House of Commons
Thursday 13 June 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—
Transport Connectivity: North of England
Mr Speaker, as you know, we have a big programme of investment in transport across the north, after decades of underinvestment. That includes replacing every single train in the north of England, getting rid of the long-outdated Pacer trains, buying new trains for the Newcastle upon Tyne Metro and investing nearly £3 billion in the road network in the north, including an extensive smart motorways programme. The Transforming Cities funds are delivering to individual cities the opportunity to improve metro systems.
The Secretary of State may have seen that newspapers across the north have come together again this week to call on the Government to commit to a series of policy changes to power up the north. Towns and cities, villages and hamlets—despite our diversity, the north stands as one to call for more powers and more funding. At the heart of that must be the transformative new rail network linking the great north cities, including Bradford. Will the Secretary of State grasp this moment and make Northern Powerhouse Rail a priority, with a city centre station in Bradford?
First, Northern Powerhouse Rail is a manifesto commitment for this Government. The work is being done at the moment to take it forward. Indeed, as the hon. Lady should be aware, in the past few days we have published further details of the interchanges between Northern Powerhouse Rail and HS2, thus demonstrating further our commitment to that project.
With regard to Bradford, as the hon. Lady knows, I have had meetings with the council leader. I am extremely sympathetic to the need to ensure that Bradford is a proper part of the Northern Powerhouse Rail network.
Will my right hon. Friend consider publishing a report, showing in table form the investment in transport in the north between 2010 and 2019, and between 2001 and 2010, so that we can see what investment has been given to the north over the past nine years, and in the previous nine years, which just happened to be under a different Government? This Government can be incredibly proud of the investment in the north.
I absolutely agree with my right hon. Friend. I pay tribute to him for what he did to step up investment in the north. When I listen to the Opposition waxing about a lack of investment in the north, I simply remind them that when they were in power they let a Northern Rail franchise with no investment in it at all, whereas this Conservative Government are replacing every single train in the north with either a brand-new or a completely refurbished train.
When I drive around Europe this summer, I will not find any two major cities less well connected than Sheffield and Manchester. A review has been done of improving the road connections between those two cities, and there is now an agreed best way forward. When will the Government activate that, so that we get an all-purpose, all-weather route between those two cities?
I can tell the hon. Gentleman that the concept of the tunnel, which has been much reviewed and much discussed, is on the board agenda for the next Transport for the North meeting, and we are looking forward with interest to seeing the detail of those proposals. It is clearly necessary to improve trans-Pennine links. That is why we are committed to dualling the A66 and are putting in improvements on the A69. It is why I have asked Highways England to start work on better links between east Lancashire and west Yorkshire. Quite clearly, particularly given the vulnerability of the M62 to bad weather, a second route between Manchester and Sheffield must also be a part of the future.
Although North West Leicestershire is the centre of the midlands, most people in London think it is in the north. Despite delivering the highest economic growth outside London and the south-east, we have no passenger railway station. What is the Secretary of State going to do about that? Would not reopening the Ivanhoe line be an excellent idea?
I am very much aware of the potential to expand services in the east midlands by bringing back into service some of the routes that no longer carry passengers. It is why the new franchisees in the east midlands will be looking at bringing back services on the Robin Hood line, and I am happy to commit to discuss with my hon. Friend in much more detail whether we can do something similar in future with the Ivanhoe line.
Thirty-three northern newspapers, including the Manchester Evening News, The Northern Echo, the Yorkshire Post, the Sheffield Star and the Liverpool Echo, are all supporting the Power Up The North campaign, demanding an end to underinvestment in the north. This Government have repeatedly broken their promises of investment in the north, with the region set to receive just a fraction of the investment to be made in London, and “northern powerhouse” has to be much more than a slogan. So will the Secretary of State take the opportunity to commit not only to electrifying the trans-Pennine route, but to matching Labour’s £10 billion-plus commitment to deliver a Crossrail for the north?
What I am not going to do is match Labour’s record of investment in the north, because it was lousy. The Labour Government spent nothing on trains, and did not upgrade railways in the north. We are upgrading roads in the north, and upgrading railways across the north. The trans-Pennine upgrade is the flagship—the largest investment programme on the railways in the next control period—and Labour Members have the brass neck to say that they are the ones with a plan. They did nothing; we are doing things.
The maintenance of Hammersmith bridge is a matter for the London Borough of Hammersmith and Fulham. Neither the borough nor Transport for London has approached the Department to seek funding to repair the bridge.
I am very disappointed that they have not done so. I understand the temptation for the Government to see this as a local issue, but it is much more than that. Greater London has just 33 major crossings; this one took 20,000 cars and 1,800 buses a day, so its closure for up to three years is catastrophic for residents and businesses, and is causing mayhem in an already congested part of London. I was disappointed to hear what the Minister said about not being approached by the borough or TfL—that needs to change—but the Government also need to show a proper interest, so may I please urge him to look at the matter again?
Transport in London is, of course, devolved to the Mayor of London. I have been astonished and exasperated in just the last couple of weeks in the Department to see how badly run Labour London’s transport is, and I am astonished by the indolence of the Labour London Mayor, Sadiq Khan. Hammersmith bridge is being neglected—my hon. Friend is right about that—by the Mayor, who is asleep on the job.
The Transport Secretary should have done his homework a little better. I have here a copy of my letter to him of 11 April—and his response of 21 May; no urgency there—asking for assistance with funding for Hammersmith bridge, on the reasonable grounds that he had taken £800 million from the subsidy to TfL and the previous Mayor of London had wasted more than £40 million on the garden bridge. Can we stop the party politicking? Will the Secretary of State do his job sensibly and support TfL and Hammersmith Council, which are working together to resolve this matter, instead of grandstanding in this way?
It is a little rich for the hon. Gentleman to refer to party politics. The fact is that Hammersmith bridge has been a project for London since 2015, and the Mayor of London has done nothing about it. The fact is that it is the responsibility of the London borough and Transport for London mechanisms. The hon. Gentleman does not want to admit the facts, but the facts are those.
It is now two months since the bridge closed, and the Thames is uncrossable for a remarkable three and a half-mile stretch. In that time, the London Borough of Hammersmith and Fulham has not yet even produced a report diagnosing the problems. All that it has done is have a row with Labour-run Transport for London over funding for work when it has not yet worked out what it needs. Will my hon. Friend agree to meet the Mayor of London and the council to bang heads together between the two warring Labour authorities and get the bridge open again?
We often see Labour authorities needing to have their heads banged together, because they are often at war, as they appear to be in this case. It seems to me that banging heads together in regard to this matter would be a good thing, and I will carefully consider my right hon. Friend’s request.
The Government are committed to increasing cycling and walking, and to making our roads safer for cyclists and pedestrians. Spending per head on cycling and walking has more than trebled since 2010, and about £2 billion is now being invested in cycling and walking over the current Parliament. That is helping to fund new infrastructure in many towns and cities.
I am sure that the whole House will wish to join me in wishing the very best to Chris Froome.
I welcome the removal of the cap from the Cycle to Work scheme, but many of the people who could benefit most from e-bikes are not in work. What will the Minister do to support the use of e-bikes and non-standard pedal cycles by older people and those with disabilities? Will he meet me to discuss how we can create a safer infrastructure to encourage such use, particularly in my constituency, where there has been a long-standing block to the Littlehempston to Totnes cycleway?
I shall be happy to meet the hon. Lady, and I extend similar sentiments to Chris Froome.
Investment has trebled since Labour was in office, thanks to this Government. In the past few days I have made two visits to support Bike Week, and I shall be making a Bikeability visit this afternoon. As a result of the Government’s £29 billion investment in roads, cycling is being supported, but, as I have said, I shall be happy to meet the hon. Lady to discuss the matter further.
As we have heard, this week is Bike Week, yet the Government’s own statistics show that they are failing to increase cycling. Research shows many people are too scared to ride a bike. This is hardly surprising given that aggressive driving is increasing and 10 cyclists are killed or seriously injured every day, according to the road safety charity Brake. Is it not high time for the Government to show some leadership and make a substantial investment in safe cycle routes and more traffic police to encourage everyone to cycle, rather than just giving tax breaks to a few wealthier cyclists when they buy a new bike? What the Government should do now is make cycling for the many, not just the brave.
I am pleased to say that I have been cycling this week, so I do not think it is just the brave who are going cycling. The average number of miles cycled per person has increased by 54% since 2002. The number of trips cycled has remained between 14 and 18 for the last 16 years, however, and we are putting massive investment into this area and will continue to do so.
Leaving the EU: Ports
The UK port sector is resilient and flexible, and is well placed to adapt successfully in preparation for Brexit. My Department continues to work with the border delivery group to ensure that trade continues with minimum friction at UK ports. The Government shall take all steps necessary to ensure that vital goods continue to flow into the country when the UK leaves the EU, and we continue to liaise closely with the devolved Administrations.
Last month we learned that the National Audit Office warned the Transport Secretary in advance that there was a high likelihood of a successful legal challenge regarding the no-deal ferry contracts, which directly contradicts his previous responses on the subject, so when will he admit culpability and apologise for this reckless action, which has resulted in a hefty bill for the taxpayer?
I am afraid that the hon. Lady needs to look again at the notes that have been placed in her hand, because she has contradicted herself in that statement. It is absolutely right and proper for the Government to prepare for no deal, and that was exactly what we did to ensure that vital goods got into the country in case of a no-deal.
Can the Minister explain why the Secretary of State or his Department could not identify P&O Ferries, or indeed our wonderful ferry system in Scotland, CalMac, as candidates for additional cross-channel ferry services—both of them, unlike Seaborne, do have ships—and what is his Department’s estimate for the next legal settlement?
I was hoping that the hon. Gentleman was going to talk up his own ports and the extra business that will become available once we have left Europe, considering how excited ports are about the further opportunities coming our way. As I mentioned earlier, it was right and proper that we prepared for no deal, and we were working with a number of Government Departments to make sure capacity was available. The question of capacity was not for this Department; it was for a number of other Departments. It is curious that the hon. Gentleman does not also reflect on what the Scottish Government wanted in place just in case they needed extra capacity as well.
So far the Secretary of State’s reckless actions on ferry contracts alone have cost £43.8 million in termination payouts to Brittany Ferries and DFDS, £800,000 in consultancy fees and £33 million to Eurotunnel, with P&O also expecting £33 million-plus legal fees to be added to the final bill, so the sum will be over £110 million. What is being sacrificed to pay for this, and when will the Secretary of State apologise?
The Welsh Assembly’s Brexit Committee found that a no-deal Brexit would pose a serious threat to the port sector in Wales, particularly in Holyhead and Fishguard. What recent discussions has the Minister had with the port authorities to avoid no-deal chaos in these Welsh ports?
I welcome the question. I was at the inter-ministerial group, which I chair, with all the port authorities, and I met Associated British Ports just recently. It is working closely with us to prepare for no deal, and it is excited about the opportunities that we can put forward through Maritime 2050, our 30-year strategy for investment in our ports, both in technology and in our seafarers, to ensure that we are ready for our new opportunities.
We have had no apology today, and the Secretary of State sits there and lets his Minister come to the Dispatch Box while he shakes his head. The reality is that the next no-deal deadline is October, but we are not going to have a new Prime Minister in place until July and we will then have the summer recess. It will therefore be almost impossible to make proper preparations for a no-deal Brexit in October, yet the Transport Secretary is supporting a no-deal candidate for the leadership of the Tory party. Can the Minister detail any work that is going on just now, or is the Department so reckless that it just does not care, which will result in further chaos and another £110 million down the drain?
I do not know what to say—the hon. Gentleman is disappointed that the Secretary of State is not at the Dispatch Box, but this is my portfolio and I am pleased to be responding to his question.
If the hon. Gentleman was close to the maritime sector, he would be aware that we have been working with it for the past two years and that just this week we had the inter-ministerial group meeting with the port sector and I appeared in front of the all-party parliamentary group for maritime and ports. There is extensive dialogue and constant research to see what we need to do to continue to prepare, and if this arises again, come October, we will put preparations in place.
We could be just four months away from a disastrous no-deal Brexit, yet the Government have put on hold their contingency plans. The Secretary of State’s previous efforts resulted in 89 lorries and a refuse truck pretending to be on convoy to Dover, when in reality that route takes 10,000 heavy goods vehicles a day. He doled out contracts to ferry companies that did not have any actual ferries, or the means to get them, with terms and conditions cut and pasted from a fast food takeaway. He also threw 33 million quid away in an out-of-court settlement, and there are potentially many more litigations coming down the track. Will the Minister please give us a clue as to the Secretary of State’s next great plans?
Our plans amounted to just 1% of the no-deal planning, and it was the right thing to do for the Government to prepare for all eventualities. We were responsible in putting together the freight capacity that would be needed for critical supplies, including for the national health service. If the hon. Gentleman is so nervous about no deal, he should support a deal.
In June last year, the Department issued a written statement to Parliament that reported progress on the actions from its road safety statement. The statement also outlined more actions, such as putting £100 million into improving 50 of the most dangerous stretches of A roads in England and committing to a refreshed road safety statement and a two-year action plan to address four priority groups: young people, rural road users, motorcyclists and older vulnerable users.
I thank the Minister for that answer, but last year 157 people were sentenced for causing death by dangerous driving. The average length of the sentence given was just over six years. Does he agree that if this Government had introduced life sentences for that crime, as they promised to do in October 2017, we might have seen a consequent improvement in road safety and fewer of those dreadful crimes occurring last year?
The Department and the Secretary of State take these matters extremely seriously, and a great deal of work continues to be done on the subject of road safety. Any deaths or injuries via drink-driving are of course totally unacceptable, and we will do everything we can to continue to mitigate that. The fact is that the Department has doubled the penalty points for improper use of a mobile phone while driving, and we have also been investing via Facebook in the Think! campaign. We continue to work across the board to mitigate these issues. We are in constant contact with the Home Office and the police service on this issue, and that will continue.
In August 2017, 22-month-old Pearl Melody Black from Merthyr Tydfil was killed after a runaway car hit a wall, which fell on top of her. The current legislation did not allow the Crown Prosecution Service to bring justice to my constituents, Paul and Gemma Black. I have written to the Secretary of State, to the Department and to Ministers and previous Ministers to request a meeting to see whether we can work together to bring about a change in the legislation so that other parents do not have to endure this in future. Will the Minister agree to meet me to see what can be done?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising that tragic case of the runaway vehicle. The decision to prosecute lies with the Crown Prosecution Service. It would be inappropriate for the Department for Transport to comment on its decision, but I would be happy to meet him. I can say that DFT officials have been in discussion with the CPS and the Ministry of Justice about the case and dangerous driving offences more broadly, and we will continue to monitor the situation.
Last summer, I welcomed the Government’s announcement of a moratorium on shared spaces—road designs that remove the physical divides between the road and footways. Those cause considerable danger for blind and partially sighted people, including me, even turning some roads into no-go areas for people with sight loss. Concerns remain about what will happen to current shared spaces and the Government’s plans for the future. Can the Minister confirm that the Government recognise that such shared spaces are unacceptably inaccessible, and will funding be made available to make sure that they are made accessible for blind and partially sighted people?
May I take this opportunity to say how much I enjoyed my visit to my hon. Friend’s constituency while I was responsible for another portfolio some time ago? My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has been to see the local challenge for the Camelford bypass and is therefore visibly sighted on it. It has much merit, and I am happy to meet my hon. Friend. My officials are working with Cornwall Council to assess the scheme so that a decision can be made as soon as possible, and I hope that it will get on and submit it.
I welcome my hon. Friend’s mention of improvements to A roads. The most problematic A road in my constituency has had several visits from the Secretary of State. Detailed plans for improvements to what is known as the Sainsbury’s junction in Mansfield are with the Department: can the Minister update me on progress?
I welcome the Minister to his new role. I hope that he will bring the same enthusiasm, especially for cycling and walking, as his predecessor, and I am sure that he is looking forward to appearing before the Transport Committee. Yesterday, our Committee was told that the Government need to change their approach to public education on using a mobile phone while driving if they are to fulfil the Prime Minister’s ambition of making that offence as socially unacceptable as drink-driving. Will the Minister commit to taking action to increase public awareness of the risks of driving while using a mobile phone, whether handheld or hands-free, which we were told reduces motorists’ capability to that of a brand-new driver. It is the equivalent of being at the drink-drive limit and makes a road traffic collision four times more likely.
It is very kind of the hon. Lady to invite me to appear before her Committee: I think that something is already in the diary.
On cycling, I have already spoken to Transport for London about that. I have been on a bike several times this week and will be again later.
On the important issue of mobile phone use while driving, the Department has been working extremely hard: we have increased the penalty points from three to six, and we have put a lot of investment into social media to warn users of the dangers, and we will continue to do so.
Local bus journeys remain central to transport choices, accounting for around 59% of all public transport journeys. The Bus Services Act 2017, introduced by this Government, gives local authorities tools to improve local bus services and increase passenger numbers. The Government spend around £2 billion a year supporting passenger road transport. We are also investing record levels in the UK rail network as part of the biggest modernisation programme for many decades.
I know from constituents who commute that far more needs to be done to improve capacity and make traveling by rail more affordable, to encourage people out of their cars. What will Ministers do to address the fact that Wales is set to get only 6% of planned UK rail spending, despite Welsh routes making up 11% of the network? As part of that, can we have a new railway station for Magor as part of the new stations fund?
On that latter point, I am aware of the interest of the hon. Lady’s constituents, and it is something we will look at very carefully. I hope she welcomes the Government’s substantial investment in improved rolling stock, improved capacity and improved speed on the Great Western main line, which will benefit her constituency and the whole economy of south Wales.
The hon. Lady also talks about transport investment. It is surprising that, in the past few days, the Labour Administration in Wales have backed away from a major upgrade to the M4, which, of course, is the most significant artery for south Wales and its economy.
We are taking a variety of different measures. In this country, we will shortly be seeing the first battery hybrid trains and the first hydrogen-powered trains, and we are providing support for low emission and ultra-low emission buses. Indeed, I recently went to the constituency of the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Andrew Jones), to see the work that the local bus company is doing to introduce entirely electric-powered local bus routes. There is a huge amount happening, but of course there is a lot more to do to decarbonise the whole public transport sector and our road transport, too.
Has the Secretary of State had any discussions with the Treasury regarding a public transport voucher scheme that can be taken from pre-tax wages to encourage people to use public transport and thereby lower carbon emissions in our cities?
Bus services are in crisis. Since 2010, over 3,000 routes have been cut, fares have risen twice as fast as wages and bus use is in freefall. Last month, the cross-party Select Committee on Transport published a report on bus services in England outside London that recommended how to end this crisis, including allowing all local authorities to regulate or own their local bus services, providing concessions to young people and boosting funding. The report was led by the evidence. Will the Secretary of State listen to that evidence, accept the recommendations and make them Government policy?
Of course we will be responding to the report shortly, but if the hon. Gentleman looks across the country he will see that the place where bus mileage has been falling fastest is in Labour-controlled Wales. Actually, there has been a small increase in the number of routes during my time as Secretary of State. The Government are committed to supporting new, innovative ways to expand bus utilisation, which is why we support the demand-responsive services that are emerging across the country and are committed to ensuring that we provide the best possible choice for passengers.
The hon. Gentleman referred to the powers under the 2017 Act, and in my time as Secretary of State, I have not received a single proposal or request to introduce bus franchising under that Act. Notwithstanding that fact, I would be happy to do so if I saw evidence that it would improve passenger services.
East Coast Main Line: New Trains
A comment was made earlier about investment in the north, and the Azuma trains, which will shortly be running to the north-east and Scotland and are already running in Leeds, are a huge investment in transport connections to the north. They will reduce journey times, and alongside that the substantial multi-hundred million pound investment that we are putting into the east coast main line will improve journey times, too. That is another sign of this Government’s commitment to providing better transport links in and for the north.
I welcome that answer. The Secretary of State is right that the introduction of the new Azuma trains is an exciting development for the city of York, given the importance of the east coast main line to our great city, but can he assure me that we will have no further delays in their introduction? There have been signalling problems north of York, and the Azuma trains will be arriving in York on 1 August.
My understanding is that those trains are on track to start running as targeted at the start of August and will be going to Scotland later this year. They will deliver a transformative experience—more seats and faster, better journeys for people travelling from Scotland in the north to London and within the north, between places such as York and Newcastle. This is a really important investment.
I hope that history will be kind about the right hon. Gentleman’s contribution to transport in our country. These trains were promised last December, and they are still not properly in service. When will we get them? Is he not concentrating totally on that waste of money called HS2, which is squandering the national treasure?
It is interesting that when I speak to civic leaders in the north, they all talk enthusiastically about HS2. The new trains are already operating and have been for several weeks. They have been operating, as intended, initially on the route to Leeds; they will start on the route to York, Newcastle and Edinburgh shortly; and later this year and/or early next year they will be in operation right the way up through Scotland. This is a huge investment in better transport for people all the way up the east coast.
Public Transport: London
Transport in London is devolved to the Mayor. Ministers and officials in the Department for Transport hold regular discussions with representatives of the Greater London Authority, including the Mayor and deputy Mayor, on a range of transport matters.
I am sorry to say that the Mayor of London is letting Londoners down in transport. He has cancelled investment projects that are his responsibility, cut bus and underground services and axed an extension to the Metropolitan line, despite the Government loaning £2.6 million to the Mayor through our Department. I am appalled that, despite that loan, Sadiq Khan is letting Londoners down.
In those discussions with the Mayor of London, will the Minister seek his advice on why it costs more to take a bus four stops up the West road in Newcastle than it does to travel across the entire Greater London area? Will he advise the Minister for buses to apply that to the rest of the country, rather than cutting three quarters of a billion pounds from annual bus services?
Network Rail: Accountability
The Department sets the strategy for Network Rail. Its priority is to deliver a safe and efficient railway for passengers, freight customers and the taxpayer. The Secretary of State and I regularly meet Network Rail on its financial performance and progress against the aims set out in its delivery plan. The “Putting Passengers First” programme is built around issues facing the industry. We are engaging with Network Rail as it implements this programme.
We had a very good debate on the Suggitt’s Lane level crossing only last week in Westminster Hall. Network Rail is accountable to the Secretary of State, but that does not mean that we can interfere or overrule its operational decisions. However, I have undertaken to meet Network Rail to ensure that it is aware of the views of the hon. Lady and my hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers). I met some of the people who had travelled down from the area to understand their views and will ensure that Network Rail is fully sighted on those views.
Network Rail made a mistake when it demolished the Leyland bridge, which links my constituency and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough (Mr Bone). I am pleased to say that, with the Minister’s help, it is going to be rebuilt, but will he help us to keep the pressure up and ensure that those works are completed as soon as possible?
The Ebbw Vale to Cardiff line is a successful train service, but future improvements will require joint working between the Welsh Government, Network Rail and the Department for Transport, so will the Minister agree to meet me to help to secure extra investment for this crucial Valleys line?
As the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Melanie Onn) pointed out, and as the Minister is well aware, residents in Grimsby and Cleethorpes are very angry about the closure of Suggitt’s Lane level crossing. I appreciate the Minister’s help and assistance, but the reality is that there is no real accountability on this issue. If the community cannot hold Network Rail to account through their elected representatives, surely it is now time to look again at the existing legislation.
My hon. Friend has campaigned vigorously on this issue, and I know that he chaired a meeting on 31 May between Network Rail and North East Lincolnshire Council to discuss the issue and options for alternative provision, with specific reference to the Fuller Street bridge. I understand that Network Rail has agreed in principle to contribute to the enhancement of that bridge, should it prove viable. The key point is to make sure that the views of all those involved are considered and that we come to a happy conclusion as quickly as possible. I am happy to work with all sides to help to achieve a positive outcome.
One thing that would help with Network Rail accountability would be the devolution of that responsibility to the Scottish Government. If the Conservative party is committed to devolution and strengthening the United Kingdom, when will it devolve control of Network Rail to the Scottish Government?
My Department is considering the responses to the consultation on draft statutory guidance, to be issued to licensing authorities, on how they should use their extensive existing powers to protect children and vulnerable adults when using taxis and private hire vehicles. The response to the report by the task and finish group on taxi and private hire vehicle licensing committed the Government—I am keen to do this—to bring forward legislation to enable national minimum standards in licensing, enable greater enforcement powers and establish a national licensing database to assist in the sharing of relevant information.
The task and finish group to which the Minister refers made its recommendation last September. Five months later, the Government’s response was only that they would consider the recommendation. A further four months on, in a reply to a written question last week, the Minister could say only that they would continue to carefully consider the issue, with a view to legislating—you could not make this up, Mr Speaker—“when time allows”. Given the chaos of this Government, we have all the legislative time in the world. When are they going to act?
I can see that the hon. Gentleman is as keen as I am to legislate in this area. We responded to say that we would be looking at national minimum standards, national enforcement powers and a national licensing database. I really am keen to move forward on this issue as soon as I can, and I am just waiting for the most appropriate time to do so.
The Minister knows what I am going to say, but I am going to surprise her, because this week, thanks to Steve McNamara and the Licensed Taxi Drivers Association, I had the chance to drive one of the wonderful new electric cabs in London. Is it conceivable that London will manage to electrify its taxis before the Government manage to bring forward the legislation?
I never want to lose out to the Mayor of London, so I hope that that is not the case. Greener taxis are on the agenda. Not only has the hon. Gentleman been incredibly supportive of this issue, but he has guided me in the putting together of our response to the task and finish group. As he knows, I really am keen to try to secure a date, and the fact that the matter has been mentioned multiple times this morning will help me to do so.
Weekday Train Services: Kettering
Currently, on average, two East Midlands trains per hour call at Kettering northbound on weekdays, with one going to Corby and one to Nottingham. From December 2020, double the number of trains will call at Kettering: two will be on a dedicated St Pancras to Corby service and two will be on the long-distance Nottingham service.
The roll-out of the midland main line electrification is obviously a key project, and I will keep the House posted on its progress. I can inform my hon. Friend that the station will get many new benefits from the East Midlands franchise. They will include station wi-fi, LED lighting and help points. There will be improved lay-out and a bus interchange, a multimodal customer information system, drinking water fountains, customer lounges, refurbished toilets, new cafés, customer waiting areas, a third-party west side station entrance development, 60 new secure cycle spaces, six electric vehicle charging points, ANPR car park technology, 200 additional car park spaces and air quality monitors. Basically, it is all happening at Kettering station.
There is an issue that will, I am sure, have great importance for the people of Kettering, as it will for the people of Scotland. Fifty four per cent of delays and cancellations in Scotland are down to issues with Network Rail, and I am sure that the people of Kettering have a similar story to tell. Given that the respected think-tank Reform Scotland has said that the devolution of Network Rail to Holyrood would be a major step forward in integrating the Scottish transport network, why does the Minister not agree with Reform Scotland?
Rail Connectivity: North-West
Northern is now running an extra 2,000 services per week compared with two years ago and is introducing major improvements for its customers, including 101 brand new trains, which will be operating on the network from this summer. This is part of a major programme of rail investment across the north, which will see room for more than 40,000 passengers at the busiest times and will help transform the rail experience for coastal communities travelling into the cities.
The hourly service from Southport to Manchester Piccadilly is absolutely vital for residents and businesses in Southport. Will my hon. Friend and the Department for Transport join Network Rail in supporting my bid to restore the hourly service from Southport to Manchester Piccadilly in the December 2019 timetable?
My hon. Friend is a great champion of rail services in his area, just as he was of the Access for All bid for Hillside station. I appreciate how vital it is to have regular and reliable train services. I am aware that an additional service was added in the May ’19 timetable, and we are working on an extra service for December. Obviously, I am very happy to keep the pressure up and will keep him posted as we make progress.
Public Transport: Disabled People
In July 2018, my Department published the inclusive transport strategy. Our ambition is to create a transport system that provides equal access for disabled people by 2030, and to ensure that disabled people can travel confidently, easily and without extra cost. The Department is making good progress delivering on the many commitments set out in the strategy, and I will be providing a one-year report to Parliament in the summer.
Buses are not the only form of public transport with accessibility problems. It is still a huge issue for disabled people to get on and off airplanes. I have had constituents tell me that they have been literally manhandled on to flights. Even though airports are accessible, the airlines themselves still have a problem, and often people are left bruised and humiliated. Will the Minister meet me to talk about how we can encourage airlines to do something about that?
Absolutely. And that should not be the case. We have put together a really good inclusive transport strategy that sets out how passengers can be treated appropriately in all elements of their travel, and the airports should be doing much better. There is an aviation strategy, and there is also quite a big chunk in the inclusive transport strategy. I am more than happy to sit down with the hon. Lady.
I was one of the MPs who was happy to support the Guide Dogs talking buses campaign. I even took a trip on a bus blindfold to experience the travel difficulties. It is now two years since the Bus Services Act 2017 was passed, and the Government are still stalling on the roll-out of audiovisual information. All we need is secondary legislation, so can we please have a timetable for when that secondary legislation will be brought forward?
We are dealing with the responses to the consultation and I will update the House as soon as I can. The hon. Gentleman can rest assured—I chaired the all-party parliamentary group on sight loss and I am very close to this issue. I want to make sure that buses are accessible to people with all sorts of disabilities.
Bus Services: England
The Bus Services Act 2017 provides the tools that local authorities need, such as enhanced partnerships and franchising, to improve local bus services. We are working with interested local authorities to determine which of the powers provided are best able to support bus networks in their areas. We are also ensuring that pioneering technology, such as the forthcoming bus open data digital service, can overhaul bus services across England and give passengers the information they need to travel with confidence.
When Nicholas Ridley deregulated bus services nearly a third of a century ago, he promised that bus services would increase and be used by more passengers. Actually, bus deregulation has been a catastrophe and a disaster for the travelling public. Is not the answer to this question absolutely obvious—that the Government should encourage and allow all local authorities in England to re-regulate their services?
Unfortunately, the hon. Gentleman is painting an unrealistic picture. Up and down the country, there are varying numbers of bus passengers. In Bristol, bus passenger numbers are up by 50% and in south Gloucestershire they are up by 36%. We need to put a package of items together to encourage people to use buses. There is the ability to have either franchising or enhanced partnerships that allow local authorities to have a stronger and better relationship with bus companies.
Safety is absolutely key. We know that the driver’s relationship with the passengers is what motivates most people to jump on a bus, especially if they have issues to do with disability. I will be responding shortly to the Transport Committee’s report on buses.
Given the Government’s announcement yesterday about our commitment to pursuing a net zero strategy for carbon emissions, it might be helpful to set out three ways in which my Department is playing its part in taking this forward.
We are now awarding funding for innovative new ideas to transform the railways. I have already mentioned the first operating hydrogen train, but we are putting together a package of additional measures, which are being announced today, to upgrade the technology on the rail system. The Government car service is already taking steps to decarbonise its fleet. I will be encouraging other Government Departments to get their agencies that have fleets to do the same. This summer, we will be publishing our clean maritime plan setting out our role as a global leader in tackling the whole issue of carbon emissions in the maritime sector.
After the May 2018 timetable changes, I raised with Ministers the sacrificing of direct London to Sheffield train services to improve local services for London and the south-east. The latest timetable makes minor changes but no improvements. We still have too few early evening services and longer average journey times than 14 months ago. In the week that northern newspapers launched their Power Up The North campaign, what message does the Secretary of State think that sends, and what is he going to do about it?
The message it sends is that we have been very clear that while we are going through the process of upgrading the midland main line, there will be some effects on services. However, I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will welcome the improvements that have just been completed at Market Harborough—one of the big parts of the programme of upgrading the route. Derby station was another part completed fairly recently. This is designed to improve journey times to Sheffield as part of a commitment to transport both to his area and the whole of the north.
As my right hon. Friend will know, decisions on bus routes are down to the Mayor of London. I think he needs to focus on delivering for Londoners and not just faffing around trying to take selfies. He should be spending more time with Londoners to understand exactly the sort of bus services they need and which journeys they need to take.
With transport emissions accounting for 29% of all toxic emissions released in the UK, and at a time when Labour has declared that climate change is an existential threat to our nation and planet, will the Secretary of State for Transport tell the House why he has failed to undertake a full environmental audit of road investment strategy 2—the most ecologically and environmentally damaging road building programme for a generation?
We have another example of the Labour party’s war on the motorist. The hon. Lady should understand that the more congested our roads are, the higher the emissions. We cannot destroy our economy and get rid of our roads. We have to decarbonise road transport, but we also have to ensure that our roads flow smoothly. Those on the Labour Benches do not get that. They want to scrap road improvements, and they want more traffic jams. Those traffic jams increase emissions. The Labour party just does not get it.
The Secretary of State may think that that answer gets him off the hook, but when road transport accounts for 69% of transport emissions, and air pollution claims 50,000 lives prematurely, he should be less complacent.
UK roads killed or seriously injured 27,000 people, including 2,000 children, last year. It is the most dangerous mode of travel. Why does the Secretary of State not invest in developing a sustainable, integrated public transport strategy, including active travel, as Labour would, instead of this catastrophe of a road building project?
We now know the truth: the Labour party is going to be anti-motorist. It is going to be anti-road improvements. It is going to set itself against the things we are doing to try to boost our economy in all parts of the country, through connections to our ports and better motorway links, unlocking the economic potential of places like west Cumbria. Labour does not care. We will continue our work to decarbonise our car fleet and support the development of new technology in buses, for example. We also have the biggest investment programme in the railways since the steam age. Labour has no ideas, and just wants to go to war with the motorist.
I know that my hon. Friend has been a great champion of his constituency and has been liaising closely with HS2 Ltd. The infrastructure maintenance base that is proposed near Austrey is expected to have a minimal impact on the village when operational, because of its proposed location between the HS2 main line and the village. The site was also chosen because it will involve only limited movements of earth during construction. We expect HS2 Ltd to work to refine the route, to reduce environmental impacts. Where impacts are inevitable, HS2 Ltd will design plans for mitigation. Those plans are still in development and will be reported in the formal environmental statement, which will be deposited alongside the phase 2b hybrid Bill. If my hon. Friend requires a meeting so that I can flesh this out, I am more than happy to do that.
Stanford Coachworks in my constituency is a small, successful engineering business, building minibuses and luxury coaches. However, before its vehicles can be deemed roadworthy, they need to be inspected by the Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency. At present, the availability and frequency of tests falls well below the demand, threatening the viability of the business. Will my right hon. Friend agree to meet me, so that I can explain this in detail and we can see what can be done to improve the situation?
We will certainly arrange a meeting for my hon. Friend with a Minister—either me or the roads Minister—to address the issue. I should say that this does appear to be a problem in his area, rather than one that is universal around the country, but we do not want to see any business suffering as a result, and we will certainly work with him to address the problem.
I understand the point the hon. Lady is making because I have had similar issues in my own constituency. A principle that has been adopted both by her party when it was in government and by us is that, when assessing a person’s medical condition, it is not right or fair to go to their own GP because of the specific relationship that exists between an individual and their GP—whether that be an assessment for welfare entitlements or an assessment for a driving licence. We will always, as a ministerial team, work with Members across the House, if there are examples of individuals who have been hard done by as a result of a decision that is wrong, to see whether we can get the situation at least reviewed.
May I have an update on City of York Council’s bid through the major road network fund for dualling the York northern ring road? Will the new roads Minister meet me to discuss this matter and the levels of congestion that are causing huge concern to my constituents?
I am very happy to meet my hon. Friend, and I look forward to doing so to discuss that matter.
I know the right hon. Lady will use every opportunity to campaign, even through petitioning, to ensure that the voices of her constituents are heard. HS2 is committed to ensuring that it mitigates any impact and to working with local communities, but I am of course more than happy to sit down with the right hon. Lady and those from her communities to discuss this.
I am delighted to see the excellent new Minister in his place. As a Northamptonshire MP, he will know the stretch of the A45 between Stanwick and Thrapston that the Government are committed to dualling. The environmental study to unlock that project was supposed to be carried out during the current roads period, but it has not yet been completed. Will he put his foot on the accelerator to make sure that that work is done to unlock this dualling?
I will very much look into this matter. It is interesting to note that Labour Front Benchers would not be supporting this environmental plan. They are the ones who are engaging in a war on the motorist. My hon. Friend is absolutely right to have a look at the A45, because I know that that road has issues. It is about time Labour accepted that this Government’s investment in roads is something it should be duplicating, not resiling from.
I am just as eager as the hon. Gentleman to legislate in this area, considering the amount of work done by the task and finish group. Our commitment is to make sure that standards are raised, security is dealt with and that national enforcement officers ensure that regardless of where people are in the country they are getting into a cab with a driver who has had a standardised background check and has met the threshold for safety and security. I cannot give any more detail right now, but I am pleased that so many Members are as eager as I am to legislate on this issue.
Earlier this week, the all-party group on bioethanol issued its interim report on the availability of E10. This issue has been dragging on for very many years. May I urge the Minister to come to an early decision, after studying this report?
In principle, we intend to go ahead with the introduction of E10. It has to be subject to appropriate consultations. We have been particularly mindful of the impact on older vehicles, which are often owned by those on low incomes. However, it is the right thing to do, particularly given the environmental challenges we face, and we are now going through the process of moving towards its introduction.
In congratulating my Northamptonshire neighbour on his elevation to greatness as the Minister for roads, may I point out that the most important item on his desk is the introduction of civil parking enforcement in Kettering? When will a statutory instrument be introduced to implement that scheme?
I am pleased to see Northamptonshire so well represented in the Chamber, as it always is. The Department for Transport has been working with my hon. Friend on that plan regarding legal powers for civil parking enforcement in Kettering. A lot of work has been done, and more still needs to be done by Kettering Borough Council and Northamptonshire County Council, but with my hon. Friend on the case I feel sure that progress will soon be made. We are hoping that those powers will be available early in 2020.
Chris Boardman in Greater Manchester and Sarah Storey in South Yorkshire are demonstrating the value that active travel commissioners add to the promotion of cycling and walking. Although a series of initiatives helped people to get on their bikes and get out walking, we now need a long-term programme of investment. Does the Minister agree, and, if so, what plans can we expect to be brought forward?
As the hon. Gentleman knows, almost £2 billion will have been invested in cycling and walking over the course of the Parliament. Spending on cycling and walking in England has doubled from £3.50 per head to around £7 per head over this spending review period, which is as it should be. Cycling is a highly positive thing for physical fitness, mental health and wellbeing and, of course, the environment. We continue to invest in a way that the previous Government never did.
The weekend papers contained a striking photograph of £1 billion-worth of Crossrail trains sitting idly in the sidings. Some 479 drivers are not being used, which I understand costs £25 million a year, and £17 billion has been spent on Crossrail stations that currently have no trains going through them. Meanwhile, why does it take months and months to get any action from TransPennine Express in Hull to replace signs that are covered with gaffer tape? Why do we still have Pacer trains, and why was the electrification cancelled?
The hon. Lady will know that in the north large numbers of brand new trains are being tested and prepared for launch. She talks about new trains in London, but there are new trains in London, the north, the midlands, the south-west, the east coast main line, and the Great Western main line, as part of a massive investment by this Government in the railways and in better trains across the whole country, including her constituency.
The hon. Gentleman is arguing for the abolition of Transport for Greater Manchester, Nexus, and all the rest. Transport for London oversees the buses, and runs metro rail systems and its local Overground rail system. Those powers already exist in the cities of the north, and the hon. Gentleman appears to argue that those cities should lose those powers, which should be moved to Transport for the North. I do not think that is the right thing to do.
I do not know whether anyone on the Government Front Bench managed to get to the electric scooter demonstration yesterday that was provided by Bird, but such initiatives can encourage a modal shift and get people out of their cars. Will the Minister consider legislation to open up the use of electric scooters on our roads, and help us to achieve our climate change targets?
I refer to the Secretary of State’s response to the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Kensington (Emma Dent Coad) on runway three. I will try again. Given that the Government have now followed the Opposition in committing to net zero carbon emissions by 2050, surely the Secretary of State must see that Parliament might now vote a different way on a project that emits 6 million tonnes of carbon emissions per annum and provides zero net benefit to the UK economy?
I am afraid I simply do not accept that the latter point is true. This Parliament voted, by a majority of nearly 300, to give the go-ahead to a project that I personally believe is of key strategic importance to the United Kingdom over the coming decades. I think that says it all.
Whether it is electric scooters or dockless bike schemes, technology moves so much more quickly than the Department for Transport. After years and years, will the Secretary of State finally do something about dockless bike schemes, and help our local authorities respond to the changes?
The people of Sudan have shown incredible bravery and perseverance in their demands for an end to a brutal and unaccountable regime. We stand with them. The Transitional Military Council must listen to the Sudanese people and respect their legitimate demand for civilian rule.
Since the removal of Bashir on 11 April, the UK has made clear statements alongside our troika partners, the United States and Norway, as well as via the Foreign Secretary, calling for all sides to engage in an inclusive dialogue that leads to a swift and peaceful transition to civilian rule. The UK will continue to engage closely with the full spectrum of Sudanese actors, including civil society, in both Khartoum and London, to support a better future for Sudan.
We continue our call for Sudanese authorities to refrain from all violence, and for constructive dialogue that delivers a credible response to protest demands to resume. We welcome the work of the African Union in mediating, and the early progress reported towards the resumption of talks with the Forces of Freedom and Change. Following the sickening and brutal acts committed by Sudanese security forces on 3 June, I summoned the Sudanese ambassador to the Foreign Office last week, and told him in the strongest terms that these violent acts against civilians must stop.
I am very grateful to the Minister for her response. When Omar al-Bashir stood down and the Transitional Military Council took over—the Minister alluded to that—there was a huge amount of optimism. There were peaceful protests and there was space for opposition groups. Since last weekend, however, the situation has become horrendous. We have seen the Rapid Support Forces—the former Janjaweed militia—play a part in killing over 100 people. A number of women have been arrested, as have various opposition politicians, including Mohamed Esmat, and three key people from the SPLM-N—the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-North.
The Minister mentioned the help she is giving to Sudanese diaspora groups here. What conversations are we having with them, and what additional assistance can we give the alliance? Will she provide more details on that? Its leaders are being arrested, and many key personnel who are abroad want to come back and need help. What efforts are the troika and Her Majesty’s Government making to put pressure on countries such as Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt, which are apparently giving support to the Transitional Military Council?
Finally, the Minister rightly mentioned the African Union, which has a key role to play. Does she think it sensible for the AU to have suspended Sudan’s membership at a time when there should be dialogue, discussion and pressure applied, and what will she and the Secretary of State do to work with the AU, which is absolutely the key player in this, to make sure that common sense prevails, that space is given for democracy and that the will of the people triumphs in a country that has so much potential, but which is suffering so much at the moment?
I start by putting on the record my gratitude to my hon. Friend for his tireless advocacy on behalf of the people of Sudan, for his involvement in the all-party group on Sudan and South Sudan, and for the way he posed his question. He is absolutely right that we should also pay tribute to the tireless work of Her Majesty’s Ambassador Irfan Siddiq and his team in the embassy in Khartoum. They have been working relentlessly in very difficult conditions to put forward the view of Her Majesty’s Government, which is that we need to find a way of taking the inspiring activism that led to the removal of former President Bashir a few months ago, and moving forward in line with the aspirations of the Sudanese people towards civilian-led government.
My hon. Friend rightly pointed out the importance of a range of external actors and of our work with US and Norway in the troika. We are one of a group of countries that consider themselves friends of Sudan and want to play a constructive role in moving forward in this transition, which even the Forces of Freedom and Change recognise will have to be a protracted one, given that the country is coming out of a long period of direct rule by Bashir, and that the institutions and structures that we take for granted in our country take time to form in the transition to democracy. It is important therefore that there be an overall agreement, and that the sovereign council, which includes both the Transitional Military Council and civilians, be able to take things forward.
The US, Norway and the UK will work together constructively. We welcome the stance that the African Union has taken, and we fully support its envoy and the work that Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed from Ethiopia has done to find a way forward. My hon. Friend also rightly points out the importance of engaging with our friends in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to ensure a smooth transition to civilian rule. The international community has been clear about the completely unacceptable behaviour of the Rapid Support Forces; we deplore the terrible atrocities committed. We will set out the potential rewards of moving to civilian rule and make sure that people understand the tools we have to sanction those who do not play a constructive role in that transition.
The constant protest in Sudan since last December resulted in President Bashir being removed from power by the military on 11 April and the council of generals assuming power. The Transitional Military Council has since been in negotiations with protesters about establishing a civilian-led Government. On 15 May, it agreed to a three-year transition period to civilian rule, but that changed on 3 June, when, fearing they had ceded too much power to the protesters, Sudanese paramilitary forces launched a violent crackdown. Since then, much of the country has been shut down by a three-day strike.
The African Union has rightly suspended Sudan from its membership until a civilian-led transitional authority has been established, but we need further pressure placed on the Transitional Military Council to continue the political transition. To that end, the Government should encourage our allies in Riyadh and Abu Dhabi to persuade Sudanese paramilitary forces to pull out of Khartoum and resume negotiations with protesters.
In December 2017, the former Foreign Secretary thought it wise to hold a trade forum with Sudan. We warned the Government at the time about striking trade deals with Sudan while ignoring the country’s human rights abuses, but they did not listen. The Government really need to get their priorities in order. Instead of constantly searching for new trade deals, we need to be prioritising human rights. I therefore ask the Minister to ensure that her Government call for an outside-led investigation into the killing of protesters, halt all deportations and removals to Sudan, support real regime change and ultimately use their diplomatic clout to ensure a peaceful transition to civilian rule in Sudan.
I assure the hon. Lady that we are using every diplomatic avenue that we can to seek to ensure that the uprising leads to a smooth transition to civilian rule. We are certainly not holding back on condemning the behaviour that we have seen from the Rapid Support Forces.
The hon. Lady mentions the important role that we can play in other forums. I can confirm that on Monday I will be in Luxembourg with other European Union Foreign Ministers to talk about the situation in Sudan, and to see what we can do on the strategy that I outlined, which is to show the clear upside for the economy of a smooth transition to civilian rule. I am sure that she would recognise that part of the clear upside has to be economic reform and the ability to start doing more business with Sudanese businesses, and that that is an important part of the transition.
In addition, we welcome the fact that the US has appointed a special envoy. We have our special envoy, Bob Fairweather, and the US has just announced that its special envoy is Ambassador Donald Booth, who is in Sudan today with American Assistant Secretary Tibor Nagy. Again, this is about reiterating our points about the importance of the smooth transition to civilian rule, and how that can unlock economic reforms and Sudan’s economic potential.
The hon. Lady rightly welcomes the constructive role being played by the African Union, which has sent very clear messages. She rightly says that these kinds of human rights violations and abuses absolutely need to be clearly documented. We have heard very disturbing reports, not only in Khartoum, but in Darfur. They are as yet unconfirmed, but through our diplomatic channels at the United Nations, we have again urged the UNAMID —United Nations-African Union Mission in Darfur—peacekeeping mission to fully investigate them. She is absolutely right to say that these kinds of atrocities are not things that the world will forget, and that it will look to hold accountable those who have committed them.
I welcome the appointment of the US special envoy; that role has been left unfilled for too long. In September I was in Sudan, and I noticed a certain contempt—which continues—from the ruling elite towards more distant organisations, whether that was the US, Norway, the UK, the UN or, to a lesser degree, the AU. However, I did notice that the ruling elite took note of what was said by their near neighbours in particular. What leverage do we have, particularly through our foreign aid relationships with those near neighbours, that we can use to put pressure on for a peaceful solution? As part of our international aid programme, we are providing some £85 million of support to enable people to feed their families. As always with our humanitarian assistance, it needs to be predicated on need, rather than tied to any specific political act.
Separately, on the political track, we need to keep making clear statements about the potential upside for the Sudanese economy of following a path for reform—the upside that could exist if Sudan were to move out of being classified by the United States as effectively a state sponsor of terrorism. So there is a clear path that can be followed to a much better future for the Sudanese people. We encourage all actors, neighbours and the international community to work with the Sudanese people to achieve that.
In the past 10 days, at least 124 people have been killed by the regime forces and more than 700 have been injured, as protests have steadily engulfed Khartoum. We have also had widespread reports of sexual violence, mass arrests, gunfire in medical facilities and bodies floating in the River Nile.
The SNP follows the EU in calling on the Sudanese Government to release all journalists, members of the Opposition, human rights defenders and other protesters arbitrarily detained, and to conduct a thorough investigation into recent deaths and human rights abuses. I welcome the Minister’s statement and I note that she is going to Luxembourg on Monday to meet EU partners. Does she agree that a multilateral approach through such institutions as the EU is the most effective way to exert international pressure and to ensure that human rights are respected? If so, what conversations has she had with her European counterparts about the most effective means to do so?
Does the Minister agree that we are watching Sudanese society teeter on the brink of large-scale violence and potential civil war? What lessons has she learned in her Department from Myanmar that will help to avoid a similar situation?
The hon. Gentleman will have heard about the way in which we are engaging with our EU counterparts on this. We talked about near neighbours, but of course Sudan is very close to all of us, so it is important that we find a way to facilitate the smooth transition to civilian government.
The hon. Gentleman is right to talk about the terrible atrocities on 3 June that led to my summoning the Sudanese ambassador. This morning’s reports from our post on the ground state that there has been a continued reduction in the Rapid Support Forces present on the streets of Khartoum; that talks are continuing to take place, facilitated by mediators; and that African Union envoy Labat and Ethiopian envoy Dirir are playing a constructive role in moving those forward. So I think that we can welcome the international engagement, but we can also welcome the fact that, through this mediation by the African Union, there has been a de-escalation of the totally unacceptable behaviour of 3 June by the Rapid Support Forces.
Thank you for granting this important urgent question this morning, Madam Deputy Speaker.
Britain, as the Minister so rightly says, has a pivotal role to play as a member of the Troika, along with Norway and the United States, as it has for many years. And this House too—Jo Cox, our late colleague, and I worked on the atrocities in Darfur for many years, both when I was in opposition and when I was Secretary of State.
The critical point that Britain can make at this time is that there will be no impunity for the human rights abusers in the regime in Sudan who are conducting the most appalling events in Sudan—in Khartoum and elsewhere—in respect of civil society, which is trying to move Sudan to a better place. I refer not just to the appalling events that have taken place through militias such as the Janjaweed in Darfur; President George Bush referred to events there as a genocide and General Bashir must be held to account by the International Criminal Court. There is also the fact that the human rights abusers in the forces in Khartoum can be held to account today through mobile phone technology. There are many pictures of individuals who have been abusing the human rights of citizens in Khartoum and Britain should make the point that they will all be held to account in due course, no matter how long it takes.
I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend for his work at the time of the last Darfur crisis, and, of course, to our late lamented colleague Jo Cox, who made such an impact on the world’s attention to this situation.
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right: we must not lose track of accountability, particularly that of state security forces when there are documented human rights violations. As I said, we are hearing that there are a number of unconfirmed reports and that there is also evidence on mobile phones. We think that that is one of the reasons the internet has been shut down, and has continued to be shut down. As he will appreciate, that makes it difficult to confirm what has happened. That is why we have taken steps to go via the United Nations peacekeeping mission and called on that mission to get to the bottom of what has happened and of who has been responsible, so that they can be held accountable for these atrocities.
The announcement by special envoy Mahmoud Dirir that talks may resume is of course welcome, but I want to focus on the point raised by the former International Development Secretary, the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell). The terrible violence has an awfully familiar ring to those of us who had to deal with the tragedy in Darfur, because the traditional response of the Sudanese state is to deploy forces to crack down on those whom they wish to oppose.
There has been such a considerable difference between assessments of the number of people killed. I think the authorities claim that it is about 61, but, as we have heard, according to reports from other sources, including doctors, it is double that. There have also been reports of rape, and of bodies being thrown into the Nile. Did I understand the Minister to say that she thought that UNAMID could play a role in investigating all these atrocities, including those in Khartoum? If that is the case, and if there is support from both the African Union —which plays a very important role—and the United Nations, I think the whole House would support it as well, because we need the evidence to hold people to account. The tragedy in Sudan and Darfur is that far too many people have got away with far too much.
Let me clarify what I said. We believe that in Darfur, where the reports have been hard to confirm, UNAMID can have an important role in trying to get to the bottom of what has happened and ensuring that justice is served. In Khartoum itself there is also work to be done in terms of documentation, but my understanding is that no forces from UNAMID have been deployed there. Part of the evidentiary process relating to these atrocities will require us to try to get to the bottom of some of the documentation on people’s mobile phones. However, it is on the agenda of all the players, including international players, to find the best way of ensuring that we do not lose sight of the fact that these abuses must be met with justice, whether they are violations by the security forces or abuses by others,
Along with other Members who are present today, I visited Sudan last year. It was my fourth visit. The plea of the ordinary Sudanese is “Please do not forget us and please hear our cries when we really do need help.” They need help at the moment.
Our ambassador has been called in for a dressing down. Can the Minister assure me that our staff in Sudan are given maximum protection, because that is a worrying development?
I ask for two things. I share what my hon. Friend the Member for Heywood and Middleton (Liz McInnes) said. May we have an absolute assurance that the Minister will talk to the Home Office to make sure there are no deportations back to Sudan at the moment? That is the one thing the large diaspora here will want to hear.
The most worrying thing we found out from our visit last year was the rapid rundown of UNAMID. Can we stop that? Can we make sure we invest in UNAMID and get people back on the ground? That is the only way we will stop a dangerous escalation of all sorts of conflict in Darfur.
First, I appreciate the hon. Gentleman’s strong interest in this area. I answer a lot of the written parliamentary questions that he tables. I want to put on record for the people of Sudan that of course Her Majesty’s Government will not lose sight of the issues and what is happening and they will remain at the forefront of our minds. The hon. Gentleman is right to point to the bravery of our ambassador and the team. This is the second time that we have drawn down our embassy staff to the minimum. I assure colleagues that of course we make sure that they are protected in the way that they need to be, but we have asked non-essential staff and families to leave and we have updated our travel advice for any British citizens thinking of travelling to Khartoum or Sudan more widely.
In terms of Darfur and UNAMID, I can say to the House that the decision last year to draw down troops has been implemented. That has been a fairly modest drawdown. There will be no further drawdown. Under the current circumstances it is important that that presence remain in place and we remain committed to being a partner supporting that deployment at this time.
May I press the Minister on what she said in relation to UNAMID? There is significant evidence of continuing human rights abuses in Darfur. There is emerging evidence that the RSF has occupied bases that the African Union and the UN have left. There is a vote at the end of this month at the AU and the UN about a further significant diminishing of the UNAMID operation. Will the UK absolutely oppose any further withdrawal or drawdown because it is the last remaining safeguard for the civilian population there and if it is drawn down further we will hand complete control to the human rights abusers?
Sudan finds itself sixth in the Open Doors world watch list for persecution of Christians and we know that the 2 million Christians there are subjected to extreme persecution, in particular in the Nuba mountains where thousands of Christians have been slaughtered and displaced, so this is a serious issue. Will the Minister consider the calls from Christian Solidarity Worldwide to convene a special session of the UN Human Rights Council on that issue?
The hon. Gentleman will be aware of the Foreign Secretary’s prioritisation of freedom of religion and belief in his work, and my colleague from the other place, Lord Tariq Ahmad, was in Khartoum last year making precisely this point.
The hon. Gentleman makes a very sensible point about the Human Rights Council. He will be aware that we tried to raise this at the Security Council last week but it was blocked by Russia and China. However, we will of course explore all international avenues to make sure that we keep this issue on the agenda.
Cardiff has a strong and long-standing Sudanese community and many concerns have been raised with me by constituents who are also deeply worried about friends and relatives whom they are unable to contact because of the cutting off of the internet and communications. As the two former International Development Secretaries have said, unfortunately, cutting off information and using brutal tactics against civilians are par for the course for the Sudanese military and security forces. Given what the Minister said about UNAMID, what other methods can be used to verify what on earth has gone on, because I have heard horrific stories from individuals? Are we talking about the involvement of the International Committee of the Red Cross or other independent human rights monitors if UNAMID and other forces are not going to be in Khartoum and elsewhere? What message does she have for countries that continue to provide the Sudanese military and security forces with direct assistance, given their horrific record of abuse of civilians?
To the hon. Gentleman’s latter point, we believe it is important to raise those concerns with the relevant countries at the earliest possible opportunity, and I can assure him that we will be doing that. With regard to the documentation and the closing down of the internet, he makes some sensible suggestions on the ways in which we must try to ensure that we continue to be able to hold people to account for their actions, and I look forward to updating the House about the actions we have taken in that area.
Despite the telecommunications blackout, we have heard that the UN has had reports that 19 children have been murdered and that 49 or so are believed to have been injured, some of whom have been sexually assaulted. On that specific point, will the Minister tell us what the Government can do to press for the protection of the most vulnerable, including children, during the horrific violence that they are seeing in their country?
As far as Darfur is concerned, the crucial organisation there is UNAMID. With regard to Khartoum, the important way forward there is to ensure that the Transitional Military Council and the Forces of Freedom and Change are able to continue with the current dialogue and that they recognise that peaceful protest needs to be part of this transition. We will try to ensure that all abuses and violations are documented and that people are held to account.
The last I heard, the brave men and women working in international aid agencies such as the International Rescue Committee were still operating on the ground. Are we in contact with those organisations, and what are they reporting back? It is encouraging to hear that European Ministers are meeting to talk, so would not a new delegation be timely if that could be arranged at this time?
I agree with the hon. Gentleman. A few days ago, I met some of the leading non-governmental organisations that are delivering humanitarian assistance, and access is continuing to allow them to do that. Obviously one has to put on record one’s admiration for the bravery of the people involved. As far as a delegation is concerned, I understand that commercial flights from both Ethiopian Airlines and Turkish Airlines have now restarted. We hope that the situation will remain peaceful enough on the ground to enable us to update our travel advice, but at the moment the travel advice for British citizens is for essential travel only.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. It is always a pleasure to speak in this House, whatever time it may be—either first or last, it doesn’t matter.
Could the Minister outline the practical steps that she has been taking, as well as the statements that have been issued, to help to provide safety and security for those who are peacefully protesting? What discussions has her office had recently to attempt to lever diplomatic pressure—to prevent the killings, the abuse of protesters and the horrific sexual abuse of some women—on a Government who are downright refusing to meet the basic human rights of their people?
I would like to pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman but, in the interest of brevity, I must tell him that many of those points were covered in my earlier answers. Our travel advice for British citizens is kept constantly updated, and at the moment our travel advice is for essential travel only.
Local Housing Allowance: Supreme Court Ruling
(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions to make a statement on yesterday’s Supreme Court ruling in the case of Samuels v. Birmingham City Council and the impact it will have on the Department’s setting of local housing allowance rates.
The ruling was not against the Department; it was a case against Birmingham City Council. I will look at the judgment carefully. The Court decided that the local authority had used the wrong test when deciding whether accommodation is affordable. The assessment is needed when deciding whether someone has made themselves intentionally homeless.
The decision is primarily one for local authorities to consider with regard to how they deal with applications for unintentional homelessness. However, I will undertake to consider the implications fully with my Department. LHA rates are not intended to meet full rental costs in all areas. The intention behind the welfare reform programme is that the same considerations and choices faced by people not in receipt of benefits should also face those claiming benefits. The LHA policy is designed to make the system fairer for all to achieve that.
The Government recognise, however, that the impact of freezing LHA rates may have different effects across the country, with rents in some areas increasing at different rates. In view of that, a proportion of the savings from the freeze to LHA rates is used to create targeted affordability funding. That funding is being used to increase those LHA rates that have diverged the most from local rents.
I am grateful to Mr Speaker for granting the urgent question.
Yesterday, the Supreme Court ruled on the case of Samuels v. Birmingham City Council, a case in which a single mother with four children was found “intentionally homeless” for not using her subsistence social security to pay the shortfall between her local housing allowance and her rent. Since 2016, the Government have frozen LHA, while private rents have continued to rise. That has meant that housing benefits no longer cover the cost of renting in the private sector.
Research by Shelter has found that for a two-bedroom home, even for the cheapest third of rents, LHA rates do not cover rental costs in 97% of areas in England. In the case that the Supreme Court ruled on yesterday, Ms Samuels was expected to use her social security to find an additional £150 a month to top up her local housing allowance to cover her rent. That put Ms Samuels in an impossible situation, essentially forcing her to choose between housing her family and feeding them. That is happening in the context of local authorities being forced to spend £1 billion a year on emergency and temporary accommodation, with the costs of preventing homelessness being pushed from national to local government.
The Government cannot continue to expect the poorest people in our society to find a way of paying for what the Government refuse to. The judgment sets a precedent. Will the Minister make a clear statement on the Supreme Court’s judgment and tell the House how the Government intend to respond? When will the Secretary of State reset LHA rates in response to the judgment? Finally, will the Minister tell us what assessment the Government have made of the hardship caused by the freeze in LHA rates?
The hon. Lady is right that LHA rates were frozen in the summer Budget in 2015 and have therefore been frozen since 2016. That was about getting our welfare bill under control. It was about ensuring that we provided the support necessary for those who needed it and fairness for those who pay for it, and making sure that our welfare system is sustainable in the long term. I can tell the hon. Lady that the freeze will end in March 2020. In all cases, the targeted affordability fund is available. We also have discretionary housing payments, and £1 billion has been made available since 2011.
Ultimately, it is a supply issue. LHA rates are one thing and supply is another. We need to look at successive Governments that have not built enough affordable—by which I mean council and social—housing. Nevertheless, the hon. Lady will be aware that I did a lot of work in this area before taking up my ministerial post. She would therefore expect me to undertake further work in post, and there will be more to come.
Rents in Cheltenham are relatively high. Does the Minister agree that bringing more housing on stream is critical to bringing down those rents? Does he join me in welcoming the £3 million that went to Cheltenham via the housing infrastructure fund to make what would otherwise be unviable developments viable, bringing vital housing on stream?
My hon. Friend is right that we are taking action to build the homes that our country needs. The LHA rate is an issue in so many cases because of supply and demand. Demand massively outstrips supply in certain areas, so I am pleased by the action that Cheltenham is taking with his support.
I pay tribute to Ms Samuels, who brought her case as far as the Supreme Court. Hopefully her struggle will result in change so that others do not have to go through this.
This case should be a wake-up call for many local authorities in how they process homelessness applications, while acknowledging that Scotland has much stronger homelessness legislation. Local authorities have been left in a very difficult situation because of this Government’s policies, which drive cases like that of Ms Samuels. Local housing allowance rates have been frozen at 2015 levels by this Government. Why will that freeze continue into next year? The Minister simply cannot say that this is about not wanting to subsidise the private rented sector, because the Government are actively doing that by not building social housing.
In the four years to 2018, Scotland delivered 50% more affordable housing units per head of population and—this is the important one—five times more social rented properties per head of population, and more in total, than England. The Scottish Government are also spending £12 million on discretionary housing payments to mitigate the Government’s freeze on benefits such as local housing allowance and £50 million to mitigate the bedroom tax.
A perfect storm has led to so many of us having cases like that of Ms Samuels at our surgeries—punitive, arbitrary and punishing cuts to social security, including housing benefit, coupled with rent increases and a devastating under-supply of social housing. When will the Government wake up to the crisis they are causing?
Despite the freeze in Scotland, we have seen LHA rates rise. One rate rose in 2017-18, three rates rose in 2018-19 and 16 rates rose in 2019-20. The hon. Gentleman knows me well enough to know that I am looking at various options in this area ahead of potential spending review bids. The freeze comes to an end next year, and I look forward to working with him.
It is a great pleasure to see the Minister in his place, which will give great reassurance to my right hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip (Boris Johnson) that it is possible to leave the Government and rejoin at a more senior level in short order.
My hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham (Alex Chalk) hit the nail on the head. It is all about the supply of private sector housing. What discussions has the Minister had with the Minister for Housing on increasing the supply of housing and, in particular, building above shops? Whether in Birmingham, Colchester, Cheltenham or Southend, this has to be part of the solution.