Tuesday 8 October 2019
[James Gray in the Chair]
Government Plan for Net Zero Emissions
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the Government plan to reach net zero by 2050.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I am grateful to the huge number of Members from all parts of the House who have come along to Westminster Hall this morning. It really underlines the absolute priority that this House and the Government give to tackling the huge challenge facing us all.
There is no doubt that the UK leads the world on tackling climate change. We have decarbonised faster than any other major economy, reducing our emissions by 38% since 1990, but we all know that we need to go further and faster, which is why Parliament supported the world-leading net zero target, making the UK the first major economy to do so. The Government must now outline a strategy, with concrete policies and a road map showing how we will get there.
Climate change and the decline of nature is the most serious threat we face. Unchecked, it will lead to more extreme weather events such as floods and droughts, damage precious natural habitats, and cause sea levels to rise. The impacts could be irreversible. The response must be similarly comprehensive, and action must be taken across the whole of our economy. I am confident that we can do that, because there is concern and support for action not just in the streets outside, but in every home, every business and every community across our country. We are an imaginative, creative and innovative nation, and I think we have what it takes to rise to this challenge. It is an opportunity to grow our economy more sustainably. What is good for nature is good for human health and wellbeing.
Every week, like all hon. Members, I meet people from a wide range of organisations—local councils, students, schools, local businesses, and environmental activists—all of whom are fully invested in ensuring that we achieve our net zero target. In every meeting, there is agreement on what the challenge is and why we need to act, and the conversation moves on to how and when they can play their part. If we are to harness that enthusiasm and expertise, we need first and foremost to provide more information about the Government’s plans.
In this debate, we will hear lots of ideas for new policies to help reach net zero, and I hope that the Minister will take them on board. I will highlight just one: my recent ten-minute rule Bill, which makes the compelling case for the Government to set out a plan to retrofit energy efficiency measures in homes across the country. That Bill asks the Government to publish a plan for meeting the domestic energy efficiency targets in the clean growth strategy, to make provision for monitoring performance against milestones in the plan, and to establish an advisory body for the implementation of the plan. As we prorogue tonight, the Bill will fall, so I ask the Minister to take its provisions forward into the next Session. The Committee on Climate Change says that that action should be a priority, and the National Infrastructure Commission has also made it a priority.
The technologies required to enable decarbonisation of the building stock and energy systems are largely available today. Industry body representatives have set out clear plans, as have leading charities such as National Energy Action. Taking action on energy efficiency has the dual benefit of reducing carbon emissions and saving people money.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this debate, and commend her for her Bill. On housing and the Government’s performance, does she agree that it is regrettable that the ambition to achieve zero carbon homes by 2016 was torn up in the 2011 Budget? We would have made much greater progress had that not been done and we had pursued that ambition for 2016.
I would rather use today’s debate to show the collective will and determination of hon. Members to support the Government in reaching the new target, rather than engaging in a tit-for-tat about which Government could have or should have done what in the past. Let us focus on the future and on what we can all do as Members of Parliament to support the Government in reaching the target that the whole of Parliament supports.
Tackling fuel poverty will end a lot of preventable human misery, as well as save the taxpayer a great deal of money in the NHS, in social care and in the Department for Work and Pensions. Evidence clearly shows that when people live in a warm home, their health improves, children do better at school, and people are more likely to be in work. I know that Cornwall would very much love to be the area of the country to pilot the whole house retrofit.
Having pitched my Bill, I will focus my remarks on the main theme of this debate, which is the importance of making readily available to everybody in our society digestible information on what we are doing to reach net zero. That is really important, because not everyone will be able to read the 277-page net zero report by the Committee on Climate Change, or the 630-page report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which are difficult for many people to understand. Day in, day out, there is a barrage of announcements from Government Departments about what they are doing to tackle this challenge.
My hon. Friend is making a powerful point about setting targets. As the United Kingdom, we have a target of 2050, while devolved Administrations across the UK are setting different targets. In Scotland, the target has been set at 2045, which is dependent on the entire United Kingdom hitting the 2050 target. How can we share information through different tiers of Government right across the UK so that all our citizens benefit and all our targets are met?
My hon. Friend makes a really important point about how different nations in the United Kingdom will need to set different targets. Scotland has an abundance of natural resources for hydroelectricity among other things, so it will be easier for it to reach net zero than for England.
Some industries, such as the water industry, have already committed to decarbonise by 2030, while the National Farmers Union has recently produced a plan. It is vital to make it easy for citizens, businesses and public sector organisations to see a road map showing exactly how we will reach our targets and the contribution that everyone in society is making to enable us to reach that goal.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. Does she agree that in providing better information to citizens and businesses, we must also seek to bring them with us? If people understand the issue and are made to feel part of the solution, they are much more likely to engage and take the individual actions that we need them to take.
My right hon. Friend makes a very important point: the changes needed are substantial and it is really important that people understand why we need to do what we need to and that we take people with us. We can do that largely by providing information not only about the why, but about the how. In my experience, most people are waiting for that information, because they understand the challenge and want to play their part.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this important debate and on her Bill. Many of us believe that 2050 is not soon enough and would like to go further and faster, but irrespective of the target and the speed, does she agree that, precisely to bring people along with us, there is a role to be played by citizens’ assemblies? This is an opportunity for people to come together and work together to identify how best to make the transition.
I am glad that the hon. Lady has mentioned the target. The groundbreaking Climate Change Act 2008, which is unique to our country in having all-party support, set up the independent Committee on Climate Change. All Governments depend on evidence and the best science to show what we can do. The independent Committee on Climate Change says that the 2050 target is the right target: it is ambitious but feasible, whereas the 2030 target is not necessary and not deliverable. We risk undermining the very independence of the Committee on Climate Change and the evidence-based policy-making approach that we must take if we start to pluck numbers out of thin air for political gain.
The hon. Lady makes some powerful points. Listening to experts is crucial, so I hope she shares my concern—I hope the Minister is listening—about the Government’s decision to overturn the advice of their own Planning Inspectorate, given on climate change grounds, regarding the new Drax gas-powered turbines at Selby. They would undermine the target that she is pushing.
I think the hon. Lady’s intervention is directed more at the Minister than at me.
To return to the theme of my debate, I believe the Government can provide a lot more information. They can share data and expertise on the smartest way to get to work and school and to travel, on what local British food is in season and sustainably grown, and on the suppliers of the cleanest forms of electricity and heating. That information could be provided in one place, where any individual, councillor, business or student can find out all they need to know to reduce their carbon footprint. Information for business and public sector organisations about how to support innovation could also be made more widely available.
We have some of that information already, such as that last year we spent £26 billion on transport, but only £400 million of that was spent on active walking and cycling. Does the hon. Lady think that we need a shift of priorities so we are investing in green forms of transport that will also improve health?
The hon. Lady is absolutely right about the need to invest in cycling and walking infrastructure. Both of us, with many colleagues, participated in a debate in this Chamber on that very subject. The Government asked the Committee on Climate Change to consider what plans they need to put in place to enable us to reach that target; they are actively considering those plans and the Treasury is looking at the cost.
I have every confidence that the Government will produce detailed plans on how we are to reach the 2050 target, but I want them to set out clear milestones for the intervening period. Judging by conversations this morning with protestors, people think we will wait until 2050 to take any action, but we have already taken significant action, and the ambition is there to go further and faster. To give people hope and clarity, we need to set out the plans and milestones in detail so that people can see what is going on.
This country has the opportunity, through the COP 26 conference next year, to take the lead internationally on setting out actions that people and communities can take. Does my hon. Friend agree that there is a role for people across this country, in the run-up to COP 26, to identify practical steps that communities and industry sectors can take, to bring those to COP 26 and to highlight them around the world?
Order. This is a busy debate, so interventions must be brief—one sentence at the most.
We will bear that in mind, Mr Gray. My right hon. Friend makes a good point: COP 26 is a great opportunity, as he so well articulated. Some sort of roadshow would be a good idea, as it would harness the great work going on and give the Government an opportunity to communicate to communities the sort of innovation funding and support plans available, so people can engage.
I will be very quick. There is an opportunity for Members of this House to take a lead in our constituencies. Does my hon. Friend agree that a good way would be to have local assemblies, where we inform people of what is going on, they can inform us and we can feed that through?
My right hon. Friend makes an incredibly important point. We are leaders in our communities and we have agency, as he describes, to make a positive difference.
This country also has world-leading universities and tech companies. I would like the Government to set up an ecotech innovation fund, so we can harness expertise to create user-friendly, accessible apps and websites that seamlessly compile impartial and accurate data and explain what people can do and how they can access support.
I am going to make a bit of progress because so many Members want to speak and I want them to be able to do so.
Businesses have an important role to play, and it has been great to see businesses come forward with their own net zero targets. The water industry, for example, has committed to carbon neutrality by 2030. To give hope to the citizens who are so worried about climate change, that information should be captured so that people can see what all sectors of our society are doing. To level up the expectation on all businesses to take action, the Government should require goods for sale to include climate impact on their labelling. That requirement could cover food, electronic goods, and so on. It would help consumers to make smarter choices when shopping and ensure that companies measure the carbon footprint of individual products. It will add a cost to business, but that is why we must create a level playing field by insisting on the provision of that information. We do not want businesses who do the right thing to be undercut by those who do not. Information is power and it will enable every workplace and home to make smarter choices.
To co-ordinate that activity I want the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster to be given overall responsibility for net zero in the Cabinet Office. We should raise the status of the Environment and Clean Growth Inter-ministerial Group to a Cabinet sub-Committee. The Treasury could introduce a new net zero test for every Budget and spending review, to ensure that all new Government spending and investment is aligned with the target, or at least is not harming decarbonisation efforts. The Government could ask the Office for Budget Responsibility to scrutinise whether the targets are being met.
In the Liverpool city region, the combined authority and the Mayor, Steve Rotherham, are doing exactly what is needed to take people with us to hit that net zero carbon target. That includes plans for an ambitious tidal barrage on the Mersey, hydrogen trains—hopefully built by Alstom in Widnes—and an offshore wind array. They also oppose fracking. Is that not the way to hit the net zero carbon targets?
There are regional industrial strategies in the modern industrial strategy. The Government are clear about going for clean and inclusive growth in our economy, and I absolutely support that. I welcome the fact that local enterprise partnerships all over the country, including in Cornwall, are coming together to produce plans for us to meet our net zero targets while growing our economy sustainably. I commend any region of the country working with the Government to enable us to do that.
All the businesses I speak with want clarity and certainty about what the Government want them to do, so that they can start pricing in the changes they will need to make. Many see this as an opportunity not just to do the right thing but to innovate and reach new markets. Government Departments and their arms-length bodies should lead by example by making their buildings more energy efficient and switching to low-emission transport. That will save money as well as carbon.
The hon. Lady is being very generous with her time. Does she agree that we should call on local authorities, which have huge purchasing power and local influence, to take action? Last month, Barnsley Council declared a climate change emergency.
I welcome the fact that Barnsley has declared a climate emergency. Cornwall Council has done the same, as have most of the parish councils in my constituency. People want to play their part. The Government have recently brought in some very helpful new regulations that will help councils. For example, most councils sit on huge pension funds; the new regulations, which came into force last week, make councils think about the impact of their decisions on reaching that net zero target. There are many contributors to enabling people, councils and businesses to make changes so that we can meet the target.
As was mentioned, the climate change movement will fail if we fail to take people with us. As we saw in France, we must be clear about why action to tackle climate change matters, and ensure people are not left behind as we transition to new, cleaner industries. It cannot just be about distant international summits with acronyms that few people understand. When the UK hosts the UN climate change summit in Glasgow next year, we must ensure that every sector of society is involved in the conversation. With an issue as big as climate change, we need everyone’s collective brainpower to find the right solutions, and we must have everyone on board if we hope to implement those solutions.
In the light of my hon. Friend’s comments about Britain’s world-leading efforts on climate change, and all the interventions talking about the action already being taken, would not efforts to take people with us be more effective if campaigners stopped insisting that nothing has happened in the past 30 years, which is simply not true?
I absolutely agree. There is a lot of scaremongering and misinformation. Most of the people that I meet are genuine and sincere, but there is no doubt that there are people who have seen the popular support and concern about what is happening to our climate and nature and are deliberately infiltrating and organising in a way intended to create chaos, and fundamentally to bring down our whole way of life. We must guard against that. In any democracy that enjoys as much freedom as we do—it is fantastic that we have those freedoms—we must guard against extreme elements in our society, which will always want to undermine and bring down our whole way of life. My right hon. Friend makes a very good point.
I believe that the biggest danger we face is not climate change deniers, but climate change delayers—those people who think we are doing okay. It is an emergency. The guys are out there because we have not done enough. Does the hon. Lady agree that we should all take note of that?
I gently ask the hon. Lady: how can she claim to speak for everyone outside? A little bit of humility in all of us does not go amiss. Everyone in this room is 100% committed to getting to net zero. It is clear from Parliament’s actions that we want to do that. That is why I wanted to focus this debate on ensuring that we have clear plans and communications and measures are reported in an open and transparent way, so that people cannot make cheap party political points, which damage people’s wellbeing and how they feel about this issue.
Let us be honest: in post-Brexit Britain, we will need a unifying cause. We will need something to bring the whole country together, and this is it. People from all walks of life, all backgrounds and all ages want us to work together, to tackle this huge challenge, which I believe is also a huge opportunity. In this debate we should show our unity of purpose in supporting the Government to take those actions, and that we are truly a United Kingdom that everyone can be proud of.
It will not have escaped colleagues’ notice that many people wish to speak. While I do not intend to impose a formal time limit, which I believe to be bad for debate, I leave it to the conscience of individuals to recognise that they should speak for two or perhaps three minutes, because if they go on longer than that, they will be squeezing out their colleagues. To save a bit of time, let me say that I am delighted to be your Chairman; you do not need to say so.
This debate, secured by the hon. Member for Truro and Falmouth (Sarah Newton), is timely. We need to restate that climate change is real and that the climate emergency, which Parliament has declared, means we must do things differently.
The climate emergency declaration that this House passed is not just a statement of intent, but a challenge to business, Government, society and individuals, and it comes with a basic question: “Now that Parliament has declared a climate emergency, what are you doing differently?” If the answer is nothing, that is not good enough. If the answer is that which I have heard from many corporates, that is, the same insufficient amount as they were doing before but with more topspin, that is not good enough. If the answer is that we will park the action many decades away so that we do not have to take action now, that is not good enough.
More spin will not do it. More of the same will not do. We need bold and determined action, which means being more ambitious and swifter in our action, and more honest with the people about the massive changes to the way we live, work, travel and consume that will be required to hit net zero, by 2050 or any other date. It also means that we need the Government to put as much effort into the climate emergency as they put into Brexit. Will the Minister pass on to his Treasury colleagues that the autumn Budget must be a climate emergency Budget as much as it is a pre-election Budget or a Brexit Budget? It must cut through on every single aspect of addressing the climate emergency; nothing less will do.
That also means that as MPs we need to readjust our own campaigns. My campaign to see the M5 extended from Exeter to Plymouth means that we must bring forward the date of getting rid of diesel and petrol engines, to ensure that only electric cars use that extended road. The campaign to reopen Plymouth airport means that rather than having planes using aviation fuel landing there, we must have electric aviation.
Those are big challenges that require big and bold investment by Government. We ned that investment now, because pushing it down the line will only make achieving net zero by 2050—or by 2030, as I would like, and as the Labour party has proposed, with the brilliant green new deal motion passed at our conference—harder to achieve. Let us have swifter action now and more honesty from Ministers about how much change is required to get there.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Truro and Falmouth (Sarah Newton) on securing this important debate. We all know the scale of the challenge and the imperative it entails. Declaring an emergency comes easy and “net zero” trips off the tongue, but in reality, these things are difficult. To achieve that requires a per annum reduction in our emissions 30% greater than we have achieved on average since 1990. That is why the Committee on Climate Change said that a 2050 target was the latest that our country could credibly maintain our status as a climate leader while at the same time as being the earliest at which we could credibly deliverable it alongside other Government objectives.
I have asks of the Government, which I will come to in a moment, but, first, I have asks of the wider sector—everyone who has an interest in this vital subject. First, we must acknowledge progress. My right hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper) touched on this. There is a difference between saying that more must be done and saying that nothing has been done. It can become debilitating to think that no progress has been made and nothing has been achieved.
I first came across that when I was a junior Minister at the Treasury and I would meet Finance Ministers from other countries, and we would talk about climate change. They would say, “Of course, you in the UK are leaders,” and I would say, “We are? That’s not what I keep reading.” Other countries do look to us, starting with our framework of the independent Committee on Climate Change, the periodic carbon budgets and the rest of it.
In international studies we are ranked among the top 10 nations for our performance on tackling climate change. We have made huge progress on renewables, specifically offshore wind, where we are a world leader, if not the world leader. We have also set an end date for unabated coal. Our role at COP 21 was pivotal, as was our role in showing leadership in setting the net zero target. Our international work on climate finance through the Department for International Development is pivotal, too.
The second ask is that we prioritise and triage, because we cannot just tell people that everything must change at the same time. Some things must be prioritised. My hon. Friend the Member for Truro and Falmouth mentioned retrofitting homes. The two biggest things alongside that are energy generation and transport, particularly domestic transport. Those two massive areas are dependent on the development of batteries.
The third ask is that we go with the grain of peoples’ lives. It is a hard sell to tell people that they cannot go on holiday, they will be cold when they are sitting at home and they must become vegan. It is a much easier sell to say that the electric car is now as high-performance a vehicle as a petrol car, and that we can be warmer at home and it can be cheaper to heat our homes than it was in the past.
That becomes even more important when talking about developing nations. We have had our industrial revolution and we have all reaped the benefits. It is natural that other countries want that development too, and we must help them to have clean growth.
We need a bipartisan approach. That has been a great strength of the approach to tackling climate change in this country. It is tempting to say we must always do more and we must do it sooner. As with international aid, there are two aspects to this: first, what we do ourselves; and secondly, how we can leverage our position internationally. However, leveraging our leadership is helpful only if what we say is credible—if we say not only that we are going to do something but that we absolutely will do it. If we are going to say we must do this bigger, better and faster, we must be honest with people about the implications of that. I sometimes hear people talking about change for them versus system change, as if system change has no effect on individual families and companies, but it does: it affects the rate of economic growth, which in turn affects jobs and wages, and of course it affects the taxes people pay.
We must focus in particular on what can be done, especially in transport with electric vehicles. I join others in paying tribute to those who are doing great work locally. In my area, that includes the climate action network and the work the council is doing to plant a large number of trees. This is a global problem, and every nation must play its part, but we, in our individual communities, can make a difference.
I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Truro and Falmouth (Sarah Newton) for securing this important debate. Undoubtedly, climate change is a bigger challenge and a bigger crisis than even Brexit. It is important that we put it in that context, but given that I do not have all that much time, let me focus on Cumbria.
Cumbria receives 42 million visitors each year, and we are delighted to see them. We just wish that fewer would come by car, which is how 83% of our visitors currently arrive. That is a serious problem in our fight to achieve net zero carbon emissions, and I am sure what is true in my patch applies in many other places across the country. Therefore, in the moment or two I have, I want to address public transport, which is an enormous part of achieving net zero. Not only does the use of diesel and petrol-powered cars have a devastating impact on the environment, but the Government’s failure to invest in public transport prevents people from choosing better options.
Bus provision is a colossal problem in our communities in the Lake district. In the past 10 years, we have lost 888 bus routes in the north-west of England. To their absolute credit, communities have not just stood by; in places such as Sedbergh and Dent, they have established community bus services, which are a lifeline for people who would otherwise be isolated from the communities around them. I am massively grateful to the volunteers who make those services possible. However, with the closure just this month of bus services 552 between Arnside and Kendal and 530 between Cartmel, Levens and Kendal, the decline appears to be accelerating.
I am of course fighting those cuts along with the community but, more broadly, I ask the Minister to make provision of a comprehensive, affordable and reliable rural bus service in Cumbria a key plank in the northern powerhouse. From a rural Cumbrian perspective, the northern powerhouse does not look much like a powerhouse, and it is not even very northern.
The main public transport route into the Lake district is the Lakes line. Back in 2017, the Government shelved their planned electrification of the Lakes line on the basis of completely inaccurate projected costs. Electrification of the Lakes line is the easiest electrification project in the country. The 12-mile route carries hundreds of thousands of passengers each year, but it could carry four times as many if we introduced a passing loop at Burneside so we could run half-hourly services. If the Government are serious about tackling climate change, they need to speed up their electrification project, especially for the railway line that is responsible for taking people into Britain’s second biggest visitor destination after London.
The impacts of climate change are real, and they are being felt right now. My constituency in the lakes and the dales has been devastated by catastrophic floods. In the past nine years, we have experienced three flood events classified as one-in-200-year events, with one-in-100-year and one-in-50-year events filling the gaps. At this rate, we absolutely will need to revise the classifications. In 2015 alone, Storm Desmond caused 7,500 properties and more than 1,000 businesses to be flooded. The impact has been heartbreaking.
I want us to mitigate the consequences of our failure to tackle climate change in time to protect my communities from further flooding, but I am also determined that the Government must make the big strategic decisions to fight climate change. That requires a revolution in renewables and a push for energy self-sufficiency, especially in hydro, tidal and marine, for which 95% of the supply chain, including Gilkes in my constituency, is British. That would protect our environment, boost our economy and give us vital energy security. Just a few weeks ago, I was with students in Kendal protesting against inaction on climate change. That was a reminder that the coming generation will not let us get away with it, and they are absolutely right not to.
The reality is that we are too late to stop climate change and have perhaps a dozen years left to avoid a major climate catastrophe. Tackling this global disaster will take change in every community and lots of steps that add up to a bigger picture. Clearly, public transport is an element of that. Will the Minister therefore agree to meet me and others so we can put together a comprehensive rural bus service under the umbrella of the northern powerhouse, and a plan for the electrification and expansion of the Lakes line? In order to succeed globally, we in the lakes are determined to act locally.
Let me begin by paying tribute to my constituents, who are highly engaged on this topic. The young people in the high schools in Stirling are especially on the ball, and they are taking a lead that I am glad to be able to follow.
We owe it to the British people to talk plainly about the implications of Parliament’s commitment to get to net zero by 2050. My right hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper) is right that that will not be easy to achieve. We need to spell out the options clearly, in a grown-up way—a way that I think our young grasp. If I have learned anything about the House since arriving here, it is that if we unite and work across parties on this issue, we can get the job done.
We have an obligation to the present, but we have a bigger obligation to the generations that follow. We have both a special responsibility and an opportunity. As has already been laid out, we have a responsibility because our country led the world into the first industrial revolution, but we have an opportunity to lead the world again in the development of new clean growth technologies and industries. There is a first-mover advantage to be had, and I urge the Government to be bold and take a lead.
In the interests of time, I will talk about one area in which the Government can take a lead and send a signal to private investors, who will then calibrate their calculation of risk and move into the sector. That area is carbon capture, usage and storage. I have the privilege of serving on the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee. We published a report on CCUS, the first recommendation of which was that the Government should
“view CCUS primarily as a tool for decarbonisation, rather than as an extra cost on power generation. Deployment should be prioritised because CCUS presents an opportunity to reduce the overall cost of meeting the UK’s emissions reduction targets.”
The report went on:
“Our view is that the Government should be both ambitious and clear. We recommend the Government sets a specific target to store 10 million tonnes of carbon by 2030, and 20 million by 2035, to keep the UK on track to meet its 2050 climate change targets, as recommended by the CCC.”
However, once the Committee had received the Government’s response to its report, the Chair felt the need to write, with our support, to the Minister, stating that we were
“disappointed by the response’s content: it barely engages with the arguments made in our report, but instead appears largely to repeat previous policy statements.”
The Chair continued:
“Please could you explain why you have not committed to supporting CCUS where and whilst it remains the cheapest route to decarbonisation.”
May I use this opportunity to ask the Minister for his response to the Select Committee’s positive encouragement to make a positive decision on that very important element of our work towards 2050 and the decarbonisation of our economy?
A net zero target is right, but we must be aware in our battle to tackle the climate emergency that time is fleeting. The greenhouse element of carbon dioxide is not a tap we can turn off. Approximately a fifth of the carbon dioxide emitted in the past year will remain in the atmosphere for thousands of years. The damage we cause now will not go away if we decide to start acting responsibly in, say, 31 years’ time; it will become a feature of human life for millennia. The cumulative nature of climate change means that the more radical we are now, the less radical future generations will have to be to stop even more catastrophic change and fix the damage we have already caused.
The climate emergency has climbed up the agenda over the past months, but it is far from a new issue. The previous synthesis report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change came out more than five years ago, and the Government have had plenty of time to digest its findings and implement the drastic policies that we need to tackle climate change. Sadly, however, that is not what we have seen.
We have seen the end of the White Rose carbon capture and storage project, and the end of solar subsidies and support for biomass. The Green Investment Bank has been sold, and we have given up on zero carbon homes. The Swansea tidal lagoon has been stopped, and the green tax target cancelled. Fracking continues despite local opinion in different areas of the country and an increase in ground tremors, and still the Government stubbornly refuse to lift their ban on cheap and green onshore wind. Indeed, we are led by a Prime Minister who said that wind farms could not
“pull the skin off a rice pudding”.
Action on climate change is not just necessary to protect our future; it can also provide future-proofed and sustainable jobs for many of our communities. We have seen glimpses of that prosperity already through the wonderful work of companies such as Ørsted in Great Grimsby. I was pleased to open its new £14 million east coast hub, and it also works with local schools and colleges to train the next generation of workers to be ready for a green economy. However, we seem to have a Prime Minister and Government who are genetically opposed to taking sensible decisions to protect the planet, and if we are to avoid even more catastrophic damage to our planet, we need a drastic change in governance.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Truro and Falmouth (Sarah Newton) for her brilliant speech. I take pride in the fact that the United Kingdom is the first developed nation to commit to net zero emissions, and wherever we in this House sit on the political spectrum, we can take a measure of quiet pride in that achievement. It is critical to show leadership, because although in this place we rightly focus on what we do as a nation, it is what happens in other parts of the world—particularly China—that will make or break global efforts on this issue.
Consider the Paris climate accord. Emissions in the UK peaked in 1990 and are now 42% lower, but China’s emissions are forecast to peak in 2030. That matters because China produces something like 25 times more emissions than the United Kingdom. We must show leadership so that we can try to impress on nations such as China—it produces more emissions than the United States and Europe combined—that it is in its interests to take those critical steps as responsible global citizens.
What should we do? First, there is new technology, and secondly there is old technology. On the former, if the Minister has not read it already, I commend to him the report by Mission Possible UK, which considers how technology can help with those hard-to-abate sectors. That includes specific technological solutions, such as electric drive trains for heavy transport, or reducing the cost of electrolysis so that we can produce hydrogen at an industrial level. There are already solutions on the shelf that we should consider.
The Government are getting behind other technologies. They have invested around £400 million in charging infrastructure, and there is onshore wind, carbon capture and storage and so on, but let us not neglect old technology. The best piece of technology, which absorbs carbon in a way that is inoffensive and off the shelf is, of course, the tree. Let us therefore take the opportunity to plant trees and lean into our targets.
The hon. Member for Totnes (Dr Wollaston) made a point about cycling and walking. After the second world war, there was a similar situation in the Netherlands with roads that crowded out cycles. In the 1970s a decision was taken to reverse that—there is no unwritten rule that people in the Netherlands should all cycle; that decision was made by the Government. We could do similar things in this country, certainly in places such as Cheltenham, which is flat and easy to cycle around. We must lean into such suggestions and ensure that we have sustainable transport. With old technologies, new technologies, and global leadership we can get this done.
I am delighted that we are having this debate, because the Scottish Government have been leading the way on our transition to a net zero emissions society. While UK energy policy seems fixated on nuclear power, with its massive costs and technical challenges, Scotland has charted a course for a 100% renewable society, and it is on course to achieve that.
There is action on the ground and out at sea to transition our society to net zero emissions. Such actions are required to meet the statutory targets that were set out in legislation last week by the Scottish Parliament, and to move Scotland forward to having net zero emissions by 2045, and to be carbon neutral by 2040. Our infrastructure is being renewed and repurposed as a key pillar of moving to carbon neutral and net zero emissions. Our rail network will be decarbonised by 2035, with electrification across Scotland progressing at a rate not seen in 30 years. Half a billion pounds have been invested in bus infrastructure, and the foundation of the Scottish National Investment Bank will provide a financial backbone and the capital needed to transform our nation. We are building the UK’s first electric highway along the A9—the spine of Scotland—and investing more than ever before in the installation of charging points for the growing fleet of electric cars on the roads.
Those actions, and many more, are some of the practical steps being taken right now to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels, and to leave a long-lasting and sustainable legacy for our zero carbon future. All that action is being taken by the Scottish Government, but although they have cross-party support in the Scottish Parliament, they have one hand tied behind their back. Scotland could go further and faster if it had the energy levers that remain reserved to this place—powers that, as we have heard, are not being used appropriately. Such actions include cutting subsidies to onshore wind, removing support for solar energy, cancelling carbon capture and storage at Peterhead, and imposing unfair electricity transmission costs that disincentivise renewable development in remote areas—hardly a record to be proud of.
I will conclude with some thoughts from a 1981 National Geographic energy special that I picked up in a charity shop in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey (Drew Hendry). It is entitled, “Facing up to the problems, getting down to solutions”, and 40 years later, although we have come a long way, in many ways that title still resonates.
The biggest takeaway is that the environment is given nary a mention. For example, environmental concerns are mentioned as one of the last drawbacks of coal energy production. One quote that resonated with me came from an agriculturalist called Steven C Wilson:
“With our bigger-is-better disposable non-renewable energy past, I wonder if, in squandering fuel, we have not also subverted self-reliance, neighbourly concern, the active appreciation of balance and harmony. I think confronting this legacy of too much, too soon would be the proper response to the energy crisis.”
Forty years on, that still means something. It shows that we must all play a part in this, because it is not just an issue for Governments.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Truro and Falmouth (Sarah Newton) for her excellent opening remarks, and for putting this subject back on the agenda. I also commend my constituents, hundreds of whom have spoken to me this year about their concerns in a way that has been constructive and productive, and that has helped me to understand my role as a local MP in bringing about change. We must do all we can to accelerate our charge to reach net zero emissions, as that is the right thing to do. The opportunity to improve people’s lives is significant, and much can be done straightaway. What is not to like?
We can improve and deliver cheaper-to-run homes and transport. Getting that right will lead to improved and sustainable farming and food production, improved and healthier natural environments, and improved skills and pay, particularly in vocational jobs. In places such as St Ives, Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly, vocational jobs in construction and renewable energy are a way of creating and spreading wealth.
This is a great opportunity for a progressive Government, and we need leadership. If we want to bring forward plans to ban the production of cars powered by dirty fuel—and I think we should—we must find a way to step up the production of electric vehicles and support low-income families to purchase them. We must properly roll out smart meters so that we use energy when it is available, and we must help households to generate and store energy. To achieve a significant reduction in carbon emissions, the Government can introduce helpful, exciting and ambitious legislation to bring those things together and help families to use better and cheaper transport.
My hon. Friend the Member for Truro and Falmouth talked about the opportunity to reduce emissions from our homes. As has been said, homes and transport contribute an enormous chunk of our carbon emissions. We can quickly accelerate the reduction of carbon emissions by addressing those things. With my background in the building trade, I know that it can be done. It is right to accelerate policy to make all new homes carbon neutral, and to look at providing interest-free loans to improve the efficiency of businesses and homes. However, as the draft environment Bill comes forward, we should quickly seize on the idea of having the most ambitious nature recovery network to benefit every corner of the country.
Climate change is not an inconvenient truth, as Al Gore put it. It is a global emergency. That is why thousands of people outside this place and millions across the world are saying, “Act now.” They know we are essentially smoking ourselves to death with fossil fuels. We are guzzling gasoline as if there is no tomorrow. They know, as we should, that that will force migration, war, famine, water shortages and loss of insects—the list goes on. We sit around here saying, “We played a great game in Britain,” but the reason carbon emissions have gone down in Britain is that we closed our coal mines and exported our industry to China. Now we are bringing it over in ships, using more carbon. We sit here talking about 2050 as if it is a great achievement, when it is not. The latest prediction, given by Nature last year, was 1.5° change by 2030, not 2040. That is why we need to up our game to 2030 ourselves.
The Government go ahead with fracking, which generates 5% of methane emissions. Methane is 83 times worse than CO2 for global warming, making it worse than coal. We should stop fracking now. The Government stopped onshore wind because of a few nimbies. We want wind. We want waves in Swansea lagoon. We want solar. Everyone is going on about nuclear, but the biggest nuclear opportunity is the sun itself. We should have networks—we have got Africa linked into southern Europe—and work together for change.
The Committee on Climate Change says we have done woefully badly on insulation in homes. We could combat fuel poverty and reduce emissions. We need a new clear air Act. We need to bring forward the banning of the sale of all cars that run on fossil fuels—diesel and petrol—to 2030 instead of 2042. We need to tax. We need a fiscal strategy to drive people’s expectations and interest towards carbon neutrality and carbon negativity, but we are not doing that because we want to please the motorist, and we keep a freeze on diesel. We want a tax on plastics as well.
We also need to think about our trade. Why are we, with the whole process of Brexit, turning away from our nearest market to markets further afield? There should be a carbon charge on our trade, and we should think carefully about Brexit. Why is it that we can all fly to Spain for 50 quid, when it costs £100 to go by train to Swansea? That is not sustainable. Why do we not act? It is because we are frightened of people. What about fossil fuel subsidies? We are subsidising fossil fuels by £12 billion a year, compared with £8 billion for renewables.
The reality is that if it is not painful now it will be agony later. We need to take the tough action now and stop messing around patting ourselves on the back pretending we are solving the problem when in fact we are part of it. Those who will not act should shift to one side and let someone who will do it.
Someone once said:
“It is mankind and his activities that are changing the environment of our planet in damaging and dangerous ways”,
“It is no good squabbling over who is responsible or who should pay…we shall only succeed in dealing with the problems through a vast international, co-operative effort.”
In her address to the United Nations in 1989, as on so many things, Margaret Thatcher was right and was demonstrating far-sighted global leadership. That is what Governments of both parties in this country have done. The Climate Change Act 2008 was passed with all-party support in this House; it set the original target to reduce our emissions by 80%—at the time, an ambitious target. It was with cross-party support in this House that we set a more ambitious target to hit net zero by 2050. That cross-party effort is helpful because it gives business and consumers the confidence to invest and plan ahead, knowing that the policies will continue regardless of who is in government.
It is worth reiterating that we have made considerable progress—but not because we want to pat ourselves on the back, as the hon. Member for Swansea West (Geraint Davies) suggests. It is worth reiterating it for two reasons. The first is to demonstrate to people that the issue is one that legislators take seriously and have acted on. Britain has one of the most impressive records globally, and we have demonstrated the global leadership that my hon. Friends the Members for Truro and Falmouth (Sarah Newton) and for Cheltenham (Alex Chalk) spoke of. That enables us to keep up global pressure on countries that emit far more carbon than we do, which will be critical in hitting the target. The other reason is to demonstrate to the younger generation that people in this place take the matter seriously. We can debate—I am happy to—how much we are doing and how fast we are going, but anyone who says nothing has happened in the past 30 years is being dishonest and disingenuous. It is simply not true. [Interruption.] I am sorry, but that is exactly what I heard a number of Extinction Rebellion demonstrators say when they were interviewed on “Sophy Ridge on Sunday” on Sky. They said over and over that nothing had happened in the last 30 years, which is simply not true. I do not think that it helps the debate if people perpetuate untruths.
It is worth mentioning some of the considerable achievements that the Committee on Climate Change set out in its report, including massive reductions in emissions from power, waste and buildings. We have made considerable progress. However, I am the first to acknowledge that there are considerable challenges, and the Committee on Climate Change sets out areas where we need to make ambitious changes, such as in transport and housing—issues that Opposition Members raised.
There is a challenge for the Government, now that we have legislated for the target. My hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham brought in a ten-minute rule Bill, the Climate Change (Net Zero UK Carbon Account) Bill, before the Government moved in that direction, and he should be commended for that. The challenge is to respond now with detailed policy work, because it is through such work that we will get the achievements. If we are to deliver the changes while improving the population’s living standards, the challenge is to deliver the technology and innovation to reduce carbon emissions while raising living standards for all our people.
I have always thought that one of the most empowering sentences ever to be uttered was “Be the change you wish to see in the world,” and in Hull we are living it. At present, forests store up to 45% of land carbon. In Hull we want to increase that. We are launching our ambition to become a butterfly city through the mass planting of more than 3,000 alder buckthorns at the end of the year. The aim is that it will be a continuing project to create the UK’s and, as far as I know, the world’s first true butterfly city. We are beginning with the adoption of the beautiful sulphur-yellow brimstone butterfly.
The project has brought together people throughout the city. The Deep, Hull City Council, Yorkshire Wildlife Trust and Butterfly Conservation, the Plant a Tree Foundation, community allotment groups, community orchards and Hull and East Yorkshire woods group, which is responsible for delivering the northern forest in our area, have pledged to include 2,000 buckthorns in their planting over the winter. Even Highways England has got involved, having agreed to include the tree in its work on the A63 at Castle Street.
For the public planting—the launch is on Saturday 23 November—Mires Beck Nursery, a registered charity that employs and trains people with learning disabilities, is providing more than 1,000 plants, which will be available free to members of the public, schools and other interest groups, from local community growing organisations such as Pickering Road community orchard and Down2Earth. Recent research shows that a mixture of tree species can store up to twice as much carbon as single-species planting. By adding buckthorn to the mix of trees in Hull and the surrounding area, we can greatly increase the amount of carbon captured.
Those 3,000 plantings will, however, still leave us a long way short of the target of a carbon-neutral way of life, or indeed the reversal of the dramatic decline in insect numbers across Europe. As immensely proud as I am of the response that the project has received from all areas of the community in Hull, the biggest challenge lies at the feet of Government. The market alone cannot and will not solve the challenges of CO2-driven climate change. The international community is crying out for leadership on climate change, and the implementation of Labour’s green industrial revolution would provide just that. To quote Greta Thunberg,
“We cannot solve a crisis without treating it as a crisis.”
I love the way the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Emma Hardy) promotes what her community does. I am just as proud of my council in Bath and what it is doing.
It is true that we need to harness the energy of everybody. It worries me that we have all been guilty of complacency; we have not done enough. It is not that we are saying that we have done nothing, but we have not done enough. This Government need to step up and to understand that we need to do more than we have done in the past. That is all I am pleading for.
As Liberal Democrats, we believe that at the heart of the transition needs to be a massive transformation of how we do things in the next 10 years. There needs to be a fair transition. We need to set up a fair transition commission—the Government could do that tomorrow—to look at which communities are the most affected by the change, where we will face the most job losses and where industries will collapse, and to provide new jobs and new opportunities. We need to take those communities and the people who are most affected with us, so that the people who can least afford it do not have to pay the highest price. That is very important. The Government could set up a just and fair transition commission tomorrow if they were serious in their thinking about the subject.
Bringing people with us has been talked about a lot, as well as how we are organising citizens’ assemblies. Again, the Government could start that process now. It is not just a matter of informing people about what we want to do; we have to involve people in decision making. Citizens’ assemblies do not take decisions out of Government or Parliament; they allow people to be part of decision making by letting them develop options. Anybody who is serious about taking people with us should look at the way citizens’ assemblies work. They do not just inform people at the bottom from the top; they allow people from the bottom to help us come to good decisions. I trust in people and I believe that we can involve them. Let us set up citizens’ assemblies; we can do that tomorrow.
I thank the hon. Member for Truro and Falmouth (Sarah Newton) for securing the debate and I congratulate the Government on the policies they have. I will suggest some ideas that they may want to take forward.
We need funding models such as the regulated asset base model for large-scale investments, including all new nuclear plants, plus a clear commitment to the funding and delivery of carbon capture, usage and storage at scale. We need to ensure that all new properties are zero carbon and have a smart meter, and to build in connection points and ultra-fast charging for electric vehicles. We need to boost energy efficiency through a national energy efficiency programme, and restrict the sale and new tenancy of properties below energy performance certificate band C from 2030. Better targeting of social support and winter fuel payments is needed.
I commend to the Minister the stance that the National Farmers Union has taken and the commitment that farmers have given to achieving carbon zero by 2050. We must farm smarter, focus on improving productivity, encourage carbon capture and boost our production of renewable energy. The climate impact of UK grazing is among the lowest in the world; that should be recognised by the Minister and this Government. At the same time, UK farmland conserves important carbon stocks in England’s uplands. The NFU has a strategy to achieve carbon zero by 2050. It is committed to doing that and has said:
“British farmers have an important role to play in tackling climate change and our members are committed to this challenge, alongside fulfilling their responsibility to the public in providing high quality, sustainable and affordable food.”
I will be extremely brief, Mr Gray. Labour Members are proud of the Climate Change Act 2008, but we are even prouder of the green new deal that we passed at the Labour party conference, which takes forward the principles of decarbonisation, jobs and justice. That is why we held a citizens’ assembly in Birmingham within 24 hours of Parliament declaring a climate emergency. Several ideas emerged from that, which I will touch on.
First, we need green power. We spend £10 billion a year on green power in our region. Some 99% of that spend leaves the region, which is why we need a municipal solar company to turn our rooftops into power plants across the region.
Secondly, we need to decarbonise our transport system. We cannot do that unless we connect transport together. That is why we need powers over bus and rail franchising. Crucially, we need to transform the number of electric vehicle charging points. There are more EV charging points in Westminster than in the whole of the west midlands; that is not acceptable. We need to decarbonise our housing stock, which means we need devolved control of the £175 million of ecofunding that is our entitlement. We need to start building homes to A plus standards.
Finally, we need to make sure that we have a regional investment bank to back the green firms that are creating green jobs.
None of this will change the imagination without a significant investment in nature. At the moment, we need a forest the size of Tunisia to absorb all the carbon that is produced by the west midlands. That will not happen, but we could insist that our airports become carbon neutral and use that investment to replant Shakespeare’s great forest of Arden. The citizens in Parliament Square remind us that it is not acceptable for politics to remain frozen while the planet is warming. That is why we need to crack on.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Truro and Falmouth (Sarah Newton). She said that everyone in this room is committed to net zero; she is correct about that. She also said that things must go further and faster, and that we must see a strategy and concrete policies from the UK Government. I agree with her on the need for targets, tests and scrutiny, as well as on her points about retrofitting energy efficiency. However, I will be a critical friend during the short time I have to speak and point out areas where things could be done much better by the UK Government.
Spending per head on energy efficiency in Scotland is four times that in England. If it were more, we could do even more in Scotland. The UK Government are falling short on home and business energy efficiency, and they are way behind on carbon capture, utilisation and storage. They need to get on with decarbonisation of the gas grid, which must be accelerated to enable low carbon heating for homes and businesses. They must flatten the pedal on vehicle and tax incentives to promote low carbon choices. VAT must be reduced on energy efficiency improvements. This Government must drop their ideological opposition to renewable onshore wind and stop holding solar power back.
The hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard) said that more of the same will not do. The budget needs to cut through to every aspect of climate change, and big, bold investments are required. James Richardson from the National Infrastructure Commission said:
“You need to really push ahead with renewables in the 2020s.”
Chris Stark from the Committee on Climate Change said that the choice is between nuclear and CCS; I firmly believe that CCUS is the way forward. Evidence abounds that poor air quality affects productivity. The National Infrastructure Commission has said that the money we need to spend on air quality should not be seen as a cost, but as a benefit to us.
I agree with what the hon. Member for Stirling (Stephen Kerr) said about young people. I will focus on what he said about CCUS. He is correct that we on the Select Committee on Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy were unanimous in expressing huge disappointment about the UK Government’s response to CCUS. Scotland has enormous potential in this area. Storage and readiness at St Fergus has the infrastructure, expertise and transferable skills to move with a fast first-mover advantage. It has capacity to store at least 5.7 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide. To put that into perspective, that is 150 times the emissions from Scotland in 2016. That is a massive storage capacity. The UK Government need to get on with doing that. Existing oil and gas infrastructure must be plugged and transferred, or it will be lost.
My hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Gavin Newlands) talked about the UK’s obsession with nuclear power. He outlined the many actions of the Scottish Government and talked about the cross-party support in the Scottish Parliament. He said clearly that we could do more if we had the powers to do so. The UK Government need to step up and allow us to go even further and faster with what we need to do.
The cost of the Hinkley Point C nuclear power plant, already the most expensive single development on the planet, is set to rise by nearly £3 billion. The Government should not be pouring money down the bottomless pit of new nuclear when offshore wind, for example, is much less than half the price for consumers and does not blight the planet with further nuclear legacies. It is important that this Government strip out their nuclear obsession.
The hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Emma Hardy) talked about the fantastic opportunity for butterflies and, more important, for trees. Forestry is a critical area where this Government need to up their game dramatically. In 2019, the new Scottish Government forestry strategy and tree planting scheme across Scotland took enormous strides. The industry employs 25,000 people and the trees planted in Scotland make up 84% of all trees planted across the UK. Some 22 million trees were planted in Scotland, while England fell 7 million short of its target. The Government need to get that fixed.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
I will not take any interventions, because I want the Minister to have time to respond.
The Scottish National party Scottish Government are leading by example, redoubling efforts to end Scotland’s contribution to climate change by 2045. The Secretary-General of the United Nations described Scotland’s holistic approach to tackling climate change as “a qualified success,” and called on the UK Government to follow. The UK Government should use their reserved powers to help Scotland to achieve its climate change ambitions, not hinder us with opposition to renewables and inaction on energy efficiency.
We welcome the UK’s joint bid with Italy to host the UN framework convention on climate change COP 26 in Glasgow. That should be a progressive and inclusive event, and the Minister here today should absolutely disagree with the Prime Minister, who said at the Tory conference that the First Minister of Scotland should be banned from attending. That comment was puerile, ignorant and has been roundly condemned across Scotland; I hope the Minister will do the same today.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Truro and Falmouth (Sarah Newton) on obtaining today’s debate. It is truly important, but should not have been obtained by a Back-Bencher. It should have been scheduled in Government time, on one day, as I called for a few months ago when we passed the Climate Change Act 2008 (2050 Target Amendment) Order 2019, amending the Climate Change Act 2008 to move to net zero. That was a 90-minute debate on an amendment, and this is our next debate on the matter.
In the words of my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard), it is not good enough. We need urgently to debate this matter properly. An indication of why that is so important is the tremendous turnout of hon. Members today, and the informed and thoughtful contributions from around the Chamber that hon. Members have had to gabble through on a two-minute time limit because there is no opportunity to debate the topic properly, on the Floor of the House, in Government time. The first thing I ask the Minister is whether he is willing to ensure that a debate is obtained at the earliest possible opportunity, to discuss this important series of events properly and do it justice on the Floor of the House.
We might ask ourselves why it is that a debate has not been scheduled. Is it that:
“Overall, actions to date have fallen short of what is needed for the previous targets and well short of those required for the net-zero target”?
Maybe that is why this issue does not seem fit for a debate. Is it because:
“The Government’s own projections demonstrate that its policies and plans are insufficient to meet the fourth or fifth carbon budgets…This policy gap has widened in the last year as an increase in the projection of future emissions outweighed the impact of new policies”?
Is it because the Government:
“has been too slow in developing plans for carbon capture and storage”?
Is it because:
“The ‘Road to Zero’ ambition for a phase-out of petrol and diesel cars by 2040 is too late”?
Is it because:
“Policies are not in place to deliver the Government's ambitions on energy efficiency”?
None of those words are mine; they are all the words of the Committee on Climate Change’s 2019 report to Parliament, which set out a coruscating catalogue of things that should have happened and have not as far as policy development is concerned. That underlines a theme that has been part of our debate this morning. It is not that nothing has been done since 2008, when the Climate Change Act was passed; it is just that nothing much has been done, and that ambitions for doing things next fall woefully short of what is needed, given the climate change emergency that we have declared and that we know is underlined by the people now demonstrating outside Parliament.
It is not that nothing has been done on climate change in particular areas, but, as the Committee on Climate Change itself indicates, the only area where any significant progress in reducing carbon emissions has happened since 2008 is in the power sector—not even the energy sector as a whole, because nothing much has happened on heat. The power sector has been responsible for 75% of emission reductions overall since 2008. Every single other sector has been level or increasing—in transport, housing and industrial sectors, emissions are level or going up. Those are areas where we can go further than saying that nothing much has happened: nothing has happened in those areas over the period.
It is the Government’s responsibility to ensure that those things happen, and they are woefully failing to set policies that can really shift those numbers on climate change, given the 12 years that were set out by the IPCC as the time available to achieve measures that move us toward the zero-carbon economy. We have set ourselves that target, but we have no policies in place to achieve it. We have 12 years to get those policies, not only on paper, but in place in reality on the ground.
Does my hon. Friend agree that we need to look seriously at how we live in the homes we already have and the energy efficiency needed in our homes, not only in Wales, in Cardiff North where I am, but across the whole UK, as well as ensuring that the new homes we are building are built to a very high sustainable standard?
My hon. Friend has read my mind, because I was just about to come on to that. She is absolutely right, and it is one element of the difference between the ambition we should have for the extent of the changes we need to make, and what we see before us in terms of the existing clean growth plan, which, as I have emphasised, is not meeting its own targets even on the old emissions levels, and is certainly not addressing what we need to do with our new targets. We need a comprehensive, country-wide, house-by-house energy refit, and it must be done urgently—in stark contrast with the pick-and-mix approach that has been taken so far on energy efficiency management, with the occasional person getting a refit.
There are a whole series of other areas where the numbers that we need to achieve bear no relation to the ambitions currently in Government policy. To achieve our energy ambitions, we urgently need to increase our offshore capacity sevenfold over the next few years. We need to increase solar provision threefold over the next 10 years. As the hon. Member for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey (Drew Hendry) mentioned, we need to really get going on carbon capture and storage, not just with a few projects but comprehensively across industry across the country.
We need trees, as has been mentioned, but we do not need to put a few trees in here and there, important though that is. In order to replace the forest cover lost in this country over the years, which is absolutely central to capturing and maintaining carbon stores, we need to plant 2.4 billion trees over the next 10 to 20 years— 30,000 hectares per annum of new forest cover—to get us anywhere near the sort of levels we need to achieve our ambitions. That is solely lacking in the Government’s actions at the moment.
I will just draw attention to one little thing that came out recently.
Very briefly. The 2019 spending review came out with the fabulous figure for decarbonisation of £30 million. To get some scale on that—
Let’s not get some scale on that; let’s wind up.
Indeed; I am about to wind up, Mr Gray. For scale, “Paddington 2”, the movie, had a budget of £32 million.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. It is time for the Minister.
Thank you very much, Mr Gray. I have to say that this has been an excellent debate, and I sincerely commend my hon. Friend the Member for Truro and Falmouth (Sarah Newton) for securing it. I hope that we can have more time in the House of Commons to discuss these important issues.
One thing that struck me in the debate was the level of consensus. There were one or two examples of political point scoring here and there, and we can accept that, but I was delighted to see so many MPs sing the praises of their local councils and of the fact that local communities are making great strides. In one of the few agreements I have ever had with the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Emma Hardy), I completely agree that the Government have to be involved in this. No one in this House has praised the free market as extensively as I have over the years, but even I, as an energy Minister, realise that, as she clearly said, private enterprise and the free market economy will not deliver this target on their own. That is very clear. As a Government Minister, I am absolutely committed to the target.
We can argue about how quickly we are reaching the target, and I happen to think that we have done a great deal as a country. The hon. Member for Southampton, Test (Dr Whitehead) said, “Oh well, you’ve done okay in the power sector”, but the power sector is huge. Looking at the history of this country, at what the industrial revolution meant and at industrialisation across the world, power is absolutely at the heart of it. For a country that for 300 years was powered by coal burning and fossil fuels, taking coal off the system entirely in 2025, in terms of power generation, is an achievement.
I do not want to rest on my laurels. I do not want to be accused of complacency—there is still a hell of a lot to do. However, to face the future, we have to recognise where we have come from. I pay tribute to the last Labour Government for passing the Climate Change Act 2008. I do not think we need to play childish, point-scoring games on that. It was a significant piece of legislation, and I am happy to say that. I think that what we did in amending that Act in 2019 was also significant and bold and showed leadership.
As the new Minister—I have been in post for two months—I have seen a number of my counterparts across the world, and all have said that the United Kingdom is a leader in this area. That does not mean that we have solved everything. I think it is impressive that we have reduced our carbon emissions by 42% since 1990 while growing our economy by two thirds, but I fully recognise that we need to do more on energy efficiency and insulating homes, which is why we are spending a large amount of money dealing with fuel poverty. We have put in bids for the Budget; it would be inappropriate for me to say exactly what those bids are, but we are looking at this. Our officials and Ministers are very focused on the idea that fuel poverty is a real problem.
We have also committed ourselves to offshore wind. Ten years ago, many people thought that offshore wind was a crackers and slightly bizarre idea. An energy specialist was telling me that the reduction in the costs of offshore wind is the biggest story of the decade. We were looking at costs of £150 per megawatt-hour at the beginning of the decade. The first auction came in at £119. Only two weeks ago, the price was £39 per megawatt-hour. That is a significant achievement. Nobody was saying that these targets were in any way achievable, and while I fully appreciate that Opposition Members say that we should move further and faster, and I fully understand that we are not exactly where we should be, we have to recognise that there have been big achievements in this.
On the forward view, we can dwell on the past and say that we got the right legislation, but my right hon. Friend the Member for East Hampshire (Damian Hinds) and my hon. Friend the Member for Truro and Falmouth are absolutely right that we can all say a date. It can trip off the tongue—net zero by 2050 or 2030—but how do we actually get there? That is exactly what the Government are trying to set out. My team is looking at pathways to net zero, and it is clear to me that the best way, in terms of energy security and also cost, is to have a balanced approach. The question of an entirely renewable economy was raised, but the problem with that is that we would need huge amounts of capacity because of the intermittent nature of that power.
On that balanced economy, the CBI, while acknowledging the offshore wind success story, said that investment in onshore wind and solar has stalled for political reasons, and urges this UK Tory Government to take politics off the table for onshore wind. Will they do that?
The hon. Gentleman will recognise that the target has changed. The Climate Change Act 2008 set an 80% reduction, but this year we have set a net zero carbon target. There is absolutely a wider debate about how we move on— [Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman is trying to put words into my mouth, but I am just saying that there is a broader debate.
Will the Minister give way?
I am not going to give way any more; I have to sum up.
It is absolutely right that we should debate these subjects. There has been considerable progress with a bipartisan approach. I will not stand here and say that everything that Labour did was terrible and that everything we have done is brilliant. That is a childish approach—[Interruption.] For the avoidance of any doubt, I am not saying that Opposition Members are saying that. I am just saying that we have to have a bipartisan approach, because as an hon. Member suggested, that is the only way that businesses will be able to invest in this sector and work with the Government.
Lastly, I will talk about COP 26. Hosting it in Glasgow will be a great opportunity for the United Kingdom to show its strengths and to show the progress we have made in this area. People from around the world are looking forward to this event. They say that Britain seems to have cross-party consensus. They look at our politics in other areas, such as Brexit, and think it is very disunited, but on this particular issue, people say that, across the board, from the Conservative party to the Labour party, the Scottish National party and the Liberal Democrats, there is a degree of consensus, which we should build on and encourage. In that spirit, I will take a very quick intervention.
I thank the Minister for giving way; he is very kind. What is the ambition for COP 26 next year? What is his ambition going forward? Will it be harder, faster targets than 2050, which is what we need?
First, we need to get other countries to sign up to the net zero carbon target. They have not done that. This is one thing that will absolutely be at the top of our agenda at COP 26. That is exactly how we are showing leadership. The Chinese Energy Minister says that they do not want to pollute their country and want a cleaner energy approach, and that they are looking to countries such as Britain to help them. That is where the leadership comes in, and that is what we will apply at COP 26.
In the very few seconds I have left, I thank everyone here. Can I take it that I can add their names to an application for a Backbench Business debate in the Chamber, so that we can carry on this really important debate? [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”] I will do that.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the Government plan to reach net zero by 2050.
Transport: North East Bedfordshire
Would those hon. Members who took part in the previous debate leave the Chamber swiftly and quietly, please? [Interruption.] Fewer conversations on the way out might be helpful. If Members who are leaving would please do so—[Interruption.] Order. Will Members please leave the Chamber quietly? You are delaying this debate. It is thoroughly bad manners.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered transport infrastructure in North East Bedfordshire.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray, and, as always, it is a great pleasure to see my hon. Friend the Minister in his place, with his Parliamentary Private Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes (Maria Caulfield).
North East Bedfordshire is conveniently located north of London and squarely in the new Economic Heartland area, which has a population of 3.7 million and had a growth rate between 1997 and 2015 of 25%, which compares with a national average of 15%. Attention is focused on the broad Oxford-to-Cambridge corridor, with the new expressway, East West Rail and up to 1 million new houses expected by 2050. However, although addressing east-west connectivity has been a regular UK pastime for decades and people welcome what is proposed, the reality for many of my constituents is that north-south travel is still of more importance. The increased population in recent years has meant steadily increasing numbers on main road and rail routes in and out of London. Rail journeys in the east of England, for example, rose by some 139% between 1995 and 2018. We are struggling to ensure that passenger journeys remain bearable. I therefore want to focus on train services to and from London and on the A1.
My constituents use Thameslink services from Bedford, the Great Northern service from Sandy, Biggleswade and Arlesey into King’s Cross, and East Midlands Railway, which used to be run by Stagecoach but is newly franchised to Abellio. The trains there offer a faster service than Thameslink from the north, via Bedford, into St Pancras. I do not want to focus on those today, but I ask the Minister to note previous correspondence on the reduction in peak-time services, and many passengers’ desire for some reinstatement of lost services north and south.
My principal concerns today are focused on the two Govia services: Thameslink and Great Northern. Context is vital. First, let me acknowledge the efforts made to improve rolling stock and services over the years. The cross-London network bears little relation to what there was in the past. Passengers played their part by accepting significant alterations in services and closures of stations while works were being carried out over a lengthy period. Secondly, as I have noted, more passengers makes ensuring quality of service genuinely difficult at times. However, passengers are entitled in return to some stability, not least for the increasing fares, which are as expensive as anything in Europe, but that has not been the case.
Let me focus on the period since May 2018. In my experience, the timetable chaos of that and the following months was unique. In 32 years as an MP, I never had the reaction from constituents that I had then, to what must have been the outstanding example of transport incompetence of our times. Whatever was responsible initially, the length of the disruption made matters worse. That scale of misery is over, but the maladies linger on.
The first is the skipping of stations: Sandy, Biggleswade and particularly Arlesey. The system is so full that if a delay to a train occurs, further disruption must be prevented; and to correct late running, stations on subsequent services are skipped to make up time. The overriding theory is seemingly that for the good of the many, the few stations must take a hit again and again. On one route that serves my constituency, figures show that those three stations are the most skipped north of London. For the year from August 2018 to September 2019, Arlesey faced 187 skips, Sandy 174 and Biggleswade 169—and to that must be added cancellations.
Some protected-status trains run regardless of wider disruption, but the impact of failure to stop at Arlesey is high, because of the lack of other options. There have been promises of making alternative transport available at Hitchin when Arlesey is skip-stopped, but we have regular reports of constituents arriving at night, with nothing available, and having to make their own way home and then fight to reclaim taxi fares, or just not being given advice on what to do and not being told until they get to Hitchin that Arlesey will be skipped.
We asked GTR—Govia Thameslink Railway—to place some limit on the process. A formal review was set up to monitor the impact on the entire network, but following the review, GTR advised that it was not possible to put a limit on the number of times that a station was skip-stopped without creating more disruption for the wider network—so bad luck, Arlesey.
What does this mean in practice? One constituent wrote to me—I have heard from plenty of others—and said:
“I don’t think they really understand the impact of skip-stopping Arlesey. Passengers arrive at a station in good time to catch a specific train—particularly when there is only one train every 30 minutes. You get to the station and that train has been cancelled. Then you wait half an hour to find the next one has decided not to stop at Arlesey. So you wait for another 30 minutes to hope that that one will stop. If, best case scenario, they have protected that train and it is running, you have ‘only’ waited for one hour at the station. Who has an hour to waste sitting at a station? How many people are just on their way home from work with nothing else to do? We have appointments, delicate childcare arrangements etc. And it isn’t like this only happens once every now and then. It happens regularly.”
I cannot tell the House how heartbreaking some of the comments that we have received are. They are about mums not being able to pick up children and people missing hospital appointments. I met a London Transport worker whose professionalism has been questioned because she cannot guarantee arriving at work on time. I have seen constituents give up their jobs because they cannot be sure of getting a train on time. This simply is not good enough.
Then there is the issue of staffing levels. I am aware that the biggest expense of any business is human, and transport is no different, but I understand that staffing is so tight that there is nothing spare in the system. Train services have to rely on voluntary overtime, which is difficult during holidays or big events—the champions league final this summer was quite a big issue. Since the disaster of May 2018, staff training has been the regular reason given for shortages, but as that has now been completed, we should not be hearing it as an excuse again. Can the company manage its rosters sufficiently well that we do not hear “driver unavailability” as an excuse again? It is an excuse, with the innuendo not missed by staff that it is the drivers’ fault rather than the company’s.
Then there is the issue of train technical problems. On 9 August, a failure in the national grid caused a power outage, one consequence of which was major paralysis of the train system. A principal reason for that was that the new 700-series trains apparently cannot restart promptly if they have been stopped because of a reduction in voltage. The trains were at the time of the outage situated around the London area. That they could not restart meant that significant sections of the network were blocked, hence the paralysis.
I accept that that incident was very unusual and that cause of power failure may be a once-in-many-years event, but the vulnerability of the new trains to electrical failures is a matter of concern, because evacuations of passengers have had to take place, and some of them in the dark. I am grateful to Steve White, chief operating officer of GTR, for a letter that deals with those matters and I will make it available to constituents, but the reliability of the whole service surrounding those trains must be improved. Whatever the varied causes of delays and cancellations, they are not the passenger’s fault.
We have trouble getting information during disruption. We constantly raise this issue with the company, and it keeps saying that it is doing more, but more could always be done.
Then there is the core routes issue. Thameslink changes over the years have been designed to offer many more routes through a crowded London rail space. My constituents applaud the vision of those changes, but they are very concerned that the ambition outstrips the ability to run them. Problems elsewhere on the route—south of London—are affecting those in Bedfordshire. Although GTR believes that the benefits of the routes outweigh the problems, rail user groups are adamant that the through-routes are the cause of the issues, in that GTR cannot adequately staff the routes or maintain service during any sort of disruption. Plenty of them agree that GTR should accept route failure and amend the plans. The Minister may wish to raise the matter with the company, but I would prefer the answer to be ensuring adequate staffing and service rather than losing the advantages of the new routes.
Mentioning my rail user groups allows me to pay tribute to them, particularly Arlesey Commuters, which has kept me and the company informed and engaged over many months. I am grateful that several of its members have been completely unselfish with their time to work on behalf of many others; I am indebted to them. I also pay what some, although I hope not those who know me, might regard as an unusual tribute to my Labour opponent in the 2017 election, Julian Vaughan. Julian is a rail union official and has been of great and genuine help with user groups, particularly in assisting those of us who campaigned for better disability access at Biggleswade station—a campaign that reached a successful conclusion. I will not be seeing him on the campaign trail next time, but I thank him as a constituent and community activist and wish him well for the future.
I need to move on to road issues, so time prevents me from saying much more about trains. Suffice it to mention that station improvements are needed at my constituency stations, which now qualify for grants from GTR because they were so disrupted by past events—a dubious honour, but perhaps the Minister can ensure that the company follows through on it. I should say that I have found the company always willing to engage with me and constituents; I do not fault it on that, but I have to say in some frustration that good contact is no substitute for remedying the problems, which seem as far away from being solved as ever. I know that they do not all lie at GTR’s door, but frankly my constituents do not care and nor do I.
Is it the breakdown of function? Is it the franchise? Are the components of privatisation working? The Minister will know that I have little interest in ideology. If the trains would be better off under another system, I am all for it. I am not convinced by unicorns, so I do not immediately fall for renationalisation, but if the Government cannot fix my constituents’ rail problems when their patience and good nature has been stretched beyond breaking point, they may well find someone who can. And do not put up the fares—they have had enough.
Let me turn to the A1. I hazard a guess that it is the best-known road in the UK. It is our longest numbered road—a road that I first represented 37 years ago as local councillor for Archway ward on Haringey Council—but its romanticism masks its current serious problems. While upgrades to motorway status have occurred throughout its length, the neglect in Bedfordshire is now impossible to justify. For example, there are few roundabouts anywhere on the A1—roundabouts slow traffic, add to pollution, and are increasingly inappropriate on major routes—but we have four out of the five on its total length from London to Edinburgh: Biggleswade South, Biggleswade North, Sandy and of course the famous Black Cat, which has its own website.
The Black Cat is shortly to be the focus of a £1.4 billion scheme, but that typifies our problem. The scheme will form part of work to improve east-west connectivity, with a new stretch of road through Cambridgeshire to link with the A14 to Harwich and Felixstowe; the Black Cat will be the key link between north and south and between east and west in southern England, which is great. However, there is motorway to our immediate north, there is motorway to the south, and there will be a major upgrade east-west, yet through Bedfordshire there is a dual carriageway, which is increasingly used and congested at peak times. Some communities live very close to it, and some are actually on it.
The town of Sandy is particularly affected. I am grateful to the town council and to local residents’ groups such as the SG19 Road Safety Group for their persistence in making a case to the Department for Transport and the Highways Agency—now Highways England—for changes that would make a difference. Over the years, I have written many letters and held meetings in London and the constituency with Ministers and officials, seeking some of the changes and investment that would make a difference, but effectively nothing has happened. It is time to change that.
I will come onto the larger strategic issue in a moment, but for the record and for the Minister’s attention, let me set out some of the improvements that are sought locally at a smaller scale.
First, the implementation of an average speed camera scheme throughout the Sandy to Biggleswade stretch was agreed by the Department and the Highways Agency back in 2016, but three years later it has still not happened. Most recently, it was turned down on grounds of cost—the costs seem to have accelerated significantly since the scheme was first suggested and agreed. Why is it not happening? Will the Minister tackle it, as an immediate priority, to demonstrate some concern for those who live close by and for all who use the road?
Secondly, there should be improved signage along the A1. Thirdly, there needs to be renewed consideration of the New Road junction and the Beeston crossover. The crossover’s design—or lack of it—poses a serious hazard, and sooner or later there will be a terrible accident. Personally, I would close it; the knock-on effect on traffic in the town makes it very hard for the town council and Central Bedfordshire Council to contemplate that, but there must be a better answer than what is there at present.
Fourthly, and above all, the road should be re-lined and rerouted to take it away from Sandy. In 2018, a study by the World Health Organisation showed that fine particle air pollution in Sandy is at 12 micrograms per cubic metre, making it one of 31 sites in the UK with levels above the recommended 10 micrograms per cubic metre. The sites in Sandy were those close to the kerbside of the A1, where people are living. As a petition from Sandy that I recently presented to the Secretary of State makes clear, a possible re-lining of the A1 was considered carefully back in 1994. It was turned down then, but in 2014 a new strategic study looked at the A1 in the east of England. In 2016, when of course all decisions were on hold, the study reported that options for a new line or local improvement were further to be considered, but hopes for that have now also been dashed.
A recent letter from my noble Friend Baroness Vere of Norbiton rather sums it up:
“The study focused on the non-motorway section between junctions 10-14”—
“where issues on the route are most acute. This work found there is a value for money challenge for improvements on this stretch.”
That is the first time that I have come across the phrase “value for money challenge”—it is a cracker. What I think it means is that the Government are not spending any money on the route where the problems are most acute. I am puzzled about why they are getting away with that.
The major strategic problem, however, appears to be that several major projects have been considered almost simultaneously, but there has been no transparency about the sequencing, despite many requests from me and local authorities to agree that to enable effective local planning. Progress on the A1 has been the most expendable casualty of the lack of strategic decision making. The route of a new section of the A428 from Caxton Gibbet to the Black Cat occupied the Government for some years. That has now been fixed and decided, as I mentioned, but decisions are still outstanding on the line of route of east-west rail from Bedford to Cambridge, which will cross the A1 near Sandy. Exactly where it will cross has an impact on local decisions about the housing expansion needed for central Beds to fulfil its housing targets. The decision is anticipated next year, but it has been in the pipeline since early 2016.
Decisions on housing are also pertinent to where a new line of the Al might be. As far as I can tell, everyone in government seems to be waiting for everyone else: Transport is waiting for housing decisions, Housing is waiting for transport decisions, and the urgent need to face up to change on the A1 is just getting lost. No more!
First, Minister, do something immediate to show good will about the average speed cameras. Then attend to the smaller improvements sought by residents and the town council, reinstate the need for the A1 re-lining proposals to come before Government again as a matter of urgency, and demand that some of the money that the Chancellor recently found for investment heads to the A1 in Bedfordshire.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the first time, Mr Gray. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt) on securing the debate. May I say how nice it is to have the chance to respond to him, knowing that he is one of the most assiduous representatives of his constituency and is highly respected across the parties? It is a shame that no Opposition Members are present.
I am pleased to respond to the debate as the new Minister for the future of transport, with a new mission from the Prime Minister to focus on the challenges of disconnection, decarbonisation and digitalisation, and bring a new urgency to the Department’s focus on place-based solutions that put the people and places we serve before the convenience of infrastructure providers. As my right hon. Friend said, we need to ensure that services are working for the people who rely on them and are ultimately paying the bills.
As we all know, well-planned transport infrastructure is critical to the health, wealth and wellbeing of our communities. Bedfordshire is an historic county and an important one in strategic transport terms, with key roads such as the A1, the A5 and the M1 running through it, along with a number of key rail routes; it is also home to Luton’s international airport. Across the transport modes, the Government are making several key investments to help to drive sustainable economic growth. Before I come to them, however, let me deal with my right hon. Friend’s specific points.
On rail, I absolutely understand the concerns that have been raised. I would like to offer some explanation for the performance issues that are affecting my right hon. Friend’s constituents. I know that the railway stations in the towns of Sandy, Biggleswade and Arlesey are vital pieces of public infrastructure. Whether people use rail services to commute to work, to visit family or for any other reason, it is crucial that they can rely on receiving a service that is reliable and frequent. That is why, since joining the Department for Transport, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, my other ministerial colleagues and I have made the bread-and-butter issue of the reliability of rail services our No.1 priority.
Let me be very blunt: recent performance on the Great Northern line has not been good enough. Over the past year, we have seen 8% of services on average being cancelled or delayed by 30 minutes or more. That figure is a lot worse than that for the vast majority of other train-operating companies, and the situation has been exacerbated in recent weeks by a series of significant infrastructure issues, including issues with overhead wires, track failures, falling trees and a broken-down train on the key Thameslink route near Blackfriars last week.
I absolutely understand the frustration that passengers must feel when these issues arise; as a rail user, I share it, as does the Secretary of State. That is why he recently met the chief executives of GTR and Network Rail to make it clear to them that improving the reliability of services in this area is vital. Although this does not excuse poor performance, I am pleased to note that GTR held an event at St Pancras last night, allowing passengers to speak directly with the company management, and I will put on the record here that I look forward to hearing the outcome of that meeting.
Notwithstanding those incidents and the urgent need for them to be tackled, I do think that we are seeing some positive signs more generally on the franchise. I know that many of my right hon. Friend’s constituents use the Thameslink service from Bedford, where we have seen significant improvements generally to performance over recent years. Over the past 12 months, about 85% of Thameslink services arrived within five minutes of the schedule. The year before, the percentage was 83% and the year before that it was 79%, so the service is getting better. However, I acknowledge that incidents such as the impact of the May 2018 fiasco and the August power cuts have impacted passenger trust, and we have to sort out this situation to restore that trust.
My right hon. Friend mentioned stop-skipping, and it is without a doubt hugely frustrating for passengers to see the train that they were supposed to board go past without stopping, or for the train that they are on to go past the station at which they had planned to get off. For this reason, the decision to miss out a call is not one that operators should take lightly; it should not be routine.
Skipping stations is one method that operators can use to allow the rail network to recover from disruption. Operational staff take the decision to miss out a stop by balancing the impact on those passengers who are directly affected against the wider impact of allowing the service to continue. Skipping stops helps operators to avoid the knock-on impact that delayed services can have on other services, but if it is not managed proactively, delays can spread quickly across the network and affect hundreds more passengers. There is sometimes a misconception that operators take the decision to miss out stops to manipulate their performance scores. That is not, and absolutely should not be, the case. Any service that misses out a stop is counted as a part-cancellation for the purposes of the performance benchmark that the Department uses to hold operators to account. If train companies exceed that benchmark, they will be subject to financial penalties. Personally, I would like to see more of that money going to the passengers who are affected, but that debate is for another day.
What is absolutely crucial in these situations is the attention that is paid to the poor passengers whose journeys have been disrupted, and communication is vital. We should not have situations where, as my right hon. Friend highlighted, passengers are stuck for long periods with no information about the options to complete their journey. Part of my portfolio is dealing with disconnection, and that is an example of disconnection between the train-operating company and its passengers, who have paid for a service, and one that is completely unacceptable, particularly in a digital age, when communication should be so much easier. I completely understand the frustration of passengers about such situations and I continue to press the rail industry to improve their processes, to make sure that we get this right, and I will pick it up following this debate.
Going forward, and notwithstanding those concerns, we should also speak about some of the positive things that we are seeing on the railways in my right hon. Friend’s area. The Thameslink service from Sandy, Arlesey and Biggleswade, which was introduced last year, now provides weekday passengers with two direct trains per hour to the heart of London. I am pleased that, from December onwards, the current Saturday service to King’s Cross will transfer to this route, providing passengers with a much wider range of direct destinations.
Those constituents of my right hon. Friend who use Bedford station will obviously see service improvements. From December 2020, two East Midlands Railway services per hour will call at all stations between Corby and London St Pancras, providing a big capacity uplift. This, combined with the increased capacity of trains serving the London commuter route, will result in a significant increase in the number of seats, particularly during peak periods, and should release capacity on inter-city services, which will also improve access to and from Luton airport.
Furthermore, I know that my right hon. Friend campaigned passionately for Biggleswade station to receive Access for All funding. Earlier this year, Biggleswade was confirmed as a successful applicant and I congratulate him personally on his leadership in that campaign. Improving accessibility to our railway network is something that both he and I care passionately about. I understand that the plans for Biggleswade are at an early stage, but when the scheme is delivered it will provide an accessible route into the station and between the platforms.
I am sure that my right hon. Friend warmly welcomed the recent housing infrastructure fund award of nearly £70 million for the transformational growth in Biggleswade project, something that he has championed. The funding will provide a new transport interchange at the train station and a replacement bridge over the east coast main line. This is an excellent example—dare I say it, decades late but none the less excellent—of Government funding for transport infrastructure in North East Bedfordshire, which has the potential to help to deliver up to 3,000 new homes. In addition, GTR is also delivering a £15 million passenger benefit fund, which will deliver £80,000 of improvements at Arlesey, Sandy and Biggleswade stations respectively, as well as at Bedford station.
I am conscious of the time, so I will turn now to the strategic road network. We absolutely recognise the importance of the A1 and its impact on my right hon. Friend’s constituents. That is why, as part of the first road investment strategy, we committed to examining the case for improvements to the A1 between the M25 and Peterborough. Anyone who has driven on that road, as I have, knows the problems on it. Following an initial study, our focus has been on the sections between junctions 10 and 14, where we recognise that the challenges on the route are most acute. Initial work has shown that improvements—including some new alignment, or bypassing—would offer poor value for money on current metrics.
Substantial future local growth, which is coming, could and should change that assessment. Therefore, we expect there will be opportunities to re-examine the case for potential improvements to this section, particularly as proposals for the Oxford-to-Cambridge arc, which I am responsible for, are developed. In the meantime, however, we understand that local partners are taking forward some study work to look at the feasibility of improvements to the A1 in the short term. In addition, in February we also announced a preferred route for the A428 Black Cat to Caxton Gibbet scheme. As my right hon. Friend knows, this is a new dual carriageway link between the junction of the A1 and A421, and between the junction of the A428 and A1198.
My right hon. Friend raised the important issue of speed cameras on the A1, and I can reassure him that both the Department and Highways England take the issue of speeding very seriously. I share his disappointment that it was not possible to deliver the previous scheme. I have checked with and am chasing Highways England to ensure that it investigates the possibility of a camera system on this section of the A1, explains to me why the costs have spiralled as they have, and makes sure that it looks seriously to see whether such a camera system is possible. I think that it must be possible to find a way to do it and I will raise this issue with Highways England again following this debate.
I will also raise the issue of congestion on the local road network. My right hon. Friend and I both take congestion very seriously. We do not want to see strategic road work driving up congestion in neighbouring towns and villages, which is why we have made a number of investments for local transport infrastructure projects within wider Bedfordshire. These include providing £2.5 million towards a new Bedford western bypass and £11 million towards the regeneration of Bedford town centre. We are also providing funding towards the A421 dualling scheme that is being led by Central Bedfordshire Council. That is a £22 million investment, which will ease congestion from Fen Farm up to junction 13 of the M1. I understand that Central Bedfordshire Council is also taking forward proposals for a link between the M1 and the A6, with funding from the local growth fund.
Future funding for major transport infrastructure is absolutely key to the Government’s new emphasis on integrating housing and transport, as recent statements by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government have made clear. Crucial to that in the south of England is the east-west corridor, which, as I have said, I am now responsible for. It will provide better east-west connectivity across the arc, including in North East Bedfordshire. I will shortly be signing off on the rail routing decision, and I will also push to make sure that, as we build that line, we also consider strategic ways to capture land value and ensure that we are putting money into transport infrastructure, including the strategic roads, so that we have a genuinely integrated approach to road, rail and housing.
I hope that I can reassure my right hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire that considerable investment is being made in transport infrastructure in his area as part of this Government’s major infrastructure programme. I absolutely hear him on the issues with the railway line, which we are actively pursuing. He made a very good point about rail staffing, which I will pick up on following this debate, and he also made good points on stop-skipping and on speed cameras on the A1.
I think we have just 30 seconds left, so I am very grateful to the Minister for giving way. I thank him very much for his responses. However, because we have heard many of these responses before, particularly from Highways England—responses about things that will happen, only for everything to get held up because of decisions made elsewhere—can he make sure this time that some of these improvements are made? If they are not made and we have to keep waiting for others’ decisions, once again nothing will happen.
I am delighted to give my right hon. Friend that reassurance. This is my first appearance in Westminster Hall in this capacity and I look forward to picking up on the issues that he has raised. If we cannot show our constituents that we are putting people and place before the convenience of providers, we will not carry their trust with us. This strategic junction in the UK network—A1, east-west, rail and road—is vital and I will happily give him that undertaking.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered transport infrastructure in North East Bedfordshire.
Procedure for Appointing Judges
[Mr Virendra Sharma in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the procedure for appointing judges.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Sharma. I look forward to a positive and perhaps consensual debate on the procedure for appointing judges and the importance of those procedures being consistent with the independence of the judiciary, the separation of powers and the rule of law.
I sought this debate because I was concerned about certain headlines that appeared in the press in the days following the Supreme Court judgment in the Cherry and Miller cases. I pay tribute to my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Edinburgh South West (Joanna Cherry) for her work on the Cherry case, as well as the legal team, which did such great work. I was pleased to be one of the MPs party to that case. The headlines I was concerned about came in response to a decision that the Government did not particularly like. They were perfectly entitled not to like the decision, but they were not entitled to consider changing the system for appointing the Supreme Court judges.
For example, a headline in the Daily Mail read:
“Geoffrey Cox suggests UK could move to US-style political vetting of judge appointments in the wake of the Supreme Court’s prorogation ruling”.
The Daily Telegraph ran the headline:
“Supreme Court justices could be appointed by MPs in wake of Brexit ruling, Geoffrey Cox says”.
In a slightly more understated fashion, The Law Society Gazette headed its report with certain exchanges in the Commons Chamber with the headline:
“Supreme Court appointments may need MPs’ approval—attorney general”.
In fairness to the Attorney General, it took a degree of journalistic licence to get from what he said in the Chamber to what was reported. Those headlines arose from exchanges in the Chamber during an urgent question tabled by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Edinburgh South West.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the independence of our judiciary and the way in which we appoint them is admired right across the world, and that that fits in with our role in the Council of Europe, which is there to uphold the rule of law?
I agree with the hon. Gentleman wholeheartedly. I will return to that point later. The exchanges that sparked those headlines came when the Attorney General was asked by one of his Back Benchers whether it was time for MPs to get involved in approving appointments at the Supreme Court level. The Attorney General responded:
“I do think that we are going to have to look again at our constitutional arrangements…there may very well need to be parliamentary scrutiny of judicial appointments in some manner.”—[Official Report, 25 September 2019; Vol. 664, c. 666.]
As I said, I think the subsequent headlines required considerable journalistic licence. It would be useful if the same headline writers would publish the subsequent remarks that the Attorney General made during Attorney General’s questions last week, when he said that
“certainly US-style hearings—would be a regrettable step for us in our constitutional arrangements.”—[Official Report, 3 October 2019; Vol. 664, c. 1360.]
Similarly, I welcome the Lord Chancellor’s words this morning at Justice questions in defence of judicial independence and against any notion of political appointments.
With impeccable timing, as soon as I received notification that I had secured this debate, I received a written answer from the Minister—I welcome him to his place—confirming that there were no plans to change the judicial appointments processes. The answer continued:
“Our judges are selected following a rigorous, independent, merit based process which is key to maintaining the quality, integrity and independence of our world class judiciary.”
That answer echoed the point made by the hon. Member for Henley (John Howell).
In the light of all those assurances, I wondered whether it was worth proceeding with this debate, but I think it is. I am grateful to hon. Members for staying to take part. It is still relevant to proceed because, despite the words of the Minister, the Attorney General and the Lord Chancellor, one fairly significant member of the Government does not seem to be singing from quite the same hymn sheet—perhaps not for the first time. Between the Attorney General’s original comments and his clarification, when the Prime Minister was asked about the consequences of the Supreme Court judgment by The Sunday Telegraph, he said:
“It will take a while to be worked through. But I think, if judges are to pronounce on political questions in this way, then there is at least an argument that there should be some form of accountability.
The lessons of America are relevant.”
Whether the Prime Minister was thinking about putting the UK on the path to a US-style system, under which Supreme Court judges are political appointees, as The Sunday Telegraph interpreted it, only he knows—I very much hope not.
The pot was stirred even more firmly by a former Conservative leader who told The Times at the end of last week that
“more and more people are beginning to ask, with some legitimacy, whether it might be time to hold hearings as they do in America to find out what their political views are and what we can expect. We need to know more about these people.”
I could not disagree more strongly with that statement. A better response to the Prime Minister’s comments came from a former Cabinet colleague of his in an article for The Sunday Times this weekend:
“If he means we should learn from the weaknesses of the US system, he is absolutely right. If he means we should copy that system, he is wrong. It involves far too much political interference in the appointment of judges and also too much judicial law-making.”
My ambition in this debate is, therefore, quite modest: to achieve as broad a consensus as possible, saying clearly and loudly that we believe in the rule of law, the separation of powers and the independence of the judiciary; that our appointments processes must always respect that; and, specifically, that we reject the politicisation of the judiciary, in particular through US-style appointments processes. The Prime Minister and some of the less sensible members of the Conservative party should stop stirring that pot.
I am not saying that the appointments processes in the UK are absolutely perfect, whether through the Judicial Appointments Commission of England and Wales, through its Northern Ireland equivalent, through the Judicial Appointments Board for Scotland or through the appointments commissions that are convened for the purposes of selecting Supreme Court justices. No system is perfect, and they have all been criticised. It is absolutely right that we should keep those systems under review and scrutinise them to ensure that they deliver the appointment of the best judges.
Other hon. Members may want to make suggestions about how we can improve each of those systems, including to better protect judicial independence or to improve the scrutiny and accountability of judges through ombudsman and complaints processes. I have no doubt that more can be done to improve diversity on the bench, for example.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this important debate, and I join him in congratulating the hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh South West (Joanna Cherry) on the stunning cases that she brought over the past two weeks. Regarding diversity, the old system required the Lord Chancellor to make all the appointments of the judiciary on the advice of civil servants. Does the hon. Gentleman think that the new system, with the Judicial Appointments Commission, has gone far enough in reflecting the diversity of the community at large? Obviously, gender diversity has increased, because we have a woman president of the Supreme Court, but what about ethnic minority diversity?
I do not have a ready answer to that. The numbers show that it may not have gone far enough. I agree that there is more to be done to ensure that we have a bench that reflects the society that it serves, but I am not sure what the means and mechanisms for that should be.
My key point is that we should never consider or undertake the politicisation of the appointments processes, because the arguments that have been put forward in support of political interference in the appointments process are flimsy and, I would say, misguided. There is an assertion that because judges have suddenly got involved in matters that are deemed to be political, their political judgment should be open to scrutiny by parliamentarians before they are allowed to sit, but to take that view is to misunderstand the role of judges completely. Although what they decide has important political consequences, the decisions they make are not political, but legal. Therefore, a candidate’s legal abilities alone need to be assessed and compared to those of their peers.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate, and I agree with much of what he has said. I support the separation of powers and the independence of the judiciary. Many judges—particularly those with academic backgrounds—may, although they were appointed through an independent process, have expressed views in the past that could be considered political; in some cases, those may be historical political views. That may lead some people to be concerned about the politicising of the judiciary and the potential for judges’ views to influence their decisions. How would the hon. Gentleman address the perceived concerns of political bias on the part of some judges because of views they have expressed in the past as academic lecturers or in other forums?
I welcome that intervention, and the hon. Gentleman raises an interesting question. There are a couple of things I would say. First, we will never have a judicial bench that does not have political opinions. Just because we do not necessarily know what those opinions are does not mean that members of the judiciary are not normal human beings who have political views. Secondly, all we can do is to ensure that candidates are assessed, like all others, by an independent judicial appointments board to ensure that appointments are made on the basis of their ability to do the job as independent judges. It may be that certain individuals have expressed views such that that is called into question, but we have independent panels in place that are designed to filter out any suggestion that candidates are making decisions for political reasons, rather than simply on the merits of a particular case.
As Sir David Edward, a former judge in both the European Court of Justice and the Court of Session, put it in a recent Scottish Legal News article:
“Many judicial decisions have political consequences but it is a quite different thing to say judges have made decisions for political reasons.”
He argued that if there is a lesson to be learned from America, it is the
“malign effect of a system dependent on political or doctrinaire allegiance”.
There is nothing new about judges making decisions that have political implications or cause political controversy—although given some of the recent commentary, people might think otherwise.
It is worth noting that one of the key reasons why judges’ decisions frequently have significant political implications is precisely because this Parliament has required that of them. The Human Rights Act 1998, for example, requires judges to look at whether Acts of Parliament are compatible with the European convention on human rights. Acts of the Scottish Parliament can be literally struck down, not just under the Human Rights Act, but if the Scottish Parliament is found to have strayed beyond its competence under the Scotland Act 1998. The acts of Ministers here and in devolved Administrations are subject to judicial scrutiny. European Union law has also been a ground for challenges. That links with the growth in the use of secondary legislation—legislation that in my view is often not scrutinised particularly well here—which at least has the fallback and safeguard of judicial review.
Increasingly, judges have been asked by this Parliament to take decisions that have political ramifications, but they make those decisions on legal grounds alone, and we should not forget that. Ultimately, the key point is that the different branches of government should provide checks and balances against each other. The judiciary provides a key check against Executive overreach. To my mind, the cases of Cherry and Miller are brilliant examples of that, though perfectly reasonable people can disagree. The point is this: what sort of check does the judiciary provide if it is stuffed with Government or political appointees? It is either a check that is ineffectual in reality, or one that is perceived to be ineffectual, and both matter for the rule of law.
I will finish with a quote from the vice-president of the Law Society, Stephanie Boyce. In responding to the recent controversies, she told the Law Society Gazette:
“An independent judiciary is fundamental to our democracy. The notion of vetting judges for their political opinions is at odds with the whole construction of British justice.”
I very much hope that is something we can all agree on.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Sharma.
I warmly congratulate the hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (Stuart C. McDonald) on securing this debate. I agreed with virtually every word he said, and I hope we can establish a consensus in Westminster Hall. Like him, I was heartened to hear the very clear statement of the Government’s position from the Lord Chancellor in Justice questions today. The hon. Gentleman is right to say that were we to embark on an American-style system of political selection for our Supreme Court or any other court, we would indeed be the poorer for it. Anyone who has seen the farrago that passes for confirmation hearings before the Senate in the United States—a process that diminishes the quality of law and, frankly, if anything, undermines the integrity of its judiciary—would never wish to see that in the United Kingdom. I think the debate is useful, because it perhaps enables us to put a hare that has been set running by one or two people firmly to rest, where it belongs and where it should stay.
Would my hon. Friend make a distinction between the sort of confirmation hearings that we hold as members of the Select Committee on Justice and those in the United States? The ones we hold are very much part of the establishment and are a way of looking at the process, rather than being a way of generating political attacks on the individual.
My hon. Friend is right. There are two misnomers in this sense. Confirmation, in the strict sense of the word, is not really what we are doing. We are scrutinising the integrity of the appointments process, which is an altogether different matter and entirely consistent with our tradition. In the same way, I wonder, were the legislation for the Supreme Court being drafted now, would we call it a Supreme Court, as opposed to a Court of Final Appeal? That has rather unfortunate implications, but that is really what it is. It is not quite like the Supreme Court in the United States, and the name sometimes gives people the wrong idea about its function.
The hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East is absolutely right to say that in the recent cases that have attracted press attention, the courts—both at first instance the High Court or the Court of Session and then the Supreme Court—were asked to answer legal questions, and they gave legal answers. It is as simple as that. The judges did their job as lawyers. The attacks on our senior judiciary by some of the press are an outright disgrace and a shame upon this country. They should be called out for what they are: gutter journalism. Would to God that we had a press in this country that had anything like the quality and integrity of our judiciary. We would be the better place for it.
We are fortunate in the quality of our judiciary in all parts of the United Kingdom. We have a rigorous selection process. I am particularly aware of the work of the Judicial Appointments Commission in England and Wales, but I am cognisant of the like work that is done in Scotland and Northern Ireland by their appointments boards. I pay tribute to the work of Lord Kakkar and his colleagues on the Judicial Appointments Commission for England and Wales. The Justice Committee has had the opportunity to observe and scrutinise its work, and it is accountable to us and to Parliament for the process it engages in. Recently it published its report for the year just gone; it is a substantial document that clearly sets out the methodology by which it works and the consequences.
I am most grateful to the Chair of the Select Committee for giving way. May I declare my interest, which I forgot to do earlier, as a non-practising barrister? My wife is a part-time judge. I put this to the hon. Gentleman: with the system we have now—as opposed to the old system, where the Lord Chancellor made the decision himself, and it was only men who were Lord Chancellor in those days—what does he think about laypersons being able to appoint judges to the highest judicial offices when they themselves are not legally qualified? I think the system is working well, apart from the diversity angle, but what does he think, not only as Chair of the Committee but as a lawyer, about people who are not legally qualified being able to opine on giving posts to those who are the most legally qualified?
The right hon. Gentleman reminds me to refer Members to my entries in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. I think I would approach the matter he raises in this way: for transparency and because the judiciary needs the confidence not only of the profession but of the wider population and the society it serves, there is a proper role for a lay element in the selection process. The set-up we have in England and Wales with the Judicial Appointments Commission, which has lay members together with experienced practitioners and members of the judiciary, is probably a pretty fair balance as far as that is concerned.
I am most grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way for a second time and enabling me to tempt him a little further. The cut-off age has deprived us of some pretty distinguished judges. Does he think we should go that step further and raise the limit from 70 to 75? Can I tempt him down that road?
The right hon. Gentleman tempts me and I fall into the trap willingly: I entirely agree with him. It is a great shame that we have seen the retirement recently of very distinguished and able judges simply by effluxion of time. Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd, Sir Brian Leveson, Lady Hallett—I was delighted to see her gain a peerage—and others still have much to offer the bench. When we have real difficulty with the recruitment and retention of the highest quality judges, it seems absurd to me to set 70, which most of us would regard as the new 50—certainly those of us who are getting nearer to it—as the limit. We are cutting people off at the height of their professional powers. They have much more to offer and, interestingly, will very often be found, perfectly legitimately and properly, exercising their skills as arbitrators or mediators in commercial jurisdictions, when they would be very happy to continue exercising those skills in high public office as members of the judiciary.
I earnestly hope that one message the Minister takes back to the Lord Chancellor, who I know is apprised of the matter, is that if we have a legislative opportunity in the new Session, we should tack on a clause to increase the judicial retirement age to 75. That would be warmly welcomed. There is more that we need to do at the other end in terms of diversity. There have been improvements, but the right hon. Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz) is right that we need in particular to improve black, Asian and minority ethnic representation in the judiciary. There are signs of improvement, but there is much more to do.
We have made improvements in relation to gender diversity, but ethnic diversity is something that we still need to work on, as well as perhaps social background more generally. As a member of the Bar, I recognise the potential value of recruiting solicitor judges in broadening the social background base of the profession. There are now some very good and able solicitor judges, and I hope that we can encourage that too.
In a short speech, I wanted to reinforce what the Lord Chancellor, who is admirably playing his role in defending the independence of the judiciary, has said, and to recognise the point fairly made by my hon. Friend the Member for Henley (John Howell) that the independence of the judiciary is not just important in terms of the checks and balances of our own constitution, which are critical, but wholly consistent with our international obligations. My hon. Friend serves as a distinguished member of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, which is something that I have had the pleasure of doing, as have you, Mr Sharma. We all know that Britain is looked up to by our colleagues because of the independence of our judiciary. How would we be able to exercise restraint on some of the emerging democracies in eastern and central Europe, where such independence is not always to be found, were we to do anything that diluted our judicial independence?
It is important that we maintain judicial independence to meet our obligations under article 6 of the European convention, never mind article 14 of the international covenant on civil and political rights and, of course, the UN basic principles on the independence of the judiciary. If we want Britain to remain a world leader in high esteem, maintaining the independence of the judiciary is critical. I hope that the debate will enable us to send a message to all at large that we recognise the checks and balances that are implicit in, and that underpin, our constitution, and that the separation of powers, the independence of the judiciary, and the acceptance of its independence by all, whether we agree with an individual decision or not, are crucial to our national wellbeing.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairpersonship, Mr Sharma. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (Stuart C. McDonald) on securing this important debate. What a pleasure it is to speak after the Chair of the Justice Committee, the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill).
I will begin by declaring a few interests. Not surprisingly, most of us speaking in the debate are lawyers, and I am a non-practising member of the Scottish Bar. I am also vice-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on the rule of law and, as has been kindly mentioned by others today, I was the lead petitioner in the case that came to be known as the Cherry case, because that is my surname, which went to the Supreme Court. I am also involved in litigation currently proceeding in Scotland under the name of Dale Vince. I declare my interest, having been supported by the Good Law Project and the generosity of Mr Vince, who is a green energy entrepreneur.
Today’s debate has come about because of comments prompted by ill-informed fallout from the decision of the Supreme Court on prorogation. My hon. Friend the Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East laid out the circumstances in which that happened. It is a particular matter of regret that on 11 September Downing Street sources briefed The Sun that
“legal activists choose the Scottish courts for a reason”.
Well, I chose the Scottish courts because I live in Scotland. The implication that the Scottish courts are somehow politicised is offensive as well as ignorant. There is, however, a tradition in Scotland going back to the declaration of Arbroath and the claim of right that neither the monarch nor the Government are above the law. I was very proud to see that tradition followed by the Scottish courts.
It was also great to hear Lady Hale, the President of the Supreme Court, remind us that it is also part of the English tradition, when she said that
“the courts have exercised a supervisory jurisdiction”
over the lawfulness of acts of the Government “for centuries”. As long ago as 1611, the court held that the King, who was effectively the Government, had
“no prerogative, but that which the law of the land allows him”.
I join others in particularly deprecating not so much the press, of which we have come to expect very little, but Government sources—particularly unnamed Downing Street sources, who seem to be cropping up all over the place at the moment—for the anti-judicial and anti-Scottish sentiment that they tried to stir up.
It was also a matter of some regret that a Government Minister, the right hon. Member for Spelthorne (Kwasi Kwarteng), went on television and said:
“The extent to which lawyers and judges are interfering in politics is something that concerns many people.”
He went on to say that
“many people…are saying that the judges are biased”.
He specifically claimed that
“many leave voters...are beginning to question the partiality of the judges”,
while going on to state that he personally believed that the judges were impartial.
As I was sitting here, it occurred to me that a former colleague of ours, albeit from before our time in the House, Humfrey Malins, who was the hon. Member for Woking, was, while he was a sitting MP, a practising barrister and, I believe, a recorder. I do not believe that anybody called into question his impartiality when he was overseeing cases in that role, or indeed subsequently when he stood down from the House, even though he is a committed Conservative. I wonder whether the hon. and learned Lady would like to reflect on that, in the context of what she was just saying.
I was not aware of that. Certainly my party, the Scottish National party, believes that MPs should devote themselves full time to that job. That is why I have been a non-practising member of the Scottish Bar from the moment that I was elected. I would find it rather curious if a Member of Parliament were, in the modern age, sitting in a judicial capacity. I think that would rather interfere with the separation of powers, whereby legislature, Executive and judiciary should be separate. However, I was not aware of those circumstances, so perhaps I should not say any more about them.
Returning to the comments made on television by the right hon. Member for Spelthorne, although it has been good to hear the Lord Chancellor repeatedly assert the independence of the judiciary, including today at Justice questions, it is reprehensible for Government Ministers to attempt to stir up anti-judicial sentiment as in this situation. I totally believe in freedom of speech, and am on the record as being somebody on the left who is very much in favour of it. Sometimes the champions of freedom of speech are to be found very much on the right, but there are some of us on the left, and I would never question anyone’s right to say that they disagree with a decision. However, if a Government Minister or unnamed sources call into question the independence or impartiality of the judiciary, such comments can serve to normalise a crude scepticism that ignores the legally complex and personally demanding work that judges have to perform. That is why we politicians have to be careful what we say. Many decisions in the past have not pleased me, and I have certainly criticised them, but I have not tried to suggest that they were made because the judges were of a different political persuasion to me.
We can do no better than look at one of England’s most respected jurists, Lord Bingham, who said in the Belmarsh case in 2004 that it is wrong to argue that judges are somehow undemocratic simply because they are unelected, or because they are asked to assess the legality of the Government’s decisions. He said that, on the contrary,
“the function of independent judges charged to interpret and apply the law is universally recognised as a cardinal feature of the modern democratic state, a cornerstone of the rule of law itself.”
I think what Lord Bingham was really saying is that the very concept of a modern democracy envisages an important role for the courts.
It is particularly important to remember that the decision that was made by the Supreme Court justices was not a political decision; as Lady Hale was at pains to underline, it was a decision on the law. In Scotland’s Court of Session, Lord Drummond Young said in relation to the case:
“The courts cannot subject the actings of the executive to political scrutiny, but they can and should ensure that the body charged with performing that task, Parliament, is able to do so.”
That is what the case was about: restoring to Parliament its function of politically scrutinising the Executive. Those on the right of British politics outside this room who do not like what happened in the Supreme Court should ask themselves how they would feel if a left-wing Prime Minister sitting at the apex of a minority Government prorogued Parliament because it was getting in his or her way. It cuts both ways, and that is why this is a principle of law and democracy rather than a political decision.
My hon. Friend the Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East has already quoted some pertinent comments made by Sir David Edward, former judge of the European Court of Justice. I will also quote Lord Hope of Craighead, former Deputy President of the Supreme Court and a former Lord President of the Court of Session, who said that the suggestion—initially made by the Attorney General—that there might need to be some parliamentary scrutiny of judicial appointments was “wholly misguided”. He said:
“The Supreme Court justices were careful to explain in their judgment”
in the prorogation case
“that they were not pronouncing on political questions. The issues with which they were dealing, as is the case with all the other issues that come before them, were issues of law.”
He went on to say that vetting judges
“would risk politicising the office which they hold, in the minds of the public”
and would be
“contrary to the fact that political opinion plays no part in the work that they do.”
He finished by saying:
“The guiding principle is that they decide cases according to the laws and usages of this country, and not according to such political views, if any that they might happen to hold.”
Very trenchantly, he added:
“We have nothing to learn on this issue from what happens in the United States.”
Somebody pointed out earlier that there will be some judges in position who have, in a previous life, expressed political views. Of course, in Scotland we no longer have a tradition of political appointments for the Law Officers—they are apolitical appointments—but in the past, we did. Frequently, the Lord Advocate in Scotland would go on to sit on the bench, and he—it was always a “he” in those days—would have been from either a Labour or a Conservative background. However, the crucial thing was that when he took his seat, he took the judicial oath of impartiality, and put aside the politics he had had before to enable him to make impartial decisions on the law. I do not think the ability to do that is confined to men. Thankfully, there are at last plenty of women coming through in the judiciary, both north and south of the border. We would all like to see more, but it has been very important to see a female English judge at the apex of the United Kingdom’s Supreme Court. As others have said, there is still much work to be done to ensure that the diversity of all our communities across Scotland and England is represented on the bench.
I will finish with a quote from almost 15 years ago, when Professor Anthony Bradley was advising the House of Lords Constitution Committee. I am pleased to say that Professor Bradley was my tutor when I was an undergraduate at the University of Edinburgh, 30 years ago; he was then, and is now, a very respected authority on constitutional law in the United Kingdom. Back in December 2005, he told that Committee:
“It is more important than ever that the courts should be able to do justice in an even-handed and impartial manner. Ministers and the Government in general should not seek to blame the judges when the courts make decisions that are adverse to the wishes or policies of the Government.”
All of us who are politicians should aspire to follow that advice. His message is just as important now as it was then, given the fallout we have had from the recent, landmark constitutional cases.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Sharma. I congratulate the hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (Stuart C. McDonald) on securing this debate.
It is fair to say that in the wake of the Supreme Court’s recent ruling, some Government Members and even Ministers began to call for the reformation of the judicial appointments system. That tells us that some of those people—often those with very hard Brexiteer points of view—are not interested in parliamentary sovereignty or judicial independence, and they do not respect our traditions or our democracy. As the Chair of the Select Committee on Justice, the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill) said earlier, the attack on the judiciary by the media was disgraceful, but, sadly, so were some of the words used and the comments made by Members of this House.
It should be said repeatedly and clearly that the selection hearings of the US system have no place in our democracy, and nor do the highly political workings of the US justices. In the immediate aftermath of the Supreme Court’s ruling, the Attorney General seemed to suggest that Parliament would need to look at a judicial appointments system, although I am pleased to hear that he has rowed back on those comments since making them. Those calling for an American-style process rather than a Supreme Court-style one have little interest in the constitutional frameworks that have been essential to government in this country for centuries.
Although these arguments will not be new to anyone, they perhaps deserve reiteration. The US system is beset with practical problems. It allows the President to nominate judges on an explicitly political basis, and even if we accept that idea—which we do not—the power to nominate is not equally distributed. Instead, the make-up of the US Supreme Court is determined by whoever is President when judges become unable to continue in their role. The make-up of the most powerful court in the land is political and dangerously random, and the result is neither stable nor fair. That holds especially true when an Executive like the USA’s current one chooses not to respect conventions or tradition. As the Chair of the Justice Committee also said eloquently, we have only recently seen the unedifying spectacle of a USA-style confirmation hearing.
There is a great deal to be proud of in our judiciary. Our commercial courts are widely recognised as some of the best in the world; every year, a huge number of international litigators choose to come to the UK because they know they can rely on fair treatment. Last year, our legal sector alone contributed around £26 billion of trade to the UK. Even in our tragically undervalued criminal courts, on the back of yet another week of courts being unnecessarily shut, the judiciary is soldiering on impressively.
I admire the durability and professionalism of our judges, along with the rest of the court staff. They deserve significant credit for propping up a system that I am afraid the Government have done little to support, as shown by those court closures. Only recently, I have received emails from some judges—especially recorders—who say that they are expected to attend different courts in the UK at the last minute. They sometimes cannot do so because of their own work commitments, but they are effectively told that if they do not, their chances of being confirmed as judges may well be impacted. There is evidence, even from the Ministry of Justice’s figures, that the time it takes for court cases to come to trial has recently grown longer, while courtrooms are sitting empty and shut. Despite that, our judges, recorders and magistrates continue to work really hard to support our system, and I commend and thank them for all their efforts.
Despite attempts by some people to find political intent in the recent Supreme Court ruling, the decision was a powerful demonstration of the vital power of a genuinely independent, apolitical judiciary. It ruled without fear or favour, and in doing so it protected our democracy. The judiciary in this country has a long and noble tradition, and it is best that we respect that.
Balanced, learned and direct, Baroness Hale is in many ways the best of that British tradition, but the barriers that she has faced are illustrative of how uneven our justice system still is. For far too long, justices have been predominantly people of privilege with wealthy backgrounds, predominantly men and predominantly educated at private schools. Baroness Hale was only the second woman to be appointed to the Court of Appeal. She is the first female Lord of Appeal in Ordinary and the first President of the Supreme Court. It should worry us all that women still have to break the glass ceiling. A century on from the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act 1919, we are still yet to achieve real proportional equality in our public bodies and institutions. The Law Society also agrees that our current system for the appointment of judges should be maintained and not changed.
I hope we can all agree that the US system is clearly a bad one, but perhaps today is an opportunity to focus the debate on how we can alter our judicial appointments system not to make it political, but perhaps to make it more representative. As a young barrister, I saw many hugely talented people who did not fit the accepted demographic of a judge. Some struggled their way to the top; too many did not. There have been encouraging steps as the number of female judges has risen. However, it is important that we do not fall into the trap that many businesses do and focus exclusively on comparing numbers without looking at seniority. Although it is heartening to know that the percentage of female tribunal judges is nearing 50%, that falls to 32% for court judges, and for high court judges the figure is well under 30%.
The issue is even more glaring in the case of black and ethnic minority members of the judiciary. Reading through the judicial diversity statistics this year, I see that the Ministry of Justice reports that 11% of new judges in the court were BAME, compared with 6% of those leaving. That is a paltry rate of change that will leave our judiciary disproportionately unrepresentative. The judicial mentoring scheme and the pre-application judicial education programme are good initiatives, but they are nowhere near enough. In a judiciary that continues to display systemic problems, well-intentioned mentoring schemes are unlikely to go far enough.
Worryingly, a metric seems to have crept in that rarely appears in official Government documents in any other Department. For several years in a row, the annual judicial diversity statistics have qualified their admission that the number of BAME judges remained low by comparing the ratio of BAME judges with the ratio of people within a certain age bracket. We are told that
“BAME representation among tribunal judges was similar or higher than that of the general population at all age bands from 40 and over.”
That might seem reasonable at first reading, but it deserves further attention. Where else in Government documents are disparities justified by cherry-picking age groups for comparison? That is done to match proportions that are decades out of date. Our judiciary should not be representative of people over 50, or even 40; it should be representative of our nation as a whole at every stage. Everyone who passes through our justice system should feel that it genuinely represents them. Between 2014 and 2019, the proportion of BAME court judges increased by 2%, which takes us to 7% of court judges. The Government need to move faster.
In the Lammy review, my right hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy) stated:
“The government should set a clear, national target to achieve a representative judiciary and magistracy by 2025. It should then report to Parliament with progress against this target biennially.”
It was a bold aspiration with an ambitious deadline. It was an opportunity to facilitate a change, but the Government have missed the opportunity. Despite some positive noises, we have not seen any real changes, and that leads us to the inevitable conclusion that a wealth of talent in the BAME community is ignored.
The fact that more than half of those currently held within the youth estate are BAME shows that there is something fundamentally wrong with our criminal justice system. Although improving judicial diversity is not a panacea for the wide variety of self-inflicted ills that harm our justice system, it would certainly be a significant step. Our judges should be representative of our country and should be diverse in terms of gender, ethnicity and, crucially, socio-economic background. We should also provide more support for those who are not barristers moving into the judiciary. Solicitors continue to form a small minority of judges, closing the profession off from other highly talented practitioners.
The Law Society has suggested some practical steps to ensure representation of solicitor judges: for example, ensuring that solicitors’ experience is given the same due weight as barristers applying for the bar; ensuring that solicitor judges are involved in the selection process; considering the development of judicial career paths; promoting cross-deployment of judges from tribunals to court; and providing access to shadowing and mentoring opportunities for existing judges. That could apply to women, to members of the BAME community and to those from poor financial backgrounds; children from working-class backgrounds are very under-represented in our system.
Far too often, the Government treat representation as a cosmetic issue that can be changed with minor tinkering. They fail to recognise that the disparities come from histories of inequality that require fundamental reform to remedy. Rather than simply analysing data retrospectively, the Ministry of Justice should set clear deadlines and put plans in place. The public have a right to a judiciary that represents them in all their diversity.
With that in mind, will the Government accept that their judicial appointments system is not sufficient and adopt the approach laid out by the Lammy review? Will the Minister clarify what moneys will be set aside to ensure that judicial diversity is a central objective, rather than just a buzzword? That is essential not only on a moral basis, but on a practical one. A judiciary that is not perceived as representative will have difficulty in maintaining its legitimacy in the long term, particularly for communities who do not see themselves reflected at the most senior level of our justice system. We can fix the problem. It will require funding, long-term commitment and clearer strategic planning, which the Government appear not to offer at the moment. The Government need to go beyond expressing sympathy and set proper deadlines. I hope that when the Minister responds, he will be able to give us some deadlines and suggestions for what they can achieve.
Finally, I want to emphasise that my observations about the representation of ethnic minorities, women and working-class people have no bearing on my belief that our judiciary is the best in the world. No one should ever attack its credibility. Our judges are the best in the world, and they decide things on law, not on politics. The press and Members in this House should appreciate that.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Sharma, in my first appearance as Minister in a Westminster Hall debate. I add my congratulations and thanks to those that other Members have offered to the hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (Stuart C. McDonald), who secured this timely debate.
I will begin by directly addressing the hon. Gentleman’s question about the independence of the process we have adopted to appoint members of the judiciary. I and the Government as a whole fully support the position articulated by the Lord Chancellor, that judicial appointments should be wholly independent and separate from any interference by politicians of any kind, including any form of parliamentary oversight. Speakers in the debate, including, of course, the Chair of the Select Committee on Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill), have powerfully and eloquently made the case for that approach. If judges are to act impartially as interpreters of the law that Parliament enacts, they cannot be subject to any form of political interference, including at the moment of their appointment. I join the Lord Chancellor and other Members who have spoken in stating clearly that the American system of Supreme Court confirmation hearings, and even elections for some judicial positions, would be wholly inappropriate in this country. It would undermine the principle of judicial impartiality that has prevailed in all four corners of the United Kingdom for so long. I hope that straight away I can give Members reassurance on the critical question in the debate.
The Lord Chancellor has been extremely clear in his comments, both those he made by the modern means of communication, Twitter, in the immediate aftermath of the various judgments that we have discussed, and those he made on the opening of the English and Welsh legal year last Tuesday. I attended that event in Westminster Hall, a few feet from where we are, and in his opening remarks the Lord Chancellor made it clear to the entire assembled judiciary that he would stand in defence of their independence and impartiality. That message was heard loud and clear. As the hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East has acknowledged, a couple of hours ago in the main Chamber, in response to a question from the Chair of the Justice Committee, the Lord Chancellor reiterated his and the Government’s unequivocal support for the principle of judicial independence and the independence of the judicial appointments process.
That process was established and put on a statutory footing in the Constitutional Reform Act 2005. As has been said, prior to that the Lord Chancellor exercised the power on advice from civil servants, but since the Act was passed the Judicial Appointments Commission has made recommendations, which the Lord Chancellor and the Lord Chief Justice and Senior President of Tribunals approve. However, the Judicial Appointments Commission is essentially the body that makes the recommendations and whose voice is decisive. I join the Chair of the Justice Committee in thanking Lord Kakkar, the commission chairman, for his work and that of his fellow commissioners—both lay and lawyers.
On at least two occasions in recent years the work of the Judicial Appointments Commission has been examined. A House of Lords Committee scrutinised the process in 2012, and during the passage of the Crime and Courts Act 2013 a great deal of work was done, looking at the process by which the judiciary are appointed. Recommendations were made and they were enacted in the 2013 Act, which amended the Constitutional Reform Act 2005. They included transferring responsibility for the selection of deputy High Court judges to the JAC. JAC lay commissioners were also allowed greater involvement in more senior judicial appointments above the High Court, including chairmanship of the panel to select the Lord Chief Justice and the President of the Supreme Court. The latter is done in rotation with their counterparts in Scotland and Northern Ireland, the hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East and the hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh South West (Joanna Cherry) will be pleased to hear. The process under which the JAC currently operates is a good and effective one. It received significant scrutiny in 2012 and 2013 and I can confirm that the Government have no intention of altering the process.
The shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Bolton South East (Yasmin Qureshi), drew attention to the fact that England and Wales is an international jurisdiction of choice for many litigants whose cases do not directly relate to the United Kingdom. I know less about Scotland in that respect, and would be happy to hear about it. Such litigants choose to use our courts because of their reputation for impartiality, effectiveness and sound decision making. There could be no greater vote of confidence in our courts system than the fact that so many people from around the world choose it. I add my thanks to those that the hon. Lady expressed to all the judiciary, from the magistracy to the Supreme Court, for the work they do to uphold the rule of law and for being a beacon of impartiality and sound judgment around the world.
Some hon. Members raised the topic of the composition of the judiciary, including the retirement age. That is currently 70, but it was older in the past. The Chair of the Justice Committee drew attention to the fact that many capable members of the bench, at all levels, retire while still exercising their functions at a high level and with the benefit of many years’ experience. I saw that at my local Crown court in Croydon. The chairman of the bench there had retired at the age of 70 a year or so ago—in his prime, I would say. The Government and the Ministry of Justice have heard the message from several quarters this afternoon and have listened carefully. We are considering the comments carefully and I suspect that we will consult on the matter before too long.
I welcome what the Minister says, which gives me the opportunity to pay a personal tribute to His Honour Judge Warwick McKinnon, an old professional and personal friend who retired as resident judge at Croydon. I am also glad that the Minister mentioned the magistracy. Constituents of mine who were fine, experienced bench chairs had to retire at 70 when they still had much to offer.
I concur with both comments. I would also like to thank Judge McKinnon, who is a constituent of mine as well as a former chair of the bench. I agree that my comments on age apply as much to the magistracy as to the judiciary more generally—the court judges. As I said, I think my hon. Friend can look forward to a consultation on the topic before too long.
Several hon. Members raised the matter of the gender balance and ethnic composition of the bench, and I entirely understand why those points were raised. The proportion of newly appointed court judges from BME backgrounds is 11%, which compares to slightly over 15% of the population as a whole. Currently 7% of court judges and 11% of tribunal judges are, as the hon. Member for Bolton South East said, from BME backgrounds.
As for gender balance, as the hon. Lady said, 27% of High Court judges are female, and that figure rises to 32% across the courts more generally and 46% in tribunals. Also 56% of the magistracy are female and about 50% of court judges under 50 are female; that is an encouraging sign. Qualifying those remarks, I would say that we rightly expect more senior court judges to have decades of experience at the Bar, so appointments today reflect the Bar 30 or 40 years ago, when diversity was not what we would like, and there is a measure of unavoidable time lag. That does not mean that we should not take proactive and active steps—we should. We should encourage the JAC and work generally to improve diversity in the magistracy and the courts. The figures are moving in the right direction and improving, but I am sure we can do more. As a newly appointed Minister I will certainly consider what active steps can be taken in that area.
I am grateful for the opportunity to respond to this debate, to the hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East for securing it, and to other hon. Members for attending. Those include the now very famous hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh South West—
Let me be generous and say famous! It gives me, the Lord Chancellor, and the Government as a whole great pleasure to reconfirm our commitment to independent, non-political appointments to the bench at all levels. That is the foundation on which the rule of law is built, and that should not change.
This has been a worthwhile debate with cross-party strong and unequivocal support for the principle of judicial independence, and the idea that that must be at the centre of our judicial appointment processes. We have heard interesting points about diversity on the bench and retirement ages, and received a sympathetic response from the Minister. We will obviously scrutinise and debate these issues further in future. I therefore thank hon. Members for their excellent contributions, and the Minister for his response.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the procedure for appointing judges.
Tata Steelworks: Newport
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the future of Tata’s Cogent Power steelworks in Newport.
I am immensely grateful to have the opportunity to speak on behalf of the dedicated workforce at Tata’s Cogent Power plant, the Orb works in Newport, representatives of which are in the Public Gallery. They are most welcome.
The need is urgent. This is a steelworks threatened with closure by Tata and it is due to close at the worst possible time, just before Christmas. It is unique, as it is the only steelworks in the UK making electrical steel.
Losing the Orb plant would be devastating for our economy in south Wales. It would also be a huge missed opportunity. Does my hon. Friend agree that there is still massive potential for the plant?
My hon. Friend represents a steel community, too, and I completely agree with his point, as I will make clear in my speech.
With the investment and support it needs—there is a plan, which I will come to later—the plant could and should have a bright future, especially at a time when, due to the growth of electric vehicles and electrification generally, demand for this type of steel is only going to grow. It would be a travesty if we were to lose the plant, and my ask of Ministers—I welcome the Wales Minister here today—is that the Government do all they can with Tata to protect this national asset.
I should declare that my father worked in the steelworks throughout his working life and is a British Steel pensioner. As we speak about the future of our automotive sector and moving to electric cars, does my hon. Friend agree that it is simply short-sighted to be losing Orb at this moment?
I absolutely agree, and I will make that point later.
Tata announced that it would be closing Cogent Orb steelworks on 2 September, with the loss of 380 jobs. This has come as devastating news for a dedicated, highly skilled workforce and their families, and for the city of Newport as a whole, where Orb has been part of the landscape since 1898. I pay tribute to Community, Unite and other unions for the support they have given and continue to give to the workforce, and for their general fight to save our steel industry.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this very timely debate. I represent a steel community in Scunthorpe, and we know exactly what it is like as a steel community to have these things happen. We stand side by side with the steel community in Newport. Does she think that the work the Community union and others have done through the Syndex report gives a possible way forward for the plant?
My hon. Friend is indeed a doughty and fantastic champion of his steel community, and the thoughts of our steel community are very much with his community and the difficulties it has had recently. I will talk about the Syndex report, because it is very important.
The attendance of my hon. Friends from Wales and fellow members of the all-party parliamentary group on steel and metal related industries represents the importance of the steel industry to us all. As my hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen (Nick Thomas-Symonds) said, many of us have a constituency interest but also a very personal interest. My parents met in the steel industry in Ebbw Vale, and my hon. Friends have close family who have worked in the industry, including my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan).
Fewer work places are more ingrained into the life of Newport than Orb. Our iconic transporter bridge was originally built to carry Orb workers over the River Usk. There are street names in Newport such as Dudley, Walsall, Bilston, and Handsworth, and even the Wolverhampton Wanderers-based colours chosen for Newport County AFC commemorate the west midlands migration to Gwent initiated by the Lysaghts family moving their sheet steel production to Newport at the end of the 19th century. Orb played an important role in Newport in both world wars and, from the late 1960s onwards, its activities moved towards cold rolled and electrical steels, a field that became the site’s speciality, as it remains today.
Losing Orb would mean losing the electrical steels skills base that has been built up since the era of Harold Wilson’s “white heat” of technology, and at a time when electrical steels will be more in demand that ever before. Tata’s decision to close Orb, citing losses and wider challenges in the sector, will hit many people in our communities extremely hard. They include recent recruits such as an electrician who joined the company two days before the announcement and is one of 70 new starters over the last two years, and a long-time worker who says, “Orb works has been a part of my family for nearly 60 years. Between my father and brothers we have over 100 years’ combined service. The Orb paid for everything when I was a child and is now supporting my three children.”
Another man’s family came from Tipton; his great-grandfather, grandfather and father all worked there, and their names are on the works’ cenotaph. Mickey, who started work as a 16-year-old messenger boy and ended up as section manager, said, “To allow over 100 years of electrical steelmaking skills simply to disappear is a crime against everyone who contributed to Orb’s history, and the knock-on effect on the Newport community’s economy will be devastating, as these jobs are of high value.”
I thank my hon. Friend and neighbour from Newport East for giving way, and for her powerful speech. This is an issue of importance to people in Newport West, Newport East and across south Wales, and it is a pleasure to hear her speaking about it. The potential closure of Orb in Newport will mean that hundreds of jobs are put at risk, and our people and communities need certainty. I reassure my hon. Friend of my commitment to work with her to save jobs in Newport. Does she agree that we need a level playing field for UK steel producers by addressing the energy price disparity, preventing steel dumping and investing in research and development, so that the British steel sector can compete and thrive globally?
My hon. Friend and neighbour is absolutely right, and those are many of the asks for which the all-party steel group in Parliament has been calling for many years. It is something on which the Government need to take more action.
Mickey is absolutely right. Although it is important to emphasise Orb’s proud heritage, this debate is not about nostalgia, but about the future. It is about calling on Tata and the Government to ensure a future for a plant with enormous potential at a time when demand for the type of steel Orb could and should produce is set only to grow. Orb is important not just to our community, but to the whole of the UK, because the works is the only plant in the UK with the potential, with investment, to produce the electrical steel needed for electric vehicle motors. The Government, too, say it is important.
Since they first got into power in 2010, the Government have been banging on about how they would be the greenest Government in history. Is it not time that the Government put their money where their mouth is and invest in Orb to bring about the electrical steel that we need and to start reinvigorating the electrical vehicle industry in this country?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The Government have said the electric vehicle industry is important to them, and they say it is a priority. In his first speech to the Commons after moving into No. 10, the Prime Minister spoke about his vision for the UK as the “home of electric vehicles,” something he also touched on regularly during his leadership campaign. In a recent response to a question I asked, the Prime Minister also stated his commitment to use UK steel in the supply chain for electric vehicles, but we need electrical steel to create an end-to-end supply chain for those vehicles. If the Prime Minister is serious about the UK being the home of electric vehicles, we must, as Community’s Roy Rickhuss has said, consider the Orb a national asset and step in to protect it.
My hon. Friend is making a really powerful speech. What she said about looking at history and the future is so important, and the dedicated workforce and plant have been so successful because they have encouraged innovation over the years. They have been strategic and looked forward. That is what the Government now need to help the plant do with electrical steel.
My hon. Friend is exactly right, and we need that investment to do it.
Attention has been given to electric car battery production —the Prime Minister mentioned the gigafactories needed to produce high volumes of battery products in his conference speech—but electric motors are an equally important part of the supply chain. They are built from the high-quality, non-oriented electrical steels that could be produced at Orb, and the demand for this type of steel is expected to increase tenfold by 2030.
The number of electric cars on our roads will grow and grow over the next decade. The UK Government are providing millions of pounds to support the roll-out of charging infrastructure, and it is imperative that we use UK steel in all this. The Government have awarded Jaguar Land Rover, which is owned by Tata, a £500 million loan guarantee to help the company sell electric vehicles. In this context, with the Government’s stated support for the electric vehicle industry, I ask what the Government can do for all. Electric cars need electric motors. Why should we have to import them? We have a site here in the UK that, with support, could be part of the supply chain.
We need UK steel every step of the way, and electrical steel is part of that. As members of the all-party group and the unions have long said, the industry can be a key part of building the infrastructure we need to green our economy in the future.
At Labour’s conference, we pledged to accelerate the electric vehicle revolution with 2.5 million interest-free loans for the purchase of electric vehicles, a new requirement for the Government car fleet to be 100% electric by 2025, and action on a private fleet. Labour is determined to ensure that the right conditions are in place for this revolution, and the Government should be, too. If the Orb works is not kept open, the potential to build a supply chain will be squandered. It is not an overstatement to say that the UK could lose its capacity to be a global leader in electric car manufacturing.
Developing a supply chain for electric vehicles will be hugely important for the national balance of trade. Across the UK, 10,000 workers are making internal combustion engines, and Community has emphasised that a failure to develop the supply chain will result in a loss in the export value of those engines. It will be replaced by the import cost of electric motors, which equates to £1.2 billion for every 1 million electric cars. That is why Community has called Orb a
“strategically important business underpinning this vital industry of the future.”
Tata has publicly confirmed that, with investment, the Orb works can produce the steels required for the future production of electric vehicles. Community’s steel consultant, Syndex, has researched and concluded that with a new strategy and some public support, there could be a sustainable future for the business. So what is the plan? The new strategy for Orb would mean transitioning to a new model and producing non-oriented steels, in addition to grain-oriented steels, based on a new Wales-only supply chain and using coil from Port Talbot. To fund the necessary capex, the profits from the sale of Cogent Power Inc—another part of the business, which is wholly owned by the Orb—would be reinvested into the business, along with the money set aside to finance a closure.
My hon. Friend is making a very powerful speech. The Government often criticise us for critiquing their failure to support the steel industry without proposing a constructive plan, but she has just outlined an absolutely compelling and viable plan. One of the vital parts of it is that we would be relocating the supply chain for hot rolled coil from IJmuiden to Port Talbot. Surely if the Government are talking about backing British business, they should back the Syndex plan.
My hon. Friend is exactly right. It is a very important and well-thought-out plan, and I hope Ministers are listening to it. The 2018 memorandum of understanding agreed with Tata in advance of the failed joint venture contained a commitment to reinvest the proceeds of the sale of any UK-owned assets back into the UK. Tata should honour the spirit of that agreement. That would leave a shortfall of just £30 million, and we could look to central and devolved Government to contribute to the new strategy. Given the role that Orb can play as a strategic business of the future, enabling the Government to deliver on their climate commitments, there is a compelling case for Government support.
The strategy advocated by Syndex includes three key aspects: a new annealing line at Orb, investment in automation to make Orb’s grain-oriented products more competitive, and relocation of the hot rolled coil supply chain from IJmuiden to Port Talbot.
I want to put forward a series of asks to the Government. First, will the Minister ask the Secretary of State to call a UK steel council urgently, with Orb at the top of the agenda? We have not had one since June 2018, and the need is urgent. Will Ministers commit to meet urgently with trade unions and local politicians to look at what can be done to support Orb and its workers at this time? Community has requested meetings with the Welsh and UK Governments to present the Syndex plan directly to them. Will the Minister and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy agree to meet it?
The Prime Minister committed last month to ensure that UK steel forms part of the supply chain for electric vehicles. Will Ministers ensure that that actually happens? While I am on that subject, we now more than ever need a sector deal for steel—something we have been asking for for a long time.
This Saturday, hon. Members will be joining Community, Unite and other unions in a march through Newport to save Orb steel. We are fighting for it, and I hope everyone will join us. Orb is a site that could be underpinning a dynamic UK automotive industry, and could be at the cutting edge of new steel technologies. Newport, Wales and the UK would be worse off if the Government fail to work with Tata to grasp its enormous potential before it is too late. If the Government are serious about an industrial strategy, will they back up their words with proactive action?
I am calling on the Government to prioritise our industrial policy and to support our steel industry, including electrical steels, and building an electric vehicle industry. The Prime Minister says he wants to do that. I say yes, and so do the Welsh Government. Who else needs to say yes to save the Orb plan? I ask Tata to say yes too. Together, let us save Orb and build a new electrical steel economy in the UK.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hanson. I congratulate the hon. Member for Newport East (Jessica Morden) on securing this debate, which has given us the opportunity to come together to discuss a topic that is important not just for Newport but for the whole of Wales. She has always been, and was today, an energetic and passionate advocate for her constituents and those affected by the potential closure of Tata’s Cogent Orb plant.
It is clear that there is a shared understanding of the important role the steel sector plays in communities and its critical place as a foundation industry in the national economy, especially in Wales. That is evidenced by the number of Members attending this debate. I have heard their comments and the request to meet the unions. I understand that the Secretary of State for Wales has already been in contact with them, and I am more than happy to facilitate meetings. I will pass on the request for a meeting of the steel council. That is something we are always happy to do, and certainly if hon. Members request it. Those who have dealt with me previously know that I am only too happy to meet Members, particularly if it relates to matters in their constituencies that are this important. I would be happy to facilitate that.
Is the Minister saying that he will go back to his colleagues and recommend that the UK steel council meets, as my hon. Friend the Member for Newport East (Jessica Morden) has requested?
I will pass on the strong demand that the hon. Member for Newport East has made for the council to meet. In terms of what I can offer, and the direct request for meetings with Ministers about the Orb plant, I am more than happy to arrange to do that. That was the second part of her request.
Although there are considerable challenges, we believe there remain great opportunities for the industry to secure a successful, sustainable future at the centre of British manufacturing. The announcement on 2 September 2019 that Tata is to close its Orb Electrical Steels plant in Newport has understandably been a huge blow for employees, their families, contractors, suppliers and customers. I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her commitment to working with Government and other stakeholders, including the Community union, to help secure the future of the business, both in her role as MP for Newport East and as an officer for the all-party parliamentary group on steel and metal-related industries, many of whose members are in the Chamber.
The Government have worked with Tata to seek possible solutions to the financial challenges facing the company. We have also met with the unions to discuss the concerns of the workers and their families. This was a commercial decision by Tata Steel Europe. The Orb Electrical Steels plant has been on sale for two years, but sadly Tata was unable to find a buyer. We are open to considering plans that would deliver a long-term, sustainable future, based on a clear business plan, but as I am sure hon. Members realise, that cannot just be based on an ongoing subsidy or on merely hoping that business will come forward. We have sought and had reassurance from Tata that every effort will be made to mitigate the impact on affected employees. It is offering alternative employment opportunities where possible at other Tata Steel sites. The UK Government are committed to working with Tata to avoid job losses as a result of any closure of the Orb steel plant, as Tata is one of the most important employers in Wales. We will keep all options open to support a sustainable future for that plant and for Tata elsewhere in Wales.
The Minister says that the Government have met Tata, but what has he been able to offer it to help keep Orb open and keep steel going in south Wales? Can he be clear about what the Government are willing to put on the table?
The Government are clear that if a sustainable, long-term business plan can be produced, we will consider support packages, but the key part is that it must be sustainable for the long term, and it must be based on a clear business plan.
We have heard today about the Syndex report, which places a way forward on the table. Will the Government meet the unions, Syndex and Tata to see how that could be turned into the sort of plan that would deliver not only for this workforce and industry, but for UK plc?
We are more than happy to meet. Obviously we cannot guarantee that a third party would wish to be involved in those meetings, but certainly from the perspective of the Government and the Wales Office, we would be more than happy to arrange a meeting with the unions and Syndex to see how their plan could be taken further. The key part has to be whether it can provide a long-term sustainable future, and we note that the plant has been for sale for two years with no purchaser having come forward. Certainly, UK Government Ministers are more than happy to meet interested parties to discuss what we could do.
In the context of the wider steel industry, the Government have made up to £800 million of funding available to support decarbonisation and innovation in the industry. We remain committed to supporting the Welsh steel sector in accessing this funding and ensuring that it is able to compete with the best in the world. Recent and ongoing work to support the steel sector includes establishing the £250 million clean steel fund, which was announced in August and will support the sector’s transition to lower-carbon iron and steel production through new technologies and processes. It will also maximise longevity and resilience in the UK steel sector by building on longstanding expertise and skills and harnessing clean growth opportunities.
Our industrial energy transformation fund is a £315 million fund supporting short-term projects in both energy efficiency and decarbonisation for businesses with high energy use. The fund will help businesses with high energy use, including steel companies, to cut their bills and transition UK industry to a low carbon future.
The industrial decarbonisation challenge is a £170 million fund aimed at the UK’s industrial carbon emissions clusters. South Wales has been identified as one of six clusters in the UK that will benefit from that fund, which supports our grand challenge mission to develop a net zero emissions cluster by 2040 through the development of innovative low- carbon solutions. It will provide long-term support to the industry, ensuring Britain’s long term sustainable future.
The Minister is making some laudable points about laudable plans for the future of the steel industry, but does he not agree that closing the only electrical steel plant in the UK makes absolutely no sense in terms of future planning? That is not joined-up thinking at all.
This is a commercial decision by the company and the plant has been for sale for two years, but as I have already said, we are more than happy to meet stakeholders to see if the Government can provide some support. That support would have to be based on a sustainable long-term business plan for the future.
We are also providing up to £66 million through the industrial strategy challenge fund to help steel and other foundation industries develop radical new technologies and establish innovation centres of excellence in those sectors. This challenge will create a pilot facility to demonstrate new technologies, and develop a cross-sectoral approach for research, innovation and skills. To date, the UK Government have provided more than £312 million in compensation to the steel sector since 2013 to make energy costs more competitive, including over £53 million during 2018.
The Minister talks about this being a commercial decision, but it is absolutely clear that the underlying conditions for the British steel industry are completely undermined by the energy price disparity. Is he aware of the fact that it costs £50 per MWh in the UK, compared with £31 per MWh in Germany, a disparity of 62%? The disparity with French energy costs is 80%. The Minister cannot claim that this is a purely commercial decision; it is a commercial decision based on the utter failure of the British Government to deal with this energy price disparity.
As has been mentioned, to make energy costs more competitive, we have made £312 million in compensation available to the steel sector since 2013, including £53 million in 2018 alone.
We have commissioned independent research to identify high-value market opportunities for UK steel producers that will be worth up to £3.8 billion a year by 2030. The UK is a supplier of steel for a range of high-value applications and is a strategic part of the supply chain for the automotive, aerospace, construction, defence and oil and gas sectors. We are successfully working with the steel industry to introduce steel procurement guidance that will ensure that Government and the wider public sector take into account social and environmental benefits when procuring and designing their major projects.
Will the Minister give way?
I have to conclude, as I am starting to get close to time.
We have also signed up to the UK steel charter, acknowledging and supporting that initiative from industry. We continue to press for the introduction of trade defence instruments to protect UK steel producers from unfair steel dumping. Tata has confirmed the closures are not linked to Brexit; instead competition from much larger players in China and Japan is understood to be the key reason.
On a point of order, Mr Hanson, this kind of debate is supposed to be a conversation between the Minister and the Member who secured it. There are five minutes left in the debate; surely it would be appropriate for the Minister to give way to the person who secured the debate.
As you well know, Mr Brennan, it is for the Minister to decide whether he wishes to give way. Clearly at the moment he does not wish to do so.
Thank you, Mr Hanson. I will take another intervention as I come nearer to the end of my speech, but I have not been ungenerous in taking interventions from Opposition Members so far.
The UK Government are stepping up their efforts to ensure businesses are ready to leave the EU on 31 October via their national communication and engagement campaign. We are also urgently identifying and delivering actions to support businesses in improving readiness. The Government will take economic measures to mitigate any short-run disruption, to support the economy through the transition and to boost the long-term potential of the UK economy, taking advantage of the opportunities outside the EU. As I said, the Government are prepared to look at and discuss any plans that present a long-term, sustainable option for the plant.
I appreciate the Minister responding today, but members of the all-party parliamentary group on steel have not yet had a real opportunity in a debate to question the new steel Minister. I ask the Minister to convey to the new steel Minister the urgency of the situation, because if we lose Orb, we lose the opportunity of an end-to-end supply chain for electric vehicles before Christmas.
I will certainly convey the hon. Lady’s message to the steel Minister. I have to say, looking at the many Opposition Members here and given my knowledge of their determination to stand up for the communities they represent, that I have a feeling that the steel Minister will get a number of opportunities in the very near future to discuss steel on the Floor of the House, if not in a debate in this Chamber. Certainly as a Minister, I would be badly mistaken to think I can ignore some of the people on the Opposition Benches.
However, it is worth reflecting on the fact that there are currently 46 trade defence measures in place to protect UK steel products from unfair steel dumping. As we operate an independent trade policy, the UK will continue to champion free trade and take a proportionate approach to trade remedies, with a view to continuing the defence of our industry where necessary. The steel industry is an important industry in Wales, as reflected by today’s turnout among Members representing Welsh constituencies. The UK Government are committed to supporting companies, such as Tata, that have contributed to the local economy in Wales for decades, and we will continue to work with the sector, the unions and the devolved Administration to support the UK’s steel sector in developing a long-term, viable solution for that industry.
In closing, I thank all hon. Members who have contributed to today’s debate, and the hon. Member for Newport East for having secured it. I know that she will continue to be a strong advocate for those she represents and will ensure that the Government hear loud and clear their views and what she believes the options to be. I would certainly be more than happy to have a longer discussion with her about some of the proposals that are being put forward; I look forward to the opportunity to do so. However, as I say, those proposals must be based on providing a long-term, sustainable future for the plant, not just subsidy with a hope of something coming along.
Question put and agreed to.
Prison Officers: Pension Age
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the pension age of prison officers.
Police offers, firefighters and prison officers are all classified as emergency workers. They all do an extremely important job, and their work is physically demanding and often involves an element of risk and danger. Because of that, police officers and firefighters, quite rightly, are allowed to retire at 60 years of age. However, prison officers, who work in an equally stressful operational environment, have been told that they must wait until they are 68. That is not right. In fact, it is patently unfair and deeply resented by the hard-working prison officers in the three prisons in my constituency. I am not surprised by that, because the prospect of having to work until almost 70 years of age adds to the stress of what is already a stressful job.
From the point of view of health and safety at work, there is a clear argument for reducing the retirement age of prison officers, but I believe there is another equally good reason to bring their pensions into line with those of their colleagues in the police and fire and rescue services. Last week, at the Conservative party conference, the Home Secretary made an excellent speech in which she made it clear that Government would crack down on serious crime. That commitment resonates with the public, particularly those who have been victims of such crime, because they want tough action. However, inevitably, such a crackdown will lead to more criminals being sent to prison.
Also last week, the Justice Secretary made a speech in which he made clear his determination to ensure that those who have been convicted of serious crimes will have to serve two thirds of their sentence, rather than the half that they currently serve. Although both initiatives are highly commendable, they will put pressure on already-stretched prison places. That is likely to mean that more prisons will have to be built. If that happens, I have a couple of suggestions. First, finding a suitable location for a new prison is always difficult, because few communities like the idea of having a prison in their backyard. Those of us who live on the beautiful Isle of Sheppey understand the benefits of having a prison, and particularly the work involved. As I mentioned, we have three prisons and plenty of room for more, so we will have another prison if the Government want to build one on the island, subject to improvements to the road that leads to them.
My second suggestion is offered more in hope than with any great expectation that it will be taken up. The Government should abandon their support for private prisons and ensure that any new prisons be run by the public sector. Do not get me wrong—I am a free-market Tory who believes that there is a place for the private sector in the prison service, for instance in catering, education, training and rehabilitation.
I have a couple of examples of the positive involvement of the private sector in the latter of those fields. A private construction company has set up a workshop in HMP Elmley, in my constituency, to train inmates how to install drywalls in buildings. The company guarantees that everyone who completes the course will be offered an interview when they leave prison. Obviously, that does not automatically mean a job, but an interview is the first step. I visited the workshop as part of the Prison Service parliamentary scheme, of which I am a member. I was impressed by the positive attitude of the inmates who were being trained. One of them told me that the training had turned his life around. Also in my constituency is HMP Standford Hill, an open prison where more than 250 inmates are allowed out every day, to do either voluntary work in the community with charities or paid work in one of the local companies that have agreed to employ them.
Those are just two ways in which the private and third sectors can help to rehabilitate prisoners. There are many other examples, but I do not have time to mention them all. Despite those excellent examples of involvement by the private sector, the supervision and care of prisoners should be the sole responsibility of the public sector, for two reasons.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this important debate. I also have a prison in my constituency, since Deerbolt was upgraded from a young offenders institution to a prison. I agree that a lot of positive work goes on in prisons, but is he not concerned by the increase in violent attacks against prison officers in recent years? Does he not agree that that is another reason why 68 is too late?
The hon. Lady must have been listening to Justice questions this morning, when I said exactly that. Since she has a prison in her constituency, I urge her to join the Prison Service parliamentary scheme. If she will bear with me, I will come to the issue of violence in prisons later.
My first reason is that the state has a duty to protect the public. That is why it is the state that prosecutes those suspected of committing a crime, and the state—only the state—that locks up those who are found guilty. That being the case, I do not believe that the state can subcontract the incarceration of those prisoners to the private sector. That leads me to my second reason—
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
I will just give my second reason, which is that allowing private companies to make a profit out of the incarceration of human beings is simply immoral.
Before the hon. Lady’s intervention, I remind hon. Members that the debate is tightly focused on the pension age of prison officers, and I hope that interventions and contributions will focus just on that.
Thank you, Mr Hanson; I will do a quick swerve. On the point about private prisons and the influence of private companies, does the hon. Gentleman agree that privatising probation—the state’s care for people on probation—was the wrong thing to do?
No, I do not. They are two entirely different issues. When people are on probation, they have either completed their sentence or they have not yet—[Interruption.] We will have to disagree on that.
If new prisons are built, the Government will have to recruit many more prison officers to staff them. In my area, it has often proven difficult to recruit enough prison officers. I am sure that that applies to many other areas, particularly in south-east England. There are a number of reasons for that difficulty, including the relatively poor salary offered to prison officers, their working conditions, their retirement age and the rising level of violence in our prisons.
The average salary of a prison officer is £23,530 per annum. The problem in my constituency is that people can earn more than that working in one or other of the two supermarket regional warehouses that operate there. There are also plenty of other well-paid jobs in the pipeline locally, and people can commute to London. Those available jobs are more attractive because they provide better working conditions than those of a prison officer.
What are those working conditions? For a start, prison staff are almost as much prisoners as the inmates they look after. Day and night, they work inside buildings surrounded by fences and high-security walls. In addition, prison officers spend their days dealing with inmates who do not want to be where they are. Unsurprisingly, that can make them unco-operative, aggressive and sometimes violent. To add to the problem, an increasing number of inmates have mental health problems.
All in all, that does not make for a happy work environment, and the situation in prisons is getting worse, with ever increasing violence. On average, 30 members of prison staff are assaulted every day. Last year, 1,000 of those assaults were classified by the Government as serious. I know what serious means, because I have seen at first hand the results of some of those assaults, including broken bones, dreadful facial injuries and fingers that have been bitten off.
To try to cut out those assaults, the Prison Officers Association has called repeatedly for frontline prison officers to be equipped with PAVA spray and rigid police-style handcuffs to protect themselves. Last year, the Prison Service ran a pilot in which PAVA spray was issued to staff in four prisons. That pilot was successful, and the Government promised to roll out PAVA across the prison estate. However, that promise has not yet been delivered; indeed, the roll-out has come to a juddering halt. I suspect the reason for that is complaints from the usual suspects, including the Prison Reform Trust, which claimed that prison officers would use PAVA indiscriminately and that its use would breach the human rights of prisoners.
The first of those claims is a shocking slur on the integrity of hard-working professional prison officers, and the second is simply utter rubbish. If the use of PAVA spray breaches a criminal’s human rights, why do police officers carry PAVA as part of their standard equipment? If it is okay for police to carry PAVA, why is it not for prison officers? Section 8 of the Prison Act 1952 states that prison officers
“shall have…the powers, authority, protection and privileges”
of police constables. PAVA offers protection for police and prison officers alike.
That leads me nicely to my last point. What reward do prison officers get for being treated like second-class emergency workers? What reward do they get for dedicating their working lives to the Prison Service in return for a pitiful salary, for working without complaint in a sometimes hostile and dangerous environment, and for risking life and limb on a daily basis? To be made to work eight years longer than their counterparts in the police and fire service, that’s what.
Finally, let me return to the Home Secretary’s speech last week. She said:
“And as well as giving the police the kit and powers they need, we must do more to recognise their commitment, their bravery, and their professionalism.
I have been humbled by the officers I have met and the experiences they have shared with me. This is why I have personally accelerated work to establish the Police Covenant.
This is a pledge to do more as a nation to help those who serve our country.
To recognise the bravery, the commitment and the sacrifices of serving and former officers.
And we will enshrine this into law.
We will also ensure that anyone who assaults a police officer receives a sentence that truly fits the crime, to make the thugs who would attack an officer, think twice.”
Prison officers are equally committed, equally brave and equally professional—they, too, serve our country and make sacrifices to protect the public—so I would like to make my own pledge to the prison officers who work in HMP Swaleside, HMP Elmley and HMP Standford Hill, and their colleagues in prisons across the country, that I will continue to represent them to the best of my ability. I will press the Government to introduce a Prison Service covenant, and I will press for prison staff to receive the same protection from assaults as the police. I want to ensure that those who attack prison staff are given stiff sentences, not a simple slap on the wrist, as has happened so often in the past.
In addition, I assure prison officers that I will support their campaign against prison privatisation, I will support their campaign for better conditions of work, including pay, and I will support their campaign for action to reduce violence in our prisons and for officers to be issued with the equipment they need to protect themselves from attack. Finally, I want them to know that I understand it is wrong that they have been forced into a position where retirement is becoming ever more out of reach and, for some people, potentially unachievable.
As I mentioned, the law is clear that prison officers are entitled to the same powers, authority, protection and privileges as the police. It is time to deliver on the 1952 Act and treat prison officers the same as police officers. As the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman) said, and as I said this morning, 68 is too late, which is why I also support the POA campaign for a lower pension age. I urge the Minister to listen to the concerns of our fantastic prison officers and let them retire at 60.
I declare an interest as a member of the Justice Unions Parliamentary Group, which includes the Prison Officers Association.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey (Gordon Henderson) on securing this important debate. Unusually, given the nature of the debate, I agreed with 95% of what he said, and I was very impressed by the way he delivered it. I did a bit of research and noticed some interesting comments by him on KentOnline about being willing to go to prison for Brexit so, come November, he could bring a unique perspective to debates on this subject. I hope it does not come to that.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman’s strapline: 68 is too late. We should not expect a prison officer approaching 70 to deal with violent and dangerous criminals in their 20s, 30s and 40s. He mentioned some of the challenges prison officers face. Of course, another challenge is the availability of drugs in prisons and their effect.
As my hon. Friend knows, Holme House Prison near my constituency has recently seen a rise in the abuse of Spice. That has caused dangers in itself, but it has also led the local mental health trust to withdraw services from the prison. Does he agree that that shows how dangerous the situation is for prison officers these days?
I completely agree. The conditions in many of our prisons are explosive. Holme House Prison is quite close to my constituency too, and I have visited it on a number of occasions. It is not just prison officers who are subjected to assaults; support staff are, too, and they need to be protected.
The debate is really serious. It is about life and death. Assaults against prison officers have almost quadrupled since 2010. As we heard this morning at Justice questions, there are more than 10,000 assaults a year, 1,000 of which are very serious. That works out at more than 28 a day on average—the same as the number of assaults experienced by the whole of our police service, which is a much bigger force. I am not justifying assaults on any emergency workers, but that is the scale of the problem.
I read through some newspaper headlines, which are really quite disturbing. I will mention a selection of them. One paper reported that a court was told how an inmate used a
“sock filled with pool balls to smash windows”
and injure prison officers. Another reported that a prison officer was stabbed in the head by an inmate in a “savage UK jail attack”. One story read:
“Teenage thugs injure 20 prison officers in riot at young offenders’ institute…One officer suffered a broken nose and another was concussed after being repeatedly punched.”
Other headlines included “Prison officer seriously hurt after being ambushed in cell” and “Prison officer has ‘throat cut’ by inmate at HMP Nottingham”. Conditions are difficult for new prison officers in our violent and dangerous prisons.
Prison officers need to be fit enough to protect not just themselves but prisoners from violence. Someone elderly, who does not have the same reflexes or strength as a younger person, cannot protect themselves or the people they are there to guard.
I completely agree with my hon. Friend’s analysis. We heard the Minister talking this morning about the recruitment of an additional 4,500 prison officers, but from the information provided by the POA it seems that substantial numbers of newly trained prison officers—at least 72 trainee prison officers—are leaving the service each month. That must be due, at least in part, to the terrible conditions they face. Again, that is placing great strain on older officers who are expected to take up the slack.
My hon. Friend is making a powerful case, as did the hon. Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey (Gordon Henderson). Is it not the case that beyond a certain point some jobs are difficult to do? In the past, that could have included construction workers, working on cold, tough building sites in the dead of winter. This is another example of people reaching a point in life when it is no longer tenable for them to be expected to carry out these duties.
It is no longer tenable, Mr Hanson. We have reached tipping point, if I might quote a couple of quiz shows. The fact that prison officers are expected to work until the age of 68 disregards basic health and safety; in the opinion of many, it is a complete failure by the Ministry of Justice in its duty of care, under legislation, to prison officers.
I and many Members of the House believe that our uniformed emergency services deserve pension protection. Police officers and firefighters are able to retire at 60,
“to reflect the unique nature of their work”,
to quote Lord Hutton. A prison officer’s unique nature of work has been recognised as being the same as that of a police officer. Section 8 of the Prison Act 1952 gives prison officers
“all the powers, authority, protection and privileges”
of police officers. So the Hutton pension test—
“to reflect the unique nature of their work”—
applies equally to prison officers, police officers and firefighters. Sixty-eight is too late. How many Members of this House would be able to serve on prison landings at 68? There are few who would be able to serve for a week, or even a day, in such violent and dangerous prisons.
My hon. Friend is being generous with his time. He has talked about staff morale being at rock bottom, the soaring violence and the cuts to prison officer numbers. Does he agree that the prospect of having to work as a prison officer until the age of 68 is fuelling the record number of resignations from the Prison Service? We are in a cycle that we cannot get out of unless the pension age is changed and lowered.
I agree with my hon. Friend. There are many pressures and causes, but the pension age is a significant one. There are a number of remedies that need to be applied, as outlined by the hon. Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey.
If it is not presumptuous, I wonder whether the Minister might consider inviting the right hon. Lord Hutton of Furness, who I understand is aged 64, to work in a prison and be part of a team being confronted by inmates with socks filled with pool balls, with razor blades and improvised knives, or surrounded by a group of youths, many of whom seem to have access to Spice and illegal substances, who are only too willing to attack prison officers. Setting prison officers’ pension age at 68 must have been an oversight. If the Government seriously and knowingly took that decision, it is a cruel and callous one, and risks the lives of prison officers working in physically demanding and often violent workplaces.
I urge the Minister to take two actions. First, to acknowledge that 68 is too late to expect a prison officer to work in an unsafe workplace. Secondly, to commit to bringing forward in the next Parliament—next week—the legislation and regulations required to align the pension age of prison officers with their colleagues in other uniformed emergency services.
Prison officers have heard the excuses in parliamentary responses; we heard some of them this morning in Justice questions. The offer that the Government previously made, to reduce the retirement age to 65, is simply a bad deal. Prison officers want pension age parity with their uniformed colleagues. The previous offer was attached to a derisory three-year pay deal and excluded many uniformed staff, who would still have to continue to work until they were 68.
I ask the Minister and everyone listening to the debate to watch the latest videos published by the POA and look at the horrific injuries suffered by prison officers. We should feel ashamed that they are doing a public service, protecting the public, while Parliament stands idle, forcing them to work in terrible conditions that are neither healthy nor safe. We should feel ashamed that we outsource our prison service and system, and that the safety and security of prison officers is left in the hands of companies such as Serco and G4S, whose first and foremost interest is shareholders and profits. We should feel ashamed that we want to put prison officers approaching the age of 70 into such a terrible and dangerous situations.
Our prisons are unsafe and understaffed. Prison officers are unappreciated and underpaid. The Minister should set out a comprehensive package to recruit and retain prison officers through improved pay, pensions and conditions. I ask the Minister to do more than give empty platitudes and hollow promises to prison officers. Please accept that 68 is too late and lower prison officers’ pension age to 60. No ifs, no buts; stand up today, make the promise and bring forward the necessary legislation next week—and I guarantee the Minister will get my vote for that legislation.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hanson. I congratulate the hon. Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey (Gordon Henderson) for securing this important debate.
Prison officers are another group in a long line of people in the UK that this Government have let down. They deal with some of the most threatening and disruptive people in society, and their retirement age should recognise this. On average, eight prison staff are assaulted every day. The severity of the attacks and the nature of the injuries result in long periods of sick absence, which can only increase with the link to normal pension age and state pension age.
This policy is another blow to the morale of frontline prison staff, which we have already heard is at an all-time low because of the numerous changes being imposed by Government on the working conditions in prisons. The perpetual call for efficiency savings and cuts demanded by Government is creating a thoroughly demoralised and underfunded essential service. I should point out, Mr Hanson, that prisons in Scotland are administered by the Scottish Government but pensions are reserved to Westminster. So, Scottish prisons and English prisons are administered differently.
In recent years budget cuts have seen the Prison Service impose an almost total recruitment freeze, alongside pay freezes, leading to a return to a long-hours culture as prison staff are forced to work excessive hours, leading to staff becoming burnt out. The UK Government have still not provided any evidence that frontline prison staff can work in an operational role above the age of 65. When will we see that, if the Minister does not accede to the requests of everyone in the Chamber regarding the pension age of prison officers?
Have the UK Government conducted an impact assessment on raising the retirement age for prison officers above 65? The savings that the Government expect to make from increasing the pension age of frontline uniformed staff will be negated through an increase in payments for temporary injury benefit awards, medical inefficiency payments and medical retirements, along with permanent injury benefits.
Is the Minister’s Government confident that people over the age of 55 would pass the stringent fitness test for a frontline member of the Prison Service? They have to do annual tests. The Ministry of Justice, in its submission to the Cabinet Office on the proposed changes to the pensions, also believed that it was not acceptable for frontline prison staff to retire at the standard pension age.
In April this year, I invited the then Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, the right hon. Member for Aylesbury (Sir David Lidington), to accompany me and my hon. Friend the Member for Airdrie and Shotts (Neil Gray) to Her Majesty’s Prison Shotts, which is a maximum security prison that holds the most dangerous prisoners in Scotland, to see how well the right hon. Gentleman, who at that point was aged 62, could manage to do the job there. Unfortunately, he declined my invitation, but I am happy to extend it to all Ministers and the Minister for the Cabinet Office, because until people see the work that these people do on the ground, it is impossible for them to imagine what a day in a prison, working as a prison officer, can be like.
One requirement for prison officers is the ability to complete mandatory annual control and restraint training. Under the UK Government’s policy, that would require a 65-year-old—previously a 68-year-old—to physically restrain, potentially on their own, a violent person at the peak of their fitness. I must say that I saw prisoners in Shotts Prison who spent day in, day out in the prison gym, and they were terrifying. If those young, often fit men—they are all men in Shotts Prison—decided to turn on a prison officer, the officer would have no chance. The whole visit was quite scary, to be fair. Clearly, according to the UK Government’s policy, the Minister firmly believes that prison officers aged 65 fulfil their role properly and safely. So, again, I say to her: “Come and visit Shotts, and tell me what you think afterwards.”
The UK Government’s policy on prison officer pensions reflects its policy on pensions in general. It is not just prison officers who cannot be expected to work until 68, but millions of workers across Scotland and the rest of the UK. People are being expected to work until they drop. It is easy for members of the Cabinet and the wealthy to retire whenever they like, since they own their home and have plenty in savings and a massive pension pot, but most people in my Motherwell and Whishaw constituency work hard all their days, sometimes on low wages, to receive a pension that is one of the lowest in western Europe. The UK Government are allowing that. Working people deserve to earn a decent wage and expect a fair pension at a reasonable age.
Under section 8 of the Prison Act 1952, as has already been mentioned, prison officers,
“while acting as such shall have all the powers, authority, protection and privileges of a constable.”
If police officers retire at 60, it is only right that the men and women who work on the frontline of the Prison Service are afforded the same right by the public and Government that they protect.
The SNP commends the bravery, commitment and dedication shown by prison officers who face challenging, dangerous and physically demanding working conditions on a daily basis. We believe that the Prison Service must be treated as a uniformed service alongside the police service, fire service and Armed Forces. We call on the Government to lower the retirement age for prison officers in line with other frontline officers.
In December 2016, the UK Government presented a proposal to reduce the retirement age from 68 to 65 for some prison officer grades in England and Wales. That proposal was not extended to Scottish prison officers. So, if this Government see sense and propose to reduce the prison officer retirement age, the proposal must be made for all countries in the UK. I look forward to the Minister’s response.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hanson. In the brief time I have, I will start by thanking the hon. Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey (Gordon Henderson) for securing such an important debate. I think the whole House can agree that he made a powerful speech, much of which hon. Members across the House will agree with. I have to say that I disagree with him on the points he made about the privatisation of probation, but that is a debate for another day; I will park that for today.
My hon. Friend the Member for Easington (Grahame Morris) also made a powerful speech. In particular, he gave accounts of some horrific assaults and attacks against our hard-working prison officers. Many other hon. Members contributed through interventions. The theme of much of the debate was that 68 is too late, and I will come to that shortly.
I thank our prison officers for the hard work that they do, often unseen and behind the scenes, to keep us safe. The job that they do on a daily basis is one of the most difficult, and in one of the most dangerous settings imaginable. Yet rather than treating them with the respect and dignity they deserve, for almost a decade this Government have treated them with anything but. Instead of overseeing a highly motivated and trained workforce on the frontline of reforming offenders, the Government have overseen years of declining morale, declining working conditions and declining numbers among our prison officer workforce. The raising of a prison officer’s retirement age is one part of that. It is an important one, but it is not the whole picture.
Last week, in a debate secured by the Select Committee on Justice, we heard how the Ministry of Justice budget has been savaged in the name of the Government’s ideological austerity agenda. Thousands of prison officers and tens of thousands of years of irreplaceable experience have been lost as a result. Between 2010 and 2015, close to 7,000 frontline prison officers were lost. Despite a recruitment drive once the Government realised the terrible damage they were causing to the prison system, we are still well short of 2010 numbers.
It is very interesting that the Government have now decided to replace the numbers of police officers that they lost over the eight or nine-year period, but they cannot do the same for prison officers. I agree with the hon. Member for Motherwell and Wishaw (Marion Fellows) that a prison officer’s job is just as dangerous in some ways as that of a policeman or a fireman, but there is this disparity. Does my hon. Friend agree that public services over the last eight or nine years have been the recipients of some of the most vicious cuts that have been implemented by this Government?
I absolutely agree. Given the frontline work that our hard-working prison officers do, they should be an emergency service—a frontline uniformed service—as our other services are, and they should be rewarded and treated exactly the same. I have made that point before.
Like many other public sector professionals on the frontline of vital services, prison officers were also subject to the Government’s harsh pay freeze and public sector pay cap for many years. Even though the pay cap has now been lifted, prison officers are unfairly disadvantaged when compared with their public sector counterparts. For too many prison officers, it is too late. They still feel inadequately rewarded for the important work that they do.
Safety for prison officers has also declined dramatically, with a quadrupling of assaults against prison officers since 2010 and an alarming number of serious injuries, as found in the recent response to my written question, rising from 160 in 2010 to 850 last year. A number of examples have been given by hon. Members; time not permitting, I cannot go through them all, but the reality is that prison officers now go to work fearing for their safety—expecting to be assaulted, beaten or abused. It is truly horrific that they feel that way while this Government do little to address the underlying issues. Those are not the actions of a Government who respect prison officers or treat them with the dignity that they deserve, and nor is raising the retirement age of prison officers to 68.
The job of a prison officer is physically demanding and requires the satisfactory completion of a demanding fitness test. It requires fully fit personnel who are able to perform control and restraint techniques, exercise strength, maintain their fitness and stamina over long periods and react with agility in demanding and quickly changing environments, as alluded to by several Members. The public would not expect anything less from those who keep them safe—and neither, it seems, would the Ministry of Justice, which stated in its submission to the Cabinet Office that the changes were unacceptable. However, the Government have ignored serious concerns about prison officers’ ability to carry out their roles effectively as they get older, despite the Ministry of Justice’s own admissions.
The Government have repeatedly refused to engage with the Prison Officers Association and the prison officers that it represents. Instead of getting around the table to work with the POA to seek a solution, and to look for ways to resolve prison officers’ serious concerns about the retirement age, the Government have sought to pin the blame on it. I am deeply disappointed that Ministers—I appreciate that this Minister is new in her role and is not the Minister responsible for prisons and probation—have failed, quite frankly, to show the leadership needed. They have put the health and safety of prison staff at risk and made it clear that the Government see prison officers not as a vital workforce worthy of investment and support, but as a dispensable commodity.
Because of the way they have been treated by the Government, and with horrendous and dangerous conditions on the balconies and in the wings, many prison officers no longer see their role as a long-term career. It is little wonder that prison officers—both those who have served for years and those in their first year of service—are leaving at such a pronounced rate, creating a retention crisis and worsening the huge problems in our prison system that are of the Government’s making. That is why the next Labour Government will address this issue, and we will work with the POA and prison officers to make sure that they are properly trained and rewarded, and that they are physically capable of doing their jobs. Only then can we deliver a prison system that provides us with security and rehabilitation.
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hanson. I understand that your chairing the debate is quite fitting, given that you still have a special interest in prisons and all things justice-related.
I start by thanking my hon. Friend the Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey (Gordon Henderson)—the beautiful Isle of Sheppey, as he referred to it—for securing the debate on this important subject. He clearly demonstrated an ongoing commitment to raising awareness of the issues around the three prisons in his constituency, the prison officers and their families. I thank other hon. Members for their contributions. In the time I have, I will endeavour to answer as many as possible of the questions that were put to me.
Let me begin by providing a little of the history of prison officer pensions, for those who may not be aware of the retirement ages for prison officers and how they have changed since 2007. Pensions are, by their very nature, complex, but I will try to be brief. Prison officers are members of the civil service pension scheme, the policy and rules of which are owned by the Cabinet Office. Prior to 2007, the retirement age for those covered by that scheme was 60. Following an annual review by the Government Actuary’s Department, a new career average pension was brought in, with a pension age of 65 for new entrants from July 2007.
The demands of the prison officer role were considered at that time, and it was decided that when compared with other civil servants in the scheme who had demanding roles, such as seamen on Royal Fleet Auxiliary ships, a special exception could not be made. The Prison Officers Association signed up to the 2007 scheme, which introduced a pension age of 65. In 2015, a new scheme was introduced that regularised the position for most staff and changed the pension age to 65, or to a staff member’s state pension age, which for many is 68.
It is important to be clear that the Government are alive to the issue and the views of staff and trade unions on retirement age. Efforts have been made twice—in 2013 and again in 2017—to provide a route to lowering the retirement age. The 2013 package offered prison officers the ability to purchase a lower pension age of 65 through the payment of heavily subsidised additional contributions into the scheme, with the additional option to pay further contributions to purchase a pension age of 60. A similar offer was made to prison officers in 2017, but there was no cost to the individual member of staff to purchase a lower pension age of 65. Both offers were rejected by the POA membership.
A comparison has been made today with firefighter and police pensions. Staff in those schemes have a retirement age of 60. Although it is true that work in those roles has some similarities to the work of prison officers, as was raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey, because of the higher physical demands consistently placed on firefighters and the higher potential for serious injury and fatality in both roles, the Government felt that the role of a prison officer was not analogous to those in the emergency services.
Putting that assessment to one side, it is crucial to understand that that lower retirement age is supported by pension contributions by staff of up to 14%—almost 10% higher than the average 5.45% contribution rate in the civil service. It is not, therefore, a like-for-like comparison. Should a change in retirement age be contemplated again in the future, it would involve a significant increase to the staff contribution to the scheme.
Will the Minister give way?
I am going to make some progress. I am really trying to get through these points in the time that I have.
The role of prison officer is a diverse, interesting and critical one, parts of which can be physically demanding. All prison officers who joined the service after April 2001 must pass an annual fitness test in order to remain prison officers. We do not discriminate on the basis of someone’s age; many factors determine a person’s ability to pass a fitness test. Staff who do not meet the annual fitness test standard are provided with advice and support by a fitness assessor on achieving and maintaining the required fitness level.
The Prison Service recruits staff to work up to the normal pension age of 65, and it has employed new prison officers in their 60s who have passed the fitness test and are performing their roles effectively. In addition, many staff who have the right to retire at 60 choose to work beyond their retirement age. It is therefore not true to say that it is inappropriate or unsafe for prison officers to work over a certain age.
My hon. Friend the Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey is right when he says that we must recognise the commitment, bravery and hard work of our prison officers.
Will the Minister give way?
Let me see if I can make some more progress, and then, if time allows, I will give way.
The Prison Service and Ministry of Justice already recognise and reward excellent staff work through a range of awards and honours, such as the Prison Service long service and good conduct medal, the prison officer of the year award and the Butler Trust awards. We are also proposing to the honours, decorations and medals committee the introduction of a new Queen’s Prison Service medal. The concept of a covenant has been raised, and I assure my hon. Friend that we are already considering whether such a covenant for prison staff would be beneficial.
The Government seek pay recommendations from the independent Prison Service pay review body. We recently accepted in full its recommendations for 2019-20, which resulted in the highest increase for prison staff in more 10 years, with band 3 prison officers—the largest group of staff—receiving a headline increase of 3%.
On the Isle of Sheppey, recognising the competitive labour market, we implemented a market supplement to support the recruitment and retention of staff. This means that the current starting salary for a prison officer at the Sheppey prisons, as well as a number of other sites in the south-east, is £27,293. After an officer has gained four years’ experience, that salary increases to just shy of £30,000.
HMPPS takes very seriously, as I think we all do, the health and safety of all staff working in prisons, whatever their age. Staff have access to on-site care teams and to an employee assistance programme that includes confidential 24-hour support, 365 days a year. They are covered by a wide range of occupational health services provided by specialist healthcare professionals. HMPPS has invested in nearly 6,000 body-worn video cameras and has started to implement the national roll-out of PAVA, which is a synthetic pepper spray. We are also introducing rigid bar handcuffs for use by prison officers as part of our continuing focus on improving safety and reducing violence.
We take attacks on our prison officers seriously. Under the Assaults on Emergency Workers (Offences) Act 2018, they are treated equally in law with assaults on the police and other emergency service workers. HMPPS has been working closely with the police and the Crown Prosecution Service to ensure that they understand the impact of crimes committed in prison. In May, we published the new crime in prison referral agreement between HMPPS, the police and the CPS to provide a more consistent approach to dealing with these matters. In addition, as part of a crackdown on crime behind bars, the Government are investing £100 million through the introduction of airport-style security measures, cutting-edge technology to detect and block mobile phones, and new funding to tackle corruption. Coupled with the 4,700 additional staff recruited since 2016, that investment should have a major impact on crime behind bars.
The Government are investing £2.5 billion in 10,000 new, modern prison places and will also spend an extra £156 million next year on maintaining our existing jails. That will give us space to absorb any rise in prison population created by the increase in police officers on our streets, along with tougher sentencing for the most serious offenders. Our ambition is to create a decent, safe and secure estate that is sustainable into the future.
I welcome much of what the Minister says, but does it not underline the point that if we are to have a police officer covenant, a prison officer covenant would also be a good idea? It would be a way of recognising prison officers and ensuring that we treat them in the right way, both during and after their service.
I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s intervention. I think I have already addressed his point in my speech, but it is clearly a point that he is interested in.
The first new prison will be built on land adjacent to the existing well-performing maximum security prison at Full Sutton. Along with further building works, it will be subject to Government working through the best value-for-money options. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey for suggesting the existing cluster of three prisons on the Isle of Sheppey as a location for a further site. [Interruption.] I believe he is indicating that he would be happy with a fourth, but I am sure that he will understand that decisions on the location of further sites have not yet been made.
It is again too early to say whether the new prisons will be privately or publicly run, but the Government are committed to maintaining mixed market provision in the custodial sector, with prisons run by both the public and the private sectors. Any decisions on the future management of the new build prisons will be announced in due course.
The Minister is setting out the case for financial prudence, but may I point out that private prisons account for 15% of the prison population but almost 25% of the budget? If we are being prudent with the public finances and looking to secure a decent settlement for prison officers, surely we should not be privatising our prison service.
As I said, it is too early to say whether the new prisons will be privately or publicly run, but no doubt we will be debating that question for some time to come.
On recruitment and retention, we know that retention of staff will take more than a one-size-fits-all approach, so specific action is being taken where attrition is most acute. Improvements to the recruitment process are ongoing and are aimed at reducing the time and cost of hiring, increasing the diversity of new recruits and ensuring that we attract the right people with the right skills.
Will the Minister give way on that point?
If the hon. Lady will forgive me, I will press on. I have only five minutes left, and I would like to leave my hon. Friend the Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey time to wind up.
The hon. Member for Motherwell and Wishaw (Marion Fellows) pointed out that eight prison staff are assaulted every day, and she spoke about morale and impact assessment. As prison officers are part of the wider civil service pension scheme, any impact assessment would consider a range of professions. There is a range of physically demanding roles, and when the pension scheme was introduced an exemption for prison officers was not seen as appropriate. I believe that workforce policy in Scottish prisons is devolved to the Scottish Government.
I thank all hon. Members for their contributions. I particularly thank my hon. Friend the Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey for bringing this debate to Westminster Hall. Although I understand the concerns of staff and their trade unions about retirement age, there are no plans to consider an exceptional package to allow prison officers a lower pension age than their colleagues across the civil service. I am grateful to my hon. Friend and all hon. Members for their time and for sharing their views with me this afternoon.
I will make just a few points, if I may. We have had consensus today, but I have to say to the Opposition spokesperson, the hon. Member for Bradford East (Imran Hussain), that the last Labour Government did not cover themselves with glory in the eyes of the POA. Talk to my prison officers: they remember vividly how the Labour party embraced the privatisation of prisons with great enthusiasm. But that was then.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
I do not have time.
With regard to what the Minister said about the difference between prison officers and police officers, I revert to section 8 of the Prison Act 1952, which states that prison officers
“shall have all the powers, authority, protection and privileges of a constable.”
Yet because prison officers happen to be part of the civil service pension scheme, they have to work until they are 68 when the police do not. The Government might have to look at whether prison officers should be part of the civil service, or whether they should be a separate entity again.
The Minister mentioned that staff on Sheppey are getting enhanced pay, and that it is up to £27,000 for new staff. I accept that, but it creates another anomaly in the system: the existing staff do not get that enhancement, so there will be some instances of new staff actually earning more than existing staff. Once again, that is something that we need to look at.
I will end with a little advert. I urge all Members present who have shown an interest in the debate to get involved in the prison service parliamentary scheme.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the pension age of prison officers.