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Westminster Hall

Volume 684: debated on Wednesday 25 November 2020

Westminster Hall

Wednesday 25 November 2020

[James Gray in the Chair]

North of England: Infrastructure Spending

I beg to move,

That this House has considered infrastructure spending in the North of England.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. This debate about support for infrastructure spending in the north of England is extremely timely and significant, for a number of reasons, the first being that in the next few hours my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer will get to his feet in the House to make a financial statement on public spending.

I welcome the many new colleagues on the Government side of the Chamber who represent seats that we did not hold a year ago and who have an absolute commitment to ensuring that infrastructure projects go ahead in their constituencies. Although I also welcome Members on the Opposition side, we do not have quite as many as I thought we would for this important debate.

Recent press briefings detail that the Treasury is keen to use today’s statement to announce the conclusion of its review of the Green Book. The Chancellor, after all, represents a northern seat, and I am sure that his constituents will also benefit from changes being made to the guidance on how the Treasury appraises and evaluates policies, projects and programmes, as well as the investing of billions of pounds in a national infrastructure strategy. I speak for many colleagues in welcoming that news from the Government, and I look forward to hearing the announcements in full in a short while.

Another factor is most pressing and only too obvious to hon. Members: we are in the midst of fighting a devastating pandemic. However, that pandemic is not only a health crisis, but an economic one. The north has historically seen greater adversity and has more recently experienced greater disruption—unparalleled disruption, compared with other parts of the country. That has exposed the deep structural, systematic disadvantage that we face.

That distinct disadvantage was highlighted by the Institute for Fiscal Studies when it released shocking statistics in October. It calculated that spending on infrastructure was higher per person in London, at £1,461 a year on average over a five-year period, than in the north-west, where the average was £979; the north-east, where it was £793; and Yorkshire and the Humber, where it was £744. Consistently disproportionate investment has, over the years, created an obvious divide between north and south, and particularly between London and the south-east, and the north.

Without adequate investment, the north has been held back and unable to see the benefits, such as jobs, growth and investment, that other areas have seen. That has undermined the quality of economic opportunity for people, families and businesses to thrive, compared with other areas of the country. There is an urgent need to redress those inequalities and start to invest in infrastructure, which will unleash the north’s potential.

Let me also say that the north is much more than its cities. It feels as though any discussion that we have about the north provokes a reaction centred on Liverpool, Manchester, Leeds and Newcastle. Although they are important, that is another reason that there is a feeling in some areas of the north that, over the years, they have been forgotten and left behind—more so in those areas where there is no major city at all.

It would be remiss of me, especially as my right hon. Friend the Minister is listening, not to mention my own constituency and all the prosperity that we want to bring to Southport through infrastructure projects. Southport is a jewel in the north’s crown, attracting thousands of visitors each year to its annual events: the flower show, the air show and the comedy festival. I am also privileged to have in my constituency the Royal Birkdale Golf Club, which hosted the Open golf tournament. Royal Birkdale is in fact one of four championship golf courses in my constituency. That, combined with some wonderful bars and restaurants, makes Southport a great place not only for me to live in, but for thousands of others to visit. However, the visitor economy, which accounts for more than a third of the local economy, has been particularly hit during the pandemic.

Improved spending on transport infrastructure would open up our economy to more opportunity and the benefits that come with better connectivity. That connectivity is best delivered through rail projects such as the Burscough curves, which would connect Southport and Preston with a direct line, benefiting us as well as communities in the neighbouring constituencies of West Lancashire and South Ribble, and in the wider region. I say to the Minister that rail should be a key focus of revitalising the northern economy. Bringing with it highly skilled jobs and increased gross value added, more rail would enable us not only to move people around with greater ease, but to move freight around, helping to reduce carbon emissions and making our communities healthier.

We also want to see new rolling stock on our tracks. The north of England is unique, but there is a wonderful comparison. I am sure my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard) will confirm that the north of England shares similarities with Iran. They are the only places in the world still using Pacer trains—of course, in Iran, they are reserved fleet, not the current fleet that they use when they can get them round. That is quite a damning indictment of what we need to do in this country to get improved rolling stock out on our rails.

Infrastructure investment would also attract private investment. Another great initiative taken by the Government is the town deals. Our town deal, which was submitted recently for £50 million, would unleash a further £350 million completely to transform Southport—enhancing our tourism industry and diversifying our economy, making it stronger and more resilient. The prospect of the town deal has already been the catalyst for private investment projects such as the Southport surf cove and the Viking golf attraction. With more emphasis in our plan to develop enterprise and innovation, we hope to attract more companies, such as Techedia, a specialist IT company that has started a £1 million transformation of a landmark building, which will bring into the building 75 brand new jobs.

As Great Britain becomes global Britain, another great initiative announced by the Government is freeports. Across the north, there are six project bids, one of which is an excellent bid by the Peel combined freeport, which provides links between the United States, Canada and the Americas, and Southport and Lancashire. With these trading links, we can develop and grow advanced manufacturing, energy, digital, biotech and agriculture. The importance of investment in such projects cannot be overestimated if we are to overcome the economic challenge of covid and realise the full potential of Brexit.

Looking to the future, we heard last week about the Government’s 10-point plan to create 250,000 green jobs. We want to get our share of those jobs by creating investment in infrastructure, particularly nuclear energy and advanced manufacturing. We should give highly skilled, highly paid jobs to people in constituencies such as mine—building wind turbines, servicing those wind turbines and seeing them through a career.

A recent report from the Green Alliance estimated that, in striving to get the UK to net zero, associated infrastructure investment would create 60,500 jobs in the north-west, 21,500 in the north-east and 17,200 jobs in Yorkshire and the Humber. Creating jobs through the upgrading of digital infrastructure, particularly in rural areas, will allow increased home working and facilitate the transition to a smart, low-carbon and decentralised energy system away from London. It is quite apt that my right hon. Friend the Member for Tatton (Esther McVey) is present. She is the leader of blue-collar Conservatives and is doing a fantastic job for our communities in the north, but she might have another title yet: she might become the leader of green-collar Conservatives, which would enhance the portfolio of things that she looks at in those areas.

The fact is that the pandemic has accelerated the need for improved infrastructure spending in the north. From energy to broadband, and from transport to trade, we have an unquestionable opportunity to use infrastructure spending not only to root out and address disadvantage, but to provide greater and improved economic opportunity and empowerment for our constituents. I have campaigned with many other northern MPs and the Northern Research Group for a northern economic recovery plan. Improved infrastructure spending is a vital and core part of our recovery. Done correctly, it will have the power to fulfil our commitment to people living in the north to build back better, to level up and, dare I say, to unleash our potential.

Order. I do not intend to impose a formal time limit on speeches. Looking around the Chamber, colleagues will realise that if they keep their speeches to three or four minutes, they can accommodate one another.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray, and I give the hon. Member for Southport (Damien Moore) credit for securing such an important debate, the topic of which is vital for our region of the north and for our infrastructure.

Levelling up, closing the economic divide and dealing with decades of inequalities in the north has certainly been a clarion call for me and many Labour MPs. We now have the new voices that the hon. Gentleman referred to in seats in the north of England that were traditionally red. They talk about powering up and levelling up the north, as well as regional disparities and infrastructure. The evidence cited by the Institute for Fiscal Studies and others is clear, and it is decades long. For example, in London and the south-east, nearly three times as much is spent on transport infrastructure. The hon. Gentleman mentioned average spend as well.

Collectively as northerners, regardless of whether we are Labour, Conservative or Liberal Democrat, or the odd Green that we might have, we represent our communities, and I hope that at times we can act together to ensure that the Executive—Downing Street—become more focused on our street in the north. However, this is about more than the fiscal environment; it is about power, democracy and shaping our own future. The missing part of the jigsaw, or the unfinished business, is genuine devolution for Cheshire and Warrington.

In the past, I worked for Andy Burnham, the current metro Mayor. I was a councillor for 11 years in Manchester, so I have been involved in shaping devolution in that patch, which is just up the road from my constituency and that of the right hon. Member for Tatton (Esther McVey). On the other side of my constituency there is devolution in the Liverpool city region, so we have a missing part of the jigsaw where things are largely done to us, sometimes mistakenly and sometimes not the right things. We have minimal say.

I want to ask the Minister about the devolution White Paper. We genuinely have an oven-ready deal, ready to go with the support of Cheshire West and Chester Council Warrington Borough Council, Cheshire East Council, and, very importantly, the business community, whether that is the Tatton Group or the local enterprise partnership. We just need to get on.

Before the pandemic, the economy was worth about £38 billion. We can realise that potential and shape our own destiny, which will help us to focus on the things that we need in our patch, such as the mid-Cheshire line, which the right hon. Member for Tatton and others are campaigning on cross-party. We need that to happen in our constituencies and we need it to happen yesterday. We need to realise the potential of hydrogen in Cheshire, where we can not only lead in Britain, but be world leaders. However, we need that say, that investment and that devolution deal.

I will conclude there. I thank the hon. Member for Southport for giving me, a Labour voice, the opportunity to contribute to today’s debate.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray, and I thank my hon. Friend the hon. Member for Southport (Damien Moore) for securing this important debate. The topic is broad, but I will confine my remarks to Tatton and Cheshire, and will look at cost viability and prioritisation as a good Conservative should. I want to bring a good dose of public common sense to Parliament for the Minister to hear and hopefully take back to the Chancellor and the Cabinet.

I want to talk about High Speed 2, whose cost is like a runaway train, rising and rising. We have that grandiose scheme—some might call it a white elephant—but in Tatton we do not have local infrastructure. We are waiting for local train routes that are meant to have been delivered, and while we focus nationally on just one line, many small lines across local regions have not happened. People commuting from Knutsford to Manchester off-peak are waiting two hours for a train. That is one train every two hours off-peak, although it is one an hour at peak times. However, when the bid for the franchise was made, we were promised that we would have two trains an hour—not two a minute, but two an hour—which is not a lot to ask for and does not involve huge amounts of investment. Just two trains an hour, but that has never been delivered.

Bus routes are another local transport issue to look at. It is hard to find a bus or bus route in Tatton and people are crying out for buses. Buses are not often used during this covid period, but soon that will change and people will not be able to get around, for example, from Wilmslow to Handforth, and then maybe travelling further afield to Warrington, Liverpool or Manchester. I would be remiss if I did not mention my constituents Mr and Mrs Sunderland, who stopped me the other day in Handforth as they were shopping at the Paddock and asked, “What is happening to the 130 bus?”

I ask the Minister to please think about these local transport routes, the bus service, the tram service, the train service—nothing is happening. We also need investment in the mid-Cheshire line, as was mentioned by my friend the hon. Member for Weaver Vale (Mike Amesbury). We have been talking about that year after year and we are here for every question and debate in the House to ask what is going on, but it is being overlooked. We are talking about levelling up. We are talking about not just the north, although we are all here from the north, but the regions, towns and villages, and we all need our local transport.

The final bit of infrastructure we absolutely need and must have is the digital infrastructure to have us all connecting and connected. I admire and praise our Government’s vision for a 1 gigabit capability and the money they have promised to achieve that. It is vital—now more than ever, as people work from home, learn from home and socialise from home—that we have the digital connectivity we need. Therefore, I say stop HS2 with its runaway expenses—it should have hit the buffers a long time ago—and put that money into digital infrastructure to benefit the whole country, and into local transport.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Southport (Damien Moore) on introducing this important debate.

I want to build on what my right hon. Friend the Member for Tatton (Esther McVey) has just said, although I both agree and disagree with it. HS2 and other big projects are important, but I think she was saying that they cannot be exclusive, and they must form part of a bigger picture. She is absolutely right that this is not just about transport links and that fibre broadband infrastructure is going to be revolutionary. Many of us have noticed during lockdown just how difficult it can be at certain points in the day even to open emails. That stands in stark contrast to what needs to be done.

My view on infrastructure, as laid out in a paper I hope to publish shortly, is that we must look to the short, medium and long term. This is where I differ from my right hon. Friend: I believe there is value in the long-term projects, which will take a long time to build, although it is vital that we have these small, short projects, which are sometimes as simple as 1 km of train track that completely opens up different rail routes. There are lots of those around the Liverpool area, I understand. My hon. Friends might be able to build on those comments.

There are medium-term projects such as light rail infrastructure around my city of Leeds—something that has been in the offing for decades and where money has been supplied, but we have been talked out of it because the project is too difficult and upsets too many people. These things need to happen. However, I want to focus on the main big projects over the long term, which really make a difference, and on particular issues that will be in the report we are producing soon.

In the north of England we are lucky in our maritime position, with the port of Hull and the port of Liverpool. If the globe were tilted to give the relevant perspective, it would show that that corridor is more linked into mainland Europe than the other corridors are. Germany has been able to adapt its economy regularly as the world has changed and moved forward, and the one fundamental truth about where and why that happens is the River Rhine. It is a huge transport link, and a lot of engineering work has been done to link it to other rivers.

Of course, we do not have that between Liverpool and Hull. The canal system was built, but that is not what I am talking about. We need to look at a fundamental freight rail transport system that is akin to what the River Rhine does for commerce in central Europe and Germany. That is there to be built on. On that route, we could build inland freeports, to which the railway freight would be brought from, say, Hull, having come out of Europe. With value-added engineering in tax-free freeports, it would go back on the railway, over to the port of Liverpool and off round the rest of the world—or vice versa, coming back the other way.

We must think in the short, medium and long term, but the long-term projects, which will cost a huge amount of money, need to be really transformational and to put the country in a place that we have not been in before. Is that blue-sky thinking? Is it dreaming? Maybe, but it has to be the ambition. That would go a long way, through infrastructure, towards levelling up the north of England.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Southport (Damien Moore) for securing the debate.

Investment in new infrastructure is a key issue in my constituency. Indeed, it comes up at every election, local and national, and has done since the 1960s. The first issue, and the one that my constituents raise most often, is reconnecting Leigh to the national rail network. From the moment it lost its station in 1969, local people have campaigned vociferously for a new one, as have the people of Golborne, who lost the second of their two stations in 1967—the first was closed in 1952. I am pleased to say that two bids are currently under consideration as part of the Government’s Restoring your Railway programme. One is for the west coast main line serving Golborne, and one is on the Liverpool to Manchester line, at the old Kenyon Junction site just south of Pennington in my constituency, which would act as a new station serving Leigh itself.

Access to the national rail network, through investing in reopening those two stations, will generate massive economic opportunities for my constituency, meaning that jobs in both Liverpool and Manchester will be accessible by a train journey of approximately 20 minutes in each direction, rather than the two hours and 17 minutes that it currently takes to reach Liverpool, and the hour it takes to reach Manchester, by bus. In the long term, the investment will pay for itself in economic returns.

The second major issue to do with infrastructure investment in Leigh is the need to complete the Atherleigh Way bypass, which has lain unfinished for nearly 35 years. Currently only the middle section has been constructed, and the northern section to Chequerbent roundabout in Bolton and the southern section to junction 22 of the M6 are in desperate need of completion.

Both Leigh and the surrounding communities are beset by congestion and the associated air quality issues. Air quality is poorer in some parts of my constituency than it is in central London, with regard to nitrogen dioxide and fine particulate levels. The latter problem will only increase with the introduction of heavier batteries in electric vehicles, adding to the wear on tyres and roads. That congestion also dissuades new businesses from setting up in the constituency and considerably increases journey times for commuters. In 1966, Golborne Urban District Council, a predecessor authority to Wigan Metropolitan Borough Council, our current local authority, wrote to the Government of the day that the construction of the bypass was an urgent priority. I assure Members that the situation has grown no less urgent in the intervening 54 years.

The final issue I want to raise is that of connecting Leigh to Greater Manchester’s Metrolink system. In the fullness of time I hope that the Leigh guided busway system can be upgraded to a light rail link. Evidence provided to me by the all-party parliamentary group on light rail shows that buses persuade between 4% and 6.5% of car users to switch to public transport. Light rail, by contrast, persuades nearly 27% of car users to make the switch. If we are to meet our ambitious environmental targets, a new generation of hydrogen fuel-powered light rail serving suburban communities will be critical, and we need to start undertaking feasibility studies as soon as possible.

For too long, northern constituencies such as Leigh have been left behind in terms of infrastructure investment. We have been talking about these issues for the better part of 60 years. It is time for the talking to stop. It is now time to deliver for towns such as Leigh across the north.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I am relieved to see a Treasury Minister here who has also been a Transport Minister, so we might have a good chance of a response to our debate, given the focus on transport.

This should be a technocratic debate as much as anything. There is no Labour philosophy on pouring concrete to build a new road, and no Conservative philosophy based on an exegesis of Edmund Burke on how to erect a gantry for overhead line electrification. This is predominantly technocratic. I could spend an entire four minutes trying to demolish the per capita regional spending figures that I have heard quoted for the past 10 years. They are a myth and deeply misleading, but the political class seems universally to have drunk the Kool-Aid.

More topically, it is worth thinking about the review of the Green Book announced today and the impact it will have on benefit-cost ratios. As a Minister who had to focus on BCRs time and again, I can tell colleagues the input to deliver any BCR they wish to find. BCRs on their own do not allow projects to move forward. They are a useful tool in comparing projects that achieve a similar objective—for example, how to improve trans-Pennine links. We can then compare different ways of achieving that and work out the best value.

What BCRs do not do is allow us to choose between north and south projects. It will still be a political choice whether to opt for Crossrail 2 or Northern Powerhouse Rail, and the sequences in which one might do that. In particular, and I will disappoint my hon. Friend the Member for Southport (Damien Moore), it will not get us any new rail carriages—as I know from experience—because a BCR does not take into account the fact that any new rail carriage does not mean more passengers travelling. Therefore, there is no benefit in the Treasury’s mind in that regard.

It is also worth considering that one of the problems that the Treasury has created—and a rod for its own back—which I have been unable to solve over many years, is that it has numerous fantastic projects across the north of England that cannot proceed, because they are predominantly private sector-led. A good example right now is Peel Holdings, which owns Doncaster airport. It wanted to build a short four-mile spur of the east coast main line into the airport. The Department for Transport has just turned it down, despite it being private sector-led. That is because, despite a Treasury and DFT joint review, we could not find a straightforward and simple way to keep such projects off the public purse—that meant that they would have counted towards our debt figures. That still needs to change if we are to properly unlock the true potential of all the private sector-led schemes out there.

Since my three minutes have gone—very quickly—I will make one final plea. I am struck by the fact that I have never detected such a dislike of devolution at any point in the past 15 years from the Government and most of my colleagues. In my view, and in my experience, it is only by devolving power to metro Mayors, combined authorities and our regions that we will get these smaller projects through and get the compromises that are needed between the regions to deliver some of the more strategic projects. In all my conversations with metro Mayors and combined authorities—with one notable expectation that Members can probably predict—they have always been apolitical, sensible and constructive and have improved decision making because of the quality of local transport planners. If we move away from devolution, we will have a much less effective transport policy and must less infrastructure built, so please show a little confidence in why George Osborne chose to devolve during the coalition Government. That is my four minutes up.

Thank you, Mr Gray. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Southport (Damien Moore) on securing this important debate. In 2019, we Conservatives stood on a manifesto that pledged new infrastructure projects to help reduce the disparity between the north and south of England. Inequality between the north and the south has long existed, but has grown exponentially over the past two decades. In 2004, London’s economy was the same size as that of the north. As of 2020, London is a quarter larger, according to the think-tank Onward.

Her Majesty’s Government have since committed to a significant number of projects that seek to fulfil their manifesto pledges and reverse the historic imbalance between north and south. To date, a £5 billion package of new funding to overhaul bus and cycle links for every region outside London has been established. Northern Powerhouse Rail and the upgrade to the trans-Pennine route will serve to benefit regional interconnectivity, which is vital to collaboration and commerce between key northern cities.

On 18 November, the Prime Minister announced the Government’s 10-point plan for a green industrial revolution, which includes commitments to key infrastructure areas, notably public transport and clean energy. Today, the Chancellor will unveil the national infrastructure project, which will provide billions to improve transportation connectivity, improve infrastructure such as flood defences, and bolster fibre broadband in our digital infrastructure. It is vital that the funding is used to help areas that have long felt left behind by successive Governments, to boost local economies and to create new sustainable jobs. Conservative MPs elected to represent northern seats such as my own must hold the Government’s feet to the fire and help them to realise their splendid vision for the north to ensure that our constituencies receive tangible and transformative change from these investment plans.

However, the state should not always be the driving force behind infrastructure projects. Incentivising private firms, which understand market demand and consumers far better than the state should be the primary means of levelling up the entire United Kingdom, especially the north. We should appreciate how Heathrow terminal 5 was entirely funded by private investment. It serves millions of passengers, providing hundreds of thousands of flights each year.

We have reached the current stage only because of the failed policies of successive Governments of all stripes, who have created and entrenched a national divide through London-centric policies. Thus, a severe market failure requires rectification. Once we emerge from the covid-19 pandemic and focus on resetting our economy, ensuring that every region of the United Kingdom thrives must be central to policy making. I am confident that, together with my fellow Conservative parliamentary colleagues, we will keep holding the Government to account and ensure that they deliver this exciting and welcome promise for our constituents and the entire kingdom.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Southport (Damien Moore) for bringing this debate to Westminster Hall.

I and my hon. Friend the Member for North West Durham (Richard Holden) represent the north of the north in this debate, and we would like to make sure that we are all holistic in our consideration of where investment goes in the north. When we think of infrastructure spending, what comes to mind are roads, bridges and trains, but it is also about research and development, social infrastructure and social capital, and about allowing money to be channelled into not only buildings and equipment but the day-to-day needs of public services.

The Government’s promise of levelling up is extremely welcome in the north, and particularly in my constituency. As my hon. Friend the Member for Southport said in his introduction, London has received significantly more public spending per capita than the north has. Looking at the 2003 Treasury Green Book updated by the then Labour Government, that is hardly a surprise. The north and particularly the north-east have suffered since 2003, when these disastrous funding decisions were put in place as a direct result of the Green Book and its skewed investment criteria. The north is clearly disadvantaged, and reform is urgently required to give it stronger weight. The Green Book needs to be ripped up, and investment should go where it is needed in the north.

December 2019 showed that the north had had enough and wanted change. The question is: how do we set about doing that? First, new transport spending in the north should focus on connectivity and capacity. The north does not have the same issues as the south, and what will level up the north is connecting the north’s forgotten and left-behind towns, villages and communities to employment centres and cities. That will connect people across the north to well-paying jobs and will allow people access to better education, being an enabler to lift people up.

Another part of this approach would obviously be the introduction of things such as freeports in Teesside and using the assets of the state to move Government Departments, as well as pump-priming and stimulating private investment. That would also boost companies supplying infrastructure, such as Hitachi and Cleveland Bridge, as well as smaller infrastructure companies such as Finley Structures in Newton Aycliffe.

In my constituency, Ferryhill station has the east coast main line and the Stillington spur running through it. Those lines are active and connect to major conurbations, but the Stillington spur is for freight only, and the fantastic Azumas just whisk straight on through. At one point, it was one of the busiest stations in Europe. The Beeching reversal fund, launched by the DFT, offered the opportunity for MPs to apply for funding to reopen stations. I have made an application for Ferryhill station, and I hope to hear about that shortly.

A key dynamic of this Beeching rail reversal fund is the need for MPs to lead. MPs have a unique perspective on the communities that we represent; we often look at our communities from a hyper-local perspective, allowing us to see the issues and possible solutions, and how small changes can make a big difference. I suggest that the Government create a similar funding pot, open to applications from MPs, to allow funding for particularly rural infrastructure projects that have been overlooked or ignored by councils or mayors. That should be at the level of sorting out a dangerous crossroads or getting broadband into a small village—the things that are too small for national attention, but never seem to quite make the list of local councils or mayors. I am certain that every hon. Member in this debate from a non-urban-centre seat could name a potential infrastructure project in their constituency that has been overlooked, but that would make a huge difference in their community if it was to happen.

To level up infrastructure spending in the north of England, we must look to our communities, and at both macro-connectivity and hyper-local interventions, to see what can be done to level up locally and regionally, with equal importance. Our communities need to see both serious, big schemes and immediate, community-level initiatives, and they must believe that, in the future, the decision-making field will be level.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Southport (Damien Moore). I do emphasise the term “Friend” because we go way back—before either of us took up a seat in this place.

I will start by touching on a point highlighted by the hon. Member for Weaver Vale (Mike Amesbury): this is about not only hard infrastructure, but soft infrastructure. Unfortunately, I think he was approaching this from the wrong angle, and I much prefer the approach of my hon. Friend the Member for Sedgefield (Paul Howell).

We think of infrastructure very much in terms of concrete, new roads and new rail links. To me, that is not what infrastructure is, or what levelling up is about; for me, it is about education, skills and those communities that we represent. How many times do we speak about large-scale planning applications and then say that there is no real infrastructure to support them, when what we actually mean is that there are no schools, doctors, dentists and real economic centres to support thousands of new homes? That is not just an approach that the Treasury needs to take when moving forward, but an approach that planning policy needs to adapt to fully understand what is going on in our communities.

The white elephant of HS2 has been raised already in the debate. I have spoken in favour of it previously, and it is the right kind of approach. However, we cannot think of all roads leading to London, because that is a falsehood. People from the north should not be forced to choose between HS2 or HS3, just as the people of London were not forced to choose between Crossrail and Crossrail 2; they were able to have both, and they were able to have their cake and eat it—that is the point of having cake.

We do not necessarily want a quicker journey to London—again, it is a falsehood that HS2 is framed in terms of speed rather than capacity—but we do need to ensure that our northern towns and cities are linked together so that we can truly make the northern communities the economic powerhouse.

My hon. Friend is talking about HS2 and linking northern cities. There is a delay coming on phase 2b, as we have heard. Does he agree that we should look at this creatively and extend HS3 from Manchester to Leeds, so that we do not have to wait decades to link up northern cities?

I completely agree with my right hon. Friend; in fact, he framed that argument so succinctly that I do not need to add to it. As I said, the choice between HS2 and HS3 is a fallacy; we can, and should, have both.

In terms of the view that all roads lead to London, the economy is not driven by London; the economy is growing more and faster in the north than anywhere else in the country, and we need to support that.

Much of this east-west connectivity is also driven by the private sector. Drax wants to improve east-west connectivity so that it can ship its fuel source from Liverpool over to Hull. That is part of our green infrastructure recovery; it is about not just greener fuel but carbon capture, which is intrinsic to meeting our net zero target. When we focus on our infrastructure for the north, it truly has to be a soft infrastructure-led, community-led and community-driven process that we are all part of .

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. The Government’s big promises to level up the north and build back better have been warmly welcomed by my constituents. It is not surprising that the north has been widely ignored over the past decades; the Government have the opportunity to bring towns and cities in the north of England into the future, and to develop our hospitals, schools, railways and much more.

In my maiden speech, I promised that places such as Hyndburn and Haslingden would not be forgotten anymore. We have the amazing towns of Haslingden, Huncoat, Great Harwood and Rishton, and villages such as Belthorn, and they have been forgotten. My constituency is at the heart of Lancashire—on the right side of the Pennines, if I do say so myself—but we need investment, which is why I too look forward to listening to the Chancellor today.

Alongside my hon. Friend the Member for Burnley (Antony Higginbotham), I support a new swathe of enterprise zones across the country, especially in east Lancashire. They would be places where businesses could invest in new machinery to help them diversify, while receiving capital relief; where the Government supported the infrastructure that was needed; and where job creation was clearly incentivised.

Since becoming an MP, I have fought to reopen the Skipton to Colne railway line. We need the Government’s support to make that a reality. I am pleased to work with the local group, the Skipton-East Lancashire Rail Action Partnership, which has worked tirelessly and invested thousands to prove the viability of the redevelopment of the railway line, but we need to move forward with the engineering study. That railway line would connect east Lancashire to West Yorkshire in a new way, giving my constituents quick access to Leeds and other cities across the north, and opening up new job opportunities across the region. I want to highlight the economic advantages that would be gained by investing in that railway line, alongside the proposal for a freight terminal in Huncoat, which would support businesses and attract new ones to my constituency. That builds on what my right hon. Friend the Member for Elmet and Rothwell (Alec Shelbrooke) said.

I graduated from university only last year, and I used to have to travel to Manchester. What should have been a 23-mile journey, taking about 40 minutes, used to take me two hours every morning and evening. To level up the north, we really need to improve our roads and railways.

My time is short, and I want to finish by talking about town centres. I was elected on the promise that I would push for investment in town centres such as Haslingden and Accrington, which were once a hub for my community but are a shadow of their former selves. Town centres are vital. There is not the same lure for businesses to set up in the town centre, but I believe that with strategic investment, we can make town centres such as mine a centrepiece of business and social life.

I ask that the Government continue to take the pledges to level up the north seriously by making large investments in towns such as mine. That would create a legacy for Hyndburn and Haslingden, and it would truly make sure that the forgotten towns in the north were forgotten no more.

When I saw this debate scheduled, I looked at the dictionary definition of “infrastructure”, and it said:

“The basic physical and organisational structure and facilities needed for the operation of a society or enterprise.”

Infrastructure therefore goes beyond roads, and this or that bypass; it is a much wider concept, as my hon. Friends have said. When it comes to investing in facilities in individual constituencies, I agree completely with my hon. Friend the Member for Sedgefield (Paul Howell) that the role and input of MPs can be crucial and can have a huge impact on local communities.

People who have listened to my various contributions in the House will know that I try to mention Bury football club in every speech I give, no matter what it is about—even if it is on foreign policy. The point about the demise of that club is that its site, Gigg Lane in my constituency, is hugely important and strategic, but it has lain untouched for 12 months. Jobs and economic activity have been lost. So much could be done with a site like that. After my election, I managed to persuade Bury Council to look at investing in it, with a vision of creating jobs and enterprise, which is what is needed from infrastructure. Those positive steps would transform my community, as I think my hon. Friend the Member for Bury South (Christian Wakeford) would completely agree, and the passion of people in the town. That is what I think infrastructure is about. My town does not need a bypass; any bypass would have to go up in the air. We are not connected to any rail; we are on the tram system. If I were to talk about transport infrastructure, it would have to be about buses.

Let us take a creative view of infrastructure. Let us invest in those facilities, and in local politicians’ vision for transforming their areas through the creation of jobs and enterprise, which will basically improve the lot of thousands of their citizens.

On buses, we had a great campaign to save a vital bus service that ran through my constituency and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Bury North (James Daly). Does he agree that services such as the X41 are vital to our communities, and that it was a great effort to save that bus route ?

I do. The campaign’s success was completely down to my hon. Friend, so I am glad to be able to acknowledge her input. I benefited by associating myself with her efforts.

The simple point I wish to make in conclusion is this: infrastructure is facilities. It is the way to improve people’s lives. Let us take a creative view of investing in local areas in the north.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Southport (Damien Moore), whom I know well, for securing the debate. I disagree with my hon. Friend the Member for Hyndburn (Sara Britcliffe): there is no right side of the Pennines. It is vital that all of us across the north stick together. Speaking as someone from Lancashire who represents a seat in the north-east, nothing is clearer than the need to improve trans-Pennine links, as well as north-south links.

As we are both proud Lancastrians, my hon. Friend will agree that the best thing to come from Yorkshire is the road to Lancashire.

I thank my hon. Friend for that, but I do not want to create further division; I am trying to bring us all together.

North West Durham is a unique constituency, in that it has no dual carriageway and no railway line or stations. Local people, feeling rather fed up with being particularly left behind, last year voted for change, and for the first time elected a Conservative MP. On the Prime Minister’s promise to level up the country properly, I remember visiting the cricket club in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Sedgefield (Paul Howell) with the Prime Minister after the election, and he doubled down on that pledge.

I hope that today’s spending review and future Budgets will see some cash flow through. I agree with several hon. Friends that levelling up is not just about infrastructure; it is about something broader than that. It is about providing opportunity—the opportunity for a person to get on, provide for their family, help lift an entire community, employ people and do the right thing. That is what many people in my community would like to see.

Does my hon. Friend agree that it is important to have some small projects now, some planned projects, and visions for the future? This is a journey that starts now.

I could not agree more with my hon. Friend. We need to show people that we are getting on with the job. We need to show plans for the future and a real vision for where we want the country to be in a few years’ time. That brings me to projects in my constituency.

We have had the news in the past few weeks that our local community hospital is to be redone. We are campaigning for future infrastructure projects, particularly in transport, such as the A68 project, on which I am working with hon. Members from across the country. There is a project to transform the Derwent walk into a public transport link with cycling and walking alongside. There are also improved cycling, walking and bus routes in Weardale, Crook and Willington in my constituency. We must not forget the cultural infrastructure, which also helps support communities. I will be campaigning for a new swimming bath for Crook; the Labour council closed down and demolished the old one within a few weeks in 2012.

Most importantly, I will reflect what my hon. Friend the Member for Bury South (Christian Wakeford) said about education. In the past few weeks, I was really glad to see the removal of the age cap of 23 on the entitlement to a first level 3 qualification, and to see other moves to do with post-qualification applications to university. That is a direction we need to head in. This is not about one thing, and not just about infrastructure; it is about our collective approach in the long term.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Southport (Damien Moore) for securing this debate. I want to touch on the concept of levelling up, which all of us have spoken about, and to give some thought to what it actually means. We have all talked about it and many of us stood on a manifesto to deliver it. But what does it actually mean to somebody on the ground? In my constituency of Keighley, it very much refers to that forgotten-about place that many of us have referred to. For far too long, Keighley and Ilkley have sat in the shadows of Leeds and Bradford. Levelling up is about ensuring that places like Keighley get the economic recognition they deserve, ensuring that proper, sound, well-thought-through investment is put right into the hearts of these places. I mean tangible investment in projects that will make a real difference to everyday lives, and not just glorified, piecemeal projects, but projects that will have a real impact. For me, the levelling-up agenda is about investment in society and communities—in our healthcare, in our schools, in delivering homes and, of course, in cutting crime, which is a huge consideration in my constituency.

Levelling up is also about infrastructure. When I say infrastructure, I mean a whole range of products. In the summer, the Prime Minister himself said that we need to build, build, build, and build back better. Those sound like great soundbites, but it is exactly what we need to do. I want to talk about projects in my constituency. My hon. Friend the Member for Hyndburn (Sara Britcliffe) talked about the Skipton to Colne railway, which I support hugely. We need to get that delivered, and to connect Yorkshire to Lancashire, so that my constituents can get across to Manchester much quicker, and hers can get across to Leeds.

Levelling up is about ensuring that we connect Northern Powerhouse Rail and the cross-Pennine route. Also, it is about ensuring that the towns fund’s kick-start of up to £25 million is really delivered, so that, if we use those public funds wisely, we can crystallise private investment. When I go around my constituency, business after business tells me that they want to grow and expand. We need to start thinking about how we can use public money wisely to remove restrictive barriers and enable the wise use of private investment on infrastructure, and how we can revitalise business rate structures.

There is one small project I would like to push the Minister to consider in the short time I have: a pedestrian bridge across a dual carriageway connecting Silsden and Steeton in my constituency. This has been talked about for nearly seven years; I must see it delivered in my time.

To conclude, levelling up is much more than a slogan. It is about transforming the lives of people right across the country, not just in the north. I am certainly committed to doing that in my constituency. I will continue to lobby on behalf of all of my residents.

I feel a bit of an intruder, because Stoke-on-Trent might geographically be placed in the west midlands, at the very tip of the midlands engine, but we very much see ourselves as the gatekeepers to the northern powerhouse. For too long, Stoke-on-Trent has been forgotten, stuck between Manchester and Birmingham, where money is being poured in, left, right and centre. Stoke-on-Trent is the 12th-largest city in the United Kingdom, but is sadly in the bottom 20% for social mobility and for level 3 and 4 qualification take-up. The average house price is £114,000. It is a city with plenty of brownfield sites, but, sadly, buildings are rotting away, because the negative land value means that, to developers, it is not worth investing.

When it comes to infrastructure, I concur with many of the comments made today. People are wary of “shiny” and “new” in our area, because they have seen vanity projects being built time and again which have resulted in no real, drastic change in their personal circumstances. Therefore, I am not asking the Minister from the Treasury to just build lots of shiny stuff; what I am asking for is a real focus on how we spend that money.

I build on the superb comments from my hon. Friends the Members for Bury South (Christian Wakeford), for Bury North (James Daly), and for North West Durham (Mr Holden), who talked about education. I have too many schools in Stoke-on-Trent North, Kidsgrove and Talke that are simply not hitting the mark. They are producing results that ensure that children stay trapped in a cycle of low-skilled, low-wage jobs. Education means free school investment. It also means ensuring that adult education—the lifetime skills guarantee—is applied in areas such as Stoke-on-Trent, and ensuring the local college has the funding to deliver. People may not be aware of this, but 12% of my workforce have no formal qualifications—8% higher than the national average.

It also means homes—not just affordable homes, because as I said earlier, Stoke-on-Trent has those. What we need are the four and five-bed executive homes that can attract commuters from Manchester and Birmingham to the area, to help bring regeneration and wealth. However, that also means giving us money, as the Government did at the Royal Doulton site, where we knocked down the empty factory and managed to build over 200 brand new homes, each of which will have gigabit installed directly—pure gigabit, not the stuff that BT and others claim that they are inserting into the network grid.

We need to ensure improved transport. That means finally giving Stoke the transforming cities fund money that it truly deserves. It means ensuring the Stoke to Leek line that connects North Staffordshire is delivered, and ensuring that Superbus, which has been paused due to covid, is reopened, so we can have better and affordable bus routes, and a big push on the hydrogen bus idea in Stoke. The towns fund is an example of how this Government have been superb in ensuring that areas have a chance to level up, and to take ownership of what they want to see. Kidsgrove’s bid is in with the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, and I am hoping we get our full £25 million ask.

The town of Tunstall was previously stuck in the city of Stoke-on-Trent, which meant it was excluded from the last round of the scheme. Stoke is a collection of six towns. Tunstall should not have to miss out. Burslem has the greatest number of closed high street shops in the UK; it is the perfect place for the Government to lead a pilot on how to repurpose and regenerate a high street with town housing, flats, office space and a mixture of small retail and restaurants—and, hopefully, some pubs, when we exit this lockdown. I hope the Government will add my shopping list to the long list of personal requests that I am sure the Minister has been making, and that they will ensure levelling up is a real opportunity for everyone we serve.

Before I call the next speaker, I congratulate colleagues on their self-restraint: we got 14 Back-Bench speeches in the time available to us, which demonstrates that self-restraint works better than formal time limits.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I congratulate the hon. Member for Southport (Damien Moore) on securing this important debate. I heard one or two murmurs as I came into the Committee this morning: “What on earth is an SNP member for the north-east of Scotland doing intruding on a debate like this?” Let me put hon. Members’ minds at rest: it is not to provoke a regeneration of the Wars of the Roses. I think some Members have been quite capable of stirring that up all by themselves, and I take no sides; I am strictly neutral in that. However, it is quite simple for me: whether Scotland is inside the UK, as everybody else in this room presumably hopes, or outside the UK, as I earnestly hope it will be, the infrastructure—particularly the transport infrastructure—in the north of England matters to us as well. There are extensive business and family connections between Scotland and the north of England—or not-the-north-of-England, depending on whether we include Stoke-on-Trent, and where we draw the demarcation.

The north of England lies between us and markets in the south of England, as well as crucial markets in Europe, so it matters to us that the A1 is so poor after Berwick, and between Berwick and Newcastle. It matters to us that the A66 between Penrith and Scotch Corner, which gives access to Yorkshire and the east midlands, should be accessible in all weathers. In that respect, what matters to people in Scotland probably matters as much to the communities all along those corridors. Particularly important is the discussion about what goes where, to what timescale and, crucially—as noted by the hon. Members for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard) and for Weaver Vale (Mike Amesbury), who is no longer in his place—who gets to decide. It is not just about existing infrastructure; future infrastructure in Scotland is also affected by what is or is not decided for the north of England and the rest of the UK.

Let me return to the subject of HS2. It is clear that there are diverse views in the governing party on the merits or otherwise of HS2, perhaps governed in some part by how close MPs are likely to be to a station on the route that is chosen. For us in Scotland, however, it is quite simple: there is a real benefit in relation to climate. If we can get the journey from Edinburgh, Glasgow and other parts of central Scotland to London below four hours, that is an absolute game changer. Nobody would fly, unless they were going somewhere close to the airport. If somebody is going from central Scotland to central London, of course they would take a high-speed train. It is a game changer.

I have a genuine question. The hon. Gentleman will have heard the speculation about a link between Northern Ireland and Scotland, and what strikes me is the ability to build a high-speed railway between Belfast and Glasgow, and then down the west coast to London. I am genuinely interested in the hon. Gentleman’s thoughts on that.

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his intervention. Not so much in Scottish politics, but certainly in Northern Irish politics, it is a bit of a standing joke that whenever a bauble needs to be dangled, there is talk of a bridge between Scotland and Northern Ireland. There are tremendous technical challenges with that going over Beaufort’s dyke, which is exceptionally deep and full of munitions. Technically, it would be extraordinarily challenging. However the Green Book formula works out, I do not think we will ever see a benefit-cost ratio that will make such a project work, but I am content to let the accountants and number crunchers work that one out. Certainly, in theory, if we could create better connections in the south-west of Scotland and link Northern Ireland to Scotland and elsewhere, I am all in favour of that.

On HS2, if the line is to split either side of the Pennines, it is pretty important to us in Scotland to know on which side of the Pennines it will go. If it goes both sides, logically it is going to head north more slowly than it would otherwise. That matters, because if it goes by Carlisle, we would build a high-speed rail network in Scotland between Glasgow, Edinburgh and Carlisle. If it goes up through Newcastle, we would link Glasgow to Edinburgh and Berwick, and go down that way. Frankly, there is no point spending any money until there is absolute certainty about which way the line will go. That affects the rest of Scotland, because we would be building new infrastructure that would free up train paths capacity and give line speed improvements for the rest of the rail network in Scotland to get into Edinburgh and Glasgow, so the decisions that are or are not taken also matter to us.

There is little doubt that if HS2 had started in Scotland to go to London, rather than t’other way about, it would have happened a great deal faster than it now appears to be happening. That sums up the problem. We can change the formulas in the Treasury’s Green Book, but changing attitudes is another matter entirely. The Prime Minister once notoriously stated that a pound spent in Croydon was worth more than a pound spent in Strathclyde, and I think we can take it that such an attitude also prevails for Merseyside, Manchester and Tyneside. It is quite an embedded mindset in the British Government class—I do not think it is as rare as some hon. Members might wish to think. We will hear later today about the Chancellor’s spending plans and see what transpires.

My final observation is that since 1999, under various shades of political administration, Scottish Governments—whether the Lib-Lab coalition, minority SNP or majority SNP—have moved on investment in Scotland considerably better than in the bad old days of rule from the Scotland Office and Westminster. That is why it is crucial where decisions are taken and why devolution ought to be such an important part of this debate for the north of England.

The United Kingdom Internal Market Bill is set to encroach on many of Holyrood’s powers, including the power to set infrastructure spending. Under the guise of “taking back control”, the UK Government are in many respects actually taking away control, and I know it is not just people in my party who regret that that is the case. London clearly receives 60% more per head in capital expenditure than the north-east of England, and 50% more than the north-west. Ultimately, that dial needs to be shifted.

In conclusion, I strongly suspect that it will take a great deal more than today’s announcement to shift that decades-old structural imbalance in where power really lies in the UK, because that power imbalance has roots in politics and the electoral system, and it goes well beyond simple allocations of public expenditure.

Thank you for the opportunity to speak in this debate, Mr Gray. The hon. Member for Southport (Damien Moore) has secured a timely debate. He mentioned the Government’s 10-point plan and nuclear investment opportunities to unleash potential. That was echoed by the hon. Member for Wakefield (Imran Ahmad Khan).

We know that the Chancellor is expected to set out infrastructure spending commitments in his comprehensive spending review today. Given that the north of England has been disproportionately impacted by covid-19 in health and economics, according to the report by the Northern Health Science Alliance, any investment in that region is timely and welcome. We are concerned about the disproportionate economic consequences of covid-19, which make the Chancellor’s announcements on infrastructure spending so important today. Therefore, as shadow Exchequer Secretary to the Treasury, I must ensure that the Government’s actions are closely scrutinised. The north needs real investment, not just empty promises and half-finished projects.

The hon. Member for Southport mentioned that there was a lack of Labour Members at this debate. A similar debate was held on 11 November, led by my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis), on support for the economy in the north of England. A number of my colleagues have been vocal on this issue but are unable to attend this debate due to covid-19.

To be the bearer of bad news, the Conservative Government have failed to deliver their promise to deliver infrastructure investment. The right hon. Member for Tatton (Esther McVey) said that she had asked for local investment for local transport, where people were waiting two hours for a train and it was hard to find a bus route. She also mentioned digital infrastructure. My hon. Friend the Member for Weaver Vale (Mike Amesbury) talked about closing the economic divide, dealing with economic inequality and powering up the north, as well as the unfinished business of devolution.

The right hon. Member for Elmet and Rothwell (Alec Shelbrooke) talked about short, medium and long-term projects, which must be transformational. The hon. Member for Leigh (James Grundy) talked about congestion and air quality—I know that he was also at the last debate. He spoke about connecting his constituency to Greater Manchester. I agree with him that the time for talking needs to stop.

Six years on from the announcement of Northern Powerhouse Rail, that line has still not been approved, let alone started. Transport for the North’s website states that the project will be the region’s single biggest transport investment since the industrial revolution. Far from something to brag about, that is a damning reflection of the Government’s commitment to investing in the north.

I am afraid that I will not, as time is short. I ask the Minister to tell me when the northern regional economy will be taken more seriously. When will the Government deliver investment in projects in line with other regions of the UK?

When it comes to delivering projects, the Prime Minister’s portfolio is one of failure. The failed London garden bridge project cost the taxpayer £53 million. The Olympic orbit tower, which was forecast to make a profit of £1.2 million in its business plan, has produced a debt of £13 million, which grows by £700,000 every year. We have seen a theme of failed projects played out in the regions of the UK. In the west midlands, people are still waiting for the Midland Metropolitan University Hospital, which will eventually open four years too late and cost taxpayers £700 million. The Royal Liverpool Hospital is more than five years late and projected costs are now expected to reach £1.063 billion after the collapse of outsourcing giant Carillion, and the taxpayer is still on the hook for £739 million of the overall figure.

I sincerely hope that, for people living in the north of England, the Government’s pledge to level up is successful, but I believe it would be much more fruitful to focus on ongoing projects, a point that has been made by other hon. Members in this debate. That would enable the Government to draw on the great research and infrastructure that is already available in the north and to consult with people living in the region on what they need to see from the Government, rather than announcing a new shopping list of proposals that are unlikely to come to fruition and that will not benefit those who are most in need.

I am afraid that I am unable to.

We know that people living in the north of England have suffered the worst impact on their mental wellbeing, are more likely to have lost their jobs due to covid and have had much higher rates of covid-19 fatalities. The north needs social, economic and health recovery from covid-19 that will address the immediate issues. Labour has consistently called for support for mental wellbeing, including a schools recovery curriculum. We have called for investment in local authorities so that they can provide services that locals are proud of. We need to see the return of youth clubs, libraries open seven days a week, access to leisure facilities and community hubs.

With regard to creating sustainable, high-quality jobs, we have already done the work for the Government and set out to create 400,000 clean, green jobs across the country over the next 18 months. The plan requires three simple steps. If the Government knuckle down and agree to work with MPs across the House, businesses big and small and members of the public, we will be able to create not only a sustainable economy, but a sustainable future for our planet.

We need to recover jobs, with investment and co-ordination to secure up to 400,000 additional good green jobs. We need to retrain workers—something I think we all agree on—and equip them with the skills needed to deploy the green technologies of the future. We also need to rebuild businesses, with a stronger social contract between Government and businesses to tackle the climate crisis and ecological deterioration, while promoting prosperity and employment. I urge the Minister to recommend this plan to the Chancellor and to ensure that yet more money is not thrown at projects that are unlikely ever to be completed.

What a delight it is to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I congratulate you, if I may, on the extremely elegant and deft way in which you have managed the Back-Bench contributions to this debate, with a lightness of touch that has brought great joy to everyone. It has been a good-natured debate, and I thank everyone for the comments, questions and arguments that they have put.

I would particularly like to single out, on behalf of colleagues, my hon. Friend the Member for Southport (Damien Moore) for hosting and calling this debate and for the fact that, in doing so, he has brilliantly selected a day on which the Chancellor himself will be stepping forward with some answers to the specific questions that he is putting. I must say that, as an example of influence in the Chamber, I do not think that is to be bettered; I am very impressed indeed that someone of such tender years in the Chamber and in this Parliament should be able to bring about such a state of affairs, so I congratulate him on that very much indeed.

I also congratulate colleagues across the House on the astonishing fiscal rectitude that they have shown, by and large. At this point, we are normally into the tens of billions in requests from my thrifty Conservative colleagues, as well as from those in other parties, so I am very grateful that they have managed to restrain their appetite—possibly because they are looking forward so intently to the festivities this afternoon.

As my hon. Friends and colleagues across the House will know, I am responding because I am the Minister responsible for the national infrastructure strategy, the National Infrastructure Commission and the Infrastructure Projects Authority. If I may, I will come to many of the comments that were raised and talk a little bit about not just the what, but the how of infrastructure, because that has been well flagged in today’s debate.

I do not think that it needs to be stated too often, and it should not be forgotten, that the desire to invest for the long term and to level up this country is the driving force of this Administration. It is an absolutely central part of what the Prime Minister, the Cabinet and colleagues across the Government stand for. The advent of this pandemic virus has only strengthened and increased the appetite to push forward, and the urgency of that mission. To that, the quality of our infrastructure and the speed of its delivery are absolutely essential.

If I may, I will just rewind a little bit. Colleagues will recall that in the March Budget we announced historic increases in capital spending, setting out plans for more than half a trillion pounds of investment over the next few years. It is important to remember that that investment is not just public investment; it is also private investment. It is very easy to forget the central importance of private investment. This country—through the quality of its regulation, its rule of law, its openness, its ability to set up a business, its accessibility, its language and its culture—remains extremely attractive to international investment, as a place to put hard-earned cash, and rightly so.

In June, the Government explained how they plan to accelerate the delivery of infrastructure schemes. In July, they said they would be bringing forward £8.6 billion of capital spending, focusing on shovel-ready projects, and this afternoon we have not just the spending review statement, but the publication of the national infrastructure strategy and some ancillary documents around that. That will set out the plans for the ambitious acceleration of investment in our country’s infrastructure and, of course, its relation to the levelling-up agenda. If it does not perfectly address all the questions that my hon. Friend the Member for Southport raised in his speech, then that is only because if he had given us a couple more days we would have been able to reshape the thing even more precisely.

Let me also talk a little bit about what has been achieved so far. The hon. Member for Erith and Thamesmead (Abena Oppong-Asare), whom I again welcome to her place on the Opposition Front Bench, talked about what has been achieved so far. It is important to flag up what has been achieved, and then we can talk about where we want to go. The first thing I would say is that there is an enormous amount of investment already going into the ground, particularly in the north of England. In his summer economic update, the Chancellor unveiled the great get Britain building fund. Already Mayors and local enterprise partnerships across the north have received some £319 million from the fund, to deliver jobs, skills and infrastructure. That money is pushing forward a range of projects, from the roll-out of electric vehicle charging points in South Yorkshire to a new garden village in Liverpool.

Colleagues will be aware of the towns fund, which is already under way and which, if I may say so, is a great example of collaborative cross-party local engagement, designed to liberate energies, bring forward projects that were not necessarily on local councils’ radar screens and bring them into a coherent, long-term relationship with each other and as part of a single plan for particular towns.

That fund is paying for infrastructure schemes that will unleash the economic potential of smaller communities across the country. It has been rightly said by colleagues that we should not be purely focused on cities. This is a very important aspect of that, and I commend it to them. I am delighted that the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Southport is among the places that are benefiting. We have also accelerated the issuance of some £96 million from the fund, to pay for the roll-out of even more projects that will fuel economic recovery after the coronavirus.

Of course, it is hard to think about infrastructure without thinking about transport. That will continue to be crucial to unlocking the productivity of this country, in particular in the north. That is why we are investing very substantially—indeed, record sums—into improving it. The transforming cities fund has provided city regions across the north, including Greater Manchester, Liverpool and Tees Valley, with over £800 million to make their transport networks even better and greener. At the last Budget, we also announced a £4.2 billion investment across eight city regions, including Greater Manchester, Sheffield and the Tees Valley, for five-year consolidated transport settlements, starting in 2022. In addition, we are spending billions of pounds on upgrading the north’s major strategic road network.

As colleagues will be aware, I negotiated the road investment strategy 2 with the Treasury when I was on the other side of the fence at the Department of Transport, with my hon. Friend—my beloved friend—the hon. Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard). In RIS2, we were able to negotiate a substantial investment in roadbuilding on a strategic basis across the country, including a lot of schemes in the north.

That is not just about new roads, but about making our existing road network more effective and ready for electric vehicles and, in due course, autonomous vehicles. That is an important part of the development of our overall infrastructure. Those schemes include dualling the A66 across the Pennines and of the A1 from Morpeth to Ellingham in the north-east, and upgrading the A63 and Castle Street in Hull and the Simister island junction in Greater Manchester.

The same is true for investment in the north’s railways. As colleagues will be aware, we are going to publish an integrated rail plan that looks at the scope, form and phasing of rail investment in the north and the midlands. We will also seek to reverse some of the Beeching cuts of the 1960s, so that we can get more community connections in place.

I spoke earlier about the importance when we invest not just of the what, but of the how, and colleagues were absolutely right to raise that question. I single out the comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis), who was right to focus on that. Through the national infrastructure strategy, which we are publishing this afternoon, and through the work that goes on around it, with the National Infrastructure Commission that we set up and the Infrastructure and Projects Authority, we are thinking harder about how to choose, integrate and deliver schemes as best we can and better than any other Government for a long time.

I will give a little example that is close to my heart: the ministerial training programme that I set up for colleagues, who will be pleased to know that it is now in its second phase. We have taken the view that Ministers can benefit, as can senior civil servants and anyone who aspires to be in the senior civil service, from becoming better clients of major projects and better able to ask searching questions about timing, schedule and budget of delivery. That important programme is something that we have put in place. As colleagues will know, we plan to set up a new economic campus in the north of England, with a substantial number of civil servants and people from across the economic parts of Government, to give not just a local presence, but a change of mindset that responds to colleagues’ concerns.

If I may pick up on a couple of other points about the “how?”, colleagues will know that we recently established the northern transport acceleration council, which is designed to get those projects up and running more quickly. We are pressing harder on the devolution agenda—colleagues have rightly flagged that—and have just agreed a devolution deal with West Yorkshire for £1 billion of investment and a directly elected Metro Mayor from May next year. We fully implemented the Sheffield City Region deal, including £900 million of new funding, along with substantial devolved powers over transport, skills and planning. We intend to go further still through the forthcoming devolution and local recovery White Paper.

I am lucky that, thanks to your genius, Mr Gray—

—I have a bit of time left to spend talking about the specific comments that have been made, which have been extremely helpful and interesting. My hon. Friend the Member for Southport was absolutely right to encourage us to look at rural areas as well as cities. He painted an almost garden of Eden-like picture of life in Southport, where people stroll airily from flower shows to comedy festivals to air shows, while striking a mean four iron on Royal Birkdale. I thought that an exquisite moment in his speech. He rightly highlighted the importance of railway, the stronger towns fund and the freeports, which he will know we have announced, and from which the north could benefit hugely in this competition.

The hon. Member for Weaver Vale (Mike Amesbury) is no longer in his place but I thought that he was right to focus on devolution, which I touched on in earlier remarks. The point about the capillaries and arteries of infrastructure was well made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Tatton (Esther McVey). My right hon. Friend the Member for Elmet and Rothwell (Alec Shelbrooke) was absolutely right to focus on the short, medium and long term. As he will know, one of the great unsung heroes of transport policy over the last few years has been Sir Rod Eddington. His report was very much about managing smaller schemes—often enormously important and not to be forgotten—that move people, particularly in suburbs and areas of large volumes of traffic, by rail, road or other means, and it was absolutely right.

My right hon. Friend’s call for a new Rhine system of navigation in the north was optimistic, but I respect the intent and energy behind it. My hon. Friend the Member for Leigh (James Grundy) was right to pick up on light rail. When I was in the Department for Transport, we did a consultation on light rail, which has such great potential. It is extremely inexpensive compared with some of the heavier rail alternatives, and it could be a beautiful new industry for the UK to develop. We have a tremendous amount of relevant skills in the supply chain, and I very much look forward to hearing more about that from colleagues.

If my right hon. Friend will indulge me for one second, we have had a good debate and many colleagues have participated. I just want to put on the record that some of our colleagues have been unable to contribute. For example, my hon. Friend the hon. Member for Pudsey (Stuart Andrew), who was unable to take part due to his commitments, is equally involved in infrastructure in the north, and his ambitions are there. I just want to get on the record that many colleagues in the north were unable to take part—I am sure the Minister will have responded to them—but they are as important in this conversation as the rest of us.

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. The unheard voices are as important as the voices in the room. Of course, as he knows, my door remains absolutely open for them at any point, in this debate or otherwise.

My dear friend the hon. Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys rightly raised the point about BCRs, which is an important technical point and they should not be abused. There is a certain art and craft to effective valuation assessment. The centre for it across Government is in the Department for Transport rather than in the Treasury. We have a great deal of respect for the work that they do there, although there is a very high level of understanding of industry in the Treasury, in a way that has not always been true. That means we get a better client relationship between the two sides, or a better interaction between the Ministries, the Departments, and the centre.

My hon. Friend the Member for Sedgefield (Paul Howell) raised the idea of a funding pot for MPs, which I have to say raises all kinds of worries in me. We have been there before in our history some 100 years ago, so I am a little bit nervous about that, but the idea that there should be significant political leadership in making choices, and accountability for that, is absolutely right. I think the stronger accounts fund is rather a good way of tying those elements together, so I do not disagree with him about that.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bury South (Christian Wakeford) talked about infrastructure of the mind, as I would call it. Skills are so important, but so easy to forget, and only to focus on transport, and he was absolutely right about that. I commend to him the work of the new university we are setting up in Hereford, which does exactly that. The importance of cultural infrastructure was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for North West Durham (Mr Holden). I hope I have said enough to recognise the contributions otherwise made, so rather than overrun, I will allow my dear friend the Member for Southport to close the debate.

I thank all Members for their spirit of conviviality during today’s debate. It is most refreshing when so many colleagues actually agree with one another. The debate was not confined to colleagues from the north of England, although every debate that involves those colleagues always has a Pennines, Lancashire and Yorkshire dynamic to it. It is important to recognise that infrastructure spending in the north not only benefits our communities, but the communities that they touch. The hon. Member for Gordon (Richard Thomson) mentioned communities in Scotland.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis), a passionate campaigner, talked about the midlands and the northern links that we have there. It is often said that the north was built by people of enterprise, talent and ability, and I am pleased that we have seen so many of those attributes portrayed by the representatives of those areas today.

We await with eager anticipation the spending commitments today. I am sure we are even more eager for the Minister to get over to the Treasury to rewrite the spending commitments for all the things that we have asked for. Nevertheless, the commitments that the Government have to the north are clear and absolute, and I am sure we will be in this Chamber and the main Chamber of the House debating what we want to see for our communities. They are more than projects; this is about people.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered infrastructure spending in the North of England.

Sitting suspended.

NHS Dentistry and Oral Health Inequalities

I beg to move,

That this House has considered access to NHS dentistry and oral health inequalities.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I am delighted to have secured this debate on access to dentistry and oral health inequalities. I have spoken about this issue many times in this place, and it is more urgent now than ever. I will shortly turn to the effects of the coronavirus pandemic on dentistry in this country and, in particular, on access and oral health inequalities, but first I would like to set the scene a little.

In 2017, I held an Adjournment debate entitled “Access to NHS Dentists”. In that debate, I said:

“Millions of people each and every year are being left without access to an NHS dentist.”—[Official Report, 12 September 2017; Vol. 628, c. 812.]

I urged the Government to get on with dental contract reform and bring forward a coherent strategy to tackle the inadequacies and inequalities in the dental health system. That was three years ago, and of course no one could have foreseen the events of this year, but I am making the point at the outset of this debate that NHS dentistry in this country was already in a sorry state before covid struck. It was therefore extremely vulnerable to what has happened since March, the effects of which have been disastrous. The crisis in access that people were experiencing prior to March has been turbocharged. Solving it now requires the Government to dramatically change their approach to oral health treatment and prevention. In discussing the impact of covid on dentistry, I will focus mainly on England.

My hon. Friend is a student of the Old Testament, and she will know Proverbs 25, verse 19:

“Confidence in an unfaithful man in time of trouble is like a broken tooth”.

We are certainly in a time of trouble. It is not for me to call the Prime Minister an unfaithful man—

But the lack of support for dentistry and dental technicians has certainly resulted in a few broken teeth. What does my hon. Friend believe is the single most important thing that the Government can do to support dentistry and the oral health of the nation?

The single most important thing that the Government can do is reform the dental health contract with a view to more prevention.

During the initial period of lockdown, between March and June, all routine dental care in England was paused and urgent dental care hubs were set up to provide emergency treatment to patients. That period of closure has clearly led to an enormous backlog of patients requiring treatment. The British Dental Association estimates that in April and May only about 2% of patients were able to access dental care, compared with last year, and that between March and October 19 million appointments were lost. One local Bradford dentist told me:

“Our phones are ringing hot with new patients who have no dentist access, which has certainly been made worse by this year’s lockdown. On top of this we are facing significant staffing pressures, due to increased triage requirements and the need to thoroughly clean the practice between patients.”

Just yesterday, I was contacted by one of my constituents who has been trying to get a dental appointment for five months and is living with gum disease and toothache. That is simply unacceptable.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for securing this debate and for all her campaigning work on dentistry services. In York, it is really challenging to get registered with an NHS dentist, let alone access their services. One of the things that has exacerbated that during the pandemic is access to personal protective equipment for people who are overseeing our oral health. Does my hon. Friend believe, as I do, that oral health has not been seen as an equal partner in the provision of healthcare? We seriously have to address that, including access to PPE.

I certainly agree with my hon. Friend about access to PPE and the fact that dentistry is very much seen as the Cinderella service of the NHS.

Clearing the backlog will be a considerable challenge. Even in the best of circumstances it would take years, but unfortunately we are not in the best of circumstances. As people who have tried to get dental appointments since June know, dentists are operating with considerably reduced capacity. About 70% of practices are operating at less than half their pre-pandemic capacity. The primary reason for that is the requirement for a period of fallow time after each appointment to allow any aerosols that may have been produced by treatments such as drilling or even scale and polish to settle, and then for a long deep clean to take place. The fallow period can be for up to one hour.

In October, the number of NHS treatments carried out was a third the level of the year before. In the BDA’s members survey published earlier this month, 87% of dentists in England cited fallow time as a top barrier to increasing patient access. That could be significant reduced. The number of patients seen could be increased by installing high-capacity ventilation equipment. However, the price of such equipment and ventilation is estimated to start at about £10,000, and the cost is considerably more for larger practices with a high number of surgeries.

The British Dental Association members survey shows that the majority of dental practices in England are not currently in a financial position to afford such an outlay for investment. However, the practices least likely to have had the appropriate equipment tend to serve the most deprived communities, and are also the least likely to be able to afford that investment, increasing oral health inequalities further. That vicious cycle of underinvestment in our most deprived communities feeds inequalities in health outcomes.

I thank the hon. Lady for securing this very important debate. It sounds like Bradford has a similar challenge to Cornwall. We have had a long-standing shortage of provision for NHS dentistry in Cornwall, particularly around recruitment and retention. I had a very constructive meeting with the Minister on this issue recently. Can we work together across the House to put together a programme of work that the Government can adopt to ensure that places such as Bradford and Cornwall get proper NHS provision?

Of course, I welcome cross-party work on this. I am vice-chair of the all-party parliamentary group for dentistry and oral health. I would very much welcome the hon. Member as a member of the APPG, and look forward to sorting out dentistry, including NHS dentistry, once and for all, with a particular view to addressing the difficulties his constituents face.

I ask the Government to step in now and provide capital funding to invest in new ventilation equipment to help to reduce these fallow times. It is simply not good enough to say that dental practices must fund this themselves. We all know how precarious their funding is, and how hard it has been hit by the pandemic. This is a matter of public health, and it is the Government’s responsibility to safeguard and protect that. To avoid that responsibility would be a matter of gross negligence on the Government’s part.

In recent years, neither NHS England nor the Department of Health and Social Care has extended any capital funding to dental practices. The situation we now find ourselves in requires a change of approach. Local dentists have contacted me about the importance of maintaining temporary contract provisions that have been in place during the pandemic. Alan McGlaughlin, a dentist in my constituency, told me:

“Our fear is that NHS England may ask us to achieve more than the notional level of 20% of contracted targets for next year. This will be impossible due to allowable body flow in through the door and the cleaning and fallow periods required. I hope the NHS will allow for this issue and only then can we settle into a positive routine for the care of our patients.”

Can the Minister confirm that this target will not be increased, putting practices under impossible pressure?

Turning to secondary care, the pandemic has had a significant effect on waiting times for dental procedures in hospital. Thousands of children and vulnerable adults who require dental treatment under general anaesthetic are waiting in pain for treatment. There have been countless horrifying reports in recent months. The BBC has reported on a patient who suffered eyesight damage after not receiving treatment for a fractured tooth, which became an abscess. Meanwhile, the Daily Mail has reported the case of a seven-year-old girl who was left in severe pain for months after she was unable to get an appointment. Even before the pandemic, the waiting time for this kind of treatment was around one year. That is set to become significantly worse, given the backlog and reduced operating capacity.

I recently tabled a question asking for how many children planned dental admission to hospital has been suspended or cancelled since the start of the covid-19 outbreak. The Department responded that data was not available in the format requested. I find it simply unbelievable that the Department of Health and Social Care does not hold this information, so perhaps the Minister can answer that question. If she cannot do so today, I would welcome an answer later on.

As well as the pain and suffering that such delays cause patients, including problems eating, speaking and sleeping, they contribute to the impending public health crisis of resistance to antibiotics, as people require multiple courses of antibiotics while waiting for surgery. I understand that eight organisations, including the British Dental Association, Mencap, the Royal College of Surgeons, and the British Society of Paediatric Dentistry, wrote to the Secretary of State about this in mid-September, but have yet to receive a response, so would the Minister ensure that they receive a response as soon as possible?

I have focused on the practical problems that dentists and patients are facing as a result of the pandemic, but I would now like to turn to the effects that this is having on oral health inequalities. The covid pandemic has exacerbated socioeconomic, ethnic and regional inequalities across the country, and will worsen oral health inequalities too. According to the Association of Dental Groups, access to treatments for poorer patients has fallen by 39% over the past 10 years. Regions such as Yorkshire and the Humber have struggled for years with an acute crisis in access to NHS dentistry. I have raised this many times with various public health ministers, and while we have taken some small but important steps to improve things—especially when the hon. Member for Winchester (Steve Brine) was Minister—for which I am very grateful, the situation is still fundamentally inadequate.

Inequalities in access to dentistry inevitably lead to inequalities in oral health outcomes. A child in Yorkshire and the Humber is five times more likely to be admitted to hospital for a tooth extraction than a child in the East of England. In Bradford, 36% of children have tooth decay, compared with just 7% in the best performing area of the country.

I thank the hon. Lady for securing this debate. This has been a big issue for many of my constituents across Keighley and Ilkley, in terms of the outreach programmes that are done by dentists and hospitals, ensuring that those children with tooth decay get the appropriate education about how to treat and look after their teeth. Does she agree that the Government could provide more emphasis on that?

I absolutely agree that prevention work is key to solving much of our dental crisis, particularly for children. I am also concerned about the effect of the pandemic on the oral health of vulnerable groups, including pregnant women, people who have been shielding and people with dementia. They are highly unlikely to have received any dental care since March. Inevitably, problems will have built up. In the case of pregnant women, who under normal circumstances would be able to receive treatment for up to 12 months after the birth of their baby, will the Minister outline what provisions are in place to ensure they will be able to receive their NHS dental treatment free of charge despite the backlog in treatment?

Finally, I would like to make a few points about the long-term future of dentistry in this country. Dental practices across England—and with them the very fabric of dental care for millions of people—are facing an existential threat. We are at a crisis point for dentistry. Most British Dental Association members believe they can survive only for 12 months or less in the face of lower patient numbers and higher overheads. The Government could take several immediate steps to protect dental practices and improve oral health outcomes.

First, the Government should look at what immediate financial support can be given to dentists and dental practices. For instance, why are dentists among the only businesses on the high street that continue to pay business rates? Secondly, in terms of access to both primary and secondary care, dentistry is severely limited for the foreseeable future, and emphasis on investment in oral health and prevention is needed now more than ever.

The Government must now commit to investing in preventive schemes that are proven to work. That includes supervised tooth brushing for children, which the Government committed to consult on by the end of 2020. I would welcome the Minister’s assurance that that will still go ahead.

On the topic of prevention, I must mention the dental contract. For some time, there has been widespread, cross-party agreement that the dental contract needs reform. Units of dental activity have always been a poor way to measure meaningful dental health care. Their continued presence in the contract would be a disaster in the present circumstances. Despite the wider challenges the Government are facing, now is the right time to do this. Working with the BDA and others, Government must introduce a new contract that focuses on prevention, supports best patient care and improves access, especially for those who need it most.

I have spoken about the real challenges dentists are facing as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, but the problems in our dental health system reach back far beyond that. The pandemic has shown how fragile the system is and the effect on patients when it collapses. I urge the Government to invest in dentistry, prioritise prevention and work to close the inequalities that I have outlined. Anything less than that will let down the most vulnerable people, who need an NHS dental service that is fit for purpose.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I congratulate the hon. Member for Bradford South (Judith Cummins) on securing this important debate. I know her long-standing and grounded interest, shared by many across the House, in helping individuals access better health care broadly and in particular for their oral health. She has much support, as my hon. Friend the Member for North Cornwall (Scott Mann) showed.

This is a challenge which, as the hon. Lady neatly articulated, has become much worse under the pandemic. I hope to go into more detail about the fact that dentistry has faced specific challenges while delivering what care it has been able to. There are particular long-standing concerns about access to dental treatment in Yorkshire, including the hon. Lady’s area. She gave credit to my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester (Steve Brine) for the work that he did with her, because flexible commissioning has been operated in that area, and it is agreed that most dentists would prefer to move in that direction. As she said, there are challenges with units of dental activity, and arguably an evolution towards capitation, looking at dentistry in the round, and highlighting prevention would start to address those. The Department, NHS England and NHS Improvement are committed to the growth of access to dental services. There have been a number of actions, and seeing them come to fruition in Yorkshire is helpful in understanding how they might benefit a wider population.

As I said, the pandemic had a significant impact on dentistry. That reduced drastically, as the hon. Lady explained, the number of patients whom dentists can safely see each day. The dental risks were new. At the start of the pandemic we stopped dentistry because of the risk of transmission being much higher, owing to the aerosol-generating procedures used. That applies to extraction, but there is even such a risk in scaling and polishing.

During spring, urgent dental care centres were quite rapidly set up. Up to 635 centres were set up across the country and the remainder of high-street practices were asked to deal with the three As—telephone advice, antibiotics and analgesics. I understand that that was a challenge for patients, but I am sure that the hon. Lady will agree that it was vital to ensure the safety of dentists, dental technicians, nurses and entire teams at the beginning of the pandemic.

It is really good to hear the Minister giving a straight response to the questions raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford South (Judith Cummins). She mentioned dental technicians. Is she as concerned as many of us are that because of the lack of work for them now, people are leaving that employment, and the skills base is being lost in such a way that it will be difficult to cope with the expansion of demand once we move from present circumstances beyond the epidemic?

I believe that the workforce, more broadly, is something we must look at properly in the round.

Aerosol-generating procedures present a high risk, as I said, and under initial guidance issued by Public Health England, infection control required that rooms should be rested for up to an hour, as the hon. Member for Bradford South said, to allow the airborne spray to settle. NHS dental practices were allowed to start offering services from 8 June providing that they had appropriate PPE and infection prevention and control measures in place.

In response to the hon. Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell) I would say that all NHS dentists can access the portal. Registration is voluntary, and 5,500—equating to about 81% of all NHS dentists—have signed up, and 50 million items of personal protective equipment have been dispensed. Making sure that our frontline services have what they require is vital, but the e-portal is being used, and I urge the remaining dentists to sign up.

There are more than 6,000 NHS practices in England that should now be offering face-to-face care, in other than exceptional circumstances. Guidance to practices has made it clear that during the difficult period they should prioritise care for vulnerable groups and then address the delayed routine check-ups; but that remains a challenge.

I recognise the comments that the hon. Member for Bradford South made about expectant mothers; I have asked my officials to look at that at speed, and I will come back to her on that. I am determined that we mitigate widening oral health inequalities as much as we can during this difficult period because, as we have alluded to, we know we had a problem beforehand.

NHSEI is keeping more than 600 urgent dental centres stood up to provide additional capacity in the system. My hon. Friend the Member for North Cornwall said he has problems too—and we have them across the country—so making sure that we have that universal coverage with UDCs is important. I must put on record my gratitude to dentists, dental nurses, technicians and all the team, because this has been a really difficult period. Dentists and their staff have kept vital care going through the initial peak, both remotely and in frontline urgent dental centres; many also volunteered to be deployed if needed on the frontline of covid services, and their contribution was very much appreciated.

It is important to ensure that NHS dentists are financially supported as businesses. NHSEI has continued to pay dental contracts in full, minus the running costs for downtime in the initial lockdown, whatever the volume of service to be delivered, and NHS dentists holding NHS contracts have welcomed that support. However, I am mindful that that support was for NHS dentists, and there are challenges in the private sector—and many practices are a mixture of both.

The focus now is on increasing dental provision as fast and as safely as possible. Key work has been done to establish ways to reduce room resting times, and that advice has been made available to the profession. I regularly meet with the chief dental officer, the BDA and other stakeholders, because it is vital that we keep looking at how we can get volumes up. That also means updating the existing dental infection prevention and control guidance, but it does not solve the challenge of delivering dental care at volume through the pandemic. It is an important step forward, but part of the problem is the variability in the estate, as the hon. Member for Bradford South alluded to—the different sizes of practices, where they are located, and so on. NHSEI is in discussion with the profession and is taking clinical advice on the expectations for delivery of services to the end of March.

I met the BDA and other dental stakeholders last week to progress conversations further, and I heard those messages. The challenge is to make sure that we can get the optimal amount of care for our constituents and patients while safely ensuring that dental teams can be protected, but we do need to see increased provision. I am keen to understand what further work can be done to solve the challenges in dentistry and how it faces the pandemic, and I have asked officials and NHSEI to look at potential solutions, including testing, increased use of ventilation and the financing thereof.

I understand the constraints under which the profession is operating and how vital services are. We know without doubt that oral health inequalities are likely to have increased over the period of the pandemic and NHSEI is working hard to ensure that caring for vulnerable communities is prioritised. Poor oral health can have a devastating impact on somebody’s quality of life, particularly a child’s, and dental disease is entirely preventable. In the Green Paper published in 2019 we committed to looking at those barriers, to fluoridation and to consulting on rolling out supervised tooth-brushing schemes in more preschool and primary settings. We are working as hard as we can to make sure we hit the consultation dates, but there are challenges.

I am all but out of time.

Sugar plays a crucial role as well, and dental professions are important in healthcare more broadly: diet, spotting oral cancers, diabetes and so on. NHS England is working on a number of key initiatives to reduce inequalities for children, the elderly and the frail. I know that all dentists seek to put prevention at the heart of what they do, recognising that good oral hygiene and diet are the foundation of a lifetime of good oral health.

Through more flexible commissioning, dentists can be partially remunerated for carrying out initiatives such as outreach to schools, care homes and other settings—the homeless are often very compromised with their teeth as well. I hope that provides some reassurance that we are determined to tackle both the long and short-term issues with dental access and the continuing and very concerning inequalities around health, and I am happy to continue this conversation informally.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.

Football Governance

[Yvonne Fovargue in the Chair]

I remind hon. Members that there have been some changes to normal practice to support the new call list system and ensure that social distancing can be respected. Members should sanitise their microphones using the cleaning materials provided before they use them, and dispose of the cleaning materials as they leave the room.

Members should speak only from the horseshoe and can speak only if they are on call lists. This applies even if debates are under-subscribed. Members cannot join the debate if they are not on the call list. Members are not expected to remain for the winding-up speeches. I remind hon. Members that there is less of an expectation that they stay for the next two speeches once they have spoken, to help manage the attendance in the room. They may wish to stay beyond their speech, but they should be aware that doing so may prevent Members in seats in the Public Gallery from speaking—I think we are all right with that today.

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the future of football governance.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Fovargue. There is nothing new about a debate in this place calling for change in the governance of football; too many of us have been here before. Times have changed, however, and there are many now joining the call for change. Covid has turned a spotlight on the weaknesses in the game’s governance and the inequity of the distribution of the game’s wealth.

Football is our national game: 14.5 million people attended premier league matches in the 2018-19 season, and 18.4 million attended matches in the championship. Premier league clubs generated £3.3 billion in tax revenue to the Government and contributed £7.6 billion to the economy in 2016-17. Throughout the country, football trusts play a role in supporting our communities. They lead in tackling racism, deprivation, sexual discrimination and many other social issues, and I pay tribute to every single community trust for the work they have done to support people in need during the covid epidemic.

The English leagues have a huge international following. Their popularity is the envy of many other countries and of the UEFA. I want to go on record as congratulating the premier league on its success, not just here in the UK, but by becoming a global brand of which we should all be proud. Football is so important to the nation, from local communities to being a major contributor to our national economy, that it is important on so many levels that we do not stand by and watch the pyramid that sustains it crumble.

Despite there being such enormous wealth in the game, that money is not distributed fairly—too much is absorbed at the top in players’ wages. The wage bill for the 14 premier league clubs, aside from the big six, is bigger than that of all the Bundesliga clubs put together. The salary arms war waged is entirely contained within the premier league and those championship clubs that overstretch themselves to try to get to the top division. It is unacceptable that premier league clubs can spend £1.2 billion on transfer fees while English Football League clubs are dangling over the abyss during this crisis. We cannot go on with this casino attitude to football’s success, and the time for regulation has come.

Although the Bury debacle showed that the professional game needs saving from itself, we also need to recognise that the money in football attracts some bad actors. Bury also showed that we must strengthen the rules to empower the authorities to keep corruption out of the game. Corrupt individuals circle around football looking for opportunities to make fast money. These people move in on vulnerable clubs and wait for their moment; when a genuine owner comes along, they tie the club up in knots, become an impediment to progress and then offer the would-be owner a deal to get them out of the way.

The football authorities and the Government must work together to change the rules and to legislate, if necessary, to protect football clubs and other sports clubs from this kind of criminality. The manner in which they operate might be within the law, but let us be clear that this is a fraud to extort money, and it must be stopped before more clubs fall foul of these crooks.

These problems existed before covid, but the pandemic has exposed weaknesses in the governance of the game. The solutions extend far beyond what is needed to respond to the immediate crisis. There is no going back to business as usual, and the Football Association must become the regulator that it is meant to be. I commend the Football Supporters Association and Our Beautiful Game for the work that they have done in this area.

We need an independent review of the governance of the game, in which fans and all other stakeholders can participate. The Premier League has initiated a review on the back of the controversy surrounding Project Big Picture. The Government were wrong to dismiss Project Big Picture out of hand; it raised many issues that we will have to take on board and that are worthy of further consideration. Any future review will have to address issues such as future funding for women’s football, football for people with disabilities and football for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender communities.

The Premier League has chosen to reject Project Big Picture and conduct a strategic review that will have implications for the whole of football—for the FA, the English Football League, fans and players. Richard Masters, the chief exec of the Premier League, told the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee on 10 November that the 20 clubs on the PL board have agreed the terms of reference for the review. I wonder whether the Minister has seen the terms of reference, because I cannot find them anywhere. We are told that the review will involve fans, the English Football League and the FA. Have they seen the terms of reference? Can the Minister confirm that the Premier League’s review will be voted on by the 20 premier league clubs alone?

The current 20 shareholders of the Premier League find themselves in their respective positions of power by an accident of history, and it does not qualify them to make important decisions on behalf of the future of the game. By the time that the Premier League strategic review is voted on, three of them might have been replaced through relegation. Only five of the original 12 clubs that started the Football League are currently in the premier league. Should they have a say? Should the other seven that started the Football League have a say in the future of the game? Some 49 clubs have been in the premier league, which shows the extent to which the English Football League clubs have a stake in the premier league. Should they have a say in the strategic review?

The short-termism and self-interest that club owners have shown over the years excludes them from making decisions on behalf of the wider football family. I understand that premier league clubs will vote on the recommendations of the Premier League exec. I have nothing against the people in the Premier League exec, but I think they genuinely believe that they know best for the rest of us. They are unable to see the bigger picture, however, because they are blinkered by the business that they have to defend. They see the premier league, but we see football and its entire family. They believe that football is best run by the richest and most powerful clubs in the land, which have demands that go far beyond the domestic game—we would be foolish to ignore that fact.

The financial gains to be had from playing matches across Europe against similar clubs, packed with more of the biggest names in the game, are irresistible. The Champions League will grow in 2024, when the pressure on domestic fixtures will increase. We have already seen youth teams used in domestic cup competitions. We need to plan for that, not bury our heads in the sand and pretend business as usual will work.

In the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee hearing on 10 November, we were told by Greg Clarke, who was still the chair of the FA, that for the big six clubs to break away from the premier league, they would need the approval of not only the FA, but FIFA and UEFA. The threat that comes from the big clubs moving away to some super league is not as great as some people would make it out to be, because they cannot dictate the terms of any future review of the game.

Both MPs for Bury are here, who have very strong views in respect of the Bury situation. When we are talking about governance, we have to decide who the footballing authorities are governing on behalf of. The problem with the Bury situation was that the EFL had no interest in protecting the interests of thousands of Bury fans. It had no interest in the social and economic impact that simply abandoning Bury to the wolves was going to have. We have to think very hard about what the fiduciary or first interest of the regulator is if we are going to have a new regulatory system.

I do not entirely agree with the hon. Member’s version of the events around Bury. I think the Football League would have taken action against individuals involved in Bury if it had the power to do so. I had long discussions with the Football League about a similar situation that arose at Charlton Athletic, which could have quite seriously gone down the same route as Bury. What the Taylor review really demonstrates—I have a copy of it—is that the rules need changing, so that the EFL has the powers to deal with those individuals. Some of the problems that arose with Bury arose before the individuals that we might have concerns about became involved, so it was a complex situation. This is the sort of thing that needs a fundamental review, so that we can ensure that the regulators of the game have the right powers to be able to deal with these situations.

We also need to consider whether clubs should have to register their accounts, with a projection showing how they will finance themselves for not just the current season, but the future season, including any contracts they have in place, such as players’ wages, during that period. There is a lot that can be done to improve the amount of information that clubs must provide to the regulator so that it has a racing chance of being able to oversee the game, and see where problems might arise.

The situation in the championship, where they spend 107% of their turnover on players’ wages, is ridiculous. That clearly needs regulating. It is driven, to some degree, by clubs that come from the premier league and have the solidarity money. However, the fact remains that to get into the premier league, some clubs are running huge risks, and we do not have the power in the regulations at the moment to prevent that from happening.

These changes have been highlighted by the Taylor review into Bury and things that have happened to other clubs, which shows that this is an area of regulation that needs serious looking into and needs change. I know how the EFL struggled to deal with the situation at Charlton Athletic, and it was on the side of the club all throughout that process, in my opinion.

The Football Supporters Association manifesto for change, “Saving the Beautiful Game”, the Premier League’s strategic review, the Taylor review into Bury and Project Big Picture—albeit that some people oppose some of the ideas in it—all highlighted one undeniable truth: that reform is necessary. Given all the competing interests that there are in this subject, the suggestion of an independent panel to take on the task of resetting the governance of the game is very attractive. The FA clearly needs fundamental reform, and the FA Council itself has passed a motion that commends the work of the Football Supporters Association and its manifesto for change.

The opportunity is there to bring about change in the governance of the game in this country. If the Government do not act, I suspect there is a Back Bencher in this room who will bring a Bill before Parliament to bring about that change. The Government can either be dragged along on the coat-tails of a private Member’s Bill, or they can lead the charge for change.

It is no longer acceptable to allow the Premier League to dominate the game in the way that it currently does. The Premier League has consistently and throughout this covid crisis shown that it is incapable of looking at the bigger picture, without looking first to protect its own interests. The time for change has come, and I hope the Government will support that call, get on board and help lead that change.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairwomanship, Ms Fovargue. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Eltham (Clive Efford) for securing this debate. Although I was born and grew up in the west midlands, my family, my friends and now my social media followers will know that I am a die-hard Liverpool fan. I have my dad to thank for that. That means that I know what it is like to care about the club and to go through the highs and, of course, the lows. While I am a Liverpool fan and I bleed red, I am also very proud to represent thousands of passionate Sky Blues fans, I am here today for them.

Coventry City has a long, loud and proud history. They were FA cup winners in 1987 and an inaugural member of the premier league. Following some difficult years, the club is again on the rise, having been crowned league one champions last season and now competing in the championship once again.

However, the club is also an important example of the need for fans to have a greater say in the running of their clubs. Although the club was initiating the plans to build a new, modern stadium at the turn of the millennium, its financial position meant that it did not own the newly built Ricoh Arena. That led to the club playing home matches at Sixfields Stadium—a 70-mile round trip to Northampton—in the 2013-14 season, before returning to the Ricoh the following season, thanks to a fantastic campaign led by supporters and the local paper, the Coventry Telegraph.

The club was once again forced to play home matches outside of Coventry in 2019, this time at St Andrew’s in Birmingham—a 38-mile round trip from the city. That is where the club plays its home matches now. Fans are forced to travel out of the city to watch their club. For them, it is an absurd, ridiculous and, frankly, disgraceful situation. The solution is simple. Coventry City football club should be playing football in the city of Coventry. Since being elected, I have been determined to do everything I can to help resolve this situation.

That is not the only issue affecting the club. The financial hit of the pandemic and the restrictions has been severe for football clubs across the country, including Coventry. The sport winter survival package announced last week failed to provide any support for the English Football League. As the Sky Blues chief executive, Dave Boddy, said this week, that puts the national sport at severe risk. He has written to the Prime Minister to say that the club, along with all English Football League clubs, has been hung out to dry by the Government. While premier league clubs have the wealth to weather the storm, and while there is hope that the Government will bail out the English Football League, clubs should not be in this position of financial insecurity.

There have to be guarantees and financial support for all of our clubs to survive. None of them should be at risk, and it should not be sink or swim. A football club is more than a business: it is part of the community, and for many people it is part of the social fabric that ties us together. That is why I wrote to the Secretary of State calling for this financial support.

The financial troubles of the English Football League clubs is part of a bigger problem and a bigger story. That story is about how the beautiful game has become divided between very wealthy clubs, brought up by billionaires and often used as public relations to sanitise their public image, and poorer clubs that struggle to survive and that often face collapse, as we have seen with Bury and Bolton.

Our football clubs are too important to be left in the hands of the likes of Mike Ashley and other bad owners, and too important to be at risk of financial collapse. I call on the Government to step in and ensure that Coventry City is given financial support to weather the storm, but I also call for more far-reaching reforms. Clubs should be run in the interests of the people who sustain them, who watch them week in, week out, who stick with them when times are good and also when they are not. They should be run for their fans.

I call on the Government to give fans control and a say in how their clubs are run, to give accredited supporters’ trusts representation on club boards, and to promote fan ownership models, because that is ultimately the only way the beautiful game will work for the people who love it the most. We must put control in the hands of fans, not of the wealthy few who seek only to enjoy its spoils.

It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Coventry South (Zarah Sultana), and the hon. Member for Eltham (Clive Efford), who I will call my hon. Friend from our time working on the Select Committee together.

It is 10 years since, as a newly elected Member of Parliament and a new member of the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee, I attended a Westminster Hall debate on football governance in the wake of the financial collapse of a number of big clubs. The room was packed, and on the basis of the tenets discussed in the debate and the impassioned speeches given, the then Chair of the Select Committee, my right hon. Friend the Member for Maldon (Mr Whittingdale), initiated the inquiry into football governance that reported in 2011 and then again in 2013. During my time as Chair of the Select Committee, we looked at football governance in the context of player welfare in the case of Eni Aluko’s complaint against the Football Association. We also looked at the collapse of Bury football club just before the general election last year. The debate in this place has been running for many years, and remains unresolved.

We should be clear why we have this complaint about football governance and what it is that we are seeking to reform when we talk about improving the governance of the game. We want clubs to be financially sustainable because they are community assets. They temporarily belong to a businessman or an owner, but then someone else will acquire them. Most of the clubs have been going for more than 100 years; they have survived two world wars, the great depression and every crisis this country has faced in that time, and they have kept on going throughout, at the centre of their communities.

We want to ensure that fans have a voice in the way that their game is run. We want to ensure that player welfare is central to the administration of the game and that there are good systems of redress and complaints processes. One thing we learned from Eni Aluko’s case against the Football Association was that there were no proper processes for someone making a complaint of unfair treatment against the Football Association. We want to respect the fact that these are community assets. Their importance to the community goes far beyond putting on matches on match days. They are involved in all sorts of community support through player development, community welfare, adult education and training, and they are incredibly valuable to the communities they serve. That is what we are trying to preserve.

Why is the game so badly run? It is because it is so fractured. We believe that the Football Association is the national governing body of the sport, but unlike in almost any other sport, in football the national governing body is not the financially dominant player in this country. In most sports, it is the national governing body and the revenue it gets from the England national team that provide the bulk of the revenue that that sport enjoys. In football however, it is the Premier League.

When we talk about the football family, as the Minister and the Secretary of State often do, it is from a belief that these are a community of interrelated clubs; they play competitions against each other but all ultimately sit under the Football Association, so they must be interlinked. In fact, they are not: the Premier League has its own set of rules, the Football League has its own set of rules, and the FA takes responsibility for the National League. They all have their own rules and procedures, and they are run in their own way.

The revenue from broadcasting is negotiated separately by the Premier League and the Football League—it was a bad decision that the Football League made many years ago to do that, but nevertheless, that is the case. Clubs in the Premier League, particularly in the lower part of the league, consider that they are competing against clubs in the Championship, particularly clubs that might get promoted and take their place. That is why it is so difficult to get a financial settlement for football from football during the covid crisis. Football does not behave like a family. Football behaves as different entities competing against each other.

In a typical season, a Premier League club will play under Premier League rules in the Premier League, under FA rules in the FA cup and under Football League rules in the League cup, and will probably also hold a UEFA licence in case it is in or wishes to qualify for UEFA competitions. All have their own different rules and procedures. No one is bringing it together and no one is ultimately responsible.

There are certain rules that are put in place to try to ensure that clubs are run sustainably, but whenever there is a crisis, we see how ineffective those rules are. The case of Bury football club and other clubs demonstrates that. If the clubs were made to trade within the rules of the league they play in, most clubs would not go bust. The fact is that they do not do that, because no one checks. There is no requirement to produce accounts in real time; the Football Association and the Football League do not have the ability to inspect and audit the clubs to ensure they are not overspending on salaries and that they are being run in a financially sustainable way. When there is a problem, there is no regulator to step in and say, “That club is being run in an unsustainable way, in breach of the rules, and we are going to intervene to put it back on track.” The club is allowed to be run in a bad way, often by a bad owner, until such point as it goes bust. The role of the league is to then make sure that if the club does not come out of administration, that club is suitably punished. In cases such as Bury football club, the first cry of the fans is always, “Why didn’t someone intervene earlier?” The fact is that there is no body that has the power and the authority to do that.

Many times people pray in aid an owners and directors test, to keep bad owners out of the game and out of clubs. The fact is that there is really no such test. That was demonstrated by Massimo Cellino, a convicted fraudster in Italy whose conviction was considered to be spent under UK company law. The Football League had no more right to stop him being a director of the club than they had to stop him being a director of any company under UK company law. There is no special test, but even if there were, the Football League does not have the resources to enforce it. In the case of Bury when it was in the Football League, the last owner took over the club without having to demonstrate proof of funds or being subjected to any test at all.

Why are things allowed to be this bad? It is principally because there is no national governing body or regulator overseeing all these rule books and how they are enforced, so the clubs effectively do it themselves. The Premier League is run by the 20 clubs in the Premier League, plus the League itself, which has one share. They make decisions collectively, without the involvement of the Football Association. The Football League is run in the same way, by the 72 chairmen of the clubs. They are less interested in intervening to help each other than they are in competing against each other. They are run in that way, which is unsustainable. No one is ultimately in control, which is why the rules do not get enforced properly.

There is a strong argument that we should have a regulator with statutory powers—one that has the right to insist on access to financial records to make sure clubs are playing within the rules, as Ofcom has when broadcasting licences are issued. It would have a discretionary power to tell an owner who cannot demonstrate proof of funds, or who is not suitable or credible, that they cannot take over a club.

We have called for that before. The fan-led review, which was in our manifesto and which the Government are committed to, should give a view on whether we have an independent regulator with statutory powers at the centre of the game, even if all that regulator does is make sure that the leagues properly enforce their own rules and have access to clubs’ finances to make sure they are doing that.

Some people say, “Well, you can’t have a statutory regulator, because FIFA rules don’t allow it,” but that is not true. In 2015, the FIFA rules allowed the Spanish Government to legislate to say that Barcelona and Real Madrid could not sell their TV rights separately. In France, the country of the current world football champions, the national governing body is a statutory body, effectively given a licence by the French Government to carry out its responsibilities. In Germany there are rules on club ownership that require 50% plus 1% to be owned by the fans and the community. All clubs are licenced by the German football league, which can withdraw the licence if the club is trading in breach of the rules. Other countries do this already, so there is no reason under FIFA rules why we would be sanctioned if we created a regulator with statutory powers. I believe that is what we should be looking at in this review.

The Government have a great deal of leverage at the moment because football needs their help. There is still no deal between the Premier League and the Football League to provide financial support for clubs. As many Members know, the Football League has warned that clubs will go bust. I know the Minister and his colleagues say that the Premier League has guaranteed to bail out clubs that go bust, but at the moment there is not enough money available to do that. Indeed, the tax liabilities of the Football League clubs are now around £100 million owed to the Treasury, so the Government already have skin in the game. They are owed money, as are other people.

The Government are in a position where, if they were to put money on the table alongside money from the Football League, they could do so with strings attached. They could demand reform, such as proper financial accountability overseen by an independent regulatory body. That should be at the heart of the proposal considered in the fan-led review, and it is what football needs now. Rather than having a series of warring competitors, competing and fighting against each, we would have a structure with a proper governing body at its heart that has power to take action against clubs that are being run badly and unsustainably. The covid-19 crisis has challenged many aspects of our life and exposed the systemic weaknesses in the governance of football in this country. We now have the opportunity to put that right.

It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Ms Fovargue. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Eltham (Clive Efford) for bringing this debate. As he said, football is our national game. We invented the modern sport of football, and it is popular around the globe with millions of people watching.

Despite covid-19, the Premier League remains in a strong position. Those running the Premier League have managed to generate previously unthinkable levels of income through commercial deals. Yet much of that money leaks out of the game, to agents or, more pertinently for this debate, to owners. Much of the money washing through the game does not get reinvested in it. Although we have had some £600 million invested in grassroots football over the past couple of decades, thanks to the Football Association and the Premier League, that is less than premier league clubs spend in one transfer window. While my constituency has benefited, with great new facilities at Neston High School and the Vauxhall Sports Club, which, for the record, I occasionally play on when circumstances allow, there is still a long way to go. Beyond that investment, we have too many second-rate pitches, which are rendered unusable by a day or two of heavy rain. Our grassroots facilities still compare unfavourably with those in top footballing nations. Only one in three of our grass pitches are of adequate quality. We only have half the number of 3G pitches that Germany has.

We know the pressures local authorities are under to balance the books. There is little left for discretionary spending on improving sporting facilities, which means that pitches are often left with poor drainage, resulting in some areas of the pitch having more mud than grass, and little or nothing in the way of changing facilities. In many ways, the pitches of today are worse than the ones I played on as a child. More of the money in the game needs to reach the grassroots level.

The money does not reach the fans either. It does not manifest in cheaper entrance tickets or support for other clubs. One only needs to look at my team, Manchester United, to see where a lot of the money goes. Since they took over in 2005, using money to buy the club that they subsequently attached to it as a debt, the Glazers have taken over £1 billion out of that club in dividend interest and finance costs. If ownership models are to be reformed, I would like to see that model of ownership banished for ever. That £1 billion did not have to leave the game. Perhaps some of the struggling clubs we have discussed would have survived if the money had been more equitably distributed.

We need to think about the wider health of the game. A few clubs at the top are getting richer and richer, or, as in the case of my club, the owners are getting richer and richer, but at the other end we hear of clubs that are struggling just to survive day to day.

Does the hon. Gentleman think there is a strong case for financially powerful and sustainable clubs, such as Manchester United, taking a charitable view with neighbouring clubs that are struggling financially and need direct help? Bury is approximately half an hour from Old Trafford. Does he think we should put in place mechanisms for premier league clubs to help clubs in financial difficulties lower down the pyramid, especially if they are geographically close and have other links?

There is nothing to prevent that from happening now. Manchester United’s reserve games used to be played at Gigg Lane, providing a financial benefit for the club. I have been persuaded that we need to formalise this help, because I am concerned about some of the strings attached to the recent discussions on support for league clubs. I think the inequality of distribution of money has highlighted clearly why the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee said earlier this year that the current business model for football is unsustainable.

As the hon. Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Damian Collins) highlighted, the governance of football in this country is unlike any other. The financial muscle of the Premier League, which has an income 12 times that of the FA, distorts everything else. The financial power it has must be used more widely for the greater good. Recent developments suggest that the Premier League understands that and recognises it has a financial responsibility to the rest of the game. However, I hope I will be forgiven for being a little cynical about Project Big Picture and what it really meant.

The extra cash for Project Big Picture would have been welcome in the short to medium term, but the strings attached to it and the further concentration of power that were part of the deal could only, I think, come with a huge health warning. What was being proposed would have baked in an uneven playing field, because the price of that extra cash was preferential votes for longer serving clubs, thereby ensuring that the interests of football as a whole would forever be dictated to by the biggest clubs. The proposals would have meant a reduction in the size of the Premier League, and so naturally less opportunity for promotion to it. The league cup and community shield would also have been cancelled. Premier League clubs would have been playing fewer games overall—except that they probably would not have been.

The reduction in the number of fixtures might have been designed not to ensure that elite athletes in the Premier League got extra rest between games, but to pave the way for a European super-league that, in the long run, would hoover up all the power, all the attention and all the money. My hon. Friend the Member for Eltham said that it would not be easy to establish such a super-league, but in the last 25 years we have seen enough in football to know that, in the end, money talks. The Premier League clubs would have got their way.

I fear that the proposed change in voting rights would ultimately have meant that the domestic game would have become subservient to the interests of the 20 or so clubs that would have been part of the European super-league. Entry to that super-league would, of course, be by invitation only. The massive financial imbalance that already ensures that the biggest clubs tend to participate in the champions league each year would also have had an additional lock on it to make sure that the biggest clubs could never fall out of it. I could, of course, be wrong about that. The Premier League could offer the support without any strings attached. Discussions are ongoing so let us see what happens.

There is no doubt that a new strategic review is under way, and that may result in some of the benefits without some of the downsides. The concern highlighted in the debate demonstrates the reason we need an independent body to regulate football and ensure that all decisions made are in the interests of the game as a whole. We have all expressed that concern. As my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry South (Zarah Sultana) said, every team is a big part of the community. The owners are transient, but fans and supporters are there through thick and thin, in good times and bad, whoever is the owner. Football clubs need to be treated much more as a community asset and less as a business as they have been for far too long.

My final point, Ms Fovargue, relates to agency reform and control. A study of agency fees paid by Premier League clubs between October 2015 and January 2016 revealed that £46.5 million was paid to agency intermediaries. That is money that is leaving the game altogether. Frankly, I would like to outlaw agency fees altogether, but I am sure that will not happen. Those figures demonstrate there are huge sums in the game that do not benefit even the highly paid players; the money certainly does not benefit the clubs or the wider community. Let us do something about that as well when we reform football governance, which I hope we are going to do.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Fovargue, I congratulate my friend, if I can call him that, the hon. Member for Eltham (Clive Efford) on securing the debate. I have had the opportunity to speak to him about Charlton Athletic before, so I know he is a very learned and experienced man in these matters.

It goes without saying that this is a raw subject for us in Bury. It is genuinely hard to put into words what the loss of Bury football club has meant to the community. It has had a detrimental impact on thousands of people’s lives, and very few things can do that. Very few things link people, regardless of their age, sex or background, and people came together each week in a collective, positive atmosphere to support Bury. That has been taken away from them.

This is a debate about football governance. We have a system in place, but if we as MPs are going to look at what should be there or what we would recommend, we have to ask, “What is the purpose of governance?” Other points have been well made about how we see football clubs: are they just individual businesses like WH Smith or Barclays bank? Are they simply businesses to be regulated on that basis? I am a supporter of Bury football club but not a fan—there is a difference. They are entities that survive because of that loyalty and an emotional connection between them and their supporters. One can hardly argue that we go to WHSmith because of an emotional connection.

I am only using that as an example, but it is an important example. Earlier I asked the hon. Member for Eltham—and it was a genuine question—who any governance would be on behalf of. He said it would be on behalf of the game, but the game is a very wide thing and lots of people have very different interests in it. One person could be involved in supporting Manchester United, which plays in the premier league and all the other things it competes in, whereas Bury’s major ambition is essentially to stay afloat—to simply survive in the league it is in and have a sustainable business model to support its local community. If we as MPs were to recommend statutory regulation, we would say that the first duty of the regulator must be to the fans: the people at each and every club in the country who pay their money every week to go and watch their team. This is about what is in their interest. Bury is the example, right or wrong, of the monumentally detrimental effect of the loss of a football club.

As with everything else, the pandemic has had a huge effect on EFL and non-league clubs—I will leave the premier league to one side for a second. I agree with everything my hon. Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Damian Collins) said. Although I am tempted to read out his comments about Bury football club from when he was Chair of the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee, I will restrain myself from doing that, because I think we all know what they are. However, football clubs in the lower leagues have been run in an incredibly bad manner. There were players at Bury football club earning £10,000 a week when the crowds were 3,000 or 4,000, which simply is not sustainable.

We have a badly run model that has not been regulated. Indeed, I wonder why the EFL exists if it cannot step in and question these business models, which it knows are unsustainable, including before the pandemic. Half the clubs are running at monumental losses. I mention Rochdale football club only because prior to the pandemic, or certainly at the start of it, it had to have a £1 million loan from its local council, while issues with the ownership of Wigan, Ms Fovargue, have clearly come to the fore in recent months. These are ongoing issues.

We therefore have to be clear that the EFL, or whoever the regulator is, needs to take a strident and stringent approach and must have access to the financial records of a football club and also the financial background of the owner. Cursory examination of the business history of Steve Dale, the current owner of Bury football club, may well have rung some alarm bells with any regulator. In a normal, functioning system, Mr Dale would clearly not have been allowed to take over Bury football club.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the problem with the Football League system is that it is run by people like Mr Dale? It is run by the chairs of the clubs, regulating each other. They do not want people sticking their noses into the way they are running their clubs because if it is done for one club, it will be done for another.

Absolutely, and that is why I would very much support statutory regulation, if that is a possibility, because I see it as the only way of protecting the interests of fans such as those of Bury.

My last point is that, while the pandemic has also shone a light on that business model, the question is how we can work within the system to create football clubs that are not merely the businesses that predatory owners and others have viewed them as, but become community assets that sit within their communities and have direct links to other important facilities. I have had the opportunity since I became an MP to speak with my hon. Friend the Minister on a regular basis. My view, which might not be a palatable suggestion for many owners, is that we have to look at a partnership model whereby football clubs work hand in hand with, for example, the local college or statutory services of some kind so as to bring as many things as possible into the club, because of its unique position at the centre of the community, and allow as wide a group of people as possible to benefit from being able to see their local football club, with the loyalty and pride in their area that that gives them, while also using it as a force for social change.

I was in a meeting yesterday where we talked about youth hubs, armed forces hubs and mental health hubs, so why do we as politicians not work with local people to get facilities set up and ensure that the models are financially stable? I hope that that is a sensible suggestion that people will consider. For someone from a Conservative background, the idea of going in and imposing rules and restrictions on what are private enterprises is not something that comes easily to me, but I know that it is necessary based on my experience of the impact that Bury’s closure has had on its poor fans.

My final comment is that getting Bury AFC, the phoenix club, to where it is has been a wonderful achievement, and I give due credit to those involved, but the Bury Football Club Company Ltd still exists. The club that has been there for 130 years and won the FA cup still exists. We and the EFL, as the regulator, should do everything to help Bury get back to Gigg Lane at the earliest opportunity. Thank you, Ms Fovargue, for allowing me to speak for this length of time.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Fovargue, and I thank the hon. Member for Eltham (Clive Efford) for suggesting this important topic for debate, particularly as the MP for Bury South. I will echo many of the comments of my constituency neighbour and hon. Friend the Member for Bury North (James Daly) about not only the demise and expulsion of Bury, but the heartbreak caused to the community.

I speak today not only as a football fan, but as a former referee, so I already know a bit about the hatred in the game. However, the hatred that I was victim to was mainly the result of a wrong red card or penalty, and it was forgotten shortly after the game. What we have seen with Bury goes deeper, and at its heart is the absence of the game and the absence of a community hub. Our football clubs are not just there for a Saturday afternoon when we long for the hope of promotion or a cup victory, but somewhere we congregate and meet friends. Supporters feel a sense of identity through being part of a club.

I was at a meeting yesterday about saving the beautiful game and the future of football and—I say this as a Manchester United fan, and I think it was highlighted by the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders)—certain methods of ownership clearly are not for the benefit of the club or the fans. While I would love to say, “Glazers out,” it is clear that they have taken far more out of the club than they have ever put in or ever intend to put in, and that is happening at the height of the premier league. When we get to the lower leagues—Bury being a prime example—we have owners who should not even be running a local company, let alone a football club, yet they are allowed to do so much to the detriment of our community. The Steve Dale fiasco will not be forgotten—it can never be forgotten —and should never be repeated.

We all talk about the fit and proper person test, but my hon. Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Damian Collins) highlighted that there is no fit and proper person test. Providing they have the money, almost anyone can own and run a football club. However, there was no evidence that Steve Dale even had the money in the first place, so what real reason did he have to own the club other than wanting to make a quick buck at a town’s expense? We need to ensure that not only is there regulation behind the fit and proper person test to begin with, but that it permeates down to the lower leagues.

We must focus on what is arguably the most important thing about football: the fans. Without the fans, there is no football, because no one will go to watch the games. If we are not watching the games, there is no money. The review of football needs to be driven by fans. Every club’s supporters trust needs to have a voice and a meaningful say. As a Manchester United fan, the past few years have not been particularly easy, so I have focused much more on grassroots football and Bury AFC. While those involved in the phoenix club should rightly be proud, it is not the same. It is not Gigg Lane, and it is not getting football back in the heart of the whole community. I go to Radcliffe and the Neuven Stadium whenever I can. Although I am yet to see Bury AFC, when fans are allowed back I am sure that I will go one Saturday with my constituency neighbour and hon. Friend the Member for Bury North.

We need to recognise that there is no football governance if there is no football. As we come out of lockdown and enter new restrictions, there are huge parts of the country where fans might not be able to go to games. If football is about the fans, is there any point in resuming those games? We have to start thinking about how to get fans back in a meaningful way—not only home fans but away fans, too. For a supporter, there is nothing quite like getting up at the crack of dawn to go on a nice, long journey to the north-east, only to then see their team get beaten. We need to get the fans back ASAP. My hon. Friend the Minister and I have spoken about football many times, including previously when he was my Whip and now that he is a Minister. I emphasise that we need to get the fans back, because if they do not have a club to go back to, what is the point in discussing governance? That is the message I want to get across. In tier 1 and tier 2 there is hope at the end of the tunnel for the future of clubs, but in tier 3 we are still in the tunnel and there is no light. We need to address that.

It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Ms Fovargue, and to speak in this debate alongside so many expert Members, particularly my hon. Friend the Member for Eltham (Clive Efford), who secured it. When I first entered the House in 2010, my football club, the champions Liverpool, were experiencing turbulence with their ownership, and my hon. Friend gave me expert advice. I was a new and, probably, naive Member, but I have always listened to everything he says about football, particularly on the subject under discussion, not least because he, as my predecessor as the shadow sports Minister, wrote all of our policies in 2015, and they remain our policies. There is no better person in this House—[Interruption.] It would have been nice if we had won an election, but that is another story.

It would have been good, as the hon. Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Damian Collins) said, if action had been taken on some of the policies when the cross-party coalition was formed all those years ago, but that did not happen. As the years have gone by, there has been no improvement in the regulation of football, despite that very clear cross-party coalition, which is represented in this debate. I think that we are now on the same page.

My hon. Friend the Member for Eltham also mentioned the importance of regulation in the women’s game and in disability and LGBT+ football, and I think that has cross-party support, too. We are on the same page now. All parties are calling for it and every manifesto in the December election mentioned it. Labour and Conservative Members are as one in wanting it to happen.

I will briefly summarise the arguments made by colleagues across the House, but before doing so I want to flag to the Minister the very important question the hon. Member for Bury South (Christian Wakeford) asked about the return of supporters to stadiums. This is a crucial moment for football supporters, for clubs and, indeed, for players, most of whom I think are desperate to have fans back in stadiums. We all understand the public health situation. I want to flag to the Minister—he will be thrilled to hear this—that I have sent him a letter with a number of questions. He cannot answer them now because he has not seen the letter, but I am sure we will discuss the issue in the coming days, as it is a very high priority.

We cannot talk about this subject without discussing the serious, detrimental impact that the covid-19 pandemic has had on football. Nobody looking at the current situation would conclude that we do not have a crisis on our hands. I repeat the point made by Members across the Chamber that football is not a business like any other. There are some in our country who still want to think that it is a business like any other, but they are not to be found here today and I do not think they would be found anywhere in the House of Commons. If we look at what has happened during the pandemic, we know that that is not the case. Football has a public purpose. We have seen that in the commitment that football and its community trusts have shown in their dedication to their local communities.

I think it was the hon. Member for Bury North (James Daly) who said that if a football club goes bust, it is not like any other shop. People do not just go and support another one. It is part of an individual’s identity—part of who they are. So many people in the country know that.

I have seen the vital work that football clubs do in my own borough of Wirral. All our grassroots clubs are amazing. They are led by our very own Tranmere Rovers, which is phenomenal. It was up and running with a food delivery service before anyone else had got their boots on, when we were all worried about people who were sheltering. I take great pride in all the work that it does and I know that everybody in the Wirral feels the same, but we are not alone. Everybody in our political world and our community would acknowledge the role that football clubs play in building that sense of identity and community spirit, and we have to make sure that these vital community hubs survive the crisis.

The other thing that covid has done to our national game is to reveal, if we did not know it already, the deep financial problems at the heart of the game’s structure. It has exposed the vacuum of constructive leadership across the game. We need to sort that out in the public interest, for the fans that the game serves. They deserve it. They put a lot of time and effort into supporting football and they deserve action from us.

I am worried that if we do not get on with that task quickly, the process will be kicked into the long grass and that would not be to the benefit of fans. The covid pandemic makes the fan-led review more urgent, not less. There is no point coming up with a temporary fix solution and then for all of us to be back here—no doubt my hon. Friend the Member for Eltham will be bringing another debate—next year and the year after that and in five years’ time, and still be saying, “We have a problem at the heart of the finance and the governance of the national game.” Now is the right time to bring this forward and I would like to see the Government prioritise it now.

Hon. Members have mentioned all the clubs that have seen challenges. I know that you, Ms Fovargue, will no doubt be full of anxiety for the future of Wigan Athletic. It is an important and historic footballing institution in our region in the north-west of England. That situation has really made the case.

Other Members have talked about Bury. I visited Bury in December, for reasons that will be obvious. I was struck then at the absolute devastation at the idea of football not returning to Gigg Lane. There is, of course, the other side to the Bury story—AFC Bury—which shows how capable football fans are, given the chance.

We are now in a situation where clubs are losing between £30,000 to £100,000 per game on gate revenue in the lower leagues. As the hon. Member for Folkestone and Hythe pointed out, they owe some £77 million in unpaid taxes, so the Government absolutely have skin in the game and need to sort this out. It has been reported that nearly 10 clubs are in danger of not being able to pay their staff on an ongoing basis.

We need a radical overhaul. Only a fan-led review can do it with the right people at its heart. I really think that the fans are capable of doing such a review and should be given a leading role.

The other reason why the fans and the public need a leading role is that if we think that this situation will be sorted out from within football, we would be engaging in a collective fantasy. It is not going to happen, partly for the reason that was discussed in response to the hon. Member for Bury North, who is no longer in his place. He said that the EFL or whoever the regulator is needs to sort it out, but as the hon. Member for Folkestone and Hythe pointed out, most football is run by the owners of the clubs, many of whom are not unrelated to the problem that we are trying to deal with.

This is not a unique situation. Football is not the only industry in our country we have ever had that has had such structural problems. In 2008, many people said that the problems within the banks were very complicated, which they were, that our banking sector is part of a global industry, which it is, and that it would be very challenging for the UK to deal with the re-regulation of the banking industry—but we did it. We took global institutions that had lost track of their local community purpose, and we put new regulations in place to make them much more stable. The question is this: for football, who is the Bank of England, and what is the counter-cyclical buffer that we need to require of clubs to stabilise them? Honestly, I do not believe that it is beyond the wit of the UK Government to do that.

This pandemic has profoundly shocked all aspects of our country—football as much as any other part—and we will all be judged on how we facilitate and encourage recovery. We have said that Members have been at this for a decade. For nearly 10 years we have been unable to resolve it. Finally, we are all on the same page and have the real possibility of absolute cross-party agreement. I believe it is incumbent upon us to just get on with it.

There are plans developed and written, not least by the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee, which has done an excellent job of work. We just need to pick them up and run with them. We need political will for that, and I believe that between us the Minister and I could show that political will. In such debates, it is customary for the shadow Minister to give the Minister a long list of detailed questions. I do not have a long list of questions about this; I have just one. Conservative MPs promised the electorate a fan-led review of football in their 2019 manifesto. Where is it?

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Fovargue. Hopefully, I got the pronunciation broadly correct—perhaps it is easier to say Madam Chairman. I am very grateful to the hon. Member for Eltham (Clive Efford)—hopefully I got that correct as well—for introducing the debate, and for the contributions that he and other hon. Members have made on what is broadly a consensual, cross-party matter, as the hon. Member for Wirral South (Alison McGovern) just articulated. Of course, everybody today, as always in these debates, has spoken with great passion and great knowledge, reflecting how important this issue is right across the country to all of our constituents.

Football is of course our national game. It is a vital part of many of our lives, from playing the game in our local parks to watching our favourite teams on the terraces. However, it is not just on the pitch but off the pitch that football plays such an important role. The incredible work, as the hon. Lady and others mentioned, that football clubs have done during the pandemic has demonstrated that importance once again. From turning their car parks into NHS testing centres through to delivering food packages to the vulnerable, they hold a very special place in our local communities. It is vital that they are protected, as my hon. Friends the Members for Folkestone and Hythe (Damian Collins), for Bury North (James Daly) and for Bury South (Christian Wakeford) mentioned. Indeed, everybody mentioned the importance of these clubs in our local communities.

Many football clubs have benefited from the Government’s support packages over the past few months in this incredibly difficult period. The Treasury estimates that around £1.5 billion of public funds has gone into sport since the beginning of the pandemic. As well as the £300 million sports winter survival package that we announced last week, over £200 million from Sport England has gone into grassroots sport, and additional money has gone into various other schemes, such as furlough, grants and reliefs over a period of many months.

However, I do not underestimate how many sports clubs, including football clubs—even some in the highest tiers—are still in incredibly tight financial circumstances. Of course, we have worked closely with football throughout the pandemic, getting it back behind closed doors and getting live premier league matches on the BBC for the first time. The premier league is, as the hon. Member for Eltham and others mentioned, one of our most important soft power assets. It is the most watched and supported football league in the world. English clubs have been some of the most successful in the game, and I hope that continues.

However, that success is built on the strength of the entire football pyramid. Just look at the 49 different clubs that have played in the premier league since its inception in 1992. Everybody will be aware, as has been mentioned several times, that the Premier League and the EFL are currently in discussions about a support package. I am pleased that the Premier League has made it clear that it will not let any EFL club fail due to the pandemic—something that I hope the hon. Member for Coventry South (Zarah Sultana) particularly notes. I have had assurances, including just this morning, that significant progress is being made on an agreement for a financial support package for EFL clubs. While Premier League and EFL executives are in close and regular contact, ultimately it will be up to the individual clubs to approve any deal. I encourage and appeal to them to play their part, because ensuring that a support deal is in place is vital for English football.

A crucial step toward sports recovery is the return of fans, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bury South mentioned. I was therefore delighted that we were able to announce on Monday the return of spectators in tiers 1 and 2 from 2 December, with capacity limits and social distancing.

Although I welcome the announcement on tiers 1 and 2, areas such as mine are anticipating going into tier 3, with further easements planned for household bubbles over Christmas. Will the Minister ensure that football can come home for Christmas, and make sure that the good, long-standing tradition of a Boxing Day derby can continue?

Everybody wants to make sure that football can come back in as many places as possible; my hon. Friend and others have made similar appeals. We are all waiting to find out the tiering system over the next few days, and the implications then for each of our regions, but the intent is to open as much as possible. I look forward to receiving another letter from the hon. Member for Wirral South, and I shall be happy to respond to her. We have regular correspondence, formally and informally, and I think it is good for sport that we have this open communication. I have no problem with her asking questions, and I will do my best to answer them as fully as I can.

I think we are all pleased to hear the Government say that there are conditions under which fans can come back, but does the Minister agree that it could be unfair for clubs that do not have their fans in the background to compete against those that do, particularly when those clubs are in a very distressed financial position? What financial compensation will be available to clubs that may play most of the season without any fans in their grounds at all?

My hon. Friend makes a fair point, but we do need to start taking these baby steps toward opening as much of the economy, and of course football and sport, as possible. Logic would dictate that if we cannot open everything everywhere, then we should not open at all. Of course, we need to open as much as possible where we can, and support measures were announced last week for the national league. Fans have been able to attend non-elite sport for some time; we have allowed fans in stadiums and that will continue. On the elite side, I think as much as possible is absolutely key.

The deal between the EFL and the Premier League will be an important part of the dynamics of financial support. Nobody knows exactly where will be open when, or to what extent it will help with the financial circumstances, but I hope and have confidence that those elements and considerations will be part of the support package determined by the EFL and the Premier League; it must have some element of dynamism in that.

Another vital step is the resumption of grassroots sport from 2 December across all tiers, including the highest risk areas with some mitigation. Grassroots sport will return, and this will benefit the health and wellbeing of people right across the country. Further guidance on this will be published shortly.

While the pandemic has exacerbated some of the issues within football, it has not created them. Several hon. Members have expressed frustration about the groundhog day element to the discussion we are having today. It is absolutely clear that reform is needed in the national game, and has been needed for some time. That is why the Government are committed to a fan-led review of football governance. I will come to the question asked by the hon. Member for Wirral South in a moment.

The pandemic has highlighted the problems of football governance and finance—I have said repeatedly that the two are intrinsically linked. We cannot divorce governance from the finances, and I can confirm that we will look into this relationship as part of the governance review. The Secretary of State and I started this conversation last week, when we hosted a roundtable of key football stakeholders to discuss the future of the game. That discussion was lively and constructive, and it raised a number of ideas. Informally, therefore, the review of governance has already started, and this debate is contributing to it. We will announce the formal governance review in due course, but we certainly have no intention of kicking it into the long grass.

When we determine the terms of reference and the actual scope, we will obviously let the House know; it is vital that we do so. At this moment in time, we are considering all options and ideas. Many entities have come forward with suggestions that have good and bad elements and strengths and weaknesses, but it is important that we keep an open mind. I will certainly ensure that I am open to any constructive ideas as I go into the review. We will be working on the scoping, timing and remit of the review, and we will announce that in due course. I am well aware of the huge interest in it. As the hon. Lady said, all parties are keen to support it.

In the review that the Minister talks about, where does the strategic review that has been announced by the Premier League sit? It said that it is going to be drafted by its executive and voted on by the 20 member clubs. Has the Minister seen the terms of reference for that review, and does it cut across these discussions?

Of course, the strategic review of the Premier League, which is a separate private entity—it is not an arms-length body—is rightly and justifiably entirely down to it. Its ideas and suggestions, and whatever the outcome of that review is, will be of great interest to me and the Government, but it is separate from the grassroots review of governance that we committed to in our manifesto and that others support. It is down to it to determine the scope of the review. I understand that it will be consulting with the English Football League. I absolutely commit that our review will involve and engage the Premier League, the EFL and many other stakeholders. The precise scope of that review is entirely down to the Premier League, and it is right that it does that.

At the roundtable last week, I was particularly keen to hear the thoughts of the Football Supporters Association, with which I have had constructive conversations. It is crucial that any reforms to the game have the backing of the fans, who, after all, are the lifeblood of the sport. It is interesting that Project Big Picture did not have the support of the Football Supporters Association, although, as I said earlier, I recognise that any proposals coming forward will have strengths and weaknesses.

In 2016, the Government set up an expert working group on football supporter ownership and engagement, which led to some great improvements in club engagement with fans, and the Premier League and EFL now require clubs to meet supporters at least twice a year to discuss strategic issues, giving fans the opportunity to shape the direction of the club. I am well aware that this is a great passion of the hon. Member for Eltham. He has contributed to the debate over many years and campaigned for greater involvement and engagement of fans. Of course, there is still a lot more to do, and that will form an essential part of the governance review.

I appreciate that my hon. Friend says that the full terms and conditions of the review are yet to be agreed, but if the fan-led review recommends an independent regulator, will the Government give proper consideration to that recommendation?

It is very important that I do not predetermine the outcome of the review, but all reasonable and sensible ideas are welcome, as I have said. I would not like to say that we will look favourably or unfavourably at any individual component part at the moment, because that would be pre-empting the outcomes of the review, and of course circumstances could change things.

I will phrase it slightly differently. What I want to know is whether the idea of an independent regulator is outside the scope of the fan-led review, or are fans free to submit ideas about that to which the Government will at some point respond?

My hon. Friend will forgive me for not pre-announcing, before we have written anything down, the scope of the review or the outcome of it. What I can say is that I am personally very keen to make sure the scope of the review is broad. Any sensible, viable and reasonable ideas will be welcome. I know that is a somewhat obscure caveat, but we all know that some proposals can be unrealistic or bizarre. I suspect that any realistic and sensible proposal, looking at models that are deployed and adopted by other countries, for example, will form part of the review. I am coming into the review with a very open mind, as is the Secretary of State. I can assure my hon. Friend of that, but he will forgive me if I cannot really be pressed any further on the scope of the review before it is announced. I am well aware of the strength of feeling and the enthusiasm across the House to make sure that we get the scope determined as soon as possible.

I thank the Minister for his tolerance. Just to give those who are following this debate closely an idea on the terms of reference, the scope and the important issues that have just been mentioned by the hon. Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Damian Collins), are we thinking of a month, two months, or after Christmas? Can the Minister give us an idea?

I sincerely appreciate and understand the hon. Lady’s persistence in this matter, but I have to say that we will be announcing the scope of the review in due course. She knows as well as anybody else the enthusiasm in this House for getting that review going as soon as possible.

On the issue of women’s football, which has been brought to the front during the coronavirus situation, there are many other long-term issues facing the game as well as governance. The roundtable that we had last week had a real focus on women’s football and tackling discrimination. The pandemic has shone a light on inequalities in football and, indeed, many other sports. The women’s game had built up significant momentum over the past few years, with both participation and interest growing rapidly, and the England Lionesses are inspiring a generation of girls, and indeed boys, including with their superb run-up to the World cup semi-finals last year. It is crucial that that momentum is not lost.

The women’s game must be central to any discussion on the future of the sport, and I was therefore glad that representatives of women’s football were able to attend the football roundtable we held last week, including Baroness Sue Campbell, the FA’s director of women’s football. I have also had a follow-up conversation with her and look forward to many further conversations. This week I am also meeting with Jane Purdon, the chief executive of Women in Football, to examine the issues facing the women’s game further.

Another issue that sadly remains to the detriment of the game is discrimination. There is still much progress to be made to improve diversity within football. I welcomed the announcement of the FA’s new football leadership diversity code last month, which is a step in the right direction to improve diversity and inclusion in both the men’s and women’s games. From the pitch to the boardroom, football must be welcoming and inclusive for all people from all backgrounds.

Sadly, players are still receiving abhorrent abuse online. I am absolutely clear that players should not be suffering from such abuse, and this Government are committed to taking action to tackle it. As set out in the online harms White Paper, we intend to establish a new law with a duty of care on social media companies towards their users, which will be overseen by an independent regulator. However, there is still a lot more to be done to rid football and society of this scourge. I welcome the football authorities’ commitment to tackling these issues at the roundtable and in other conversations, and will continue to work with them to deliver further action.

Very briefly, I will answer a couple of other points and then make sure the hon. Member for Eltham has plenty of time to make further comments. On the point raised about Project Big Picture, the Government’s response was that the timing was not right. We have said all along that any proposals coming up from football at the moment, if they are to be adopted by football, quite clearly and transparently need the support of the entire family—an issue that my hon. Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe raised and that I will come to in a moment. The Football Supporters Association did not support that proposal, which I think was a great failing. However, all proposals have strengths and weaknesses, and we are open to many ideas. My hon. Friend raised an important point about the great challenges of the dynamics of football—whether we call it the football pyramid or the football family—and I think we all recognise that, while it is a family, or has elements of being a family, it is certainly a very dysfunctional one, as he articulated very clearly, hence the need for a significant review of governance.

The hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders) mentioned facilities. Of course, it is also a medium and long-term goal of the Government to significantly improve facilities, and not only for football but for many other sports across the country. I will take this opportunity to highlight the fact that Sport England has funds available to help enhance facilities; in fact, there is a live fund available at the moment, the Return to Play fund, to help with sports facilities, and I encourage grassroots clubs across the country to apply to it. It is a relatively small amount, but, boy, will it make a difference.

My hon. Friends the Members for Bury North and for Bury South raised the particular circumstances in Bury, of which I am aware—we have had many regular conversations. They have asked for Government support. As well as rich tea and sympathy and enthusiastic support for Bury FC to sort its difficulties out, there are areas for potential Government support, but it would have to be in the remit of a broader offering. That could be a sport offering, in which we could get Sport England involved, or part of potential funds towards broader community development, recognising the important role that the club plays in the community, as my hon. Friends mentioned. I am well aware of the challenges faced by Bury FC at the moment, and I hope and have confidence that project phoenix will arise from the ashes. Bury deserves a very positive future.

My opposite number, the hon. Member for Wirral South, raised many points. She did not give me a full list, but I look forward to her letter and to further dialogue. I am very grateful for today’s wide-ranging debate. The Government have started the conversation on the important issues facing the future of football. Many Members have contributed to that discussion, and I am very appreciative of that. We remain absolutely committed to driving progress and will continue to work closely with all stakeholders in football to ensure a stable and strong future for our national game.

I deliberately focused on the need for change in governance rather than rehashing and dwelling on all the arguments about the financial state of clubs. As the shadow Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral South (Alison McGovern), said, at the moment there is a drive towards change. I am delighted to hear that the Government are now holding their own roundtables in preparation for a review into the governance of the game—that has to be welcomed. The momentum is there now, and that is why I tried to focus my comments on governance.

My hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders) mentioned facilities. We have the richest football league in the world, but we lag behind other countries such as Spain, Germany and France. It is no coincidence that those countries have enjoyed so much success in football when they have invested at the grassroots level as they have done. Look at the statistics comparing the number of coaches and the number of all-weather pitches with floodlights per head of population. Let us not forget that if a facility does not have floodlights, it is not useable for large parts of the winter. Those are important factors.

We are all told by the Premier League—I am sure that the Minister gets this as well—how much our constituencies get, how much it has spent and how much it supports the local football trust. If we step back and look at the bigger picture, though, it is a sorry situation for such a rich football league to have such poor facilities. I remember that when I was on the shadow sports beat, I learned that in Liverpool there was no all-weather football pitch in the city, apart from at Liverpool FC and Everton FC. For a city that is so imbued and associated with football, that was quite a shocking fact.

I welcome the fact that the Government are reviewing the governance of the sport. Now that the Minister has stated his commitment, I think there is no going back. We will have to move forward, because we cannot leave it to the structures in the game. As the hon. Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Damian Collins) and others have pointed out, the owners of clubs are so blinkered in their views that they look at the matter only through the prism of their own clubs. They see their clubs as their own businesses and they do not want outside interference. We will not get the fundamental change that we need if we allow the focus of the decision making to come from those in the game.

We can make the game sustainable. The amount of money in Project Big Picture was minuscule compared with the overall income generated by the Premier League, and it could have put the English football league on a sustainable footing. I did not support all the proposals in Project Big Picture—I had issues with many of them—but I supported the debate because it put the dead cat on the table and made everybody talk about what we would do about football. Nobody else was putting anything on the table, and at least the project started to address the issues.

My hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston raised concerns about the super league. I suspect that the talk about the super league is overblown, but the increase in the number of games in 2024 in the European champions league is a big issue. There will be more games, and they will have an impact on the domestic game. Project Big Picture tried to address that issue, and it will come up when the Minister sits around the table with other stakeholders to discuss the future of the game.

We have to embrace this moment and make sure that we get change. I favour an independent panel, and I hope that the Minister’s roundtable will frame the panel’s terms of reference and make-up. I would certainly volunteer to be on that panel, and I am sure the hon. Member for Folkestone and Hythe would, too. The fact is that change is coming. If it does not come from the Government, it will come from elsewhere in Parliament, because the mood is that we have to deal with this now.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered the future of football governance.

Sitting suspended.

Parole Board: Maintaining Public Safety

[Judith Cummins in the Chair.]

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the effectiveness and transparency of the Parole Board in maintaining public safety.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Cummins. I thank Mr Speaker for granting this debate, and I welcome the Minister to her place. I thank colleagues for joining me this afternoon to debate what is a pressing issue for our constituents and for the wider country in maintaining and ensuring public safety.

Although this debate will focus on the wider parameters and aspects of the Parole Board’s effectiveness and transparency, I would like to draw the House’s attention to a specific and notorious case, which is a matter of considerable concern to my constituents in South Leicestershire—the case of Colin Pitchfork. In 1988, Pitchfork was sentenced to life imprisonment for the brutal rape and murder of two young girls in my constituency. On 31 November 1983, 15-year-old Lynda Mann was raped and strangled by Pitchfork in the village of Narborough in Leicestershire, and on 31 July 1986, 15-year-old Dawn Ashworth was raped and strangled by Pitchfork in the nearby village of Enderby.

Although those crimes were committed over three decades ago, the murders of Lynda and Dawn continue to live long in the memories of my constituents. I regularly hear from those who still live in the villages of Narborough and Enderby who have fond memories of growing up with these two young women and will never forget their tragic and untimely deaths.

As hon. Members may be aware, Pitchfork’s case is not only notorious for these heinous and abhorrent crimes, which tragically ended the lives of two young girls; it is also known as a pivotal moment in English criminal justice history. He was the first person in the world to be convicted using DNA fingerprinting evidence pioneered by Sir Alec Jeffreys at the University of Leicester.

Following the tragic deaths of Lynda and Dawn, which made headline news across the country, Leicestershire Police conducted one of the country’s largest manhunts for the perpetrator. In an attempt to find those who were responsible, Leicestershire Police took the unprecedented and innovative step of blooding over 5,000 men—asking them to volunteer their blood and saliva for the purposes of DNA testing—in the hope of finding a match to the evidence that was left at the scenes of those awful crimes.

In a painstaking six-month process, the University of Leicester, the Forensic Science Service and Leicestershire police combed through the samples given by local men, but no matches were found. Only after he was overheard bragging that he had asked a friend to donate a DNA sample in his place was Pitchfork discovered, arrested and tried for his crimes, during which he pleaded guilty and was sentenced to life imprisonment.

The brutal and callous nature of Pitchfork’s crimes raises questions as to whether such a person should ever be released from prison or could ever be truly rehabilitated. There is little doubt among professionals, among my constituents in South Leicestershire and in my own personal opinion that, had Pitchfork not been caught, he would have taken yet another young life; that Pitchfork wilfully deceived the authorities during their investigations; and that he continued to exercise his freedom and live his life when his victims could not—a further indictment on this individual’s character.

Mrs Cummins, I would like to inform you and the House of the representations that I have made to the Parole Board regarding Pitchfork’s case on behalf of my constituents and the families and friends of the victims. I also commend the Secretary of State for Justice, the Minister with responsibility for prisons—she is in her place today—and the chief executive of the Parole Board for England and Wales, Mr Martin Jones, for their work and assistance on this matter. Their willingness to assist my constituents and me, and their devotion to this particular case, should be commended. I would like to put on record my sincere thanks to them.

The Parole Board’s purpose is to carry out—independent of the Government, the legislature and the judiciary—risk assessments on prisoners to determine whether they can safely be released into the community. As such, it can be regarded as the final barrier between prisoners and us in wider society.

As I have mentioned, the Parole Board’s independence from the judiciary, the legislature and Government is key. For the most part, prisoners who have served their sentence and can demonstrate their successful rehabilitation should be properly assessed ahead of their release. Their eventual release, if granted, is a crucial part of their rehabilitation and sentence, so that they can go back into the community as a person who is changed for the better and who will be able to make a positive contribution to our society.

Rehabilitation is a cornerstone of our criminal justice system and a hallmark of our tolerant, forgiving society. Although our country has one of the highest prison populations in Europe, we are a freedom-loving, rules-based democracy and I accept the need for our country to recognise that a person’s historical actions do not define them for all time. A person’s historical failures do not mark them for the rest of their life. We, as a country or a people, do not lock up individuals and throw away the key. When we remove people’s liberty, we invest time and taxpayers’ money in prisoners under a duty of care to work with them to rehabilitate them, and to consider an avenue towards their potential future release, a new start in life and a return to being safe, productive members of our society.

Questions, however, will remain for those who are perhaps not capable of being rehabilitated. It is not my place to pass judgment on the suitability of an individual’s character or their ability to re-enter society as a changed person. The rates of further serious offences among those who are deemed to be safe and who are released by the Parole Board are so low that it is clear that the Parole Board has robust practices in place to make those judgments from a specialist point of view. It is tasked by all of us and by all our constituents to ensure that those it deems fit for release no longer present a danger to the public. To the Parole Board’s credit, it does not often get those decisions wrong, but if it does, the wider public pays the price.

I endorse everything that the hon. Gentleman has said thus far, and I congratulate him on securing the debate. The circumstances he outlines in relation to his constituents and the arguments he advances resonate strongly with me and with people in St Helens, particularly the village of Billinge, where Helen McCourt was murdered in 1988. Her mother has fought a successful campaign for the introduction of the rule that if a murderer does not give information about the whereabouts of their victim’s remains, that will strongly affect the criteria for their release by the Parole Board. I pay tribute to the Government for putting that on the statute book in recent months.

Picking up on what the hon. Gentleman said about when the Parole Board gets it wrong, Marie McCourt had to watch her daughter’s killer be released from prison under parole. I accept the argument about public safety, but this is about public decency, too. Releasing someone who murdered a woman and never gave information about her remains is an affront to public decency.

I entirely agree that it is at the very least questionable when someone who has not shown contrition for their crimes, and over decades of custody, has not assisted investigators but is deemed fit for release.

I ask Members kindly to cast their minds back to 2018 when it was reported that John Worboys, a man convicted of 12 serious sexual offences and suspected of approximately 100, was proposed for release by the Parole Board, having served 10 years in custody. His proposed release caused considerable and understandable outcry among the public, press and, indeed, parliamentarians. Worboys’s case was a watershed moment for much needed reform of the parole process. Victims were not advised of the proposed release, and little information was provided about the reasoning behind the decision, and the then Secretary of State for Justice acted swiftly to bring new, welcome levels of transparency to the system.

I was pleased to feed into some of those changes to the parole process, having a link to the Pitchfork case, and like others I greatly welcomed the changes that were made. The announcement of a new mechanism two years ago for victims and families to request that decisions be reconsidered, and for summaries of decisions to be issued to the public, helped to bring the parole system into the 21st century and, crucially, helped to provide victims and families with a greater say in the criminal justice process, to help them seek the justice they deserve. From being a detached and at times obfuscated process, the parole system appears largely to have learned its lessons from the Worboys case. It has become more open and transparent to those who matter most, but it must continue its challenging work of ensuring public safety.

The Parole Board must have all the necessary resources to arrive at the correct judgment. I encourage the Minister to continue to ensure that it has all the necessary resources to carry out its important task.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for introducing today’s debate. In 2018-19, there were 8,272 hearings that were not concluded at the time, including about 2,500 cases that were deferred on the day, or adjourned, because of a lack of sufficiency of psychologists’ and probation reports. Does he recognise that we need proper resourcing throughout the criminal justice system to ensure that victims in particular are not let down when hearings do not go ahead?

I agree that there is always a strong argument to be made for more resources. In an area such as the criminal justice system, and, specifically, the Parole Board, there is always a good argument to be made to the Minister, who I am sure is listening, about the need for more resources.

The Parole Board has, however, demonstrated its effectiveness in a majority of cases, with a most welcome low level of serious reoffending by those released. Through measures passed in the House, the system has given victims more of a voice, and a clearer view of the process and the decisions made in cases. I ask the Minister to consider how that process can be maintained, and indeed strengthened, to ensure that a balance continues to be struck between releasing those who are fully rehabilitated and halting the release of those who might still present a danger to my constituents and those of every other Member.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Cummins, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for South Leicestershire (Alberto Costa) on securing this incredibly important debate. I echo his comments on the importance of Parole Board discretion in serious cases such as the one he described, and its ability to keep people in prison when they represent a danger to the public.

The single point I want to make is that of the importance of Parole Board involvement with rape cases in particular. Some 84% of rape convictions are dealt with by a standard determinate sentence. That means that the Parole Board is not involved at all in the release of those criminals. A key question to me is what the Parole Board is for, if it is not to determine whether rapists are going to reoffend. The reoffending rate for sexual offences is around 14% and we need to look again, seriously, at the level at which the Parole Board gets involved to make sure that every single serious sexual offence is looked at and that there is the discretion to decide whether someone is released among the public, as well as some analysis of how effective it has been. As my hon. Friend said, the issue has existed for many years and we have an opportunity to get it right.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Cummins, and I thank my hon. Friend the Member for South Leicestershire (Alberto Costa) for introducing this important debate.

I start by extending my sympathies to the families of Lynda Mann and Dawn Ashworth. I cannot begin to understand what they must have gone through over the years, with the victims being so young. My sympathies are with them at this time. My hon. Friend mentioned the impact on the wider community in Leicestershire and I am deeply aware of his interest in the case, the support he has given and continues to give to the victims’ families and his constituents more widely, and his personal efforts to bring the matter to the attention of the Ministry of Justice and to liaise with the Parole Board, meeting with its chief executive and providing a letter to be included in the parole dossier outlining his concerns so that those may be considered at the right time.

As my hon. Friend mentioned, the Parole Board fulfils a significant and fundamental role in protecting the public from harm. In providing a fair way to consider the release of those held in our prisons on indeterminate—and in some cases determinate—sentences, the expertise of Parole Board members is thoroughly to assess the risk and take effective decisions. That expertise is clear, with public protection absolutely at the heart of every case.

My hon. Friend was right to mention that there are only a limited number of cases in which the Parole Board allows a release and the offender goes on to reoffend. Serious further offences are rare. Less than 0.5% of offenders under statutory supervision are convicted of serious further offences, and I believe that this very low level shows that the Parole Board is reaching the right conclusions when it comes to release. None the less, each one is taken extremely seriously, and a review is carried out of all to identify any lessons for the better management of future cases.

As my hon. Friend pointed out, over the past two years, we have taken a number of steps to improve the effectiveness, and particularly the transparency, of the Parole Board system. We introduced two key changes. First, in 2018, we worked with the Parole Board to amend its rules to allow it to provide decision summaries. Previously, the rules prevented the Parole Board from revealing any details of the reasons for its decision. The provision of those summaries allows victims and the wider public to understand why the board has made a decision in a case. To date, around 4,000 decision summaries have been issued, mainly to victims.

Secondly, following last year’s case of John Worboys, whose release decision by the Parole Board was overturned by the High Court, we developed a reconsideration mechanism for decisions made. Where there is evidence that a decision is irrational, or procedurally unfair, the reconsideration mechanism allows the Secretary of State, or the prisoner, to apply for the decision to be looked at again. Victims may ask the Secretary of State to apply for reconsideration on their behalf, and since July 2019 the Government have submitted 23 applications for that, five of which followed victim requests.

Prior to that introduction, there was no way to challenge flawed decisions without resorting to costly and time-consuming litigation. Now, as set out in the 2015 victims code, victims have the right to make a victim personal statement to the Parole Board and the entitlement to apply to attend the hearing to read their statement. Last week, we published a revised code of practice for victims of crime, which reinforces those rights by stating that the Parole Board must agree to the statement being read at the hearing by the victim, or someone else on their behalf, and provide a summary of its decision on application, unless there is a good reason not to do so.

Those important steps have increased the transparency of the process and decisions made by the Parole Board, but we believe there is still more that can be done. We recognise that the Parole Board is responsible for considering the release of prisoners who have committed some of the most serious and violent offences, and who have sometimes caused unimaginable harm and distress to victims and their families. It is entirely understandable, therefore, that members of the public, particularly victims, might struggle to comprehend how prisoners can ever be assessed to be safe to release.

I believe that for victims’ families really to understand the decisions, it is important for them to be more involved in the process. However hard it may be to accept, the board’s difficult role is not to decide whether the offender should continue to be punished for the crimes that they have committed; its decision is about the current risk and whether the offender would pose a danger to the public if they were released. Greater openness and transparency will enable us to increase that understanding, and that will build trust and confidence in the system.

I believe firmly and passionately in the rehabilitative nature of our penal system, and that rehabilitation is a cornerstone of the system. The Minister has outlined that the threat to the public, or the compromising of public safety, is the first and foremost consideration. Does she accept that for a lot of victims’ families, there are issues around truth and justice, and that in cases where families do not feel as though they have had that, it is an affront to them and to common decency, and it only exacerbates their pain, to see people who were committed for the most heinous crimes being released without showing a shred of remorse?

I completely understand that point, and I cannot imagine how it must feel to be in that situation—if someone had taken away a loved one, or done serious damage to me as the victim of a serious crime, such as rape. The justice system requires the person who committed that crime to go before a court and a sentence to be pronounced, and that is the sentence the person serves when they go to prison. The Parole Board must determine whether that person, having served their sentence—having done their time—is safe to be released.

Of course, the point that my hon. Friend the Member for South Leicestershire raised then comes come into consideration: is that person safe to be released, or are they manipulating the process? Are they telling the truth? Are they really committed to going forth and not committing further crime? That is when truth and deception come into play.

We are very aware of the importance of victims having their say, so that they have a right to be heard and feel that they have participated in the process. That is why we announced on 20 October—just over a month ago—the launch of the root-and-branch review of the parole system. That will build on the reforms that I have talked about today, and it will look at whether more fundamental reform of the system is required. One of the key things that we will consider in that review is whether we can increase openness and transparency to continue to improve public understanding, so that there is more confidence in the system.

We are running a consultation on whether parole hearings should be open to the public in some limited circumstances. The Parole Board is required to hold hearings in private, so public hearings would be a really significant step towards improving openness and transparency. We recognise that although there would be benefits in that, there are complexities and challenges around protecting the privacy and the safety of all involved—that would include victims—and ensuring that witnesses provided the candid evidence that the board would need to make effective decisions. That is why we are consulting on the process to ensure that any changes are made safely and responsibly. The parole process is extremely difficult for victims and their families, and we are determined to do as much as we can to give them the support and information that they need.

I will pick up further on the point that my hon. Friend the Member for South Leicestershire made about sentences, and whether it is appropriate to release someone who has committed a crime such as the crimes committed by Colin Pitchfork, or other horrific crimes, where people are not rehabilitated. If Colin Pitchfork were to be sentenced now, he would likely receive a whole-life order, because under provisions introduced by the Criminal Justice Act 2003, the murder of a child that has a sexual or sadistic motivation attracts a whole-life order as its starting point. The Government recognise the particularly abhorrent nature of cases where a child has been murdered, as set out in the sentencing White Paper, and we intend to go further by making a whole-life order the starting point for any premeditated murder of a child.

My hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks (Laura Trott) made an important point about the significant effect of rape on victims and what a dreadful crime that is. She will know that if a judge determines that an offender is dangerous, it is possible to hand down an extended determinate sentence. She will also know about the changes that we are proposing in relation to people who are sentenced for more than seven years—they will have their sentences increased, because we are recommending that they serve two thirds of their sentence, rather than half. However, I appreciate the important points that she made on the question whether such offenders should go before the Parole Board.

The hon. Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell) made a point about resources. I hope she spotted that in today’s spending review, our Department’s finances went up by 8%. The Government are committed to ensuring that the justice system has the necessary resources to ensure that we can deliver justice. She will know that demand in relation to the Parole Board has increased significantly and dramatically over the years, with 30 times more cases—that is 8,000 more—being heard each year compared with 20 years ago.

The increase in demand has led to the need regularly to review systems and processes, but also to invest in increased provision. In 2017-18, we injected additional funding to enable the recruitment of over 100 new Parole Board members, so that more hearings could be held. I pay tribute to the Parole Board for managing not only to ensure that it keeps up with the rate of determination during this covid crisis, but to increase the number of matters that it has managed to determine in this difficult and challenging period.

The system is effective at protecting the public from dangerous criminals—it is a thorough and sophisticated process for carefully assessing an offender’s risk—but I want to look at whether it is the most effective model to deliver the parole function over the longer term. The root-and-branch review, which I mentioned, will look at whether we can go further to deliver justice. Together with the Parole Board, we have already made great strides to improve the effectiveness and transparency of the parole system. I am pleased that, through the root-and-branch review, we are now able to take the next steps to ensure that the future delivery of this critical public protection function is the best it can be, with fairness and public safety at the forefront of its focus.

Question put and agreed to.

To allow for the safe exit of Members participating in this debate, and for the safe entry of Members arriving to take part in the next, I am suspending the sitting for two minutes.

Sitting suspended.

Levelling-up Agenda: Tees Valley

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the Government’s levelling up agenda and Tees Valley. 

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship—for the first time, I believe, Mrs Cummins. It is good to see so many people interested in our debate this afternoon, particularly my neighbouring MPs, my hon. Friends the Members for Middlesbrough (Andy McDonald) and for Hartlepool (Mike Hill).

We have all grown weary of hearing about how unprecedented these times are, so I hope Members will indulge me in a short trip down memory lane. Nearly 10 years ago, I spoke in a near-identical Westminster Hall debate on the topic of regional development in the north-east. I said:

“We wait to see whether there will be a Budget for real growth, backed by substantial resources when the Chancellor stands up tomorrow. Resources must be the key. A jobless recovery would be a disaster for our region, and without growth there will not be enough new jobs… I hope that they have finally realised that without a genuine plan for growth and real resources, the economy will continue to be sluggish.”—[Official Report, 22 March 2011; Vol. 525, c. 223-224WH.]

Well, the Government’s buzzwords may have changed, but after a decade, what strikes me is just how precedented and familiar this situation is. A scene of long-term under- funding of the Tees Valley has meant that unemployment there is still far higher than the national average. Health inequalities have widened, and the number of families in poverty has increased. Unless the Government take serious action soon, we will once again be in the dire situation where our communities are made to pay the price of a Tory Government’s failings. 

The toxic combination of Brexit, the pandemic and Tory incompetence has been catastrophic for our area. Last month it was announced that the UK unemployment rate has surged to its highest level in over three years, now at 4.5%. In the north-east, the unemployment rate has soared to 6.6%—the worst in the UK. The region now has the highest unemployment rate, the lowest employment rate and the lowest average hours worked of all British regions. The Chancellor said this afternoon that an economic emergency had “only just begun”. Well, tell that to our constituents, whose economy has been neglected for the last decade. The numbers have been getting worse for years in our region, since long before the pandemic, as a result of Tory neglect.

At the end of his announcement, the Chancellor dangled a new twinkling pot of money in front of our noses: a levelling-up fund. But we do not need more wasteful bidding processes that pit deprived communities against each other for scraps. Now more than ever, we need a serious and concerted effort to bring the Tees Valley in line with the rest of the UK. You do not have to take just my word for it, Mrs Cummins. WPI Strategy has created the levelling-up index, and in its analysis, six of the seven Tees constituencies are marked as priorities. Middlesbrough is the constituency second most in need of levelling up in the whole of the UK, with Hartlepool sixth. My constituency of Stockton North comes in 14th. In six out of seven of the Tees constituencies, deprivation soars above the national average, climbing to 50% above the UK average in Redcar, 52% in Stockton North, and a startling 110% in Middlesbrough.

For the Tees Valley, levelling up means job creation, and I welcome today’s news of a new power plant to be built at the port. However, while the unemployment benefit claimant rate across the UK is 6.3%, across the Tees Valley it is 8%, and it rises as high as 12% in Middlesbrough. There have been 12,565 extra jobs lost since March across the Tees Valley, and we are haemorrhaging more each day. Last week OSB, a major monopile supplier in my constituency that has been active in offshore wind since 2015, announced that it is closing down at the end of the month because it has not got enough orders. This is happening while the biggest wind farm in the world, Dogger Bank, is being constructed in British territorial waters. What benefit is that bringing to the Tees Valley? Just last week, on the eve of the Prime Minister’s green economy announcement, news came that all—yes, all—the monopiles and transition pieces for Dogger Bank wind farm will be manufactured in Holland and Belgium.

The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point, but is he aware that the Government have said that with future subsidy regimes around offshore wind, there will be a requirement for a higher percentage of the wind turbine parts to be made by UK manufacturers?

Does the hon. Gentleman realise that public procurement rules can change only after Brexit? This is a very good example of why the decision that he described moments ago as toxic, and which his own constituents overwhelmingly supported, was of course the right one.

Again, we get jam tomorrow. It is all about jam tomorrow—something that is going to happen in three or five years’ time.

Can we just nail this business about state aid? It was pleaded for in Redcar. We can do that. This is a critically important point: the Tory Government decided that they would sit on their hands and let 9,000 jobs go down the pan. Do not kid me that suddenly there will be this conversion to intervention in our economy—that is absolute nonsense. The French did it; the Germans did it; the Italians did it; and the British Government sat on their hands, and we lost jobs.

My hon. Friend does not need an answer from me on that point. Why has our area lost out? Where was the Tees Tory Mayor when the orders were being handed out? He was nowhere to be seen.

No doubt some will claim that jobs have been boosted in the area, but it is going to take a few more media pictures of the Mayor in a hard hat to convince me of that. The cost per job created in the Tees Valley Combined Authority area is calculated at £96,093. That means that for every job created in the last three years, the Mayor has spent nearly a hundred grand. How on earth is an approach like that going to deliver the sustainable job growth our region so desperately needs? The figures are astronomical. We urgently need a fully independent audit of exactly where the millions of pounds of taxpayer money have gone.

I will not at the moment. Even if we put aside the costs, the number of jobs that have been announced barely scrape the sides of the black hole of unemployment in the Tees Valley. For every job announced in the last three years, five have been lost in the last seven months. Sadly, we cannot even get the Mayor to tell us whether those jobs are being filled, or even where they are.

The Tees Valley’s gross value added per hour worked, an indicator of productivity, continues to lag 9.1% behind the UK average. On top of that, research by iwoca has shown that businesses in the north-east have been particularly hard hit by the pandemic. As a result, the region is forecast to lose 11.7% gross value added in 2020. That will wipe out all the economic growth in the north-east since 2004. We will be back to where we were 16 years ago.

Opportunities presented by the possibilities of carbon capture and storage, a freeport and civil service relocation may be part of the answer, but they are simply not enough. I welcome incentivising businesses to come to the Tees Valley, but it will not be much comfort to local businesses that fall outside the free port area and are anxious about the potential loss of EU trade and new tariffs.

This is not just about jobs. While I am all for planning for the Tees Valley’s future, the impact of Brexit and the pandemic is felt by our communities now. A 10-year plan is no good to my constituents, who contact me worried about how they are going to pay their bills this month. Last month, statistics released by the End Child Poverty coalition showed that the north-east has seen the biggest rise in child poverty in the UK. In my constituency, the proportion of children living in poverty has risen to 34%; in others in the Tees Valley, the figure is higher still. It is a tragedy and a scandal.

In Stockton North, 3,109 families with children received universal credit in May 2020, and 1,700 families with children received working tax credit. Behind those numbers, there are thousands of living, breathing children, plunged below the breadline as a result of having poorly paid jobs—or no jobs at all in their family. I am deeply disappointed that today the Chancellor has not listened to calls to retain the increases in universal credit and working tax credit, so that families with children could keep that small but vital economic support. Across the Tees Valley, 79,000 families are affected. This is a Government who would rather spend millions on the festival of Brexit than bring children out of poverty by retaining even small benefit increases, or than feed them during all school holidays. This is not levelling up; it is grinding down.

We all know that where economic inequality thrives, so do health inequalities. Stockton-on-Tees is often used as a case study to highlight health inequalities in the UK. Men who live in the town centre are expected to live 18 years fewer than their peers just a couple of miles down the road. I have lost count of the number of times I have heard Tory Ministers promise to tackle these worrying inequalities, but nothing has happened. The people of Stockton were promised a new hospital building, but 10 years later, it is yet to materialise. We just get occasional scraps that do nothing to plug the gap.

The Health Secretary visited the University Hospital of North Tees recently. I prayed he was going to announce its replacement, as I knew a statement was coming up within a few days. The statement came, but North Tees was not on the Health Secretary’s list. Surely any commitment to levelling up the Tees Valley must have addressing health inequalities at the core of its mission, and a new hospital has a major role to play in that.

A proper levelling-up agenda would be such a boon for Teessiders, but while the Tories claim that that agenda is already under way in the Tees Valley, there are serious obstacles that will prevent its delivery. Just last week, the think-tank Demos published a new report, “Achieving Levelling-Up: The Structures and Processes Needed”. It concludes that while levelling up is possible,

“there is zero chance of achieving it without…changes to the current system”

of devolved politics. One barrier it identifies is that the work of local enterprise partnerships and combined authorities is largely invisible, making real accountability to the public impossible.

The situation in the Tees Valley Combined Authority area is much more concerning than that, because the Tory Administration are not just invisible in terms of accountability, but are actively obstructing proper scrutiny. The Mayor has created a web of different companies and organisations through which he spends public money, but is shielded from vital public scrutiny. There are even reports that donors to his campaign have been appointed to significant positions in those companies and organisations. Decisions are often made outside formal meetings, through a complex network of political and business relationships and friendships, informed by advice from expensive consultants.

I will not at the moment. This is a chumocracy on a local scale that mirrors the widespread and despicable cronyism we have seen play out on the national stage in the Government’s constant privatisation of the response to the pandemic. It is shameful cronyism that I am worried will bear more fruit in the administration of any Tory levelling-up fund. If the management of the £3.6 billion towns fund is anything to go by, we have serious reason for concern. Billingham, in my constituency, was deemed more in need of support than towns in Tory MPs’ patches, including a town in the Secretary of State’s constituency, which was 270th on the list, but Billingham missed out and the Secretary of State’s constituency did not.

It is clear from the Chancellor’s announcement today that the Government are not going to invest the money that the Tees Valley needs to overcome the destabilising impact of Brexit and the pandemic on our communities and industries. While he splurges on whizzy defence gadgets and Brexit festival guff, public sector pay and benefits are largely frozen. These freezes will actively discourage the growth that we need in the Tees Valley, and they will level down, not up.

Locally, the Tory combined authority is the one public body in the Tees Valley with money to spend, but despite that, there is no comprehensive support package for our constituents. Instead, there is the £1 million Houchen gate—£1 million of taxpayers’ money that could have done so much good, wasted on a gate. The Mayor bought the loss-making airport for about £80 million, but he has secured a few flights; some people will be grateful for that. I heard one person say today, “What use is it being able to get on a flight to Alicante when local people still can’t get a bus home after 7pm?”.

Clearly, the Labour party opposed the rescue of Teesside international airport; it is probably the only example I can recall of the Labour party opposing taking something into public ownership. Is the hon. Gentleman still saying today that it was the wrong decision? I think people across Teesside would be amazed by that.

Personally, I am still a little surprised that it ever happened. Labour-led authorities at that time supported the purchase of the airport. The Mayor was elected on the promise that he would buy the airport; it was in his manifesto and others facilitated his doing it. He is the person who will have to bear the brunt of the problems that we will face in the future, including the many millions of pounds that we are going to lose, year on year.

Does my hon. Friend agree that it might assist us if the various companies that have fallen under the umbrella of this organisation voluntarily agreed to be subject to the Freedom of Information Act 2000? What we have here is a raft of public money, and a public body, put beyond the gaze of the public. Does he agree that that does not help scrutiny and transparency?

Most certainly. I cannot understand why anybody wants to hide where the public money has been spent. I know that there are different people involved in all these different companies. I would like to know what their agenda is. Is it the agenda of the people of the Tees Valley?

The failure of the Government, both nationally and locally, angers and saddens me. The Tees Valley is fit to burst with potential. We are ripe and ready to be levelled up; we are calling out for it. We have the potential to exploit the amazing opportunities for green industry, including carbon capture and storage. We have a high skill base, tight-knit communities and local authorities that, despite political changes, have a track record of working together, and achieving great things when they do. Sometimes, local Tories try to claim that Labour politicians are talking down Teesside.

I almost have to laugh. Talking down Teesside? It is the greatest honour of my life to represent the amazing and diverse citizens of Stockton North, and to champion the vibrant history and culture of the Tees Valley. The real problem is that for the past 10 years, the Tories have been booting down Teesside. Their mind-boggling incompetence in handling the covid crisis is yet another catastrophic kick to the region. Pointing out the heartbreaking inequalities that affect our constituents is not talking down our area. It is standing up for our area in the face of a national Conservative Government who have neglected the north-east for years. The Tees economy is on the cliff edge of a hard Brexit, and the lack of investment and post-pandemic rebuilding will push it into the abyss.

The North East England chamber of commerce policy director, Jonathan Walker, got it exactly right when he said:

“The human, social and economic cost of this is appalling. Levelling up has to mean more than just shiny projects. It must mean giving young people in our region the same life chances as they’d get in other parts of the country.”

He came out with another statement today; he said that the Chancellor’s announcement today was a missed opportunity:

“On the face of it a levelling-up fund sounds good but it is far too small in scale and ambition to be effective.”

I want our young people to get the benefits, but sadly I see no prospect of them getting the support they need. There are plenty of these shiny projects, but the absence of substance breaks my heart, because they could have so much more. Our constituents deserve better than this. They need better than this.

I appeal to the Minister to stress to his colleagues the need for true levelling up; for help sustaining jobs and creating new ones; to be open, honest and transparent when dealing with public money; to end the health inequalities that continue to blight our communities; and, perhaps above all, to give our young people real hope that they can have the careers they want and a future they can look forward to. Let us make the expression “levelling up” more than a cliché. Let us make it a demonstration of action.

I ask Back Benchers to keep within five minutes to start with. I am planning to call Front Benchers at around 5.15 pm. Simon Clarke.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Cummins. I congratulate the hon. Member for Stockton North (Alex Cunningham) on securing today’s debate. I just wish he could have been more generous in his speech. It was, I am afraid, a quintessential example of talking down Teesside, the phrase he rightly used. Indeed, it contained a series of remarks that are deeply disparaging of what is going on in our area, and some half-baked innuendo around impropriety by the Mayor that he would be ill-advised to repeat outside the House.

What is happening in the Tees Valley will, of course, transform the life chances of his constituents and mine. Under successive Governments, our area has never been supported properly to adapt to a changing world, so our traditional strength in heavy industry became a new-found weakness. That is changing under the Conservatives. The solutions the Labour Government offered were the wrong ones; there was an unsustainable reliance on public sector jobs, a culture of welfare dependency, and a lack of thought about how to instigate proper, sustainable, private sector growth.

What is required for the Tees Valley? Opportunity, investment, and leadership—and that is what we now have. The hon. Gentleman denigrated the fact that there is a 10-year plan; I am glad there is a plan. It is a plan that has been agreed in partnership between Government, local government, our councils and industry. That is an example of precisely the kind of successful devolution that we need to see more of in this country.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned over-reliance on public sector workers. Are those the same public sector workers for whom we came out from our houses and clapped on a Thursday night in appreciation of the work that they do and in acknowledgement of how much we rely on them, or is he now casting them to one side as well?

We do, actually, and we have defended the lowest paid in today’s statement, but it is very important to note that in the end we need to have sustainable private sector-led growth in the Tees Valley and that was not what was delivered under the last Labour Government. What we need to see is growth, and how will that growth be delivered? There are five key aspects to that.

The first is the regeneration of the former SSI steelworks site at Redcar, supported by £233 million from the Government. It is the largest redevelopment project in the United Kingdom. What will go there? In February, I had the pleasure of speaking at the launch of Net Zero Teesside at the Riverside stadium. As we heard last week, carbon capture, usage and storage will be at the heart of the Government’s green industrial revolution. It is backed by £1 billion of Government investment, and the Tees and the Humber CCS clusters—

I will not, because of lack of time.

This is an important part of that piece. CCS will sit alongside other clean energy projects, including the national hydrogen transport hub and the offshore wind industry. The hon. Gentleman said that there is no good coming to the area from it. An application is being made for the new £90 million quay at South Bank, which will create hundreds of jobs. It is all set to be built next year.

The second feature of our vision for Teesside is, of course, a freeport. Despite Labour doing everything it could to stop Brexit—which is the reason why Teesside is now represented by more Government than Labour MPs—we will leave the transition period and regain full national independence on 1 January. Freeports are one of the best examples of how we can drive growth and jobs. [Interruption.] Some of my colleagues are having to self-isolate, but if Members look at the electoral geography of Teesside, they may notice that it has changed.

The third aspect of our plan is, of course, an infrastructure revolution. It cannot be overstated how important it is that the Mayor saved our airport in the teeth of the hon. Gentleman’s opposition and that of his colleagues. We have had the announcement today of the new flights to Alicante and Majorca—something that both his constituents and mine will enjoy next summer. That is on top of the new service to London Heathrow, the UK’s global transport hub, and the multimillion-pound regeneration of Middlesbrough station and Darlington station.

Of course, the fourth strand of levelling up comes in the form of skills. The Government have already committed £450 million to the Tees Valley Combined Authority’s plans to give young people access to skills training, introduce high-quality broadband and overcome barriers to work. My right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer’s kickstart scheme, part of the emergency response to coronavirus, has already surpassed 500 jobs for local 16 to 24-year-olds, with applications still open.

The fifth and final element of levelling up is, of course, direct investment through the £3.6 billion towns fund. Middlesbrough, Redcar, Thornaby and Hartlepool are all awaiting the outcome of their bids. Darlington has already had £22.7 million from the fund. And that comes on top of bids to the future high streets fund, which I hope will benefit both Middlesbrough and Loftus.

We all know that levelling up is the task of at least a decade. None of this will be achieved easily. None of it comes simply. But it is happening precisely because we have confidence in Teesside, in the people of Teesside and in the future of Teesside. Rather than talking it down, we talk it up, and that is being rewarded for the people of the area, who see hope, growth, jobs and optimism. They see that from the Government side of the House, from the Conservatives, and long may it continue.

It is an absolute pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mrs Cummins. I thank my hon. Friend and constituency neighbour the Member for Stockton North (Alex Cunningham) for securing the debate, and Mr Speaker for granting me permission to speak on behalf of my constituency of Middlesbrough.

Ten years of Tory austerity have been utterly devastating for our people, and for none more so than for the people in my town of Middlesbrough and for our communities across the Tees Valley. That the Government are now talking about a levelling up agenda is the result of the inequalities that have taken hold across the regions over recent years because of their policies. The prolonged period of underfunding and not providing communities with the powers to help themselves has left us in a state where the disparity in funding levels across the UK is stark.

Let us look at transport. Last year, London got £903 per head and the north-east £486. The Government do not have the interests of the whole nation at heart. The Middlesbrough to King’s Cross rail service has been put back and back and back. The latest estimated time of arrival is December 2021, and further delays would not surprise me.

Let us try not to be too party political about this. Does the hon. Member not recognise that under-investment in the north, which we all suffer from, has happened under Governments of all persuasions, for decades, and this is the first Government who are doing something tangible about it?

I would like to think that was true. I hear that trotted out ad nauseam from the Government Benches: “When you criticise me or hold me to account, you’re being party political.” That is our job. The Conservatives have had 10 years in government and have done nothing but give us false promises and hard hats. We are not into it. Of course, there was nothing about Northern Powerhouse Rail in the Chancellor’s statement and there is nothing at all on the horizon for the much-needed electrification of the line from Northallerton through to Middlesbrough and beyond.

Sadly, the social, economic and health crises brought about by covid-19 have only exacerbated the existing inequalities. It is no surprise that Middlesbrough, as one of the poorest parts of the country, with 40% of children growing up below the poverty line and where four out of five workers have to leave home to go about their work, was also one of the areas of the UK worst hit by the virus.

There are, however, things that can be done to address some of the impacts of years of neglect and the ravages of covid. Many of us are old enough to remember Margaret Thatcher in ’79 cancelling the transfer of the Government’s property service agencies from London to Middlesbrough—3,000 jobs cut at a stroke. Over recent years of Tory rule, high-quality Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs jobs have been ripped out of Middlesbrough and Stockton, among them experienced civil servants who were tax inspectors and whose debt recovery performance was the best in the country. I pleaded with the Government not to rob us of those high-quality jobs, but did they listen?

That is why I am hugely disappointed that the Chancellor has not come forward today with a decision regarding the campus for the north. Over the past year I have repeatedly urged him to bring forward plans to establish that campus and bring with it 22,000 Government jobs for our communities, making the case for Middlesbrough and the Tees Valley to be chosen as a site for the new campus. Again—lots of press releases, but no action.

My hon. Friends the Members for Stockton North and for Hartlepool (Mike Hill) and I recently met senior representatives of BP and Net Zero Teesside. For many years, we have been pressing the case for carbon capture, use and storage on Teesside, and I pay tribute to my hon. Friends’ work. We very much welcomed the discussion about further work on the plans, which have been a long time in development. However, the funding behind the Government’s 10-point plan for the green industrial revolution does not come anywhere near addressing the immediate climate and employment crisis.

There is no engagement or consultation with trade unions when we secure very welcome major capital expenditure projects, totally consistent with the ambitions of the green industrial revolution. That cannot continue. I have begged the Government to listen to Frances O’Grady of the TUC and her call for a national recovery council, with Government, businesses and unions working together. We want good jobs and good industrial relations from the off. We want union engagement at the start of the process, not desperate attempts at retrofitting. On Teesside, as across the entire country, if there is to be any substance to the constant drip feed of rehashed announcements and hollow promises, it has to mean something for Teesside workers, with a clear path to delivery.

There is an opportunity here to create new, well-paid, unionised jobs. There is insufficient focus on jobs and ensuring that we have the skills to secure those jobs. Sadly, Tory Governments do all that they can to undermine the strength and bargaining power of trade unions that are fighting to protect jobs. President-elect Joe Biden said the other day:

“I want you to know I’m a union guy”,

and that under his presidency unions will have increased power. He said:

“It’s not antibusiness. It’s about economic growth, creating good paying jobs.”

I do not know why the Tory Government cannot comprehend that.

The benchmark of the promise to level up will be my Middlesbrough constituents having those good jobs and being able to enjoy the benefits of economic growth with their families. As for the promise to boost skills, are the Government serious? They have just cancelled the union learning fund on the basis that it is not fair because all receiving workplaces are union workplaces. They should encourage workers, as I am doing today, to join a trade union. That is the way to secure better terms and conditions, safer workplaces, a better work-life balance and better pay and spending power to put demand back in the economy and taxes in the Treasury. Scrapping the union learning fund is levelling down, not levelling up, and it is a kick in the teeth for working people.

Sadly, far too many people in Middlesbrough and across the Tees Valley will not be looking forward to 2021 and levelling up, but they will be looking at the pork barrel Tory politics delivering for their friends, their party and their donors. It was ever thus, but it does not have to be like that. We can build back better if there is the political will, but my Middlesbrough constituents see very little evidence of it.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Cummins. The deindustrialisation of the north began long before Margaret Thatcher closed the pits. For Hartlepool, the closure of our shipyards and steelworks provided an economic shock that we have barely recovered from. Since the 1980s, the town has gradually fallen behind other places in the UK for job prospects, life expectancy, health and economic growth. Where there was once a vibrant, highly skilled workforce and a strong industrial sector, there are now high levels of unemployment and a low- wage economy.

For far too long, levelling down has been the agenda for Hartlepool. One in three households are jobless, one third of our children are obese when they leave primary school, life expectancy continues to decline, and such is the level of need that there are currently an estimated nine known food kitchens. The same goes for the rest of the Tees Valley. Once the industrial powerhouse of the country, it has been systematically ground down by years of Government austerity and under-investment, and the dismantling of infrastructure designed specifically to tackle local economic and regenerational needs such as One NorthEast.

When the Redcar steelworks closed recently and the blast furnace was capped, the beating heart of a centuries-old industry stopped. For many at the time it was as if life had been choked out of Teesside and the project’s decimation was complete. Most certainly it led to thousands of highly paid, skilled workers entering the jobs market. Fortunately, because events are so recent, we have retained that skills base in the Tees Valley. In fact, right across the piece, we have a disproportionate number of skilled workers in the labour market ready to work, desperate for work, and in prime position to pass those skills on to the next generation.

When we consider the levels of in-house poverty on Teesside, third-generation unemployment in our communities, and workers desperate for jobs looking on in anger as big industry replaces local jobs with cheaper agency workers, we know that levelling up is more than an economic challenge. It is a generational life saver, which is why the work of the Tees Valley Mayor and the combined authority is so important.

What remains of our industrial infrastructure is unique. We are the most compact offshore oil and gas, petrochemical and pharmaceutical industrial cluster in the country. We are in prime position to convert the old heavy polluting industries into powerhouses for the so-called green industrial revolution. The people of the Tees Valley have the skills, the knowledge and the know-how to embrace the new challenges, but we need the right level of investment from the Government, the banks and industry to make it so.

The Tees Valley Mayor is undoubtedly ambitious and vocal. Nobody can argue against the need to embrace new green technologies and the push for net zero carbon emissions, so he is right and we are right to champion carbon capture, usage and storage, wind technology, hydrogen technology, and to push for the aims of initiatives such as Net Zero Teesside to become a reality. Some would argue that the Mayor is ahead of the curve on many aspects that now fit with the Government’s levelling up ambitions, but what we do not need are pledges and plans and promises of jam tomorrow. We need action, new money and real investment to realise our ambitions. For Hartlepool, that must include securing a firm commitment from the Government on the future of our nuclear power plant. Nobody has mentioned nuclear energy in this debate: it not only provides a low-carbon bridge to net zero but makes a significant contribution to the national grid and produces hydrogen as a by-product.

New nuclear is listed in the Government’s 10-point plan for a green industrial revolution, which my hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough (Andy McDonald) mentioned, so it is clearly a priority. Rather than see more high-skilled jobs go, let us have a firm commitment to supporting the industry on Teesside.

It is a pleasure to speak in today’s debate. I welcome the Chancellor’s promises in the spending review, which will go a long way to kick-start the Government’s levelling up agenda. As recently as this morning, in a debate on northern infrastructure, which was notably ignored by the vast majority of Labour Members, I mentioned the need for a fund that MPs could use to secure funding for local projects to commit to levelling up.

It is on that point. If MPs have to get in a queue to get to the Chancellor or any other Minister to say, “My constituency, please”, does the hon. Gentleman see any flaws with that process?

Prior to coming to this place, I sat as a Durham county councillor, and the local councillors had a local fund to help local projects at a small level. It is a very similar concept. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman, like me, knows of things on which he would like to spend money in his constituency.

The project of levelling up the Tees Valley is ambitious and attainable. We have already seen great successes in levelling up the valley, including the saving of Teesside International airport in the south of my constituency, which has flights to connect the world to Teesside. It was announced this morning that Ryanair will be joining us. Teesside International airport and its estate is a flagship for levelling up and shows what can be achieved quickly with the correct capital investment and implementation plan. I look forward to further investment.

Under the stewardship of Ben Houchen, levelling up the Tees Valley looks to have an exciting future, with plans for a new freeport that could create 32,000 jobs and add £2 billion to the regional economy, and the UK’s largest industrial zone in Teesworks will create extra jobs there. This is an exciting time for the region, and I hope this debate allows us to discuss how we can move it on further.

My constituency of Sedgefield sits on the edge of the Tees Valley, and I assume that I am the eighth of the seven that the hon. Member for Stockton North (Alex Cunningham) mentioned—there are eight of us in the Tees Valley, and a third of my constituency is in the Tees Valley Combined Authority. Because of that, we are in a unique position. Many of my constituents travel to the Tees Valley for work every day, and many from the Tees Valley travel to Sedgefield. Because of that, hon. Members might expect good transport links between the two, but that is not the case. Out of 228,000 people in County Durham, only 13,000 use the bus and 2,000 use the train. Cars are obviously the main thing. It is not good that 164,000 people opt to use a car to get to work. I obviously support the Darlington bypass, which would link Newton Aycliffe business park, with 10,000 jobs, to Teesport.

The hon. Gentleman is making a very good point about the public transport links. I wonder whether he might want to have a word with the Tees Valley Mayor about embracing the powers under the Bus Services Act 2017 to re-regulate our buses so that the hon. Gentleman can deliver the services that wants in his constituency.

The Tees Valley Mayor’s initiatives, such as the Tees Flex bus service, are a very good step in the right direction. I wish that that service would come up to the north of my constituency.

We must remember that, in order to level up, the benefits and successes of regeneration from freeports, green jobs and so on must be distributed across the region. The critical advantage is connections to those projects by air, bus, train, bike—whatever. I welcome the Chancellor’s decision to provide funding to start a feasibility study on Ferryhill station and include it in the national infrastructure plan. The residents have been asking for it for 24 years. When a certain Tony Blair was the MP for Sedgefield, there was no progress whatever. The comment we got from the local Labour group was, “Thatcher stopped that.” Well, 24 years is plenty of time to fix it.

My point is that we need a long-term plan focused on connectivity. It is important to have an integrated transport system and short, medium and long-term commitments to encourage optimistic investment by business and housing in places where it is needed. We look forward to further benefits of opening this rail connection, which would open the door and provide a foundation to better connect Teesside with Tyneside and Wearside and improve connectivity.

Alongside the levelling up of our physical infrastructure, we must also level up our social infrastructure. This funding will be vital in the medium to long-term response to covid, since research shows that the pandemic is likely to exacerbate existing social and economic problems in left-behind neighbourhoods. What I mean by levelling up our social infrastructure is building social capital and investing in our communities and community projects.

I am co-chair of the all-party parliamentary group for “left behind” neighbourhoods, and we have identified 122 constituencies with left-behind communities. We define those by using the community needs index and taking the bottom 10% of the wards in England. Some 30% of those were in former—I say again, former—red wall constituencies, and seven of the eight constituencies in the Tees Valley include left-behind neighbourhoods.

One proposal, for a community wealth fund, would provide investment and put left-behind communities in charge of the spend, enabling them to build the social capital and civic infrastructure they need. I welcome the Chancellor’s commitment in the spending review to a levelling up fund and the new community fund, and I hope to work with all local colleagues to maximise its application in our area.

Before I call the last two Back Benchers, I remind them that I want the Front- Bench speeches to start at a quarter past.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Cummins. I thank the hon. Member for Stockton North (Alex Cunningham) for securing this debate. Before I start, I have had messages from my hon. Friends the Members for Darlington (Peter Gibson), for Stockton South (Matt Vickers) and for Redcar (Jacob Young), who really wanted to be here but are doing their duty and self-isolating, so I just want to put that on record.

Just last week I was in this Chamber emphasising the importance of levelling up, and I am delighted to be able to do so again. The levelling-up agenda is really at the heart of my politics and the reason that I am in this place. It means changing lives for the better, allowing businesses to flourish and those held back by the circumstances to fulfil their potential and grasp opportunities.

Yet time and again, when we are talking about levelling up across the country, including in the north-east, we see the Opposition talk it down. While we drive investment in transport, in industry and in green technology, the Opposition talk it down—[Interruption.] They are trying to do it right now. We focus on creating opportunities for the future, but instead, the hon. Members for Middlesbrough (Andy McDonald) and for Hartlepool (Mike Hill) hark back to the past, talking about Margaret Thatcher and events under her premiership—things that happened before I and many of their constituents were even born.

We are about the future; Labour are about the past. For too long, the Opposition have taken people such as my constituents for granted. They believed it was their right to represent seats such as mine in the north-east, yet for decades under local Labour leadership our region saw nothing but decline—but then came the light. Leading the Tees Valley Combined Authority, Ben Houchen has shown that the levelling-up agenda is also at the heart of his mission.

The Tees Valley has an extraordinary champion in Ben Houchen, someone who has been fighting for the area from day one. Though my constituency is not within the Tees Valley Combined Authority area, Teesside’s success means more opportunities for constituents of mine in Bishop Auckland, and although geography means that they cannot vote for him, my constituents certainly have a lot of very kind words to say about Ben Houchen, and Labour needs to take note of that.

I was planning to say a lot more, but I want to keep it brief to allow my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake) a go. The short point is that we are delivering, after years and years of Labour’s talking the area down and doing little to deliver for the communities it claims to represent. We are delivering, and that is the reason why Opposition Members hate it so much.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Cummins. I congratulate the hon. Member for Stockton North (Alex Cunningham) on bringing forward this important debate.

The key message from my very brief words will be that if we want to level up—as we all do, and this should be a constructive debate about how we do that—the reality is that for decades Government after Government have left our region behind. I call Tees Valley our region; I am probably the only hon. Member speaking whose constituency is not directly covered by the geography of Tees Valley, but I am a neighbouring Member of Parliament, and we have Woodsmith Mine, which has important economic connections with Redcar.

The reality is that it will be a huge task to level up. The best analogy I can make for levelling up this country—the north and the midlands particularly—would be the reunification of East and West Germany. That took three decades and $2 trillion to do. It is a huge undertaking. The key thing we should learn from Germany is that it was not just about public sector investment. It was public sector and private sector investment. Members on both sides of the House have made that important point. We must accept that there is a natural spending bias towards London and the south-east because of things like the Green Book and the housing infrastructure fund. We should be championing against that, and it has been the same for Governments of many persuasions. On the back of that, of course, the Government are ensuring that hundreds of billions of pounds of infra- structure will be spent in our region.

I will provide an example of why this matters: Mark Littlewood from the Institute of Economic Affairs said that if the issue is just about infrastructure, then why is Doncaster not more prosperous? It is about more than just connections. There must be private sector investment. We must incentivise the private sector and we need super-enterprise zones across the whole of Tees Valley with business rate discounts, good treatment of capital allowances and incentives to invest more. We need that on the back of the excellent programme of investment we will get from the Government.

It truly is a pleasure to be serving under your chairmanship, Mrs Cummins. I thank and congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton North (Alex Cunningham) for securing this timely debate.

Other Members have already said that we have been hearing the message of levelling up from consecutive Conservative Governments since 2010. I take the point made by the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Dehenna Davison), but this is not about looking in the rear-view mirror. The truth is that if a child does not have the absolute right start in life, that child’s chances for the future are depleted. That is the point that Opposition Members are trying to make. It is absolutely right that we refer back to the era of Margaret Thatcher, which desecrated the north. That was the foundation for where the north finds itself today.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stockton North and other Opposition Members are right to talk about poverty, and as a Member of Parliament for a fellow northern city constituency I share with him the same concerns. We need to level up in education funding, unemployment rates, transport funding and much more. Whether someone comes from Bradford West or Stockton North or Middlesbrough, the barriers in life created by Conservative Governments are, sadly, the same.

Despite the Government’s claim, regional inequality has deepened under the Conservatives. A decade of low investment has left the country deeply imbalanced, with towns and cities outside London losing out. My hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough (Andy McDonald) mentioned the 22,000 potential jobs that could have been created with the campus in the north. The list goes on. The north has heard all the promises from the Government, and is still waiting for the current pledges of infrastructure funding to be fulfilled before we turn to the new commitments made.

Today, the Chancellor promised a bank, but the north is still waiting for its rail. Six years on from first being announced, Northern Powerhouse Rail has still not yet been approved, let alone started. The people of Stockton were promised a new hospital building, but it has yet to materialise 10 years later. Today the Chancellor spoke about creating jobs, but we have heard all of that before. At national level, employment figures across the country recovered in the decade following the crash, but there is a big imbalance in where the jobs were created. For every job created in the north-east, 13 jobs were created in London. The record over the last three years of the Conservative Mayor of Tees Valley—creating a single job at a cost of £100,000—is such a disastrous waste of public funding that only his colleagues in Whitehall could do worse with taxpayers’ money.

Time and again, the north of England has been governed by Whitehall and been left second to London. As already outlined by my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton North, the health inequalities in Stockton-on-Tees are such that the lives of men living in the town centre are expected to be 18 years shorter than their counterparts just down the road. These existing inequalities have put those from the north at higher risk from the pandemic. Even in the pandemic, people in the north have been more likely to have their working hours reduced or to have lost their jobs altogether. As our shadow Chancellor put it,

“They have, bluntly and tragically, been more likely to die of covid-19.”

From the outset of the pandemic, we have continually called for local test and trace. Regional Mayors and local councils have been prepared from day one to assist the Government in building local infrastructure to deliver a localised service. The country was in a time of need and an opportunity to build locally presented itself, but the Government decided to dish out millions to private companies without competition, and without penalty clauses for poor performance. Those with connections were 10 times more likely to get a deal.

As if Tory cronyism could not get any worse, today, the Chancellor’s infrastructure fund is based on agreement from MPs—yet again Tory MPs get in ahead to lobby for their own areas. The 2019 towns fund is just one example that was meant to support struggling towns but, instead, one Minister signs off the next Minister’s request for funds. Out of 101 towns funded, only 40 were on a needs basis, and the other 61 were chosen by their own Ministers. While our nation is facing the largest fall in output for 300 years, the choices this nation needs to make are based on the country’s needs, and not the needs of Conservative MPs and their friends. We have been listening to Conservative jargon on redistribution since 2010. It is just another term now—levelling up—but despite the north and the poorest in society falling further behind, we are still waiting for delivery.

We need high-quality businesses in every town that provide well-paid and secure jobs, so that people do not just survive but thrive. With rising unemployment, lower average wages than the national average, and the biggest increase in child poverty in the past five years, the time is now for this Government to act on the north-east. The Government have a clear responsibility, and it is finally time for them to deliver on it. As my hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool (Mike Hill) outlined, this is a generational life-saver.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the first time, Mrs Cummins, and to be back in Westminster Hall after such an absence. I congratulate the hon. Member for Stockton North (Alex Cunningham) on securing this debate and all Members on their contributions. It has been an important and passionate debate, and certainly a timely one following the Chancellor’s statement earlier today. I also put on record my gratitude to my hon. Friends the Members for Redcar (Jacob Young), for Stockton South (Matt Vickers) and for Darlington (Peter Gibson) for their continued representations on behalf of their constituents. They are rightly doing their duty in self-isolating, but I am sure they would have wanted to be here today.

The thing that has bound everyone in this debate together is their passion to get the best for the future of Tees Valley and the communities they represent. The shared ambition that they have, working with Ben Houchen and the leadership teams at the Tees Valley Combined Authority, is to get the best for their constituents.

Levelling up is a central part of this Government’s agenda. That is why we have set out a clear commitment to unlock economic prosperity across all parts of the country. It is about providing the building blocks and momentum to address those long-term structural regional inequalities, and providing the means to pursue life chances that, for too many people, have been out of reach for far too long. This is hugely important for Tees Valley, where deindustrialisation and the pace of economic change have created challenges to growth and social mobility. Levelling up is about enabling places to determine and support their own economic priorities. That is why we are working so closely with the Tees Valley Combined Authority and the local enterprise partnership, and it is why we have invested £126 million of local growth funding in Tees Valley based on local evidence and local prioritisation.

The fund has improved access to Billingham train station, and improved infrastructure to allow that critical private sector expansion in Stockton’s biopharmaceutical campus—both of these are, of course, in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency. I want to thank Ben Houchen, who has become a leader in showing the potential of devolution across our country. I do not make that point on a party-political basis—other Mayors across the country have done a fantastic job, too—but Ben Houchen has been a model for what devolution can achieve. If we look at the devolution deal, which is already enabling new spend and will deliver £450 million over that 30-year period, it has established a regional investment fund supporting the plans by the Mayor for sustainable economic growth.

We are delighted that one of the Mayors’ flagship initiatives has been transforming the industrial site that includes the former SSI steelworks at Redcar into Teesworks through the mayoral development corporation. We have supported that with £233 million on siteworks over the past five years, and recently handed full control over to the combined authority. Work is now well under way to develop Teesworks as a pioneering business park, which will create 20,000 highly skilled jobs over the next two decades. It is a shining example of what effective partnerships between central Government and devolved powers with effective local Mayors can achieve. I echo the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Sedgefield (Paul Howell) about achievements around the airport, and even the announcements we have seen today about new routes from Teesside International airport and new operators from the summer. I congratulate colleagues in this House, the Mayor, and everybody involved.

We should also welcome and look at the towns fund investment. We have invited five of the region’s towns to submit proposals for towns deals as part of our £3.6 billion towns fund. We have now agreed the heads of terms with Darlington—that is £22.3 million to boost employment and skills, as well as to make improvements to how the town looks and feels. Prospective deals can follow in Middlesbrough, Thornaby-on-Tees, Hartlepool and Redcar. The objective of the deals is to drive the regeneration of towns and to deliver long-term economic and productivity growth. Across the Tees Valley, the towns deal boards are already working with the community, businesses, investors and local government to do just that.

A number of Members have mentioned the Chancellor’s announcement today about the levelling-up fund. We think that is a further positive example of what can be done with levelling up. Such projects will have a real impact on people’s communities. They can be delivered within this Parliament, and it is right that they should command local support, including from Members of Parliament. It is wrong to suggest that MPs do not speak to local government, because they are able to input valuable information about the projects that their constituents want to see. The levelling-up fund will support the infrastructure that people want in everyday life and that they contact MPs about, from new bypasses and upgrading railway services, to traffic, libraries, museums and cultural assets—all the important issues that our constituents raise with us. The levelling-up fund will be open to all local areas and will be allocated competitively. Next year, £600 million will be available in England.

It is also right to point to the investment in high streets, because the need for the regeneration of high streets is evident in so many of our towns and communities across the country. We have seen considerable challenges for high streets in the past decade, which is why our future high streets fund will revitalise high streets, helping them to adapt and evolve and to remain vibrant places at the heart of our communities. We have submissions from Loftus, Darlington, Middlesbrough and Stockton, and of course we have Hartlepool, which has been selected as the high street taskforce pilot. We will announce the successful future high street fund places before the end of this year, and we will contact places once decisions have been made. That is a hugely important part of the work that we are doing.

We should also recognise the unprecedented challenges that the pandemic has thrust upon us. To counteract some of the impact on businesses and productivity, the Prime Minister announced the £900 million Getting Building fund in August, to deliver jobs. The Tees Valley received £17.4 million of that money, and it is worth noting that that was the highest amount per capita anywhere in the country. Those funds have been supporting the development of high-grade business accommodation at Darlington’s flagship research and development site at Central Park, and they have also helped accelerate the redevelopment of Middlesbrough railway station by improving its facilities and strengthening its connectivity.

The hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mike Hill) made an informed and passionate contribution about the future of green energy and its importance for growth in the Tees Valley. It is undoubtedly right that that has to be an important part of the area’s future growth. We absolutely recognise the urgency of a green industrial revolution that will deliver an economic resurgence and meet our 2050 target, which is why the Prime Minister’s 10-point plan commits to invest up to £1 billion to support the establishment of carbon capture and storage clusters in pioneering places such as Teesside. I am pleased that the Tees Valley is set to host the UK’s first hydrogen transport hub, helping to create hundreds of green jobs. It will help establish the Tees Valley as a hive of research and development activity, advocating the prospect of using green hydrogen to power our buses, heavy goods vehicles, rail, maritime transport and aviation around the country.

I am conscious of the time, so I thank the hon. Member for Stockton North for securing the debate and for his contribution. I know that he is rightly passionate about the levelling-up agenda, and I stand ready to support him if he wants to work with the Government on these issues. However, it is right that towns and communities around the country will be powering our economic recovery, and it is clear that the Tees Valley will be at the heart of this country’s renewal.

I am grateful to everyone who has taken part in this robust debate. I am pleased that the Minister at least recognises that we are here because we believe in our areas; we are not talking them down. We believe in them, and we are speaking up for them. I appreciate the fact that he is now nodding.

I have 20 seconds left, so as for the Minister’s answers: no new hospitals, and no reference to health at all. I have one final point to repeat: five jobs have been lost in the past seven months for every job created in the past three years. We need to do much, much better for the Tees Valley.

Motion lapsed, and sitting adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 10(14)).