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Commons Chamber

Volume 689: debated on Wednesday 10 February 2021

House of Commons

Wednesday 10 February 2021

The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock

Prayers

[Mr Speaker in the Chair]

Virtual participation in proceedings commenced (Orders, 4 June and 30 December 2020).

[NB: [V] denotes a Member participating virtually.]

Speaker’s Statement

I remind colleagues that a deferred Division will take place today in the Members’ Library between 11.30 am and 2 pm. If a Member has a proxy vote in operation, they must not vote in person in the deferred Division. Their nominated proxy should vote on their behalf. I remind colleagues of the importance of social distancing during deferred Divisions.

Oral Answers to Questions

Women and Equalities

The Minister for Women and Equalities was asked—

Policy Evidence

We must have an equality agenda that is driven by the evidence. That is why we have launched an equality data programme, looking at the life paths of individuals across the country and ensuring that we have hard data about the barriers that people face, whether in education, employment or accessing capital for business.

I thank the Minister for her answer. Like her, I welcome the importance of data in all this. I also welcome the fact that last year the Government Equalities Office commissioned the Behavioural Insights Team to produce a summary of the evidence on unconscious bias training. As she will know, the report highlighted that there was no evidence that this training changed behaviour in the long term, nor did it improve workplace equality. It also stated that there is emerging evidence of unintended negative consequences. So I am glad that the Government are phasing it out in the civil service and that this House is doing the same, but can she assure me and the House that any suggested replacement for this training must be supported by the evidence of what works?

My hon. Friend is right that unconscious bias training has been shown not to work and in fact can be counterproductive. The best way to improve equality is to make the system fairer by increasing choice and openness. For example, making systems around pay and promotion more transparent and open has been shown by the evidence to improve equality for everybody.

I was very pleased to hear my right hon. Friend’s commitment to robust evidence. Does she agree that there is hard data that, when there is enforcement of reporting, more companies publish their gender pay gap? With no enforcement in place, so far this year, just one third of last year’s total has reported. Is that robust enough evidence for her that without enforcement there is a danger that equal pay will slide backwards?

I am pleased to say that we saw the gender pay gap fall to a record low last year, but we need to continue making progress on that issue, including making sure that we are tackling the cause of the gender pay gap, and 35% of the cause is the fact that women and men are in different occupations. So we need to make it easier for women to get into high-paid jobs in areas such as technology, science, and engineering.

Covid-19: Support for Women

What recent assessment she has made of the adequacy of Government support for women during the covid-19 outbreak. (912135)

We have rolled out unprecedented levels of economic support to those who need it most, regardless of gender. That includes sectors that employ large numbers of women, such as retail and hospitality. The Government are continually reviewing the effectiveness of their support and Departments carefully consider the impact of their decisions on those sharing protected characteristics. That is in line with both their legal obligations, and the Government’s strong commitment to promoting fairness. Of course, men are impacted too. Indeed, latest figures show a higher redundancy rate for men. That is why we are committed to ensuring a fair recovery for all.

A recent High Court ruling found the universal credit childcare payment system to be unlawful and discriminatory against women, after a single mother was forced to pay childcare costs upfront and then claim back, forcing her into debt and causing psychological harm. Does the Minister agree that the universal credit childcare offer is inadequate for parents who rely on it, 80% of whom are women? Will she urge the Department of Work and Pensions to improve it?

I will speak to my colleagues in the DWP, but I know that the Government have been offering unprecedented levels of support to provide for all those people who require support in childcare. That includes the recent £20 uplift, which the Chancellor agreed to last year.

A recent TUC survey found that 71% of mothers asking to be furloughed as they could not juggle work with childcare have been refused by their employers. What steps will the Minister take to ensure that affordable childcare is available for all parents who need it, so that they are not forced out of work by this pandemic?

I thank the hon. Lady for her question. The Government have provided significant support for those people who have been furloughed, and there is a childcare provision within universal credit. We recognise that parents across the country are having difficulties during the pandemic, and we have put several measures in place to ensure they have the support required.

The pandemic has made flexible working a necessity for many women, who have a disproportionate share of caring responsibilities, but under the Flexible Working Regulations 2014 an employee is eligible to request flexible working arrangements only after 26 consecutive weeks of work for their employer. What consideration has the Minister given to the recommendation in the new Women and Equalities Committee report to remove that 26-week threshold?

We have a manifesto commitment to further encourage flexible working, and we are going to be consulting on making it the default unless employers have good reasons not to. We know that the Women and Equalities Committee has released a report, and we are carefully considering it and will provide our conclusions in due course. We appreciate the work of the Committee on these important issues and the contributions of those who gave evidence.

Children: Equality of Opportunity

What steps she is taking to ensure that children throughout the UK have equality of opportunity. (912137)

What steps she is taking to ensure that children throughout the UK have equality of opportunity. (912141)

What steps she is taking to ensure that children throughout the UK have equality of opportunity. (912142)

Spreading opportunity is a top priority across Government. That is why we are levelling up school standards and investing over £7.1 billion more in schools by 2022-23 than in 2019-20. We are committed to providing extra support for the education of disadvantaged children during the pandemic, including through our £350 million national tutoring programme.

In Wales, there has been a reduction in real-terms education spending in the last 10 years of 8.4%. I appreciate that education is devolved, but the children of Delyn are also children of the United Kingdom. As my hon. Friend’s brief effectively spans all Government Departments from an equalities standpoint, what can she do to ensure that children in Wales are not forgotten by the UK Government?

My hon. Friend is correct that education is a devolved matter in Wales. However, it is important that we work closely together to ensure that every child receives the best education, wherever they live in the UK, and to give them the best start in life. For example, our UK-wide safeguarding policy is essential to allow children to concentrate on their learning without fear of negative influence. Our equality data programme will seek to use data from across the UK to help inform future policy, making equality of opportunity a reality for all.

I thank the Minister for her reply and the initiatives contained within it. We know school closures have had a very unequal impact on children. Does she agree that the best way to address that is to safely reopen schools as quickly as possible?

We are committed to getting all pupils and students back into schools and colleges as soon as the public health picture allows. In doing so, the Government will be guided by the scientific and medical experts. When Parliament returns from recess in the week commencing 22 February, we intend to publish our plan for taking the country out of lockdown, including plans for reopening education. We hope we will be able to commence the full reopening of schools from Monday 8 March. We have committed to providing schools, parents and young people with a minimum of two weeks’ notice for that return to on-site provision.

What support for children with learning disabilities are the Government pursuing to ensure equality of opportunity?

The pandemic has been extremely challenging for many families with children and young people with special educational needs. Supporting them is a priority for this Government, and their wellbeing remains central to our response. My hon. Friend will be glad to know that we are providing £40.8 million this year for the Family Fund to help more than 80,000 low-income families who have children with disabilities or serious illnesses. That includes £13.5 million specifically in response to the coronavirus pandemic, which may include assistive technology to aid remote learning.

Social Mobility

Our focus is on levelling up and ensuring that no one is left behind. During the pandemic, we are ensuring that all children get the chance to succeed through a further £300 million to schools for tutoring, new summer school initiatives and the covid premium.

Last month, it was reported that the civil service fast stream is no longer publishing data on the social backgrounds of the people it hires, which came with information obtained by a freedom of information request showing that the success of those from private schools entering the fast stream is double that of those from comprehensive schools. Can I therefore ask my right hon. Friend to push the civil service fast stream to publish that data regularly, so that it leads by example and demonstrates its commitment to social mobility?

My hon. Friend is correct to say that the civil service should be recruiting the best people, regardless of their background, and that it should be open to all. We will be publishing the data that he asks for by April of this year, and the Government will have more to say shortly on widening opportunity in the civil service.

Geographic Inequality of Opportunity

We need to tackle the scourge of geographic inequality—average hourly wages are nearly 30% higher in London than they are in the north-west—and that is why I have asked the Equalities Hub to look beyond protected characteristics and identify additional barriers that people face up and down the country.

Coastal communities such as Lytham St Annes are home to substantial tourism and hospitality sectors. Those sectors have traditionally employed large numbers of women, but they have been particularly hit by the pandemic. Given that inequality in coastal resorts is a long-recognised issue, what plans does my right hon. Friend have to ensure that coastal towns—in Lancashire, especially—can build back better?

We are directing vital support to seaside towns through the £230 million coastal communities fund. We recognise the unique challenges faced by towns such as St Annes, and that will be very much in our thoughts as we look to the £4 billion levelling-up fund and the UK shared prosperity fund. I am pleased to say that we will be publishing prospectives for those shortly, and no doubt my hon. Friend will be interested in applying.

BAME People in Criminal Justice System

What recent discussions she has had with the Justice Secretary on the disproportionate number of BAME people in the criminal justice system. (912143)

Tackling race disparity in the criminal justice system remains a priority for all Ministers in my Department. We have a broad programme of work to address the issue, including work on the collection of data and the implementation of policies that tackle disproportionality, together with scrutiny and oversight. The criminal justice system race and ethnicity board reviews the progress of this work.

A lack of diversity in the judiciary is something that should concern the Government. It is deeply troubling, as it is one of the major reasons that all communities, including black, Asian and minority ethnic communities, lack confidence in the criminal justice system. There are currently zero Supreme Court judges who are from black, Asian or minority ethnic backgrounds. Steps need to be taken to fix the justice system so that it is fair and equal for everyone. Will the Government introduce a clear target for a representative judiciary, as called for in the Lammy review?

The hon. Member raises an important issue in relation to diversity in the judiciary, and it is important to ensure that women and black and ethnic minorities come through the system as lawyers. Indeed, there are a lot of women coming through the system, but we need to improve that as well. From 2014 to 2019, there have been some small improvements in judicial diversity. The proportion of women judges increased from 24% to 32% in the courts and from 43% to 46% in tribunals, and the proportion of BAME judges increased from 6% to 7% in the courts and from 9% to 11% in tribunals, but we need to do more work. The judiciary is independent, and I know that it is very concerned about this issue.

Discrimination Against LGBTQ+ Community

Any discrimination against LGBT people is unacceptable, and the Government are committed to supporting LGBT people and improving the lives of all citizens. We are working across agencies to ensure that they are safe from violence and discrimination. Internationally, we have awarded £3.2 million of new funding to help Commonwealth Governments and civil society to repeal outdated discriminatory laws.

Recent findings show an alarming rise in homophobic hate crimes across the United Kingdom, from 6,655 in 2014-15 to an astonishing 18,000 last year. These figures show that, despite our best efforts, many people are continuing to suffer discrimination and abuse, so does my hon. Friend agree that much more must be done? What more will her Department do to ensure that the United Kingdom can really become a country where facing discrimination on the basis of who you love really is a thing of the past?

I agree with my hon. Friend, and I encourage those who may have been the victim of hate crime to speak out and contact the police. This Government are proud to have supported Galop, the country’s leading LGBT anti-violence charity, and we welcome its new specialist hate crime helpline, which launched last week. To further ensure the safety of LGBT people in this country and around the world, the Government are committed to ending conversion therapy and delivering an international conference.

Taxation: People with Disabilities

What recent discussions she has had with the Chancellor of the Exchequer on ensuring that the taxation system does not discriminate against people with disabilities. (912145)

The Government recognise it is important that the tax system treats people fairly and consistently, while also raising revenue for public services. We provide tax-free welfare benefits for those who have extra costs associated with their disability, including disability living allowance, personal independence payment and attendance allowance. We have also made available several VAT zero rates for the purchase of certain equipment and appliances designed solely for use by a disabled person, such as the VAT zero rate for the leasing of vehicles through the Motability scheme.

I am grateful for the Minister’s reply. I have been contacted by a constituent who is visually impaired and needs expensive corrective glasses annually, on which she has to pay VAT. Does the Minister agree that it is not fair that the greater a person’s sight disability, the greater the tax they pay? Will she agree to discuss with the Treasury that, as glasses are an essential item for my constituent, they should not be taxed as a luxury?

My hon. Friend raises an important point. The Government ensure that the supply of health and welfare services, including opticians and eye tests, are exempt from VAT, which ensures that VAT is not a barrier to accessing medical treatment. Moreover, in addition to NHS complex lens vouchers, the Government already offer support for individuals to help with the cost of glasses through NHS optical vouchers. Those eligible for help include children and those on certain income-related benefits, and the value varies from £39 to £215 depending on the level of the patient’s prescription. However, I will write to my hon. Friend with full details so that she can assist her constituent.

Reducing Poverty

What recent discussions she has had with the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions on reducing poverty. (912146)

What recent discussions she has had with the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions on reducing poverty. (912160)

My colleagues and I at the DWP have frequent discussions with GEO Ministers on a wide range of issues. Throughout this pandemic the Government have sought to protect jobs and incomes, spending billions on strengthening welfare support for those most in need. Our long-term ambition is to level up across the United Kingdom, helping people back into work as quickly as possible, based on clear evidence of the importance of work in tackling poverty.

Child poverty is a stain on our nation, and hon. Members on both sides of the House should commit to working together to eradicate it. The Minister will know that, before the pandemic, child poverty was projected to increase to 5.2 million by 2022, a disastrous thing for those children and something that will significantly damage life opportunities. What steps is he taking now to do everything possible to ensure this prediction does not come true?

As far as I am concerned, one child in poverty is one child too many. All evidence suggests that work is the best route out of poverty for families, and that is why we are supporting parents into work with our £30 billion plan for jobs and childcare offer. We recognise that times are tough for so many at the moment, which is why we have boosted our welfare system by over £7 billion this year to support those facing the most financial disruption.

May I draw the Minister’s attention to research by the Welsh gender equality charity Chwarae Teg that shows that women are twice as likely to be key workers in Wales, and that the effects of sector shut- downs, business closures and unemployment are falling disproportionately on women, who are more likely to lose their job in the pandemic? Will the Minister study the report and tell the House what practical steps the Government are taking to help them?

The female employment rate is at 72% and the female unemployment rate is at 4.7%. This is an issue we take incredibly seriously, not least the Minister for Employment, my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Sussex (Mims Davies), who leads on this important work. I will, of course, study the report carefully, as will the Minister for Employment.

Topical Questions

Tomorrow is the International Day of Women and Girls in Science and, as we build back better, we want to see a new generation of female tech and science entrepreneurs. Promoting science, technology, engineering and maths among girls is vital to this. Since 2010, 31% more girls and 34% more women are studying these subjects at A-level and university respectively. We are building on that programme with STEM ambassadors to encourage even more girls and women to come forward.

Many disabled people, and their carers too, are still in receipt of legacy benefits, which means they are not getting the £20 uplift that universal credit claimants have been getting. Does the Minister agree that that is discriminatory and needs to be addressed?

I thank the hon. Lady for her question. I appreciate that many people are facing financial disruption due to the pandemic, which is why the Government have put an unprecedented package of support in place. Legacy benefits were increased by 1.7% last year and will increase by 0.5% from April, in line with prices.

I thank the safeguarding Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Louth and Horncastle (Victoria Atkins), for all her hard work to combat violence against women and girls. Will she join me in encouraging everybody who has experienced violence or supported those who have to submit their views to the Government’s consultation on the next violence against women and girls strategy, which closes next week, on 19 February? (912115)

I thank my hon. Friend for promoting the Government’s call for evidence on tackling violence against women and girls. We are asking the public, victims, charities, employers, health professionals, universities, colleges, the armed forces, the NHS and many more for their views, so that we can develop a national strategy that is fit for the 2020s. This is the largest ever call for evidence on crimes that disproportionately affect women and girls, because we want to hear from all parts of society. I ask all hon. Members to play their part and encourage their constituents to contribute to this vital call for evidence before it closes on 19 February.

South Asians, particularly Bangladeshi and Pakistani people, are still experiencing three times the risk from coronavirus in this second wave, so take-up of the vaccine is vital. We know that historical issues of mistrust and culturally inappropriate public health information have contributed to the legitimate vaccine hesitancy. The Government have had time to plan to mitigate all this, but they have still not produced a clear strategy to engage with our black, Asian and ethnic minority communities. What steps has the Minister taken to ensure that the vaccine roll-out reaches all our communities, particularly those who are unequally impacted?

I will be providing a second covid disparities report at the end of this month, which will provide more comprehensive detail of steps we have taken. However, this is an issue that we recognise is very serious. The disparities are changing for different groups; we have seen some progress, for instance, among black groups. However, we do emphasise that vaccines are the best way to protect people from coronavirus. The Department of Health and Social Care and the NHS are working closely with black, Asian and minority ethnic communities to support those receiving a vaccine and to help anyone who may have questions about the process. As part of that, we are working with faith and community leaders to give them advice and information about the universal benefits of vaccination and how their communities can get a vaccine.

The Government have failed to consider the impact on equalities resulting from their responses to the pandemic. Covid mortality rates are twice as high in deprived areas, and the lowest-paid are more than twice as likely to have lost their jobs. That is why the Government have a legal duty, as set out in the Equality Act 2010, to consider the effects of policies on inequality, whether Ministers agree or not. As the Minister for Women and Equalities has yet to reply to my letter dated 14 January, can she now say that she will work to ensure that all Departments undertake and publish equality impact assessments on all their responses to this pandemic?

I completely reject the hon. Lady’s assertions. We do have a strategy, one part of which is to ensure that ethnic minorities are not stigmatised. The issues around coronavirus are complex. We have released information in various reports showing what the risk factors are and we have also outlined a plan to address them.

There is growing concern that an increasing number of women are becoming victims of online gambling addiction, with the resulting financial and mental health issues. What steps are the Government taking to truly understand the scale of the problem and safeguard women from predatory recruitment tactics? (912118)

Rates of problem gambling among women remain very low, but we know how devastating its impacts can be. The Gambling Commission is looking at how it collects data on gambling participation and problem gambling to make sure that we have access to even more robust and regular data on the issue. The Government are also reviewing the Gambling Act 2005 to make sure that we have the right protections in place to make gambling safer for all.

Prime Minister

The Prime Minister was asked—

Engagements

This morning I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. In addition to my duties in this House, I shall have further such meetings later today.

Over the past week, thousands of people across Frankley Great Park and south Northfield have done what has been asked of them and gone and got a test, because of a small number of South African variant cases in the constituency. Will the Prime Minister join me in thanking Dr Justin Varney, Councillor Simon Morrall and Birmingham City Council for everything they have done to scale up mass testing across Frankley Great Park? Will he encourage anyone who has not had a test so far to get one at one of the designated sites?

Yes, indeed. I thank my hon. Friend for raising this issue and, indeed, join him in thanking the NHS staff who are scaling up the surge testing in the way that he describes. I encourage everybody in the area and, indeed, throughout the country to get a vaccine when they are asked to do so.

May I begin by thanking everybody involved in the vaccine roll-out? We have now vaccinated 12.6 million people and are on course to vaccinate the first four priority groups by the end of this week. That is a truly amazing achievement.

Can the Prime Minister confirm today that the Government will extend business rates relief beyond 31 March?

I am glad to hear the right hon. and learned Gentleman join in the praise of the vaccine roll-out, which is indeed a tribute to NHS staff, the Army, the volunteers and many, many others.

On the right hon. and learned Gentleman’s point about the extension of business rates relief, he knows that this Government are committed to supporting businesses, people and livelihoods throughout the pandemic. That is what we will continue to do, but he should wait until the Budget for the Chancellor to explain exactly what we are going to do.

I think that answer was that the Prime Minister cannot give an answer yet, but hundreds of thousands of businesses are affected by this. The trouble is that businesses do not work as slowly as the Prime Minister—they need an answer now. As the British Chambers of Commerce says, businesses

“simply can’t wait until the March Budget.”

Let me try another vitally important question for businesses and for millions of working people. Can the Prime Minister confirm today that the furlough scheme will be extended beyond April?

I think most people in this country are aware that we are going through a very serious pandemic in which rates of infection have been steadily brought down thanks to the efforts of the British people. I also think that Members of this House are familiar with the notion that in just a few days we will be setting out a road map for the way out of this pandemic—a road map that I hope the right hon. and learned Gentleman and his colleagues will support, although their support, as we know, tends to be a transitory thing: one week we have it, the next week we do not. He will not have to contain himself for very long.

Let me let the Prime Minister into a secret: he can take decisions for himself and he does not need to leave everything to the 11th minute. If I were Prime Minister, I would say to businesses, “We will support you now. We will protect jobs now.” The CBI, the Federation of Small Businesses, the Institute of Directors and the British Chambers of Commerce have all said the same thing: they all say that they cannot wait until the Budget. The Prime Minister may disagree with me, but he is actually disagreeing with businesses. Why does the Prime Minister think he knows better than British business?

Most businesspeople that I have talked to—I have talked to a great many in the past 12 months—would agree that no Government around the world have done more to support business, wrapping our arms around it. I am delighted to hear this enthusiasm for business from the Labour party, which stood on a manifesto to destroy capitalism at the last election and, indeed, to dismantle the very pharmaceutical industry that has provided the vaccines on which we now rely. Will the right hon. and learned Gentleman now repudiate that policy?

We all know what the Prime Minister once said that he wanted to do to business. We on these Benches would rather listen to businesses.

We have no decision on business rates, no decision on furlough. Let us try another crucial issue. This time there is no excuse for delaying, because this has to be decided before the March Budget and the Prime Minister does not need to check with the Chancellor—will he now commit to extending the evictions ban on residential properties beyond 21 February?

I have said repeatedly that what we will do in this Government and throughout this pandemic is put our arms around the British people, support them throughout the pandemic and make sure that they are not unfairly evicted during the pandemic. That is what we will do. What I very much hope that we hear from the right hon. and learned Gentleman is that he has had not only a Damascene conversion to the importance of business, but a Damascene conversion to supporting all the Government’s policies that support business, rather than sniping from the sidelines. Why does he not get behind us and back the Government, back us in our efforts to back business and back the British people?

I am not going to take lectures from a man who not only wrote two versions of every column he ever wrote as a journalist, but proposed Donald Trump for a Nobel peace prize and gave Dominic Cummings a pay rise.

Let us go back to the question. Another area where the Prime Minister has repeatedly delayed and now changes his policy pretty well every day is securing our borders against variants of covid. Every week, the Prime Minister comes here and says, “We have one of the toughest regimes in the world”. We know that his Home Secretary disagrees with him. We know that the Health Secretary disagrees with him. Luckily, Oxford University keeps track of how tough border restrictions are in every country. It says that there are at least 33 countries around the world that currently have tougher restrictions than the United Kingdom—33, Prime Minister—including Canada, Denmark, Japan, Israel and many others. In fact, Oxford University says that we are not even in the top bracket of countries for border restrictions. It is 50 days after we first discovered the South African variant —50 days. How does the Prime Minister explain that?

There are some countries in Europe that do not even have a hotel quarantine scheme such as the one that we are putting in on Monday. We have among the toughest border regimes anywhere in the world. People should understand that, on a normal day at this time of year, we could expect about 250,000 people to be arriving in this country. We have got it down to about 20,000, 5,000 of whom are involved in bringing vital things into this country, such as medicines and food, as we discussed last week and which the right hon. and learned Gentleman agreed was a good idea. Unless he actually wants to cut this country off from the rest of the world, which, last week, I think he said that he did not want to do—unless of course he has changed his mind again—I think that this policy is measured, it is proportionate, and it is getting tougher from Monday. I hope that he supports it.

The truth is this: the Prime Minister is failing to give security to British businesses and he is failing to secure our borders. The Prime Minister often complains that we never put forward constructive proposals, so here are two for him: support businesses and protect jobs now by extending furlough, business rates relief and VAT cuts for hospitality; and, secondly, secure our borders with a comprehensive hotel quarantine on arrival. No more delays: will he do it?

We have just announced the quarantine policy, which, as I have said to the House, is among the toughest in the world and certainly tougher than most other European countries. I am delighted that the right hon. and learned Gentleman is now supporting business—not a policy for which he was famous before—in his latest stunt of bandwagoneering. He has moved from one side of the debate to the other throughout this crisis. Some people have said that this is a “good crisis”. Some people have said that this crisis is

“a gift that keeps on giving”.

Those people sit on the Labour Front Bench. It is disgraceful that they should say those things. This is one of the biggest challenges that this country has faced since the second world war and, thanks to one of the fastest vaccine roll-outs anywhere in the world, it is a challenge that this country can meet and is meeting. I believe that this vaccine roll-out programme is something that this House and this country should be very proud of.

I thank the Prime Minister for the decisions he took last year that have meant that the vaccine programme is in such a good position this week. Despite that success, it is vital that the programme keeps pace with the changing variants. Will he update the House on where the UK stands on ensuring that the UK supply chain is in place and that we do not get behind as the virus mutates? (912100)

My right hon. Friend asks an extremely important question. We recently announced an agreement for 50 million doses with the manufacturer CureVac because we believe that that may help us to develop vaccines that can respond at scale to new variants of the virus. As the House will have heard from the chief medical officer, the deputy chief medical officer and others, I think we are going to have to get used to the idea of vaccinating and then revaccinating in the autumn as we come to face these new variants.

Let us head up to Ross, Skye and Lochaber with the Scottish National party’s Westminster leader, Ian Blackford.

New research from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and the baby bank charity Little Village has revealed that 1.3 million children under five in the United Kingdom are living in poverty. That is a truly shocking figure that should make this Tory Government utterly ashamed. The Scottish National party has repeatedly called for a financial package to boost household incomes and reverse this Tory child poverty crisis. The Prime Minister has the power to tackle child poverty right now by making the £20 uplift to universal credit permanent and extending it to legacy benefits. The Tory Government have been stalling on this for months. Will the Prime Minister finally act, or will he leave millions of children out in the cold?

The whole House and this country should be proud of the way in which we have tried to look after people—the poorest and neediest families throughout the country—not just with universal credit, which the Opposition would actually abolish, but by helping vulnerable people with their food and heating bills through the £170 million winter grant scheme, and looking after people with the free school meal vouchers. As I have said before, we will put our arms around the people of the entire country throughout the pandemic.

I have to say that that was pathetic—that was no answer. We are talking about 1.3 million children under five in poverty. Let me quote:

“She cried on her doorstep because I gave her nappies, wipes and winter clothes for her child. I went away with a lump in my throat.”

Those are the words of Emilie, a baby bank worker who is supporting families that the Tories have pushed into poverty through a decade of cuts. They do not need more empty words from a Prime Minister who simply does not care enough to act.

This morning, a new report from Citizens Advice Scotland warned that Tory cuts could reduce the value of universal credit by as much as a quarter, just when people need that money the most. Will the Prime Minister agree to meet me and other Opposition parties ahead of the Budget for an urgent summit on tackling child poverty, or will he be yet another Tory Prime Minister who leaves a generation of children languishing in poverty?

I must say that I reject entirely what the right hon. Gentleman has just said. I do not believe that any Government could have done more to help the people of this country throughout this pandemic, and we will continue to do so. Yes, of course we bitterly lament and reject the poverty that some families unquestionably suffer. It is tragic that too many families have had a very tough time during the pandemic, but we will continue to support them in all the ways that we have set out. I may say to the right hon. Gentleman that there is a profound philosophical difference between him and me; the Scottish nationalist party is morphing into an ever more left-wing party that believes—

There you go, Mr Speaker. They believe fundamentally that it is the duty of the taxpayer to pay for more and more and more. We want to get people into jobs, and it is in that respect that the Scottish nationalist party is, I am afraid, failing—

Order. Prime Minister, we both know that you are only teasing and trying to wind up the leader of the SNP; please, let’s drop it. Let us move on, because Lee Anderson is waiting for you.

A new freeport for the east midlands will create over 60,000 new jobs and provide a massive boost for employers such as Caunton Engineering and Abacus in Ashfield. After decades of neglect from Labour MPs, we now feel an sense of hope in the red wall seats. My mum and dad voted Conservative for the first time at the last general election and were touched when the Prime Minister acknowledged that their votes were lent. Could my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister please reassure my mum and dad, my friends, my family and all my constituents that our area will never be let down again? (912101)

Absolutely. I thank my hon. Friend for everything he is doing for Ashfield. He and I have had enjoyable times campaigning for the people of Ashfield and will continue to do so. I can tell Paul and Jenny that our commitment to levelling up is absolutely rock solid throughout this country.

Diolch yn fawr iawn, Llefarydd.

As we just heard, the Government claim to have a levelling-up agenda underpinned by a research and development road map. The trouble is that the Tories’ track record on this is not good: in fact, it is abysmal. Wales receives the lowest R&D spend per person of the four nations, at around 40% of spend per head in England, and Westminster’s obsession with the golden triangle of Oxford, Cambridge and London shows no sign of abating. Will the Prime Minister now commit to a further devolved R&D funding settlement to the Senedd, or is he content for Westminster’s road map to be Wales’s road to nowhere?

I am afraid that I think that the right hon. Lady is doing Wales down, the people of Wales down and the ingenuity of Wales down, because I think about a quarter of the airline passengers in the world are borne aloft on wings made by the Welsh aerospace sector. Bridgend is going to be one of the great centres of battery manufacturing in this country, if not the world. Wales is at the cutting edge of technology under this Government’s plans for record spending on R&D—£22 billion by the end of this Parliament—and Wales, along with the whole of the rest of the UK, will benefit massively.

The UK has fallen behind Europe in tapping the potential of geothermal heat and energy in places like Crewe. Will the Prime Minister meet me to discuss how we can ensure that geothermal helps us to build back better with a revitalised package of incentives for industry? (912106)

I thank my hon. Friend for the excellent point he makes about Crewe and the way it is now in the forefront of deep geothermal energy exploration. I am very happy to meet him to discuss what we can to further geothermal energy in Crewe, diary permitting.

This Government said that no council would be suffering as a result of the pandemic, and the Chancellor said that he would do everything—“whatever it takes”—to help them. Yet Tory-controlled Bolton Council has just announced £35 million of cuts in towns and an increase in the council tax budget of 3.8%. Can the Prime Minister assure my constituents and my town that that money will be given to them, or will this join a long list of Tory failed promises? (912102)

I want to congratulate the great Conservative-controlled council of Bolton on everything that it is doing and continuing to do throughout this pandemic to look after the people of Bolton. I know what incredible work the local officials do, and I thank them very much for it. Since we believe so strongly in local government, as a creature of local government myself, I am proud that we have invested £4.6 billion in supporting local government just so far in this pandemic.

From rainforests to coral reefs, the world’s ecosystems are at risk of catastrophic decline. That was the conclusion last week of the Dasgupta review, which my right hon. Friend rightly welcomed. This threat to our biodiversity is not just a moral failure; it is economically short-sighted too. When I asked Professor Dasgupta to carry out this work, he told me that it would not be complete until after the UK had hosted the COP26 summit. But now, given that the summit has been delayed until later this year and that it will take place alongside our presidency of the G7, does my right hon. Friend agree that the UK has been presented with a unique opportunity to show global leadership on how we can better protect our most precious asset—nature? (912108)

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right, and I thank him for what he is doing in this area. I want the House to know that we want the UN COP26 summit to be a landmark event, not just for tackling climate change but for biodiversity. I think it is high time that the leaders of the world took a step to reverse the loss of habitats and species that we have seen over the last century.

It is estimated that up to 400,000 people are living with the debilitating effects of long covid, and some of them are NHS heroes, who caught covid in that first wave. Nearly a year later, I have heard from a doctor who says she wonders whether she will ever be able to walk unaided again, let alone manage a full day of work. Does the Prime Minister recognise that, for this group, long covid is an occupational disease, and will he set up a compensation scheme similar to what we offer our armed forces, so that we ensure that those who have lost their livelihoods by saving lives are fully supported? (912103)

I thank the hon. Lady, because she is right to highlight the incredible sacrifice and effort of NHS staff, many of whom, sadly, have contracted covid in the course of their duties, and a great many of them have sadly continued to be affected by that disease. We must study the long-term effects of covid and ensure that we continue to look after our wonderful NHS staff throughout their careers.

Can the Prime Minister confirm today that all students will be back in school no later than 8 March, and will he commit to starting any phased return straight after half term, so that the damaging effects of being away from school are not drawn out for any longer than is absolutely necessary? (912109)

I can certainly confirm that we will do everything we can, and I know that the settled will of most people in this House is to get our schoolchildren back on 8 March, if we possibly can. I will be setting out for my hon. Friend as much as we can say on Monday, and then in the week of 22 February, we will be setting out a road map and the way forward for schools. We have to make sure that we keep this virus under control. It is coming down, but we cannot take our foot off its throat.

Having sat on the High Speed Rail (London – West Midlands) Bill Committee for 15 months, I was a sceptic as to the economic benefits of the project for the north-east, but HS2 is going ahead, at least in the south. It is therefore crucial that the eastern leg of HS2 goes ahead, not just for Yorkshire and the east midlands, but for the north- east. The Prime Minister has made repeated promises to the people of the north-east of his intention to level up and to connect and create opportunities for people here, in places like Gateshead. As we strive to recover from the damage done to so many families and businesses by the pandemic, will the Prime Minister commit to beginning the work on the eastern leg of HS2, starting in the north-east and to run simultaneously with the construction in the south, so that our region is not forced to wait another couple of decades for 21st-century rail connectivity? (912104)

I can certainly confirm that we are going to develop the eastern leg as well as the whole of the HS2. The hon. Gentleman will be hearing a lot more about what we are going to do with our national infrastructure revolution and about what we will do to improve not just rail transport, but road transport in the north-east.

Q19. There is no shortage of commitment or compassion in my town of Eastbourne for homeless people, who are vulnerable and need complex support. However, neighbouring Brighton continues to send its homeless to our town, and we do not have the resources to meet this need. Three homeless people have died, and I believe that there will be inquests. Brighton is not engaging with Eastbourne Borough Council in any meaningful way, and a further 51 placements have been made in recent weeks. Will my right hon. Friend join me in urging Brighton and Hove City Council leaders to engage on this as a matter of urgency? (912111)

Yes, indeed. I thank Brighton and Hove City Council for co-operating with Eastbourne Borough Council in getting this done. There must be co-operation. No one in this country should be sleeping rough or homeless as a result of this pandemic or, indeed, through any other cause. We have invested £700 million this year to help people off the streets, and it continues to be a national priority. I am grateful to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government for what he is doing and the various taskforces that are currently at work to prevent people from coming out on the streets again as we lift the restrictions.

At the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency in Swansea, there have been 526 cases of coronavirus since last September. The Prime Minister told us at Prime Minister’s Question Time:“All staff who can work from home are doing so”—[Official Report, 28 January 2021; Vol. 688, c. 374.]But in March last year, 250 people were working on site, and now the numbers are in their thousands, and they are facing a more infectious and widespread disease. Yesterday, 90 people were sent home following the latest outbreak of coronavirus just before the weekend. Given that BT is on standby to install home secure technology to allow homeworking, will the Prime Minister meet me and the Public and Commercial Services Union ahead of the strike ballot next week, so that workplace numbers can be reduced until the vaccine is rolled out, to keep people safe and avoid an unnecessary strike? (912105)

I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising this with me again. Thanks to the working from home strategy that the DVLA has been pursuing, of a workforce of 6,000, there are currently thankfully only nine cases of covid to the best of my knowledge, and three of those individuals are working from home. We are rolling out lateral flow tests; a huge number of lateral flow tests are being distributed to the DVLA. The long-term solution—or the medium-term solution, I should say—is to vaccinate and to roll out the vaccination programme. That is what this Government are doing in Wales and across the country.

Families across West Bromwich East who have been affected by cancer, just like my own, know all too well that early diagnosis and treatment can save a life. According to research by Macmillan Cancer Support, there are over 70 people in my constituency and 50,000 across the UK with a missing cancer diagnosis. Cancer has not stopped during the pandemic, so with that in mind, will the Prime Minister commit to making the resurgence of cancer diagnosis services a top priority as restrictions begin to ease? (912112)

I thank my hon. Friend; I know that this issue is very close to her heart, and she is right to raise it. Of course there are pressures from covid, but we are also worried that some people may not be coming forward for the cancer treatments that they need. I urge everybody who needs to get their treatment: help the NHS to help you. Come forward and get your treatment as you normally would.

The Prime Minister said in November that the £1.5 billion green homes grant would be extended to March 2022, yet in a written answer last week, the Minister for Business, Energy and Clean Growth said that the money would not be carried over from this financial year to next. With just seven weeks to go, a paltry £71 million has been spent so far. Why is he cutting £1 billion from the green homes grant that he promised for businesses, homeowners and the environment? (912107)

The hon. Lady is on to something, but she is barking up the wrong tree. We are not cutting the green homes grant. The problem is that there has not been enough take-up, and we want to encourage people to take it up and make use of the opportunity to reduce the carbon emissions of their homes.

The Prime Minister has said, and he has written in his foreword to the environment White Paper, that he is pledged to protect the countryside. The countryside is more than just a bit of green belt around the home counties. In Westgate, Birchington and Herne Bay in my constituency, and indeed across much of the garden of England, there are plans to smother acres of prime agricultural land in housing that is not needed for local people but that is needed to grow the crops to reduce the amount of food we import at a cost of carbon emissions. If the Prime Minister is the friend of the countryside, will he announce an immediate moratorium on the use of all farmland for housing, while the whole policy is reviewed?

I think I have just heard my right hon. Friend say that he wants an immediate moratorium on the construction of all housing. Maybe I misunderstood; I do not think that to be realistic. What I can certainly tell him is that we will take very seriously the points he makes. I know that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government has met him, and will be glad to meet him again, to discuss the subject he raises. However, this Government’s commitment to nature and to the countryside is unmatched. We have just consecrated 30% of our land surface to nature.

I had a meeting recently with the PCS about public sector pay and heard from constituents in Shotts and Calderbank who work for UK Government Departments, both of whom are struggling to cover a real-terms pay cut over decades—one has to take partial early retirement so that the lump sum can keep him going. What will the Prime Minister say to the Chancellor to convince him of the need to properly reward all those who have been on the frontline during the covid pandemic? Will he at the very least follow the Scottish Government’s lead in fully funding a rise in public sector pay? (912110)

We have seen above-inflation increases in public sector pay, and that is quite right. We particularly support increases in investment in our NHS, and the hon. Gentleman will know of the package we have put in place for nurses. However, the single best thing we can do is support the living wage, which this Government introduced, and which we have now increased by record amounts two years in a row. [Interruption.] I see the Scottish nationalist party—forgive me, national. I do not know whether they are nationalists—perhaps they could clear it up.

Are they a national party without being nationalists? It is an interesting semantic point, Mr Speaker. However, I think they are trying to claim that they pioneered the living wage. I do not think that is right. I seem to remember that it was a certain mayoralty in London that massively increased the living wage—when they were not off the starting blocks.

In which case, let us go down to Somerset to Ian Liddell-Grainger, who is ready on the starting blocks.

Mr Speaker, thank you as always. I am delighted my right hon. Friend is defending democracy by pushing ahead with local elections, but here in the land of King Alfred the people desperately want to give their verdict on Somerset County Council, which I am afraid has been using covid money to spend on things that have nothing to do with the pandemic. It has submitted to the Government a form that says nothing, and I fear that my right hon. Friend has been misled. We need a referendum down here to test public opinion quickly, but does my right hon. Friend—a proud man of Somerset, who understands history more than most of us—not agree that the time has come to put our county back together and that the whole of Somerset should be looked after by Somerset? I know that King Alfred would approve of that, and I know that the people of Somerset will certainly support the Prime Minister if he supports us.

I thank my hon. Friend, who is a great advocate of Somerset and is committed to his constituents. I thank him for what he is doing. He has raised this issue twice with me now, and I thank him for that, but may I humbly suggest that the best way forward is for the consultation to proceed and for local people to decide what the best form of local government is that they want?

The Prime Minister is now aware of the problems that we warned about over many months before the Northern Ireland protocol was introduced. These problems are scheduled to get worse from April. Will he outline a timeline, as indicated in last week’s e-petition, whereby people in Northern Ireland, and indeed across the UK, will be able to enjoy free trade across the nation, including from GB to NI, like that enjoyed by every other independent trading nation? (912113)

Yes, indeed. I have made it absolutely clear to our EU friends and partners that we want to make our relationship work, but it is also absolutely essential that there should be untrammelled free trade and exchange of goods, people, services and capital through all parts of the UK. We will do everything we can to ensure that that is the case, including, as I have said in the Chamber before and to the hon. Gentleman’s colleagues, invoking article 16 of the protocol, if necessary.

I am suspending the House for three minutes to enable the necessary arrangements for the next business to be made.

Sitting suspended.

Building Safety

With permission, Mr Speaker, I want to make a statement on housing and building safety. Beyond the covid-19 pandemic, the Government want to build back better—better homes, better infrastructure and better communities. The foundation of those ambitions, and the mission of my Department, is safety and fairness. We have all been moved by the stories we have heard and the people we have met—homeowners placed in difficult and sometimes impossible situations through no fault of their own. I appreciate the frustration, the worry and the despair that at times they feel. I share their anger at the errors, the omissions, the false promises and even the outright dishonesty, which were built up over many decades but which this Government are determined to tackle.

That is why today I am announcing an unprecedented intervention—a clear plan to remove unsafe cladding, to provide certainty to leaseholders, to make the industry pay for its faults of the past, to create a world-class building safety regime and to inject confidence and certainty back into this part of the housing market. First, we will finish the job we have started on remediating unsafe cladding. After the tragedy of Grenfell Tower, the expert advice that this Government received identified aluminium composite cladding, or ACM—the material on the tower—as by far the most unsafe form of cladding. It should never have been used, and our independent expert advisory panel recommended that it should be the focus of our remediation work.

Thanks to a considerable effort, including during the pandemic, almost 95% of all high-rise buildings with unsafe ACM cladding identified by the beginning of last year have been remediated, or workers are on site now doing the job. That rises to 100% in social housing. Guided by expert advice, the work to remove other types of cladding that are also unsafe—albeit less so than ACM—where they pose a genuine risk to life is also under way.

It has always been our expectation—our demand—that building owners and developers should step up to meet the cost of this work. Where they have not, or where they no longer exist, the Government have stepped in, providing £1.6 billion to remediate unsafe cladding. However, it is clear that without further Government intervention many building owners will simply seek to pass these potentially very significant costs on to leaseholders, as this is often the legal position in the leases that they signed. That would risk punishing those who have worked hard and bought their own home, but who have, through no fault of their own, found themselves caught in an invidious situation. Importantly, it would also risk slowing down the critical works to make these homes safer.

I am therefore making an exceptional intervention today on behalf of the Government and providing certainty that leaseholders in high-rise residential buildings will face no cost for cladding remediation works. We will make further funding available to pay for the removal and replacement of unsafe cladding for all leaseholders in high-rise residential buildings of 18 metres and above, or above six storeys, in England. We continue to take a safety-led approach, and this funding will focus on the higher-rise buildings, where the independent expert advisory panel tells us time and again the overwhelming majority of the safety risk lies, in line with the existing building safety fund and the anticipated scope of the new building safety regulator that we are establishing and will shortly be legislating for. This will ensure that we end the cladding scandal in a way that is fair and generous to leaseholders.

Secondly, for lower and medium-rise blocks of flats, the risks are significantly lower and the remediation of cladding is less likely to be needed; in many cases, it will not be needed at all, but where it is, costs can still be significant for leaseholders. That is why I am announcing today that the Government will develop a long-term scheme to protect leaseholders in this situation with financial support for cladding remediation on buildings of between four and six storeys. Under a long-term low-interest scheme, no leaseholder will ever pay more than £50 a month towards the removal of unsafe cladding, many far less.

Taken together, this means the Government are providing more than £5 billion, including a further £3.5 billion announced today, plus the significant cost of the very generous financing scheme, which will run for many years to come, to ensure that all leaseholders in medium and high-rise blocks face no costs or very low costs if cladding remediation is needed. Where it is needed, costs can still be significant for leaseholders, which is why we want to take these important steps. We want to ensure that the Government develop this long-term scheme, which will protect leaseholders with financial support. Taken together, this means that the Government are helping leaseholders to move forwards with greater certainty and more confidence about the future.

Thirdly, while the problem is not one of leaseholders’ making, it also cannot be right that the costs of addressing these issues fall solely on taxpayers, many of whom are not themselves homeowners and can only dream of getting on the housing ladder. The Government have always expected the industry to contribute towards these costs, and some have done so. Today, I am announcing that we will introduce a gateway 2 developer levy, which will be implemented through the forthcoming Building Safety Bill. The proposed levy will be targeted and will apply only when developers seek permission to develop certain high-rise buildings in England, helping to ensure that the industry takes collective responsibility for historical building safety defects. In introducing the levy, we will continue to ensure that the homes our country needs get built and that our small and medium-sized builders are protected.

In addition, a new tax will be introduced for the UK residential property development sector in 2022. This will raise at least £2 billion over a decade to help to pay for cladding remediation costs. The tax will ensure that the largest property developers make a fair contribution to the remediation programme in relation to the money they make from residential property, reflecting the benefit that they will derive from restoring confidence to the UK housing market. The Government will consult on the policy design in due course.

Fourthly, I know there are many people across the country who are concerned about the safety of their home. In the actions we have taken and those we take today, we have already very clearly prioritised public safety. However, it is also important that we put the risk of a fire, and in particular the risk of a fatal fire, in context—it is low. Last year, the number of people who died in fires in blocks of flats over 11 metres was 10—an all-time low—and fire-related fatalities in dwellings in England have fallen by 29% over the past decade. By way of comparison, more than 1,700 fatalities were reported on our roads in 2019.

Of course, any death is one too many, and the tragedy of Grenfell Tower lingers with us and demands action. That is why it is right that we address safety issues where they exist and are a threat to life, but we must do so proportionately, guided at all times by expert advice. That is the approach that we are taking through the Building Safety Bill, the new building safety regulator, the Fire Safety Bill and the new national regulator for construction products, which I announced in January. I am determined that we will have a world-class building safety regime.

We need everyone to follow this sensible, proportionate approach so that this part of the housing market can move forward and homeowners are not disproportionately impacted. The Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors has consulted on new guidance for valuers on when an EWS1 form should be required. The Government endorse its work to ensure that assessors have a stronger basis on which to make good, proportionate judgments about valuation risk. Lenders have welcomed the progress on that guidance, which will help to ensure that more than half a million leaseholders in blocks of flats over 11 metres will not need a separate EWS1 assessment to get a mortgage. That builds on the interventions we have already made to create and train many more assessors, and we are doing more so that they can access professional indemnity insurance to get on with the job.

Today, in addition to providing certainty to leaseholders, we are providing confidence to lenders. Following discussions that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor and I have had with lenders, we expect all the major banks and building societies to strongly support today’s intervention, which will provide greater certainty to the market and help to restore the effective lending, purchasing and selling of properties as soon as possible.

Taken together, this exceptional intervention amounts to the largest-ever Government investment in building safety. We believe in homeownership, and today we firmly support the hundreds of thousands of homeowners who need our help now. I commend this statement to the House.

I thank the Secretary of State for advance sight of his statement. Buying a first home should be a dream come true, but for many it has been a nightmare for years. As a result of Government choices, three and a half years on from the Grenfell tragedy, in which 72 people lost their lives, hundreds of thousands of people are still trapped in unsafe homes and many more are unable to move. Today’s announcement is too late for too many. It is a repeat of undelivered promises and backtracks on the key one—that leaseholders should have no costs to pay.

The Chancellor said last March that

“all unsafe combustible cladding will be removed from every private and social residential building above 18 metres high.”—[Official Report, 11 March 2020; Vol. 673, c. 291.]

But that has not happened. Buildings have not been able to access the fund, and £9 out of £10 is still sitting where it was. At every stage, the Government under- estimated the problem, and delays caused it to grow. They still do not know how many buildings are unsafe, where they are and what danger they pose. Until we have answers to those basic questions, the Government will continue to make mistakes, offering piecemeal solutions that have to be updated when they do not deliver.

Can the Secretary of State guarantee that the funding will cover all buildings over 18 metres? What will the consequential be for the devolved Administrations, including Wales? We cannot have a repeat of the first come, first served free-for-all, whereby the most dangerous blocks risk being fixed last. Will the Government set up an independent taskforce, as Labour has asked for, to prioritise buildings according to risk, with powers to get the funds out the door and the ability to go after building owners who fail to get on with the work?

Ministers have now promised 17 times that leaseholders will not bear the cost of fixing a problem that they did not cause. Many will be listening to the Housing Secretary’s remarks today, and the Government have betrayed their promise that leaseholders would not pay for the building safety crisis. As I said, three and a half years on from Grenfell, hundreds of thousands of people cannot sleep at night because their homes are unsafe. The Government have today chosen to pile financial misery on them—this is an injustice.

What does the Housing Secretary say to Julie in Runcorn, who lives in a flat with dangerous high-pressure laminate cladding? Her block is under 18 metres, so she is unable to access the funding promised so far. She lives in the same development as buildings that have the exact same cladding but are over 18 metres, so they will be able to access the fund. Why should this arbitrary 18-metre height limit mean the difference between a safe home and financial ruin? What are the terms of the loans? What will the interest rate be? Will leaseholders be required to pay the interest as well as the main cost? The right hon. Gentleman says that leaseholders will not pay more than £50 a month, but does that stay with the current owners when they move, or with the home so the new owner is forced to pay? How long does this run for? Will it go up by inflation each year? What will the Government do if those homes remain unsellable? How will they ensure that freeholders take up the loans? How will the Government speed up remediation, because the current stalemate cannot continue?

Other properties do not have dangerous cladding but people have been charged thousands of pounds per flat to fix other fire safety issues. What does the Housing Secretary say to them? The Government should focus on securing our economy and rebuilding from covid, not saddling homeowners with further debt. When they have further debt, that means less money for our economic recovery, taking money away from local shops. It reinforces regional imbalances, and it makes young first-time buyers and pensioners pay money they cannot afford. The Government should pursue those responsible fully, to prevent leaseholders and taxpayers from carrying the can.

The Government have announced a levy and a tax, which I welcome, because those responsible should bear the cost, but how much do the Government anticipate the levy will raise? Will they pursue others, such as cladding manufacturers, who are also responsible for putting in the dangerous cladding? The Government have missed every target for removing ACM cladding, and 50,000 people are still living in flats wrapped in it—this is the same cladding as was found on Grenfell Tower—and thousands more have other dangerous cladding. Will the Secretary of State commit today to removing all dangerous cladding by 2022?

As the right hon. Gentleman will know, at least one first-time homeowner, Hayley, has already been made bankrupt before she was even asked to pay for remediation, just from the extra costs. She asked the Government to think about her former neighbours, so when will leaseholders start receiving funding to pay for the round-the-clock fire patrols they are being charged hundreds of pounds each month for? What about the skyrocketing insurance? How will the Government get the market moving? Their last announcement fell to pieces, and the housing market in affected homes is grinding to a halt. I have a simple question: what, on average, does he expect the leaseholder to be paying?

Government inaction and delay has caused the building safety crisis to spiral. People cannot continue to live in unsafe, unsellable homes. Homeowners should not face bankruptcy to fix a problem they did not cause. Unfortunately, these proposals will still leave too many people struggling and facing loans, instead of being given justice.

I am pleased that the hon. Lady welcomes many of the proposals we have set out today. This is an unprecedented intervention, and it is one of the most generous, if not the most generous, of its kind anywhere in the world. She asks, importantly, why we have focused on high-rise buildings. We have done so because that is time and again where all the independent expert advice leads us. We must make these judgments on the basis of expert advice. With the greatest respect to the hon. Lady, I think we need to follow the expert advisers, not her instincts. We are focusing on the buildings over 18 metres, where the work needs to get done, and in those buildings we are ensuring that the leaseholder never pays. We want the building owners to step up and meet the cost, but where that is not possible—in many cases, I am afraid it is not, because the building owners are no longer around—the taxpayer will step in and meet the cost, with the advantage of the levy and the tax to help recoup the costs. That must be the right approach.

The hon. Lady asks whether enough progress has been made. Actually, we have ended 2020 with 95% of buildings over 18 metres with the most dangerous form of cladding—ACM cladding—either having been remediated or with workers on site doing the job. That is 100% of the buildings in the social sector, which is a huge step forward. I pay tribute to everyone who has been part of that over the course of the year, including those keeping the works going during the pandemic, which many politicians, including Labour politicians, asked us not to do. That was the wrong judgment, but we kept those works going.

For lower rise buildings—those of four to six storeys—we are bringing into play this important new financing scheme. That means that those leaseholders who at the moment have impossible costs, causing great worry and strain, will now be able to have the reassurance that those costs will be turned into manageable ones. They will never need to pay more than £50 a month—many will pay far less—and only where the cladding really does need to come off to ensure that the building is safe. That will provide peace of mind to hundreds of thousands of leaseholders, and I think it can be seen as a generous, affordable way forward for the taxpayer.

We have to remember that, when the Prime Minister and I came to office 18 months ago, there was only £200 million of Government money available to support leaseholders in this situation, and that that in itself was the result of incredibly hard work by my predecessor, my right hon. Friend the Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (James Brokenshire). Today, 18 months later, there are many billions of pounds of support in direct Government grant and then billions more, no doubt, in financing scheme funding available to support those leaseholders and to get the situation under control.

Meanwhile, what is happening in other parts of the country? We know that, in Scotland, according to a recent freedom of information request, the Scottish Government have done absolutely nothing. The funding they received from the building safety fund is sat in a bank account in Edinburgh, and they have done nothing with it. I would be interested to know from the hon. Member for Bristol West (Thangam Debbonaire) what the Welsh Government are doing. I do not know. Perhaps she can inform us. The hon. Lady herself came to this late. It was only a week or so ago that she convened the first debate on this in her tenure. She did not offer a plan. She did not show an appreciation of the scale and complexity of the issue. She offered a taskforce, a committee. Empty words, I am afraid, and gestures. That is not good enough.

While the hon. Lady was doing that, the Prime Minister, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor and I were working with the lenders, the insurers, the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors and the leaseholder groups to bring forward what we have announced today, which I hope all fair-minded Members across the House will see as a significant intervention. It does get unsafe cladding off buildings and end the cladding scandal. It does provide reassurance and confidence to leaseholders. It does ensure that the developers and the industry pay their fair share. It does build a world-class building safety regime, and it does enable us now to move forward to reopen and restore confidence in the housing market so that the country can move forward again.

May I first say that I am a leaseholder who is neither affected by the problem nor gaining by the solution?

We recognise that this is another set of major steps along the way. During the last three years, the problems have been spelled out by the all-party parliamentary group on leasehold and commonhold reform, and I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders) for working together in a cross- party way. There will be more to do, and the Select Committee will no doubt have hearings.

Will my right hon. Friend thank the Chancellor and the Prime Minister for helping to make the funding available? I do not claim that it is going to be enough, but it is a major step forward and I recognise that.

There is a problem about low-rise accommodation in low-income areas looking at high-rises in high-income areas getting more direct help. Will my right hon. Friend talk about that?

Can he also confirm that no leaseholder who does not actually own anything will have to sign away any of their rights to eventual compensation, as and when the inquiry finishes and any civil claims of liability against developers, cladding manufacturers, local building control or national regulators come to be finalised?

I praise my hon. Friend for his determined campaigning on the issue over many years, which I think everybody in the House has recognised and for which many leaseholders will no doubt be grateful. I have been pleased to work with him and to take his advice when it has been needed. I assure him that the funding that we have made available today will provide leaseholders with the certainty and confidence that they need. Any leaseholder in a building of over 18 metres will now know that they will not have to pay for the removal of cladding, and leaseholders in the buildings that are lower rise—11 to 18 metres—can take great comfort from the fact that this new financing arrangement will be in place. It does not preclude any actions by the building or the leaseholders against insurers, those holding warranties or the developers, and those actions should take place. We want to see those who made these mistakes brought to book. We do not want this all to fall on the taxpayer; that is absolutely essential. This is a very difficult judgment. We have to ensure that we are striking the right balance between the interests of leaseholders who are homeowners and those of the broader taxpayer. I think we have done that today, and I hope that this is a major step forward in the battle against this issue.

The announcement today of an additional £3.5 billion is encouraging as far as it goes, and I am sure that the Scottish Government look forward to the consequentials arising from it. What the Secretary of State has said will offer some relief to homeowners affected by cladding issues, many of whom are already struggling with bills and simply do not feel able to take on more debt as their dream homes have become a nightmare, with mortgage valuations of zero due to unsafe cladding. As he knows, the consequences have been far reaching for those caught up in this scandal, with homes currently worth nothing that cannot be sold and in which residents feel unsafe. I very much welcome the responsibility for cladding being borne—in part, at least—by the larger players in the industry, but more details as to how that works are needed.

Despite the Secretary of State saying that no leaseholder will ever pay back more than £50 a month in loans to remove this cladding, I am sure that he will understand that that will still be disappointing for many, since, through no fault of their own, they are still facing additional costs after buying their homes in good faith; they face debt that they do not want and which will impact on household incomes during these difficult times. Much more detail on exactly how these low interest loans will work is needed. Can the Secretary of State confirm that there will be an upper limit to these additional costs for leaseholders, or is the £50 cap only a monthly cap? He will appreciate that this matters because building work so often overruns. Will he also tell me within what timeframe he expects this remediation work to be completed?

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for welcoming much of the substance of today’s announcement. I draw her back to my earlier remarks: to the best of my knowledge, the Scottish Government have made no use at all of the funding that they have been provided with through the existing building safety fund. Important questions now need to be answered by her Government in Scotland as to what is actually happening there. What are they doing to support leaseholders? How are they making those buildings safe?

With respect to the financing scheme that we are bringing forward in England, it will be a matter for the Scottish Government—or, indeed, the Welsh or Northern Irish Administrations—to decide whether they wish to create a similar scheme. We have set an upper limit of £50 a month, which provides a great deal of comfort to leaseholders that they will never need to pay more than that per month. That is about the equivalent of the average service charge for a purpose-built block of flats. I appreciate that it is a cost that no one would wish to bear, but it is a reasonable one in balancing the interests of the taxpayer with providing support and protection to the leaseholder. We will bring forward further details on how that scheme works as quickly as we can.

It is important also to say that the arrangement that we will be creating is not a loan to an individual; it is a financing scheme with buildings. The loans do not sit with the individual and will not affect their credit rating. These are loans on a long tenure that will remain with the building, ensuring that the leaseholders themselves can move on with their lives.

I thank the Secretary of State for working so closely with me on cladding issues over the past 15 months. I have been calling for a substantial and comprehensive package for cladding remediation, so I warmly welcome this announcement, which, importantly, allows funds to be deployed very quickly and does not require taskforces or legislation. I have called for a package of £5 billion to £10 billion; I quickly tried to tot up all the numbers as the Secretary of State went through the details, and I think this funding could be approaching certainly the middle if not the upper end of that range. Will he confirm that and assure me that money will be deployed as quickly as possible?

I praise my hon. Friend, who has been a fantastic Member of Parliament for Kensington since she was elected and has raised with me this and other issues arising out of the Grenfell tragedy almost every week—in fact, we meet every week to discuss these issues.

My hon. Friend is right to say that this is a very substantial intervention. We have already made £1.6 billion available, and we estimate that it will require another £3.5 billion to complete the remediation of unsafe cladding on buildings over 18 metres and to make good on the promise we have made today to leaseholders. In addition to that, we will bring forward the financing scheme, the details of which, as I said, will be published shortly, but it is a very generous scheme and there is a significant cost to the taxpayer in ensuring that the £50 cap gives that added level of protection and reassurance to leaseholders.

The total intervention that we are making today is, as my hon. Friend says, one of many, many billions of pounds. That is a difficult judgment, which the Prime Minister and the Chancellor have made with me, but we believe this is a fair and generous settlement to help everybody to move forwards.

On behalf of the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee, I thank the Secretary for his statement and welcome it—as far as it goes, because in terms of the Select Committee recommendations, it only goes so far. I invite him to come back to the Select Committee to discuss the issues in more detail shortly after the recess. First, immediately, will he confirm that as a result of the loan scheme, no leaseholder will be placed in negative equity? Secondly, has he done any assessment of the total amount of additional non-cladding costs to deal with building safety that will fall on leaseholders? Finally, will he confirm that there is no help in his statement for councils and housing associations, and that as a result, to carry out essential safety work, they are going to have to put up rents, cut maintenance or cut the number of affordable homes that they can build?

I thank the hon. Gentleman and the members of the Select Committee for their expert advice on this issue over a number of years, and to me personally as Secretary of State. I would of course be delighted to come before the Committee to discuss this issue further in the near future.

The hon. Gentleman says that this announcement does not go as far as he would have liked. I appreciate that sentiment, and no doubt there will be leaseholders watching today who would wish to go even further, but this is a very significant intervention—we do have to keep coming back to that fact. Broadly speaking, English property rights are based on caveat emptor—buyer beware—and the contents of the leases, contracts, warranties and insurance policies that we as homeowners sign. What we are doing today is stepping in in a way that Governments have not done in the past—that they have not done when people’s homes have been flooded or subject to subsidence or other unforeseen and incredibly difficult and challenging issues. We have chosen to do this because we have immense sympathy for the leaseholders affected and, as a matter of basic public safety, we have to get these unsafe materials off buildings as quickly as possible. I think this is the right judgment and the right balance to strike between the interests of the leaseholder and those of the broader taxpayer, but I would be delighted to come before the hon. Gentleman’s Committee to discuss this issue in more detail soon.

I welcome the measures that my right hon. Friend has set out, but may I urge him to review the long-term issues here? Profitability should not come before safety. Will he look into the issue that I hear about regularly of new build properties not being built to high enough standards, leaving homeowners spending months chasing developers to come back and fix problems with their homes?

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. We all believe in home ownership. We want to get more people on to the housing ladder, and we know that owning a home of your own is one of the most special achievements in life. But we also know that, in recent years, some of our developers—and some of our most prominent ones, too—have built homes that are to a poor standard; they have admitted it in some cases. We need to make sure that that is corrected, so that the quality of homes in this country is high and members of the public can have confidence when making that life-changing investment.

It cannot be right that buying a home affords someone less protection than buying a mobile phone or many other things we do in our daily lives. We want to see a major change in the culture of the industry, so that homeowners get the product—the brilliant, beautiful, high-quality home—that they deserve. We have set up a new homes ombudsman, which will be passed into law as part of the building safety regulator. The new regulatory regime, which is already in existence in shadow form, will be put into permanent form through the passing of the Building Safety Bill. For higher-rise buildings—those over 18 metres—that will create a very strict, world-class regulatory regime.

I agree with everything my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol West (Thangam Debbonaire) said, with knobs on. My constituents will not be reassured by what they have heard. Loans for leaseholders still are not off the table. The Secretary of State has avoided talking about non-cladding costs, and there is still no guarantee that my constituents will not be left with large associated bills for problems they did not create. A number of institutions are profiteering from this crisis, including parts of the insurance industry and others, with eye-watering premiums. Why are we still waiting for the Secretary of State to get a grip on this crisis?

I am disappointed by the tone of the hon. Lady’s remarks. She has followed this issue closely and has fought for her constituents, and I praise her and recognise her for that hard work, but this Government have done a huge amount, and I entirely reject her accusations. We have brought forward the public inquiry. We have planned and are now legislating for a new building safety regulator—a world-class regulatory regime. We have brought in people to ensure that the unsafe cladding on ACM-clad high-rise buildings is remediated, and that work has progressed a great deal over the course of the year. As I said earlier, many Labour politicians, including the Mayor of London, opposed that initially, at the height of the pandemic. We have done a great deal, but there is more to be done.

I do not know what the hon. Lady’s proposition is with respect to other materials beyond cladding. All the expert opinion says, “Focus on cladding. That is the primary risk here—that is the focus that Government should have.” I will keep following expert advice. If the Labour party’s position is that we should not follow that, and that in fact the Chancellor should write a blank cheque and say that absolutely any building safety defect on any building of any height should be paid for by the taxpayer, that is a very substantial cost, and I would be interested to know how she intends to fund that. With respect to the insurance companies, I do now expect them to step up and ensure that their premiums are proportionate and risk-based, because I think some of them have been exploiting leaseholders in a very difficult position.

I welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement; it was clearly the right one. What leaseholders will ultimately care about is making sure that this remediation is done. What work is he undertaking with small and medium-sized enterprises, such as S Bayliss Roofing and Cladding in Tipton, to make sure that they can get this work done, so that leaseholders can finally be free of this dangerous cladding and the impact that it has on their status as homeowners?

The approach that I took when I became Secretary of State was to set a target for us that we would either remediate all buildings or get the workers on site by the end of last year. As I say, with a few exceptions —largely because of the covid-19 pandemic—we achieved that. We have used project managers and consultants to ensure that every single building in that cohort is being individually managed. My Ministers and I have been meeting with the contractors, the leaders of local councils, the chief executives and the residents’ management associations of those buildings regularly to ensure that progress is happening. That work needs to continue and to broaden out to all those buildings that will benefit from today’s announcement.

My hon. Friend is also right to say that today’s announcement will create certainty and confidence for the broader construction sector to come forward and enter the market to do this work. That will create thousands of jobs, and I encourage businesses large and small to take part in this major initiative.

I am pleased that the Secretary of State wants to tackle rising insurance premiums, but I have spoken to many leaseholders in my constituency of Luton South who have faced the additional costs of interim safety measures, such as waking watch, and of fixing other fire safety issues, which the Secretary of State seemed to push back on. These joined-up financial pressures are pushing many leaseholders near to bankruptcy, so what are the Government doing to help bring down these costs?

We are working with the insurance sector, which I think now needs to take a more proportionate, risk-based approach. These might be outliers, but some of the examples I have heard of insurance premiums rising by 1,000% are completely out of kilter with the statistics I gave earlier, that last year only 10 people tragically died in buildings over 11 metres, and only 41 people died in any house fire at all in this country. With respect to waking watch, I think that is a very challenging issue, but we have brought forward our £30 million fund to replace waking watches with high-quality, effective fire alarm systems. That fund is now open, and I encourage any building—perhaps including the one in the hon. Lady’s constituency—to apply for it, get the fire alarm installed and then hopefully reduce those costs quickly.

I welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement and know that many people in my constituency and across the country will be relieved that the Government are taking further action on the issue of unsafe cladding. Does he agree that speed is of the essence, and will he confirm that the additional financial remediation will help relieve the worry and remove unfair and unfounded costs on leaseholders to deal with the removal of unsafe cladding?

I certainly can, and I thank my right hon. Friend for the work he has done on behalf of his constituents. We have corresponded many times on this subject. Today’s announcement will provide comfort and reassurance to hundreds of thousands of leaseholders. I also draw his attention and that of the House to the work we are doing with RICS, which will ensure that about 50% of those individuals who might have required and EWS1 form will now no longer need to go through that laborious and often expensive process.

When there was a failure of regulation in the City, the Government bailed out the banks in a matter of days, to the tune of £500 billion. In the face of a failure of fire safety regulation, when people are terrified of burning to death in their homes, the Government have taken three and a half years and offered only £6 billion. My constituents are still facing the costs of non-cladding fire safety problems, waking watches and more, so when will the Government accept the basic principle that cladding victims should not have to pay a penny to fix fire safety problems that are not of their making?

Actually, the Government acted decisively in the immediate aftermath of Grenfell Tower. Expert opinion has evolved over time. The first expert advice that the Government received was, as I said earlier, to focus on ACM cladding—the type of cladding on Grenfell Tower—and on those buildings over 18 metres. We put in place the funding to do that where the building owners and the industry were not able to, or would not, pay themselves. The expert advice then said that there were other materials that were somewhat less unsafe but which, none the less, still could be unsafe. That work is under way, and the Chancellor gave an extra £1 billion to do that at the Budget a year ago. Now, we have brought forward this very substantial intervention today. We are working intensively and extensively to tackle the issue, and I hope that today’s intervention will be a permanent and lasting settlement.

I thank the Secretary of State for his statement on building safety. Warrington does not have any apartments over 18 metres, which would require remediation, but I have heard from a number of parents concerned that their sons and daughters are paying additional charges, levied by landlords, to cover the cost of insurance and waking watches in apartments that they have purchased. What steps are the Government taking to cover these costs, so that the burden does not fall on families in my constituency?

The announcement that we have made today and the work that the Chancellor and I have done with each of the major retail banks, which strongly support the intervention, give much greater confidence to lenders, surveyors and insurers to re-enter the market, to bring down those premiums, to lend against these buildings and to enable the market to move forward again. This will take time and there is more to be done, but I think we will see the market moving forward now in a way that it has not done in recent months.

The Secretary of State has referred to fairness and the need for building companies to step up and I understand that he is introducing a levy on those companies, but what more is he doing to pursue those responsible for building unsafe homes, leaving the taxpayers and leaseholders to meet the clean-up costs?

The hon. Lady raises an extremely important matter. Let me be absolutely clear: the first thing that the Government have done is establish the independent Grenfell inquiry. That has already heard some absolutely shocking allegations of malpractice and, in fact, outright dishonesty among some of the construction products manufacturers. It will be a matter for the police whether they choose to take forward criminal prosecutions against individuals or companies involved. On remediation, we want the building owners to pay. Some have, and I am grateful to them for that. In fact, some of the large volume house builders, even today, have come forward saying that they will pay more. That needs to continue, and nothing that I have said today should take away from that. They should still come forward, as well as paying their fair share through the levy and the tax that I have announced today.

I thank my right hon. Friend for making this significant intervention, but will he assure me that the industry responsible, which includes some of the wealthiest individuals and organisations in the land, will be paying its fair share, as taxpayers, many of whom are not homeowners, are already being hit hard enough?

The levy and the tax that I have announced today and that my right hon Friend the Chancellor and I will be setting out more details on ensure that the industry pays its fair share, in addition to it stepping up and paying for the remediation of buildings for which it has responsibility. It has to be said that there is no simple solution to this. Many of the builders and developers who constructed these buildings are long gone—they have gone into administration or they are shell companies offshore. This is not a simple challenge to fix, as some have suggested, but I hope the measures that we have taken today will go a long way.

A number of Members have said that getting any money out of Government has proved painfully slow, so leaseholders today are facing extra costs for insurance while their buildings remain unsafe. Building insurance at the Ropeworks in Barking rocketed from £70,000 to £650,000 —a 900% hike in just two years. The Association of British Insurers has told me that Ministers have refused to engage to find an urgent, practical way forward now. Will the Minister assure us today that the Government will immediately engage with all insurers, take on some of that short-term risk, so that leaseholders can buy affordable cover until their buildings are made safe?

I pay tribute to the right hon. Lady for the work that she has done. She and I have worked together since the terrible fire that her constituents suffered in Barking. She is right to raise the issue of insurance, as other Members of the House have done already. There is a challenge here, because, as with the lenders, the insurers are faced with assessing a new and heightened level of risk. None the less the Association of British Insurers now needs to step up and take a proportionate risk-based approach. As I have said repeatedly, the risk to life in buildings is, mercifully, very low, with the tragic exception of the events of 2017. Insurers should be pricing that risk correctly and not passing on those costs or even profiteering on the backs of the leaseholders. Both myself and my hon. Friend Lord Greenhalgh who leads on building safety have engaged repeatedly with insurers and we will do so again.

I welcome this very significant intervention and the relief that it will bring to so many people. Does the Secretary of State agree that we have established a very important principle today—that if developers ever behave in this manner again, the Government will come after them, and not the hard-pressed taxpayer, to put these issues right?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We all feel immense sympathy for the leaseholders, who are innocent parties in this situation, but it also is not right that the taxpayer—the broader taxpayer, many of whom are not home owners at all—has to step in and foot the bill. We have tried to strike a balance today in terms of ensuring that the developers, the builders and the industry behind this pay a fair share. The draft Building Safety Bill that we will introduce later this year will bring forward a very tight regulatory regime so that buildings over 18 metres—the high-rise buildings—are built to a very high standard and these issues should not happen again.

Leaseholders in Hornsey and Wood Green have been trapped for the third lockdown in a terrible situation with building defects, unsure when they can get a mortgage to move on from their property. One said,

“I’m at my wit’s end with a small new-born baby”,

so I hope that today will bring her some succour. What about housing associations, which, after 10 years of austerity, simply do not have the money to be able to give much relief to desperate leaseholders? Does the Secretary of State have any good news for those lease- holders?

The hon. Lady raises an important point. We have been working very closely with local authorities since the start of this issue in the immediate aftermath of the Grenfell tragedy. I have engaged repeatedly with the National Housing Federation, which has done excellent work in this regard. We did provide funding to help support them. We are focusing the funding that we have provided on those housing associations or local councils that cannot fund this themselves, either through their own reserves or their ability to borrow. Most housing associations can do that, but there will be a small number that cannot. Of course there are choices at every turn, and that, in itself, will have consequences and make it harder for those housing associations to invest in more affordable and social housing, or other important aims that they and I share, like making buildings more energy-efficient to meet our climate obligations. That is the difficult situation that we find ourselves in. I am also acutely aware of the challenges faced by shared owners, and we will make particular provision to protect them so that they do not have to meet disproportionate costs with regard to cladding remediation.

In my constituency I have a number of buildings that are below 18 metres. Today’s announcement means that leaseholders of these buildings will still need to foot the bill, and the offer of loans is small comfort to my constituents, many of whom are already struggling. What does the Secretary of State say to my constituents who were promised that leaseholders would not have to pay for a crisis they did not cause?

Let me be clear on this point once again. The expert advice is very clear. It says that we should focus our attention on the buildings where there is a higher risk—buildings over 18 metres—so it is right that the Government choose to do that when they are using such large sums of taxpayer money. For buildings between 11 and 18 metres—between approximately four and six storeys—we are bringing forward this financing scheme, which will enable leaseholders to move forward with confidence and certainty in the knowledge that they will never need to pay more than £50 a month to meet the cladding remediation, where that absolutely needs to be done. I go back to the point that I have tried to make repeatedly: in many, many cases it will not need to be done because we want surveyors and the industry to take a proportionate, risk-based approach that takes true account of the risk to life in those properties, which for most leaseholders, mercifully, is very low.

Too many people in Eastbourne have suffered the stress and the strain of looming costs, and today there will be some relief at the announcement that my right hon. Friend has made. It is a significant intervention and I look forward to seeing the details. It recognises fairness and balance, and I welcome that also. Although we are focusing today on cladding, what further work will be done to help those leaseholders facing costs in relation to other fire safety defects—fire breaks, fire doors and those necessary works that can be very costly too—which were also exposed in the wake of the Grenfell tragedy?

My hon. Friend has championed her constituents in this regard, and she and I have discussed the issue in the past. I hope the announcement will provide comfort to some of the constituents I am aware of in Eastbourne. One building in particular that we have corresponded on is above 18 metres, so will certainly be a beneficiary of the scheme, if it has not been a beneficiary of previous ones.

My hon. Friend is right to raise the fact that other building safety defects, which we have spoken about in the past, have also come to light, whether that is fire blocks, insulation or fire doors. Some of those works will need to be done, taking a proportionate, risk-based approach, where there is a true risk to life, so that the bill for the leaseholders is not disproportionate. We also, of course, want to see the building owners step up and pay for those works. Where there has been poor workmanship, the building owner needs to take responsibility, and we will continue to do everything we can to support lease- holders to pursue those claims.

I welcome the intervention this afternoon and the Secretary of State’s acknowledgment of the despair and sheer anger that people and families have experienced while they have been living in unsafe homes due to unsafe cladding. However, I put it to him that what my constituents want to hear is clear timescales for this remedial work, as it has now been nearly four years since so many lives were lost in the Grenfell fire. Leaseholders need reassurance that they will not need to wait another four years. Will the Secretary of State please also explain why leaseholders should be made to pay hidden or other costs for a problem they did not cause? Is this the best the Government can do? Is this what they consider to be fair?

I do think this is a fair intervention. It is the largest of its type I think any Government in this country have ever made. It is a balance between the interests of the leaseholders and those of the broader taxpayer, as I have already said.

In terms of wider building safety defects, as I said in answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne (Caroline Ansell), we will do everything we can to support leaseholders to pursue action against those who made those errors and omissions in the past. I share the anger of leaseholders at the mistakes that have been made—both by industry and by regulators who came before us. What we must do now as a Government is move forward, make sure this never happens again and support leaseholders as much as we practically can, and that is exactly what we intend to do.

May I once again say a word on behalf of a group of people who hardly ever get a mention in this Chamber, namely, the poor, benighted general taxpayers? Barely a single one of my 75,000 constituents lives in a house or block of flats over four storeys high, and although they live in poor rural areas they are once again being asked to bail others out—in this case, greedy developers in wealthy areas. Can we have a balance?

Before I finish, may I also ask my right hon. Friend about Lincoln University, which has been forced to reclad one of its residences? What discussions has he had with the universities and with his Education colleague on this issue?

On the important second point that my right hon. Friend raises, we have worked with the Department for Education and the Department of Health on buildings in the wider public sector—universities, student halls of residence and, in a small number of cases, buildings in the NHS—to ensure that the works there proceed at pace. I will happily update him with respect to Lincoln University.

The first point that my right hon. Friend made is actually extremely important. We have had to strike a careful balance because millions of our fellow citizens are not homeowners, and we have to protect their interests, just as we want to provide safety and fairness for the leaseholder. That is the balance that we have tried to strike today, and I hope that fair-minded people on both sides of the House and in the country will appreciate that and understand the choices that we have made.

I welcome today’s announcement, which is a testament to the campaigning of leaseholders across the country. I am sure that the Secretary of State believes that the deal he has negotiated with the Treasury is a great success, but for many of my constituents it will make no or little material difference. A number of leaseholders continue to pay thousands of pounds for interim safety measures. The issue at hand today is one of principle and fairness, and the upshot for many constituents is that they are still paying, despite the Government’s assurances. If the Government subscribe to the principle that no leaseholder should have to pay for fire safety problems, will the Secretary of State please explain why this package clearly shows that not all leaseholders are treated equally?

The hon. Lady is wrong. Thousands of her constituents will directly benefit from today’s announcement. We have chosen rightly, on the basis of expert advice, to prioritise buildings of over 18 metres. That is where the greatest risk is. It would be quite wrong for us to direct public money—taxpayers’ money—to buildings where the risk is low or extremely remote, so we are targeting that money on the buildings that need it most. In those buildings, leaseholders can have certainty that they will not be paying for the remediation of unsafe cladding. It will be paid for either by the building owner—the developer—which is quite right, or by the taxpayer. We will use the levy and the new tax to recoup as much of that as we possibly can.

In other buildings where the risk is significantly lower, the new financing arrangement will give people real comfort that they never need to pay more than £50 a month. My expectation is that many of them will pay significantly less. I think most reasonable people would see that sum of money as truly affordable and manageable within the budget of most homeowners.

I thank my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for all his hard work on this, and I welcome what he has announced today. May I ask him what the Scottish and Welsh Governments are doing to improve building safety?

I honestly do not know. The Scottish Government have, as far as I am aware, done nothing with the very significant sum of money that the Chancellor has given them through the Barnett consequentials process. I am not aware of what the Welsh Government are doing. I think those questions are better directed to the Scottish Government and the Welsh Labour Administration.

The Secretary of State has said that his mission is safety and fairness for leaseholders. How do today’s proposals protect a leaseholder who has been paying £50 a month but still has a large loan outstanding on their home at the point of sale, because of the cost of removing unsafe cladding? Is the truth not that the Secretary of State has failed to deliver on his promises of fairness, and that he is choosing to leave thousands of leaseholders facing massive costs?

The hon. Gentleman, for whom I have great respect, misunderstands the scheme that we have just announced. For buildings of between four and six storeys, where the risk is much lower, leaseholders will have the opportunity, if they wish—there will be no compulsion—to take advantage of the financing scheme. That loan scheme financing arrangement will sit with the building, not with the individual. It will not affect the individual’s personal credit rating, and it should not have a material impact on the value of their property. It will be akin to paying somewhat more on their service charge every month. As I say, it will be capped at £50 a month, which is similar to the average service charge. Of course, in many buildings the service charge is already far in excess of that.

In drawing the House’s attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests, may I say to my right hon. Friend that I think this is one of the most generous and innovative schemes anywhere? In buildings to which the finance loan scheme is applicable, will it apply to non-cladding costs that nevertheless contain a material health and safety element—for example, fire doors and asbestos?

We have chosen to focus both the grant scheme and the financing arrangements on cladding. That is for good reason, because the expert advice that we have received from the independent panel has consistently been that cladding is the greatest danger that needs to be combated. There may be other defects in buildings, and they will vary widely from building to building. They will have to be a matter for the building owner and for the homeowner. We, as a Government, are going to tackle the big issue here, which is cladding. We are going to end the cladding scandal that began with the Grenfell Tower tragedy.

I welcome the funding that has been announced as a step in the right direction, but unfortunately it is likely to cover only around half the anticipated cost, and the innocent leaseholder will be picking up the bill for the other half. The Secretary of State has said that he has sympathy for leaseholders, but that sympathy does not appear to extend below 18 metres. That directly contradicts the promise, which has been repeatedly made, that no leaseholder would have to pay anything. I deeply regret the Government’s decision to break that promise and create another injustice. Can the Secretary of State say how many leaseholders he estimates will be subject to the loan scheme that he has announced today?

We do not want any leaseholders to be paying for fire safety defects; we want that to be paid for by the building owners, the developers and the builders—the people who did this in the first place. As I said, there are circumstances where that is not possible, because there are building owners who no longer exist, who have gone bankrupt or who are shell companies overseas. That is the world we are dealing with. This is complex and multifaceted; it is not simple. In those situations where that is not possible, buildings above 18 metres, where the greatest risk lies, will take advantage of the new scheme and no leaseholder in that situation will have to pay for the remediation of unsafe cladding. Below 18 metres, where the risk is significantly lower, guided by our expert opinion, the financing arrangements will be in place. This is a comprehensive plan to provide comfort, reassurance, certainty and confidence to as many leaseholders as possible.

Yesterday, it was revealed that the company that made the Grenfell Tower cladding shamefully and knowingly sold flammable materials to construction projects because it was about £4 cheaper than fire-retardant cladding. It has taken the Government all these years to propose measures that will stop companies prioritising savings over life, yet they still have not bothered to identify all the buildings, including care homes and hospitals, that may have unsafe cladding. Why is that?

The hon. Lady is wrong; as a matter of fact, we moved swiftly. We set up the Grenfell inquiry, which has heard those shocking allegations. We brought forward the Judith Hackitt review of building safety, which concluded that the regulatory regime needed to change. We have drafted and are now bringing forward the legislation to do that. I hope that the hon. Lady and Opposition Members will vote for the Fire Safety Bill and the Building Safety Bill when they come before this House soon, because that is the best way of creating the new regime, holding developers to account and making sure that local fire and rescue services and councils have the powers they need to take action against unsafe buildings.

I, too have been shocked by the allegations I have heard at the inquiry, which is why, as an interim step, before we hear the judge’s recommendations, I have announced that we are going to create a new national regulator of construction products and that I am going to review the testing procedures for construction products, which seem to be woefully inadequate.

I thank my right hon. Friend for listening to the representations our Select Committee, the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee, has made, and to other colleagues. People who live in high-rise buildings will be breathing a sigh of relief after his announcements today, and I thank him for those. For the people who live in medium-rise blocks, we need to reserve judgment, in order to make sure we examine the details of his announcements. May I ask him specifically about the applications for the fund he has previously been running? There are some 1,100 incomplete applications, many of which require survey work to be undertaken. There is an issue as to whether the industry has the capacity to do that and whether that work will actually demonstrate what is needed. More importantly, the cost of those surveys has to be borne by someone. So what is he doing to ensure that those surveys are carried out and the applications to the fund are then made complete, so that work can continue on the buildings that are currently unsafe?

I thank my hon. Friend for his support and advice in recent months, and that of all members of the Select Committee. We have received a large number of applications to the fund that, as he says, are incomplete. That reflects the fact that many building owners do not know as much as they should about the materials on their buildings, so a great deal of work needs to be done to assess them so that they can be funded, the work can be contracted and we can get workers on site to do the important building safety work as quickly as possible.

There is a particular problem, which my hon. Friend alights on, with respect to the number of fully trained, competent assessors who can go out and do that important first step. We are working with the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors to dramatically increase the number of fully trained assessors. That work has started and the numbers are already increasing. We are also working with the Treasury so that those individuals are not merely trained but can get the professional indemnity insurance that they need to do the job. If we can bring those two things together—that is happening quickly—we will be able to have a very significant increase in the number of individuals going out, doing the assessments, helping to give certainty to individuals and getting the works started.

Sitting suspended.

Essay Mills (Prohibition)

Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to prohibit the operation and advertising of essay mill services; and for connected purposes.

Companies that encourage students, researchers and even school pupils to part with money in return for work that can be passed off as their own should have no place in a modern society that recognises the power of knowledge to improve individual lives, train young people for their role in society and achieve their potential, yet in the UK those services and their operations currently remain entirely legal. It is that unacceptable feature of the British education system that my Bill seeks to change.

These so-called essay mills are a rot that infects the very discipline of learning and has the potential to damage academic integrity beyond repair. It is sad to say that it is a rot that is spreading, not only in higher education but across all forms and levels of education, from schools to further education colleges. The online presence of essay mills and their websites, which encourage contract cheating, is all-pervasive.

Three years ago, it was estimated that 115,000 students at UK universities were buying essays. Then, 46 vice-chancellors wrote a joint letter calling for these websites to banned. This call is now supported by Universities UK, the Russell Group, GuildHE, the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education and indeed most, if not all, of the higher education institutions and organisations that I have had the privilege of working with both as Universities Minister, and now as co-chair of the all-party university group. For me, the most passionate advocates of ending essay mills have been the students themselves and student unions, which have campaigned determinedly against their operation.

For each week that passes during the covid pandemic, the situation is only growing worse. Students have been forced to study remotely from home, away from campus welfare and support, and in taking their studies and exams online, they are extremely and increasingly a prey to essay mills, of which the number has increased dramatically. The QAA has revealed today that there are at least 932 sites in operation in the UK, up from 904 in December 2020, 881 in October 2020 and 635 back in June 2018. Their increased presence is even boasted of on a website, www.uktopwriters.com, which provides a “compare the market” service.

It is not just the number, but the nature of the threat that is expanding. Recent research published this month by Professor Thomas Lancaster and Codrin Cotarlan in the International Journal for Educational Integrity points to the extremely concerning phenomenon of students using file share websites, such as Chegg, to request exam answers in real time and to receive answers live during the course of an examination. Indeed, the number of STEM—science, technology, engineering and maths—student requests for this practice has risen by 196% over the past year.

In this year of all years, be in no doubt that essay mills are seeking to ruthlessly take advantage of the pandemic. One site is even offering cut-price deals for essays, declaring that

“to help you fight these tough conditions caused by the Coronavirus outbreak, we have reduced the price of our services by up to 50 percent—grab the offer now!”

That website proudly boasts of offering services in 21 university towns or cities in the UK, and this is the point: essay mills and their use is not an exception to the rule; essay mills are becoming normalised.

This point was underlined in several Zoom conversations I have had in preparation for the Bill after I put out my own call for evidence to Research Fortnight. I would like to put on record my thanks to the individuals who attended these seminars on behalf of the National Union of Students: Anglia Ruskin, Loughborough, UClan and Worcester student unions; academics from the Universities of Coventry, Leeds, Northampton, Swansea, Kent and Loughborough; and organisations such as Jisc, the QAA, Prospects, Turnitin, the Scottish Funding Council and the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales.

I heard stories of students now being recruited on campus as influencers and being paid to leaflet student halls with fliers offering essay mill services. I heard tales of students being blackmailed by these companies after having paid for essays, with threats of being reported to their universities or employers, and stories of international students being targeted on Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp and encouraged to sign up to academic support services before they started university without even realising that what they were doing was wrong.

Time and again in this dark underworld of essay mills and the companies that seek to make a profit out of the insecurity and desperation of students, the common theme that emerged was of exploitation. There is the exploitation of students, particularly vulnerable students under pressure to do well in their studies, and students who are the first in the family to attend university, on whom the pressure to succeed is immense. There is the exploitation of international students away from home for the first time, not to mention the exploitation of graduates abroad, who in some of the poorest countries in the world are forced to work 12-hour shifts writing essays for $1 an hour. There is also exploitation of graduates and students at home who are so desperate for extra money that they are selling their essays for £10, which in turn will be sold on for £300.

I wish to make it clear that my Bill would not seek to criminalise students themselves for using essay mills. Instead, I propose that universities need to look at new strategies for creating second chances and educating students about their mistakes, following the example of the courageous conversations programme at the University of New South Wales, which gives students the opportunity to own their mistakes before formal investigations begin.

Although we need to be tough on contract cheating, we must also be tough on the causes of contract cheating, which would not exist if there were not a market to exploit. Legislation to ban essay mills and their advertisement is long overdue. Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and, most recently, Ireland have already taken action to make essay mills illegal in their countries, and the Quality Assurance Agency has been in close contact with the countries that have banned essay mills to monitor the effect of the ban. The ban is already making a difference. In Australia, following legislation, the Edubirdie, EssayShark and Custom Writings websites, for instance, now all state “Our service is not available in your region”; yet, in contrast, they all still thrive in the UK.

I know that Lord Storey has already introduced the Higher Education Cheating Services Prohibition Bill in the other place, calling for similar measures to those that I am proposing, but I recognise that the Department for Education may have specific issues with the legal text of that Bill. What I hope to achieve today is to demonstrate that there is the support of both Houses for legislation against essay mills. Indeed, my Bill is supported by: Members from all the major political parties; the Chair of the Education Committee, my right hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon); the chair of the all-party parliamentary group for students, the hon. Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield); and two former Secretaries of State, including the former Education Secretary, my right hon. Friend the Member for East Hampshire (Damian Hinds).

I say to the Minister for Universities, my hon. Friend the Member for Chippenham (Michelle Donelan), who is listening today, that I would welcome a meeting to discuss how to take forward these proposals and legislation together with the Members, students and academic experts I have assembled for this task, including Professor Michael Draper, who has helped to draft similar legislation for other countries that is now in operation. I have been grateful for the dedicated work of the professionals I have worked with. Indeed, I am grateful for the work of all those who are involved in stamping out contract cheating at universities and other education institutions, and I know that they stand ready to help the Department for Education to take forward legislation that is sorely needed.

Question put and agreed to.

Ordered,

That Chris Skidmore, Aaron Bell, Ben Lake, Carol Monaghan, Alyn Smith, Paul Blomfield, Damian Hinds, Lloyd Russell-Moyle, Layla Moran, Jason McCartney, Robert Halfon and Greg Clark present the Bill.

Chris Skidmore accordingly presented the Bill.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time tomorrow, and to be printed (Bill 259).

Policing (England and Wales)

I beg to move,

That the Police Grant Report (England and Wales) for 2021-22 (HC 1162), which was laid before this House on 4 February, be approved.

It is a great pleasure to follow our own version of Dorian Gray, and to announce to the House the final police funding settlement for 2021-22. Although I appreciate that it is not ideal that the House is debating this publication prior to the consideration by the Select Committee on Statutory Instruments, it is essential that suitable preparatory time is given to the relevant parties prior to implementation. This—coupled with the difficulty in securing suitable Floor of the House approval slots, and the February recess—has meant that, unfortunately, it has not proved possible to achieve pre-scrutiny on this occasion, and I am sorry about that. Nevertheless, public safety is an absolute priority for this Government, which is why we are backing the police with the resources and powers that they need to protect our communities.

The professionalism, bravery and commitment shown by officers during the coronavirus pandemic has been truly extraordinary. Across the country, police forces continue to work tirelessly, building understanding with the public to help to control the virus while also tackling crime. Despite all the challenges that we have faced in the last year, the police have been there to answer the call, and I express my immense gratitude for their contribution to this unprecedented national effort. I also wish to place on record that my thoughts and condolences are with those who have lost loved ones, and with our brave police officers and staff who have lost their lives to covid-19.

I congratulate the Minister on his remarks and on the work he does with the police. Is he as concerned as I am that during the pandemic, across the country but particularly in Northamptonshire, the number of police officers coughed on, spat at, or bitten, rose to 130 attacks between February and November last year, which was up from 110 attacks during the same period the year before? Is that not especially disgraceful, given that the pandemic has been raging through our country?

My hon. Friend is right: it is a complete disgrace, and unfortunately during the pandemic we have seen a rise in the particularly unpleasant practice of spitting or coughing on police officers and claiming to have covid. Sadly, that comes off the back of a general rise in assaults on police and emergency workers. I confess that I do not know what goes through the twisted mind of somebody who would do such an unspeakable thing.

I hope my hon. Friend will join me in voting with enthusiasm when the Police Powers and Protections Bill comes forward, both for the police covenant, which is there to protect police officers and ensure we pay attention to their wellbeing and protection, and for the doubling of the sentences for assaults on emergency workers. He and I both stood on that as a promise in our 2019 manifesto. We need the penalties for such awful offences to be increased, to deter those who think about such unspeakable things, and to punish those who cross that appalling line.

I know that our police forces have the thanks and respect of this House, and the settlement demonstrates our ongoing commitment to tackling crime and delivering the safer communities that the law-abiding majority in this country rightly want. Last year, Parliament approved the funding settlement, which made an additional £1.1 billion available to the policing system. That made it the biggest increase in funding for the policing system since 2010. Included in that was an increase to Government grant funding of £700 million for the first 6,000 additional police officers as part of the uplift programme, a £90 million increase in funding for counter-terrorism policing, £247 million for local forces from the council tax precept, and an extra £126 million provided for national policing programmes and priorities.

Last year’s settlement underlined the Government’s determination to strengthen our police service and tackle crime across the whole country. Next year’s settlement will also enable the police to continue on that trajectory. For 2021-22, the Government will invest up to 15.8 thousand million pounds in the policing system, up by an additional £636 million compared with last year. Of that additional investment, the Government will make available an additional £450 million for police and crime commissioners in England and Wales to support the next wave of officer recruitment. That funding will enable PCCs to meet the necessary investment and ongoing support costs associated with the recruitment of 6,000 new officers by the end of financial year 2021-22.

I am delighted to say that forces are delivering on recruitment. As of 31 December, an extraordinary 6,620 additional officers have been recruited as part of the uplift programme, surpassing the programme’s first-year recruitment three months ahead of schedule. That superb progress is testament to the hard work of forces and the brave men and women who signed up to join the police and keep our communities safe. We thank them all for their continued efforts, particularly those involved in the recruitment process.

To ensure the secure management and success of the uplift programme in the coming year, the Government will once again create a ring-fenced grant. Forces will be allocated a share of that £100 million in line with their funding formula allocation. They will be able to access that funding as they make further progress on their recruitment targets. As has been the case this year, that is intended to ensure that forces deliver a return for the substantial uplift in funding.

In 2021-22 we will take recruitment one step further. We are expanding the scope of the programme to include regional organised crime units, including the equivalent units in the Metropolitan and City of London police, and counter-terrorism policing. By strengthening officer numbers across capabilities we are sending a clear message to both policing and the public that we are committed to cutting crime in all its guises.

Police and crime commissioners have continued to request further flexibility around levels of police precept, to make additional funding available for their local priorities. The settlement empowers them, particularly in England, to raise council tax contributions for local policing by less than 30p a week for a typical band D household, or up to £15 a year. Local precept decisions should be carefully considered, with their impact on household budgets being an important factor. Many families face difficult circumstances as a result of the pandemic.

If all police and crime commissioners decide to maximise their flexibility, the result will be a further £288 million of additional funding for local policing. I reiterate that the level of the police precept is a local decision and elected PCCs will, I know, carefully consider what they are asking their local constituents to pay. Locally elected commissioners will need to decide how to use the flexibility appropriately, based on local policing needs, and will be held accountable for the delivery of a return on that public investment, not least in May this year.

PCCs will also benefit from the additional funding announced by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government—whose motions on local government finance will follow this one—as part of the local government finance settlement for local council tax support. This funding will enable councils to continue to reduce council tax bills for those least able to pay. Additionally, the Government will compensate local authorities for 75% of the irrecoverable losses in council tax income arising in 2021, and collection fund deficits accrued for 2021 will be repayable over the next three years, as opposed to one year.

Beyond the increases to the core grant and precept, I am pleased to announce £1.1 billion of funding to support national policing priorities. This includes £180 million for combating serious and organised crime, including drug trafficking and child sexual exploitation and abuse, and money to protect National Crime Agency funding. We are providing £39 million for national support of the police uplift programme, to continue its success, and we are investing £500 million in Home Office-led police technology programmes, which will replace out- dated legacy IT systems and provide the police with the modern digital infrastructure and tools that they need to protect the public. In addition, we are investing £38.7 million to support forces with several national programmes and with digital policing priorities such as public contact, data analytics and agile working for police forces.

For next year, we are allocating £20 million to the safer streets fund, to build on the excellent work that is taking place this year to prevent acquisitive crime such as theft and burglary in the worst-affected areas. I hope, Madam Deputy Speaker, that your local police and crime commissioner will apply to that fund. The funding will enable police and crime commissioners and local authorities to invest in well-evidenced crime-prevention measures, such as CCTV and street lighting, in new areas throughout the country.

As I have said, public safety is a key priority. Funding for counter-terrorism policing will be maintained at more than £900 million for the coming year. In addition, £32 million will be made available for the development of the new CT operations centre, which will bring together partners from counter-terrorism policing, the intelligence agencies and the criminal justice system, co-ordinating their expertise, resource and intelligence in a state-of-the-art facility. This investment is critical to help to continue the vital work of counter-terrorism police officers throughout the whole country.

The settlement confirms significant investment in our police forces, and it is only right that we expect to see continued improvements in efficiency and productivity to demonstrate to the public that they are getting the most out of the increased funding. The Government therefore expect to see £120 million of efficiency savings delivered next year across the law enforcement sector. That expectation is reflected in the funding set out as part of the wider settlement.

We expect the savings to be delivered through improved procurement practices, including the delivery of £20 million of savings through the new BlueLight Commercial organisation, as well as through savings in other areas, such as estates, agile working and shared services. To ensure progress in those areas, the policing sector has worked closely with the Home Office to set up and support a new efficiency and productivity board. The board will improve the evidence base to date, identify opportunities for gains for this and future spending review periods, and monitor and support delivery gains.

This is the last settlement before the next spending review. We will continue to monitor the demands that face policing and the impact of additional officer recruitment on improving services to the public in responding to threats from terrorism, organised crime and serious violence. The Government recognise that things have changed significantly since the previous police funding settlement, one year ago. We understand that our police forces are playing a critical role in our response to the pandemic, and I once again express my immense gratitude—and, I am sure, yours, Madam Deputy Speaker—for their heroic effort. When it comes to law and order, we will always back the police to go after criminals and protect our communities and neighbourhoods. That is what the public rightly expect and that is what we are delivering this year and next.

I would like to begin by putting on record our continuing gratitude for the selfless service, bravery and professionalism shown by our police officers and police staff. This pandemic has been a powerful reminder—not, frankly, that one should have been needed—of the risks they take daily on our behalf. I say to the Minister that warm words are not enough. It is scant recognition for these officers and staff that they are rewarded for their efforts throughout the pandemic with a pay freeze.

I call on the Minister to work quickly with the Health Secretary to introduce concrete plans to make good on lukewarm commitments to prioritise frontline officers in the vaccine roll-out. We know that officers are not able to control who they come into contact with—they are unable to socially distance as they go about their duties—so it is vital that they are able to be vaccinated as soon as possible. Officers have made the ultimate sacrifice and died from covid while on service, so it is vital that we extend that protection as soon as possible.

Even before the pandemic, the risks and the pressures heaped on police officers have increased significantly over the past decade. Attacks on police officers have jumped by 50% over the past five years. That is, sadly, unsurprising when we have seen such steep increases in violence and violent crime on the streets and in homes across the country. Officers have been placed in an impossible position. This Government oversaw huge cuts to police officer and staff numbers. Between 2010 and 2019, police officer numbers fell by 21,000. At the same time, there have been huge cuts to the services that are vital to preventing crime in the first place—youth clubs, mental health services, local councils and probation.

The Home Secretary and other Ministers like to talk tough, but the reality is that they are soft on crime and soft on the causes of crime. [Interruption.] The results have been devastating for victims of crime right across the country. The Minister chuckles, but in fact, violent crime has risen in every single police force area. In 2019-20, violence as a proportion of all police recorded crime reached its highest level since comparable records began. The Home Office’s own research has shown the link between cuts to police officer numbers and violent crime. It is good that the Government have finally woken up to the huge damage that their police cuts have done to public safety and started to replace some of the huge numbers of officers they have cut. However, it should not have taken the devastation that rising crime has caused to families and communities across the country to spark that action.

In terms of the new recruits promised, I call on the Government to do everything possible to improve diversity in recruitment. I know all Members will agree that joining the police is a noble calling, and it is vital that police services look like the communities they serve. That is one of the many lessons we need to learn from the powerful testimonies that so many black people have shared in the past nine months, and it is incumbent upon us to act. There are excellent examples of initiatives to try to improve diversity that it would be good to share across the country. Much more needs to be done to ensure that officers from black, Asian and minority ethnic communities rise through the policing ranks, and we must put in place better structures to enable greater community involvement in police training.

Looking more widely across the criminal justice landscape, I again call on Ministers to properly commit to fully implementing the recommendations in the Lammy review and other reviews that the Government have commissioned in recent years. It is vital that we all live up to the words uttered on building a more equal society.

I thank the hon. Gentleman very much for giving way. He suggests that the Government are giving warm words in their commitment to the police, which I wholly disagree with. The Mayor of London has kindly given an exemption from the congestion charge in London to emergency workers, but not to police officers and police staff. I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman might share his view on whether real prioritisation of the police is something that the Labour party supports.

It is nice actually to take an intervention. That is not something we can do regularly in House debates at the moment, but on the point raised by the hon. Gentleman in his attempt to criticise the Mayor of London, I have to say that the Mayor of London has been taking action on violent crime. The rise in violent crime is right across the country. In terms of prioritising police officers for the vaccine, that is precisely the case I am putting to the Government. They have been saying warm words about that, too, and I am asking them to make good on those warm words that I know they have been uttering to police representatives for some time. We would all agree about the dangers that police officers put themselves in every day, which is why I am asking for this action to take place.

Moving back to the funding of the commitment on police recruitment, as ever with this Government, the devil is in the detail, and the policing grant is no different. I point out, first, that when the Prime Minister pledged to increase the number of police officers, he did not make it clear to voters that a significant proportion of it would rely on increasing the council tax precept by £15 a year, at a time when family finances are very hard-pressed. In his opening remarks, the Minister described it as flexibility; I would describe it as a Government who are not putting the needs of families first.

Will the Minister confirm why the Government have decided to slow the speed of police recruitment so sharply? He will be aware that police forces across the country were planning for 6,000 officers to be recruited in year 1, 8,000 in year 2, and 6,000 in year 3. However, we now know that there will be 6,000 officers recruited this year and presumably 8,000 in year 3. What is the reason for this worrying slowdown, which will mean thousands fewer officers on our streets?

Also, it will not have escaped attention that there is a sharp decline in the amount of funding that the Government have allocated to recruiting the promised officers for this year. When setting a target for 6,000 officers for 2020-21, the amount of money allocated was £750 million, but for 2021-22 the amount for the same number of officers—6,000—has sharply reduced to £400 million. The Minister may say that that is in part due to so-called front-loading of costs for additional officers.

Indeed, the Minister confirms that is what he would say. However, we know that in fact police forces have been incredibly stretched. Even with the promises of additional officers, there are huge budget pressures elsewhere, and that is why many forces have had to freeze police staff recruitment.

Since 2010, there has been a fall of more than 13% in police staff numbers. Police staff across the board, as I am sure the Minister would agree, play a vital role in keeping communities safe, through key roles such as answering emergency calls from the public, staffing our custody suites, crime analysis and crime scene investigations. That fall also includes the loss of PCSOs, who played and play such a vital role in neighbourhood policing.

Undermining all those functions makes our communities less safe and keeps police officers behind desks and away from the streets where we want them to be. It is little wonder that the number of police officers in frontline roles fell by 16% between 2010 and 2019. These funding pressures are likely to be even more keenly felt when the required £120 million of efficiency savings outlined in the provisional police grant report in December —indeed, they were repeated by the Minister from the Dispatch Box today—come to pass.

The fact that our brave officers have been forced to work with reduced numbers of colleagues and with a pay freeze is particularly galling when such huge sums of money are being wasted on Government inefficiencies. That is why the answer given to the shadow policing and fire Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon Central (Sarah Jones), at Home Office questions was so revealing. So poor, frankly, is Conservative management at the Home Office that delays to the emergency services network mean that police forces will have to spend an extra £600 million—bringing the total to £1.5 billion—to replace the old radios, while they wait even longer for new equipment.

Perhaps we should not be surprised at the Home Office’s complacent attitude to serious errors or the impact that they can have. Members will have seen the deeply worrying statements and the lack of grip at the Home Office over the catastrophic loss of police data. It is a confused picture that has seen Ministers contradicted by the National Police Chiefs’ Council’s letter and now an independent review having to be held to get to the bottom of what went wrong. One thing is clear: thousands of police records have been deleted and criminals will, in all likelihood, go free as a result of this fiasco. Frankly, more effective Home Secretaries than this one have gone for lesser mistakes on their watch. These errors are not isolated incidents. They are part of a picture of Ministers who have lost their grip on vital issues of national security. We have seen it over the failures on quarantine, the rises in violent crime, and the failure to get a grip of the data deletion, and too often we fail to see the Home Secretary taking charge of these issues and delivering results.

Today, we welcome the fact that Members across the House now all agree that it is vital to at least start to fill the hole created by the Conservative cuts to policing since 2010. None the less, there remain a number of worrying aspects, including the huge general financial pressures for the police; officers being forced off the streets to backfill for police staff; and the slowing down of police recruitment. We will judge the Government by their actions on this, as people are fed up with empty promises. Although we welcome the new police officers and staff joining the ranks, and we thank them for their service, we will continue to campaign for them to have the support they need to keep us all safe.

I rise to support the motion on the Order Paper and to thank the Government for the extra money going into local policing. I thank the Minister for his endeavours; he has been a superb Minister of State for Crime and Policing. I also wish to highlight the excellent work done by Chief Constable Nick Adderley in Northamptonshire, Chief Fire Officer Darren Dovey and our superb police, fire and crime commissioner, Stephen Mold and to thank all the police and fire officers in Northamptonshire for the superb work they do.

It is not enough to talk about how much extra money is going into policing this year. The important thing is to highlight what the police do with that money. I am pleased that, as a result of the funding that has been announced, there are 57 new officers so far in Northamptonshire, taking the total police headcount to 1,300, sending us well on our way to our ultimate target of about 1,500 in 2023. It is worth reminding residents in Northamptonshire that they pay on average, on a band D council tax, £5 a week for their policing. In return for a fiver a week, they get a tremendous range of police resources.

Madam Deputy Speaker, with your permission, I will concentrate on four particular issues that affect Northamptonshire: first, county lines drug gangs; secondly, automatic number plate recognition technology; thirdly, assaults on police officers; and fourthly, Tasers.

Northamptonshire police should be congratulated on the efforts they have undertaken—over the past two years especially—in busting county lines drug gangs. It was only last week that the national press reported that Northamptonshire was responsible for the biggest ever takedown of a UK narcotics network when, as a result of an extensive investigation over a long period of time, it managed ultimately to jail 72 gangsters who had been described as untouchable, with a total sentencing of 220 years. As a result of this drugs bust, 18 county lines and 12 local drug lines were busted and £1.3 million of drugs taken from our streets. Disgracefully, Northamptonshire police found these gangs exploiting vulnerable children as young as 14 to sell crack cocaine and heroin on local streets. The four big players of the operation were jailed for a total of 36 years for conspiracy to supply drugs.

It is an immense source of pride for Northamptonshire police that they should be responsible for this biggest ever county lines bust and I congratulate Chief Constable Nick Adderley on the operation. It began at the beginning of 2019 and involved investigations in the east midlands, the west midlands, London and elsewhere. In fact, contacts were in London, Birmingham, Wolverhampton and Northampton. Warrants were made for multiple arrests at the end of 2019, taking that amount of drugs off our streets.

It is an immense source of pride for the local force that it is the biggest conviction of its kind by a single UK police force to date. I can do no better than quote Detective Chief Inspector Adam Pendlebury of Northamptonshire police, who said that drug dealers like these

“truly think they are untouchable.

They exploit vulnerable people like children and adults suffering with addiction, and make them take all the risks, while they sit at home counting their money. There is no honour in this.

Over the past two years we have warned them and their associates directly that one day, we would get them, one day we would come through their door, and one day they would be looking at the inside of a prison cell.

Today is that day and I could not be prouder of the exceptional work that has gone into this investigation by a group of detectives, uniformed officers and experienced criminal analysts, who have made this operation their lives for the past two years.”

For breaking the biggest-ever narcotics operation, Northamptonshire police deserves the praise of the whole House.

I now wish to move on to automatic number plate recognition technology, which I think we should be doing far more about across the country. The good news in Northamptonshire is that work is beginning to install 150 new ANPR cameras, which will more than double the size of the network in Northamptonshire. They will increase coverage across rural areas, as well as in the larger towns and on the county borders. That is a £1.3 million investment in ANPR technology by Northamptonshire police. Importantly, if used appropriately and on a wide scale, it can deny criminals the use of our roads. Most crime has a vehicle involved in it at some point. Criminals use vehicles to get around the country, and if their vehicles can be spotted and intercepted, crime can be reduced.

The new camera sites were chosen following analysis of where they will be most effective in supporting the investigation of crime, and have been subject to public consultation. For Members who do not know, ANPR reads the registration of passing vehicles and checks it across several databases, raising the alert if a vehicle is stolen, linked to crime or uninsured. I have had the privilege to sit in a Northamptonshire police vehicle and see ANPR in action. When a suspect vehicle goes past, a ping goes off in the police vehicle. They can quickly check the police national database, and with their new interceptor vehicles they can set off in pursuit. I think that the success of Northamptonshire police in focusing resources on that issue should be rolled out across the country. If we can deny criminals the use of our roads, we will see the footprint of crime reduce.

I now wish to turn to the very grave issue of assaults, which I raised at the beginning of the debate in an intervention to the Minister. In Northamptonshire over the past year, 609 officers out of a force of 1,300 were assaulted, which included being headbutted, being punched and kicked in the face, being attacked with weapons, having boiling water thrown at them, and being hit by cars. As Chief Constable Nick Adderley said,

“This list is distressing and disturbing.”

In November, two police officers were injured, one needing surgery, after boiling water was poured over them during a shocking incident in Northampton. One officer suffered second degree burns, which meant that he required plastic surgery, and his colleague received minor injuries to his hands. Both had to be taken to hospital. A 15-year-old girl was arrested at the scene and charged with grievous bodily harm and assaulting an emergency worker. Despite boiling water having been thrown over the officers, in December the 15-year-old girl got community service and a token £250 fine. We have passed legislation in this House to increase the sentencing for assaults on emergency workers. It seems, however, that some of the courts are simply not listening.

In another case, in October 2019, paramedics were trying to treat a 22-year-old in Kettering when he had a head injury but was refusing treatment. Police were called to assist by East Midlands Ambulance Service, but when the officers arrived, he kicked out at the female officer, bending her knee sideways. It left her with pain, weakness and mobility issues, added to the emotional toll of being assaulted at work. He was sentenced in February this year to rehabilitation activities, unpaid work in the community and a fine of £300. A Northamptonshire police spokesman said:

“Assaults against our officers are disgraceful and we will always pursue action against those who commit them. Being assaulted is not part of the job and never will be. Our officers go to work to protect the public and do not deserve to be assaulted in the line of duty.”

We have passed legislation in this House for those who assault police officers to go to jail. If a judge had boiling water poured over him or her, I very much doubt that the offender would be let off with community service and a £300 fine. If a magistrate had their knee kicked sideways so that they were unable to walk properly, I very much doubt that the offender would avoid a custodial sentence. So in his role in the Justice Department, will the Minister emphasise to those who issue these sentences that anyone who assaults a police officer should go to jail?

I support the calls of John Apter, the national chair of the Police Federation of England and Wales, who has said that attacks on police officers during the pandemic are

“a serious issue for us all”.

He went on to say:

“Those who attack emergency workers have a complete lack of respect for anything or anybody. Without doubt, we are living in a more violent society which needs to take a long hard look at itself. We need officers to have the very best protection, and there must be a strong deterrent—that deterrent should be time in prison, no ifs, no buts. Time and time again we see officers who have been badly assaulted, and they see their attacker being let off with little more than just a slap on the wrist. This is offensive and fails to give that deterrent which is so desperately needed.”

Overall, attacks against police officers in Northamptonshire have increased, with 507 recorded from February to November last year, up from 440 in the same period in 2019. As I said, in the year as a whole, 609 officers have been assaulted.

Finally, I wish to draw the Minister’s attention to the roll-out of Tasers in Northamptonshire. Because police officers are not being properly protected by the courts, and because there is not a sufficient deterrent for people not to assault police officers, Chief Constable Nick Adderley has made the brave decision to roll out Tasers to any frontline officer who chooses to use them. This makes Northamptonshire the first police force in the whole country to arm all its frontline officers with Tasers, if that is what they wish to do. The move means that over 300 officers have the option to be trained and equipped with Tasers, and the latest numbers show that 328 officers locally routinely carry Tasers.

Chief Constable Adderley says:

“Enough is enough. Every week, I am made aware of more and more sickening attacks on my officers—they are spat at, assaulted on a daily basis, and are being exposed to increasing levels of violence when they are deployed to incidents.

No-one comes to work to be assaulted and I want to make it crystal clear that my officers certainly don’t. It’s time to give all frontline officers the ability to defend themselves and defend members of the public, which involves equipping them with more than a baton, handcuffs and a can of pepper spray.”

Some people may think that if officers are armed with Tasers, Tasers are being deployed too often and the barbs that come out of them are regularly being fired. That is not how Tasers work in the vast majority of cases. Home Office figures show that Tasers were used in just over 17,000 incidents across the country in the year to March 2018—the Minister will have more up-to-date figures than I do—and that was up from 11,500 the year before. However, in 85% of cases where a Taser is deployed —where an officer takes the Taser out of its holster and points it at the suspect—it is not discharged. That is because when an officer draws, aims and places the Taser red dot on the suspect, and the suspect can see the red dot on their chest, their arm or their leg, the weapon is officially used but not actually discharged. All too often, the red dot is enough to quell the threat, meaning that the officer rarely has to discharge the weapon.

I believe, as the chief constable does, that Taser works. Just last week, according to the chief constable, a police officer used a Taser locally in Northamptonshire to stop a man strangling a colleague and saved that colleague’s life. Two weekends ago, a Northamptonshire officer was forced to the ground and strangled to the point where he nearly lost consciousness. Due to the size of the offender, strikes proved ineffective. PAVA spray was also ineffective. Thank goodness, the officer’s colleague had a Taser, which saved the officer’s life. The man who was assaulting the officer was heavily intoxicated