House of Commons
Thursday 21 March 2019
The House met at half-past Nine o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
We have set out clear plans within Government to reduce emissions across all transport modes. In my own area of responsibility, this includes last year’s “Road to Zero” strategy for road vehicles and, most recently, our future of mobility strategy specifically focused on creating cleaner and greener transport.
Nuclear, solar, tidal, offshore wind, onshore wind: all are forms of renewable energy that have been cut on this Government’s watch. Forty thousand people die prematurely each year as a result of poor air quality, and we all face the threat of climate change. This reckless approach to emissions must stop, so when are the Government going to end their reliance on fossil fuels and make the switch to electric and hydrogen-powered vehicles?
I am grateful for that question, and delighted by Labour’s recently rediscovered interest in emissions. The hon. Gentleman will know that many of the areas that he mentions—I say this as former Energy Minister—have been colossal successes. In the offshore wind industry, for example, the required levels of subsidy have fallen dramatically over time, as have the costs. As I said, we have the “Road to Zero” strategy. We also have the “Aviation 2050” Green Paper and the “Maritime 2050” strategy, all of which are designed to reduce emissions.
Over the past decade, Bristol has seen a 40% rise in bus use, which is obviously really good, but there is a downside in that buses and coaches contribute almost a quarter of NOx emissions in the city. We have been doing what we can to retrofit the bus stock, but we have just put in a bid for £2.5 million from the clean bus technology fund so that we can retrofit another 170 buses. Will the Government support that?
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for that question on an issue of great importance—reducing emissions from buses. We have done quite a lot of that already. I am sure that the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Wealden (Ms Ghani), will look forward to receiving the bid and will carefully examine it with her officials.
In Kensington and Chelsea, nearly 30,000 children are living with unsafe levels of air pollution. That is repeated across the country. Asthma UK and UNICEF UK tell us that babies born into heavily polluted areas are born with smaller lungs and brains, and are more prone to asthma, while those on steroids will have their physical development curtailed by this debilitating illness. Will the Minister please tackle this national health emergency by setting legally binding limits on particulates across the country, in line with World Health Organisation guidance, and give future generations a chance to thrive?
The hon. Lady will know that we are doing an enormous amount through the clean air fund and the other supported funding that we are giving to local authorities, including by working very closely with Transport for London. She is absolutely right to highlight the importance of this issue. However, I was slightly surprised when I carefully perused the shadow Secretary of State’s speech earlier this week, which discussed emissions in some detail, because I was unable to find virtually any mention of cycling, walking or active travel—an absolutely central part of this discussion. I commend that thought to Labour Members.
While I warmly welcome any initiative that helps to curb emissions, I am slightly concerned that the roll-out of low emission zones across the country will lead to problems whereby motorists, hauliers and delivery drivers are having to comply with different regulations in whatever city they come into. Does the Minister agree that we also need to look into alternative solutions so that we do not just continue to tax the motorist but give them the alternative of buying a new car or paying taxes?
That point is very well made: I thank my hon. Friend. We have been talking to the various industry organisations about this issue. There is a concern that there might be a patchwork of permits as between different cities. It is not clear exactly what each city is going to be implementing by way of a zone. We are working very closely to see if we can minimise any disruption and potentially create a national charging infrastructure.
Further to the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Kensington (Emma Dent Coad), 4.5 million children are growing up in areas with unsafe levels of particulate matter. Over 70% of UK towns and cities have levels that are above the limit recommended by the World Health Organisation. When will the Minister protect our children from toxic air? Under his existing plans, they are likely to persistently face that for another 10 years.
I am slightly surprised that the hon. Lady, as Chair of the Transport Committee, is not aware of the very considerable funding—hundreds of millions of pounds—and the very specific and close work we are doing with cities, many of them Labour cities constructively working with Government on reducing this problem. It is a complex and multifaceted issue, and we are taking it very seriously.
This week the chief executive of the Committee on Climate Change said that tackling climate change
“requires the strongest leadership in the heart of government.”
But with the Government set to miss their emission reduction targets, it is clear that the Transport Secretary has failed to provide the leadership required. I have a straightforward question for the Minister: do he and his boss believe in man-made climate change, and if so, why are they refusing to act?
I can tell the hon. Gentleman that I am very much persuaded that many of the effects of man have been deleterious to the environment in many different ways, including relating to climate. Of course I share his concerns, but I am surprised that the Labour party is not taking this issue more seriously. How can he make a speech that discusses wide-ranging issues and not merely fails to mention issues of diversity or disability but barely focuses on cycling and walking—a critical set of interventions in which we are investing heavily across the country?
The Minister said there was nothing about that in my speech. I will send him a copy. He needs to read it again, because it was there.
Talk comes cheap, and what matters are actions. The Transport Secretary and his team have totally undermined carbon reduction measures by slashing subsidies for electric vehicles, scrapping rail electrification, gutting local bus services, allowing fares to soar and underfunding cycling. Will the Minister give an unequivocal undertaking to reverse those damaging cuts and embark on a programme of rapid decarbonisation of transport, or alternatively, will this Government instead go down as the one who chose not to act to protect the planet for future generations?
Far from having failed to read the hon. Gentleman’s speech, I have scrutinised it with almost rabbinical closeness. It is a rather interesting mixture of the good, the incoherent and the baffling. I quite liked some of the stuff about land value capture— I thought that was sensible—but it misunderstands the nature of carbon budgets, the entire purpose of which is to allow the whole of Government to make decisions about how carbon budgets, which we are presently meeting, will be addressed. It is also incoherent in wishing to nationalise the rail service, while also somehow removing Whitehall from the process. I look forward to further details and updates for the House.
Cycling and Walking
I thank my hon. Friend for his question. I am delighted to announce that we are making available from today £21 million in new funding to support the national cycle network. I have agreed with Sustrans that it will work with High Speed 2 and Highways England to integrate routes wherever possible and to use the money we have provided to leverage further investment from other sources.
I warmly welcome the extra funding from the Minister. Two weeks ago, the Select Committee on Transport took its active travel inquiry up to Manchester, where we met Chris Boardman, the walking and cycling commissioner. He told us that they are unable to introduce certain safety measures in Manchester, such as mini pedestrian crossings, due to being discouraged by the Department for Transport because those are not recognised interventions. How can the Department do more to devolve safety improvements to local authorities, so that we can eradicate some of the less safe areas of our streets?
That is such an important question. We are working closely across all parts of the Department for Transport to think about improving road safety. I have huge respect for the work that Chris Boardman is doing in Manchester. I have met him on several occasions, as well as Brian Deegan, his chief designer, and we have specifically discussed that issue. There is a tension between national standards and local innovation. We are keen to ensure that both are met in the right way. I will certainly take this up again, because it is an important issue, and we want to see more innovation, particularly in support of road safety.
Cycling and walking are good for the environment and they reduce congestion, support the public health agenda and are great fun. Chris Boardman is doing an excellent job in Greater Manchester, and I am about to appoint an active travel commissioner for South Yorkshire. Will the Minister meet my new active travel commissioner and me to discuss how we can work together to encourage more people to cycle and walk?
It is absolutely right to celebrate what is being done in Manchester. It is also important to celebrate what is being done elsewhere in the country. If Sheffield is taking a lead, that is fantastic. Great work is also being done in Birmingham by the Mayor there, who has just appointed his own west midlands cycling champion, which we welcome.
Many millions of pounds have rightly been spent on providing cycle highways and cycle routes, but there is no requirement for cyclists to use them. Should it not become an offence for a cyclist not to use these highways where they are provided?
The answer to that, I think pretty clearly, is no. The roadway is for all users. Cycling infrastructure is used to try to preserve and protect cyclists. If that had the effect of forcing people into cycle lanes, it might have all kinds of road safety consequences that we would like to avoid.
While I am a big fan of cycling, I am a bigger fan of walking, particularly for my disabled constituents, who tell me that they are really fed up with cyclists on pavements. We do need improvements to cycle lanes, to be sure, but what can the Minister tell us about improving safety for pedestrians, particularly disabled pedestrians?
I think the hon. Lady is absolutely right, and I very much salute her support for disabled people. She can have a word with the Secretary of State and, on her side, the shadow Secretary of State on the issue of disabilities. Walking is a very important part of the same issue. We are in the process of working very hard on a pavement parking review—it is coming towards the end of its work—and we are also working on the question of micro-mobility and how we regulate that. Both those issues are going to bear very closely on the question of how we think about enforcement against cyclists and other users of pavements who make life difficult for walkers.
With the disappointing news in the last couple of days that Oxfordshire County Council has had to remove the B4044 cycle path from its housing infrastructure fund bid, first, will the Minister comment on what he is doing to work across Departments, particularly with the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, to provide cycling as a way of helping with new housing; and, secondly, will he commit to working with me and Oxfordshire County Council to provide the B4044 bid as a stand-alone bid, so that we can get the cycle path we need?
I am happy to look at that. I met Oxford City Council, including its cycling champion and the leader of the council, just recently on these issues. Let me make one other point, which is that the advent of e-bikes—the Department is supporting them, and further news about them has been given this week—will also open up further housing opportunities around the country in a way that can only be good both for housing and for future personal health.
At the weekend, I had the pleasure of walking the new South Loch Ness trail with a group of friends, one of whom is getting married, and we managed to get lost only once, which was pretty good given that there was a blizzard. That trail was only made possible thanks to funding from the European agriculture fund for rural development, so what steps are the Government taking to make sure that that kind of funding continues to exist for investment in rural infrastructure that promotes health and wellbeing after the United Kingdom leaves the European Union?
I do not know the particular circumstances of the route the hon. Gentleman is talking about, but I am sure he will join me in welcoming today’s news of the work on the national cycle network, which is precisely designed to target the kinds of cyclists and walkers he is describing.
Mr Speaker, on the issue of e-bikes—there is a somewhat “Not the Nine O’clock News” quality about this—an e-bike, m’Lud, is an electronically or electrically powered velocipede, either a pedal bike or a moped, which are differently regulated by the Department in each case.
I am delighted that the Minister is encouraging more walking. May I urge him, as a Herefordshire MP, to spend some of his Easter holiday on the Long Mynd in the Shropshire hills, an area of outstanding natural beauty, so that he can promote walking to citizens while enjoying our beautiful Shropshire countryside?
I am very grateful to my hon. Friend. I have actually walked Long Mynd on several occasions, and I have also paraglided from the top of Long Mynd. I very much encourage him to contemplate that as a perfectly splendid additional mode of transport enabled by walking.
I welcome that question. The hon. Gentleman will be aware that I am a keen cyclist to and from work. Sometimes cars are required for security and other reasons, but I barely use a ministerial vehicle, and I encourage all colleagues to enjoy the benefits of cycling and walking.
Walking is the most basic form of transport, and a 10-minute walk offers huge benefits to our health and our communities by easing congestion and air pollution. Areas where footpaths and pavements have been improved have seen increases in trade at local shops and a stronger sense of community, but nevertheless, millions of journeys of under a mile are still made by car. When will the Government properly fund their cycling and walking strategy, because the money that the Minister has announced today simply will not cut it?
In 2010 the funding levels that we inherited from the previous Government stood at about £2.50 per person, and they are now about £7.55 per person. We would like to get that spending a lot higher if we can, as we fully agree about the merits and benefits of cycling and walking. However, funding is now three times the amount that we inherited from the Government who had governed for 13 years.
Bus Journey Numbers
Local bus journeys remain central to transport choices, accounting for around 59% of all public transport journeys. Numbers of local bus passenger journeys in England have been falling since the 1950s, and they fell by 1.9% in the year ending March 2018.
Bus services provide essential independence and freedom to people with disabilities, yet disabled bus passes allow free travel only after 9.30 am, despite the fact that most people start work before then. Will the Government commit to providing the funding necessary to lift those time restrictions on disabled bus passes?
The hon. Lady raises an important point. Bus passengers and disabled passengers have a close link, and it is right that someone’s ability to jump on a bus is about not just economics but social inclusion. That is why we launched the inclusive transport strategy last year. The concessionary bus budget is around £1 billion, which supports about 10 million passengers. That funding is concessionary and down to local authorities, which have very different packages up and down the country.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bradford South (Judith Cummins) made an excellent point, and on this Government’s watch the number of bus journeys is in freefall. Bus funding has been cut by £645 million a year, yet for many people bus services are a lifeline. When will the Government finally reverse those deeply damaging cuts?
The hon. Gentleman is right to say that bus services are a lifeline because, as I said earlier, not only do they get people to school and work, but they also tackle issues linked to loneliness. He is wrong about funding, however, because around £250 million is paid into bus services, and about £43 million of that goes directly to local authorities. We must understand what is happening up and down the country. In Reading, for example, just like in Bristol, Brighton and Liverpool, bus passenger numbers are up. That is why it is important to understand the powers in the Bus Service Act 2017, which enable local authorities to work with local bus companies and ensure a focus on the services that local passengers want.
Passengers from British Airports
In 2018, 292 million passengers flew to or from a UK airport. That figure was almost 3% higher than in 2017, and 24% higher than in 2008. The feedback that I have received from airports this year suggests that they expect that growth to continue. The one thing that could bring that growth to a grinding halt is Labour’s plan, which was announced yesterday, to hike the cost of going on holiday.
On 8 February easyJet ended its service between Aberdeen and Gatwick, which was the latest in a succession of cuts to flights between Aberdeen and London. British Airways has reduced services between Aberdeen and Heathrow in recent months, and that is making life more difficult for businesses and individuals across north-east Scotland, including in my constituency. Will my right hon. Friend meet me to discuss the impact that those service reductions are having on the north-east economy, and say what can be done to help alleviate the situation?
I will be very happy to meet my hon. Friend. He knows my concern about the need to guarantee enough capacity for regional connections. It is one of the reasons we have said there will be a bloc of new capacity at Heathrow airport, when it expands, set aside for regional connections. That is fundamentally important to the future of aviation in the United Kingdom.
The Secretary of State highlights the projected increase in passengers, particularly at Heathrow. In recognising that and planning ahead, does he agree that a new southern rail access to Heathrow serving Surrey and southern markets and going, hopefully, via Feltham in my constituency, will be a positive contribution, increasing the speed at which passengers reach Heathrow and reducing congestion?
I absolutely agree: we need both western and southern access to Heathrow. That is an important part of ensuring that the airport can expand in a sustainable way, but it will also make a real difference to the hon. Lady’s constituents who work at the airport.
Air passenger duty not only puts UK airports at a competitive disadvantage, but is a particular challenge to domestic carriers, where passengers end up paying the duty twice. Will the Secretary of State join the “A Fair Tax on Flying” campaign and encourage the Treasury to cut air passenger duty on domestic flights once we leave the EU?
I know how strongly people in regional airports feel about this issue and the intense pressure from around the United Kingdom on the Treasury to look at this again. I know my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer has taken careful note of all those representations. Of course, the one thing that would not help Newquay airport and others is Labour’s plan to hike air passenger duty.
Which? reckons that, if we have a no-deal Brexit, British passengers may well face more than five hours’ wait in airports in this country and on returning to the UK. It recommends that people should take with them not only water and food, but nappies. Does the Secretary of State recognise that there is a real danger in a no-deal Brexit for British passengers? Has he considered yet using the Civil Contingencies Act 2004 to make sure that passengers are protected?
We of course continue to look very carefully at all the potential implications of different Brexit scenarios. What I would say to the hon. Gentleman is that passengers from this country go on holiday around the world, not just in the European Union, and they do not end up waiting for five hours at airports. The reality is that those countries and those airports want British tourists and they will work to make sure that that is possible.
The passenger numbers at Belfast City airport and Belfast International airport have been exceptionally good, but connectivity is key. Will the Secretary of State outline what connectivity can be brought to benefit Belfast City airport, Belfast International airport and Londonderry City airport?
I have had regular meetings with both airports since becoming Secretary of State. They have great ambitions to expand their route networks. The commitment I give to the hon. Gentleman is that my ministerial team and I will do everything we can to support their ambitions to attract more international routes and better connections within the United Kingdom.
The rise in passenger numbers has obviously led the Government to become complacent. Long-haul connections from UK airports have not kept up with our European competitors and many airlines are feeling the pinch. Is it not time for the Government to commit to road and rail investment to strategically important airports, so that they can compete effectively?
The hon. Gentleman clearly has not been following too closely what has happened. We have, for example, just opened a new road alongside Manchester airport. We are in the development phase of western rail access to Heathrow. We are taking HS2 to Old Oak Common, creating new opportunities for accessing Heathrow airport, and there are more things happening around the country. I absolutely share his view that we need to improve connections to airports. [Interruption.] He says, “Heathrow”. We have just funded new trains for Newcastle-upon-Tyne Metro, which of course connects to the airport. The Government are investing in connections to our airports.
Leaving the EU: Aviation Sector
Flights between the United Kingdom and the European Union will continue whatever the outcome of EU exit. The Government will continue to work closely with the UK aviation sector as we negotiate our future relationship with the EU, including to maintain the leading position of the sector.
In the event of a no-deal Brexit, flights between the EU and the UK would be capped at 2018 levels, which could result in the cancellation of up to 5 million flight tickets. What assessment has the Secretary of State made of the financial impact on the air travel industry, and of consumers’ ability to emulate the Prime Minister in her ability to walk on water?
We had done a lot of work on ensuring that we had good plans for bilateral arrangements, were they to become necessary, but I can tell the House that in the past few days the European Council has confirmed and ratified a regulation to ensure that across the whole European Union flights will continue as normal this summer. That means people can go ahead and book their holidays with impunity and enjoy a good time in their normal destinations.
Wherever people fly in Europe, they have always been protected by good relationships and good air safety, but the Secretary of State must be aware of the scandalous situation in which people are frightened to fly on a certain type of Boeing aircraft. There are leaks indicating that there are real problems that Boeing has not faced up to. It has not grounded the 737 fleet. Planes are crashing and people are dying, and Boeing should be brought to book. Is he going to do something about it?
As the hon. Gentleman knows, this country was one of the first to ground the 737 Max aircraft, which was absolutely the right thing to do. There are clearly some alarming circumstances surrounding the two accidents that have taken place. It is something that Boeing clearly has to deal with. Unless and until the problem is solved, I cannot see countries such as ours allowing those planes to fly again.
Regardless of when we leave the European Union, we must continue to apply the highest environmental standards around our airports. What will the Secretary of State do to continue to reduce the noise footprint around airports, particularly those in very built-up areas, such as London City airport?
We have now appointed the head of the new aircraft noise body, which will monitor noise levels at airports and inform the Civil Aviation Authority when it needs to step in and use its enforcement powers. Of course, with the transition to a new generation of lower noise, lower emission and lower fuel consuming jets, the noise footprint around our airports is now considerably lower than it was a few years ago.
Leaving the EU: Transport-Related Industry
My Department is working closely with the transport industry to ensure that businesses and passengers are prepared for EU exit. We engage frequently with stakeholders to understand their needs, and we have taken action to ensure that we are prepared for all possible outcomes. We have agreed contingency regulations with the EU to ensure that flights continue and that hauliers have access to the EU marketplace in a no-deal scenario. We have also set up new UK safety certification regimes so that we have proper safety standards and rules in place in all eventualities.
Unfortunately, the Secretary of State did not refer to the manufacturing industry in that answer. As Brexit looms, his civil servants will no longer have their lame excuse that they are unable to prefer trains built locally—an interpretation of European regulations that is not shared by any other major country in Europe. Even when a firm built a factory in the north-east, it disgracefully lost a contract to a firm that will build the great majority of those trains abroad. Will this Brexit-supporting Secretary of State finally show some backbone and instruct his civil servants to buy trains made in British factories by British workers?
When it comes to support for planning, it should be noted that, earlier this month, the chief executive of the Road Haulage Association said:
“It’s obvious that government has lost its way…tens of thousands of UK hauliers… are still in the dark. Because of government ineptitude they are simply not ready.”
In a similar vein, can the Secretary of State confirm that the no-deal ferry contracts do not allow for a delayed start date? If so, what will be the cost to the taxpayer and his Department of this latest blunder?
If the hon. Gentleman had been listening a moment ago, he would have heard me say that we have now completed interim arrangements. The European Union has introduced interim regulations to ensure that hauliers will continue to have access to the European market, which is the right thing to do. We do not want businesses to be disrupted, and those firms will be able to continue to travel to and from the continent in the coming months, doing the work that they do now.
If the Secretary of State listened to the question, it would be much more helpful than listening to the answer.
A spokesman for the road freight industry has stated:
“Our pleas for clarity have been constant—yet none has been forthcoming.”
He also said:
“We have never shared Mr Grayling's optimism”.
Given the £33 million settlement payment to Eurotunnel, a reported £28 million compensation payment to the ferry companies in respect of the no-deal contracts, a shortage of some 60,000 HGV drivers that will be exacerbated by Brexit, and the loss of transport industry confidence, surely the best boost for the industry would be the Secretary of State’s stepping aside.
In the light of the conversations that took place yesterday and the statement from the President of the European Council, I am quite glad that we will have provision in a week’s time—if it is necessary, and I hope that it will not be—to ensure that essential supplies and medicines can come into the country. Of course, if the hon. Gentleman does not want a no deal, his party could climb off its high horse and support the Prime Minister’s deal.
Tyne and Wear Metro: Washington
The Department’s call for evidence, issued on 7 February, seeks views on how we can seize the opportunities to build on the success of light rail. I am grateful for the response that the hon. Lady sent to the Department highlighting the potential merits of extending the Metro system to Washington, and we will ensure that her comments are taken into full consideration.
Residents of Washington often feel like the town is an island compared with neighbouring cities and towns. It contains 70,000 of my constituents, 70% of whom use their car to get to work. Does the Minister not agree that investment in transport infrastructure—such as the extension of the best light rail system in the north-east to Washington—would be the perfect way to encourage people out of their cars, reduce congestion, improve air quality and reduce the nation’s carbon footprint? What’s not to love?
As ever, the hon. Lady has made a strong case for the original Washington. We are keen supporters of this local transport system. We are investing £317 million in the Metro renewals and refurbishment programme and a further £337 million in renewing the fleet, as the Secretary of State said a moment ago.
I am aware that Nexus has identified a number of opportunities to expand the Metro network. It is up to Nexus to build a business case and to seek funding accordingly, but I support the hon. Lady’s basic argument, which is that transport investment is a driver of economic growth and environmental improvement. That is why we are investing so much in our networks across the country.
Welsh Railway Network
Network Rail’s proposed investment in the rail network in Wales during control period 6—between now and 2024—is £1.34 billion. That builds on the £900 million invested throughout control period 5 since 2014. That constitutes an increase of just under 50%. That investment will build a bigger, better railway for Wales.
Wales contains 11% of the UK railway network, but since 2010 it has received only 2% of the overall funding. Last year it received £177 million, while north-west London alone received £669 million. That is not acceptable. When will the Minister start investing in the Welsh railway network and end this chronic underfunding?
I am keen to see investment in the rail network throughout the United Kingdom. The budget for control period 6 is a record £48 billion, and, as I said a moment ago, the Wales budget for the next five years is £1.34 billion. That is just to tackle the infrastructure; we are also investing in tackling the new franchise—which is run by the Welsh Government—and in rolling stock.
Order. Although the hon. Gentleman represents Cleethorpes, which if memory serves me correctly is in north-east Lincolnshire, he is also a noted parliamentary celebrity in that he chairs the all-party group on rail and therefore we are interested in his thoughts on this matter.
Thank you for the introduction, Mr Speaker.
If my residents in Cleethorpes wanted to access the Welsh rail network, the first part of their journey would be to catch the TransPennine Express from Cleethorpes to Manchester and, if they did so, as they were leaving Cleethorpes station they would pass over Suggitts Lane level crossing, which as the Minister knows from his recent visit to my constituency is under threat of closure by Network Rail. Could he use his best endeavours to influence Network Rail to look at all other safety measures rather than closure?
I can see, Mr Speaker, why you referred to my hon. Friend as a parliamentary celebrity; that was properly ingenious. I will of course do all I can to help with the Suggitts Lane level crossing issue, and I much enjoyed my recent visit to his constituency and thank him for arranging the roundtable with local businesses.
Whether it is the line down to Wrexham or indeed the north Wales coast line, railways in Chester are hampered by the blockage that is the Hoole bridge in my constituency, which the Secretary of State knows about because he visited it during the 2017 general election. During the next control period, will Ministers make money available to improve and rebuild Hoole bridge?
The welcome investment in the Halton curve has meant that train services from Liverpool to Wrexham will very shortly recommence for the first time on a direct service, but will the Minister investigate with the Welsh Assembly Government and the local authorities the possibility of extending that service up the north Wales coast to Flint and other stations in north Wales for tourism and business purposes?
I will certainly investigate the question raised by the right hon. Gentleman. The £16 million investment in the Halton curve has enabled that new hourly direct service between Lime Street and Chester, therefore making it easier for constituents he serves and others across north Wales to travel, so I will see what we can do to make that easier.
Road Connectivity: Midlands
As my hon. Friend will know, Highways England is spending a lot of time and effort thinking about improving the strategic network around the midlands through its investment strategy; smart motorways and junction improvements on the M5 are part of that. I am sure he will also join me in celebrating the recent announcement of our large local major schemes, including the A4440 at Worcester-Carrington bridge.
My hon. Friend will be aware that we are already investing in the A46 link road phase 1 at Stoneleigh junction and in junction improvements around Coventry. We have also funded Midlands Connect to carry out a full corridor study designed to look at potential improvements, and that is an important piece of work. We expect to receive its corridor investment strategy later this year and will be taking it very seriously.
Will the Minister join me in urging Midlands Connect to have a balance of schemes in the east midlands and not just the west midlands? Perhaps he will commend to Midlands Connect the M1-A38 link road and Codnor bypass as it will be a perfect scheme to prove its commitment to the east midlands.
The Government have frozen regulated rail fares in line with inflation for the sixth year in a row. In addition we announced the launch of a new 16 to 17-year-old railcard, with up to 1.2 million young people eligible for a 50% discount on rail travel to coincide with the new academic year. Fares revenue is crucial to funding day-to-day railway operations and the massive upgrade programme we are delivering, all of which benefit passengers.
I should point out that 98p in every £1 paid in fares goes back into investment in the industry. The argument about nationalising the railways is one that we have had here before, and I think it is the wrong approach. The approach that we have taken for the past 25 years has led to a record growth in passenger numbers, a record number of services on our network and a record level of safety across our network. The hon. Gentleman’s suggestion would simply move us back to the 1970s and to a model that failed.
Rail Network: South-West England
I was very pleased to be in Dawlish last month to kick off the next stage of our programme to make the railway line there resilient against storms and floods. The £80 million investment in the new sea wall south of the station should mean that the line does not get blocked by high tides as it has done in the past, and I look forward to that work being completed later this year. Further work at Dawlish will follow, and we have also completed work around Exeter to provide greater resilience in that area. It is a real priority for this Government to ensure that the rail network in the south-west does not get disconnected by storms and bad weather in the future.
I thank my right hon. Friend for giving me such a positive answer. The news of the £80 million funding for the new sea wall was very welcome for the whole region. As he knows, when the Dawlish line is cut off, the whole of Devon and Cornwall is cut off from the network. Can he confirm that, if the local council gives planning permission for the work, it will be started very quickly, to deliver this much-needed scheme?
I very much hope that the work will commence within a matter of weeks. We will then need to go on and deal with the cliffs, which are a significant issue and will require longer development and consent processes because of the extremely sensitive environment around them. It is my view that we need to sort out the cliffs as well as the sea wall.
Train Operating Companies: Sanctions
The Department monitors operator performance closely through the franchise agreement. If performance falls below a predetermined level, we can require the operator to incur expenditure to improve performance for passengers. If an operator delivers consistently poor performance, the Department can intervene to act in passengers’ best interests, and this can include removing the franchise and acting as the operator of last resort.
The Minister will be aware, as will anyone here who is a Southern commuter, that for the past three years Southern has been let off the hook again and again. He will also know that, from next month, train operators will switch to “on time” as a target. Southern is currently hitting that target only 72% of the time. At what point will he call for the company to be sacked?
The right hon. Gentleman is not correct to say that action is not being taken. We have held Govia Thameslink Railway, which is part of the bigger franchise, to account for its role in the disruption last year. I recognise that the quality of service that he expects for his constituents has not been delivered over the past few years, but GTR will not make a profit in this financial year and we have capped the profit that it can make for the remaining years of its franchise. GTR is also paying £15 million into a fund for tangible improvements, in addition to the £15 million that it contributed towards the special compensation scheme.
Further to the question from the right hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake), not only should GTR not be making a profit; it should be making a whopping loss for the appalling pig’s ear it has made of our service. After all those sanctions and penalties, how on earth can the Minister justify GTR still having that franchise?
I recognise the frustration that people have experienced in parts of our network, but just bringing the franchise to an end could cause further and unnecessary disruption for passengers and therefore be an inappropriate course of action. The question should be how we can improve our network, and that is the action that we are taking. We are seeing this coming through in performance improvements.
Poor performance is not just down to the operating companies. Peak-time trains between Sheffield and London are running slower than they were a year ago because of the botched timetable changes that the Department brought in. When is the Minister going to reverse those changes so that the journey times for peak-time trains between Sheffield and London can get back to being less than two hours, as they were a year ago?
People in East Dunbartonshire experience an appalling rail service, particularly on the Milngavie line, where only 28% of trains arrive on time. Does the Minister know of any other train line on which performance is quite so poor, or could the Milngavie line be the worst in Britain?
The operation of the rail network north of the border is a matter for the Scottish Government, so I am not as sighted on the matter that the hon. Lady raises. If I start to become very excited about the issue, I may be treading into devolved territory, which may be inappropriate. However, I am aware of lines up and down the country on which performance has not been good enough, which is why we are investing at a record level to improve that performance.
Remotely Managed Air Traffic Control
Trains to planes, Mr Speaker. The Aviation Minister has held discussions on remote air traffic control tower operations with several organisations, including the Civil Aviation Authority, NATS, operators of airports such as Cranfield, Highlands and Islands Airports, and the Western Isles Council.
Highlands and Islands Airports and the Scottish Transport Minister seem determined to drive the centralisation of air traffic control across the highlands and islands, despite the legitimate safety concerns expressed by its staff and socioeconomic concerns expressed by communities across the region. If they are not going to listen to us, will the Secretary of State ensure that the CAA certainly does when it comes to the sign-off of any scheme?
I am pleased to announce today that I have approved more than £54 million of funding for the north-west relief road in Shrewsbury. It is an important route that will take cars away from the town centre, reducing congestion, cutting journey times and improving air quality within Shrewsbury, and it forms part of a £1.8 billion programme in the midlands alone to improve motorways and major roads.
May I take the Secretary of State back a year to when he came with me to Alfreton station in my constituency and saw the need for level access to the south-bound platform? Now that the new funding period is starting, can I get an update on when money will be released to deliver that improvement?
There are just eight days until the UK leave the EU. No deal or plan is in place; there is simply chaos across the Government. However, it is the chaos across our borders that is my concern today. Will the Secretary of State ensure that the Prime Minister, in making her case to the European Council to avoid a no-deal Brexit and about how essential it is to extend article 50, highlights that a border between the EU and the UK will harm trade and the flow of goods, food and medicines and be catastrophic for the logistics sector?
As the hon. Lady and the House will know, we do not want problematic arrangements at the border. Indeed, the deal that the Prime Minister has reached with the European Union would prevent such problems. The hon. Lady is right to say that there are only eight days left, so why does the Labour party continue to put party advantage ahead of national interest? Labour should support the deal next week, so that we can move forward with a constructive partnership with the EU.
As my hon. Friend will be entirely aware—he is a tireless campaigner on this issue, on which we have met—Highways England is reviewing plans for the A27 in light of feedback from the public consultation. We will hopefully have a chance to review and discuss it with Highways England and, in due course, with my hon. Friend. I look forward to it, but I cannot tell him exactly when it will be.
I recognise my hon. Friend’s expertise and understanding, and I thank him for the question. Of course drivers deserve to know how secure their cars are. The taskforce brings industry, police and the Government together to see what more can be done, which includes reviewing public advice on how owners can secure their vehicles, as well as addressing new and emerging threats. We look closely at what it is doing, and we will continue to do so.
The haulage industry is, of course, a commercial business, and we expect it to provide training for new employees. The Government have put in place a wide variety of support for training through the apprenticeship levy and through other work by the Department for Education and the skills sector. It is for commercial businesses to deliver the training their staff require, and the Government will always provide whatever support we can to help them do so.
This is obviously a very serious matter. I thought my hon. Friend would raise the announcement of the preferred route for the Air Balloon roundabout, but this is even more important. He will be aware that the cycling and walking investment strategy safety review includes consideration of horse riders. As it happens, the Department’s Think! campaign has only just launched a new “learn the ways of the road” campaign, which includes looking out for vulnerable road users, particularly horse riders. The point is well made, and I will talk to DEFRA colleagues about this issue because, as he says, getting horse riders off the road is the best way to keep them safe.
Some of the people of Knowsley are having real problems getting to work. On the one hand, they regularly face cancellations on Northern Rail and, on the other hand, if they have to use the Mersey Gateway to get to work in the morning, they have to pay £900 a year. The Secretary of State has done absolutely nothing to address any of these problems. Is it not about time he moved out of the way and let someone else get on with it?
As the right hon. Gentleman knows, we have been working hard with Transport for the North to improve the performance of Northern Rail. As he will also know, the Mersey Gateway bridge and its infrastructure were done in collaboration with Halton Borough Council to enable a substantial additional facility to be put in place for the north-west.
I thank my hon. Friend for that question. Through the next east midlands franchise, passenger services on the Derby to Crewe corridor will benefit from increased capacity, which means that trains will operate with at least one extra carriage to help satisfy local demand. This will be supplemented by additional early and late services, and improved Sunday services. The bids for the next east midlands franchise are currently being considered. Ministers just do not see those bids during that stage of the process, but as soon as there is news, I will share it with him. Of course, we will be delighted to meet him, as I always am. I cannot promise to bring my cheque book just at the moment, but I look forward to discussing the issue further with him.
Dockless bike hire schemes could have been transformative, but too many of those schemes have crashed and burned, leaving a trail of destruction behind them. Despite repeated calls from across this House, the Government have not regulated. Will they soon act?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that question. Of course dockless bikes are a source of interesting innovation, and it has been important to see how that innovation is playing out. They can be regulated under a variety of local government powers. As we see further developments, we will continue to look at this. They will also potentially be subject to the discussion in respect of the micro-mobility review we are doing at the moment, through the future mobility strategy.
Will the Minister update us on progress on Access for All funding bids, specifically the one I made for Upminster station in my constituency, which would help disabled people at this busy hub to connect to Crossrail in Romford and which has the full backing of the Havering Association for People with Disabilities?
My hon. Friend has made multiple representations on behalf of her constituency. The Access for All funding is about £300 million, and the decision will be made public in due course, around April.
In response to the question from the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (David Duguid), the Secretary of State committed the Government, on Heathrow expansion, to support regional links. Will he confirm where he expects that support to come from—the Government, local authorities or, in Scotland’s case, the Scottish Government?
There are two points to make. We have various tools at our disposal, including the public service obligation system, to protect routes and sometimes to support them. However, as Heathrow expands and as demand for air travel grows, I do not expect most of those routes to need Government support. This is a question of making sure that the capacity is available for routes that will be commercial.
Headcorn station, in my constituency, is used by more than 600,000 passengers each year, yet it has no step-free access, making thousands of journeys more difficult for disabled passengers. Will the Minister update me on whether Headcorn will receive funding from the Access for All programme?
My hon. Friend raises an important point; a lot of our rail infrastructure is incredibly old, even though 75% of journeys are step-free. The decisions on the £300 million that has been allocated for step-free access are taking place at the moment. I am afraid that I cannot tell her about this right now, but the decisions will be made public in April.
We know that the settlement for the next rail investment period has been underfunded, and my constituents want to see a train station at Parkhead. So when looking at future rail investment, will the Minister agree to look at the case for Parkhead and fund it properly going forward?
This is nonsense; the investment going into our rail network in the next few years is at a record level, and the money coming to Scotland, thanks to the generosity of this Government, goes beyond what the Scottish Government would be entitled to under the Barnett formula. I suggest they use that money wisely, to provide the kind of additional facility the hon. Gentleman is asking for.
Network Rail has demolished the Leyland bridge, with no short-term plan to put a temporary structure in place so that we have not got the inconvenience and great disruption being caused to local residents and businesses. Will the Minister intervene to make sure that Network Rail urgently reviews this and finds a temporary solution to this pressing problem?
Recent vegetation management alongside the railway has destroyed huge swathes of the Erewash landscape. Will the Minister outline what further steps have been taken to ensure that Network Rail does vegetation management responsibly and does not take the drastic measures it has taken throughout my constituency? It is really affecting the wildlife, as well as my constituents’ wellbeing.
We have been reviewing Network Rail’s environmental performance, and the consequences of the recently published new environmental strategy should follow through all areas of Network Rail’s work. We obviously need to maintain a safe rail network, but we also want to see the embankments and all the Network Rail land deliver environmental benefits. The two are not incompatible. I do not know about the specific area around my hon. Friend’s constituency, but I am happy to look at it. As regards the overall picture, we have seen some real change and progress in this policy area, and it will be a priority for the future.
Electrification is clearly the optimal solution for intensively used rail lines, and the Railway Industry Association has shown that it can be delivered at costs that are 33% to 50% lower than those for past projects, if it is part of a rolling programme. Why will the Secretary of State not electrify the midland main line and give Nottingham the cleaner, greener and cheaper services it deserves?
I am sure the hon. Lady will welcome the fact that under my stewardship, in the past three months the Department for Transport and our transport system has opened three times more electrified railway than the Labour party did in 13 years in office, so I am not going to take any lessons from the Labour party. We continue a programme of modernisation of our rail network, which includes electrification and extra capacity and gets cars off the roads and people on to the railways.
Will my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State update the House on when he expects Crossrail to start running? What investigation has been carried out into the scandal of its finances and budget and the overspending that has taken place?
The new management team at Crossrail is working through the project and will be advising everybody next month, I think, as to when there will be a target opening date. I do not think that information will come soon enough—I know that Londoners, including those represented by my hon. Friend, are hungry for it—but the scheme will be fantastic for London and the rest of the country when it opens. On the financial performance, the budget is managed by Transport for London, and the London Assembly has done some investigation work. In terms of the Department’s role, TfL and the Mayor came to the Department seeking a loan to help with the delivery of the project, and we were happy to help them. A further £2.1 billion has been made available, and that should be enough to see the project through to completion.
My train home on Monday night was cancelled and the train that I was trying to get in on yesterday was advertised as 20 minutes late when I gave up on it. That is just two of the seven trains I have caught so far this week, and it is a regular experience for my constituents. I raise the issue in the Chamber regularly. Will someone just come to the Dispatch Box and tell me, “We hear your pain” and that Ministers are going to do something about the Southeastern rail franchise?
I am acutely aware of the service levels of all our rail franchises throughout the country. I am also aware that 2018 was a difficult year and that some of the problems have continued. At the same time, it is fair to point out that we are seeing a service that is delivering more passengers and more services, at record levels of safety. In respect of the individual services that the hon. Gentleman tried to use, if he drops me a line I will look into them, take the matter up with the rail franchise and find out why the services were cancelled.
We must make the most of all the transport links that we already have. The Cotswold line is in urgent need of further upgrades, including further redoubling, to help with reliability and capacity. Will the Minister meet me so that I can make the case to him?
May I press the rail Minister again in relation to the Pencoed level crossing in my constituency? I have been asking for almost three years now for Transport Ministers to engage in getting the level crossing closed. The Labour-led local authority and the Welsh Labour Government have put forward funding for a transport plan. Wales Office officials are attending these meetings to close the level crossing. Will the Minister commit to sending officials to the next meeting to work towards closing one of the most dangerous crossings in Wales?
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. It was said by the Minister, the hon. Member for Hereford and South Herefordshire (Jesse Norman), that I had made no mention of cycling in my speech to the Institute for Government yesterday. I made five mentions of it, and there were 300 words devoted to the subject. The Secretary of State then added that yesterday Labour announced hiking the cost of going on holiday. Mr Speaker, I do not want to stray into using unparliamentary language, but that is not true. I seek your guidance as to what we can do to ensure that Ministers come to the Dispatch Box to correct the record.
Well, the Secretary of State appears to wish to say something. [Interruption.] Order. We are not going to continue the debate. If the Secretary of State wishes to correct the record or to explain in a sentence why he does not feel any need to do so, that would be acceptable.
Well, very well. The matter will have to rest there. I simply say to the shadow Secretary of State that I might well have been intrigued to read the speech anyway, but in light of the fact that there are these five references, which he has just advertised to the House and the nation, I am now impelled to do so. It sounds a diverting read and it will form part of my late-night consumption in the days and weeks ahead and I am deeply grateful to him.
Northern Ireland Assembly Election
To ask the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland if she will make a statement regarding the extension of her power under the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation and Exercise of Functions) Act 2018 not to hold an Assembly election.
I am grateful for the opportunity to update the House on my progress towards restoring the Northern Ireland Executive and the other institutions established under the Belfast agreement.
In recent weeks, I have met the Northern Ireland parties and the Irish Government on a number of occasions. In those discussions, all five main parties reaffirmed their commitment to restoring a power-sharing Executive and the other political institutions set out in the Belfast agreement.
Although we have not yet been able to start a formal talks process, I believe that the five main parties and the Irish Government would be in favour of taking forward a short, focused set of roundtable talks to restore devolution at the earliest opportunity. Any such talks process will involve the UK Government, the five main parties and the Irish Government taking place in full accordance with the well-established three-stranded approach.
As you know, Mr Speaker, the period for Executive formation was extended by the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation and Exercise of Functions) Act 2018, which lasts until 26 March this year. I am incredibly reluctant to extend that period. The people of Northern Ireland deserve strong political leadership from a locally elected, accountable devolved Government and I am absolutely focused on achieving that outcome. But as we stand here today, there are only three options before the legislation expires next week. The first is an Assembly election, which is a costly exercise that would be highly unlikely to change the political dynamics. The second is an alternative approach to decision making in Northern Ireland, such as direct rule, which I do not believe is in the interests of the people of Northern Ireland—certainly they tell me that it is not what they want.
The third option is to extend the Act. This gives the political parties more space to come back together in the best interests of the people of Northern Ireland. It also provides the Northern Ireland civil service with the certainty and clarity that they need to continue to deliver public services in the absence of Ministers.
I have today laid before Parliament a statutory instrument to extend the period for the Act from 26 March 2019 to 25 August 2019. This means that from 26 August this year I will fall under the duty to propose a date for an Assembly election. Both Houses will have the opportunity to debate the instrument in the usual way, and the instrument cannot remain in force unless actively approved by both Houses.
I thank the Secretary of State for her initial response, but I remind the House that it is now well over two years since the Stormont Assembly last sat. In previous periods, we have sometimes had direct rule, but we have most certainly had Secretaries of State and Prime Ministers actively engaged in bringing the parties together.
Before the passing of the Act last October, the law required that the Secretary of State call an election. There were cynics who said that the reason for the legislation was that the Secretary of State wanted to avoid judicial review and being dragged through the courts to explain why she had failed to call the election. Operating on the bipartisan principle from which all Governments have benefited in the 20-plus years since the Good Friday agreement, we reluctantly accepted last October the need for the legislation. We did that, however, only after consultation and after the Secretary of State had let us know her plans. During the passage of the Act, she promised that she and the Prime Minister would spare no effort to bring the five parties together and get the Stormont Assembly back in operation. In October, it seemed incredible that it would not happen before this March, but five months on I discover through social media—it is unacceptable that consultation takes place through social media—that she plans to extend the period of the legislation.
I am bound to put this first question to the Secretary of State: has she given up on bringing the parties together? Nobody in Northern Ireland—none of the political parties—says to me they believe she has been sincere or energetic in her determination to get the parties together and the Stormont Assembly back up and running. The right hon. Member for Belfast North (Nigel Dodds) said in The House magazine that
“her basic policy approach has been flawed in the sense that she has decided that Northern Ireland could just stand still, leave it to the civil servants. For that, that’s a glaring failure on her part.”
Many people agree with that assessment.
Does the Secretary of State now accept that nothing will happen until after August and that we will drift along once again? If not, and given that she has so little credibility among the political parties, how does she now plan to drive the talks process forward in a meaningful and consistent way, and in a way we have not seen before? What will her best endeavours be, according to the needs of the Good Friday agreement, to move the situation on and bring the five parties together, and how does she intend to involve the authority of the Prime Minister in a way that previous Northern Ireland Secretaries have done with previous Prime Ministers?
I do not like ever to personalise politics, but I have to say to the Secretary of State that she has seen a massive haemorrhaging of trust in her role in recent weeks and months, because of inadvertent remarks she has uttered and her lack of energy in bringing the five parties together. The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland has to be a figure of both trust and authority. If she is not part of the solution, she becomes part of the problem, so my last question is this: does she honestly believe that she can regain the confidence of the five parties and the people of Northern Ireland and drive Northern Ireland forward?
I have to say I am very disappointed by the hon. Gentleman’s tone—he is someone I respect and have enormous time for.
I was incredibly disappointed when I saw that my conversations with political parties yesterday had been put out in press releases and ended up on social media. That was not the intention. I made this decision having consulted all five main parties—I spoke to them all yesterday, either face to face or over the telephone—and I also spoke to the Irish Government, and when I had consulted all those parties and said that I was minded to extend the legislation, but only if there was any prospect or possibility of the parties coming together, and they confirmed to me that that was the case, I contacted the hon. Gentleman. I, too, am disappointed that information was on social media before I had had the chance to contact him, but I assure him that I contacted him at the very earliest opportunity after I had made my decision based on my conversations with the parties.
I do meet the parties regularly, I do speak to them and I do hear from them. I brought the parties together in five-party talks to see whether we could find a way to get a process in place. Parties tell me that they want to do that, so I intend to spend the next few weeks working with them on actions that can be taken so that, when we are able to start a formal talks process, we are able to do so in a way that gives us the best chance of success.
The hon. Gentleman is right that two years is too long for the people of Northern Ireland to be without Ministers. I know that the parties want to find a way to go back into Stormont, and I want to do everything in my power to ensure that that happens. That is why, extremely reluctantly, I have laid the instrument today—an instrument that he will have 90 minutes to debate on the Floor of the House, and can vote against if he disagrees with it.
The hon. Gentleman says that he wants to see devolution restored in Northern Ireland, yet he consistently undermines that position by demanding that decisions are taken in Westminster—the very opposite of devolution. He also says that he wants to see Northern Ireland protected in Brexit, but he consistently votes against the only position that protects the Belfast agreement—the deal that is supported by his sister party in Northern Ireland, which would ensure that Northern Ireland does not move into chaos and would not wreck the prospects of any devolution in Northern Ireland. If he wants to start taking actions that match his words, he should do the right thing for Northern Ireland and vote for the deal next week.
I fully understand the need to table the written ministerial statement, but it states quite clearly that the proposed talks should be “short” and “focused”, and I assume that that is more than rhetorical. However, my experience of talks in Northern Ireland is that they are neither short nor particularly focused. Will the Secretary of State explain a little bit more about her thinking on the matter, as what she has written seems to suggest that there is a specific bone of contention within the current impasse in Northern Ireland that can be resolved through the short and focused talks that she envisages?
I thank the Chair of the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs, whom I also notified of the decision yesterday. The reason for the comment about short and focused talks is that I genuinely believe that there is a will to re-establish devolved government. A number of issues need to be resolved, but we will ensure that work is done before the talks start. Let me be clear that I do not want to mislead people in Northern Ireland to think that a talks process will have success if I do not believe that it will. I will therefore only call that talks process if I believe that there will be success, but I believe that the issues can be dealt with through a short, focused process, and that is what I intend to bring forward.
Thank you very much, Mr Speaker.
I thank the Secretary of State for her statement this morning. Talks collapsed more than 12 months ago, and Scottish National party Members want to see their immediate re-establishment. The Secretary of State has told the Chamber many times that restoring devolution is her No. 1 priority, and I am sure the House will hold her to that. Will she therefore give the House a date on which the new, inclusive talks will begin, and tell us why she has presided over such an unacceptable delay? Can she also give us a commitment that the talks will be fully inclusive, including all the communities and parties involved; and what role does she see for the Irish Government in the process? Has she given some thought to appointing an independent mediator to assist in making the process fairer and faster?
Finally, does the Secretary of State accept that the wider instability caused by her Government through the Brexit process is the general reason that it is so difficult to restore this approach in Northern Ireland? Once we get through this madcap Brexit process, are we going to see faster progress in returning devolved democracy to Northern Ireland, instead of dictatorship from this place?
There is definitely not dictatorship from this House towards Northern Ireland. I am completely committed to devolution and all the institutions established under the Belfast agreement, and that is what we want to see restored as soon as possible. I would expect the talks to be five-party talks, because the best thing for Northern Ireland is for the five main parties to be involved in the talks and then to be able to form an Executive. In terms of a date, as soon as there is more information I will of course return to this House to update it, as I always do.
The hon. Gentleman is right that there is a very strong role for the Irish Government. It is quite clear that the two Governments have been involved in all talks processes that have been successful, and we would of course ensure that they were involved. On an independent mediator, I rule nothing out. I am looking at a number of options as to how we might restart the talks in such a way as to have the best success.
The hon. Gentleman talked about Brexit being a distraction. I think that perhaps the bigger distraction in Northern Ireland at the moment is the local elections, for which we will be going into purdah next week.
I think the whole House will want to see a return to devolved government in Northern Ireland, and we wish the Secretary of State well in these discussions. What would the consequences have been had she not taken the difficult but required decision to lay this statutory instrument to enable her to continue the powers that she has?
The reason for the legislation in the first place was that we need to ensure that there is some political cover for civil servants taking decisions. We want to make sure that public services continue to run and that civil servants can take decisions. They cannot change the law and they cannot take major policy decisions, but it is very important that they are able to take decisions on infrastructure, funding for schools and hospitals and so on. The alternative to extending the legislation is, as I set out earlier, one of two things: either a fundamental change in the way that decision making takes place in Northern Ireland—a step that I do not believe is in the interests of the people of Northern Ireland—or the requirement to call an election, which is a very costly exercise that I do not think would see any fundamental change to the political dynamic there.
I thank the Secretary of State for the consultations that she has had with us on this matter. Of course, this is the right thing to do in the circumstances. Regrettable though it is, it is the only possible course at the present time. However, could I suggest that she does something a bit more radical to take the initiative a bit more? What about calling the Assembly together? What about putting it up to the parties as to who is prepared to go into government now and who wants to sit outside? My understanding is that four of the five parties in Northern Ireland would go into government tomorrow, so why not put it up to people? Instead of all the talk about wanting devolution, let us see who will actually vote for it. Please do that.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his question. I am aware that he probably has an aeroplane to catch, so I will not detain him any longer than need be. I am looking at what we can do over the next few weeks to get the parties together to start the dialogue and to make sure that when a talks process does start, it has the best possible chance of succeeding.
I understand the reasons for this decision, but we are in a continued appalling situation where decisions are either not being made or being made by senior civil servants without any democratic accountability. What can the Secretary of State do to encourage the head of the civil service to put in place guidance on the transparency of those decisions and of decisions that are delayed or not being made, and on ensuring some consistency in who they meet and how they meet stakeholders and members of the public with concerns?
I thank the Secretary of State for what she has said so far. Her decision not to hold the Northern Ireland Assembly elections is understandable, but it leaves Northern Ireland in uncertainty. School budgets are in crisis and waiting lists for operations grow. There is a need to target specific moneys across all Departments in Northern Ireland, but particularly towards Health and Education, as she said. What steps will she be taking to enable financial restrictions to be eased, including on the confidence and supply moneys that my party secured from her party to enable better government and better possibilities and strategies for Northern Ireland?
With specific reference to the moneys secured under the confidence and supply arrangement, those moneys are being released as appropriate by the Treasury, and they are included within the Northern Ireland budget. We legislated two weeks ago to put the 2018-19 budget on a statutory footing, and we will of course do so for the 2019-20 budget later on. Clearly this is not a good situation, and none of us wants to be in this situation, but it is the least worst of the options that are available to us.
The Secretary of State has a difficult job, and I know that the Prime Minister is very busy with other matters, but the reason I was the last direct rule Minister for Northern Ireland is that the then Prime Minister, Tony Blair, and the Taoiseach put the parties in St Andrews hotel in Scotland for an intensive period to come to a conclusion and to do what the right hon. Member for Belfast North (Nigel Dodds) said—to ask “Are you in Government, or are you not?” The answer out of St Andrews came, “Yes, we are.” The challenge is for the Secretary of State to bring the Prime Minister, the Taoiseach and the parties to the table and to put that deadline to them.
I agree with the right hon. Gentleman; I want him to continue to be the very last direct rule Minister for Northern Ireland, and I am determined that we achieve that. But he will know, from his great experience, that St Andrews was the culmination of work that had happened with the parties to bring them together. A lot of work happened before that short, intensive period of talks. I am looking at what work we can do before we bring together the parties in that short, focused talks period.
With the extension that has been announced, the breach of women’s human rights in Northern Ireland will carry on and not be addressed. How long do women in Northern Ireland have to wait for the Secretary of State to do the right thing by them?
The hon. Lady has campaigned on that matter for many years. She has introduced a private Members’ Bill, ten-minute rule Bills and so on, and I know she feels very strongly about it. An amendment was made to the legislation on guidance. It is clear that the civil service in Northern Ireland has a duty to monitor the situation with regard to changes in human rights laws and international law, but I continue to monitor it myself.
Further to what has been said about the importance of talks to get the Assembly up and running again, and the point made by the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Douglas Chapman), does the Secretary of State feel that it will be vital to have an independent facilitator to chair the process, because the UK Government—rightly or wrongly—may appear to be compromised by their current arrangements in this place with the DUP?
As Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, I am independent of what happens with regard to relationships on voting—those are a matter for Whips—but I am looking at all the options for how we can have success. When I have seen a willingness and a desire to restore devolution, I do not want to bring the parties together and fail to do so. We need to ensure that we have the best chance of doing it, and I will look at all options to ensure that that happens.
Point of Order
I do not want to be too courteous, Mr Speaker, because Quentin Letts may accuse me of being your toady and crony.
This is a serious point of order. You may recall that I asked you on Tuesday about your ruling on the Government not bringing back the same motion and whether, if they change it substantially, with a unilateral declaration, that will change something. I read all over the media last night that some people called “Cooper-Boles” are bringing back an amendment. Apart from the presumption that you would select that amendment, surely under your ruling, it would have to be substantially different, would it not?
I tried to explain to the right hon. Gentleman before that I will deal with these matters in the particular when there is a substantive matter for me to consider. Let me absolutely clear: what I am not going to do is to pronounce before it is necessary to do so on the hoof, on the back of a colleague, however distinguished and much loved, for whom the matter is at that moment especially material. That is not the way to do business here. I will rule as and when it is necessary to do so, and that moment—I say it with all courtesy to the right hon. Gentleman—is not now.
I am not going to comment on that, but I am always grateful to the right hon. Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh). He referred to newspapers. I really do not take any notice of them—for goodness’ sake, I am trying to concentrate on doing my duty. I am not preoccupying myself with newspaper reports or people who scribble columns. That really is of no significance or concern to me whatsoever. It never has been, and it certainly is not now.
Business of the House
The business for next week will be:
Monday 25 March—Debate on a motion relating to section 13(4) of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018.
Tuesday 26 March—Consideration of Lords amendments to the Healthcare (International Arrangements) Bill, followed by consideration of Lords amendments to the Offensive Weapons Bill, followed by a debate on a motion relating to section 5 of the European Communities (Amendment) Act 1993.
Wednesday 27 March—Motion to approve the draft Food Additives, Flavourings, Enzymes and Extraction Solvents (Amendment etc.) (EU Exit) Regulations 2019, followed by a motion to approve the draft Protecting against the Effects of the Extraterritorial Application of Third Country Legislation (Amendment) (EU Exit) Regulations 2019, followed by a motion to approve the draft Animal Health, Plant Health, Seeds and Seed Potatoes (Amendment) (EU Exit) Regulations 2019, followed by a motion to approve the draft Regulatory Reform (Scotland) Act 2014 (Consequential Modifications) Order 2019.
Thursday 28 March—General debate on beer taxation and pubs—[Interruption]—during which beer may need to be served, followed by a general debate on permitted development and shale gas exploration. The subjects for these debates were determined by the Backbench Business Committee.
Friday 29 March—The House will not be sitting.
Further to this business statement, as my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said yesterday, she has written to Donald Tusk seeking an extension to article 50 until the end of June. Any extension requires the unanimous agreement of EU member states and must be agreed by the European Council. The Government will seek to amend domestic legislation to alter the exit date set out in the withdrawal Act in line with any such agreement once it is reached, and will bring forward a statutory instrument accordingly. I will therefore make a further business statement next week, as necessary, to provide time for consideration of the legislation to alter the date of exit.
Similarly, as my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said yesterday, the Government continue to believe that the UK should leave the EU with a deal, and we intend to bring forward proposals for a third meaningful vote. The precise nature and timing of this debate will, to some extent, depend on the outcomes of this week’s European Council. I shall therefore make a further business statement next week, as appropriate, to provide time for consideration of a further motion under section 13 of the European Union (Withdraw