House of Commons
Tuesday 22 May 2018
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
The Chancellor of the Exchequer was asked—
Support for Businesses and Entrepreneurs
One year on from the appalling Manchester Arena attack, I am sure that I speak for everyone in the House in saying that on this day our thoughts are with those who lost their lives and their families, and those who suffered life-changing injuries. We will remember them with a minute’s silence later today.
The UK’s 5.7 million small businesses make a vital contribution to our economy, employing 60% of the private sector workforce, and the Government are determined to facilitate their success. We are keeping taxes low and ensuring that firms can access the support that they need to thrive. Following the patient capital review, we are expanding the tax reliefs available to entrepreneurs that will support them in growing their businesses, and we have launched a patient capital action plan to unlock £20 billion of funding to help high-growth firms to reach their potential.
Will my right hon. Friend confirm that he will not raise taxes on small businesses, and will he share with the House what help the Government will give to entrepreneurs who are setting up for the first time, with particular regard to the business rate?
We have already introduced business rate concessions to reduce the burden of rates on small businesses, including by bringing forward by two years the switch in indexation from the retail prices index to the consumer prices index. We are ensuring that Britain is the world’s leading place to start and grow a business, including through reducing corporation tax rates. There are almost 7,000 small businesses in Southend-on-Sea alone, and this Government back them every step of the way. I can tell my hon. Friend who will raise taxes on small businesses, and has said so publicly: he is sitting opposite me.
In the rural and coastal parts of east Sussex that I represent, infrastructure delivery is key to bringing more businesses and entrepreneurs to the area. What plans does the Chancellor have to continue investment in road, high-speed rail and broadband connections so that we can attract more businesses to rural parts of this country?
The national productivity investment fund is investing in all those areas. We have the biggest rail investment programme since Victorian times and the biggest road building programme since the 1970s, and we are investing in superfast broadband, which is critical to this country’s future. As my hon. Friend will know, in his area we are investing in the A21, and we are working with Network Rail on exploring options for connecting HS1 services to Hastings via Ashford International.
Surely the Chancellor knows that the thing holding back most businesses—small, medium-sized and large—is the lack of good skilled people to work for them. When is he going to give the Secretary of State for Education a good shaking and make him do something about the apprenticeship levy, apprenticeship schemes and the higher education graduate apprenticeship scheme?
The hon. Gentleman is right that skills are a critical factor for business in an economy with such high levels of employment and low levels of unemployment as we have achieved. We are investing in apprenticeships with the new apprenticeship levy, providing funding for more and better apprenticeships; we are investing in T-levels, improving substantially the level of technical training for 16 to 19-year-olds; and we are reviewing the operation of tertiary education funding.
Marks & Spencer is closing 14 stores, affecting hundreds of jobs, and Debenhams and House of Fraser would be doing the same were it not for their longer lease commitments. The nature of the high street is changing, and the risk is the loss of hundreds of thousands of jobs. What are the Government doing about this, and will the Chancellor consider meeting me and businesses in Croydon as we push ahead for a new Westfield shopping centre in what is undoubtedly a difficult environment?
The hon. Lady correctly identifies the underlying problem: the nature of retailing is changing. Britain is leading the world in the adoption of online retail, which has huge opportunities, but will also bring huge changes. This is a microcosm of the changes we will face in this economy over the next 10, 20 or 30 years, as the digital revolution changes fundamentally the way we do business. The answer is not to try to resist change, but to embrace it, and to make sure that we train our people so that they can take up the new challenges and have the new opportunities that this economy will bring.
We have taken steps that I have already outlined this morning to reduce the burden of taxation on businesses large and small, although of course small businesses are most beneficially affected by the £10 billion programme of reducing business rates costs and through the reduction in corporation tax levels. But we are always looking for further ways to support the smallest businesses and to encourage them to become larger businesses.
I associate myself with the Chancellor’s remarks about the Manchester bombing.
For the Chancellor to make up his own small business tax policies on the hoof is one thing; making them up for the Labour party is a fantasy. The Government have ruled out a customs union with the European Union worth £16 trillion for an alternative customs union with British overseas territories worth only £22 billion. Is the Chancellor happy with that decision? Can he give us any clue about how such a decision will support businesses and entrepreneurs?
I do not know whether that was an announcement of a change in Labour party policy. My understanding is that the Labour party’s position is to increase corporate tax rates for small businesses. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will tell us whether he has changed his position.
On the question of our future customs arrangements with the European Union, the hon. Gentleman will know that I have consistently sought arrangements that will protect our existing trade with the European Union, allowing British businesses to continue to trade freely with the minimal possible friction at the border with the European Union. We do not believe it is necessary to be in a customs union to achieve that.
For the Chancellor’s information, he can easily find our policies on www.labour.org.
When the Chancellor met David Cameron last October to give a thumbs-up emoji to Mr Cameron’s UK-China investment fund, presumably to help businesses and entrepreneurs, was he aware that the fund is to be domiciled in the Republic of Ireland? If so, did he think to ask the former Prime Minister whether that was for the purposes of tax avoidance?
I have already answered the hon. Gentleman’s questions about my meeting with Mr Cameron last October. In a meeting that ranged across a number of issues, Mr Cameron was good enough to inform me of his intention to take up this role with a fund promoting investment both in China and the UK. The Government support all initiatives that improve trade and investment between the UK and China.
Cost of Living
People’s disposable income is now 4.6% higher in real terms than in 2010. That is because we have turned around the economy and held taxes down.
According to recent figures from the Office for National Statistics, real household disposable income is £1,600 higher than in 2008, while the proportion of lower paid workers has fallen to its lowest level for 35 years due to the national living wage. Does my right hon. Friend think that those statistics would be as positive if we had taken the advice of the Labour party?
As my hon. Friend knows, the advice of the Labour party is that we need to “overthrow capitalism”. If we were to do that, there would be fewer businesses, fewer jobs, higher taxes and higher mortgage rates—and we would all be queuing for food, as people are in Venezuela.
Families with three children are at a greater risk of poverty than other families, and next year the Chief Secretary to the Treasury will take £1.2 billion away from them. Does she agree that this is the least family-friendly Government in history?
What we have done for families is make sure that more parents and families are in work than ever before, enabling them to look after and support their children. We are also investing a record amount in childcare—£6 billion a year—to help more parents into work.
My hon. Friend is right that we need to keep taxes down, but we also need to recognise the role that free enterprise and free markets play in encouraging competition, allowing new products to come to the market and keeping prices low. The reason why we have low food prices and cheap air fares is because we have successfully kept those markets open. The Labour party advocates abandoning that.
Tory austerity will result in annual social security cuts of £4 billion in Scotland by 2020. The Institute for Fiscal Studies estimates that 1 million more children will be pushed into poverty across the UK. With planned devolution covering only 15% of social security spending, the blame lies firmly at the Chancellor’s door. Does the Minister think that is acceptable?
What I find incredible is that the Scottish National party, which has been in power in Scotland for many years, presiding over declining education standards and now raising taxes in Scotland, has the audacity not to take responsibility for its own policies and actions.
The Chief Secretary did not answer my question. Once a fortnight someone comes into my office with so little income that we have to refer them to a food bank. When will the Chancellor realise how much harm he is causing? When will he reverse the cuts and when will he end the hunger?
The reality is that we have seen more people in work in Scotland, as we have across the country, and that is delivering more real income. We have held taxes down across the country, to the tune of £1,000 per basic rate taxpayer, which means that people have more disposable income to spend.
Well, that was fascinating.
The Chief Secretary knows full well that 67% of children in poverty live in working households. The Child Poverty Action Group expects cuts within universal credit to push up to 1 million children into poverty by 2020. When all the Government’s policy changes are included, lone parents have lost an average of £5,250 a year since 2010. Families with three or more children have lost £5,600 a year. Families with a disabled parent and a disabled child have £6,500 less every single year. Is she complacent or just callous?
Surprise, surprise: we have not heard Labour acknowledge the excellent news from the Resolution Foundation that we now have the lowest share of low-paid employees for 35 years—before the Labour Government were in power. Under Labour, we saw rising unemployment and more people left on the scrapheap. We saw a welfare system that did not support people into work.
Order. We need to make faster progress. If people could keep their questions brief, and if answers could focus, as constitutionally they must, on the policies of the Government, that would be the proper procedure in the House. The right hon. Lady is very experienced and I know she knows that extremely well.
NHS and Adult Social Care: Multi-year Funding Plan
We will come forward with a new long-term plan for the NHS and provide a new multi-year funding settlement in support of that plan. What is also important is that we are developing policies on artificial intelligence and digital services to make sure that our NHS delivers better outcomes for patients.
To raise the amount we need for long-term sustainable services for my constituents and people across the country, will the Chief Secretary consider introducing a ring-fenced health and social care tax that would bring together spending on both services into a collective budget?
As the hon. Lady knows, the problem with such hypothecated taxes is that if the revenues from them go down, the consequence is a reduction in support for our NHS or our social care services. That is why we believe in funding those services out of general taxation. We put an extra £6.3 billion into the health service at the Budget. We are looking at the longer-term settlement, but it is important to note that this is about not just the money we spend, but how we spend it.
The vast majority of PFI projects—86%—were signed off under the last Labour Government. Since 2010, we have reformed the approach so that PF2—private finance 2—contracts, in the selective circumstances in which they are used, now deliver better value for money for the taxpayer, so far delivering over £2 billion of savings.
Recent research from the University of Greenwich suggests that bringing existing PFI contracts back in house could pay for itself within two years. The National Audit Office has noted that Government Departments reported the “operational inflexibility” of PFI, so can the Chancellor explain why his Department is still pushing the increasingly discredited and scandal-ridden PFI model under the disguise of PF2?
Under the last Labour Government, the average number of PFI contracts signed per year was 55. In the last two years, the Treasury has signed off none. We will use this approach selectively when it delivers a genuine transfer of risk and provides value for money for the taxpayer, not as the last Labour Government did.
As the Minister said, PFI was hugely popular under the last Labour Government. Will he confirm whether PFI stands for “private finance initiative” or “pay for indefinitely”?
My hon. Friend highlights the cost and legacy of the PFI projects signed off under the last Labour Government. Hon. Members can be assured that we will use this approach wisely and selectively, in particular for the most complex infrastructure projects requiring a transfer of risk and the expertise of the private sector.
On PFI hospitals, the National Audit Office report recently found
“no evidence of operational efficiency”,
and that in the NHS,
“the cost of services, like cleaning…hospitals is higher under PFI contracts.”
Will the Chancellor explain why his Government persist with imposing higher costs than necessary on local health budgets instead of ensuring value for money for the taxpayer?
I think that the hon. Lady is having amnesia. These contracts—86% of the contracts and 91% by value—were signed under the last Labour Government. In respect of some of the items that she mentioned, such as cleaning and security services, we have reformed PFI contracts under PF2 so that those items are not included in the standard contract.
Would my hon. Friend be interested to learn that when I was a lowly Parliamentary Private Secretary in the Treasury in 1996 and 1997, John Major was constantly trying to make us finalise PFI contracts, but we in the Treasury refused because they were bad deals? As soon as Labour got in, they went straight ahead and entered into those bad deals.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The initial intention of PFI was to transfer risk, when appropriate, to the private sector, and to drive up innovation and quality in a very small number of selective cases. That was perverted under the last Labour Government by Gordon Brown.
We have learned from the experience of PFI; this Government—[Interruption.]
Thank you, Mr Speaker.
This Government have not. In the light of last week’s report on Carillion, we want to know whether the Minister can indicate which PFI contracts are being delivered by contractors that are deemed to be actually or potentially high risk. Following last week’s reports that failed bidders for PFI contracts will be compensated, can he rule out bailing out firms that fail even to win contracts? We need answers on these questions now, not a history lesson.
As I have indicated, this Government’s approach to PFI is entirely different from that of the last Labour Government. The hon. Lady says that she has learnt the lessons. Well, it is a pity for the taxpayer, and for our children and grandchildren, that they were learnt so late.
In the first financial year, 2017-18, there was no unauthorised withdrawal charge in place. The data for 2018-19 is obviously not yet known, but HMRC will publish it when it is available.
Will the Minister look at the effect of the withdrawal charge more closely? A first-time buyer has told me that he has found a home that suits his needs, but because his lifetime ISA is less than a year old, he will not only lose his Government bonus but have to pay a £375 penalty charge back to the Government out of his own money. Why are aspiring homeowners being penalised in this way?
I am of course happy to look at that case. Following my appearance at the Treasury Select Committee, I asked my officials to look at the guidance on the website, as I am anxious not to put misleading advice on there. The LISA is available for long-term savings. That was the scheme’s objective when it was set up.
I am pleased the Minister just mentioned his appearance before the Select Committee, where we explored the issue of the 25% charge and the fact that a further 6% of capital can also be lost. Will he update us? He has talked to officials about looking at the website. Will he ensure that the Treasury website is fully compliant with Financial Conduct Authority rules applicable to firms in the private sector?
I am taking this up further, but I am concerned not to put a misleading flat-rate percentage on there, given that most savers who make an unauthorised withdrawal will pay a different amount according to their circumstances.
We have junior ISAs, cash ISAs, stocks and shares ISAs and lifetime ISAs. Will the Minister consider simplifying the entire ISA system to help young people in particular with long-term, cost-effective saving?
The Government have developed a range of savings products and incentives, or encouraged providers to do so, to reflect the range of needs. We have also raised the ISA allowance to £20,000 and introduced the personal savings allowance, meaning that 95% of people do not pay any tax on their savings income. It is important that we have that range of options for all age groups.
The Budget showed our determination to improve productivity, increasing the national productivity investment fund by £8 billion to £31 billion. With substantial investment in the regions of the UK, such as the £1.7 billion transforming cities fund, we want to help all parts of the country achieve their potential.
I am sure the House will be united in rejoicing that the UK’s productivity last year grew by 0.7% and in the last quarter increased at its quickest pace in six years. Does my hon. Friend agree that raising our productivity is the only way to deliver higher-paid and better jobs for the future?
I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. Raising productivity is the only sustainable way to grow the economy, boost wages and improve living standards, which is why we have given it such a clear and determined focus. With respect to Aberdeenshire, the North sea oil and gas industry is one of those sectors that have seen the greatest productivity increases in recent years. We will continue to support that with a highly competitive tax rate.
Given that average UK productivity is 30% below German levels, does the Minister agree it is now time to rebalance our economy and support further devolution for areas such as Cheshire and Warrington?
It was of course this Government who one year ago created the Mayors across the UK, including in Greater Manchester, and several of them, including Andy Street, have had a great impact on their local economies. I have had conversations with the leader of the Cheshire and Warrington local enterprise partnership and the Minister responsible at the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government to take such matters forward.
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. It is only with sound management of the public finances that we can continue to invest in the skills required to grow productivity, and that is exactly what we are doing with increasing investment in apprenticeships, through the apprenticeship levy, and with the T-levels, which will be largest change to our secondary education system since the introduction of A-levels and which we will be seeing in the coming years.
We have had numerous conversations with local partners in north Wales, and with the Welsh Government. I urge the hon. Gentleman to take the message to the Welsh Government, but they also need to engage with the UK Government to secure that important deal, which, as he says, will link the economy of north Wales with the north-west and the northern powerhouse to drive productivity.
Does the Minister agree that cutting corporation tax to 19% has encouraged business investment, boosting productivity as well as encouraging the creation of 3 million new jobs?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. When we reduce the tax to 17%, we will see those productivity gains increase—and, contrary to what the Opposition have claimed, revenues have increased.
Eurostat figures show regional inequality in the United Kingdom, measured by output per hour, to be the worst in Europe, and the Government have failed to close the gap since 2010. When will the Chancellor commit himself to making the investment that is needed to end regional imbalances that have seen the north of England set to receive just one fifth of the transport investment per capita in London?
The Infrastructure and Projects Authority, which has conducted the most rigorous analysis of Government spending on infrastructure, has made clear that the north of England will receive more funds from the present Government than any other region in the United Kingdom, including London and the south-east.
The Government are committed to helping firms to harness the benefits of new technologies, and we are taking action to do so. For example, we have set the annual investment allowance at £200,000 a year, its highest-ever permanent level; we have announced a 10-year action plan to unlock more than £20 billion to finance growth in innovative firms; and we have delivered the biggest increase in research and development investment in 40 years.
Britain is becoming a world leader in technology businesses at the cutting edge of the fourth industrial revolution. Will my right hon. Friend ensure that our tax system remains competitive, to maximise the support that we give to our business entrepreneurs?
Yes. I congratulate my hon. Friend on his commitment in this regard, especially in his role as chairman of the all-party parliamentary group on the fourth industrial revolution. Science, research and innovation are areas in which the UK has huge strengths. Our challenge is to provide the right environment—including the right tax environment—to ensure that that potential stays in the UK, and is developed here. We have introduced a range of incentives through the tax system, such as R&D tax credits and entrepreneurs’ relief, as well as the lowest corporation tax rate in the G7.
Given that Northern Ireland is the cyber-security centre of the UK, what steps is the Chancellor taking to provide tax relief to encourage global businesses to consider using Belfast and other equipped cities as their bases?
We have a globally competitive offer for businesses seeking to locate in the United Kingdom, and, of course, Northern Ireland will have corporation tax flexibilities of its own in due course. However, we seek to make all parts of the UK attractive to foreign direct investment, and Northern Ireland has done extremely well from that.
Will the Government please explain what is being done to help firms in places such as west Oxfordshire to harness 5G and broadband, making them more competitive, making them raise more money, and creating the capital that will enable us to fund the public services that the Labour party wants to overthrow?
This is partly about public investment and partly about private investment to encourage the roll-out of full-fibre broadband technologies and give companies access to the funds that they need to make investments and take advantage of the public infrastructure. We will make further announcements about our forward broadband strategy during the summer.
The Scottish Government’s Budget included a 70% increase in investment in business R&D. To prevent that investment from being undermined by the Government’s approach to Brexit, will the Chancellor commit himself to maintaining the EU levels of R and D funding beyond the current cycle?
Once we have left the European Union the money that was reaching the UK from EU sources will be allocated to the UK shared prosperity fund, and over the course of this year we will consult on both the distribution and the application of those funds and the size that that fund should be.
First-time Home Buyers
In the last Budget we abolished stamp duty for first-time buyers for the first £300,000 of a property’s value up to £500,000 in total. That has meant that 95% of first-time buyers have paid less stamp duty and a full 80% of first-time buyers have paid no stamp duty at all.
Last November the Chancellor announced an ambitious package to tackle the broken housing market. How many first-time buyers have benefited from that package, particularly in Essex, and where can people find further information about this so we can make hopefully impressive numbers even greater?
Some 69,000 individuals have already benefited from this vital tax relief and over 1 million will do so over the coming five years. We do not have disaggregated data specifically for Essex, but I can tell my hon. Friend that within the south-east 12,900 individuals have benefited from first-time buyer tax relief.
As I outlined to my hon. Friend the Member for South Basildon and East Thurrock (Stephen Metcalfe) who asked the preceding question, in the south-east 12,900 first-time buyers have benefited from this relief, of whom 9,000 purchased a property of a value of between £300,000 and £500,000 in total.
Tax Credits Overpayments
Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs has taken a variety of steps to reduce overpayments of tax credits including real-time income data in-year, guidance that is very clear on these matters, and of course providing appropriate contact routes with HMRC so that those who have changed circumstances can indicate that to our tax authorities.
Overpayment of tax credits can have disastrous impacts on families; a constituent of mine has been left with a bill of £8,000 as a result of purely administrative errors admitted by HMRC. Such errors can create real financial hardship and in the past have even pushed some families into poverty. Will the Minister start instructing Treasury and HMRC officials to do more to tackle this problem?
HMRC is doing a great deal, as I have already outlined to the hon. Gentleman, in terms of making sure that the correct information is provided. Overpayments do not solely emanate from HMRC; there is of course customer error and there can be negligence or a failure to report a change of circumstances. But I can assure the hon. Gentleman that HMRC is always sympathetic and careful in its approach to anybody in the kind of situation he described.
The best way to drive economic growth is to raise our productivity growth rate. That is why since 2010 the Government have overseen over half a trillion pounds in capital investment including in the national productivity investment fund, have increased investment in skills and have reduced taxes for business, and I tell my hon. Friend that the way not to support economic growth is through more borrowing, more debt and higher debt service costs.
After we voted to leave the EU, a vote endorsed by huge numbers across the north of England, we were told by some that mismanagement of the economy would occur under this Government. The reality in the north, despite those who talk the economy down, is that we have record employment and some of our areas have the fastest growing economies in the country, so may I urge the Chancellor to continue investing in the north and to ignore those, on the Opposition Benches especially, who repeatedly talk down the north of England?
Since 2010 the shadow Chancellor has predicted that the UK would go into recession on no fewer than eight separate occasions—that is eight out of zero. But the UK economy is growing steadily and is now 10.7% bigger than its pre-crisis level, and the Office for Budget Responsibility expects it to continue to grow in each year of its forecast to 2022. While we know that the shadow Chancellor does not think that a growing economy matters, let me tell him why I do: a growing economy means more jobs, more prosperity and more security for working people.
What consideration has been given to the contribution that varying certain business taxes, such as VAT, according to the nation or region of the UK could make to encouraging economic growth?
The Government’s view is that a unified rate of VAT across the United Kingdom is an important part of our single market of the United Kingdom, which is an essential economic good for the whole of this country.
We absolutely look forward to being able to make progress on the Moray growth deal, and I am very happy to meet my hon. Friend. I know that the Exchequer Secretary, who is dealing with this matter, would also be pleased to meet him.
The Government acknowledge that they want to spread wealth and economic growth across the United Kingdom through their industrial strategy. Does the Chancellor of the Exchequer therefore agree with the Welsh Affairs Committee, chaired by the hon. Member for Monmouth (David T. C. Davies), that the money from the cancelled rail electrification between Cardiff and Swansea should be spent in Wales, so that we can have that shared prosperity?
As the hon. Gentleman knows, I firmly believe that the service that will be provided on the route from London to Swansea will deliver exactly what passengers have bargained to get, without the need for the disruption and cost of overhead electrification. We will look at the funding needs of all parts of the United Kingdom appropriately, to support economic growth and to reduce regional disparities.
Order. The hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski) has question 21, which is not altogether dissimilar from the one with which we are dealing, but which will probably not be reached. If he wants to come in now, he can. If he does not, he need not do so. But he does, so he will.
Especially for the purposes of generating economic growth.
Precisely, Mr Speaker. It is the economic growth generation potential of housing development that we will take into account when evaluating transport proposals. In relation to the specific project to which my hon. Friend refers, the Exchequer Secretary advises me that the Department for Transport is eagerly awaiting a business plan for the project from the relevant local authority.
Does the Chancellor agree that a devolution settlement for all Yorkshire with an elected Mayor, as supported by all Conservative councils in the county, could improve economic growth in the region?
The Government will look carefully at proposals from Yorkshire leaders for a devolution settlement, provided that it does not undermine the existing South Yorkshire-Sheffield city region devolution settlement that has already been established, with a Mayor already elected.
The port operator Associated British Ports, the Hull and Humber Chamber of Commerce and many local businesses are giving serious consideration to free port status for the Humber ports in the post-Brexit world. Will the Chancellor or his Ministers agree to meet representatives of the business community in the area and to give serious consideration to this proposal when the idea has been further developed?
As my hon. Friend will know, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury has a great interest in that proposal. Without even needing to consult her, I can say without hesitation that she will be delighted to meet him and his colleagues.
Wage Growth: Young People
From 2002 until the crisis, young people saw their real wages grow more slowly than the UK average. In fact, their wages fell more during the recession. Since 2014, young people’s wages have been rising faster than the UK average.
Young people are struggling to get a good start in the job market. They are earning less, working longer hours and commuting further than their parents’ generation. What are the Government going to do to transform their outcomes?
The most important thing is that those young people are in jobs, and under Labour we saw unemployment rise to 20%. Youth unemployment has reduced by 40% since 2010. I recognise that we need to see those young people get better skills. That is why we are investing in IT training, that is why we are developing the maths premium so that more students study science, technology, engineering and maths, and that is why we have developed the apprenticeship levy to get more people into apprenticeships.
Money Laundering and Criminal Finance
The social and economic costs of organised crime, of which money laundering is a key facilitator, total tens of billions of pounds a year. The Government are committed to tackling illicit finance in the UK and have implemented recent measures including the Criminal Finances Act 2017 and the updated money laundering regulations, both of which were brought into law in the past year.
The cross-party Foreign Affairs Committee said only yesterday that the Government should show stronger political leadership in tackling the importing of dirty money into the United Kingdom. Is it not time that the Government supported the Labour Front Bench’s proposals for an overseas register of interests?
I acknowledge the report of the Select Committee. This Government stand by the rule of law. We do not do random confiscations but, alongside the work being undertaken, work is under way across Whitehall to examine what further steps are necessary. I am eager that we go as far as we can, and we must do so in ways that are consistent with our values.
I associate myself with the Chancellor’s eloquent words on the Manchester tragedy. I also commend the emergency services that operated on that day.
“The Government cannot afford to turn a blind eye as kleptocrats and human rights abusers use the City of London to launder their ill-gotten funds”.
Not my words but the words of yesterday’s Foreign Affairs Committee report. For eight years this Government have turned a blind eye to the flow of dirty money through the City. Not only have they delayed until 2021 the introduction of a full public register of overseas companies that own UK property but they have refused to introduce the tougher scrutiny and regulation of City flotations that we have demanded, and they have failed to broaden the definition of “politically exposed persons” to include more individuals linked to crime or criminal regimes.
Will the Government do as the Foreign Affairs Committee has demanded and start taking money laundering and tax avoidance seriously by bringing forward the date for the register of overseas companies that own property in the UK?
We will continue to take these matters very seriously. We will freeze Russian state assets where we have evidence that they will be used to threaten the life or property of UK nationals and residents. As the Prime Minister made very clear in her statement to the House, the National Crime Agency will bring all UK capabilities to bear against serious criminals and corrupt elites. As somebody who has experienced that directly in my constituency in recent months, I stand by the Prime Minister’s statement. There is no place for these people and their money in our country.
That is just not good enough. We were promised a register in 2015, and we are still having to wait another three years. The Government are letting the crooks, the tax avoiders and the money launderers off the hook again. They have failed to introduce and enforce stricter due diligence for companies as registered companies, they have failed to take on the service providers that set up these laundering scheme, and they have refused to legislate to create a new offence of failing to prevent money laundering. Those are all amendments that the Opposition tabled to the recent Sanctions and Anti-Money Laundering Bill. The people of this country are entitled to ask why this Government are soft on tax evaders and money launderers.
There is another issue that has to be addressed today, as highlighted by the allegations against Lycamobile. Will the Government bring forward legislation requiring any political party found to have accepted donations from money launderers and tax evaders to forfeit or return that money?
Obviously, it is impossible for a Minister to comment on live cases, but we will continue to use powers to disrupt and pursue money launderers and terrorists. We will use the anti-corruption strategy, and my right hon. Friend the Minister for Security and Economic Crime is committed to using the National Economic Crime Centre to pursue those who need pursuing, but we will do so within the rule of law, consistent with the values of this country.
The Government have brought in more than 100 measures to clamp down on tax avoidance, evasion and non-compliance since 2010, and the associated powers that HMRC has had in that respect. We have protected and brought in £175 billion across that period, which is substantially more than we invest in our national health service every year.
Almost 15,000 HMRC and Valuation Office Agency jobs have been lost since 2010, and that is alongside tax office closures up and down the country. With potential changes to our customs border on the horizon, does the Chancellor not agree that now would be the time to invest in HMRC, and put a stop to all planned cuts and closures?
I am pleased to be able to inform the hon. Lady that we have been investing heavily in HMRC to clamp down on the issues she has raised—we are talking about some £2 billion since 2010. We have 23,000 staff in HMRC engaged in that purpose and we consequently have about the lowest tax gap in the entire world, at 6%, which is far lower than it was in any year under the previous Labour Government.
My principal responsibility is to ensure economic stability and the continued prosperity of the British people, and I will do so by building on the plans set out in the autumn Budget and the spring statement. The Government’s balanced approach to the public finances enables us to give households, businesses and our public services targeted support in the near term, and to invest in the future of this country, while also being fair to the next generation by at last beginning to reduce a national debt that is far too large.
On prosperity, Mark Carney has just said that household incomes are now about £900 lower than was forecast in May 2016, before the referendum. How much lower still does the Chancellor estimate household incomes will be when the UK leaves the customs union and the single market? When will he publish his analysis?
On the publication of Government analysis, I have made it clear on several occasions that once Parliament is being asked to vote on a proposal—on a package—it will be appropriate for the Government to publish the analysis that they have, to make sure that that debate is as informed as possible. The future trajectory of household incomes will depend, in part, on the quality of the deal we negotiate as we exit the EU, and we are focused on getting the very best deal for British jobs, British prosperity and British businesses.
I know that my hon. Friend represents some of the finest English sparkling wine vineyards, and I am pleased to say that some new ones have recently opened in Norfolk. We now have record exports of more than £100 million a year of our fantastic sparkling wine and we will continue to look at our policies to promote this brilliant product.
The hon. Lady focuses rightly on output per hour. The problem is a productivity gap between the regions of the UK and the most prosperous areas of London. We have to close that productivity gap. That is in the interest of not only those individual regions, but our overall national economy. We will do so by investing in public infrastructure and in skills, and by ensuring that the conditions are right for business investment, both domestic and foreign.
Lenders are not restricted from extending mortgages beyond the age of 75, as long as the consumer can demonstrate affordability. Several lenders are currently looking into this issue. There is considerable merit in interest-only retirement mortgages.
What action are the Government taking to tackle payroll and umbrella companies, some of which—not all—are used to perpetuate bogus self-employment and undermine terms and conditions?
We are looking very closely at this policy area, not least in respect of the Matthew Taylor review of the different ways in which individuals choose to work. The Government’s overriding objective is to make sure that the way an individual works is reflected in the way they are taxed, and that they are taxed properly.
My hon. Friend raises an important point. I can reassure him that HMRC has written to a total of 800,000 people to inform them of the issue he has raised, which is also set out and made clear on the very first page of the child benefit application form. I can also reassure him that we will review this policy area in the current period to see how we can make changes going forward.
It is a matter for banks to make commercial decisions on the basis of their assessments, and there are rules on how they inform the affected constituents. I am, though, very concerned about the situation in rural and sparsely populated areas. I shall visit Scotland over the summer recess to address some of the issues that the hon. Gentleman has raised.
Sadly, it is a rare day on which a Treasury call for evidence on tax stirs the enthusiasm of the general public, but this one has. We received a record 130,000 submissions from throughout the country. We are determined to take the issue seriously and to tackle the scourge of single-use plastics. The Chancellor has been clear that we want to do so in a way that both tackles the environmental issues and drives innovation to support the jobs of the future.
I am sure that Ministers will be just as concerned as the rest of us about the startling revelations about the conduct of Lloyds and HBOS outlined in the Project Turnbull report. Will the Treasury now demand that, after three years, the Financial Conduct Authority pulls its finger out to expedite its investigation into this matter? Has the Treasury received any requests from police authorities to fund appropriate investigations into criminal activities? If so, will it look favourably on them?
The hon. Gentleman rightly points out that the events at HBOS in Reading constituted criminal activity. As such, it was right that those responsible were brought to justice. He referred to a report by an internal employee; that matter should be taken seriously by the FCA and is being taken seriously by Lloyds, and it will be followed up on in due course.
I am very keen to accommodate Back Benchers, as always.
I am very pleased to inform my hon. Friend that we have raised and protected £175 billion since 2010 by clamping down on evasion, avoidance and non-compliance. That comes as a direct result of investing in HMRC to the tune of £2 billion, and has resulted in the lowest tax gap in the world.
Colleagues can help each other by being very brief, which I am sure they will be.
With child poverty set to increase by another 1.5 million by 2022, according to the Economic Council for Equality, what will the Treasury be doing to help the very poorest households?
What we have seen in the past few years, since 2015, is a 7% rise in the real wages of people on the lowest incomes, and a reduction in income inequality.
My hon. Friend talks about complexity. The Office for Tax Simplification is looking into the way in which inheritance tax and the regime operate. Changing the way that tax reliefs operate in the way that he describes would add very significant cost. However, we do, of course, keep all taxes under review.
The TUC estimates that the number of working households in poverty has risen by 1 million since 2010. Inaction on low-paid, insecure work and punitive welfare reform measures have led to record numbers of people accessing food banks. A responsible Government would measure food insecurity to create policies that end hunger. My Food Insecurity Bill does that. Why will the Government not back it?
We are the Government who have introduced the national living wage. We have reduced tax bills for those on the lowest incomes, and we are keeping our food market competitive and have some of the lowest food prices in Europe.
The UK productivity and prosperity funds are meant to benefit all local authorities across the United Kingdom. Will my right hon. Friend meet me to talk about how Scottish local authorities can apply directly to those funds?
The cap on charges on payday loans legislated for by Parliament has made a huge difference in bringing down the costs, but it is now more expensive for a person to go into an unarranged overdraft at their own bank. Will the Government look to extend that legislation to cap also the rip-off fees and charges put on customers by our banks?
The hon. Lady makes a very sound point. The FCA is looking into four aspects of that. It is reporting next week, and I look forward to hearing what it has to say.
In the autumn statement, the Chancellor announced the extension of the railcard from age 26 to 30. When will my constituents be able to take advantage of that?
A pilot railcard for that age group was launched as a trial, and was fully subscribed very quickly. The Department for Transport will be announcing in due course when the continuation of the scheme will take place.
As the Minister knows, the communities that I represent in Carmarthenshire received the highest form of EU structural aid. Will he give a guarantee that they will not lose a single penny following the introduction of the UK Shared Prosperity Fund?
As I think I have already said earlier in this session, we will be consulting, during the course of this year, on the design of the UK Shared Prosperity Fund, the scope and scale of the fund and how the money in the fund should be allocated. I look forward to the hon. Gentleman’s input to that consultation.
Research has shown that those who live in rural areas are getting hit harder at the fuel pump than those in urban areas. Can my right hon. Friend update me on what his Department is doing to ensure that motorists in Angus, and indeed across the United Kingdom, have their taxes cut?
I am clearly not going to speculate about future tax changes from the Dispatch Box this morning, but I point out that we have frozen fuel duty for eight successive years at a cost to the Exchequer of over £40 billion.
A Home Affairs Committee report published in summer 2016 found that the suspicious activity reporting system intended for use by the banks to crack down on money laundering was not fit for purpose. The Committee demanded immediate reform, but the Government stated that they would implement the reforms only by 2018. In the light of the Foreign Affairs Committee report on Russia, criminal financing and the UK, will the Minister immediately bring forward plans to reform and improve the system, as was recommended two whole years ago?
I refer the hon. Gentleman to the response I gave earlier. The Government are taking forward a range of options, but I will examine the issue he raises and write to him.
The people of Bloxwich will soon be hearing more about blockchain. Will the Chancellor confirm that the Government will continue to invest in this innovative technology to keep the public’s data safe?
Sounds fascinating, and I think we are going to hear more about it.
The Government are committed to exploring all technologies that will keep data safe and create opportunities for innovation. Blockchain is one such technology, but the Government will also be examining other even more innovative distributive ledger technologies.
I look forward to learning more about blockchain. I am uninitiated on the matter, as the hon. Member for Walsall North (Eddie Hughes) can tell, but I feel sure that he will put me in the picture erelong.
The Governor of the Bank of England has stated that economic uncertainty caused by the Brexit vote will knock 5% off wage growth and is costing the UK economy £10 billion a year. Does the Chancellor agree with the Governor?
We have not yet concluded our negotiations with the European Union, so it is impossible to make any assessment of the impact of our departure until we know what the future relationship with the EU will be. This Government’s agenda is to get the best possible deal for Britain that protects jobs, prosperity and businesses, so that we can protect our existing trade with the EU as well as build new trade opportunities beyond Europe.
The hon. Member for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant) need not worry; I am perfectly clear that he wishes to give us his thoughts. I am saving him up. It would be a pity to squander him at too early a stage of our proceedings.
Today’s figures from the Office for National Statistics reveal that we are at the lowest level of public borrowing since 2006. Will the Chief Secretary to the Treasury set out what that will mean for future investment in public services, as opposed to maxing out paying off the nation’s credit card?
My hon. Friend is right that we have successfully turned the economy around. We have brought the deficit down, and next year, for the first time in many years, we will see debt fall as a proportion of GDP—[Interruption.] Some Members are laughing, but the same people are proposing that we increase our debt by half a trillion pounds and push our country into penury.
What will ministers do to support the “Great Western Cities” initiative, which promotes collaboration between Bristol, Newport and Cardiff and has enormous potential for the wider region?
We are already engaging with that important initiative. We continue to support the Mayor of the West of England in Bristol, and we are investing over £600 million through the Swansea and Cardiff city deals.
Manufacturing accounts for 24% of the west midlands economy but, as others pointed out earlier, there are skills shortages. Will the Chancellor therefore support any bid from the Mayor of the West Midlands for a devolution deal to take over responsibility for skills from the Department for Education?
I am tempted to wonder whether my hon. Friend might have discussed that question with the Mayor of the West Midlands before asking it. It would be remiss of me to stand at the Dispatch Box and say that I would accept any bid, but I am certainly willing to consider any proposals from the Mayor of the West Midlands, or from any other elected mayor, to address the skills challenge that we face across the country.
Several of my constituents who are highly skilled migrants made entirely legitimate and timely changes to their tax returns and are now facing removal by the Home Office under immigration rule 322(5). Will a Treasury Minister confirm that people should make entirely legitimate changes to their tax returns? Will they also have a conversation with their Home Office colleagues to prevent these highly skilled contributors from being removed from the UK?
The answer to the hon. Lady’s question is that people should clearly continue to make appropriate changes to their tax returns. I reassure her and the House that Treasury Ministers and HMRC officials are working closely across Government—particularly with the Home Office—on the issues that she raised in order to ensure that we get these matters right.
The Government have decided not to proceed with the legislation that they committed to bring forward to protect consumers from the rip-off practice of logbook loans, despite the Bill being prepared and ready to go through the accelerated procedure. Will the Minister explain why he is prepared to allow innocent buyers to continue to be exploited through this outdated, misused legislation?
The FCA is looking at a range of options, but I would be happy to meet the hon. Lady to discuss her concerns on this matter as soon as possible.
Transport Emissions: Urban Areas
(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs what steps his Department will be taking to improve transport emissions in our urban areas.
Mr Speaker, thank you for granting this urgent question.
Air pollution is the greatest environmental threat to human health in this country and the fourth biggest public health killer after cancer, obesity and heart disease. Today marks the publication of the latest stage in this Government’s determined efforts to reduce and reverse the impact of air pollution on our health and on our natural environment. Our clean air strategy consultation, published today, outlines steps that we can all take to reduce the emission of harmful gases and particulate matter from all the sources that contribute to polluted air.
It is important to recognise, as I know my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish) does, that air pollution is generated by a wide variety of sources—from the fuel used for domestic heating to the application of fertilisers on agricultural land, and from the use of chemicals in industry to sea, rail, air and road transport. The strategy published today outlines specific steps that we can take to reduce the use of the most polluting fuels, to manage better the use of manures and slurries on agricultural land, and to ensure that non-road mobile machinery is effectively policed, among other measures.
My hon. Friend asks specifically about urban transport pollution. Last year, the Government published their UK plan for tackling roadside nitrogen dioxide concentrations. The plan allocated over £3 billion to help to reduce harmful NOx emissions, including £475 million to local authorities to enable them to develop their own air quality plans. Since then we have been working with local authorities to help them to deliver specific solutions. We have also issued ministerial directions to 61 local authorities to ensure that they live up to their shared responsibilities.
Our plan committed us to phasing out the sale of conventional diesel and petrol cars by 2040 and taking them off the road altogether by 2050. This is more ambitious than any European Union requirement and puts Britain in the lead among major developed economies. Alongside that commitment we are dedicating £1.5 billion to the development of zero and ultra-low emission vehicles, including support for new charging points across the country.
We were of course helped in the preparation of our clean air strategy by the excellent report produced earlier this year by the Chairs of the Select Committee on Health, the Select Committee on Transport and the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. In their excellent report on air quality, the joint Select Committees recommended introducing a new clean air Act. We will indeed be introducing primary legislation to clean up our air. They suggested that we initiate a new health campaign. As the Secretary of State for Health has emphasised, we will be introducing a personal messaging system to ensure that those most at risk receive the information that they need about pollution risks.
It was also recommended that we place health and environment, rather than simply technical compliance, at the centre of our strategy. We do that with ambitious new targets that match World Health Organisation metrics on improving air quality. Of course, we were also asked to reduce emissions from tyres and braking—the so-called Oslo effect—and today we have announced action to work with manufacturers to do just that.
Emissions have fallen consistently since 2010, and my predecessors in this role are to be commended for the action that they have taken, but today’s strategy marks the most ambitious steps yet to accelerate our progress towards cleaner air. I commend the strategy to the House.
I thank the Secretary of State very much for publishing the clean air strategy today. I know that he feels very passionately about this and works very strongly to get our air cleaner in this country. I also welcome the proposals for improving air quality. That demonstrates progress. However, I am concerned that the strategy is not as wide-ranging as it could be. I welcome the fact that we seem to be cleaning up our wood-burning stoves. We also need to deal with agricultural pollution but, in particular, we need to deal with the hotspots in our inner cities.
The strategy says that, to reduce particulate emissions from tyre and brake wear, the Government will work with international partners to develop new international regulations for particulate emissions from tyres and brakes through the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe. I very much welcome that, but is it adequate? To cut the levels of particulate matter from vehicles, the Government should reduce the need for private vehicles in congested urban areas by improving public transport and by making sure that public transport is much cleaner. We have done a lot in London but we need to do much across the rest of our cities in this great country.
It is not clear that the Government have taken on board our report’s key finding that Departments are not necessarily working together effectively. This is not a criticism of the Secretary of State; it is very much to say that we need to work more with Transport to deliver many of the solutions.
Will the Secretary of State support our calls for conventional petrol and diesel engine cars to be phased out by 2040? Will he offer more support and resources to local councils to improve their air quality so that this can be tackled at a local level as well as a national level? Can we be sure that all the monitoring systems through DEFRA and through local authorities actually work?
I welcome the fact that there will be new powers for the Transport Secretary to compel manufacturers to recall vehicles for any failures in their emissions control systems and to make tampering illegal. I still continue to ask why Volkswagen has got away with what it did and why we did not do enough to make sure that it was brought to book. That is not you, Secretary of State—that is the Transport Secretary. However, can the Secretary of State offer more support for cleaner fuels that consumers can use in vehicles, especially bioethanol—E10—in petrol? That is good not only for the environment but for farmers who supply the wheat that makes the bioethanol in the first place.
Whew! The hon. Gentleman can now breathe.
As you have indicated, Mr Speaker, I think we are all admiring of the Select Committee Chair for managing to pack into his allotted time so much that was useful. I will do my very best to reply appropriately.
My hon. Friend is quite right to draw attention to the way in which tyres and brakes generate particulate matter that finds its way into the air and contributes to air pollution. We will be working with manufacturers, exactly as he says, in order to deal with this method of pollution. He is also right that particulate matter is a particular problem with regard to public health. One of the biggest generators of particulate matter is domestic wood burning and coal burning. The clean air strategy goes further than ever before in making sure that we can deal with both those means of generating particulate matter.
My hon. Friend asks that we improve public transport. Specifically with regard to NOx emissions, the diesel vehicles on which so many rely for public transport—buses and so on—do need to be modernised. We work with local authorities to ensure that there is appropriate retrofitting of these vehicles so that the diesel emissions that contribute to poor air quality can be effectively dealt with. We are spending £475 million with local authorities to ensure that they can have bespoke solutions. That can involve the retrofitting of public transport. It can also involve engineering solutions to bring down the concentration of harmful emissions in particular areas.
My hon. Friend makes a point about the 2040 target. I completely agree that it is important to hit that target. He also draws attention to the fact that some motor manufacturers, in effect, attempted to get around regulations in order to produce vehicles for sale that did not meet the requirements for air quality that we would all want to see. We can all reflect on the way in which the regulation, which was of course fixed at EU level, did not work effectively. There has been reference, and I know there will be subsequent reference, to the court cases that have found a number of EU countries, including Britain, to be in breach of EU law on this matter. The truth is that one of the reasons Britain and other countries are in breach of EU law is that there are vehicles on our streets that had technical compliance with EU rules but, in terms of real-world emissions, were not fit for our use.
What we needed from the Government today was a comprehensive clean air strategy to show that they are really serious about tackling this public health emergency, but what we have instead is yet another consultation, which has a focus on emissions from agriculture and wood burning and is weak on cutting roadside pollution from diesel vehicles. It is worth remembering that, since the general election, there have been 25 DEFRA consultations and not one piece of primary legislation delivered.
We know that air pollution is responsible for at least 40,000 premature deaths every year. We know that it is particularly harmful to our children and our vulnerable elderly people. Effective national action must be taken to address the emissions from road transport that are contributing to illegal and harmful levels of pollution. The UK is currently routinely responsible for exceeding the legal levels of pollution. Today’s strategy states that the Government aim to halve the number of people living in unsafe levels of pollution by 2025, but that is simply not good enough. If today’s announcement is the extent of their ambition, it poses a serious question about whether this Conservative Government can really be trusted with our environment and with dealing with illegal air pollution after the UK leaves the EU.
The strategy still does not legally provide for a network of mandatory clean air zones, which DEFRA’s own analysis shows is the quickest and most cost-effective way to bring NOx levels down to legal levels. Yet again, we see more shunting of new responsibilities on to our cash-strapped local authorities, which have been cut to the bone by the Government’s unrelenting austerity agenda. All the new promises we have heard today will mean very little if local councils do not have the money or the resources to implement them.
The Government say time and again that they are committed to this being the first generation to leave the environment in a better state than we inherited it in, but I see no evidence of actual action being taken to deliver that. Anything being mooted by the Government on tackling air pollution will be effective only if there is a serious and independent environmental regulator after Brexit to hold the Government to account, but the Government’s recently announced environment watchdog has been roundly condemned as entirely toothless.
Labour has been calling for primary legislation on air quality since the last election. This Government only ever take action on illegal air pollution when they have been held over a barrel in the courts. I remind the House that there have been three legal challenges and a referral to the European Court of Justice. When will the Government treat this issue with the seriousness that it deserves? The time for half-measures and public consultation has to end. We need real action now to tackle this public health emergency.
I thank the hon. Lady for her points. She asks for a comprehensive strategy. That is what we have produced today. She specifically refers to our target to ensure that half of the population live in areas that meet World Health Organisation standards for air quality by 2025. What she omitted to tell the House is that this Government are putting forward a more ambitious aspiration for the cleanliness of our air than any other Government in a developed nation. It seems that, in her desire to be grudging, she failed to share with the House the detail of our ambition.
The hon. Lady asked about clean air zones. Clean air zones can be implemented by local authorities if they believe that that is the right solution. We on the Government Benches believe in the “local” in local government. It is right for local authorities to make an appropriate decision, depending on the circumstances in that area. A one-size-fits-all approach imposed from the centre may be appropriate in the Marxist-Leninist world of the Corbynistas, but we believe that it is appropriate to work with local authorities and metro Mayors. When necessary, we will apply ministerial directions, but it is appropriate to have the right approach for each individual area.
The hon. Lady asked about primary legislation. Let me remind her that a Labour Government were in place for 13 years, and how many pieces of primary legislation did they bring in on air quality? How many? It was a Conservative Government who brought in the Clean Air Act 1956 and a Conservative Government who brought in clean air legislation when John Major was Prime Minister, but when Labour was in power, we did not have clean air Acts—we had dirty diesel subsidies.
It was the Labour Government who introduced a deliberate ramping up of the number of diesel cars on our streets. We had a confession recently from none other than the hon. Member for Brent North, a man to whom I always pay close attention. Barry Gardiner admitted—it is perhaps not the first confession he will be making this week—that there is “absolutely no question” that the decision the Labour Government took on diesel was “the wrong decision” and:
“Certainly the impact of that decision has been a massive problem for public health in this country.”
Until we have an apology from those on the Labour Front Bench for the errors that they made, we will take their words on air pollution for the hot air that they manifestly are.
I always richly enjoy the Secretary of State’s performances, almost as richly as he does himself. I hope, however, he will not take it amiss if I gently point out that to refer to the hon. Member for Brent North is in order, but to name him is not.
It is shocking, as the right hon. Gentleman observes in a disorderly manner from a sedentary position.
The clean air strategy rightly sets out the compelling case for action to reduce public exposure to air pollution in order to save lives and improve the quality of life for many. We also know that there is a compelling case to get Britain moving and get us out of our cars, and that cycling and walking, even where there is a lot of traffic, exposes people to less air pollution than driving. Does the Secretary of State share my disappointment that there is only a single paragraph in the strategy on active travel? I urge him to go further by strengthening measures to get people out of their cars and, where possible, on to their bikes and walking for their benefit.
My hon. Friend makes a vital point. Today’s strategy deals with a number of sources of air pollution, and I commend my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport for showing leadership on precisely the area that she draws attention to. We have spent £1.2 billion on a cycling and walking investment strategy. When my colleague the right hon. Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip (Boris Johnson) was Mayor of London, he introduced a cycle lane network across the capital, which has contributed hugely to an increase in the number of people cycling across the capital. I absolutely believe that we need to have a switch away from an over-reliance on traditional internal combustion engines, towards new modes of transport, and part of that is making sure that we can cycle and walk wherever possible.
In Scotland we have achieved progressively clean air over recent years through increasingly strict control of industrial emissions, tighter fuel and emissions standards for road vehicles and control of smoke from domestic premises. However, after going to court numerous times, the UK Government are not taking serious action. They are just dragging their feet by announcing yet another consultation. As has just been said, the Secretary of State has issued more than 25 consultations since the 2017 general election, but none has yet produced new laws.
The Government’s own research shows that clean air zones are the most effective solution to air pollution, so why are they ignoring their own advice? Surely they should follow the Scottish National party Government, who are funding low emission zones to take the most polluting vehicles out of the most polluted areas of Scotland. The Health Secretary has said that
“Air pollution is contributing to a national health crisis.”
Why is the Environment Secretary ignoring his own Cabinet colleagues and not taking serious action now?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his comments. He makes the point about the number of consultations we have brought forward. Call me old-fashioned, but I think it is appropriate to consult before one legislates. I think it is absolutely right to make sure that we take account of the views of the citizens of this country and interested parties before moving to legislate. However, I note that in his demand for us to legislate was implicit Scottish National party support for the laws that we will bring forward. I will bank that kind offer of support from the SNP for the legislation that we will feel necessary to bring forward in due course.
The hon. Gentleman says that the Scottish Government have shown leadership on this issue. Indeed, I am happy to acknowledge that there are members of the Scottish Government, whether it is Roseanna Cunningham or others, who take an approach to the environment that dovetails with our own, and I enjoy working with them. The hard work behind the scenes that both Governments exhibit to improve our environment is sometimes not reflected in the exchanges we have on the Floor of the House, so I want to take this opportunity to thank the Scottish Government for the work that they do behind the scenes to advance our shared environment. It is vital, as we leave the European Union, that there is effective working across the four constituent parts of the United Kingdom to achieve the goals that we all share.
Is the Secretary of State aware that there is action he could take now that would not cost the Government money and would not require him to legislate further? Regulation 98 of the Road Vehicles (Construction and Use) Regulations 1986 states that it is already an offence to leave an engine idling when stuck in traffic or at traffic lights. Is he aware of Westminster City Council’s “Don’t Be Idle” campaign? Why do we not put some beef behind that campaign, spread it across the country and do something now that would really help, would not cost money and would make a big difference?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The phenomenon of idling engines—often, ironically, outside the very schools whose children we most want to protect from deteriorating air quality—does require action to be taken. I commend my hon. Friend for pointing out the leadership shown by Westminster, among many other councils, and I believe we need a wider application of the already existing powers that local authorities have to deal with this.
Our joint Select Committees report called for ambitious, co-ordinated cross-departmental action, yet there is virtually nothing in the Secretary of State’s new strategy to tackle the impact of road traffic. As the Chair of the Health Committee, the hon. Member for Totnes (Dr Wollaston) has said, modal shift gets two paragraphs and active travel just three sentences. He has clearly rejected a ban on diesel and petrol cars before 2040. Can he point to a single measure or funding pot that he is announcing today that will better align urban planning, public transport and fiscal incentives, as our Committees recommended?
It is important to realise that there was widespread recognition in the report produced by the hon. Lady and other Select Committee Chairs that road transport was simply one of the sources of air pollution. In this strategy, we are complementing what was already announced last year in our roadside NOx emissions strategy, with action on ports, air travel and trains, which is a signal of the determined efforts we are taking across the Government to deal with all the sources of air pollution.
The hon. Lady says that we should move faster than to get rid of internal combustion engines by 2040, but I have to say to her that no other major developed economy is taking that step. We need to take a balanced approach towards setting a firm deadline for moving away from conventional petrol and diesel engines, while also providing industry with the time to adjust.
Precisely what are my right hon. Friend’s plans to interfere with my fireplaces and my bonfire?
I know that my right hon. Friend is one of the most responsible dwellers in the New Forest. He would never burn wet wood or coal with a high level of bitumen; only the driest and most parched twigs will find their way on to his fire and he will use only the appropriate and less smoky coal. I also know that he lives in one of the most beautiful parts of rural Hampshire, and as a result any emissions he generates are unlikely to form a particularly toxic cloud.
The Secretary of State is obviously immensely familiar with the right hon. Gentleman’s domestic arrangements, and we are all greatly fortified by the knowledge of that important fact.
He is very kind, but quite right.
For the benefit of those attending to our proceedings, the right hon. Gentleman says that the Secretary of State is very kind, but quite right, so there we are. We all feel a bit better informed.
Over the past 30 years, the cost of motoring has fallen by 20%, while the cost of bus travel has risen by 64%. Will the Secretary of State do what he can to reverse those figures? Will he look in particular at the situation in Brighton and Hove? He has written to me about my concern that data on NO2 exceedances in the city are not being taken properly into account by the Government. Does he acknowledge that we have such exceedances in our city, and if so, will he look again at our grounds for appealing the decision not to award us money from the clean bus technology fund?
Absolutely. I will look at that decision. I recognise that it is important to have accurate measuring of exceedances, but as the hon. Lady will acknowledge, one of the reasons why we have them is that the current Euro 6 diesel cars have been found to emit six times the lab test limit on average, and the new regulations that have come into effect do not accurately ensure that we can bring down exceedances to the level that we both want to see.
I appreciate that my right hon. Friend is a friend, rightly, of the bees and of the fish, but he also needs to be a friend of hard-pressed motorists. The fact is that, as he acknowledged, diesel motorists were told by the previous Government to buy such cars, and his plans will give a green light to many local authorities up and down the country to whack taxes on to diesel car owners. Will my right hon. Friend look at this again? It has happened in London, and motorists are taxed far too heavily, so will he change these plans?
My right hon. Friend has been a consistent champion of small businesses and of those who rely on diesel vehicles to provide the services on which we all, more broadly, rely. As the nature of the debate in the House indicates, a balance needs to be struck. That balance is between recognising that there is an appropriate place in the next couple of decades for diesel as part of the transport mix—where either the private sector or local authorities can find support for a scrappage scheme, we will of course endorse and do what we can to facilitate that—and, as well as making sure that small business can thrive, ensuring that our children, critically, are protected from the greatest concentrations of pollution that we find in some urban areas.
The Secretary of State is right that local authorities have a big role to play in this, but they could do an awful lot more if they had the resources. Central Government have an even bigger role to play. In Tinsley in my constituency, NO2 levels are regularly above safe limits because it is next to the M1 motorway, which is a central Government responsibility. What are the Government going to do about that, apart from adding an extra lane to the motorway? In Sheffield city centre, the pollution hotspot is around Sheffield station because of diesel trains, yet this Government have just cancelled the electrification of the midland main line. When are we going to get some joined-up government on this matter?
I am a great admirer of the hon. Gentleman for all the work he has done both to ensure that the case for appropriate support for local government is made and to ensure, when it comes to planning, that we all take a thoughtful approach that takes the environment into account. However, there is one more thing he could do, which is to have a word with his Labour colleagues on Sheffield City Council and ask them to stop the tree felling campaign in which they are engaged. If we want to deal effectively with air pollution, one of the things we can do is to continue to ensure that trees—they not only act as a source of beauty and natural wonder but contribute to the fight against air pollution—are allowed to survive, rather than being chopped down by a council that is, I am afraid, in thrall to its own officers.
A properly targeted diesel scrappage scheme would enable us to get rid of the most polluting cars on our streets, and if it was properly targeted it could be done without hammering those people on the lowest incomes. Will my right hon. Friend commit to pressing the Treasury to agree to such a scheme, because ultimately it will have to do so?
My hon. Friend makes a very good point. The success of any scrappage scheme depends on effective targeting. What we cannot do—it would be irresponsible—would be to use public money to subsidise people who are already making a choice to get rid of a particular vehicle. The deadweight cost associated with that would not be money appropriately spent. He makes the very good point that if we can effectively target such vehicles and find the individuals whom we can incentivise to move towards a green and more sustainable method of transport, we should of course support such measures. I am entirely open-minded about any proposals that might come forward, whether from metro Mayors, local authorities or others.
Has the Secretary of State noted the very striking finding in our joint Committees report that the fumes and pollution inside a vehicle are 10 times worse than those outside a vehicle? As part of the public information campaign that he has just announced, will he ensure that it is directed at parents who drive their children to school, thinking they are protecting them when they are actually doing them much more harm than if they walked or cycled, as well as exposing other people’s children and families to more pollution and congestion?
Absolutely spot on. I am very grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for making that point. All of us need to know more about the sources of air pollution, and he is absolutely right. I did not appreciate that until the Select Committees brought it to my attention, and I am grateful to him for bringing it to the attention of a wider audience today.
There are three hotspots in my own constituency all of which are in towns. What are we going to do to increase electric charging facilities in those places to overcome this problem?
We have devoted £1.5 billion overall to supporting the growth of zero and ultra-low emissions vehicles, including a wider network of charge points, but I think there is more that we can do. One of the things I will be exploring with my right hon. Friends the Secretaries of State for Transport and for Housing, Communities and Local Government is how we can do everything possible—both in planning and in the legislation that the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Hereford and South Herefordshire (Jesse Norman), is bringing forward—to build on the leadership that my hon. Friend has shown.
Everyone has the right to clean air, including people in villages such as North Hinksey and market towns such as Abingdon in my constituency, yet those places have hotspots, and those sorts of conurbations are not mentioned at all in the clean air strategy. Will the Secretary of State confirm that his ambitions extend to smaller conurbations, not just cities?
The hon. Lady makes a good point. There are concentrations of poor air quality not just in our major cities but in other areas. There can be a combination of factors, including roadside emissions and emissions from domestic heating. Critically, as my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish), the Chair of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, acknowledged, sometimes emissions also come from agriculture. The strategy commits us to providing support for all those sectors, to move towards a cleaner future.
In my constituency, the badly thought through planning policy of the failing Labour council is failing properly to take into account the critical issue of air quality. How will today’s announcement improve my constituents’ lives, given that at the moment they are at the mercy of a failing Labour local authority?
The powers envisaged in the consultation will allow local authorities to act on everything, from unwise choices made about domestic heat generation to making sure that some of the diesel machinery involved in construction and for other purposes is appropriately licensed and controlled. I note that, following recent local election results, it seems that the leadership shown by my hon. Friend has been recognised by voters in his constituency, who have moved away from their previous allegiance.
Will the Secretary of State outline progress on E10 regulations, on proper investment in hydrogen vehicles and on what is being done to tackle secondary generators and transport refrigeration units?
On secondary generators and other generators of emissions, we are giving local authorities and others powers to deal with the consequences of poor air quality as a result of their deployment.
More broadly, on hydrogen and other vehicles, the Department for Transport is neutral about future technologies but supportive of the investment required to ensure that a suitable range of technologies is available. One of the key features of the legislation being brought forward by my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, which originated under the leadership of my right hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr Hayes), is to facilitate precisely the type of innovation that the hon. Gentleman alludes to.
The right hon. Gentleman in question is in our midst, and that fact will not have gone unnoticed.
Will my right hon. Friend confirm that new primary legislation announced today will give authorities such as Cornwall Council the power they need to protect communities such as Tideford and Gunnislake in my constituency from air pollution?
Absolutely; I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making that point. We want to work in partnership, and local authorities such as Cornwall Council can make sure that the communities in her constituency—in particular the children who attend primary schools in those communities—can be protected from the impact of air pollution. I am grateful to her for championing much of the work in this consultation throughout her time in this House.
The Secretary of State has repeatedly told the House that the UK leads the way in phasing out combustion engines by 2040, but he must keep up to date with current events in the German Bundesrat, which has already passed legislation for them to be phased out in Germany by 2030. We also believe that in China combustion engines will be phased out by 2030. That makes our policy a laughing stock in the world.
There are some countries, including some outside the European Union such as Norway, that have a more ambitious target than our own. However, I do not think that the legislation has yet been given effect in Germany.
My right hon. Friend may seek to control what goes into them, but may I invite him to confirm that he has no intention of introducing a ban on wood-burning stoves? Manufacturers, retailers and users of them in the UK will be listening very carefully to what he has to say. Such stoves are an important part of domestic heating.
We have been working with the domestic heating industry to ensure that higher standards can prevail in future. We want to ensure that all stoves sold in future meet those new higher standards.
I commend to the Secretary of State the clean air Bill proposed by my colleague Simon Thomas in the National Assembly for Wales. In the spirit of the decentralised approach that he proposes, what consideration have the British Government given to devolving vehicle excise duty and fuel taxes to Wales, so that the Welsh Government can have a revenue stream to implement alternative transport solutions?
I am all in favour of devolution, but any questions about vehicle excise duty or taxation are properly a matter for my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer. However, I met Simon Thomas and some of his colleagues from the Welsh Assembly a couple of weeks ago. I was hugely impressed by the work that they are doing, and I would like to work closely with the Assembly and the hon. Gentleman’s colleagues.
I welcome the Government’s move towards phasing out petrol and diesel cars, but the key part will be the charging infrastructure, particularly for when people are away from home—when they are visiting Torbay this bank holiday, for example. Will the Secretary outline what plans the Government have to develop the necessary infrastructure?
My hon. Friend makes a good point. We are investing £1.5 billion, but it is also important for us to reflect on where people are likely to find themselves at particular times of the year—now and in years to come. One of the things that many of us will be doing this coming bank holiday weekend will be visiting beautiful English seaside resorts such as Torbay. It is important that, as they move towards cleaner and greener forms of transport, people have the opportunity to enjoy the natural beauty of the southern riviera without polluting the air at the same time.
On the subject of natural beauty, Hull was one of 49 UK towns and cities that failed World Health Organisation standards for air pollution.
I want to return to the question raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield South East (Mr Betts). What discussions has the Secretary of State actually had with the Transport Secretary about the scrapping of rail electrification schemes and his championing of bimodal trains which, as I understand it, will still pollute the air?
We have had extensive discussions with the Secretary of State for Transport, who has been leading efforts to ensure not only that we can scrap diesel trains altogether at an appropriate point, but that we can ensure that there are appropriate alternatives to those that exist at the moment.
The use of dirty coal to generate electricity in our country plummeted by 25% last year, and such generation now stands at less than 7% of the overall energy mix. Will my right hon. Friend recommit the Government to the ambitious target of getting rid of coal completely from the energy mix by 2024 and maintaining the UK’s global leadership in this important field?
My hon. Friend makes an important point and reminds us of the steps that we have already taken to ensure that we move towards cleaner methods of electricity generation. In that respect, I commend to the House the recent work of my right hon. Friend the Minister for Energy and Clean Growth, who has been outstanding in ensuring that we can make the transition to which my hon. Friend alludes.
The Government are in the dock at the European Court of Justice for the premature deaths of 40,000 people a year. As we approach Brexit, is it not time that we had a clean air Act with the focus and priority to deliver the standards and enforcement institutions that we enjoy in Europe? We should at least match the 2030 targets for the Netherlands, Ireland and Germany so that we do not end up being the dirty, coughing man of Europe.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his point. He has been in the lead among Members in pressing for primary legislation, and we acknowledge the need for such legislation in the strategy. I know the point that the hon. Gentleman is trying to make—it was also made by the hon. Member for Norwich South (Clive Lewis)—but it is important to remind the House that the vote in the Bundesrat was non-binding. What we have in this country are binding commitments that we are determined to meet, and that is a significant contrast.
Yesterday I met representatives of Honda and BMW, both of which are determined to make a difference in this important area. Will the Secretary of State urge his colleagues to provide more clarity on the use of hybrid engines and technology as a way to help to reduce emissions year on year?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. The existing motor companies will play a critical role in ensuring that we can move towards a more sustainable and cleaner method of providing personal transport. He is absolutely right that hybrids will have a role to play. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport will be saying more about that in due course, but I am very grateful to my hon. Friend and other Members who represent manufacturing and industrial sectors for the constructive way in which they have helped to bring people together.
I am sure that the Environment Secretary gets very frustrated with the Treasury dragging its feet on some of the initiatives he wants to push forward. It was recently reported that the £400 million plan for electric car charging infrastructure is being held up by the Treasury because it has not even recruited somebody to be in charge of the private sector investment element—it says it will recruit this summer—so will he please put a rocket under the Treasury and tell it that while people want to buy electric cars, they will not do so unless the infrastructure is in place?
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for trying to present the issue in the way she did. The truth is that I cannot think of anyone in this House, apart from possibly my right hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings, who is cleaner—keener, rather—on investment. [Laughter.] He is very clean. Cleanliness is next to godliness. I do not think there is anyone in this House who is keener on moving towards ultra low emission vehicles than the Chancellor of the Exchequer. As Transport Secretary and in his current role, he has led efforts across the Government to make sure we are moving in the right direction. I do not think it is at all fair to criticise him or the Treasury in that regard.
I declare an interest as the owner of two very efficient renewable fuel-burning wood stoves. On traffic emissions, it was recently discovered that the monitoring equipment in Shoreham high street had been broken for several years, which might explain the fact that Shoreham’s air quality is always deemed to be good. Volunteers have now had to carry out those tests. If we are to be serious about the quality of the air, may we put a duty on local authorities to properly maintain accurate and reliable equipment?
My hon. Friend makes a very important point. I will investigate what we can do.
Does the Secretary of State agree that rather than pursuing HS2, a greater priority would be the introduction of regional public transport schemes to electrify our rail lines, and to encourage the introduction of hydrogen and electric buses in our towns and cities?
I do not think it should be a case of either/or.
The development of electric vehicle battery technology will be crucial to encouraging a supply side revolution in the uptake of electric vehicles, which would help to reduce emissions in urban areas. What progress has the Secretary of State made, jointly with the Department for Transport, in this area?
We have been working with not just the Department for Transport, but the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, to ensure that we can make Britain the most attractive home for new technologies. It is striking that great British inventors such as Sir James Dyson have dedicated themselves to ensuring that Britain can compete with competitors such as Elon Musk’s Tesla to provide the right technology for clean, green, effective and sustainable transport in the future.
The clean air strategy says that during the transition to zero emission vehicles
“we will ensure the cleanest conventional vehicles are driven on our roads.”
The Secretary of State will know that most people buy second-hand cars, not new ones. Under changes introduced by this Government, vehicle excise duty rates for used cars registered after March 2017 make no distinction whatever between those that produce lower levels of carbon dioxide and pollutants that are harmful to air quality, and those that produce higher emissions. How is that compatible with a promise to ensure that the cleanest conventional vehicles are driven on our roads?
It is the case that the increase in vehicle excise duty on new cars is helping to contribute to ensuring that local authorities receive the money they require to have appropriate clean air strategies. I think that any keen student of the second-hand car market would recognise that the value and resale value of diesels has fallen, reflecting the fact that people know that they need to move away from that polluting form of transport.
With a characteristic mix of insight and eloquence, the Secretary of State has once again made the case for extending the electric charging infrastructure, thereby addressing one of the reasons why people do not buy electric cars. He will know that when we debated these matters in the House—he paid tribute to my pioneering of that legislation—one of the reasons for local authorities’ frankly inconsistent application regarding on-street parking was that the guidance was not strong enough. Will he now ensure that all local authorities make provision for electric charging infrastructure on streets?
If I might just add, Mr Speaker, I initiated a competition as Minister for the design of such infrastructure. Will the Secretary of State reinvigorate that competition so that the charging infrastructure is one day as iconic as the pillar box or a Gilbert Scott telephone box?
My right hon. Friend makes two very important points. On the first point, we absolutely need to make sure that the infrastructure is there, and his second point is also important. One of the reasons why we cherish the environment is natural beauty. When we think about the steps we take to safeguard and enhance natural beauty, we should think about man’s contribution to making sure that the aesthetics around us reflect the best of us. The best of us is, of course, exemplified by my right hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings.
My constituents and Londoners more generally want more ambitious measures implemented, and sooner, than are outlined in the Government’s strategy. They breathe in toxic fumes on a daily basis. Why has London been exempted from the clean air fund?
We have specific arrangements with the Mayor of London to ensure we can help him to meet his ambitions. I saw the Mayor last night. I do not expect him to endorse everything in this package, but I find his constructive approach to working with central Government to improve air quality heartening. We will continue to work with him. A little while back the Mayor himself said that while resolving road emissions was critical to improving air quality, there are many other things that the Government are required to do. It was partly a result of what the Mayor said that we brought forward the strategy today.
There are 40,000 premature deaths nationally, with 10,000 in London, and the schools in my constituency fare among the worst. What impact assessment has the Secretary of State’s Department done to consider how many deaths would be prevented under the new strategy compared with if the Government committed to a clean air Act and phasing out diesel engine use by 2030?
One thing we have done is to work with the academic community. Indeed, I met some of its members yesterday at Imperial College, one of our best universities, to look at the impact of the steps we are already taking to improve public health and to save money for the Exchequer. By definition, that work is publicly available to all. I take on board the hon. Lady’s point. We are bringing forward primary legislation. We can use the model that has been constructed to see how different impacts could be generated by different policies, and I look forward to sharing those results with her.
Emissions from road traffic cause the majority of air pollution in my constituency. Given that the M4 and traffic related to Heathrow are outside the purview of the London Mayor and the London Borough of Hounslow, how exactly will the Government ensure that post-Brexit regulatory regimes will have the same powers as their current European equivalents?
On the first point, I want to make sure that, as we envisage the expansion of aviation capacity across the south-east, we do everything possible to make sure that all contributors to air quality in the relevant areas are taken properly into account as part of a balanced approach towards policy. On the second point, we are consulting on what shape a new environmental regulator should take.
Hope Street in my constituency has long been acknowledged as one of the most polluted streets in Scotland, so I am sure that the Secretary of State will have been as glad as I was to see that Councillor Anna Richardson is bringing forward a low emission zone in Glasgow as one of the first acts of the SNP city government. One of the inhibitors to the success of low emission zones is of course haulage and bus transport. Will he tell us a bit more about what conversations he has had with those industries about progressing to more environmentally friendly vehicles?
We have been keen to make sure, certainly when it applies to buses and public transport, that we make money available to local authorities for appropriate retrofitting. Hauliers recognise that there will need to be a shift. One of the things we need to do—my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport is doing this—is to make sure that we can move to a more efficient method of haulage in the future.
I was pleased that the Secretary of State raised electric vehicles in his opening remarks, as I have been pursuing this issue since I came to this place. I have created a nine-point plan, which I raised with the Minister for Energy and Clean Growth and more recently with the roads Minister in a debate on electric vehicles in Westminster Hall. The ideas include matching Joint Air Quality Unit funding with Office for Low Emission Vehicles funding and getting three-phase electric points. Will the Secretary of State meet me to discuss all nine points of my plan?
It will be a pleasure.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker.
Order. A point of order would ordinarily come later. Does it appertain to these exchanges?
And is it uncontentious and not a continuation of debate, but an honest pursuit of truth by the Chair of the Communities and Local Government Committee?
It is an honest pursuit of truth, Mr Speaker.
Very good. I will give the hon. Gentleman the benefit of the doubt.
I am sure that the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs would not want an inaccurate statement to go uncorrected. He said that Sheffield City Council was felling trees and that that was adding to the pollution problems in the city. The truth is that while there has been some contention about the removal and replacement of some trees on some streets, overall there will be more trees in Sheffield at the end of the programme than at the beginning, and the city will have low-energy LED street lights throughout, which I hope the Secretary of State will welcome.
It is always useful to have a bit of additional information. We have learnt a bit more about the Sheffield tree situation, which is potentially reassuring. If the Secretary of State wishes to leap to his feet to respond, he is welcome to do so.
The right hon. Gentleman signals that he is content, such is the—
He agrees—thank you very much.
Well, I do not know whether the right hon. Gentleman agrees, but he gives no evidence of disagreement. The emollient tone of the hon. Member for Sheffield South East (Mr Betts) has served his purpose for now—[Interruption.] Order. The hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Andrew Jones) chunters from a sedentary position that this is an explosive issue. I do not know whether it is—[Interruption.] Locally; well, that may well be so. Very good, honour is served.
(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs if he will make a statement regarding the case of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe following the new charges brought against her in Iran.
I thank the hon. Lady for her question and constancy in relation to the needs of her constituent and the families. We remain deeply concerned for all our dual national detainees in Iran, including Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe, and we are doing everything we can for them, including trying to secure access and ensure their welfare. We will continue to approach the case in a way that we judge is most likely to secure the outcome that we all want. Therefore, the hon. Lady and the House will forgive me if I am limited in my comments on her case and those of other dual nationals, both at the moment and in relation to any continuing developments.
The Prime Minister raised all our consular cases in a telephone call with President Rouhani on 13 May and the Foreign Secretary raised the cases in a meeting with Foreign Minister Zarif in Brussels last week. I also raised the cases with my contacts with Iran. Our ambassador in Tehran has raised concerns with the Iranians at the highest levels and spoke by telephone with Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe this Sunday. Foreign and Commonwealth Office officials are in regular contact with Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s families.
Thank you for granting this urgent question, Mr Speaker. I thank the Minister for his update, and I have a few questions for him. Will the Government make it clear today that they will condemn the new charges brought against my constituent and call for her immediate release? Ministers have said that they will not provide a running commentary on the case, but when we met the Foreign Secretary in November, he promised that he would leave no stone unturned. I press the Minister to update the house on how his strategy is being conducted in practice.
Will the Minister update the House on whether the historic debt owed by Britain to Iran has been paid, and when is the next court date scheduled? Nazanin spoke to our ambassador to Iran after meeting the judge, and she requested that he sign a formal letter of protest to the Iranian Government. Will the Minister confirm that this constitutes an overdue acceptance from the Iranian judiciary that Nazanin is indeed British? Will he say whether he anticipates that this will lead to further consular protections being granted? Will he today confirm that the ambassador will send the note of protest that Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe has requested? Will the Minister press the Iranian authorities to allow Nazanin temporary release to spend Gabriella’s—her daughter who went with her to Iran—fourth birthday with her?
I finish by saying that I bring these questions to the House in good faith. All we want in West Hampstead is for Nazanin to return home. All our constituents, including her husband, Richard, who is in the Public Gallery today, believe that Nazanin is innocent. She is British, and she deserves to know what her Government are doing to secure her release and to reunite her with her families back home.
I refer to remarks I made earlier about how we intend to conduct the case and the answers that I can give to the hon. Lady’s questions. We remain of the assessment that a private, rather than public, approach is most likely to result in progress in Nazanin’s case and ultimately, her release, which is all any of us want.
I can answer one or two questions. On diplomatic protection, the FCO is in discussion with Mr Ratcliffe and his legal representatives on the merits of a claim for diplomatic protection. It would be remiss of me to comment any further until these discussions have concluded. I am not making any comments about the charges or anything similar.
As I have said, our ambassador spoke to Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe on Sunday. He assured her that we continue to prioritise the case and do everything we can to bring about her release, including requesting consular access, requesting access to medical reports and requesting a temporary furlough so that she can indeed celebrate Gabriella’s birthday with her family.
On the International Military Services issue, we do not share the view that the IMS debt or any other bilateral issue is the reason for Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s detention. The UK has always been clear, both publicly and in private discussions with Iran, that the two issues are entirely separate, and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has publicly stated on several occasions that there is no link. We will meet our legal obligations in relation to the debt, and funding to settle the debt was transferred to the High Court several years ago.
Will my right hon. Friend ensure that Foreign Office advice relies on the fact that this experience is a powerful corrective to any notion of dual nationals that they might return to Iran?
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend. We publish our advice on travel to Iran on our website—it is public—and the issue of dual nationals is specifically mentioned.
Thank you for granting this urgent question, Mr Speaker. It is deeply regrettable that we need to be standing here again asking an urgent question on the plight of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe. It was only in November last year that the shadow Foreign Secretary—my right hon. Friend the Member for Islington South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry)—tabled an urgent question on the case of Ms Zaghari-Ratcliffe, yet sadly here we are once more.
This week’s events only further highlight the pressing need for urgent action to end the arbitrary and illegal detention without due process of a British citizen who has been incarcerated in Tehran’s Evin prison since April 2016. The Iranian judiciary has now brought a second false charge against Nazanin and has denied her access to a lawyer. However, even to this day, the Government have yet formally to call for her release. They have stated that they have raised the concerns of Nazanin’s family with the Iranian Government, but have not formally called for her release. Is that not the lowest possible expectation a British citizen can have of their Government, and should not the Minister call for her release today?
However, it is good to hear that for the first time since her arrest, Nazanin was allowed direct contact with the UK embassy in Tehran. What is the Minister’s assessment of this development? Does he believe that it signals that the Iranian regime is finally starting to treat Nazanin as a British citizen? What action has the British embassy in Iran taken to ensure that Nazanin is able to access the legal support, including access to a lawyer, to which she is entitled during any further hearings?
The Foreign Secretary has repeatedly mentioned that he has spoken to his counterpart, Foreign Minister Zarif, about these issues, but he will know as much as anyone that Nazanin’s fate ultimately lies with the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps. Will the Minister of State today explain what pressure has been placed on the IRGC to ensure Nazanin’s release? Has the Foreign Secretary actually made any efforts to meet those elements in the regime who are really responsible for Nazanin’s detention in order to call for her release?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his questions, but I am unable and unwilling to answer many of them—in the circumstances I outlined earlier, it would not be appropriate—and I know he would not press me to deal with the detail of the negotiations and their handling between us and the Iranian Government in such a sensitive case. I can well understand the reasons for the questions, which were all perfectly fair, as were those of the hon. Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Tulip Siddiq), but their position is different from mine in terms of dealing with the answers.
Like everyone, I share the sense of regret that we still have to discuss this in the way we do—even though we are limited in how we can talk about it—but I can only repeat the assurances I gave a moment ago: at the highest levels here in the UK, with the Prime Minister’s call to President Rouhani and the Foreign Secretary’s intervention, and through our ambassador’s interventions, we continue to call for access and the temporary furlough. We are doing all we can in our belief that this is the right way to handle this delicate situation. I do not think it would be appropriate or helpful, however, to deal with some of the hon. Gentleman’s questions.
There is no indication yet of any change in the attitude of the Iranian authorities towards Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s status, and we are having to work with what we have, but I can assure the hon. Gentleman that no conversation goes by at any senior level in which these issues are not raised. Our consular team handle this very carefully, and representations will continue to be made, but as I indicated, to deal with every single part of this would not be the appropriate way to help Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe and her families.
The shocking news reported last night that a judge in Iran has told the jailed British-Iranian teacher, Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, that he expects her to be convicted on a new charge of
“spreading propaganda against the regime”
is truly appalling. As Amnesty International has stated,
“this is yet another body blow for Nazanin”,
who, we must remember, has denied all the charges brought against her. Can the Minister confirm that the future of Nazanin is not enmeshed in the long-standing British debt of more than £300 million and that this has been agreed by both Governments? Does he also agree that now is the time to issue a demarche, as Nazanin discussed with the UK ambassador, given the treatment she has so far received and does he further agree that she has already been subjected to a blatantly unfair trial and sentence? Finally, will he now agree to significantly escalate the UK Government’s response to Nazanin’s plight by asking for the Prime Minister’s personal intervention so that this further injustice can be brought to an end swiftly? This has been going on for far too long.
Of course I agree with the hon. Gentleman’s last remark about the time. First, as I indicated earlier, there is no link between the debt owed by the UK and the dual national cases. Secondly, it is not appropriate at this stage to deal with the detail of any particular type of contact between the embassy and the Iranian Government. On escalating the matter still further, the Prime Minister has already raised the matter, which is being handled at the highest level by the British Government.
As a result of Nazanin’s treatment in prison, Redress has written to many of us asking for the intervention of the UN special rapporteur on torture. What action will the UK Government take to protect Nazanin from any further torture and ill treatment and to ensure she receives an independent medical examination and any necessary treatment in compliance with international law? Does the Minister agree with Redress that the UN special rapporteur should intervene?
I thank the Minister for his answer to the urgent question. Does he not agree that the time has come to use all our diplomatic influence, and can he confirm what action we can take with our allies collectively to bring about an end to the brutal emotional and physical persecution—it is nothing short of that—of Mrs Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe?
As always, the hon. Gentleman speaks from the heart, and his point certainly needs to be considered in this case. The humanitarian circumstances have been made clear to the Iranian authorities. This is a woman separated from her child some time ago. As the House knows, I have met the daughter and family in Tehran, and I am well aware of the circumstances. We make the case on the humanitarian basis as much as we can to indicate the pathway forward, and the UK will continue to do so in a manner that the House would expect and understand.
When we had a debate on this matter in Westminster Hall last July, I was not the only MP who said that many of their constituents were really exercised by the plight of this lady. I still get emails from constituents about it. Am I really in a position to assure them that the British Government are doing everything they can?
The short answer, as I said earlier to the hon. Member for Leeds North East (Fabian Hamilton), is yes. It is difficult to explain to constituents who would like to believe that the answer to everything happening abroad lies here, but it does not. We will do everything we can, and are doing so, not only in this case but in the cases of other dual nationals. We will not know how successful that is until the happy day when she and others are released.
I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Tulip Siddiq) for her tenacity on behalf of her constituent. Last November, I asked the Foreign Secretary whether he was willing to hold discussions with the Iranian authorities about their targeting of the BBC Persian service—not only journalists in the UK but their families in Iran. There are real fears for their safety. Can the Minister update the House?
Yes, I can assure the hon. Lady, whose own tenacity in other respects also deserves commendation, that the issues affecting the BBC Persian service have been raised directly both by the Foreign Secretary and me. We are conscious of the pressures under which they work and the diligence with which they go about their duties, and I can assure her that those matters are indeed raised.
Last year, I met Redress, which has been mentioned already, to discuss not just this case but that of Andy Tsege. It published a report in January saying that more than 100 British citizens a year were reporting being mistreated in jails abroad and not being provided with the humanitarian or consular assistance that the British Government should be giving them. It also says that there is inconsistency in the support provided, particularly for dual nationals. What can the Minister do to assure us that any British national, whether a dual national or not, will receive the same consular support if they find themselves in that position?
They are certainly offered all the same support, but the blunt fact is that not all states treat dual nationals the same: some recognise dual nationality and allow access to the UK authorities, others do not accept it and treat the dual national solely as a national of their own state. In those circumstances, they do not believe they are required to give access. I can assure the hon. Lady, however, that in each and every case the UK Government make exactly the same representations seeking access, because we believe that dual nationality means what it says: dual nationality, not sole nationality.[Official Report, 4 June 2018, Vol. 642, c. 1MC.]
Taking on board the lessons of the mistakes made in this case, will the Government review how they deal with such situations in the future to ensure that no other British citizen has to go through the misery that Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe and her family are experiencing at the moment?
I wish I could give the hon. Lady the assurance she seeks, but the decisions of foreign courts and states and their impact on UK nationals are not always within the power of the UK to resolve at the speed or in the way we would wish. I can assure her that, as any contact between colleagues and our consular officials should make clear, although every case is individual, note is taken of how cases are handled in particular states so that if there are lessons to learn, they are learned. As I have said, we are sometimes dealing with situations that are not entirely within the United Kingdom’s control, and each case may need to be handled with a different degree of dexterity. People are released from foreign detention every day, unknown to the House, unknown to the press, known only to their families and sometimes to us, so not everything is done publicly; but everything that the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office and our consular service try to do is for the best in terms of their welfare.
Point of Order
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Yesterday a written ministerial statement entitled “Road Haulage Update” was published by the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, the hon. Member for Hereford and South Herefordshire (Jesse Norman), setting out plans for a solution to the problems of Operation Stack, and explaining how the Government intend to avoid queues 20 miles long should customs checks be introduced post-Brexit.
This is an issue of strategic national importance, which, if mishandled, will devastate not only Kent but the national economy. The Secretary of State did not make an oral statement yesterday, and has failed to give the House an opportunity to scrutinise the announcement. Can you advise me, Mr Speaker, on how the Secretary of State might be encouraged to come and make a formal statement to the House?
I am most grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his characteristic courtesy in giving me notice of his intention to raise this matter. The short answer to him, and for the benefit of the House, is that the decision on whether to make a written or an oral ministerial statement is a matter for the Minister; it cannot be decided by the Chair.
I recognise the importance of the issue to which the hon. Gentleman has referred, and it is evidence to me—and doubtless to others—that he is, to put it mildly, perturbed, or even irritated, by the absence of an oral statement. He asked what recourse he has in the circumstances. The answer is that the hon. Gentleman is a most dexterous individual in respect of the use of the Order Paper and the facilities of the Table Office, and he is not unaware of mechanisms by which he can secure further answers. If he thinks that the matter remains of urgent importance, he can seek to secure the presence of the Minister to respond to him.
I think we will leave it there for now, but meanwhile, the hon. Gentleman has ventilated his dissatisfaction.
Social Justice Commission
Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)
I beg to move,
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to amend the law relating to the Social Mobility Commission.
Social justice is the defining issue for our country, and I was delighted that the Prime Minister’s key message in her “burning injustice” speech in July 2016 was that the Government would fight injustice in our society. The Social Mobility Commission, then led by Alan Milburn, was to play a crucial role in that mission: its purpose was to shine a light on progress towards tackling injustice. In December last year, however, Alan Milburn resigned, alongside his fellow commissioners. He explained his reasons in his letter of resignation, stating specifically that roles on the commission had been vacant for nearly two years, and expressing his belief that the Government were—in his words—
“unable to devote the necessary energy and focus to the social mobility agenda”.
Social justice is one of our themes on the Education Committee. We want everyone in our society to be able to reach and climb the ladder of opportunity, and the resignation of the commissioners was naturally a source of serious concern. We held a public evidence session with Alan Milburn, Baroness Shephard and David Johnston, and published a report with our conclusions. We concluded that there should be a body inside Government to co-ordinate and drive forward initiatives to ensure social justice across the country, and to ensure coherence and cohesion across Departments. We also said that a few relatively minor legislative changes would result in a more effective commission, and it is those changes that the Bill seeks to implement.
By the time the commissioners walked out in December, there were only four of them left. The commission had started with 20, but there had been no renewals since March 2015. An appointment process at the beginning of 2016 was described as “farcical”. The commission was left to dwindle, which seems totally at odds with the Prime Minister’s commitment to social justice. Baroness Shephard was the deputy chair of the commission. She said that
“the writing was very firmly on the wall anyway. It had to be because we could not get answers. There were delays. Not delays, but blank walls as far as appointing new commissioners was concerned, and I thought there was no point…there was no point at all.”
The Bill would create a minimum membership of the commission, of seven members in addition to the Chair. I see no reason why the Government should aim for the number of commissioners to be fewer than 10, although I recognise that there may be occasions on which the membership may, for one reason or another, fall below that number. However, introducing a minimum membership in law will mitigate the risk that such attrition and neglect will happen again.
The commission has conducted in-depth research, and has a focus on data and analysis. It is therefore in an ideal position to analyse Government policy objectively for its effect on social mobility. The Government already recognise the value of independent advisory bodies’ objectively assessing financial implications of policy: the Office for Budget Responsibility is one example. Why should that not apply to social justice as well? The Bill seeks to give the commission specific powers to publish social justice impact assessments of both policy and legislative proposals. Those assessments should be used to help Governments to improve policy, not just as a means by which negative effects are flagged.
The legislation that set up the commission provides that it must, on request, give advice to a Minister of the Crown on how to improve social mobility in England. However, Alan Milburn told us that the Government
“lacked the head space and the band width to match the rhetoric of healing social division with the reality”.
He noted that
“there is only so long you can go on pushing water uphill”.
We are not confident that Ministers regularly and usefully request advice from the commission. The Bill would give it power to give advice proactively to Ministers on how to improve social justice in England, as well as its duty to give advice on request.
Our final suggested legislative change is to the name of the commission. I do not like the phrase “social mobility”. It reminds me of a Vodafone advertisement. While it can convey the idea of people moving up the ladder of opportunity, the phrase “social justice” goes much further. It describes helping the most disadvantaged to reach that ladder of opportunity, and supporting them should they fall. Changing the name of the commission would make abundantly clear what it is seeking to improve. It is the Ronseal principle: it does what it says on the tin—not just improving the chances of some people, but offering all people equal access to opportunities. As its name has already changed twice since 2010, a further small change would be consistent with its changing role.
I am delighted that our report was agreed unanimously and that the draft Bill has the full support of the Education Committee. I pay tribute to all my colleagues on the Committee for their hard work and support, and for their commitment to social justice. We may be members of different parties, but we are united in addressing social justice in education. I thank the officers of the Committee as well.
We are convinced that the relatively modest changes proposed in the Bill, in addition to a body inside Government to implement recommendations and co-ordinate across Departments, will result in a more effective social justice commission. We want to see the commission empowered to monitor and report effectively on progress towards achieving social justice in England. We want the Government to hear the commission loud and clear when it suggests remedies, and when it advocates on behalf of those in our society who need a voice the most. An effective social justice commission working in tandem with an implementation body at the heart of Government could really begin to heal some of the great social divides in our country. I hope that Members on both sides of the House will support the Bill.
Question put and agreed to.
That Robert Halfon, Lucy Allan, Marion Fellows, James Frith, Emma Hardy, Trudy Harrison, Ian Mearns, Thelma Walker, Lucy Powell and Mr William Wragg present the Bill.
Robert Halfon accordingly presented the Bill.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 15 June and to be printed (Bill 213).
Before we proceed with the main business of the day, I remind the House that we will interrupt the debate at 2.30 pm, or possibly a few seconds before, to hold a one-minute silence to remember the terror attack in Manchester on 22 May 2017.
Serious Violence Strategy
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the Serious Violence Strategy.
A year ago today, 22 innocent people, including many children, lost their lives in an appalling and cowardly attack on the Manchester Arena. Today, we remember their lives and share a thought for all the families who were affected on that tragic day.
We are reminded today of the devastating consequences that hatred and violence can have for ordinary lives. This Government’s absolute priority is the safety and security of their citizens. No one should feel unsafe on our streets and in our communities. That is why I am here today to talk about another issue affecting the lives of ordinary citizens and to lay out the Government’s strategy for tackling violent crime.
This Government are determined to end the deadly cycle of violence we see on our streets today. We are clear that these crimes are unacceptable, that there is no place in society for these horrendous crimes and that anyone committing these acts of violence must feel the full force of the law.
The recent increase in serious violence is of deep concern to us all in both Houses, and I assure Members that the Government take this very seriously. That is why on 9 April we published our “Serious violence strategy”, which sets out the action we are taking to address serious violence and in particular the recent increase in knife crime, gun crime and homicide.
The Government have also made a commitment to bring forward legislation in the coming weeks. Our strategy represents a step change in the way we think about and respond to serious violence, establishing a new balance between prevention and the rigorous law enforcement activity that is already happening up and down the country.
The Minister will know that recorded incidents of violent crime have risen from 700,000 in 2009 to over 1.3 million in 2018. Does he think in any way, shape or form that the 20,000-plus reduction in the number of police officers in that time has any connection to that rise in crime?
I hear the right hon. Gentleman’s observation. What I do know is that, during the last spike in knife crime, in 2009-10, there were more knife crime offences than there are now and police numbers were at much higher levels, so it is not entirely connected, as he will know. If it were, his logic would have said that there would have been fewer knife crime incidents, when the police numbers were much higher, than there are today. Perhaps he can answer this question: in 2009-10, why was there a spike in knife crime given that there were such high police numbers then?
The figures are clear: there were 700,000 violent incidents in 2009 and 1.3 million now. I was the Minister dealing with knife crime then and there was a spike. We put investment into early prevention, after-school activities, higher policing visibility at the school gates, visibility at night and alternative activities for people in the streets and we reduced knife crime incidents; they were recorded at hospitals and at accident and emergency. In his violent crime strategy, the Minister is now reinventing those measures, having cut them in 2010.
I note the right hon. Gentleman’s examples, but none of them—hospitals, local schools, local government—was about police numbers; they were about similar things to the things we are talking about today in the strategy and the broader response by society to tackling why violence is being embedded in communities. So it is not purely about the police numbers debate.