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.
I apologise to the Minister, because as a consequence of his looking at the hon. Gentleman who questioned him, I did not hear him, but I think he floated the concept of an e-bike. Did he say e-bike?
Well, I look forward to further illumination in due course. I am not familiar with this nostrum, but I have a feeling that I am soon going to be. I must say that it sounds very exciting.
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 only to get lost 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 particularly 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 genuinely grateful to the Minister. One learns something new every day, and I am now better informed.
We haven’t for months!
Well, the hon. Gentleman says that we have not learned anything new for months, but I have learned something today—that little titbit from the Minister—and I am deeply obliged to the hon. Gentleman.
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.
Based on what the Minister had to say about walking, cycling, e-bikes and all the rest, when will the Government get rid of their ministerial cars and have e-bikes instead?
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.
To encourage passenger numbers flying out of Scottish airports, why will the Secretary of State not guarantee public service obligations for additional slots for the new runway at Heathrow?
I have been very clear that the Government will, using the tools at our disposal, ensure there is guaranteed capacity for regional airports at Heathrow. That is absolutely clear Government policy.
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?
I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman is wrong, because a new regulation is now in place that guarantees aviation between the UK and the EU in all circumstances, and it does not include any kind of cap.
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?
Of course, the contract to which the right hon. Gentleman refers, which was won by Siemens rather than the other bidders, including Hitachi in the north-east, was in fact let by the current Labour Mayor of London.
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?
That is truly a trainspotter’s contribution.
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?
I am not quite as familiar with the geography of the hon. Gentleman’s constituency as he is, so I will have to do some investigation work and then report back to him.
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.
What plans does the Department have to improve the A46, a vital artery that is key to unlocking economic growth, jobs and housing right across the midlands, and how is the Department working with Midlands Connect in achieving those goals?
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.
I thank my hon. Friend for registering that point in the most public way possible. I am not aware of any particular bias in Midlands Connect; I do not think it has one. We work closely with it on any of the schemes that it brings forward.
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.
The Office of Rail and Road says that the train operating companies have paid out £1.3 billion in dividends since 2014. Would it not be better to use this money to cut fares, rather than paying fat cats in the private sector?
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 is 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?
The hon. Gentleman makes a point about Sheffield, so I will highlight the amount of work happening on the midland main line to improve journey times and passenger experiences up and down the network, including Sheffield.
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.
Surplus excitement is undesirable. The Minister has an exciting enough life as it is, gadding about the country on a variety of different train services, and we are indebted to him.
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 know well the team that runs the CAA, and I can give the right hon. Gentleman an undertaking that they would not sign off anything that they believed was unsafe.
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?
I am aware of that issue, which my hon. Friend and I saw together, and I will ask the Rail Minister to give him an early update.
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.
As I indicated in a previous statement to the House, this is being looked at carefully by the National Audit Office, which will publish all the information in due course.
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?
I am aware of the issue; my hon. Friend has raised it with me. I simply say to him that I have asked for this matter to be looked at carefully. I do not want improvement works to be done at the disadvantage of his constituents.
Which is the greatest danger to the Secretary of State’s Department—no deal, or no Brexit?
As far as my Department is concerned, we will prepare for all eventualities, and are doing so.
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?
Well done, Minister—very brief!
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?
I will certainly make sure that officials are fully engaged on this issue.
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.
I simply refer to the section of the hon. Gentleman’s speech where he says that air passenger duty has been frozen. He goes on to say:
“This is not a sensible approach to transport policy.”
So it is exactly what he says.
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.
I will call the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Douglas Chapman) now, but I am sensitive to the needs of all those who have flights to catch; I will bear that very closely in mind.
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?
As the hon. Lady knows—she pushed very hard for this—there is transparency on decisions through reports laid in this place on decisions that have been taken. However, I will look at the points she has made and see whether such further work can be done.
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 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
On a point of order, Mr Speaker.
It should really come after the business statement.
He is very tempting.
Indeed. Yes, I think I will indulge the right hon. Gentleman because of his natural courtesy.
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.
Getting away with blue murder.
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
Will the Leader of the House please give us the forthcoming business?
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 (Withdrawal) Act.
As my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said yesterday, we stand in solidarity with the people of New Zealand, following the appalling attack in Christchurch. I was also horrified to hear that several mosques in Birmingham were attacked last night. This rise of Islamophobia in the UK and across the world is deeply concerning, and we must stamp out this kind of vile hatred wherever we see it. We also send our thoughts and deepest sympathies to those affected by the cyclone in Mozambique, Malawi and Zimbabwe, those killed and injured in Utrecht and those caught up in the terrorist incident in Stanwell.
Yesterday was the International Day of Happiness, and I do have a number of items that I hope the House will be genuinely happy to hear about. First, the review of the independent complaints and grievance system has officially been launched this week, and I know Alison Stanley will bring her considerable experience to bear as the chair. Secondly, the Joint Committee looking at the draft Parliamentary Buildings (Restoration and Renewal) Bill has published its report today, and I am very grateful for its hard work, and particularly for the chairmanship of my right hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Dame Caroline Spelman). Thirdly, the first newly restored clock face of Big Ben has been uncovered, and the stunning original blue colouring can now be seen. Fourthly, all parliamentarians will, I hope, be proud and pleased of their efforts with their private Members’ Bills. I can report that 10 have now received Royal Assent in this Session, which is the joint highest total since 2003.
As a magnanimous rugby fan, may I very much congratulate Wales on winning the six nations grand slam, Scotland on retaining the Calcutta cup in a breathtaking game at Twickenham on Saturday, and last but by no means least—I am sporting my Northampton Saints jacket today—my own local team on winning the premiership rugby cup? Finally, I would like to wish those celebrating it a very happy Nowruz.
The Leader of the House read out the business for next week, but that is not really next week’s business, is it, since she will come back to the House with some emergency business motions? This is a contempt of democracy and parliamentary democracy. The Prime Minister said she would come back to the House with a meaningful vote—it will actually be meaningful vote 4, because she pulled the vote in December, when Parliament should have had the chance to debate a meaningful vote but did not.
How will the Prime Minister negotiate with the EU if she does not know the will of the House? What was the point of the statement yesterday, other than to set up a hostile environment between the Prime Minister and the House? The Leader of the House says that the House will not sit next Friday, and that there will be further business. Will she confirm to the House, honestly, whether we will sit on Friday, and whether we will debate the statutory instrument that extends the date of us leaving the EU?
Last week I asked about dates for Opposition day debates, and the Leader of the House said that there was “incredibly important” business for the week ahead. Opposition days are incredibly important business, and they are central to our democracy. On Monday, my hon. Friend the Member for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman) raised a point of order, and you responded, Mr Speaker, by saying that
“colleagues would think that it was a democratic and seemly thing to do to ensure that the principal Opposition party had the requisite allocation of days”.—[Official Report, 19 March 2019; Vol. 656, c. 788.]
That is why we take great exception to the Prime Minister’s comments that we are not interested in other matters.
Week after week I have stood at the Dispatch Box and asked the Leader of the House not just for Opposition days, but for statements and debates on local government, the NHS, social care, education, and cuts to our police services. My colleagues have asked for urgent questions on issues that affect our country. It is not us in Parliament who are contemplating our navels—I have never heard such unparliamentary language about hard-working colleagues from all sides of the House. We sit on Select Committees and Delegated Legislation Committees—that is what we do.
Let us remind ourselves: the Government had Lancaster House, Mansion House, Florence and Berlin. Each time we begged the Prime Minister for clarity on the negotiations, and each time she said nothing—“I don’t want to give a running commentary; Brexit means Brexit”. She should have given us broad heads of agreement right at the start, so that she could understand what Parliament wanted. The Chequers agreement was put to the Cabinet in July, but the Leader of the House and some of her pals preferred to have pizza parties instead of supporting their Prime Minister. Secretaries of State have resigned—we are now on our third Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union. Ministers have resigned. This is a crisis of the Government’s own making, and the Cabinet is divided.
Last week, bizarrely, I was in the Lobby with the Prime Minister, but the Leader of the House and seven of her colleagues were in another Lobby—they voted against the Government’s own motion. That included the Brexit Secretary, who wound up the debate by saying:
“It is time to put forward an extension that is realistic.”—[Official Report, 14 March 2019; Vol. 656, c. 628.]
He then voted to reject his own argument. Does the Leader of the House agree with Cabinet responsibility, and could we have a debate about what it means? It is no good her rounding on her colleagues in Cabinet, and then rounding on my colleagues in the Chamber, saying that she does not agree with them.
Let me again raise something that is not about contemplating our navels. Interserve, which employs 45,000 staff in the UK and works on £2 billion of Government contracts, has been put into administration. Tussell data shows that Interserve was handed public contracts worth hundreds of millions of pounds in the run-up to its collapse, despite announcing a series of profit warnings—[Interruption.] It is not funny; it is people’s lives. The Government are failing to ensure the viability of their outsourcing contracts.
Last July the Public Accounts Committee described the NHS’s outsourcing to Capita as a “shambles”, and the National Audit Office found that the £495 million contract to provide recruitment for the British Army had been beset by problems. The probation service has been described as “in crisis” since it was partly outsourced. That is what the public are tired of. A third of Government spending goes on external contractors and suppliers. When can the House have proper scrutiny of the failure of Government outsourcing contracts?
Last week, the Leader said that children should be in school. Some 1.4 million children and young people took part in the school strike against climate change. They disagree with her. I do, too. This is about education and citizenship. What to do to influence decision makers is vital. This is what 16-year-old Greta Thunberg said:
“You cheat when you can because all that matters is to win…We need to start co-operating and sharing the remaining resources of this planet in a fair way.”
While the Government have sat contemplating, they could have invested in the Swansea Bay tidal lagoon and in solar power, ended the cuts to feed-in tariffs and initiated a scrappage scheme for diesel cars. That is going to affect climate change.
I want to mention the funeral service of our dear colleague Paul Flynn tomorrow. My hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) has managed to secure a service in St Mary Undercroft. We thank the chaplain, Rev. Rose Hudson-Wilkin, and you, Mr Speaker, for indicating that you will be there.
On the second anniversary of his death, we remember PC Keith Palmer and those who died on Westminster Bridge. We think of the amazing people who protect us and who give their lives up to do so.
I, too, want to echo the words of Prime Minister Ardern. It is up to all of us to reject racism and hatred of anyone who is different. To the people of New Zealand, we are you and you are us. Rest in peace.
Before the Leader responds, and in the light of what the shadow Leader has said about the second anniversary of the death of PC Keith Palmer, I can inform the House that I intend that there should be a one-minute silence tomorrow in the Chamber, supported, I would hope, by people observing our proceedings. The intention is that that minute’s silence will take place at 11 o’clock.
First, I share the hon. Lady’s tribute to PC Keith Palmer. I was delighted to be at the memorial recognition of his great sacrifice and the unveiling of the memorial to him. She is absolutely right to pay her own tribute. I also share in her pleasure that there will be a memorial service for Paul Flynn, a much-missed colleague. I echo her words about the appalling atrocity that took place in New Zealand. It is absolutely horrendous. We all hope that the communities in New Zealand can come together, as they are doing, and we support all those who have been so tragically affected.
The hon. Lady asks about the meaningful vote next week. She will recognise that, as I said in my business statement, this is a fluid situation and we are waiting for the response of the EU27 to our request for an extension, which the Prime Minister has taken to them in response to the requirement of this House that she do so. As soon as we have a response from the EU Council, I will be able to update the House on when we can bring forward a meaningful vote and a debate next week. But it is certainly the Prime Minister’s intention to do so. Likewise, in terms of bringing forward the statutory instrument, hon. Members will know that, under the EU (Withdrawal) Act 2018, it is required that that statutory instrument be approved by both Houses. It is therefore vital that we find time for that as soon as we can.
The hon. Lady asks about Opposition days. We have debated a range of secondary legislation this week. I have announced important business for next week, including the section 13 debate on Monday and Lords amendments to two important Bills, the Healthcare (International Arrangements) Bill and the Offensive Weapons Bill. This week, we have had debates on two statutory instruments requested by the official Opposition. I will, of course, continue to consider her requests for further dates.
I absolutely agree with the hon. Lady that all Members right across the House have a huge interest in matters outside of Brexit. There is no doubt about that. I think the Business question every Thursday demonstrates the range of different interests across the House. All of us share a desire to be able to talk about things not Brexit-related that are so important to people, so I completely agree with her there.
What I will say about the Prime Minister’s speech yesterday is that what she was seeking to invoke among all parliamentarians was just the absolute reality that in a hung Parliament it is for every Member to seek to support good governance. I think that we can all be proud of the fact that in this Session alone we have introduced over 50 pieces of primary legislation, more than 40 of which have already received Royal Assent. In a hung Parliament, that demonstrates the House’s ability to work together in order to reach consensus, agree concessions and act in the national interest.
What the Prime Minister is seeking is for all individual Members to recognise that her withdrawal agreement and future declaration offer the means by which we can leave the European Union, in line with the will of the people as expressed in the referendum, but at the same time the significant minority of people who want to remain in the EU will also have their concerns met by a very close future economic and security partnership. I therefore urge all colleagues, right across the House, to consider the Prime Minister’s deal very carefully.
The shadow Leader of the House asked whether I believe in collective Cabinet responsibility. Of course I do. I have totally supported the Prime Minister’s desire to get a vote through this place. I have always been absolutely clear—in the press and in this Chamber—that I support a withdrawal agreement and a political declaration that deliver the will of the people, but that at the same time continue a close, collaborative relationship with our EU friends and neighbours.
The hon. Lady asked about Interserve, and she was absolutely right to do so. The Government certainly welcome the announcement that Interserve made last Friday regarding its refinancing, which will not affect the operational part of the company. It will bring the company the stability required to allow it to compete for future business and to continue to deliver good-value public services for the taxpayer. It is in the taxpayer’s interests to have a well-financed and stable group of key suppliers, so we welcome the actions that Interserve has taken.
The hon. Lady asked about schools and climate change. Let me say again that I absolutely welcome, support and endorse the determination of young people to do everything they can to support all those experiencing the negative effects of global climate change. We should do everything we can to support our environment around us. The United Kingdom ratified the Paris agreement in November 2016. More than 50% of UK electricity came from low-carbon sources in 2018, making it a record year for renewables, under this Conservative Government. We have cut the use of plastic bags by 86%, through our plastic bag charge. We have reduced emissions faster than any other G7 nation. The latest figures show that we have reduced greenhouse gas emissions by 23% since 2010. There is obviously a lot more to do, but I commend all young people who show their passion for the subject. At the same time, I reiterate that education is the best gift that a society can give its young people.
W. B. Yeats said:
“Happiness is neither virtue nor pleasure…but simply growth. We are happy when we are growing.”
We should therefore all have more to smile about, because the UK has indeed grown, according to the world happiness index—we have gone up the table. Yet so much of our discourse here is either doom-laden or dull, and Government perpetually risk being meanly managerial or meekly mechanistic. So will the Leader of the House arrange for a debate that will enable us to measure Government policy in terms of the difference it makes to quality of life; to gauge the difference it makes to wellbeing? We here must make it our mission to inspire and our duty to enthral. We must dare to dream.
I completely agree with my right hon. Friend. I think that his analysis is absolutely right. If I may say so, I think that all hon. Members, right across the House, come to this place to try to make the world around us a better place. It is vital that we occasionally take the time to consider how well we are doing against that challenge.
I think that there is much to celebrate. We should celebrate our economy, given that employment is at a record high. We should celebrate the tackling of inequality, given that the real-terms wages of the lowest paid are growing faster than those of anyone else. We should celebrate the Government’s determination to tackle loneliness, to consider more suicide prevention measures, and to invest significant sums in our NHS to support people with mental health problems. I think that what we should seek to do, across the House, is support each other sometimes, and celebrate our achievements.
I thank the Leader of the House for announcing the almost fantasy business for next week.
Following the Prime Minister’s statement last night, we shall have to have an emergency debate about Members’ security, because I am pretty certain that a few of us are feeling just a little bit more insecure this morning. It was the height of irresponsibility for the Prime Minister to pitch public against Parliament in the current climate, on the back of real issues of intimidation and threats against Members in all parts of the House. This is her Brexit, designed, administered and delivered by her Government. An ugly environment has been created in the last couple of years because they chose to divide the country on this toxic issue to try to resolve tensions within their own party, while refusing to consider any alternatives to their own singular approach. How dare the Prime Minister blame Members of Parliament for this mess? I will never stop fighting for what my country and my constituency voted for. I will stand by them, regardless of the “them and us” climate that the Prime Minister is trying to create.
I will tell the House what undermines democracy and erodes trust in Parliament: it is this Government ignoring agreed outcomes in the House. We vote again and again for something and it is then casually dismissed, or we continually reject something only for it to be brought back again and again. For example, where is the legislation that will take no deal off the table, which the House has agreed to twice? Democracy does not mean that it is the Prime Minister’s way or the highway.
We will be out of the EU a week tomorrow unless something is done. We do not know on what basis that will happen, and we do not know whether there will be an extension. The EU has said that it will grant an extension only if the House passes the dead, defeated deal. When will it come to the House—it will not be on Monday; that is just part of the Government’s obligations—and how will it be significantly different in order to meet your ruling, Mr Speaker? How will it be designed in that respect? This must happen next week, because we are supposed to be out of the EU by next Friday.
The situation is totally unbelievable. This disaster is part constitutional crisis, part farce, but 100% Tory. How dare the Government try to blame us for this mess?
The hon. Gentleman will not be surprised to hear that I do not share his view at all. Let me say again that this House has a duty to decide what it does want. The hon. Gentleman asked, “Where is the legislation to take no deal off the table?” He knows that the House voted to leave the European Union on 29 March. That is the legal position. How does he suggest that we legislate to take no deal off the table unless it is by agreeing a deal? You cannot legislate to take no deal off the table. The House has already rejected a customs union, a second referendum and a no-deal Brexit, and it has rejected the Prime Minister’s deal. The House has said a lot about what it does not want to do; it needs to say what it does want to do.
Let me quote the hon. Gentleman’s words back to him. He said that he would never stop fighting for what his country voted for. His country voted to remain part of the United Kingdom.
With regard to the meaningful vote which we are going to have apparently next week—
Or not. May I urge the Government to be bold and decisive in order to comply with your ruling, Mr Speaker, and to change the wording significantly so that we can have the vote that we all want? May I suggest that one way forward is by way of the unilateral declaration? A unilateral declaration can of course be changed unilaterally: we do not need the EU to agree. I suggest that we should try to persuade our colleagues in Northern Ireland that, by beefing up this declaration, we can ensure it is not necessary to prove bad faith; we just have to prove that negotiations have broken down and then we can exit the backstop. Also, it should be conditional; we sign up to this treaty on condition that the declaration is not refused by the EU. All we need to prove is that it does not ratify. So let’s be bold, let’s be decisive, and let’s get this vote into Parliament.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for his very helpful suggestion and I know this is something he has long campaigned for. As I have said to other Members, the Government will bring back the meaningful vote next week and it will be within terms necessary to enable the House to take a further view on it. But I do really from the heart urge all Members to just consider the fact that we as a House have agreed to undertake to leave the EU and the Prime Minister’s deal enables us to deliver on the referendum while at the same time taking careful account of the 48% of the people of this country who did not want to leave the EU. So what it also delivers is a close economic and security partnership with our EU friends and neighbours. So it really is having our cake and eating it and I urge all hon. Members to give it their very careful further consideration.
This is a day when I do not like being away from home, because back home my friends, neighbours and my whole Haredi Jewish Orthodox community are going bonkers because it is Purim. So may I wish my whole Orthodox Haredi Jewish community a very happy Purim, because they love it; it is a great time of year for them?
If any Chamber time should become available at short notice, the Backbench Business Committee has applications that would readily fill any void for the use of time. We have just had an application for a debate on the definition of Islamophobia, which I think would be very topical, and there are other applications on the stocks for debates about financial exclusion, the future of access to cash, the closure of courts and the effect on access to justice, reducing the use of physical restraint on children in educational and health settings, which also would be timely and important, and school funding, which is a heavily subscribed application. If any time becomes available even at very short notice we will happily fill that void.
As ever I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman for prior notice of some of the very important topics that Back Benchers would like to speak about. I think that goes to the shadow Leader of the House’s point that parliamentarians are keen to talk about a huge range of topics. I absolutely support them and pay tribute to them for that. I will of course consider giving the hon. Gentleman time.
On Sunday I again hosted the Contact the Elderly Brechin community afternoon tea at Farnell church. It was a fantastic event at which people put the world to rights—and we also had far too much cake potentially. Will my right hon. Friend join me in celebrating the fantastic work of Irene Heron and Jean Malcolm, two local community champions, and may we have a debate in this place about how we can all work collectively to combat loneliness?
My hon. Friend raises a very important issue. I congratulate her on doing so and on the great charity work going on in her constituency, and I join her in paying particular tribute to Irene and Jean.
Loneliness can cause significant ill health, yet up to a fifth of the UK adult population feel often or always lonely. To tackle this pressing public health issue we have established a cross-Government fund dedicated to a cross-Government strategy that has almost 60 new policy ideas from nine Government Departments. So the Government are determined to tackle this. My hon. Friend and many other hon. Members do their own support in their own constituencies and deserve great credit for doing so.
Is the Leader of the House aware that yesterday was the 102nd birthday of Dame Vera? [Hon. Members: “Lynn.”] Yes, Lynn. Sorry; I had a senior moment there. One of her most famous tunes was “Coming in on a Wing and a Prayer” and I have to say that many of us, on all Benches, are a little upset about the Prime Minister’s remarks yesterday. We spend every minute of the day—every waking hour, and stay awake at night—thinking about this dilemma and to undervalue parliamentarians’ dedication and commitment is not good at all for the current discourse.
May we have an early debate? Many of my constituents want to know about the secret sources of power. They thought they knew about the Cabinet and collective agreements, and about where power lay in the Conservative and Labour parties, but they do not understand why something called the European Research Group is now wielding immense power behind the scenes. They do not understand what the pizza club is and how it can wield such power that it can stop an extension of the period before we leave the European Union. May we have an early debate on this, because going home on a wing and a prayer is not good enough for the future of this country?
I did not know that it was Dame Vera Lynn’s 102nd birthday, and I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising that. However, I did know that today is World Poetry Day. I was tempted to come up with some of my own poetry, but I did not think that the House would be in the mood for it, so I did not bother. I am sure that hon. Members will have their own views on that. The hon. Gentleman makes a serious point, however. I do not believe that the Prime Minister was in any sense seeking to denigrate MPs’ commitment to the issue. She was urging colleagues to consider the duty to make an active decision about what they want to see. In a hung Parliament, that is the challenge that faces us. A Government with a big majority will, on the whole, be able to get their business through, but in a hung Parliament, all right hon. and hon. Members have to give great consideration to good governance. The Prime Minister is urging all Members to consider her deal again, because the reality is, as the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart) has pointed out, that the legal default position remains that this House voted to leave the European Union on 29 March and the only way we can avoid that is either by extending article 50, as the Prime Minister is seeking to do, or by this House coming up with an alternative solution, which it has so far been unable to do.
I know that there will be a debate on knife crime in Westminster Hall next week, but I wonder whether the Leader of the House could arrange for a Home Office Minister to make a statement about the repellent rise of knife crime? Clitheroe, in my constituency, must be one of the most idyllic and wonderful towns to live in, yet last night, two youths with a knife, one of whom was 16 years old, stabbed another one that they knew. The police inform me that the injury is not life-threatening, and we pray that that is the case, but none the less, if this can happen in a place such as Clitheroe, this tells us that we need to do a lot more, whether through schools, through parents, through greater police numbers or through stop and search. All I know is that if we do nothing, knife crime will rise even further.
My hon. Friend raises an important issue that is often raised at business questions and at other times. We have had several debates on it in the House over the past few weeks, and it is quite right that we do so. He will be aware that the Chancellor announced an extra £100 million in the spring statement for a short-term intervention to ensure that more police officers could be made available through overtime measures to tackle this. We have a serious violence strategy and a serious violence taskforce, and we are bringing in the Offensive Weapons Bill, which will make it harder to get knives. It will contain provisions for a knife crime prevention order, which will be absolutely vital. We are also extending stop-and-search powers and having a landmark review of drug misuse. The Government are taking action at every level, but ultimately we also have to look at prevention, and perhaps the most important part of that is the Government’s commitment to trying to ensure that young people are not tempted into a life of knife crime.
Order. Just before I call the right hon. Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd), I hope the whole House, and everybody present in the Palace of Westminster, will want to join me in congratulating the right hon. Lady on her birthday.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. Has the Leader of the House noticed the alarming headlines about the unprecedented drug shortage linked to Brexit? The chief executive of NHS Providers has reported a shortage of 300 different drugs in one English trust alone. Hospital chiefs are reporting shortages of hundreds of different types of medicine, including drugs used to treat cardiac problems and high blood pressure, so can we please have a debate on the issue? Our constituents need some sort of explanation of how Brexit is affecting the supply of medicines, when previously we had no problems.
First, I wish the right hon. Lady a very happy birthday. Secondly, I hope I can reassure her that the issue with a potential no-deal Brexit would be one of capacity at the different borders. Since the UK is still a member of the European Union, there are no problems with borders and accessibility, but she makes a serious point. I am afraid that I am not aware of those reports, but if there are shortages of medicines, that is a serious issue. We have Health and Social Care questions on Tuesday 26 March, and I encourage her to raise the matter then, but I hope that I can reassure that borders are currently fully open, so I cannot see that the issue would be in any way related to Brexit.
The United Kingdom has a proud tradition of entrepreneurial spirit, and I am sure that it will continue to flourish as we leave the EU. May we have a debate in Government time on the confidence that entrepreneurs have in this Government’s policies?
My hon. Friend makes a good point. Entrepreneurs’ confidence in the policies of this Government should be celebrated by everyone. The number of business ventures started in 2018 rose by 4.7% to over 640,000; there have been 1.2 million more business start-ups since 2010; exports are at a record high; and we are cutting corporation tax to the lowest rate in the G20 and cutting business rates, which is worth more than £13 billion to businesses. Our economy has grown for 24 quarters in a row and is now over 18% bigger than it was in 2010. This Government are dealing with our debts, keeping our economy strong, investing in public services and keeping taxes low for working people.
Hate is on the march. Last night, mosques across Birmingham were attacked, including the Slade Road mosque in Erdington. Fear stalks the Muslim community, but so too does a determination never to surrender to the forces of fascism. I pay tribute to the different faiths across Birmingham that are rallying in support of the Muslim community. Can we have a debate on the importance of celebrating our diversity, standing together in national unity and rejecting anyone who fans the flames of prejudice and division?
I wholeheartedly agree with the hon. Gentleman. As I said earlier, our hearts go out to those who were affected by the attacks on mosques in Birmingham last night. It is absolutely unacceptable to see any form of religious or racial prejudice in our free and open society. I know that many Muslim communities are feeling vulnerable and anxious, but they should seek comfort from knowing that the Government are doing everything we can to tackle hate and extremism. One practical thing that we are doing is doubling next year’s places of worship fund, with the Home Secretary this week boosting funding for protective security to £1.6 million to reassure communities and to safeguard mosques and other places of worship. In addition, a new £5 million fund will provide security training. However, I agree with the hon. Gentleman we must stamp out this type of vile abuse.
This week we have seen record employment numbers, with especially great opportunities for women, for those with disabilities and for young people. I think of the brilliant young apprentices I recently met in Chelmsford when I say that we should never forget that, less than a decade ago under the last Labour Government, there were 1 million young people not in employment, education or training. May we please have a debate in this House on the brilliant opportunities for employment under this Conservative Government and how that compares with the disaster under Labour?
My hon. Friend raises an important point, and there are now 429,000 fewer young people out of work than in 2010, which means that the number of young people out of work has almost halved since the Conservatives came into office. Nearly four fifths of jobs created since 2010 are full time, with 2.6% of our workforce on zero-hours contracts—a reduction over the last year. Employment is expected to be higher than forecast over the next five years, according to the Office for Budget Responsibility, which forecasts 800,000 more jobs to be created by 2023. Those are real reasons to be proud of the success in our economy and the prospects for our young people.
I know that the Leader of the House believes that Members of Parliament should be able to perform their duties without fear for their safety. In recent weeks, like many MPs, I have been accused of being a traitor, and I have received Facebook posts saying that, along with the two other Hull MPs, I should be shot and hanged.
Does the Leader of the House agree with the Prime Minister’s statement last night, in which she pitted Members of Parliament against the general public? May we please have a debate in this House about patriotism and about how Members on both sides of the House love our country and want to make sure that we get the very best for our country? There is much more that unites us than divides us.
I completely agree with the hon. Lady that colleagues on both sides of the House—she is a perfect example—all want to do the best for our country and our society. I totally endorse her thoughts that MPs need to be treated with respect and given the opportunity to represent their constituents and their country in alignment with their own beliefs and with doing the best they can possibly do. I pay tribute at all times to all Members of Parliament, and I will do everything I can to ensure that we are all able to go about our business and do a good job for our constituents and for our country.
I thank the Leader of the House for what she said in response to that very powerful inquiry from the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Diana Johnson). I have said it before, in the light of some extremely ominous coverage of Members some months ago, but I will say it again, because it brooks of no misunderstanding or contradiction: none of you is a traitor and all of you are doing your best.
This should not be, and I am sure it will not prove to be, a matter of any controversy whatsoever. From the Chair, let me say that I believe passionately in the institution of Parliament, in the rights of Members of this House and in their commitment to their duty—I use the word “duty” in the singular advisedly. The sole duty of every Member of Parliament is to do what he or she thinks is right. There is nothing, in my judgment, to be added.
I would like to introduce you to another anniversary, Mr Speaker, but it is not a particularly pleasant one: this is the fifth anniversary of the annexation of Crimea by Russia. Will my right hon. Friend allow us a debate so that we can consider this issue and also continue our condemnation of Russia for its annexation of that part of Ukraine?
My hon. Friend raises a serious issue, and I know that the House and the Government have condemned the annexation of Crimea. It hardly seems possible that five years have already gone by since those terrible events. I encourage him to seek an Adjournment debate or a Back-Bench debate so that all hon. Members can express their support for resolution of this annexation.
The principles that underlie the role of MPs were set out 250 years ago by Edmund Burke: not only to be accountable to and listen to our constituents, but to observe our own conscience and judgment. Those principles were seriously undermined last night by the Prime Minister, in one of the most contemptuous statements that I have ever heard—it is up against some stiff competition. May I ask the Leader of the House, again, whether she agrees with what the Prime Minister said last night?
Is this a Labour Whip’s handout?
Order. Let us grow up. Do grow up, for goodness’ sake. This is not a matter of party political hackery. Let us have some seriousness of purpose and mutual respect. The hon. Member for Leyton and Wanstead (John Cryer) is an experienced Member of the House. He has asked an honest question, to which I know the Leader of the House will honestly reply. For goodness’ sake, let us raise the level.
Mr Speaker, may I just say that your response does not raise the level? I will leave it there.
Order. Resume your seat, Leader of the House. My response sets out the constitutional position that has applied to Members of the House of Commons over generations, and I cannot for the life of me see or believe that there is anything remotely controversial about what I have said.
In response to the point made by the hon. Member for Leyton and Wanstead (John Cryer), what I wanted to say is that I will speak for my own views when I say that I have the highest regard for Members from right across this Chamber. All hon. Members do exactly as they think is right for their constituents and for their country, and it is absolutely right that they should continue to do so. What I think the Prime Minister was urging upon all hon. Members is to recognise that in a hung Parliament it is incumbent on us all to ensure that there is good government, because, by definition, it is important that we all participate in ensuring progress for our country, as indeed we have done through more than 40 pieces of primary legislation in this Session alone, where we have been able to come together in the national interest to make progress on certain areas of legislation, ranging from counter-terrorism to tenants’ fees, all manner of automated vehicles and so on. We have been able to work together to come to a conclusion and make a positive statement about the way the country should go. I think that the Prime Minister was seeking to urge all right hon. and hon. Members to look carefully at the reality, which is that there is a means by which we can deliver on the referendum, while ensuring we keep a close and collaborative relationship with our EU friends and neighbours. Alternatively, the legal position that this House voted for is to leave the EU on 29 March without any other arrangements. What the Prime Minister is seeking for this House to do is to come together to support a way forward. The House has not so far done that.
For inclusiveness, let me say that it is currently not only the festival of Purim, but the Hindu festival of Holi.
This weekend, we will have the national hospital radio awards ceremony, so may I send my best wishes to Radio Harrow, which has been nominated for eight awards? It comforts patients at Northwick Park Hospital, where many of my constituents have to go. I also send best wishes to Radio Mount Vernon, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary. May we have a debate in Government time on the wonderful work done by volunteers in our hospital radio stations, who provide comfort to patients at the time when they need it?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to pay tribute to the amazing work done by volunteers in hospitals. He raises the particular issue of those who run hospital radio stations. Having visited local hospitals myself, I have absolutely seen at first hand the warmth and support that they give to people—and, frankly, the distraction that they provide for people who are undergoing painful procedures—so I am happy to join my hon. Friend in thanking them and paying tribute to them for all the good work they do.
Last night, the Prime Minister told the people of the United Kingdom “I am on your side”, but presumably she was not speaking to anyone who voted to remain, such as the majority of the people of Scotland; she was not speaking to Europeans living and working in the UK; and she was not speaking to those who are dissatisfied with her deal. Will the Leader of the House make a statement setting out her views on whether she thinks it is wise or healthy to set Parliament against the people, reject any notion of personal responsibility, and ignore the genuine concerns about Brexit in this House and throughout the UK?
The Prime Minister’s deal absolutely does seek to resolve the issues and concerns for EU citizens living in the UK and for UK citizens living in the EU. It seeks to reassure those who wanted to remain in the EU by securing a close economic and security partnership with our friends and neighbours in the EU. Very importantly, it also delivers on the will of the people expressed in the referendum, which is something that the House has voted to do. My own assessment is that the Prime Minister’s proposal—the withdrawal agreement and the future political declaration—does seek to achieve the very complicated balance of bringing all sides together. We can all point to parts of her deal that we do not like—every single one of us can do that—but it is a compromise that really does seek to provide something for everyone and the best possible combination of outcomes that enables us to deliver on the will of the people.
Almost every week in the Chamber, we hear Members raising issues to do with bank closures in their constituencies. Over the past two months, Santander and now Barclays have announced that they are leaving Cleethorpes. People need financial advice as well as access to banking services. Will the Leader of the House find time for a debate in which we can explore ways to create financial hubs in town centres, to which people can go for advice and to obtain banking services?
My hon. Friend raises an important point about the issue of the last bank in town and access to financial services, which has come up in the Chamber many times, and he is quite right to raise it. Obviously, we recognise that the way people access financial services is changing, with more people going online and so on, but the industry’s access to banking standard requires banks to carry out a number of steps before they close any branches. Some are coming forward with innovative ways to deliver ongoing banking services, and of course the Post Office now delivers access to banking services, very often at more flexible times—for example, at weekends and so on—than a bank was previously able to offer. My hon. Friend raises an important point, and I encourage him to seek an Adjournment debate to talk about the issues in Cleethorpes.
The Leader of the House has said that we should seek a cross-party consensus on the way forward, and I agree with her, which is why I wonder what thought she has given, in respect of her role, to the House voting on options in parallel, so that we can end the game-playing and move forward.
I completely understand the hon. Lady’s desire for many more varied options to be brought forward, and I hugely respect the hon. Lady and her views, but the House has already rejected a second referendum, a customs union, the meaningful vote and leaving without a deal. It is vital that the House comes forward with a proposal that it can support. What the House did support was an extension to article 50, and the Prime Minister is acting on that request and seeking to fulfil the will of the House. I am sure that if hon. Members feel there is a majority for another type of solution, they will come forward with those proposals.
Yesterday, I met some people of Christian faith from Cuba, who expressed concern over the Cuban Government’s attitude to church congregations. Christians represent some 20% of the population in Cuba, and the congregations are continuing to grow. They are now a significant religious minority and group in that country. These people also informed me that the Cuban Government have failed, and refused, to return church properties to Protestant Churches, which is totally unacceptable. Will the Leader of the House agree to a statement or a debate on this important matter?
The hon. Gentleman always raises matters of freedom of religion and he is absolutely right to do so. The situation that he raises around Cuba is very concerning. The UK does, of course, promote tolerance and acceptance of different faiths and beliefs within our own country, but it is also something that we want to see right around the world. We have Foreign Office questions on Tuesday 2 April and I encourage him to submit a question, or to seek an Adjournment debate, so that he can raise this matter directly with Ministers.
The knife angel, a sculpture created from confiscated knives, has again gone on display in Coventry. The sculpture is a stark reminder of the surging levels of knife crime that have infected our city and wrought such devastation on individuals, families and communities. More than anything else, the knife angel symbolises our city’s commitment to tackle violent crime and to encourage all those who carry knives to turn away from violence and aggression and towards peace and reconciliation. Will the Leader of the House join me in encouraging other towns and cities to offer to host the knife angel, and will she arrange a debate in Government time on knife crime and the impact that cuts to public services have had on our ability to tackle this increasing scourge?
The hon. Lady makes an excellent suggestion and challenge to other hon. Members to seek to have the knife angel hosted in their own areas. I know that there are many local police and crime commissioners who are really focused on resolving this appalling issue of the rise particularly in knife crime. She will be aware that the Government are introducing a £200 million youth endowment fund to try to prevent young people from being attracted to a life that takes them down that path of knife crime. The Government are doing everything that we possibly can to try to prevent this, and it is right that all hon. Members seek to do what they can to highlight their concerns about it.
May we have an urgent debate in Government time on the continuing problem regarding the awarding of personal independence payments to people who are disabled or who have long-term health conditions? I have experienced some appalling decisions in recent weeks in my constituency. The Government have promised to try to get a grip on this, but they still have not. May I have an urgent debate on the matter?
I am genuinely sorry to hear that the hon. Gentleman has had some difficult constituency cases. If he wants to raise a particular case with me, of course I will take it up with the Department on his behalf. He will be aware, however, that since personal independence payments were introduced in 2013, some 3.7 million decisions have been made—all made with the desire to help people to lead a more independent life and to be able to choose the kind of support they need. The total number of complaints received is less than 1% of all assessments, and nearly nine in every 10 PIP claimants are satisfied with their experience. We are constantly seeking to review and improve the system. If the hon. Gentleman has specific proposals to make, I encourage him to seek an Adjournment debate so that he can raise them with Ministers.
As a prefix to my planned question and further to the comments from my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Diana Johnson), I must tell the House that last week, in common with many other Members on both sides of this House, I received a message, among lots and lots of other messages, saying that my head should be chopped off. I apprehended the Prime Minister last Thursday evening and begged her to “dial down the hate”. I told her that it was in her power to do so. People are frightened not just in this place, but in the country as a whole. The Prime Minister must show some leadership; it is within her grasp. I implore the Leader of the House to pass on that message.
I have been contacted by many constituents over 75 concerned about the prospect of losing their free TV licence. As the Leader of the House knows, loneliness is a major issue, and for many people the television is, sadly, their only company. The retention of free TV licences for over-75s was in the Conservative manifesto in 2017, so may we have a debate or statement on the Government’s intentions?
First, it is appalling that the hon. Lady, or any other Member, has received such abuse. I can only repeat that I genuinely believe that all right hon. and hon. Members are seeking to do the best they can for their constituency and their country, and I pay tribute to everybody who works so hard for their constituency and country.
The hon. Lady raises a specific issue about free TV licences for the over-75s. I completely agree that often for people who are lonely the television, as well as a source of entertainment, is a link to the outside world and a way to find a friend in watching friendly programmes. I share her concern, therefore, and encourage her to seek a Westminster Hall or Back-Bench debate so that she can raise it directly with Ministers.
Will the Leader of the House join me in welcoming the decision by FirstGroup to buy five British-built Hitachi inter-city trains? It is great news for jobs in north-east England. Will she also facilitate a debate on the importance of every British-based company, including Transport for London, buying British-built trains?
I am delighted to join the hon. Gentleman in commending the decision to buy British. I am a big fan of doing that wherever possible. Obviously, in return for our being able to export our great British products, we also recognise the need for our own producers to be competitive, which is why we do not always buy British; nevertheless, I absolutely agree with the thrust of his proposal. I encourage him to seek an Adjournment debate to talk directly to Ministers about what more we can do to promote great British products.
I have raised previously with the Foreign Secretary the case of Luke Symons, a constituent of mine being held captive in Yemen. There is some hope that the International Committee of the Red Cross might be able to get him out, but he needs to get somewhere where there is a British embassy so that he can apply for a visa for his wife and bring his son back to the United Kingdom. Can we have a statement from the Foreign Office about this case? Barring that, can the Leader of the House pass on the message to her ministerial colleagues that that is what we need and that we need it swiftly?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising his constituency case again in the Chamber—he is absolutely right to do so—and I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary will be looking into it. If he would like to write to me with more details, I can take it up directly on his behalf, or he could raise it directly with Ministers at Foreign Office questions on 2 April.
Last night, the Prime Minister gave a deeply divisive and undignified speech trying to shirk her responsibility for prematurely triggering article 50 without a plan. In response, a petition to revoke article 50 has now been signed by more than 800,000 people, including 3,500 of my own constituents. When will the Government respect the intelligence of British people, admit we have the unilateral power to revoke article 50 to prevent further damage to our country and provide time to debate this crucial issue before 29 March?
It is the policy of the Government—and indeed of Parliament, which voted to trigger article 50 —to leave the European Union, in line with the result of the 2016 referendum. I say again to all hon. Members that I genuinely think that the Prime Minister’s proposal for the withdrawal agreement and future political declaration offers the compromise we want between leaving the EU in line with the democratic decision taken in 2016 and keeping a close and collaborative relationship with our EU friends and neighbours.
Last week, I met year 10 geography students from Myton School in Warwick. The Leader of the House will be aware that many young people across the country, and indeed the globe, are extremely concerned about climate change. Since I met them, we have had extreme weather events such as Cyclone Idai and flash floods in Indonesia, and reports from the head of the Environment Agency that within 25 years we could have severe water shortages here. I understand we had a debate a few weeks ago, but it was held during the recess week and was poorly attended, because we all had various other commitments. May I urge the Leader of the House to arrange another debate in good time so that we can explore the serious issues of climate change?
I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman’s young constituents for their commitment to tackling global climate change; they are absolutely right to do so. I am sure that he will acknowledge the UK’s strong record and efforts to tackle global climate change, whereby we have reduced emissions faster than any other G7 nation. The latest figures show that we have reduced greenhouse gas emissions by 23% since 2010. In November 2016, we ratified the Paris agreement, which was the first truly global, legally binding agreement to tackle climate change. Of course there is much more that we should and can do, and I am sure that there will be further opportunities given the clear push from young people right across the country. I will take very seriously the hon. Gentleman’s request for a further debate on global climate change, and see what can be done.
I reckon that I have worked out where everything has gone wrong over the last couple of years in this Parliament. We have discovered today from the Foreign Secretary, and now from the Leader of the House, that a new and rather dangerous doctrine has been developed in the Government that, when there is a hung Parliament, it is the duty of MPs—broadly speaking—to support the Government, even if they do not think that it is a very good idea. That is the essence of it, isn’t it? Actually, it should be the other way around. In a hung Parliament, the Government must listen to the whole House.
I have a solution, and I think the Leader of the House can help. When Government Ministers are given their copy of the ministerial code of conduct, they should all also be given a copy of the 1936 book, “How to Win Friends and Influence People”. Clearly the Prime Minister did not have a copy last night—not least because it guarantees the reader that it will “increase your popularity” and:
“Help you to win people to your way of thinking.”
I am sure that if the Leader of the House could leave here later, pop over to the Prime Minister and give her a copy, she would manage to solve everything, because the key to the book is to always smile and never get cross.
Well, where to start? I may as well cut straight to the chase and say that I actually agree with the hon. Gentleman. I am not for one moment saying that all parliamentarians in a hung Parliament should do exactly as the Government say. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that people in a hung Parliament work together. I gave the example of 51 Government Bills having been introduced in this Session, 41 of which have already received Royal Assent. As hon. Members will know, that has happened as a result of great discussion, a huge number of concessions and close collaboration right across the House in order for the Government to achieve a consensus that the House would then support.
My point is not that parliamentarians have to do as the Government say at all, but that parliamentarians should be looking for what they can agree to. I am advocating the Prime Minister’s deal on the very clear grounds that it offers departure from the European Union, but a close and ongoing relationship with our EU friends and neighbours. That seems the right kind of compromise, which all hon. Members could get behind. Nevertheless, should we get to the point of introducing the withdrawal agreement Bill, which is the piece of legislation that would put into law the decision of the House, I have absolutely no doubt that there would be very close collaboration, and many concessions and discussions, in order to get the legislation through. So I agree with the hon. Gentleman. As Parliament’s voice in Government, it is my great pleasure that I often find myself pleading with Government Ministers to listen to the view of Parliament, and I will continue to do so.
And don’t be cross.
And you, Mr Speaker.
And us all. The Leader of the House says that she is Parliament’s voice in Government. Although that is constitutionally the position she holds, she is certainly Government’s voice in Parliament. I think that we have always been very clear about that as well, and we acknowledge that part of her responsibilities.
I have a constituent who only found out after the death of her husband that she could actually get additional state pension based on his national insurance contributions. The Department for Work and Pensions had notified her husband but, for whatever reason, he had not taken action. This means that, although she is now claiming the additional money, she is limited to a maximum 12 months’ backdated claim. Rather than the outdated assumption that the man controls the household finances, can we have a Government statement confirming that the DWP will now always notify both husband and wife, and look at changing the law on the length of period for which such pensions can be backdated?
I certainly agree with the hon. Gentleman that it should never be assumed that one half of a partnership controls the finances for the other. He raises an important constituency case, and I encourage him to write to me so that I can take the matter up with the Department on his behalf.
I ask again: when will the Timpson review of exclusions be published? Last week, I joked with the Leader of the House about how soon it would be, but it is actually no joking matter. When there are undeniable links between exclusions and youth violence, it is crucial that we get this report and that it is published now.
I completely agree, and I again pay tribute to the hon. Lady for her commitment to the issue. I will ask again when the review can be published, and I share her desire for it to be brought forward urgently. She may have seen this morning the suggestion of the Secretary of State for Education that exclusions are not necessarily directly the major cause of some of the knife crime problems that we have seen, and that truancy may be an even bigger issue. It is vital that we look across the piece at what is causing this issue, and that we seek to put measures in place. The hon. Lady is right to chase the report, and I will see if I can do more to push for its publication.
I am afraid to admit that I have been glancing at the internet during these exchanges, and I have to tell the Leader of the House that the website for the Brexit petition to revoke article 50 has now crashed. I wonder whether she can help me to help more of my constituents sign the petition, which had reached 800,000 signatures the last time I looked.
I was made aware this morning that there were some technical problems with the Petitions Committee website that people are working quickly to restore, so I can reassure the hon. Lady that the website will be back up and running as soon as possible. I can also assure her that, should the petition reach more than 17.4 million signatures, there would be a very clear case for taking action. However, it is absolutely right that people have the opportunity to put their views, which can then spark yet another Brexit debate.
My constituent Paul McDonald suffers from macular degeneration, and was given the opportunity by a private company, the London Eye Hospital, to have a new treatment, which the hospital claimed would improve his condition. Having got himself into considerable debt, he has now unfortunately found that his eyesight has become worse as a result of the treatment. The company has gone into administration, and it turns out that dozens of other people feel that they have been mis-sold this treatment. Can we have a debate on what we can do to avoid a repetition of the situation and get some justice for the people affected?
The hon. Gentleman raises a really serious issue. I am very sorry to hear about the problems that his constituent has had. Health questions are on 26 March, and I encourage him to raise the matter directly with Ministers then.
Can we have a debate on the urgent need to bring new hi-tech industries and highly skilled jobs to areas such as the Black Country that have lost their traditional industries? This would enable me to set out the case to develop in Dudley not just a new institute of technology, but a hi-tech campus to provide more apprenticeships, degrees and better-paid, secure jobs in areas such as low-carbon technologies, advanced manufacturing, digital technologies, autonomous vehicles, very light rail, computing and software development.
I commend the hon. Gentleman for standing up for Dudley, as he absolutely would do. As part of the UK’s industrial strategy, we have already agreed 10 sector deals with a range of industries including the aerospace, construction and offshore wind sectors. These deals bring together Government, industry and researchers to ensure that we can build on our success and exploit future opportunities. The Government are doing their bit, sector by sector, to promote the huge opportunities that lie ahead, and I encourage the hon. Gentleman to seek an Adjournment debate so that he can talk to Ministers about the opportunities for Dudley.
The primary 7 pupils at Prestonpans Primary School in East Lothian, where I used to teach, had a debate on Brexit, and it was very friendly and goal-oriented. Indeed, one of the children undertook to write to the Prime Minister, and I know that in due course he will get a response. Given their attitude to that debate, and given the comments by my hon. Friend the Member for Warwick and Leamington (Matt Western) about what young people can do with regard to climate change, could we have an urgent debate on what we can learn from our young people?
I would absolutely welcome such a debate. There is a huge amount we can learn from young people, right across a whole range of topics. I pay tribute to the school pupils in his constituency for their commitment to talking about Brexit. In fact, there was also a debate about Brexit in my daughter’s school, where she was required to stand up for a second referendum. She rang me for some suggestions about what she could say, which I was of course very happy to provide. Many hon. and right hon. Members have provided me with plenty of ammunition in support of that. I do take seriously what the hon. Gentleman says, but in the meantime he might like to seek a Back-Bench debate, because I am sure that lots of hon. Members would like to commend the work done by young people in this country.
Before I ask the Leader of the House a question, Mr Speaker, may I put on the public record how often I am told by the people of 30 nations with whom I often interact how much they admire our opportunity to have a Speaker who stands up for Back Benchers, who defends the standards of Parliament, and who represents the best of British way of doing things with fairness, openness and transparency? Thank you, Mr Speaker.
Scotland is currently consulting on non-time-limited guidance for clinicians to assess access to terminal illness benefits. Can we have more sitting Fridays in order to debate my private Member’s Bill that looks at amending the current time-limited access to terminal illness benefits to bring it into line with Scotland’s proposed, more compassionate guidance?
I certainly commend the hon. Lady for raising this very important issue. She will be aware that the decision to ensure that people did not have to go through constant assessments when they have a terminal illness was based entirely on compassion. She will also be aware that we have Health and Social Care questions on Tuesday 26 March, and I would encourage her to raise her specific point then.
I wonder, Mr Speaker, whether you can imagine the scene at the great Scottish home of the UK’s nuclear deterrent, Faslane naval base, on 29 April 1969, when a crew of submariners slipped out in one of the Barrow-built R-class submarines and thus began Operation Relentless, which has, 24 hours a day, for every single minute, protected the UK from the threat of nuclear blackmail. As the Leader of the House will know, because I know she can do her maths, on 29 April it will be 50 years to the day since Operation Relentless began. Does she not think that there should be a debate in Government time to commemorate this extraordinary achievement? No matter what one thinks of the nuclear deterrent, I know that Members across the House will want to thank all those involved, from the shipwrights across the United Kingdom who built the submarines to the submariners who have served in them. I have already made a conditionally successful application to the Backbench Business Committee. However, the scale of this achievement surely deserves Government time, given the amount of attention that the Navy is giving to this issue over the coming weeks and months.
I am so pleased that the hon. Gentleman has raised this very significant milestone and also given us the opportunity to thank all those who have served, for coming up to 50 years, in protecting our United Kingdom around the world from, as he says, the threat of nuclear blackmail. When I was 13, it was the risk of a nuclear war that made me decide that I was going to become a Member of Parliament, so this very issue has been with me for an extremely long time—longer than I care to think of. I will certainly take his request very seriously and see whether we can find Government time, but I am very glad to hear that he has already got his request in to the Backbench Business Committee.
People in my constituency who formerly worked at the Hoover factory in Merthyr Tydfil are rightly concerned about their reduced pension fund. Given that the Government removed a significant surplus from this pension fund in the past, does the Leader of the House agree that they have a responsibility to support such funds in times of deficit too? Can we have a debate on this issue and the wider issues arising from the Government removing large surpluses from pension pots?
The hon. Gentleman raises a very important issue for his constituency. I know that the profit share that has been agreed with Government in different pension pots has regularly been an issue of concern for Members. I would encourage him to perhaps seek an Adjournment debate so that he can raise his specific concerns directly with Ministers.
In a recent answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden), a Minister of State at the Foreign Office told him that the UK Government did not normally disclose how they intend to vote ahead of United Nations Human Rights Council meetings. However, this morning, writing in the Jewish Chronicle, the Foreign Secretary has confirmed that they intend to vote against all proposals under item No. 7 relating to the occupied Palestinian territories. Does the Leader of the House agree that if Ministers are telling Members of this House that the Government do not disclose their voting intentions, it is therefore completely inappropriate for them to announce those intentions elsewhere? Will she help to secure an urgent statement tomorrow from the Foreign Office on the Government’s voting intentions at this crucial meeting?
I would certainly agree that it is always preferable for Ministers to come to this House, as is the convention, to make any important statements in the Chamber. I am not aware of the specific circumstances of what the hon. Lady mentions, so I cannot comment on that. However, we have Foreign Office questions on 2 April, and she could certainly raise the matter there, or perhaps seek an urgent question if it is something of a more urgent nature.