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Westminster Hall

Volume 697: debated on Tuesday 15 June 2021

Westminster Hall

Tuesday 15 June 2021

[Mrs Maria Miller in the Chair]

Levelling-up Agenda

Virtual participation in proceedings commenced (Order, 25 February).

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

I remind hon. Members that there have been some changes to the normal practice, in order to support the new hybrid arrangements. The timing of debates has been amended to allow technical arrangements to be made for the next debate. There will also be a suspension between each debate.

I remind Members participating physically and virtually that they must arrive at the start of the debate and are expected to remain for the entire debate. I also remind those people participating virtually that they are on screen at all times. Members attending physically should clean their spaces before they use them and when they leave the room. I also remind Members that Mr Speaker has stated that masks should be worn at all times, except when speaking.

Members attending physically who are in the later stages of the call list should use the seats in the Public Gallery; I can see some Members there now. Once Members have spoken, I would be grateful if they vacated their seats—Members can speak only from the horseshoe, where the microphones are.

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the levelling up agenda.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Miller. I am delighted to see the Financial Secretary to the Treasury, my right hon. Friend the Member for Hereford and South Herefordshire (Jesse Norman), and I thank other hon. Members for being part of this debate. I am happy to forgo my summing-up at the end to get as many folks in for as long as possible, but I would like to talk for 10 to 12 minutes now to outline some arguments.

I have two key points to make to the Minister and I will come straight to them. On the immediate issue, the Isle of Wight Council and I, working together, are putting in what we believe is a very strong bid for a development in East Cowes. I am keen that it reaches receptive ears in Government and among Ministers.

Secondly, I would like to talk more broadly about the levelling-up agenda for the Island and ask the Government to work with us—and even to use the Island as a model, a mini region, to see what a strategic cross-Government agenda could look like. I am most concerned to talk to the Minister about the extent to which the Treasury is leading cross-Government work, rather than the Cabinet Office, and how we are developing cross-Government, coherent integrated policy making.

However, if there is one critical element that I want to leave with the Minister today, it is that the levelling-up agenda for the Isle of Wight implies many things. That includes not only economic development, important as that is, but training and skills, education, which is critical, health outcomes, greater environmental protection, housing and planning. Effectively, we want a strategic road map for the next 50 years that has more to offer the Island than we have had in the past 50 years.

[Sir Edward Leigh in the Chair]

“Levelling up” seems a fancy phrase for regional policy—for taking wealth or economic development out of the south-east and trying to spread it around the country as much as possible. According to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, ours is one of the most unequal countries in the G7 developed nations, which is pretty scandalous.

Specifically on the Island, for nearly two decades we have been making the case for a more assertive regional assistance programme. In 2002, our GDP, our local economy, was 60% of that in the south-east. Things have improved in the past two decades and it is now 66%, but we are poorer than elsewhere in the south-east. Our educational achievements are lower, and our health outcomes worse.

The Island has a unique identity, which those of us who live there are incredibly proud of—frankly, we love it—but there is a downside: the economic impact of dislocation and diseconomies of scale, specific to an island. In other areas of the UK, people can be physical islands, cut off, as we have seen with folks in Hartlepool and other places. That is why the attractiveness of the hopeful levelling-up agenda post Brexit rightly has such a hold on many people. What we must do is deliver on that agenda.

The levelling-up agenda, done right, is one of great hope and potential prosperity for this country. If it is done wrong, we will be letting down millions of people throughout the United Kingdom.

I want to make another point. According to all our statistics, the Isle of Wight should be in tier 1—frankly, we should be two constituencies in tier 1. My electorate is double the size of that of the average constituency in the United Kingdom and we are going to be two constituencies in three years’ time anyway, after the Boundary Commission changes. I am slightly concerned that we are one constituency in tier 2 at the moment. I think our case merits a higher priority.

I come to our bid. The bid going in this week is in relation to a series of buildings in East Cowes that we wish to transform. The purpose is to grow the number of high-paid jobs in marine, but also in the tidal, wind and offshore renewable sectors. Our bid will enable us to develop that cluster of excellence further and ensure that East Cowes continues to grow as a shipbuilding composite and green tech hub for the United Kingdom as a whole.

I would welcome a ministerial visit to East Cowes. My right hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip (Boris Johnson) visited during the campaign before he became Prime Minister; many people remember the picture that he had taken in front of the world’s largest Union Jack—on the Isle of Wight: where else? We would equally welcome another ministerial visit to see the excellent work being done there.

This is part of a wider agenda, which I want to turn to. The council is new and we are going to work together. It is not Conservative any longer, which is a shame, but we will work closely together and I know we will have a successful relationship. The council and I are not thinking about the next two to five years, but the next five to 25 years, because we want to see a different future for the Island. That has to be primarily around the regeneration of our town centres using the levelling-up and shared prosperity fund bids.

Our regeneration approach, especially after covid, will be focused primarily on Newport. The town centre has a lot of empty shops and Newport harbour is ripe for development as a regeneration hub. As part of that, we want high-quality new house building for Islanders in sensitive numbers to drive regeneration. We need to bring back young people and housing into the town centre to drive economic growth and to provide employment, for start-up companies, for leisure and for higher education facilities, which I will come to. We need space for start-ups and, potentially, a new railway station, depending on how the rejuvenation of the branch-line project goes. If there was a single long-term item that I would interest the Minister in after the East Cowes project, it would be the regeneration of Newport to drive the Island’s economy.

This is linked to many other things, as I am sure the Minister can imagine. We need to continue to develop higher education on the Island. The education revolution that transformed Bournemouth, Brighton, Portsmouth and Southampton has, scandalously, completely passed us by. Only 23% of Islanders go into higher education, compared with nearly 40% of Londoners. That is unacceptable.

Millions have been pledged by the Department for Education—I thank the Ministers for this—to help rebuild the Isle of Wight College. Under the excellent leadership of Debbie Lavin, the college is doing great work aligning with mainland colleges to be able to offer richer and better vocational courses, as well as degree courses. We are getting there in higher education, but more needs to be done.

Regenerating our towns also means that we can protect our landscape much more. We need our landscape—not only for our quality of life, but because it is a critical part of our visitor economy. Our landscape has specific economic as well as emotional and psychological value over and above a competitive price for low-density greenfield housing.

For 50 years, we have not built for Islanders. That situation needs to stop. As part of any levelling-up plan for the Island, we need greater landscape protection and a policy of building for Islanders. That means exceptional circumstance and, preferably, opting out of national targets. We think that the best way to give long-term protection to the Island, depending on what happens with the Government’s landscape review, is for it to have a new designation—a new template to work with Government: to become an “island park”. That could involve marine protection and landscape protection, maybe up to the level of being an area of outstanding natural beauty, perhaps with some opt-out for economic development.

We should work on a new template, and it can be a template for the UK. We can start in England with the Scilly Isles and the Isle of Wight; in Wales, there is Anglesey; and many Scottish islands could benefit from a similar shared model, although I note that Scotland has the special islands needs allowance. I wish we had that in England.

More can be done, but I am trying to show that economic development and educational aspiration need to go hand in hand with other things to ensure that when we regenerate, we do so in an intelligent, sensitive, long-term way that develops our people and gives them greater aspiration, greater hope for the future, greater education and greater work opportunities, while also protecting our landscape for us and our nation in perpetuity, but also as a critical part of our visitor economy.

I am aware of the time; I will begin to wind up so that others can come in. I will be seeking separate debates on the progress of the island deal. We have made some progress on that, but we need to do more. I stress that there are additional costs to providing public services on an island, and those are not in dispute. I am delighted that the fair funding formula—championed by my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond (Yorks), now Chancellor, whom I thank for his excellent work—contains an admission that additional costs are involved in providing local government services.

That same argument is still being played out in the field of health, specifically for the 12 universally small hospitals in England—and St Mary’s on the Isle of Wight is the most unique universally small hospital, because it is on an island; by definition, it cannot grow in any conceivable way. The population is about half of what a district general hospital normally requires for the tariff regime that currently operates within the NHS. I will also have a separate debate on ferries, which is far too big a topic just for here; likewise for agriculture.

Finally, I leave a single idea in the mind of the Minister: regeneration—levelling up, the shared prosperity regional agenda—is, for us, about a lot of things. Fundamentally, it is about making sure that our future is better than our past. It is about focusing on development, education, wellbeing and health, but doing so sensitively and intelligently while preserving our environment. As I say, done right, levelling up can be transformative. I very much hope that I can work with the Minister on a coherent, cross-Government approach for the Island in a way that can help us all nationally as well.

Order. We have 13 Back-Bench speakers. If there is to be any chance of everybody getting in, we will have to have a tight time limit. I will set it at three and a half minutes at the moment, but that may have to come down to three minutes. I would be grateful if speeches were kept below three minutes.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. I congratulate the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Bob Seely) on securing a really important debate.

When we talk about levelling up, there is one fundamental point that the Government would rather we all forgot: we cannot level up the country without properly resourcing local government. Councils up and down the country should be at the forefront of investment and regeneration. Councils, combined authorities and Mayors will be delivering the infrastructure and regeneration projects that will level up our cities, towns and villages, but more than a decade of devastating austerity has undermined them, and damaged our communities. It has hit the poorest areas hardest. The areas that need regeneration the most have been left with the least to deliver it. High streets that need investment to change for the economy of tomorrow have been left behind in yesterday, while local budgets have been decimated.

Barnsley Council has faced some of the worst Government cuts in the country, and has lost 40% of its income since 2010. For the services that have been decimated and the opportunities for investment that have been lost to austerity, the concept of levelling up could be a very welcome one, but one-off pots of money will not change a broken system that leaves behind so many people and so many parts of the country.

There is something wrong with the system when the Chancellor’s constituency of Richmond (Yorks) is prioritised over Barnsley in the Budget, even though, on almost every indicator, Barnsley is more deserving of funding. That leaves “levelling up” as no more than a slogan. We need to look more fundamentally at the kind of country we are and how and who our economy has been working for. The people of this country have been promised better, and deserve better. Our councils and communities deserve the resources that they need to thrive, not just get by.

If the Government want to level up for Barnsley, they should implement the recommendations of the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee report on the mineworkers’ pension scheme, which had unanimous cross-party backing—not just because it is morally the right thing to do and because the Government should not be in the business of profiting from miners’ pensions, but because the policy would change the lives of thousands of ex-miners, giving them an immediate financial uplift that would boost local businesses and economies when they spend.

If the Government want to level up for Barnsley, they should invest in our young people and their futures by delivering a children’s recovery plan that meets the scale of the challenge. Whereas the Labour party would meet that challenge with an ambitious £15 billion programme, this Government could not even muster 10% of what their own education recovery commissioner said was needed before he resigned in opposition to their failure.

If the Government want to level up Barnsley, they should make sure we receive the investment that towns such as ours deserve for regeneration and new, decent jobs, making sure that hard work gets a fair wage. Under this Government, in-work poverty has increased, long-term unemployment is rising at its fastest rate for more than a decade, and the Kickstart scheme has provided opportunities for just one in 25 young people. One-off pots of money for selected areas will not fundamentally rebalance our country or reverse a decade of austerity. We need good jobs, opportunities and properly funded services for every town. If levelling up truly means anything, it must mean delivering for towns such as Barnsley and investing in communities like mine.

It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Sir Edward. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Bob Seely) on securing this debate. Levelling up, as it has become known, is the biggest challenge that this country currently faces. It is about giving hope to communities that have been ignored for too long, tackling deep pockets of deprivation, giving people the opportunity to realise their full potential and bridging the stubbornly wide productivity gap that has held back the UK economy for far too long.

Levelling up must not be piecemeal, fragmented and short-term interventions. Instead, it must be a set of coherent, sustained and properly funded policy initiatives fully co-ordinated across Government.

One of the pockets of deprivation is in Lowestoft, but I welcome the investment that the Government and councils are making in the Gull Wing bridge, the flood defence scheme and the towns deal, which equates to almost £220 million of public sector funding in the heart of Lowestoft over the next five years. Our tasks locally are to ensure that those schemes are built on time and unleash a tide of private sector job-creating investment.

I also welcome the proposed freeport at Felixstowe, 50 miles down off the Suffolk coast. However, I emphasise the importance of not jumping from one intervention to the next, but instead continuing to see through proven strategies that are already up and running. The Lowestoft and Great Yarmouth enterprise zone, set up in 2012, like other enterprise zones around the country, has been very successful. It has an energy focus that is aligned with the Government’s clean growth strategy. By reallocating the existing footprint of the enterprise zone around Lowestoft port, more than 300 jobs can be created, 40 new businesses can be supported, and between £1 million and £3 million of retained rates can be generated.

Sir Edward, it is great to be here with you and other colleagues, but when it comes to levelling up, today we are a sideshow. The important business is taking place in the other place with the Second Reading of the Skills and Post-16 Education Bill. Putting skills and lifelong learning at the heart of the Government’s policy agenda is absolutely critical, and we must ensure that the ambitions of the reforms are fully realised. Linked to the Bill are local skills improvement plan trailblazers, and the chambers of commerce and colleges across Suffolk and Norfolk have come together and submitted a compelling application. The bid has a focus on the net zero agenda and rebuilding coastal communities. It highlights the workforce requirements across the region in offshore wind, in Sizewell C, in the emerging hydrogen economy and in the freeport.

I urge the Government to give this compelling proposal favourable consideration. We need to step up to the plate, so that local people have the skills needed to take up these exciting opportunities.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward.

Clearly, this debate is about a con trick—a gimmick. It is actually the Tories admitting that they have continually let down communities, regions and nations for decades. However, they are now saying, “We’ll give some money back and everything will be better.”

Clearly, additional strategic investment is always welcome, but this investment is not strategic and it also bypasses the devolution settlement. We have heard from other contributors that this investment is far too piecemeal.

When we consider Westminster failures, this levelling-up fund does not even come close to making amends. If we go back to Maggie Thatcher’s flagship policy of right to buy council houses, the fact that initially all receipts went into Westminster coffers meant the erosion of council and social housing stock, with no funds available for new builds. In Scotland, it has taken the Scottish National party Government to try to turn this situation round, with record numbers of new build houses for rent. Unfortunately, England still has an incoherent housing policy that will cause further inequality.

Oil and gas produced £350 billion worth of revenue for the Exchequer and yet there was no consideration about setting up an oil fund to allow legacy considerations rather than the squandering of those revenues in tax cuts. Yet now we are supposed to be grateful for money coming back.

Look at the devastation of coalmining communities. Where is the coherent strategy for levelling them up? When opencast coalmining companies in my constituency went into liquidation in 2013, they left millions of pounds worth of outstanding restoration works and again the UK Government were nowhere to be seen. They did not contribute a penny and even refused to support a coal tax scheme that would have funded that restoration work.

We know that the levelling-up fund is labelled as money that might otherwise have gone to the EU, but the reality is that the likes of Scotland had to make use of EU structural funds to offset Westminster letting us down. Indeed, the fact that the highlands became an EU objective 1 category area under Westminster rule says everything. However, that did allow the highlands to access funding for roads and bridges, including the upgrading of the last remaining single-track trunk road in the UK. That money funded harbour upgrades as well, which was real, strategic levelling up.

Now, conversely, we have Scottish Tories demanding road upgrades for schemes that Westminster failed to deliver on, and we know that it was the Tories who labelled Scottish fishermen as “expendable”. It is those same fishermen who have now been given a poor Brexit deal, and we know that our farmers will be the next to suffer because of the trade deals that have been negotiated by Westminster.

Even when we consider the electricity grid charging scheme, we see that Scotland faces the highest grid charges in Europe, so the system prejudices development in Scotland in areas that would actually benefit from levelling up. Real levelling up would also have seen the contract for difference procurement process amended to include local content.

To be clear, I will support bids by my local authority if they bring additional strategic investment, and I will also support community groups to try to access funding. But the process is a farce. Like the stronger towns fund, it is likely to be politically managed rather than having a proper needs-based assessment. The fact that the first bids have to be submitted by 18 June and be shovel-ready to be delivered in a year confirms a lack of strategic thinking and oversight. There is a real risk that hurried bids will be accepted, leading to cost and programme overruns later on.

Pitting MPs and local authorities against each other is not the way to tackle structural inequalities. My constituency needs additional support, but this is not the way that it should be managed.

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Bob Seely), my neighbour, on securing this important debate on levelling up. It is a really great opportunity to explore the scope of this call to action. The timing of the debate really could not be better, as it immediately follows the G7 and the joint communiqué published by the Group of Seven developed country leaders, indicating the shared agenda that we have and the central role that the Government’s agenda of levelling up has across those other nations, which are key trading partners and, indeed, key allies.

The issue of levelling up resonates across the nation, and we saw that in the general election. I believe that we need to look not just at regional levelling up, which we heard about so eloquently from my hon. Friend, but at the broader scope and vision that we saw in the communiqué that was published following this weekend’s conference. The G7 leaders agreed unanimously that in reinvigorating our economies we should be levelling up as nations, so that no place or person, irrespective of their age, ethnicity or gender, is left behind. The full power of the applicability of our vision was seen not just at home but in the wider world.

It was important to see gender equality so clearly and explicitly embedded in the G7 communiqué for levelling up. Gender equality has to be embedded into the strategy of the Government’s levelling-up White Paper when it is published later this year. We need to be talking about left-behind people, as well as left-behind areas, particularly when we look at economic underperformance, which is something we are still having to tackle in this country. It demonstrates itself through low pay and low employment levels in some areas of the country, leading to lower living standards and poor productivity. These issues are still particular challenges for women in work. We may see increased numbers of women in Parliament or in high-profile jobs, but despite that, more women, who achieve higher qualifications than men, will still end up underperforming economically through their working life.

Across all age groups men make up the majority of high and middle-income earners in the UK. Women are only over-represented in the category of low paid work. Although there are record numbers of women in work under this Government, there is a persistent gender pay gap in the over 40s and an unemployment gap of more than 6% between men and women. The Government have to make levelling up as an agenda work hard for everybody throughout the United Kingdom, wherever they live.

The Government would do well to ensure that their policy focuses particularly on the experiences of women and how we can make sure we level up for women across the United Kingdom. It is important that every single part of our country is performing as it should in economic terms. If we do not give women the support they need, particularly through employment policies supporting maternity leave, we will continue to see an under-representation of women in the workplace.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. My warmest congratulations to the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Bob Seely) on securing the debate. We in the highlands were disappointed to be put in level 3; the leader of the Highland Council, Margaret Davidson, and I said as much. However, we are where we are.

One of the best ways to level up in the highlands and the islands—the remotest parts of Britain—is through tourism, so I want to speak in support of a bid that will be put to the Treasury in the next couple of days by the Highland Council. The hon. Member for Isle of Wight briefly touched on harbours, and I will as well. Wick harbour was once the herring capital of the UK. When the swell or the wind is in the wrong direction, it can make the harbour unsafe, so the bid is to build a new sea gate to increase the marina potential of the area.

I have often talked about a string of pearls. If we can take rich people who own boats—we call them yachties—up the east coast from the south-east, all the way up to the top of Scotland, and then get them to turn left, go along the top and go down again, not only will they have a great journey but we in the highlands, being canny Scots, would aim to lighten their wallets and their bank accounts on the way round. Doing up Wick would be a major step in that direction. It would accompany improvements to the town centre and to the industrial units next to the harbour.

The second part of the bid that the Highland Council is putting in is related to this. We have a very successful tourism enterprise, of which some hon. Members will have heard, called the North Coast 500. It is a brilliant idea supported by His Royal Highness Prince Charles, or the Duke of Rothesay as we call him in Scotland, and various local businesses. In the last few years it has been a tremendous success and an enormous number of visitors have come north. They have really enjoyed this truly scenic and amazing way around the top of Scotland. However, this has brought infrastructure challenges. One thinks of not enough car parking facilities, the structure of bridges that are starting to fall apart or congestion. If an ambulance in north-west Sutherland has to get in a hurry to the hospital at Wick, it can end up behind a lot of camper vans.

The bid is “Please, help us to finance improvements that are much needed”. I say again, that sort of enterprise will take money from the south-east and the richer parts of the UK to the poorer parts. That is levelling up without the Government having to do much more than putting their hands in their pockets to help finance the initial capital expenditure. That will include electrical charging points and other improvements.

An example of the success of the North Coast 500, the former Member for South Ribble, who was in her time the parliamentary private secretary to the Prime Minister, and her partner are going to come and stay with me in August. I warmly encourage the Minister and his colleagues at the Treasury; they would have the most enjoyable time coming up north to see where their money would be wisely spent. Of course, I would offer them bed and breakfast—what is more, it would be free bed and breakfast, which for a Scot is pretty astonishing.

It is a pleasure to speak on this subject today. I add my congratulations to my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Bob Seely) on securing this very important debate. Much like his patch, Somerset has suffered from a historical fiscal concentration on London and the south-east. A major part of addressing that is for those outside the metropolitan bubble to be given the kind of investment in connectivity and infrastructure that will allow us to properly compete.

As Somerset’s representative on the Heart of the South West local enterprise partnership, I see first-hand the need for investment and the marvellous potential that even quite modest investment can unlock. If we are to rebalance our economy and properly level up, investment in connectivity is key. That means digital and physical connectivity, such as the dualling of the A303— the major arterial road for the entire south-west—which I have been talking about endlessly for many years. I am sure that 4,000 years ago, when the ancient Britons hauled the stones to Stonehenge, they got stuck in queues on the A303. If the A303 was in a decent state, President Biden would have driven to Cornwall, purely to take in the glorious view of Somerton and Frome on the way. The real issue is that so many of my constituents rely on that road to get to work, to get to school and to visit family and friends, and not all of them have a helicopter lying around.

Connectivity also means public transport. I am delighted that, with the Langport Transport Group, we secured the funding for a feasibility study for a new railway station for Langport and Somerton from the restoring your railway fund. At the moment, the splendid people of Somerton and Langport drive miles to Taunton, Bridgwater, Yeovil or Castle Cary just to catch a train, which is faintly ridiculous.

In the 21st century, digital connectivity is as important as physical connectivity. Last week I met Wessex Internet, a local internet service provider—a family business supported by Government investment that is building full-fibre networks across south Somerset. That really is a great example of public and private sector synergy. But much more needs to be done; in my constituency, more than 90% of households do not have access to superfast broadband. There are pockets, such as Isle Brewers, Compton Dundon and many more—too many to mention—where getting a 1 megabit connection is about the best a man or a woman can get.

One of the greatest threats to the levelling-up agenda and so much more is the continuation of the covid restrictions, which will continue to harm lives and livelihoods across Somerton and Frome, costing jobs, harming the economy and depriving ordinary people of the opportunities they have worked hard to create. Levelling up is an essential component of the country’s agenda, and vitally important for Somerset. Let us get properly connected, up to speed and able to compete with the rest of the country on a level footing.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. I congratulate the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Bob Seely) on bringing forward this debate.

There is no doubt that the negative effects of covid have been felt in the most deprived areas of our country, in education, in work and in health outcomes. That has made the task of creating a society where a person’s life chances do not depend on where they were born more challenging, and all the more urgent. There are opportunities to be grasped, but only if the Government has the wit to recognise them, the will to act on them and the courage to provide investment.

Lockdowns have brought changes to the way many of us work and some will be permanent. Businesses have had to take the plunge into homeworking and found productivity held up or even improved. They have found themselves looking at the cost of large, permanent office space as an unnecessary burden. Employees found themselves relieved from long and expensive commutes and, for those who can move, an exodus is under way from the big cities.

That movement has seen rents in city centres such as London, Manchester and Leeds fall, while they are on the rise in areas such as Wigan, Keighley and Durham. It is bringing more disposable income to parts of the country that have been largely neglected for more than a decade and has obvious benefits for local economies, but there is a greater prize to be had.

Residents of those areas need to see more than a rise in rents and a few more jobs in upmarket shops and restaurants. They now have the opportunity to do the same well-paid jobs—jobs that were previously unavailable in that area. There are reasons beyond the financial for people wishing to remain local, such as family ties, caring responsibilities, a sense of community and belonging to a place. That is certainly the case in Hull, where there is a strong local identity. The desire to remain in their community means many instinctively look at what is available and adjust their aspirations to fit. The new possibilities contained in remote working are a way of broadening horizons and opportunity, while maintaining social cohesion and community, but that can only happen with action.

Fast, reliable broadband needs to be universally available. Schools and colleges need to be properly funded and pupils need to be made aware of new career opportunities. Not everyone has the space at home to work comfortably and successfully, so digital hubs and hybrid workspaces will be necessary to support this new way of working.

I am proud to say that Hull is well placed for all these changes. It is blessed with the best fibre-optic coverage and upload speeds in the country, provided by KCOM. As a result, we have also seen the opening of the kind of digital hub I have described in the Midland Bank in Whitefriargate. What is available in Hull should be available to all other areas that have been on the wrong end of de-industrialisation and ruinous Conservative austerity.

The Irish Government have already set about redistributing jobs and opportunity and are aiming for 20% of Ireland’s 300,000 civil servants to have moved to remote working by the end of the year. To ensure jobs are distributed across the country, they are creating a network of more than 400 remote working hubs and introducing tax breaks for individuals and companies that support homeworking. This Government could and should embark on the same path. Will they? It will require foresight, intelligent planning and a determination to invest in the future of all of this country’s people—qualities that have been in short supply so far.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Bob Seely) on securing the debate.

I am delighted to say I see no conflict between levelling up in Stoke-on-Trent and improving quality of life across the whole country, including the Isle of Wight. There is a clear win-win in relieving housing pressures by levelling up development opportunities in places such as Stoke-on-Trent, which I have discussed previously with my hon. Friend. We have multiple hectares of brownfield land and an eagerness to build, but the clean-up costs for former heavily industrial land are considerable and often unviable in lower priced housing markets. We have a proven track record in Stoke-on-Trent of delivering. Last year, Stoke-on-Trent built more than the average London borough, with 99% on brownfield land. We are one of the busiest housing markets nationally.

I welcome the investment we have seen through the housing infrastructure fund in the north of the city, but we also need similar sites in my constituency of Stoke-on-Trent South. Will the Minister help us to deliver even more and ensure that we get a good slice of the £100 million brownfield fund?

Of course, people need more than just a good house. They need skilled, well-paid jobs, better transport and an improved quality of life. Levelling up is about all those things. If anywhere in the country reflects the need to level up, it is Stoke-on-Trent. It is 12th highest in proportion of deprived neighbourhoods and, after decades of neglect and decline, it has huge potential just waiting to be unleashed.

We are unparalleled in our friendliness, right at the heart of the UK and now with the best fibre gigabit-connected city in the whole country. I slightly disagree with the previous speaker, the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Emma Hardy), who said Hull was the best connected. Stoke-on-Trent is now the best connected in terms of fibre broadband connectivity.

We submit our fantastic levelling-up fund bids at the end of this week. We have been working closely with the city council. I hope the Minister will support our plans. It will be particularly important to capitalise on our authentic industrial heritage in the Potteries to create a modern, dynamic and prosperous city. In Longton especially, we must build on the PSICA—partnership schemes in conservation areas—and heritage action zone schemes we secured in partnership with the city council and Historic England, attracting new residential, leisure and employment uses.

Stoke-on-Trent is on the up. It is one of the fastest-growing city economies nationally and is a centre for world-class advanced manufacturing and the digital revolution. We recently launched our Silicon Stoke prospectus, led by my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis), which is about building on the fast-growing cluster of digital firms taking advantage of our investment in gigabit broadband and strengthening what we are seeing at Staffordshire University in games design and e-sports. Attracting these sorts of industries is key to raising aspirations and boosting opportunities locally, as is ensuring that people have the skills to access them, through schemes such as the Prime Minister’s lifetime skills guarantee, the kickstart scheme and T-levels. That is especially important in places like Stoke-on-Trent, where high-level skills and wages and far below the national average.

Access to better jobs and opportunities is also critical in a city where a third of households do not even have access to a private car. We need to level back our transport following decades of local bus and rail decline, and I am glad that we are working on just that. Building on the success of the transforming cities fund, we now need to reopen Meir station and the station at Fenton Manor on the line between Stoke and Leek, and we also need to secure important investment from the bus strategy fund.

Diolch yn fawr iawn, Sir Edward; it is an honour to serve under your chairmanship. I congratulate the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Bob Seely) on securing the debate.

There is of course an evident need to level up the nations of the United Kingdom and the regions of England, but rather than bringing communities and nations together for the common good, the Government have used this agenda to make light of our democratically mandated institutions. Nothing more clearly demonstrates this than the United Kingdom Internal Market Act 2020—legislation so hostile to devolution and destructive to joined-up economic development that even the Welsh Labour Government tried to take the UK Government to court. The “Westminster knows best” school of thought has already left the UK with one of the most regionally unequal economies in the west.

The Government’s regional development funds may be dressed up as silk purses, but the most cursory inspection reveals them to be sows’ ears. We know that the UK Government have now broken their 2019 manifesto promise that Wales would receive the same level of financial support from the UK as from the EU. Allocated funds are a pale shadow of what Wales received and had control over from the EU. The EU takes a needs-based approach, which resulted in Wales receiving four times the UK average per person. Why? Because that was recognised as necessary to challenge chronic deprivation. What are the UK Government doing? They are taking a competitive approach, which guarantees Wales only 5% of the levelling-up fund. The Welsh Government themselves reckon that Wales could end up getting as little as £50 million a year—a fraction of the £375 million a year that we received from the EU.

On top of that, rather than working with experienced Welsh institutions, UK Government institutions such as the UK Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, which has no track record whatsoever with devolved affairs, will now bypass the devolved Governments and control funding directly. The consequences are already clear. Local funding will be tied to the effectiveness of representations by local MPs, just as Westminster cuts the number of Welsh MPs by a fifth. How is Wales supposed to receive its fair share? I reiterate that Wales is one of the poorest countries within the EU, the United Kingdom and the western world. We have not received what we needed in the past, and we are set to receive considerably less.

Equally outrageous is how the Tories have engineered a system so that they can indulge in patronage politics. The Chancellor is set to funnel public funds to his own constituency and other Tory seats. My county of Gwynedd was prioritised under previous EU funding, without fear or favour, for the simple reason that it is one of the least developed regions of Europe, let alone the UK, yet now Gwynedd is put at the bottom of the list in the levelling-up fund tiers.

Gwynedd, Wales and indeed the UK are owed more and deserve better. The Government must keep their word and ensure that in future, Wales gets at least the equivalent of what we previously received in EU funding. They should work with the devolved Parliament on the principle of mutual respect and parity of equals. The Tories of all Parliaments should respect their political traditions and repudiate the in-built centralising instincts of Westminster. Public money should be spent on the long-term public good, not on short-term political glory.

It is a pleasure, as always, to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. I join others in congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Bob Seely) on securing this important debate. The Government have shown clear signs in recent months with the levelling-up fund and the towns fund that they intend to make sure that the future is, indeed, better than the past, to quote the opening speech. On this occasion, I come not to criticise the Government but to praise them.

In the past, there have been certain times when I have been critical, but the levelling-up agenda is benefiting my constituency and, I hope, will continue to do so. When the Government published their industrial strategy four or five years ago, they introduced the concept of town deals. The Greater Grimsby town deal, which includes the town of Cleethorpes, was the first one to be established.

The important point is that, rather than focusing on one-off projects, valuable though they are, applicants need a comprehensive programme that will continue through and therefore attract the different funding streams that Governments introduce. Key to that is getting a team together that knows its way around Westminster, understands local government and has entrepreneurial flair. We created a town board chaired by the local entrepreneur made good, David Ross. We also had the former resident of Grimsby and former Chancellor, Lord Lamont, on our board and the former head of the civil service, Lord Kerslake. We assembled a team that understood the workings of Government and the needs of the area, and they put together a comprehensive plan.

Coupled with that, the Government recognised our freeport bid. The bid for the Humber port was successful in every category and scored high, above all others—congratulations to the team that put the bid together. The Humber is the energy estuary of the UK: we have carbon capture, hydrogen and the offshore renewables sector. The development of the marine energy park by Able UK at Killingholme, close to Immingham, has attracted £75 million of Government funding in the last year. That has taken 10 years to achieve. When I was first elected in 2010, one of the first calls was from Able UK. It has been a long, hard road, but we are getting there.

Connectivity is vital. Sir Edward, you will know of our campaign to get the through train service from Grimsby and Cleethorpes through your constituency to London. We are making progress with that. LNER has pencilled it into next year’s timetable, but we need to keep up the pressure.

On local government reform, at long last in Lincolnshire the three top-tier authorities have agreed on a scheme that I hope the Government will push through over the next year or two. If we can align local government with the town board and a comprehensive plan, I think the successes of recent years will continue.

It is a huge pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. I congratulate the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Bob Seely) on leading this important debate.

Levelling up is a concept that I strongly support. For it to work, we have to identify disadvantage and take action to tackle it. There is a lot that I could ask the Minister to consider today, but he will be delighted to hear that what I am asking for will not cost very much money and could be absolutely transformational in much of rural Britain.

Over the last 15 months of the covid crisis, a housing crisis in areas such as mine in the lakes and dales of Cumbria has turned from crisis to catastrophe. Members who have been monitoring the housing market will have noticed things similar to what has happened in my communities. We have seen an increase in the number of holiday lets in my constituency of 32%. From talking to dozens of estate agents across the county, I know that the proportion of houses purchased during this period that are going into the second-home market is anything from 40% to 80%. At the beginning of the crisis South Lakeland had an average household income of £26,000 and an average house price of £250,000, which shows a serious problem from the start. That problem has been massively exacerbated during this time.

What does that mean for our communities? Hospitality and tourism are critical to our economy and I am proud to stand behind them, but people involved in that industry know that vibrant communities are vital to the survival and strength of the lakes, the dales and the rest of Cumbria. The increasing proportion of homes in the second-home or holiday-let market means no permanent population. No permanent population means no kids at the local school, so the school closes. It means the loss of the post office, the pub and bus services. We end up with beautiful places that are empty. We must surely recognise that as utterly unacceptable.

I have provided some top-line statistics, but on an anecdotal level, people who pay £600 a month for a flat in a lakeland village are being kicked out so that the landlord can charge £1,000 a week for a holiday let. That is happening, and many people are calling it the lakeland clearances. Extreme circumstances require drastic responses if we are to level up here and not leave rural Britain behind.

I am pleased that the Government are closing the loophole that allows people to pretend that second homes are holiday lets, when they are not, and so avoid paying tax. That is a good thing. The Government, however, must accept some responsibility for the stamp duty holiday fuelling this crisis to a large degree, leading to a huge spike in purchases.

The really important thing for the Government to do is to change planning law. They need to ensure that holiday lets and second homes are distinct categories of planning use, so that local authorities can say that there are enough homes of that sort in the community and, therefore, protect it.

I agree wholeheartedly. Is the hon. Gentleman aware that on the Isle of Wight, although there are not that many second homes on the Island as a whole, in some communities 80% of villages are second homes? It is a thoroughly excellent idea to require change of use for a second home or holiday let.

That is a free measure the Government could take to have real power. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his intervention.

The Welsh Government have given local authorities the power to increase council tax on second homes. The right hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Liz Saville Roberts) talked about Gwynedd, which has been able to double the council tax on second-home owners in those areas. What has that done? It has provided a disincentive in some areas for excessive second-home ownership. It has also led to revenue that can be spent on supporting schools, post offices, buses and other local services, which are losing resource because of the lack of a permanent population. I call on the Minister to do something free but powerful.

Extreme circumstances that come about quickly require a response equally extreme and quick. If the Government are not to get a reputation for taking their eye off rural Britain and leaving rural communities behind—for example, leaving areas such as mine in level three for levelling up—they need to act, not in autumn or winter, but before the summer, to save my communities from the new clearances.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. I am incredibly grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Bob Seely) for calling this hugely important, timely and useful debate.

I had thought about how to lever North East Derbyshire into a debate about the Isle of Wight, but my hon. Friend drew the boundaries of the debate so generously that many of us can talk about our constituencies. I hope he will not mind my saying that one of his forefathers lived in North East Derbyshire—that was going to be my way into the debate. In the century since his forefather lived in Wingerworth Hall, places such as North East Derbyshire and the Isle of Wight have been at the forefront of great change, tumult and, at times, great difficulty. That is the same in my part of the world as it is in his.

We went through a period of huge changes 40 years ago when the mines closed down. We have long-standing structural issues around skills and jobs, and ensuring that school leavers get the quality skills that allow them to thrive over many years. Pre-recession, we did not necessarily share in the benefits that came in the 1990s and 2000s, but we have made huge progress in the past four years. Some Members in this debate have—perhaps understandably—focused on greater challenges, but there is so much coming down the line. It is important that we understand that. We must recognise that in my constituency alone, there is a £25 million town deal for Clay Cross and a town deal for Staveley worth nearly £26 million. Those are huge opportunities for regeneration.

Broadband is being rolled out not only in places such as Stoke-on-Trent South, but in my constituency, as well to villages such as Spinkhill. We have finally moved on the Staveley bypass, which has been stuck for 80 years in design, and the Government enabled us to move that further along in the Budget before last. We are tackling congestion problems on the A61, we had the opportunity to bid to restore new rail for the Barrow Hill line, and we now have the quickest trains that we have ever had to London. Things are really on the up in many parts of the country, including North East Derbyshire, although there is much more to do.

My hon. Friend’s question about what levelling up is is the most interesting and important part of the debate today. For me it is important to articulate the point that it is not all about money. We can have as much money as we want, but, ultimately, if that does not achieve anything for people and we do not focus on the outputs, it will not get us anywhere. We can put as many trains on as we want—I would like a lot more trains in my constituency—but if we put loads of trains on that nobody knows what to do with or where to go with them, or how to get to the jobs to transport them, it will have little meaningful effect.

We also have to emphasise the important point, which was lost in a few of today’s contributions, that we have the ability to solve some of these problems ourselves. I congratulate places such as Killamarsh Parish Council for sorting out a 20-year problem with our sports centre and the council tax, which it managed to do on its own.

There is also a broader perspective and the important questions about future jobs. We can fix levelling up now for our constituencies, but if the hearts of our constituencies are to be ripped out by AI and automation and all of those challenges over the next 20 or 30 years, we must think about that as well. Where do we get the education and skills from? Process is important. We have to involve people in these debates and discussions. Lots has been done in North East Derbyshire, but there is lots more to do.

It is a pleasure to speak in this debate, Sir Edward, and to follow the hon. Member for North East Derbyshire (Lee Rowley).

I am wholeheartedly behind the Prime Minister in his calls for us to level up, and indeed the action behind those calls in the form of funding. I was grateful to hear that each region will receive a share of the funding to strengthen and enhance areas of excellence. In Northern Ireland, it not just a matter of what we could spend the money on; we have so many areas that are on the cusp of the next level. As the hon. Member for North East Derbyshire alluded to, it is not just about the money; it is about how the money can help us build on what we have. That is what I will speak about.

We are widely considered to be Europe’s cyber-security capital. We could easily take that to a global level if we invested more fully in our infrastructure and connectivity, and increased the number of tech placements and learning courses. We have the skills and a pool of available people, so we want to build on that. With more levelling up, we could take it to the next stage.

The film industry has taken off with the success of “Game of Thrones” and “Line of Duty”, which featured Strangford lough in my constituency. It was always a challenge for me to find which part of Strangford lough it was on, but it was good to be able to put the two together. Anything from TV series to major film releases, based in any period of history or in the modern day, can be produced in Northern Ireland. Where better to find built-up cities, beautiful countryside and ocean views—we have it all. I say that unashamedly, and investment will certainly bring about dividends as we attract more global companies to our shores.

The agrifood sector is doing well and creating jobs, and the investment has been great. We have the highest standard of products. I look to Lakeland Dairies, Mash Direct and Rich Sauces, to name but a few global entities that are well-grounded and employing local people in large numbers to supply to China and America, as well as Europe. We have the product; we need the marketing and the support to see what level we can get to. Again, it is about levelling up what we have.

We have not even scratched the surface in exploring the tourism potential we have, from spa breaks to second holidays, from walking groups to cruise ship stop-offs, from water sports to mountain hikes, from high-end boutiques to antique treasure troves. We have much to offer. With a bit of levelling up, our borders will not be able to contain the volume of visitors flocking to our shores. With levelling up, we can build on what we have. We need to level up our connectivity and disengage from Tourism Ireland. We need an entity concerned only with promoting what we have to offer in Northern Ireland. I challenge anyone who has come to Northern Ireland to say that it was not more than they expected.

We must also give local councils the ability to get funding to host more global events, such as the golf opens and other sporting events. Northern Ireland is also awash with culture—we have such a tale to tell and we need to attract investment to match that. Again, we must level up.

In the short time allocated me, I have indicated three diverse areas in which we are ripe to level up, and yet the funding allocated cannot carry out all the work. The infrastructure work required is immense and our connectivity requirements are huge, but so too will be the reward. I therefore ask the Minister, whom I greatly respect, and the Government to deliver our share of the funding. If they do so, everyone in Northern Ireland will benefit, operating at the top level at which we are designed to operate. We are already levelling up; we need that extra bit to level up and do even more.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for Isle of Wight (Bob Seely) for securing this debate. Although the sentiments behind the levelling-up fund are laudable at first glance, it has a profound and far-reaching effect on the devolution settlements and the democratically elected Governments of each of the devolved nations. Alongside the UK shared prosperity fund, which also breaches the devolution settlements and UK Government promises, the way in which the levelling-up fund is to be administered encroaches on devolved areas in unconstitutional and unacceptable ways.

It is all very well for the UK Government to huff and puff and protest that the devolved nations should shut up and be grateful for the boundless munificence of their paternalism, but funding should not be tied to riding a coach and horses through the democratically elected Governments of these nations, and nor should it be designed to undermine the democratically established Parliaments in each of these nations.

For the UK Government to reject that analysis plays to the agenda not of levelling up but of exerting undue power and influence over democratic instructions, the very existence of which is due to democratic support for them. These Parliaments in Wales and Scotland were designed, in part at least, to address the democratic deficit that has existed between those nations and Westminster Governments. How does attempting to circumvent, undermine and emasculate those institutions address that democratic deficit?

Yesterday the Minister for Regional Growth and Local Government gave the game away, because he accepted that there is no formal requirement for local authorities to work with the Scottish Government on devolved policy areas, and that this levelling-up fund is

“about local authorities and communities working directly with the UK Government”.—[Official Report, 14 June 2021; Vol. 697, c. 13.]

Given that this work goes to the heart of devolved powers, that is quite an admission. The idea that each different local authority will submit bids for much-needed funds does not in any way negate the cynicism and political opportunism in the way in which this fund is being distributed, as indicated by my hon. Friend the Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Alan Brown). This is piecemeal stuff, with no strategic thinking whatsoever.

The Scottish Government expected £400 million in consequentials from this fund, but that is now to be decided by the UK Government sitting in Whitehall. How that money will be deployed across local authorities is a nonsense and offensive. There will be no opportunity for a regionalised, Scotland-wide approach. The competitive nature of this process will set authority against authority, while we know that the most effective way of boosting local economies requires collaborative working.

Why does the Minster believe that Ministers and civil servants in Whitehall, with little or no detailed knowledge of Scotland or her local authority areas, are equipped to judge the merits of competing bids? If levelling up was truly the agenda, why would they not build into that process the strategic expertise of the Scottish Government and local MSPs? Funding should be allocated by formula instead of competitive bidding. That would improve transparency and guarantee support for those places most in need, as pointed out by the right hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Liz Saville Roberts), representing Plaid Cymru.

As it stands, bids will be at the mercy of the whims of this Tory Government and which local authorities are able to submit the best bid—not those most in need. Given the towns fund, will the bids be judged according to which are considered to be the best—whatever that means? Who knows? There is every reason to fear that the bids may be subject to the same pork barrel politics that we have seen in all its glory in the towns fund.

Despite the fact that the Tories have a majority on the Public Accounts Committee, it has delivered a damning verdict on the Tory towns fund, saying that the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government has

“not been open about the process it followed and it did not disclose the reasoning for selecting or excluding towns”

for funding. Despite the Government’s refusal even to acknowledge that and other damning verdicts and concerns about the Tory towns fund, we are now expected to believe —and, better still, trust—that the levelling-up fund will be shiny, new and bright and we need not worry about transparency because, as the Minister for Regional Growth and Local Government said in the main Chamber yesterday:

“The answer to that is that it is all published on and it has been for months now.”—[Official Report, 14 June 2021; Vol. 697, c. 14.]

I do not know about you, Sir Edward, but if it is published on a website, I am certainly reassured.

The fact is that this Government have shown that they cannot be trusted to deliver this funding in a transparent way and it has been deliberately designed to undermine the devolved Parliaments. The good people of Scotland and Wales are not so easily fooled as the Tory Government seem to think, which is why they reject Tory Governments repeatedly—at every opportunity. Since the Brexit vote took place, this Government have taken to themselves the power to take decisions on spending, economic development, infrastructure, culture, sporting activities, domestic educational and training activities and educational exchanges, and this fund will further allow the UK Government to bypass devolved decision making and override the democratic process for allocating spending in Scotland. That means that more than £100 million a year could be spent in areas that are usually devolved to the Scottish Parliament.

In this Government’s ham-fisted attempt to undermine devolution, they are in fact cementing support for independence in Scotland. If devolution is indeed the opportunity to do things differently, that opportunity is being eroded bit by bit by this Government, who seem desperate to govern devolved areas in Scotland. They could govern those devolved areas if only they could win an election in Scotland, but they have given up on that, and we see now an agenda to undermine the very institution that the people of Scotland will not vote to permit them to control—the Scottish Parliament.

Of course, every local authority will wish to bid for levelling up funding. Why on earth would they not? But the towns fund shows that we are wise to be concerned about the transparency of this process. We know that the real agenda on the devolved nations is cynical, to say the least. Any local authority in Scotland and Wales receiving money from this fund will be expected to doff its cap in gratitude for the munificence and benevolence of the UK Government, but the UK Government need to understand that riding roughshod over our democratic institutions, which have huge support from those living in the devolved nations, cannot be excused by fanfare about funding that is not new. We are not so easily bought, and our democratic institutions, including our Scottish Parliament, cannot be so easily bought. Nor can trust in this Government be bought. Some things, such as democracy and trust, are not commodities; they are values and principles, and this Government would do well to remember that.

It is a pleasure to speak in a debate that you are chairing, Sir Edward. I congratulate the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Bob Seely) on securing this debate. In his opening remarks, we heard about the very full set of interventions that he believes are needed to fix challenges in his constituency, including jobs, transport, education, housing, long-term economic development and so on.

The hon. Gentleman rightly highlighted the decade of under-investment and the impact that that has had. I know he said that he would not speak later in the debate, but I wanted to ask him who he thinks is responsible for that decade of under-investment and whether he can see in this room a Minister from the party that has been in charge for the past 11 years—because meeting those challenges will need a level of sustained investment in devolution that goes well beyond the one pot of money that is currently on offer in the form of the levelling-up fund. One pot of money will not undo the 11 years of real-terms cuts to public services, stagnating real wages and inadequate investment in the future. One pot of money will not change our country when decisions will still be taken in Westminster by Conservative Ministers, rather than democratically in our communities by locally elected politicians.

As my hon. Friends have set out, far more comprehensive change is needed. My hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley East (Stephanie Peacock) explained how local government must be in the driving seat and have the resources it needs, and my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Emma Hardy) set out the importance of having real determination to invest in the future of all people in this country. It is also telling that as we engage in this debate, my hon. Friends the Members for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) and for Houghton and Sunderland South (Bridget Phillipson) are in the main Chamber right now, pressing the Chancellor and the Treasury to come clean on why they blocked the comprehensive plans put forward by Sir Kevan Collins, the Prime Minister’s appointment as education recovery commissioner. The truth is that the Government’s decisions on education recovery are very far from achieving anything that looks like levelling up.

When the chips are down—and after months of school closures, the chips are very much down for the children of this country—the choices that Governments make betray the reality behind the rhetoric. We are in no doubt that the Government have chosen to betray a generation. Their expert commissioner set out plans that matched the scale of the challenge, focusing on extending the school day, improving teaching and targeted tutoring. In February the Prime Minister promised that no child will be left behind, and Sir Kevan’s proposals sought to make that a lived reality for our children in the years ahead. Drawing on research from the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the proposals were informed by the knowledge that urgent, sustained and multi-year expenditure on children’s educational recovery has the biggest impact on those who are furthest behind.

That would indeed have been levelling up. Instead, the plans that have been announced are but a truly pale shadow of the programme we need. The money announced is a tiny proportion of the money invested for the same purpose in the Netherlands and the United States, and I and my colleagues refuse to believe that Dutch and American children are five or 10 times more deserving of sustained Government support than British children.

As the Financial Secretary is due to speak shortly, I want to pick up briefly on a discussion that he and I had yesterday in the main Chamber relating to the G7 communiqué, which the right hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller) mentioned and which I believe is also relevant to this debate. A key part of any levelling-up agenda for our country must include the Government doing all they can to create a level playing field for British businesses that pay their fair share of tax, by preventing them from being undercut by a few large multinationals that do not.

I asked the Minister and his colleague three times yesterday to explain why the UK Government’s position has been to push for a global minimum corporate tax rate of 15% rather than to back the ambitious 21% proposed by President Biden. The Minister said it was

“completely inappropriate for a Minister to comment”.—[Official Report, 14 June 2021; Vol. 697, c. 50.]

However, the Exchequer Secretary, who I think spoke after the Minister had left the main Chamber, seemed quite happy to defend the Government’s backing of 15%. She said that it was settled on because it would leave

“appropriate room for countries to use corporation tax as a lever”.—[Official Report, 14 June 2021; Vol. 697, c. 70.]

There we have it: an admission that the UK Government supported a lower rate thanks to a desire to keep alive the possibility of a future race to the bottom.

This is a once-in-a generation opportunity for an ambitious global deal to prevent large multinationals from avoiding paying their fair share of tax, but our Government are letting it slip away. That is a shocking failure. Had they supported an ambitious 21% deal, that would have brought in an extra £131 million a week for public services in this country, while preventing a few large multinationals from undercutting British businesses that pay their fair share of tax. That would have been levelling up.

Lastly, I want to ask Conservative Members why they think this country needs levelling up. It has been 11 years since a Labour Prime Minister left Downing Street, and 11 years since a Labour Budget spread power, income and opportunity across the country. For 11 long years, spending decisions in this country have been under the control of the Conservative party, leaders chosen by Conservative Members, and Conservative Chancellors.

I am just about to finish. There have been 11 years of real-terms cuts in so many public services, stagnating real wages and inadequate investment in meeting the challenges of the future—11 years in which so many of the problems that we face have been ignored and their solutions underfunded. We can only conclude that levelling up is a nebulous, undeveloped and yet-to-be honoured attempt by the Conservative party to address the problems that it has created.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward, as it was to serve under your predecessor, the right hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller), when she was in the Chair. I thank her very much for stepping into the breach.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Bob Seely) on securing this debate. It is testimony to the importance of the issue and the breadth of the debate that he has created that so many colleagues have made interventions and speeches today—and very welcome they were, too. I am replying for the Government on behalf of the Exchequer Secretary.

My hon. Friend is right that this is a very important public issue. It has been the mission of this Government to seek to overcome geographical disparities—disparities of prosperity and of opportunity—and to do so through what we have called levelling up.

By and large, this has been a very good debate and generally good mannered. I think everyone would acknowledge that it has been a bit of a gallop, given the number of speeches, but that is testimony to the huge interest in the topic. I congratulate colleagues who have passed the conversational baton seamlessly from one to another on the vigorous and effective way in which they have put on the public record their own local concerns. I will talk a little about the wider agenda before turning to some of those contributions.

It is plain that the Government believe in the substance and the importance of levelling up. What does that mean? It will mean different things in different places, but the core idea is that everyone should have access to good jobs, good wages and good economic prospects, wherever they live, whether that be in Barnet, Birmingham, Bolton, Bristol or, indeed, Bembridge.

It is built into the energy of our society that at different parts of their lives many people will want to move to different parts of the country to seek work and opportunities, but some may not wish to do so and many will not. We want people to be able to take pride in their local areas and to see them as vibrant, exciting places to live their lives and build their livelihoods. That is at the heart of levelling up and that is why the Government announced a series of significant policy measures designed to begin a longer-term process of redressing geographical imbalances.

Those measures include, as has rightly been touched on, freeports, which are going to be an important catalyst for regional economic growth. We want them to be magnets for innovative businesses, to provide a platform to generate the greater prosperity that will revitalise each area, and to create great jobs and great economic growth.

At the Budget, the Government announced the locations of eight freeports across England, ranging from Teesside in the north-east, to the Solent, close to the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight. That is a potentially very significant intervention, but they are only one part of a wider picture, which is, of course, infrastructure.

Last year we published a national infrastructure strategy that contemplates £600 billion-worth of investment over the next few years—half from the private sector, half from the public sector. Very high levels of capital investment are already being made in many different areas up and down the country, including in roads, through the road investment strategy, in railway, through High Speed 2 and other works, and in many other modes of transport and activities. The transforming cities fund has done a huge amount to support cycling, walking and greener transport across the country.

That investment also includes the towns fund. One or two colleagues have been rather dismissive of the towns fund, and wrongly so. One cannot say that there has been inadequate transparency but then grumble when the details of the fund and the methodology by which the selections were made have been put on the internet for all to review or interrogate. The fund itself is turning out to be a remarkably effective and interesting way to build a holistic local platform for economic growth, because it is not something that can be dominated by local authorities. It requires voluntary and private sector leadership to work with local authorities and, in doing so, bring the best ideas to the table, build long-term pipelines, pump-primed with public money, that will, certainly in many cases, last for years. It is going to prove to have been a very important intervention.

It goes a long way, picking up the point made by the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron) on the importance of supporting rural areas. I come from a rural area myself, in Herefordshire, and I am keenly aware of that. He will be aware that although many of the effects of covid will be, in some respects, negative, they will also be positive effects. People will move out of cities, often at earlier points in their lives, to conduct effective and successful careers, no longer fettered by geography as they might have been, adding new energy and vibrancy to areas that are already vibrant. That is another good thing, in many ways.

We are working on the creation of the new UK infrastructure bank, which will be an important intervention. We will announce its launch soon, but many details are already available for colleagues to look at on the internet. It is designed to act as a cornerstone investor for infrastructure projects, to partner with the private sector and local government to develop major infrastructure projects, with the twin goals of green growth and levelling up.

The bank will act across Government as a place to pool expertise, so that people can pick up the phone and get a cross-governmental view about how projects should be financed, which will itself be very important. It will prep and prepare important development work in sectors of green economic growth that we have not yet seen—for example, hydrogen for powering the next generation of transport or potentially for home heating, carbon capture and storage, and the like. About a third of the initial £12 billion in funding for the new UK infrastructure bank will be earmarked for local and mayoral authorities, which will make a huge difference. If we can, as we anticipate, then crowd in private sector investment, that will make a remarkable difference.

It is important not to talk about levelling up without mentioning some of the most important aspects of it, which are to do with skills and training. The Chamber will know about the work we have done on the lifetime skills guarantee, on employer-led skills retraining and on apprenticeships. They all point to a holistic approach, designed to tie skills and infrastructure together, with a local perspective that brings a fuller understanding of local needs to bear.

I thank the Minister for his extensive response. That brings to the fore one of the problems here. When he stood up, he said he would answer to the Exchequer section or the economic section, but who is leading? How are Government going to deal with a coherent, integrated approach that brings in everything from landscape protection to stamp duty for second home owners, to the skills and education agenda, to immediate economic progress? Who is dealing with that?

Of course, my hon. Friend is right to point to this. In many cases, the core is going to be effective local leadership that brings the different elements together. As a Member of Parliament, he knows that the stronger towns fund has shown that energy can be brought in. For example, the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government can have a view on the housing aspect of a stronger towns fund bid, and what expertise and expectation will be there. The same is true of other aspects of Government. It may be a bid with a heavy environmental component or a heavy transport component.

Government also need to be joined up. At the Treasury, I lead on the national infrastructure but on levelling up specifically it is the Exchequer Secretary to the Treasury, my hon. Friend the Member for Saffron Walden (Kemi Badenoch), who leads—she would be here under normal circumstances, but she is in Committee at the moment. However, she and I work closely on this issue, as my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight would imagine.

I turn to some of the points that have been made. My hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight rightly highlighted aspects of his own bid, including East Cowes and Newport. I could not hear him talk about the development of the Isle of Wight without thinking about my own uncle Desmond, one of the founders of Britten-Norman, who designed the aircraft whose wings came off in “Spectre,” the James Bond movie, and that went skiing as a result, which was built on the Isle of Wight. Indeed, he was one of the developers of the first hovercraft, the Cushioncraft. I am well aware of the technology and the genius of the Islanders and the espoused Islanders, one of whom Desmond certainly was.

The hon. Member for Barnsley East (Stephanie Peacock) mentioned the importance of local authorities. She is right about that. They have been a very important part of stronger towns fund bids. It is quite interesting when local opinion is surveyed about the public services delivered locally. Whatever one may think about the local authority funding settlement, which was very generous in the past year and before that in many cases, it has not led to a perceived reduction in public services—quite the opposite. In many local areas, public services are regarded as having gone up in quality over the past 10 years.

My hon. Friend the Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous) talked about skills. He was absolutely right and I thank him for that. My right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke talked about the importance of women and gender equality. That was absolutely right and I salute what she said, because that is an important part of levelling up. There is some wonderful evidence from India, where they looked at the effect of women mayors and leaders in villages. It turns out that, based on the regressions that economists have done, women leaders in those contexts have been more co-operative, more effective and less prone to forms of corruption than their male alternatives. That is an important lesson that we will reflect on.

The hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Jamie Stone) invited Ministers to bed and breakfast —a very fine offer that will receive deep consideration in the Treasury—for which I thank him very much indeed. My hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome (David Warburton) reminded us that Stonehenge would never have been built if they had to drag the stones down the A303. I fully concur, having been more or less parked outside Stonehenge, as have many others.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent South (Jack Brereton) talked about the bid that he is putting in for the levelling-up fund. I congratulate him on that and encourage all Members to do that, because the levelling-up funding will be a very important national initiative. I have touched on the remarks of the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale. I am glad he mentioned cutting out the loophole on holiday lets, because that was important. I hope he also noticed the speed with which we acted on that, because the tax process is never an instant thing, but we have moved as quickly as we could, given the circumstances, to try to address the issue. Obviously, it has become particularly important in the context of covid.

Once the announcement was made, they did act swiftly, but I first raised the issue with the then junior planning Minister, who is now the Chancellor of the Exchequer. It took quite a long time to get to the stage where they made the announcement, but I thank the Minister anyway.

Minister, could you please give the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Bob Seely) a couple of minutes to make his closing remarks?

I will end in 26 seconds to allow my hon. Friend plenty of time to speak.

I want to engage quickly with the points made by Opposition Members. It is not paternalistic of the UK Government to wish to take a view and to support people up and down the country. It is not paternalistic of the UK Government to offer enormous support for the devolved Administrations on an agreed basis, as we have done in a time of crisis. It is non paternalistic for this country’s collective resilience to have seen Scotland through three periods of crisis in the last 15 years: the financial crisis of 2008, the fall of the oil price and most lately in covid, which might have had disastrous effects but for our collective resilience.

In answer to the hon. Member for Ealing North (James Murray) quickly, it is not appropriate for me to accuse another Member of Parliament of hypocrisy, but I remind him that this Government are raising corporation tax from 19% to 25%. On 24 February, he himself said, in relation to the Budget and the question of corporation tax, that

“we don’t want to see tax rises—this is not the time to do that”.

I do not think he is in any position to lecture the Government about corporation tax.

I thank everyone for taking part in the debate. I thank the Minister for his eloquent and detailed responses, and I thank you, Sir Edward, and my right hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller), for your chairmanship.

Thank you for a very good debate on the levelling-up fund—I wish that Gainsborough could get some levelling-up fund too, but that is not for me to say.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered the levelling up agenda.

Sitting suspended.

New Airedale Hospital

I beg to move,

That this House has considered a new Airedale Hospital.

I am delighted to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. I am grateful to Mr Speaker for granting this urgent debate—it is urgent for reasons that I will outline in my speech—and giving me the opportunity to continue my campaign in this place for a new Airedale Hospital in my constituency. I would also like to record my thanks to the Minister, who has met me on multiple occasions to allow me to raise the issue with him.

I am lucky enough to represent such a diverse constituency. My constituency is home to different towns, different communities and, with that, different challenges. Yet one thing that I hear from all four corners of my constituency—be it in Keighley, Ilkley, Silverstone, Worth Valley or any other part of my constituency—is that Airedale Hospital needs and deserves a rebuild. I am not alone, because the issue is being raised by many constituents.

Airedale Hospital serves a huge catchment that reaches right up into the Yorkshire Dales and into Lancashire, serving many residents in West Yorkshire. My hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies), whose constituents benefit directly from the hospital’s services, is also fully behind my campaign for a new rebuild, as are my right hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon (Julian Smith) and my hon. Friend the Member for Pendle (Andrew Stephenson). They have all worked tirelessly with me on our joint endeavour to secure the hospital long into the future. Even the Chancellor’s constituents use the Airedale.

I will outline the background and explain why my ask for a rebuild of the hospital is urgent and very important to our communities. The Airedale employs over 3,500 members of staff and volunteers, serving a population of 200,000 while providing training and education, creating lifelong careers for many of my constituents. The hospital was opened in 1970, construction having started in the 1960s. The original life expectancy of the 1960s build was only 30 years, but last year we celebrated the hospital’s 50th birthday.

Like many buildings constructed in the 1960s, the hospital is constructed predominantly from reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete, or RAAC—aerated concrete for short. That material is widely known for its structural deficiencies. A staggering 83% of the hospital is made from this material, including the roof—the Airedale has the largest NHS hospital flat roof in the country, compared with any other NHS asset. That does not help when you take into account our lovely Yorkshire weather. Given our geography, our area where the Airedale Hospital is situated is one of the wettest areas in the UK. Coupled with its 1960s-design flat roof, that means that the Airedale unfortunately experiences more leaks than any other hospital in the country, creating challenges with water pooling, which of course increases the weight on the concrete roof panels. It also means that the flat roof soaks up the hot summer sun, and years of heat, rain and frost through the tough winter months all take their toll on the current design of the building.

While many of these 1960s constructions have come and gone, Airedale Hospital remains. It is thought to be the oldest aerated concrete hospital in the UK. Aerated concrete is present in the roof and walls and the hospital is the only NHS trust asset that has aerated concrete in its floor panels. In fact, in total the hospital has over 50,000 aerated concrete panels, which is five times more than any other hospital affected by reinforced aerated concrete design.

Aerated concrete is known to have about one 20th of the strength of normal concrete. The Building Research Establishment has identified that aerated concrete roof panels are prone to fail when deflections between 50 mm and 90 mm come about. It is deeply concerning that Airedale Hospital has identified a significant number of aerated concrete panels with deflections approaching that threshold.

Time is of the essence. I cannot stress enough to the Minister how important and urgent this is. The warning signs are there for everybody to see, hence my lobbying hard with colleagues for a complete new rebuild of the Airedale Hospital, so that we can completely remove the risks of aerated concrete construction. My worry is that no matter how much surveying and mitigation works are undertaken, all we are doing is delaying the potential risk of a collapse at a later date.

The Minister will be well aware, from our previous conversations, of a school in Scotland where the roof, constructed by aerated concrete, unexpectedly collapsed in May 2019. Fortunately, no one was injured or killed, but that was a matter of timing and luck, nothing else. The collapse was not due to mislaid bricks or improper contracting. The Standing Committee on Structural Safety concluded in its report:

“The cause of the collapse was a shear failure due to inadequate bearing following some structural alterations made by the school. The failure was triggered by outfall gutters becoming blocked which allowed ponding of water on the roof to quickly build up during a storm”.

I understand from previous reports by the Building Research Establishment that it was thought that aerated concrete planks gave adequate warning through visual deterioration before failing. However, recent failings, including the school roof collapse in Scotland in May 2019, showed that this can no longer be relied on. It is therefore necessary to reconsider maintenance and inspection regimes. In fact, the same Committee issued an alert stating that pre-1980 aerated concrete panels

“are now past their expected service life”.

I reiterate that my hospital was built in the 1960s.

The reality is that the longer the hospital remains in its current state, the greater the possibility that such a tragic event could happen, if action is not taken. Should there be such a collapse, even if only in one small part of the hospital, imagine the consequences: the impact on life, services and the day-to-day operations of our much-loved hospital.

I have had several visits to the hospital since becoming an MP, including going on to the roof to see the issues for myself. I also visited parts of the hospital that are currently closed to the public, sealed off for reasons directly linked to mitigating the risk from the fact that the hospital is built from aerated concrete.

When one thinks of how much we rely on the NHS every day, particularly over the past year, the idea of any hospital, or even just a small part of it, having to shut its doors temporarily really hits home. Members of Airedale’s trust have also made it clear to me their fear of a loss of public confidence in the hospital, given its structural deficiencies. Such a loss of confidence would be through no fault of their own. They have a brilliant team and I have been working incredibly closely with them. However, it demonstrates why the problem must be dealt with as soon as possible. The more time goes on without acting, the greater the risk of structural failure.

What is currently being done to mitigate such risk? The Airedale NHS Foundation Trust performs several procedures to try and mitigate the dangers created by aerated concrete. It carries out regular inspections of the hospital, but those inspections have found more than 500 related structural failure incidents caused by aerated concrete, including 27 cracked concrete panels, 327 roof leaks and one incident of falling debris. The trust is regularly forced to make changes within the hospital to deal with those problems and ensure that it can operate.

During the winter months, the trust must act quickly to remove rainwater and snow to prevent the flat roof from leaking and ensure that gulley drains remain unblocked. As one would expect, that work comes at significant cost and the trust has already had approval for emergency funding of £15 million, but that is just the tip of the iceberg. The backlog maintenance for the site currently stands at £480 million, making it financially unviable to consider removing or replacing aerated concrete from the existing structure.

Of course, it is not just about the maintenance cost; it is also about the impact on healthcare service. The trust has predicted that if a temporary closure were to happen, 45,000 referrals to treatment across West Yorkshire and Harrogate would be delayed. Some 60,000 diagnostic tests and procedures, including MRI scans and ultrasound therapy treatments, and 2,000 maternity deliveries would also be affected. Overall, the trust has estimated that if an emergency closure were to happen, up to 346,000 patients across the local area could be affected. Those are chilling figures that make a new Airedale Hospital a necessity.

A modular approach has been suggested and provides a potential means to regenerate Airedale Hospital, in line with the Department for Health’s commitment to eradicating aerated concrete from NHS buildings by 2035. In my view, while that is an option, it comes with significant challenges in terms of structural connectivity with existing parts of the building—not to mention the impact on the provision of healthcare services. We cannot forget that the trust’s independent structural engineers’ report warns that the hospital’s aerated concrete panels must be replaced by no later than 2030, which is in only nine years’ time. I make my case and I know that the Minister, with whom I have had many a meeting and conversation, gets my concerns. However, we need action and we need to make decisions now.

As I continue to lobby with my right hon. and hon. neighbours, Airedale Hospital continues to provide an incredible service to many of my constituents in Keighley and Ilkley, as well as the wider area. A service delivered by incredible doctors and nurses, and other NHS staff, with a real sense of duty. At this point, I must extend my personal thanks to Brendan Brown, the chief executive of the Airedale NHS Foundation Trust, and his team, and of course I also thank Friends of Airedale, a fantastic local charity whose volunteers do so much to help staff and patients.

We need to look ahead at what the next stage is for Airedale Hospital. I am delighted to say that the trust has provided an ambitious, detailed and affordable plan for a complete new rebuild that we can make into a reality. The proposals are convenient, in that they would not disrupt the current workings of Airedale Hospital in the same way the current problems do, or in the same way that any sticking-plaster approach would. A strategic outline case was completed in January 2021, when a full appraisal recommended that the most cost-effective and future-proof solution would be to build a new hospital for Airedale within the 43-acre grounds owned by the trust. That work could be completed in as little as three years from sign off.

These are exciting plans, with a strong environmental case. The Airedale trust’s vision is to create Europe’s first carbon-neutral and fully digitally enabled hospital, with the capabilities to generate renewable energy on site. The financial, environmental and practical case for a new Airedale hospital is clear for all to see, and I am delighted to invite the Minister to come and join me, chief executive Brendan Brown and his brilliant team for a visit to the Airedale, so that we can continue our discussions and get some concrete commitment from him that a new rebuild is the way forward.

Of course, I welcome the announcement that the Government will invest in another eight new-build hospitals, but we want to have an update now on how and when we will be able to bid for this funding, and to know whether those eight places will be ring-fenced for NHS trusts with hospitals that have the highest risk profile.

I will end by sending a message that is loud and clear to the Minister. I cannot stress enough the urgency of this issue and the desperate need for clarity now, so that we can take matters forward in a sensible manner and so that we are not simply throwing good money after bad. I am not in the game of seeking a make-do or half-hearted approach to solve this challenge. Given the facts, the high structural risk profile of the Airedale hospital—the highest of any hospital in the UK—the solution I seek is a complete new rebuild to eliminate any risk and to provide the healthcare service at the Airedale site long into the future for many generations to come.

I have known you a very long time, Sir Edward, so it is always a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship in this place.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Robbie Moore) on securing this debate. I know that since his election to this House, he has worked tirelessly for his constituency, not just on healthcare matters but in representing all of his constituents’ needs, particularly, in the context of my role within Government, on the issue of the hospital estate at Airedale.

Quite rightly and justifiably, my hon. Friend thanked the team there and I hope that he will allow me to join him in doing so. I ask him to pass on to them my thanks for everything they have done, not just during the past extraordinary 18 months, when they have been amazing, but year in and year out. They do so not only for his constituents but for those of the Minister of State, Department for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Pendle (Andrew Stephenson), my right hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon (Julian Smith), and of course my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies). I know that all of them join with him in pressing the case for a rebuild of Airedale General Hospital.

In a sense, my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley is also putting his money where his mouth is, because, if I correctly recall my reading of Keighley News, one of the things that he is doing—he is certainly a braver, or at least fitter, man than I to do it—is running 100 km in, I think, 10 weeks, to raise money for a number of charities, including Friends of Airedale, which he rightly paid tribute to. I wish him all the very best with that.

As my hon. Friend alluded to, I had the pleasure of meeting him and other local MPs back in February to discuss this important matter; indeed, he and I have spoken about it on several occasions. Since his election to the House, he has never missed an opportunity to lobby me, very politely but firmly, and to raise this issue with the Secretary of State and I, on behalf of his constituents.

My hon. Friend set out the history of the hospital site and quite rightly highlighted the vital issue, which is the fact that reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete—the light form of concrete used primarily for roofs from the mid-1950s to the mid-1980s—is the key component part of these buildings. He also quite rightly highlighted the limited durability of RAAC roofs, saying that it has been long recognised but that recent experience suggests the problem may be more serious than previously appreciated.

My hon. Friend also highlighted in his comments that surveying is continuing at Airedale General Hospital to assess fully the extent and condition of the RAAC planks, and I believe that completion of that survey is expected in the coming months. I have asked to be updated when that full survey becomes available. However, I understand that preliminary survey findings have found issues relating to the deflection of rack panels, which I know caused his trust concern.

I fully recognise the need to invest in improving health infrastructure across the country. These safety risks are no different, and my hon. Friend emphasised the urgency of this. At the spending review 2020, courtesy of my right hon. Friend the Chancellor, we provided the NHS with £4.2 billion in 2021 for operational capital investment to allow hospitals to maintain and refurbish their infrastructure, including a £110 million ring-fenced allocation to address the most serious and immediate risks posed by RAAC planks. Within that ring-fenced allocation, as my hon. Friend mentioned, is a significant multimillion-pound allocation earmarked to mitigate RAAC risks at his local hospital. That will go towards re-roofing, as well as decant facilities while work is under way, helping to improve safety for patients and staff. We will continue to review business cases and progress at RAAC-affected trusts, including his, to ensure that we make the full and best use of all those funds over the coming year.

My hon. Friend highlights an important point: at what point does fixing or mitigating something cost more than actually eliminating the risk by having a modern, fit-for-purpose facility going forward? I fully recognise the need to mitigate RAAC risk beyond this year, alongside further investment in mitigation, which I have to confess will be a matter for my right hon Friends the Chief Secretary of the Treasury and Chancellor in the spending review. My hon. Friend would not expect me to pre-empt them, as that can sometimes have unfortunate consequences.

My hon. Friend will know, in that context, that RAAC remediation is not the only area we are investing in at Airedale, because of course on top of that the foundation trust received just shy of £250,000 to upgrade its emergency department from the wider package of £450 million for A&E improvements announced last year by the Prime Minister. Last year, the trust also received a £1.7 million allocation to address backlog maintenance at Airedale General Hospital from the £600-million critical infrastructure risk fund.

Of course, my hon. Friend wants me to speak about the future. He highlighted his strong campaign for investment in a new hospital for his constituents beyond the investment we are making to manage and mitigate the immediate risks. As he will be aware, the Prime Minister and the Health Secretary confirmed that 40 new hospitals will be built by 2030, with funding of £3.7 billion confirmed for the first tranche. I know my hon. Friend was disappointed that Airedale was not in that first tranche, but as is typical of him—ever undaunted—he continued his campaign to persuade the Government with ever-renewed vigour. I can offer him some hope on that, in terms of the prospects for the eight hospitals to which he referred.

An open process will be run to identify those eight further new schemes, delivering on the Government’s manifesto commitment. He asked a couple of specific questions about those, which I will endeavour, in so far as I can, to answer now. The details of this, the criteria and how that process will be run are due to be announced soon, with a generous period for trusts and sustainability and transformation plan and integrated care system partners to respond. To put a little bit more colour on that, I hope that we will be able to make that announcement of the process before the summer recess. I will of course keep him fully aware of progress on that.

My hon. Friend also asked about funding and how it might be allocated. Again, with the caveat that I cannot pre-empt any spending review announcement and the Chancellor’s decision on that, I would not anticipate that all eight of those would be ring-fenced for hospitals such as his. However, I would say, which I think will encourage him, that clearly one of the key criteria and considerations in the allocation of whatever funding is made available will have to be safety considerations and the urgency of any need for a new hospital. That will not be the only factor, but I reassure him that the Secretary of State and I will bear that very much in mind. I also reassure him that any trusts that receive and spend money in the interim to mitigate safety issues will not find that having undertaken that work will in any way count against them in a bid for a new hospital. It will be fairly and openly considered. I am sure the points he has made will be reflected in that.

We continue to work closely with trusts and regions to ensure that the criteria for selection best meets the needs of the NHS both nationally and locally and, of course, achieves value for money for the taxpayer. In that context, those schemes that we will consider will be based on the balance of benefits realised for staff, patients and local communities, condition—going to the safety point—and affordability and value for money.

As part of a national programme, seeking to achieve value for money, we will look for a greater degree of standardisation across those new hospitals, with modern methods of construction and modular builds, where appropriate. I note my hon. Friend’s points and, should we get to that point, I suspect he will want to be engaged in the discussions to ensure we get value for money. Were his hospital to get the go-ahead, it would also deliver what is needed locally. As my hon. Friend touched on in his speech, we are looking for new hospitals to be digitally fit for the future, clean, green and sustainable.

I suspect my hon. Friend will continue, until I, the Secretary of State or the Chancellor relent, to make the firm case for Airedale’s inclusion in our hospital building programme of those next eight. I very much look forward to seeing the bids for the remaining slots when the time comes for them to be submitted. I suspect, though I cannot pre-empt it, that his hospital might be one of those bids that I see put forward by the trusts.

In conclusion, as ever I want to commend my hon. Friend’s work to raise support for Airedale hospital, and personally raise money for the friends of the hospital. On numerous occasions in this House, he has raised the estate issues faced by his hospital. We are taking action in the short term to help mitigate those risks, but he continues to make the case for the long term. His constituents are incredibly lucky to have a Member of Parliament who is so assiduous and determined in carrying out his role in representing them to Government and in this place.

He kindly invited me to sunny Airedale—hopefully sunny, if I go in summer—to visit the hospital and the trust, and I would be delighted to take him up on that. He may face the challenge, given my risk of vertigo, of getting me up on the roof, though I suspect that will not deter him from trying to persuade me to see the issues for myself. I am happy to come and visit him and other right hon. and hon. Friends in the area.

More broadly, I look forward to continuing to work closely with him; my right hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon; the Minister of State, Department for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Pendle; and my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley, in seeking to deliver on the Government’s ambition of levelling up and improving the NHS services available across the country to our constituents.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.

Covid-19 and Loneliness

I beg to move,

That this House has considered covid-19 and loneliness.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. I am pleased to have secured this debate on covid-19 and loneliness during Loneliness Awareness Week. It is a chance for each of us not only to think about the issue, but to remember to take clear action to address loneliness as organisations and individuals. It comes a day after we heard that some covid-19 restrictions will continue, which may extend the period for some people.

It is appropriate that we have this debate today, the day before the fifth anniversary of the murder of our colleague, Jo Cox MP. I did not know Jo personally—I was not in the House at that time—but I know how people have spoken of her and the tremendous work that the Jo Cox Foundation is doing as part of her legacy, with the Great Get Together bringing so many people together for a chat in many different communities, making those connections and taking real action on loneliness. Of course, there is the important work carried out by the Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness, which was so influential in the development of the Government’s loneliness strategy.

Sadly, loneliness is common, and its negative effects are wide-ranging and complex. Even before the pandemic, between 8% and 18% of adults in the UK reported feeling lonely often. An estimated 200,000 older people regularly went without having a conversation with a friend or relative for over a month. Although loneliness is often thought of as an older person’s issue, it can and does affect people of all ages. Young people aged between 18 and 24 consistently report the highest levels of loneliness, and the numbers have increased over the past year, as we have all been so much more isolated during the pandemic.

According to the Office for National Statistics, around 7.2% of adults—3.7 million people—reported feeling lonely often or always in the period between October 2020 and February 2021. According to research by the Red Cross, around two in five—39% of UK adults—say that they do not think their feelings of loneliness will go away after the coronavirus crisis is over, and a third say that they are concerned about being able to connect with people in person in the way they did prior to the pandemic. Finally, more than a third of people feel less connected to their local community than they did before covid-19. That is a sobering thought.

Last Friday, I had the opportunity to visit Gateshead Carers, an organisation that supports unpaid carers, who spend so much of their time looking after others at home. While I was there, I met Irene and Trish. As it happens, they were meeting each other for the first time in person, having been linked up through a befriending scheme that has been operated by Gateshead Carers throughout the pandemic. Trish had been caring for her husband—first at home, and then when he was in residential care—for several years. She told me that before covid-19, she spent every day with him in the nursing home and lived at home by herself, but covid-19 meant that she could not spend that time with him, and she was spending much of her time at home alone. Both Trish and Irene told me how the befriending scheme had been a real positive for them by allowing them to reach out and make a connection with another person. It was clear to me that they were getting on like a house on fire.

Covid-19 has had a huge impact on so many people, regardless of whether they have contracted the virus. For many people, lockdowns, restrictions on activities, and not been able to see neighbours, friends and family have had a huge impact. For many, it has led to feelings of isolation and loneliness, as those everyday connections and contacts just have not been possible. It has been hard, and although virtual meetings have helped for some of us, they have not helped at all for those who are not so digitally savvy.

However, let us not imagine that loneliness has just appeared since covid-19. For too many people, loneliness existed before, and we must look at it in the longer term, but there is no doubt that covid-19 has made things worse. We need to address the covid-related issues that have highlighted the problem, but also take longer-term action. Loneliness will sadly not go away when covid-19 is no longer at the forefront of our minds or when restrictions are fully lifted.

Over the last year, the all-party parliamentary group on loneliness, with the support of the British Red Cross and the Co-op, has looked at loneliness and how we can best counteract it post-covid and in the longer-term. We held an inquiry over a number of sessions, taking evidence in writing and in person virtually from a wide range of organisations and individuals. We listened to their experiences and heard how they see the issue and how they are seeking to address it. In March, we published the report, “A connected recovery: Findings of the APPG on Loneliness Inquiry”. If the Minister has not had a chance to see it, I am happy to send her a copy.

Our inquiry contains a wealth of evidence and experiences about what we need to do to tackle loneliness and build a connected recovery. The recommendations set out action that can be taken at Government, local authority, neighbourhood and individual level. They are detailed and thoughtful. Today, I will set out the main recommendations.

First, tackling loneliness needs national leadership. The Government must commit to a connected recovery from the covid-19 pandemic,

“recognising the need for long term work to rebuild social connections following periods of isolation”.

That must include long-term funding to bring together the different strands of action needed to make that difference.

We should translate policy through local action. Our local authorities have been crucial in helping people and local communities during the pandemic. For many people hit by the pandemic, who have perhaps seen their income reduced, been forced to shield or self-isolate, or needed essential supplies, the support of staff in local hubs such as those set up by Gateshead Council in Winlaton, Chopwell and Birtley in my constituency has been essential. It has not only helped individuals, but made connections with voluntary organisations to link people up on more than just the practical level. I visited each of my hubs and found the staff, in many cases redeployed from leisure services or libraries, responding effectively but sensitively to people, many of whom called in distress. The staff went beyond the practical to make connections with others who could offer broader support. My thanks go to all of them—they have been vital in combatting loneliness, and that work needs to be built into the work of councils as we learn lessons.

The report states:

“The Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government should incentivise and support all areas to develop local loneliness action plans, which should encompass action on placemaking and delivering the activities needed to support social prescribing… Tackling loneliness should be built into all local authority COVID-19 recovery plans and…population health strategies.”

On investing in community infrastructure, the pandemic has shown us clearly the important part played by voluntary organisations, some long-established and some that sprang up in response to the need for practical support for those hit by the pandemic, such as local mutual aid groups. Those groups made a huge difference by shopping, collecting prescriptions and delivering meals. There is real benefit in having support at a local level. However, our third sector organisations, many well-established charities, need reliable funding if they are to continue that important work. The report states:

“The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport should work across government…to create a sustainable fund to support”

the work of those organisations on loneliness.

On closing the digital divide, the pandemic shone a light on the need for digital skills. We may be getting weary of endless meetings on Teams or Zoom, or some other platform, but for many they have been vital in keeping that connection with friends and families or in enabling them to join in with virtual activities. The charity Skills 4 Work, based in Birtley in my constituency, has had virtual afternoon teas for local people to keep the connection between the younger members and their local community. Before hon. Members suggest that virtual scones do not sound very attractive, let me assure them that the scones are very real. They are delivered in a covid-secure way by the project members to those taking part. I very much enjoyed mine.

We need to make our local communities and places loneliness-proof by providing places for people to meet. The APPG heard a good deal of evidence on that point recently. Loneliness affects people of all ages, not just older people. Young people reported some of the highest levels of loneliness even before the pandemic, yet they are struggling to access support. I urge the Government to consider the campaign by YoungMinds and the Samaritans to establish and fund mental health support clubs for young people across the country.

I want to briefly mention some of the people and organisations who have responded so magnificently in my constituency, such as Northumbria’s biggest coffee morning, organised by PC Andy Hyde for the local community in Ryton. Last year, it had to be a virtual coffee morning, but we were determined to carry on and make those connections. There are the volunteers at the Winlaton Centre, who provided hot meals for people who needed them; the Chopwell and Rowlands Gill Live at Home scheme, run by the Methodist Homes Association, which, among other things, held a socially-distanced VE Day celebration in which it called on people in a socially distanced way and took the celebration to them; the staff at Edberts House, in particular the community link officers who have been working to keep in touch with people and have an important part to play in social prescribing; and Age UK Gateshead, which has done so much to support people locally in so many ways. This year, it is making 36,000 phone calls per month. Prior to covid-19, it supported 3,148 individuals; three months later, it was 14,817. As Age UK Gateshead says, at the point of crisis, full need is identified. The chief executive says:

“Moving forward, do not implement services—talk to communities and individuals. Each street, village and town is different. Listen and enable people to help themselves. It’s at this point people talk to people and the real magic happens.”

I ask the Minister to meet me and representatives of the British Red Cross and the APPG to discuss how we can take this important work forward. I finish by remembering again that tomorrow is the five-year anniversary of the murder of our colleague, Jo Cox. I believe we must all carry on her work, bringing people together and working to end loneliness.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Blaydon (Liz Twist) on securing the debate and on the way she laid out her case. I pay tribute to her for the work that she does with the Samaritans. I entirely echo her remarks about our late colleague, Jo Cox.

Before the coronavirus pandemic, people with a long-term disability, widowed homeowners, unmarried middle-agers and young renters were most likely to feel lonely, according to the Office for National Statistics, but now the feeling of loneliness has increased in many more of us, as we were told to stay inside and could not see family and friends. If colleagues knew some of my family and friends, they would understand why for me personally that was a small relief, but I know that the majority of people were very sorry not to see family and friends.

With the Prime Minister’s announcement last evening delaying the ending of the coronavirus restrictions, many people who are lonely will still not be receiving the assistance they need. The hospitality industry has not been able to fully reopen, large-scale events are not what they once were and there is still a limit on the number of people someone can see inside and outside. The extension of the restrictions will inevitably result in some people remaining on their own, because they are vulnerable or cannot access the help they require to socialise in their community once again.

Loneliness is a very complex experience. We see colleagues who seem to have lots of friends, but who can be very lonely. If we are all honest with ourselves, the number of true friends that we have can be counted on our hands. I have given up, over the years, on knowing the number of Members of Parliament who are really lonely. I would send a message to our Whips saying, “You do need to look after your flock.” We never know how our colleagues are suffering. Although it is not always accepted, we are members of the human race, so the hon. Member for Blaydon has done the House a great service by drawing the whole issue to our attention.

Despite the delay in ending the restrictions, I am pleased that the Prime Minister announced an end to the 30-person limit on weddings. I have a personal vested interest in that: two of my daughters are getting married this year, so they were cheering about the whole thing, although my bank manager was not necessarily cheering. The relaxations on wakes and visits outside care homes are also to be welcomed. Those announcements are a step in the right direction towards combatting loneliness. I encourage the Government, with our excellent Minister present, to further ease lockdown rules and allow friends and family to meet as soon as it is safe to do so.

It was Carers Week last week, and that was an opportunity to thank all the carers for the wonderful work that they have selflessly done throughout the pandemic to look after the elderly, the sick, the disabled and the lonely. My area, Southend West, has the largest number of centenarians in the country. Not many of their contemporaries are alive, obviously, so we need to look out for elderly people in particular. Many people in nursing homes in my area and in our local hospital experience severe loneliness, as their friends and families are either unable to visit them or uneasy about doing so because of the health risks. There are many carers in Southend and they deserve recognition. I was delighted with the awards in the birthday honours list for their invaluable work throughout the pandemic in our many nursing homes and at Southend Hospital.

Charities have, similarly, been a lifeline to many individuals who are lonely, and I am pleased that we have so many of them locally in Southend. An example is the St Vincent de Paul Society, which visits vulnerable people and offers them practical support and friendship. Trust Links supports those with mental health and wellbeing issues through gardening and community involvement, and the Southend West scouts bring young people together.

More must be done, however, to raise awareness of the impact of loneliness and to encourage people to speak up about it. There is a stigma about being lonely. Some people think, “Well I am such a horrible person and that is why I haven’t got any friends,” but that is not the case. There is nothing as sad as going to a funeral when there is nobody there at all. It is absolutely heartbreaking. There is a stigma about being lonely and it needs to be eradicated, because it is hindering people in reaching out for help. Schools and local community groups should work closely with charities and organisations that help reduce loneliness, because—as has already been said—even if someone is surrounded by people every day at school or here, it is very possible to feel excluded. Loneliness does not just affect older people. With young people, parents get anxious when it appears that their children have no friends for whatever reason.

The Wesley Methodist church holds monthly local services for people with dementia, and socialising and art activities take place after the service. That is a great initiative for people with dementia to be active in the community. St Helen’s church, my local church, also holds youth clubs and friendship clubs that meet regularly to encourage community engagement. I hope that those events will resume soon.

Friends and Places Together helps young people with friendship groups, activities and trips in England. Younger people can feel lonely too. David Stanley set up the Music Man Project, which played at the London Palladium and went on to the Royal Albert Hall, and would be going to Broadway were it not for the pandemic. It is absolutely inspirational. David Stanley has so helped and encouraged people with learning disabilities through the power of music, and I hope that the Music Man Project will spread throughout the country to every single constituency.

Friday is the first anniversary of the death of Dame Vera Lynn. We are holding a live event at the top of the white cliffs of Dover. There will be a few surprises for older people, and I hope that those who support older people can tune in. I envisage that on Friday we will all be singing “Land of Hope and Glory”, “We’ll Meet Again” and “The White Cliffs of Dover”.

There has been a considerable rise in the number of people with pets during the pandemic to tackle loneliness. I am animal mad. By and large, animals are grateful for everything that is done for them. Owning an animal is a big responsibility though, and pets are for life, not just until someone gets bored with them. There is no excuse for animal neglect, and I encourage anyone who gets a pet to help with their loneliness to first be sure that they know what is involved in looking after one. There are services that can help people.

I say to my hon. Friend the Minister that I am very pleased the Government have introduced support bubbles and the “Let’s Talk Loneliness” online service for those who feel left out to give them advice and support. We must, however, continue the support programmes and further reduce the stigma of loneliness as the coronavirus restrictions ease, because many people feeling lonely might be anxious about once again engaging with their community and the general public.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward, for the second time today. Who am I to speak in this debate after two terrific speeches from the hon. Members for Blaydon (Liz Twist) and for Southend West (Sir David Amess)? I have been here for four years and a couple of days, and it strikes me that one of the best things that Westminster does is the Westminster Hall debate, which is more like a tutorial. What I have heard in the first two contributions is thought provoking and has altered what I am going to say.

Lockdown was not terribly difficult for me and my wife because we had each other, and my son and his wife, just in the nick of time before the first lockdown, came north with their two little girls, which was a pleasure. However, I want to talk about a constituent of mine called Sally Cartwright. Sally is a widow in her 80s. She has been successful in life. She ran a business with her husband and had a successful small business. She became chairman of the local enterprise company—I think the first female chairman of a local enterprise company in Scotland. She was awarded the MBE. Halfway through the first lockdown, I called her about something or other. I asked for advice and she said, “Jamie, I’m so damned lonely. I am not in a bubble. I can’t go out. I am not daft. I am not very good with mobility, but I am a thinking lady, and it’s really getting me down.” That shook me because this lady is a pillar of society and one would not expect that to come from her.

I then took to ringing Sally on a regular basis to say, “How’s it going?”. In fact, I spoke to her today to get permission to use her name in this debate. My excellent constituency officer manager, Heather Macmillan, said, “You ought to get in the habit of making perhaps 10 calls a day, and I will suggest people you can call.” The reason I am telling Members this is because I was relatively comfortable in my own home in lockdown and I had not seen it for what it really was, and it shook me to the core. So what is the answer?

I am speaking only briefly in this debate and I am speaking only because of Sally. I thought, “Damn it, I will take part in this debate.” I do not normally go on about things in the north of Scotland, as Members know. However, yesterday—this takes me back to the hon. Member for Southend West—hot and bothered I walked from this place to my flat. It had been a really hot day and I longed to get in, pull myself a glass of lager and put my feet up. I heard music as I walked towards St John’s, Smith Square, and it got louder and louder as I walked past that beautiful church heading towards Pimlico. I realised the doors of the church were open because of the heat, and the orchestra was in full practice. I thought, “What are they playing? Is it Prokofiev? What is it? I don’t know.” At that moment, it hit me like a bolt of lightning, exactly as the hon. Gentleman said: music touches the human psyche more than we all realise.

We all have different tastes, but music is a sort of strange common language that works, and I think that it is possibly part of the solution—although there are no solutions to this—but it could be part of the way we can approach it. The next time we have to go through this awful process again, and I fear that we will because viruses mutate and there will be new viruses—although, God, I wish there weren’t—I think more music will be part of the solution.

The second thing is that every time I spoke to Sally, she told me that one of her grandchildren had zoomed in and, for all the difficulties of this way of talking to each other through a small screen, the grandchild saying, “Hello, Granny. How are you?”, really gave a little lift to her day. Perhaps we could, in each of our communities, develop the idea of having teams of people, including young people, who can talk to one another. Sally said to me, “I’m not so mobile, but I’ve got a brain on my shoulders,” and so she has. She is, as we say in Scotland, as sharp as a tack. If I put a foot wrong in politics, she is on to me just like that. I was saying, “Sally, if we have to go through this again, how would it be if you did some telephoning or whatever and we just opened this up?”

I do not know the solution, but I have made two suggestions to the Minister. I have enormous respect for the Minister—a lady of compassion. I suspect that we are sowing our seeds on fertile ground, in terms of what the Government might come forward with.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. First, I thank the hon. Member for Blaydon (Liz Twist) for calling this debate. At some point in all our lives, we will feel lonely. That may be for an endless number of reasons, but it is worth noting that loneliness is not the same as being alone. We can be surrounded by friends and loved ones and still feel fundamentally lonely.

The covid-19 pandemic has had an undeniable impact on loneliness. A report by the British Red Cross found that almost 40% of UK adults are more concerned about their loneliness now than they were a year ago. A similar number had gone more than a fortnight without having a meaningful conversation. Around 39% of UK adults say that they do not think that their feelings of loneliness will go away after the coronavirus crisis is over, and one third say that they are concerned about being able to connect with people in person in the way they did prior to the pandemic.

Loneliness has long been thought of as an issue that is most likely to affect older people, and indeed older people are hugely affected. Before the pandemic, an estimated 200,000 older people regularly went more than a month without having a conversation with a friend or relative. However, as my hon. Friend the Member for Southend West (Sir David Amess) said, loneliness can and does affect people of all ages. Young people aged between 18 and 24 years old consistently report higher levels of loneliness than any other age group, and more than 11% of children are estimated to feel lonely often.

During lockdown, our young people were isolated from their friends at school and university. Their prospects of starting new careers were dashed as a result of many industries limiting staff numbers. In particular, hospitality, which as an industry is the largest employer of young people, was closed throughout lockdown. All the data show an alarming trend such that the pandemic will have a long-lasting impact on the mental health of young people.

I pledge my full support for a connected recovery. When emerging from this pandemic, we must ensure that nobody is excluded from our recovery. The only way in which we will all recover is by connecting, reaching out, and ensuring that no one is left behind.

In April 2020, at the start of the national lockdown, the Government launched a comprehensive plan to try to tackle loneliness. That included categorising loneliness as a priority for the £750-million charity funding package; continuing the “Let’s Talk Loneliness” campaign; and bringing together the new Tackling Loneliness Network, made up of private, public and charity sector organisations that want to make a difference. Following this, the recommendation from the Red Cross that tackling loneliness should be built into all local authority covid-19 recovery plans and integrated care system population health strategies, would ensure that tackling loneliness was at the heart of the recovery.

I thank the Government for recognising the scale of the issue of loneliness and laying out plans to tackle it. I specifically commend them on attempting to tackle, through the “Let’s Talk Loneliness” campaign, the taboo around discussion of loneliness. My belief is that this problem will not begin to be tackled until anyone can, without fear of judgment, reach out and say, “I feel lonely.”

Covid-19 has also demonstrated how vital our digital infrastructure is. When families and friends could not be together in person, they could see one another online and still connect online. That is why I am so glad that the Government have come together with the national lottery for the local connections fund. The funding will help to bring people together in safe and secure ways, recovering the costs of technology and equipment that will help people to feel more connected in their communities. It is my hope that the funding will begin to bridge the digital divide by building skills and confidence online.

I recently held a number of meetings with WaveLength, a charity that uses technology to help those suffering from loneliness. I was delighted when, just this week, WaveLength was able to support multiple organisations in my constituency of Broxtowe.

Once again, I thank the hon. Member for Blaydon for calling this debate during Loneliness Awareness Week. I end by thanking all the charities and organisations that are working tirelessly to help tackle loneliness—Mind, Age UK, Samaritans, Re-engage, Calm and the British Red Cross. All those organisations help those dealing with loneliness. I encourage anyone listening today who is struggling to reach out to one of those groups. It is more important than ever that we connect with each other while emerging from this pandemic and ensure that we have a connected recovery, so that the message from the Government, coming out of this pandemic, is that you are not alone.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship all day, Sir Edward. It does not bother me, and I do not think it will bother other Members here either. We are very pleased to be here. Thank you for that and for calling me.

First, I especially thank the hon. Member for Blaydon (Liz Twist) for bringing this debate today. When I saw the topic in the Westminster Hall diary, I was keen to come down, first, to support her, but also to tell the public a story, as the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Jamie Stone) also did about one of his friends.

The contributions from right hon. and hon. Members have been incredible. I doubt whether any family across the whole of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland have not had some personal story to tell, as the hon. Gentleman referred to. I have been incredibly impressed by the speeches. The hon. Member for Southend West (Sir David Amess) referred to the “city to be”. I refer to it as a “city already”. I think we all know it as that; we are just waiting for it to be said officially—that is all.

The hon. Gentleman referred to how some people can be lonely in a crowded room. That is true. I know people who are like that. I know people who were the life and joy of a party and when the party was over, they were the loneliest people in the world. We cannot always tell a book by its cover or a person by the persona we see. That story resonates with me when I think about the people I have known over the years who fit into that specific category.

I have listened to so many difficult stories during this covid pandemic. I have seen at first hand the devastating effect that social distancing has had on the most vulnerable people. I lost my mother-in-law, Jemima, to covid in October last year. Her husband, Robert, my father-in-law, is a very private man and obviously found it devastating, personally, as did the rest of the family. But he had to grieve in isolation, because he was self-isolating when Jemima went into the hospital on the Monday and she then died on the Friday. My sister-in-law, my wife’s sister, was also in the intensive care unit with covid, so we could not even have the funeral until everyone was out of covid-19 isolation. For my boys to have had to contact Robert through a window was not the way it should have been. To say that he is a changed man vastly under-states what has happened.

Who will forget Her Majesty when Prince Philip passed away? Who did not resonate with Her Majesty as she sat in solitude, removed from those who loved her at the funeral service of her husband of 73 years? That was a dreadful scene, but one replicated in too many churches and too many funeral parlours throughout the land.

I think there is some encouragement; it is always good to have encouragement. The book by Her Royal Highness the Duchess of Cambridge, “Hold Still”, struck and stirred a chord in so many of us, as we understand that our pain is shared by so many.

During the lockdowns, my wife and I became grandparents—twice. However, we have not seen one of those grandchildren. Wee Max was born last October; Freya’s birthday will be Monday coming, but we will have a birthday party on 20 June. That will be an occasion when all 13 of us can come together. I should say, by the way, that the hon. Member for Southend West’s time as a grandparent is coming. I was saying one day to my wife, “We started as two, with three sons. Three sons got three wives—and now we have five grandchildren.” That is how the two became 13. Maybe the hon. Gentleman will end up with as many as that—I do not know. It is wonderful that we can come together after 15 months and have some joy. We understand that there are so many other people who have lived through this situation, as well.

The rules were in place for a reason—they were, and they are. They saved lives. We have adhered to the rules the whole way through because, first of all, we have to set an example, but also because I believe is right to do so. If the rules are set, let us adhere to them.

Our mental health as a nation is low—indeed, a lot lower than it ever has been in most of our memories. I live on a farm, so I am very fortunate. I go for a walk every night that I am home and I must say that I found comfort at home—not just with my wife, but because whenever I went for a walk I took my dog. The good thing about a dog is that it will always wag its tail. It will always be a friend, unlike a cat, which makes up its mind about whether it will be someone’s friend or not. That is how cats are. The point I am making here is this: if I had not had that opportunity to go for a walk, I think it would have been a very difficult time for me.

I commend all the charities, in particular the Red Cross in Northern Ireland, which conducted a poll that found that almost half the people in Northern Ireland—some 47%—said it was hard to talk about their problems when so many people are having a difficult time due to covid-19. Worryingly, more than two in five—some 41%—said that they would not be confident about knowing where to go for mental health or emotional support if they needed it. We need to consider how we can help those people and support them. That is what the hon. Member for Blaydon and others have said.

In Northern Ireland, the Red Cross is calling for the Northern Ireland Assembly to tackle loneliness and social isolation, advocating early action in the covid-19 recovery plans and a mental health strategy, while committing to develop and implement a cross-departmental Northern Ireland loneliness strategy. I think that is really what we need. Mental health issues have become so strong and so disjointed that we really need to have a loneliness strategy in place. I believe this approach must be funded UK-wide, to rebuild not simply our economy but, just as importantly, our people and our communities.

I also believe that we need to encourage the safe meeting of mother and toddler groups; how important that is, to get normality and for mothers to interact with mothers, and children with children. Children will always play together, because that is what children do, but mothers also need verbal communication and physical contact. Our nature is not to be on our own. I suppose that is the reason why we are all married; I presume that we are all married, or are about to be, or whatever the case may be. We need company; it is very important.

There are also the afternoon tea dances that we held in our neck of the woods, in Strangford in the Orange Halls, or the face-to-face parent-teacher meetings. We used to look almost with fear at the parent-teacher meetings, but now people would just love to have one; it would be great just to have that interaction.

We need to rebuild the notion that we are not alone and that together we are stronger. I join all my colleagues who have already spoken and those who will speak after me in asking the Government to do more to acknowledge the problem and to begin to allow the solution: a renewed sense of family, and of a community standing together, with a real connection, to help as and when needed. That is what we all do every day as elected Members of Parliament and as elected representatives. We do it because our people have chosen us. They often do that because it is our character and personality to help others.

I am very pleased to see the Minister in her place; I always genuinely look forward to her contributions. I know that she has empathy with all of us in the stories that we tell because she has been through those stories as well. I am also looking forward to hearing the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell). I did not know that she was back until today and I have seen her sitting there. It is a pleasure to see her in place because I have not seen her physically for a while—it must be six or seven months, I am sure. I very much look forward to listening to her. I am sorry, I have meandered on for a while, but I just wanted to make those comments.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward, even if it is only once today. Congratulations also to the hon. Member for Blaydon (Liz Twist) on securing this important debate during Loneliness Awareness Week and for her tribute to Jo Cox. The Marmalade Trust runs the campaign, and the theme this year is acceptance. Its purpose is to encourage people to talk about loneliness in an attempt to remove the stigma and shame around it.

The coronavirus pandemic has made me feel very lonely at times, in spite of a busy life and a supportive family and colleagues. I do not intend to dwell on my own loneliness; I just want to say that this is something I really understand. The groups most at risk of loneliness have already been alluded to, but I can add to them and say they also include members of the armed forces, carers, people from ethnic minorities, migrants, refugees, people from LGBT+ groups and homeless people.

Loneliness can and does affect folk right across society and that has been exacerbated by the covid-19 pandemic. Living through an extended period of not spending time with our friends and loved ones has been painful for everybody, but extremely damaging for some. The SNP Scottish Government are fully committed to tackling social isolation and loneliness across Scotland and are providing investment to promote equality and digital inclusion. The events of this year have reaffirmed the Scottish Government’s commitment to tackling social isolation and loneliness as a serious public health issue. That is why part of the Scottish Government’s winter plan for social protection had a specific focus on addressing that.

In addition to funding communities and digital inclusion, the Scottish Government have also funded partners, including £100,000 for befriending networks. Befriending organisations, such as Befriend Motherwell, BeFriend in Bellshill based in Orbiston, and Getting Better Together in Wishaw and Shotts, all cover my constituency. Those and other organisations switched to telephone befriending services, which, although not the same, are helping many folk throughout the pandemic. I also salute all the organisations involved in my poverty action network that have worked so hard during lockdown, combatting loneliness.

The SNP Scottish Government have invested £4.3 million to tackle social isolation and loneliness through digital inclusion via the Connecting Scotland programme, which has helped 5,000 older and disabled people get online and so tackle isolation and digital exclusion. It also supported families to maintain contact with a loved one in prison custody through digital services and internet access, and it will have invested £5 million to increase the work organisations already do, fund new ones and help provide safe places online and in person for people to connect. We should expect that level of commitment from the UK Government too.

The SNP remains committed to supporting the mental health, wellbeing and equality of our communities. Our manifesto says that the SNP is committed to increasing direct investment in mental health services by at least 25% and ensuring that by the end of the Parliament, 10% of the frontline NHS budget will be invested in mental health services, with 1% of NHS frontline spending being invested in child and adolescent mental health services.

A sense of community, and the resilience that we all draw from it, has helped Scotland get through this pandemic. In the first 100 days of the new SNP Government, they will develop their new five-year social isolation and loneliness plan, which is backed by £10 million over five years and is focused on reconnecting people as we come out of the pandemic and tackle loneliness head on. They will also establish a steering group, inviting cross-party representation in order to progress the delivery of a Scottish minimum income guarantee. People are more isolated if they do not have the funds to make social contacts, travel short distances and view the world outwith their four walls.

Loneliness is a blight on people’s lives and has impacts on their mental health. All Governments should and must work with community partners to end the scourge of loneliness. Funding spent now will decrease the cost to ongoing health services in the future. Governments across the four nations have a duty to improve people’s lives by allowing them to feel less lonely and anxious. Again, following what the hon. Member for Broxtowe (Darren Henry) said, we should thank all the organisations across the UK that have done so much to alleviate people’s loneliness in all sorts of circumstances. As hon. Members have already said, we do not know how someone feels when we look at them, but it should be incumbent on us all to make sure that we always have a friendly word and an understanding of how other people live their lives.

It is a pleasure to speak with you in the Chair, Sir Edward, in what has been an outstanding debate. I thank all hon. Members for their contributions, not least my hon. Friend the Member for Blaydon (Liz Twist), who not only set out the scale of loneliness, but has served well on the APPG on loneliness. Of course, she focused all our minds on tomorrow, the fifth anniversary of the passing of Jo Cox.

Few people have never felt the aching pain of loneliness. Thankfully, it is fleeting for most—those moments pass—but not for all. Once trapped in the cycle of loneliness, it can be difficult to escape. Lost connections happen at transition points in life, such as a move or a new baby, when old friends are left behind or new demands fill people’s days. For some, however, those days turn to weeks, months and years. Disabled people are trapped behind a multitude of barriers, refugees are in a strange land, single people are home alone, and the elderly are often confined to their own homes and, for many with dementia, their own worlds. Their carers, too, can fall into loneliness, as demands replace time with friends. For others, loneliness has stemmed from the loss of a job or a loved one.

The past year has been particularly brutal. Some 41% of adults say that they feel lonelier than they did before the first lockdown. Being bereaved in lockdown has been particularly harsh—not being with loved ones as they died, and not being able to grieve properly. It hurts. The digital divide in an increasingly digitalised society can make isolation all the more challenging. Others just find it hard to make secure friendships, and it is okay to say so. If someone quietly longs for a buddy—someone to share things with, or to journey parts of their life together—help with making connections must be available. The call for connected recovery is a recognition that things do not have to be that way; they can change and bring meaning, friendship, love and purpose back into our relationships.

Loneliness is the greatest public health challenge of our age. Each day, millions of people would identify with such a diagnosis, but instead of the hope of a cure, the deafening chill of emptiness pursues them. For some people, it never departs. Although the Government’s loneliness strategy is a packed agenda on combating loneliness that is high on aspiration and complex in ambition, we have to be honest: it was incapable of responding to covid-19. The reality is that relationships are built from within communities, and they need the tools and means to respond.

As with all public health emergencies, we need to map those who are lonely. Our directors of public health should lead the local partnership to reach different environments, ages and intersectional challenges with a strategy to reach their communities. Government have to trust directors of public health to formulate their public health frameworks and provide them with the tools and the means to deliver. So, the first issue is trust in a local public health approach.

Secondly, there is funding. Let us not pretend that this can be done on the cheap, because not delivering is costly. A recent survey commissioned by the Government concluded that severe loneliness cost just short of £10,000 a person each year. Let me scale that up. Researchers calculated that it cost £32 billion a year. Public health budgets have been slashed, the communities sector has been starved and charities are struggling more and more each day that restrictions are extended, yet Government have completely failed to recognise that they need support. Just £5 million was given to addressing loneliness at the very start of the pandemic, over a year ago. Charities have been largely forgotten. The very organisations that can address loneliness are now facing further restraints from cash-strapped local authorities.

Will the Minister take a strong message back to the Minister for Loneliness? Until this Government get a grip on the funding crisis in the sector, they have no chance of supporting people who experience loneliness as the infrastructure is simply unsustainable without funding. It must be addressed now and in the comprehensive spending review.

Thirdly, success must be measured and shared. Such a project must be evaluated and a long-term commitment to meet need achieved.

Finally, the Marmalade Trust, the British Red Cross, Age UK and the Jo Cox Foundation are all at the forefront of finding ways to break the stigma of loneliness. If people say they are lonely, it is okay. If they are lonely, it is okay. However, it is not okay that the Government are not providing the tools and the resources to the very people who can make those connections.

May Loneliness Awareness Week empower all to recognise loneliness, to reach out to those who are lonely and to rekindle the hope that as a society we can build strong connections, so that no one need be lonely.

It is a great honour to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. I am delighted to be able to discuss such an important topic. It has been a high-quality debate. Without exception, every single contribution has been first class and I thank everybody who has taken part. There were some heartfelt and touching contributions.

I particularly thank the hon. Member for Blaydon (Liz Twist) for calling for such an important debate. I know that she is a member of the all-party parliamentary group on loneliness and she brings a great deal of knowledge and experience, as well as passion and care, to the debate. I am grateful to her and I join her in paying tribute to our former colleague, Jo Cox, who we all miss terribly.

I am grateful to the APPG for its review of loneliness during covid-19 and the recommendations for the Government’s role in supporting a connected recovery from the pandemic. I am sure that my brilliant colleague, the Minister for Loneliness, will be very happy to meet the hon. Lady and her colleagues on the APPG.

The covid-19 pandemic has associated social distancing measures with loneliness. We know that, but the importance of social connection has been highlighted for us all during this. As the Office for National Statistics indicated, levels of chronic loneliness among adults in England has increased between spring 2020 and February 2021 from 5% to 7%.

As we start to be able to see each other in person more, we know that there will be a large number of people who felt lonely and isolated long before the pandemic started, and will continue to feel that way after the restrictions lift. As my hon. Friend the Member for Southend West (Sir David Amess) said, unpaid carers, who give so much of themselves with their love and their care for those they love, often feel the impact of loneliness and deserve our attention.

There will also be those who have lost confidence as a result of the impact of covid, who may struggle to reconnect or feel left behind as a restrictions ease. That is at the top of the Government’s agenda. As the APPG report sets out, the Government’s response to covid-19 has recognised the importance of social interaction and connection. That work built on our existing commitments, set out in our strategy of 2018 and reiterated in two annual loneliness reports since. We have provided funding to organisations that provide vital support to a wide range of people at risk of loneliness.

Contrary to what the hon. Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell) says, since the beginning of the pandemic we have invested more than £34 million in such organisations in England alone and helped people who experience loneliness through a £750 million charity funding package. We also set up a £4 million local connections fund in partnership with the National Lottery Community Fund. Through the first round of the local connections fund, we have already awarded more than 840 microgrants to charities and community groups that help people to connect via the things that they enjoy.

The “Let’s Talk Loneliness” campaign, which a couple of Members spoke about, aims to raise awareness of loneliness and remind people that it is okay to ask for help when feeling lonely. Several colleagues beautifully set out how loneliness hides in plain sight. Anybody can feel lonely at any time; it can affect anybody at any age. During the pandemic, we have used the campaign to share advice on simple steps we can all take to support ourselves and others.

In response to covid-19, we also set up the Tackling Loneliness Network of more than 80 organisations from across the private, public and charity sectors to take action on loneliness. We published an action plan in May setting out a series of actions that they are taking. In this Loneliness Awareness Week, they have launched the Connection Coalition’s loneliness chatbot service on WhatsApp.

Local people understand what is needed in their communities, and we agree with the APPG that local and grassroots action is vital in tackling this issue. That is why we want to build a shared understanding of communities’ needs and assets and focus on supporting local areas to share and learn what works locally.

I really welcome the APPG’s emphasis on digital inclusion. As Minister of State for Digital and Culture, I know that the ability to connect digitally during the lockdown has been a lifeline, but too many people faced a barrier to connecting because they lack the mobile technology, the internet or the skills and confidence to do it. That is an issue that the Government are dedicated to addressing. Our £2.5 million digital lifeline fund is providing tablets, data and free digital support to more than 5,500 people with learning disabilities, allowing them to connect with friends and support.

As I mentioned, this Loneliness Awareness Week is a really important opportunity to highlight some of the amazing work that is happening with grassroots organisations around our nations, as a number of Members have already. We have seen extraordinary examples over the past year of community spirit and of charity groups and organisations that have really stepped up and adapted to this new world to ensure that local people do not feel isolated.

Through our “Let’s Talk Loneliness” campaign we will this week partner with a wide range of organisations to encourage everyone across society to continue to reach out to support people who may be feeling lonely, even as restrictions ease. Every single one of us can make a difference, and the Government are really determined to do our bit as well. I thank everybody for their great contributions to the debate.

I thank all hon. Members who have taken part in the debate. It has been a useful debate in making sure that, during Loneliness Awareness Week, we do not forget this issue and we pay attention to it. It is interesting to hear the different experiences of colleagues in their constituencies.

I conclude by reiterating that we would very much like to work with the Government, and I hope that it will be possible to arrange the meeting we talked about so that we can progress things further. We need not only to talk about loneliness in debates like this, but to really make a difference, which is what so many organisations are doing on the ground.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered covid-19 and loneliness.

Sitting adjourned.