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Commons Chamber

Volume 690: debated on Thursday 11 March 2021

House of Commons

Thursday 11 March 2021

The House met at half-past Nine o’clock

Prayers

[Mr Speaker in the Chair]

Virtual participation in proceedings continued (Order, 4 June and 30 December 2020).

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

Oral Answers to Questions

Transport

The Secretary of State was asked—

Aviation Industry

What steps he is taking to help ensure the recovery of the UK aviation sector following the rollout of the covid-19 vaccine. (913229)

The Government have provided significant financial support to aviation workers and businesses. The global travel taskforce will report in April on a return to safe and sustainable international travel.

Last week, the Chancellor set out the support he is providing to businesses until they can reopen their doors, but although the Office for National Statistics showed that aviation was the worst-affected sector, it was not given a single mention. Does the Minister agree that the support already provided to airports will not be enough to cover them losing many times that amount each month? Is he not missing a trick here both to help the sector to survive and help it to modernise to meet our climate change obligations?

The Government have given the aviation sector approximately £7 billion of support over the course of the pandemic. The Budget we heard last week from the Chancellor extended both the furlough scheme and the airport and ground operations support scheme for another six months. What we are doing to support and help the sector is the global travel taskforce. It is through getting people travelling sustainably and robustly that we will see brighter days ahead.

Duty free arrival was not part of the Government’s post-Brexit consultations, despite industry stakeholders asking for it to be introduced. The Tory Government decision to end VAT-free shopping schemes for travellers will cost hundreds of jobs across Scotland. Establishing arrival duty free outlets could offset some of that. Can the Minister tell the House whether he lobbied the Chancellor prior to that decision? If so, will he continue to push the Treasury to change its view and save jobs?

The hon. Member will understand that there had to be a change on that taxation regime at the end of the transition period. All taxation matters are a matter for the Treasury. They are kept under review by the Chancellor at all times, and I am sure he has heard very carefully what she said.

The future of the aviation sector needs greening, which will bring lower pollution and new high-quality jobs. Will the Minister commit to working with the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy to increase the Aerospace Technology Institute budget, so that we as a country can focus on developing the technology that will support future zero emission aircraft?

The hon. Member is quite right that aviation must play its part in the net zero challenge. It is a challenge, but it is also an enormous opportunity. We are already working with BEIS through the Jet Zero Council and the working groups not only on new airframe types and new technology for aircraft, but on things like sustainable aviation fuel.

It is simply not good enough. The Office for National Statistics confirmed that aviation has been hardest hit. This Government promised a sector deal but then did not deliver, barring a last minute and somewhat diluted version of the uncapped business rates relief available in Scotland. Let us recap: ending VAT-free shopping at airports and refusing to consider arrival duty free; the most indebted aviation sector in the world, now about a third smaller with thousands of jobs gone; and now EU cargo and chartered airlines operating in the UK without reciprocal rights in many EU countries—this Government have utterly failed aviation and its 1 million workers, have they not?

This is a Government who stand foursquare behind aviation, which is a real mark of global Britain. As I said, we have seen approximately £7 billion-worth of support going to the aviation sector. Through the global travel taskforce we will be expanding horizons even further. Most recently, the consultation has been announced on air passenger duty, which I note has not happened in Scotland.

The Minister is strong on rhetoric, but weak on delivery. First, I thank the Secretary of State for writing to me to correct the record after our previous exchange and confirming how few times the Jet Zero Council had actually met.

On this global travel taskforce, the ONS says, as my hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Gwynne) pointed out, that it will take three years for the sector to recovery. The Airport Operators Association is saying five years. What assurances are there that what the workstreams produce—are there any going on at the moment and is it meeting?—will be robustly implemented? We have not seen that so far with other announcements by this Government.

I simply have to disagree with the hon. Member. The first global travel taskforce reported in November, as promised. We had the robust release of the test to release scheme in December in time for the Christmas market. Now it is right that we take stock, look at the whole aviation sector, consult carefully and have a new GTT. We will, as we have said, report to the Prime Minister and publish the reports on 12 April, and 17 May is the earliest date on which international travel can resume. We are working with and meeting and consulting the sector on a weekly and daily basis. It is a major ongoing piece of work very much at pace.

Union Connectivity Review

Yesterday, I welcomed the Union connectivity review interim report. It marks an important moment in looking at how transport can bring people together across our United Kingdom.

Transport infrastructure is one of the most vital areas of development needed in my constituency. I was delighted to see that improvements in connectivity to the north Wales coastline and the A55 featured strongly in yesterday’s interim report. Can my right hon. Friend confirm when he expects the review to publish its final report, and that there will be funding available to implement its recommendations, even though some cases were not mentioned specifically in the Budget?

The interim report did, of course, mention the A55, which my hon. Friend has campaigned hard for. I have released £20 million to carry on further work and studies on some of these routes and the final report will be released in the summer.

Transport Decarbonisation

What recent steps his Department has taken to help facilitate transport decarbonisation in line with the Government’s commitments (a) to the Paris agreement and (b) for COP26. (913250)

The transport decarbonisation plan will set out transport’s contribution to net zero. We are also delivering ambitious international COP26 campaigns.

When does the Minister consider that there will be enough public charging points available for electric-powered vehicles to ensure that no domestic user requires an internal combustion engine? I would settle for her best estimate of when urban motorists could be fossil-free. How quickly does she think the network can be built?

We have ambitious plans to meet our target dates of phasing out the sale of new petrol and diesel cars by 2030. At the moment, a driver is never more than 25 miles away from a rapid charge point anywhere on England’s motorways, and there are 36 rapid charge points available per 100 miles, but we obviously need to go further. We are working through our rapid charging fund and we will make further announcements very shortly on this topic.

We know that the Government’s road-building expansion will lead to an estimated 270,000 additional tonnes of carbon entering the atmosphere by 2032. However, in an answer to a recent question, the Minister told me that she was content that the Government’s road-building expansion programme was compatible with the net zero target. Will she tell me how she reached that view when the Secretary of State overruled his own civil servants on the need to conduct an environmental review of the policy? And does she agree that if the Government are serious about reaching net zero and setting an example before COP26, that review should be carried out now?

I thank the hon. Lady for her question. She will know that we are serious about decarbonising the entire transport sector. We will publish our transport decarbonisation plan in spring this year, as we have committed to do, which will set out how we will decarbonise the entire sector, including roads. I just say to her that, of course, we do need roads, but we want the vehicles driving on them to be electric, and we are investing in electric vehicles—cars, vans, buses and lorries.

Over a year has gone and we have seen neither hide nor hair of this transport decarbonisation plan, or the national bus strategy, or the £3 billion on green buses. In contrast, Scotland is fast becoming a world leader in transport decarbonisation, with higher take-up of electric cars, an impressive charging network, actual investment in electric buses, on which everyone under the age of 22 is now able to travel free, and a much praised rolling rail electrification scheme. Spring is an elastic term in parliamentary terminology. When will we actually see the decarbonisation plan, and when will we actually see zero-emission buses being ordered?

I remind the hon. Gentleman that we have invested £2.8 billion to support the transition to electric vehicles, and a lot of that money has gone to Scotland. The funds for the plug-in car grants are available UK-wide, and, as I said, we will publish the transport decarbonisation plan in spring, as we have promised.

Transport Infrastructure Projects

What steps his Department is taking to accelerate the delivery of transport infrastructure projects. (913232)

What steps his Department is taking to accelerate the delivery of transport infrastructure projects. (913245)

What steps his Department is taking to accelerate the delivery of transport infrastructure projects. (913246)

Transport infrastructure is central to the Government’s plans to build back better from covid-19, and the Department for Transport is at the forefront of Project Speed. We have also created our own acceleration unit as well as establishing the Northern Transport Acceleration Council, through which we have identified 112 schemes to progress.

My Dudley North constituents are seeing record levels of investment coming to them, and much of it is dedicated to very light rail, metro extension and the new transport interchange. However, connectivity from local housing estates to these transport networks is key. What assurances can my hon. Friend give my constituents that every link in this chain will result in a truly integrated transport system?

Dudley is indeed pioneering research and development into very light rail, and I am pleased that the West Midlands Combined Authority recently signed off funding into the Dudley interchange. Mayor Andy Street’s vision is for it to be the best-connected region in the country, and the Chancellor has confirmed the £4.2 billion intra-city transport fund, as well as the levelling up fund, in the Budget. I am sure that, with his help, Dudley will get its fair share of transport infrastructure funding. I am looking forward to riding the metro to Dudley Zoo very soon.

Investing in improved transport infrastructure is well recognised by my hon. Friend as a necessity for turbocharging our economy and levelling up. Beautiful Hastings and Rye has some of the most antiquated road and rail infrastructure in the country, which inhibits economic growth and is the reason why HS1 must be prioritised.

If we are serious about levelling up left-behind communities, does my hon. Friend not agree that HS1, as promised by previous Ministers, now needs to be delivered? What discussions has he had with the Treasury to ensure that funding will be available to finance such a vital project?

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend’s determination in drawing attention to this important local issue; this is the second time she has done so this week, I believe. As she will know, the strategic outline business case for the Kent and East Sussex coastal connectivity scheme is currently being progressed by Network Rail, and it is due to be submitted to the Department in April. I am sure that the rail Minister will be able to update her more in due course.

Network Rail has finished developing plans for the Croydon area remodelling scheme to help to unblock the Croydon bottleneck—one of the most congested parts of the rail network, which impacts 300,000 commuters every day on the Brighton main line as well as those in areas of suburban London such as Carshalton and Wallington. What steps is my hon. Friend taking to ensure that this scheme has Government support in order to make it a success?

I know that my hon. Friend has met the Rail Minister on numerous occasions to discuss the Croydon bottleneck and the impact on stations across his constituency. We recognise the importance of the issue and are continuing to work closely with Network Rail and operators to develop the scheme further.

My constituents are really enthusiastic about a piece of rail infrastructure that could bring a real benefit to their lives. No, they have not changed their minds about HS2; the railway they really want to see is the Aylesbury spur of East West Rail.

However, funding has so far not been secured, despite it being in the original proposals and despite the DFT’s own figures showing a stronger business case for East West Rail than for HS2. Will my hon. Friend commit to working across Government to get funding for the Aylesbury spur, which would reduce car use, cut emissions and help to level up my town?

As my hon. Friend is aware, in January the Government approved an additional £760 million of new funding to deliver East West Rail between Oxford and Milton Keynes. I know that he has met the Chief Secretary to the Treasury and the Rail Minister to make the case for connecting Aylesbury to East West Rail. I understand how important the connection is to his constituency, and we continue to explore the options.

The Penistone line stops at three stations in my constituency—Stocksmoor, Denby Dale and Shepley—and currently runs an hourly service, hampering the connectivity of those villages. There is genuine cross-party support for having the whole of the line upgraded so that it runs half-hourly services, levelling up all our communities. A delivery plan is already in place for this much-needed upgrade, so will the Minister agree to assist with co-ordinating this proposal with the Treasury and the relevant rail authorities?

As my hon. Friend will be aware, last week marked one year since the Government stepped in to take over the ailing Northern Rail franchise. Since then, Northern has transformed services with a huge investment in new trains and the retirement of Pacers, and completed the extension of platforms at more than 70 stations. He makes a strong case for increasing local services, and I know that the Minister of State, Department for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Daventry (Chris Heaton-Harris), the Rail Minister, will be happy to meet him to discuss this issue.

As my hon. Friend knows, I have long campaigned for the much-needed upgrade to the A38, which is the main trunk road through my constituency to the nearest city, Plymouth. I am working with Highways England and undertaking surveys, but in the light of the fantastic news that Plymouth is to become a freeport, will my hon. Friend revaluate the urgency of improvements, so that the whole of Cornwall can take advantage of Plymouth’s new status?

I congratulate Plymouth on its status as one of the eight new freeports announced in the Budget last week. Freeports will create national hubs for trade, innovation and commerce, thereby levelling up communities throughout the UK, creating new jobs and turbocharging our economic recovery. We are working across Government to support these exciting developments and will look closely at any changes to transport infrastructure that are required.

Our rail industry must play a pivotal role in fighting the climate crisis with ambitious plans for decarbonising transport infrastructure and extensive electrification. Shockingly, despite the UK’s being the country that pioneered rail, only 38% of our network is electrified—thanks to the Tory Government’s chronic failure to act. We have been left far behind by the likes of Germany, France, Italy and Spain, which have electrified the majority of their railways. Given that we do not have time for further delay and dithering, and to keep costs down, why will the Minister not commit, here and now, to a long-term rolling programme of electrification?

I politely remind the shadow Minister of the statistics: under the Labour Government of 1997 to 2010, only 63 miles of the railways were electrified; since 2010, we have already electrified 1,110 miles, and we continue to invest.

Ports: New Trading Arrangements

What recent discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on the adequacy of support for ports adapting to new trading arrangements since the end of the transition period. (913233)

The Government continue to deliver wide-ranging support measures to British ports, including unprecedented levels of direct funding such as grants.

Ministers continue to withhold the vital funds needed for Portsmouth international port to complete the post-Brexit infrastructure mandated by the Government’s own border-operating model. With full customs checks coming in July, what steps is the Minister taking to secure the vital funding needed to ensure that our local authority-owned port remains competitive and prosperous, and that the chaos we saw at Dover in December does not become a reality in my city?

As a general rule, the “user pays” principle applies, so the Government would expect ports to pay for improvements themselves, but the Government have taken an unprecedented approach through the ports infrastructure fund to support as many ports as possible with grants. Portsmouth was awarded more than £17 million, which is the third-largest amount awarded to any port and is extremely significant funding. The hon. Gentleman’s city is, of course, part of the successful Solent freeport bid, which I am sure he welcomes.

Electric Vehicles

Pentraeth Automotive on my island constituency of Ynys Môn is at the forefront of electric vehicle provision locally. Will the Minister consider providing support so that businesses like Pentraeth Automotive can retrain their skilled mechanics to ensure that electric vehicles can be maintained safely?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right that the UK is at the forefront of the electric-vehicle industry, and I want her constituency to play its part. We are working with the Institute of the Motor Industry to ensure that the UK’s mechanics workforce is well-trained and has the skills needed to safely repair electric vehicles. Through consultation with the automotive sector, the IMI has developed Techsafe, a register and professional standard for electric vehicle technicians that the Office for Zero Emission Vehicles has endorsed.

To be able to truly embrace the EV revolution, does my hon. Friend agree that there needs to be a comprehensive network of on-street residential charging points close to where people live, especially where they have no dedicated parking space? Will she work with local authorities to start this work now, so that that is one less barrier to EV adoption?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right and we are already working closely with local authorities. Our on-street residential charge point scheme has so far supported more than 105 different local authorities to fund more than 3,800 charge points. We have recently announced that £20 million will be made available under this scheme for the year 2021-22. We are working so closely with local authorities to ensure the maximum take-up of the scheme, because we do not want a lack of charging infrastructure to be a barrier to anyone wanting to transition to an EV.

Following on from the previous question, that charging infrastructure concern can be a barrier to purchase. We know that most owners of electric cars charge their vehicles at home. That often relies on their having a garage or drive, which is not always appropriate or possible in a block of flats or in a very urban area.

Will my hon. Friend keep the House updated on progress on charging facilities in the more built-up urban areas, because that is absolutely critical if we are to see significant take-up of these vehicles?

I thank my hon. Friend for his question. He is absolutely right that we need to tackle all these barriers, which is why we have recently announced that we are changing the criteria for our EV charging schemes to include small businesses, leaseholders and those in rented accommodation, especially flats, to accelerate uptake. Worth up to £50 million, the updated schemes will complement a further £20 million that we are providing for our on-street charging scheme.

I am pleased to hear the Minister talk about electric vehicles, but the reality is that we have seen little in the way of concrete measures from this Government. We were promised 4,000 zero-emission buses by 2025, but we have heard little more about that—or, indeed, about the national bus strategy, which was expected months ago and has still yet to materialise.

It has now been a year since the Government published their transport decarbonisation plan. The Secretary of State himself said that

“Climate change is the most pressing environmental challenge of our time”,

yet all we have had is dither and delay. Although last week’s Budget saw the Chancellor freeze fuel duty for the 11th year running, costing the taxpayer about £1 billion and flying in the face of the commitment to tackle carbon emissions, this Government have a legal obligation, lest we forget, to achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2050. When will they start delivering?

Let me politely disagree strongly with the hon. Gentleman on the Labour Front Bench. I would need longer than this one simple question to answer the allegations that he has put to me. Shall we start with the Prime Minister’s 10-point plan? Shall we also refer to the transport decarbonisation plan, which, as I have now said three times, we will publish in the spring. The national bus strategy, as my colleagues have reminded me, will be brought forward very shortly. Not only that, but we are installing charge points up and down the country. We have already committed to phasing out petrol and diesel cars by 2030. We are leading the world in this fight against climate change, and we will continue to do so.

Bakerloo Line Extension

What recent discussions he has had with the Chancellor of the Exchequer on funding for the Bakerloo line extension since the Government’s formal issuing of safeguarding directions on 1 March 2021. (913235)

I can confirm to the hon. Member that neither I nor ministerial colleagues in the Department have discussed this matter with the Chancellor since the safeguarding directions were issued 11 days ago.

I thank the Government for safeguarding the land for the Bakerloo line extension. This is a project that will not just improve transport across London, but create jobs and homes and provide a much-needed economic boost for the whole national economy. The next step, though, is that crucial funding. It is disappointing to hear that there have not been any discussions. What resources have the Department and the Treasury set aside to develop a single preferred option for the extension to ensure that construction is under way as soon as possible, to boost our national economy?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. The Chancellor has been a tad busy in the past week or so on a very important economic piece for the country. The Bakerloo line extension is a Transport for London project and the issuing of safeguarding directions actually represents the Government’s commitment to fund the project, but it protects the route from conflicting development that could have raised the cost of the project significantly in the future. His question is best aimed at the Mayor.

International Travel: Safe Restart

What preparatory steps his Department is taking on the safe restart of international travel during the covid-19 pandemic. (913236)

The Government have launched the global travel taskforce mark 2 in order to help facilitate international travel as we deal with this virus.

My right hon. Friend will be aware that thousands of manufacturing jobs in my constituency are reliant on the aerospace and aviation sector. What those people need more than anything else is aircraft in the air, flying again. Will my right hon. Friend set out what steps he is taking with global partners, including looking at schemes such as the International Air Transport Association’s travel pass, to get aircraft flying again in a way that is safe and sustainable?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. He will recall that mark 1 of the global travel taskforce introduced test to release to assist with this. Mark 2 will introduce travel certification by using schemes such as IATA’s travel pass or the World Economic Forum’s CommonPass. He will be interested to know that I have been having conversations with my US counterpart and many others around the world to get that travel going again. The report will be on 12 April.

The Secretary of State just mentioned 12 April for the global travel taskforce recommendations. Is that the date on which the public and the aviation industry will know what the rules will be, or is it just the date when the recommendations will be given to No. 10?

The Chair of the Transport Committee is absolutely right; 12 April is the date that we will report back, and we will make it public on the same day. Travel for leisure or other purposes will not resume or be allowed until 17 May at the earliest. It is important that people realise that that is the earliest date, but we are very keen to get the aviation sector that many Members across the House have talked about back in the air, and this is the route to get it there.

Midlands Rail Hub

What steps his Department is taking to accelerate the midlands rail hub project as part of the midlands engine rail plan. (913238)

The Department has approved £20 million of funding for the development of an outline business case for the midlands rail hub. We are working closely with Network Rail to apply the principles of Project SPEED to the development of this project to ensure that it can progress as quickly as possible.

It is good to see you again this morning, Mr Speaker. I thank the Minister for his reply. The rail corridor to Lincoln, which the Minister knows well, has a proposed upgrade of signalling at Newark, as well as plans for faster and more frequent trains to my constituency of Lincoln. Some of these schemes are almost shovel-ready and can begin this year. Will my hon. Friend consider these schemes and help Lincoln to receive the train services that my constituents deserve?

Mr Speaker, I think we can both agree that my hon. Friend is a wonder to behold, as he demonstrates to us all that a sensible, coherent campaigning strategy—bringing together people and businesses, and demonstrating the potential economic growth that could result from schemes and infra-jstructure —leads to this Government delivering that infrastructure. One only has to look at the roads around his great city and the direct trains to London for which he has campaigned. Midlands Connect is developing a proposal, as he outlines, and if history is anything to go by, his resourcefulness will help to speed it through the process.

Investment in Rail: North of England

What recent assessment he has made of the effect of his policies on rail investment in the north of England on the Government’s levelling-up agenda. (913242)

What recent assessment he has made of the effect of his policies on rail investment in the north of England on the Government’s levelling-up agenda. (913247)

What steps his Department is taking to invest in rail infrastructure projects in the north-west. (913248)

The Government are committed to levelling up rail infrastructure across the north. In that spirit, I am delighted to confirm that we have awarded £137 million to Network Rail to complete detailed design and deliver the Hope Valley capacity scheme. The scheme will transform journeys between the northern powerhouse cities of Manchester and Sheffield by removing bottlenecks on the Hope Valley line. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for High Peak (Robert Largan), who has campaigned relentlessly for the scheme since he was elected and has helped to get it over the line.

May I take this opportunity to remind the Minister that my constituents in Fleetwood would like to be connected to the rail network?

I heard the Minister’s answer to my question, but I do not understand—perhaps he could help me out here—how he squares that with a 40% cut to Transport for the North’s budget.

I know about the proposals to reconnect Fleetwood; I know them very well, because they have been championed so well by my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard).

Transport for the North, which, of course, was established under the Conservatives—has seen its funding for Northern Powerhouse Rail and the Rail North partnership increase year on year. Last year, TfN had funding available to it of £59 million for Northern Powerhouse Rail and of £680,000 for the Rail North partnership. For the next year, both those figures have increased—to £67 million and £700,000. We are getting on with delivering schemes. Whether it be the trans-Pennine route upgrade, the Hope Valley line or phase 2a of HS2 coming to the north of England, we are getting on with delivering.

On that very point, will the Minister take this opportunity to correct the Prime Minister’s statement in which he denied that cuts were taking place to Transport for the North’s budget? Does the Minister believe that cutting core funding to Transport for the North by 40%, which is what is happening, freezing Northern Powerhouse Rail’s budget at £75 million —a third less than was requested—and mothballing plans to roll out contactless ticketing on services like the Tyne and Wear Metro will level up and improve transport infrastructure in the north?

The hon. Gentleman has been in this House long enough to know that the Prime Minister is always right.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. As I have just told the House, the budget for Northern Powerhouse Rail available to Transport for the North last year was £59 million; next year it is £67 million. Looking at that funding alone, it has all the money it needs in order to deliver on the priorities in the north of England. At the same time, we are getting on with delivering, with £29 billion invested in transport across the north of England since 2010, while in the Budget we committed to over £40 billion more for transport and rail infrastructure projects, £17.5 billion in renewals and upgrades over the next three years, and £22.6 billion for HS2. We are getting on with delivering, levelling up and building back better from covid-19.

The infrastructure that underpins the Southport to Manchester Piccadilly service, which serves my constituency, is part of the plan to bring in £400 million-worth of investment and to create jobs. Does my hon. Friend agree that connecting people to jobs and attracting investment is a key part of the levelling-up agenda?

Fresh from securing £37.5 million for the towns deal for Southport in the Budget, I understand that yesterday my hon. Friend met the Rail Minister once again to make the case for his local rail services, as he has consistently done since he was elected. I can assure him that the industry taskforce will be doing its utmost to address the concerns he has raised while preserving the core aim of producing a simplified timetable that all passengers can rely on.

Newcastle-under-Lyme is the second largest town in the UK without a railway station of its own, and if the Minister gives my hon. Friend the Member for Dudley North (Marco Longhi) what he wants, we will be up to No. 1. Keele University is the only major British university without a railway station nearby. Will the Minister welcome the bid that I have submitted to the Restoring Your Railway ideas fund that would solve both those problems with a station in Newcastle and one at Silverdale for Keele University? Will he meet me to discuss the bid so that I can show him some of the details of how it will benefit my constituency?

My hon. Friend makes a very strong case for his constituency. As he correctly points out, the £500 million Restoring Your Railway fund is one of the many ways in which we are intending to level up the country and build back better. The Rail Minister, as chair of the panel, looks forward to reviewing the bid that my hon. Friend has submitted, and I know he would be happy to meet him to discuss the proposals further.

Transport for London: Funding

The Government regularly engage with Transport for London on the impacts of covid-19, and—dare I say?—the Mayor’s management of Transport for London.

My right hon. Friend will be well aware that the current Mayor has increased council tax by 30%, brought TfL to the brink of bankruptcy with £12 billion of debt, even before the pandemic struck, and now wants to charge motorists for coming into the outskirts of London. Does he agree that it is time for a fresh start?

I cannot have my hon. Friend be unfair to the London Mayor; we do have to consider that covid has been a part of that. This Government have stumped up £3.4 billion to assist TfL so far, and we are talking to the Mayor and TfL again. But my hon. Friend is absolutely right to say that there was already a £494 million on-year deficit. Now the Mayor, through not having collected or raised the price of fares over the years, is considering a boundary tax to tax people without representation to enter London. It is appalling mismanagement of our rail services.

Cruises

What steps his Department is taking to allow cruises to safely recommence during the covid-19 pandemic. (913244)

Domestic cruises will restart alongside domestic tourism and indoor hospitality. International cruises will be considered within the global travel taskforce.

The cruise sector is worth more than £10 billion to the UK economy and supports more than 88,000 jobs. Southampton is the cruise capital of northern Europe, with 500 cruise ship visits per year, each one generating £2.5 million for the local economy. Cruises are covid-safe and they are ready to go, but they need three months’ notice to become operational. Will my hon. Friend work with his colleagues in the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office to ensure that the Prime Minister’s road map includes cruises, so that operators have the confidence to start booking passengers?

I completely agree with my hon. Friend about the impressive steps taken by the cruise industry in its covid-19 framework, which was published in October 2020. He is right to celebrate the immense financial and employment contribution of the cruise industry to the UK, including to the Southampton, Itchen constituency, for which he speaks so powerfully. I am pleased that domestic cruises in England will be able to restart under step 3 of the road map, which will be no earlier than 17 May. The restart of international cruises will be considered through the global travel taskforce report on 12 April. My hon. Friend is right that travel advice remains a matter for the FCDO, but he can be absolutely sure that my officials and I will continue to engage with that Department.

Transport Devolution Deal: Cambridgeshire and Peterborough

What assessment he has made of the effectiveness of the 2017 Cambridgeshire and Peterborough devolution deal on transport connectivity in (a) Cambridgeshire and (b) Peterborough. (913251)

The Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government has recently carried out a review on the progress of the devolution deal, and I understand that the outcome of that will be announced in due course.

In the Budget last week, Cambridgeshire and Peterborough was the only mayoral authority not to get money from the intra-city transport settlement. We are still awaiting the blocked £45 million in housing funding, and we got just 75% of the indicative amount for active travel, when everyone else got at least 95%. What have the Government got against Cambridgeshire? Isn’t the Mayor a chum?

The Mayor is a chum, and I would like to think the hon. Member is a chum, too. The cities eligible for the intra-city fund announced in the spending review 2020 have been chosen with the appropriate governance and on the basis of a range of factors, including population, economic growth rates and congestion. The Government are already investing substantially in Cambridgeshire and Peterborough through the £1.5 billion A14 Cambridge to Huntingdon upgrade that was completed last year and a devolved allocation of £95 million from the transforming cities fund for 2020 to 2023, and we are also developing plans for a new Cambridge South station and, obviously, East West Rail.

Smart Motorways

Highways England is delivering its plan for 2020 to 2025, with sets of all-lane running motorway schemes being delivered over the current road investment period. We have committed £500 million to ensure these motorways are as safe as possible.

Since its conversion to a smart motorway, the 10-mile stretch of the M1 between junctions 32 and 35A has seen an average of 68 breakdowns a month in live lanes. Each of these incidents has the potential to end in a tragedy. By contrast, in the three years prior to its conversion, not a serious incident occurred in which a vehicle was struck on the hard shoulder. When will the Government stop gambling with the lives of motorists and abandon these dangerous, ill thought out death traps?

I congratulate the hon. Lady for all her campaigning on this subject, and she knows that I share her passion. When I spoke to her a year ago today to explain the 18 different steps involved in the smart motorways stocktake, she warmly welcomed that work. Smart motorways have been under development since 2001 under the Blair-John Prescott Government. I think I am the first Secretary of State in 12 to carry out the stocktake and review, and I will not rest until these motorways are as safe as possible.

Cycling and Walking

What steps the Government are taking to help local authorities increase levels of cycling and walking. (913272)

The Government are investing £2 billion in active travel over the rest of this Parliament, much of which will go to local authorities. This is the biggest ever boost for cycling and walking.

Many local authorities, including Conservative-run Devon and Labour-run Exeter, are working very well together to deliver on the Government’s vision. What will the Minister do about the small number of obstructionist local councils, such as Kensington and Chelsea in London, which, incredibly, does not have a single segregated bike lane in the whole borough and, furthermore, recently tore out a new temporary one that was very popular with local families, forcing those families and children back out on to a busy main road on their way to school?

I welcome the right hon. Gentleman, who is a new member of the Transport Committee, and look forward to working with him as we move forward on this agenda especially. We have met on this subject previously. He will know that local authorities across the country are doing a marvellous job. Devon County Council has received £1.6 million from the active travel fund in this financial year and is spending it very wisely. There are local authorities that have not consulted on schemes quite as well as we would have liked in the past. We are trying to rectify that, and we are working from the centre with local authorities that are struggling to deliver schemes, to ensure that they deliver them properly, with the appropriate consultation, and that taxpayers’ money is spent wisely.

Topical Questions

We aim to please, Mr Speaker.

Schools are reopening this week, and many more people, including students and parents, are therefore making essential journeys, so I am delighted to announce that today we have released another 150,000 Fix Your Bike vouchers, helping people to get on to their bikes and back into active travel. Each voucher is worth £50 and will help more people get their old bikes fixed and roadworthy again—all part of our unprecedented £2 billion of active travel funding throughout this Parliament.

I welcome the news that Transport for the South East has submitted its ambitious 30-year transport strategy, and my right hon. Friend is to have regard to that in setting policy and investment decisions. Decarbonisation is vital, and as Transport for the South East has shown, its ability to bring together local authorities, Network Rail, Highways England and others and act at scale with six other sub-national transport bodies puts them in a perfect position to help deliver our decarbonisation initiatives. What role does my right hon. Friend have in mind for STBs to help bring about the interventions needed to meet our climate goals?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right: sub-national bodies are extremely important in helping to bring together what can be quite different, disparate systems within a sub-regional area, to ensure that the transport is effective but also, as she rightly says, decarbonised. I see their role as being pivotal to delivering not only good transport but our transport decarbonisation plan.

Last week, I met some of the families of those who have died on smart motorways. I heard the pain and the devastation of those who have been affected by all-lane-running schemes. We last had an update on the number of deaths on smart motorways a year ago. Will the Secretary of State set out what the most recent number of fatalities on smart motorways is?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right about public concern about smart motorways, which, as I mentioned before, I very much share. I was the first Transport Secretary to order a review and a stocktake, which published a year ago yesterday with an 18-point plan. Tomorrow, I will have an update on my desk that I have ordered from Highways England, which will give me all the latest data. The last information I have is the 39 deaths between 2015 and 2019.

I appreciate the answer, but I do not think it is acceptable at all that the data appears to be at the very least a year out of date about a scheme that has significant public interest and when there are grieving families who want to know the true impact. I ask the Secretary of State to improve and to press Highways England to improve its data collection on that issue.

Yesterday, Highways England launched a campaign that encourages drivers to sing a Pet Shop Boys song as a reminder to pull into a refuge. That reduces it down to an insult, insinuating that drivers who became stranded were somehow careless. They were not. They were the victims of an ill-conceived scheme that still leaves people at risk today. What the families really want to know is, what is being done to ensure that there are no further fatalities? At the last Transport orals, I asked the Transport Secretary to pick up the phone and to reinstate the hard shoulder. Did he do that, and if not, why not?

First, the figures to which I refer are national statistics. My understanding is that they have to be quality assured, and it is beyond the control of the Secretary of State to quote figures that have not yet been checked. In answer to the hon. Gentleman’s last point about why we do not simply reinstate the hard shoulder— and I know that is his policy—I know from the work that has been carried out that the statisticians, who have worked very hard on this, tell us that per 1 billion miles travelled, which is the way roads are measured, there are about a third more deaths where there are hard shoulders, because one in 12 fatalities actually takes place on a hard shoulder.

As I mentioned before, I am the first Secretary of State to undertake a full stocktake and review. Tomorrow, I will have a report, and I will come back to this House and report on it very quickly afterwards. These are not new things; they were introduced in 2001 by John Prescott. However, I do absolutely agree with the hon. Gentleman’s desire to see the problem resolved. It is important to know that, while I mentioned the 39 deaths on so-called smart motorways, at the same time there were 368 deaths on regular motorways, so it is very important that we take all of these steps.

On an education campaign so that people understand how to use all motorways, not just smart motorways, the £5 million campaign was one of the calls of the stocktake. Many of the victims’ families, including Meera Naran, who lost her eight-year-old son, have welcomed the fact that the Government are spending a record £5 million to ensure that people know what to do when they do break down.

Last month, I paid a late-night visit to the Orwell bridge to meet the teams who are working on introducing the new speed limit, which will hopefully mean that, when we have recovered from this pandemic, we no longer have to put up with constant closures of the bridge during high wind, which has a very negative economic impact. I actually went inside the bridge, which is something I did not know you could do, and it was very interesting. Also, the port of Felixstowe is to become a freeport—very good news; Orwell bridge—good news. However, we do know that with a freeport we are likely to see increased economic activity and increased traffic. Will my right hon. Friend commit to the increased investment in our road and rail infrastructure to make sure that we can sustain and support this additional growth and activity? (913290)

I am delighted to hear about the progress that has been made on the Orwell bridge, which was the subject of an Adjournment debate between my hon. Friend and I a few months back. I am also delighted to hear about the success of the freeport bid. Obviously, good transport links will be essential. We will consider the implications of freeports on local transport networks in future infrastructure investment decisions.

[R] Here in south Yorkshire, we are providing free community transport to vaccination sites for those who need it. We are doing what we can, but covid has pushed our underfunded bus network to the brink. The national bus strategy is an opportunity to make meaningful change, so can I ask the Secretary of State to reassure me that Mayors and local authorities will be given the powers and the resources needed to improve our bus services? (913291)

I know from our many conversations of the hon. Gentleman’s enthusiasm to get greater control of bus services in his area. I can reassure him, exactly as he has just asked, that not only is that our intention, but—and this will interest other Members of the House who have asked about it today—he will not have to wait very long at all for the bus strategy.

Inter- connectivity is vital to the prosperity of our northern towns and cities. In order to ensure that Wakefield is better connected to neighbouring communities and is more accessible, improving road capacity on routes is needed. Can my right hon. Friend outline whether a Denby Dale bypass between Wakefield and Kirklees will be considered in the third road investment strategy to better connect us with Huddersfield, Manchester and beyond, while relieving pressure on the M1 and M62 around Leeds and Bradford? (913293)

My hon. Friend is a tireless champion for Wakefield. A bypass for Denby Dale would be a matter for the local highways authority—in this case, Kirklees Council—to consider, but it is something it could consider as a bid into the Government’s recently announced £4.8 billion levelling up fund, which has improving local transport connectivity as one of its top priorities.

With the impending cutting-out of petrol and diesel cars from production in the near future, will my right hon. Friend indicate what discussions he has had with the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy to ensure that cars can be more affordable on a mass production basis? (913294)

The £2.8 billion referred to earlier is designed to do exactly that—for example, investment in a megafactory or a gigafactory to produce those batteries, which is one of the largest components of bringing down the price so that cars are affordable. It is also worth considering that we already have more rapid chargers per 100 miles driven than any country in the EU.

The Secretary of State will know that during the covid pandemic, the number of people using bus transportation has fallen dramatically, partly because of people’s fears, but partly because of the social distancing rules. Does that not make it astonishing that, in the middle of its industrial dispute with Unite the Union, Go North West is now packing its buses to shove passengers in? What will be done to increase bus transportation post covid? Will the Secretary of State have a word with the management of Go North West to insist that it does not put passengers’ lives at risk? (913296)

I thank the hon. Gentleman. I am not familiar with that situation, so I am grateful to him for bringing it to my attention, and I assure him that I will look into it this afternoon. On the wider point, he is right to say that right now people are being told to stay at home and avoid travelling. We must do a lot of work to encourage people back on to our public transport—it is important we do that—and as I have hinted to others, he will not have to wait long for a national bus strategy, which I hope will answer all his questions.

Following Cheadle’s successful town’s fund bid, I am pulling together an industry working group to collaborate on the delivery of our new £8 million train station proposal. I look forward to working with representatives from Stockport Council, the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, Network Rail, and Transport for Greater Manchester to restore connectivity, and put Cheadle on the public transport map. Will the Minister agree to meet me to explore opportunities for support from his Department, and help drive that exciting transport project forward? (913295)

The Department is considering my hon. Friend’s ideas fund bid for the East Didsbury to Stockport Metrolink line. We are working closely with the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government as part of the assessment process, and I am sure my hon. Friend the rail Minister would be delighted to meet my hon. Friend.

We will try again, Mr Speaker. I was pleased with the Hendy report on cross border connectivity, which talked about improving the north Wales coastline and access to HS2. Central to that is the Chester to Crewe line. Why not crack on now with electrifying and upgrading that line, and with the track re-layout as part of the Growth Track 360 project at Chester? Will the Minister commit to that? (913292)

It was worth the wait—it is always a delight to hear from the hon. Gentleman. He will be aware that as part of the integrated rail plan we are looking at a range of major investments across the north of England. I am keen to see connections to Crewe enhanced, and Royal Assent has now been given for phase 2a that will take HS2 into Crewe. We have also been consulting with the Crewe north connection on further investments, as part of the design refinement consultation for HS2’s western leg into Manchester. I am keen to speak to the hon. Gentleman about this issue. I have been working with local stakeholders, I have met Growth Track 360, and I am keen for us to work together to achieve this.

[R] On Wednesday 10 February, in answer to my question, the Prime Minister said: “I can certainly confirm that we are going to develop the eastern leg as well as the whole of …HS2”—[Official Report, 10 February 2021; Vol. 689, c. 325.]but an implied threat was posed to that in the National Infrastructure Commission report, so in order to adhere fully to the Prime Minister’s commitment, can the Secretary of State tell us when work on the eastern leg of HS2 will start, so that the promises of his predecessors and the Prime Minister to the people of the north and the north-east can be fully fulfilled? (913297)

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that the Prime Minister said that it is not a case of to be or not to be. We are committed to bringing the benefits of high-speed rail to the north of England and work on the integrated rail plan is progressing well, but Ministers need to take their time to fully consider all the evidence from all stakeholders, including the National Infrastructure Commission and the Government’s own analysis, before finalising the plans. We therefore hope to publish the IRP this spring.

People in Bedfordshire who commute to London on the Bedford midland main line can already take advantage of flexible season tickets or carnet tickets, but my constituents who use stations in Arlesey, Sandy and Biggleswade cannot. When will my hon. Friend come forward with flexible season tickets, so that all my constituents can take advantage of them? (913298)

The Government recognise that changes in travel patterns, which have been accelerated by covid-19, need to be reflected, and we need to accommodate them in a more flexible style of working and travelling. We understand concerns about the cost of some rail fares and the impact that can have on people’s budgets. The Department is actively working with train operators to develop a solution that offers better value and convenience for those who commute flexibly, including on GTR routes, and we will provide a further update on that as part of the Government’s four-step road map out of lockdown.

Thank you, Mr Speaker, for my second bite at the cherry this morning. I am deeply concerned that the traffic policy in my constituency is pushing more traffic on to arterial routes and disproportionately risking the health of the poorer and BAME residents there. What monitoring are the Government doing to ensure that well-intentioned pollution-cutting measures do not shift the problem on to the most vulnerable? (913304)

I am very sorry to hear about what the hon. Gentleman’s local Labour council has been doing with the traffic situation there. I will ensure that the Roads Minister meets urgently with Ealing Council to try to address his concerns, and those of other Ealing Members, over their traffic process.

[R] Will Transport Ministers ensure that funding for a new junction 10A on the A14 at Kettering is provided in road investment strategy 3? Otherwise, with 2,700 new houses expected to have been built in the new Hanwood Park development by that time, traffic will grind to a halt in Kettering, Barton Seagrave and Burton Latimer. (913299)

I thank my hon. Friend for raising that issue. I believe he met my noble Friend the Roads Minister just last week to press the case once again. Highways England is undertaking a full technical review of the options for that junction, to obtain certainty over project costs. That will inform future decisions about how to proceed.

We know that as a result of the disruption caused by the pandemic, many driving students have had to double-pay fees for a driving test. When pressed on that, the Department said that the Road Traffic Act 1988 forbids refunds. Will the Secretary of State therefore support the private Member’s Bill of my hon. Friend the Member for East Renfrewshire (Kirsten Oswald), the Driving Tests (Repayment of Test Fees) Bill? (913317)

Driving tests are among the many things for which there is a big backlog due to the pandemic. I know that because my children are desperate to take their driving tests—or will be shortly. We are doing everything we can to bring them forward, particularly so that people who have already taken their theory test do not end up in a position where they have to pay again. We are doing everything we can. We have already extended the period of time. We have an issue in that we do not want people to take their practical test with a theory test that is so old that it would create new dangers on the roads, but I will look carefully at what the hon. Gentleman has to say.

Exeter airport in my constituency of East Devon will continue to access bespoke support following last week’s Budget and I thank Ministers for engaging with me over the past year. Of course, we continue to grapple with the pandemic. Passenger numbers are down 90% at Exeter airport, and it is clear that long-term solutions will be needed to ensure the recovery of my regional airport and many others across the nation. Please will the Secretary of State provide an update on the progress made so far towards the Government’s aviation recovery plan and say when it will be published? (913300)

On 12 April, my hon. Friend can look forward to seeing that report published. We will ensure that it contains a route not only out of lockdown for travel but, all being well, and as long the vaccination programme is going as it is at the moment here and internationally, for international travel. I stress to the House that while we are in control of our vaccination programme—44% of our adult population are now vaccinated—we do not have control over other countries’ vaccinations. That is why we think we will require a combination of vaccination and testing for international travel to work again. There is a lot to be done. We are working hard, along with my hon. Friend the Aviation Minister, and we will report back to the House on 12 April.

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

Sitting suspended.

Speaker’s Statement

I would like to make a statement. All members of the parliamentary community will have been deeply affected by the distressing news relating to Sarah Everard. The House service will be issuing a clarification for the media about certain matters which have been reported. I remind hon. and right hon. Members that it is extremely important now to exercise caution and avoid references to any ongoing investigation. Although the matter is not at this stage formally covered by the House’s sub judice resolution, we all need to be very careful to make sure we do not say anything which could prejudice any such investigation.

Before we come to the business question, I also want to make a statement following the point of order that was raised at the end of yesterday’s Prime Minister’s questions by the right hon. Member for Leicester South (Jonathan Ashworth) concerning the accuracy of the statement made by the Prime Minister. I want to make it clear what my responsibility is with regard to answers, and what the responsibilities are of those giving them. It is long established that the Speaker is not, and cannot be, responsible for the content of ministerial answers. “Erskine May” says:

“The Speaker’s responsibility for questions is limited to their compliance with the rules of the House. Responsibility in other respects rests with the Member who proposes to ask the question, and responsibility for answers rests with Ministers.”

All Members should correct the record if they make an inaccurate statement to the House. They can do so by raising a point of order or in debate, or, in the case of Ministers, they can make a statement or issue a written ministerial statement. The Government’s own ministerial code could not be clearer about what is expected of Ministers. It says:

“It is of paramount importance that Ministers give accurate and truthful information to Parliament, correcting any inadvertent error at the earliest opportunity”.

The Speaker cannot be dragged into arguments about whether a statement is inaccurate or not. This is a matter of political debate. All Members of this House are honourable. They must take responsibility for correcting the record if a mistake has been made. It is not dishonourable to make a mistake, but to seek to avoid admitting one is a different matter.

I said when I was elected Speaker that we needed to treat each other and the electorate with respect. What I have talked about today is an important part of that, and I hope all Members will act in that spirit. I have been very clear, and so I do not wish to take points of order on this matter now. If necessary, I have no doubt that we will return to this issue some time in the future.

Business of the House

The business for the week commencing 15 March will include:

Monday 15 March—Second Reading of the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill (day 1).

Tuesday 16 March—Conclusion of the Second Reading of the Police, Crime, Sentencing And Courts Bill (day 2).

Wednesday 17 March—Opposition day (18th allotted day). There will be a debate on a motion in the name of the Scottish National party. Subject to be announced.

Thursday 18 March—Debate on a motion on the UK’s commitment to reconciliation, accountability and human rights in Sri Lanka, followed by a general debate on World Water Day. The subjects for these debates were determined by the Backbench Business Committee.

Friday 19 March—The House may sit on Friday 19 March for further consideration of private Members’ Bills. This is subject to the progress of business and to the approval of a sittings motion.

The provisional business for the week commencing 22 March will include:

Monday 22 March—Consideration of Lords amendments, including consideration of Lords message to the Trade Bill, followed by the remaining stages of the Air Traffic Management and Unmanned Aircraft Bill [Lords].

I thank the Leader of the House for giving us the business. I hope he will join me in wishing for speedy boarding of the private Members’ Bills on Friday, with no disruption.

I know that the Leader of the House takes seriously a lack of responses to hon. Members from Government Departments. He will be concerned to hear that my hon. Friend the Member for Edmonton (Kate Osamor) has not received a response from the Department of Health and Social Care to a question from 9 October, or to two from 19 October. I know she has written to the Leader of the House. Can we ensure that she gets a response?

The Leader of the House is very keen to have us back here, but we seem to be having a lot more Zoom meetings. The Minister for Covid Vaccine Deployment, the hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Nadhim Zahawi), is having a Zoom meeting, and the chair of the Trade and Agriculture Commission has invited us to a Zoom meeting. It is quite difficult in terms of accountability, because not everybody can join these meetings. In addition, the Official Reporters work very hard to make sure that things are on the record. In keeping with what you have just said, Mr Speaker, we need to ensure that things are on the record, and the relevant people need to come to the House to provide accountability.

My hon. Friend the shadow Housing Minister has asked where the Building Safety Bill is. It was published in draft on 20 July, but it has not had its First Reading. It contains important improvements for the safety of residents in high-rise buildings and the building safety regulator. May we have an update?

I know that the Leader of the House will be concerned about the National Audit Office report on local government finances during the pandemic, which was published yesterday, 10 March. Many face significant gaps in funding. We are talking about statutory services such as adult social care and special needs libraries; all those may have to be cut. The shadow Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government has said that councils have lost 60% of their funding in the last decade. Will the Leader of the House confirm that we will have a debate on the NAO report in Government time, particularly as our constituents may have to pay for it in the 5% council tax increase?

We also need a statement on whether councils are actually getting, pound for pound, what they have spent during the pandemic. We know that the Government have got the money, because they had £37 billion for Test and Trace. I know that the Leader of the House, because he is very keen on making sure that public money is spent wisely, will want to debate the Public Accounts Committee report on Test and Trace, which was published yesterday. It said that there is

“no clear evidence to judge”

the “overall effectiveness” of Test and Trace. It was supposed to be a game changer. The Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies has said that

“test and trace was having only a marginal impact on transmission”

and the NAO said that there was low compliance, yet there is £37 billion of committed expenditure. We now have Serco, one of the companies involved, paying out dividends to its directors. That is appalling.

Thank you, Mr Speaker, for your statement. I am going to ask the Leader of the House whether he will correct the record. Will he write and place a letter in the Library, having checked the Official Report from January 2020 to see what exactly the Opposition did? I will repeat it again. The shadow Secretary of State for Health said, “The House will not be divided on this.”

Let us see what the Minister said. He said that 1% for nurses’ pay would cost three quarters of a billion pounds, so—this is a rough calculation—2.1% would cost £1.5 billion. We know that the £37 billion is in the accounts of the Department of Health and Social Care. The head of NHS England said that 2.1% was allocated when the funding was agreed in 2018. We cannot trust the Government now to keep their word, to protect the NHS, or with the finances. May we have a statement on Monday clearing all this up, as the press secretary apparently cannot, or will not, announce it from the £2.9 million bunker?

It is wonderful news that Nazanin has had her tag taken off and that she will hopefully be home soon. There is no word on Anousheh. He was a dutiful son who was visiting his mother. Kylie Moore-Gilbert has said that if her ordeal was made public, she would not have had a 10-year sentence.

Thank you, Mr Speaker, for celebrating International Women’s Day and Commonwealth Day on Monday. It is Mothering Sunday on Sunday. I do not know whether you are aware of the survey by the Office for National Statistics, which said that, in the pandemic, women spent more time on household chores than men, and that three quarters of women were emergency educating compared with just over half of men. A Mumsnet survey found that women are worried that women’s equality is

“going back to the 1970s”

at work and home, and in society. We wish everyone a happy Mothering Sunday, and our thoughts go out to Sarah Everard’s family.

Indeed our thoughts do go out to Sarah Everard’s family. The right hon. Lady is right to raise that and the more general point about the burden that has fallen on women during the pandemic. That is a point very fairly and well made, and the men of the United Kingdom should be very grateful for that. It has been a very difficult time for many families.

I share the right hon. Lady’s pleasure that Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe has had her tag removed. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister spoke to the President of Iran and made absolutely clear that there is no reason to hold, detain or keep Nazanin any longer. She ought to be free to leave. As the right hon. Lady knows, this is an issue that the Government take very seriously and have been working on consistently, and we must and will continue to do so.

I agree with the right hon. Lady that it would be good if the private Members’ Bills that are down for tomorrow were attended to speedily, though that is out of my hands. I do know some of the tricks of the trade when it comes to filibustering, and I hope that my right hon. and hon. Friends will not feel that they wish to use those tricks of the trade next week.

The right hon. Lady made the point that people coming to the House to make statements that are on the record is better than endless Zoom calls. That is quite right. I think that Zoom calls do have a place and it is very helpful to give cross-party briefings, but the Floor of the House is where the real business takes place.

As regards the draft Building Safety Bill, the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government is certainly working on that. That is a matter of Government policy and the Government intend to bring that forward.

Moving on to the right hon. Lady’s more contentious questions, starting with support for local councils, £35 billion is not bad going, is it? It is helpful to councils up and down the country, and £4.6 billion of that has been un-ringfenced, so there has been very, very considerable support. That has gone across the country, so £9.5 billion has gone to the north, with £6 billion for the midlands, £7 billion for London and £4 billion for the south-west. Councils have received huge financial support from the taxpayer. Ultimately, there is only one taxpayer and how taxes are paid is merely a question of how we divide it up. Great support has been given.

As regards Test and Trace, it has done astonishing things. I wonder whether the right hon. Lady is aware that 9.1 million people have been contacted, thanks to Test and Trace, who might otherwise have spread the virus. We are carrying out a minimum of 750,000 tests a day, and with the return to school and the lateral flow tests, that has gone to over 1 million in recent days. People are being contacted. They are being tested and, yes, of course this involves the private sector, but the private sector is part of how our economy is structured. We cannot say with any sense of reasonableness that the drug companies—big pharma—that have helped us to get the vaccine are marvellous, but that the companies involved in the roll-out of Test and Trace are somehow improper. They are not. They have done a fantastic job and it is a considerable success, in spite of what the much-respected Public Accounts Committee has to say. Even Homer nods, would be my answer to that.

Regarding the issue of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister’s comments, the right hon. Lady seemed to change the goalposts a bit. She started talking about a vote a year ago, whereas the right hon. and learned Gentleman the Leader of the Opposition referred to something two years ago, so there is a lack of clarity about what on earth the Opposition are asking about. If the Opposition cannot bring themselves to answer clear questions, it is not surprising that they then do not understand the answer.

I am delighted to clear it up. Her Majesty’s Opposition voted against the Queen’s Speech at the beginning of this Session. The increases that this Government proposed in NHS funding were a centrepiece of the Gracious Speech, and their votes against the Queen’s Speech were an attempt to stifle the Government’s agenda before it had even begun. The Queen’s Speech made clear our intention to establish in law for the first time the NHS’s multi-year funding settlement, a testament to how seriously the Government take funding the NHS. We have delivered a 12.8% increase in nurses’ pay over three years and we are seeing a 34% increase in nurses’ applications. The right hon. and learned Gentleman the Leader of the Opposition did not ask about a Bill. He asked about a document, and it seems to me that the Queen’s Speech is a document because it is printed, on very fine paper normally—it used to be on vellum.

We have to live within our means. Everyone recognises that. There is not a single person in this country who does not recognise the phenomenal contribution made by the NHS over the last year, by doctors, nurses and all those who work in the NHS, but the Government—the taxpayer—have an enormous deficit, one of the biggest in our history, and what is happening is reasonable within the context that nurses have already received a 0.7% increase. They will receive a further 1% increase in the next financial year, as will all NHS workers. It is worth bearing in mind that the last time there was a 1% increase in NHS pay, it led to an average 2.7% increase for the average worker in the NHS because of grade increments. So actually, the situation is considerably better than is being painted by the Opposition, and the admiration and appreciation of what people who work in the NHS have done is shared across the whole country, but the country has to live within its means. That is a hard truth that the Opposition seek to run away from.

My right hon. Friend will see that the restoration and renewal sponsor body’s latest report, out today, recommends exactly the same as the report in 2014 and the report in 2016, and draws the same conclusion as the Parliamentary Buildings (Restoration and Renewal) Bill that I introduced in 2018. My right hon Friend must surely see that the risks of a major asbestos leak, a sewage failure, or, indeed, a devastating fire, such as we saw at Notre Dame, are very high and remain very high, and we have virtually no contingency for this place. My personal motto is JFDI, and I would like to offer that to my right hon. Friend to gird his loins to make some progress.

I always prefer the motto of Queen Elizabeth I: semper eadem—always the same—which makes a very good motto. Or, if you like, Mr Speaker, honi soit qui mal y pense, which is also a jolly good motto from the Order of the Garter.

My right hon. Friend is right to raise the issue of restoration and renewal. It is crucial that this building has its wiring improved and the basic services made effective. On the fire safety issue, a considerable amount of work has been done; the new fire safety system is being tested currently, and I am getting regular reports on that. It is a mist system with significant excess capacity, which means that there is the prospect of extending it further. I am glad to say that that has made considerable progress since my right hon. Friend was the Leader of the House.

Regardless of all these reports, regardless of what people have suggested, this has to get value for money for the taxpayer. We have suddenly heard talk of costs of £10 billion to £20 billion coming up. We cannot say that to our constituents. We in this House have the responsibility to protect taxpayers’ money. The other place, it must be remembered, does not. We are responsible, responsive and answerable to our constituents. Yes, we need to redo the wiring. Yes, we need to ensure that this place is safe and secure, but we must not turn this House of Commons into Disneyland.

The transition period continues, and I again make a plea to the Leader of the House to do all he can to ensure the speedy return of my hon. Friend the Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart) to his place in this situation.

I also welcome today’s debate on the celebration of International Women’s Day. However, while we battle the covid pandemic, there is a hidden pandemic of domestic abuse during lockdown. The World Health Organisation has reported that one in three women globally—around 736 million—have been subjected to physical or sexual violence in their homes during this pandemic period. I ask the Leader of the House to do all he can to ensure that the Government take steps finally to ratify the Istanbul convention, as had been agreed in 2017 under the Preventing and Combating Violence Against Women and Domestic Violence (Ratification of Convention) Bill presented by Eilidh Whiteford, a colleague at the time. I hope that that can be brought forward with some speed.

Last week, I asked for an Opposition Day debate in the name of the Scottish National party. It has been granted, and I commend the Leader of the House for the pace at which that was brought forward. I have no doubt that he is eagerly anticipating the topics to be debated. However, I am aware that the time for that debate is not protected, so may I ask whether it is possible for it to be protected, or that every step possible is taken to ensure that we have the full time available to us?

Last month, the Prime Minister claimed that directly awarded covid contracts were there on the record “for everyone to see”. We now know that this was widely removed from the actuality. Indeed, the Government broke the law. Does the Leader of the House agree that supporting my Ministerial Interests (Emergency Powers) Bill would help to rebuild public trust, enable our procurement systems to be protected, and enable us to build back better as we come out of the pandemic?

Finally, I echo the comments of the shadow Leader of the House and the Leader of the House about Sarah Everard and send my thoughts to her family at this very, very difficult time.

I understand that the hon. Gentleman’s colleague the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart) celebrated his birthday this week, so may I, on behalf of the House, wish the hon. Gentleman many happy returns of the day?

The hon. Member for Midlothian (Owen Thompson) is absolutely right to raise the issue of domestic abuse. I am glad to say that the Domestic Abuse Bill is making good progress in the House of Lords. I hope it will come back to this House in reasonably good time, so we can have a Bill on the statute book that helps people, protects people and secures people. It is, of course, about more than just passing laws and conventions; it is about changing society’s attitude, and an understanding that domestic abuse is wrong, that it is serious and that a domestic assault is just as serious an offence as any other assault outside the domestic context.

I hear the hon. Gentleman’s plea for protection for his Opposition day debate. I would say in response that having managed to get the Opposition day debate—ask and it shall be given; seek and ye shall find; knock and it shall be opened unto ye—but I am not sure I can promise protected time. However, Mr Speaker has no doubt heard the request in regard to urgent questions and I have heard it in regard to statements. It is sometimes a very difficult balancing act when Members feel a statement or urgent question is necessary, but it is, generally speaking, the aim to ensure that Opposition days are reasonably protected.

Finally, on covid contracts, I just fundamentally disagree with the hon. Gentleman. I think we can be really proud of the honesty of our governmental systems in this country, regardless of the party in power. I do not think we should throw around charges of dodgy dealing lightly, because we should have great confidence in the honesty of our public systems. Normally we have a system that takes three to six months to award contracts. We faced an emergency. It would have been ridiculous for red tape to hold up the delivery of contracts. The contracts were given to Labour-supporting people as well as to Conservatives, so it is recognised that people who have interests in party politics can also provide PPE. We went from producing 1% domestically to 70%, and the vaccine roll-out has been a terrific success, dependent on the private sector. I think we should take great comfort from the efficiency of our private sector and the honesty of our governmental systems.

Farmers in my constituency, like others across the UK, suffer great emotional and financial loss every year as a result of dog attacks on livestock. National Farmers Union Cymru and the Farmers’ Union of Wales have been working with the north Wales police rural crime team to make the Dogs (Protection of Livestock) Act 1953 fit for purpose in the 21st century. Will the Leader of the House support me in finding time for a debate in Government time on this important subject?

My hon. Friend is right to raise this issue. Representing a rural constituency, I appreciate how serious a concern it is. I understand that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs had a recent livestock worrying roundtable, which sounds a deeply uncomfortable thing to have. None the less, it had a livestock worrying roundtable last week with the north Wales police rural crime team and representatives from veterinary organisations, where technical questions on the use of DNA sampling in prosecuting an attack were discussed. I am aware it is something DEFRA is looking at. I encourage my hon. Friend, in her effort to make sure DEFRA considers it more and more, to seek an Adjournment debate on this matter, but I will pass on her comments to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State.

We have been led to believe that it might be the Government’s intention to retain Thursday 25 March for Government business, which will no doubt be a disappointment to, among others, the hon. Member for Southend West (Sir David Amess). However, as always, should any time on days other than Thursdays become available, the Backbench Business Committee has a number of tasty morsels to add to the parliamentary menu.

I have been alerted to the fact that we have a situation in our schools where, if a student has a covid positive lateral flow test in school which proves to be a false positive when countermanded by a negative polymerase chain reaction test, the current guidance is that they still have to self-isolate and unnecessarily miss even more of their schooling. Can we have a ministerial statement to clear this up and get these young people back to school—and their families back to work, because isolating has to happen for the whole family?

I note the hon. Member’s request for 25 March and for time when available. Of course, 25 March is the feast of the Annunciation, so it may be an opportunity to have a debate on the importance of the Annunciation in the general development of our nation. I appreciate that he would like other days to be available too.

I understand that one in 1,000 lateral flow tests are false positives, so it is a rare occurrence. The circumstances that the hon. Member outlines are therefore usual, but he makes a good point about the secondary test not being authoritative, and I will take that up on his behalf with the Department of Health and Social Care.

Now that we have a road map of sorts for the House of Commons, what are my right hon. Friend’s plans for proceedings in the Chamber, including for voting, by which I mean what does he see as temporary and what does he see as permanent? Put another way, with reference to his earlier quote, will he be channelling his inner Elizabeth I with respect to this place?

Yes, but I encourage my hon. Friend to come to the Chamber to make his brilliant points, because there is no restriction other than the numbers within the Chamber. MPs have a right dating back to 1340 to come to this House, and I encourage them to exercise that right now that schools are back.

The return of MPs and staff gradually to the estate was approved by the Commission earlier this week, and it broadly mirrors the national road map. Many of these matters are for the Commission and Mr Speaker, and some of them are for decision by the House. However, the measures were agreed by consensus on the basis that they were temporary. If people want to keep some of these measures permanently, they must make the case for them and bring them in at some later date, but we must restore the status quo ante first, because that was the basis on which people agreed to the changes, and they would feel cheated—and rightly so—if anything else were done.

The Department for International Trade’s parliamentary export programme launched this year. Businesses in my constituency will be able to participate in a series of briefings over the coming months run by the Department and assisted by Scottish Development International and Scottish chambers. Will the Leader of the House schedule a debate in Government time on how the UK Government can support companies to start exporting or expand their exports and adjust to the changing trade environment after Brexit?

The hon. Lady raises a really important point. The Government have a wide range of measures with which they support businesses that wish to export, including the export credit guarantee scheme, the use of embassies to help people to export and guidance that is available. To give that a higher profile so that more people know what support is available is extremely worth while. While I cannot promise a specific debate, her point is one that I am sure the Department will want to follow up on.

May we have a statement from the Foreign Secretary on the issue raised so eloquently in last night’s Adjournment debate by our hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski): the Nord Stream 2 pipeline and the strategic threat it constitutes to our central and eastern European friends and allies? The Under-Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Wendy Morton), agreed with the analysis by our hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham but stopped short of agreeing with his recommendations for action we can take. This is a very serious matter, and it deserves deeper and wider consideration.

My right hon. Friend is right to raise the important Adjournment debate that was held yesterday by our hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski). It is a useful example of how important Adjournment debates can be in raising issues of national significance. There are currently no autonomous UK sanctions being imposed with respect to Nord Stream 2, and it would not be right to speculate on future sanction designations from the Dispatch Box this morning. None the less, the UK remains concerned about Nord Stream 2 and its implications for European energy security and the interests of Ukraine. Our focus continues to be on regulation, diversification and decarbonisation of sources of supply, and we will continue to work closely with our European allies on these issues, although the implications of the pipeline may be something that my right hon. Friend’s Intelligence and Security Committee is interested in looking into.

Like women across the country, I have not been able to stop thinking about Sarah Everard; my thoughts are with those who knew and loved her. All women know the fear of walking home at night. We hold keys tightly between our fingers, we quicken our pace, and we pretend to make phone calls. It is almost second nature.

But women should be able to walk home without fear. Does the Leader of the House agree that we, as parliamentarians, should make it clear that the emphasis must be on tackling violence against women and girls and the norms that too often sustain it, rather than victim-blaming narratives that say women should not be on the streets at night?

I entirely agree with the hon. Lady—she is absolutely right. Everybody in this country should feel free to walk the streets at night safely and securely, and women should be as free to do that as men. The best way to ensure that is by tackling crime, making our streets safer and getting the extra 20,000 police on the street.

There is nothing more reassuring than seeing a police officer in uniform when walking the streets, and that is a comfort that we in this country hope to be able to continue to take, and to take more of, as more police join the various forces up and down the country. I never thought I would agree so wholeheartedly with a question from the hon. Lady.

TSB in Radcliffe recently closed, and it was the only bank in the town. That has resulted in footfall in the town decreasing drastically, as I discussed with representatives from Radcliffe market recently, and TSB’s branch in Prestwich in my constituency is due to close next month.

As we are talking about levelling up and the regeneration of our towns, will my right hon. Friend find time for a debate on the importance of banking and cash machines so that we can access cash on our high streets?

I know that the presence of bank branches on the high street is a concern for many Members and their constituents. Her Majesty’s Government recognise the importance of cash and access to banks to the daily lives of millions of people throughout the United Kingdom, and particularly those in vulnerable groups.

Although I can understand the dissatisfaction when banks close their branches, decisions on opening and closing branches are taken by the management team of each bank on a commercial basis. It would not be right for the Government to intervene in such decisions. Banks must balance customer interests, market competition and other commercial factors when they consider their strategies. Since May 2017, the major high street banks have been signed up to the access to banking standard, which commits them to work with customers and communities to minimise the impact of branch closures.

Nature is declining all over the world at an unprecedented rate. Every year we are losing species and habitats, yet nature is important to our survival, quality of life and mental health. The next international convention on biodiversity is imminent; will the Leader of the House commit to bringing the Environment Bill back to the House as soon as possible after Easter, so that the UK will have ambitious targets to restore nature?

The Environment Bill is in the other place and the Government have every intention of bringing it back as soon as it can complete its passage. It is subject to a carry-over, so there is no risk of it falling at Prorogation; it is a highlight of the Government’s programme. The commitment to nature is enormous, as has been shown in the ocean designations that have been created around British territories to ensure that the oceans are safeguarded. We have done more in that regard than almost any other country in the world.

Our high streets have been hit especially hard by the pandemic, with many businesses forced to close. Will my right hon. Friend agree to a debate to consider the support available for reopening our high streets, especially across Stoke-on-Trent, so that our retailers, hairdressers, beauty salons and hospitality businesses can start off on a strong footing when they are allowed to reopen?

The Government have set out their road map cautiously to ease lockdown restrictions, including the reopening of non-essential retail no earlier than 12 April, subject to the data. The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government have reconvened a small working group of retailers and local authorities to discuss and work together on how best to reopen the relevant sectors, so the Government’s approach is co-designed with the business community.

So far, the Government have provided local authorities in England with £50 million of taxpayers’ money through the reopening high streets safely fund, with grants being available to apply for until the end of June 2021. In addition to the financial support already provided, the Chancellor has announced that Her Majesty’s Government will provide additional one-off restart grants for businesses in England in the non-essential, retail, hospitality, leisure, personal care and accommodation sectors. That new restart grant scheme will provide £6,000 for non-essential businesses.

The Government continue to provide eligible retail, hospitality and leisure properties in England with 100% business rates relief until 30 June 2021, followed by 66% business rates relief from the period 1 July 2021 to 1 March 2022. A great deal is happening, but my hon. Friend is right to raise the issue because we want to see our high streets come back booming when we reopen.

I thank the Leader of the House and all House staff for the restarted hybrid petitions debates; just this week, petitions signed by more than 370,000 petitioners have been debated.

I want to raise an issue pertinent to this week, which marks International Women’s Day. As a precaution, all pregnant women are automatically classed as clinically vulnerable to covid-19. The Petitions Committee recommended back in September that furlough be extended to expectant mothers who cannot socially distance at work or work from home. Government funding through the furlough scheme cannot be used for that purpose, and we have heard worrying reports of pregnant women struggling to come to fair arrangements with their employers.

I again urge the Government to reconsider and listen to calls from Maternity Action and others for expectant mothers to be eligible for furlough if they are unable to work safely. Will the Leader of the House find time for a broader debate on how we prevent the pandemic from deepening pre-existing gender inequalities in the workplace?

I am delighted that the hybrid Westminster Hall is getting important petitions debated. It is a very effective way of ensuring that the matters of the greatest concern to our constituents are aired.

It is obviously important that businesses work with their staff to ensure that they are comfortable going back to work and that there is consideration for all sorts of factors that may have an effect on people returning. Pregnancy, inevitably, is a very important one of those. Employers have a duty—a legal obligation—to ensure that their workplaces are secure. I think these issues are best left between employers and employees, rather than having potentially heavy-handed Government intervention.

Will my right hon. Friend make parliamentary time available this Session for the Second Reading of my private Member’s Bill—the Pets (Microchips) Bill? Tuk’s law and Gizmo’s law campaigners have fought for many years to protect the welfare of dogs, cats and other pets, together with the rights of their owners. I believe that it is a Bill that the whole House will be eager to support.

My hon. Friend has written to me on this matter, and he will be aware that there is a sitting Friday tomorrow for the remaining stages of eight private Members’ Bills to take place. As I said when sitting Fridays were suspended, I brought forward the motion reluctantly following representations made to me from across the House. I committed to ensuring that a motion was brought forward to bring back sitting Fridays at the earliest opportunity when it was possible and practical, which is why there will be a further motion for 19 March if tomorrow goes well and if it is a productive and useful session. That would allow for Second Readings.

I congratulate my hon. Friend, because he is using parliamentary procedures entirely properly. A ten-minute rule Bill does not normally become legislation in the Session in which it is introduced, but it begins a campaign that raises the heat on the Government to do things. I note that he is turning up the gas mark with his question to me today.

I have always thought that the best way to deal with some of the historical problems that the Rhondda faces is getting the Senedd to work hand in hand with Parliament as a team. That is especially true because we have some major infrastructure projects that really need financial support. We have already talked about the tips that need sorting out, and there is the Rhondda Fach relief road, the Rhondda tunnel and a whole series of drains that have major problems because of the honeycombing underneath that results from the historical legacy of the mines.

Will the Leader of the House please make sure that there is a proper discussion of the levelling up fund so that this really is a case of Westminster and the Senedd working hand in hand? Will he make sure there is an opportunity for valleys MPs to sit down and discuss this properly with the Chancellor of the Exchequer? Then perhaps we can have a debate in the House.

The hon. Gentleman is right to raise this issue. It is important that all parts of the United Kingdom are able to benefit from efforts to level up. One of the advantages of the United Kingdom Internal Market Act 2020 is that it has made it possible for Her Majesty’s Government to fund schemes across the United Kingdom rather than simply in England. He is right to call for further discussions to see how this can be done.

There are applications going in for the levelling-up fund now, and there are a further 49 deals to be awarded. It is about working together as one United Kingdom. I know that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales is very keen to settle these issues, too, so I think that there may be considerable cross-party agreement among Welsh MPs in this House on the issues that the hon. Gentleman raises.

Rugby league is of great cultural importance to communities like Leigh; I am sure that my right hon. Friend will welcome the return of Leigh Centurions to the rugby super league. Will he join me in supporting Leigh Centurions fans to create a category 1 rugby league academy? Furthermore, may I ask for a debate on the benefits such academies can provide to young people in constituencies like Leigh across the north?

I congratulate Leigh Centurions on their fantastic achievement. I do not really know how fantastic their achievement is, but it sounds extremely good, and I hope that my hon. Friend will explain it to me in more detail at some point.

Hosting the rugby league world cup later this year will provide a fantastic opportunity to recover, grow, and bring people together. It is the start of our efforts to unite and level up outcomes for people in communities across the UK as we seek to build back better. If I have not confessed it already, I think my knowledge of cricket is a little bit greater than my knowledge of rugby league, but I am looking forward to being educated by my hon. Friend—and, by the looks of it, by Mr Speaker as well.

I am sure that the Leader of the House will agree that it has been an extremely difficult week for the family and friends of the 16-year-old who was killed in my neighbouring constituency of Rhondda, as well as for the loved ones of Sarah Everard, whose case I know we are all closely following. No one should live in fear of male violence, which is a topic we should be regularly speaking up on, and not just in an annual debate to commemorate International Women’s Day. Will he therefore commit to a debate on male violence in Government time?

The hon. Lady makes a really important point, which I would perhaps answer in a slightly different way. What this House does that is of the greatest importance is not to have debates on particular issues but to legislate. That is why I am particularly pleased that, unusually for a Second Reading debate, we have two days on the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, because when we legislate we change the law—we actually do things. When we have debates, we may develop views but we do not actually do things. Likewise, the Domestic Abuse Bill, which is in the House of Lords, does things. We should really focus the mind of this House on legislating so that we can improve things in the way the hon. Lady is calling for.

The anniversary of the first lockdown—the day that changed everything in this country—is rapidly approaching: it will be with us on 23 March. I am working with Variety, the children’s charity, among others, to ensure that that date is commemorated so that we remember those who died and those who have lost so much, thank those who have done so much, and also look forward to a brighter future as lockdown lifts. Can the Leader of the House assure me that the House, too, will commemorate that date and have a minute’s silence? In doing so, can I thank you, Mr Speaker, for your willingness to ensure that the House commemorates 23 March—the National Day of Reflection?

My right hon. Friend raises a very important point. It is going to be important for us to remember the people who have died during this national pandemic. Obviously the proposal for a minute’s silence is a matter for you, Mr Speaker, but there would be absolutely no objection—indeed, there would be support—from Her Majesty’s Government. It may be, Mr Speaker, that your Chaplain would like to hold a service on that day to have a commemoration. I think that it will be a prayerful day for the nation.

As Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s local MP, I have raised the issue of the £400 million that the UK owes Iran with three Prime Ministers and four Foreign Secretaries so far. In a call to the Prime Minister yesterday, Iranian President Rouhani all but confirmed that resolving this debt was the key to diplomatic progress, and could help Nazanin’s case. Will the Leader of the House finally admit that there is a clear link between the two, or at least allow a debate in Government time to test their arguments?

No. The hon. Lady has quite rightly campaigned for the release of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, as has the shadow Leader of the House. However, it would be quite wrong to link payments of any money to the release of somebody who is improperly detained. Once Her Majesty’s Government go down that route, every badly run country in the world will hold us to ransom via our citizens; we must not do that. We must be absolutely clear that the UK Government do not pay for the release of hostages, whether they are held by states or by individuals. To link these two issues would be a dangerous change of very, very long-standing Government policy.

I refer Members to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.

It saddens me to say that Labour-run Hyndburn Borough Council announced that it will be closing the baths at Mercer Hall in Great Harwood. We saw the same happen with Labour-run Rossendale Borough Council and Haslingden baths. All Labour councillors also voted against a fully costed amendment by the Conservative group to put capital investment into saving the baths and providing disabled access. There is a now a petition urging the council to listen to the wants of the residents of Great Harwood, but will the Leader of the House also allow a debate in Government time as to how best to protect valuable local leisure facilities?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising this important point. It is regrettable that a Labour council—a socialist council—would close a local facility that is loved so much by the residents of Great Harwood. It is a shame to see the people of Hyndburn let down in this way.

The Localism Act 2011 introduced the community right to buy, which is a way in which communities have come together to protect local assets by making the case to their local authority to list the facility as an asset of community value; local people can be assured that the amenity will not be lost without them being notified and being given an opportunity to bring the building into community ownership. To date, the Government are aware that over 4,000 assets of community value, including leisure centre facilities, have been successfully nominated by community groups in England. I encourage my hon. Friend to have an Adjournment debate to keep raising the subject, so that support may be built up for using the community right to buy.

The Government have announced a consultation to reform aviation tax, including air passenger duty, and a commitment to decarbonise. These commitments come at a time when our travel and aviation industries are facing the biggest crisis in their history, and at the time of the Union connectivity review. Will the Leader of the House tell us whether we will have the opportunity to debate how our domestic airports and air travel, as part of UK connectivity, can be pursued with a green agenda?

The Government have made it very clear with the Prime Minister’s 10-point plan how green we are going to be, while ensuring that there is good economic growth; that is absolutely at the heart of what the Government are doing. The proposals for aviation tax are to encourage connectivity across the United Kingdom. I am sure that these matters will be debated over the coming weeks and months in the House of Commons, because they are important to the development of the country’s economy.

I am a little concerned that Ministers are now casting doubt on the reliability and efficacy of the vaccine, but we have been told by scientists that the first dose brings substantial protection, and the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation has said that it offers between 70% and 90% efficacy. We must follow the science and trust the data—or so we are told. We must believe in the vaccines, and we must lift restrictions in line with the protection that the scientists are telling us that the vaccine brings. I do not believe we should keep the country in lockdown any longer than necessary. We have to get people out, because of the substantial harms that lockdown brings. Will my right hon. Friend talk to Government Ministers and ask them to stop changing the test for lifting restrictions every time we get past what we think might be the finishing line? I would also like to say to the Leader of the House that I am looking forward to joining him in going to Annabel’s or anywhere he chooses.

That’s a date, then, although I am certainly not a member; perhaps my hon. Friend is.

The vaccination programme has been a huge success and is a key part of the road map to get back to normal. The Government’s aim is to offer a vaccination to everyone in the first nine priority groups, including everybody over the age of 50, by 15 April, and to all adults by the end of July. The road map that has been set out has been set out clearly so that we can stick to it and the goalposts do not get changed. I think she and Government policy are at one on this.

Inspectors this week issued an absolutely scathing report about conditions at Napier and Penally barracks, into which the Home Secretary has crammed hundreds of asylum seekers in the middle of a pandemic, and hundreds have become ill with coronavirus. It is challenging to say the least to reconcile that report with what Ministers have previously told this House. When will the Home Secretary be making a statement in response, and will she be correcting anything that she has previously told us about the conditions at Napier and Penally barracks?

I, like the hon. Gentleman, have read the interim report, and certainly it raises some matters of considerable concern. There will be a full report coming later, and I think it is best to discuss these matters in detail when we have the full facts.

The £67 million awarded to my borough of Sandwell from the towns fund is a great success for the Government’s levelling-up agenda. However, my communities in Wednesbury and Tipton were the only parts of the borough of Sandwell to receive nothing from the towns fund. Can my right hon. Friend reassure my communities in Wednesbury and Tipton, through a debate in Government time, on how the measures announced by our right hon. Friend the Chancellor last week in the Budget can ensure that towns like Wednesbury and Tipton get equal access to funding opportunities, just as much as towns like West Bromwich?

The £4.8 billion levelling-up fund will spend taxpayers’ money on local infrastructure that improves everyday life across the United Kingdom, including regenerating town centres and high streets, upgrading local transport and spending money on cultural and heritage assets. The fund will operate UK-wide, extending the benefits of funding for priority local infrastructure across all regions and nations. The prospectus published at the Budget provides guidance for local areas on how to submit bids for the first round of funding for projects starting in 2021-22. That includes guidance on the process for submitting bids, the types of projects eligible for funding and how bids will be assessed. To reassure my hon. Friend, there are still 49 deals to be awarded, and the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government will be making further announcements in due course, which will be the opportunity for other communities in his constituency to apply.

Two weeks ago, the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence published its provisional assessment of the drug Kuvan, for the treatment of phenylketonuria, or PKU. While it is good to see NICE recommend it be made available for children up to 18, it is hugely disappointing that it has not recommended making it available for adults. People with PKU have already waited 12 years for access to this treatment. Can we have a debate in Government time on access to medicines for rare diseases, such as Kuvan for PKU?

I have a great deal of sympathy with the point that the hon. Lady is making. When we represent constituents who need drugs for rare diseases, it is important that we get them. I think the principle that NICE is independent in making these decisions is also a sensible one, but it is crucial that its decisions are made in a timely way and appear to be reasonable to the country at large. NICE is a matter that will come up for debate, but it may be that the hon. Lady will want an Adjournment debate on this specific issue. I had one on Batten disease before joining the Government, and the Government proved very sympathetic to the quest for my constituent.