House of Commons
Thursday 23 September 2021
The House met at half-past Nine o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and Minister for the Cabinet Office was asked—
Mandatory Vaccine Passports
And I congratulate you, Mr Speaker, on a magnificent display in Chorley over the last week. I think that if there were to be an election there, the majority would be in six figures following such a splendid occasion. Chorley turned out for it.
The Cabinet Office conducted a review of covid status certification, which found that its use would have a public health benefit, on the basis of evidence gathered from bodies such as the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies and from the events research programme. Analysis of the ERP conducted by Public Health England found that certification should reduce the likelihood of someone transmitting highly infectious amounts of virus to large numbers of attendees. The autumn and winter plan published this month set out the Government’s position, which is that we will keep mandatory certification in reserve in case it is required to help prevent unsustainable pressure on the NHS and to enable venues to remain open more safely.
I welcome the Minister’s very full answer, and I welcome him to the Dispatch Box. It was always a pleasure to work with him in his previous role, and I hope it will be a pleasure to work with him in this one as well.
The Government have had no fewer than 13 different positions in relation to vaccine passports. They have said “yes” three times, “no” four times, and “maybe” or “we are having a review” six times. Rather than just asserting that the evidence is there, will the Minister commit himself to publishing it? If he is ever going to take his own Back Benchers with him, let alone the general public, the case will have to be made, and the Government have not made it yet—and, incidentally, are we going to get a vote before vaccine passports are introduced?
We have published brief summaries of the evidence in the autumn and winter plan, which is publicly available on gov.uk. As I said earlier, we are keeping vaccine certification in reserve in case it is required to help prevent pressure on the NHS. We hope that it will be unnecessary, but the responsible thing to do is prepare for all eventualities.
I welcome the new ministerial team, and look forward to working with them constructively in the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee. I am sure that they share that enthusiasm ahead of any forthcoming appearances.
May I reiterate to my right hon. Friend—whom I congratulate on his appointment—that vaccine certification is useless now and will no doubt be useless then? We have fresh pairs of eyes in the Department, and fresh perspectives. Can we please just bin it now?
I thank my hon. Friend for his supportive tone! What I can say to him is that in the light of the growing voluntary uptake of certification and the latest data on the state of the epidemic, we do not expect mandatory certification to be needed from the end of September.
In his evaluation, has the Minister looked at the experience of a number of European countries where this is happening and British holidaymakers and visitors are using the system without any detriment? Has he looked at the views of Scotland and Wales, which are introducing certificates? Can he assure the House of his view that in the event of its looking as though this may be necessary, it must be better to have vaccine passes than once again locking down the hospitality, entertainment and leisure industries, given the impact not only on customers but on hundreds of thousands of jobs?
The right hon. Gentleman makes a fair point. I can tell him that we do look at how the system is operated elsewhere. We work closely with the devolved Administrations, because there must be a four-nations approach to this. Incidentally, residents of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland can demonstrate vaccination status via a letter that can be requested from the NHS.
Policy Decisions: Use of Data
The national data strategy sets out a vision to transform the Government’s use of data. The declaration on government reform, published in June, further committed to data being central to decision making, and the new Central Digital and Data Office is implementing common data standards and data-sharing frameworks to underpin better use of data in policy making.
The pandemic has demonstrated how comparable data in the NHS can help to improve policy decisions and, ultimately, patient outcomes. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the Health and Care Bill needs to help facilitate UK-wide comparable and interoperable data?
My hon. Friend brings a welcome clinical focus, and he is absolutely right on the importance of data and interoperability. He will know that the data strategy for health and social care—Data Saves Lives—along with the Health and Care Bill, which he mentioned, seeks to improve data sharing across the health system for the reasons that he rightly highlights.
We know that one policy decision that the UK Government have taken, albeit an unsustainable and undemocratic one, is that Scotland should not have a say in its constitutional future. We also know that, for example, the UK Government are spending huge amounts of taxpayers’ money on research into public attitudes towards the Union. If the UK Government have taken the decision not to have a referendum, we know that it is because the polling suggests that support for independence is up. Why will the Minister not publish that polling information and be honest with the public?
I would have thought that, when talking about data, we would have been talking about the fiscal support that has been offered to Scotland, about the way in which the Scottish Government’s powers have not been used and about how we can get better delivery from the Scottish Government in areas such as education and drugs policy, where the data are absolutely chronic at the moment. I would hope that the Scottish Government will welcome the data strategy, as it will ensure that policy making is informed by good quality data and focused on good outcomes.
Office for Veterans’ Affairs
This Government have taken practical measures to support veterans, including veterans rail cards, guaranteed interviews in the civil service for veteran applicants and national insurance holidays for those employing veterans. This year we have put in a cash boost to the armed forces charitable sector and NHS Operation Courage, showing that we are determined that this country be the best in the world in which to be a veteran.
Recent events in Afghanistan are yet another reminder of veterans’ dedication and sacrifice, and I think the whole House will recognise the support that they need after serving their country. Will the Minister set out the steps he is taking to help veterans, particularly those who suffer from substance and alcohol misuse?
I agree entirely, and we must put on record our thanks to all those involved in the two decades of operational activity in Afghanistan. I thank my hon. Friend for the support she is giving to veterans in her constituency. We are putting an additional £5 million into armed forces charities, bringing that support to more than £25 million this year, and an additional £2.7 million into Operation Courage, bringing that total support to £20 million this year.[Official Report, 19 October 2021, Vol. 701, c. 3MC.] But this is about more than just money; it is about ensuring that veterans themselves are at the heart of that care, and in Op Courage, as peer support workers, they certainly are.
It is about more than just money, as the Minister has just said, and that support is absolutely crucial for veterans all the time, but particularly at this moment as we come out of the pandemic. Research by the charity SSAFA has found that 77% of the veterans it works with felt that they were not fully prepared for civilian life. This is clearly an area in which we need to do more work, so can he set out precisely what the Ministry of Defence is doing in working with charities such as SSAFA to prepare veterans for civilian life?
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to say that the transition is critical, and we want to see a through-career preparation for leaving the armed forces. That is something that we are resolutely focused on in our veterans strategy, which I will be publishing later this year.
Is the Minister aware that veterans are disproportionately likely to be homeless? Will he undertake to work with the new Secretary of State for Housing to ensure that veterans have every opportunity to get service plots of land to bring forward schemes of their own, as has already been successfully demonstrated in Plymouth?
I agree entirely with my hon. Friend, and I am grateful to him for the work that he has done in this area. I think the notion of self-build will appeal to a great many veterans, and I hope that we can continue to work together to ensure that this is a central part of the veteran strategy later this year.
I think the Veterans Minister for all that he does for our veterans. It is much appreciated. What steps have been taken to ensure that mental health support is available for veterans who have been further isolated during covid-19, who have suffered in silence, and who need available intervention and not just waiting lists?
We have tried to innovate during the covid pandemic by engaging online, but the bottom line is that, given the uptick, we are having to re-energise our engagement with veterans. That is why we are putting in this cash boost so that more people at the coalface can do this kind of supportive work.
I have been reading the Select Committee’s report with great interest. The MOD is compiling its formal response, and I give my hon. Friend my personal assurance that we take these issues seriously across a whole range of considerations, including uniform and sanitary product provision. We are determined to get this right. We have opened up every single role across the military to women, but that will not be sufficient unless there is a culture of support.
Constituents have contacted me recently, and I wrote to the Office for Veterans’ Affairs about one of them on 3 August and am still awaiting a reply. What steps is the Office for Veterans’ Affairs specifically taking to make sure that veterans facing obstacles to accessing services are fully and appropriately supported?
Civil Service Apprenticeships
The civil service published its apprenticeship strategy on 29 April 2021, and in this strategy we focus not just on the numbers but on the quality of training on offer to ensure that Departments are better equipped to nurture talent in-house and to plug skill and capability gaps.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his appointment. It is important to the Government that we build back better from the pandemic, which means opening up the civil service to fresh ideas, often through apprenticeships, and fresh skills. How will the new declaration on government reform achieve exactly that?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and the declaration particularly focuses on new entry routes for professionals from outside Government, encourages new entrants with specific high-demand skills, particularly scientists, and develops a pipeline of secondments into and out of the civil service, very much addressing the point he rightly highlights.
Voter ID Requirements: Turnout and Enfranchisement
Mr Speaker, I add my congratulations about Chorley. I look forward to seeing your cameo appearance on “Coronation Street”, perhaps with Speaker Pelosi.
Following his appointment, the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities is now responsible for this policy. As I think the hon. Member for East Renfrewshire (Kirsten Oswald) knows, in Northern Ireland there has been a requirement for photographic identification at polling stations since 2003, and it operates with ease and is a proven and effective way of tackling fraud. It has improved voter confidence in Northern Ireland, and everyone who is eligible to vote will continue to have the opportunity to do so.
According to the Electoral Reform Society, around 2.1 million people risk not being able to vote in a general election due to not having recognisable photo ID. The Government’s own data shows that significantly fewer people from black and minority ethnic communities are likely to have photo ID. Similarly, it is likely to be a disproportionate barrier for other minority and marginalised groups, including disabled people and homeless people.
The Paymaster General says his intention is to reduce voter fraud, but in 2019 there was just one conviction in the UK for voter impersonation. Does he not see that needlessly dampening participation in democratic processes by already excluded groups, and at significant cost to the taxpayer, will simply shut down the voices that we should most hear?
I am happy to offer the hon. Lady some reassurance. Ninety-eight per cent. of the electorate already own an accepted form of photographic identification, including 99% of black, Asian and minority ethnic electors and 99% of young electors aged 18 to 29. The Electoral Commission’s survey on this matter offers reassurance because the majority of the public say that a requirement to show identification when voting at polling stations would make them more confident, and 66% of people want more confidence in the security of the system. She really ought to read the 2015 Tower Hamlets election court judgment, where she will see the nature of the problem at hand.
I strongly support what the Paymaster General has said, and I welcome the team to their positions.
When I had responsibility for these matters, I visited and spoke to the electoral officials in Northern Ireland, which has had this system for 18 years and where it works perfectly well. People in Northern Ireland are perfectly capable of using it, and I have no doubt that it will be a great success when we roll it out in the rest of the United Kingdom. Frankly, these scare stories are more likely to depress voter turnout than the introduction of voter ID.
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right, as usual. Any eligible voter who does not have one of the required forms of ID—and there are very few of them—would be able to apply for a free local voter card from their local authority. As he says, this has been working extremely well in Northern Ireland, which in fact has had an ID requirement since 1985—it is the photographic ID requirement it has had since 2003. So the hon. Member for East Renfrewshire (Kirsten Oswald) is perpetuating scare stories here.
Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that we detect more than a whiff of hypocrisy from Opposition parties, which oppose voter ID but would ask their own members to show ID to attend a meeting to discuss the issue itself?
My hon. Friend makes a good point. I understand that the Labour party does make those requirements, not that I have attended Labour conferences of course. May I offer the further reassurance that a wide range of countries, including most European countries, require some form of ID? Canada, France, Germany, Austria, the Netherlands, Switzerland and Norway do. So I have to say that the hon. Member for East Renfrewshire ought to refrain from these repeated scare tactics, which may have a deleterious effect on voter turnout.
European countries that do require voter ID often have national ID cards, and if that is the Government’s intention, they should be a little more straightforward about it.
My question to the Minister is specifically about the human rights aspects of this. The Elections Public Bill Committee has been warned that this policy may be in breach of human rights. It quizzed Gavin Millar QC, who said that there will
“inevitably be challenges to this as incompatible with the European convention on human rights”.––[Official Report, Elections Public Bill Committee, 16 September 2021; c. 109, Q165.]
I draw the Minister’s attention to article 1, protocol 1. What legal advice have the Government had that makes them so sure that this policy is not in contravention of our human rights laws?
Of course we do not discuss legal advice, but what I can say is that people also have a human right not to have their votes stolen. In 2019, the Electoral Commission found nearly 600 allegations of electoral fraud. They had to be investigated by the police, and 142 of them were related to alleged voting offences. So this is a problem, and it needs to be dealt with. This was a Government manifesto commitment and we intend to follow through.
My question was specifically about how this legislation is compatible with human rights laws, so may I invite the Minister to publish the legal advice his Government will have received in the Library of the House of Commons, so that all Members, especially those on the Bill Committee, which is currently sitting, can be confident that this legislation is not in breach of human rights law?
I am very grateful to the hon. Lady for her repeated question, but she well knows that successive Governments, from both sides of the House, do not publish legal advice, and there is a good reason for that. But she can be assured that this Government are very focused on protecting the human rights of all, and that includes those who have been subject to personation, where their votes have been taken by someone else. That is also a human right that we seek to protect, and we will continue to do so.
Some 90% of the public think that polling station voting is safe from fraud and abuse, and they are right to think that. Personation, which is the only problem the voter ID provisions of the Elections Bill are designed to address, resulted in a single conviction in 2016, 2017 and 2019, and zero convictions in 2018. Given that up to 3.5 million people may not have suitable ID and that the Government’s pilots confirmed that up to 324,000 people would be denied a vote in a Great Britain election, let me ask the simple question: why are this Government prepared to embark on voter suppression on an industrial scale?
I am surprised by the right hon. Gentleman, because it is not just a question of convictions: attempts to commit crimes are also wrongs. We have to focus on reducing the criminality in this area. It is also about voters having confidence that they are not going to be subject to personation and confidence to go and vote because they know there is no interference in the voting system. Some 66%—two thirds and more—of those questioned said that they would like to see increased security around voting. In this day and age, that is increasingly important, and the right hon. Gentleman ought to recognise that, too.
On the matter of confidence, the House of Commons Library has rather helpfully told us that half the public think there is inadequate regulation of political party spending and that only 14% think there is transparency around it. The Paymaster General knows perfectly well that there have been concerns about the influence of dark money in the UK electoral system for many years. Why could it be that this Government are planning to suppress the right of ordinary people to vote rather than tackle the real problem of dark money buying influence in the democratic process?
These bold assertions have no basis in evidence or reality and have a tendency to do exactly what the right hon. Gentleman claims to seek to avoid, which is to suppress votes. He wishes to focus on a lack of regulation in respect of voting confidence. We seek—our manifesto commitment on this has been, and will continue to be, followed through on—to protect the voting system, and we do that in the same way as has happened in all the countries I have mentioned: by increasing confidence in the system.
Fire and Rehire
Public sector bodies and employers are responsible for the management of their respective workforces. The Government have made it clear to all employers, and I wish to do so again now—including to those in the public sector—that the use of threats to fire and rehire people to pressure workers during negotiations is unacceptable.
I thank the Paymaster General for his response, but given the increasing prevalence of outsourcing throughout the public sector, where we have seen the creation of a two-tier workforce and a race to the bottom on pay and conditions, does he agree that no company that is found to be using fire and rehire tactics against its workers should be awarded public contracts or be allowed to take over public services in future?
I challenge the premise of the hon. Lady’s question. The UK has the best employment rights in the world. This Government have banned the exclusivity clauses in zero-hours contracts, and we introduced the national living wage in 2016 and the right to a day-one statement of rights for all workers in 2020. This Government—this party—are protecting the rights of workers and have established some of the best employment rights in the whole world.
Nevertheless, the point that the hon. Lady makes is recognised, and we have asked the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service to look into the matter. We want to ensure that there is clearer guidance to help employers to explore all the options before they consider what one or two have been doing in respect of the fire and rehire policy. We are interested in maintaining and encouraging good employment relations. I cannot be clearer than what I have already said, which is that we think it is unacceptable to pressure workers in such a way during negotiations.
I thank the Paymaster General for his response, but during the pandemic I was contacted by many constituents in Vauxhall who were subject to this practice—constituents who had worked for many years for the likes of British Airways and British Gas; constituents whose lives were turned upside-down by the threat that they would lose their jobs. The Paymaster General said that he will put pressure on the organisations involved, but the pressure is not working, so will he give his full support to the private Member’s Bill that has its Second Reading on 22 October and would ban fire and rehire once and for all?
I am aware of the private Member’s Bill to which the hon. Lady referred. At this stage, I will say that the Government will respond to that Bill as it passes through Parliament. As I say, we have been clear that fire and rehire should not be used in the way the hon. Lady describes, or as a negotiating tactic, which is why we have asked ACAS to look carefully at the matter and to produce guidance. We will continue to keep the issue under review.
I have noticed the change in personnel on the Cabinet Office Front Bench and I would like to welcome all the Ministers to their place today. I also welcome the Prime Minister’s direction on fire and rehire, which is that he does not accept this bullying practice, but when will the Government take action on this? I accept the Minister’s response on ACAS, but this is just not good enough. If the Minister is committed to having good employment practices, what will he do to end this practice of fire and rehire? I reiterate that he can back the private Member’s Bill of my hon. Friend the Member for Brent North (Barry Gardiner), which will see the practice ended by this Parliament.
We are keeping the private Member’s Bill of the hon. Member for Brent North (Barry Gardiner) under review. I think the hon. Lady knows that, when it comes to protecting the rights of workers, this Government have been doing just that. I ask her to bear in mind the protected earnings for furloughed workers, the review into how employers can support victims of domestic violence in the workplace, and Jack’s law. There are myriad ways in which we have been protecting workers and their rights. We keep a laser-beam focus on that, and we will continue to do so.
Northern Ireland Protocol
As we set out in our July command paper, the protocol is not meeting its core objectives as it stands; it is causing considerable disruption to lives and livelihoods. That is why we need to find a new balance through significant changes to the Northern Ireland protocol and we are working intensively to that end.
Given that both the US and the EU have expressed serious concerns and reservations about the current practical arrangement regarding the Northern Ireland protocol, is the Minister not concerned about this protocol that his Prime Minister negotiated as part of his Brexit plan? The deal may have been oven ready, but did someone forget to turn the gas on?
We have tried to operate the protocol in good faith, but the problems are significant and they are growing. The hon. Lady should be concerned about the fact that the Northern Ireland Executive noted that, from January to March, about 20% of all of the European Union’s checks were being conducted in respect of Northern Ireland, even though Northern Ireland’s population is just 0.5% of the EU as a whole. It is unacceptable, and those are the sort of problems on which she ought to focus.
Government Contracts: Small Businesses
We are increasing opportunities for small and medium-sized enterprises in a variety of ways, from transparently publishing contract pipelines to simplifying the bidding process. Those measures are working. The latest procurement figures show that £15.5 billion was paid to SMEs to help deliver public services. That is the highest since records began in 2013 and a £1.3 billion increase on the previous year.
Dudley South has many fantastic firms doing innovative work, particularly in world-class advanced engineering, but, too often, the size of Government contracts mean that only a handful of multinationals are able to compete. Will my right hon. Friend do everything that he can to ensure that public procurement contracts are advertised in the smallest chunks possible so that Government and public services can take full advantage of the talents in our SMEs?
My hon. Friend raises a very legitimate point, and, in short, yes we will. To encourage the issue he highlights, we require public buyers to divide contracts into more accessible lots, or to explain why they cannot, so that tender requirements can be matched to smaller business specialisms. I know that he is a champion for Dudley South and that is exactly the sort of measure that will help businesses in his constituency.
Infected Blood Inquiry
The Government remain committed to fully supporting the infected blood inquiry. The inquiry maintained pace throughout lockdown, I am pleased to say, and it is making good progress. The hearings restarted this week. The inquiry will continue to hear evidence about blood services and pharmaceutical companies until the end of this year. I take this opportunity to thank the right hon. Lady because I know that she has been doing sterling work in this area, and I wish to commend her for that. Please allow me also to commend my predecessor as Paymaster General, my right hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth North (Penny Mordaunt), who also worked hard in this area.
I welcome the Minister to his new post. May I also join him in thanking the previous Paymaster General, the right hon. Member for Portsmouth North (Penny Mordaunt), for all that she did to ensure that the cause of those infected and affected by the contaminated blood scandal was at the heart of the work she carried out?
As the Paymaster General said, we are three years into the NHS infected blood inquiry, and at the start of the new review into compensation for those infected and affected. Will he say something, though, about what is happening to the bereaved partner payments that were announced in March, and about whether he is willing to look at the inconsistencies that still apply to bereaved partners and their families?
I am grateful to the right hon. Lady for her remarks, particularly about my predecessor. The previous Paymaster General announced in March this year changes to the four national financial support schemes to bring them into broader parity. That means increasing annual payments and lump sums where necessary to bring them up to the highest existing levels. The right hon. Lady knows better than anyone that there is an independent statutory inquiry, chaired by former High Court judge Sir Brian Langstaff. The issue of compensation is being looked at by Sir Robert Francis QC. I look forward to correspondence with her and hope to be able to go into more detail on the matter in due course.
The matter is currently under consideration. Sir Robert Francis QC is conducting a compensation study, which will consider options for a framework of compensation when the inquiry reports. I can say this: the public consultation on the terms of reference for that study has concluded; the terms of reference were signed off by me in the last couple of days; and they will be published later today in a written ministerial statement.
EU Withdrawal: Opportunities for UK Businesses
Our exit from the European Union has given us the freedom to conceive and implement rules that put UK businesses first. Only last week, the Government announced further reforms to reduce burdens on businesses, which I am sure the hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson) and her party will welcome, to help unleash innovation and propel economic growth across the whole United Kingdom. The Government’s action to seize the opportunities of Brexit is already having an impact, as she well knows. The International Monetary Fund is expecting the United Kingdom to see the fastest GDP growth in the G7 this year—something about which the entire House can be proud.
Back here on planet Earth, rather than a sea of opportunity we are drowning in Brexit despair, as the Scottish food and drink sector is sacrificed on the altar of this hard Tory Brexit, at a cost of £2 billion on pre-pandemic levels, with extensive trade barriers, extra red tape, labour shortages and damage to Brand Scotland. Industry figures are warning that they will not come close to making up the EU market losses. How do the UK Government plan to mitigate the damage that they have caused to Scotland’s economy?
Our exit from the European Union provides us with positives, although I know that the hon. Lady and her party wish to focus on negatives. The relentless negativity of the Scottish nationalists really is a wonder to behold. The fact of the matter is that the opportunity to think boldly about how we regulate gives us the freedom to conceive and implement rules that will put the United Kingdom—all constituent parts of the United Kingdom, including Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and England—first.
A major export business in my constituency is in the process of relocating to an EU member state, taking with it scores of highly skilled jobs. As a result of Brexit, it has faced massive delays for shipments and EU member states preventing their public authorities from procuring from it. The rest of its export market has been killed off because of shocking delays by the UK’s Export Control Joint Unit. Despite numerous correspondences and meetings with Ministers, I have not been able to get those delays reduced. Minister, here is the evidence from my constituency of Edinburgh South West, in Scotland. The UK Government are strangling thriving businesses in Scotland. What should I tell my constituents?
What the hon. and learned Lady ought to tell her constituents is that we have, thanks to global Britain, established a new points-based immigration system on migration, and we are replacing the common agricultural policy. She can tell them that we are taking back control of our territorial waters. She can tell them that we have been striking bilateral trade agreements with 60 countries so far, with more on the way. She can tell them all those things and they will then no doubt be voting Conservative.
I apologise that this is a rather detailed question, but a few businesses in my constituency are having issues with specifics on rules of origin. Will my right hon. and learned Friend update the House as to the willingness of the EU to sit down and iron out these anomalies?
The trade and co-operation agreement provides for zero tariffs and zero-quota trade with the EU while also allowing us to regulate in a way that suits the UK economy and our businesses without being bound by EU rules. The trade and co-operation agreement includes appropriate rules of origin, as my hon. Friend mentions, to support tariff-free trade across all sectors.
Levelling up is at the heart of the Government’s agenda. The landmark White Paper we will publish later this year will build on the actions we are already taking to improve livelihoods and opportunity across the UK. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities will be driving forward this agenda. I, and all my ministerial colleagues, look forward to working with him to deliver bold new policies that level up all parts of the UK.
I welcome the new Minister to his place. The Government are already taking great steps to level up Teesside, including our new freeport—the UK’s largest—and locating the northern economic campus there. Will he update us on the progress of the new campus and join me in encouraging Teessiders to apply for these highly rewarding civil service jobs?
My hon. Friend makes a very good point. That part of the country is really on fire at the moment. It is fantastic that so much is happening on Teesside. There are some brilliant local Members of Parliament assisted by a fantastic Mayor as well. I am pleased to say that the Darlington economic campus is up and running. Almost all Treasury roles are now being advertised as available in Darlington, and we are recruiting exclusively for Darlington-based Treasury roles. These are great jobs working on issues that really matter to our country. I hope to see a range of people from north-east England, and beyond, take up these opportunities.
The levelling-up fund is going to be vital for Rother Valley to increase our prosperity, and we have a bid outstanding at the moment for Maltby and Dinnington. Can the Minister confirm when we will hear back about the levelling-up fund bid, and tell us what other steps the Government are taking so that the whole of Rother Valley, not just Maltby and Dinnington, benefits from the Government’s levelling-up programme?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise Rother Valley’s bid in this regard. We are committed to levelling up across the whole of the UK. The idea is to ensure that no community is left behind. The £4.8 billion levelling-up fund will invest in infrastructure to improve everyday local life and boost growth and jobs. All areas of the UK are able to access the fund, and Rother Valley is exactly the sort of area that it is designed to support. Applications for the first round of the levelling-up fund closed on 18 June, and we expect that investment decisions will be made for this funding round in the autumn.
Infrastructure and regenerating our town centres is a really important part of levelling up, but so too is education, skills and work. Will my right hon. Friend therefore confirm that ahead of the Budget and the spending review at the end of October, the Cabinet Office is working across Government with the Department for Education, the Department for Work and Pensions and others to make sure that we leave no stone unturned in levelling up across the country?
Absolutely. The whole team—the Minister for the Cabinet Office and all my ministerial colleagues—are well placed to do exactly that, working across all Departments. Levelling up is at the heart of the Government’s agenda. My hon. Friend will not have missed the renaming of the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, and the former Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster will lead on that work. We are committed to levelling up across the UK to ensure that literally no community is left behind. We will publish a landmark White Paper later this year.
On 12 September, the world watched as 50,000 great north runners crossed the iconic Tyne bridge, whose peeling, faded, rusting and sad state exactly reflects the Government’s level of investment in the north-east. Just what is levelling up? How will the north-east know that we have been levelled?
I do not know why, but my application for the Great North Run seems to have been missed. Maybe next year we will have a crack at it. Levelling up is not a north-south thing, a one size fits all or just for some places; it is about disparities between and within regions. I talked about the north-east not two minutes ago. We are doing some incredible work in the north-east and looking to ensure that levelling up will benefit places that have seen economic decline and the loss of industry. That is exactly what it is meant to deliver.
I am sure that the Minister will share my concern about the York Central site. We have a great opportunity to level up York and see it as an economic and jobs gateway for the north, but instead, with the development of so many luxury homes, there is a risk of it sucking down into becoming a commuter belt for London. Will he ensure that public land is used for public good and that there is greater investment in jobs in York Central?
The hon. Lady is right to raise the York Central site, which I know well. We must ensure that the local authority works with the Government so that that site comes into use. It has massive potential. I really hope that City of York Council gets its act together and works with us, because it could be a stunning opportunity for jobs and infrastructure in the city of York.
In welcoming the new ministerial team to the Front Bench, may I congratulate you, Mr Speaker, on Chorley becoming the epicentre of global parliamentary democracy?
Three of the 10 most deprived constituencies in England are in Birmingham, and 42% of children in Birmingham are growing up in poverty. However, rather than supporting hard-working families in Birmingham, the Government are hitting them with a £1,000 a year cut to universal credit and a national insurance tax rise. On top of that, they face soaring energy costs, increasing food costs, increasing childcare costs and increasing housing costs. The Government say that they want to level up, but is not the simple truth that the only thing that gets levelled up under the Tories is the cost of living?
I politely remind the hon. Gentleman that the Government have invested £400 billion in supporting the country, its businesses and public services through the pandemic. He is right to raise Birmingham, which has seen quite a transformation in recent years. I also remind him of the £4.8 billion levelling-up fund, the shared prosperity fund and the national skills fund. The Government are taking action on levelling up.
I pay tribute to my predecessor, my right hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove), for his leadership of the Cabinet Office over the last two years and wish him well in his new role. I also thank my officials at the Treasury for all their support during my time as Chief Secretary to the Treasury. I welcome the comments made by the Opposition Front-Bench team in respect of the new ministerial team and look forward to constructive engagement with them in the months ahead.
Mr Speaker, a theme this morning has been your recent G7 Speakers conference, and certainly for me, as someone born and bred in Lancashire, it is a particular honour to have the role of Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster. The Cabinet Office is the strategic headquarters for the Government, supporting the Prime Minister and the Cabinet in delivering for the British people. I look forward to working with colleagues to do so, supported by an excellent new ministerial team.
I join in welcoming the right hon. Member to his new post.
Whereas the NHS infected blood scandal was the biggest treatment disaster in the history of the NHS, the covid pandemic has been the biggest public health disaster in a century. In March 2020, the chief scientific adviser said if the UK could keep covid deaths below 20,000 that would be a “good result”, and now of course there have been more than 135,000. If the covid public inquiry, which we understand will not start until next year, is to be a genuine attempt to look at the rights and wrongs of what happened, will frontline staff in the healthcare and social care sectors be involved in setting the terms of reference?
We have been clear that we will have an inquiry, and that will be next spring. Clearly, there will be consultations on shaping the leadership of that, its terms and how it will be conducted. The Prime Minister has been clear on his commitment to ensuring that we learn the lessons within the covid response not just in England, but across the United Kingdom. That applies in Wales, but in the other devolved Administrations as well. I think something we all share across the House is that the right lessons are drawn so that improvements can be made.
My hon. Friend raises a very good and practical issue about how such businesses benefit from the public spend. I would draw his attention to things such as the Contracts Finder, which is a free-to-use platform that publishes details of contracts above £10,000 and £25,000 exactly to enable businesses to have greater transparency on the sort of contracts that are available.
I, too, congratulate you, Mr Speaker, on your chairing of the G7 Speakers conference and welcome the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and the team to their places.
The next pandemic or major disaster could happen tomorrow. We have to learn our lessons from this pandemic and be much better prepared for it happening again. The covid-19 national foresight group has been capturing these live lessons, and it has concluded that a “strong and persistent theme” has been the
“lack of strategy and shared plan”
in the Government’s response. Its recommendations have spent nine months gathering dust. Will the Minister commit to implementing its recommendations, and would he meet the group?
The hon. Lady is right that we need to ensure that we learn the lessons, and that point was made a moment ago. It is why within Government we have been looking more widely at our resilience, with things such as the civil contingencies secretariat and the investment recently in the situation centre to enable Government to respond in a more agile and quicker way to issues as they arise. I am always keen to hear from whichever groups have contributions to make, and either I or one of the team will follow up on the point she raised.
I thank the Minister for that, and I will be following it up with him.
The latest allegations about the Home Secretary’s secret meeting with British Airways, a billionaire Tory donor and the then Business Secretary, but with no official present, should concern us all. She is a serial offender for breaking the ministerial code previously. Will the new Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster hold an investigation into these allegations and actually start enforcing the code, or is it just there for show?
There is a clear process set out in the ministerial code. I am not aware that any ministerial colleague has breached that. Obviously, a due process is applied through PET—the propriety and ethics team—in the Cabinet Office where concerns have been raised, but to date there is no evidence to suggest that that is the case.
My hon. Friend raises an important point, and I reassure her that the Government are working to manage the impacts of gas price rises affecting the UK. We are confident in the security of supply this winter, and we are working with industry to address any potential risks in an appropriate way. Indeed, together with the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, I had a call earlier this morning with those chief executives involved in our supply chain, looking at some of these issues and at how we can work closely together.
As I recall from my recent time in the Treasury, the levelling-up fund is not a one-shot opportunity and there will be future iterations and bidding processes. The first round is applied, but there will be future rounds as part of that. Obviously, that will also be shaped by the forthcoming spending review that the Chancellor will lead.
I think the right hon. Gentleman knows full well what is meant by British territorial waters, and I invite him to accept that it is this Government who do everything they need to do, and they will continue to protect our territorial waters.
I thank my right hon. Friend for what she does for veterans in her community, and I would be delighted to hold such a meeting.
I invite the hon. Gentleman to read the court’s judgement in the 2015 Tower Hamlets case, and he will find out exactly the nature of the problem that the Government are seeking to redress. We will redress other problems as and when they become necessary.
May I commend the Government on their plans to move civil service jobs out of London? In welcoming my right hon. Friend to his position, may I invite him to visit Darlington and see the progress that has been made with the delivery of jobs in the Treasury, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and other Departments, which is real evidence of our levelling-up agenda?
I always look forward to an opportunity to visit Darlington, and I share my hon. Friend’s passion for moving more jobs. When I was Chief Secretary to the Treasury, one key thing I did was seek to front-load our previous commitment to moving 22,000 jobs by 2030 and bring that forward. We now have a commitment for 15,000 of those jobs to be moved by 2024-25. It is not just the value of the jobs themselves that moves, with the welcome diversity that brings in the civil service; it also drives further jobs in the private market.
I have been contacted by bereaved constituents who have lost their loved ones to covid-19, and I would like to pay tribute to all those families in Liverpool, West Derby today in this Chamber. My constituents want answers, and they should not have had to battle with the Government at every stage to secure the covid-19 inquiry. In his new role, will the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster make a commitment, here and now, to prioritising the bereaved families, meeting Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice as a matter of urgency to discuss the terms of reference of the inquiry, and ensuring that the families get the truth and justice they deserve?
Every death from this virus is a tragedy, and our deepest sympathies are with everyone who has lost loved ones. The Government remain steadfast in our commitment to ensuring that the families of whom the hon. Gentleman has spoken have the scrutiny of the Government’s response to managing the pandemic that they deserve. The Prime Minister made it very clear in his statement to this House on 12 May that bereaved families and others will be consulted on the inquiry’s terms of reference before they are finalised. If the hon. Gentleman wishes to write to me for more information, I will be happy to respond.
In 2014, the no campaign warned that, if Scotland voted for independence, it would lead to higher energy prices, an end to freedom of movement and empty supermarket shelves. Can the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster tell us what the result of the 2014 independence referendum was?
In a session that has involved a new ministerial team looking forward, we see the SNP, as ever, constantly wanting to look backwards, yet when it comes to their own independence referendum, they seem to want to forget the past and the result of that vote. We have a plan for jobs that is working across the United Kingdom to get more people into work and upskill them. It is very appropriate, with the Business Secretary here, that we have a plan for jobs that is working, and that is what the Scottish Government and the SNP should be focused on.
Last week, a High Court judge refused the Cabinet Office permission to appeal against a first-tier tribunal decision that it should release information to me, under freedom of information legislation, in relation to the work it had been doing on opinion research in Scotland with regard to attitudes to the Union. Will the Cabinet Office now comply with that ruling and finally release the information that it has paid for with taxpayers’ money?
The Government regularly commission research in different parts of the UK to understand public attitudes and behaviours, to inform our campaigns and policies in development. The Scottish Government conduct similar research, for the same reasons. We will set out our response to the court’s decision in due course.
Gas Prices and Energy Suppliers
I came before the House on Monday to update colleagues on the action we are taking, and I appeared before the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee yesterday to discuss the matter in greater depth. The Government have been clear that protecting consumers is our primary focus and shapes our entire approach to this issue. We will continue to protect consumers with the energy price cap.
The global gas situation has had an impact on some energy suppliers, and I have been in touch daily with Ofgem. As it set out yesterday, there are more than 50 suppliers in the domestic market, and we may, unfortunately, see more suppliers exit the market in the coming weeks. However, it is not unusual for energy suppliers to leave the market, for various reasons, particularly when wholesale global prices are rising. Ofgem and the Government have clear, well-rehearsed processes in place to make sure that all customers are supplied with energy.
Our approach will be informed by the following principles: protecting customers, especially vulnerable ones, from price spikes. The solution to this crisis will be found from the industry and the market, as is already happening, and I repeat that the Government will not be bailing out failed energy companies. We would like to see a competitive energy market that can deliver choice and lower prices. The energy price cap, which continues to protect millions of customers, will remain in place. Consumers come first, and that has always been the centrepiece of our approach.
On Monday, I said to the Secretary of State that he was being far too complacent about the situation we are facing. Events since have, unfortunately, borne that out: complacent about the crisis in the market; complacent about the impact on families; and complacent about the cost of living crisis. He pretended on Monday and again today that it was normal for a number of suppliers to go down each winter, but what we are dealing with is far from normal: 800,000 customers losing their suppliers yesterday alone and 1.5 million in the last six weeks. So will he now answer the question he has so far failed to answer: does he believe taxpayers’ money will be necessary to stabilise the market? If so, how will he ensure value for money and that we do not simply end up with greater concentration of the big six suppliers?
Next, I have a letter here that Ofgem wrote to the Secretary of State when he was the Energy Minister 18 months ago during covid, warning about
“systemic risk to the energy supply sector as a whole”.
It said the usual Ofgem mechanism, the supplier of last resort, may not be possible. It went on:
“The failure of medium and large suppliers would need to be handled via a special administration regime placing significant burden and costs on government.”
So will he answer the question of what planning was done for this eventuality following that letter? Surely the Government should be in a position now to know exactly what needs to be done where there is systemic risk to suppliers. Have they not left the country dangerously exposed, with them scrabbling around for solutions?
Finally, we are seven days from the cut to universal credit. This is the last time a Government Minister will be in the House explaining to millions of families why they are plunging them further into fuel poverty. Instead of warm words or platitudes, can the Secretary of State now tell the British people how he can possibly justify this attack on their living standards? Is it not the truth that there can be no defence of it, and that the only right, proper and fair thing to do is to cancel the cut?
Obviously, as usual, the right hon. Gentleman raises a number of issues. We have not been complacent. The whole point about the supplier of last resort process, which was interrogated last year, is that it is an organised, well-established process that can allow existing strong companies to absorb customers and failure. [Interruption.] If he would desist from chuntering from a sedentary position, he might actually hear my answer.
I remember the letter last year. We interrogated, all through the covid process, the systems we had in place. During that period, the supplier of last resort was found to work. So far this year, it has been found to work, so I am not going to try to talk ourselves into exacerbating the crisis.
With regard to the special administration regime, that is something that is in place. Thankfully, we have not had to use that, but the right hon. Gentleman knows as well as many people in this House that it is there should the case arise.
With respect to universal credit, I will say what I said earlier in the week. That is a matter across Government in terms of budgetary responsibility. There will be a Budget at the end of October and there will be plenty of time to discuss that then.
May I press the Business Secretary a little on the Government assumptions on pricing? In his evidence to the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee yesterday, the head of Ofgem appeared to suggest that he expected these high prices to continue for some time. I accept that the Government do not have a crystal ball, but in making policy choices the Government must be making some assumptions about what they think is the most likely path for prices. Can the Business Secretary set those out for the House please?
As I have said repeatedly, I do not have a crystal ball, as my right hon. Friend has suggested, and I do not make predictions about the price but clearly, we prepare for every eventuality. The biggest help for consumers and customers at this current time is the energy price cap, which I have repeatedly stated is staying in place.
This is not market failure; it is Government and regulator failure. Ofgem all along had the financial and hedging information to know which companies were at risk, so why are we now in crisis management phase?
The Tories promised us cheaper energy bills post Brexit, but right now electricity wholesale prices in the UK are the highest in the whole of Europe. Meanwhile, as gas prices increase, the Treasury gets extra VAT receipts and increased oil and gas revenues. Surely, there must be a redistribution of that increased Treasury income to help hard-pressed bill payers. At the moment, it is those bill payers who cover the additional cost of transferring customers to other energy suppliers. They cover the credit of customers with failed companies and then have to pay increased tariffs when transferred. The cap might stay but the cap does not stop energy bills going up, so why should bill payers pay even more money when the Treasury is getting increased revenue out of this? What is the additional estimated cost for bill payers?
A quarter of our electricity bills consist of levies, so as we move away from our reliance on fossil fuels, we need a fundamental shift in how that concession is paid for. That is something that the Treasury needs to address. It means ending the grid charging regime so that Scotland does not have the highest charges in Europe, and it means giving the go-ahead to pumped hydro storage in wave and tidal.
Finally, is the Secretary of State happy to sit by while the cost of living crisis is ongoing? Is he happy to plunge 500,000 extra people into fuel poverty, or will he fight the Treasury to end the universal credit cut and release extra money to help hard-pressed bill payers?
Clearly there was a lot in that question and statement. I will deal with a couple of issues, if I may.
With respect to universal credit and wider budgetary considerations, I have repeatedly said that they are matters for my right hon. Friend the Chancellor. We will have ample opportunity to discuss these things in the House. With respect to the move away from fossil fuels, the hon. Gentleman and I are in agreement: I think that we need a diverse supply of decarbonised sources of energy.
Finally, I dispute the idea that we are ill-prepared. We have the SOLR and SAR processes in place and we stress-tested them throughout the whole covid period, when I was in constant contact with the industry. I feel that so far we have managed to accommodate such supplier failure as we have seen with existing structures.
Again, there are further budgetary issues, but I have always said that we are absolutely focused on customers, particularly the most vulnerable customers. The warm home discount is staying and we are looking to protect the most vulnerable customers, particularly prepaid customers, from the worst effects of the energy price spike.
I do not think that it is relevant, because there is no way that any storage in the world will mitigate the effect of a quadrupling of the gas price in four months, as we have seen. The answer is actually getting more diverse sources of supply and electricity through non-carbon sources—through nuclear, on which I am still very unclear as to the Opposition’s view, and through other sources of decarbonised energy.
My hon. Friend is quite right: we did a whole range of interventions to alleviate the burden on consumers and on businesses. Those were fiscal interventions that the Chancellor pursued last year, and I am sure that he is looking at a range of things this year, but that is a matter for him to decide ahead of the Budget.
The right hon. Member will know that, in 2020, 48% of our natural gas came from the UK continental shelf, so that is clearly a strong, sustainable source of gas to this country. However, I suggest to him that gas is a transition fuel: in our pursuit of net zero by 2050, we want to transition away from it. That is why we are developing carbon capture and hydrogen, as he knows very well.
Further to the question that my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Sir Christopher Chope) asked, surely the Conservative answer—I raised this the other day—is to reduce VAT on energy bills, as was pledged by those who supported Brexit in the EU referendum. I know that the Secretary of State will say that it is up to the Treasury to decide, but he is very persuasive. He is a tax-cutting Conservative—he believes in tax cuts—and I know that, if he went to see the Chancellor, he would ensure that we got a VAT cut on energy bills.
The UK suffers from higher costs both for consumers and for our businesses and industries. Why then, to follow the point of my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley East (Stephanie Peacock), is the UK’s storage capacity just 2% of annual demand versus an average of 25% in Europe? Is that part of the reason why we do not have energy price resilience?
A conference of EU Energy Ministers took place only yesterday to discuss that very problem. Mitigating a quadrupling of the gas price is not a function of storage—that is a complete red herring. One reason why we have less storage is that we have a greater diversity of energy supply, and that is a strength, not a weakness.
The Secretary of State is absolutely right to focus on consumers and not to bail out energy firms that got things wrong or are too fragile. However, will he explain how he is dealing with customers currently on capped tariffs with suppliers that have gone bust? Is he encountering any resistance from the firms being asked to take on those customers, who may be arriving as a loss to the acquiring firm?
This Government are responsible for families facing a cost of living crisis due to the triple whammy of rising gas prices, looming tax rises, and cuts to universal credit. Will the Secretary of State finally acknowledge and accept that it is completely and utterly immoral to cut universal credit?
What I do acknowledge is that there has been a quadrupling of the gas price, and that we have an energy price cap that will protect customers from such spikes. Schemes such as the warm home discount will also protect the most vulnerable customers. That is what I acknowledge.
The figure of £139 a year has been floated in the press as the increase in the energy price cap this year, but that refers only to the variable rate and does not take into account the changes in bills that people will face if they move from one tariff to another—often against their will in the current circumstances. Will the Secretary of State consider asking the regulator to direct energy suppliers to limit the price increase to any individual customer to a reasonable amount over the coming year?
As I have said, we have a supplier of last resort process, and it would be wrong of me here at the Dispatch Box to interfere in how it works. It has worked effectively over the past two years. As I have said repeatedly to the House, the energy price cap does give some succour, because consumers prices could be exorbitant without the cap. The price cap gives support, and we continue to support the warm home discount for the vulnerable end of the market.
Customers in Kettering and across the country will be worried that their gas and electricity could be cut off if their energy supplier goes bust. To put customers minds at rest, will the Secretary of State explain in straightforward understandable terms how the supplier of last resort process works?
What happens—and it is happening at the moment—is that there is a process of bidding for the customers of the exiting, failing companies, and the cost of absorbing those customers is taken on by the company that wins the bid and also by the industry at large; so the costs are mutualised, but generally it has been seen that there is always continuity of supply. That is a key element of the system.
The Secretary of State clearly believes that the invisible hand of the market will solve all this without his doing anything—but when he talks about customers, does he mean only domestic consumers, or will he ensure that supply continues to keep industry going and jobs secure? In that context, does he think it acceptable that Germany has some 90 days of gas storage while we have only nine days’ worth? Will he also commit himself to ensuring that there are adequate supplies under our control for the future by licensing new gasfields?
We protect domestic consumers in the way I have outlined, but it is fair for the right hon. Gentleman to raise the issue of industrial users of energy in business. He will know that we have schemes that which protect industrial users of energy: we have the energy industry incentive scheme, and yesterday we launched a new tranche of the industrial energy transformation fund with up to £220 million, which enables businesses to bid in for further support.
I thank the Secretary of State for his tireless work over the last few weeks, not just on the gas price crisis but on the carbon dioxide shortage that followed. I also pay tribute to CF Fertilisers, which has come back online in Stockton, and to Ensus in Redcar for offering to help and come online too. For the benefit of people across Redcar and Cleveland, however, can the Secretary of State outline how we are supporting people and protecting them from these high prices?
My hon. Friend has made an excellent point. The carbon dioxide crisis—or question in hand—we dealt with immediately. I spoke to the CEO of CF Fertilisers twice, on Sunday and Monday, and we had a solution on Tuesday. I am very pleased that, as a consequence of that solution, the company has managed to get production up and running, and to get people back to work at its plant. My hon. Friend will know, after my many visits to Teesside speaking to Ben Houchen, that the Government are resolutely focused on helping his constituents to level up and get well-paid, secure jobs.
These skyrocketing gas prices will have a devastating impact, not just on the public but on businesses, which will eventually have to pass those rises back on to the public. Does the Secretary of State understand that that double whammy for the public will see even more families being pushed into fuel poverty and consequently into food poverty as well? Apart from cutting universal credit very soon, making it even worse for many of these families, what is he doing? What is he doing to support them?
The hon. Gentleman will have seen reports that energy companies want the Government to lift the energy price cap. I have repeatedly resisted that. I have said explicitly, on the Floor of the House and in other places, that the price cap must stay, while also reaffirming our commitment to the warm home discount scheme and the winter fuel payment. We are absolutely focused on keeping consumer prices as low as possible in the energy market.
We are all hearing about the number of businesses in this market that are going bust at the moment, but can my right hon. Friend assure me, and my constituents, that this is expected to be a short-term shock and we will come out of it with a robust market and plenty of diversity of supply?
My hon. Friend knows that competition is the key to this market. We had a world that was oligopolistic in this respect, but we have introduced the price cap, and there are plenty of small, nimble entrants driving innovation and a dynamic system. I am absolutely committed to a competitive market, and I am sure that after this process we will still have a vibrant and dynamic energy system.
Too many people nowadays have to watch every single penny, and have to worry about where all the money to pay the bills will come from. Will the Secretary of State have a look at the amount of time that it takes a supplier of last resort to provide people with an accurate forecast for their energy costs, and, if possible, try to reduce the period during which they experience that uncertainty?
I would be very happy look at that, as the hon. Lady suggests. I have said many times, I am in contact with Mr Brearley, the chief executive officer of Ofgem, on practically a daily basis now, and this is something that I can raise with him at our next meeting.
I draw the House’s attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. I own shares in companies that invest in renewable energy. As the House will know, consumer energy bills are enhanced by climate change levy charges, which are used to support renewable energy producers. Is my right hon. Friend aware, however, that a large number of those renewable energy producers use special purpose vehicle companies to receive those subsidies, and that many of those SPVs are based offshore for tax purposes? Will he meet me to discuss how the Government are going to close that very clear tax loophole?
Would the Minister still advise consumers to change their energy supplier, or would they just be better off changing their Government?
They had a chance to change their Government and, as I recall, that did not end so well for the Labour party, although maybe my memory fails me. We have a dynamic, vibrant and competitive market, and consumers should have a choice in order to keep their costs low.
Obviously these are disturbing times for our constituents and I welcome the actions that the Government are taking. Can my right hon. Friend confirm that, whatever happens in the markets, no one in Basildon and Thurrock need fear supply failure or sudden hikes in prices this winter?
No one in Basildon and Thurrock, or anywhere else in this country, need fear the eventuality that my hon. Friend describes. As I have said, the supplier of last resort process is absolutely focused on ensuring that customers have continuity of supply. That is a top priority.
Better insulation of homes is essential for cutting rising fuel bills and emissions. Does the Secretary of State agree that it was a mistake to cut the green homes grant earlier this year, and will he commit to reforming it and bringing it back?
As I have said a number of times, in this role and in my previous one, the green homes grant attempted to do three things. The first was to decarbonise public sector buildings, and that worked very effectively through Salix, the bank that disbursed those funds. The second element, which was disbursed by local authorities, has also worked very well. The third element is the one that we closed, and we want to get a renewed version of it.
In the final days of the last Labour Government, the UK was near the bottom of the G20 league tables for green investment and renewable energy. I therefore congratulate my right hon. Friend on his Department’s achievements on offshore and floating wind energy. Can he confirm that his Department will continue to invest in this area, particularly close to my North Devon constituency and the Celtic sea?
Absolutely. My hon. Friend will know that we have some really exciting floating offshore wind projects in the Celtic sea that I am very pleased to see being developed. She is also right to observe that during the last Labour Government, we did absolutely nothing whatsoever to ensure security of energy supply or its diversity.
An Erdington care worker with two children was close to tears when she said to me:
“I worked so hard throughout the covid crisis. Now I am facing my universal credit being cut, a tax increase and soaring energy bills. Jack, why are they going ahead with the cut to universal credit? Do they even begin to understand how difficult life is for people like me?”
Is she wrong?
The massive increase in energy prices is a global effect. I completely understand that people are facing issues this winter that were not foreseen maybe six months ago, but this Government have rigorously focused on protecting the most vulnerable customers in the energy market and we are absolutely focused on getting Britain back to work. That is why our unemployment rate is one of the lowest in the G7 at 4.7%. In France, it is 8%. We are creating jobs and we are keeping the economy going.
As my right hon. Friend will know, I have been something of a doughty champion in North Norfolk for the offshore energy grid—[Interruption.] He is smiling; he knows what I am going to say next. Will he work at speed to ensure that the offshore network grid will be implemented as soon as possible to ensure that we stop the dereliction of the countryside with the offshore cable corridors?
Nobody in this House has been as consistent and as focused on this issue as my hon. Friend. He knows that, as Energy Minister, I commissioned the offshore transmission network review, on which we have accelerated work. I would be happy to speak to him and other colleagues about the review’s progress.
The Secretary of State describes small energy companies such as Green in Newcastle upon Tyne Central as “failures,” but he says nothing of his own failure in structuring, regulating and shaping the energy market. Will he confirm that large energy companies, such as Green, will not receive a penny of taxpayers’ money? What support will he offer to the employees of Green, apart from slashing universal credit?
As I said, it has been a consistent feature over the past few years that energy companies have failed and left the market. We have a process to deal with that, the supplier of last resort. I categorically say to the House that we will not be giving any grants or subsidies to larger companies.
I welcome the Government’s market-led approach. The CBI has been clear in saying that Labour’s plans to renationalise our UK energy network would result in higher household bills. Does my right hon. Friend agree that it could also threaten UK energy supplies?
Rising energy prices will disproportionately affect people living in the north, where it is colder during the winter. What assessment has the Secretary of State made of regional disparities, and how will he mitigate against them?
The hon. Lady raises a fair point, and clearly the single most important determinant of gas prices is the weather. That is why we have schemes such as the warm home discount, and it is why we are focused on protecting the most vulnerable customers wherever they are in the UK.
Half a million more people are likely to fall into fuel poverty as a result of this gas crisis. With record increases in inflation, plans to cut universal credit that will hit 37% of Scottish families, supermarket shelves that grow emptier by the day and a regressive national insurance tax hike hitting those on the lowest pay hardest, what has gone so wrong as we face a winter of discontent? Why should anyone have confidence in this Government?
I will tell the hon. Lady why people should have confidence in this Government: we have a vaccine roll-out that is the envy of the world; we have got the economy back up and running; we have 4.7% unemployment, which is among the lowest in the G7; and we have navigated the storms of covid-19 pretty effectively.
A number of my constituents were victims of the green deal mis-selling scandal and have been left saddled with tens of thousands of pounds of debt for a scheme they thought was publicly funded and Government backed. The scheme was supposed to lower their energy bills, but now, on top of having to repay that debt, their bills are set to skyrocket.
In supporting my constituent who discovered that she is a victim only when she recently tried to sell her home, I was informed that the Secretary of State has no obligation to investigate cases more than six years old. Many victims of this scam will not have been aware immediately, so will he explain what recourse exists for victims who come forward later?
This is almost a perfect storm: gas prices that have risen due to the maintenance projects that were rescheduled for 2021 because of the pandemic; lower-than-usual gas supply from Russia; and less liquefied natural gas reaching Europe because of increased deliveries to Asia. How can the Government assist when most of these factors are beyond our control? Is it realistic to hope that consumers will see a reduction in their bills within the next year?
The hon. Gentleman has given a pithy summary of the various causes of the energy price spike, one that is very realistic; it is a global phenomenon. What I have said repeatedly is that what the Government can do is ensure two things: that customers have continuity of supply, through the well-established SOLR process; and that we are resolutely focused on keeping the energy price cap, so that consumers—our constituents—are protected from those exorbitant price spikes.
Coronavirus: Education Setting Attendance and Support for Pupils
Mr Speaker, I am terribly grateful to you for granting this urgent question during my first week in the job. We would all like to thank school staff for their ongoing dedication to pupils at what has obviously been an extremely difficult time.
Regular school attendance is vital for children’s education, wellbeing and long-term development. I am pleased to report that attendance last week was higher than at the same time last year, with 91.9% of students attending and 99.9% of all state-funded schools open. We know that the impact of coronavirus has been felt strongly in schools. The evidence is clear that being out of education causes significant harm to attainment, life chances, mental health and physical health. Data from the autumn 2020 school census showed that 60% of pupils had some period when they did not attend school in circumstances relating to covid-19 during the autumn term. That represents 33 million days missed, and analysis shows that every day of education missed matters.
That is why this Government are rightly focused on reducing the disruption to education: we have put an end to the self-isolation of whole bubbles; under-18s no longer need to self-isolate after contact with a positive case; secondary pupils were tested on their return, to help limit transmission, and will continue to test this term; and just last week this Government announced the roll-out of vaccinations for all 12 to 15-year-olds. Our communications programme has promoted the importance of attendance and we continue to monitor the data closely.
We are also fully committed to helping pupils to catch up. Our £3 billion investment in recovery includes more than £950 million for schools to best support the most affected children. That will have a material impact in closing gaps that have emerged. We continue to work closely with local authorities and schools to help them re-engage pupils. The Government’s Supporting Families programme continues to work with families where attendance is a significant concern, and we are providing support to tackle mental health issues, which will improve attendance further. That includes £7 million for local authorities to deliver the wellbeing for education recovery programme, and £9.5 million to train senior mental health leads in up to 7,800 schools and colleges. We are also recruiting a team of expert attendance advisers to work with local authorities to help them improve their services and the consistency and quality of their attendance interventions.
The next stage includes a review of time spent in school and 16 to 19 education, and the impact that this could have on helping children and young people to catch up. To support and re-engage the most at-risk pupils, we are investing £45 million in the new safe and alternative provision taskforces, bringing together specialist support in schools and AP settings in serious violence hotspots. We are also joining up support by expanding the role of virtual school heads, which is a wonderful initiative, to cover all children, with a social worker to provide additional support on attendance and attainment for many of the most vulnerable pupils.
The impact of the pandemic has been significant, and this Government continue to act tirelessly to help our children recover their education and wellbeing, with the help of our excellent teaching profession.
Thank you for granting this urgent question, Mr Speaker. Although I am sorry that the Secretary of State is not in his place, I warmly congratulate the Minister on his appointment. I know he will agree with me that nothing is more important than our children’s futures. But during the pandemic the Government have treated children and young people as an afterthought, failing to take the action that teachers, parents, pupils and the Labour party have been calling for to keep children in school. Some 122,000 children were out of school last week. Yesterday, the chief medical officer warned that covid is spreading fastest among secondary-age pupils. When will the Government act to improve ventilation in schools, colleges and universities? Will the Minister explain the Government’s rationale on masks, which saw them required in schools in March but not now, when covid rates are more than 400 times higher?
We welcome the advice of the chief medical officers to roll out the vaccine to 12 to 15-year-olds, but already there are reports of pressure on school nursing services. Will the Minister guarantee that all first doses will have been administered by October half-term?
Shockingly, there are reports that some schools are experiencing anti-vaccination protests. What action is being taken to ensure that no school faces threats and intimidation?
In Education questions on 6 September, the then Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Gavin Williamson), hinted that the Government may cease recommending twice-weekly home testing at the end of this month, even though covid continues to spread. Will the Minister reconfirm the plans on testing? How will he ensure that testing at home is carried out, after the drop-off we saw last year?
Even before the latest surge in absences, children had missed an average of 115 days of school. The Conservatives’ paltry recovery plan comes nowhere close to tackling what is needed. Labour’s plan commits to extending the school day to give time for breakfast clubs and new activities, small-group tutoring, expert mental health support, and training for our world-class school staff. Will the Minister commit today to matching Labour’s ambition?
I thank the hon. Lady for tabling the urgent question and for her opening remarks. I am sure we will not always see eye-to-eye, but we both have a great concern for children in this country and I look forward to working with her on that score. Nevertheless, I do not want to take too many lectures from the Labour party on this subject. We all clearly remember how last year Labour consistently refused to say that schools were safe for children to go back.
The challenges that we currently face are obviously substantial, but great improvements have been made. At the end of the previous term, attendance in school was at 75%; as of Thursday last week, attendance was at 91.9%, with 99.9% of all schools open.[Official Report, 19 Octoberber 2021, Vol. 701, c. 4MC.] That is a tribute to the very hard work done by our health service and the very hard work that is currently being done in schools. I am sure the whole House pays tribute to that work.
Our Department has an absolute determination to be led by the best evidence, and that determination is shared across Government. Probably no one in the Government understands data and evidence bases better than my new boss, the Secretary of State for Education, my right hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Nadhim Zahawi). When the evidence changes and the situation changes, so we change our policy.
The hon. Lady asked about face masks; at some stages in the pandemic we have had face masks in corridors, strict social distancing and bubbles, but the evidence now says that we can move away from that.[Official Report, 19 Octoberber 2021, Vol. 701, c. 4MC.] That is much to the good, because anyone who has ever worked in schools, as I have, will know that it is difficult to conduct proper education when children have their faces covered. I strongly welcome the fact that we have been able to make a change on that score.
Over the course of the pandemic, we have put £3 billion into helping schools and the education recovery. That includes £1.5 billion for evidence-based tutoring programmes that are going to help children, including the most vulnerable, to catch up. I am delighted to have discovered that £220 million is being spent so that vulnerable children can attend holiday activities and food programmes in all local authorities. We have £79 million to support those children who have been suffering with the worst mental health problems—mental health is a dreadful problem that I know many Members will have heard about in their constituency surgeries—and £17 million for mental health and wellbeing training in schools.
The hon. Lady rightly asked about the dreadful anti-vaccination protests we have seen. They are totally unacceptable. The level of intimidation of schools and teachers is abhorrent. I make it absolutely clear to any headteacher or teacher who is watching this that, contrary to some of the things they have been told, legal liability rests not with schools, but with the health service and those providing vaccinations. I thank schools very much for the spaces they have created and the consent forms they have provided, but they should rest assured that it is the health service that is providing these jabs and offering the support. Any school facing intimidation should let the Department know about it so that we can follow it up.
This is a difficult time for education, but things are getting better. They are getting better because of the actions that this Government have taken to roll out one of the best vaccine programmes in the world and to support children and their teachers in school.
I am pleased to see the Minister, my hon. Friend and constituency neighbour, in his place.
As I understand it from our discussions with the chief medical officer at the Education Committee yesterday and from the Government, the key purpose of the vaccination programme is to keep our children in school. However, I have been sent a letter by parents about the Teddington School in Middlesex, run by Bourne Education Trust, that shows that all students will be sent home on Friday 24 September, after a day of vaccinations today. Therefore, despite Government guidance, there are examples of schools doing this, or of whole year groups being grounded at home or even closed down completely. Will my hon. Friend make sure that schools follow Government guidance to the letter and do not send children home? He should ring the headteachers himself to make sure that we keep our children learning. Will he also ensure that the catch-up fund reaches the poorest and most disadvantaged students, because we know that 44% of students receiving the pupil premium are being missed, and that there are huge regional disparities as well?
I thank my right hon. Friend for his question, and I look forward to working with him in his role as Chair of the Education Committee and as a venerable defender of the needs of children and of the voters who follow.
It is extremely important that schools follow departmental guidance. I am sure that my officials will have heard the example that my right hon. Friend has just given. The message is clear: the best place for children is in schools and there are very clear criteria that tell us when children should be there.
The Minister rightly recognises the toll on the mental health of children in this country over the past year. In Waltham Forest, many schools dug deep and paid for external counselling services for the children and are now facing big gaps in their budgets. Having said how important it is that no school in this country should be out of pocket, will the Minister commit today to fully reimburse those schools for the cost of counselling over the past 18 months to help our children get through the pandemic?
I thank both the hon. Lady for her question and the school in her constituency for the work that it has done to look after its pupils; it sounds as though it has gone above and beyond. As I said in answer to the shadow Secretary of State a few moments ago, the Department has invested considerable amounts of money in supporting children’s mental health. There has been £79 million across the piece, and £17 million for training for mental health and wellbeing in schools. We are fully aware that this is one of the lasting consequences of the pandemic, and we will step in to support schools every inch of the way.
I find the irony of this urgent question being called by those on the Labour Front Bench somewhat mystifying, because they went missing throughout the pandemic, and there was silence on the issue of schools. It is not just me who thinks this. Let me quote:
“Labour’s silence on closing schools is completely ridiculous.”
That was Corbynista Owen Jones saying that, so it is not just we on the Conservative Benches who think it. The NEU—or the “not education union” as we should refer to it—continually wanting to shut schools, and Labour keeping silent despite the donations running into its party coffers tell us everything that we need to know. Can my hon. Friend confirm to me that, no matter what happens this winter, schools will be kept open, pupils will be learning face to face and, in that way, they will catch up exactly as they need to.
I thank my hon. Friend for his passionate question. He has first-hand experience of working in schools, and I look forward to leaning on his expertise while I am in this job. It is absolutely the Government’s intention to keep schools open. We are clear that schools are the right place for children. The cost of children not being in school is extremely serious, so it is very much our hope that schools will be open from this point on.
Erdington is one of England’s poorest constituencies, but it is rich in talent. I pay tribute to the headteachers, who do an outstanding job in the most difficult circumstances. In a survey I conducted of schools in my area, I found that 60% expect to set a deficit budget next financial year, and 100% said that they do not have sufficient support for their pupils with special educational needs and disabilities. Of the schools that applied for exceptional costs funding, 75% received funding amounting to less than half the costs. Is it not the simple reality that school spending by the Government is still lower than in 2009-10, and that after tearing up the catch-up recommendations made by their own adviser, they have allocated to schools a fifth of what was asked for? Is it not the simple truth that a whole generation of children and young people are growing up without the support that they deserve from their Government?
The hon. Gentleman is a doughty defender of pupils on his patch. The Government have already spent £3 billion on helping schools to get through the pandemic. As I have said, we have invested £1.5 billion in evidence-led programmes, and we have a high degree of confidence that they will help children to catch up some of the time that they have lost in school. Since the Prime Minister took over two and a half years ago, he has been clear about his ambition to return per pupil spending to what it was in 2010. Obviously there is also an imminent spending review, in which other things are being considered.
Will my hon. Friend confirm that keeping children in school and educational settings is an absolute priority? Does he agree that children with special educational needs and those on education, health and care plans should be given the bespoke support that they need to maximise attendance and thrive in the school environment—a shining example being Hoyle Nursery School in my constituency?
My hon. Friend is right that we have to help the most vulnerable children to overcome the problems of the pandemic. Children with special educational needs are very much on our radar. We have consistently prioritised children who attend specialist settings by providing additional uplifts in the 2020 catch-up premium and the 2021 recovery premium. Specialist settings will receive an uplift to deliver summer schools and will have the flexibility to deliver provision based on pupils’ needs. I understand my hon. Friend’s concerns; for about eight years, I was the vice-chair of governors at a special school in west London, so I have seen the remarkable work that such schools can do to change children’s lives. We absolutely have our mind on this agenda.