House of Commons
Monday 19 July 2021
The House met at half-past Two o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Virtual participation in proceedings commenced (Orders, 4 June and 30 December 2020).
[NB: [V] denotes a Member participating virtually.]
I wish to make a short statement about working safely on the parliamentary estate and the wearing of face coverings. With the increase in infection levels in the community and with people having to isolate, I strongly advise that everyone on the estate should wear face coverings when moving around, accessing catering venues and areas they consider crowded, including the Chamber. We have four sitting days before the House rises and I really want us to behave safely and responsibly during those few days. None of us wants to risk taking covid back to our families, staff or constituents, and I am sure we want everyone working on the estate to feel safe and secure and to ensure that the business of this House continues. We certainly have a large number of people who have been contacted, so I am worrying about the outcome. With four days to go, I want us all to have a good break and enjoy our holidays, so I hope we will take this seriously and not push the limits for the sake of it.
I have to notify the House, in accordance with the Royal Assent Act 1967, that Her Majesty has signified her Royal Assent to the following Act:
Supply and Appropriation (Main Estimates) Act 2021.
Oral Answers to Questions
Housing, communities and local government
The Secretary of State was asked—
Our focus in the last year has rightly been on managing the response to the pandemic and supporting tens of thousands of the most vulnerable people across our society. During the pandemic, we took unprecedented action to protect people sleeping rough or at risk of doing so. This saved lives and achieved huge reductions in the number of people sleeping rough: a 37% decrease in the latest statistics. Our ambition to end rough sleeping within this Parliament still stands. We are taking into account the lessons learned from our ongoing pandemic response, including Everyone In and the Protect programme, to inform our long-term plans.
The Everyone In scheme has undoubtedly been a success and led to incredible stories of lives being turned around in a housing-first approach that has support from all sides of the House. However, several councils have reported that the Government have instructed them, through the terms of the rough sleeping initiative funding allocations, to end the use of emergency accommodation for those sleeping rough, so signalling the end of the Everyone In scheme. To make matters worse, the rough sleeping strategy is still in need of updating following the pandemic. Were local authorities instructed to end Everyone In? If so, have charitable and third-sector groups been made aware so that they can fill in the gaps? When can we expect to see the updated rough sleeping strategy and, indeed, the promised review of the Vagrancy Act 1824?
As is so often the case, the Lib Dems are more focused on two things: making plans—rather than taking action—and scaremongering. It is categorically not the case that either charities or local councils have been instructed as the hon. Member suggested. Indeed, funding through the rough sleeping initiative continues to fund people in emergency accommodation. More importantly, we should note that that is a temporary form of accommodation and it is incredibly important that we get people moved on to more permanent forms of accommodation. That should be the objective of all of us.
Somerset: Unitary Local Government
The Secretary of State expects to announce his decisions on the unitary proposals before the summer recess. Alongside those decisions, he will publish a summary of the consultation responses. I assure my hon. Friend that that will include all the detail he seeks and much more alongside it.
Let us go to the one and only Ian Liddell-Grainger.
That is the most pathetic answer I think I have heard in 20 years. The Government’s consultation for the unitary was finished months ago. I have asked parliamentary questions and written to the Minister—I have tried everything. If on 13 December 2019 the returning officer in Thornbury and Yate had stood up to announce that a total of 52,000 votes had been cast but refused to declare the winner, there would have been outrage. Why will the Government not come clean over this? Why are they holding it back? Why on earth has this become an issue? Let us just hear who won the Government’s consultation. Please tell us now and tell the House.
Let me remind the Member that I am not responsible for the answer, and I am certainly not taking the blame for Bridgwater and Somerset. Minister, please pick that one up.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. I thank my hon. Friend for his question. There is no broken commitment. We always said that we would publish the outcome before the summer recess, and we are absolutely on track to do that. We received more than 5,500 responses to the consultation on local government reorganisation in Somerset and, when we publish the information, which will be on schedule, as promised, we will show the proportion of respondents who supported the different proposals, together with a summary of their expressed views. I assure him that we are on track to publish before the summer recess.
I am proud that my Department is leading a cross-Government drive to eliminate rough sleeping by the end of this Parliament. We are spending £750 million over the next year to tackle homelessness and rough sleeping. That includes the largest ever investment in long-term move-on accommodation, with 6,000 homes pledged in this Parliament. Our efforts are paying off: recent data shows that rough sleeping has fallen by 43% under this Administration, with a 37% fall in the last year alone.
And now for something completely different: Southend. Will my hon. Friend join me in congratulating Southend on reducing the level of rough sleeping by nearly 90% since November 2017, which is well above the national average? Local organisations such as HARP and Off the Streets have done a magnificent job under really difficult circumstances, so I urge him and his Department to continue to support local charities with this important and valuable work.
I am delighted to commend my hon. Friend and the local teams and providers who have worked incredibly hard in Southend to achieve the figures that he described. They have worked tirelessly to achieve such a brilliant result and continue to work towards seeing an end to rough sleeping in his area. It is particularly heartening to hear him championing the cause of organisations such as HARP and Off the Streets, which have redoubled their efforts to support local people—vulnerable people—during the pandemic.
HGV Driver Shortages: Waste Collections
We are working across Government and with the waste sector to better understand the issues facing waste-collection vehicle staffing levels. We are working with the industry and have already taken action on HGV driver shortages, including by ramping up vocational test capacity and funding apprenticeships.
The Minister was good enough to meet me to discuss the poor performance of Urbaser, the company that has the contract for waste with Tunbridge Wells and Tonbridge and Malling. Will he update my constituents on what action he has taken since our meeting so that we can see a rapid improvement to their service?
I thank my right hon. Friend for raising his concerns again about the performance of Urbaser and for taking the time to meet me to explain in detail the concerning situation that his constituents face. It is something that we take extremely seriously. Following our meeting, I have written to Urbaser to ask how it intends to address the concerns that he has relayed. I certainly urge it to use every tool at its disposal to meet its contractual commitments and I look forward to working with him to continue to monitor this important situation.
Planning System Modernisation
We will modernise the planning system, ensuring a simpler, faster and more predictable system that delivers more homes, more infrastructure, such as schools and hospitals, and honours our commitment to net zero and the environment. Our reforms will also make the planning system more accessible through digital plan making, ensuring more local people—more than the 1% who currently engage with the planning system—can get involved. We are taking power out of the hands of the big developers and giving it back to local communities and small builders so that, together, we can build back better.
I thank my right hon. Friend and Ministers for their engagement and correspondence over the last year. As he will know, I have asked what mechanisms exist to challenge the housing targets for my constituency. As such, will he confirm my new understanding that the local authority housing needs target is not set in stone and is a starting point for negotiation, and that it is the local authority’s responsibility to challenge the housing target as part of its local plan?
My hon. Friend and I have spoken about that on a number of occasions—as have I with you, Mr Speaker. He will appreciate that I am unable to comment on the specific local plans because of my quasi-judicial role. However, he is right to say that housing targets are only a starting point. All local plans are subject to an independent examination. Following consultation with the local community, anyone who wants to make representations to change a plan must be heard by the inspector. That process will take into account local land constraints such as the green belt, sites of special scientific interest, national parks and so on in coming to a sensible and credible way forward.
My right hon. Friend is right that planning reform is overdue, but in Buckinghamshire there are serious concerns that the voices of local people will not be heard. For example, we know that in Aylesbury many thousands more houses will be built in the coming years, but the town is already merging into nearby villages and infrastructure is at breaking point. What reassurance can he provide that when residents raise legitimate concerns, they will be listened to?
My hon. Friend makes an important point, and he is right to say that significant housing delivery is occurring at the moment in Aylesbury. There are two principal things that the Government seek to do to support his constituents. The first is to ensure that more infrastructure accompanies that housing; we will do that principally through our infrastructure levy, which will capture more of the land value uplift and put more money at the service of his excellent local council in Buckinghamshire. Secondly, we will ensure that more local people can be involved in the planning system by digitising it so that, at the touch of a smartphone, people can access and understand a plan and comment on or even object to a planning application. By doing so, we expect that we can boost the number of people who engage in our system and drive a truly localist approach.
There is a great deal of concern in my Heywood and Middleton constituency and across Greater Manchester about the amount of green belt approved for release by the Greater Manchester Mayor, Andy Burnham, as part of his Greater Manchester spatial framework. What assurances can my right hon. Friend give me about protection of the green belt as part of his Department’s new planning reforms?
This Government made a manifesto commitment not just to protect the green belt, but to enhance it. At the moment, planning policy is clear that building on the green belt should be contemplated only in the most exceptional circumstances, and we intend to continue that through our modernised planning system. I appreciate the pressure that my hon. Friend and his constituents are under as a result of the proposed Greater Manchester spatial framework, which does not seem to accord with the wishes of local residents. I hope that as we come out of the pandemic, Manchester City Council and others with a good record of house building and regeneration will find opportunities for imaginative building on brownfield sites and around the city centre.
I listened carefully to my right hon. Friend’s earlier answer, but does he agree that in any future planning reforms we must increase protection for our green belt? In Sevenoaks and Swanley, we are 93% green belt, yet we are constantly inundated by speculative planning applications such as that at Broke Hill, which worry the local community. The message should be clear: if it is green belt, it is protected, and if a planning application is put in for the green belt, the answer will be no.
The point that my hon. Friend touches on is that the current planning system is not well regarded and is not producing the kinds of outcomes that we want; that is precisely why we want to reform and modernise it. We want to ensure that protections such as the green belt have the weight that they deserve in the planning system and that we can cut out speculative development unless it is approved by democratically elected local councillors at their sole discretion. The system that we are bringing forward does exactly that. Local authorities will need to have a plan; if they have a plan that is allocated land, there will be no need for issues such as speculative development and the five-year land supply.
I call the shadow Secretary of State.
The anti-corruption campaign Transparency International says that the Conservative party has become overly dependent on donations from developers. It is particularly concerned that Ministers failed to report the details of what they talked about to developers in over 300 meetings about which they simply disclosed generalisations such as “housing” or “planning”; it fears that that could amount to what it calls aggregate corruption. Will the Secretary of State now publish the full minutes of all those meetings so that the public can see exactly what Ministers agreed to do for their developer paymasters?
As the hon. Gentleman knows, all meetings that Ministers have are correctly identified on the register of interests, but I have to say that he has been on quite a journey. One adviser who worked with him as leader of Lambeth Council has been left bemused: is this the same Champagne Steve he remembers meeting with developers? It is not just him who has invited charges of shameless hypocrisy; the Leader of the Opposition has received thousands of pounds of donations from developers, and the deputy leader of the Labour party caused a splash in the papers the other day for accepting £10,000 from developers for her leadership campaign.
Order. Could the right hon. Gentleman withdraw the word “hypocrisy”? Hon. Members would never be hypocritical.
I will certainly withdraw that, at your request, Mr Speaker. We can only imagine how much the deputy leader of the Labour party will be asking for when it comes to her impending leadership campaign.
It is not surprising that the Secretary of State is refusing to be transparent, because we all know who benefits the most from their developers’ charter. Just weeks ago, this House passed Labour’s motion to guarantee residents’ right to a say over local planning applications in their own neighbourhoods. This week, councillors of all parties—including the right hon. Gentleman’s—in Medway and Richmond passed similar motions. How many more councils will need to do the same before he ditches the developers’ charter and his plan to pay back developers by selling out communities?
I am sure that Conservative councillors the length and breadth of the country were over the moon to receive the hon. Gentleman’s letter. I can see the scene now over the summer recess, when the gate rattles or there is a knock at the door and he rushes to check what the post has brought in, but like a jilted lover or a pen pal who assumes his letters got lost in the mail, he finds nothing there except just another letter from Croydon Council telling him that the bills are going up as a result of the terrible mistakes and mismanagement that his friends and cronies are making over at Croydon. He has taken an avowedly anti-house building approach. This is a far cry from the Labour party of Attlee and Bevan, who said that this was a social service and a moral mission. This Government are going to keep on building houses, but we will build them sensitively. We will build beautiful homes, we will protect the environment and we will help young people and those on lower incomes to enjoy all the security and prosperity that comes with owning a home of their own.
I hope that the Secretary of State has seen the Select Committee’s report into the planning reforms. We were supportive of a number of aspects, including the need to strengthen local plans and how they are drawn up. Could I ask him two things in relation to our recommendations? We need to recognise the serious change in moving to a zonal system and the importance of getting the details right, and I wonder if he might consider the recommendation to move, at the next stage, to a draft Bill, so that we could give it serious pre-legislative scrutiny as to what it would mean in practice. Secondly, will he have another look at the distribution of housing under his latest proposals? Under the proposals, large areas of the north outside the major cities will see their housing numbers fall, which seems to be in contradiction to the Government’s levelling-up agenda.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman and the members of the Select Committee for their interesting report, which we have considered carefully as part of the broader work that we have done to listen to the views of colleagues here in Parliament on both sides of the House and in the country before preparing our response to the White Paper in the autumn. I will of course bear in mind his suggestion about pre-legislative scrutiny, which may be a good way forward. On his second point, I must respectfully disagree, because I think levelling up involves ensuring that our big cities of the midlands and the north build more homes. That is the way we will ensure a brownfield-first approach. That is also the way we will ensure inspired regeneration and get aspirational middle-class families back into some of those great cities, and ensure that councils have the revenues they need to invest and to prosper; and of course it is the way to protect the countryside from unnecessary development.
We listened to thousands of residents in 2018 and acted decisively, publishing the social housing White Paper last November. We have strengthened the housing ombudsman service, run a complaints awareness campaign and taken important steps to improve safety and decency, including launching the review of the decent homes standard, reviewing electrical safety and consulting on smoke alarms and carbon monoxide measures. We are putting residents first and ensuring that they live in safe, decent homes and are treated with respect and courtesy.
Every day, millions of people across the country grapple with the realities of the housing crisis, from overcrowded and unsanitary housing, to rip-off rents and negligent landlords. Our country is calling out for a new generation of high-quality, sustainable social housing, but the much-delayed social housing White Paper has failed to deliver on promises made by the then Housing Secretary in 2017, while the Government’s planning reforms could remove the main remaining route to social house building by abolishing section 106. So will the Minister tell the House what steps the Government are taking to build the social housing that people up and down the country so desperately need?
First, and perhaps most importantly, it might be helpful if Labour-run councils such as Croydon were providing high-quality social housing—that would be incredibly helpful. We do not need Government legislation for them to be able to do that. We do not need to wait for Government legislation; I have already convened a meeting of the social housing White Paper challenge panel, with representatives from across the sector and, more importantly, tenants’ representatives, to hear what they need. As we have heard earlier, this Government are also investing £11.5 billion in building new affordable homes, so we are increasing the number of properties that are available and we are also working with the sector to ensure that the housing we have at the moment is all of an acceptable standard.
Too many families spent lockdown in overcrowded homes. Housing and health go hand in hand, as we know; overcrowding not only increases the risk of catching covid-19, but puts a strain on mental health. Building back better must mean building good-quality, affordable housing. What plans does the Minister have to reverse the trend whereby we are losing more social homes than we are building?
I think the simple answer to that is that since 2010 we have delivered 365,800 affordable homes for rent, of which 148,000 are for social rent.
Local Government Finance Settlement
The local government finance settlement this year was another excellent outcome for councils. We made available an increase in core spending power from £49 billion last year to £51.3 billion this year—an increase in cash terms of 4.6%. There are no plans to review this positive outcome for councils, which was unopposed by this House.
The prevailing problem for local councils is, of course, the massive cuts from central Government funding, but may I ask the Minister to reflect on another issue—the patchwork of funding and the short-term basis of that funding? Would it be possible to have a settlement, of perhaps three years, that gave councils more time to plan with the less money that they have?
First, I would not accept that there are cuts for local government spending in the finance settlement; there was a huge increase this year. If the hon. Gentleman felt it was an unacceptable settlement, he had the chance to oppose it. His local council saw a 4.1% increase in funding this year and it has £150 million sat in reserves, so I do not accept that argument at all. On biddable pots of funding, that is exactly why we have provided capacity funding to councils in the top priority status for the levelling-up fund and community renewal fund, to help them with that work to build good business cases and bids, and submit them to central Government—and to build strong relationships with us as well. I do not accept his overall point about funding, but we are absolutely supporting councils with the capacity funding that they need, and helping them to build that through the support we provide through the Local Government Association as well.
Health Inequalities: Levelling-up Fund
The £4.8 billion levelling-up fund will invest in infrastructure that improves everyday life in our country. It is a core part of our levelling-up agenda, and I regularly speak to my ministerial colleagues about the fund. These discussions will inform our levelling-up White Paper, which we intend to publish later this year.
Health inequalities are a clear and persistent indicator of the growing gap between and within regions. Swim England forecasts that, because of the impact of the pandemic, by 2026 just 35% of children in the most deprived areas will meet the required national swimming standard when they leave primary school, compared with 77% in the most affluent areas. More than 400 leisure centres—including West Denton swimming pool in my constituency—have already closed and many more are under threat. Will the Minister give assurances that he and the Chancellor will use the levelling-up fund to address such glaring inequalities? They could make a great start by backing Newcastle’s levelling-up fund bid to develop a new swimming and leisure development in the outer west of Newcastle.
I know that the hon. Lady is hugely passionate about this project in her constituency and has raised it with the Prime Minister directly. We certainly welcome her enthusiasm for the fund and the bid, which is exactly why we are providing councils such as hers with the £125,000 of capacity funding that I have mentioned previously. I am sure she will appreciate that I cannot comment on the specific nature of the bid, but we are supporting projects throughout the country, through mechanisms such as the towns fund, to support positive health and wellbeing implications. I will keep the hon. Lady updated as we move through the process. We expect to announce the outcome of the competition in the autumn this year.
Leaseholders: Protection from Unfair Practices
Unfair practices have no place in our housing market and the Government are committed to ending them. In January, we announced a package of reforms that will result in substantial savings to leaseholders, and we are currently legislating to restrict ground rents to zero for future leases. The legislation is currently with their lordships and will come to this House in the autumn.
We have asked the Competition and Markets Authority to investigate potential mis-selling in the leaseholder sector. In September last year, the CMA began enforcement action against a number of developers and investors. I was particularly pleased to hear that both Persimmon and Aviva have already agreed to amend their practices as a result.
This is my first time shooting the breeze with the Minister in his new role—I offer him big congratulations. Will he clarify whether the Building Safety Bill will protect leaseholders in cases in which the property developer has failed to complete its work diligently, even if the company in question becomes insolvent because of its own malpractice?
It is a pleasure to shoot the breeze with my hon. Friend. It is fundamental that industry contributes for having compromised public safety, which is why the Building Safety Bill introduces a new levy on high-rise residential buildings. Clause 124 of the Bill also provides legal requirements for building owners to explore alternative ways to meet remediation costs and provide evidence. If that does not happen, leaseholders will be able to challenge costs in court. In addition, we have announced more than £5 billion towards remediation work on buildings of 18 metres and above and a generous finance scheme for remediation work on buildings of 11 to 18 metres.
There is, finally, much in the Leasehold Reform (Ground Rent) Bill for many people to welcome going forward, but people like Tracy in my constituency, and many millions of existing leaseholders, remain trapped, with unjust and feudal charges. Will the Minister commit to supporting Labour’s amendment, which is to be considered in the other place tomorrow, to extend the ban to the many leaseholders and not just the new?
It is important that we take the opportunity to be proportionate about the situation we are in: 96% of the high-rise buildings with unsafe aluminium composite material cladding identified at the start of last year are now remediated or have work under way. The Government are already taking action to help people who are in a difficult position. As I said, the new Building Safety Bill will provide legal requirements for building owners to explore alternative ways to meet future remediation costs.
Planning System Reform
We are transforming the planning system through not only the recently announced changes but our proposals for ambitious long-term reforms. The planning Bill announced in the Gracious Speech will modernise our planning system, with simpler processes and a digital transformation. We have also published changes to the way local housing need is calculated, to enable more homes to come forward in our largest cities, where we need them most, and a national model design code, which will drive up the quality of new development.
I have just heard the Secretary of State talk about building beautiful homes. However, the Government’s new permitted development rights will see more commercial buildings converted into small cramped flats in inappropriate locations, such as Unity House in Luton South, which, although sited on a four-lane ring road, bypassed important air quality regulations as it was converted under PDR. The Government must wake up to the reality that they are creating the slums of the future. Will the Minister adopt measures set out in my ten-minute rule Bill last week that would allow local planning authorities to impose design standards on PDR applications to protect communities’ health and wellbeing?
I am obliged to the hon. Lady, but design codes will apply, including to PDRs. She might note that 72,000 additional homes have been created in the past several years thanks to PDR. That is about double the number of homes that the Mayor of London has managed to build in an equivalent time. We have stipulated that those homes going forward must be of a good design quality, must be of a reasonable space standard and must have light in all habitable rooms. We are building homes for people who need them on the brownfield sites where they need to be built, and she should support our reforms, not oppose them
Councillor Martin Tett, the Conservative leader of Buckinghamshire County Council, said that planned changes to permitted development will create
“open season for developers to break up”—
the high street. He has said that article 4 directions are vital in enabling local planning authorities to protect town centres such as the medieval streets of High Wycombe and that councils need time to implement article 4 directions to protect their high streets. Therefore, will the Minister agree to Councillor Tett’s request to pause these changes? What does he have to say to Councillor Tett and any other council leaders of all parties who oppose these highly unpopular planning reforms?
I am afraid that the hon. Lady is a little behind the times, because we have already announced our proposals for article 4 directions. We are keeping article 4s as a tool in the armoury of local authorities should they wish to use them. We have also made it very clear that, with permitted development rights, there must be prior approvals in place that local authorities can use to determine whether a planning application should go forward with a PDR, looking, for example, at the height of a building, the aspect of it, and whether there is an aerodrome within 2 kms of a taller-rise building. We made appropriate changes to ensure that we can build brownfield development where it needs to be developed in order to bring forward the homes of the future that people need.
Regeneration of Towns and High Streets
As we build back better from the pandemic, we are transforming our high streets into the kind of places that people want to call home for generations to come. Last week, the Prime Minister announced the last 15 of our 101 town deals worth £2.4 billion, alongside launching our £150 million community ownership fund and our high streets strategy. That set out a vision for cleaner and more vibrant high streets where entrepreneurs can thrive and local businesses are supported, with permanent al fresco dining and where derelict eyesores are transformed into quality homes.
Now then, Ashfield has benefited from more than £70 million from the towns fund and the future high streets fund, which is welcome news to our struggling high streets, but the independent traders in Kirby-in-Ashfield are up in arms at Ashfield District Council’s decision to double car parking charges on a four-hour stay. This is after it has increased its own allowances by £55,000 a year. Will my right hon. Friend please remind the politicians at Ashfield District Council that, while they are taking Government cash to help regenerate our high streets, they, too, could help by not doubling car parking charges, which hurt our shoppers, our shopworkers and our high streets?
I am delighted that my hon. Friend’s constituency has received that £70 million to deliver exciting regeneration projects across his local area. He is right to say that it would be perverse if the Government are doing so much, with his help, to support the people of Ashfield for his council not to play its part as well. We want high streets to be as accessible as possible, whether that is by car, walking or cycling, and to be attractive places for local people to visit, to live in and to shop.
I thank the Secretary of State for coming to visit me in Newcastle-under-Lyme earlier this month. Newcastle-under-Lyme is benefiting from more than £34 million of investment through the towns deal and the future high streets fund. He knows the town very well and will know that the Ryecroft site, in particular, has been an eyesore for a long time, along with the derelict former Sainsburys site and the former civic offices. Does he therefore welcome, as I do, the fact that we now have a Conservative council under the leadership of Simon Tagg that has a proposal for the site, with the demolition of the old offices, and that with our future high streets funding we will see that developed in the next couple of years?
It was a pleasure to visit Newcastle-under-Lyme once again with my hon. Friend—a town that I have known for more than a decade. It was heartening to see that a good Conservative council very ably led by Simon Tagg has a real 10 or 20-year plan for the town centre backed by tens of millions of pounds of Government investment. That is exactly what we want to see replicated on high streets across the country.
I am backing an exciting multi-million-pound bid put forward by Devon County Council and East Devon District Council to help regenerate east Devon’s largest town, Exmouth. If the bid is successful, the planned Dinan Way extension will improve journeys into Exmouth and cut congestion, and will also see the town centre spruced up around the train station. What steps will my right hon. Friend take to make sure that every corner of the country, including the south-west, sees the full benefits of levelling up?
We have already committed over £430 million of investment in the south-west alone through the getting building fund, the future high streets fund and the towns fund. My hon. Friend and I have spoken many times about Exmouth and I visited the town with him a year or so ago. It is exactly the kind of place that these funds were designed to support. I very much look forward to reviewing the advice from my officials with regard to the bid for the levelling up fund, and, if it is a successful bid, to seeing positive change for his constituents in the months and years ahead.
It is great to be able to announce that after a long campaign through my parliamentary petition and an Adjournment debate in this House, a bid for the levelling-up fund has been submitted by Rotherham Council to improve Dinnington high street. However, I am greatly disappointed that Rotherham Council has not submitted a bid for other high streets across Rother Valley such as Maltby, Thurcroft and Swallownest. What can this Government do to ensure that Rotherham Council has plans for and improves all our high streets across Rother Valley?
I wish my hon. Friend a happy birthday. I am delighted that the council put in a bid for Dinnington high street, where he and I met for the first time in 2019. He asks a very important question about what the Government will do for smaller towns across the country, particularly those in ex-mining and ex-steel communities—places that I know well in north Nottinghamshire and South Yorkshire. That is one reason that we brought forward the levelling-up fund, which I hope his constituency will benefit from. It does require councils such as Rotherham to step up and develop with their local Member of Parliament high-quality bids, so I hope it will do so in the years ahead for the other towns in his constituency.
Levelling up all areas of the country remains at the centre of our agenda, empowering our regions by devolving money, resources and control away from Westminster. In March the Secretary of State and I met Ministers from each of the devolved Administrations to discuss UK-wide funding programmes. My officials will continue to hold discussions with their counterparts in the devolved Administrations as we continue to develop this important investment.
The Prime Minister has previously said that a pound spent in Croydon is of much more value than a pound spent in Strathclyde. How can anyone in Scotland, or even anyone outside London, really trust the Prime Minister on his levelling-up agenda, which his own MPs seem somewhat uncertain of the meaning of, given his clear record of supporting investment in London ahead of investment in the rest of the UK?
I am afraid that the hon. Lady’s question overlooks the facts. We are prioritising funding in the devolved Administrations by delivering £125,000 capacity funding for every single council in Scotland to help them work up strong bids for the UK community renewal fund, and to build a strong, lasting relationship with central Government so that we bond our precious Union together and help deliver the kind of infrastructure in Scotland that people want to see in every area. We are putting our money where our mouth is and putting that investment straight with the Scottish councils.
Communities such as Wester Hailes in my constituency are best placed to identify their priorities for improving their quality of life, and they have been doing that through a number of grassroots projects, so can the Minister tell me why UK Government Ministers with no remit for devolved matters, such as housing, communities and local government, should get to dictate the support that my constituents receive? Why do they not leave it to the Scottish Parliament and City of Edinburgh Council, who were elected to do so in terms of the devolved settlement? If there is extra funding to be allocated, why not do so through the proper channels?
The point of delivering the funding in the way we are is that it is localism in its truest form. We are asking local areas to come up with solutions to the problems that they are telling us they face. We certainly do not believe that the Scottish Government have a monopoly on good ideas for improving Scottish communities. That is why we have asked them to come forward with us, and of course we want to work closely with communities in Scotland and build that long-lasting, strong relationship so that we can bind together our precious Union for many, many years to come.
In his speech last week on levelling up, the Prime Minister made a plea to the public to email him with ideas for how to flesh out his so far very vague concept of levelling up. Can the Minister tell us how many emails the Prime Minister has received so far and whether any of them contained a plan with any more substance than the Government’s?
Considering the lack of ideas from the Labour party in opposition, I am loth to suggest that that question was ultimately predictable. If Members look at the work we are already doing on levelling up, they will see the £4.8 billion levelling up fund for regenerating town centres and high streets and upgrading local transport networks. They will see the UK shared prosperity fund, which will start from next year. They will see the £220 million of new investment through the UK community renewal fund. They will see the 101 town deals that the Prime Minister announced last week. They will see us progressing towards delivering 300,000 new homes a year by the middle of the decade. They will see the £3 billion we are investing in the city and growth deals, the devolution programme and the freeports we are delivering. In contrast, we see a Labour party with no ideas for levelling up anywhere in the country. All it has is a struggle to reconcile itself to the fact that it is this Conservative Government who are spending money to support the communities that it neglected for so many years.
If each local authority in the UK submits only one bid for the maximum of £20 million of levelling up funding, that will amount to £7.4 billion, which far exceeds the current fund. Given that 300 applications have already been received in the first round, how will the UK Government ensure that sufficient funding is available for later rounds?
First, Members have to look at the volume of funds that we are delivering over the course of the Parliament that are designed to address the different challenges that communities face. We will also ensure that we have attached priority rankings to councils that need that extra support to invest in their communities, whether that is to regenerate high streets or town centres, to upgrade transport infrastructure, or to support cultural and heritage assets. Scotland has a disproportionately high number of those communities, so the hon. Member should be welcoming the fact that we are ensuring that the funding will be targeted at the communities that need it most. Again, we are providing every local authority in Scotland with the capacity funding to ensure that they can put in strong bids to make sure they can level up and build these new relationships with central Government.
As the Prime Minister said last Thursday in his speech on levelling up, the Government’s vital mission is about raising living standards, spreading opportunity, improving our public services and restoring people’s sense of pride in their community. That is why I was delighted to launch last week the Government’s new high streets strategy. It is why I was pleased to launch our £150 million community ownership fund and the final details of our multibillion-pound towns fund. Last year, my Department introduced changes to make it quicker, easier and cheaper for restaurants, pubs and cafés to set up outdoor sitting and street stalls to serve food and drink, sparking, for the first time in my lifetime, a real pavement café culture. I am delighted that the Government have announced that we are making these changes permanent—something I think we can all drink to as we enjoy a truly great British summer.
Good afternoon from West Dorset, Mr Speaker. Dorset Council has done a huge amount of effective work to protect vulnerable people by tackling domestic violence, and there is no doubt in my mind that the extra funding given by my right hon. Friend’s Department will help substantially. However, this funding is ring-fenced for reactive responses to domestic violence. Can I ask my right hon. Friend to look at providing non-ringfenced funding for new burdens under the Domestic Abuse Act 2021, so that Dorset Council can continue its vital work in preventing domestic abuse, not just reacting to it when it happens?
Domestic abuse is a terrible crime, and I, like Members on both sides of the House, was pleased that we passed the landmark Domestic Abuse Act earlier this year, and that the Government are fully funding the duties on local authorities with £125 million. I have written to all local authorities in England, asking them to use that money for its intended purpose, and to ensure that money goes to refuges, which are not the only thing we should be supporting but are a very important part of the answer in protecting victims of domestic abuse. I will take his comments with respect to Dorset Council seriously. I have heard that it is taking a number of important steps, including, for example, spending £650,000 to tackle this issue.
Will the Secretary of State lobby the Chancellor to ensure that any legislation introduced after the current consultation on access to cash will include a statutory obligation on banks to provide adequate access to cash withdrawals free at the point of use and that meet the needs of our high streets and our communities?
The hon. Lady raises an important point, particularly for rural communities and those that are harder to serve. The pandemic has had a profound impact on access to cash, with many stores—perhaps the vast majority—moving to a cashless society, but we must not forget those people who are left behind by that, so I will take her comments back to my right hon. Friend the Chancellor as he prepares to respond.
I completely agree with my hon. Friend that it is vitally important that new housing development is supported by commensurate infrastructure —both physical and social infrastructure—and affordable housing. Of course, it is also true that the majority of that infrastructure today is funded by developer contributions from new housing, but we need to ensure that developers pay their fair share. That is the idea behind the infrastructure levy, whereby local areas can themselves set the rate of taxation they require to capture more land value to put at the service of local communities. I think that if we can secure that passage—I hope we will get cross-party support for this—it will make a big difference, particularly in those parts of the country where planning is particularly challenging at the moment.
It is good to see the Secretary of State here, having survived yet another thankless broadcast stint on behalf of those in No. 10—sent out to defend the indefensible, only for them to U-turn as soon as he finished on air.
The Big Issue warned this week:
“More people are at risk of homelessness now than at any time in living memory.”
So can the Secretary of State tell us what assessment he has made of the number of evictions that will happen as a result of covid, and how much will the resultant homelessness cost local councils in temporary accommodation? In March 2020 he said that
“nobody should lose their home”
as a result of the pandemic. Can he confirm that this promise has now been abandoned, and if not, how is he fulfilling it?
This Government took exceptional steps early in the pandemic, with cross-party support, and they were the right things to do. We legislated and, for example, we increased the notice periods for people with tenancies under section 21. That protected many thousands of people in a very difficult period for this country. They were also a product of a time when the housing market was closed as a matter of law, so it was impossible to move house. The position today is different— people are able to move house and the housing market is very open and active—but we still want to protect the most vulnerable people in society. We are doing that with longer notice periods and further support through the benefits system and local housing need, and of course we will keep this under review. However, I pay tribute to councils across the country for the phenomenal achievement of our Everyone In programme, which has seen rates of people sleeping rough on our streets reduced by almost 40%, and we must keep that going.
As a son of Wolverhampton, I know the city well and I wish it well. It is absolutely right that we need to build more homes in our town and city centres, and that is what the Government are doing. That is why we brought forward changes to permitted development, why we created the right to demolish and rebuild a building, and why we are bringing forward reforms to modernise the planning system. That is the way we protect the green belt for future generations. From Wolverhampton and the Black Country, one has to drive only a few miles into the most beautiful countryside of Shropshire and south Staffordshire. I want to preserve that, which is exactly what our planning reforms will do.
Yes, we want to establish at least one freeport in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland as soon as possible, and negotiations with the devolved Administrations are ongoing. Freeports will benefit and regenerate communities across the country. They act as national hubs for international trade, innovation and commerce, bringing together ports, local authorities, businesses, stakeholders and the community, to boost prosperity and opportunity for the region. We want to see progress, and it is in the interests of Welsh businesses and communities to benefit from that policy as quickly as possible.
I completely agree with my hon. Friend about the role that post offices play across our country. They have a vital role in supporting high streets, and keeping them a social and vibrant place in which to live, shop and work, and I thank him for bringing that case to my attention. The management of the post office is the responsibility of Post Office Ltd. I am happy to meet my hon. Friend and colleagues from BEIS, raise the issue with the Post Office directly, and discuss the matter in more detail.
In terms of buildings with the most dangerous form of cladding, there are five that I am aware of in Lewisham. One has completed work and is awaiting building control sign-off, three have had their unsafe aluminium composite material cladding removed altogether, and the other one has works under way, so we are making good progress there, as we are elsewhere in the country. On buildings below 18 metres, we need to take a more proportionate approach. There are leaseholders who are being asked to pay bills for those buildings that are unconscionable and likely to be unnecessary. I am working intensively with lenders, insurers and building safety experts to change that, because we have to adopt a more proportionate and sensible regime than the one we are experiencing right now.
I praise Darlington for its work in supporting the Gypsy, Romany, Traveller community. The Government consider that local councils are best placed to make decisions about the number and location of sites locally, as they know their local area best. We encourage local authorities with social housing providers to bid for funding through the £11.5 billion affordable homes programme, which includes funding for permanent Traveller and transit sites. However, I appreciate that the present system is not working as well as it should. We often see corrosive cases of retrospective planning permission. My Department is actively considering options to increase local council enforcement powers through the planning Bill, and we will announce steps in due course.
I would be happy to look at those proposals. I have already seen them, but perhaps the hon. Lady and I can meet to discuss them in further detail.
Shoddy workmanship of that kind is disgraceful, and developers should step up and pay for any works that are required. We are changing the law through the Building Safety Bill to give homeowners a longer period of redress to take action against developers and builders who build poorly. As I said in answer to an earlier question, it is also important that our response is proportionate, because some of the works relating to that kind of non-cladding issue—not all, but some—that leaseholders are being asked to pay for are unnecessary. We will be saying more about that soon.
I welcome the hon. Lady to her place in this House. As a former by-election winner, I know what it is like to enter in a class of one. I am sure she will thrive, as others have done, including several members of the Opposition Front Bench.
We are seeing an increase in the number of applications across the country for logistics sites, born of the pandemic experience of increased online shopping. It is an issue that other local authorities are experiencing and we are alive to it. Of course, any reforms we make to the planning system will continue to have the hon. Lady’s constituents at their heart. They will continue to be able to allocate sites in the plan making process, including commercial sites, and to object to planning applications if they wish.
It is disappointing that proposals have not been brought forward so far, but we want to work with my hon. Friend and her local council. I saw from Accrington when she and I visited just how much potential it has. It is a very beautiful town centre, but in need of investment. We will bring forward proposals shortly for the second round and I or my right hon. Friend the Chancellor will set that out later in the year.
The good news for the hon. Gentleman is that that is exactly what we are going to do, so I hope he will be an enthusiastic champion of the planning Bill when it reaches the House. He is right to say that there is an issue with developers not building the homes they have got permission for. Successive studies suggest that it is overstated, but none the less, it is an important issue, its time has come and we as a Parliament should tackle it. The planning Bill will include such proposals and I hope that we can work on a cross-party basis to achieve them.
The Conservative party has always been the party of home ownership, which is a fundamental tenet of what we seek to achieve. We want to extend opportunity to all. We are bringing forward the Bill to help the next generation of young people on to the ladder. Of course, we are also doing brilliant things such as First Homes, whereby we offer discounts of up to 30% to 50% to local first-time buyers throughout the country. I was pleased to unveil the next site for those near my hon. Friend’s constituency in Cannock the other day.
I am now suspending the House for three minutes to enable the necessary arrangements to be made for the next business.
Nomination of a Temporary Deputy Speaker
I need to advise the House that Dame Rosie Winterton has been contacted by the NHS covid-19 app and advised to self-isolate. It is therefore necessary to appoint a temporary Deputy Speaker to serve for the remainder of this week. I am very grateful to the hon. Member for Bradford South (Judith Cummins) for being prepared to take on this role at short notice.
That Judith Cummins shall act as Deputy Speaker to serve in place of Dame Rosie Winterton until the rise of the House on Thursday 22 July; and that she shall exercise all the powers vested in the Chairman of Ways and Means as Deputy Speaker.—(Mr Rees-Mogg.)
It is not often we give much to Yorkshire.
International Travel Rules
(Urgent question): To ask the Secretary of State for Transport, if he will make a statement on changes to international travel rules.
After a hugely challenging 16 months for the aviation industry, I am delighted that new rules allowing fully vaccinated people to travel to nearly all amber list countries, without isolating upon return, came into effect this morning, although people will still need to comply with necessary testing requirements. This coincides with a change in our advice, meaning that the do-not-travel rules for amber countries have now been relaxed, which will be a huge boost to our aviation and travel sectors ahead of the vital summer season.
Also from today, children under the age of 18 will not have to self-isolate when returning to England, making family reunions and holidays far more accessible. Children aged four and under will continue to be exempt from any travel testing, while children aged five to 10 will only need to do a day two PCR. Eleven to 18-year-olds will need to take both a pre-departure test and a day two PCR, as is the case for arrivals from green list countries.
I must reiterate that public health remains our priority, and with our measures on international travel we are safeguarding the gains made by our successful domestic vaccine programme. That is why, on Friday, the Government took the decision to exempt France from the new arrangements for fully vaccinated people returning to England. This decision was taken after concerns were raised by the Joint Biosecurity Centre over the persistent presence of cases in France of the beta variant, which was first identified in South Africa. I understand that the Minister for Covid Vaccine Deployment, my hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Nadhim Zahawi), will be able to answer questions on the data and the concerns raised by the JBC in a statement shortly.
I can also confirm to the House that, since 4 am this morning, there have been changes to the countries in the traffic-light system. Bulgaria, Croatia, Hong Kong and Taiwan have been added to the Government’s green list; Croatia and Taiwan have also been added to the green watchlist, signalling to passengers that these countries are potentially at risk of moving from green to amber at short notice should swift action be required to protect public health in England.
The Balearic islands and the British Virgin Islands have been added to the amber list and, unfortunately, Cuba, Indonesia, Myanmar and Sierra Leone have been added to the red list.
We keep all these measures under constant review to ensure that they remain necessary and proportionate. The system we have designed is adaptable to the evolving epidemiological picture, and the UK Government are prepared to take action at any time to protect public health.
I would like to know whether the Transport Secretary, as a genuine pilot, has been forced to self-isolate today. He should be here, he should have made the statement to the House, but that courtesy was not provided.
Again, the Government’s travel rules have been thrown into chaos and confusion. The British people, the travel industry and Members of this House are running out of patience. The Government have been all over the place from the start. Let us remember that the UK was one of the last countries in the world to introduce restrictions on incoming passengers. By the time such restrictions were introduced, 22 million passengers had arrived in the UK. Then, came a blunt intervention with a total lockdown, but without the financial support for aviation.
When the traffic light system was introduced, we were promised full publication of the data and the criteria. That did not happen. It is little wonder—it is as clear as day—that the delay in adding India to the red list was all about the Prime Minister’s vanity and not about the national interest or public health.
We now see even more confusion, with changes being made for travellers coming in from France, but we have also seen reports that the high rates of the beta variant are in fact not in mainland France, but on the Indian ocean island of Réunion, 6,000 miles away. Will the Minister confirm whether that is the case?
Why have a traffic light system, if there are different rules for countries that happen to be in the same category? The Transport Secretary told this House that a country-by-country assessment was published: Mr Speaker, that was not the case. Even the most recent update has only 10 countries listed, and France does not even get a mention. When will the Secretary of State ensure that the full data for every country being assessed is published?
Will the Minister comment on reports over the weekend that travellers from Spain and Greece may well be subjected to the same restrictions as travellers from France? It is remarkable that a major airline CEO commented over the weekend that the Government are
“making it up as they go along and causing confusion and uncertainty”.
The travel industry was promised a rescue deal, but it never arrived. It was promised air corridors and air bridges, but they did not happen either. Now, it is vital that the Government take the action needed, get their house in order and give this important industry the support that it needs.
I will take no lectures from the hon. Gentleman on confusion and uncertainty. The irony of the Labour party calling our position uncertain and confusing will not, I am sure, be lost on the House.
This is the party that supported hotel quarantine, but then said that quarantine should be on a case-by-case basis. This is the party that said no one should be travelling, but then called for more places to be added to the green list. This is the party that supports using covid certification, while at the same time saying that all amber countries should be red and off limits to everyone.
If the hon. Gentleman wants to talk about confusion, before coming to the House maybe he should sit down with the shadow Home Secretary and decide what their position is first. The Opposition party tells us to be cautious and to follow the evidence—that is precisely what we have done with France. That may explain why the hon. Gentleman’s Labour colleagues in the Welsh Government have followed our action precisely.
Through our approach, we are helping to get international travel back on its feet. Fully vaccinated people are now able to travel without isolation to the vast majority of countries in the world. However, we will never hesitate to take action quickly where it is necessary to protect our vaccine roll-out.
I welcome the fact that it is now possible to travel to amber list countries without the need to quarantine, at last, but that is not the case for France. Many travellers, whether for business or leisure purposes, will have their lives disrupted as a result. Will my hon. Friend the Minister publish the data on which this unexpected decision was made? Since we now know it is possible to change initial decisions, will he commit to review this one before waiting three weeks to do so? While he is there, will he also reassure us that there will be no further problems for travellers from this country who have been vaccinated with the AstraZeneca vaccine produced in India being denied entry to any European Union country?
My hon. Friend is right to draw attention to the disruption that is undoubtedly being caused to his constituents and others. I entirely recognise that concern, and he is right to raise it. I know he will understand, however, that the action we have taken is to protect public health, which is, of course, the first duty of any Government in these circumstances and is what I think people would expect us to do. All this policy is kept under constant review in any event. As my hon. Friend will know, there is an assessment of the country listing every three weeks, and there is of course the policy listing as well, which comes up at the end of this month. If he was referring to the concern that existed over Malta’s accepting AstraZeneca vaccinations, my understanding is that that confusion has been resolved.
Let us now go to the SNP’s spokesperson, Gavin Newlands.
As it happens, Mr Speaker, I am joining you from Glasgow airport, where I have just been updated on the latest developments.
I have spoken many times about the impact of the pandemic, with more than 3,000 aviation-related jobs in and around the airport having already gone. Notwithstanding the UK Government’s criminal dither and delay over the decision relating to travel from India and the importation of the delta variant, we do take a four-nations approach to international travel, so may I ask whether the Government gave the devolved Administrations notice of the decision on travel from France so that they could prepare?
However, whether we are talking about the decision about France or the fact that, owing to the delta variant, international travel is increasingly not in our gift—for example, Bulgaria added us to its red list just as we put it on our green list—the Minister must surely see the need for a specific package of support for the entire sector. The UK Government’s support does not even compare well domestically, let alone with that of the UK’s international aviation competitors. Is the Treasury not listening, or are the Minister and his colleagues just not shouting loudly enough?
The Government have at all times an ongoing programme of engagement with all interested parties, including those in the devolved Administrations, and, as the hon. Gentleman will appreciate, the Scottish Government have followed our action in this case. We continue to talk to them, as we talk to all our international partners—that, I think, is the answer to the second part of his question—and he will of course be aware that, most importantly, we continue to talk to all parts of the sector to understand how they may best be assisted at this time.
Apart from a rapid roll-out of vaccines, there are only three ways to control this situation: lockdown, which is unthinkable, the rubbish “pingdemic” test and trace, which we should abolish as soon as possible, or and being tough on foreign travel. May I urge my hon. Friend to be honest with the British people and say, “Our advice is going to change constantly. We cannot foresee this disease. Don’t go abroad this summer, but if you do go abroad, you go entirely at your own risk”?
The approach that the Government take is a balanced one. It is important that people are able to travel: it is important to people who have friends and family abroad whom they have not seen for a long time, and to those who need to be able to sustain their businesses, as well as the businesses in the travel sector itself. What we are doing, however, is opening international travel in a way that is robust and sustainable and protects public health. I think that that balance is achievable, and I think it is what we have set out.
I have a constituent who is currently in Russia caring for a sick relative. She cannot be vaccinated where she is, and will need to return to the UK to get a vaccine that is recognised here, which, given the severity of her relative’s illness, is very difficult to manage. This highlights the difficulties of the status of vaccines for those undertaking international travel. This needs to be managed properly, so may I ask what steps the Government are taking towards developing a mutual recognition of vaccines, particularly in view of the need to secure the longer-term future of the inbound tourism industry?
I am sorry to hear about the case of the hon. Lady’s constituent. If there is any assistance that I can offer, I will offer it. The hon. Lady is, of course, right to point to the fact that so many of the solutions here are international, and we continue to work bilaterally with international partners in, for instance, the World Health Organisation, and also with the International Civil Aviation Organisation, to ensure that we find that international solution as soon as we can.
Constituents across Hyndburn and Haslingden have been in touch with me because they have booked holidays and are due to depart soon, but have unfortunately been “pinged” and forced into isolation after close contacts. Most of these people are double-jabbed. Can the Minister confirm that discussions between his Department and the Department of Health and Social Care are ongoing to resolve this, and to do so before 16 August? It is causing huge numbers of holiday cancellations, and huge disappointment to many families across the country.
My hon. Friend is quite right to raise her constituents’ concerns. I accept that this is a very difficult situation for her constituents, and for others all across the country and in all parts of the industry. I can confirm that across Government we continue to discuss the next steps we may be able to take. When we are able to, we will come back to the House and update people.
Owing to our proximity to both, a large number of my constituents work at Manchester airport and Liverpool John Lennon airport, or otherwise rely on them for their livelihoods, and that includes our local taxi trade. The business rates relief for airports and ground handlers in England was welcomed by the sector and is a much needed boost for everyone, as is the Chancellor’s extension for a further six months. However, those payments, capped at £8 million last year and £4 million this year, barely touched the sides for some airports, yet the Minister repeatedly assures us that the Government are helping the sector. When will the Minister step up and provide real assurances that our aviation industry will be given the support it needs?
The hon. Lady is quite right to draw the attention of the House to the importance of Manchester and Liverpool airports. I visited Liverpool airport not long ago, so I understand how important it is for her area. I am grateful to her for acknowledging that the airport and ground operations support scheme was welcomed and has been of assistance in relation to fixed costs, in particular business rates, to airports around the country. The most important thing we should all be doing is looking to find a way to enable people to get flying again. That is the way we will best be able to support our airlines and airports, which are so important in many different ways to all our constituents across the country.
I think the Minister is as confused as I am by the Opposition’s position. They spent many weeks criticising a non-existent delay in action on the Indian variant and now they criticise prompt action on France.
It is absolutely right that we make the most of our fantastic vaccine roll-out to restore the freedoms we have had to sacrifice. Will my hon. Friend join me in encouraging everyone who has not yet had the jab to get it, whether they live in Thornley, Hurworth, Newton Aycliffe or anywhere else in the UK, so that airports like Teesside International airport can take off again?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We need to enable airports like Teesside to take off again. We are seeking to lay in place a system that enables a robust, cautious and sustainable return to international travel in particular. He is absolutely right that the vaccination programme is a great national triumph. I encourage everybody to get their jab when it is open to them to be able to do so. It will help to protect them, their friends, their family and the people they work with. It will also help, as he quite rightly points out, with travel.
I thank the Minister for his answers so far. I know that he wants to help and assist. I know that that is his purpose. I have been contacted by constituents who have loved ones who have died in Poland, and who are having difficulty travelling. There are those who want to travel from Morocco to visit elderly dying relatives and are also having difficulty travelling. My staff spent 35 minutes on the phone this morning on just one of those issues. I am not being critical, Minister, but it really is an issue. Given the fluidity of travel arrangements, where tourists are already on holiday and restrictions change while they are there, will the Minister make allowances to those who were not expecting to quarantine on arrival back in the UK, as there have been reports of a lack of medication and basic daily needs?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. He is right that the Government wish to see travel restart, provided it is in a safe and sustainable way. He draws attention to the reason for that: often it is not just about people going on holidays, important though that is because of the jobs the industry sustains, but because people have not seen relatives who may be ill. It is important that we do that in a globally connected country, and we will continue to do that in a safe sustainable way. If there is anything I can do to assist any particular constituents, such as those he mentions, I hope he will not hesitate to contact me and I will see if there is anything I can do to assist.
It is unarguable that the effect of imposing quarantine on travellers to France will be significantly to reduce the numbers of those wanting to travel. With that in mind, does my hon. Friend agree that the imposition of Operation Brock on the M20 in Kent, which is designed to cope with long queues at Dover or the tunnel, was a trifle premature, and that Operation Brock should therefore be removed as soon as is humanly possible?
I thank my right hon. Friend for raising that question. I know that it matters a great deal to his constituents and that he has been a leading voice in campaigning on it. I recognise the disruption to his constituents. At the weekend, the Kent Resilience Forum put in place the moveable barrier between junctions 8 and 9 of the M20 that enables Operation Brock to be implemented. That is a precautionary decision by the KRF in advance of the summer holidays. The KRF will keep the decision under review and will deploy Operation Brock for as short a period as possible. I entirely recognise the strength of feeling on this matter. I know that the Minister for Kent will be arranging a meeting between the KRF, my right hon. Friend and other interested MPs as soon as possible.
Constituents attempting to return from abroad have contacted me in desperation because official Government advice is not to take a PCR test if they have had covid-19 in the last 90 days, yet testing is a requirement both to return to the country and as part of the test and release scheme. Can the Minister offer some much needed clarity for my constituents and say how testing requirements for people returning to the UK apply to those who have recently had a positive PCR test abroad?
The guidance on testing is laid out on the Government website. I know there has been a change as of today, which is worth bearing in mind. I am happy to write to the hon. Member to give her that precise clarity so that she can pass that on to her constituents and indeed to others who may need to refer to it.
I am looking forward to my holiday in the English countryside this summer—and may I invite my SNP colleagues to join me in enjoying the beautiful English countryside? For those who would like to journey abroad, will my hon. Friend provide greater clarification on how his Department will examine the travel corridors and on his further commitment to the aviation sector in the months to come?
The aviation sector is vital to hon. and right hon. Members across the House for the connectivity and employment that it brings and for our place in the world. The Government are committed to continuing to review the measures we have in place and to building a restart of international travel that protects public health and is safe, robust and sustainable. To that end, we review the country allocation regularly, and there are checkpoints at the end of July and in October when we will review the overall policy. I of course commit to keeping that under review.
It feels a little like groundhog day: I stand before the Minister to ask for sector-specific support for aviation and he reels off figures that bear no relation to the reality of what aviation workers and the sector actually need. UK airports, compared with those in other countries, have had an absolute pittance from the Government. Will there be specific support for aviation to get it through a second summer of reduced travel, before it is too late?
I recognise how important this is to the hon. Member, to her constituency and to her constituents who are employed in the sector, and I recognise that this is a difficult time for the sector. As she knows—she recognises the figures—we have provided about £7 billion of support through the cross-economy schemes as well as the AGOSS scheme, to which I referred earlier. We will keep all those things under review. We are really trying to enable the sector to restart in a safe, sustainable way that protects public health. By doing that, we help Luton airport, the airlines that operate from it, and all her constituents.
Nearly seven in 10 British adults have now received two doses of the vaccine. Does my hon. Friend agree that we should use the long-term protections that the vaccines provide to restore some of the freedoms that we have lost in the past year, including the ability to travel abroad?
My hon. Friend is quite right that the vaccines have been a major national success story and we are looking at ways to capitalise on that to restore freedom and the ability to travel. Of course, the measures that come into effect today are a major part of that. We will continue to examine ways in which we can take the next step.
The Association of Independent Tour Operators says that the changes to travel to France have “squashed” consumer confidence. Of course the SNP upholds the rule that public health must come first, but the continued tumult of international restrictions and rules will deny the travel sector a full recovery any time soon. Businesses such as Travel Your World in Forfar in my Angus constituency desperately need dedicated support, so will the Minister finally accept that and commit to new financial support for the travel sector for as long as this international chaos persists?
I am grateful to the hon. Member for raising that point. I recognise that these are challenging times for his constituents who work in the sector. I am also grateful for his acknowledgment that he supports the principle, as the Scottish Government have done; I think that people would expect us always to protect public health, and I know that he accepts that. As I have said to other right hon. and hon. Members, we are very keen to make sure that we restart international travel in a way that is sustainable and robust and protects public health. That is the way to assist his and all our constituents in the travel sector, wherever we are in the UK.
I am pleased that Teesside holidaymakers who choose to fly to amber list countries can do so from Teesside International airport once again, but may I ask the Minister to reconsider the position of Dubai on the red list? The United Arab Emirates has vaccinated approximately 82% of its population and is home to hundreds of thousands of British expats who just want to come home.
I pay tribute to Teesside International airport for the expansion in services there; it is very good to see, and I hope to see very much more of it in the weeks and months ahead. My hon. Friend will be pleased to know that we keep the categorisation of all countries under constant review. We are guided by the data provided and the advice given by the Joint Biosecurity Centre for Ministers to make the decisions, and we will continue to review those at all times.
July and August are crucial months for airports, but the modest uplift in travel expected this year means that airports such as Newcastle International will continue to face an extremely challenging financial outlook for some time. Can the Minister confirm when we will see a more targeted comprehensive support package for the sector, as well as further help such as the harmonisation of quarantine rules for UK nationals vaccinated abroad and action to bring down the high cost of testing?
The hon. Member raises a number of points; I will do my best to address them all quickly. She has spoken very compellingly in debates that I have attended about the importance of Newcastle International airport to her constituents and the jobs that are provided. We are continuing to take steps to see what we can do to reduce the cost of testing; she will have noticed that it has been coming down over recent weeks. We will continue to do anything we can to support the sector as we look forward to a successful restart.
I, too, woke on Saturday morning to lots of concerned residents who were upset about the change in self-isolation rules for people coming back from France. Can my hon. Friend reassure me by answering two particular questions?
First, why did the Government move so quickly to change those rules? I think that that message really needs to be key. Secondly, why was France singled out when beta prevalence is seen in many European countries and it is seen by many to be quite low in France?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. I am conscious that the Minister for Covid Vaccine Deployment will shortly make a statement and may be able to assist further with my hon. Friend’s specific points on data, but he is absolutely right to raise those questions. As I know he will understand, the reason for speed is that, as we have always said, sometimes we just have to act quickly to protect public health. Unfortunately, one thing that we have always found with the pandemic is that things move quickly and sometimes we have to take quick action. We have always said that we will, and I think it is right that we do.
The restrictive list of green countries, the expense of numerous tests, the changeability of rules, the severe quarantine arrangements and the refusal to give mutual recognition to vaccine certificates from other countries have discouraged UK citizens from travelling abroad and have stopped much of the inward tourism that generates so much money for our economy. First, will the Minister consider increasing the list of green countries, given the vaccination programmes in some of the countries that tourists would go to? Secondly, will he grant mutual recognition to vaccine certificates issued in other countries, so that tourists from other countries can come here?
Those are two very important points. I would very much like to see more countries on the green list, but we have to be guided by the advice that is sent by the Joint Biosecurity Centre. A number of different factors are taken into account, and they are listed on the website. They include vaccination, prevalence and the presence or otherwise of variants of concern. This has to be data-led, as I know the right hon. Gentleman will understand, but of course we would like to see more countries on the green list as soon as possible. With regard to the mutual recognition of vaccines offered elsewhere, we have said that this is a phased restart. Today, we are allowing those who have been double-vaccinated in this country to travel abroad and then come back without having to self-isolate, and that is a step. We are also looking to see what we can do to offer the same recognition to those from abroad. I cannot tell the right hon. Gentleman any more at the moment, but I hope to be able to come back to the House to do so in due course.
On freedom day, it is very good news that we can now travel to amber-list countries without restriction. In fact, for someone who is double-vaccinated, they can almost be treated as green countries. However, people can travel to these countries only if the Foreign Office advice says that they are safe to travel to. Could the excellent Minister confirm that the travel advice from the Foreign Office has changed, as well as the advice from the Transport Department?
My hon. Friend puts his finger on a very important point, which it is right to clarify. The advice that we in the Department for Transport give is around the risk of importing a variant or prevalence of the virus back into this country. The Foreign Office, in giving its travel advice, is dealing with the situation that exists in the other country. It has to take into account a number of other factors, such as political stability and the state of the healthcare system in the other country, so it is essentially looking at different things. We are dealing with the risk of incoming; it is dealing with the risks, and the advice to be given to British citizens, in the other country. The Foreign Office will always have the ability to do that.
As covid cases in England go through the roof, 1,200 scientists have backed a letter to The Lancet saying that it is completely reckless for this Government to lift all restrictions today. International experts are saying that England as an international travel hub is now a risk to the rest of the world. The reality is that the Minister’s traffic light system is going to be meaningless as more countries such as Bulgaria put the UK on their red list, so when are the Government going to provide real support for the travel industry, rather than continuing to cause chaos and uncertainty?
I am afraid that I cannot agree with the hon. Gentleman. I simply do not agree that the system leads to uncertainty. It is a robust system, and we have explained in detail how it is put together to enable the industry and our constituents to have an understanding of the system. We will obviously keep it under review, but I think that when the hon. Gentleman looks at the systems that are in place across the world, he will see that ours is actually quite advanced.
I have listened carefully to my hon. Friend and he is absolutely right to put public health first, but he also has to recognise that public confidence in going abroad is now in a ditch. The travel agent industry is on its knees now, and it is on its last knees. My hon. Friend is responsible in the Department for setting the amber-list countries, and he has made the decision on France. If he cannot say when that decision will come to an end and stay like that, which I know he cannot, can I urge him to follow up on this matter? I have written to the Chancellor and to the Secretary of State for Transport to say the travel agent industry needs—in fact, must have—new grants applied to it because it cannot survive. Minister, it cannot survive. It employs thousands of people and produces a huge amount of taxation revenue for this country, but it will not survive. It needs that support, Minister.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for having drawn that to the House’s attention. We will all have seen in our constituencies the critical importance of the travel agency sector, including the employment it brings and the way it opens up the world to all our constituents. We will of course continue to talk to the sector and to all our colleagues across Government in order to understand the way in which the sector may be best supported, but I emphasise the point that I have made today that getting people travelling again in a way that commands public confidence by protecting public health is the way in which we will help all parts of the travel sector.
In April, the rate in Britain was very low and the rate in southern Asia was very high, yet there were no restrictions on people coming from southern Asia, leading to the Johnson variant taking hold here. Now the rate in Britain is very high but we are preventing people from travelling to other countries where the rate is much lower, so there is chaos; people are uncertain about what is happening. Simultaneously, we read in The Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail that Conservative MPs are turning off the app so that they do not get pinged and are able to go away on their holidays. Does all this not just add to the sense that we have a Government who are not in control and have different rules for the people from those that they are willing to follow?
Travellers from the US and Canada, which have lower covid rates than the UK, can now travel to Europe but they cannot travel to the UK. I heard what the Minister said about the recognition of vaccines. May I urge him to move as quickly as possible on that? Is it not time to stop talking about green or amber countries and to start talking about green or amber travellers?
My hon. Friend puts his finger on a really important point: understanding the importance of vaccines and what that can tell us. There are a number of aspects on which we need to fully understand the science—for example, on the transmissibility of the virus if someone is vaccinated and the effect on different variants. We are working at great speed but doing the work diligently to make sure that we can take full advantage of the success of our vaccine roll-out and protect public health at the same time.
Is there anything that the Government can do to help families who have a young adult who is currently 17, but who turns 18 during the holiday season? They cannot be vaccinated and, if they can, they cannot have both, and yet they can perhaps travel away but they cannot come back if they have turned 18 in the meantime. Is there any way we can relax the rule, perhaps to apply it from September, so that families can have a holiday together?
The rules as they apply are laid out in detail online and all families can look at those and understand them. I am very happy to consider that suggestion and any others that right hon. and hon. Members may have to refine the system, and I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that point.
It is worrying that the Minister fails even to allow for the prospect that it is entirely possible that much of the world may follow Bulgaria and place travel from the UK on a red list. If that were to happen, what comfort can the Minister offer to the UK travel sector? Does he not recognise that now is the time for additional support for that beleaguered sector, as travel disruption looks set to continue for the foreseeable future?
It is difficult for me to comment on the steps that other countries may have taken or may take in future, because they all have differing systems. We continue to talk to all our international partners, both in multilateral and bilateral forums, to understand how best we can enable travel between us, for all the reasons that we have discussed in the House today.
I welcome my hon. Friend’s work on the reopening of international travel while Opposition Members support a complete shutdown. It has been possible thanks only to the success of our historic vaccine roll-out, but while we see the country opening up further today, travel companies in my constituency still have some very rough months ahead, even were travel to be completely unencumbered. They have found themselves low down the grant priority list after 16 months of just refunding customers. Where the Government confiscate, the Government must compensate. Will he therefore add his weight to calls on the Chancellor for ongoing sector-specific support?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that question. Again, he is right to draw attention to the travel agencies in his constituency, which are, of course, having a very challenging time. I entirely recognise the difficulties that they have. As I have said to other hon. Members, the best way we can help all these sectors is by having the vaccine, rolling out the vaccination programme as we have been doing, and then ensuring that we can restart international travel in a way that protects public health.
When travelling through the channel tunnel or by air, circulating in their respective terminals, people are not just in public places but in workplaces. In the light of soaring infection rates, will the Minister ensure that all measures under the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974 and the Employment Rights Act 1996 are taken to protect our transport workers, including public health measures such as wearing a mask and social distancing, to stop the transmission of covid-19?
A number of different points were raised in the hon. Lady’s question. All employers and all workplaces of course have to enforce the law as it stands; Parliament has legislated and that must be enforced, and there are authorities to do that. On covid-safe travel, a lot of detailed guidance has been made available and I would expect everybody to continue to follow it, to keep everybody safe, as indeed they very much are doing. Some travel providers may decide to take steps in addition, such as making a mask a condition of carriage or of entry. I am confident that those assessments that each travel provider undertakes on their premises or in their transport means will enable everybody to travel and to remain safe while they travel.
I very much welcome the fact that fully vaccinated people can now travel to amber countries without having to quarantine on return, but I am disappointed with the change in the situation with France and, in effect, the creation of a new “orange-red” category. It is right that the Government act quickly, and it would have been a disaster if France had become a red country, but new variants are going to keep on coming—that is inevitable—and what the sector, families and travellers need is certainty and predictability. Will my hon. Friend assure me that at the next review certainty and predictability particularly will be looked into, and that the traffic light system will remain a three-pronged one, rather than covering all colours of the rainbow?
I am keen to reassure my hon. Friend that the system we have laid out in the Global Travel Taskforce report—the red, amber, green system—remains in place. A precautionary measure has been taken, for the reasons explained, with regard to France. I agree with him that certainty is what we would like to provide—we aim to do that through the system that we have. One difficulty, of course, is that if a situation develops in another country with regard to a variant or increased prevalence, we have to react to that, and it is right that we do so. In answer to his question as to whether these matters will be kept under review as we continue to consider policy, I can tell him that they will, of course.
Infection rates are at their highest since January, and the Health Secretary has said that he expects a spike following the relaxation of regulations today. So how can it be responsible of the Government not to require people to wear masks on transport? People spend long periods next to one another on planes, trains, the undergrounds and buses, so how can it be responsible not to require people to wear masks in those environments?
There are two parts to the answer to that question. I believe the hon. Gentleman is referring to the broad range of transport, rather than simply international maritime or aviation—he refers to domestic travel as well. The Government are seeking to ask people to exercise their own judgment and responsibility, which is a situation we do have to get back to. However, we have made it clear that in some circumstances we would expect masks still to be warn, and some travel providers have also made that stipulation. If that is the case, it is right that people follow it. The reason for that is that there are very different circumstances between a crowded tube train and a rural train late at night that has only one person on it. There are different circumstances and we are seeking to make allowances for those.
I want to touch further on points raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough (Mr Bone). Recently, I visited Blue Bay Travel, a business based in my constituency, and people there particularly highlighted the mismatch that is causing issues between the traffic light advice for some countries, which would allow people to come back into the UK, and Foreign Office travel advice, which prevents them from leaving in the first place. Will the Minister please look at what more can be done to better join up this advice, to make it easier for travel businesses and for those wishing to travel abroad?
I am very happy to assure my hon. Friend that I, like the Department for Transport more broadly, will continue to talk to our colleagues across government to see what more can be done. I have to point out again that the two issues are dealing with different aspects—almost two sides of the same problem. We are dealing with the risk of importing the virus, or variants of it, into this country. The Foreign Office is seeking to give advice to British citizens when they travel abroad; although we will obviously continue to talk to each other, they are dealing with fundamentally different things.
There is already confusion over recent international travel announcements as well as an increase in the rates of covid. We all know that masks cut the risk of getting covid and passing it on to others, so leaving face coverings to personal responsibility is just a recipe for further confusion, conflict, chaos and, of course, more covid. It also leaves 3.5 million clinically vulnerable people frightened to travel. Should not wearing a mask just be compulsory on all modes of transport?
It is right that we allow transport providers to assess the situation on their own mode of transport and to make that a condition of carriage if required. Moreover, it is also right that we trust people to take the right decision for themselves and for those around them.
It is great that international travel is now happening again, and I am absolutely clear that we must continue to do all we can for our aviation, travel, leisure and hospitality sectors. May I please draw the Minister’s attention to the high cost of covid testing? Our families returning from holidays are forking out lots of money for this, so may I ask him to consider the uniformity of the policy and also to get the costs down, please?
My hon. Friend raises a critically important point. We are working with industry and across Government to see how we can help with the cost of testing; the Government are aware of it. We seek to enable that information to be made available to consumers on the website, which shows the different providers, but he will have noticed that the cost of testing has been coming down over the past few weeks and months, and I am confident that, as we see more travel in a safe, sustainable way, the cost will come down even further.
The Minister did not answer the question on support for the aviation sector and associated sectors, such as the travel industry and hospitality posed by my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Gavin Newlands), so, here we go again. Has his Department lobbied the Treasury for additional funds to support jobs in these sectors, and, if so, what was the answer?
The hon. Lady will be aware that we estimate that the aviation sector itself will have benefited from approximately £7 billion-worth of support by September, as well as the other sectors, which have benefited from the cross-economy support schemes that the Government have put in place. The best way that we can assist all of those sectors is to unwrap international travel as soon as we can while protecting public health, because that is the best way to help them.
Almost 70% of Ashfield residents have been double jabbed. Although that has given us back our domestic freedoms, does the Minister agree that another freedom that we need to get back is foreign travel, which will give our aviation industry a much-needed boost?
I am very keen to see foreign travel resume, because of the immense benefits that it brings to this country in individuals’ life experience, the jobs that it brings in, the money that comes into the Treasury, the families who need to be connected, and the businesses who rely on international travel. I am very keen to see all of that increase as much as we can. However, we must do so in a way that reassures the public that we are protecting public health.
The Minister’s regulations require people wanting to travel abroad to have PCR tests. When will the Government publish an up-to-date and accurate list of suitable, recommended PCR test providers for travellers, and what will he do to protect travellers from those companies that charge a lot and then do not deliver timely results, thus ruining travel plans for families at the last minute?
The Department of Health and Social Care continually reviews the list of providers. It has a rolling programme, and it takes action if providers are not delivering what they have promised.
Travel to the US is very important for businesses headquartered in my constituency. Several own major US subsidiaries, which they cannot adequately oversee—they cannot tour a factory, for instance, by Zoom—and many have major US investors whom they cannot update. Can the Minister assure me that he is doing everything he can to get a travel corridor in place with the US—I know that we have the taskforce—because it is essential that we can have travel going in that direction?
My hon. Friend gives a perfect example of the importance of travel: there are certain things we cannot do over Zoom and she is quite right to draw attention to that. Transatlantic travel is hugely important to the United States and to the United Kingdom for many reasons, and has obviously been greatly affected by the pandemic, which has kept families apart and made trade difficult. We want to restore travel with our closest ally as soon as we possibly can. My hon. Friend will know that the Prime Minister and President Biden made clear the importance of bringing about the return of safe travel as soon as possible, which is why the joint UK-US experts’ working group to which she referred has been formed, and work is well under way to deliver that goal as soon as possible.
Significant concerns about conditions for people who return to the UK and in the quarantine hotels have been expressed by Members of this House and by the directors of public health for the local authorities around Heathrow airport. One cannot book a flight until the quarantine hotel is booked. My constituent had to wait for more than a week to receive vital HIV medication while he was waiting to enter the UK and then again while in the quarantine hotel. He contacted me and we were fobbed off by being told: “The hotels have on-site doctors”. He needed a specialist doctor to prescribe his essential medication, which he had to wait too long to receive. That is unacceptable and I worry how many other people’s lives and health are being put at risk due to such delays and the poor management of the quarantine hotels and arrival system. What steps is the Minister taking to prevent this from happening to others who arrive in the UK?
I am concerned to hear about the case raised by the hon. Member. If she would like to share it with me in writing, I will ensure that that complaint is sent to the right place and addressed. I am happy to take action on that individual case. More broadly, we of course continue, across Government, to ensure that the policies we have in place are not only accurate and required but carried out to the satisfaction of all involved. Circumstances have obviously been fast-moving. We are all committed to making sure that the policy is delivered and that quarantine hotels are managed appropriately.
I am sorry to say that the further restrictions for France stretch both the credibility of the system and the patience of the travel industry. The whole industry—from regional airports, including Exeter airport, to travel agents in places such as Sidmouth—continues to watch as its reserves are dried up, Government support is reduced and its ability to trade is hampered to an extent beyond that of any other industry. Will my hon. Friend look again at bespoke support for the travel and aviation industry, to avoid further job losses affecting hundreds of thousands of people?