House of Commons
Thursday 17 September 2020
The House met at half-past Nine o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Virtual participation in proceedings commenced (Order, 4 June).
[NB: [V] denotes a Member participating virtually.]
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
Infrastructure Projects: Delivery
My Department is looking to deliver infrastructure projects better, greener and faster through initiatives including the Acceleration Unit and Project Speed.
Given the impact that coronavirus has had on communities such as mine in West Bromwich East, will my right hon. Friend throw his support behind West Midlands Mayor Andy Street’s unprecedented investment plans in our transport infrastructure, like the midland metro, helping to bring it to places such as Great Barr in my constituency, so that all communities can feel the benefits of levelling up?
Yes, indeed. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for her campaigning on this issue and, of course, to the West Midlands Mayor’s relentless campaigning. I have been to see the proposed extensions. They are very impressive, and the Government will absolutely back any processes that will help to level up communities.
The Heathfield bridge on the A596 at Aspatria in my constituency crosses the Cumbrian coast railway line. It will shortly see the second anniversary of a car strike, which still sees the main arterial road reduced to one lane. Will my right hon. Friend work with me and stakeholders to ensure that action to repair the bridge becomes a priority and that this is not allowed to happen again?
Transport Supply Chains: Covid-19
The Government have undertaken activity across the freight sector to ensure that supply chains are maintained, from vehicle inspections to drivers’ hours and the temporary establishment of freight public service obligation contracts.
Covid-19 has placed major strains on supply chains across the UK, and many businesses that rely on red diesel are concerned that planned tax changes will have a detrimental impact while they struggle to recover from the pandemic. Will the Minister make representations to his Treasury colleagues to delay these changes until enough support is put in place to develop green alternatives to diesel-powered refrigeration?
Several of my constituents in the aviation sector have had their terms and conditions of employment unilaterally changed, and for the worse. While support for the sector is vital, surely when executive bonuses and dividend payments seem unaffected, the protection of workers’ rights is equally essential. Will the Minister commit to supporting the Employment (Dismissal and Re-employment) Bill proposed by my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Gavin Newlands), as well as the calls of the trade unions?
The hon. Member makes an excellent point. The workers to whom he refers are highly skilled, highly trained and of enormous value to the UK and the aviation sector. I urge all employers to treat those who work for them with respect and sensitivity, and I urge them to work in a spirit of partnership with unions and employees.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. I would like to say that my thoughts, and I am sure the thoughts of the whole House, are with the injured and all those affected by the recent bus accident in Winchester.
Local coach companies are much loved small businesses with the owner’s name and the town of origin proudly painted on the side of the coach. These are local small businesses that have served their communities through thick and thin. However, day trips and coach travel for football supporters have disappeared because of the coronavirus, and four in 10 of these much-loved local companies could go out of business this autumn, with the loss of 27,000 jobs. Will the Minister reassure the House that the Government will take urgent action to support these family-owned small businesses, and will he meet me and the coach operators as a matter of urgency?
I echo the comments of the shadow Minister on the bus accident in Winchester.
Yesterday, the British Airways chief executive told the Transport Committee that he would protect BA at all costs. Those costs will be borne by 10,000-plus jobless employees and the remainder whose terms and conditions have been permanently slashed and are as yet unknown. Many of those jobs and thousands of others across the sector could have been saved had the Secretary of State kept his word to stand by the industry’s side. When will we see business rates relief for England and when will we finally see the promised sector-specific support?
The hon. Member refers to some of the decisions taken by BA. These are, of course, commercial matters, but, as we have been clear, they are none the less ones that we regret. There are a number of aspects here, but the thrust of his question is, of course, with regard to support for the aviation sector. The Government have made available £330 billion of support through loans and guarantees across the breadth of the entire economy.
Aviation Sector Jobs
The Government are working at pace to ensure the recovery of the aviation sector, and Departments are working closely together to progress options in support of individuals affected.
Giving evidence to the Transport Committee yesterday, BA boss Alex Cruz seemed to suggest that the company’s notorious fire and rehire threats were now off the table. However, I am informed by Unite the Union that, although its campaigning has meant that many of its members are now free from this kind of blackmail, there are at least 800 mixed fleet staff who still face this threat unless they sign new contracts. What steps are the Minister and his Government taking to banish this shameful practice once and for all?
As I have said, the Government are quite clear that they regret some of the decisions that have been taken, although these are of course commercial decisions. What I welcome is the agreement in principle between BA and Unite on behalf of cabin crew, which encourages the spirit of partnership between employees, the airlines and the union, which I am sure the hon. Member will join me in encouraging across the sector.
As has already been noted, while it is welcome that British Airways has potentially dropped some of its bully-boy tactics of threatening to fire and rehire its workforce on much worse conditions, it comes too late for many employees who had taken the difficult decision to take voluntary redundancy, such as the single father in my constituency who could not afford to feed his family on 40% of pay. What steps is the Minister’s Department taking to support such individuals, because his Department’s response to the Transport Committee report said that it was the Government’s ambition to support these individuals where possible?
It absolutely is the Government’s intention and desire to support these highly trained and highly valued members of our workforce. At the end of the day, we need to concentrate very much on the recovery and restart. The Government have already moved quickly to rebuild consumer confidence, collaborating with industry and the unions and across the sector. It is through that that we will ensure the vitality of the sector and those who work for it.
Today marks the 10th anniversary of Pope Benedict’s visit to Parliament when he addressed both Houses in Westminster Hall and reminded us that, in the pursuit of public policy, we should always keep the common good at the heart of it and that there is an intrinsic link between human dignity and the value of work. In that spirit and in welcoming the Minister to his post today, will he join me in thanking the tens of thousands of ground handlers in every airport across our nation who have kept our skies open, working for companies such as Swissport, dnata, Menzies and World Freight Services? Will he dust down that aviation-specific package that his predecessor had and bring it back to the table?
I thank the hon. Member for making that absolutely superb point. He is quite right to thank those who work in the aviation sector, particularly the ground handlers, because of the way they have continued to work throughout the sector, which has ensured that vital freight and supplies have continued to come in, and people have been able to get around when they have needed to do so. The Government will be looking—as I will be in the course of settling into the role—at any possible steps that we can take to help the sector, which is absolutely vital for our country.
Rail Network: Accessibility
The Government have recently made £350 million available to make accessibility improvements at a further 209 stations through the Access for All programme. We also require the industry to comply with current accessibility standards whenever it installs, replaces or renews station infrastructure.
Since July, the lifts at Luton Airport Parkway station have been in the process of being fixed, so people in my constituency who are disabled, have mobility issues or have a family with children and a buggies are not able to access the railway. I am pleased that Luton station has been granted Access for All funding. I spoke to the Minister six months ago about the decrepit state of Luton station and the need not just to add shiny lifts to something that is not fit for the 21st century. Will the Minister give me an update on the much-needed renovation of the station, the accessibility needs that have to be addressed and where we are now?
I know, from when I met the hon. Lady virtually during lockdown, how she aspires to a wider redevelopment of Luton station. At that meeting, I promised to get Network Rail to continue its work with Luton Borough Council to finalise a solution to deliver an accessible step-free route at the station by 2024. Since then, Network Rail has presented a number of options to the council which are currently being considered.
Will the Minister accept a wider definition of accessibility and comment on the plans to stop the free travel for under-18s, which gets students all around London? Is there a plan for the Government to assist Transport for London, given its financial situation, to bring back free travel from half-term for under-18s, so they can get to schools and to other pursuits?
The Government have undertaken the biggest ever pothole-filling programme, with £500 million funding each year between 2021 and 2024-25 specifically to tackle potholes on our roads. Further funding for local road maintenance will be agreed as part of the spending review.
Drivers will be pleased to have heard that answer from the Minister. She may also be aware that Lincolnshire County Council has an oven-ready project to construct the North Hykeham relief road, part of the original eastern bypass that I have campaigned for, for many years. That section will give Lincoln its full ring road, boost connectivity in the region and lead to further economic growth. Will my hon. Friend and her ministerial colleagues seriously consider providing the funding for that project and for dualling the whole of the eastern bypass—locally, we all know that that should happen—and perhaps meet me and council leaders in Lincolnshire to enable the completion of this important project which I have promoted incessantly?
I congratulate my hon. Friend on his diligent campaigning over a number of years. He knows of the Government’s extremely strong support for that project and the vital role it plays in his constituency. My ministerial colleagues are currently considering the business case very carefully and they will be very happy to meet my hon. Friend to consider the next steps.
From my conversations with Devon County Council, it is clear that one of the barriers to improving roads and filling potholes in my constituency is uncertainty about future funding. Has my hon. Friend looked into whether multi-year funding settlements might be a solution?
Absolutely. The Government are keenly aware that local authorities require certainty in funding to plan their highways asset management programme effectively. Any decision on multi-year funding settlements will be decided as part of the ongoing spending review.
The A15, leading to the A46, is a major strategic corridor for north Lincolnshire. Improved north-south connectivity via the A15 plays a vital function as a strategic economic corridor and is critical for facilitating the movement of goods in connection with heavy engineering and the food sector. It also provides an important economic role, linking the midlands and the south to the Humber ports, the refineries and one of the largest enterprise zones in the country on the south Humber bank. Does my hon. Friend agree that it is vital that such routes are improved as part of the levelling up process?
Absolutely. My hon. Friend is completely right that improving our road network is an essential part of our levelling-up network. That is why the Prime Minister has brought forward £100 million of funding for 29 shovel-ready projects. She will be pleased to know that £4.5 million of funding was awarded to North Lincolnshire unitary authority for such work on the A15.
Rail Services: North of England
I recently announced a £600 million package for the rail network across the north, including £589 million to upgrade and electrify the trans-Pennine route, which is part of a multibillion-pound programme for High Speed North.
On Sunday, the new 195 trains finally started running on the Hope Valley line, which runs between Manchester and Sheffield and serves New Mills, Chinley, Edale, Hope and Bamford in my constituency. While that is welcome news and something I have long campaigned for, services are still not frequent enough or reliable enough. To solve that, we need to increase capacity. May I urge the Secretary of State to invest more in this often-overlooked part of the northern powerhouse and finally upgrade the Hope Valley line?
My hon. Friend is right to campaign for that. I am a great fan of the Hope Valley line. I cannot make an announcement about it today, but as he is aware, Ministers are investigating the possibilities to enhance capacity, and I do not think he will have to wait too long.
As more people return to work using our great northern railway and the southern railway, what steps is the Secretary of State taking to ensure that the railway network and public transport is safe for increased passenger numbers?
As my hon. Friend knows, we took over the running of Northern earlier in the year because we were so dissatisfied by the progress, and it was then hit by covid, but I can report to the House some numbers that might be helpful. Some 62% of workers across the country are now going back to work. That is the highest level since the crisis began. In particular, the figure for last week—the week commencing 7 September—was 42% back on our national rail services. Northern is doing a great deal of work to make its services ready for people coming back.
Sustainable Transport: Covid-19
The Government have provided the largest ever investment in this area, with a package of £2 billion for cycling and walking and £500 million for electric vehicle infrastructure and e-scooter trials, demonstrating our commitment to a green recovery.
Like many Members, I have recently dusted off my bike, oiled the chain, taken it off the wall and ridden it for the first time in many years, exploring the wonderful cycle trails in my constituency along the River Ely and the River Taff and out to the UK museum of the year, St Fagans, earlier this month. It is great to see a cycling renaissance, but what more can be done to ensure that this country genuinely is world-beating on cycling—I am sorry to throw one of the Minister’s clichés back at her—because at the moment we are not?
I am delighted to see the hon. Gentleman’s enthusiasm for the Government’s ambitions. As I set out, we will be investing £2 billion, which is the largest ever infrastructure investment. We have already delivered £250 million for emergency schemes, and we are helping people to fix their bike with £25 million-worth of vouchers.
Cycling and Walking: Local Authority Support
The Government are investing £2 billion in active travel over the next five years. That is the biggest ever boost for cycling and walking and, as we heard in the previous question, it is welcomed widely across the House.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. I miss you all too.
Thanks to the Government’s active travel grants, Medway Council has managed to upgrade many of its cycling and walking routes, which is superb news for those at the Chatham end of my constituency. However, at the other end, part of the Aylesford towpath collapsed into the River Medway earlier this year and is now closed to the 6,000-plus users per month. Despite Kent County Council’s incredible efforts to find funds to repair the towpath, it still faces a significant shortfall. Could the Minister offer any guidance towards emergency central Government funding pots that would enable the reopening of that incredibly popular path for cyclists and walkers?
First, may I echo your words, Mr Speaker, and say how good it is to see my hon. Friend? She is one of the few MPs I follow on Instagram, from which I know what a keen cyclist she is—and, indeed, what she looks like in Lycra.
The Government allocated the first tranche of active travel funds to councils earlier in the summer; a bigger second tranche will follow shortly. I am quite sure that my hon. Friend will be able to persuade her county council to make the appropriate investment in Aylesford towpath, and I would be very happy to work with her to try to help that happen.
During the summer, I enjoyed a socially distanced walk with the regional Canal and River Trust team along the canal towpath between Marsden and Slaithwaite in my constituency. I support its bid for £45 million of funding from the Department as part of the commitment of £2 billion for cycling and walking to get people out on the canal towpath. Does the Minister agree that supporting such regional bids is a big part of encouraging more cycling and walking in our regions, and that it is a vital part of our levelling up the country and improving the health of our constituents?
I happily agree with my hon. Friend; he is absolutely right. The canal towpath network across the country, a huge chunk of which runs through my constituency, is a wonderful place for walking and cycling. He is right to identify that we have committed a £2 billion package to active travel. We have started to get money out the door, and I very much hope that we will see schemes such as the one he mentions benefit from it so that we can all enjoy the countryside—and, indeed, other cycle routes through our cities and towns—more in the future.
The Government continue to invest record amounts in our rail infrastructure, with £47.9 billion to be spent over the next five years.
Getting more trains into Carshalton and Wallington stations is reliant on completing the Croydon bottleneck project to unblock congestion on the Brighton main line at Selhurst. Network Rail will finish its consultation on the project on Sunday. What assurances can the Minister give me that the Government will back the project and get more trains into Carshalton and Wallington stations?
Public Transport Authorities: Buses
The Government’s view is that the commissioning and provision of bus services should be kept separate, particularly as new partnership and franchising powers in the Bus Services Act 2017 are likely to lead to more local authority control and better influence of local bus services.
To be fair, the right hon. Gentleman’s question was, “What plans he has to enable public transport authorities to operate their own bus services,” and I gave the appropriate answer. However, as he will know, I am quite keen, as a localist, to try to do some of this, but the Government are committed to implementing the UK’s first ever long-term bus strategy, which will be accompanied by long-term funding. That strategy will focus on passenger needs and set out how the Government will work with local authorities and the private sector.
Integrated Public Transport Systems
The Department receives requests through many different routes to fund schemes that consider integrated transport, intra-city transport and all the other types of integration.
As covid-19 breathes down the neck of my constituency and much of the north-east goes into local lockdown, and with local access to transport now needed more than ever, can the Secretary of State tell the House why many residents have seen their bus routes cut routinely over the last 10 years?
Good news for the hon. Member: this Government have committed to putting a record amount into bus investment. As he will know, 4,000 shiny new zero-carbon buses are part of that plan, as is a massive investment—a bus, cycling and walking package of £5 billion—in ensuring that bus routes can be expanded. We are certainly on the side of him and his constituents when it comes to expanding those bus services, notwithstanding the significant challenges of covid.
National Bus Strategy
The Government remain committed to a national bus strategy and aim to publish it by the end of the year.
Covid is creating huge challenges for our bus network, and if we are serious about improving services after the pandemic, we need a commitment to long-term investment from all tiers of government. In South Yorkshire, we have produced an improvement plan for our buses, but we need support. So I ask the Secretary of State: when will we see more investment from Government for the sustainable, affordable and accessible bus service that we all want?
I think that the hon. Gentleman is referring to his bus review report, which I have read. It is very impressive. We share the ambition to do much of what he has just said. The South Yorkshire Passenger Transport Executive has received a £1.127 million grant, as he will know, and the Sheffield City Region Combined Authority has been allocated £703,614. We are putting our money where our mouth is. We will publish our national bus strategy, and I think he will find that it complements the bus review report that he is behind.
Bus manufacturing is a key industry and companies such as Alexander Dennis, despite being world leading, face huge challenges. The Scottish Government recently announced millions of pounds of funding for ultra low emission vehicles, which is vital not just to the bus industry but to communities and businesses across the country. Will the Secretary of State please accept that our bus industry is teetering on the brink and needs a green bus fund rolled out now, not after Alexander Dennis and other companies like it are gone?
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right about the need not only to build buses but to turn them into green ones. That is why the extraordinary investment we are making—sufficient to build 4,000 buses—will come forward as part of the national bus strategy. It is important to recognise that there is huge turmoil, not just in the bus sector, because of the ridership figures. I mentioned the ridership figures for trains a moment ago, and it is right to inform the House that ridership on non-London buses has now gone back up to 58%. It is increasing, but that is all in the context of how we take the bus sector forward, and we will say much more about it very soon.
Seafarers: Furlough Scheme
There is no appropriate statistical breakdown. The Government’s focus is to support the sector’s recovery and to stimulate jobs and growth.
The job retention scheme has clearly helped businesses right across our economy, including in the maritime industries of port constituencies such as mine in east Hull, but when it is clear that the shipping and ferry sectors may take years to recover, the Chancellor is casting jobs in east Hull adrift by ending the furlough scheme, with no replacement and no plan. What action is the Minister taking to ensure that British seafarers, who have kept this country afloat throughout the pandemic, do not bear the brunt of that short-sighted decision? Will he please assure me that the UK will retain the maritime skills base that is vital for our future?
The hon. Gentleman makes a number of excellent points. I am encouraged to see that some firms such as P&O have offered their own job retention schemes with a view to reducing any redundancies that have been announced. More broadly, I will work with all aspects of the sector to hear their views and to see how the Department may be able to help. Maritime 2050, which I will look at with fresh eyes, gives a good opportunity to see what policy objectives may be possible in the future, but I assure the hon. Gentleman and the House that it remains a long-term policy of the Government to grow the number of UK seafarers and to support the sector.
We are making active travel and public transport the natural first choice for journeys. We are providing £2.5 billion of support to accelerate the transition to zero-emission vehicles.
And a Welsh flag, Mr Speaker!
The Minister will know that congestion levels in outer London have now grown to 150% of what they were before the lockdown and that pollution causes both covid infection and death, so why is she not encouraging the Prime Minister to continue to get people to work from home and to encourage investment from the Chancellor in public transport, when instead we are told to travel to work by car and not to work from home?
I hope that the hon. Gentleman is not attempting to travel to Wales via New York because that would definitely encourage congestion. I can assure him that we are investing strongly in public transport. We will continue to support the bus sector. We have provided £218.4 million of funding on a rolling basis from 4 August. We have provided over £700 million-worth of funding for public transport throughout the pandemic.
I am pleased that the Government have listened to Labour and are considering bringing forward the date for the phase-out of the sale of new diesel, petrol and hybrid vehicles, but how is the Minister actually going to get us there? All we have had from the Government lately is gimmicks like green number plates and the suggestion that they will paint electric vehicle parking spaces green. The charging infrastructure is woefully inadequate. Other than painting everything green, what is her actual strategy?
This was a Conservative Government pledge in our latest manifesto. We are accelerating the transition to zero-emission vehicles with £2.5 billion of support. We already have one of the most extensive charging networks in Europe, and we are ramping it up all the time.
Bus Services: Covid-19
The Government are committing £27.3 million per week to support England’s bus services.
Integration between all elements of public transport is critical. Will my hon. Friend bring the Minister of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Pendle (Andrew Stephenson), who has responsibility for HS2 and Northern Powerhouse Rail, to Sedgefield to better understand the local frustrations and needs? We need to see rail investment delivered in places like Ferryhill station, where my hon. Friends could meet the team at the inspirational Cornforth Partnership to understand the need for more and better buses, particularly to better connect places like Cornforth to employment centres. They could also visit magnificent companies like Hitachi in Cleveland Bridge to understand how Government procurement processes need to better reflect their commitment to local economies as we build back better.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The Government recognise the importance of multi-modal integration and connecting communities such as his to employment opportunities. That is why we have made £198 million available for the transforming cities fund, which will deliver improvements to bus services, cycling and walking in County Durham. My hon. Friend the Minister will be delighted to speak to him further.
Emergency Funding Agreement: London
The Department regularly engages with Transport for London and the Mayor, including in relation to understanding the impact of covid-19.
Private train operating companies were told on 23 March, just as lockdown began, that the Government would take on all their revenue and cost risks and support them through the pandemic. By contrast, Transport for London was not granted this emergency funding deal until 14 May. Will the Minister explain why that is and reassure Londoners that the additional emergency support that TfL needs will be confirmed as a matter of urgency, rather than being left until the eleventh hour like last time?
The Government agreed a £1.6 billion funding package in May. But let us be clear that Transport for London’s finances were in trouble well before covid-19, with a projected deficit of £220 million last year and £422 million the year before. Many of the financial problems can be directly traced to poor decision making by the current Mayor of London.
Support for Bus Manufacturers
If 2020 has been a tough year for bus and coach operators, it has been even worse for manufacturers such as Alexander Dennis Plaxton in Scarborough. We have heard on a number of occasions today of the £5 billion announced in February for 4,000 zero-emission British-built buses, but does the Minister agree with me that we need to get this money out of the door very quickly indeed if we are to avert a crisis on the production lines?
I thank my right hon. Friend for his question. I completely agree with what he says, and I commend him for what he has been doing to support manufacturers in his constituency. The Government have announced over £700 million in support for the bus and light rail sector already to date, and we are also providing £50 million for Britain’s first all-electric bus town and the £20 million rural mobility fund, which will support additional jobs. However, I agree with him, and I hope that we will make an announcement soon.
Connecting Towns to the Rail Network
The Government have pledged £500 million to start reopening lines and stations to reconnect smaller communities that no longer have a station.
Coach and Bus Sector: Covid-19
I am the Minister for active travel, and these steps I am getting now are quite productive for my step count.
The Department works closely with the bus and coach sectors to assess the ongoing impact of covid-19 on their industries.
Many of the coach companies based in my constituency are family-run businesses, and they inform me that they are facing a year-and-a-half-long winter in economic terms as a result of the covid pandemic. They are, of course, vital cogs in the tourism sector, yet they cannot access covid-related hospitality, leisure and tourism funding. What discussions is the Minister having with colleagues in the Treasury and the devolved Governments to address this anomaly?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. My Department has been in regular contact with the representatives of the coach industry, and we have been working very closely together. Officials from the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport also engage with the Coach Tourism Association via the Tourism Industry Emergency Response Group. My Department has helped to put together the package for home to school transport—a £40 million package that is benefiting the sector. We have regular conversations with the Treasury, and it is clear that the £330 billion of Government support through loans and guarantees can reach parts of this sector, too.
My Department continues to tackle the very many different challenges that covid presents to all the forms of transport discussed here this morning.
It might be worth mentioning that I visited London Bridge station earlier in the week, where a programme that involves all the Network Rail stations is being rolled out. It is using antiviral cleaning materials, which means that surfaces become protected from coronavirus for up to 30 days. It actually repeats this on a 21-day basis, and it carries out the cleaning during the night, enabling people to return to the railways with the confidence of their being covid-free.
In addition, yesterday, the first meeting of the Hammersmith bridge taskforce took place. This major artery through London has been closed for too long; it is now closed to pedestrians and cyclists as well. The Department for Transport is looking to get this resolved, and I have brought in my own engineers to do so.
Arguably the biggest transport issue that impacts on my constituents in Ipswich is the Orwell bridge. At the moment, the current speed limit is 60 mph, and when it closes because of high winds, the whole town grinds to a halt. The economic impact of this should not be underestimated. Highways England has a plan involving a 40 mph speed limit, which will I hope mean that the bridge can stay open even when it is very windy. However, I am slightly concerned about the timescale. Will my right hon. Friend communicate to Highways England his expectation that these new measures will be put in place before the new winter season—the windy season—when these closures will continue if we do not implement the new measures?
My hon. Friend is right that the Orwell bridge is another key artery for Ipswich. I know that it is subject to ongoing work by Highways England that requires wind tunnel validation. I have been promised that that work will be completed by the end of September. From the Dispatch Box, I send a clear message to Highways England that I expect to see it on my desk.
Our transport industries have been devastated by coronavirus, but its frontline workers have kept the country going in difficult times. We owe them a debt of gratitude.
At the outset of topical questions, with 72 hours to go before the current rail franchise emergency measures agreements are due to expire, I expected the Transport Secretary to update the House. I am afraid my sheet is blank because no such statement, comment or indication followed. That is absolutely staggering. Are we to expect that, rather than something being reported to the House, it will come out over the next couple of days or the weekend, denying the House the opportunity to look into it? Will the Transport Secretary commit to making a statement to the House on Monday?
Let us be absolutely clear that in the last six months, with the current management agreements in place, while many parts of our transport sector have been denied the support they need, £100 million has been paid out to shareholders, many of which, by the way, are foreign Governments. That cannot continue in its current form.
The hon. Gentleman will know that the first emergency measures were worth some £3.5 billion to ensure that our rail sector was able to continue. I have already described how passengers are now returning to them and the work that is going on to make sure that they are safe to return.
As the hon. Gentleman points out, it is the case that the EMAs, as they are called, come to an end quite shortly. I do not think the House would realistically expect me to stand here and carry out those negotiations in public, but I reassure him that I will certainly return to make a statement in the House as soon as there is something to say.
There are just 72 hours left to go—it is literally last-minute. It is a timetable that would make Northern shy. I do not know what is going on with the Transport Secretary.
We know that passenger numbers have fallen to 7% of what they would be in normal times, yet rail fares are set for another increase in January. The average commuter will pay £3,000 for their season ticket, which is over £900 more than they would have paid in 2010. To encourage commuters back safely, will the Government commit to freezing fares and introducing part-time season tickets, as Labour has proposed?
I hate to play politics at the Dispatch Box, but it is worth reminding the hon. Gentleman that, under Labour, there were inflation-busting fare rises that added 4.9% during its time in office. Again, I want to make sure that we are speaking on the basis of facts. I will return to the House on the emergency measures.
It is not true to say, as I think the hon. Gentleman did, that the number of passengers is down to a single-digit percentage. As I said before, the number of passengers returning was at 42% last week. It is incumbent on all of us to demonstrate that the railways are safe; to take the railways from time to time, which I am sure Members on both sides of the House do; and to reassure people of the safety and efficacy of using the railways and all other public transport systems.
My hon. Friend makes an important point. The Government are committed to ensuring that our rail network is more accessible. We are in the process of making 16 stations in Wales more accessible as part of our £350-million Access for All programme. My hon. Friend the Rail Minister would be happy to meet him to discuss Ruabon station.
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. I can confirm that no one puts illegal hoardings on land controlled by the Department for Transport or Highways England. Much of this illegal signage is put up on land located next to motorways, so this becomes a planning matter. I will therefore raise his concerns, if he is happy for me to do so, with Housing, Communities and Local Government Ministers.
My hon. Friend will be interested to hear that we have carried out some trials using noise equipment and automatic number plate recognition software, to see whether it is possible to match the two up and use them as we might use a speed camera, but for noise. Work is ongoing to compile the results of that study into a report, so I hope to be able to report back to the House on that. I agree with her that this is a problem. For example, sometimes exhausts have been modified, both in motorcycles and cars, and for no other purpose but to make a huge amount of noise. We are certainly interested in finding solutions to that, and I will report back to the House.
We are very keen to improve air quality, and that goes hand in hand with reducing carbon dioxide—the two often go together. Our massive investment in car electrification, which has not yet been mentioned, means that we now have more charging locations than petrol stations, and one of the best charging networks, in this country, although it could still be better. We are also ensuring that public transport and bus services switch over, and I have mentioned previously from the Dispatch Box the 4,000 zero-carbon buses that will be coming in. We will work closely with local authorities such as Bath to create clean air zones and improve air quality for everyone.
The aim of the Restoring Your Railway programme is to reconnect people and communities. I know that my Department has provided feedback on the proposal to reopen Tettenhall station, and I encourage my hon. Friend to contact the programme’s team to discuss the next steps.
As the hon. Gentleman will know, we are currently delivering the midland main line upgrade, which includes electrification from London to Kettering, with additional electrification to Market Harborough being developed. Further electrification of the midland main line is currently at an early stage, but it is being examined by Network Rail. The Department will continue to work closely with Network Rail on the development of a proposal for this, including approaches to advancing the delivery of electrification across the route.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right about the impact, and the same is true of many other forms of transport. I pay tribute to the work of taxi drivers and private hire vehicle drivers, who have been incredible during this crisis and have often provided the only form of transport available for people in certain areas.
The statutory taxi and private hire vehicle standards have considerable teeth, because for the first time ever we will have national databases, and we will put enormous work into ensuring that all local authorities and hackney carriage authorities sign up to those and use them. I will say more in the not too distant future about our support for taxis and private hire vehicles through the pandemic.
I, too, declare an interest as an electric car driver. Although I said, accurately, that there are now more charging locations than petrol stations, it is still the case that in particular areas—Thirsk and Malton is perhaps one such example—the charging is not good enough. One issue that I have come across, as I am sure has my hon. Friend, is machines that require sign-up to a membership system or particular requirements in advance, preventing me from charging up. He will be pleased to hear that we intend to enforce, particularly on rapid chargers, a system whereby it has to be possible for people to walk up and pay contactlessly for the energy that goes into their car, without signing up to a particular scheme in advance. We have taken powers to enforce that system and I hope it will make his drive easier, as well as mine and everybody else’s who switches to an electric car.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. These powers have existed in London forever. They prevent, for example, box junctions from being blocked up, along with a number of other things. As he rightly says, we intend to extend the powers throughout the country and I will report back to the House on that shortly.
The hon. Lady is absolutely right about the impact on aviation, which has been enormous, but so has the support, and that is often not recognised. If I may detail it, there has been £1.8 billion of support through the Bank of England’s covid corporate financing facility, which easyJet and others have used; £283 million has come from the coronavirus job retention scheme; and 56,400 staff have been furloughed, with the salaries that have been paid worth well north of £1 billion. When those figures are added up, there has been an enormous amount of support for the sector. We are working with it every day and the best thing we can do is to open up the routes, which is dependent on the progress of the virus and the progress of technology to help us beat the virus.
That is an incredibly important subject. The good news, which the hon. Lady may have missed, is that during my time as Secretary of State I have put several million pounds into precisely this issue of audio-visual on buses. I will certainly write to her with the details, and I will also arrange for her to meet the buses Minister.
This Conservative Government are putting unprecedented levels of investment into the Highways England strategic road network. The A64 Hopgrove roundabout upgrade is one project that is vital not only to my constituents but to people from West Yorkshire and beyond who suffer in the queues. Will the Secretary of State give me an indication that this project is still in the programme and of when we are likely to see spades in the ground?
My right hon. Friend is right about the £27.4 billion we are investing in the road investment strategy 2 programme to upgrade and build roads fit for the 21st century. There was very effective lobbying on the roundabout, and I will certainly come back to him in writing to provide more of an update.
I know that you, Mr Speaker, the Secretary of State and the whole House will share my grief about the fatal Stonehaven tragedy and the environmental damage wrought by the Llangennech derailment. It seems that the Government have finally listened to the Labour party and look to be ending their failed franchise model. Given the many billions of taxpayer funds that this will cost, it is simply unacceptable that we have to read about these agreements piecemeal in newspapers. As my hon. Friend the shadow Secretary of State said, perhaps the Secretary of State can enlighten us as to when he will make a full statement to this House outlining the future of rail. Will he also confirm what percentage of contracts, especially for HS2, will be going to UK suppliers?
There is a lot to cover there, but I will try to make it brief. The hon. Gentleman is right about Stonehaven. I went to the scene of the tragedy—I was taken over in a helicopter—and it was like a Hornby train set had been thrown up in the air. Our thoughts and prayers go not only to the three who died, but to those who were injured, the emergency workers and the brave people who rescued others—our thoughts are with them all. The House will have noted that I issued the Network Rail interim report on Stonehaven a week or two back, which comes to some very important interim conclusions. I will update the House further with the full report shortly.
As for the ending of the emergency measures agreements, I hope the House will understand that it is not possible to conduct negotiations with nine different operating companies in public—I cannot do that from the Dispatch Box. As he knows, the EMAs come to an end shortly, so I will of course be coming back to the House. I would disbelieve everything that you read in the newspapers; I do not think I have read a single thing that relates to what is actually happening. I will return to the House in due course to update it on precisely what is happening, but I do not think that the hon. Gentleman can doubt our commitment to rail—the £3.5 billion we have put in so far, and indeed our support for HS2, which he mentions.
I would like to make a short statement about the failure of the pass readers in the Division Lobbies last night. As colleagues will know, all four pass readers in the Division Lobbies stopped working and we had to switch to roll-call voting. I have now received a report on what went wrong, and I can inform colleagues that the failure was due to human error. The contractors involved have offered their apologies, and I am assured that urgent steps are being taken to prevent such a mistake from occurring again. I thank all colleagues for coping so well with the switch, and I especially thank the Doorkeepers for their help. I know that there are alternatives to using this system of Divisions that we are currently using, and I will continue to discuss the use of alternatives with the Leader of the House and other Members concerned.
I also wish to make a short statement about the transfer of oral questions and the timeliness of written answers. This is, of course, the responsibility of the answering Department concerned. However, I note that some hon. Members tabling questions for the Ministry of Defence for Monday on matters relating to the welfare of veterans have had their questions transferred, while others have not. What makes it worse is that this does look like political interference or at least political bias; I take this very seriously. This makes it hard for hon. Members, and the Table Office in assisting them. In the current case, the hon. Members whose questions have been transferred will be called to ask supplementaries to the questions not transferred, so they will not be disadvantaged. However, I hope Departments will give careful consideration to the principles of consistency and fairness in reaching decisions on transfers. I also wish to restate my plea for Departments to ensure that all hon. Members receive timely and substantive answers to their written questions; I do not expect lip service to be paid to Members who were elected to serve their constituencies.
I am sure that both the Procedure Committee and the Leader of the House will keep an eye on these two matters, and I know that the Leader and the shadow Leader take this very seriously as well, so I do hope Ministers are listening.
Business of the House
The business for next week will include:
Monday 21 September—Continuation of consideration in Committee of the United Kingdom Internal Market Bill (day 3).
Tuesday 22 September—Conclusion of consideration in Committee of the United Kingdom Internal Market Bill (day 4).
Wednesday 23 September—Second Reading of the Overseas Operations (Service Personnel and Veterans) Bill, followed by motion relating to proxy voting.
Thursday 24 September—General debate on the situation in Yemen, followed by general debate on the settlement and annexation of the Occupied Palestinian Territories, followed by general debate on the Rohingya humanitarian crisis and the effects of the covid-19 pandemic. The subjects for these debates were determined by the Backbench Business Committee.
Friday 25 September—Private Member’s Bills.
The provisional business for the week commencing 28 September will include:
Monday 28 September—Remaining stages of the United Kingdom Internal Market Bill (day 1).
Tuesday 29 September—Conclusion of the remaining stages of the United Kingdom Internal Market Bill (day 2).
Wednesday 30 September—Second Reading of the Non-Domestic Rating (Lists) (No.2) Bill, followed by motion under the Coronavirus Act 2020 relating to the renewal of temporary provisions, followed by all stages of the Sentencing Bill [Lords], followed by debate on motions relating to planning.
Thursday 1 October—Proceedings on a Bill relating to social security benefits uprating.
Friday 2 October—The House will not be sitting.
I thank the Leader of the House for giving us the forthcoming business and you, Mr Speaker, for the statement you made on those two issues. I have to say that what happened yesterday was unacceptable, and I hope we can all sit down and talk about one or two of the incidents. I, too, want to place on record my thanks to the Clerk of the House, the House staff who managed to switch to a different system and the Doorkeepers who reminded us that we were on television.
If that was not enough, I do not know when the Government are going to make a statement about the chaos and the warning about the queues of lorries that will take place in Kent. Some 7,000 lorries will take two days to get through. More sites are being planned, such as the Waterbrook Park site behind the MOJO site, and local people know nothing about what is going on. A coronavirus test centre was abruptly closed to make way for a customs check. Staff were told out of the blue that it would be closing. When are we going to have a statement on what is going to happen in Kent after 31 December? Mr Speaker, to paraphrase Joni Mitchell, they paved the garden of England and put up a lorry park.
It is interesting that the following week, on Monday 28 and Tuesday 29 September, there are further days for the conclusion of the Internal Market Bill; I thought it would all be over this week so that the Prime Minister could go to party conference and wave a piece of paper in the air saying, “Oh, we have Brexit done.” It was the Government who signed the agreement, with the protocol, on 9 January and have now done what looks like a handbrake turn. To paraphrase what happened on the Health and Social Care Act 2012, it was a U-turn so big people could see it from space—perhaps from the moon, even.
Mr Speaker, the Leader of the House tweeted:
“Starmer’s Socialists still suck up to Brussels.”
As I said, it has nothing to do with Brexit. What we are doing is sucking up to the rule of law. The Law Society president has said that that is non-negotiable. He said that clauses 41-45:
“Represent a direct challenge to the rule of law,”
and he is urging hon. Members to vote against it.
The Leader of the House will know that we are celebrating 10 years since Pope Emeritus Benedict’s visit. In his speech, the Pope said that the separation of powers in this country is “an inspiration” and so is our,
“respect for the rule of law”.
Those are the words in his speech; I urge the Leader of the House to read them. This country has an internationally renowned reputation for legal services and as a place for the administration of justice, and that is all going to change. We have a law officer who has just recently resigned.
Can we have a debate on saving British businesses? The Leader of the House will know that the founder of ARM has written to the Prime Minister to stop the sale to Nvidia.
He said it was
“an issue of national economic sovereignty…Surrendering UK’s most powerful trade weapon to the US is making Britain a…vassal state.”
Has the Leader of the House heard that phrase before? He has failed to act in the public interest. It is a powerful letter and the Government should take a golden share in ARM. Could we have a statement on the negotiations and ensure that a business such as that will put the interests of the British people first, rather than being used as a powerful trade weapon for the United States?
I know there is a health statement later, but where was the chair of the test and trace programme? She has made no statement since 19 August. Public Health England has been abolished. We have had mixed messages. Do the Government really think that people without symptoms are going to have a test? The number of tests returned within 24 hours has fallen from 68% to 8%. It seems to be all “talk, talk” and not “test, test”.
More importantly, I want to use the Leader of the House’s good offices, if he could speak to Ministers in the Department of Work and Pensions. My hon. Friend the Member for Newport East (Jessica Morden) had a ten-minute rule Bill in July on how people who are terminally ill are treated in the benefits system. She asked a question and she was told by the Minister at the time that the outcome of the review would be done shortly. The Minister said on Monday he will have it done “as quickly as possible.” Could we have a statement as soon as possible, hopefully next week, on what is happening with scrapping the six-month rule?
I am sure that the Leader of the House has already seen the 250 to 300 statutory instruments that are coming down the line. Could he ensure that there will be proper scrutiny of those issues?
It was the fourth birthday that Sherry Izadi, the wife of Anousheh, has had without him. Anousheh also needs diplomatic protection. Nazanin had that terrible prospect of not knowing whether she was on trial. I know the Foreign Secretary has been to America, and I hope that in some way we are nearer to a solution, as the Defence Secretary has suggested. Of course, let us not forget Luke Symons in Yemen; I hope there will be a statement next week in the Back-Bench debate.
I hope the Leader of the House will join me in thanking the Member for Pudsey (Stuart Andrew)—I forgot to mention him earlier—for standing in so wonderfully for him last week and also Marcial Boo, the chief executive of the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority, who left last Friday. I thank him for his six years. He has made many changes and says that he has left IPSA in a better place. He never failed to deal with queries on behalf of my colleagues. He saw three elections, winding up offices and setting up new offices. We thank him for his service and wish him well in the future.
Finally, happy new year, shanah tovah, to the Jewish community. I know that it has been difficult to have the celebrations, but maybe Rosh Hashanah next year will be back to normal.
May I also wish the Jewish community a happy new year? Of course, celebrations are difficult this year under the regulation.
May I pay particular tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey (Stuart Andrew) and Deputy Chief Whip? I was worried that last week he was far too good and that this week hon. Members would all be clamouring for him. Indeed, I fear that they are, but are too polite and kindly to admit it to my face, although I have no doubt that the call will go out on Twitter that Members want the Deputy Chief Whip.
I also add my thanks to Marcial Boo, who carried out a very difficult task with dignity and patience. He was always available to Members to hear representations and was always keen to put things right. I think he did very good public service in possibly one of the most testing jobs, in which there are 650 critics and very few defenders. I think he did it really admirably.
The right hon. Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz) is right once again to raise the question of British nationals detained overseas, including Anousheh Ashoori and Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe. It is good news that the second trial has so far been deferred, and I hope that it will not take place. The detainees in Yemen can of course be raised in the debate coming up next week. The Government take this issue very seriously, but as the right hon. Lady knows, there are limitations to what the Government can do with a foreign nation that is determined to behave in the way that Iran behaves.
The right hon. Lady asked me about the scrutiny of statutory instruments. She will notice in the business that I announced that we are making time available for debate of statutory instruments where the Opposition prayed against them. It is the will of the Government, the habit of the Government and, indeed, the requirement of Parliament that where debates are requested, wherever it is possible and feasible in terms of the management of business, we will do our best to facilitate them and ensure proper scrutiny. That is of course up to Members as well. Some statutory instrument Committees do not take very long to perform their scrutiny, and we should all look to our own consciences as to how much we wish to debate statutory instruments when they come before Committees.
The right hon. Lady raises the point about the Department for Work and Pensions, and the terminally ill and the promise of an answer. I will follow that up for her; it is a reasonable request to have made. I will ask the Secretary of State to ensure a written response as to when we can expect an answer, even if we do not have the answer itself.
I am afraid that is where the sweetness and light has to end, because some of the other things that the right hon Lady said were really rather more contentious and have to be disputed. The UKIM Bill is a really important piece of legislation. It builds on section 38 of the European Union (Withdrawal Agreement) Act 2020, which made it clear that the law in this country is made by Parliament. That has been our historic constitutional position. The Prime Minister himself has pointed out that the EU in these negotiations is not acting with good faith. If we are negotiating with somebody who is not behaving in good faith, we have to protect our interests, and we have a fundamental duty to protect the Good Friday agreement. It is absolutely clear in the Good Friday agreement that there will be no change in the constitutional status of Northern Ireland without agreement from the people of Northern Ireland. Putting tariffs on, banning food going from GB to Northern Ireland, would be such a fundamental change. It is our duty to stop that happening, because it is our duty to protect the Good Friday agreement and to support the United Kingdom. A fine piece of legislation has been crafted, and is being piloted through the House of Commons, that will do precisely that. It is the right law, it is good law and it will protect the position of the people of Britain.
The Government have consistently ensured that provisions are being made in Kent for whatever may be the result on 1 January next year. That is absolutely the right thing to do, and the Government are continuing to do that.
As regards testing, one has to be reasonable. I was not here last week because I was awaiting a test result, and that was quite right; people who have family members who have developed symptoms must self-isolate. The right hon. Lady’s right hon. Friend, the Leader of the Opposition, also did the right thing in self-isolating until the test result came back. We all have an obligation to try to stop a dangerous disease spreading, but we have gone from a disease that nobody knew about a few months ago to one where nearly a quarter of a million people a day can be tested, and the Prime Minister expects that to rise to half a million by the end of the October. Instead of this endless carping, with people saying it is difficult to get them, we should be celebrating this phenomenal success of the British nation in getting up to a quarter of a million tests for a disease that nobody knew about until earlier in the year. That is a success of our society, our health experts and our Administration. Yes, there is demand for more; yes, demand exceeds supply, but the supply is increasing and what has been done is really rather remarkable and something we should be proud of.
Finally, on the Division yesterday, well that is the great thing about being here physically: we had a fall-back plan, so we could all get through the Lobbies. Just think if we had all been remote: the business would have fallen and we would not have got the business through the House. [Interruption.] There is some cackling from the Opposition Benches. They seem to think that when technology fails you need even more technology, whereas as actually good, trusty turning up and saying “Aye” or “Nay” worked extraordinarily well.
I have one small issue with my hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey (Stuart Andrew): he did not go back before the 16th century. I do wish my right hon. Friend to say a little bit about King Alfred. As he knows, earthquakes in Somerset are extremely rare, but there was a big one last December, just before Somerset County Council launched its bid to become a unitary. It made houses shake across the region. Was it the ghost of King Alfred rotating in his grave over the petty-mindedness and stupidity of the county council? Will my right hon. Friend give us a debate? The plan proposed by the district councils to reunite our wonderful county of Somerset and allow our famous king to rest in peace is worthy of Government time.
May 878, the Battle of Edington: it is from that battle and the defeat of Guthrum that the British nation, the United Kingdom, was founded. Without that, we would probably all be speaking Danish. It is thanks to King Alfred, who of course laid his plans on the Somerset levels. We should always remember that our great nation comes from Somerset, and Somerset should always be at the centre of our nation’s thinking. It is one great united country. Ted Heath’s chopping it up in 1974 caused me dyspepsia as a five-year-old and continues to cause me dyspepsia now. Somerset is a great county, and the more united it is the better.
It is good to be here, Mr Speaker, after so many months of absence to discuss matters with the Leader of the House in person.
I begin with your very welcome statement, Mr Speaker, about what happened last night. The Leader of the House ought to be a little less nonchalant in his approach. What we presented to the public and the world last night was quite an unedifying spectacle, to be honest. The conga line going through this House involving Members, many of whom clearly had some difficulty with social distancing, was not a good example to set. When we had the remote voting system, it did not fail; it worked perfectly well on every occasion it was put to the test. It is a system that was fit for purpose, and as he well knows, the Procedure Committee has recommended that whilst the pandemic persists we should go back to that form of voting, which is not only secure but safe and allows people to vote without coming into proximity of one another. I hope that when we discuss these matters next Wednesday at the debate he has announced on proxy voting, we will be able to consider alternatives as well, and I hope we will be able to take some action on this prior to the present arrangements running out at the beginning of November.
Secondly, I invite the Leader of the House to comment on the resignation yesterday of Lord Keen, the Advocate General for Scotland, who reached a point where he found it impossible to continue to serve in the Government because of their intention to proceed with breaking international law. Does he think he will be successful in finding a qualified Law Officer in Scotland who will be prepared to countenance breaking the law in the future?
Finally, I want to ask the Leader of the House about the coronavirus job retention scheme and the self-employment income support scheme, both of which we will discuss in Backbench Business debates this afternoon. Members across the House who will be participating in those very well-subscribed debates look to the Government to bring forward proposals for what will happen after 31 October, when many businesses will have to remain closed by Government order. If that is the case, it seems to me that the public purse has to assist them in getting to the other side of this pandemic. It is not enough to simply close down the scheme and say, “That’s it.”
It is a pleasure that we are back face to face. When the hon. Gentleman appeared remotely, he looked like one of the rather more bad-tempered Old Testament prophets, but face to face, we see his natural joviality shining through. He is very welcome back, and I am sorry that I was not here last week.
Yesterday, the votes worked—that is the key. Had the technology failed remotely, we would simply not have been able to get the business through. It is proving that this House is back to work as the rest of the country is coming back to work. We are leading by example, and we should be proud of that.
The hon. Gentleman asked me about my noble Friend Lord Keen, who is a distinguished lawyer. He has indeed left the Government, and I am sure that there are many brilliant Scottish lawyers who can be found and asked to fulfil the role of Advocate General. The pool of wisdom in Scottish legal circles is very deep, and I have absolute confidence that we will find someone of comparable genius to the noble Lord to take the role that has been vacated.
The issue here is a very important one: do we defend the national interest of the United Kingdom when the EU is acting in bad faith, as the Prime Minister has said? The answer is yes, we must defend our national interest and our United Kingdom. The hon. Gentleman does not want the United Kingdom to exist. That is a perfectly respectable position for him to take, and it is put forward by his party in Scotland, but it is not the position of the Government or, indeed, of the majority of people in the United Kingdom, who have an affection, an attraction, a devotion and a patriotism towards their country and want it to succeed. Its success will be determined by laws passed in this House.
As regards the job support scheme, it is worth reminding the House what has been done by taxpayers. There has been £160 billion of support from taxpayers across the United Kingdom, with £35 billion on the furlough scheme, £8.5 billion for 3 million self-employed people, £15 billion on coronavirus business interruption loans for small and medium-sized enterprises and large businesses, and £35 billion on over 1 million bounce back loans. That is an enormous amount of taxpayers’ money, but taxpayers’ money is not unlimited, so the schemes cannot go on forever, but I am sure that the debates later today will be informative.
May I also wish shana tova to the Jewish community in my constituency and across the globe?
Apprenticeships are a fantastic way for young people to not only get into work but get a valuable qualification in the process. Being a keen supporter of apprenticeships, I have recently taken on two to work in my Radcliffe office, so that we are not only helping constituents but helping young people to earn and learn. Given the Prime Minister’s announcement that young people should be guaranteed an apprenticeship—which is much needed, given the increase in youth unemployment during the pandemic—will the Government lead by example and commit to offering as many young people as possible apprenticeship programmes across all areas of government?
My hon. Friend is right and asks an important question. I am glad to say that my own office has a good track record in this. We have an apprentice at the moment, and another member of the team was an apprentice before being promoted to a full-time appointment. I hope the Government will indeed follow my hon. Friend’s suggestion. In his plan for jobs, the Chancellor announced measures to ensure that young people have access to an offer of work-based training, work experience and training programmes, but apprenticeships are an excellent way of getting people on the jobs ladder, and the Government fully support them.
I am glad to see the Leader of the House safely back in his place, and I hope he recovers from his dyspepsia quite soon. I thank him for announcing the business for next week, including the Backbench business for Thursday 24 September, although it is a bit regrettable that we will not get Thursday 1 October, as we have just under 30 remaining applications, including some that are time-sensitive for late September and early October.
The Secretary of State for Health and Social Care will shortly make a statement introducing significant restrictions on the people of Northumberland, Durham and Tyne and Wear, including my constituency of Gateshead, to combat the considerable growth in the number of positive cases identified in those areas, despite local testing capacity having been reduced, as I have previously mentioned. Will the Leader of the House urge the Health Secretary to make regular statements to the House on the situation, as it is fast-moving and serious? Restrictions on time preclude many Members who would want to from putting questions to him when we get the opportunity.
I am glad that the hon. Gentleman is pleased that there is Backbench business both this Thursday and next Thursday. I give a reminder that it is still the intention to restore Westminster Hall from 5 October, so that will provide more time for Backbench business. The Health Secretary answered an urgent question earlier this week and is making a statement later. Who is on the call lists is really a matter for you, Mr Speaker, rather than for me, but I think the Health Secretary has been admirable in his willingness to come to the House to explain what is going on and to ensure that people are kept up-to-date.
I trust that my right hon. Friend will be very much looking forward to the county championship final next Wednesday between Somerset and Essex. I think I did predict in this place a few months ago that the championship would be a struggle between those two great counties, but I did not think it would come down to a showdown at Lords in the way it is. I look forward to discussing that with him next week.
I would like to touch on the issue of pet theft. We have seen a significant growth in pet theft over lockdown. Our pets have never been more important to us. For many, they have been our companions throughout lockdown. Pet theft continues to grow and there is a strong sense among many campaigners that the penalties are not there to deter pet theft from growing in the way it has done. There is a petition of well over 100,000 people who would like the issue to be debated in Westminster Hall. We have had a virtual meeting so far, because we could not have that debate, but would my right hon. Friend commit to bringing back Westminster Hall debates as soon as possible, so that pet theft and many other critically important issues can be thoroughly debated by us Members?
This is an issue that concerns people. I can tell the House that recently I bought a cocker spaniel for one of my children, which is a very popular addition to the Rees-Mogg household. I confess it was for my little girl, Mary, who has been asking for a dog for many years, and I finally gave in. The thought of it being stolen is one that I know would be of great concern.
The dog’s name is Daisy. It was named by my daughter, as Members would expect. I had all sorts of extravagant names for the dog, as Members might also expect, but my daughter held sway in the matter. The issue is of concern to people. Pets are being stolen—I am aware of that—and there will be an opportunity after 5 October to have debates on this type of matter in Westminster Hall.
This year private schools saw their proportion of top A-level grades double. Does the Leader of the House accept that it is a disgrace that 60% of young people at Barnsley College saw their A-levels downgraded, compared with 40% nationally? Can we have a Government statement about how they will avoid this scandal happening ever again?
The hon. Lady calls for it never to happen again, and we hope that people will be back to doing exams and that therefore grading will not be done by assessment in future. That is certainly the plan. I obviously do not know the specific circumstances of Barnsley College, but I will take the matter up with the Secretary of State for Education and try to get her a fuller answer.
The BBC is a fantastic employer. One of its employees recently received a £1 million-a-year pay rise, paid for by the great British public. However, the residents in Ashfield were not consulted over the pay rise. Does the Leader of the House agree that there should be a debate in this House so that the people of our great country can have a choice over whether or not their hard-earned cash should be used to subsidise BBC presenters’ £1 million salaries?
As a public service broadcaster funded by the licence fee—i.e. taxpayers—the BBC has a responsibility to lead the way in promoting equality in the workplace, ensuring overall pay restraint and value for money. That is why the Government requested that the names of all BBC staff and talent paid more than £150,000 be published. But there was one thing that horrified, appalled and shocked me about the list that came out: the name of Jonathan Agnew did not appear higher up the list. I could not believe that there were people being paid more than £1 million and that one of them was not our leading cricket commentator, Aggers himself. This is a great injustice, and I hope that somebody will request a Backbench Business debate to try to put this right. Fairness for Aggers!
From cricket to football—yesterday, the chair of the national league wrote to the Culture Secretary asking for permission to start the new season on 3 October. National league clubs such as Bath City Football Club are such important community facilities for people of all ages. They are not our shiny premier league clubs, which get income from TV deals; they depend on their supporters to physically attend. If these national league clubs cannot reopen in October due to a Government decision on covid guidance, all these clubs will go under. Will the Leader of the House make representations to the Cabinet, particularly to the Culture Secretary, to make sure that these clubs can reopen in October, while also being covid-safe? I understand that they made very special plans over the summer to make all provisions to make it safe for people to attend. Perhaps face coverings could be suggested in those circumstances. But it is vital that these clubs can actually reopen and that supporters can see the games in person from October.
The hon. Lady makes a very fair point. Local clubs are important—they are important community facilities—and they do not have the huge amounts of money of the premier league clubs. In my own constituency, both Paulton and Keynsham have very good football teams and it is going to be difficult without a clear path as to how they can reopen. The Secretary of State will be answering questions next Thursday and I am sure he will be able to give more information on this.
I know that my right hon. Friend and, indeed, the shadow Leader of the House are both as committed as anybody here to ensure that we change the culture of Parliament for the better. I would like him to please update the House on where we are on the 18-month review of the complaints scheme. In particular, when I met with him on this subject, we discussed the fact that it takes too long for a complaint to go from the initial phone call to the helpline through to whether it is upheld or refused. We all know that justice delayed is justice denied. So can he say what he is doing to ensure that this House is putting our own house in order and being the role model to the rest of the country that we all want to be?
First, I thank my right hon. Friend for all the work that she did to improve and change the culture, because she really drove this forward with considerable energy to the benefit of Parliament. I think that we are all agreed that we need a new culture and that there is no place for bullying, harassment or sexual harassment in Parliament. We should be a place of excellence where people feel safe and secure in their employment and where people are treated properly. As regards the 18-month review, there is a paper in front of both the Lords and Commons Commissions to be considered to try to get this review done and done speedily. There have inevitably been some delays because of the coronavirus, but I entirely agree with her on the issue of speediness when people make a complaint. It is unfair both on the complainant and on the person accused if inquiries drag out indefinitely. She is right to raise that and I hope that it will be part of the inquiry—the 18-month review—though obviously that is not for me to decide because it will be independent.
The statutory requirement for the House to debate fuel poverty annually has not been met since 2018. Will the Leader of the House kindly inform us when Ministers plan to rectify this situation with a debate in Government time?
As the hon. Gentleman will know, there are enormous pressures on Government time, but there are many ways of raising things in debate and bringing them forward. Parliament allocates its time in accordance with its Standing Orders and the requirements of the law, and any statutory requirements that there are to have debates will be upheld.
Following on from what my hon. Friend the Member for Ashfield (Lee Anderson) said, may we have a debate in Government time on the salaries paid to BBC presenters—£1.75 million and £1.3 million, to mention just two, and for what? Yet the BBC has the audacity now to charge 75-year-olds the licence fee. These salaries are outrageous and shameful, and it is about time the Government put an end to them.
Slightly warming to my earlier theme, I am not entirely sure why a retired footballer is paid more than Vic Marks, a distinguished Somerset cricketer who regularly appears as an expert summariser on “Test Match Special”. I would have thought that he was deserving of much more money than a retired association footballer.
I do think that the BBC has been unfair on pensioners in requiring them to pay the licence fee. The hope was that it would not do that. It is basically stealing the Ovaltine from pensioners’ night-time drink by charging them the licence fee, and it is losing licence fee payers: it has lost a quarter of a million licence fee payers in the last year, as people vote with their feet. I think the BBC needs to pay attention to what my hon. Friend says. When it charges some of the least well-off in our society and gives the money to some of the most well-off in our society, there are people who will rightly question that—especially when it is not giving it to cricketers.
In my constituency in the last week, we have been desperately trying to avoid a local lockdown—to be honest, with little help from the Government. Last week, I took it upon myself to work with a local charity, Sindh Doctors Association UK, to deliver some IT equipment to my lovely old primary school, which was gratefully received for distribution to disadvantaged students.
Just last year, the Office for National Statistics said that around 700,000 young people, including those at secondary school but not those at primary school, do not have proper access to the internet, or a tablet or computer. May we therefore have a debate in Government time on the provision of IT equipment, including tablets, routers and all the other equipment that young people will need if our country is heading into further localised lockdowns or even, as rumoured today, a potential national lockdown? Our pupils have already suffered enough in the last year, and we want the Government to take every opportunity to ensure that they do not fail again to deliver such technology, which they said they would deliver but then did not, to so many young people.
The hon. Gentleman makes a very good point about ensuring that there is support for young people who do not have access to the necessary technology. There is a £350 million national tutoring programme, which is a package of targeted funding for the most disadvantaged pupils to try to ensure that they can catch up on anything that they have missed, in addition to a £100 million fund to boost remote education, which is obviously helping with the technology. The hon. Gentleman makes a very fair point; I think it is worth asking for an Adjournment debate on this issue, but the Government are taking steps in a direction that I hope he will approve of.
A few weeks ago, residents in Wednesbury and Tipton suffered incredibly bad flooding, which saw many houses washed out and possessions lost. This is not the first time that that has happened in those communities, and many people now cannot get flood insurance. I managed, luckily, to speak to Severn Trent Water, which raised with me the fact that most of the time it is not consulted on potential flooding issues with new developments. I have been somewhat concerned by the lead flood authority’s attitude to engagement with Severn Trent on trying to resolve these issues for the long term. May we have a debate in Government time on flood protection, particularly in the Black Country, an area that is often overlooked when these issues are discussed?
The Government absolutely recognise the devastating impact that flooding can have on communities across the country; it is very tough on those affected. The Government are acting to drive down flood risk and announced a £5.2 billion expenditure programme of taxpayers’ money to build 2,000 new flood defences over the next six years. However, the point that my hon. Friend makes about the lack of co-ordination is important, and I am happy to take that up with Ministers in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs on his behalf to get him a fuller answer as to why these engagements are not taking place.
Last year’s “State of Nature” report found that 41% of UK species are in decline, with one in 10 threatened with extinction, and just this week a new report from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds noted that we have seen a “lost decade for nature”, with the Government failing to reach 17 out of 20 biodiversity targets they signed up to 10 years ago. May we therefore have an urgent debate on how the Government plan to turn that around, including by introducing legally binding targets to restore nature by scrapping the reckless £27 billion road building plan, which is already subject to judicial review, and by restoring the funding to organisations such as the Environment Agency and Natural England, whose budgets have been slashed by 30% in the past 10 years alone?
It is very important that we have roads and that people can get about the country. The road building plan will help the economy. It will be a boost to the economy and a boost to jobs. The last thing we should be doing in the current crisis is making it harder for people to get jobs and for the economy to grow. However, the Government have a very good record on dealing with environmental matters. They have committed to the net zero target by 2050. Perhaps most importantly, we will take back control of our agricultural policy from 1 January and will be able to ensure that expenditure in that area goes towards protecting diversity and the environment, rather than being squandered on EU-sponsored schemes we are not in favour of and burdening our farmers with bureaucracy. Things are getting very much better thanks to the Conservatives and Brexit.
Residents in the village of Long Crendon in my constituency currently face the prospect of losing their GP surgery and being asked to go to a village poorly served by public transport that is at least an £11 taxi ride away. May I therefore ask my right hon. Friend for a debate in Government time to explore the provision of rural GP services, so that, as the Government deliver on our commitment for 50 million extra GP appointments, rural communities keep local, village-based GP services?
Living as I do in a small village, I am well aware of the importance of rural GP services and the need for them to be accessible by people living in rural areas who do not necessarily have any public transport and need to be within reasonable distance of a surgery. However, there are countervailing arguments about having larger centres which may be able to provide a higher level of service and more appointments. There is a balance within that. My hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise the issue, which is very suitable for a Backbench Business debate, because it may well be of interest across the House.
Almost a year ago, I challenged the Prime Minister that his Brexit withdrawal agreement would not only put a customs and regulatory border down the Irish sea, but weaken our Union. Because he is not a details man, and without reading it line by line, he proceeded, amid much fanfare, to sign the agreement, extol its virtues as the best deal and an oven-ready deal, and impose it into law on a three-line Whip. Does the Leader of the House agree, now the Prime Minister has woken up and wants to break international law, that while the Prime Minister may need a United Kingdom Internal Market Bill to supposedly protect him from the European Union, what we actually need is a Bill that protects our country and its people from the seemingly limitless ineptitude and incompetence of this Prime Minister and his Government?
The hon. Gentleman may perhaps overstate his case just a little. It seems to me that the withdrawal agreement is a very good agreement, but it depended on the good faith of the other side. Had that been forthcoming, there was no question of tariffs on goods that were going to Northern Ireland and were going to stay there. That was provided for. There was no question of food not going to Northern Ireland. Unfortunately, the obduracy, the stubbornness, the pig-headedness of the European Union has put us in a position where we have to protect our interests. In terms of legislation around this Government, the greatest voice we had was that of the British people and they decided just last December who they wanted to run their affairs. They decided they wanted a Conservative Government who would deliver a departure from the European Union in the British national interest. That is what is being doing and that is why so many people across the country in historically socialist seats decided to put their faith in the Conservatives.
I was very cheered up at the beginning of business questions when I saw my hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey (Stuart Andrew), the Deputy Leader of the House, sitting next to my right hon. Friend. Last week, my hon. Friend undertook to go round to No. 10 and tell the Prime Minister off for making announcements to the media before making them to the House. Will the Leader of the House take that a little further? The rule of six, which limits the British people to gatherings of no more six, is a major change to the way this country works. Should not Parliament discuss those major changes first and vote on them? Could we have a statement next week, outlining that in future, before a major change in regulations relating to covid is made, an amendable motion is debated and approved in the House before the regulations come in? Perhaps it would be useful if the Deputy Leader of the House made that statement.
I apologise to my hon. Friend, but there was some problem with the technology. He was kindly helping my argument that technology is not the answer to every possible problem and that sometimes good old-fashioned turning up in person is helpful. However, I got the broad impression that my hon. Friend is not very pleased. I wish to correct the record. My hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey (Stuart Andrew) did not undertake to go round to see the Prime Minister and tell him what my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough (Mr Bone) wanted him to say. I think that probably, had he answered the question at greater length—he was under pressure of time—he would have said that was going to go round to Downing Street to tell the Prime Minister what a wonderful job he is doing and how lucky we are to have such inspired leadership, with which I hope my hon. Friend would concur. However, I can assure him that there will be a debate. A debate is scheduled on the continuation of the Coronavirus Act 2020 provisions on Wednesday 30 September. That will be the opportunity for those points to be raised.
Parents held vigils around the UK yesterday, including my constituent Rachel Rankmore, whose son, Bailey Williams, has very severe epilepsy. They were holding those vigils because they are still paying thousands of pounds in private prescriptions to get hold of medical cannabis. In Northern Ireland, the Administration are helping financially. May we have a debate on why that is not happening in the rest of the UK?
There is always great sadness about children who are suffering from these very difficult conditions and questions about the drugs that are made available and who pays for them. Obviously, the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence has a responsibility to investigate that, but I will happily pass on the hon. Gentleman’s comments to the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care.
My right hon. Friend will not be surprised to hear that the incompetently run Lib Dem council in Sutton is again not listening to Carshalton and Wallington residents, this time about road schemes, which are causing travel chaos across the borough. May we have a debate in this place about those road schemes and the way councils should consult residents properly?
My hon. Friend is right. The Lib Dems hate the motorist, of course, and want to make life as difficult as possible for motorists whenever they can. The emergency active travel fund, which was announced on 9 May, comprised £225 million of funding in two tranches for local authorities. The local authorities have the responsibility for how that money is spent, but the Government will ensure that if they do not demonstrate that it is providing improvements, the funding will be withheld.
It is estimated that around 320,000 private renters have fallen into rent arrears during the pandemic. Many have lost work, fallen through gaps in support or struggled on reduced earnings on furlough. On Sunday, the evictions ban ends, putting hundreds of thousands at risk of eviction and tens of thousands at risk of homelessness. For private renters in Coventry South and across the country, will the Leader of the House give Government time to urgently discuss measures to stop the crisis, such as extending the evictions ban for at least a year, scrapping no-fault evictions, as promised in the Tory manifesto, and cancelling rent arrears?
Nearly £1 billion of support has been provided for renters, increasing the generosity of housing benefit and universal credit so that the local housing allowance covers at least 30% of market rents in local areas. Measures to ensure that no tenant has been forced out do indeed come to an end on 20 September, but landlords have not been able to evict for the past six months and there is a balance to be struck between landlords and tenants, and the Government have spent a great deal of taxpayers’ money trying to support tenants.
Earlier this summer, I spent time campaigning to get my constituents in Oadby and Wigston out of our local lockdown, and nobody wants to go back into those kinds of measures, but unfortunately the number of coronavirus cases, particularly in Oadby, has gone dramatically up. I have told the Health Secretary that any new measures must be extremely well targeted and proportionate, so that they do not affect people’s businesses and livelihoods. May we also have a debate on how we best handle local restrictive measures?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. It is important that restrictions are precise and aimed at the areas most at risk. Local outbreaks require local action and may be a feature of our lives for some time to come, but the Government’s aim is to enable as many people as possible to live their lives as close to normal as possible. I hope that he will have an opportunity, depending on the call list, to quiz the Secretary of State for Health in a moment.
On 16 July, the Youth Violence Commission, which I chair, launched its final report and recommendations. I sent a copy to all Members and peers the following week. Will the Leader of the House ensure that the Prime Minister has read the report, and will he grant us a debate on youth violence so that we can discuss these urgent recommendations and hear the Prime Minister’s response?
Obviously, youth violence is a very important issue, and I congratulate the hon. Lady on bringing it to the attention of the House and on the work that she has done. This is very suitable for a Backbench Business debate, and I imagine that there would be considerable support across the House for that. It would be bold of me to tell the Prime Minister what he ought to read, but I will certainly ensure that the copy she sent him has arrived.
For more than half a century and throughout all parts of the United Kingdom, historic counties have been divided, merged, replaced and abolished, as my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House will know only too well with his beloved Somerset. May we please have a statement from the Cabinet Office on respecting our traditional counties, perhaps via the lord lieutenancies?
The Lieutenancies Act 1997 sets out that the ceremonial counties will be the historic counties, and it was a rather splendid Act because it reunited Somerset and other historic counties that had been bowdlerised by Ted Heath’s Administration. The historic counties are an important element of British history. They support the identity and cultures of many of our local communities, giving people a sense of belonging, pride and community spirit, and I hope that the counties will be recognised. As I am addressing an hon. Friend from Sussex, I think it is worth reminding him that the conversion of Sussex to Christianity was delayed because the woodland was so thick that it was hard for the converters to get through, but I am glad that he stands up for his county.
I do not know how familiar the Leader of the House is with the concept of no recourse to public funds, but it has resulted in one of my constituents being left close to destitution while caring for her grandchildren after their mother died of cancer, because she cannot get her status sorted with the Home Office. Will the right hon. Gentleman arrange for a Minister to look into this specific case, and may we have a debate on the wider issue so that a Minister can come to the Dispatch Box to explain how this Government can continue to justify their inhumane, hostile and violent immigration policy?
I welcome the sentencing White Paper that the Justice Secretary introduced yesterday, as it restates the Government’s commitment to increase the maximum sentence for causing death by dangerous driving to life imprisonment. However, it is now nearly three years since the Government first announced this change, and the families waiting for justice have waited long enough, so will the Leader of the House tell us exactly when this legislation will be introduced, to give the bereaved families the justice they deserve?
I thank the hon. Lady for the campaigning she has done on this important issue and for her success in developing policy in this area. Her influence and questioning have helped the Government to come to our policy decisions, which, as she knows, the Lord Chancellor announced yesterday. As regards the precise timing of the Bill, I cannot give an absolute answer on the day it will take place, but the White Paper sets out a serious Government priority. It will be introduced as soon as parliamentary time allows and the Bill has been written, and that is in the not too distant future. I hope that that answer is at least encouraging.