House of Commons
Thursday 20 May 2021
The House met at half-past Nine o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Virtual participation in proceedings commenced (Orders, 4 June and 30 December 2020).
[NB: [V] denotes a Member participating virtually.]
Business Before Questions
Message from the Queen
The Vice-Chamberlain of the Household reported to the House, That Her Majesty, having been attended with its Address of 12th April, was pleased to receive the same very graciously and give the following Answer:
I thank you most sincerely for your expression of sympathy in the great loss which I have sustained by the death of my beloved husband, the Duke of Edinburgh. I am greatly moved by your kind comments and by your sincere condolences, which bring me comfort at this time.
Oral Answers to Questions
Digital, Culture, Media and Sport
The Secretary of State was asked—
Football Governance: Fan-led Review
Football is nothing without fans, so it has been a joy to see them back cheering on their teams this week, and we stand unequivocally on the side of fans. Our manifesto committed to putting them front and centre of our review of football governance and we are delivering on that. That is why I appointed my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch) as chair and, this weekend, I will announce the membership of the expert panel, which will include players, management, regulators and, of course, fans. This is a serious review; I know people want to see change and this review will deliver it.
I am sure the Secretary of State will join me in congratulating Hull City on being league one champions this year. Hull City are one of many examples in recent years of where football club owners have not had the best of relationships with their fans. The recent breakaway attempt by the European super league cartel of greed brought many of the issues that concern fans to a head. Fans do not just pay a lot to support their clubs; they are custodians of their heritage and they deserve respect. To avoid taking his eye off the ball, will he explain a bit more about exactly how fans will lead the fan-led review and when it will report back to the House?
I thank the right hon. Lady for her question. First, of course, I join her in congratulating Hull City. She is absolutely right that football clubs form the heart of their communities and, indeed, our heritage. It is essential that fans play a significant role in the fan-led review, and I have been discussing that extensively with my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford.
In terms of explicit engagement, the chair will be engaging extensively with supporter trusts and fan groups over the coming weeks, but I understand that that will not work for everyone, so there will also be a consultation process, which we will set out. Of course, the chair, the Sports Minister—the Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Worcestershire (Nigel Huddleston)—and I will be engaging with parliamentarians as part of the review as well. On the question about timing, I would expect an interim report by the summer and a further report by the autumn.
There are two football teams in my life: Manchester United, who are No. 2 in the premiership, and Rochdale, who are sadly heading for league two of the football league. The idea that they are part of the same football pyramid has frankly been a nonsense for many years, but what unites the supporters of both those clubs and many more is the demands that we will never again see the ability for a European super league to take place, that the clammy hand, the dollar-studded fingers, of the corporates such as the Glazers be taken off the throat of football—that is so important—and that, once again, we will recreate a proper pyramid of football in this country. Will the Secretary of State guarantee that he will legislate to bring about those kinds of ends?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. The points he made about the football pyramid are precisely why the terms of reference of the review, which we set out to the House, explicitly covered examining
“the flow of money through the football pyramid, including solidarity and parachute payments, and broadcasting revenue.”
I have said before, and am happy to say again, that I have set up this review with someone who is genuinely independent in the form of my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford. I fully hope and expect to accept the recommendations, and should those require legislation, we will find time to do that.
As an MP for Coventry, where, in recent years, our football club has repeatedly forced fans to drive miles from the city to watch home matches, and as a diehard Liverpool fan, one of the clubs involved in the proposed breakaway European super league, I know fans’ anger at owners’ decisions all too well. Ultimately, this will be changed only with fan ownership, like the 50+1 rule in Germany, but the Government could make a more immediate change to improve this. On major decisions such as moving ground or forming a new league, they could require clubs to secure a 50% plus 1 majority of season-ticket holders. Will the Government heed that demand or will they just kick the problem into the long grass?
The hon. Lady mentions the governance structures in other countries. The terms of reference of the review explicitly say that we will be exploring
“governance structures in other countries, including ownership models, and whether any aspects could be beneficially translated to the English league system”.
The review will proceed at pace, as I set out in a previous answer, and we will then proceed at pace to implement any recommendations that follow from it.
The greed of the super-rich club owners who wanted to destroy the football pyramid, which benefits everybody, and proceed with their botched plans for a European super league has been well and truly kicked into touch by the power and solidarity of football fans across our country, but this Government helped to create the crisis by ignoring Labour’s calls for years and by failing to progress with a fan-led review of football governance, so would the Secretary of State like to apologise on behalf of the Government for failures and missed opportunities and tell us exactly when the review will report back to this House?
I do not intend to apologise. I would have expected the hon. Gentleman to welcome the robust action that this Government took, standing behind fans and standing alongside the nation, in stopping these outrageous proposals. On the fan-led review, while Labour has talked for years and years, it is this Government who are actually delivering on it.
Thank you, Mr Speaker.
“Guess what? Next time you come into the stadium you will be paying, son, not playing.”
That is how one youngster of my acquaintance had his dreams crushed by a Premier League club when being released as a player. With the fan-led review into football, chaired by my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch), under way, does the Minister agree that it needs to be more than about the architecture of our national game and that it needs to incorporate a review of how clubs treat the 98% of young people who do not make it, how they equip them for life beyond football, and how they safeguard them and their mental health?
My hon. Friend raises an important point, which I have discussed with him. As ever, he is absolutely right. Clubs clearly owe an obligation and a duty of care particularly to the young people they work with, and I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford will consider those points. As my hon. Friend is aware, the Football Association has recently received a report on safeguarding and has committed to implementing all its recommendations. We will certainly be holding the FA to account for doing that.
Given that there was a Select Committee report and a Government response saying that they would legislate 10 years ago, it is a bit rich for the Secretary of State to claim that he is acting swiftly—but anyway, that aside, given the announcement only last week that the Government are prepared to set aside competition objections to preserve the status quo for three years, he will understand the healthy scepticism at the idea that the Government genuinely want change. So to answer that scepticism, will he confirm that, by the end of this Parliament, we will see a better model of redistribution in football that will see more money shift down the pyramid—yes or no?
The hon. Lady is conflating two issues about competition law and the Premier League. The Sports Minister has set out the Government’s position in a written ministerial statement. This is about securing football finances during a period of crisis, and it is essential that we do that. Clearly we will all have an open mind as we get the response, but the reason for considering this is that we want to ensure that money keeps going into the game.
On the point about change, of course that is precisely why I asked my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford, who I know the hon. Lady has worked closely with in the past, and I think we can trust her to come up with serious recommendations to address precisely the issues that the hon. Lady raises. I do not want to pre-empt the outcome of that review, but I can give an assurance that I will deliver on the outcome of the review as much as we possibly can. I am not pre-empting it, but we will find legislative time for doing so.
Broadband and Digital Connectivity: Rural Areas
The Government are making huge progress on our ambition to deliver gigabit broadband across the whole country. Only last week, Openreach increased its planned investment target and it has set itself a target of 25 million premises to connect in the next five years. Some 40% of UK premises can already access gigabit broadband, and we expect that to rise to 60% by the end of this year. That is on top of the shared rural network commitment that will see mobile coverage increase across the whole country.
A number of rural areas have been recategorised as urban for the purpose of broadband community vouchers. While the majority of premises will retain their eligibility under the new voucher conditions, premises in an area where Ofcom believes a gigabit-capable network is likely to be built commercially—including Ofcom area 2—will not be eligible for a voucher. Does my hon. Friend agree that that lack of certainty risks villages such as Three Oaks in my beautiful Hastings and Rye constituency ending up being missed out? What steps can he take to ensure that this cannot happen?
It is of course welcome news that a commercial roll-out will reach more of the country than ever, but my hon. Friend raises an important point. This Government will make sure that no part of the country is left behind on that roll-out, which is why there is flexibility in the voucher scheme that she describes and why Project Gigabit is there to scoop up all the remaining premises. I am happy to discuss the villages that she mentions in person as well.
I am pleased to see the Government delivering on their pledge to level up connectivity across the UK, including through the £1 billion deal to bring better mobile coverage across the country and banish rural hotspots. That will greatly aid constituencies such as Wakefield, which suffers from poor mobile coverage in some rural areas. Will the Minister confirm that his Department has already begun using this funding to improve mobile coverage in rural areas?
It is good to see that working from home can provide a grander backdrop than this place. My hon. Friend is right to welcome the shared rural network. The roll-out has already started to benefit a large number of constituencies. It began in Wales and we will be talking in the coming weeks in much more detail about where it is going to benefit in coming years.
Residents in the rural part of Ashfield suffer from a lack of access to superfast broadband and feel that accessing it through the community fibre partnership scheme is far too expensive. When will areas such as Teversal in my constituency get access to this much-needed service?
My hon. Friend is right to say that community fibre partnerships, although they work well in some places, do not work well everywhere. That is why Project Gigabit is so important; that £5 billion of Government money will be coming down the tracks very quickly. We published plans in April and there will be more detail in June, and Ashfield certainly will not be left behind.
I thank the Minister for his helpful answers so far in response to the substantive question. I want to ask him specifically about access for homes in very rural areas, which have historically had not much better than dial-up speeds. How will he help those homes? In Suffolk, we have found that fibre-to-cabinet is not adequate in improving broadband speeds in many of our more rural parishes and villages. What will he do for very rural areas that need better than fibre-to-cabinet?
The universal service obligation is a help in the situations my hon. Friend describes, but of course we need to go further. That is why the Government are consulting on what we do in the very hardest-to-reach premises, and I look forward to talking more about what satellites and other solutions can offer in the near future. We have already seen some commercial roll-out, for instance, from Starlink, and interesting work is being done by OneWeb to make sure that absolutely no premises in this country is left without the connectivity it deserves.
I strongly welcome the Government’s commitment to rolling out faster broadband, but I constantly get letters from people in parts of my constituency, such as Barlborough, Clowne, Heath and Shirebrook, saying that the broadband connections are not good enough. Will the Minister meet me to discuss those areas and what more we can do to improve their broadband connections?
Our 10 tech priorities include building a tech-savvy nation so that no one is left behind in the digital revolution. Adults can, free of charge, undertake qualifications designed to build digital skills up to level 1, and the Government are encouraging broadband providers to roll out low-cost-broadband social tariffs for lower-income households.
Recently published Office for National Statistics data showed that in the first quarter of 2020, some 22% of people in Luton who were over 16 had not used the internet for three months—that is more than double the national average. Many of my constituents were severely disadvantaged at the start of the pandemic, particularly as work, school and social lives moved online. To support my constituents—who had to choose between data and dinner—I would like specific information about whether the affordability of access to broadband and online services will be adequate.
The hon. Lady is absolutely right to highlight the fact that the pandemic has demonstrated how digital inclusion and accessibility have been fundamental to our ability to learn, work and meet our friends. Social tariffs are already available that offer low-cost landline and broadband services for those on certain means-tested benefits. However, the Government are now encouraging all fixed-broadband providers to introduce a social tariff.
The Minister says that no one should be left behind, but 60% of over-50s with household earnings under £20,000 per year are not online; more than half of adults who are not online are disabled; 2 million households in the UK have been without internet access during lockdown; and there are up to 900,000 children without devices. Yet the Government’s digital inclusion strategy was last updated in 2014 and there is still no target for inclusion. Why will the Minister not tell us what proportion of the population she is happy to leave behind in this digital age?
I feel that that is a massive under-representation of the huge amount of work that has happened over the past year. The Government agreed a set of commitments with the UK’s major broadband and mobile operators to support vulnerable customers during the covid-19 period. A whole heap of extra laptops—1.3 million of them, on top of the 2.9 million that were already in schools—have been rolled out to young people. In February, to tackle the disproportionate impact of covid-19 on disabled people, the Department launched a £2.5 million digital lifeline fund to support 5,000 people with learning disabilities to access devices, connectivity and digital skills support.
Protection of Online Users
Last week we published the Online Safety Bill. For the first time, tech companies will be held accountable by an independent regulator for keeping their users, especially children, safe from harmful content and behaviours online. If companies fail to keep their users safe, Ofcom will have the power to fine companies up to £18 million or 10% of their annual global turnover.
I thank the Minister for her answer. This is an incredibly important policy area. As well as the online harms that she mentioned, an increasing number of people throughout the country, including in my Aylesbury constituency, sadly fall prey to online financial scams, which can not only have a profound impact on somebody’s financial status but result in great anxiety for victims. Will the Minister outline the action her Department will take to ensure that technology companies really step up and play a full part, alongside the police and banks, to protect us all from online fraud and identity theft?
I thank my hon. Friend for raising this issue, which he is absolutely right to do, because we know that scams of this kind can ruin lives and, as he says, a growing number of people are encountering them online. The Government are approaching the issue in three ways. First, we are working closely with law enforcement, technology companies and banks to tackle online fraud at source. That work is led by the Home Office, which is currently developing an ambitious fraud action plan, on which we have been providing support. The Online Safety Bill that we published last week will tackle any kind of fraud that is facilitated through user-generated content. On top of that, we are consulting on tougher advertising regulation and will be doing that later this year.
Football Super League
The Government were vocal in their opposition to the European super league, which would have been detrimental to the entire football pyramid.
In fact, the whole House was united in opposition. I am glad that all the English teams that were to be involved have now withdrawn from the project, and that was the right result for football fans, clubs and communities right across the country.
The super league was based on the American model of football, which does not have promotion and relegation. It has other criteria such as the draft and salary caps to make it a more competitive league. Will the Minister give an assurance to this House—in fact, prejudge the review if you like—and promise that, whatever happens, there will be promotion and regular relegation between the different football leagues?
I thank my hon. Friend for those comments. I know that he shares my passion for American football, but it is not necessarily a model that we would wish to emulate. It has strengths and weaknesses, but, at heart, football—in fact, all sport—is about competition and fairness, and those should underlie the sport. We are conducting the fan-led review. I am afraid that I cannot pre-empt the conclusions of that review, but I think that we are all looking forward to the work that my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch), a highly regarded and respected Member of this House, will be conducting over the coming weeks, and I am sure that he will contribute to that debate.
Tourism Industry: Covid-19 Recovery
I thank my hon. Friend for raising this timely topic ahead of English Tourism Week, which kicks off this weekend. In total, we have provided more than £25 billion already to the tourism, hospitality and leisure sectors to see them through this challenging period. With large parts of the sector now reopened, we are working with partners to champion the UK’s tourism offer through the “Escape the Everyday” marketing campaign, for example. Businesses can also benefit from the VAT cut, business rates relief and other measures. Our tourism recovery plan will set out the role that the Government will play in accelerating the tourism sector’s recovery from covid-19.
I thank my hon. Friend for that answer and for his excellent work in promoting this sector, an important part of which is business tourism, which is also getting going again. For example, keeping it very local, Harrogate Convention Centre will host Clarion Events’ Home & Gift Buyers’ Festival in July, and that will bring many thousands of visitors to the town. This sector of the industry is large in scale and consequently has a significant supply chain, both directly and indirectly, including, for example, hotels and guest houses in Harrogate. Will my hon. Friend assure me that he will do all he can to ensure the best restart possible for this important business sector?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right and I pay tribute to his support for the tourism sector—business tourism as well—both in his constituency and right across the country. Business events are indeed highly valuable to the UK economy, directly contributing more than £31 billion each year before the pandemic, supporting a vast supply chain and filling hotels, often in the tourist off-season. The Events Research Programme held its first business event pilot in Liverpool last month, which I was delighted to attend. That is a big step forward in our work to fully reopen the sector. Our tourism recovery plan will soon set out more detail on how we will support business events with their long-term recovery.
Leaving the EU: Touring Creative Workers
We are working flat out with the industry to support creative workers to tour the EU, and we have a dedicated DCMS-led working group to achieve that. Our priorities are to provide clarity for artists on any rules, to work bilaterally with other EU nations to ensure that the new processes are as easy and straightforward as possible, and to try to secure transitional funding support.
We are extremely proud of our Stockton International Riverside Festival, which, as well as attracting street acts from across the world, commissions its own work to showcase what our own talented people can do. Now those same people face those barriers of fees and all other manner of problems—and they are still barriers today—if they want to take their work into the EU. That is due to the Government adopting that attitude of “it’ll be alright on the night”. Well, it will not. I heard what the Minister said, but what guarantees will she give artists from Stockton and the rest of the country that the Government will sort out the travel problems soon and that we can share our art and culture with the world?
As I have already explained, we have been working non-stop since the transition period finished to make sure that we were working through those issues. We have confirmed that portable musical instruments do not require carnets. We have confirmed that touring artists will not be double-charged social security contributions, and we have published new guidance for touring to other EU nations. Through bilateral discussions, which have been taking place at official level between me and the Secretary of State and our opposite numbers in the EU, we have established that at least 17 member states allow some visa or work permit-free touring activities, and we are continuing to do that work on a daily basis.
Events Research Programme: Liverpool Pilots
My top priority has been getting back to the things that we love. We have now moved to step 3, but I know that it is essential that we return to events without social distancing at step 4. That is why we have undertaken the events research pilot programme. Pilots including sporting events at Wembley, the Brits and music events in Liverpool have been building up a picture of how the virus spreads in different settings, and we have been looking at a range of factors, including ventilation, testing protocols and people’s behaviour.
The successful and safe reopening of events is, of course, vital to individuals and the economy generally, but particularly in my constituency of Edinburgh West. We have already lost the impact of Edinburgh International Festival each year, but also specifically the Royal Highland Show, which contributes £65 million to the economy, and more than a year of international rugby events at Murrayfield. With the measures that the Secretary of State has outlined, I hope that we will soon be able to host these events again, but will he assure me that the impact of these trials and the lessons learned will be shared with the Scottish Government to ensure that they can also take them forward?
Yes, I am very happy to give the hon. Lady that assurance. This programme has been world-leading. I do not think that any other country in the world has done quite such extensive piloting of events, and the outcomes of the pilots are helping to shape the sort of guidance that we will impose at stage 4 of the road map.
Earlier this week, I joined millions of people up and down the country in sharing the joy of seeing great sporting, cultural and tourism venues open again. I was delighted to reopen the National Gallery, and to visit Tate Modern and the English National Ballet. However, those institutions and others can only operate sustainably if we move to step 4 and remove the remaining restrictions. We set up the events research programme to examine safe ways of doing that. I can tell the House that we have had positive findings from the pilots at events such as the Brits, the FA cup final and at the Crucible, and this will inform our approach to reopening at stage 4.
The proposal for the European super league was driven by a small number of clubs wanting greater financial power and control, which in some ways was exactly the reason that the Premier League itself was set up in the first place. I was somewhat disappointed by the Secretary of State’s answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Rochdale (Tony Lloyd), when he described the £4.8 billion deal that the Premier League has just done on TV rights—with only £100 million coming to the rest of football—as money flowing “through the…pyramid”. May I seek reassurance from the Secretary of State, therefore, that his support for the financial status quo will not in any way compromise the ability of the hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch) to recommend in her review the radical changes to governance, regulation and the distribution of finance in football that the vast majority of fans want to see?
The short answer is yes, of course I will look at the outcome of the inquiry that I have commissioned. I have specifically asked my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch) to look at football financing and the pyramid, because I know all the challenges with it. That is separate from the interim measures that will cover the next three years. That will ensure that money flows through the pyramid, because it is not just the additional £100 million; it is all the other payments to the English Football League that will be secured through that announcement, should it go ahead.
Yes, our £1 billion shared rural network is eliminating mobile coverage notspots across the country, including in East Hampshire. Operators have already announced the first 333 upgrades and 54 new sites in England. We will shortly be announcing the next stage of the programme. Although I cannot give full details now, I very much expect this to contain more good news for my right hon. Friend’s constituents.
More than 3 million people participate in parkrun in England, and it plays a major role in the physical and mental wellbeing of participants. Parkrun has had legal permission to return since 29 March under the covid framework from the Government and Public Health England, but there is completely inconsistent decision making across authorities, and the situation is threatening parkrun’s future. As Great Britain Olympian Greg Rutherford has said:
“If we’re all allowed to go and pile into restaurants and pubs again why on earth would we not be allowed to run about outside?”
Will the Secretary of State give a clear, simple statement here today and say that local authorities and landowners need to recognise and accept the nationally approved framework and allow parkrun to start again?
Yes. I completely share the hon. Lady’s frustration that this is not happening. I have discussed it with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, and he and I will shortly be sending a very clear message and signal in writing to local authorities about our expectation that those events should proceed.
I am delighted with the Secretary of State’s response and grateful for it.
Singing also makes a positive difference to the health of over 2 million people who sing in amateur choirs. The go-ahead was given for indoor rehearsals from Monday of this week, following step 3 of the roadmap, but on Tuesday, literally as conductors were on their way to rehearsals, late guidance was issued by DCMS limiting indoor rehearsals to just six people in total. This news was devastating to choir members but also to their conductors and directors, who lose their income because of it. I am afraid that confusing and contradictory communication is the hallmark of this Government. Last year it was the Secretary of State encouraging rehearsals for pantos that were never going to happen; this year it is choral concerts with no rehearsals. What is going on? Why the late guidance? Will the Secretary of State publish the evidence that led to his decision? Thank goodness his Department is getting an experienced director of communications, because he needs one.
I share the frustration of many Members of this House that we have not been able to permit more people to participate in amateur choirs. I can tell the House and reassure Members that that decision was made on the basis of very clear public health guidance. Ultimately, the Prime Minister and I did not feel that we could contradict that public health guidance. Of course we published the guidance, and the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies recommendations are regularly published. I very much hope and expect that by step 4 —all going well, we will proceed with that on 21 June—we will be in a position to remove all legal limits on social contact and ease restrictions on large events and performances, including those that apply at step 3.
As my hon. Friend knows, I am a great supporter of Cornish culture and heritage, and I know of the outstanding reputation of Falmouth University. We have done a huge amount to support this country’s film industry, which is currently probably stronger than it has ever been, notwithstanding covid. I or one of my ministerial colleagues would be delighted to meet her to discuss what more we can do to support the Cornish film industry.
Last week the Culture Secretary boasted that his Government were defending heritage. If only that were so. Cuts have led to almost 800 library closures, the Whitehall Bell Foundry has been passed by Tory Ministers into the hands of commercial developers after 450 years of continuous existence, and we have heard nothing of what will replace Creative Europe culture funding. What is the Culture Secretary’s focus in telling museums what statues they can have and blocking trustees that he does not like? As one museum curator said, “arm’s length” Government interference is now becoming “knuckle length” interference. Should the Culture Secretary not be focusing on sorting out the Brexit visa mess rather than on petty culture wars and museum meddling?
There were an awful lot of questions wrapped into one from the hon. Gentleman, but in terms of what I am doing and where my primary focus is, it is about returning the things that we love and ensuring that we move from stage 3 to stage 4 of the road map to enable heritage attractions, theatres and companies up and down the country to operate normally again. We have given £2 billion-worth of support—the single largest injection by any Government ever—but I make no apology whatever for standing up for this country’s heritage against a small and noisy minority that wants to tear down the things that we enjoy as a nation.
The Attorney General was asked—
Domestic Violence Prosecutions
The Crown Prosecution Service published an ambitious 12-month domestic abuse programme in January, which aims to help to narrow the disparity between reporting and criminal justice outcomes through a focus of co-ordinated multi-agency action and specialist support for victims. The CPS has also taken steps to increase domestic abuse prosecutions at a local level. For example, since the start of the pandemic, CPS Thames and Chiltern has increased lines of communication with police forces to ensure domestic abuse cases are appropriately prioritised.
The criminal justice system is facing unprecedented backlogs, with survivors of domestic abuse and sexual assault forced to wait more than a year for their day in court. The Queen’s Speech was an opportunity for the Government to address these failings, but it was an opportunity missed. Labour’s “Ending Violence Against Women and Girls” green paper was announced this week and is ready to go. Will the Attorney General support it?
I thank the hon. Lady for her question, which focuses on an extremely important issue of domestic abuse, which is one that I and the entire Government feel strongly about. In fact, I am sure everybody in this Chamber does. It is this Government who introduced the Domestic Abuse Act 2021. In a recent case that I conducted myself in the Court of Appeal, the offender’s sentence for extremely violent domestic abuse was increased from nine years to 15 years on my application. That is how seriously we take domestic abuse, and that is how seriously it is taken in terms of punishment and the crime. The point that the hon. Lady makes is that we should prioritise domestic abuse in the criminal justice system, and I can confirm that we do that. It is a very high focus for this Government and for the criminal justice system.
The “Evidence led domestic abuse prosecutions” report states that
“the domestic abuse caseload for both the CPS and the police has increased by 88% against the backdrop of a 25% reduction in police and CPS funding.”
Does the Attorney General think that the current level of resourcing to tackle domestic abuse is sufficient?
The hon. Lady is right to point to the case load. In fact, the Crown Prosecution Service’s case load has increased considerably. It is also right to point out that the conviction rate rose to 78.7% in quarter 3 of 2020-21, up from 77.4%. The Government have recently announced, as I am sure she knows, several funding packages specifically on domestic abuse, including funding to deal with the effects of the covid-19 crisis as it relates to domestic abuse. The decrease in the volume of overall prosecutions due to the impact of covid-19 is a factor, but this Government are funding this area and giving particular focus to it.
The number of domestic abuse-related prosecutions fell by 22% in the year ending March 2020, despite a 9% increase in recorded crimes. When I asked the Secretary of State for Justice how many specialist domestic violence courts have been in operation over the past 10 years, he could not give me an answer. Will the Attorney General commit to our proposals, set out in our “Ending Violence Against Women and Girls” green paper, to introduce properly funded specialist domestic violence courts across the country?
I thank the hon. Lady for her question, which is an astute one, and she recognises, as we all do, the importance of this area. It is of course this Government who have already put the Domestic Abuse Act on the statute book, so we are ahead of her party in prioritising this area, and that is a simple fact. The reality, I have to say, is that the CPS’s domestic abuse best practice framework seeks to address the withdrawal rates. She talks about the number of prosecutions, and of course prosecutions have gone down across the board because of the impact of the covid pandemic. However, we want to deliver a high-quality service to victims, and the work that is being done on the framework encourages more timely court listings to get these cases on more quickly and reduce victim attrition, which I know is something the Ministry of Justice and the whole criminal justice system are working very strongly on.
It is interesting that the right hon. and learned Gentleman says his party is ahead when it is Labour that has set out a green paper to tackle these issues head-on. What is even more worrying is that domestic abuse prosecutions now seem to be going the same way as rape prosecutions, which are at their lowest recorded level, and new figures show that 44% of rape victims give up before their trial even begins. Will the Attorney General adopt our fully drafted survivors support plan for rape victims and will he commit to backing Labour’s violence against women and girls green paper, or will he continue to sit on his hands and allow the continued systemic failing of the criminal justice system for women and girls in England and Wales?
I do not think it is accurate to refer to the criminal justice system as failing women and girls. It is a high focus for the criminal justice system, and there are a lot of people—thousands of people—working very hard, day in and day out, in the courts, the Crown Prosecution Service and police forces around this country, with a very high priority to focus on this area. It is this Government who have allocated another £76 million to support victims of domestic abuse, sexual violence and modern slavery, as well as vulnerable children. It is this Government who have put the Domestic Abuse Act 2021 on the statute book. It is this Government who are creating 20,000 more police officers, and who have already funded the Crown Prosecution Service to over £85 million—closer to £100 million. It is this Government who recognise that we have to do better. We have to do more, and I accept that. There is always more that can be done, and in such an important area, one can never sit back. We have received 180,000 responses, as I am sure the hon. Lady knows, following the tragic case of Sarah Everard, to the consultation that the Government set up, and we will be looking very closely at those responses.
According to the Centre for Women’s Justice, one woman every week for the last two years has reported domestic abuse by their police officer spouse or partner, and every woman it spoke to said that the police had failed to investigate their case. Given the severity of these statistics, how confident is the Attorney General that the correct processes are in place in the Crown Prosecution Service to ensure that complaints involving the police are investigated objectively?
Of course, the issue of the police is a matter for the Home Office, but I would say that I know the police are working very hard to prioritise and focus on these domestic abuse cases, and they do seek to achieve the very best possible results in all circumstances. There are tried and tested mechanisms for making complaints against the police, and clearly they are available to anyone who feels that a complaint would be appropriate and justified. We have worked very hard to produce the Domestic Abuse Act, which covers a number of areas that, as we have already rehearsed, will protect women and girls, and we will continue to do so.
Crown Prosecution Service: Communication with Victims
How we communicate with victims is absolutely critical to the delivery of justice. Having spoken to the Director of Public Prosecutions and others at the CPS, I know that they are fully committed to and understand the importance of clear and open communications to victims, giving explanations about their cases. That is why the CPS is carrying out a root and branch review to assess how best to deliver on its commitments to victims.
I thank my right hon. and learned Friend for her response. What steps is the CPS taking to ensure that, in cases where the victim is known to have autism and other mental health conditions, they receive priority communications so that their mental health is not put under yet more pressure?
My hon. Friend raises an important question. In 2019, the CPS published its revised guidance on prosecuting cases where the defendant may have a mental health condition or disorder. Furthermore, where the CPS is aware that a victim has autism or mental health issues, it will consider writing in addition, or instead, to a guardian or parent, to deal with that case. For cases of rape or serious sexual offence, the CPS ensures that either the police officer overseeing the case or the independent sexual violence adviser is present to help explain to the victim any decision taken by the CPS in relation to the case.
It is essential that victims receive justice for the crimes committed against them. How is my right hon. and learned Friend ensuring that victims in Clwyd South, and elsewhere in the UK, are aware of their right to challenge unduly lenient sentences?
I am pleased that my hon. Friend has highlighted the importance of the ULS scheme. The Attorney General’s office promotes that scheme on social media, and we are working with the Ministry of Justice to raise awareness of the scheme as part of the revised victims code that came into force last month. For example, the code now includes a requirement for the witness care unit to inform victims of the scheme promptly when sentencing takes place. That will help improve awareness of the scheme, including for my hon. Friend’s constituents in Clwyd South.
Would my right hon. and learned Friend agree that the draft victims Bill provides an important opportunity to place the victims code on a proper statutory basis? Will she consider whether the Justice Committee would be suitable to carry out prelegislative scrutiny? Does she agree it is important that the code includes communication pre-charge by the police, as well as by the CPS post-charge, as both are equally important?
My hon. Friend is right to highlight the importance of the victims Bill. As he says, that Bill will have prelegislative scrutiny, and we welcome the Justice Committee’s views on that. He is right to highlight the importance of the work that goes on pre-charge, as well as post-charge, and we will be looking carefully at those matters.
Prosecution of Hate Crime
I thank my hon. Friend for his question on hate crime. I have been appalled by recent examples of hate crime, which are an utter disgrace. I warn racists and antisemites alike that the Crown Prosecution Service recognises the devastating impact that hate crime has on victims and communities, and it is committed to bringing offenders to justice. That is evidenced by the continued rise in sentence uplifts. This year, increases in sentences for hate crime reached the highest rate yet of nearly 80%. Outreach has continued throughout the pandemic with a range of community organisations to increase community confidence and improve the prosecution response to hate crime.
I thank my right hon. and learned Friend for his response. Recently in my constituency, the owner of the Delaval Tandoori was physically and verbally assaulted by two men. The wonderful community of Seaton Delaval has rallied around to support that family-run business in the wake of the attack, but I know they will join me in looking to my right hon. and learned Friend for his assurance that the CPS will do all it can to bring those responsible for hate crime before our courts.
I thank my hon. Friend for his question. The Crown Prosecution Service will prosecute cases referred to it by the police and other law enforcement agencies, and where the test set out is met, it will prosecute those offences. Those who commit such offences must understand that their sentences have an 80% likelihood of being uplifted as a consequence of the hate element of their crime. According to one media report, we have recently seen a 600% increase in antisemitic crimes. We recognise that any form of hate crime against any group is obnoxious and antithetical to the interests of this country, and cannot be tolerated. The CPS recognises the devastating impact. Everything will be done and continues to be done to check those offences.
Prosecution Decision: Kettering
I understand my hon. Friend’s concern about this issue, which he has already brought to my attention. The CPS makes its charging decisions independently, with every case judged on its own merit, based on the tests set out in the code. In this particular case, my understanding is that the CPS reviewed it and determined that there was insufficient evidence to continue with the proceedings. That was because there was no evidence that the suspect was responsible for the excess numbers present outside the church.
There is widespread dismay and outrage in Kettering that the organiser of that huge Irish Traveller funeral, held during the covid lockdown, has in effect got away with it. Clearly, however, the Crown Prosecution Service cannot successfully prosecute on any criminal case unless it is provided by the police with sufficient formal evidence against the accused. Given that the court hearing was held five months after the funeral took place, will the Solicitor General confirm when the CPS received the case file from the police?
I understand the concern of my hon. Friend’s constituents, as of many around the country who are abiding by the rules, which is what has managed to get our infection rates down. To answer his specific question, the first hearing was at the Northampton magistrates court on 19 April. The police had not previously sent the file through to the CPS due to a technical error on the part of the police. The file was received at 11.30 am on the morning of the hearing.
Criminal Justice System: Covid-19 Recovery
I am pleased that inspections in both June 2020 and March 2021 found that the CPS responded well to the challenges caused by covid-19. Those inspections were by Her Majesty’s Crown Prosecution Service inspectorate. The CPS has made a significant contribution to supporting the criminal justice system during an exceptionally difficult time, working closely with partners. I am proud of prosecutors and staff who have continued to deliver their essential services, both virtually and in person where necessary, throughout the pandemic.
I thank the Attorney General for his answer and for his welcome focus on domestic violence, which he demonstrated throughout this Question Time. Will he reassure me that the Crown Prosecution Service will do all it can to prioritise cases of domestic violence and sexual abuse in the backlog, as those types of cases have a higher drop-off rate the longer the delay?
Yes, tackling domestic abuse, as I have been saying, is a key focus of the Government. In my hon. Friend’s constituency, the CPS south-east region, which covers her area, identifies domestic abuse cases, working with the Courts and Tribunal Service, to ensure that they can be listed before the court as a priority and that trial dates can be brought forward to avoid any unnecessary delay. She is right to focus on the issue. Work is being done in support of her point.
While a defendant typically has legal representation following the reporting of a rape, the victim has to wait months before an independent advocate becomes available. Even then, the independent sexual violence advocate is not permitted to go into the court to support a woman at the time she desperately needs it. First, why is there a three to six-month wait for an advocate to become available to deeply stressed individuals who have been assaulted? Secondly, will the Government undertake to review the situation in which the advocate, who is meant to support the victim, has to stay outside the courtroom? It is ridiculous!
As the hon. Lady may know, a rape review is due to be published soon. Together with the police, the Crown Prosecution Service introduced an interim charging protocol in April 2020 to prioritise the most important cases, to which she is referring, through the criminal justice system. Those are high-harm cases, including rape and domestic abuse. I am proud of the CPS’s response. I am sure she recognises that the exigencies of the pandemic have affected backlogs to a significant extent in many areas of public and private life, but a huge amount is being done to ameliorate that backlog. Particular priority is being given to the sorts of cases to which she is referring.
One of the things that we will be looking at is the cloud video platform. The CPSI report published recently recognised the flexibility and adaptability of the CPS in responding to the pandemic. The cloud video platform was enabling around 20,000 virtual hearings a week, and post pandemic I am sure we will be looking at that among many other things.
If the Government are serious about tackling the backlog of court cases, will the Attorney General explain why his colleague in the Ministry of Justice has halved the amount spent annually on recorded sitting days in the past five years, from £19 million to £9.5 million?
I have actually discussed the issue of recorders very recently with the senior judiciary. The Ministry of Justice has recently arranged for an unlimited amount of sitting days—I think I am right in saying—so that the judiciary and the courts system can keep up with all the work that is going on. That is a very generous arrangement to allow the courts to make dramatic progress, and that includes recorders and the judiciary generally.
Although it is important that partner agencies in the criminal justice system do everything possible to eliminate the delays caused by covid-19, some of these problems stretch back much further than the start of the pandemic. In 2017 we reformed pre-charge bail to introduce time limits on how long suspects could be on bail before being charged. That came after the terrible treatment of some individuals, including Paul Gambaccini, who was held on bail for a year without being charged. Today, a number of people are still being bailed for a shocking length of time—years on end. I currently have a case where the National Crime Agency has kept an individual on bail for almost six years. That has ruined her life. The Government are now seeking to undo even the inadequate protections in the Police and Crime Act 2017 with the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill. Will the Attorney General tell the House what the Government will do to protect against these injustices in coming legislation?
I thank my right hon. Friend for the point he makes. He thinks of the defence position, and is right to do so, and I am very grateful to him for raising it. I recognise how distressing delays can be, both to defendants and, of course, to victims, but these have been unprecedented times.
On the case my right hon. Friend refers to, decisions on whether to impose or extend pre-charge bail are operational and are not therefore something that Ministers can interfere with, but he makes a powerful point. It is right that those decisions are independent of Government, and it is important to note that the length of pre-charge bail is separate from the length of the investigation. There may be particular circumstances that cause concomitant delays in individual cases that are outwith my immediate knowledge or ability to intervene, and nor would it be appropriate for me to do so, but I recognise the point he makes. If he wishes to write to me about that individual case, we can certainly forward it to the relevant authority.
Business of the House
The business for the week commencing 24 May will include:
Monday 24 May—Motion to approve a Ways and Means resolution relating to the Finance Bill followed by, remaining stages of the Finance Bill.
Tuesday 25 May—Remaining stages of the Telecommunications (Security) Bill.
Wednesday 26 May—Conclusion of remaining stages of the Environment Bill (Day 2).
Thursday 27 May—General debate on dementia action week followed by, general debate on implementing the 2020 obesity strategy. Both debates were previously recommended by the Backbench Business Committee.
The House will rise for the Whitsun recess at the conclusion of business on Thursday 27 May and return on Monday 7 June.
Provisional business for the week commencing 7 June will include:
Monday 7 June—Remaining stages of the Advanced Research and Invention Agency Bill.
I thank the Leader of the House for the business.
We all share the horror at the reports of antisemitic hate speech and attacks this week, yet some people are falsely defending antisemitic hate speech on university campuses under the guise of free speech, which the Government plan to make into some sort of law. Can I ask the Leader of the House, genuinely, if he will ask the Secretary of State for Education to consider working with, rather than against, universities on how to respond to antisemitism? The priorities of free speech and protecting people from incitement to racial hatred are both important, and his Government will need to exercise care, not a blunt instrument, if our universities are able to call out antisemitism “at every stage”, as the Prime Minister rightly said we should do yesterday.
It is Dementia Action Week. One in three of us will develop dementia in our lifetimes and 1 million people in this country will have the condition by 2025. There was moving testimony this week from people living with dementia at the Health and Social Care Committee. No one here can ignore the heartbreak of this cruel disease: those who live with it and those who love them. This last year has been awful for everyone, but people living with dementia and its consequences have had a particularly difficult time with isolation, people caring at home and those in residential care. And yet, 666 days since the Prime Minister promised the people of this country that his plan for social care was ready to go, yesterday he was unable to answer a simple yes or no question from my hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders) on the whereabouts of the plan. Could the Leader of the House help?
Last week, the Leader of the House said at business questions in response to the hon. Member for Midlothian (Owen Thompson) that the Government can do anything they want because they have a majority of 80—it was that or thereabouts. Well, if they say they can do anything they want, we can only assume that if they do not do something, it is because they do not want to. This week, as well as deciding not to fix social care, the Government have decided not to fix building safety. After telling the House—and, more importantly, the thousands of people across the country affected by this scandal, some of them constituents of Government Members—that residents would not be left to pay for the mess made by some parts of the building industry, the Government voted down Labour’s amendment to the Queen’s Speech this week to sort this out urgently. People across this country who have been so profoundly let down by the Government on this issue will have noticed that their Tory MP has failed them yet again.
This was also the week that the Government continued not to reward dedicated key workers, including nurses and NHS staff, with an adequate pay rise. Yesterday my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter) asked the Prime Minister what he thinks when he hears Jenny McGee, the nurse who cared for the Prime Minister when he was so ill with covid, say of NHS staff:
“We’re not getting the respect and now pay that we deserve. I’m just sick of it. So I’ve handed in my resignation.”
But all the Prime Minister could do was trot out a load of waffle, and clearly that does not pay the bills. What does the Leader of the House have to say to Jenny and other key workers, so that they might feel valued, protected and respected?
Finally, may I wish the right hon. Gentleman an advance happy birthday? I am fascinated to discover that he is, in fact, my junior—“No, no!” Members cry—but what to give the man who already has a hedge fund of his own? Perhaps some legal advice, so that he can sue all those shocking websites selling shoddy goods featuring his likeness—the calendars, the mugs, the folderols. Or perhaps a session for the Cabinet with the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service, to try to work through their many and varied disagreements—whether or not Brits can travel abroad, for what reason and under what circumstances, or to help the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the International Trade Secretary and the National Farmers Union decide which of them knows more about food and farming.
I could take the right hon. Gentleman for a parkrun. Surely there is a pent-up runner lurking in there, longing for release. If he could only get his Government to give parkruns the green light—and we all know about green lights—so that we can all taste again that joy of running 5 km up a hill together; he looks puzzled, but I can tell him that it is fun. The nation’s fitness and mental health would benefit, as could his.
But no, it is obvious. For his birthday, I hereby present the right hon. Gentleman with the happy knowledge that, despite his Government’s continued failure to fix social care, reward key workers or act urgently on climate change, his constituents—the good people of North East Somerset—have had another week under the transformational leadership of the man they voted for as his metro Mayor and mine: Labour’s Dan Norris. Happy birthday to the Leader of the House.
I am absolutely delighted and honoured to receive such kind birthday wishes from the hon. Lady. I do not think anybody in the House will believe that I am younger than her. That simply cannot be true, although it would be improper of me to suggest that the House has been misled. If looks are anything to go by, I have aged less well than her.
The hon. Lady suggests all sorts of excellent presents. They are already there, wrapped and splendidly arrayed, because we know exactly what the Government’s position on travel is. The law is clear, and the guidance is clear. The law is that people may travel if they need to and there are requirements when they get back. There is a testing environment if someone goes to a green country; there is a quarantine regime at home if someone goes to an orange or amber country; and there is further quarantine if someone goes to a red country, whereby they have to stay in places approved by the Government, to ensure that people are kept safe. It is a very sensible way of approaching these things and accepts that people will be making choices for themselves, which is inevitable as we come to the end of this pandemic.
Free trade is one of the greatest advances of prosperity that has ever been known. We saw this in the 19th century, which reminds me that my birthday is also the anniversary of the birth of Queen Victoria. In the good old days, it used to be Empire Day, and we got a public holiday, but alas, no longer; I was rather sorry that the hon. Lady did not call for the public holiday to be restored. Free trade has been absolutely essential to this nation’s prosperity, and the more free trade we have, the better it helps consumers and producers alike. It helps producers to become more efficient and more globally competitive while providing lower-cost goods and food and so on for consumers.
On parkrun, I am not quite sure I see myself in running kit. I was surprised that the hon. Lady did not mention the football that is coming up—the euro games, with England, Scotland and Wales all involved. The selection of the Scottish team caused greater interest, I understand, than the reshuffle of the Scottish Administration. That will be fun and fancy for people to have.
Let me come to the really serious points that the hon. Lady raised. I entirely agree that this Government and this country must root out antisemitic hate speech. It has no place in a civilised society. It is the most wrong and wicked of all the unpleasant and wrong prejudices that people have, bearing in mind the history of Europe over the past 100 years. There is absolutely no place for it. Incitement to racial hatred is illegal, and that is not in contradiction to the right to freedom of speech.
On Dementia Action Week, the hon. Lady is again so right in saying that dementia is the cruellest disease. It is sometimes crueller on those who are caring than on those who are suffering. The long time it has to be borne can seem endless. It is a great burden for families, and the last year has been simply horrible for people with family members suffering from dementia whom they have not been able to see in the normal way. However, I reassure her that a social care plan is being brought forward; there will be one by the end of the year. It is not easy, and everybody recognises that. The last Labour Government—although that is now, by the grace of God, some years ago—had a royal commission and two Green Papers on the subject. If it were easy, it would of course have been done already, but it is difficult, and it is important that it is got right, and it is therefore right that time has been taken to do it.
The building safety Bill was in the Gracious Speech, which we have thanked Her Majesty for with an Humble Address, which will be delivered in due course to Her Majesty. I do not quite know whether it has gone yet. The Whips take it in fine fettle and parade, and they will come back at some point carrying a wand; we will see it all splendidly done. However, the building safety Bill will be brought forward, and there will be a clear declaration of policy as to how the paying for the difficulties with the removal of unsafe cladding will be taken forward. Buildings taller than 59 feet in the social housing sector that have cladding of the type that Grenfell had have either already had it removed or a plan for it to be removed is in place.
Finally, the hon. Lady mentions nurses’ pay. A 1% pay increase is being given to nurses. Over the last year, 56,900 more people have begun working in the NHS. That is a real success. It shows that the recruitment is right, which usually indicates that the pay is right.
I have been inundated with correspondence from residents in Tividale in my constituency who are unable to access GP appointments. A campaign is now being spearheaded by Emma Henlan, a local campaigner trying to ensure that her community can get GP appointments. We know that the Government are committing £1.5 billion to primary care, but can we have a debate in Government time on the future of primary care? We know that our GPs want to step up, but we need to ensure that there is a real integrated strategy that allows them to provide the services and ensures that people like Emma and her residents and my constituents can access those vital GP appointments.
Let me reiterate what I said last week: all practices should offer face-to-face consultations where appropriate. That is absolutely right. They have an obligation to do that. To help expand general practice capacity, Her Majesty’s Government have made available an additional £270 million of funding from November 2020 until September 2021 to ensure that GPs and their teams are able to continue to support all patients, and those who require face-to-face appointments should and must be given them.
I join the shadow Leader of the House, the hon. Member for Bristol West (Thangam Debbonaire), in wishing the Leader of the House a very happy birthday when it comes—he does not have too long to wait—and in her comments on Dementia Action Week. It is very important, particularly this year, that we mark and remember it. I certainly welcome next week’s debate, in which a great many Members will take the opportunity to have their say and make a contribution.
Last year, a young constituent of mine had to defer a place that they had been awarded at the United States basketball academy because of late cancellations of a visa appointment at the US embassy. The family are frustrated because they are facing the same situation again this year. The embassy appointment is scheduled for just days before he is due to travel, and, despite a number of efforts on our part to see what we can do, we are struggling to make any progress. Will the Leader of the House do anything in his power to see what the Foreign Office could do to assist with any interventions to make sure that young talent such as my constituent are able to undertake the options they have before them to pursue exciting careers?
I was disappointed that there was nothing in the Queen’s Speech to protect workers’ rights or to stop the tactics of fire and rehire. My hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Gavin Newlands) had a private Member’s Bill in the previous Session, but that has obviously now fallen. I would be grateful if the Leader of the House would undertake to bring back, perhaps in Government time, something in the terms of the Bill that my hon. Friend had introduced, so that we can consider and resolve these issues.
Last week, when I raised the issue of arms licences, the Leader of the House indicated that they were “extremely carefully controlled” and that we
“sell arms only to those countries with which we have the closest relationship”.—[Official Report, 13 May 2021; Vol. 695, c. 264.]
Will he therefore advise us of whether credible evidence of weapons being used in breach of international law, even by allies, is a criterion that results in the suspension of these licences? Can he provide time to review the rules on arms sales to ensure that the UK never turns a blind eye to war crimes?
On the hon. Gentleman’s final point, the licences are indeed carefully controlled and kept under continuous review. So, yes, of course it is expected that the arms we sell are used, even by friendly nations, in a proper way, and I am absolutely confident that our close allies are using any arms we sell to them in a proper way.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to raise the issue of his constituent who hopes to go to the US basketball academy. I cannot promise immediate access to the US embassy but I will certainly take this up immediately after this session with the Foreign Office to see whether anything can be done to help his constituent. I cannot promise more than that.
As for workers’ rights and fire and rehire, the ACAS report has been produced and sent to the Department for Business, Energy and Industry Strategy, which is considering it and will update the House in a reasonably rapid fashion. That is not a commitment as to timing, but this is certainly at the forefront of the minds of those there, as is an employment Bill, which will be brought forward, as the Prime Minister said, when the time is right, to protect and enhance workers’ rights. I have said before that fire and rehire is one of the things that gives capitalism a bad name. It is usually in the interests of businesses to co-operate and work with their employees, who provide them, ultimately, with the profitability that ensures that the nation’s economy grows and strengthens.
Covid infection rates in my council area of Kirklees remain some of the highest in the country, although, thankfully, hospitalisations are low. Last night, the Health Secretary announced surge testing and extra vaccination capacity to help reduce those infection rates and protect local people across Kirklees. May we please have an update statement from the Health Secretary early next week? Will the Leader of the House join me in encouraging all those eligible for their jab to come forward and get it when it is offered?
My hon. Friend raises an important point, and he is of course absolutely right; we want as many people as possible to be inoculated—to come forward for their jab—as this provides the best possible protection against the virus. My right hon. Friend the Health Secretary has been absolutely assiduous in attending this House and keeping it updated, and I am sure he will continue to do that. With 36 million people having had their first dose and 20 million people having had both, the percentage take-up rate is really encouraging. Some 90% of people say that they want to have the jab—obviously, that includes those who have already had it. There is enthusiasm for it, it is working extraordinarily well and it is helping us to get back to normal. So people must roll up their sleeves and expose their upper arm, as His Royal Highness the Duke of Cambridge did yesterday, and get jabbed.
Thank you very much indeed, Mr Speaker.
I wish the Leader of the House a very happy birthday for Monday, and thank him for his follow-up letter after last week’s exchange. I welcome the shadow Leader of the House, my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol West (Thangam Debbonaire), to her place and I thank her predecessor, the right hon. Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz), who was a pleasure to work with in the role. I am hoping that the Backbench Business Committee will be open for business as soon as possible—I truly hope by next week.
We are now in the third decade of the 21st century. Based on statistics that the Department for Work and Pensions and Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs published in March this year, and research by Loughborough University, the number of children living in poverty in my constituency of Gateshead has risen by almost 12% since 2015, meaning that 38% of children in my constituency now live in poverty. These are the Government’s own figures, and they require an urgent cross-Government response. Can we have a debate in Government time about what the Government’s immediate plans are to end the scourge and waste of child poverty in the United Kingdom in 2021?
May I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his unopposed return? We can continue our Bill and Ben act of his asking for more time for the Backbench Business Committee and my telling people who ask for debates that they should ask him, rather than asking me. I am looking forward to continuing that, and I congratulate him most warmly. It is a sign of the House’s confidence in him that he was returned without opposition.
The hon. Gentleman raises a very important point. Progress has been made, and I am sorry to hear that his constituency has not been reflective of the nation as a whole, where, since 2010, the number of children in absolute poverty has fallen by 100,000. This is because of a number of policies that have been and continue to be introduced: the national living wage, which is worth around an extra £4,000 a year; the doubling of the personal tax threshold, which is worth an extra £1,200 a year; and an extra £1.7 billion going into universal credit work allowances by 2023-24. A number of steps are being taken and continue to be taken. They have been successful in the past, and I am sure they will continue to be successful in the future.
On 10 March 1987, Daniel Morgan, a private investigator, was brutally axed to death. So far, the family have never had justice because a series of police investigations have gone awry. There are many allegations about corrupt involvement of police officers and the News of the World under Rupert Murdoch.
The family were delighted when the former Home Secretary and then Prime Minister, the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May), set up an independent panel to investigate all this in 2013. That has now completed its work, and the understanding, because it says so in the terms of reference laid out by the Home Office, was that the Home Secretary would only arrange publication to Parliament—not review it, not redact it, not interfere in any way at all, but publish it to Parliament. She is refusing to do so.
Will the Leader of the House please make sure that this is no longer delayed? Otherwise, it is an outrage to the family—a “kick in the teeth”, as they have said themselves. Can we have the report published on Monday? Can we have an oral statement from the Home Secretary herself, so that we can get to the bottom of this and, most importantly, give justice to the family of Daniel Morgan?
The issue that the hon. Gentleman raises is one of great importance and great concern, which is why the former Home Secretary set up this inquiry. The hon. Gentleman is unfortunately wrong, because the Home Secretary has not received the report from the commission. The Home Secretary will follow her statutory responsibilities—
This was checked with the Home Office this morning. I was told that the Home Secretary had not received the report, so I asked the obvious follow-up question: is it in the post room of the Home Office? It has not been received by the Home Office as of yet.
With Greater Manchester police in special measures for poor leadership, I wish to reaffirm and put on record my support for our bobbies on the beat. With the Government’s commitment to the delivery of more policemen, including 348 already in place in Greater Manchester, may I ask my right hon. Friend for a debate in Government time on the importance of neighbourhood policing and the benefits to the community?
I so agree with my hon. Friend that neighbourhood policing is extremely important, effective, reassuring and helps to reduce crime. The Government are doing everything they can to help policing and we should show our admiration for the constables who keep us safe, not least the constables around the parliamentary estate. Their numbers are being added to—not particularly on this estate, but around the country at large. Twenty thousand additional officers are being recruited; 6,600 have already been recruited. The police are, of course, operationally independent and that is an essential part of our Peelite tradition, but “The police are us and we are the police” is the fundamental basis of how we are policed by and with our consent. Local police forces—neighbourhood policing—is fundamental to that.
A subject access request to Pioneer Academy has revealed that it sent covert participants to planning meetings of the “Save Moulsecoomb Primary School” campaign, taking notes to use against the school community and parents. Compared with Moulsecoomb, Pioneer Academy has more schools with worse results than it has better. After last month’s alleged incident of the Pioneer Academy boss manhandling a child outside the school, 96% of parents now balloted are against the academisation. The local authority, all the unions and the parents are against it, and now even Ofsted is saying that the school has made progress in the two years since it was last inspected. Can the Leader of the House suggest a way that I and my community can stop this level of intimidation, take back control of their local school and keep it for the local community?
I say two things in response to that. One is that the academisation programme nationally has been an enormous success, has helped to raise standards in education and is giving people better life opportunities. It was part of the levelling-up agenda before we even embarked on the levelling-up agenda and it is fundamental. However, I add that any organisation must follow best practice and the law of the land in whatever it does. If the hon. Gentleman has specific examples of where the law has been breached or guidance has not been followed, he would be right to take that up with the Secretary of State for Education. If I can facilitate any correspondence between him and the Secretary of State, I will, of course, be happy to do so.
On Friday, I had the pleasure of visiting the brilliant staff and pupils at St Mary’s Roman Catholic Primary School, alongside Tony from our local business, What More. Not only did we see their eco-classroom, answer their questions and read about their eco journey so far, but Tony was able to talk to them about how his business reuses and upcycles plastic, proving that not all plastic is drastic. Will the Leader of the House join me in thanking both the staff and pupils for the work that they are doing to protect our environment and will he allow a debate in Government time on how we encourage others to follow their lead on our journey to net zero?
I obviously join my hon. Friend in thanking the pupils and staff at St Mary’s for doing their bit. Of course, May is the month of Mary, so it is a very good time to be visiting Catholic schools named in honour of Our Lady. It is a reminder that we all have a role to play in protecting our planet. The United Kingdom will continue to lead the way in acting on climate change, hosting COP26 in November and moving the United Kingdom to a net zero economy by 2050. Rather remarkably, as the Prime Minister has pointed out, since 1990, we have cut our emissions by 40% and have grown our economy by more than 70%, so we can have economic prosperity, economic growth and levelling up, as well as make our way towards net zero.
May I also congratulate the Leader of the House on his upcoming birthday? I wonder who is going to sing “Happy Birthday” to him. Perhaps it will be a rendition by one of the wonderful choirs and choral societies that exist across Bath and North East Somerset. They include the Golden-Oldies, a charity that uses singing to tackle loneliness. However, unlike professional organisations, amateur choirs are not allowed to rehearse with more than six people, although the covid risk is exactly the same. Does that reflect somewhat the mistrust of the Government in voluntary organisations—a feeling that they are less responsible and less organised? Do the Government not value the contribution that voluntary organisations and amateur choirs make to society at large? Can we have a statement from the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport to explain this unfair treatment of amateur choirs compared with professional ones?
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her kind wishes. I think the House will be sitting until 10 o’clock on Monday, so I probably will not get the rendition—from my children, on their trumpets—of “Happy Birthday” that I would get if the House were not sitting so late. None the less, I am actually the patron of the Mendip male voice choir, which is a marvellous choir in North East Somerset. They invited me to be their patron many years ago and I have thoroughly enjoyed their concerts, which are to the highest standard. Indeed, they have performed in Bath Abbey in the hon. Lady’s constituency to great acclaim and success. I completely understand the point she is making and am very sympathetic to amateur choirs, but it is a road map and things are gradually unlifting across the country, with 21 June still pencilled in as the date when we will be getting back to normal, at which point I am looking forward to, as part of my patronage of the Mendip male voice choir, going to one of its concerts.
It is clear that we need more housing, and in particular more affordable housing. However, we need the right houses in the right places and houses that are in keeping with their local areas. Would my right hon. Friend contemplate a debate so that we can talk about how can we achieve those ends?
My hon. Friend is absolutely spot on. The planning system has failed people. It has not always given them the houses that they want. Surveys have always indicated that people want houses, ideally with gardens—although that may be difficult in my hon. Friend’s constituency—and then clever people have thought that they should be given tower blocks, which they have never wanted; this is shown in surveys going back to the 1940s. I have always thought that we should look at where and in what sort of houses the architects and the politicians live. By and large, that is what we should then provide for our constituents and we should have a planning system that does that.
I am glad to say that the Government are bringing forward ambitious planning reforms that will deliver for the British people, and reinvigorate the home owning democracy of which we used to be so proud and in which home ownership has declined in recent years. This is a fundamentally Conservative thing to be doing: allowing people to achieve their lifetime’s ambition of owning their own home and doing so earlier in their life, rather than later in life. What we were able to do before we were 35, people are now no longer able to do so easily. We must ensure that that is able to happen again, and that will be done through the planning reform Bill.
The Leader of the House may be aware of a report published today by the Social Mobility Commission into the composition of the civil service. The report found that, among top Whitehall civil servants, some 59% attended private schools, compared with 7% in the general population, and that there is a culture in the civil service that seems to favour polish over performance, creating a class ceiling that prevents people from poorer backgrounds from achieving the top jobs. Would the Leader of the House be good enough to arrange for a debate in Government time to allow Members to discuss the findings of this report, and how we might begin to ensure that ability and potential future contribution—rather than the privileges of background—become the key determinants of success and allow the civil service to become a beacon of inclusivity that sets an example to other employers elsewhere in the country?
I actually think that the civil service is a model of good employment practice. Since the Northcote-Trevelyan reforms in the middle of the 19th century, it has been merit based, and that is absolutely how it should be. People get on in the civil service if they are good at their job and perform it well. Our civil service does a remarkable job, and in some cases—looking towards the Box, if I may—an outstanding job, of serving the people of this country. In my own office as Leader of the House—a small office—we have an apprentice, and we had an apprentice before who has been promoted and is succeeding considerably within the civil service. That is a good way of improving accessibility to jobs within the civil service to a broader range. I have not read the report, although I have heard of it and heard some of the headlines about it. It seemed to be concerned that people in the civil service remained calm in a crisis. It seems to me that it is essential to remain calm in a crisis; that is exactly the sort of thing we need from our civil servants.
My right hon. Friend knows that I have been an advocate for the Places for Growth programme, and he will bear witness to my fight to move Government Departments out of London to Rother Valley as part of the Government’s levelling-up agenda. In the light of this groundbreaking decentralisation, why cannot we have the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport based in Dinnington, the Attorney General’s Office in Aston, the Department of Health in Hellaby, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs in Thurcroft and the MOD in Maltby? But levelling up is not just about moving Government Departments north. Will my right hon. Friend agree—and speak to the Government about this—that the Places for Growth programme should be expanded so that other bodies, such as the National Lottery, can move to Rother Valley, which will spread prosperity across the north, as was envisioned when the lottery was founded?
My hon. Friend is a fantastic champion for his constituency, Rother Valley. I think the last movement of the capital of this nation was from Winchester to London, and he now suggests that it move from London to Rother Valley. I slightly warn him to be careful what he wishes for, because that would be quite a change in the nature and composition of the Rother Valley, but his broad point is really good: it is not just those organisations directly under the control of Her Majesty’s Government that should think of moving; quangos should also think about whether they best serve the nation by being in London or could move elsewhere. He has raised the idea and I hope they will take notice. I remind him that the Government plan to move 22,000 civil service roles to the regions and nations of the UK by 2030. To return to the previous question, from the hon. Member for Gordon (Richard Thomson), I think that will help by including more people who are more likely to apply for civil service jobs near where live, rather than our having the London-centric focus that we have. I am not, though, in favour of moving our capital city to the Rother Valley quite yet.
I add my birthday wishes to the Leader of the House for Monday. However, I fear that, for an increasing number of children in this country, their birthdays are not so happy. Between 2015 and 2020—the five years before the pandemic hit—child poverty increased by more in north-east local authorities than it did in any other region. My constituency, Newcastle upon Tyne North, has seen child poverty increase to 33% over that period—that is one in every three children, even before taking into account the impact of covid-19. It is shocking and appalling. How can the Government talk about levelling up when ever-increasing numbers of children and young people in the north-east are growing up in poverty on their watch, even while their parents are mostly already in work? May we have an urgent debate on the need for a comprehensive strategy to tackle child poverty—something that was conspicuously absent from the Government’s agenda for this Parliament?
I am grateful for these birthday wishes, although they are beginning to get a little embarrassing; I normally keep my advancing age quiet, rather than showing off about it quite so much as I have been doing this morning.
The hon. Lady’s point is fundamental to the Government’s agenda. This is what was set out in the Queen’s Speech: it was about levelling up and continuing the work that has been done. As I said to the hon. Member for Gateshead (Ian Mearns), there are 100,000 fewer children in absolute poverty than there were in 2010. That is an important achievement. The national living wage; the personal tax threshold; the national insurance threshold; the extra money into the universal credit work allowances; the tax-free childcare; expanded free school meals; and the temporary extension of universal credit—all those things have helped people to get out of absolute poverty, which is a very important part of what the Government are doing. The levelling-up strategy, to ensure that all parts of the country can be more prosperous as the years go by, will help to reduce poverty further.
In the town of Kimberley in Broxtowe, residents are currently participating in a levelling-up consultation so that we may submit the strongest possible bid for the second round of the fund. Will my right hon. Friend confirm the deadline for the second round of levelling-up funding, so that towns such as Kimberley can have the best chance of receiving long-overdue investment? Also, may we have a debate on levelling-up long-forgotten communities throughout the east midlands?
This is a golden opportunity for a Backbench Business debate to discuss the levelling-up agenda broadly, although of course people debated it during the debates on the Queen’s Speech. There will be £4.8 billion in the levelling-up fund, to spend taxpayers’ money in a way that improves infrastructure and helps everyday life across the United Kingdom, including by regenerating town centres and high streets. The application deadline is one of those great days of the year—one of those anniversary days that nobody can ever forget: Waterloo Day.
During the pandemic people have not been able to take their practical driving test due to covid restrictions. Many of those who have taken their theory test may have to take another one because of the time lapse between their practical and theory tests, which is obviously no fault of their own. May we have a debate or statement from the Government about what they intend to do to correct the situation and whether the Department for Transport can extend the expiry date of the theory test certificate for those who have been unable to take their practical driving test due to the covid-19 pandemic?
My own constituents correspond with me about this issue. It always seems to me that the Government must treat people fairly and when they ban things, for whatever good reason that ban may be, constituents should not lose out because of that ban. I am therefore very sympathetic to what the hon. Gentleman is saying. The decision is, of course, one for the Department for Transport. The Secretary of State for Transport is on his feet to talk about trains later, so I do not suppose that this will be within that remit, but I shall ensure that it is taken up because the hon. Gentleman is rightly seeking redress of grievance for his constituents.
Hampshire has a significant Nepalese community, many of whom are deeply worried about family and loved ones in Nepal, where covid has taken a terrible grip and there is inadequate access to oxygen and ventilators. Will my right hon. Friend ask the Foreign Secretary to make a statement to the House about what assistance the UK can give to help Nepal come through this crisis?
I am very grateful to my right hon. Friend for her question, because I can provide her with the answer as to what has been done by Her Majesty’s Government. The United Kingdom has provided £548 million to COVAX, which has already delivered over 59 million doses across three continents, including 348,000 to Nepal. In total, COVAX has allocated almost 2 million doses to Nepal, which will be delivered free of charge. In response to the first covid wave, we repurposed a large portion of our programme to ensure that we were able to focus on Nepal’s recovery. In response to the immediate covid crisis, among other things, we have just provided a new £180,000 duplex oxygen generation plant to Nepal Police Hospital in Kathmandu to help address oxygen shortages and treat covid patients. I hope that that information will help reassure some of my right hon. Friend’s constituents.
I am sure that you and the Leader of the House will join me, Mr Speaker, in sending best wishes to Warrington Rylands football club, who are playing at Wembley in the FA vase final on Saturday. Non-league and grassroots football have taken a massive kicking during the pandemic, without the resources of clubs higher up the football pyramid. While Warrington is most famous for our rugby league sporting successes, we have a vibrant football scene as well, whether it is the newly promoted Warrington Rylands, Cheshire league teams such as Greenalls Padgate St. Oswalds FC, or Warrington Sunday league clubs, including Wolfpack FC, Cheshire Cheese FC and Winwick Athletic FC. Can the Leader of the House please arrange for a debate in Government time on support for grassroots and non-league football, including improving facilities across towns such as mine so that this sport can grow and thrive in the interests of players and fans?
I pass on my congratulations, too, to Warrington Rylands football club. I must say, I think the Cheshire Cheese football club is the best name for a football club that I have heard recently—it is an absolutely splendid name—although if the Cheshire Cheeses were to play the Cheddar Cheeses, I would be on the side of the Cheddar Cheeses for obvious Somerset-related reasons. The point that the hon. Lady makes is right: it has been a tough time for grassroots football. Obviously, the higher levels of the game have carried on getting money in and various schemes have been proposed to help ensure that the grassroots game prospers. In the initial instance, this is absolutely a Backbench Business debate, but one that I think would be very well supported.
The 2019 MP intake had little time to get their feet under the green Benches and learn about parliamentary protocol before covid struck, and procedures in this House rightly changed so that Parliament could function. Structure replaced spontaneity and call lists replaced bobbing. As we emerge from the shackles of covid, does my right hon. Friend agree that we need to resume normal procedure as soon as possible so that we can scrutinise Government and represent our constituents?
I hear a very loud “Hear, hear!” from my hon. Friend, who I am so pleased to see in his place, as I teased him last week for not being—I am delighted that he is here. I am in entire agreement with my hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham (Sarah Atherton): we need to get back to do it properly. The key is that scrutiny is good for the Government, as it is for our constituents and for seeking redress of grievance. The tougher the scrutiny, the better policy is thought through, the better policy is presented and the more it becomes possible to avoid making mistakes that may prove an irritant to our constituents. Getting back to the Chamber and doing things properly is absolutely essential. We have 21 June—Midsummer’s Day itself—pencilled in, so people can leave Stonehenge and come to the Chamber of the House of Commons on that day.
The issues around severe court delays are well documented in this place, but I would like to draw the Leader of the House’s attention to the real impact that these waiting times are having on my constituents. One is a 100-year-old woman, whose fraud case against a former carer has been charged by the Crown Prosecution Service and amounts to more than £250,000. This case was discovered and initiated more than four years ago, yet court delays mean that she is unlikely to see justice served in her lifetime. Will the Leader of the House please urge his colleagues in the Ministry of Justice to step in to seek a resolution, and at the very least will he grant a debate on this issue in Government time?
It is always difficult to suggest any degree of intervention with individual cases, because those are obviously matters for the court, although I will of course pass on what the hon. Lady has said to the Lord Chancellor. Let me just set out what the Government have done to try to ease this problem, because it is one that has been recognised and, along with other effects of covid, is one of the greatest seriousness. The Government have committed a quarter of a billion pounds of taxpayers’ money to a covid recovery. Additional space has been created to hear more cases, with 60 Nightingale courtrooms that have been opened, and plexiglass, as we see in our own Chamber, has been installed in 450 rooms. More than 20,000 hearings using remote technology are taking place each week, which is an enormous increase from March last year, so things are being done. Now, 2,000 cases a week are being completed in the Crown court, which is similar to pre-pandemic levels, so it is a question of working through the backlog. However, the issue the hon. Lady raises is one the Government take seriously, and as I have said, I will of course pass on the details to the Lord Chancellor.
One of the great advantages of leaving the European Union was that we escaped from the protectionism of the superstate. Free trade agreements give more choice to the consumer and lower prices. Could the Leader of the House arrange a debate in Government time on a substantive motion, to allow Government Members to indicate how united we are behind free trade agreements and see whether the Opposition will support us?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right: free trade is one of the great advantages of leaving the European Union, which has always been essentially a protectionist racket and has led to higher prices for many staples of daily life in this country. The Government are a believer in free trade. We have rolled over any number of trade agreements, with the fantastic work done by my right hon Friend the President of the Board of Trade in ensuring that this has happened and in the negotiations with other countries. Free trade is good for both sides, but it is particularly good for the side that reduces tariffs. Why? Because we lower prices to consumers, which means they have more disposable income to use on other things, be it on investment in their country or buying other goods and services. So we grow the overall economy, reducing the tax burden on individuals because tariffs are taxation, and taxation on staples is not necessarily the best way to lead to economic growth, but it also helps producers because producers have to be more competitive, and that means that, globally, they will do better. For economic growth, free trade has always been the way forward, and God bless the late Sir Robert Peel.
I hope the Leader of the House cleared that with the Prime Minister, because on 21 April I asked the Prime Minister to demand that public bodies should “buy British first”, and he responded, “of course”. Clearly, the Under-Secretary of State for Wales, the hon. Member for Monmouth (David T. C. Davies), had not got the memo by yesterday, when he did not blame the EU, but started by bleating about World Trade Organisation restrictions. I suppose next it will be little green men from UFOs that Ministers use as their excuse for inaction. Can we have a debate in which Members from all sides can demand that Ministers, civil servants and public bodies buy British goods, food and services first?
Since we have left the European Union, we have much greater freedom to buy British first. We do have some international agreements on procurement to ensure that we do things fairly and properly, and that other countries do the same, but it seems to me perfectly reasonable, as there is good and affordable British produce available, that we should decide—where we can, and where it is prudent and affordable—to have a preference for British meat over non-British meat. I do not think that is unreasonable, and I hope the House of Commons will do the same.
My constituent Rosie Aldridge’s son, Alfie, was diagnosed at eight with adrenoleukodystrophy. He can no longer walk, chew or swallow. Rosie describes this as every parent’s nightmare, and my heart goes out to her. In the United States, a post-natal heel prick is routine, and the question is whether this simple procedure could have meant a very different outcome for Alfie and others like him. Will the Leader of the House advise the House whether a debate could be held to consider the case for adopting a similar practice in the UK?
I thank my hon. Friend for raising this issue with the House. It is of great concern, and I offer my sympathies to Alfie Aldridge and his family. As constituency MPs, we all know that these are the most heart-rending cases, and the families go through so much in looking after a child who is unwell.
The Government recognise that ALD is a devastating disease and acknowledge that the physical, mental and financial effects harm not only the individual but their families. The UK National Screening Committee advises Ministers and the NHS in all parts of the United Kingdom on aspects of population screening and supports implementation. The UKNSC continually reviews the evidence for newborn screening tests and is currently reviewing the evidence on screening for ALD, following a public consultation, which closed on 30 January.
Comparison of population screening programmes such as the newborn blood spot with other health systems can be misleading. In the UK, newborn screening is quality-assured and includes all parts of the pathway for babies, through tests, retests, referral, diagnosis and treatment. In other countries, such as the USA, that is not necessarily the case. I would therefore recommend, in the first instance, that my hon. Friend apply for an Adjournment debate, but I will of course pass on the issue she has raised to my right hon Friend the Secretary of State for Health.
Around this time last week, the residents of Kenmure Street in Pollokshields safely and peacefully assembled to prevent a Home Office immigration removal van from leaving. The cry, “These are our neighbours—let them go!” rang out in the streets for many hours. I am still awaiting a response from Home Office Ministers as to why they sought to remove two of my constituents in a pandemic and on Eid al-Fitr. Can we have a debate on the practice of so-called dawn raids and why they have no place in civilised society?
Last weekend I was pleased to volunteer to direct constituents having their covid vaccinations at my GP surgery in Hendon—a programme that involves a partnership between several local practices. However, my office has since received a number of calls from people who have passed the 12-week interval after their first vaccine and who cannot get an appointment for their second. This is usually where the first vaccination has been via another GP; on one occasion, the reason given was that the practice did not have any vaccine. Will the Vaccines Minister make a statement about the autonomy of practices in inviting their on-list patients to attend surgeries to ensure that eligible patients receive their second vaccine within the 12-week period?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that important point and for volunteering service—he is a model to us all in his public service and the service he provides to his constituents.
It is essential that everyone receives their second vaccine dose at the agreed time, and recent figures indicate that very large numbers of people are receiving their second vaccines at the right time. Established systems and procedures are in place to ensure that second doses can be booked easily. The national immunisation management system is the centralised service for the management of the covid-19 programme established by NHS England.
It is obviously concerning for patients if they fear a delay in their second dose. In some exceptional circumstances, people may not receive an invitation for their second dose from their GP practice. If a full 11 weeks have passed since the first dose, and no offer of a second appointment has come, people should arrange a jab through the national booking system on the NHS internet page or by calling 119. I will obviously pass my hon. Friend’s concerns on to the Vaccines Minister and the Health Secretary, but I suggest that he goes back to his constituents and says, “Go online or ring 119” if 11 weeks have elapsed.
I am proud to chair the all-party group on parkrun. I bet every MP in this House has a successful community parkrun. We know that hundreds, perhaps thousands, of our constituents want to put on their running shoes on a Saturday morning at 9 o’clock, and see their friends and run a timed 5 km race come rain or shine. Our all-party group wrote to the Prime Minister yesterday asking him to bring down the barriers which parkrun UK says are holding back this brilliant public health initiative from beginning again in June. It was good that the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport supported parkrun from the Dispatch Box earlier, but may we please have an urgent update and a statement highlighting the practical actions in hand to get us all on the run again?
I get into terrible difficulties with these areas, because it is very much do as I say, not as I do—I am afraid I am not running three miles for all the tea in China. Talking of running shoes, I did actually discover, in an unopened cupboard, my old cricket boots from when I was a schoolboy. I am not even going to put those on. They are splendidly old-fashioned in the way of cricket boots of the late 1980s now are.
The hon. Gentleman raises an important point. It is helpful for health reasons, and for fun, for people to get involved in sport as a collaborative and collective activity. He raises issues relating to the regulations that are making that difficult. I will take that up and get him a proper answer, rather than telling people to do things that I do not want to do.
I think, Mr Speaker, it’s a case of howzat.
My right hon. Friend may have received, as I did, a letter from the leader of Somerset County Council, which was sent to every household across Somerset at huge public cost. It is actually full of false flannel and bare-faced lies, unfortunately. It was another attempt to fool the Somerset voters about a referendum that is being organised by the district council to find out what people really think about the different plans for local government. Somerset County Council wants its plan to succeed, so thousands of these spoiler letters suggest it is a waste of time because the Government will not listen, which I believe came from the Government. Unfortunately, the Secretary of State helped to fuel this when he told district councils that the referendum was a mistake. However, the people of Somerset take a dim view of being dictated to. As you well know, Mr Speaker, we do not like being told things by tinpot county councillors or, dare I say, out of touch Ministers. May we have a debate on this, because I’ll tell you what we think of it—[Interruption.] We don’t like it. We never have.
My hon. Friend is beginning to model himself on Corporal Jones. I thought he was about to say, “They don’t like it up ’em,” but he did not quite go that far. I am absolutely intrigued as to what false flannel is. Is that flannelette? I am not entirely sure. Obviously, documents sent out by county councils should be accurate and factually true. The Government are running a consultation on the new structures for Somerset. My hon. Friend knows my preference. I think Somerset should be restored, reunited, returned to being not quite one holy catholic and apostolic Somerset, but that is the direction in which we both believe in heading. But this should be a fair and properly conducted and civilised debate.
I wish the Leader of the House many happy returns for Monday. We do not count the years anymore, the Leader of the House and I and others, but instead we make the years count. We look forward to that.
The newly released 2021 annual report of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom warns that the Chinese Communist party’s hostility towards certain groups, for example Tibetan Buddhists, was among the most troubling developments seen in 2020. Under the CCP’s systematic campaign of “sinofication”, many minorities are seeing their religious identities suppressed and their beliefs persecuted. The religious activities of Tibet’s 8 million Buddhists are severely restricted with state surveillance, harassment, arrests, forced labour and the detention of religious leaders. Will the Leader of the House agree to a debate or a statement on this matter?
The hon. Gentleman raises a point that is rightly raised in this House. The treatment of Tibetan Buddhists should be of the gravest concern to the House, and to anyone who believes in freedom of religion, but the communist regime in China does not respect any religion. It is an atheistic creed; it does not respect Buddhists, it does not respect the Uyghurs and it does not respect Catholics. It has consistently persecuted and borne down on religion in China, and that is something that ought to be condemned.
About 14 months ago, a much-loved Ipswich man, Richard Day, walked back after a night out with his brother, minding his own business. He was set upon by three youths who attacked him. One of the youths punched him in the neck, and that was a fatal blow. As Richard lay dying on the floor, they stood over him laughing and rifling through his pockets to steal his belongings. The individual who threw the fatal punch was actually awaiting sentencing for another similar crime. The people of Ipswich are shocked that that individual was given a sentence of only four years in a youth offenders institution. He will be let out automatically halfway through, and he has already served 14 months on remand, so in 10 months he will be back out, presumably on the streets of Ipswich. My constituents are furious that justice has not been done, and there is also a question about the public safety of my constituents if he is back out on the streets of Ipswich. Will the Leader of the House find Government time for us to debate sentences such as these and what we can do to restore the trust of the British people in our criminal justice system?
My hon. Friend raises a deeply troubling case. The sadness for Mr Day’s family and the burden that they will carry all their lives is one of unimaginable distress. It is hard in these circumstances to go through the reassurances about the Government taking tackling crime seriously, which of course they do. This is where general national policy meets the individual circumstance, and it is so important that, in the individual circumstance, the right, appropriate and just sentence is passed. Parliament gives the power to the courts to do this, and the maximum penalty for manslaughter is a life sentence. We have independent courts, but it would be wrong to pretend that our courts always get the individual judgments right. It is therefore quite proper for people such as my hon. Friend to seek redress for the grievances of their constituents and to raise these matters in the House so that the judiciary may know what concern there is when light sentences are passed on people who, by a violent murder, have destroyed the happiness of a family.
With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a statement about the future of rail.
The railway is one of the nation’s proudest and most enduring innovations. Almost 200 years ago the first line opened—the Stockton and Darlington in County Durham. Within decades, the railway’s iron web stretched across the nation, carrying trains that transformed our economy and society. From steam icons such as the Flying Scotsman and the Mallard, to the high-speed InterCity 125, which became the stalwart of Britain’s railway for 45 years, this country was built by the railway.
In the 19th century, rail helped to make us so productive and turned us into the workshop of the world, and rail powered our great Victorian cities and shaped our economic geography. Rail opened up vast, long-distance travel for ordinary people, transforming opportunity for the masses. Just as rail moulded our past, so will it shape our future. No other form of transport can bind the nation so effectively and help us to level up our country, bringing new jobs and investment to regions such as the north and the midlands, as we build back from covid.
However, for rail to play that key future role and reach its true potential, the industry requires radical overhaul. The Government are deeply committed to rail. We are spending tens of billions on modernising rail infrastructure, electrifying existing routes, updating signalling stations, renewing train fleets, building new lines, and making up for decades of underinvestment, but there are problems that investment alone cannot solve, such as too many delays, too much confusion for passengers, and different parts of the industry not working together.
The part-privatisation of the railway in the mid-’90s successfully reversed its long-term decline. Private sector involvement has seen passenger numbers more than double, rising more quickly than in most of Europe. Passenger travel is safer, and our country is better connected, with billions invested in new, modern trains and upgrading our stations—investment that would not have happened under nationalisation. However, the industry is fragmented, it lacks accountability, and it is lacking in leadership. The chaotic timetable change of three years ago this week demonstrated that point, as did the Government being forced to step in to take over failing franchises. Those are just some examples of how the railway was not working, and of how it was neglecting its greatest, most precious asset: the passenger.
Today I am proud to announce the beginning of a new start for the railway in Britain. It is the biggest shake up in three decades, bringing the railway together under a single national leadership, with one overwhelming aim: to deliver for passengers. The new public body, Great British Railways, will own the infrastructure, run and plan the network, organise the timetable, and set most fares. It will be one organisation, accountable to Ministers, to get trains running on time, make the customer experience as hassle-free as possible, and bring the railway into the 21st century, a single, familiar brand, with united accountable leadership.
We are going to sort out and simplify ticketing. Instead of having queues at stations for wads of paper tickets, we will roll out convenient, modern ways to pay and book—smartphones and contactless—and a new Great British Railways website for selling tickets across the network. We will welcome independents continuing to compete in the ticket retail market, particularly where they can grow new markets, recognising the value of private sector innovation. Pay as you go will be more widely accepted, and flexible season tickets will be introduced next month, saving money for an increasing number of people who do not commute five days a week. At the same time, “turn up and go” tickets, conventional season tickets and Britain’s comprehensive service will all be protected.
Although Great British Railways will manage the network, we must not ignore the contribution that the private sector continues to make. This is not renationalisation, which the Government continue to believe failed the railways. Rather, this is simplification. While Great British Railways acts as the guiding mind to co-ordinate the whole network, our plan will see greater involvement of the private sector. Private companies will be contracted to run the trains and services, with fares set by Great British Railways. It will work more like London buses and London Overground, delivered by private companies but branded as a single national service.
The operators will be rewarded for providing clean, comfortable, on-time services, and our reforms will unleash opportunities for them to innovate, helping us to change the way tickets are sold and the way data is used, so that passengers can plan their journeys more easily. These contracts will lower the barriers and bring in new entrants, including community rail partnerships and other innovative bidders operating on branch lines. That will make the competition process easier and will be good for taxpayers and passengers.
In England, we will work to bring the railway closer to those who use the services, and in Scotland and Wales, we will continue to exercise the current powers under devolution. Close collaboration with Great British Railways will help to ensure that delivery improves across the services and provides consistency for passengers across the country.
This is also about changing the culture of our railway. Covid has shown the very best of the railways. Ticketing staff, engineers, drivers, guards, cleaners, signallers, maintenance workers and timetablers have all played their part in keeping supplies, vaccines and essential workers moving, and for that we owe them a debt of gratitude. They have shown us what can be achieved when this industry comes together, and we want to strengthen that.
Simpler structures and clearer leadership will make decision making much more transparent and will remove the blame culture. There is far too much bureaucracy focused on establishing who is to blame rather than finding solutions. For example, all delays greater than three minutes have to be allocated to someone for financial penalties to apply. Until recently, under the delay attribution rules, when a train was delayed by being hit by a bird, who got the blame depended on the size of the bird. A small bird was the fault of a train company and a large bird the fault of Network Rail. Of course, trains are expected to withstand, say, a sparrow, a pigeon or maybe even a smallish duck, but not a swan or a goose.
Once a train has collided with said bird, it creates an industry for debate, argument and litigation. Network Rail and train operators currently employ a stunning 400 full-time members of staff known as train delay attributors, whose sole job is to argue with each other about whose fault the delay is. There is even a national attribution board—a sort of supreme court for the railway—which looks at these disputes and, in one case recently, had to rule on whether a pheasant is a small or large bird. It is completely bonkers. This is the sort of thing that will end. As soon as possible, under our reforms, everyone, including the train operators, will be tasked to work towards common goals and manage costs. We will create a more financially sustainable railway, saving money for the taxpayer. Rail services will be better co-ordinated with each other and better integrated with trains, buses, bikes and trams.
This new plan for the railways, three years in the making, is not about ideology. I am more interested in fixing problems, getting things done and creating the public services that people want. This plan is therefore about delivering for passengers—an ambitious but common-sense blueprint for a more customer-focused, more reliable and growing railway. As we head towards the 200th anniversary of rail’s inception, the network faces perhaps its biggest challenge with the collapse of passenger numbers during covid. This new rail revolution will restore trust and pride in Britain’s railways, secure it for the long term and ensure that it plays just as formative a role in our future as it has done in our past. I commend this statement to the House.
May I start by thanking the Secretary of State for Transport for an advance copy of the statement, together with the report that was issued earlier this morning? It is two and a half years since the Williams review was first commissioned, and the very fact that Williams was commissioned at all shows that the state, the travelling public and those excluded from the railways because of accessibility have been given a poor deal.
While much has changed through the network due to covid, what the Secretary of State has announced today was pretty much what was recorded in The Daily Telegraph last November. If that is the case, will he confirm why did he not make the announcement back in November, when it was reported in the national press?
Taking the announcements in turn today, the Secretary of State said that control of the infrastructure and the contracting of train operations will be given to this new arm’s length Government-owned body, with private firms bidding for concessions with an agreed profit margin built in. Can the Secretary of State confirm whether a publicly owned provider will be able to bid for these concessions on a level playing field? Will he also confirm whether the operator of last resort will continue to exist? If so, will it be brought fully back in-house?
It has been reported that the Treasury is demanding cost cuts of between 10% and 20%. There is concern that rather than seeing increased investment, the real driver behind bringing all this together is more about disguising painful cuts. Any talk of cuts in funding, such as the £1 billion funding cut to Network Rail that we have already seen, will have a direct impact on jobs, our regions and vital maintenance and upgrade works. Does the Secretary of State know how many jobs could be lost with a reduction of 10% or 20%, and what it might mean to each of our regions? The head of Network Rail, Andrew Haines, and its chairman, Sir Peter Hendy, are to be tasked with drawing up the processes and structures of the new Great British Railways. What date have they been given to report back?
On freight, can the Secretary of State say a little more about how the reforms will impact on the track access regime and about the governance arrangements that will exist for freight when Network Rail takes control of the passenger railways and freight together, albeit under a different name? Decarbonising transport will require a much greater shift if we are to move more from road to rail. How will the reforms help rail freight grow as part of decarbonising freight transport? Importantly, what targets will the Secretary of State set in that regard?
The Government have also made an announcement on flexible ticketing, although to date few details have been provided. The lack of any detail on these tickets and whether they will actually be cheaper for the travelling public frankly renders the announcement almost useless to millions of passengers. There is a danger that flexible ticketing will fail to meet the test of encouraging people back on to rail as we come through this pandemic. What research have the Government done to ensure that the type of product being suggested will address the needs of the travelling public and get more people back on to rail?
This report fundamentally fails to tackle one of the biggest challenges with our transport system, which is that the different modes of transport just do not talk to each other. They do not turn up together when required and they are not joined up. We need a bus and train system that genuinely connects people, rather than leaving them cold, standing, waiting for connecting services. Will the Secretary of State work towards joining up different modes of transport? Critically, if so, what devolved powers does he envisage for our metro Mayors and our transport authorities as part of this plan?
On devolution, will the Government finally follow through on transferring train station responsibilities to our metro Mayors, as was expected in Greater Manchester some years ago? We have not seen any detail on what profit margin operators can expect in practice and whether the cost of that will hit fares or investment. How quickly will the Government publish that?
While I welcome the steps to increase public ownership and control over the railways, as hon. Members might expect, they do not go far enough in this plan. There is ample proof to demonstrate that fuller public ownership, rather than a concession model, would better serve the state, the public and long-term investment. I fear that the Government have really not understood the scale of the challenge in front of them. While we may well see a change of name on the side of the trains, fundamentally passengers will still be left short-changed. Although the Minister says that this is not about nationalisation, the fact is that, as we have seen through covid, we have nationalised risk but continue to allow the privatisation of profit.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. I have to say that I sympathise, because I appreciate that it must have been difficult to take in a report of 114 pages in the time available. Skimming through it and coming up with questions will have been difficult, and I therefore understand why he asked some questions that are answered fully in the White Paper itself. Less understandable and harder to fathom is how it was possible to put out press comments about the content of the White Paper last night before it was even seen, including a lot of points already covered in the White Paper, and therefore rather misfiring in direction. Let me try to pick through some of the questions asked.
Why two and a half years? As I mentioned, the breakdown in the timetable took place three years ago this week. Keith Williams was appointed to carry out the review, which he has done at no cost to the taxpayer, I should mention, and brilliantly. There was this thing called covid, and we went into the second and third lockdowns in November, so it was perfectly proper to wait until we had a clear indication and for the vaccine to be deployed before coming to the House with the full report. That also enabled us to bring that report up to date with what is actually happening in the running of those rail services.
The hon. Gentleman asked about the operator of last resort and whether it will still exist. The answer is in the report: yes, very much so. As he knows, I already effectively run Northern and the east coast mainline through the operator of last resort. It is not about disguising cuts of any type. He keeps coming back to £1 billion of control period 6 rail funding. Because of covid, operators were unable to spend the money, but they will have that money to spend in the next period. None the less, we have ongoing one of the biggest ever rail transformation programmes, if not the biggest.
The timescales for change are all in the White Paper, and the good news is that we will get going on this immediately. The hon. Gentleman will notice that the bottom left-hand corner on the front of the White Paper says “CP 423”, which means that it is command paper 423, which means that we can get on with it, and we are doing that from this moment. A very good example of that is flexi-tickets. He says that there is not enough detail. I am pleased to let the House know that that detail will all be available on 21 June, and that they will go on sale on 28 June. If he takes the time to look in the notes to editors at the back, he will see a large number of examples of what fares will be. These will save people money in each circumstance if they are travelling two or three days a week.
The hon. Gentleman asked about freight. I refer him to page 78 of the White Paper, which talks about freight and our desire to make sure that those freight paths are available within our railway. The advantage of Great British Railways looking after all this is that we will be able to accommodate freight paths. He asked about the decarbonisation that freight will help to bring, and he is absolutely right to focus on that. I am pleased to tell him that a transport decarbonisation plan will be published before the summer that will focus very much on how we already use the best form of transport when it comes to decarbonisation in order to shift more freight around.
The hon. Gentleman asked about the joined-up nature of transport, with people, as he says, waiting in the cold sometimes for transport that may or may not turn up. I know he has not had long to look at the White Paper, but he only has to get as far as the foreword to find my talking about that exact issue. He asks about the way this will work with devolution. He will be pleased to hear that I spoke to his friend the Mayor of Manchester only yesterday, and I was pleased that he warmly welcomed the White Paper today. Page 41 has all that detail.
I know that Oppositions, almost for Opposition’s sake, have to nit-pick and find problems, but the reality is that the nationalisation that they would impose on this country would lead to fewer passengers, as it did last time; fewer stations, with stations closed in our constituencies, as it did last time under British Rail; track being cut, as it was before; and appalling sandwiches. We are not going back to the days of nationalisation. We can do better than that.
I welcome the statement, the White Paper and indeed the birth of Great British Railways. We look forward to the Secretary of State giving more detail to the Select Committee on Transport this Wednesday with Keith Williams. In the meantime, let me ask about page 56 of the White Paper, which deals with passenger service contracts, promising:
“Revenue incentives and risk sharing”.
How will that work to ensure that the private sector continues to invest in a way that it has done over the past 20 or so years, when it doubled passenger numbers? Page 71 talks of “New flexible season tickets” allowing eight days’ travel in a 28-day period. Does that equate to 28% of the cost that passengers would expect to pay and therefore make it an incentive to travel in our new world?
I am grateful to the Chair of the Select Committee and I look forward to coming before the Committee on Wednesday. I hope I will get a bit more chance to expand on some of these subjects. When Keith Williams and I were looking at the role of the private sector, we very much looked at what was happening in London with Transport for London: the way the buses, London Overground and the Docklands Light Railway are all run by private enterprises and how they bring something more than would have been available if the state was simply running all those services. The incentives for such enterprises will be to run good, efficient, trains, on time—clean trains, with wi-fi; these are things that passengers want—to carry on innovating and to bring their private ideas and capital, while allowing Great British Railways to set the overall picture. I do not want to disappoint him on the flexi tickets; the 28 days does not refer to 28%, but I can tell him that, fortunately, every ticket will be cheaper than buying a season ticket when people are travelling now, in a more flexible world, perhaps two or three days a week. These tickets will be warmly welcomed by the travelling public, as people start to go back to work.
I, too, thank the Secretary of State for advance sight of the statement. I have to report that, yet again, although there was consultation during the initial review, there has been no discussion of the actual plan with the Scottish Government. As for the so-called “Williams-Shapps” plan, it will be interesting to see how quickly it is renamed the “Williams plan” if it does not work. Although there are elements to be welcomed, I am afraid that it amounts to a real missed opportunity, with the Tories’ continued belief that the private sector knows best and yet more money flowing out of the system and into shareholders’ pockets.
By contrast, the Scottish Government have committed to taking ScotRail into public ownership. Will the Secretary of State confirm that nothing in this plan prevents the Scottish Government from doing so? I am disappointed but wholly unsurprised to see that the advice given by the former Rail Minister Tom Harris to devolve Network Rail to Scotland has been ignored. Moreover, the plan states:
“Dedicated station management teams will be created locally within regional divisions of Great British Railways to manage stations, land and assets.”
Will the Secretary of State confirm whether that results in GBR taking on the management of some Scottish stations and taking it out of ScotRail’s hands? How will the plan to roll station improvement funds into a central accessibility fund affect current relationships between Transport Scotland and the Department for Transport and annual bids for Access for All money? The plan also contains zero mention of international connections and Eurostar, which is a big omission, given the potential collapse of Eurostar. The plan document for GBR contains lots of nice pictures but not a single one has been taken outside England, which is indicative of a plan that fails to recognise the need to devolve more power to the devolved Administrations. Despite all the noise and rhetoric around the Government’s 10-point plan, the document contains just one page out of 116 on rail electrification. It says that the Government will announce further English electrification programmes, but we have been here before and their track record is utterly woeful. So when will this plan be announced? Will passenger service contracts be compulsory?
Lastly, the plan contains little specifically about Scotland. Given that the functions of Network Rail are not being devolved, can the Secretary of State tell us how the operational relationship between the ScotRail Alliance and Transport Scotland and GBR will work? The extension of ministerial control over GBR/Network Rail means that that is likely to become far more complicated.
I wish to correct a couple of things that the hon. Gentleman said. There has been extensive discussion with the Scottish Government at official level about all of this, so they have been very much briefed. I am sorry that they have not briefed him along the way, as that would have been helpful. I know that he approaches this subject with tremendous dogma as if our railway lines do not interconnect, but they do, or as if the only way through this in the case of ScotRail is to nationalise it. We just take a much more open view about the best way to run a railway. First, the lines happen to connect England and Scotland together. Secondly, we have said in this White Paper that we are happy not only to have this national body, Great British Railways, involved, but to have competition from the private sector or, indeed, an operator of last resort, the public sector. We just have a much less ideological view of all of this. I think it is about trying to juxtapose his very ideological views with this much more straightforward plan to do what is right for the passenger that is causing him quite a lot of his confusion.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned numerous different issues. For example, he said that, on the international side of things, Eurostar was in trouble. He may not have spotted it, but Eurostar was refinanced just last week. He asked about the transport decarbonisation element of it. He may have missed the answer that I gave to the hon. Member for Oldham West and Royton (Jim McMahon) a moment ago, but the transport decarbonisation plan is referenced in the White Paper, because it is due out very shortly and will tackle those issues in a great deal of additional detail.
I can reassure the hon. Gentleman that Great British Railways will carry on running the infrastructure side of things, but there is nothing in the White Paper that reverses or changes the devolution picture: the Scottish Government will carry on running ScotRail as they see fit. None the less, we do have to recognise that we all need to work together. I normally hear him say exactly that, because our constituents need to travel around and they do not really care about all of the insider detail. They just want a railway that works, which is why he should be welcoming Great British Railways and this White Paper today, because we will get a railway that works.
May I start by welcoming my right hon. Friend’s statement today? The people of Stoke-on-Trent North, Kidsgrove and Talke elected me on a pledge to better connect places such as Milton via the Stoke to Leek line, which I hope will reopen under my Restoring Your Railway Fund bid. I also want to ensure that railways and stations are responsive to the needs of local communities, such as providing Access For All upgrades and car parking, which is happening at Kidsgrove, thanks to Joan Walley from 2015, and I hope to see it replicated at Longport railway station. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that, as part of these reforms announced today, our railways will be more responsive to local community needs and work for every part of our United Kingdom?
I can most certainly provide an absolute assurance to my hon. Friend, who, I have to say, has been an incredibly doughty fighter on behalf of his Stoke constituency. He mentioned the Stoke to Leek line. I know that he has spoken to the Minister of State, Department for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Daventry (Chris Heaton-Harris) and I know that he has an application into the third round of the Restoring Your Railway Fund application, which is enormously popular across the House. That is getting rid of the damage that Beeching did to our railways in this country under British Rail and it is good to see this Conservative Government opening it up again.
Passengers in Luton North will be concerned by reports that the Chancellor is planning to cut our railways. After 15 years of Access For All funding, it is truly shocking how many stations, including Leagrave in Luton North, remain inaccessible to wheelchair users, those with mobility issues, and parents like myself with pushchairs. Under this review, will the Secretary of State accelerate Access For All funding so that passengers with access needs in Luton North can have proper and equal use of our railways?
I do agree, but we have a fundamental issue here: our railways were built by the Victorians, who did not have any kind of disability discrimination legislation at the time. Many of the stations are far less accessible than we would want to see, which is why we have the Access For All fund, with which the hon. Lady is familiar. I always encourage people to bid for it. There is no prouder moment than when I go round the country with my fellow Ministers to open up stations that are now accessible to people in every kind of way, and I encourage her to apply for that. I have to say that the Chancellor would be pretty surprised to hear the hon. Lady talk about his “cuts” to our railways. He has just put £12 billion into keeping them running over the past year due to covid.
I welcome any reform that puts passenger interests at the heart of the railway, but may I say to the Secretary of State that what passengers in Alfreton and Langley Mill want is for their direct link to London each day to be retained and not scrapped by East Midlands Railway? Can he confirm that, under his new structure, those sort of decisions