House of Commons
Thursday 4 November 2021
The House met at half-past Nine o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Business Before Questions
Appointments (Answer to Addresses)
The Vice-Chamberlain of the Household reported a message from the Queen, in reply to loyal and dutiful Addresses from this House.
I have received your humble Address praying that I should appoint Richard Lloyd OBE as the chair of the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority, with effect from 1 September 2021, for the period ending on 31 August 2026. I will comply with your request.
I have received your humble Address praying that I should appoint Dr Katy Radford as an Electoral Commissioner with effect from 1 September 2021, for the period ending on 31 August 2025; and that I should reappoint Sarah Chambers as an Electoral Commissioner with effect from 31 March 2022, for the period ending on 30 March 2026. I will comply with your request.
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
Great British Railways: National Headquarters
May I start by saying that my thoughts are with those affected by the tragic incident in the river at Haverfordwest at the weekend, where three lives were lost? My thanks go to the emergency services. The Maritime Accident Investigation Branch is currently investigating. Similarly, my thoughts are with everyone affected by the rail incident that took place in Salisbury this weekend. I am grateful to the train crews and drivers, and the services that looked after those who were injured. Our thoughts go to the families of all those affected.
The Great British Railways transition team is designing a selection process for the headquarters and details will be announced shortly.
Stockton-on-Tees was home to the world’s first passenger railway. The discussion about building that railway was held in Stockton town hall. The first track of that railway was laid in Stockton. The first ticket was sold in Stockton. Last week, Michael Portillo backed our bid. I understand that Thomas the Tank Engine and even the Fat Controller are on board. Can the Secretary of State think of anywhere better than Stockton to be the home of Great British Railways?
My hon. Friend makes an excellent case. I was not aware of the Fat Controller’s involvement, but that could well nail it. When the competition launches, everywhere with a strong railway connection will be able to apply, so we can find a new HQ for Great British Railways.
Putting Stockton to one side, not only does York have a unique railway heritage, but it is home to 10% of the national railway workforce. It is a beautiful and wonderful city. Does my right hon. Friend agree it would make the perfect home for the headquarters of Great British Railways?
It is also the home of many beautiful trains of the past, including the Mallard, which I went to see very recently. My hon. Friend makes a very strong case. I can see that the whole House is looking forward to entering the competition to find the new HQ for Great British Railways.
But of course, Mr Speaker. York is not just about 200 years of the history of the railways; it is home to some of the leading rail engineers of the future and digital rail, as well as leadership from our operations and rail systems. This cannot just be about hotspots where people have their favoured city; it must also be about bringing the rail community together to ensure we make the most of the future for our rail systems. Will the Secretary of State look very closely at the bid from York?
The hon. Lady is absolutely right. I should point out that the competition has not been launched yet, but I am very impressed by the extent to which the whole House is in favour of their areas. York, of course, will have a very good bid. There is a serious point to this, which is that it is important we have the right HQ for Great British Railways, as we bring the entire network together. I am sure that York, as well as many other towns and cities, will have an excellent case to make.
Rail Investment in the North: Levelling Up
Investing £29 billion in transport across the north since 2010 has had a hugely positive impact on levelling up.
Building Northern Powerhouse Rail in full with a stop in Bradford city centre will help to transform Bradford’s economy and draw much-needed jobs and investment into the district, yet the Government are now believed to be scrapping the plans for NPR. Will the Minister give me some certainty today and either commit to the plan, or admit that the reality is that the Government have no intention of delivering real, transformative change to the economy and lives of people in West Yorkshire?
The hon. Gentleman will know that I know Bradford well, as I represent a constituency just down the road, on the sunny side of the hills. The Government are committed to supporting the aspirations of local leaders across West Yorkshire. We recognise that Bradford is an important economic centre in the north, with a growing and young population. We continue to look at the evidence for building a new station in Bradford, and decisions, as he knows, will be outlined in the integrated rail plan in due course.
My thoughts and prayers are with all those affected by the Salisbury train collision and I wish those who have sadly been injured a speedy recovery. We must, in the near future, get to the bottom of how such an incident could ever have occurred.
After the Budget, northern leaders were left even more bemused than before about Government plans for the north. There was no mention of Northern Powerhouse Rail and nothing more on HS2’s eastern leg or the midlands rail hub. There is still no rolling programme of electrification and no sign of the mythical integrated rail plan, which Ministers have kept referring me to for over a year. What a complete lack of ambition for the north. How did this happen? Was it because the Secretary of State could not convince the Chancellor to invest in our country’s railways, or was it because the Chancellor thought that giving tax cuts to already wealthy bankers was far more important?
Let us not pretend that we are not getting on with the job of investing in the north of England. We have invested £29 billion in northern transport since 2010, and in the Budget that the hon. Gentleman referred to, we announced over £1 billion for Greater Manchester, over £830 million for West Yorkshire and £570 million for South Yorkshire. I am delighted to say that the integrated rail plan is not just coming soon—it is now coming very soon.
When it comes to investment in the north, I welcome the recent investments in the feasibility work for Ferryhill station and the Weardale line. Of course, I am disappointed with what happened regarding the knock-back for the Leamside line, but I ask the Minister to work with us and the hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson) to look at funding streams and at potentially getting that into the integrated rail plan. Will he also assure the people of Ferryhill that knocking back the Leamside line does not in any way impact the Ferryhill project?
My hon. Friend continues to make a powerful case for his constituency and investment in local transport schemes. As he knows, I have family ties with Ferryhill—my father was born there—and I am very keen to support local people’s aspirations. I know that he has been lobbying the Secretary of State, the Rail Minister—my hon. Friend the Member for Daventry (Chris Heaton-Harris)—and myself on this issue. We will continue to work with him to see what we can do to support local aspirations.
International Travel: Covid-19
Thanks to the successful vaccine roll-out, the Government have been able to open up international travel and help to make it cheaper to use, with 135 countries and territories now covered by our inbound vaccination policy.
The aviation and travel sectors are pivotal for my constituents in Bracknell and right across the UK, sustaining many jobs and livelihoods. Will my right hon. Friend confirm what is being done to review testing requirements for passengers and travellers and to regulate the wildly varying and often exorbitant cost of testing?
As the House will know, we have reduced the number of tests required to just one single lateral flow test on day two for everybody who is vaccinated, as well as for under-18-year-olds. My hon. Friend will be interested to hear that I spoke to the Health Secretary this morning about the site that it runs to ensure that the prices shown there are accurate for the traveller, so that people can travel as normally as possible as we come to this Christmas and new-year period.
As announced in the spending review on 28 October, the Government are investing more than £5 billion over this Parliament in highways maintenance, enabling local highway authorities to fill in millions of potholes a year, repair bridges and help to resurface roads up and down the country. The spending review has also fundamentally protected the Government’s plans for RIS2, the second road investment strategy, while adjusting for schemes that are now progressing to a different timetable.
More than 300 of my constituents have already signed my petition backing plans to improve junction 28 of the M1. It has been a constant bottleneck; residents of Pinxton and South Normanton are so often stuck there for a very long time. Will the Minister commit to working with me to make sure that we can deliver plans to improve that junction?
Yes, of course. I congratulate my hon. Friend on his petition. I can reassure him that National Highways has now submitted information on the scheme to the evidence base that will help to inform the next stage of road investments. Thanks to his effective lobbying for his constituents in Bolsover, I can confirm to the House that National Highways has commenced a further study to assess the long-term future of junction 28 of the M1 to consider how planned growth may affect current and proposed schemes.
The Government will invest more than £3 billion in buses during this Parliament, including a new dedicated £1.2 billion fund for London-style bus transformation deals to improve infrastructure, fares and services.
Harrogate has electric buses already, and they are very popular for their ride quality and their environmental benefit. I am keen to see their benefits extended, particularly to Knaresborough, where we have two air quality management areas and the very high-volume No. 1 route. Will the Minister update the House on where we are with the ZEBRA—zero-emission bus regional areas—scheme?
Absolutely. My hon. Friend is a superb champion for Harrogate and Knaresborough and has extensive experience of public transport. I am sure that he will appreciate the recent announcement of £355 million of new funding for zero-emission buses, which is in addition to the existing £120 million for the ZEBRA scheme. On ZEBRA, we also announced last week that almost £71 million of the funding has been awarded to Warrington, Leicester, Milton Keynes, Kent, Cambridge and Peterborough. We continue to work with a further 17 local transport authorities that will submit proposals. One of those areas is North Yorkshire; I understand that Harrogate and Knaresborough are part of the defined area. I look forward to working with my hon. Friend on the matter.
I welcome the Minister to Transport orals for what I believe is her first set of questions.
In April, I raised the devastating impact of Government cuts on rural transport networks, which has led to what CPRE calls “transport deserts”. I asked for
“assurances…that significant investment will be offered”
to support rural bus networks and
“ensure that our rural communities are genuinely connected”.
The Minister of State told me:
“There can be no greater champion of buses than the Prime Minister”.—[Official Report, 29 April 2021; Vol. 693, c. 501.]
He then gave assurances that funding was on its way.
Six months on, rural communities are still bearing the brunt of the Government’s failure to act. Many of the funding announcements in the Budget were nothing more than rehashed and repackaged initiatives that will do nothing to tackle the transport deserts that blight the lives of ordinary people in so many rural communities, towns and villages. I ask again: will the Minister offer rural bus networks the tangible and significant investment that they so desperately need? Will she offer a firm deadline for when that will be done?
As the hon. Member will know, in last week’s spending review, we set out an unprecedented level of support for buses, including zero-emission vehicles. This Government are supporting the bus network through manufacturing and through the infrastructure required as we decarbonise, as set out in our transport decarbon- isation plan.
Back in 2017, the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Andrew Jones) was the buses Minister. As he will remember, we had many discussions about the Bus Services Act 2017 and audiovisual announcements. Incredibly, some four and a half years on, the proposals for audiovisual announcements have still not been implemented. When can I expect to see and hear them on buses in Cambridge?
We have a slight problem, in that the hon. Member for Broxtowe (Darren Henry) is trapped outside because Insulate Britain have blocked access to the House. That is totally unacceptable: it is interfering with democracy, and it is not what should happen. It is a tragedy that his constituents will not be represented by the hon. Member for Broxtowe, but I ask the Minister to answer the hon. Gentleman’s question.
Cycling and Walking
It is slightly ironic, is it not, that the question is about cycling and walking, and how we can decarbonise transport. While I am sure that those people outside have decent intentions, the way in which they are going about their business is completely unacceptable.
We need to continue our business here, so I can happily update the House with the information that my Department is investing an unprecedented £2 billion in active travel over the course of this Parliament, which is the biggest ever boost for walking and cycling.
My hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe (Darren Henry) would have asked a supplementary question, and I know that he wanted to talk about areas in his constituency, because that is all he ever does. [Laughter.] He wanted to talk about Mini-Hollands and how they can change people’s behaviour when it comes to cycling, and to mention the town of Stapleford. The Department’s publication “Gear Change”, which could be described as a manifesto for cycling, refers to Mini-Hollands. Expressions of interest have been received from more than 30 local authorities wishing to build them—including Nottinghamshire County Council—so they are clearly remarkably popular. We are working on a list in order to progress to the next stage, and will receive a feasibility study in the next financial year.
Scotland’s active travel budget will soon amount to 10% of the transport budget, which means that at least £320 million a year—nearly £60 per person in Scotland—will be spent on walking and wheeling. The Department for Transport plans to spend less than £7 per head. When my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Gavin Newlands) put that to the Secretary of State, he was disbelieving. Now that he has seen the proof, why is the Department short-changing active travel in England?
I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is very pleased about the amount of money that the Scottish Government are receiving for cycling and walking in a devolved settlement via the Barnett formula, but the figures that he has given are not correct. Spending on cycling and walking in England has doubled from a paltry £3.50 per head in 2010 to about £10 per head now, and obviously, given the massive increase in spending on cycling and walking—the largest that we have ever had in this Parliament, as a result of the Prime Minister’s “Gear Change” plans—that will continue to increase.
I thank my right hon. Friend—a former Transport Minister—for his question. That is absolutely the case. One of the best gala dinners I have ever attended was the “cycle to rail” gala dinner, where awards were given for the best schemes of that kind. We are investing a huge amount of money in new, secure cycle parking around the country, and I went to see some of it not so long ago in the great city of Hull.
Glasgow Airport: Airspace Modernisation
Glasgow airport is engaged in the airspace modernisation programme, and is working with the Civil Aviation Authority and the Airspace Change Organising Group to develop its proposals.
UK airspace is among the most complex in the world, but it has not been modified significantly since the 1950s. Airspace modernisation will enable us to have more direct, quicker, quieter and cleaner journeys, and will harness new technologies such as performance-based navigation. As set out in the “Jet Zero Consultation”, the Department’s analysis shows that
“Moving to best-in-class aircraft, operations and airspace modernisation could deliver 25-36% of CO² savings by 2050”,
bringing benefits not only for the hon. Lady’s constituents but for the whole United Kingdom.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I am aware of that engine that is being developed; in fact, I believe that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State went to see it only this week. There are a number of exciting technologies with new aerospace advancements including sustainable aviation fuel that will deliver precisely the guilt-free flying that my hon. Friend refers to.
We have an analogue airspace system in the digital age; the Minister is right in what he says. With the better ascents and descents of planes and the elimination of holding patterns, we will not only improve noise abatement but cut carbon emissions by up to 26%, as he rightly said. This is the lowest of the low-hanging fruit when it comes to the climate crisis, so can the Minister tell us what he is personally doing and how he is talking to the industry to unlock the funding we need to enable this programme to continue?
The hon. Gentleman is quite right. There are a number of aspects to decarbonising aviation. There are the existing efficiencies as well as sustainable aviation fuel and the £180 million that we have recently announced on that. Then there is the longer-term but still rapidly advancing technology that was referred to earlier. He is also quite right to talk about airspace modernisation, and the Air Traffic Management and Unmanned Aircraft Act 2021, which was put through in the last Session, was a major part of that. It gives the Government extra powers. After the pause that took place during covid, we have given £5.5 million for the future airspace strategy programme, which is taking place as we speak.
We are reforming rail guided by the “Great British Railways: Williams-Shapps plan for rail” White Paper. This will improve services for passengers and drive taxpayer value for money at the same time.
After many years of waiting, we have seen the electrification of the Manchester to Liverpool and Manchester to Preston railway lines. We are now looking forward to the electrification of the line between Bolton and Wigan. Can my hon. Friend confirm that this is going to go full steam ahead?
Stepping back in time at the Dispatch Box, Mr Speaker. Steam is not necessarily an option for that particular line, but I am pleased to confirm that on 1 September this year, £78 million to electrify the route between Wigan North Western and Bolton was announced. It will enable greener electric trains—rather than Thomas the Tank Engine—to run along that route, with more seats to serve passengers across Greater Manchester. The scheme is on track and targeted for completion by 2024.
In Bath, we are still waiting for the full electrification of our lines, so perhaps the Minister will take that on board too. The direct line from Oldfield Park station in Bath to London Waterloo will be cancelled in December. Will the Minister reconsider these service cuts, which will make travel into south London nearly three times more expensive for my constituents and force them to use the underground while covid cases are rising?
On the hon. Lady’s last point, using the underground—and other trains—is one of the safest methods of transport in the covid pandemic. I believe that the air on the underground is exchanged every three minutes, and on trains every six minutes. They are perfectly safe. She referred to the consultation that has just finished on South Western Railway services, and she is quite correct: passenger numbers on that service are remarkably low. I will happily meet her to go through that, and we can talk about how we can improve those services.
Roadside Rescue and Recovery: Statutory Fees
The Home Office is currently considering responses to a targeted stakeholder consultation on the level of statutory fees for vehicle recovery.
I thank the Minister for that response. The fees paid to the often family-run businesses that provide this service have not risen since 2008, and there are cases of operators receiving less than 50% of the statutory fee. This is both unsustainable and unethical. Will my hon. Friend work with her counterparts in the Home Office to put in place arrangements that properly ensure the long-term viability of this industry, thereby keeping our roads safe?
Absolutely. The Home Office is reviewing the responses to the consultation on the level of statutory fees for vehicle recovery. The purpose of the consultation is to gather evidence to ensure that fees are adequate to meet the current costs and operational needs of a sustainable vehicle recovery service. I welcome my hon. Friend’s keen interest in this area, and I will work alongside our colleagues in the Home Office as we progress this necessary update.
As I said at the last Transport orals, I would be happy to visit when time allows.
I hope it will be very soon because, frankly, the harness is ready. The mines rescue service is ready to dangle the Secretary of State down a hole, and I will be right behind him.
On a serious point, the Rhondda railway tunnel is a disused tunnel that is 3,443 yards long. It belongs, oddly, to Highways England, so it is the Secretary of State’s responsibility. If we are able to reopen it as a cycle path, as many people hope, it would be the longest cycle path in Europe. It would be a major local attraction, which would be good for tourism and jobs in an area of outstanding beauty that unfortunately has terrible financial deprivation. The Secretary of State is welcome.
I did a bit of research following our last exchange at the Dispatch Box, and it transpires that National Highways owns the tunnel at the moment. I would be happy to transfer it to a local group, the Welsh Government or the local council, with money for the purpose. The hon. Gentleman is welcome to take that up, and I look forward to taking up his offer of a harness at some time in the future when I can see it fully open.
UK Transport Network: Decarbonisation
Our world-leading transport decarbonisation plan sets out how transport will be cleaner and greener, leading to healthier communities and supporting tens of thousands of jobs.
I refer the House to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.
It is a world-leading plan, and there is so much going on in the rail industry. As the Secretary of State well knows, cars are still the biggest emitter and the biggest contributor to air pollution. The key is switching to electric vehicles and hybrids. What is his Department doing to encourage local authorities to put up more charging points so the inflection point can happen sooner?
My hon. Friend is right. As the House is bored of hearing, I have been driving an electric car for the past two and a half years, and they are fantastic. People need to be convinced that they will be able to fill up and add energy when required, which is why we have put £2.5 billion into the process not just for grants for those cars but for the infrastructure itself.
My hon. Friend will be interested to hear that yesterday I was looking at a new design that will be unveiled at COP26 next week for an iconic electric charger that I hope will one day be as familiar as the black taxi, the red phone box and many other iconic street items in order to encourage that move.
With COP under way, the Government should be sending the strongest signals on transport decarbonisation. On the one hand we have the chief scientific adviser telling people to fly less, as did a report from the nudge unit that the Government quickly deleted and suppressed, but on the other hand the Chancellor is cutting air passenger duty on domestic flights and the Prime Minister flew back from COP on a private jet for a supposedly urgent appointment that turned out to be a dinner for Telegraph journalists. Does the Secretary of State agree with the chief scientific adviser, or does he agree with the Chancellor and the Prime Minister? He cannot do both.
I will tell the hon. Lady who I do agree with: the Climate Change Committee. She may not be familiar with this, but it has said that its “overall assessment” is that our net zero strategy, launched this week at COP26, is “ambitious and comprehensive”. On the transport element specifically, the CCC says that it is very positive, rating our plans for transport decarbonisation as the highest in terms of planning; ours is the only sector with good plans and the funding, with incentives. So I hope she will accept that when it comes to transport we are doing everything we can.
The net zero strategy and the transport decarbonisation plan are full of climate buzzwords but are not backed up by the required investment. We have already heard about the paucity of active travel funding in England, but let us look at another area—buses. The Prime Minister boasted about his 4,000 green bus pledge, but that represents just 10% of the English bus fleet, whereas the Scottish Government have committed to helping fund 50% of our fleet—the equivalent of 20,000 buses. When will this Government’s ambition and investment match their rhetoric?
The hon. Gentleman points out the wonders of the Barnett formula, which allows our record-breaking funding of electric buses, which the Prime Minister has led, to be carried over into Scotland, where that money is able to be used in a way that is helpful. This does not get around the fact that, as we all remember, the Scottish Government have failed to meet their own carbon reduction targets. So I suggest he looks closer to home before criticising the enormous amounts of money coming through the Barnett formula.
We now come to Question 13, and, once again, the Member of Parliament cannot access the House to represent democracy and his constituents. Once again, these people are blocking democracy, and the fact that Members who are actually trying to talk about these issues are being blocked from doing so is totally counterproductive. So what I would expect is for the Minister to answer Question 13, please.
Heathrow Airport Third Runway: Carbon Cost
I agree entirely with you, Mr Speaker, and observe that it is not only ironic, but totally counterproductive that a Member of Parliament who wished to ask Ministers about carbon is prevented from doing so by protesters purporting to care about carbon. I will do my best to answer my hon. Friend’s question, anticipating what he might have asked. I anticipate that he would have asked me, on behalf of his constituents in Windsor, about Heathrow expansion. He would have expanded on the carbon cost of a third runway, which is what is set out on the Order Paper. Of course, Heathrow expansion is a private sector project, which will need to meet strict criteria on air quality, noise and climate change. He is right to raise those questions. Clearly, the aviation sector has a big part to play in delivering the UK’s net zero commitment. Were he here, I would hope to be able to reassure him that we are continuing, through technology and aviation, to look for ways to reduce the carbon footprint of aviation, to ensure that we can transition to guilt-free flying. We will be setting out the final jet zero strategy early next year, which will show how we can support the benefits of air travel and the opportunities that aviation decarbonisation can bring to the UK. I say to the whole House and to everyone who is concerned about this issue that it is emissions, not flying, that is the problem.
Heavy Goods Vehicle Driver Shortages
I regularly meet my ministerial colleagues, and together we have implemented 28 measures to alleviate the HGV driver shortage. So far, these measures are resulting in an extra 1,000 applications every week.
The Prime Minister was warned of this crisis way back in June, but it took until last month for there to be a paltry offer of 5,000 temporary visas, to fill 100,000 vacancies. The Government recently told the Select Committee on Transport that this crisis was going to last until the end of 2022—that is more than one whole year of empty shelves, port backlogs and rising prices. This is unacceptable incompetence. What is the Government’s plan to end this now?
First, it is important to set this in context. This is a global issue. I met my German counterpart here in Parliament just yesterday and it is estimated that by 2027 Germany will have a shortage of 185,000 HGV drivers. We have been taking action, and not just in the past few weeks, as the hon. Lady suggests; since I became Secretary of State, I have launched 28 measures, which are having a real impact. I mentioned that 1,000 more people are becoming lorry drivers each week—or, rather, are having their applications for a provisional signed through. We have actually got 1,000 a day applying for those forms, so we are starting to see those numbers come through. The Opposition leader tells us what his solution is, which is to issue 100,000 visas, which would completely undercut our own lorry drivers and take us back to square one.
East Birmingham Tram Line
Thanks to our hard-working Mayor, Andy Street, diggers are in the ground for the very first part of the East Birmingham tram line, to Digbeth from the city centre. We just awarded, in the spending review, over £1 billion to the West Midlands for transformative projects such as this, and I am sure the right hon. Gentleman will give all his support to our Mayor in the delivery of this important levelling-up priority.
Last week’s Budget was a step forward, but if we strip out the re-announced money, we see that it was actually £1 billion less than the Mayor asked for. That shortfall jeopardises our potential to build the 8-mile tram line through east Birmingham, so will the Minister meet me and other Members from east Birmingham so that we can explain to him the cross-party ambition to build the line? We cannot connect what are the poorest communities in the country with the wealth created by High Speed 2 without the tram line, and we cannot level up what is, in effect, the fifth-biggest city in Britain without it.
The Minister responsible for trams, my hon. Friend Baroness Vere, would be happy to meet the right hon. Gentleman to discuss that and other local priorities. He will be aware that the £1 billion announced in the spending review is only one part of the transport investment that is going into the region. I hope that more good news will be announced for the West Midlands as part of the upcoming integrated rail plan.
Mr Speaker, you have rightly highlighted the Insulate Britain protests outside the House that are preventing Members from getting into the Chamber, which is completely unacceptable. I therefore thought it would be helpful to update the House: following my requirement that National Highways seek injunctions against the protesters, 475 injunctions have been served to protesters at their homes for contempt of court, of which 32 are due to come to court, nine of them later this month.
When it gets to the point that protests against climate change prevent Members of this House from getting here to hold Ministers to account and be heard, it is clearly counterproductive. Contempt of court can lead to unlimited fines and prison sentences. We will act through the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill to resolve the gap in the law that has led to this situation.
Five years ago, Sheffield looked as though it was going to benefit from a whole range of levelling-up measures for rail infrastructure, but then the electrification of the midland main line was abandoned in 2017; a positive 2016 report on a new road tunnel between Sheffield and Manchester seems to have lain in the bottom of some ministerial drawer since; and the high-speed rail line between Sheffield and Manchester seems to have become an upgrade to the Hope Valley line which, however welcome, means that trains will get to the very high speed of under 60 mph. The one thing we have left is the eastern leg of High Speed 2. Will the Secretary of State now commit to that eastern leg going ahead? Or is this simply another example of Sheffield being not levelled up but, together with whole parts of the east midlands, being forgotten about and left behind?
I am disappointed by the hon. Gentleman’s lack of ambition. He says that only the east midlands line is left; he is wrong: there are still other upgrades to be considered, such as the midland main line and many others. I am afraid he will have to wait for the integrated rail plan, but I think he will be excited when it is delivered.
You will not be surprised, Mr Speaker, to hear me say that my hon. Friend is absolutely on the nail. She has listed a litany of problems that the Mayor has created; I shall add to it. She did not mention the 31% increase in council tax for her constituents through the mayoral precept. Also, the Mayor is now considering bringing in checkpoints for anybody driving into London: it would cost £1,000 a year for non-Londoners at checkpoint Chigwell and elsewhere around the capital. It is completely unacceptable and we will fight it all the way.
May I begin by sending my thoughts and prayers to those injured in Sunday’s train crash, particularly the badly injured train driver, and, of course, I pay tribute to the emergency responders.
The British people are looking for leadership on climate change. The Budget was the clearest indication yet that the Government lack ambition, urgency and commitment after a wearying 11 years in power. The Government saw cuts to domestic aviation taxes, yet baked in inflation-busting rail fare increases and did nothing to reverse the rapid decline in bus use. Of the 4,000 new zero-carbon buses promised by the Prime Minister two years ago, not a single one is yet on the road. The roll-out of electric charging points is sluggish, and, today, there are 1 million more diesel vans on the road than when the Government came to power. So, next week, when Transport Day meets at COP26, what will change?
I note that the hon. Gentleman is not listening to the Committee on Climate Change. I will not repeat its quote, but it did say that the transport sector and our plans are particularly world leading. We have actually reduced greenhouse gas by a quarter since we came to power. We are the first country in the world, as he well knows, to legislate for net zero by 2050. In the Budget, we announced another £620 million for that transition to zero-emission vehicles and £180 million for sustainable aviation fuel. The plan that Labour is proposing—and I notice that the GMB union that supports it is proposing—is to stop people from flying, or to allow them to go on holiday only once every five years, and to prevent them from using their cars.[Official Report, 16 November 2021, Vol. 703, c. 4MC.]
With respect, our position on aviation and decarbonisation is absolutely clear. I want to stop the Transport Secretary not from flying, but perhaps from flying his own private plane.
Turning to smart motorways, it has been 10 months since I asked the Secretary of State to reinstate the hard shoulder immediately. No action followed. Instead, he ploughed ahead on smart motorway roll-out. Since then, whistleblowers have come forward confirming our worst fears: broken equipment; a lack of monitoring; and, ultimately, lives being placed at risk. This failure has had a devastating impact on people’s lives. Now that the Transport Committee has published its damning report and the families of those who lost loved ones on smart motorways were forced into Parliament Square this week to protest, will he do the right thing and immediately insist that the hard shoulder is reinstated today?
We all share the passion and desire to make sure that our roads are as safe as they can possibly be. Sadly, 1,700 people die a year on our roads. It is important that we do everything possible. The Transport Committee that the hon. Gentleman quotes did not say quite what he said. It actually said:
“The evidence suggests that doing so”—
in other words simply putting the hard shoulder back in—
“could put more drivers and passengers at risk of death and serious injury.”
It was the noble Lord Prescott who started to introduce smart motorways. As far as I am aware, I am the first Secretary of State—there have been 12 since—who has been working consistently with an 18-point plan and £500 million to get them sorted out.
I can assure my hon. Friend that our intention for this consultation is to prevent modifications that negatively impact on road safety, vehicle security and the environment. Department for Transport officials have been instructed to ensure that proposals do not prevent activities such as restoration, repairs or legitimate improvements to classic cars, or do any damage to the motor sports businesses involved in these activities. Motor sport is an important sector for society, our economy and our heritage and I thank my hon. Friend for all that he does in championing this important area, as he is a fantastic advocate.
There are a whole host of massive improvements going on across our railways. I will happily meet the hon. Gentleman to talk about individual diesel multiple units around the Stockton area and how they can be improved. The massive increase in new rolling stock on our railways is extraordinarily good for all passengers up and down the country, and helps with our decarbonisation targets.
As Scarborough and Whitby is the proud home of Alexander Dennis coaches, I know that my right hon. Friend will welcome the firm acceleration that is supporting thousands of zero-emission buses, thanks to a further £355 million of funding announced in the spending review last week. With £71 million extra for our zero-emission bus regional areas scheme, we are bussing back better with a cleaner, greener kind of horsepower.
The hon. Lady tempts me to speculate on the contents of the integrated rail plan. As I said in response to the hon. Member for Bradford East (Imran Hussain), she will have to wait and see. However, the Government recognise the importance of Bradford, and particularly the connectivity of Bradford to Leeds—two incredibly important northern cities. I hope that we will publish the integrated rail plan very soon.
I would be delighted to visit. I am sure that the Secretary of State would as well; he definitely does not need a harness to visit places. We are well aware of the opportunities that exist in this area and the importance of the National Memorial Arboretum to so many people. I look forward to continuing conversations with my hon. Friend in due course.
My inbox—and, I am sure, those of many other Members—is mounting up with complaints from constituents who have been waiting months for responses from the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency about drivers’ applications. Many of them are professional drivers, of whom there is a shortage at the moment. One of my constituents who was renewing his licence has not had a reply in time and now cannot work. Will the Secretary of State assure us that something is being done to catch up with the backlog?
I bring the hon. Lady and the House good news. It was reported a few weeks ago that there were 56,000 outstanding licence applications at the DVLA, where there had been a long-running strike during covid. The good news is that that 56,000 is now down to just 16,000, of which 4,000 are returned within five days. Those are the new applications. The remainder are being worked on quickly and do not, in fact, stop anybody from driving. They are largely renewals, changes of address and so on. Drivers are allowed to continue driving while waiting for those to be returned, but we will have even that list down within the next week or two.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. I do appreciate your understanding when I was blocked getting into the House earlier today by the protesters.
Last year, thankfully, the Prime Minister came to Broxtowe to announce “Gear Change”, which provides £2 billion-worth of cycling and walking funding. That indicates that active travel is really at the heart of the Government’s agenda. I have in Broxtowe a town called Stapleford where people have put in an expression of interest for something called Mini Holland, which sounds fantastic. Will the Minister explain what that scheme is all about and how the process will work?
I will try to amend my answer from earlier. I am very pleased to see my hon. Friend in his place, as he should be, representing his constituents despite the Tarquins in the world outside. I can honestly say to him that “Gear Change” is an extremely important document that has a whole host of pledges that we would like to happen, Mini Hollands being one of them. Where they have been introduced before—Waltham Forest in London is a good example—we are getting towards nearly 50% of all journeys taken within the area being by active travel. That is a massive change in how people go about their business, and indeed massive acceptance by communities that might have been sceptical about them beforehand. They are really valuable schemes.
The Secretary of State and the Chancellor press-released that the Budget would invest in northern transport, but once again the north-east was entirely overlooked. It costs more for a Geordie to go four stops up the West Road on a bus than it does for a Londoner to traverse the whole of London city, so when will the Secretary of State level down bus prices?
The hon. Lady will be familiar with our enthusiasm for buses and the “Bus Back Better” strategy. I have personally been involved with putting tens of millions of pounds into the excellent Nexus system, which helps to connect communities as well. She will simply not find a Government more keen and excited about levelling up transport and bringing it all the way up the country no matter where hon. Members are from.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. It is very seldom that I become furious, but I am absolutely apoplectic about missing my question this morning due to those reprobates outside who are doing their cause no good whatsoever. I was sitting in my electric vehicle—I know the Secretary of State has one as well—coming here with the sole purpose of putting pressure on the Government to reduce carbon emissions from aviation from Heathrow airport, so it is absolutely bizarre that they should have blocked that question. My question now, which I will slightly rephrase, is: given that aviation is one of the greatest contributors to CO2 emissions, do the Government have any plans to continue to put downward pressure on CO2 from aviation?
I am very glad to see my hon. Friend here fighting for his constituents, as ever. I am glad that he made it in past the protestors to make that entirely forceful and appropriate point on their behalf. He is right to acknowledge that aviation is one of the harder to decarbonise sectors, and clearly it has to make a big contribution. The Government are working very hard to make sure that the carbon emissions in aviation are reduced, through technology and innovation, because we wish to see guilt-free flying. We have consulted on the “Jet Zero” strategy. Next year we will publish the final “Jet Zero” strategy, which will explain how we can keep the benefits of air travel and the opportunities that it has for the UK while ensuring that it is done on a vastly reduced carbon emission basis.
Since City of York Council barred blue badge holders from accessing our city centre, it seems also that the Government are delaying implementing fully accessible transport. We heard earlier about the five-year delay on audio-visual for buses, but also, in commissioning active travel schemes, the Government are not making them accessible either. Will the Minister talk to the companies that are putting in place e-travel active travel schemes to ensure that they have an accessible form of vehicles as well so that we can increase motability for disabled people?
I thank the hon. Lady for her question. I think I completely understood it, but in case I have not, perhaps it is worth us meeting to clarify this. Yes, we are spending a huge amount on active travel. Another pledge in “Gear Change” is to have e-bikes going out across local communities, and they are being rolled out now, as they should be. This is determined by local authorities, and perhaps it is a question of localism, but let me meet her to work out what the problem is and rectify it, because we should be able to give it a good nudge from the centre.
There can be no better place to Bus Back Better than the great city of Stoke-on-Trent, because, sadly, in a survey of 230 residents from across Stoke-on-Trent North, Kidsgrove and Talke, people said to me that fares are not fair, reliability is non-existent and there is not good connectivity for places such as Brindley Ford and the great village of Milton. The Secretary of State joked with me recently that I must have broken WhatsApp, because I kept bombarding him with demands and messages. He should save himself a load of hassle, give Stoke-on-Trent the £90 million it wants for the Bus Back Better strategy, and ensure that we level up in the great city of Stoke-on-Trent.
Absolutely yes, Mr Speaker. I thank my hon. Friend for his championing of Bus Back Better. The Government are absolutely determined that great bus services be available to everyone, especially those in Stoke-on-Trent. Our national bus strategy explains how we will make buses more frequent, more reliable, easier to understand and use, better co-ordinated and cheaper. We are more than doubling dedicated bus funding compared with the previous Parliament.
Making aviation net zero is clearly a big challenge. Earlier, the Secretary of State said that it is not flying that is the problem, but emissions from aircraft that use fossil fuels. Will he meet me to discuss ideas around synthetic fuels that scientists from the University of Leeds have brought to my attention?
The new agreement between the Department for Transport and Greater Anglia on running the railways in East Anglia has omitted the previous commitment in the franchise to reinstate through-services from Lowestoft to Liverpool Street. Greater Anglia has agreed that it will look at that over the next six months. Will my hon. Friend work with it and me to see whether it is possible to do that?
Business of the House
Before I begin, I congratulate you, Mr Speaker, on this day of legend and song, because it is the second anniversary of your being dragged to the Chair with notable reluctance. The business for next week is as follows:
Monday 8 November—Consideration of Lords message relating to the Environment Bill, followed by consideration of Lords amendments to the Telecommunications (Security) Bill, followed by Opposition day (7th allotted day—second part). There will be a debate on a motion in the name of the official Opposition. Subject to be announced, followed by motion to approve the draft Motor Vehicles (Driving Licences) (Amendment) (No. 2) Regulations 2021 and the draft Motor Vehicles (Driving Licences) (Amendment) (No. 4) Regulations 2021.
Tuesday 9 November—General debate on giving every baby the best start in life, followed by general debate on the provision of school-based counselling services. The subjects for these debates were determined by the Backbench Business Committee.
At the conclusion of business on Tuesday 9 November, the House will rise for the November recess and return on Monday 15 November.
The business for the week commencing 15 November will include:
Monday 15 November—Consideration of Lords amendments to the Social Security (Up-Rating of Benefits) Bill, followed by Second Reading of the Skills and Post-16 Education Bill [Lords].
Tuesday 16 November—Second Reading of the Finance (No. 2) Bill.
Wednesday 17 November—Opposition day (8th allotted day). There will be a debate on a motion in the name of the official Opposition. Subject to be announced.
Thursday 18 November—Consideration of a business of the House motion, followed by all stages of the Critical Benchmarks (References and Administrators' Liability) Bill [Lords].
Friday 19 November—Private Members’ Bills.
The provisional business for the week commencing 22 November will include:
Monday 22 November—Remaining Stages of the Health and Care Bill (Day 1).
Tuesday 23 November—Remaining Stages of the Health and Care Bill (Day 2).
I would like to mark the retirement of Crispin Poyser, who has served the House as a Clerk for more than 40 years. A good understanding of “Erskine May” is essential for the functioning of Parliament, and Crispin is a great proceduralist. In the House and in his secondment to the Cabinet Office as parliamentary adviser to the Government, his work has underpinned the principle of accountability to Parliament. We should all be grateful. I know that his colleagues will miss his expertise nearly as much as they will miss him. I thank him for his terrific public service.
I am aware that last night’s vote has created a certain amount of controversy. It is important that standards in this House are done on a cross-party basis. The House voted very clearly yesterday to show that it is worried about the process of handling complaints, and that we would like an appeals system; but the change would need to be supported on a cross-party basis, and that is clearly not the case.
While there is a very strong feeling on both sides of the House that there is a need for an appeals process, there is equally a strong feeling that this should not be based on a single case, or applied retrospectively. I fear last night’s debate conflated the individual case with the general concern. This link needs to be broken. Therefore, I and others will look to work on a cross-party basis to achieve improvements in our system for future cases. We will bring forward more detailed proposals once there have been cross-party discussions.
I would also like to express the thanks of the whole House to Crispin Poyser for his 43 years of service to the House. We wish him and his wife Krissie well, and send our best wishes for the many things that they will do next. Crispin is known among colleagues for his keen procedural mind, curiosity and kindness. He will be missed by the House, and I thank him for the loyal service that he has given.
I thank the Leader of the House for the forthcoming business. I join him and you, Mr Speaker, in paying tribute to Crispin Poyser. Clerks are some of the many unsung heroes who keep this place going. We are incredibly grateful to them all; they appear to know absolutely everything. I wish Crispin Poyser a happy retirement from this place. I also wish everyone a happy Diwali. May light shine on us all.
I am frankly astonished by what the right hon. Gentleman just said about separating the review of the standards process from the individual case. Government Members made the choice yesterday to link the two. There is no separating them retrospectively—he has made much of the fact that the Government do not want retrospective rule change. Much was said about the standards procedure not being in line with that in other workplaces, but MPs are holders of public office, not employees. We are subject to professional self-regulation, not employment law.
Government Members cannot pick and choose; if they want to be treated as employees of this House, rather than office holders, then alongside all other employees, they should be wearing masks around the estate and in the Chamber. Unfortunately, unlike when it comes to breaking the rules about paid advocacy, a convivial and fraternal spirit does not protect everyone else. The Government cannot have it both ways. Can the right hon. Gentleman ask his friends to do the right thing and wear their masks—if not for themselves and each other, at least for the staff?
On Monday, the Committee on Standards in Public Life published its 23rd report. More than 25 years have passed since the seven principles of public life were first introduced off the back of a previous escapade of Tory sleaze and corruption, and we and the Government are back there again. Can the Leader of the House confirm whether the Government will endorse the report? Or, if they do not like the recommendations, which I strongly suspect that they do not, will they just abolish the committee? Will they establish another sham Committee, so that the Government can get the answers they want?
Labour will not participate in the sham Committee that the Tories voted through yesterday, despite what the right hon. Gentleman has just said. We will look with interest at his proposals, but we will not participate in a parallel process when the Chair of the Committee on Standards, my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant), who is sitting behind me, is doing such a great job with the other cross-party members of the Committee and its lay members.
How will the other Committee be resourced? Has there been a proposal under the estimates process? Considering that the Committee will risk wasting taxpayer’s money, which I know the Leader of the House dislikes intensely, if he cannot get it past estimates, could he ask one of his hon. Friends to contribute some of their lobbying money? Or will he perhaps pay the Chair’s salary?
As the Opposition will not participate in the sham Committee, will the Leader of the House confirm whether it will sit with only Tory members? How will it be decided who sits on the Committee, whether it is the one voted through yesterday or the other one that he has mentioned this morning?
Given the Business Secretary’s frankly disgraceful comments this morning, can I ask whether the Leader of the House agrees with him that the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, who was properly appointed, should resign? Is that his view—yes or no?
To continue on the theme of standards, I asked the Leader of the House last week about the updated ministerial code. As I said then, six months have gone by since Lord Geidt was appointed as the new independent adviser, but we still do not have that code. The Government seem to think it is okay for MPs to act as paid advocates for private companies, so it is no surprise to me that they do not seem to have much regard to it. Will the Leader of the House please confirm when it will be published, or whether they are just going to get rid of that as well?
This month is Islamophobia Awareness Month. Earlier in the week, my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Afzal Khan) said that this time a year ago, he wrote to the Prime Minister raising concerns over Islamophobia, and a year on, the Prime Minister has still not responded to my hon. Friend. This is wholly unacceptable. Can the Leader of the House please ask the Prime Minister when he will write back to my hon. Friend? Can he also again remind his other Cabinet colleagues of their responsibilities to this House, because I am afraid that we are still not getting timely—or indeed in some cases any—answers to written parliamentary questions or letters, or from hotlines?
Finally, to avoid any unfortunate coincidences, as Conservative Members have put it, between current cases and other Committees or processes, will the Leader of the House take this opportunity to say whether there are any other parliamentary procedures or Committees that he is likely to want to amend, abolish or duplicate—or will he wait until another one of his friends needs saving?
May I join the hon. Lady in wishing people a happy Diwali? I hope that they enjoy their celebrations.
There is a problem with people writing their questions before they have heard what has been said, because I made it quite clear in my business statement that we need to proceed on a cross-party basis, and it is a matter of regret that there was no cross-party agreement yesterday. Obviously, a Committee cannot work effectively without Opposition Members on it, and I think that was absolutely clear from what I said.
We need to ensure that we have standards in this place that are fair and robust, and that are seen to be fair and robust. I would highlight the Independent Complaints and Grievance Scheme, which has an appeal body, the independent expert panel. The independent expert panel has on it a High Court judge—somebody of the highest standing and legal training—but that is not the case for standards cases. This issue has been bubbling away for some time, as people have seen the differential between the two.
Of course, I listened very carefully to the debate yesterday, and to comments made from across the House, and I absolutely recognise that it is important to proceed on a cross-party basis to have the highest standards in this House, but ones that, when implemented, are fair to those they are applied to. That is what we will seek to achieve. I hope that the hon. Lady and others are willing to enter into this in a spirit of co-operation, as we did when we co-operated successfully with her predecessors over the ICGS question, to ensure that the ICGS could be taken out of the Standards Committee while remaining under its umbrella, and become a much more independent process.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for raising the fact that this is Islamophobia Awareness Month, and for asking for a reply to a letter that has been sent. As I have said many times in this House, I view it as my role to facilitate for this House answers to legitimate questions. This is a matter of priority for me, and I regularly remind my hon. and right hon. Friends of the need to respond. I will continue to do that, and I can assure her that I will take up with No. 10 Downing Street the letter that was sent last year.
On the hon. Lady’s question about whether there are any other planned changes, I am always rather with Palmerston: “Change, change—aren’t things bad enough already?”. However, I point out that the Procedure Committee is available to consider alterations to our procedures. It does invaluable work, and at the moment it is considering whether proxy voting should be extended.
The hon. Lady, and all other Members of the House, will know that our proceedings and processes have evolved. There was a lot of talk yesterday about 1695. As I am sure you are aware, Mr Speaker, that related to a Speaker, Sir John Trevor, who was given 1,000 guineas, I believe by the City of London Corporation and the East India Company, to influence proceedings in Parliament. He was therefore removed as Speaker, but rather oddly remained Master of the Rolls. We are so lucky, on your second anniversary, that no such question should arise with the current Speaker, who is fortunately not Master of the Rolls.
On Monday I attended a debate in Westminster Hall on research into endometriosis and polycystic ovary syndrome. I was hoping, indeed planning, to participate, but such were the excellent speeches from female colleagues who had been suffering from that condition, as well as time pressures, that it was clearly appropriate to hear their important words first. The debate highlighted that it can take up to eight years between someone presenting and their diagnosis. Could we perhaps build on Monday’s debate, broadening the subject to consider how long it takes between presenting and diagnosis for someone with certain conditions, and what we can do to improve that?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that important issue, which has also been raised with me by constituents. That is the sort of question that may well have come from Sir David Amess in the past, because he was a passionate campaigner for those suffering with endometriosis. The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence publishes authoritative evidence-based guidelines for healthcare professionals that help to ensure that the diagnosis, care and treatment of NHS patients is based on the best available evidence. I hope that eight years is not seen as an acceptable length of time for people to wait for diagnosis and treatment. In the spending review an extra £5.9 billion of taxpayers’ money was announced for capital expenditure to support elective, recovery, diagnostic and technology over the next three years, and we are rolling out 44 community diagnostic centres to increase capacity. That could deliver up to 2.8 million scans in the first full year of operation. We aim to deliver up to 100 community diagnostic centres in total by 2024-25, and we will publish the delivery plan for tackling the electives backlog later this year. I will, of course, pass on my hon. Friend’s concerns to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care.
What an absolute and utter mess, and I am not entirely sure that it has been much helped and assisted by what the Leader of the House said about the process this morning. He is inviting us to capitulate to this Tory kangaroo court Committee, and go along with what the Tories are intending to do on reform. If he wants us to participate, we must return to the status quo. We have to get back to where we were before we voted yesterday, with an intact Standards Committee, and abide by the findings of that Committee. Only on that basis will we enter any discussions or talks with the right hon. Gentleman.
What we have is disgraceful. We effectively have two Committees—perhaps three if the Leader of the House gets his way—that have no legitimacy in the House, no confidence of the membership of the House, and no trust from any members of the public at all. No wonder so many gloomy Tory MPs are kicking around the House this morning—the magnitude of what they attempted to do yesterday is starting to dawn on them. What they did was to legitimise and sanction paid advocacy, and signal a return to cash for questions and grubby brown envelopes stuffed full of cash for doing their paymasters’ bidding. They have effectively dispensed with independent investigation, and they have transferred that to a kangaroo court Committee on which they have given themselves a majority. We will play no part in that Committee of corruption, and I am glad the Labour party will not either.
I heard the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy say this morning that the standards commissioner should review her position. That is akin to giving the referee a red card because we do not like the decision of that referee. It is not too late. Return us to the status quo and to where we were yesterday, and we will enter into discussions. But not on the basis of this ridiculous attempt at reform.
Mr Speaker, I have given up trying to get the Leader of the House to wear a face mask. I have now accepted that he does not care a jot about the safety and security of his colleagues or staff in this House. We now have an outbreak in this House, and we have him, with his weird individualism and arrogance, refusing to do anything about it. Maybe that is something that his Tory kangaroo court Committee could look at, because it will have precious little else to do.
I will just add in response to the hon. Member for Bristol West (Thangam Debbonaire) that I have had a note to tell me that the party chairman responded on behalf of the Prime Minister to the letter on Islamophobia. That was done earlier this year.
Nobody would wish to defend paid advocacy. I would say to the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart) that his pre-prepared fury every week is becoming very much a broken record. It does not matter what the subject is; the fury is enormous. It may be that it is raining outside and the hon. Gentleman is furious. It may be that there has been a debate on standards and the hon. Gentleman is furious. Anything that comes up, he comes here to be cross, and he gets crosser and crosser as the weeks and the days go on.
If the hon. Gentleman had listened to what I said, rather than concentrating on his pre-prepared fury, he would have noted that I said that we need to make sure that this happens on a cross-party basis. It would be idle to pretend that there are not concerns about the system. It would be idle to pretend that there are not many people in this House who feel that not having a proper appeals process is a flaw in the system. It would be idle to suggest that there are not people in this House who recognise that the system set up for the ICGS, with the IEP, has, with a High Court judge, a better legal focus than the other system. These things are all true and they all need to be looked at, but of course, to maintain high standards and proper processes, we want to have cross-party support.
I think one of the problems with yesterday was the fact that two issues were being put together; one was the case of my right hon. Friend the Member for North Shropshire (Mr Paterson) and the other was the reform of the system. On what the Leader of the House has said now, I understand the process of going forward on a cross-party basis, but I am not sure how that leaves the case of my right hon. Friend the Member for North Shropshire. Perhaps we could have a statement next week clarifying the Government’s position.
I voted for the Leadsom amendment, as it is called. I listened to the debate and I made up my mind. Will the Leader of the House issue a statement reminding people in the media that all votes in this House are free? I, for one, am never going to be told by someone else not to vote my conscience.
But Sir, the issue that concerns me most—I am sorry to take so long—is that this morning, my office was vandalised because of the way I voted last night. That puts my staff in danger. This is not the way that this should happen. We can have strong disagreement, but I think some of us should remember what happened to Sir David Amess, and perhaps our language needs to be a little temperate. I ask the Leader of the House if we can have a statement next week setting out the Government’s position on what he has said today.
May I just reiterate what I said at the beginning of these proceedings? While there is a very strong feeling on both sides of the House that there is a need for an appeals process, there is equally a strong feeling that this should not be based on a single case or applied retrospectively. I fear last night’s debate conflated the individual case with the general concern. This link needs to be broken. I hope that answers my hon. Friend’s question.
As regards the vexed question of whipping, as I understand it, all Whips are attendance Whips. My hon. Friend is well known for his independence of mind, and I am sure his constituents are aware of that, but to vandalise some Member’s property or office because of the way that Member voted seems to me to be potentially a breach of privilege, and it may be something that needs to be looked into with considerable care. As you warned us yesterday, Mr Speaker, we always need to discuss these things in a temperate and sensible manner.
The problem is, we are in a quagmire now. I fully support the comments that have just been made by the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr Bone) and I am sorry for everything that has happened to his office; I think that has happened to quite a lot of MPs over the last few years. I think the message for all of us is that we need to be very careful when we are talking about standards issues, as I have tried to be.
The Leader of the House is quite right that we should never be changing the rules at the last minute for a named individual. There is a potential solution to that, which is that the Standards Committee, on a cross-party basis, could produce another report next Tuesday, which the Government could then put to the House next week to deal with the case of the right hon. Member for North Shropshire (Mr Paterson). I think the Committee would say exactly the same thing, but it would be a means of separating that case out from the issue of the whether we should change the system.
On changing the system, as the Leader of the House knows, because he has given evidence to our Committee, we are already reviewing that. There are decent points to be made about things that could be improved in the system. They are not easy things to resolve, but my Committee will do its best, on a cross-party basis and with independent members—a valuable addition to the process and an important part of establishing the trust of the public—to take that forward.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for confirming that there are concerns about the system. I think there is a general concern about the investigator and the adjudicator being the same person. It has been suggested to me on a number of occasions that that should be looked at. I am grateful for his suggestion that we should use moderate language, although it has to be remembered that he was the one comparing what happened yesterday to Russia when he was on the wireless this morning, so I hope he will use moderate language not only when he is in this House. As I say, it is important that this is looked at on a cross-party basis, because we need to have robust standards in which Members have confidence.
I was shocked and incredibly disappointed to hear of the Labour west midlands police and crime commissioner’s plans to overhaul the use of stop and search powers across West Midlands police. Yesterday, I wrote to the police and crime commissioner to spell out my disappointment at his proposals. My view, shared by other Members, is that we should be empowering our police officers to use stop and search powers in an appropriate and proportionate way, rather than undermining them and making our streets less safe. Will the Leader of the House make some time for west midlands MPs to debate this issue and ensure that the views of my constituents are represented?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her question. Police chiefs are absolutely clear: stop and search is a vital tool to crack down on serious violence and to keep people safe. That is why we have announced the relaxation of voluntary restrictions on section 60 stop and search powers in all forces in England and Wales. We are also introducing a new court order to make it easier for officers to stop and search those convicted of knife crime. Every weapon seized is potentially a life saved. Last year, stop and search removed 11,000 dangerous weapons from our streets. I encourage my hon. Friend to seek a Back-Bench debate on this matter. I will share her concerns with my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary.
The Leader of the House seemed to indicate earlier that the ICGS system will remain unchanged. Could he now make it absolutely clear that there will not be any changes to the independent system, even if an MP happens to dislike the outcome of a particular case?
I said that in my remarks yesterday. I had a representation from union officials before the debate, which I thought it important to reply to in order to reassure people who work in the Palace that cases relating to harassment and sexual harassment that come under the ICGS are entirely unaffected by what happened yesterday. They have a different process. They have an Independent Expert Panel as an appeal, organised and presided over by a High Court judge, which I think gives those who may come up before the panel greater confidence in its ability to deliver natural justice.
My right hon. Friend may think, after a £56 million levelling-up fund, a £29 million transforming cities fund, a £17.6 million Kidsgrove town deal and 550 new Home Office jobs in the city of Stoke-on-Trent, that perhaps we would be rather full up in my constituency, but he will not be shocked to hear that we have an appetite for more. Potholes drive us potty in the Potteries, so with the announcement in the Budget of £2.7 billion to fix them, does he agree that Stoke-on-Trent should get a big slice, particularly when taking into account the condition and use of our roads, and that congestion delays drivers by an average of more than a minute for every mile travelled?
My hon. Friend is beginning to remind me of Oliver Twist, in that he is always asking for more. I heard him in Transport questions asking for £90 million and now he wants even more money. He is an absolutely terrific campaigner for Stoke-on-Trent and for getting things done there. There is a £2.7 billion fund over the next three years for local road maintenance, and there is this brilliant JCB device that can mend potholes very quickly. I encourage him to keep on campaigning to get rid of the potholes and to lobby his council to ensure that that is one of its priorities. However, I really commend him for his success in ensuring that any available taxpayers’ money always goes to Stoke-on-Trent.
It has just been announced in the media that the Government are U-turning and have ditched immediate plans to overhaul the standards system. First, will the Leader of the House confirm that? Secondly, does he agree that we need an urgent debate on the whole issue?
That was what I said in my statement at the beginning. We wanted to proceed on a cross-party basis and clearly, therefore, the Select Committee not being supported by other parties was not going to be an effective way of doing that. We had a debate on standards yesterday, which took up 90 minutes and was quite comprehensive.
With regard to yesterday’s amendment to the Standards Committee’s motion and my right hon. Friend’s statements this morning, both initially and in response to my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough (Mr Bone) and the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant), I welcome this move, but I emphasise the need to move very, very quickly for cross-party involvement and to allay the concerns that have already been expressed by members of the public. Our credibility is destroyed if we do not nip this in the bud very, very quickly.
I think we have moved quickly. We recognise that not achieving cross-party support yesterday made it very difficult to get the reforms that we are seeking. We do still seek to have a system that is properly fair and allows a genuine form of appeal, but that cannot be done by the fiat of the Government. It needs broader support than that.
One of my constituents, Christopher Crawford, recently changed his name by deed poll and has been experiencing considerable delays in securing a replacement biometric residency card. No other details have changed, but he has been told that the process will take up to six months. As he works in the creative industries, without this card he is unable to prove his identity and to apply for a covid pass, which is required in Wales in certain circumstances. I have written to the Home Secretary and no action has been forthcoming, so will the Leader of the House arrange for a debate so that we can look at the delays in the Home Office and actions that it can take to expedite matters and militate against circumstances such as these?
I view it as my role as Leader of the House to facilitate issues of this kind, when Members bring forward specific issues relating to their constituents who are not receiving an efficient Government service. I will therefore take this up with the Home Secretary after business questions, although perhaps if the hon. Gentleman could email to me further details of his constituent and the new name that he has adopted by deed poll, I will do what I can to try to speed up the process.
As shadow roads Minister, I had spent this week preparing to speak in a Committee on Monday on motor vehicles regulations—that was slightly complicated by the fact that one of the statutory instruments did not seem to have been published. We were told yesterday that that Committee would not go ahead. As a result, I had a conversation with the chair of the all-party group on trailer and towing safety, our neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol South (Karin Smyth). It would have saved an awful lot of time and an awful lot of conversation and speculation yesterday if we had been told that the reason why the Committee was pulled was that it would be listed for the main Chamber on Monday instead. To be frank, this has upset rather a lot of people who were hoping that the measures on trailers were not going to go ahead. I would like to know from the Leader of the House why things could not have been tied up and why, when the Delegated Legislation Committee was cancelled, we could not have been told that it was going to be in the Chamber.
That is a very good question, but the answer is that the Chamber has to be told first the business of the Chamber. That is a courtesy to the House. I appreciate that when things are being cancelled, it is not helpful that people are not informed of the replacement, but it is absolutely standard practice to notify the Chamber first of business in the Chamber.
As the Leader of the House may be aware, I have been highlighting since August the unacceptable delays to state pension payments for the newly retired. Despite protestations from the pensions Minister that all payments would be up to date
“by the end of October”,
today the Department for Work and Pensions has admitted that thousands of newly retired people still do not have their rightful pensions, including many in my constituency of North Ayrshire and Arran. This is causing deep financial distress, not least to the 1950s women who have already had their pension age increased. Will the Leader of the House make a statement setting out what he will do to ensure that the pension system is fit for purpose and that this mess, which has gone on for far too long, will be sorted out once and for all?
I will tell the hon. Lady what I did the last time she raised the matter: I contacted my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions within a few minutes of the end of business questions, and was told that it was expected that the problem would be sorted out by the end of October. I note that the hon. Lady says that that has not happened; I will be in touch with the Department immediately after business questions. I know that the Department deeply regrets the delays that have taken place.
St Joseph’s Catholic club in Birtley in my constituency has been running a 1 o’clock club in recent weeks, bringing together residents in a social and friendly environment with huge success. We all know that tackling social isolation and loneliness is really important, especially in the light of coronavirus, so will the Leader of the House join me in congratulating St Joseph’s Catholic club on its work? Can we have a debate in Government time on progress towards tackling loneliness?
Yes, I would very much like to congratulate St Joseph’s Catholic club on its 1 o’clock club and its efforts to tackle loneliness. I note that loneliness can be greatly helped by spiritual fulfilment, which many people find through their religious practices; I am therefore delighted that the Catholic Church is involved in helping to tackle loneliness. I fear that I cannot promise the hon. Lady a debate, but it may be that the Backbench Business Committee would be keen to help.
May I thank you, Mr Speaker, for all the work that you are doing to ensure that Parliament is kept safe for staff and Members? May I say to the Leader of the House that this place is not safe? Around voting time, the Lobbies around the Chamber are rammed with many of his colleagues who are not wearing face masks, putting us all at risk. I ask him to review that with you, Mr Speaker, and with others in this House.
The housing crisis in York is growing and it seems that the Government’s proposals around planning have run into the long grass. Could we have a debate in Government time to look at housing need and tenure need in order to address the housing crisis that we are seeing in our constituencies?
The hon. Lady raises a matter that is of concern across the country: how we have a planning system that provides the number of houses that we need and ensures that the right number of permissions are granted every year to achieve the targets and to allow people to own their own home, which is the fundamental aim of planning reform. It was announced in the Queen’s Speech that there would be a planning Bill, and it is the intention of Her Majesty’s Government to deliver a planning Bill.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. I am sure that the Leader of the House and the Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, the hon. Member for Erewash (Maggie Throup), who is in her place, will be interested to know that 30 million NHS dental appointments have been lost since the start of the pandemic. Access to urgent treatment is delayed and my constituents continue to struggle to find an NHS dentist. Can we have a debate in Government time on funding and access to NHS dentistry?
The hon. Lady will know that there is a very considerable catch-up plan for the NHS, including £5.4 billion over the next six months, but at the height of the pandemic, the very immediate contact that patients have with a dentist was thought to be a particularly high risk. However, I know that dentists are now very much back to work; indeed, I have visited dentists in my constituency who are extremely busy working through the backlog. We should be grateful to them for the work that they are doing, but the resources are being provided to help with it.
With permission, Mr Speaker, I will update the House on our covid-19 vaccination programme.
It is less than a year since Margaret Keenan made history by becoming the first person in the world to receive a covid-19 vaccination outside a clinical trial. Since then, we have been leading the world with our vaccination roll-out. We should all take huge pride in the progress that we have made. We have now delivered more than 100 million doses across the UK, including more than 50 million first doses, more than 45 million second doses, and more than 8 million booster and third doses. The UK Health Security Agency estimates that our jabs have prevented more than 24 million infections and more than 127,000 deaths.
Winter is always a challenging time for the NHS, but this year it is even more so, with more indoor mixing, the circulation of flu, and a new risk of more covid-19 variants.
We must continue to do everything we can to protect ourselves, our loved ones, and our NHS. The vaccine roll-out is our best defence against the virus, and it remains the Government’s top priority. While more than 90% per cent of adults across the United Kingdom have received their first dose, about 5 million adults are yet to come forward, but it is never too late to come forward, and we will continue to help everyone to get their jabs so that no one is left behind.
Data published last week by the Office for National Statistics shows that the risk of dying from covid is 32 times greater in unvaccinated people than in fully vaccinated people. That only underlines what we already knew—the critical importance of vaccination—and we are committed to making getting booster jabs as easy as possible. More than 2,400 vaccine sites are now in operation across England, and people can access a vaccination via a walk-in site or book an appointment regardless of whether they have an NHS number. We recognise that the chance to book a jab early, even before the eligibility date, has the potential to drive up bookings for boosters, and we are considering that carefully.
We will not ease up on vaccine uptake, and will continue to work with clinicians, social media platforms, local authorities, faith groups and businesses—indeed, with anyone who can communicate the benefits of vaccination. We have funded community champions across the country to work with local leaders and communities to encourage people to come forward.
We have also accelerated our vaccination programme for children and young people. All those aged 12 to 15 can now get their vaccinations at school, or by booking an appointment via the national booking service. More than 200 sites are now available for appointments outside school, and school age immunisation teams have visited more than 2,500 schools in England so far, with 800 more due to be visited next week. I am delighted that more than 650,000 12 to 15-year olds have been vaccinated since the programme was launched in September.
We are also rapidly rolling out our booster programme to give people the best protection over the winter and help to reduce pressure on the NHS. Although our vaccines give powerful protection, we know that the levels of protection offered by a covid-19 vaccine fall over time—particularly in older people, who are at greater risk from the virus—and even a small reduction in protection can have a significant impact on hospital admissions. The goal of the booster programme is to top up that protection. More than 8 million people across the UK have now received the vital protection that a booster dose provides. Our brilliant NHS is delivering the biggest vaccination programme in NHS history, administering hundreds of thousands of booster jabs every day, and the pace has been accelerating rapidly, with a record 1.6 million jabs in England last week alone. A further 2.2 million invitations are going out this week.
Doctors, nurses, pharmacists and volunteers up and down the country are playing their part in delivering jabs to protect the country against the virus. GPs in particular continue to be the bedrock of the vaccine programme, delivering more than 70% of all vaccinations so far, and I know that the whole country is grateful for their tireless work throughout the pandemic.
The most important thing that everyone can do to protect themselves, their family and the freedoms for which we have fought so hard is to get their jab and, if they are eligible, their booster dose. We are making it easier than ever to get protected, so please come forward.
People eligible for their booster can already use the NHS online walk-in finder to find the most convenient site to get their top-up without an appointment. There are hundreds of walk-in sites across the country. We have also updated our guidance to make it clear that covid-19 boosters can be given slightly earlier to those at highest risk, where it makes sense operationally. For example, we are allowing care home residents who may have received their second dose at different times to be vaccinated in the same session when the vaccination team are in the home, as long as they have passed the five-month mark.
Covid-19 is not our only adversary this winter. We are also facing the threat of flu, which even before this pandemic, placed a great strain on the NHS at this time of year. Last season, we saw extremely low influenza activity levels globally and as a result, we may see lower levels of population immunity against the flu and more strains in circulation this winter. To combat this, a record 35 million people are eligible for a free flu jab this year, and this provides us with another way that we can keep our country safe.
Finally, it is not just in vaccinations that records are being set. I am delighted to confirm that today we have become the first country in the world to approve an antiviral for covid-19 that can be taken at home. In clinical trials, molnupiravir has been shown to reduce the risk of hospitalisation or death for covid-19 patients who are most at risk by 50%. This treatment has gone through a rigorous assessment for the highest standards of safety by the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency. We are now working across Government and the NHS to urgently get this treatment to patients, initially through a national study so that we can collect more data on how antivirals work in a mostly vaccinated population. I urge everyone to get their covid and flu jabs as soon as they are eligible, in order to protect themselves, their loved ones, and the extraordinary progress that we have made together. I commend this statement to the House.
I thank the Minister for giving me advance sight of the statement and take this opportunity say a huge thank you to our NHS. Frontline staff are doing a fantastic job continuing to deliver the vaccine programme, which is especially complex and fraught with challenges as they deliver first, second and third doses as well as jabs for 12 to 15-year-olds. They are coping with numerous pressures in the system, but continue to work flat out to get the UK through this pandemic.
Winter is coming, though, and frankly the Government just do not have a handle on covid, going into the busiest season for our NHS. The Government must get a grip on the stalling vaccination programme. Plan B, which contains measures that we already support, such as mask wearing and allowing working from home, is simply not enough on its own. Yes, we support it, but it is not enough on its own. We must turbocharge vaccine boosters, fix sick pay and improve ventilation.
The clinically vulnerable are simply not getting the jabs they need. Local residents are contacting us saying that they cannot get the boosters they so desperately need. One lady in her 70s who has underlying health conditions went to her pharmacy and called 119, just to be told that she was not eligible for her booster. She has now finally got one booked for December, but she had to rely on her daughter to book the appointment for her because she does not use the internet. The system simply is not working, particularly for many of those who need it most.
The Government had a deadline of 1 November for offering booster jabs to all care home residents. Right now, only 23% of care home residents in Leicester have had their booster jab, and the picture across the country is extremely patchy. To be clear, just promoting pop-up vaccine clinics does not help care home residents. We must use all the resources we have, including community pharmacists, retired medics and trained volunteers, to go into care homes and vaccinate residents. The Government are failing and this is putting people’s lives at risk.
In my borough of Wandsworth, the two-dose rate is only 67%, which means that almost 100,000 people do not have the recommended level of vaccination, but this is not an isolated example—people in Wandsworth are working very hard to get the vaccine out—and it is replicated across the country. What are the Government doing to increase the uptake?
Let us be honest, it is largely less affluent areas that have the lowest take-up, proving that vaccine inequalities are alive and kicking. Covid has shone a spotlight on the health inequalities that exist across the country. Why are the Government ignoring them again now? We are tired of issuing the same warnings time and again.
Our rate of child vaccination is shamefully low and slowed during half-term—the rate is still only around 20%. There were almost 250,000 children out of school in the days before half-term. Where is the plan?
On current trends, we will not complete the booster programme until spring 2022. The Government need to get a grip and set a target of 500,000 boosters a day. At the moment, the figure is less than 300,000 a day, which is why we are calling for more pop-up vaccine clinics, greater use of community pharmacies and the mobilisation of retired medics.
As we approach a difficult winter, Ministers have failed to put in place measures such as improved ventilation, proper sick pay and fully resourced local contact-tracing teams, all of which would help to reduce the spread of the virus. We must get the balance right and ensure flu vaccines, covid vaccines and boosters are all delivered at a high pace from now until the end of winter. While the booster scheme is so slow, the Government should never have scrapped mask wearing and working from home. The Prime Minister should never have abandoned those measures.
The Government have failed to plan yet again, and they are putting the country at risk going into winter. We need less bluster from this Government, who seem to spend more time planning to protect their mates than the lives of people up and down the country. We need action now.
Ninety per cent. of the adult population have had their first dose, and 8 million people have taken up the opportunity to have a booster jab. That is a successful vaccination programme, so I will take no lessons from the hon. Lady.
The hon. Lady talks about care homes and, from a personal point of view, I know how important it is to make sure our most vulnerable are vaccinated, which is why I am delighted that nine out of 10 care homes have had their jabs either delivered or booked. That is a great success.
This Government have already recognised that covid has exposed the disparities across the nation, which is why on 1 October we launched the Office for Health Improvement and Disparities to understand what is important and how we can make real change in our communities that need the most help.
The hon. Lady talks about bringing back retired medics and volunteers, but they are already back. They have been playing their part for months, and I take this opportunity to thank them for all their efforts. Just last week, I met a retired medic who had come back to St Thomas’ Hospital, and he was relishing his role in this amazing vaccination programme. The hon. Lady does those volunteers and returners a huge disservice.
I am always grateful to the hon. Lady and the right hon. Member for Leicester South (Jonathan Ashworth), because throughout this pandemic they have usually been co-operative, helpful and in agreement with us, but the hon. Lady’s remarks today give too little credit to the phenomenal role that the NHS and community pharmacies are already playing in the roll-out of our vaccination programme. They are delivering a booster programme of third doses while delivering the largest flu programme ever, with 35 million people now eligible for a flu jab. I call on people to come forward as soon as they can.
My apologies, Mr Speaker, for missing the start of the Minister’s statement because you managed to expedite parliamentary business with commendable briskness this morning.
I thank the Minister for her update. Let me say how welcome it is that we have approved the new antiviral, molnupiravir—a new word for us to memorise—which could be immensely significant. When does she think we will be able to distribute it to people who have caught covid who are at home? She says that there is going to be a national study, which is potentially an important step. However, in a pandemic we sometimes bypass these national studies and go straight to distributing medicines that we know are safe to members of the public. Might this not be one of those occasions where we decide to speed things up? I also commend her efforts on the vaccine programme, but, as the shadow spokesman said, one reason we are behind other European countries on vaccinating teenagers is that the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation did not give its decision until September, whereas France was able to start vaccinating before the summer holidays. Is she looking at how we could speed up the JCVI processes? I appreciate that her hands are tied.
May I also ask the Minister to look at the booking system, because in parts of my constituency people are not able to book a booster jab until after they have passed the six-month mark? Would it not be better for anyone to be able to book their booster jab after they have passed the five-month mark? Finally, may I ask her when she is planning to tell the House about the very important decision on mandatory jabbing for NHS workers? That is a difficult decision. It is one I would support if the Government brought it to the House. I have read in the press that they are thinking of doing that in the spring, which mi well be the right timing, but this is something that NHS staff want to know about.
I thank my right hon. Friend for his questions. I reiterate on the antivirals that we are working across government and the NHS to urgently get this treatment to patients. As he rightly says, it is important that we act very quickly. It was only earlier today that the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency gave its approval, so we are already taking rapid steps in letting people know about this issue. He talked about the JCVI, for which I have huge respect. I do not think it is my position to intervene in its processes. We need robust processes to make sure that what we have available and the programmes we have are very safe, as the UK population would expect. He also talked about booking the booster. We always need to look at ways of improving accessibility, but we did open up the opportunity for people to go to walk-in centres for their booster, so that they do not need to book online or call 119. We are looking at ways of making this easier all the time. On the mandating of jabs, the Secretary of State will make an announcement in due course.
I thank the Minister for previous sight of her statement. Scotland leads the UK in both first and second vaccination rates: 90% of those aged over 12 have been vaccinated with at least one dose, whereas in England the figure is 85; for second doses, the figures are 81% as against 79%, with booster roll-outs taking place across these lands as we speak. How do the UK Government plan to match Scotland and encourage greater uptake of vaccines among those who are so far unvaccinated?
The Government said in their Budget that they planned to invest responsibly. Does the Minister believe it was responsible to cancel a multi-million-pound contract—threatening hundreds of jobs in Livingston for no good reason— to supply a covid-19 vaccine that phase 3 trials show may be more effective than the Oxford vaccine? Will she rethink that outrageous decision?
I thank the hon. Lady for her update on what is happening in Scotland. I commend those involved in the roll-out of the vaccination programme in Scotland. We can all learn lessons from each other in this pandemic and it is only right that we do so. On the contracts the hon. Lady talked about, I will not comment on commercial decisions.
I thank the Minister for her statement and the excellent work that she and her team are doing to roll out boosters as fast as possible. I urge her to consider whether bookings for boosters could be made in advance, so that people are already booked in when they become eligible and can immediately have their booster.
The Minister said earlier that she will not take any lessons from Labour on this issue but, given we have one of the highest death rates in Europe, perhaps she should.
I want to talk about one of the most vulnerable groups of people who have been left unprotected throughout this pandemic. One in six of the most critically ill covid patients in the UK are unvaccinated pregnant women. What are the Government doing to protect pregnant women now and throughout the ongoing pandemic?
The hon. Lady makes a very good point. I find it really concerning that one in six people in hospital with covid are unvaccinated pregnant women and it is an issue that I wholeheartedly want to address. I encourage every lady who is either looking to become or is pregnant to talk to their midwife and their GP and get reassurance that vaccines are safe for that cohort of ladies. The best thing they can do is to protect themselves and their babies.
I got my jabs on time, I then managed to get covid—probably from this place—and I have also had my booster jab. I understand from the Minister that there is a new antiviral drug; how would that have been given to me when I was quite poorly with covid? When we have new drugs, can we give them easier names to pronounce?
My hon. Friend makes a good point: I do not know why the pharmaceutical companies come up with these tongue-tying names for their drugs. As I said earlier, we need to make sure that we roll out the new antiviral to the right people. The important and exciting thing is that the drug can be taken in people’s homes.
Today marks the day when we have the most covid cases ever, so it is a sad day for the UK.
My concern is schools. The advice is that ventilation works against covid, yet schools are desperately underfunded for ventilation measures. Will the Minister speak to the Minister for School Standards to ensure that the budget for such measures can be refreshed so that all children, staff and families can be as protected as possible from covid?
I agree with the hon. Lady that it is so important to protect our youngsters. A lot of investment has gone into making sure that there is ventilation in schools, but I will talk to my counterpart in the Department for Education to see whether more can be done.
I recognise the enormous amount that is going into the booster programme and thank the Minister for that. In Norfolk and Waveney we are already up to nearly 55% of all eligible constituents having had their boosters, but my North Norfolk constituency has a particularly elderly demographic and we have no walk-in booster availability at all. I urge the Minister to put pressure on my local clinical commissioning group, given the worry it causes for the elderly demographic, to make sure that people can access walk-in booster jabs as quickly as possible.
I am grateful to the Minister for having fixed the problems with the booster booking system that I raised with her two weeks ago, but the system for third jabs for the clinically extremely vulnerable is still in total chaos. Some clinically vulnerable people are saying that their GPs do not know which group they are in and, even if their GPs do know, those people who are eligible for their third dose and their jabs cannot be identified on the online system. Will the Minister commit to fixing the system in the next 48 hours and urgently reinstate the monthly meetings that her predecessor held with patient groups, which have been trying to bring these concerns to her attention?
The hon. Lady raises an important issue. However, it is important that, for that individual whose GP is not able to give them a jab, they have words with their hospital consultant who may have more knowledge of their condition. I will definitely look into the system.
I thank my hon. Friend for her statement. Delivering 8.7 million booster jabs at 2,400 vaccination sites is a great achievement. I agree entirely with the point about making booster jabs as available as possible. On that point though, in North Yorkshire, where we have had fantastic vaccine roll-out and take-up—it has been a great achievement—I am hearing mixed messages about what is happening in schools. The CCG has told me that they should be eligible for visits by the end of this month, but some schools have been reporting that they are not looking at visits until January or February next year by which stage, of course, it is too late. If I look at the website on the location of walk-in centres and tap in Harrogate, it brings up five locations in Halifax, which is about 17 miles away. Are there any problems with vaccine supply, or are we having some difficulties in North Yorkshire at the moment?
I can reassure my hon. Friend that there is no problem at all with the supply of vaccines; we have plenty of supply. He talks about schools. The vaccine programme in schools is being carried out by the school-aged immunisation service, which is very experienced in carrying out vaccinations for different conditions in schools. If there is a problem in his area, I will definitely look into it on his behalf.
I cannot accept that the deaths of 217 people yesterday and 293 the day before shows good management of this pandemic. The fact that so many people are now dying of this virus is a call on Government to take urgent action. With the Minister’s own confession that 5 million people are yet to be vaccinated and the fact that my constituents are not able to get access to the flu vaccine either, it is clear that we are heading for a real health crisis. Will she urgently take back the message that we need greater public health measures to be introduced in order to keep our communities safe?
No death is acceptable and my condolences go to everyone who has lost somebody in this terrible pandemic. Our best wall of defence is through vaccinations. Vaccinations do work, so my message is: get your booster. If people have not had their first jab, they should get their first jab and continue to build that wall of defence.
Many of my Bath constituents have got in touch to say that they have trouble getting access to the booster vaccines. This is particularly worrying for the clinically extremely vulnerable, as we have already heard. The support for the clinically extremely vulnerable has been woefully inadequate, including the advice that they were given throughout the pandemic. As we head into winter, what guidance is the Minister giving to the 3.7 million people who were advised to shield last winter?
I think it is important that everybody takes personal responsibility and makes sure that they protect themselves. As we know, people were shielding last winter, but we did not have this highly successful vaccination programme. The best way for people to protect themselves is to get jabbed, get protected and to protect themselves from the virus.
Committee on Standards
Application for emergency debate (Standing Order No. 24)
I now call Wendy Chamberlain to make an application for leave to propose a debate on a specific and important matter that should have urgent consideration under the terms of Standing Order No. 24. The hon. Member has three minutes in which to make such an application.
I seek leave to propose that the House should debate a specific and important matter that should have urgent consideration, namely the matter of the consequences of the decision of the House on 3 November relating to standards.
This morning, Lord Evans, Chair of the Committee on Standards in Public Life said:
“In my view yesterday’s vote on the report of the Commons Standards Committee was a very serious and damaging moment for Parliament and for public standards in this country.”
We would all do well to reflect on those words.
The consequences of yesterday’s vote are clearly far reaching. Matters referred to and emerging from the Commons Standards Committee should never be a matter for the Government; they should be the business of this House and this House only. The Government’s decision not just to meddle in an independent process, but then to whip Conservative Members to get what they wanted is one of the worst overreaches of Executive power that this House has seen in its history.
It is vital that there are clear and high standards that are upheld, particularly by those in positions of responsibility. For example, as a former police officer, I, and others across the House, have been engaged in recent weeks on the conduct of those within the police service. It is shameful that this Government will not apply the same standards of scrutiny to behaviours within their own party. We have seen an attempted U-turn by the Government this morning, but the fact that the Leader of the House is proposing a different review of processes, without the scope for debate, demonstrates even further the contempt with which this place is being treated. The Government want to silence us.
The remarks by the Leader of the House this morning mean that we do not yet know the full consequences of yesterday’s vote, but we do know that we have already seen a Government Minister on television this morning questioning the future of the current independent Commissioner for Standards. I am hugely concerned that the Leader of the House is leaving the door open for further attacks on this independent process.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) talked yesterday about a need for consensus, and there are areas where I agree with the Leader of the House. There must be standards that are fair and robust, and which are seen to be fair and robust, but the Government’s short-sighted intervention to protect a colleague, using a political process to overturn in two hours an independent investigation that took two years is the complete opposite of fair and robust. That is why this House must have a debate on the consequences of yesterday’s vote. The statement by the Leader of the House this morning left far more questions than answers. The system will only be fair and robust when this debate has taken place.
The hon. Member asks leave to propose a debate on the specific and important matter that should have urgent consideration—namely, the matter of the consequences of the decision of the House of 3 November relating to standards. I have listened carefully to the application from the hon. Member and I am satisfied that the matter raised is proper to be discussed under Standing Order No. 24. Has the hon. Member the leave of the House?
Application agreed to (not fewer than 40 Members standing in support.)
The hon. Member has obtained the leave of the House. The debate will be held on Monday 8 November, as the first item of public business. The debate will last for up to three hours and will arise on a motion that the House has considered the specified matter set out in the hon. Member’s application.
Can I just say, once again, that this has not been a good period for the House? It has been a very difficult time for all. I appeal to Members, whether they are Secretary of State or whoever: please—staff members of this House should not be named, as they do not have the right of reply or the ability to defend themselves. I am appalled that Sky News is more important. Please, rein in your thoughts and consider what you are doing to the individuals concerned. They also have to live through this, like the rest of us. Please consider your behaviour and start acting responsibly, in accordance with the position that you hold.
I beg to move,
That the Republic of Belarus (Sanctions) (EU Exit) (Amendment) (No. 2) Regulations 2021 (SI, 2021, No. 1146), dated 11 October, a copy of which was laid before this House on 14 October, be approved.
The instrument before us was laid on 14 October under the powers provided by the Sanctions and Anti-Money Laundering Act 2018, also known as the Sanctions Act. It amends the Republic of Belarus (Sanctions) (EU Exit) Regulations 2019 to introduce new measures in the financial, trade and aviation sectors. The regulations that we are debating today revoke and replace the Belarus sanctions regulations laid in August 2021, which contained an error that had the effect of deleting a prohibition on the transfer of restrictive technology to Belarus—that is, military and interception or monitoring technology and technology used for internal repression. These regulations correct that error. I can assure hon. and right hon. Members that there was no continuity gap between the effects of the two sets of regulations.
The Government, along with international partners, decided to increase targeted sanctions because the situation in Belarus continues to deteriorate. On numerous occasions, Lukashenko and his regime have violated democratic principles and the rule of law and violently oppressed civil society, democratic opposition leaders and independent media. This includes the forced diversion of Ryanair flight FR4978 on 23 May in order to arrest the journalist Roman Protasevich and his partner Sofia Sapega. Lukashenko sent in a MiG fighter jet to force the Ryanair plane to land, endangering not only Protasevich and Sapega but everyone else on board. This also showed a flagrant disregard for international aviation law. The couple remain in the custody of the Belarusian authorities. The UK Government reiterate their call on the Belarusian regime to release them and to release all those held on political grounds. The regime has enforced the arbitrary detention of more than 35,000 people and imprisoned more than 800 people on political charges. The United Nations and the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe have recorded many credible reports of physical mistreatment, including torture, by the penal and security forces in Belarus.
Opposition figures have been harassed and forcefully expelled, and this year Belarus introduced new legislation to further suppress media freedoms and peaceful assembly. The UK supports all those working for a more democratic future for Belarus. We were delighted to welcome Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, leader of the Belarusian democratic opposition, to the UK on 3 August. I was pleased to be able to meet Ms Tsikhanouskaya during her visit, as did the Prime Minister and the former Foreign Secretary, and we reiterated our support. Ms Tsikhanouskaya emphasised the need for further sanctions on the Belarusian regime and commended the UK for taking action.
This instrument enshrines in law our increased sanctions measures on the Belarusian regime, showing that we stand with the people of Belarus. Our sanctions are carefully targeted to build pressure on Lukashenko, state institutions, and those around him while minimising any unintended consequences for the ordinary of people of Belarus who are suffering under authoritarian rule. The measures that it introduces prevent any UK business from trading goods and services with Belarus in sectors that are key sources of revenue for the Lukashenko regime. They limit the regime’s access to items that could enable the internal repression of the Belarusian population, including potash, petroleum products, and interception and monitoring goods and technology. They also cover goods used in cigarette manufacturing, dual-use goods, and technology for military use. We have imposed a prohibition on technical assistance to aircraft where this would benefit persons designated for that purpose. This ensures that UK companies cannot provide services in relation to President Lukashenko’s fleet of luxury aircraft.
Financial measures prohibit dealing with transferable securities and money market instruments issued by the Belarusian state and public bodies, as well as those issued by state-owned banks and the provision of loans. This puts additional pressure on the Belarusian regime, including by preventing future Belarusian Government bonds from being listed on the London stock exchange. This comprehensive response also includes prohibitions on the provision of insurance and reinsurance to Belarusian state bodies, and prohibits the export of biathlon rifles by removing a licensing ground under the arms embargo.
The aviation measures prohibit Belarusian air carriers from overflying or landing in the UK, and that continues the temporary measures we put in place after the events of 23 May. Finally, the measures also give us the power to designate persons for providing support for or obtaining an economic benefit from the Government of Belarus. Since those measures came into force, we have made a further designation under the Belarus sanctions regime under this criterion. UK sanctions action, taken together with our allies, aims to encourage the Belarusian regime to respect democratic principles and institutions, the separation of powers and the rule of law in Belarus. The sanctions also aim to discourage the regime from actions, policies or activities that repress civil society in Belarus and to encourage it to comply with international human rights law.
We regularly review our sanctions and would consider lifting them if we saw significant progress. However, in the case of Belarus, we have seen no progress and the situation continues to deteriorate. Sanctions are most effective when implemented in co-ordination with international partners, and our measures were co-ordinated in June with the EU, the US and Canada, and we will continue to work closely with them on Belarus. Similarly, actions work best when combined with other diplomatic and economic measures, and the UK has assisted independent media and civil society organisations in Belarus, which continue to face unparalleled levels of pressure from the regime. By the end of this financial year, our programme of support to Belarus will have almost tripled since 2019.
The UK unequivocally condemns the appalling campaign of repression waged by the Belarusian regime against the rights and freedoms of the Belarusian people. The regime has oppressed civil society, rejected democratic principles and violated the rule of law. The regulations expand our sanctions in response to the situation on the ground. They demonstrate that we will not accept such egregious violations of human rights. They enable us to stand with our international partners and, most importantly, with the people of Belarus in working towards a peaceful, prosperous and democratic future. I welcome the opportunity to hear the views of Members on the regulations, and I commend them to the House.
I welcome the Government bringing forward an amended schedule of sanctions, due to some errors in the laying of the sanctions in the House earlier in the year. Today I am wearing my green and purple, because the Minister and I are both aware of how much women activists in Belarus have suffered in the past couple of years, in particular having many of their partners and husbands locked up. They are therefore now in the spotlight politically. They have not chosen to go into politics in the way that we might, but have been forced to by circumstance.
Across the House, I know that every woman MP, including the leadership we have had from our own parliamentary Labour party women’s group, stands up for those women, their right to be human rights activists and their right to be women in the workplace and defends their right to the Belarus of the future that they wish to see. There is nothing worse than seeing a leader getting out of an aeroplane the day after a sham election dressed in black with a rifle on his shoulder, and the terror those people felt at that moment.
It has been wonderful to see the cross-party approach and the support we have had from trade unions, civil society groups, students and the diaspora here in the UK to stand up against the Lukashenko regime and put on record our anger, concern and sadness at what has happened in the past two years. There have been 35,000 arrests and 800 political prisoners—in Europe.
Members from all parts of the House gather together, despite our differences—and we have had a few in the past 48 hours—to say today that we stand with those women for freedom and for the rights that they and their families want to have. The level of brutality that the Belarusian regime is regularly using on its own people was on show for the world when the Ryanair flight was dangerously hijacked—the Minister has already gone into detail about that. Those two activists are still in prison, and today we send out a message from this House that we are on their side and we will not see this regime continue for too much longer. I pay particular tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Rochdale (Tony Lloyd) and the all-party parliamentary group on Belarus, which is cross party across both Houses, and to the human rights defenders, journalists and trade unions for keeping the issue in the minds of so many across Europe and in the region. It is heartening to see smaller countries such as Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia and Ukraine, as well as the Polish Government and many across parties in Poland, standing up for the rights of those women and all those activists who want a fresh start.
On the sanctions, it is vital that we do all we can through our economy and through what we say in this House to stop any use of or facilitation through our legal, banking or accountancy services in the UK that could help anyone who has stolen resources from the Belarusian people to launder them through our system. The people of Belarus are entitled to democracy and free elections and we must uphold those principles.
As such, Labour Members welcome the tougher sanctions. I am sure that the Minister agrees that it is vital for our voice in this House to be heard today by the Belarusian people. I hope that we can somehow get the message through particularly to those prisoners of conscience who long for their case to be heard.
As the noble Lord Collins outlined in the other place, we welcome the changes that the statutory instrument outlines to rectify some of the mistakes in previous sanctions, while adopting additional measures in response to the deteriorating behaviour of Mr Lukashenko and his regime. We particularly welcome measures on financial sanctions and measures that seek to remove the ways that the regime has continued to financially sustain itself in the past 18 months. We welcome the inclusion of sanctions on potash exports, which are one of the major exports of Belarus, and which have been continually highlighted as a key way to hold the regime to account.
I have some brief questions for the Minister. First, how will the Government measure the effectiveness of the sanctions, particularly in the light of the ever-diminishing Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office budget? Secondly, we know that international co-operation is vital to ensure that our actions are co-ordinated with our allies and partners and to ensure that maximum influence is put on the regime. Will the Minister outline what additional measures she is taking to work with European partners to ensure that our actions are in line with theirs and that there is a global strategy for protecting the people of Belarus?
Thirdly, I would welcome the Minister outlining whether there has been any recent assessment of Russian support for the regime in Belarus. Given that the relationship between the UK and Russia is strained, what levers could she use to try to influence Moscow so that we can see more freedom and justice for all those political prisoners who we in this Chamber want to support?
It would be wrong for the Minister not to be aware that the sanctions have tremendous support from Conservative and Opposition Members. I speak as the leader of the UK delegation to the Council of Europe, where we have taken a strong stand against Belarus; the false presidential election that took place, about which we made a firm statement; and the bringing down of the Ryanair flight. The Minister may be aware that our delegation—I am told—was the first international delegation to issue a condemnation of Belarus at the time and that that did not go unnoticed. I thoroughly approve of the sanctions.
To pick up on the point of the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Catherine West), I am one of several Members of this House and of the other place who is a penfriend, if I can use that term, of Belarusian political prisoners. We write to them to try to provide some comfort and a link to the real world. I know that was mentioned in the other place to great approval, and I hope that mentioning it here will meet equally great approval.
The point to bear in mind and to watch for the future is the crisis of migration on the border of Belarus and the neighbouring countries. The winter is setting in, and I understand that some deaths from cold have already occurred there. Something needs to be done about that very quickly. When I was in Poland recently, I was able to raise this point with various people—not that we came up with a solution, because the solution effectively lies in placing proper sanctions on the Belarusian Government to make sure that this is picked up and dealt with.
In conclusion, I very much welcome these sanctions as a helpful aid in giving us the strength to deal with the Belarusian Government, so that we make sure that we get real change there.
I welcome the support from the Opposition spokesman, the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Catherine West), and I am very grateful for the contribution from my hon. Friend the Member for Henley (John Howell). He takes a really close interest, as do many colleagues from across the House, in Belarus, as I saw recently at an all-party parliamentary group meeting that I attended. I am grateful to all the hon. Members who contributed to our short but very important discussion.
I will briefly address the questions raised. On the effectiveness of sanctions, we obviously continue to monitor all the sanctions that we have in place. It would be wrong of me to pre-empt any future designations, but let me assure the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green that we keep a very close eye on such matters. As I set out in my opening speech, we work very closely with a range of international partners to co-ordinate our sanctions regimes.
As I have said, these regulations give us the power to impose sectoral sanctions that have real impact—an impact that is magnified through co-ordination with our international partners. These sanctions ensure that we can target the sectors of the Belarusian economy and the key figures in the Belarusian regime that generate funds for the regime, including those who provide support for, or obtain an economic benefit from, the Government of Belarus but who have not previously been designated. The regulations also demonstrate that the UK will not stand by in the face of the regime’s unacceptable behaviour; we are ready and willing to act as part of a network of liberty, and will stand with those who believe in democracy.
I sense there is support across the House for the sanctions, for which I am very grateful, and I hope the House will support the regulations.
Question put and agreed to.
[Relevant document: Oral evidence taken before the Defence Committee on 26 October 2021, on Withdrawal from Afghanistan, HC 699.]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the proposal for an inquiry into the UK’s involvement in the NATO-led mission to Afghanistan.
This could be a very short debate if the Minister intervened and said, “Yes, we are going to have an inquiry”; then we could all go home. However, I suspect we will have to work a little bit harder than that.
I thank the Backbench Business Committee for granting this important debate on Afghanistan. This was one of the longest military campaigns in modern history. Over 100,000 armed forces personnel were deployed to Afghanistan, and 435 did not return alive. Thousands did return, but with life-changing injuries, and over 3,500 personnel from other NATO forces were also killed. About 70,000 Afghans lost their lives, although I do not think the true number will ever be known.
The campaign cost the international community trillions, but after two decades we decided to exit before the job was done, handing back the country to the very insurgency we went in to defeat. The country is now run by the Taliban, but they are not in control. It is in freefall, and the freezing winter that is approaching is likely to cause the biggest humanitarian disaster in a generation. The list of challenges we faced, and the lessons to be learned, are huge, yet the Government stubbornly refuse to hold an independent inquiry. Do they think that there is nothing to learn, or—more importantly—to explain to those who served, and to the families of the bereaved? What was it all for?
It is clear that our world is getting more dangerous, and global insecurity is increasing. Our decision to leave Afghanistan added to that. If we have any aspiration, as spelled out in the integrated review, to be a problem-solving, burden-sharing nation, we need to understand how the most powerful military alliance ever formed could not complete its mission after 20 years. If we do not analyse, appreciate and learn from our mistakes, we are likely to repeat them. More critically, this House of Commons is—let us be honest—not so versed in the details, and it will have no confidence in voting to send our troops into harm’s way, fearful of a similar outcome. We will become more risk-averse, and we will end up steering clear of overseas engagements and having no appetite to intervene. Our competitors will enjoy our self-inflicted weakness.
The first rule of war is: know your enemy. That is a prerequisite for any engagement. On my various visits to Afghanistan over a decade, I was always taken aback by the limits of international forces’ local understanding. Yes, they knew their local mission, but how that fitted into the higher commander’s intent was not clear. There seemed to be a national plan to kill the enemy, but that did not knit together with any form of strategy relating to governance, or development programmes outside Kabul. Had we done our homework, checked the archives and visited that famous Foreign and Commonwealth Office map room, we would have reminded ourselves of what and who we were taking on. We would have been in a better position to advise our allies and offer alternative solutions to courses of action that it was, frankly, a schoolboy error to pursue.
Afghanistan gained its independence from Great Britain. We learned the hard way, through three separate engagements over a century, that it is a deeply tribal country, where local loyalty trumps alliances to the centre. Policy cannot be shaped from outside the country. Since Ahmad Shah Durrani founded modern-day Afghanistan in the 1700s, it has not been run from the centre. Warlords enjoyed federated power; tribes and sub-tribes enjoyed autonomy. Why on earth did we, with all our experience of Afghanistan, believe we knew better?
In 2001, in our haste to seek retribution for 9/11, we lost our way. We allowed other agendas to blinker both our historical experience and current military doctrine, and that made a tough mission all the tougher. We ignored Afghanistan’s history, which we helped to shape, and believed that we could once again impose a western model of governance from scratch. The objective of hunting down and destroying al-Qaeda after 9/11 was widely supported, and it triggered NATO’s article 5 for the first time. That morphed into taking on the Taliban, who harboured al-Qaeda. This brings us back to that first rule of war: know your enemy.
To understand the Taliban and its origins, we must understand the mujaheddin; to understand the mujaheddin, we must understand the Soviet occupation; and to understand that occupation, we must understand that it was US foreign policy to remove the Soviets in the 1980s. That is wisdom not from history books, but from events in our lifetime. The last king, Zahir, was overthrown in 1973, and that triggered a power struggle between two diametrically opposed movements: the Communist party and the Islamist movement—the mujaheddin. Both grew in strength, with the former gaining the upper hand, but radical socialist changes sparked significant unrest, which the Soviets eventually sent in troops to try to quash. That prompted the United States, along with Inter-Services Intelligence in Pakistan, with support from China and indeed the United Kingdom, to support the mujaheddin—Charlie Wilson’s war.
From 1980 to 1989, £3 billion of covert military assistance went into east Asia to back a radical insurgency based in the Pakistani mountains. It mobilised tens of thousands of holy warriors who were willing to die for their cause. Out of the disunity of the mujaheddin rose the Taliban. It was not some distant extremist group that we knew little about, but arguably a product of western making.
Of course, the obstacles to success in Afghanistan were daunting: widespread corruption, intense grievances, Pakistani meddling and deep-rooted Afghan resistance to any foreign occupation. However, there was the colossal blanket of NATO security, and a huge development budget often described as an international aid juggernaut; US spending alone peaked in one year at $110 billion. Sadly, however, opportunities to secure long-term stability were squandered, and the west, especially the US, became over-confident following early victories.
In simple terms, where did it go wrong? First, we created an over-centralised model of governance. Secondly, we denied the Taliban a seat at the table in December 2001 at the Bonn talks. How different life would have been had they been included. Thirdly, we made no real effort to start training an Afghan indigenous security force until 2006. Fourthly, we opened up another front in Iraq—an unnecessary and costly distraction. Fifthly, we had no real development strategy to improve livelihoods and leverage the country’s vast resources.
I recall a visit to Afghanistan in 2008, when Mark Carleton-Smith, the current Chief of the General Staff, was