistleblowers.
It is clear that we have seen significant progress from publications, from the police and from the new regulator, and the media landscape today is markedly different from that which Sir Brian looked at in 2011. The way in which we consume news has changed dramatically. Newspaper circulation has fallen by about 30% since the conclusions of the Leveson inquiry, and, although digital circulation is rising, publishers are finding it much harder to generate revenue online. In 2015, for every £100 newspapers lost in print revenue, they gained only £3 in digital revenue.
Our local papers in particular are under severe pressure. Local papers help to bring together local voices and shine a light on important local issues—in communities, in courtrooms, in council chambers—and as we devolve power further to local communities they will become even more important, yet over 200 local newspapers have closed since 2005, including two in my constituency. These are the new challenges.
There are also challenges that were only in their infancy back in 2011. We have seen a dramatic and continued rise in social media, which is largely unregulated, and issues such as clickbait, fake news, malicious disinformation and online abuse threaten high-quality journalism.
The foundation of any successful democracy is a sound basis for democratic discourse. That is under threat from these new forces, and that requires urgent attention. These are today’s challenges and this is where we need to focus, especially as more than £48 million was spent on the police investigations and the inquiry.
During the consultation, 12% of direct respondents were in favour of reopening the Leveson inquiry, with 66% against. We agree and this is the position we set out in the Conservative party manifesto. Sir Brian, whom I thank for his service, agrees that the inquiry should not proceed under the current terms of reference but believes that it should continue in an amended form. We do not believe that reopening this costly and time consuming public inquiry is the right way forward, so considering all the factors that I have outlined to the House today, I have informed Sir Brian that we are formally closing the inquiry. But we will take action to safeguard the lifeblood of our democratic discourse and tackle the challenges that our media face—today, not a decade ago.
During the consultation, we also found serious concerns that section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act 2013 would exacerbate the problems the press faces rather than solve them. Respondents were worried that it would impose further financial burdens, especially on the local press. As one high profile figure put it very clearly:
“Newspapers...are already operating in a tough environment. These proposals will make it tougher and add to the risk of self-censorship…The threat of having to pay both sides’ costs—no matter what the challenge—would have the effect of leaving journalists questioning every report that named an individual or included the most innocuous data about them.”
He went on to say that section 40 risks
“damaging the future of a paper that you love”
and that the impact will be to
“make it much more difficult for papers...to survive”.
These are not my words, Mr Speaker, but those of Alastair Campbell talking about the chilling threat of section 40—and if anyone knows about threats to the press it is Alastair Campbell.
Only 7% of direct respondents favoured full commencement of section 40. By contrast, 79% favoured full repeal. We have therefore decided not to commence section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act 2013 and to seek repeal at the earliest opportunity. Action is needed, based not on what might have been needed years ago but on what is needed to address today’s problems. Our new digital charter sets out the overarching programme of work to agree norms and rules for the online world and put them into practice. Under the charter, our internet safety strategy is looking at online behaviour and we will firmly tackle the problems of online abuse. Our review of the sustainability of high-quality journalism will address concerns about the impact of the internet on our news and media. It will do this in a forward-looking way, so we can respond to the challenges of today, not the challenges of yesterday.
The future of a vibrant press matters to us all. There has been a huge public response to our consultation and I want to thank every one of the 174,000 respondents as well as all those who signed petitions. We have carefully considered all the evidence we received. We have consulted widely, with regulators, publications and victims of press intrusion. The world has changed since the Leveson inquiry was established in 2011. Since then, we have seen a seismic change in the media landscape. The work of the inquiry and the reforms since have had a huge impact on public life. We thank Sir Brian for lending his dedication and expertise to the undertaking of this inquiry.
At national and local levels, a press that can hold the powerful to account remains an essential component of our democracy. We need high-quality journalism to thrive in the new digital world. We seek a press and a media that are robust and independently regulated and that report without fear or favour. The steps I have set out today will help give Britain a vibrant, independent and free press that holds the powerful to account and rises to the challenges of our times. I commend the statement to the House.
As I have said through you before, Mr Speaker, timing is everything in politics. If I am looking a little breathless and fatigued this morning, it is because I have been carrying a heavy load in the past hour, lifting weights in the gym and visualising Paul Dacre. For the increasing number of colleagues who do not read the Daily Mail any more, I refer them to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.
With your indulgence, Mr Speaker, I shall take the Mosley issue head on. If I had thought for one moment that he held the views contained in that leaflet of 57 years ago, I would not have given him the time of day. He is, however, a man who, in the face of great family tragedy and overwhelming media intimidation, chose to use his limited resources to support the weak against the strong.
On this issue, I would like to thank the Secretary of State for giving me advance sight of his statement, not just in the last half hour but over and over again, year after year. This announcement, conveniently timed to be buried under a flurry of snow, is a disappointment, a breach of trust and a bitter blow to the victims of press intrusion, but it is not in any way a surprise. We now know for certain what we have suspected all the time. When a Conservative Prime Minister, David Cameron, joined the other party leaders to say that he would keep his promises to the victims of phone hacking, he and his party were acting not out of conviction but out of weakness. For a brief period of time, and for the first time ever, our political parties had more to gain politically by standing up to the tabloid media than by bowing down to them. When every Conservative MP who was then in Parliament backed this policy, including the current Prime Minister and the present Secretary of State, they did not really mean it. They were waiting for the wind to change and for the fuss to die down. They were waiting for a time when they could, as quietly as possible, break their promises, and today that time has finally come.
We already knew what the Conservatives really thought, when successive Secretaries of State refused to implement section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act 2013, the part of the Leveson system that would provide access to justice for ordinary citizens while offering protection to journalists and newspapers that signed up to any Leveson-compliant self-regulatory body. The papers, absurdly, caricatured it as state regulation, and pointed instead to the independence of their alternative, non-Leveson-compliant regulator, the Independent Press Standards Organisation. The Government were too scared to make the case for their own policy, and finally, today, they are formally capitulating.
The Government are also capitulating on the question of whether to complete the investigation into how phone hacking happened and what is happening now. Underlying the phone hacking scandal, we saw one of the biggest corporate scandals and one of the biggest corporate governance failures of modern times. The Secretary of State says that the terms of reference of Leveson 2 have largely been met, but I do not agree. Here are some of the things that Leveson 2 was supposed to investigate: to inquire into the extent of illegality at News International; to inquire into the way the police investigated allegations relating to News International and other newspaper groups; to inquire into whether the police received corrupt payments and were complicit in suppressing the proper investigation of complaints; and to inquire into the extent of corporate governance and management failures at News International and other organisations. None of those questions has been answered, and by betraying the victims of phone hacking in this statement today, the Secretary of State is trying to ensure that they never will be. I ask him this question: if it is revealed that the criminality that took place at the News of the World extended to other newspapers, will he reconsider his position?
The last thing the Murdoch empire, the Rothermere empire, the Barclay brothers’ empire or the Mirror Group wanted was an inquiry into their dirty laundry, with powers under the Inquiries Act 2005 to obtain documents and compel witnesses to appear in public. The last thing any of the newspapers wanted was more attention being paid to their methods at a time when it may well be revealed very soon that other papers, not necessarily the ones at the centre of the scandal in 2011, were also involved in criminality. They have been lobbying hard for today’s outcome. They will give the Secretary of State—a man who enjoys favourable headlines—plaudits in tomorrow’s leader columns. We already know that Paul Dacre, Rupert Murdoch and the Barclay brothers approve of his statement—after all, they helped to write it. The Secretary of State could have chosen to do the right thing, but instead he chose not to stand up to the tabloid-style newspapers that are propping up the Prime Minister and this Government, and that could pull the rug from under them whenever they choose.
Let me close with the words of the former Prime Minister, David Cameron, to the Leveson inquiry in June 2012:
“I will never forget meeting with the Dowler family in Downing Street to run through the terms of this Inquiry with them and to hear what they had been through and how it had redoubled, trebled the pain and agony they’d been through over losing Milly. I’ll never forget that, and that’s the test of all this. It’s not ‘do the politicians or the press feel happy with what we get?’ It’s ‘are we really protecting people who have been caught up and absolutely thrown to the wolves by this process?’ That’s what the test is.”
The Secretary of State will prosper politically from his statement today, but he has failed that test.
The case of the victims of press intrusion is, of course, an incredibly important consideration when making these judgments, but I make the judgments on the basis not of the Register of Members’ Financial Interests, but of the national interest. The issues faced by the victims have been looked into, in the inquiry and in the three police investigations. The issues for the future of our media include this, but are much broader than it.
The hon. Member for West Bromwich East (Tom Watson) stands at the Dispatch Box and talks about the future of our media, but the Opposition’s proposals would lead to a press that is fettered and not free. We do not love every story that is written about us in the press, but the idea that the solution lies in shackling our free press with the punitive costs of any complainant is completely wrong. We all know where he is coming from on the issue of press freedom, because he is tied up with its opponents. Democratic countries face huge challenges in making sure that we have robust but fair discussions in our public life, and the approach proposed by the Opposition would make that even harder.
The hon. Gentleman talks about keeping promises. We are keeping promises that were made to our constituents, who elected us on a manifesto commitment to support a free press. He talks about the need to look into the past, but there have been investigations and inquiries costing many millions of pounds. My judgment is that it would be neither proportionate nor in the national interest to follow that with millions of pounds more.
The message should go out loud and clear from this House that we support every single local newspaper in this country, and that we support these publications, big or small. That is why we are proposing real and meaningful solutions for a vibrant, free and independent press, and we will face up to the challenges that we see before us today. I hope that the hon. Gentleman and his party will come around to supporting us in that to ensure that we have a strong, democratic discourse over the years and decades to come.
The Secretary of State’s predecessor promised the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee that we would receive a full response to our submission to the Government’s consultation on press regulation, but we have yet to receive it. Can he give me an assurance that we will receive a full response in good time for his appearance before us on 14 March?
Yes, of course. Not only have I made this statement today, but I will also be publishing a full response to the consultation, with full details—I will place a copy in the Library. I look forward to coming before the Select Committee to discuss this question narrowly, and also to discuss the wider actions we are taking, in which my hon. Friend is playing an important part, to make sure that we have a sound basis for political discourse in this country.
I thank the Secretary of State for prior sight of his statement. I wrote to him on 22 February seeking an update on progress with the inquiry and asking if and when it would be implemented. I am pleased he has come to the Dispatch Box today at least to clarify that.
The Secretary of State will also be aware that the Scottish National party is absolutely committed to ensuring that the practices that led to Leveson in the first place do not happen again. Our position has always been that, should a UK-wide part 2 of Leveson go ahead, it must take into account the distinct legal context in Scotland.
We firmly believe that all individuals should have a right to redress when they feel that they have been a victim of malpractice. However, the Scottish Government have absolutely no plans to introduce statutory incentives for the press in Scotland to sign up to a state-approved regulator. Press regulation and the operation of the civil courts are areas that are clearly within the devolved competence of the Scottish Parliament, so can the Secretary of State assure us that he will respect the devolution settlement and the independence of the Scottish legal system? Does he agree that, by not doing so, he would set a dangerous precedent in determining the ability of the Scottish Parliament to take decisions in devolved areas?
I agree wholeheartedly with the hon. Gentleman. It is, of course, part of the devolution settlement that these issues are dealt with in Scotland. I of course respect the separate and distinct legal system in this area. He asks whether we will respect that in future, and he knows as well as I do that amendments have been made to the Data Protection Bill in the other place—that Bill will have its Second Reading in this House on Monday—that, with respect to data protection only, require a Leveson 2-type inquiry and the commencement of section 40 on a UK-wide basis. I look forward to discussing with the hon. Gentleman how we can make sure that we have the respect we need for the devolution settlement and for the Scottish press. The single best way that we can deal with the problem he rightly raises is by disposing of those amendments in their entirety.
I strongly welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement. Does he agree that, now more than ever, newspapers play a vital role in holding both the Government and the Opposition to account? He is absolutely right that, rather than looking backwards at the events of 10 years ago and adding to the costs of local newspapers, we should be supporting newspapers in meeting the challenges of the internet giants.
I agree wholeheartedly with my right hon. Friend, not least because, as he points out, one of the jobs of a Secretary of State is to look forward and consider how to solve the problems of today. The problems of local newspapers are not a marginal or side issue. More than 200 local papers have closed in the past decade and a bit, including local papers in my patch. I do not want to see that accelerated by the actions of this House, and that is what would happen if we do not take the course of action I have proposed today.
Having spent many hours with the Dowler family, Christopher Jefferies and many others, may I say on behalf of all the victims that many of us will feel that the Secretary of State has shoved another little knife in our heart? In all honesty, we had hoped that the promises were real promises that we would get to the truth—not just the bits and pieces that were able to be dealt with, as Sir Brian said, but the elements that were expressly excluded from the original investigation, particularly the Metropolitan police’s collusion with the press, which could not be looked at at all.
I find it inconceivable that the Secretary of State talks only about the freedom of the press—of course the freedom of the press is important—because to many of us, it is also important that politicians should be able to speak without fear or favour. That means we should no longer be cowed by press barons; we should be able to do what is right for society. I simply ask the Secretary of State why on earth, if everything he has said today is true, did the Government make all those promises in the past, and why did he vote for the legislation?
The world has changed since 2011. The truth is that the rise of the internet means that some of the issues the hon. Gentleman rightly raises about making sure the debate we have is a reasonable one, not one based on abuse and bullying, are much broader. Tackling the problems of today is our task now. Of course there were abuses that were looked into during the inquiry, and they have been looked into by the police in three investigations, with over 40 criminal convictions since. The judgment we have to make is: what is the best thing to do for the future of this country, when the way in which we debate politics and make decisions is under challenge, because of new technology, in a way it has not been for decades if not centuries? Getting those solutions right is mission-critical to our future as a liberal democracy, and that is what we are putting our attention to.
I welcome the Secretary of State’s response to the consultation and to the concerns raised about section 40. Will he outline further its potential impact on the viability of local newspapers and press, such as the Long Eaton and District Chronicle, the Ilkeston Advertiser and Ilkeston Life in my constituency?
My hon. Friend mentions three of her local papers. Given the nature of section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act 2013, anybody making a complaint will see the costs assigned to the newspaper and not to the complainant if that newspaper is not a member of a royal charter-approved regulator. That means anybody making any complaint would effectively be able to stop a journalist pursuing a story, as was set out eloquently by Alastair Campbell.
The situation has changed since 2011; nobody then imagined that a self-regulator, IPSO, would come to the fore. It now covers 95% of national newspapers, has a low-cost arbitration system and can require corrections to be put in place. IPSO is not perfect, and I hope it makes further progress, but nobody imagined that it would be there at all. We have a better system than was in place, and it allows for redress and for local newspapers to thrive as much as possible.
I welcome my right hon. Friend’s statements because I believe that although newspapers often make the life of an elite intolerable, they make complacency impossible. I worry about local newspapers, and I welcome what he said about section 40, because we used to have three newspapers and we now have one, the Harlow Star. We also have the good newspaper internet site “Your Harlow”. What other measures will he put in place to strengthen local newspapers?
This is an important question and we are working hard on what we can do, through this review of the sustainability of the press, with which I hope my right hon. Friend, the Harlow Star and “Your Harlow” will engage, to ensure that we have not just support from the big organisations—whether that is the BBC or some of the big internet giants—but commercial models that work effectively to deliver news, locally and nationally.
I am very disappointed with the Secretary of State’s statement and feel personally let down by his answers to some of the questions. What is in this for the victims of phone hacking and press abuse? What does he say to the Dowler family, the Hillsborough families and the other countless victims of appalling press abuse? There is nothing in this. We had the promises made to them by a Conservative Prime Minister and the legislation that was voted on by the Secretary of State. Times have not changed for the victims, and there is nothing in this for them. What will he say to them?
What I have said and will say to them is that we have to make sure that the UK media and news industry can hold the powerful to account and respond to today’s challenges. That means facing the country as it is now, which includes the stronger press self-regulation that we have, and making sure that we take into account the wider context, which is that there is an undermining of the ability to have an objective and positive political discussion because of the technology that is available. In that context, the proposals that were set out more than five or six years ago would make the challenges harder and worse, rather than better.
I welcome the statement. Does my right hon. Friend agree that as the press, both local and national, has a critical role in holding politicians and the powerful to account, any form of state regulation is highly undesirable in a democratic society?
Yes, I do. To be frank, I am concerned by the statements coming out of some parts of our political system that seem to think that state control over newspapers is a good idea.
As a former journalist, I am utterly dismayed by the Secretary of State’s statement. I value the freedom of the press, but does he not see the sad irony in talking about how the press has held the powerful to account and then closing the door on our opportunity to hold the powerful voices of the press to account on behalf of the victims? Those victims were promised the sort of legislation in section 40 that the Secretary of State is now turning away from. The problems faced by local newspapers and the newspaper industry in general are nothing to do with Leveson; they are to do with modern technology. Will the Secretary of State please reconsider thinking about the victims and giving them a chance to raise legitimate concerns under section 40?
I agree with the hon. Lady that there has been a big change because of modern technology. I want to make sure that we have high-quality journalism in future and that that cannot be undermined by any complainant having costs assigned to the newspaper for any complaint. That is no way to organise a system of press regulation. Instead, we have to make sure that we have sustainable business models for high-quality journalists so that, just as the hon. Lady had the opportunity to be a journalist in the past, people have that sort of opportunity in future.
I, too, welcome the Secretary of State’s statement, particularly what he said about section 40. I also agree with what he said about the local press, which are the lifeblood of our communities. Is he aware that Iliffe Media Publishing Ltd has recently bought Lynn News in my constituency? It is bucking the national trend by investing in a new building and in its staff, and it is confident about the future.
I am absolutely delighted to hear that. It is not the national norm to hear that about the local press, but that shows that sustainable business models can be found. I am absolutely delighted about that and want to do everything I can to make sure that there are sustainable business models for high-quality journalism, which includes not adding extra costs on to the local press.
Rebekah Brooks and Andy Coulson came before a Committee of this House and admitted to committing crimes by bribing police officers—such was the scale of their arrogance; they felt that they were so powerful that they could take on Parliament and they had the Metropolitan police in their pockets. That shows the scale of the position we had reached when the Secretary of State voted in favour of the legislation that he is now trying to repeal. Has he forgotten what happened to the victims? Our duty is to give a voice in this House to people who are weak and vulnerable. As Members of Parliament, we have a duty to stand up for them. The Secretary of State has failed to do that today.
The hon. Gentleman makes an extremely powerful case for just how much the Leveson inquiry looked into everything in this area, and it was followed by three police investigations. My central point is this. We looked into these things as a society. We had a comprehensive Leveson inquiry. We spent £48 million of taxpayers’ money doing so. As he said, there were criminal convictions as a result and some people were jailed. My job now as Secretary of State is to look at what the country needs for the future.
Can the Secretary of State reassure me that the new regulatory framework is working well for victims and is much cheaper and easier than those regulations that were in force at the time of Leveson?
Yes, absolutely. I can tell the House, first, that we have a new independent self-regulator, IPSO; secondly, that it has introduced a low-cost arbitration scheme; thirdly, that it requires corrections, including multiple front-page corrections; and that we would like to see further action in strengthening it. What matters to this House in terms of having a free and robust press, whether we like every story or not—frankly, I do not like some of the stories about me, but I still want people to be able to write them—is that people have to write to hold the powerful to account. That means scrutinising this place in the robust way that the press does.
How many of the victims’ families have called for a change of Government policy?
We have considered the evidence from right across the board. We have had 174 responses to the consultation and we will be publishing all those details in full. We have taken into account the considerations raised by the victims and the considerations raised by everybody else responding to the consultation.
When journalists are investigating cases, it is vital that they check their facts and do not publish before they have checked their facts. What action will my right hon. Friend take to ensure that redress is available for those people who have been unfairly pilloried? Can he also explain to the House why he is not taking forward Sir Brian’s recommendation to further the investigation, albeit on amended terms?
Of course, accuracy is part of the code against which complaints are considered and, therefore, corrections and apologies can be required by an IPSO-regulated newspaper. On the first point, which is very important, accuracy is core to the redress system. It is critical that we have a regulatory system for the press. It is also critical that it is not a regulatory system that is put in place by politicians, but one that is put in place by the press itself.
Many years ago, I was libelled by a newspaper and took it to court and won. That was the most stressful time in my whole career as a Member of Parliament because you suddenly wake up to the power of the great newspaper, with all its resources and its ability to mount costs and bring pressure on you. That was for a Member of Parliament. Please think, in your liberal democracy, Minister, about what it means for an ordinary person—one of our constituents—to be taken on by something like the Daily Mail—their life traduced and their family ruined, with so little ability to stand up for themselves and their family. Will he think again on this? As far as I can see, if he reads the Daily Mail this week, he will see that not much has happened to change it.
The libel laws are of course a critical guardian in this space, but the low-cost arbitration scheme brought in by IPSO is designed precisely to address that question, and making sure that that works is very important.
I agree with the Minister about section 40 because I have seen the impact that that would have on local papers such as the New Shopper in my constituency. However, I do not agree with some of the personalised attacks upon him. May I bring him back to the second part of the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) about the amended terms of Leveson? Sir Brian Leveson is probably the most distinguished and experienced judge in criminal matters in this country. He identified in detail the issue of criminal collusion between corrupt police officers and corrupt journalists. Anyone who knows the criminal justice system knows that that has not gone away and continues. Absent of Leveson 2 on revised terms, what will the Government do to expose and deal with that?
Of course there have been changes to policing—not least the code of ethics, the national guidance for police officers and the changes in the Policing and Crime Act 2017. I apologise to my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) that I did not address the second part of his question. We are taking forward the need to look at and to ensure that this country has high-quality journalism, but we have to look at that in the full round. Yes, that includes the press, but it also includes online, where a huge amount of news is now consumed. I am happy to talk to my hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill) about what he thinks needs to be done, but I want to ensure that we address the problems that we still face.
The Democratic Unionist party is listening, but we remain concerned that Northern Ireland newsrooms and papers seem to have got off scot-free in the first inquiry. Will the Secretary of State tell us just how the landscape has changed since Sir Brian initiated the report? In the light of our concerns, where does he think we are now?
There has been a change, not only in the wider media landscape that we have discussed, but in the means of redress available. Self-regulation is much tougher, with the introduction of IPSO and the ability for people to go to arbitration. We now have the means of redress to address problems in the press, and I hope that they will be strengthened.
While we are right to celebrate a free press within our democracy, are we not also right to demand a responsible press? With freedom comes responsibility. On the subject of responsibility, may I invite the Secretary of State to share his thoughts as to whether, in order to ensure a free and open democracy, the responsible thing to do would be for Members to hand back racially tainted money?
My hon. Friend’s second point raises a very important question. I am sure the hon. Member for West Bromwich East (Tom Watson) will be thinking very hard about that now that he has admitted that it was a mistake to take this money. On my hon. Friend’s first point, it is critical that the press and online publications act responsibly and accurately in their reporting.
Will the Secretary of State agree to meet the Dowler family, Christopher Jefferies and the McCanns to explain to them why this Conservative Government are breaking the promise given by a Conservative Prime Minister?
As I said, I have already met some of the victims. I have also already extended an invitation to meet victims and Hacked Off in order to discuss today’s statement and what we are doing.
In my 15 years at The Daily Telegraph, I had a thankfully limited amount to do with the Press Complaints Commission. I reassure the Secretary of State that IPSO is genuinely a profoundly different regulator with far greater powers and far more teeth. Section 40 would have a chilling effect not just on our valued local papers, but on our national papers. The issue that faces local papers today is social media and the changes in technology that I saw the beginnings of over those 15 years. May I say that what the Secretary of State has done today has done more for the freedom of the press in this country and our accountability than the alternative course of action that the Opposition would like to see?
My hon. Friend speaks with great authority on this matter because not only was he a journalist, but he was a journalist of technology, so he understands the impact of technology on journalism in a very personal way. I agree entirely with what he said on the importance of having a press that can report without fear or favour, and that can hold the powerful to account. We sometimes talk in a glib way about holding the powerful to account, but accountability is critical to good decision making. It is only when we have full accountability for our decisions that our feet are held to the fire and we think extremely hard about all the different courses of action available to us.
Sir Brian believes that the inquiry should continue, albeit in a different form. The victims, who were promised as much in person by David Cameron, believed that the inquiry would continue. Those victims have been betrayed today. Will the Secretary of State enlighten us—when was the last time that a Government overruled the wishes of a judge chairing an inquiry?
I do not know the answer to the last point, because I am only looking at this inquiry. What I have to do, and what I have done today, is make a judgment about what the national interest is. I entirely understand the concerns of the victims in this issue. As we have heard from Members on both sides of the House, there have been significant changes. The inquiry was a significant undertaking that led to a year-long look at all these issues and the concerns of the victims, and then there were three police investigations and over 40 convictions. It is not as if this has not been looked into—it has been looked into to the tune of 48 million quid. I therefore have to take the decision today on what is in the national interest of the country as a whole, and that is exactly what I have done.
I welcome the statement on section 40, which would jeopardise the viability of fantastic local papers such as Barrhead News in my constituency. I also associate myself with the comments of the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Brendan O’Hara). Can the Secretary of State confirm my understanding that Labour’s proposal to enact section 40 now would have serious implications for the relationship between Scotland’s two Governments in a devolved area?
Yes. The amendments that will come before the House in coming months would have very complicated impacts on the devolution settlement that I do not want to go into. I am very happy with the devolution settlement in this area. It is a good settlement, and I look forward to trying to ensure that it is maintained through the passage of the Bill.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker.
I will take the point of order now because I think that it appertains to current exchanges.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. I appreciate that passions run high in this debate, but the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant), probably inadvertently, accused Government Members—certainly Ministers, I believe—of taking the Murdoch shilling. That is quite a serious allegation of bribery and corruption, I would suggest. May I ask for your guidance on whether it is in order and how the hon. Gentleman might correct it?
A number of interventions are made from a sedentary position that are not always heard by everybody, but if the hon. Member for North Dorset (Simon Hoare) heard that said, and if it was said, the short answer is that it is not in order. The hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) can respond.
Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. I am obviously absolutely happy to make it clear that I make no insinuation about bribery or corruption of any hon. Member of this House. All hon. Members are honourable Members. I also bear in mind that when we prayed earlier this morning we said that we should always speak without fear or favour. I am absolutely sure that that is what we would all want to do.
I appreciate what the hon. Gentleman has said. I think he did err in the heat of the moment, but I accept what he said, and its spirit, and I am sure that the Secretary of State does too. I am grateful to the hon. Member for North Dorset, who I trust will be content to leave the matter there.
Business of the House
The business for next week is as follows:
Monday 5 March—Second Reading of the Data Protection Bill [Lords].
Tuesday 6 March—Second Reading of the Domestic Gas and Electricity (Tariff Cap) Bill.
Wednesday 7 March—Opposition day (un-allotted day). There will be a debate on a motion in the name of Plaid Cymru followed by a debate on a motion in the name of the Democratic Unionist Party. Subject to be announced.
Thursday 8 March—General debate on Vote 100 and International Women’s Day.
Friday 9 March—The House will not be sitting.
The business for the week commencing 12 March will include:
Monday 12 March—Remaining stages of the Financial Guidance and Claims Bill [Lords].
May I wish all Members dydd gŵyl Dewi Sant hapus? I am told that that is “Happy St David’s day”, for all the non-Welsh speakers among us. I think that is right, but someone will no doubt put me right if it is not. This House has some great and talented Welsh MPs, and I wish them all a very happy St David’s day.
I can see plenty of daffodil pins in the Chamber, which today represent not only St David’s day but Marie Curie’s great daffodil appeal. As Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month begins, we are all incredibly grateful for the work of palliative care nurses, who do so much to support people suffering from such dreadful diseases. Our knowledge of the symptoms of ovarian cancer has improved over recent years, but we have a long way to go to improve early diagnosis, and this awareness month will support that.
Lastly, today is World Book Day. Much like in “The Chronicles of Narnia”, Members will be aware that today is very much winter outside but not Christmas. From “Alice in Wonderland” and “Little Women” to “The Tiger Who Came to Tea”, long may we all share our love of reading and continue to encourage children of all ages to share their pleasures in a good book.
I am really worried about parliamentary sovereignty. I note that the Leader of the House has not announced business beyond 12 March, but let me help her and the Government. I understand that the spring statement will be on 13 March, which was announced by the Treasury in a fancy infographic. I am sorry that the Leader of the House could not even announce the spring statement.
There was also no announcement of whether the Prime Minister is coming to the House to make a statement after her very important speech on Brexit. She chooses to make her speech in another location and not here, to us. Can the Leader of the House confirm that the Prime Minister will make a statement here? Can she confirm whether the speech will be in Aberdeen or somewhere else?
I see the Government may have a new policy, called “pure illusion”—it sounds like a new perfume or a paint shade. European Council President Donald Tusk knows about it, and that is even before we have debated it. While we welcome him to the UK, I am sure he will want to remind the Government again that it is cherry blossom time coming up, not cherry-picking time. What about the U-turn on transition rights that was whispered about yesterday? Is someone—anyone—coming to the House to explain it, so that we can ask questions about it?
A written statement was made yesterday by the right hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake) on behalf of the House of Commons Commission about restoration and renewal. He said that the sponsor body and the delivery authority need primary legislation to be introduced. Can the Leader of the House say when that legislation is likely to come before the House? Will it be next year, the year after or the year after that?
Last week, I raised two statutory instruments that had been prayed against on the eligibility for free school meals of those on universal credit and abolishing nursing bursaries for postgraduate nursing students. We are now rapidly eating into the 40 days. Could the Leader of the House make time for those to be debated? The shadow Education Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Angela Rayner), has prayed against three more statutory instruments: No. 120 and No. 146 on childcare vouchers, and the School and Early Years Finance (England) Regulations 2018, on the national funding formula.
What about our next Opposition day? We have not had sight of that, and no one seems to be talking to us about when we are likely to have it. What are the Government scared of? It is the same with the Report stage of the Trade Bill and the Taxation (Cross-border Trade) Bill. I know that Members are so keen to debate new clause 5, because the country wants to know what the position is on their jobs and living standards. There goes the sovereignty of Parliament, tossed aside again.
The same day that Ministers were at Chequers, the right hon. Member for Wantage (Mr Vaizey) said:
“Discipline has completely broken down in the parliamentary party, so no one tells anyone off,”—
that may be a surprise to some Members at the back—
“because there’s no power anywhere.”
When the Conservative party does have power, it does not want to use it against money launderers. In a point of order yesterday, my hon. Friend the Member for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman) asked for guidance on the handling of the Sanctions and Anti-Money Laundering Bill in Committee. The Programming Sub-Committee decided that it wanted clause 1 to be taken after clause 18, but when the Committee got to clause 18, debate was stopped immediately, after 25 minutes. Could the Leader of the House ensure that there will be adequate time to debate the 40 amendments and clause 1, which is the Magnitsky clause and will strengthen our sanctions regime?
Private Members’ Bills are now backing up. The Homes (Fitness for Human Habitation and Liability for Housing Standards) Bill promoted by my hon. Friend the Member for Westminster North (Ms Buck), the Stalking Protection Bill promoted by the hon. Member for Totnes (Dr Wollaston), and the Organ Donation (Deemed Consent) Bill promoted by my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry North West (Mr Robinson) are all supported by the Government but have not been given a date for Committee stage.
Today the independent inquiry into child sexual abuse—a very important matter—publishes its first report on serious child abuse. Thousands of British children were deported by their own Government to the other side of the world and they suffered horrific sexual abuse. The inquiry will not hold a press conference on its findings, but it will publish the significant report online, and there is a written statement today. Given the scale and significance of this injustice, and the hurt suffered by so many, will the Government commit to making time for a statement at the earliest opportunity?
At Prime Minister’s questions last week, the hon. Member for Walsall North (Eddie Hughes), who voted to cut police budgets—the west midlands has had to face a cut of £145 million since 2010—said that £10 million was being spent on “back-office staff”. The West Midlands police and crime commissioner has confirmed to me that the staff are in fact police support staff and are upset at the use of that pejorative term. They answer emergency 999 calls, investigate child abuse cases and carry out forensics. I hope that the Leader of the House will ensure that an appropriate apology will be made by the hon. Gentleman and perhaps schedule a debate on what police support staff actually do.
We welcome back the right hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (James Brokenshire). He and the Prime Minister both agreed that early referral to a tertiary consultant was extremely important to save lives. The shadow Secretary of State for Health, my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester South (Jonathan Ashworth), made a point of order yesterday requesting an urgent statement on why clinical commissioning groups are paying GPs not to make referrals. The Health Secretary needs to explain that policy and stop that alarming practice immediately.
I join the Leader of the House in saying that this is the 21st World Book Day. Walsall South has lost three libraries. I am pleased that my hon. Friend the Member for Gateshead (Ian Mearns) will host the World Book Day celebrations in the Attlee suite between 10 am and 3 pm, when we can all go and read a book or recite a poem.
I, too, want to try my Welsh—I apologise to every Welsh person here—and say dydd gŵyl Dewi hapus. Happy St David’s day.
Excellent! I am glad that the hon. Lady and I are both determined to practise our Welsh today. The Under-Secretary of State for Wales, my hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey (Stuart Andrew), who is sitting next to me, is a Welsh speaker and says that we both did okay. I thank him for that.
The hon. Lady mentioned parliamentary sovereignty. I say genuinely that, as Leader of the House of Commons, I have always made it clear I am absolutely, fully respectful of the sovereignty of Parliament. My role is that of Government spokesman here in the Chamber and of Parliament spokesman in Government. I always take very seriously the questions asked and requests made by the hon. Lady on behalf of Opposition parties. I must say to her, however, that it has been made very clear that there will be one Budget statement and one spring statement a year, so the upcoming statement is a statement, not a Budget or a debate. Statements are announced in the usual way, not during a business statement on the future business of the House. Likewise, she asked whether the Prime Minister would make a statement, but such business measures are announced in the usual way.
The hon. Lady asked about an Opposition day. I have just announced Opposition day debates for Plaid and the Democratic Unionist party. Is she really saying that their opportunity to debate matters that are of interest to them is not valid? She needs to recognise that there are many different aspects to this Chamber, all of which are valid, and we want to share out with fairness the opportunity to suggest new measures.
The hon. Lady asked about the customs Bill. As with the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill, the Human Rights Act and many constitutional Bills in the past, there can be periods of time between Second Reading and Committee stage and between Committee and Report. She will recognise that such periods are not delays, but opportunities to consider amendments, Government policy and improving legislation. The hon. Lady is just wrong to portray this as a delay, and each of those Bills will come forward in good time. Given my role in seeing through legislation, I am committed to ensuring that all our Brexit legislation comes through in good time.
The hon. Lady mentioned the point of order that was raised by the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman). As the Minister for Europe and the Americas said in Committee, a motion was brought forward for the Committee to adjourn so that it could debate a significant amendment in a full session. That Committee meeting started 10 minutes ago, and they are indeed discussing that detailed amendment right now. I hope that the hon. Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz) is reassured by that.
A number of private Members’ Bills have been promoted by Opposition and Government Members. We are delighted to support them and there are no delays. They are not stacking up; they are going through their Committee stages when they receive the support of the House in the usual way. I am afraid I just do not accept the hon. Lady’s concerns about parliamentary sovereignty. We are listening, and we continue to bring forward all legislation and consideration of Opposition days in the usual way.
Will my right hon. Friend find time for a debate on the removal of diesel particulate filters from vehicles without replacing them? It appears there is a legal loophole whereby vehicles can be modified to improve their performance, with absolutely no regard for the damage done to people’s health.
My hon. Friend raises an incredibly important point. The impact of diesel particulates on air quality and people’s health is a crucial issue, and we are determined to improve air quality. The Department for Transport takes my hon. Friend’s point seriously, and has published guidance on modifying a vehicle’s emissions system. Modifying a vehicle in the way suggested is not in line with current legislation, and the Department has recently instructed officials to investigate the creation of a specific offence for the removal of particulate filters.
I thank the Leader of the House for announcing next week’s business. Here is my go: dydd gŵyl Dewi Sant hapus—I hope I have impressed the hon. Member for Pudsey (Stuart Andrew) with that. I also note all the daffodils in the Chamber today. Looking outside, I think that is more in hope than experience as we face one of the worst snow storms that we have had for a number of years.
There are only two real items of business this week: the “beast from the east”, and the Foreign Secretary. One is a whiteout, delivering havoc and chaos wherever it goes and whatever it touches, and the other is the “beast from the east”. To help out the Foreign Secretary, perhaps we could have a debate about congestion charges, and we could gently explain to him how congestion charge zones are just a little bit different from international borders. It is now 24 hours since the Foreign Secretary said that he would publish his letter on an Irish hard border, so when can we expect to see it? Surely the Foreign Office One should be liberated, and allowed to continue to confound and baffle the country.
We now have red or amber warnings over nearly all of Scotland and large swathes of the rest of the UK, and the advice is not to travel—hence SNP Members are here in such numbers this morning. However, I am quite surprised that there are no plans for a Government statement as the nation grinds to a partial halt, particularly when National Grid has issued a “gas deficit warning” over fears that supplies could run out. Before we all leave for the day—well, at least some of us—will someone from the Government make a statement in the House about what provisions and contingency plans are in place, particularly if we experience difficulties over the weekend?
Finally, we are facing an increasing constitutional cliff edge as our devolution settlement remains under threat. Can we have a statement on what progress is being made in resolving those issues? Critically, what is being done to ensure that democracy is respected in every nation of this United Kingdom?
I am glad that the hon. Gentleman has clarified that so many of his hon. Friends are in the Chamber today because of inclement weather, because I thought they were here to wind me up about the Calcutta cup. What I would like to say through gritted teeth is that I have not seen Scotland play so well since the Hastings brothers, which is a very long time ago. Scotland played superbly. I am delighted that Scotland is, in part, a member of the home team, being part of the great United Kingdom. I would much rather see Scotland beat us than France, if I am allowed to say that in this place, Mr Speaker.
On the hon. Gentleman’s thoughts about Boris, I have a different perspective. I think he often says things as they are, and he says things in an amusing way. He makes a very good point that it is absolutely clear that we will not have a hard border in Northern Ireland. That is absolutely the case. We are committed to that, the Republic of Ireland is committed to that and the European Union is committed to that.
The hon. Gentleman talks about contingency plans for severe weather. This is a very serious issue on which I hope I can reassure him. I know a number of hon. Members raised it in Transport questions earlier. The Department for Transport, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, schools and the NHS all have very carefully laid severe weather plans. I pay tribute to all those who are out there in this terrible weather trying to dig people out of snowdrifts and so on, and those in the NHS who are dealing with people who have slipped on the ice and so on. There are very good plans, which are available. If he has specific issues about his constituency, or the constituencies of any of his hon. Friends, I am very happy to raise them on his behalf, or he can raise them directly with Ministers.
May we have a statement on the actions of the West Essex clinical commissioning group? Osler House GP surgery in my constituency has been closed with little warning or consultation with me or other stakeholders, causing misery for nearly 3,000 patients, many of them elderly. Will my right hon. Friend ask the Health Minister to write to West Essex CCG to get it to restore this vital service to residents?
My right hon. Friend raises a point that is incredibly important to all of us. The issue of GP surgeries in our constituencies is vital. Having looked into this matter, I am told that the Department of Health and Social Care does not have a record of my right hon. Friend’s letter. It apologises if that is due to any error on its part and it will certainly be writing to him. We recognise the importance of primary care. We are investing in it to expand access and recruit an additional 5,000 GPs. As he knows, we would expect consultation and engagement if NHS England or a CCG were to decide on changes that involved a substantial service reconfiguration.
The “beast from the east” has claimed a number of victims—there are currently no trains crossing the border, on either the east coast main line or the west coast main line, to Scotland—and I am afraid to say that when the “beast from the east” meets “stormageddon Emma” there will be further victims. One of those victims is the business of the House. At the request of Welsh Members, the scheduled St David’s Day debate on Welsh affairs for this afternoon has been cancelled so that they can travel home safely. I apologise to right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House, but I think it is understandable given the conditions across the country.
Currently, the Backbench Business Committee has only six members—we are two down from the Government side. Given that the Committee has a quorum of four, that makes life extremely difficult for us. May I therefore ask that the Government appoint their replacement members as soon as possible, so that the Committee can carry on operating?
Finally, I thank and congratulate staff from my own local authority, Gateshead Council. Bin collections were curtailed yesterday as all staff were out gritting and snow ploughing across the whole borough in really adverse conditions. I put on record my thanks to all of them.
First of all, I am sorry to hear that this afternoon’s business will be disturbed. The Under-Secretary of State for Wales, my hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey (Stuart Andrew), is slightly devastated because this was his chance to shine. The cancellation of the debate is completely understandable, as the situation is very difficult for people who have travel arrangements. I join the hon. Member for Gateshead (Ian Mearns) in congratulating all the people out there gritting and trying to clear away snow. Quite a number of schoolchildren are also out in villages and other communities, clearing people’s steps for them. That is a fantastic thing to see. I will take on board his point about replacing the Government members of his Backbench Business Committee. I will certainly see that we act on it.
Could we have a debate on the non-levy apprenticeship tender? Unfortunately, some very good colleges, such as Stafford, Newcastle-under-Lyme, Shrewsbury and others across the country, were not successful in the tender, and I have some grave concerns about the operation of it.
I am very sorry to hear that, and I encourage my hon. Friend to seek an Adjournment debate so that he can raise those specific points directly with Ministers.
Shw’mae, Mr Speaker—I am not Welsh, but I have two children born in Wales, so happy St David’s Day, and may I congratulate the Leader of the House in passing on mentioning cancer charities today? I will be walking in the Marsden March on Sunday, snow permitting, raising money for the Royal Marsden cancer hospital.
Could we have a statement on how we treat visitors to this House? We are in danger of getting to the stage where wealthy, well-connected people can come here without a Member and book rooms and tables in our restaurants. Yesterday, I had a large party who struggled down on a coach, campaigning to keep Huddersfield Royal Infirmary open. You will appreciate this, Mr Speaker —they had blue-and-white sweatshirts, the colours of the Huddersfield strip. The sweatshirts said, “Hands Off HRI,” and they were told by the police here to take them off or cover them, because they were party political, before they were allowed up into the Committee room area. If there is going to be one rule for ordinary people to come here and another for wealthy people, we should look at this very seriously.
I am extremely grateful to the hon. Gentleman, but it is not for the Leader to decide what people do or do not wear in the House, and I know that she would not think it so—
But it is a debate on who comes here—
Yes, and I was just being advised procedurally on the matter by the Clerk. The hon. Gentleman made his point with considerable force, but at a length that should not be imitated by other hon. and right hon. Members today.
I do not know where to go with this. If the hon. Gentleman would like to write to me, I will certainly take this up with the Administration Committee. However, I would say that there have been great steps. I know from the House Commission—the hon. Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz) might also recall this—that we discussed the need to speed up the queues, for example, for people to get into this place. Some lengths have been gone to to ensure that people’s ease of access to this place is as good as it can be. On the specific point about what they were wearing, I was not aware of that, so if he wants to write to me, I will look into it.
Last Monday, the Government approved the go-ahead for Christchurch Council to be amalgamated with other Dorset councils. There was a referendum. I am not getting that in my constituency, which wants a referendum to decide the future of its council. We are being ignored. Democracy is being ignored. Could we please have a debate in this place on the protection of democracy in local councils?
My hon. Friend raises an important issue about local democracy. I am not aware of the specific concern that he has about his local council, but I am sure that if he wanted to take it up with the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government Ministers, they would be able to address it.
Country sports and shooting sports produce game worth £114 million in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland each year. The nourishment and taste value of it is substantial. There is a need to introduce it to a wider circle and customer base. Will the Leader of the House agree to a statement or a debate on this issue and on how best to deliver good food that is every bit as good as chicken, and every bit as cheap?
I completely agree with the hon. Gentleman that game is delicious, very good for you and just as cheap. I encourage him to raise that at Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs questions on Thursday 8 March, when he can ask Ministers there exactly what we are doing to expand the retail use.
Very shortly, the Government will hopefully be announcing the recipients of money from the northern cultural regeneration fund. Perhaps the Leader of the House might find time for a debate on this subject so that we can all, I hope, explain why the Odeon in Bradford would be such a worthy recipient of that funding, which would do a massive amount to regenerate the city of Bradford. If she cannot find time for a debate, perhaps she will shorten the approach and go and tell the relevant Minister just to give the money to the Odeon in Bradford, and let us be done with it.
If only I had such influence! My hon. Friend is a great champion for his area, and I encourage him to seek an Adjournment debate so that he can make his pitch directly.
The President of the European Council said in a speech this morning that the red lines that the Government have set themselves on Europe are incompatible with frictionless trade and a borderless Ireland. May we have an urgent debate—a debate that we have not yet had—on the consequences of the Government’s red lines for Brexit negotiations?
The Government’s red lines are that we are leaving the European Union in March 2019, in line with the result of the referendum. That means that we are leaving the single market and the customs union, and it means that we are taking back control of our borders, our laws and our money.
Everything is a negotiation. The Government have made it clear that we want low-friction trade and zero tariff and non-tariff barriers wherever possible. The Prime Minister will make a speech tomorrow on our negotiating position, but the hon. Gentleman must realise that there are no hard and fast answers at the moment. This is a negotiation, so what someone from the European Commission or the European Council may have said does not make it necessarily the fact.
Last week saw yet another abuse of leaseholders in my constituency, this time in Coleshill, where some one-bedroom flat owners received bills for up to £8,000 a year in ground rent. May we have a statement on how the important Government work on leases with short review periods and doubling clauses is progressing?
I met the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government this week to discuss that subject, in my role in connection with policy. My hon. Friend has raised a very serious matter. Abuses of this sort need to be stopped, and we are committed to stopping them through our programme of leasehold reforms. That means, for example, legislating to prevent the sale of new-build leasehold houses except when necessary, making certain that ground rents on new long leases for both houses and flats are set at zero financial value, working with the Law Commission to support existing leaseholders, and making the process of purchasing a freehold or extending a lease much easier and cheaper.
I hope that the House will indulge me if I tell a personal story. Last year I received a court warrant at my home in Scotland. It turned out that an Alan Brown in London, with a London address, had skipped a bus fare and been caught by an inspector. That Alan Brown did not respond to any correspondence, so an additional fine was levied in his absence. The case was passed to a private collection company, which decided to target random Alan Browns, and served the warrant on me in Scotland. The company would not budge, but I managed to get the court to cancel proceedings—or, at least, it said that it had cancelled them. Last week, however, I received another notification of a warrant on my property, live as of yesterday.
May we have a debate about the English court system and the presumption of innocence before guilt, and about how the English court system and Transport for London are using private companies whose sole objective is to exact money from people?
Perhaps we should have a debate on why so many people are called Alan Brown. That is the fundamental issue here.
The hon. Gentleman has raised a serious point about the way in which some collection companies pursue random people, but also pursue people to the point of doing them serious harm. I encourage him to seek an Adjournment debate on the issue.
I can tell the hon. Gentleman that good lawyers are always available, even at short notice.
So far, much of the debate about the European Commission’s draft withdrawal agreement has centred on its effect on Northern Ireland, but hidden away in one of the footnotes is, regrettably, a restatement that Spain would have a veto on the application of either a transitional or a final agreement to the overseas British territory of Gibraltar. May we have an early, perhaps even an immediate, statement from the Leader of the House that Her Majesty’s Government’s position remains that such a scenario is wholly unacceptable, and that Britain will in no circumstances agree to any arrangement that prevents Gibraltar from being treated in exactly the same way as the rest of the United Kingdom?
I hope I can give my hon. Friend the assurance from the Dispatch Box that Gilbraltar’s interests will be protected, as will every other part of the UK and our dependencies. He raises an important point, and he will be aware that the Prime Minister is making a key speech tomorrow, and I will certainly make sure that I pass on his comments.
Order. Although the second debate has been withdrawn, there is a well-subscribed first debate and I am keen that we progress expeditiously. Questions are quite long and it would be good if they could be shorter.
May I start by saying how pleased I was that the Leader of the House mentioned the Eve Appeal and the fact that this is the month of ovarian cancer awareness, as it is important that we mark and remember that?
There is a broad consensus that faster connectivity between east and west is vital for the northern powerhouse. However, in May we will have a revised TransPennine timetable which will result in slower journeys from Hull. Hull and Humber chamber of commerce has tried to meet with TransPennine to discuss this, but has not been able to get very far. I am sure the Leader of the House agrees that it is important that that meeting goes ahead, but may we have a debate in the House of Commons about the fact that not just north-south connectivity but east-west connectivity is important?
I certainly agree with the hon. Lady that east-west connectivity is vital. I hope she was able to attend Transport questions, because this would be a question very directly answerable by Transport Ministers. We are delivering unprecedented investment in better transport across the north—over £13 billion, which is the largest amount in Government history—but I encourage the hon. Lady to take up the specific point she raises directly with Transport Ministers.
Next week is national apprenticeships week. May we have a debate to highlight the opportunities available for people starting an apprenticeship? The best advocates for apprenticeships are apprentices, but if we have a debate Members could have a go and do our best to fill the gap.
I completely agree with my hon. Friend that apprenticeships are a fantastic opportunity for young people. In my seven years as an MP I have had seven apprentices from schools in my constituency, and I thoroughly recommend that to all Members; that has been brilliant for me and for those individuals, and it is a very worthwhile experience. We now have more than 3 million apprenticeship starts since 2010. The Government are committed to apprenticeships as a very good choice for young people, and I encourage my hon. Friend to seek a Backbench Business Committee debate on the subject, as I am sure many hon. Members would want to talk about their experiences.
Given that employment law is reserved to this place, may we have a statement or a debate on employers forcing their employees to remain at, or come into, work when there is a red weather warning? There are many reports in Scotland of employers refusing to release staff when public transport is not available; does the right hon. Lady agree that that is not acceptable?
Clearly all employers, in both the public and private sectors, should take very careful heed of severe weather warnings, and particularly the red warnings we have seen across some parts of the United Kingdom, so I encourage the hon. Gentleman to urge employers in his constituency to listen to those warnings and release people where necessary.
It was recently reported in the local press in the Scottish borders that a Transport Scotland study had found that it was not going to be viable for the borders railways to extend to Hawick and on to Carlisle. If that is the case, it will be bad news for my constituency and those in Cumbria. Given that bringing the railway to Carlisle will involve investment from the UK Government, may we have a debate on the benefits of extending the borders railway to Carlisle?
My hon. Friend is a great champion for his constituency, and I can say to him that the UK Government are committed to working with the Scottish Government to drive forward the cross-border borderlands deal, and we hope to agree a deal later this year which will see significant investment to transform the local economies in the borderlands area. Funding for a study into reopening the line he mentions is being sought as part of this proposition.
It has been one hell of a week, Mr Speaker, particularly for my little sister. A week last Saturday, my sister broke her neck. She was in the Royal Blackburn Hospital for three days until there was a bed free for her at the Royal Preston Hospital where they could operate. Thankfully, the operation went well and my sister and all of my family are so grateful to all the hard-working doctors, nurses and staff in the NHS, but one thing I noticed was all the extra hours before and after their shifts that the doctors and nurses were doing. May we have a debate on the extra hours done by our public sector workers?
First, I wish the hon. Lady’s sister the very best for a speedy recovery. That must have been a real shock to all her family, and we all pass on our best wishes. I am enormously grateful to and have great respect for all those who work so hard in the national health service. What they achieve is amazing, as is the commitment shown by all workers in the NHS. We have many opportunities to debate the NHS in this Chamber; we have held many such debates. There are nearly 15,000 more doctors and more than 14,000 more nurses on our wards than there were in 2010. There is much more to do; we are undertaking one of the biggest training programmes ever in our history in the NHS to start training more doctors and nurses. We want to alleviate some of the pressures, but I pay tribute to them for all the excellent work they do.
Today is Purim, the commemoration and celebration of the delivery of the Jewish people from the evil Persian king, Haman. It is also Holi, the first day of spring, celebrated by Hindus, Sikhs, Jains and Buddhists worldwide. Both festivals commemorate the triumph of good over evil, so will my right hon. Friend join me in wishing everyone happy Purim and Holi hai?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising both of those celebrations and I am delighted to join him in congratulating all those celebrating. I wish them a very happy time.
Dydd gŵyl Dewi Sant hapus, Mr Speaker—happy St David’s day. Llongyfarchiadau, congratulations, to the Leader of the House, the shadow Leader of the House and the SNP spokesperson for using the Welsh language, which, historically, we were allowed to use recently in the Welsh Grand Committee of this House. I was pleased to make a speech in the Welsh language. Has the Leader of the House considered whether that welcome move could be extended into the Chamber now that technology makes it perfectly possible to have a freewheeling House of Commons-style debate using translation equipment?
The hon. Gentleman makes an interesting suggestion and I am happy to discuss it with him further.
I have had constituents contact me overnight who are very concerned about the fact that Northamptonshire County Council seems to be closing Thrapston and Raunds libraries on all but one day a week. That has happened without any consultation with the public and I am surprised, because it is in this year’s budget and not the one for the year ahead, which has been so talked about in the media. May we have an urgent statement on this, because people in Northamptonshire are very concerned about what has happened?
My hon. Friend raises an issue that is very important to both his constituency and mine. There are seven Members of Parliament in Northamptonshire who are concerned about cuts to services. I was not aware of the closures he mentions, but I am happy to take that up directly with Ministers on his behalf.
Three weeks today will mark the sad anniversary of the tragic attack on Westminster, which saw five people killed on Westminster Bridge and the death of PC Keith Palmer. Will the Leader of the House give the House an idea of what plans there are to mark that occasion? I would also be grateful if she could support my early-day motion 938, which calls for Carriage Gates in New Palace Yard to be renamed the Palmer Gates.
[That this House believes that the Carriage Gates should be named the Palmer Gates, to commemorate the life and professional service of PC Keith Palmer and to mark his gallantry and ultimate sacrifice in putting his life before those he courageously sought to defend; acknowledges its profound gratitude to PC Keith Palmer and to all members of the police and security services who place themselves in the defence of the public and of democracy; and calls on the House of Commons Commission to consider commemorating the naming of the gates on 22 March 2018.]
The hon. Gentleman is quite right to raise the upcoming anniversary of those awful events on 22 March. There will be commemorations in this place and House staff are looking into the detail of that at the moment. Announcements will be made as soon as possible. As for his specific point about renaming Carriage Gates, he might like to write to me or possibly to you, Mr Speaker, to look into this further.
I welcome the Leader of the House’s comments on the Calcutta cup. I thoroughly enjoyed my day and I would like to draw the House’s attention to early-day motion 978, which celebrates Scotland’s historic success in that event.
[That this House congratulates the Scotland Rugby team on an historic 25-13 Calcutta Cup victory over England that was full of flair, fight and finesse; recognises the fantastic work done by Gregor Townsend and his entire coaching staff; commends captain John Barclay and his entire pack for the huge effort in dominating the breakdown and a solid set piece performance, with special mention to Johnny Gray for his 20 tackles; applauds Finn Russell as he stood up to his recent critics with a magnificent man of the match performance, including the pass of this, or any other, six Nations Championship, further commends Huw Jones for his two try display, his ninth and tenth in only 14 caps; notes that this victory was celebrated right across Scotland and beyond; and wishes Gregor, John and the boys all the very best for the rest of the Championship.]
Yesterday was rare diseases day, which highlighted the importance of research to find a cure for rare diseases, of which there are up to 7,000. I have been working with the Scottish Huntington’s Association on the difficulties of obtaining insurance, and with my constituent, Michael Conway, who was diagnosed with adrenoleukodystrophy in 2016. May we have a debate to mark rare diseases day and the importance of sustaining research collaboration, particularly after Brexit?
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to raise the importance of continued investment in research into rare diseases. I am sure that part of the frustration felt by those who suffer from them is due to the lack of funding, precisely because the diseases are rare. I encourage him to seek an Adjournment or Back-Bench debate on this subject. I would also like to say that, while I congratulate Scotland on winning the Calcutta cup, I do so through gritted teeth.
Twenty years ago, building on the work done by John Major, Tony Blair’s Labour Government were involved in intensive negotiations in Castle Buildings in Belfast. I was there as a Parliamentary Private Secretary in the Northern Ireland Office. Those negotiations led to the Good Friday agreement. The anniversary of the Good Friday agreement is unfortunately during the recess, so may we have a long debate before the House rises for Easter in which we can discuss the implications of the threat to the Good Friday agreement from the “Wrexit” coalition—between the Democratic Unionist party, whose members were demonstrating outside when the agreement was reached, and the European Research Group—which is now running this country?
I can completely assure the hon. Gentleman that the Government are fully committed to the Good Friday agreement, and that nothing is in any way being considered that would do damage to that agreement. However, I say gently to those who try to suggest that the Government are in some way not committed to it simply because we are leaving the EU that that is entirely untrue and exceedingly dangerous talk.
I am sure the Leader of the House will agree that it is time we were given an opportunity to debate our industrial shipping heritage. In my constituency, we are still aggrieved that great icons such as the Queen Mary, the Cutty Sark and even the royal yacht Britannia are not at home in port in West Dunbartonshire, and that it is up to volunteers such as the Maid of the Loch Trust, which is rebuilding the Maid of the Loch at Loch Lomond, to ensure that that part of our industrial shipping heritage will once again set sail on the bonnie loch. I am sure the Minister will agree that it is time we debated that, and that she will congratulate the trust on its work.
The hon. Gentleman has mentioned some very famous ships, and I join him in congratulating the trust on its work on that fine heritage in his constituency. I encourage him to seek a Backbench debate in which all those with shipping interests in their constituencies can come together to celebrate that proud heritage.
In the light of the figures that many Members have received today from the Fire Brigades Union, may we have an urgent debate on the funding of the fire service, which has lost hundreds of millions of pounds of grant? In my constituency in Nottinghamshire, the fire service will lose 15% of its grant—some £2.8 million—over the next few years. That is unacceptable; it is not good enough, and we need to have a debate about it.
The fire brigades do a fantastic job. We have heard about some horrendous fires in recent months, as well as the appalling Grenfell disaster, in which the fire brigades really came into their own and did an incredible job for us, for which we are very grateful. However, the hon. Gentleman will be aware that, thankfully, the number of fires is decreasing, and the role of fire officers is therefore changing and adapting. I encourage him to seek an Adjournment debate, so that he can talk about the specific issues in his constituency, but overall, the fire brigades deserve our respect and our gratitude, as well as a recognition that their role is changing.
Yesterday, the Gloucestershire Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust decided to set up a subsidiary company, and that was confirmed today. I appreciate the fact that there will be a half-hour debate on this subject next week, but will the Leader of the House push for a longer debate on public accountability, given the level of opposition to this decision and the fact that even MPs were cut out of being able to make representations on it? Will she organise such a debate?
As the hon. Gentleman has pointed out, there is a debate on that subject next Tuesday, and I am sure that he will want to take this matter up at that time. I think that he is referring to the decision made by some trusts to bring together different aspects of care in order to give a better service to patients. We should all embrace the possibility of better wraparound care, but if he has specific concerns, he should raise them at the debate next week.
I am sure that we all want to pay tribute to the public sector workers who have struggled into work in this severe weather to keep vital services running, but may we have a statement on our preparedness for this weather? In all the years that I have been alive, we have had winter. We also have severe episodes of winter, but we seem to fall over quite easily when that happens. Countries that have this sort of weather on a regular basis seem to cope with it. May we have a statement on our resilience, so that we can learn lessons from what has happened this year, in the hope that we can get our trains running a bit better so that people are not left waiting at cold stations with no information about what is going on?
The hon. Gentleman raises an important point. Obviously, we want to minimise disruption, and it is frustrating for people when trains are cancelled and schools are closed, for example. Equally, he will recognise that there are some exceptional weather events going on at the moment. Whitehall Departments have clear plans for dealing with disruptive weather, and we heard at Transport questions today about some of the excellent operations to dig people out of snowdrifts and to ensure that the trains can run. At the same time, there are always lessons to be learned from these events, and I am sure that the Whitehall Departments will be looking at what we can do better.